For all the earnestness of his oeuvre as a solo artist and a band leader, it’s Oliver Wakeman’s work with other artists and with other people’s ensembles that draws major attention. The first part of out conversation focused mainly on "Ravens & Lullabies", the keyboardist’s joint venture with Gordon Giltrap; further on, we talked about Oliver’s more famous musical adventures.
– Oliver, how important is it for you to be working with instrumentalists such as Steve Howe, Clive Nolan, Rachel Heffer? Is it more rewarding than working in a solo format?
I like all of them, to be honest with you. I think if I just worked in one format, I’d get bored. If I look at my albums, they’ve all been slightly different, and even between “Jabberwocky” and “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”, which were a similar sort of albums, I did the album with Steve Howe and then “Chakras”, which is a relaxation album. I always liked to write how I’m feeling or what interests me rather than… Some band just do an album, then the next comes out and it’s the same sort of album, and that works for them. You know what you’re going to get with a BON JOVI album: it’s going to be pretty much the same the next time around, which is new songs played in the same sort of style, but a lot of that is down to Jon Bon Jovi being a vocalist. But being an instrumentalist – primarily being a keyboard player – it’s interesting for me to vary my style and the ways that I work.
– Still, it’s not that often that two keyboard players work together, like you and Nolan.
Yeah, but Clive and I just became friends. We met through a radio station where I was working: [Nolan colleague in ARENA ] Mick Pointer came down to do an interview and said, “Oh you should visit us”, so I came up and met Clive. We got on pretty well, and after a drink he said, “We like writing and like big-scale projects, so why don’t we do something together?” And so we did, and the first album, “Jabberwocky”, got rave reviews, went down really well, and so we were asked to do another one, which we did, and that went down really well as well. But you develop as you do things; you don’t want to keep doing the same thing all the time, because people will get bored of it.
– You still keep it secret as to who played what on those albums, but whose idea it was to write a record around a popular literary work – yours or Clive’s?
Um, I think it started off with us just coming up with different ideas, and we had to ideas for the first album. We decided on doing either “The Hound Of The Baskervilles” or “Jabberwocky”, the two things that we both wrote down, as we both came up with “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, and Sherlock Holmes. And we were looking for artwork, so I phoned up Rodney Matthews, who was a friend of mine and asked what he had, and he said, “I’ve just finished a painting of Jabberwocky. And we thought, “Right, we’ll do ‘Jabberwocky’ then”. (Laughs.)
– As much as I liked “Jabberwocky”, which was a delight, I found “Baskervilles” more generic.
The thing with a second one that was different was that it involved a lot more heavy type of guitar – we had Karl Groom and Arjen Lucassen play on it – so we had a lot more of a heavier edge to the music, whereas with “Jabberwocky” Peter Banks did most of the guitar that I think added a sort of lightness to the album, which was quite fab. But “Hound” became a darker album, partly because of the story. But it’s interesting what you say, because some people write to me that they prefer “Hound” over “Jabberwocky”. I mean I like “Jabberwocky” because it’s got innocence to it: it’s a nice innocent story and it’s musically fun.
– I guess it’s always down to what people like. And I like “Mother’s Ruin”, which I can also call generic. But it was generic hard rock, exactly what I expected. What I didn’t expect was that you were there mainly as a composer and arranger rather than a soloist. Was that an initial idea for you to be steering the ship?
Yeah, I wanted to, because with “Hound” and “Jabberwocky” I’d got to do a part of it – I wrote some of the lyrics and I wrote some songs: there’s only a few pieces that we wrote together, a lot of them were songs that we wrote individually and then added to. With “Mother’s Ruin” I wanted to do something that was like a standard five-piece band, but in a way where I could explore songwriting without working from a book, or from a novel; I wanted to do something that was me writing, as I explained for “Ravens”, from personal ideas into stories. And the way that I felt was the best way to do that was to do it with a band, and then it also gave me the opportunity of taking that band out and playing live. Doing “Jabberwocky” or “Hound” live was very difficult because of the number of people that were involved and the different types of musicians that were on it, so I wanted to record an album and actually to take all the people that were there and to perform as a part of the band. It’s all part of the journey for me, it’s exploring of working with different styles of musicians and working in different formats. And as I hadn’t done a band album – I liked the idea of doing one – but I wanted to write it, and it was important for me to still be in charge of the ship as it were.
– Do you feel bitter about the way your songwriting went into YES after you were asked to leave the band?
