John Young has come a long way since our first Q&A session: a well-respected musician by the end of the previous millennium, he reached a star status in the recent years – thanks not to his looks or his talent, that were always there, but to sheer perseverance and trying to find new ways for a musician to exist in today’s climate. Perhaps, not for nothing the English artist’s latest, and most successful, project is called LIFESIGNS: it’s a great example of Young’s ability to creatively exist now. And that’s what we talked about before John’s solo concert in a small, almost intimate, Toronto venue – about life. His life, rather than the band’s… if there’s a line.
– John, you’ve been at it for ages, but it seems to me that now, with LIFESIGNS, you’re finally getting the recognition you deserve. How do you feel about that?
Oh, wonderful! Throughout your life you just want to do music you believe in, and it’s very hard for a lot of musicians. There have always been bands I’d like to be in and been part of, but to make something your own that you are musically challenged with is what I thoroughly enjoy: it’s the best thing ever. I don’t know what will happen with LIFESIGNS – it is growing very rapidly, as we’re playing larger and larger gigs and taking it as a normal thing – but even if it doesn’t, the music just stands out, and I’m really happy with that. The musicians are fabulous, it’s a wonderful band, we’re all great friends – what more could you want?
– You were writing music that was just as great twenty years ago, so what you do now is just a continuation of that. So why has it taken you so long to make it?
(Laughs.) It’s really about determination more than anything else. I’ve been around for a long time, but we’re seen as being brand new, which is fantastic – we’re not being seen as something from the past, and it’s a really wonderful thing. In a way, it’s kind of strange because the industry is completely separate to what we do: we crowdfund everything, we have our own studio, we have our own label – we are completely independent. We crowdfunded our last album [2017’s “Cardington”] in 48 hours, we were Number 4 in the UK Independent Charts, but you’re not going to get played on the BBC and you’re not going to get played on any non-Internet radio stations because they won’t do it – that is just not how they work anymore; they don’t allow anything from the outside to come in. So the only way that we can do it is by doing more and more shows and getting more and more people to know our music. If somebody buys a LIFESIGNS album – the first CD, the second CD, whatever – usually a couple of days later they buy everything else. We’re trying to make it that the music is really important to people, that it means something to them. Last night, a guy came over and hugged me and told me how he liked our music: it means so much to me! And that’s why you make music – you don’t do it for success, or chart position, or anything else; you do it because it means something, and I think that’s what we do.
– What’s so special about your music? To me, it has this pop edge, and it sets you apart from many prog bands who write music that’s clever but hard to enjoy.
To me, there’s a difference. As clever as you want to be and as fast you want to be, it doesn’t do anything to me. It has to mean something in the context of the song: lyric has to mean something and melody has to move you. That’s why I’m a softer… People ask me what bands I grew up with, and it of course were YES and GENESIS, but I was never into the sort of ELP kind of thing, it was never about how technical you could be; it was more about how melodic you could be – which were FOCUS and CARAVAN and bands like that. And the funny thing is, FOCUS and CARAVAN really love LIFESIGNS now, so it’s gone full circle in a way, doing things that we want to do. I think the beauty of the band at the moment is that we all play for the song, and even though you’ve got such brilliant musicians in the band, it’s about the song, and so when you see an audience come into the gig, they’re completely into what we do: they know all the words, and they’re singing along, and people are dancing. And we don’t consider ourselves actually to be prog; we just consider it to be music.
– Well, people like to categorize. More so, they like what I call “an IKEA approach”: even when you listen to Steven Wilson, you hear GENESIS and KING CRIMSON, but when you listen to “Supper’s Ready” and how Peter Gabriel sang it, you can tell he was a soul fan. Those bands went to basics, like rhythm-and-blues, as you try to do, so why other current bands don’t do it?
It’s an interesting thing: we’re getting more and more comments every week from all over the world, all ages, both sexes – the last two shows we did, both venues had something unheard of when it comes to prog bands: a queue for the ladies’ toilets! – so I think that we’re generally appealing across the board. And it made me laugh when they said that Steven was going pop, because it was his first, but we’ve always been there. The thing that’s coming to me more and more from people now is: “There’s GENESIS and KING CRIMSON, and GENTLE GIANT, and ELP, but then there’s you – and you’re different!” So maybe there’s room for something else, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We don’t plagiarize anything; we just come from the soul, we make everything up ourselves – and hopefully, we’re unique in that respect. But there are really unique bands coming through at the moment, not just us, so I think it’s a wonderful age for the genre and beyond; it’s like reinventing itself now. For a long time, a lot of bands had to have a girl singer for a while, and then everyone had to sound like “Comfortably Numb”… I don’t want that! I want something that inspires me.
