Think John Wesley and you think Porcupine Tree. Or Fish, or Steven Wilson, or Sound Of Contact, or indeed Ruud Jolie's For All We Know. However the singing, songwriting guitarist has just released Disconnect - a solo album - amazingly his eighth! His standalone catalogue is an impressive one and an eclectic one, however with Disconnect, John has hit a serious vein of form and created an album that will be viewed as his best to date. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid spoke with John to discover why it is so easy to connect with Disconnect...
John, at the risk of starting the interview on the wrong foot; for such a talented guitarist, singer and songwriter, you are, to many, primarily known as a "sideman" with the likes of Fish, Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson. I wonder if, while reading as an amazingly impressive CV, that isn't sometimes a little frustrating?
I certainly can be...but it is my own fault. While I was always writing and creating as a solo artist, I wasn't putting the focus on pushing the solo career to the forefront. I get so caught up in the creating and recording of things, that I lose the focus on the fact that after you create the songs, you have to get them to people. I really love to play live as well, and in all of those years I was doing so much touring with Fish and the Tree... I was in a really "satisfied" place internally. I loved the gigs and I loved the creating and every now and again turning it into an album. Steve W actually helped me to shift my focus back to my own material and getting it out to the forefront. After I decided to leave the Sound Of Contact project I was a bit lost and he helped me realize it was important for me to get that music to people that wanted to hear it - so now I am totally focused and enjoying it all more than ever.
You have a solo career stretching back some 20 years, plus now. So tell us a little about the history of John Wesley the solo artist, please...
I played as a kid in the 70s, college and a long time touring act "Autodrive" in the 80s. The early 90s I was on my own, I hooked up with the Marillion guys and opened about 350 or so shows for them and Mark Kelly produced an album for me. Then on to Fish, Porcupine Tree, Sound of Contact...and in the meantime I made six or seven solo albums as well!
It was, as you mentioned, back in 1994 that I first encountered your music when you supported Marillion on their 'Brave' tour... I bought 'Under The Red And White Sky' that night. Can you describe the quite stark evolution and journey from that style, through to your excellent new album 'Disconnect', which to me is your most ambitious work to date?
I was basically a lead guitarist writing the lyrics for the band I was in, but another singer was singing them... When I wrote 'Under the Red And White Sky' it was my first attempt at trying to define myself as a singer. So my songwriting was geared much more to that search and less towards my guitarist roots. Through the years, I noticed I was hearing more aggressive guitar work in my head, and as my voice and writing developed, so did my ability to bring my true vision to life... which is the style that became 'Disconnect'. Steven says "no one arrives fully formed", so those earlier albums were stones along the path to here.
Still, what struck me after getting to know 'Disconnect', was that even though it is hugely different from your earlier work, I still found many links and nods to your musical past. Many artists struggle to move on while leaving cohesive links to their past. Was that a conscious move on your part, or simply a natural occurrence?
It was a natural occurrence without a doubt. The style I have now, grew out of all those other albums and sounds. I worked very hard to move forward and move ahead, I didn't want this album to sound like the last and the next album will hopefully be even a step further. But certain elements of who I am as an artist will still creep in and remain.
You touched on the guitar aspect of 'Disconnect', which, to me, features some of your finest and fieriest guitar work to date. So I take it this aspect of your music was something you wanted to highlight and expand upon with this release?
In a way yes but it wasn't that I meant to highlight it as much as I needed to give it life. It has been there for years but I had not allowed it to enter into my writing. There was a huge coming to terms with who I am as an artist and a player in the process that created this album. I hear guitar in my head...all the time...and finally coming to terms with that fact and allowing that element of myself to enter into the songwriting was a huge breakthrough for me. One of the last missing pieces to form who I am stylistically, and to perhaps firmly stake a path in a future direction.
But also, in terms of arrangements, I'd suggest that this album is your most ambitious work, while still managing to keep a certain accessibility about it. How hard a balance was that to strike?
It was difficult...extremely difficult. Dean Tidey was coming in to help me develop my song ideas in a producer sort of role and he helped in the songwriting musically as well. We both come from different worlds musically, he spent many years working with George Martin and a lot of London producers as well as playing guitar in Feeder, so he wasn't as in touch with my history of Porcupine Tree and the more experimental side of arrangements. We battled a lot during the arrangement process, with the idea of not losing sight of the "song"... and yet still being true to myself and the complex arrangements I was hearing in my head. He reeled me in when I needed it and pushed me out there a bit when I needed it and I think we really got there in the end.
