MWE3.COM ‘AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN IRVINE’ (JULY 2015 w/ Robert Silverstein)
mwe3: I was kind of kicking myself for not hearing the Next Stop CD last year. It’s that good. When did you write and record Next Stop and how would you compare it with you earlier album Wait & See?
JI: Well, thanks Robert for the kind comments. It’s great to know that the album is finding the kind of people I intended it for. And to answer the first part of your question, I composed the majority of the material for Next Stop in the two years following Wait & See. It takes me a long to time to get an album’s worth of music together. My home studio set-up had changed between albums and I had some problems with gear, but those were resolved over time and the main work was done from February to June 2013. The final mixing and mastering was done at Castlesound Studios in Pencaitland, outside Edinburgh – the same place as where Wait & See was done. Stuart Hamilton was the engineer on both albums. He really transformed the material into what it is, sound-wise. In comparison with the first album, I think Next Stop marks a real development. I think the compositions are more complex, a bit more interesting than the material on the first album, certainly the keyboards and background layerings are richer, more intricate. And both the jazz element and the progressive element are more prominent on this one, they’ve both been brought out a bit more.
mwe3: It seems like you’ve hit a veritable sweet spot on Next Stop, is that a fair statement? What was your sonic mission this time?
JI: Yes, I think Next Stop is the better album, overall. But if I were to be overly self-critical then I would say that there are things that I like more on the first CD. The playing on Wait & See is a bit tighter, in my view. With the last album I let a bit of the production side of things slip, because of time constraints and the fact that it was a bigger project, as a result there are several things that could have been done better. It reminds of an interview I read a long time ago with Yes drummer Alan White, where he’d criticized Trevor Rabin for going through the whole of their Talk album and moving all the drum audio so it was perfectly in time. Well, that was my approach on Wait & See, and it shows. Next Stop has more of a ‘live’ feel, but lots of people seem to like that, so it’s all good.
mwe3: You’re pictured on the cover of Next Stop playing a kind of Steinberger (headless) looking guitar. Is that the same red guitar pictured on Wait & See as well?
JI: The guitar on the cover of Wait & See is a Hohner headless guitar called ‘The Jack’ made in the 1990s – a Steinberger copy, very similar to the current G3T but with a Strat body. Very well made – and having played a good variety of Steinbergers over the years, a very versatile guitar. The guitar on the Next Stop cover is a Steinberger GR4 headless, correct.
mwe3: How has your choice of guitars changed and evolved over the years and what guitars are you playing on your albums? Do you also play acoustic guitars?
JI: My main guitar at the moment is an ESP Edwards SG 100LT2. I’m a big fan of Edwards guitars, Japanese made, great design and craftsmanship. My SG is an amazing guitar. It has the lowest action of any guitar I’ve ever played. That is the number one thing for me – low action. I work and work on a guitar until the action is virtually not there, and if a guitar doesn’t come up to scratch, then it has to be moved on. The guitars used on the albums varied a great deal. I used a Hohner SE35 semi-acoustic, a Gibson Rd Standard, a Godin Solidac, the Hohner Headless, the Steinberger GR4 and a Hohner HR1000 Super-Strat. As far as amps go, it was an ENGL Screamer Combo and an ENGL Thunder Head through a 4×12 ENGL cab. Effects used were the Yamaha DG and UD Stomp boxes. As yet there have been no acoustic guitars on either of my two albums. This will change on the next one. I’m not a steel-string player… I find them very difficult to play, but there will definitely be some classical guitar on the next one.
mwe3: Tell us what keyboards you’re playing on the CD and how the keys mesh with the guitar sounds?
JI: I use MOTU’s Digital Performer in my home studio. It’s a program I’ve used for about 25 years now, and all the keyboard sounds are virtual instruments from their ‘MX4’ program. Most of the keyboards are secondary in importance to the main guitar parts, but I wanted to fill out the sound a bit more on this album.
mwe3: Can you tell us something about where you’re from, where you grew up and where you live now as well as how you became interested in the guitar and how that interest led to you becoming a recording artist?
