Interview with JOHN LAWTON

March 2013

John Lawton, 2013 Photo by Alex Gitlin

John Lawton, 2013
Photo by Alex Gitlin

When a booming voice like that of John Lawton, mostly known for his glorious stints with URIAH HEEP and LUCIFER’S FRIEND, goes silent for some time, there’s a suspicion the master of those pipes is up to something. In John’s case it has been so, indeed, as the veteran crossed over to some other art, yet such a byroad eventually brought him back on the groovy track, which resulted in "The Power Of Mind" , a project by Bulgarian band DIANA EXPRESS that Lawton gave an English voice to.

And that was the reason for our informal (how else could two people, who know each other for a long time, go?) chat. There was no intention to be reminiscing on the past: we were there before. But then, in a weird turn of events, John had to step in the breach in the HEEP ranks again.

Says Lawton, “Joining HEEP for a few gigs is a bit nostalgic but, hopefully, fun. I have done it before, back in 1995, for the same reasons: Bernie Shaw being ill. I know the expectations are high, but the fans must remember life goes on, and I am older, but the best shot is given at all times. Because of the present situation with the guys, the absence of Trevor Bolder and now Bernie, time is short, so we must revert back to some of the older material, which, perhaps, HEEP don’t play at the moment. But I am sure things will work out well”. Sure, it will.

Yet what exactly John’s been doing lately? Over to him.

– John, it’s been… How long? Ten years since we…

Had a drink at the pub?

– Since our interview at the pub!

Yeah, but I must have had a drink at the same time, surely. (Laughs.)

– Then I must have had a pint, too.

I’m sure you did, I’m sure you did!

– So how are you?

I’m OK. Have just become a grandfather again.

– Congratulations!

A little grandson who is doing really, really well.

– What’s his name?

Sanskar. That’s an Indian name.

– Sounds imperious!

Yes, he’s an imperial little boy! Recording studio’s already booked. (Laughs.)

– About recording and, in particular, your last one that surprised some reviewers with its pop side… Many people see you as a straightforward hard rock singer, but I’ve always maintained that you can handle everything. So is there a style that you think you cannot handle?

Most of the reviews that we’ve had of the album have been very, very good, very positive. There have been one or two reviews which were not so good, but that’s OK. And one of them was not really a review but an attack on the writer and producer Milen Vrabevski, so I wouldn’t take that seriously. But yeah, you’re right: people do consider me a straightforward rick singer. But those who know me well, like yourself, will know that ballads are my thing – I do like a good ballad, and there’ve been many over the time – but I don’t think there’s anything I can’t sing, really. I have tried jazz, um, and the only thing I haven’t really tried is classical music yet, but I’m sure I’ll get round to it some time. (Laughs.)

– And, surely, rap.

Er, no, I’m not into rap, I’m not a fan of rap… And I hope you aren’t either!

– I’m not. But do you choose an album you’re invited to take part in only if you really like it now or you can go for something you don’t like if you’re offered good money?

You know there are limits to what you do, and I wouldn’t record anything I didn’t like, certainly not. But up to now I’ve been lucky that the things I have recorded I have liked. Even the last one, “Power Of Mind”, it took a few times to listen to it, but once I’d listened I liked it, and that was done.

– To my ears, this album kind of connects all the dots of your career, from hard rock of LUCIFER’S FRIEND to the middle-of-the-road of LES HUMPHRIES SINGERS.

Yeah, I suppose it does but… I don’t know, it’s very hard to say, because “Power Of Mind” is not a straightforward rock album. You think to yourself, “The next track is gonna be uptempo”, “The next track will be rock tempo”, but it isn’t. The first two or three tracks slide into each other and are piano-orientated, so it’s very hard to describe. Connecting the dots? Maybe you’re right. I have to think about that one. (Laughs.)

– The album sounds like it was written with you in mind, although it hasn’t. So how much have you changed it, except, of course, singing it in English?

