Exclusive Interview with John Young of the John Young Band

By Lorraine Kay

Q. So, you aren’t actually a newcomer to the prog-rock scene, having worked with Asia, John Wetton, Qango and others but The John Young Band is relatively an all-new band for you. What can you tell me about the new band?

A. We’ve been together awhile really since probably late 2001 when it first started happening. There have been two UK tours. And I’ve done a certain amount of solo shows outside of the UK including the states this year that was great fun. It’s an ongoing concern but I think the main problem we have obviously is that nobody knows who we are and definitely nobody knows who I am. Because I’ve never been a part of a Marillion or Genesis or whatever. It’s very difficult for people who appreciate this kind of music to actually know you exist. So that has been our main problem and hopefully now I’m circumventing that problem by going direct to the people and telling them “here we are” and saying to them – “So if you enjoy us why not come along to a show?”

Q. How did this band come about?

A. I’ve been writing a lot for other people. I’ve been doing a lot of work with John Wetton and writing on his albums and various other people’s work. So while I was working for a lot of different bands I Still felt the need to express myself for myself. I was playing with Greenslade or John or Qango or Scorpions or whatever, but it was that I always felt that there was something else I wanted to do. I started doing some solo shows and various people spoke to me at these shows and said, “Why don’t you put a band together?” And then when we finally did it was just so enjoyable. I had such a great time and I think everybody in the band did too. It just seemed natural to try to keep it going and then maybe work towards getting studio albums out. We’ve got the live album. And the next thing will probably be the studio albu

Q. The John Young Band seems to be a busy lot. When your band is not playing I know you travel a lot and tour with other bands on occasion I understand you have been on the road and are just returning from Spain?

 A. The stuff that I am doing at the moment is with Bonnie Tyler. I work with her and the Scorpions whenever they need me. So that just keeps me going. I just generally do weekends working with those guys. And then the John Young Band  tour will probably kick in in November.

Q. While looking over your bio I see that without a doubt you have played with some of the most incredible musicians in rock and roll history and then some, how do you rate the musicians in this band and what can you tell me about them?

A. I think as far as the band goes we’re pretty similar in the quality of musicians. I have Robin Boult on guitars, Dave Stewart on drums and vocals and Steve Vantsis on bass player. Robin has played with Howard Jones, Fish, Big Big Sun, Sugarbabes. Dave had played with Camel, Deacon Blue, Colin Bass, Fish and Donnie Munroe. And Steve has played with Fish, Bonnie Tyler and River City People. They are all first class musicians. In terms of the music we should reach the same audiences and have the same effect.

Q. I noticed that the bands you have worked in and the other work with kind of overlap. So primarily all of these guys are people that you’ve played with before in other bands?

A. Yeah.

Q. Now there are variations of the John Young Band, is that right?

A. Yes, indeed, well it was kind of forced upon me to an extent because with the way things stand at the moment the band is at the bottom of the food chain. Most of the people who work for the band work for other people to make a living – including myself. So in order to get everyone together at one place and at one time is very difficult. Because people will be on tours or doing odd shows and to try to get them to actually rehearse for a period of time or actually to be available for dates for a period of time is quite difficult. Everyone that has been involved with it seems to enjoy being involved with it. But the problem is just getting us all together at the same time. And I completely appreciate the difficulties. I mean Robin has to work with Howard Jones an awful lot at the moment. And Steve is working with Fish all the time. And we’ve got a couple of new drummers who want to be in it but are very busy with other commitments. So it’s a real joke to get everyone in the same room at the same time.

Q. That brings up something I have noticed a lot lately. I have been interviewing a lot of prog bands from the UK recently and everybody tells me the same thing. Everyone is just floating back and forth from one band or the other. Everyone is working with John Wetton and Fish and Porcupine Tree – you name it. It’s like you’re all just hanging out together over there.

A. Oh yeah, we’re all chums. We are. It’s a very small world. We all know each other quite well. And generally we all meet up at gigs and things. I’m sure a lot of people will be at the Porcupine Tree gigs that are coming up and that sort of thing. So it’s all quite good fun and everybody seems to get on pretty well

Q. What is your preference to work in a studio or play live?

A. Oh live every time. I get bored in the studio.

Q. Performance-wise when you do a show what can fans expect?

A. Well it’s still early days for us. Even though it’s been four or five years on now. There’s two sides of it really. We’re taking on more and more new people, (fans) and friends all the time and as such most of the people that would come to a show wouldn’t have heard any of the tunes a lot and probably quite a few of them won’t have any CDs. So at present I am kind of holding back from going out and doing the new stuff. Because I would like to get that recorded first in the new year and take it on from there. That said there will be one or two new tunes in the show when we go out. But to be honest most people haven’t heard it and we’ve built up quite a back catalog of material. So in a way, even though nobody knows who we are, it’s been like going out and doing a greatest hits show according to the little feedback that we’ve had from the fans we have. So I am very loath to just start putting in loads and loads of new stuff when the old stuff is held in quite high esteem and also so many of these people haven’t heard it. We have a lot of material so it’s quite straightforward for us to do an hour and a half set.