JI: I was born in Bristol, England in 1965, but my family moved to the USA when I was 1 year old, and then on to Canada shortly thereafter. We also spent a year in Zimbabwe before coming back to the UK in 1979. I started the guitar that year and took classical guitar lessons in Plymouth for a few years. Though I’d started music late, I made good progress early on – enough to then go to Dartington College of Arts to do A-Level music and, following that, The Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama in Glasgow where I got my BA and studied with Philip Thorne. This takes me up to 1992 when I began a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Edinburgh with the composer Nigel Osborne as my supervisor. I completed that in 1999. So, you can see that a lot of my formal education has been in classical music. But I’m getting ahead of myself… Growing up in Southern Ontario as a teenager you couldn’t help but be influenced by what 1970s FM radio was playing at the time: Steely Dan, Chicago, Doobie Brothers, Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder etc. and by the local rock bands on the Toronto scene: Rush, FM, Max Webster, Goddo and Triumph. We were also listening to the major hard rock bands of the 70s: Kiss, Aerosmith, Queen, B.O.C., Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, Angel and so forth. Now, a lot of that music is very sophisticated, but a friend of mine in 10th Grade told me to go away and listen to Relayer by Yes, to ‘hear what real music was like’. I knew “Roundabout” from the radio, but hearing “The Gates Of Delirium” for the first time was a whole new listening experience. It was all I played for about a month, and soon, Genesis, Gentle Giant and King Crimson followed. We then moved to England. I was lucky that the public library in Plymouth had a great vinyl selection. I would take out anything that looked remotely interesting to me. So, I borrowed Stockhausen, The Manhattan Transfer, a whole bunch of ECM stuff, Bill Dixon, Ornette Coleman – it was a treasure trove. Most importantly though, was that I went to Dartington College of Arts, Devon upon leaving school at 18 years old. This was a somewhat radical, left-leaning, arts establishment where I was lucky to be taught by the composer Frank Denyer, study with the jazz guitarist John Etheridge and attend concerts by Evan Parker, Keith Rowe, Keith Tippett, Yoshikazu Iwamoto and Armanath Mishra, amongst others. I also saw Segovia play in the Great Hall, but he was already in his 90s at this point. Needless to say, this was the best education I ever had.
mwe3: Who were some of your favorite bands and musicians growing up? What era of music did you grow up in?
JI: Obviously, my early teens listening is tuned to the 70s progressive and hard rock bands mentioned above, but when we moved to the UK in ’79 I became very interested in post-punk and new wave. It was very different to the North American zeitgeist – The Police, The Fixx, The Clash, Killing Joke, Siouxsie & The Banshees, XTC, U2 – all really inventive stuff, and ‘progressive’ in its own way. Of course, a lot of that would find its way over to the Canada/U.S.A. soon enough, but culturally punk/new wave wasn’t nearly so influential as it was here in the UK. It motivated listeners politically, socially and provided an alternative conscience to the mainstream. This was very appealing because progressive rock had blown itself out of the water by this time, so this plugged the gap left by those progressive bands. And, I was getting into Frank Zappa…
mwe3: Track four “Your Skyline” is a tribute to the late great John Martyn. Even though John Martyn was primarily a folk-jazz singer he must have had a big impact on you. Tell us about John Martyn and how other musicians had an impact on you.
JI: John Martyn was another big influence in my early 20s. I’d seen him live with his band in Plymouth in 1983 and a couple of times since then in Glasgow. His One World, Glorious Fool and Grace & Danger albums I regard as being his best work, and right up there with Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark, Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira as the pinnacle of the guitar-based, singer-songwriter genre. I must also say that I regard the Michael Hedges album Watching My Life Go By in that category. But just thinking about these three guitarists and how they approach the instrument harmonically, it’s interesting to note that all three used alternate tunings. Now, that’s not something I go in for, but their chordal usage is certainly one that I am very keen on – particularly the Hedges vocabulary. So, certainly it was a sound that I was looking for – but in standard tuning. You can see where I’m coming from. And if you take into account the Metheny things, the Holdsworth things, add in some extended chord voicings and classical fingerstyle then you have my harmonic goals pretty well mapped out. I should mention that around this time I got heavily into the West Coast/AOR scene: Christopher Cross, Michael McDonald, Ambrosia, Al Jarreau, Toto and, of course, this music has many great, great players like Jay Graydon, Steve Gadd, Larry Carlton etc. who are all well-versed in jazz androck styles. That music stills holds great appeal for me. It has amazing moments of jazz-influenced harmony, for example a track like “Generalities” by Marc Jordan. Genius.
mwe3: Do you find your music being influenced by other art forms like movies, paintings, other musical genres as well?