Not a lot. The only thing I had to change was the backing vocals – slightly – and you do change certain things, because in the original language, Bulgarian, the phrasing of certain words is different, so I had to change that a lot of times. But apart from that, I didn’t change a lot. The melodies are kept basically as they were, with slight changes at the end of the line here and there, with a little more blues into it than it was in the original. And you’re right: although it wasn’t written for me, it sounds as if it could have been that way.

– Did you ask the writers whether they were fans of your work and if they were influenced by that on their own album?

No. But I know that Milen Vrabevski is a big fan of rock music and a fan of URIAH HEEP as well as other bands, so maybe he took that into account when he was writing his songs. But I don’t think my background came into it when they asked me to sing. I don’t think that played an important part.

– And why do you think they chose you? Sure, you can do that much better than many, but there are many good singers out there who also take part in various projects, like Joe Lynn Turner or Glenn Hughes. So were you chosen just because you were living and working in Bulgaria at the time?

No, they chose me because Milen was a fan of my voice, which is one thing. My profile is quite high over there, so in that respect it was a good move, too. To be quite honest with you, people like Glenn Hughes and Joe Lynn Turner wouldn’t have brought to these songs… I don’t think they could have managed to sing all of these songs. You need to be very focused and very aware of the melodies in these songs. Don’t get me wrong: I like Glenn Hughes, he’s a great singer, but you have to be very disciplined to do this kind of songs. And to do the backing vocals together as well is not that easy. And Glenn and Joe Lynn Turner would have struggled at times.

– Yes, your voice. As you said to me last time, you prefer to be singing lower than the key in which people like Ken Hensley used to write for you, but you’re still able to cover the full range. So how do you keep your voice in such shape?

Well, I can’t handle every register from high to low. As you said, I prefer to sing in lower registers, because it’s just… How can you say? You listen to somebody like Glenn Hughes, and he’s constantly singing in a high register, and at some point it does kind of get on your nerves. And even now when the HEEP guys write songs for Bernie Shaw in upper ranges, and I’m sure he would like to come down a little bit at some point and hit the mid-ranges. It suits every singer to do that occasionally, and with me, it suits me better most of the time to be in the middle range rather than top end. I mean if you listen to the early HEEP stuff, I was up there all the time, at the top end of my range, and you can’t do that constantly, you know, it’s not good for the voice. People always like to hear you screaming all the time: if I listen to Brian Johnson from AC/DC, I don’t know how he keeps that up.

– I like his voice more in GEORDIE, when he was singing lower.

Yes, yes, absolutely. He’s got a style with AC/DC, but it hurts just to listen to him.

– And still, what do you do with your voice?

I don’t! I don’t do anything, really: I don’t practice, I don’t go and sing my (sings the gamut) “Do Re Mi Fa So La” and all these kind of things. I don’t do that. If push comes to shove and I haven’t sung for a while, then I would go to the bottom of my garden, in my greenhouse, take my guitar, and sit there for half an hour and sing a bit. But otherwise, I don’t do anything – I’m just lucky.

– What do your garden gnomes say about your practice?

Oh, they’re very OK with it. The garden gnomes are fine: they’re joining in the harmonies! (Laughs.)

– By the way, could it be the HEEP guys sing that high in order to retain those harmonies?

Yeah, I think so. Actually, Mick Box‘s not a bad singer, and Trevor Bolder’s also quite strong when he has got a lower register. But Phil [Lanzon], the keyboard player, he has quite a high voice, he can sing a good strong falsetto. I don’t know what the drummer [Russell Gilbrook] sounds like, I’ve never really listened to him. But it works for them, the high harmonies are part of URIAH HEEP, that’s part of their style, and I think, as long as they can do that, then good luck to them.

– Apart from sound side of “Power Of Mind”, there’s a spiritual message in there. Do you fully relate to that?

