It’s difficult not to be a musician if you’re a Wakeman. And it takes audacity to play in the same instrumental where your father is a towering figure (pun intended). But Oliver Wakeman, the elder son of Rick, feels no need for competition, both as solo artist and a collaborator, even though his stint in major bands hasn’t been so steady. Which only goes to show Oliver’s strong-mindedness and artistic will that are boldly and beautifully manifested on his latest work, "Ravens & Lullabies", a joint effort with Gordon Giltrap and a start of our career-spanning conversation.
– Oliver, your new album: I was really surprised that it’s a vocal album and a rock album in a good sense of the word.
Thank you. I wanted to do something that people weren’t expecting.
– To my ears, “From Brush And Stone”, the album by your father and Giltrap, doesn’t gel so much, as Rick plays his pieces and Gordon does his. So how did you manage to make your album with him a truly collaborative work?
I started by not listening to the album that dad and Gordon did. Gordon gave me a copy of it, but I didn’t want to listen to it, I didn’t want to hear what they’ve done before. And I had this idea, when we first started working on the album, that it had to be not a concept album, but it had to be an album with a theme that made sense throughout it. And I also knew that there were a lot of people who wanted to hear us do instrumental music, but I also knew that there were a lot of people that had followed my rock band and had watched me in YES, and were used to me playing with vocalists. So I suggested to Gordon that we put together a project where we went from one type of music to the other – very similar in a way, I suppose, that “Fragile” by YES back in the ’70s was: it went from a big rock song to an acoustic piece. He liked the idea, and we started putting music together, we’ve found that the collaborative songs – all the songs that I’ve come up with – really worked with his guitar style. I think part of that is down to the fact that Gordon is a very unique guitarist, in the same way that, say, Steve Howe is. He doesn’t sound like anybody else; therefore, when you put a keyboard player, maybe like myself, who plays in a slightly unusual way, [with such a guitarist] and you put the two together, and you really spend time crafting a song around it, you come up with something that’s a little bit different to what other people are doing.
– Well, lately, people have been expecting Gordon to make an acoustic album, but you came up with an electric record.
Yeah, but we did some acoustic tracks because we wanted to make sure that people who like Gordon’s acoustic music and the acoustic music that I’ve done in the past got a part of what they expected. But then, being a musician, you always want to try and push the boundaries – or I think you should, you should be always trying to do something that keeps you interested rather than doing the same thing again and again. And I think a lot of people were expecting Gordon to do an instrumental album, but he’s the first to say that he’s really enjoyed working with a vocalist. I think it’s good to surprise people every now and then, it’s good to put something out that people aren’t expecting.
– One more surprise was that you’re credited for playing not only keyboards but also a guitar. Weren’t you intimidated to be playing it together with Gordon?
I did a little bit of electric guitar, only on one song [“Is This The Last Song I Write?”], and it was because that was the song that I wrote, that I was working on at home. And I said to Gordon, “Give me lots and lots guitars for it, and I want to do a little bit of heavy electric guitar, this is what the song needs”. And he just asked, “Well, have you done it?” I said, “Yes, I’ve done, but you can replace it”. And he went, “No, it sounds great. Just leave it”. I’ve played guitars for a very long time – I’m nowhere near as good as Gordon. But he came to my house and he picked up one of my guitars, and he said, “This is a bit of a mess”, and he took it away and fixed it, and then when he gave it back to me, I used it to play on that song. So I said to him, “It’s only on there because you fixed the guitar”, and he was quite happy for it to stay. (Laughs.)
– And how do you rate yourself as a guitarist – in comparison with your brother whom I saw play guitar with Ozzy?
Um, I don’t really play a lot, to be honest with you. I use it more as a songwriting tool and as a texture tool, when I’m working on songs. Because I feel as a writer – ’cause I do a lot of writing – that if I sit at the piano all the time, I end up with a very similar type of music. And I like this idea that sometimes you pick up a guitar and the song comes through, because you can change the tuning or you’re playing a different set of chords to where you would normally go with a piano. And I find that if I’m sitting by the piano, sometimes because I play the piano to a certain standard, I end up working the piano part more and more and more. And sometimes it’s nice for the song to just have something lighter or something just creating a rhythm: it’s a different style of songwriting with the piano, so that’s really why I play the guitar. I’m an OK guitarist, I’m no Gordon Giltrap. I can do a few things, but it’s not something that I do publicly very much.
