I have seen you described in the English press as both legendary and a cult figure. How do you feel about that sort
I think it's very kind of them. That is a kind of hard question for me to answer. As far as I know, most legends are dead...
And you're not feeling too well at the moment!
No, I'm close to it. But the English press have always been more than kind. I wish I could get to England more. I just did the one trip and I'd like to do more.
You mean come for a tour?
Whatever. I'd like to play a little bit. I only did the Roundhouse last time. I'd like to do some television, record... just see some more of England, it's not really possible to bring over the band.
How big a band have you got?
I've a three piece band, four counting me. Peter on drums, Chris Whelan on bass and a new guitar player, Joey Meade. I've had more guitar players... it's hard to keep sidemen. They either join a big name like Linda Ronstadt or form bands of their own. There's so many new bands in America that the record companies are getting tighter and tighter on who they sign. It's tighter now than it's ever been.
What's your situation? Are you changing companies?
Yes, changing labels again. I don't know who I'll end up with. I'm just going to make a demo of some new songs and see who is interested. Ideally, I'd like a record company with good distribution and who had some interest in what I do. Whether I find that I don't know, but I'm not going to sign for Ajax Records just because they offer more money than anybody else. That is a trap that's easy to fall into, but you pay for it when your record comes out. I've actually gone out on promotional tours and there have been no records in the stores, and they were quite taken aback when I suggested that there should be records in the stores. But finding a good record label is a game all of us
are stuck with.
To be able to record is practically a privilege these days unless you're a big name like Elton John or Linda Ronstadt with the security of selling. They have a lot of money invested. One album can cost 50 or 60,000 dollars, so two albums is 120,000 dollars. Money made on John Denver is paying for a lot of people to record. One of the classic stories is Linda Ronstadt, who had been making records for Capitol for six or seven years. They sold moderately well but they could never really break even. She signed for Asylum and Capitol said, "Linda, you still owe us an album." So she said, "You can have the next album." The next album was Heart Like a Wheel which was a number 1 album with two number 1 singles on it. Capitol made back everything they had ever invested in Linda on just one album. That's one of the rare cases of a record company making back its investment.
What was your problem with RCA?
I don't want to go into that, but I would like to say RCA (London) are one of the best companies I have ever seen for getting the job done while I was over there. They took care of me, got my records in the stores.... if there was any success to be had then it wasn't the record company's fault if we didn't have it. There's a lot of difference between RCA (England) and RCA (America). Lot smaller company, of course, but if RCA (America) had been like its English counterpart I would have had no problem.
If you phone them up in London to ask for information on you, they direct you to Peter O'Brien.
Peter, God love him, has more facts on me than my own mother. If someone called me for facts about myself, I think I'd direct them to Peter.
Can you go back to your current band? I know about Pete Thomas, but what are the backgrounds of the other guys?
Chris Whelan has played with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Sherman Hayes. He's done a lot of work. Joey Meade is a young guitarist, he's 19. He's the nephew of Nick Reynolds who I used to play with in the Kingston Trio. The previous guitarist with my band, Jon Woodhead, was also 19 and an incredible player. It seems the music they grew up with and first started learning the guitar from was George Harrison and Eric Clapton, so they started with such fantastic licks. This is Joey's first gig outside San Diego where he played with local bands. He's a very talented guitar player, as is Jon Woodhead. John can play country and western, jazz, blues, the lot... definitely a guitarist to watch for.
Do you go out and find these people or do they come to you?
I really don't know. The word gets out that I need a guitar player and they turn up. Chris Whelan and Jon Woodhead just showed up. I knew Joey Meade played. There's a scarcity of good guitar players at the moment. It's catch as catch can. You can't go through the union, it's word of mouth, friends who have played with friends. Someone always says, "I know somebody who knows somebody..."
But when you're looking for a member of a band, you're not just looking for a musician. You're looking for someone you've got to live with. In fact, we auditioned one guy for the band and Pete said to me, "I don't know what you were thinking, but if that guy joined the band then I was quitting." You're on the road for a long time and if you can't get along with someone...
You met Pete Thomas through Pete Frame?
Yeah, I did, that was fate. I was losing my drummer and I got a telegram from Pete Frame telling me Chilli Willi were splitting up, so I told him to come over and it worked out perfectly.
(Pete Thomas) When John came to London to play The Roundhouse he didn't realise how big a concert it was, and he had only brought a bass player. So when he got there and saw what was happening, he asked Pete Frame if there was anyone he could play with and Pete suggested me. I took home a whole pile of John's albums and then said I'd do it. It worked really well and when he left John said, "If you're ever short of a gig, come over." So when Chilli Willi broke up I thought I'd put his word to the test.
(John) We had a lot of trouble with visas and work permits. It was crazy.
Do you get out and watch bands?
Do you buy records?
Yes, I do. I buy Linda Ronstadt, Jesse Winchester, Paul Simon, but Randy Newman and Tom Waits are at the top of my list.
I've never found Randy Newman's records anywhere near as good as his live appearances.
I've never seen him live. I guess I have a treat coming. Fantastic songwriter. His lyrics are so bizarre and his melodies are so modern. And you've got to hear Tom Waits. He's one of the finest songwriters. He's taken Skid Row and put it on the concert stage. Very colourful writer.