Um, I don’t know. When I first heard it, sung in Bulgarian, of course, I didn’t understand words, and it was difficult to know what Milen was talking about with positive thinking. And then, when I read the English lyrics – and thank God, it was not a Google translation, it was a proper English translation of the lyrics – I kind of worked it out, but it wasn’t actually until I got to sing it, that it felt like I was reading a book to a friend and each song became a chapter in the book. That’s how it felt to me, and I think that’s what Milen is trying to get across in his message: positive thinking is getting away from all the bad vibes in this world. That’s what I think he wanted with this album.с

– But there’s a difference between relating a story and relating to a story. When you sing a song, you’re inhabiting it.

Yes, it shapes a difference in there. You’re right: you don’t feel a part of the song until you actually come to do it. It’s very different to just read a lyric without knowing the music; once you hear the music and a lyric, you can put them together and then you get the idea, to grasp how it should be put over. So that’s the way it was with “Power Of Mind”, because I’ve heard the music first and I knew the melodies of the songs but didn’t understand the lyrics, and then I got the lyrics and was able to put two and two together, and then it worked for me.

– Don’t you feel sometimes that people invite you to some project just to exploit your name and fame in order to draw attention to their own stuff?

Yes, of course. But that’s the way of this world, isn’t it? If you endorse any kind of product, people will come to you to use your name, and I’m pretty sure that that’s the way it works, and I’m OK with that.

– Well, if you endorse Shure microphones, for example, you use them, and the company uses you, so that’s reciprocal; but when you sing somebody else’s song, it’s not the same as when you do it for your own album.

No, but… (Pauses for thinking.) The music, the songs on “Power Of Mind” are a vehicle, and I am just a voice in that vehicle, regardless if it’s me or somebody else. Yes, an unknown writer will want somebody who, hopefully, has a bit of a name to sing it, and it is exploitation, but as I said, that’s the way it works in all forms of business these days, especially in the music business. A couple of years ago, I did a song on an album for a Russian band called PUSHKING, and every other track on there was sung by somebody else: Glenn Hughes sang on there, Billy Gibbons from ZZ TOP, Alice Cooper; so the band were pushing their music through using big names, but that’s fine, that shouldn’t be a problem.

– Then the question is, whether people care about some band’s music if they buy an album to hear a singer or guitarist that they like.

Yes, but isn’t that the way it is anyway. The fans will buy their music, hopefully, and it doesn’t matter whose name is on there; if the fans don’t like the music, they won’t listen to it or buy it or download it just because of the name, they wouldn’t do it.

– Sure, but some ten years ago, I was still buying a whole album because of a single player, while today you can get a track with the artist you love without buying an entire album.

If you went back to the ’60s, the only way you could listen to the music was by going into a shop: you could put the record on in a little booth, put your headphones on and listen to the record. These days, there are so many different ways of buying music. There’s plenty music around, but I don’t know whether I would like the whole CD by this band, so I can go online and listen, first of all, to little pieces of the album, and I don’t have to buy the complete album. You can buy certain tracks because you like the track. I wouldn’t buy anything by somebody or download something if I didn’t like the music. I mean, I’m a big fan of ZZ TOP, but I wouldn’t go and download or buy a ZZ TOP CD if I didn’t like the music that was on there, just because I like ZZ TOP.

– But what about the integrity of the album? Some tracks work well only in a certain context.

If you’re going to the iTunes store, which is where most people go, and looking for a particular artist… I was looking for Bruno Mars the other day – I’m a big fan of Bruno Mars – and I heard a track from him which I really liked, from his new album “[Unorthodox] Jukebox”: I could go and listen to each single track on this album before I decided whether I wanted to download the whole thing, which is something you couldn’t do many years ago. You had to go out and either borrow it from a friend or bootleg it from somebody just to get the whole album. But I wouldn’t do it these days, unless I really liked the whole album.с

– Still, if you listen to the snippets from “Power Of Mind”, you can get the idea of the tracks, but you’ll never know that some of them flow into each other and there are recurring themes. So such an approach ruins your impression, doesn’t it.

