Interview with John and Woolly

We spoke to John and Woolly in February 2009, shortly before the first John Lees' Barclay James Harvest concert for two and a half years ...

How are the rehearsals going?

JL: They're going very well. We're doing it like we would have done in the old days, when we all had jobs, because everybody is working, so we need to do a couple of nights a week. It's a very enjoyable way of doing it, actually, much more so than when we were doing it during the day. Because you have a limited amount of time, you're much more focused.

Which songs do you most enjoy playing live?

JL: I think the majority of this set, actually. I think as well, this guy we've got on keyboards now, Jez, he brings something else to the table. They won't be the same by virtue of fact that he's a different keyboard player, he puts a little of himself into it, it might not be in the arrangement but in the structure. I like that, I've got a lot of time for that, I want people to explore their own ideas within what we do.

WW: I do like playing "The Iron Maiden", but I think we've over-cooked that one, it may have to have a short rest in the retirement home for a while, but it's also good because when we do the new things. For instance, despite the fact that we did "The Poet" and "After The Day" with Maestoso, when we did it in JLBJH world it was back where it belongs in a strange way, and that was pleasurable because we hadn't played it for a long time. When you come to the same old songs that have been around in the stage act, the "Mockingbird"s, I like to try and change things, a new chord here and there, a new note here and there, and all that kind of stuff. It keeps me amused and to a degree it keeps me on my toes. I want to do that every time: new tour, change some arrangements, but of course the powers that be don't necessarily want that and probably some of the audience don't want that either. There is a divided opinion about whether something should be as it was, or pushed forward.

Do you have any new songs in the pipeline?

WW: Don't I just! There are two elements, of course - Maestoso world, which gets written for and then all kind of things are possible. Then there are songs which might live comfortably in a John Lees' world or in a Maestoso world, so it all depends on how the cards are dealt. There are enough fragments, chunks, bits, bobs and full-blown songs around to float another album and to do some work with John.

JL: They're there, there are quite a lot of ideas stacked up in a row, in various stages of completion. I will give it some serious thought. You've got to have a real motivation, so whether doing this now will fire me up, hopefully it will. Maybe I should throw some of those unfinished things at Woolly!

How much do tracks tend to differ between your initial idea and the ones we get on the CD?

WW: I tend to write things in clumps, as though one idea from one song spools over to a second song, so for instance "Explorers" and "The Starving People" come from the same germ, and a song you haven't heard yet, "The Light At The End Of The World", and "Strange Worlds", are from the same germ. They tend to take over themselves and it's one per cent inspiration and the rest is perspiration, but almost as soon as they pop their little heads out, they kind of scream at me and say, "I want to go here!", so you listen to them - or ignore them!

How do you decide when a track is ready to release?

JL: In the past, it was when it was deemed to be finished when we'd run out of ideas that were gonna be used on it, it would be a natural thing, it would naturally come to a point where you didn't want to put any more on it. There are a lot of natural things that dictate when it's finished. How that would work in this day and age, I don't know; you'd be working in a totally different environment.

Are you ever surprised by which tracks the fans "latch onto", or can you sense beforehand that it will have an impact?

JL: I think it's random. As you know, I help teach music technology at A level, and we've got five students. And one of the students came in to me the other day, and he'd been on YouTube, and he'd discovered "Suicide". He said, "It's brilliant, that guitar"! That song would go down great in France, but somewhere else it might not. The weirdest thing of all was that "Berlin" in Berlin went down like a lead brick. I could never figure that out. So to be honest, it's a random thing.

John, how did you first get involved with teaching?

JL: I was bored and I started studying with the Open University, Information and Communication Technology. I stuck a notice in Olwen's shop saying that anybody who needed help with the Internet and computers, they could call me and I could come round and help them do it. Eventually I got a call from a guy who was a deputy head at Crompton House School. I thought that I could volunteer to work for them, and I mentioned to him if you ever get any jobs going in the school or technology or music, I'd be very, very interested. Within a couple of weeks I got a call from them asking if I'd come in and have a talk to a couple of people there they wanted to go forward with music technology, and would I be interested to come on board. That's how it started.

You'll be going back to America in May - What are your feelings about going back to America after all that time?