JI: I find my jazz music is not influenced by other art-forms to any great extent. However, my classical music is. I’ve written two multidiscipline works concerning Outsider Artists. The first being a musical drama about Laure Pigeon (a French mediumistic artist), and the second, a Percussion Quartet about Kea Tawana (The Ark) and Ferdinand Cheval (Le Palais Ideal). I’ve also got a symphonic piece about Hopi culture, a piano duet on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and so on. Learning about painting, and art in general, critical theory, philosophy etc. I saw as being integral to my Ph.D. studies. I did a lot of reading back then. I had lofty ideas that the polymath model was the way forward, and if I’m honest, I still believe this to be the case.
mwe3: One writer wrote that Next Stop is the best album Allan Holdsworth never made. (or something to that effect) It sounds to me though, like you take Holdsworth’s sound and make it even more melodic from a rock perspective. Is that a fair assessment?
JI: Holdsworth is a big influence, yes. But, as I’ve said in other interviews, not in terms of his soloing. It’s a pointless exercise even bothering to cop licks off him. His solo ideas work with his chordal context, and there it ends. And anyway, he is so technically unapproachable to most mortals like myself that imitation is not even an option. I think because my album covers have headless guitars on them, and I mention him as an influence in press material, a lot of people have commented on the perceived similarities. So it’s largely my fault. I personally think my music doesn’t resemble Holdsworth’s at all. It is much more rock-based and Metheny-esque than Holdsworthian. Having said that, the above quote is still my favorite!
mwe3: What guitarists today do you feel are breaking new ground for the instrumental rock fusion genre?
JI: As far as newer jazz guitarists go, I like Tim Miller and Steve Topping… he’s not new, but he only recently recorded his two solo albums, though I don’t hear a lot of stuff that excites me as much as the older albums by the greats. You see, people like Metheny, Holdsworth – these guys are great composers, and the difference between them and the you-tube speed merchants is just that – the compositions. I mean, wouldn’t you rather listen to Metheny’s “The First Circle” or “Minuano (Six-Eight)” than a sweep-picking, neo-classical nightmare? Wouldn’t you rather hear a piece like Holdworth’s “Sphere Of Innocence” over any shredding-type music you care to mention? There is no contest, in my opinion. But bigger, stronger, faster, louder seems to win more and more in our culture, doesn’t it? A shame that.
mwe3: Any favorite current artists that you’re listening to these days?
JI: I like the saxophonist David Binney a lot, and I also find myself turning to some of the fusion that I missed out on first time around: Oregon, Codona, Brand X etc… I get a kick out of finding new things I’ve missed in the past. You used to be such a victim of what your local record store would stock, but that’s all changed now. The internet is a great source of discovery in that way. With rock bands, I’m very into noise and math rock: Rob Crow, Amusement Parks On Fire, Buildings, Ladder Devils, Cellos, Kowloon Walled City, Dope Body, Polvo, Pissed Jeans, Roomrunner – this kind of stuff. It’s where it’s at as far as inventiveness is concerned, at the moment
mwe3: Do you enjoy playing live in concert?
JI: Oddly, no, I don’t enjoy live performance. I’ve always thought of performing as a form of damage limitation rather than the ultimate form of self-expression. It can never be the same as a great recorded, edited musical experience, and I don’t need the roar of the crowd or the smell of the greasepaint to get me going. But on that note, I remember reading about Zappa being asked whether he preferred working with the synclavier in the studio or working with his band. He said: “I’m almost tempted to plump for the band.” So I’m very much in that vein, these albums are recording projects rather than vehicles for performance. And the way live music is going at the moment there is no way of doing it without making a loss financially. Hiring musicians is expensive. They need to paid properly for their time. It is enough that the albums can approach some semblance of breaking even, without putting myself further into debt! (lol)
mwe3: What other activities are you involved with in Scotland, including your classical music and TV/Film music and are you also into the literary world too.
JI: As far as other activities go, my classical composition is on hold for the moment. Similarly with TV, film and theater music. My kids are still young and my son is a Type 1 Diabetic so I have to prioritize my creative work carefully nowadays. But, yes, I have two books out, and a lot of published poetry in various journals and webzines. The novels are part of a nerdy, sc-if trilogy called The Smith Chronicles and have been selling very well, to my surprise. I’m finishing the final novel at the moment for late 2015 publication. After that I will return to writing poetry for a bit and then I have plans to start a new fantasy/historical book for children based on the Scandinavian to Constantinople trade route during the Middle Ages. I’m really looking forward to that.
mwe3: Even though Next Stop came out in 2013, it clearly deserves hearing by guitar fans in 2015. So a year after Next Stop, have you been writing new music and or planning new recordings?