Oh, I agree with you. In that respect, you are correct: people should listen to “Power Of Mind”, of course, and there are ways and means of doing that, although you can’t listen to the whole track and let the tracks combine with each other. For that, buy the whole album! (Laughs.)

– Some people, as I read, don’t like the pop slant of this album, but I actually like your voice in a pop mode, even if that’s “Last Christmas”…

Somebody had to like it! (Laughs.)

– …but to me, the problem was its sequencing: there’s too much rock ‘n’ rolling in the second part of the record, although I do like rock ‘n’ roll.

I do, too. But I don’t know, I think the flow is quite nice. Looking back now, if we could rearrange the songs on the album, then we wouldn’t have had two or three slow songs before you get an uptempo one. But that’s the way it was written and that’s the way it’s put together. You have to accept it as it was.

– What’s harder to accept is your absence from the scene for… how long? The last five years? Was it so because of your Bulgarian adventures?

Yeah, I think so. A lot of my work was done over there: not only music, but I was making these travel documentaries for Bulgarian TV among other things. I also made that cinema movie, where Mick Box had a cameo role. It’s just where the work has taken me, to be quite honest with you. I’ve been very busy over there, and any time that we’ve had off, I’d have been here, in the UK, or we’ve been in Spain, where we have a house. But I’m very grateful that I was busy – to do the TV work was a different string to my bow, as they say, and I enjoyed doing that as much as I enjoy doing the music.

– But why exactly travel? And why did the Bulgarians want an Englishman to be a presenter?

The producer, the TV company guy who asked me to do it, had seen on my website these little things I did on where we went for gigs and stuff and I would say on a little snippet, on a little video, where I was etcetera, etcetera. He had liked them and said to me, “Would you like to do this for real?” And I asked him, “What do you mean?” And he said, “We like your style, URIAH HEEP is a big name over here, you are well-known, so we’d like you to try it and see how it works. And the fact that you are a foreigner, you can do this as a foreigner would see it with his own eyes, which might be different”. I said OK, so we gave it a try, and the rest is history: we’ve done nineteen episodes.

– So now you’re the next big thing to David Attenborough?

(Laughs.) To even my name together with his is a great compliment! No, no, no: nobody is as good as Sir David! Nobody!

– That snippet in the film, with you and Mick, is very funny, because they used a LUCIFER’S FRIEND clip, not a fake video of yours.

(Laughing.) Yes, I know. I know! But they didn’t say who that was, the band name there was TABLOID.

– And what did the guys in LUCIFER’S FRIEND say about this?

They didn’t know. They don’t know! (Laughs.) They know the song is in the movie, and I have explained it to them, but they haven’t seen the movie, so until they do, they won’t understand what I’m on about.

– Did you miss music all the time that you were away from it?

No, I was always into music. I’ve always been. There was plenty of gigs in-between the filming, so that hasn’t been a problem. And I’m 66 now, come on, heading for my 67th birthday, so sometime I have to slow down a little bit, so it’s quite nice to have a little bit of time in-between doing a gig and doing some filming, just to have a break.

– But what’s happening on the music front, apart from “Power Of Mind”?

We have some new tracks, which we’ve been listening to recently for a follow-up to “Power Of Mind” that we plan to be recording in May, so that’s the next thing in the calendar. There’ll be some other work in-between that, but right now I’m just taking some time and getting used to my grandson, because last year was very, very busy. I didn’t have much time for relaxation, so I’m quite happy for the beginning of this year to be a little bit slower.

– What about your own band?

I don’t see having my own band again. I work a lot with Bulgarian musicians, basically the same guys, so I suppose they are kind of like my own band. We’ve been talking about recording some stuff with them, so let’s see how the year pans out. Basically, I’m quite content with what I’m doing at the moment. I would like to do something a little bit heavier, maybe. You just don’t know what’s around the corner. And that’s the good thing about the music business or entertainment: you never know what’s going to happen. But I’m still paying my dues to the blues! (Laughs.)

See also:

October 1999
June 2002

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