Ditch what you think of "best of” albums right now. What if it weren’t just a re-packaging of greatest hits, and was instead a sonic patois of who you were, and where you’d been your whole life, and how you see your entire career right now? Would you think about the album differently? Would you feel vulnerable? Would you feel it represented you at your best?
In the tradition of the Finn Brothers and countless others, John Waite is the consummate overlooked legendary songwriter. Waite rose to fame as bassist and lead vocalist for The Babys, but it was his solo career that brought him platinum success in the US with "Missing You” and "Tears.” The British musician’s intimate familiarity with massive stardom has afforded him the luxury of exploring his talent and relinquishing obligations when it comes to his retrospective, BEST, released in May of this year. Waite dismantled his songs and reassembled them into new recordings, adding live and acoustic cuts to the mix as well. You won’t even find his biggest hit in its original form; instead it’s his 2007 duet with Allison Krauss that made the cut.
Waite’s career since has been anything but ordinary, writing eclectic and existential tunes without excuses. And although Waite has closed a chapter in one sense with BEST, he’s potentially writing a new novel in another.
"The question is,” he asked us, "do I want to make music for me, or am I trying to say something?”
I’ve always had this admiration for those who play the bass over guitar. There’s something very Zen about it—that it’s as much about what you don’t play as what you do play. As a songwriter, what was it that drew you to the instrument?
That’s a great question. The first bass player I heard that made an impression on me was Paul McCartney. In the middle of "I Saw Her Standing There”… [sings] "I’ll never dance with another…” and he hits this note on "dance”—he plays this one passing note—and I’d never heard anything like that in my life before, and I don’t think anybody in contemporary music, outside of jazz, had done that before. I started looking at the bass more than I was looking at guitars. My brother played guitar in the house all the time, and my cousin was a banjo player. Both of them were brilliant musicians, really. Both guitar players, but the bass was, like you said, kind of Zen. It was four strings; it was ultra-simplistic. You could suggest things and you could finish the chord with your voice.
Paul McCartney would do that, he would sing this simplistic kind of melody against the root note and it made The Beatles what they were, really. People tend to forget that there’s a huge amount of celtic kind of folk harmonic influences in The Beatles’ harmonies and some of their melodies. A lot of it is derived from the bass. But from that point on, I liked the fact that nobody played bass, and you could sing and not get lost in the chords. It was simpler to handle and you could sing at the same time, more or less. Whereas people like Jimi Hendrix made it so there was no point in even picking up the guitar; between him and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, they completely reinvented the electric guitar.
And I would imagine with McCartney’s very melodic style, that in itself would have inspired you as you started writing songs.
Yeah, and I can also remember picking out the notes to "Hey Joe” [sings the bassline]… I remember picking out the notes on the guitar listening to the single and realizing how much was rooted around the movement of the bass, and how elegant it was. Then I started looking at basses in catalogs. For a young guy, it was like reading Playboy almost—it was ridiculous. I was obsessed with bass guitars! I would get catalogs from music stores. If I was lucky I’d get a catalog that would have acoustic basses or the Hoffner catalog with the violin bass. But the one that I really wanted—the one I fell in love with—was the Gibson EB3 that Andy Fraser played when he was playing with Free and that Jack Bruce played when he was playing with Cream. It had an incredible low end on the pickup… it was just the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was cherry red; it was more candy apple red. It was the most beautiful instrument… I still look in guitar shops and sort of stop and pause and look at them.
It’s quite an experience to behold the instrument that you want to have more than anything, especially when it comes to guitars and basses. You remember it always.
You know, it’s because it’s full of promises. When you look at a guitar, it promises you something. There’s a Danelectro Longhorn bass that… I’ve never owned an original. I’ve owned modern versions of it, but I’ve never owned a ‘50s Longhorn bass. The bass player in Golden Earring used to play amazing songs out of it. The bass has impinged on my life as a singer. Without the bass, I wouldn’t sound anything like I sound.
I wouldn’t have really thought that at the outset, but that would have to be…
Well, you sing in the spaces. Unless you’re really a virtuoso, which McCartney is, you can sing and play and sing a melody that’s almost counterpoint to what’s going on. Sting’s another one where he plays the root note and he sings the melody. Then you take the first Babys album. The vocal style is way before a lot the other stuff that started to happen in the ‘80s. There’s just the suggestion of "I Saw Her Standing There” – it all goes back to him playing that note.
You’ve been in bands for over 40 years. What was it like to follow that trajectory of so many very talented songwriters, laboring in obscurity, then suddenly rocketing to ultra stardom? That had to be completely surreal for you.