JI: As far as another JIB album goes, I don’t think that will happen this year. I’ve simply haven’t got the time. But the next one will be very different to the previous albums, that is for sure.
iO PAGES: ‘JOHN IRVINE: THE LYRICAL GUITAR’ (ISSUE 121 w/ René Yedema)
RY: Why does a modern classical, soundtrack and theatre composer start a second career as a progressive jazz-rock guitarist?
JI: Well, composition was already my second career. I had previously studied classical guitar for 10 years, through school and music college, before I went off to do a PhD in composition at the University of Edinburgh in the 1990s. However, all this time I was watching my old Scott Henderson ‘Jazz Fusion Improvisation’ video and writing fusion tunes on my Fostex 4-track. In essence, I’ve always been doing jazz-rock, but just hadn’t found the right time to record and release things – until 3 years ago, with ‘Wait & See’.
RY: Although the music of The John Irvine Band has many similarities with jazz-rock/fusion albums, the compositions seem to be focusing less on difficult rhythm-shifts and virtuoso soloing and more on melody and symphonic arrangements, which sometimes even sound like coming from a Genesis-recording. Why do you choose this approach?
JI: In terms of composition, harmony is what interests me. I feel strongly that chordal movement makes the drama. Melody comes out of that, as a matter of course. So I’ve always tried to move unusual chords to unusual places, and not to follow any set ‘functional’ paradigm. As far as soloing goes, the more melodic and lyrical the better. Think of Pat Metheny’s solo on ‘Story From A Stranger’ from his ‘Rejoicing’ album, or his one on ‘Are You Going With Me?’ from ‘Travels’. They are my two favourite guitar solos ever, yet neither is overtly technical. Combine those with a bit of Alex Lifeson and you’ve pretty much got what I go for. The Genesis symphonic approach… well, I’d rather listen to something like ‘Burning Rope’ or ‘Blood On The Rooftops’ than music that existed purely for the purpose of playing scales and arpeggios over it. That’s the point at which I leave jazz behind and prog takes over.
RY: The track Your Skyline on Next Stop is dedicated to the late singer-songwriter John Martyn. What’s your connection with his intriguing music and has the use of effects pedals influenced you?
JI: John Martyn’s albums, from ‘Solid Air’ through to ‘Well Kept Secret’, have regularly sat on my turntable for over 30 years. He was a true innovator. The keyboard solo on ‘Your Skyline’ was done in the spirit of the ‘One World’ guitar solo, while Alan Emslie’s military snare, at the coda, sends dear JM metaphorically up the River Clyde. In terms of effects, delay and chorus are integral to my sound, but rarely do I use delay, rhythmically, like he did.
RY: Do you feel connected with the guitarists I mentioned in my reviews of your albums, like Snowy White, David Gilmour, Lyle Workman, Steve Topping and Brett Garsed or is it Allan Holdsworth after all ?
JI: I would say Holdsworth is the main influence out of all those great players, yes – but I’m really only interested in his chords. His soloing style has never been something I’ve strived for, even if I did have the technical ability. I like a blues note and a bent string, here and there, and Holdsworth tends to avoid such nonsense! Having said that, Steve Topping’s album ‘Late Flower’ is a work of enormous depth and one of the best guitar-driven album of recent times. I like guitarists, from whatever idiom, that have a unique harmonic approach – Steve Khan, Michael Hedges, Andy Summers, Christopher Cross, Joni Mitchell, Rob Crow, Devin Ocampo…
RY: The keyboards have an important place in your compositions, which would justify an extra musician in your band during live-gigs. What would be your favorite if you could choose from keyboard-players from the progressive and/or jazz-rock field?
JI: My keyboard skills are pretty basic. In fact, I would call myself a disciple of the ‘Geddy Lee School of Keyboard Playing’ so it would be an easy gig! But if I had to choose a keyboardist for The John Irvine Band it would be someone like Lyle Mays. His first solo album, ‘Lyle Mays’ is a pinnacle of jazz-rock.