You recorded two great albums with Bad English, and while the first one was immensely successful, the second one, Backlash, despite featuring great music, didn’t achieve the same level of success. Why do you think this was the case?
I think that the band split up. We all just left it. We finished the album, I had done the vocals, and I said, “Let’s just leave it. Let’s put it out, and let’s take a break from each other. Let’s walk away.” And Neal went in the paper about two weeks later and said he left the band. It just blew the album out of the water. That was the end of it.
There was a slight possibility that we could have continued. Just cool off. It’s hard to start a record in like six weeks when you’ve got no songs going in. And it was a very tough situation. It was rough. And I think we could have gotten together a month or two later for a series of gigs; it was possible. But, you know, Neal being Neal he just wanted to move on, I guess. He didn’t want to wait two months to see what would happen. He just left the band and went on with his life. God bless him. Good luck.
It’s OK. We’re grown men in a band. It’s a strange thing. After a certain age, it didn’t really…I look at the Stones, and the Stones work. I saw them in London, and man they’re still rockin’ the house, ya know? And it’s a Scorsese thing. From New York, I thought I was brilliant. The Stones really have it. I mean, some bands just don’t have it.
It’s like talking about writers or painters or whatever. I don’t know. I don’t talk about myself really. I never really look outside of what I do. I play a lot of blues records or classical music or bluegrass or…I have very obscure taste, really. If I really like something, I play it a lot. I listen to Dylan at least once a week. I get into stuff that’s lyric-driven or very, very intense, but, then again, I could listen to something completely different and get knocked out.
I don’t look at competition. I don’t compete, is where I’m going with this. If I’m on the bill with someone else, they know they’re going to get a run for their money, at least. And I just don’t even think about it. Like, we were talking about “Missing You” being that big. It never occurs to me that it’s that big. I like the idea of it being that successful and I’m flattered and deeply touched and honored that people responded to that in my lifetime. It means more than I can tell you. But I’m not really aware of it in my daily life. I don’t allow myself to walk around like that.
Well, that’s a good attitude to have.
Well, I was born that way. Maybe I would enjoy the success of my life more if I was like that. But once you finish something, it doesn’t mean it’s finished. Once you’ve finished painting something or seeing something or writing a piece of music you think is going to be great, the door’s closed and then it opens again, and there’s more to do – there’s a different way of looking at it. If you really do put those gold records on your wall and stand around thinking that you’re a genius – I mean, Jesus, that means that you really just stopped working. Your mind stopped working or you don’t have anything else to offer. That’s the thing about life; there’s always the next second, the next hour. Everything can change. You could write a masterpiece in 36 hours that you didn’t know you could write. You could write absolute crap after writing a number one single. But I think if you’re self-contented and you think you’re something, I think you stop being an artist. I really believe that. You’re never finished your work. That’s what I’m saying. The work, if it’s genuine work, is never finished. The pen never dries, man. The pen never dries.
Your new album is a collection of your best music. Therefore, it’s appropriately named Best. For this collection, you rerecorded three songs: “Back On My Feet Again,” “Isn’t It Time” and “Missing You.” How was it revisiting these classic songs?
Since we play them live it wasn’t such a big deal. I wasn’t nervous or thinking about it or…I think the version of “Missing You” is pretty great because it’s got a little bit more edge in it. A little bit more cowboy, for some reason I see it as being a cowboy song. It’s got more adultness in it. It’s got more emotions in it that are darker. It’s slightly angry, and hurt. It’s got a more masculine level to me when I hear the vocal.
“Back On My Feet Again” is a romp. It goes in one end and comes out the other. I wanted to strip it down and play it like we play it live. And I was so taken with it that it opens the album. Some songs are just that good. You play’em and you don’t get sick of singing them. And it’s what you leave behind when you go. But “Back On My Feet Again” and “Missing You” are definitely two of those songs.
After Bad English, I decided to strip down the production on everything I would ever do again. And I always believed in wanting to do it live in the studio. Those sort of albums, like the Temple Bar record, the company went bust when it came out. We had a number two single, I think, with “In Dreams.” Then “How Did I Get By Without You” came out and that had a video and went to 18 and was about to go up the charts and the record company went bust. I was like, wow!
Then the next time around I came out with When You Were Mine. It had “Bluebird Cafe” on it and “Suicide Life” – that was the best record I made. It could possibly be the best record I’ve ever made. I love it. The guy who headed the company left the week it came out, and the company went sort of sideways and I lost that one too. And they were my favorite records in a lot of ways.
It led to a tour with Alison Krauss. After Bad English, I was spending an awful lot of time in Nashville. I was writing with some serious people and I’ve always been fascinated by Hank Williams. And the first record was that – cowboy ballads.
“Suicide Life” has nothing to do with country but the approach is dark and it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever written. And I couldn’t imagine putting out a record called Best and not putting that on.
The same with “Bluebird Cafe.” I just hit a peak. It was the arc of a diver. I don’t know what was going on with me. But I wrote that whole album. It’s just…man, I don’t know how I did it. I just look back at it now and go, really? I wonder how you did that. It’s amazing to me that I was that physically capable and willing to go out there with that kind of work. It’s my best work. So, I tried to include a piece of the period on the album. It makes sense really.