The stardom thing was a drawback—it was never a goal. It came with the music. I was very shy as a kid. I never knew what to do in crowds of people. I had to learn how to overcome that to play music. There’s a period where you’re going to learn how to make people feel comfortable and say the first words and shake hands first and not be forlorn and all that stuff. But I was intensely shy, and I think that superstardom here and there could have been extremely enjoyable, because you’re surrounded by people that love you… or the competition wants your job! It takes about two months of being at the very top, wherever that might be, and you’re ready to back away from it again.
And that’s been your history, taking time off—significant time off—throughout your career.
Yeah, I grow to depend on it. I know a lot of people who really love the spotlight and are very comfortable on stage. I put on a hell of a show with a hell of a band, but I don’t need to be recognized. I don’t need to be given praise. What I shoot for is way above that. I know when I’ve done something that’s good. You raise the bar high enough and you stop bowing so much. You know that when it’s great, it’s great and if it’s not good, you don’t want to show your face. You’re always reaching for this thing that’s a half inch away from your grasp, and that’s what keeps you writing songs, really.
If I can ask you… you’ve set the bar high for yourself, and now you’re promoting a sort of "greatest hits” album. What’s really neat about that is you’ve re-recorded some of your tracks, and you’ve done "unplugged” versions of some of your songs as well. Did you want to do all of that to differentiate BEST from all the other "greatest hits”?
I thought the originals… well, the original of "Missing You” had been badly mixed. It’s beautiful because you hear it [sings intro] on the radio and you think back to 1984, when you were young and in love. It’s just one of those poignant songs that hits you between the eyes. But it had the "gloss” of an aging pop single in the mix and when we turned it live, it was never that glossy. I preferred that. I’d written the lyric about four days before I sang it and I was still tinkering with the melody. I didn’t know… it just dropped in my lap, really. "Back On My Feet Again”… I’d written that lyric and that melody and that title about three hours before I sang the song for The Babys in the studio. And those two songs… none of us knew where we were going to be in six months. I could get run over by a truck; I could be in a plane crash; I could decide to go live in Paris or just… disappear. I wanted to leave something at this point, when I was still able to sing all this stuff, better than the originals. I thought, this is the time to do it, and I put together an interesting retrospective that has live stuff on it and acoustic stuff, a remake of two of the songs, a duet with Allison Krauss…
But I didn’t want to just put out an album that was like a fidelity yo-yo, where the production would bring the album down. I wanted it to come in at the top, like a well-written book, and hold your attention, and at the end of the book you’d go, "That was John Waite.” It’s eighteen songs, it’s a long story and, really, I didn’t want to edit any more songs. The songs there explain what happened and where I came from, and you have to go to the solo albums after that to go deeper. Half of it is staying in the game, and half of it is absolutely going against the game. [Laughs]
I have to say, that’s the most poignant reasoning I’ve ever heard behind a "greatest hits” album. It’s very touching to put it in literary terms.
Well, thank you!
I am compelled to throw this question in here, given that I write for The Vinyl District. We love to talk to artists who have an affinity for the format or for analog recording, or who can talk about albums that made an impression on them. I’m hoping you might have a different opinion on the matter than my last interviewee, who proclaimed that fanatical Tea Partiers and vinyl record collectors were one and the same.
What does that mean?! [Laughs]
I took it to mean that he thinks vinyl collectors are regressive and illogical.
[Laughs] Jesus Christ! I can’t get my head around that!
When I first heard The Beatles and Free and Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers—all of those albums, sonically, sounded different because they were on vinyl. And analog sound… I made an album a few years ago calledWhen You Were Mine. It’s my best record; "Bluebird Café” was on that and "Suicide Life”. Walter Sear has a studio off Times Square in New York City called Sear Sound—he invented the Theremin. Walter’s studio is entirely analog, with antique gear and antique mics… an old Steinway… a Trident board, I think, which was beautiful—all rebuilt from scratch. I was determined to make an album that was entirely analog, and it took me something like four weeks to record eleven songs. It was just like the old days—you had to use a razorblade to cut tape, you never got any sleep, you didn’t leave the studio until three in the morning, and you were there at ten in the morning to keep going… it reminded me of the good-old-bad-old-days.
But the sound, at the end of the day, is significantly different. If you go back and if analog recording, as it always will be—it will be a boutique thing because it’s too expensive and it’s so time-consuming—if that aligns itself as it must with people re-issuing or issuing vinyl albums now, then away we go again. Sonically, there are things you can achieve on vinyl that won’t reproduce on CD. It’s just not possible. So, I’m all about analog sound. It’s the most incredible thing on two-inch tape. But it’s a specialized thing now. To buy your own tape costs you a second mortgage, you know? It’s an extremely expensive way to go. But if you can put your initial tracks on analog, and then move it all into digital and achieve a lot of the sound and adjust and do the edits and some overdubs and put it back into analog… you do get a continuous sound.
