Ditch what you think of "best of albums right now. What if it werent just a re-packaging of greatest hits, and was instead a sonic patois of who you were, and where youd 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 musicians 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 wont even find his biggest hit in its original form; instead its his 2007 duet with Allison Krauss that made the cut.
Waites 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, hes 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?
Ive always had this admiration for those who play the bass over guitar. Theres something very Zen about itthat its as much about what you dont play as what you do play. As a songwriter, what was it that drew you to the instrument?
Thats 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] "Ill never dance with another
and he hits this note on "dancehe plays this one passing noteand Id never heard anything like that in my life before, and I dont 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 theres 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 McCartneys 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 almostit was ridiculous. I was obsessed with bass guitars! I would get catalogs from music stores. If I was lucky Id get a catalog that would have acoustic basses or the Hoffner catalog with the violin bass. But the one that I really wantedthe one I fell in love withwas 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.
Its 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, its because its full of promises. When you look at a guitar, it promises you something. Theres a Danelectro Longhorn bass that
Ive never owned an original. Ive owned modern versions of it, but Ive 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 wouldnt sound anything like I sound.
I wouldnt have really thought that at the outset, but that would have to be
Well, you sing in the spaces. Unless youre really a virtuoso, which McCartney is, you can sing and play and sing a melody thats almost counterpoint to whats going on. Stings 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. Theres just the suggestion of "I Saw Her Standing There it all goes back to him playing that note.
Youve 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 drawbackit 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. Theres a period where youre 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 youre 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 youre ready to back away from it again.
And thats been your history, taking time offsignificant time offthroughout 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 dont need to be recognized. I dont need to be given praise. What I shoot for is way above that. I know when Ive done something thats good. You raise the bar high enough and you stop bowing so much. You know that when its great, its great and if its not good, you dont want to show your face. Youre always reaching for this thing thats a half inch away from your grasp, and thats what keeps you writing songs, really.
If I can ask you
youve set the bar high for yourself, and now youre promoting a sort of "greatest hits album. Whats really neat about that is youve re-recorded some of your tracks, and youve 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. Its beautiful because you hear it [sings intro] on the radio and you think back to 1984, when you were young and in love. Its 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. Id written the lyric about four days before I sang it and I was still tinkering with the melody. I didnt know
it just dropped in my lap, really. "Back On My Feet Again
Id 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 didnt 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 youd go, "That was John Waite. Its eighteen songs, its a long story and, really, I didnt 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, thats the most poignant reasoning Ive ever heard behind a "greatest hits album. Its 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. Im 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 cant get my head around that!
When I first heard The Beatles and Free and Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakersall 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. Its 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 Soundhe invented the Theremin. Walters studio is entirely analog, with antique gear and antique mics
an old Steinway
a Trident board, I think, which was beautifulall 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 daysyou had to use a razorblade to cut tape, you never got any sleep, you didnt 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 beit will be a boutique thing because its too expensive and its so time-consumingif 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 wont reproduce on CD. Its just not possible. So, Im all about analog sound. Its the most incredible thing on two-inch tape. But its a specialized thing now. To buy your own tape costs you a second mortgage, you know? Its 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 theres a track called "Suicide Life and a track called "Bluebird Café and when they come on, theres something else in the roomeven though its 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 its just
broad. Its not only got width, its got depth. Its a different animal. Its almost like a spirit in the air.
Youve 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, noId 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. Wed 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 firedwho had it comingand 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 lighterand 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 thered be no point in forming the band and going back and doing it again. We had our timeit was ahead of its time I thinkbut I dont want to be one of those acts that comes out of the past and says, "Hey, here I am again!
And the stress when youre in a group of musicians and youre the one thats the responsible one
thats 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 wouldnt budge. If it felt wrong to me, I wouldnt play it. And if I didnt write the lyric, I wouldnt sing it. So, it was like that badI just knew what we should be doing. And after that, I felt like Id 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, "Lets just have a great time. Wed worked all this time and sort of shot ourselves in the foot or didnt get the right shot at the record company
it doesnt matterlets 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, its funny you should ask me that because after making an album like Ive just made, its almost like Ive closed the book. And Ive explained what I had to explain. There are very obscure songs on this record. Theres a completely acoustic song with me playing an acoustic guitar by myself called "Im Ready. Its about reincarnation. And then it overlaps with hits, and then theres the duet I did with Allison Krauss
its a very, very long album. Its the story of my life. Theres a sadness to it when you close the book and say, "Really? Thats 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 Im thinking of starting a new record almost immediately. But it wont be anything like Ive done before, and it probably wont sound very modern
Im wondering, Im actually questioning whether theres 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
Im 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 Id 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 Milanwe played a festival over in Milanthen I went to New York and did press for five days.
Its a very colorful lifeits 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 audiencethat Im trying to lift them? Im working on that one; I dont know what to do with it.
It sounds like you have a lot to look forward to, though.
Its going to be interesting when I go into the studio. I know how Im gonna do it; its going to be a cross between folk rock and howling, kind of weird poetry. But when you get to my age, if you dont do something like that, theres 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.