JL: It's good, isn't it? It just sounds like a really good thing to do, so I'm looking forward to it. It was very exciting, it was just a great place to go. It was quite an achievement as well, a load of kids from Oldham and they actually get to go to America! It was very exciting to see big cars and burger bars and all this kind of stuff and everything is big there, isn't it? I'm sure it will be the same now, going there as opposed to having gone to Europe over and over again, it will be the same kind of culture shock, won't it?

WW: 1976 was a long time ago, I don't really remember it. I bought a guitar when I was there, we met some lovely people in the Holiday Inn, that were in the house band. They took us under their wing and we went for a drive with them and lots of sightseeing and all that kind of stuff, and John went to the cinema once!

If you could play anywhere in the world, where would you like to go?

JL: Anywhere in the world? I thought one of the nicest things we did was in France, it was in a kind of bullring. I'll tell you what would be nice, that Pompeii amphitheatre, and I'm sure there are other places like that.

What are you reading at the moment?

JL: I'm about to start the Philip Pullman trilogy of "Northern Lights", "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass". I bought the book to read years and years ago, but didn't touch it, so that's my next reading.

WW: My usual thing - "Mahler Remembered", by Norman Lebrecht, which is one of those browsy books, it's nothing to do with music really, it's about anecdotes from people who knew him around about the time. The last thing I read was Bill Bryson's "Shakespeare".

Have you been to any gigs lately?

JL: No, in a word. Actually I did go to a gig, to see the keyboard player. I went to see Arthur Lee, that was possibly the last one. Loads of brass bands and J, I go to see J with Gideon.

WW: Er, Madness at the O2, which puts me in a kind of groovy slot really, but it's only because I get it for nowt. I never pay for anything. So I'm disappointed all too cheaply.

What was the last album you bought?

JL: I did buy The Best Of Jackson Browne. And I brought it home, and JJ said, I've just bought that!

WW: Ooh, I've not bought a lot recently. Classical stuff. It was probably Hans Roth, his first symphony, the only one he wrote.

LP, CD or download?

JL: I always want the product. I've got an account with iTunes, and to be honest, I can count on one hand the tracks I've paid to download. I've never downloaded an album ever, I just have to have the CD. I've still got my old LPs. It's definitely got a totally different sound, a warmness, but then there's a crispness that isn't there. I think CDs are good, there's a noticeable difference.

WW: CD, because a CD is full bandwidth, and I can play it on my system. Sue has got an iPod, but it's compressed. Back in the good old days of vinyl you got another track besides the one track that you wanted, with an album you got another thirteen tracks that you'd never heard before. So with download you might go for that one track and you don't have the chance encounter of the full-blown album. So it's CD, and whatever extra bits and the tracks you may never have chosen.

How do you see the future of JLBJH?

JL: Difficult to say, really. You can only play if people want to see you, it would be nice to think that we could go and play in Germany again, that would be nice. The intention is to do a small tour round England, in October and November, which I really, really hope comes off, possibly around eight or ten dates. Again, if this thing work the way we're doing it, we could literally rehearse once a week and keep the whole show in a ready state where if there was a festival, say, we could choose to do it.

Mellotron or orchestra?

JL: Mellotron. An orchestra always sounds nice, but there's a lot of players in an orchestra, a lot of personalities, and it can be your worst nightmare. But it sounds nice. Orchestra players are another kind of musician, although I suppose they might be a bit more tolerant these days.

WW: For everyday drinking, a Mellotron, but on special occasions an orchestra.

Would you describe yourself as a romantic or a realist?

WW: That's a tough one. I suppose in my line of work, you have to be a romantic in some sense, because it doesn't come from practical things but when I have to pay the Council Tax, that's when I turn into a realist.

Are you still passionate about music?

JL: I'm passionate about all music. And I'm passionate about my own music. I don't associate with writing my songs any more, because that process was in the dim and distant past, and I can't tap into that, but when I play them now, I can't play "After The Day" without getting tears in my eyes, for instance - they have that emotional effect now on me which is quite staggering, really.

WW: Yes. It is what I am and it's what I kind of must do.

Finally, Woolly, as a wine connoisseur, what would you recommend for a post-concert tipple?

WW: At the moment, I'm enjoying a Two Hands Angel's Share Shiraz, which is hard to find but is a gobful, and of course, you can't beat a good bottle of Port. Any port in a storm!