Why don't you go and watch bands?
There are some people I'd go and see. Paul Simon, Dylan, I'd go and see Tom Waits any day. It's not been the same for me since the Partridge Family stopped touring!
The traditional interview goes into history in the second paragraph.
Oh, that's rehashed in every interview. I was with the Cumberland Three in 1960 and then the Kingston Trio up until 1968.
Did you have problems, because going from the Kingston Trio into what you do now must have been a very different scene?
Completely, and the music had changed so drastically with The Beatles, Dylan, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, that the Kingston Trio was more of a minus than a plus. When I went to get bookings, or to record companies, and said, "Former member of the Kingston Trio," it was like that was what I was going to do. It was no help except that I knew a lot of people in the record business and I could go and say, "You've got to listen to my stuff." It was hard starting over again. I got spoilt with the Trio. I'd just jumped in to the number one group in the country and then I had to start again from scratch, gradually building up a reputation.
How long a gap was there between leaving the Trio and starting to play again?
I had a year where I just wrote and tried to figure out what I was going to do. Was it going to be another group? Was I going to be solo? Would I play with another guy or a girl? I decided to sing with Buffy Ford and we did one album for Capitol called Signals Through the Glass. The album sold 7,000 copies at the time, and I know language records that have sold more than that. We did a few concerts and club dates, but it didn't work too well. When you have a male and female singing together you have to have songs that complement the two. I mean, you can't have a girl singing "July, You're a Woman." So, I thought to myself, if I'm going to do it, do it. I went solo and that's what I've been doing ever since, and will do for as long as they let me.
Nik Venet told Pete Frame that you shouldn't use strings on your albums, yet when he came to produce Wingless Angels there are strings on it.
What does that tell you about Nik Venet? All these quotes are just hot air. If it works, it works. A good song is a good song whatever you do to it. Nik Venet always used to say, "You can't double track your voice John." I'd just say, "It's a tool of the studio. Why can't I use it ?" It's like being an artist who's told he can never use brown. "Never use brown in your paintings, John. It's not you." "Why do they make brown if I can't use it?" I think being told what to do is stifling in any art form and this is an art form albeit a minor one. It's like taking guitar lessons. You can find more interesting chords teaching yourself. "You can play D Ninth suspended?!" "Gee, I thought that was a D." When I write arrangements for songs people say, "What a knockout arrangement." I say "Isn't that the way it's played?" "No, it's played like this." But that's not from any creativity. It's just that I didn't know anything.
Wingless Angels turned out a lot smoother album than many of us expected. Is that the direction you're moving in?
No. Tactfully put, though. It's definitely not the direction we're moving in. It just turned out that way.
So on future albums you'll be more likely to rock?
Yeah, it's not going to be Mott the Hoople, but you'll be able to hear the drums. On any future record you won't have to listen for the drums. They'll be there along with the bass and the rhythm guitar.
On the sleeve note of that album, Nik Venet has the "ZZ Award." What is that?
That was because Nik Venet was always dozing off or he'd pretend to. We'd finish a take, press the button and you could hear him snoring.
Are you going to stay with him as a producer?
I have no plans to. We may get together again someday.
Is there anybody you want to work with?
There's George Martin, Richard Perry, Gus Dudgeon but these people are best. I'd like to work with somebody who said, "This song would be better this way," and I agree with him, rather than someone who says, "No, no this is the way it's done." But most important, someone who could cut me a hit single!
Is that what you really want?
Yeah, but only with my own material. I mean, I could not see myself doing "Love Will Keep Us Together," not that it's a bad song. But if someone could come along and take a song from our repertoire and say, "Play the drums that way, put some background voices here and you've got a hit," of course I'd want it. That's what we all want. The big bucks, eh Pete?
(Pete Thomas) Right, John, the bigger the better!
Would you be prepared to modify your style for a hit?
I don't think we have to, not from what we play on stage... from Wingless Angels, maybe.
What are you playing on stage?
We do some new songs. "Survivors" and "Let the Big Horse Run" from Wingless Angels. But "Let the Big Horse Run" is more rock 'n' roll than on the album, the rest is similar to The Phoenix Concerts.
(Pete Thomas) Tell them that it cooks!
It cooks, yes... it has a groove.
Tell me about Oliver Makin, who is quoted both on Wingless Angels and, previously, on Sunstorm.
Interesting story. He's a poet from Kansas who died in 1909. I think I told Pete Frame it was me. I don't know why I lied. A devil must have gotten into me that day! He's a Kansas poet who wrote two books. The Complete Works of Oliver Makin and August, Summer and Other Short Stories. That's all I know about him. I'm trying to find some more books but they are difficult to get
Why do you put him on your album sleeves?
I like what he says. He gives me some good ideas. When you take a song title from a quote, I think it's good to put the quote there. Instead of saying I stole it, it's a nice way of letting people know.
Final question, John. What do you have for breakfast?
Glad you asked me that. I have orange juice with protein powder, brewer's yeast and a raw egg. Do you want to ask me my favourite colour?