– But Adam does it.
Adam does it, yeah. Adam’s always enjoyed the guitar. When we were kids, we always had keyboards and guitars in a room, and I think he just likes jumping around on stage.
– And you did the artwork for this new album, right? You worked on the artwork of your records before, but this one stands out because of its Japanese influence.
When I was in college, I did graphic design, and then I did graphic design and web design work for years. I used to do Steve Hackett‘s tour programs and posters years ago. But when it came to this project, I found a girl who would put together that image, Liliana Sanches from Portugal; I thought her work was terrific, so I wrote to her and said, “Your images just match the project that Gordon and I are working on. Can we use them?” We came up with an agreement, and then I spent a lot of time working with those images, putting the artwork together to make sure that it created the right atmosphere with the text. So I did more of the layout to make it look as I wanted it to, but she has to be credited with creating the actual image itself – it’s superb.
– You say it’s not a concept album, but there’s a certain theme running through it, a financial one. I even was tempted to write in a review that “From The Turn Of A Card” has such a connotation and could be not only about love but also about a credit means.
It’s actually to do with card reading, but that’s true, that’s one of the nice things about music that people can hear a song and… What generally happens is, I write a song because something happens to me, and then I work it in my head into a story that happens to somebody else, so I expand on this story and finish it, and then I write the song. But what’s great about music is that other people will listen to a piece of it and will hear something different, and their imaginations take the story somewhere else. I think if I did it purely personal, I would get too involved with it, and sometimes it’s easier to use that as a starting point, and then I kind of stand back and think of this emotion or whatever. I enjoy writing like that: that’s how I feel quite comfortable.
– “Ravens” sounds very personal and emotional to me, because I bet “LJW’ is dedicated to your wife…
Yes, LJW is my wife, and the track “One For Billie” is dedicated to Gordon’s wife, Hilary.
– So it is personal. So how do you find this balance between personal, public and that financial theme that I mentioned?
What happens with the song for my wife, you know, musicians’ wives have to put up with a lot. (Laughs.) If you’re doing it professionally all the time, you’re disappearing away from home for long periods of time, which makes it difficult for families, or if it’s somebody who is married to somebody who goes and plays after they finish work. Music becomes something that people get so involved with, and I just wanted to write a piece for my wife that basically said, “Thank you. Thank you for putting up with all the silliness that musicians do”. (Laughs.) And it’s important: you have to remember that there’s a family and there’s other people involved in our live to help musicians do what they do. And the only way that a musician can put something down that will last for years and years and years is by writing a piece of music about it. So something like that is very personal. And also I find very personal pieces easier if they’re instrumental, because you’re putting everything through melody rather than words.
– Are there moments when your wife says that you’d rather be back working in a bank?
Well, I think all people want sometime look for the stability and normality. But my family, unfortunately, has never been normal; I grew up in a house that was very unusual. And when I’ve grown up, I’ve done normal, day-to-day jobs and then I’ve done silly jobs where I traveled around the world. But it’s all experiences, and you can draw from all aspects of life. When I was working in graphic design, I worked with musicians and I got to see the other side of the world where you try to present the artist in a certain way. When I worked in a day-to-day job, I found that it was nice with having normality, but then you miss the silliness of going away and play. I stopped working in a bank when I started working with YES and STRAWBS back in 2008.
– Did that job somehow inform that theme of the new album?
There are certain elements that did seep through this album, there are always lines in songs… The main song, which is “Is This The Last Song I Write?”, is one of those moments. I was working for a band that was touring a lot around the world – you become part of that band, you become part of that world – and then when I got home, I sat down and started trying to write more music, and suddenly realized that if I want to do something else I’ve got to do something that is based on myself rather than on somebody else. And also, when you write as a musician, you always worry that you’re running out of ideas. This album for me is number ten or number eleven – I lose count – and I always wonder whether there’s anything new to say or whether there’s a new melody that I can find. And I was writing that song, and that’s where it all came from: Is this how I empty the well of my creativity? Is that all I can do? Is there more to come? When you first start writing – I wouldn’t say it’s easy, because you don’t have the experience – but it’s easier, because you haven’t used things before. And then, when you get into later records, you suddenly think, “I can’t do that because I did that back on ‘Jabberwocky’ or that time with Steve Howe”. So you’re always looking for new ideas, and I’m not one for going back and just copying what I did before, I would like to do something different.