Yeah, it was difficult. We started talking about the album in 2009, and in 2010 we went to Phoenix, Arizona, to write and came up with some really, really good music. But what happened was, when we went to the studio and started recording, Trevor Horn came in to record and he had an idea about the album and wanted to do one of his old songs – an old song he’d worked on with Geoff Downes – and I wasn’t very keen on this. I thought, “Well, we should be doing new music. We shouldn’t be doing a song that’s twenty. We should be doing the stuff that we had worked out, the stuff we’re going to write or work on together”. But we did this song, and then he said, “Oh, I’ve written another part that goes with it, with it”, and so they wanted to do that song, so Geoff was involved in that one. And then I think Trevor decided that there was more and more songs that they had written that matched with “We Can Fly From Here”, and he wanted to do the album like this and wanted Geoff to play the keyboards on it and write it. That just got to the point where Trevor had come up with so much of the music with Geoff and wanted him in the band, which wasn’t very good for me. But that’s the decision they made.
– And how did you react to this on a personal level? I mean you know Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White from your very childhood and they were like family to you…
I felt terrible! (Laughs dryly.) I felt really bad, because I wasn’t expecting it. Trevor went away for four weeks, and we carried on recording, and then we went on tour together for three weeks, and then we all said goodbye at the airport and said, “See you in three-week time”. So I went home and I had Christmas. I was due to go out back in January, when the tour manager phoned me up and said, “Oh, your plane ticket is delayed by a week, because Trevor wants to do one more song with Geoff”. I said, “Well, OK”, and I phoned him up again a week later, and he said all had been delayed for another week. I was not very happy, but I thought, “If Trevor wants Geoff on those two tracks, then Trevor will have Geoff on those two tracks”. I phoned again, and somebody said to me, “You’re out of the band”. And that was it: my ticket was cancelled, and I wasn’t involved with it anymore. They just decided that they were going to follow the route that Trevor was setting up for them, so that’s the route that they went. It was a shame, but that’s the decision they made as a band. But it wasn’t easy.
– Still, they used a song you co-wrote and you used a song on your new album that you started in YES.
The song “From The Turn Of A Card” I wrote while I was living in L.A. – we were living there for eight weeks while we were recording, and Benoit [David] and I shared an apartment. One day he went out for a walk or something, and I said, “Can I borrow your guitar?”, and I sat down and just wrote the main part of the song. The next day I went to the studio and played it to everybody, and they all thought it was pretty good and really liked it. But then we went out on [our last] tour, and I never went back to the studio, so we never got to do it. So when I came to do this album, and I played it to Gordon, he said, “We’ve got to do that song”. And although we had Paul singing on the album, I thought that Benoit would do the best job on this, because it was the song that was written for him to sing originally. I called him and asked, “Hey, do you wanna do it?”, and he said, “Yeah”. He was just the right person for the song and the song’s history.
– Speaking of history, you once mentioned that you and Adam accompanied the ANDERSON, BRUFORD, WAKEMAN, HOWE tour. Did you play there or were just guests of your dad’s?
No, no we were only… Oh, that was 1988, I was sixteen and Adam was fourteen: we just got on an airplane and went around America with dad and the band just watching the show and having fun. That was great fun! (Laughs.) Sixteen-years-old, wandering around America: that was good fun!
– Listening to the album you did with THE STRAWBS, “Dancing To The Devil’s Beat”, I was quite surprised that you were credited for only one or two pieces, while your parts completely upgraded songs like “Beneath The Angry Sky”. Why didn’t they give you the full credit?
Oh, I didn’t really write “Beneath The Angry Sky”; its opening part was written by Dave Lambert as a chord idea. The song that I wrote was the hymn at the end of “Pro Patria Suite”, which was the song called… uh, can’t remember the title of it now. But I’ve got it in my iTunes, let me find it here… There it is! “Home Is Where The Heart Was Ever”. And what happened was, Dave Cousins rented a house in the countryside, and we went there to work on the music that he’d written, and he wrote this song that he thought was going to be a love song at first, but then he went to the war graves over in France and he realized that the lyrics he was writing, that were about two people talking about their love for each other, man and woman, were actually about soldiers and the camaraderie that they had growing up in a village together and going and fighting in the war together, and one of them dies. And so he changed this story, and he wanted a hymn at the end of the song – he had some lyrics but he didn’t have any music, and asked if I had anything. I said, “Well, if you’re looking for something that’s hymn-like, I’ve got this piece which I’ve written and which never really used”. And when I played it to him, he put his lyrics on top of it and said, “That’s incredible: my words fit exactly with the melody line that you’ve written!” He sang it, and I played it, and it fitted perfectly. So that was how I ended up with the writing credit.