Lyrically, and in terms of the album title and album art, it feels clear that you don't think that "all is well" with the world. Personally, I was really taken by both "Window" and "How Goes The War". Can you share some of the lyrical inspiration behind the songs on the album please?
In the last several years, there were some life changes that were forced upon me. You wake up one morning and realize your life is going to change soon and will never be the same and there is nothing you can do to stop it from happening. I was being "disconnected" from where I was in several areas of my life and not coping very well. So I started looking around and noticed several people around me going through various types of "disconnect" as well.... and they all had different ways of dealing with these issues. Some of them not very well. There were various reasons for all of it. Some of my friends had come back from tours of duty and then found themselves disconnecting to deal with that stress. I had other young acquaintances that were entering their early twenties and the world was not as it was promised to them, so they were disconnecting their inter-personal relationships and hiding in video games and drugs and whatever it took to get to the next day. I have had to deal with mental illness in people close to me and watch them be forced to disconnect from themselves. So in my own struggle to get through it all, a theme was developing in many of the songs I was writing and characters were emerging that seem to have a shared experience, and so the stories in 'Disconnect' came together.
Who created the stark, striking album art and what message do you hope it conveys?
Carl Glover created the artwork; in discussing the concept and theme we connected on deeper level of the metaphors I present with the characters. We discussed the little battles that we all face day to day and we explored how some of my inspiration came from friends I have that are "Warriors" in the literal sense. Carl is very versed on military history and as the role of the warrior came up, his memories of WWII vets "disconnecting" and watching them struggle, influenced his design. Each image is a dual image, representing the internal struggle of the "Warrior" as a metaphor for those battles of "disconnect" that all of us endure to get through life.
Obviously when you work regularly with musicians such as those in Porcupine Tree, or the likes of Ruud Jolie (Within Temptation) on the For All We Know album, some of those collaborations will help shape what comes next. How much of an influence would you say these bands and projects have had on the journey that has resulted in 'Disconnect'?
All of them had a huge influence...when you work with artists such as these constantly pushing the creative boundaries, you push yourself to rise to that level. One of the biggest for me was Steve's constant commitment to being true to his vision. I used that knowledge several times in charting the course of the arrangements of this album. The decision to do what I felt was right for the message and delivery of the song - or do I edit because someone might not "understand" my vision - his confidence in his vision, helped me achieve the confidence I found in mine.
It has been three years since your last release, the EP, 'The Lilypad Suite' and nine since the album 'Shiver'. How much of that time has gone into creating this new album?
Really, the last four or five years; I stopped this album to create 'The Lilypad Suite' as that "vision" was so different from 'Disconnect', and then continued on as "life" allowed.
You've managed to pull off something of a coup with 'Disconnect', with getting Alex Lifeson of Rush to guest on the song "Once A Warrior". How did you manage to get that to happen and how does it make you feel to know he's on your album?
Alex and I became friends over the last few years and I would catch up to him from time to time when I would go out to ride motorcycles with Neil. On the last trip I mentioned to him I was finishing up the album and he asked if I had any room for a guest....... nuff said!
Indeed! Who else, aside from yourself and Alex performs on the album?
Dean Tidey was a co-writer and played some guitar on the album, Patrick Bettison on bass, and long-time collaborator and drummist...Mark Prator.
And you must be delighted to have teamed up with, possibly the most prominent Progressive music label around at the moment, Inside Out for this album?
I met Thomas and some of the staff when I was out playing with Sound of Contact - it's a great team - and a "team" is really what I was looking for to get behind me on this album.
Do you see yourself really taking time now to focus on your solo career more and more moving forward?
It has always been the main thing I worked on but it really took a "focus shift" to bring it to light again. So yes, now that I have made that shift, here I am and I have more music to bring to light.
I know that you often get out and play solo shows, but are you planning on taking a full band out on the road to promote 'Disconnect'?
We are already rehearsed and have just announced our first US dates. I will play everywhere a promoter will bring us to. I love playing live... it drives me forward. So far we have a really nice East Coast run to begin with including a date with Steven Wilson and Blackfield in NYC.
And finally John, you knew it was coming and I have to ask, I take it that fresh Porcupine Tree activity still appears to be some way off?
Steven is working on a solo album that will come out early in 2015, he will tour on the back of that album in 2015. As to 2016, who knows? If he feels the time is right...
(Click here to read our reviews of Disconnect)