Q. If you do a US tour what kind of show can the fans expect?

A. Obviously, there are two sides to it. You can either have just myself doing a solo show, which is pretty full on because we use a lot of the live work that we did with the band on backing tracks and I play over that so it sounds pretty heavy in places.

Q. Do you have a different rig on stage than in the studio?

A. To an extent, I haven’t got the ability to use or substitute the samples that I would use in the studio on stage. So we literally kind of have to change things. I try and be honest about what we do. We have used backing tracks even with the band. There are times where physically four people can only do so much. We get some criticism for doing that but we are no different that a lot of other bands. And then some people like it. You just can’t please everybody. The purists are just determined that everything has to come from what they see. But usually they are quite disappointed because some of the biggest bands in the world do it. it is so obvious when somebody is playing a click track when you’ve got all these other sounds coming out of the sound system. But you ask the fan and they’ll say, “Oh, no, that was all live.” And then I go, “Oh, come on.”

Q. What do you do when you do the solo show without the band?

A. When we finished the live album we looked at how a solo show could work and what I wanted to do was give people the impression that just how powerful the music could be. With the live tracks that we’ve done and also a couple that we didn’t put on the album or at least one we didn’t put on the album, I can come on stage and play all my parts and sing all the songs with the band on disks behind me. I do feel that when I do the solo show and I have to use backing tracks, I say, “look, I am going to be using the guys in the band and it’s my band and we wrote the music and this is our stuff and we created it, but they won’t be physically here.” Some people may regard this as cheating and I’m really sorry for that but then I do the acoustic stuff also so they get the best of both worlds

Then I also do some quiet acoustic things as well with just me playing piano and singing, and then gradually working into the big stuff. And so the likes of “Unknown Soldier” can be done. And it seems to work really, really well. I did a gig in Germany recently where there was two sort of rock bands that were playing a festival and they just threw me in at the last minute to support it. And they went crazy. And then I may even look at doing a duo thing with a soft guitar. But the full on band is obviously the way that I would like to end up doing and coming to America with the band would be the ultimate goal

Q. There seems to be a lot of artists that are going that way these days. One prog rock icon just did the same thing. Jon Anderson of Yes does his “Tour of the Universe” with al midi tracks and multi-media triggers and it’s great.

A. Exactly and that’s what we want to se. You can’t often say that if you put a guy out with just a piano that you might not get a little bored with that as the show goes on.  And then again to some people it’s perfect. So you can’t please everybody you just have to step back and realize the beautiful music being made.

Q. Do you use any visuals in your shows?

A. We are actually working on the visuals at the moment. In fact, with “Underside” which is a song about poverty, a friend of mine has already done some visuals for that which look fantastic. I did hear that there will be some visuals at some point in the future because that is being worked on, but it is a slow process.

Q. You talked about a studio album when are you planning to do a CD with this band?

A. There’s probably about 80% of the songs are written. Basically, it’s quite democratic.  Even though it’s my band, I basically put the songs forward and the boys can say what they think of them. And we work it like that.

Q. So does everybody contribute material for the CD?

A. No, not at the moment. No, the offer is always there. It’s on the table that anybody involved in the band can contribute. But with the boys being so busy it’s been very difficult for them writing wise to get that together. Having said that I think now that Steve is writing for Fish and that Robin is doing a bit more writing, the both of them will get involved in the process for the next album.

Q. Where did you get your inspiration for the songs on this album?

A. From life. Most of it is based on things that I regard true things that have happened in my life both personally and outside – general politics, world life and poverty and so on. A lot of the love songs come from relationships and the heavier stuff more political and the music tends to come from my look at everything ranging from reality television to the music industry to world global politics in regards to war and peace and poverty and what we do and the mistakes that we make. Basically, all I’m trying to do is put ideas in front of people. I’m not saying this is how it should be. I’m saying that this is what I think and these are some of the options. What do you think? And maybe try to create a little more awareness through music, which obviously was something people used to do back in the 60s. And these days the music industry kind of frowns on that a little bit

Q. Well, you wouldn’t say that you have a soapbox per se?

A. No, I think there may be some that would say that. I’m not trying to lecture. I’m just giving forward an idea. Basically I’m saying what about this and what about that? Nothing more.

Q. How do you see your music? You said you do a lot of different styles of music.

A. I don’t actually think we fall into the total prog category. I think there’s a commercial element to what we do. And I think if somebody realizes that then this thing could go ballistic. I sell the ambient and classical, electronic, world, jazz – I sell everything from my site www.MySpace.com/johnyoungband – all the different kinds of music that I make.

Q. What is your preference?

A. It depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I think my preference has always got to be the band. I just love what we do. But if you want to relax the ambient stuff is fabulous. The classical stuff is very enjoyable in my point of view. And the Indian stuff – the World stuff was a real absolute labor of love. It was just taking vocals and putting sounds underneath and that was so difficult to do. It took two years to record. 