But the When You Were Mine album, I was trying to go back to a country, kind of "roots” sound that I heard in my head when I was seventeen. The only way I could do that was to go analog. And it cost, I think Mercury gave me, like, $40,000 to make the record and I had to go back and say I needed more. In the end, I think they gave me about $85,000 to make the record because it was analog.
To go through all of that to achieve the sound you heard in your head is the hallmark of an artist.
On the album there’s a track called "Suicide Life” and a track called "Bluebird Café” and when they come on, there’s something else in the room—even though it’s being played to you from a CD. You can hear the steel wrapping on the guitar strings on the acoustics on "Bluebird Café”. The guitar solo on "Suicide Life” gives me chills because it’s just… broad. It’s not only got width, it’s got depth. It’s a different animal. It’s almost like a spirit in the air.
You’ve essentially been a solo act for twenty years. I feel compelled to ask, given the release of BEST, do you ever think about touring behind The Babys or Bad English music at this stage of the game?
No, no—I’d never do that. The Babys had their time, and I think I got to a certain point where I just could not be the leader anymore. We’d done three albums, and on the third album we got turned down when we handed it into the record company. I was basically running things by myself at that point; the band were tapped. A guy got fired—who had it coming—and the three of us remaining went back into the studio and it was like going for two weeks of root canals. We were just pulling out any idea and staying up all night to try and make anything out of it. I think that I made that album twice. At the end of that album, I was probably about twenty pounds lighter—and I was very thin then. But I was just sick of it. I was sick of being responsible. I think we decided to be a touring band, really, and have fun and make records that we liked.
But I think the originality went out of the band at that point, and there’d be no point in forming the band and going back and doing it again. We had our time—it was ahead of its time I think—but I don’t want to be one of those acts that comes out of the past and says, "Hey, here I am again!”
And the stress when you’re in a group of musicians and you’re the one that’s the responsible one… that’s a pretty thankless position to be in.
Well, everybody put in their two cents. But I was the singer, and the lyricist, and I wrote most of the melodies, and I had this very strict rule: I wouldn’t budge. If it felt wrong to me, I wouldn’t play it. And if I didn’t write the lyric, I wouldn’t sing it. So, it was like that bad—I just knew what we should be doing. And after that, I felt like I’d overdone it. I felt like it was time to get the guys some air. We just became this great touring band with all these hits; I stopped playing bass and it was like, "Let’s just have a great time.” We’d worked all this time and sort of shot ourselves in the foot or didn’t get the right shot at the record company… it doesn’t matter—let’s have a great time up here, which is what we did and then we split up.
So, what are you most looking forward to now?
You know, it’s funny you should ask me that because after making an album like I’ve just made, it’s almost like I’ve closed the book. And I’ve explained what I had to explain. There are very obscure songs on this record. There’s a completely acoustic song with me playing an acoustic guitar by myself called "I’m Ready.” It’s about reincarnation. And then it overlaps with hits, and then there’s the duet I did with Allison Krauss… it’s a very, very long album. It’s the story of my life. There’s a sadness to it when you close the book and say, "Really? That’s what I did?”
But two days ago, I brought twenty bucks to the Radio Shack and bought myself one of those small, flat cassette players you used to see in the ‘70s. And I brought it home and I got all my cassettes out and transferred all the best ideas I had from these cassettes in a Converse tennis shoe box onto this new machine. I got twenty-two rough ideas, and now I’m thinking of starting a new record almost immediately. But it won’t be anything like I’ve done before, and it probably won’t sound very modern… I’m wondering, I’m actually questioning whether there’s a point in making an album just for yourself. This music is that indulgent… some of this stuff is dark and so personal, but some of it is really melodic and personal… I’m wondering after closing the book on this life with this album, is that really the way I want to go out? [Laughs] I have such a great live band.
What I’d really love to do for the rest of the year is play live and play the hell out of [BEST] and have a great time; we get on great as a band and we travel all over the world. I just got back from Milan—we played a festival over in Milan—then I went to New York and did press for five days.
It’s a very colorful life—it’s a great life. But the question is, do I want to make music for me, or am I trying to say something? And do I have a right to be dark, or is there an implicit agreement between the musician and the audience—that I’m trying to lift them? I’m working on that one; I don’t know what to do with it.
It sounds like you have a lot to look forward to, though.
It’s going to be interesting when I go into the studio. I know how I’m gonna do it; it’s going to be a cross between folk rock and howling, kind of weird poetry. But when you get to my age, if you don’t do something like that, there’s no reason to even bother. You should go as far out as you can; you kind of owe it to yourself to take it to the limit.