– But I meant the financial theme of songs like “Credit Carnival” and “Moneyfacturing”. They reflect your past, don’t they?
Yeah, I think so. And also the fact that Paul Manzi, who’s singing on the song also sang in my band as well: it means that’s one of those songs that does have a style that fits with my past. But the thing that I tried to do was really make use of Gordon’s guitar playing on those songs to give it another dimension, which I think he does, because he has such a unique way of playing the acoustic guitar that when he comes in on the song you think, “Whoa, that’s unusual”. And I like that. As for “Credit Carnival”, it is do with a song… When I was on tour with YES, we played in a casino in America, and I was walking around and I saw there were some people who were really used to be in casinos and knew how they worked and were controlling their wins or losses, and people that just went in there for a bit of fun, and some people who were a little out of their depth, who were spending more money then they should be. So I just picked up my phone and started writing the lyrics. It was during the beginning of the credit crunch, and so the word “credit” kept going into my head, and then I was thinking about this casino being like a carnival – the flashing lights, the spinning wheels – and I thought, “Oh, it’s almost like people are borrowing money to come and spend in this building”. And I wrote this story about a man spending his money, which he doesn’t have, and going home and pretending that he does. That’s where the song came from.
– Playing with different bands, there’s a pattern: it’s as if you’ve been following in your dad’s wake – with YES, THE STRAWBS, now Giltrap. Do you feel comfortable with this?
Um, the thing about it is, that makes it OK for me, is the fact that they all came to me and asked me [to join] – I didn’t actively go out or phone them up to say, “Hey, you don’t work with dad anymore. Can I play with you?”. The YES phone call came through, because I played with Steve Howe before [on "The 3 Ages Of Magick" album], and dad had recommended me. And then THE STRAWBS just phoned up and said, “Hey, are you free?” I said, “Yeah, I’m free”. They said, “Would you come out and play in Canada?” So I said, “OK”. When I finished with YES and finished with STRAWBS, I was back home writing, and Gordon phoned me up. So it’s very rewarding that people who are so well-known like to work with me. It’s very nice. And that makes it easier.
– If you want the closest thing to Rick Wakeman, who would you go to but his son who plays in a similar style but can add more to it? It’s like it was with DEEP PURPLE: Don Airey was the closest thing to Jon Lord. It’s obvious, right?
Yeah, I suppose so. But there’s not so much I can do about that. (Laughs.)
– How well did you know those bands material? Or did you have to do a good homework?
Oh, lots of homework! When I started with YES, I had a week’s rehearsals on my own at home to learn the music, and then I had two weeks with them in a rehearsal room, for four or five hours a day. And that was it – and then we went out to the three-and-a-half-hour show. That was a lot of music to learn! And what was difficult about that was, even though they hadn’t played together for four years as a band, they had played that music before for forty years, and I had never played any YES music at home, I’d never sat down and worked out “Roundabout” just for fun. So I had to learn everything from scratch, which was hard work. But you know, it’s part of the job – you get there and do it. The same with THE STRAWBS: I knew some of the songs, but knowing the songs to listen to and enjoy is different to listening and trying to work out what part is there a helping make the sound. It’s a different discipline.
– How much freedom were you given in YES to extemporize and veer away from original parts?
Um, not a lot. Dad for many years had been with the band and he had been changing parts and doing things differently, because he was there originally and he had the right to change things around a little bit, but the rest of the band were very keen to play things exactly as they were on the record. And I thought, “Well, I don’t have a problem with that”, because I didn’t want to turn up and start pretending to be dad, making things up and changing things, as I don’t have the right to do that. So I was quite happy to go back and perform the music as if it was recorded, because people hadn’t heard the original solo from “And You And I” for an awful long time, because dad always made something different up every night or did a different solo, so the thing that I could bring [to the band] was the authenticity back to the music. And as we developed on the tour, there were little moments where I got to add things and do things but I tried to stay true to the music as much as I could.
Part 2 – Oliver’s collaborations and more.