Q. What equipment do you use?

A. Not all that much these days. I remember when I joined Qango and of course I had to do all that Keith Emerson stuff and I had one keyboard, Carl Palmer asked to me, “Where are all your keyboards?” And I said, “Well, here. I just have this and a couple of modules.” And he told me, “You can’t do this show with just one keyboard.” But by the time we were finished he was convinced it was okay. I used to have one of the big keyboard rigs like everyone else but I don’t really bother anymore now. I use a Korg Trident plus a couple of Roland modules. That’s it. I use a lot of soft synths here in my studio. 

Q. Did you start out as a pianist?

A. Oh, yes, I was heavily, classically trained.

Q. Was it easy to make the transition as a classically trained pianist to electronics?

A. I am electronically – well computer-wise, I am a complete idiot. I was never mathematical, so it was always a bit of a bind.  But I did manage to get sort of early ProTools and everything else together. And I gradually got to working those things because I had to. I kind of learned the basics. If I can make the tunes work then that’s enough for me. I am not one of these people that updates everything every five minutes. If I’ve got something that works and it works and it eventually needs to be replaced then I will replace it. I think on a musical element there are bigger problems. Initially I was classically trained, so it was losing that ability to be just normal classical and head into another direction. And then to be able to actually do all the stuff that keyboard players could do. I approached it serious enough, to the extent of locking myself in a barn for a couple of days with all this equipment to just try to make myself become a keyboard player.  

Q. So you say you conquered these machines, but how did it effect your music. Was it an advantage or a hindrance?

A. Well, it was a major change. After I achieved learning what I felt I needed and eventually had all the chops to be able to do all this stuff, I realized the real change. At that moment it was the challenge was that I needed to double back on myself and start working quite a lot with John Wetton and writing a lot of songs and things for him. And I then found I needed to start to forget things and get rid of that aspect because music is so much more about the soul than anything else and what’s inside you and what you’re trying to give. What we try to do with the band, to an extent, is we have players that can play as good as anybody in the band but we don’t show it off all the time, like so many bands do. And I do so love the way we kind of hold everything back. Because it always feels like there’s more to come, which hopefully it does through the set. And I think if you understand emotions what I try and do with the music is understand everything from the emotions of love through to the emotions of anger and hate and jealousy, which can be so well incorporated into music. But so people do it these days. It’s strange because you can do a concert and if a progressive rock fan turns up he’ll say “Oh I love all those things you do that sound like Keith Emerson or…I love those things that sound like Patrick Ryan. But while he is looking for the technical aspect of what I do, his wife will go, “Yeah, but I loved the way that you got inside my soul when you sung that.” And that’s the most important thing. And in a way to me that always says to me that the prog guy doesn’t get it but the wife gets it perfectly.

Q. What about your singing? You have a great lead voice, did you study voice as well?

A. It was kind of in conjunction with my time at the Liverpool Cathedral. I did quite a bit of singing as a boy and then when my voice broke it wasn’t very rock and roll so I stopped singing until about seven years ago when I suddenly realized I could actually write songs that fit around the voice that I’ve got.

Q. You also do music for TV and films, is that something you like to do?

A. Yeah, I kind of do it to my own specifications. I work for library companies and generally the TV companies take stuff from the library companies. So there’s an advantage to this in one way that you can kind of please yourself as to what kind of music you make. The disadvantage is for things like – for example – the CNN thing – is that sometimes you don’t get paid.

Q. What do you think is the most important thing that you could tell an aspiring musician?

A. My thoughts on that are pretty steadfast. You have to do one of two things when you go into the music business. My friend said it this way “ I work for music but I don’t work for the music business.” I think you have to decide which one of those two you choose. The music business is a bit like working in McDonald’s. And if you value your music and value what you do then it’s quite difficult to work for it. And you have to make a decision. The problem is that if you work for the music business you might make a lot of money. If you decide to do it for the love of music then you have to be prepared to be poor. We tend to regard meaningful as a much higher form of life not what you generally hear on MTV or on the charts.

Q. What was the last concert as a fan?

Focus on their UK tour. I absolutely love that band. There is so much emotion and soul in the group. I stay every night and watch the entire show.

Q. What was your most memorable Spinal Tap moment?

There was a gig that I did in Belgium where Clive Bunker used to play drums on the gig and he’d do a drum solo, which would then go into the keyboard solo. When the drum solo starts it is time to take a break. I remember it was in a sports hall or something and it was all black backstage. It was quite a big gig and I just remember going off to get a drink backstage when I realized Clive was halfway through his solo. So I thought I’d just walk back and I was sort of trotting across what I thought was the backstage area when all of a sudden there was no floor. And I was falling through all this scaffolding and getting all cut and bruised and everything else and I came around and I could hear Clyde winding the solo up.  “Oh no I’m on!” I was thinking and I remember I just kind of crawled through the scaffolding and running up on to stage and just getting to the keyboard as he finished looking probably quite dire. But it was just like that moment in Spinal Tap when Harry Speares comes out of the cocoon. Oh dear.