– But you still go for this complexity. Is it mandatory to fit in?
(Laughs.) We cater for ourselves; we don’t really cater for a public. We do what we enjoy, and this involves a lot of improvisations at the gigs as well, so there’s an element of jazz-rock in what we do. But I remember with “Carousel” somebody came up to me and said, “Well it’s all in 4/4″ And I said “No, it’s in 23/8 in two sections, but it just sounds like 4 because we put in a ‘4’-feeling.” And that’s what we do to an extent, with even the complex prog: we make it feel like it isn’t complex, like it’s just going to float over you and… To be honest, our second album is very proggy: “Cardington” and “N” are absolute nightmares to play! It took us ages to get them nailed and to get them fit! But there’s a lot of song elements in both those tunes. And I think that, again, is what we do: we don’t tell everyone there’s a time change coming, or there’s a key change coming, or a tempo change… what’s the point? Just make it float, make it beautiful, and then just fit in it rather than try to say, “Look, how clever we are!” (Laughs.)
– And now you’re playing solo. Where is this creative line between this kind of concerts and collective ones? And what about your sideman role?
Oh, the sideman thing is the thing that pays my bills. To be honest, we’re not professional with LIFESIGNS – I wish we were! If we were, we could do so much more, there would be so much more LIFESIGNS. We all work for other people, but we’re all full-time musicians and we’re all in major bands. So getting five people – four guys in the band and [producer] Steve Rispin – in one place at one time is really hard, you know. If you’ve got somebody out with YES, somebody out with DR. HOOK, somebody out with STRAWBS, somebody out with Bonnie Tyler, and somebody doing “Mamma Mia!”, then fitting it in around all that kind of stuff is very difficult. It’s like if you go to “Cruise To The Edge”: how many of those bands are professional? Probably, Steve Hackett, MARILLION and maybe a couple of the older ones. And we’re introverted. Obviously, on the first album we used Steve Hackett, Thijs [Van Leer] and Jakko [Jakszyk], and on this last one we had three great guitarists, but we’ve been coming down to have the core band now. Dave Bainbridge is amazing – his keyboards and guitar are wonderful; Frosty [Beedle] is probably one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with, because he has so much soul; and [bassist] Jon Poole is just unique, completely unique. They’re all blooming clever, because Jon plays about four instruments and Dave plays about three – there’s just so much talent involved between them! And Steve records everything; he’s just a master. To have all those facilities at your fingertips is fantastic, it’s wonderful.
– So your solo concerts are basically your time-off from the band?
Yeah. The way that it works is: I look at a calendar and see when there’s a gap, when I’m not working – for instance, I’m out with Bonnie next week in Poland and Dave is out with STRAWBS in Canada this week – and then, we make the most of it when everyone’s back, as we’ve got nine or more gigs next month in Scotland. We try to take it around: we try to take it to various places, and we’d love to crack the States. We’re very honored that a lot of the great bands like what we do, and we hope we can work with them.
– It’s “we” again… I asked about you, a solo artist!
(Laughs.) As for me, personally, I’m in a nice space. The difficult part is – and my girlfriend says this all the time – that I should spend more time writing. And I think that part of the problem is that there’s so much else to do: writing always tends to be the thing, just put it to one side, and I’m sure that if there was a deal involved and we were doing that for a living, I would have spent more time in a studio, which I’d like to do but I don’t think it’s an option at the moment, which is tough to build, both the solo thing and the band. This really helps: going out, doing gigs like this in Canada, even though there’ll probably only be a few people here tonight. Last night, we did a show in Sarnia and I had 120 people in the room: now, that’s kind of unheard of but that’s purely because one guy, who’s a fan, put those people in that room, but by the time they left, they were all friends, and they loved what they heard, but they’re not exposed to it. I think that’s the difficult thing for any artist at the moment, as there’s no radio, there’s no press, and you can’t get anyone to give you impetus to get to people. And a lot of people think there isn’t anything else: a lot of people think there’s just YES, and GENESIS, and KING CRIMSON, and all that kind of stuff – and that isn’t going to change any time soon, as far as I can see, unless you get out there and do it.
– What do people expect when they come to your concert: prog, your solo material? And who are they: core fans or just somebody who heard your name?