Your last studio album of original material was 2011’s Rough & Tumble. Have you started working on the follow-up?
Yeah, I was playing a few tracks before I called you. I have all the songs, in a sense that I have a box. A tennis shoe box, Converse, I’m looking at it now – here we go. It’s full of cassettes and each cassette is six ideas per side. And I’m looking at a music stand that’s got lyrics written and I know the type of the record. And if I go into the studio, I’m thinking the way to go is once a day for two weeks. Take a cassette, run through it and find the best idea, play it, play the song acoustically, sing it; and the next day come in and try something else. Then, after two weeks, I’d have more than enough for a record.
I leaning toward it being an acoustic record. I love that the most, ya know, since I was a kid. The trend is singing with a Marshall stack and a band because it’s fantastic. But last year I put out a live album, Live All Access, because that’s the best I’ve ever sounded live. And I thought that was a milestone; I had to get that out while I could still sing like that. But the other milestone that I want to do is an unplugged record. And now that everyone’s not making them every five minutes, it would be a good time to do it. There was a time when everyone was going unplugged.
And it’s in my heart. It’s really deep in me, that country, folk, blues thing. I’ve never really explored that acoustically and I’d like to put my voice through that and see what happens.
I saw you live in New Hope a couple years ago and attended the live album recording session at Philly Sound Studios shortly thereafter. What made you decide to record some of the tracks for your 2013 live album, Live All Access, in Philly?
Well, half of my band is from Philly. Tim Hogan is from Philly and I have really strong connections with Philly. I was playing a gig nearby in Jersey the year before and because I was thinking about a live album at the time, I visited Philly Sound Studios and the rest is history.
Talk about building on what you’ve got and taking it further and further out, we were doing that on a nightly basis. Taking it further and further out and just winging it. It was impossible to describe to people how good it was getting. And I thought, well, record it. And where do you want to record it? I don’t know. So, we chose Philly Sound.
We got three or four songs from those sessions over two nights. The band was getting too loose; I don’t know what was wrong. We tried recording two other shows on the East Coast and then we were up in New Hampshire. The sound guy had recording gear, German, really first-rate gear so we decided to record it. And we were all in the room and recorded the whole night, and it was one of those nights were you couldn’t put a foot wrong. It just came out and sounded like you wouldn’t believe and it was just great.
But we had two gigs that week that were not so tight and people were making mistakes. So, I told the band, “This is it. We’re going to do it tonight. I don’t want to hear anybody playing a bum note or forgetting where we are. This is it.” Then we turned around and played the best gig we ever played. The band was probably like, “Fuck you, John” (laughs). It was ridiculous. Between that and the Philly sessions, we had the album.
Lately you’ve been releasing music independently. How does this compare to working with a traditional label?
(laughs) A band is a band and making a record is making a record. I don’t know what I would learn or what I would need from a label. If a really great producer came to me and said, “We really have to make a record,” who knows. But I know what I’m doing and I’m going for something and I don’t really want anybody’s input. The band is who I’m going to listen to, and we know when it’s right. It’s a pure form of making music. At this point, I can’t take somebody coming into the studio wearing a suit or worse, not wearing a suit, and saying they don’t hear a single. I just don’t have that in me to listen to it. I can’t do it. I can’t.
One thing I noticed about you, and other singers who aren’t born in America, is you have a great tone when you sing. I was recently comparing you to Don Henley the other day. I said to my friend, “John Waite is just as good as Don Henley.”
Oh, I’m better (laughs).
But you don’t get the credit for it and that’s a big part of the reason why I wanted to do this interview. I think your tone is perfect. And the thing that I find interesting is whether it’s Tom Jones or whether it’s you, or another singer, a lot of times the diction of singers who aren’t from America is better than the diction of those who were born here.
Yeah, it’s funny. And you mentioned Tom; he really rips it up, he’s great. I mean, he’s really great. I don’t know. You look at Steve Marriott and Paul Rodgers, I mean, maybe you need to come from outside to bring something to it to make it bigger than what it is. I don’t know.
I was very conscious when I first came to America that there was a white-band thing where they were playing music that was kind of white. But in England we were all listening to blues, blues rock. I was just thinking, before I called, about the jukebox at my local coffee hangout when I was a kid. I was 14 and they had music by Otis Redding, the Temptations, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, you name it. But it was 99.9% American. Although my heritage is British, my heart is really American.
What are your thoughts on the current music scene?
There are lots of great young bands, but they’re not really playing the game. They’re just making music. Unfortunately, there’s not enough room for them in the corporate world. Some of them are coming out of London. But I don’t know how long they can last in this environment. Everything is so corporate now, and people are only bankrolling sure things, and yes-men who tell bands that they need to create a song for a certain demographic. Every time I hear the word demographic, I want to throw up. That’s how it’s run now. The music business – it’s just fucking ridiculous. It’s just what it is. It’s what it’s come to. But because of these times, bands that really mean it can cause a shift and get the right people back in the spotlight. It never worries me because people can only take so much crap before they say, “This isn’t working.”
There’s something primal about music, obviously. People respond to that and you can’t feed them prepackaged stuff. So, I’m very confident in young talent. I think young talent will always be going against the grain. It it’s worth anything, it always does.