In the early days, when I used to do these songs, rather than prog, on my own, there was just a very small number of people who used to come to the shows, and most songs were from the heart – it was around the time when I did the "Arkangel" writing with John [Wetton] – it was stuff that meant a lot to me. I found the writing process has changed – so much that it’s a subject for another conversation – it’s gone to a level I never thought it would get to. But to answer your question, what I’m doing at my solo shows is a mix of songs and a little bit of prog, LIFESIGNS-based, so it’ll give everybody something that they’re going to be happy with.
– Do people recognize what you’re playing?
Some do, some don’t. We do a show with the band in the U.K., and everyone knows the tunes and sings the songs – you’ve got 200 people in the room and we’re putting “House Full” signs outside – and then you come to Sarnia, and nobody knows what you do, but somebody said it was good and then, all of a sudden, everybody in the end go, “Uh, it’s good enough, yeah!” That’s the way you can build a fanbase.
– What about these, so to say, loose ends of your career. There were QANGO and CATHÉDRALE. When you remember all these projects, are there any regrets. Or maybe you’d like to revisit old songs and fashion something new out of them?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Perhaps, not. I really enjoyed CATHÉDRALE at the time, and they were they were the closest things I come to in LIFESIGNS in terms of being with people that you loved and enjoyed spending time with when you’d not been playing music, as a band of brothers. Various things led to the downfall that. I do think that we had potential, but we had management, record label and publishing issues, and it didn’t go as we hoped. When I tried the band to play live, and we started rehearsing, the management stopped me from doing it. And in the end, there was only so much I could take, so that was the end of it.
– And you decided to abandon all those songs?
No, I think I got thrown out of the band at one point, even though I’d been writing the songs, because I just disagreed with the manager, and by the time they tried to put something together again I was already in ASIA. There were lots of stuff that we did that wasn’t recorded properly and things that could have been done, but it was of the time: there was a moment when it was right, which was then, but for some reason the powers that be decided to stop it.
– So you’re always moving forward without looking back?
No. I’ve worked with a lot of sort of established artists; they were forever looking into their back catalogue; what haven’t we scraped out of that yet, what song is unfinished and everything. But I prefer to be writing new songs.
– What with the current prominence of LIFESIGNS, you could put out a sort of anthology, with all those unreleased pieces.
Yeah, maybe, but I don’t like that. For me personally – I’m not talking about the band now – I feel that so many bands would release something they grew out of and threw out. It’s like: “This is a track I recorded with my hamster!” I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear what they do, and I think you have to have quality control: it’s really important that the stuff that comes out is of value. Sure, there may be things that we go along with, like live recordings, but we don’t want to keep releasing them ad infinitum, like so many artists do.
– But you’re going to reissue your solo albums.
“Significance” is being reissued because it was out of print; that’s the only reason.
– The only reason? Or also because your fans became interested in it now?
Well, there’s the thing: we sold four copies [of it] to somebody in the past, and that was it, but now the fans are going, “What else did he do?” at some point, and that’s great. But we’ve run out of copies, so we just decided to reissue the album, and crowdfunded it – again – in just 24 hours.
– Wasn’t the QANGO album released independently, too, as well as on a label? As far as I remember, I bought my original copy from you…
The thing with QANGO was, it shouldn’t have been something that died a death, but really, to be honest, ’Dave’] and I didn’t have much to do with it; it was all about Carl [Palmer] and John [Wetton]. But that’s fine: they were the stars in the band – that’s without question. But we didn’t really do anything new; it was their old material – we were covering ASIA and ELP. It would have been nice to move forward, but things that happened and stopped QANGO were completely out of our control: it was just between John, Carl, the management and the record company – that’s why it didn’t work out.
– Do you feel that you’re in control now?
(Laughs.) Totally in control! Nah, I just think that we look after ourselves now. Even before we’ve taken everything off Spotify, we know where everything is going, we know where our fanbase is, we know the people who support us, and we care about them. That’s also another part of it. I see guys from the ’70s that don’t care about the people who buy their product and who made them famous in the first place, but that’s what you should do.
– Does it give you not only financial but also creative freedom?
Yeah. Going back to your question about re-releasing stuff, people ask us when the next album is going to be ready, and I say, “When it’s ready!” I’m not going to set a deadline, and we have to hit that a record company; we release it if we think it’s good enough, and then everyone goes, “It’s great!” We have to be satisfied and know that it’s something we are proud of: that’s a really important thing.
– Talking about important things… The telephone booth that appeared on the cover of LIFESIGNS’ first album basically became associated with the band: it’s not your symbol anymore?
It never was! Jimi Hendrix had a telephone booth on his album, and it wasn’t anything to do with us. It doesn’t belong to us, but our fans kind of made it belong to the band: they got hold of it, started playing with it and really enjoyed it. So it’s fine. Why not?