– But you weren’t credited for all of your wonderful solos.
No, no, I don’t expect a credit for writing a solo, that’s just me adding my performance to someone else’s piece of music. In the same way, Peter Banks played the guitar solo on one of my songs, just adding his ideas: that’s generally how I tend to work with musicians. That’s generally understood; otherwise, you could end up with a hundred of people writing a song if everybody comes in and wants that. The basic idea for me is, if somebody’s written a song, it’s like a coat hanger: everybody else hangs their ideas of the song. I mean I played on Steve Howe’s album “Spectrum”, and I added keyboards parts to it, but it was him who’s written the songs. If somebody comes up with main song, it’s their song.
– What with your heavier music, how interesting was it for you to be working on STRAWBS’ album with Chris Tsangarides, famous for producing THIN LIZZY and Gary Moore?
Chris was great. He’s such a nice guy, very good at engineering and producing. I just enjoyed working with him, it was good fun. He had a nice studio by the seaside, it was very, very laid-back. (Laughs.)
– On the easier side, there’s “Heaven’s Isle”, I’d say my favorite album of yours…
Oh, really? It’s fifteen-years-old now! That’s quite frightening. It makes me feel really old. (Laughs.) I’m a big fan of Formula 1, and I watch the racing drivers now, and they look like 12-years-old to me. They’re so young, and I think, “Wow, I’m getting old!” It’s frightening.
– And still, “Heaven’s Isle” is a mature work.
I think so. It was something I worked really hard on. And the thing that I love about “Heaven’s Isle” is that it has innocence about it, even though the songwriting… I mean I play some of the music from “Heaven’s Isle” on recent tour, and I thought it was quite complicated, Also I like that I didn’t have a lot of equipment – I didn’t have loads and loads and loads of keyboards to work with, I only had a few that I’d bought – so I had to work really hard to make the album sound interesting, which was challenging. But you know, I’m very proud of the album. It’s a strange thing: for a few years, I kind of forgot about it, because “Jabberwocky” came out and had lots of singers and lots of guitarists, then I did the thing with Steve Howe, and then I did “The Hound”, and then I took the band out on the road – we did DVDs – and then I joined YES. Everything got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger… And then one day I picked “Heaven’s Isle” and put it on, and I thought, “Actually, that’s really nice!” (Laughs.) It doesn’t have tons of stuff going on it, so you’d think it’s not as interesting, but it was interesting exactly because of that.
– What’s the thing with islands in the Wakeman family? Rick wrote about the Isle of Man, you about…
…Lundy! I don’t know what it is. We must just need to get away. (Laughs.)
– And what’s this “Mysteries And Mythologies” project that gets mentioned sometimes?
That was what became “The 3 Ages Of Magick”, that was how it started off. Because it started off as an album about myths and fairy stories. I had the cover done with “Mysteries And Mythologies”, and I worked it all through, and then I read somewhere about the ages of magic, which were how things were perceived as magic. Like in the Dark Ages anything that happened that was unusual was considered magic, and then through the Renaissance and parlor tricks and things of that sort of sleight of hand came into play, and then modern-day science which, if anybody from different civilization was looking at it and didn’t know about it, was magical. And I read this term, the three ages of magic, and thought, “Oh, that fits my story better”. So the title got changed.
– So if you ever get to work with Clive Nolan again, it’s going to be magic, too? Something from Terry Pratchett?
I don’t know, actually! We’ve sort of mentioned that somebody might put out “Jabberwocky” and “The Hound” again soon, because they’ve been out of print for a while, so there’s going to be a reissue, which will be nice. But whether we’ll do another one together, I don’t know at the moment. We’ll wait and see.
– It’s just occurred to me what’s the main difference between these two albums: there was humor on the former and not a lot on the latter.
No, there wasn’t, no, that’s true. (Laughs.) I think you’re right. “Jabberwocky” for me is a little bit like a children’s story, whereas “The Hound Of The Baskervilles” is an adult’s one.
– STARCASTLE: did you really play on their album?
No, no, no, I didn’t do anything like that. I just played with them for a show, just to help some friends, but I still keep in touch with some of the guys. Pretty much everything I did was focused on my band at the time. My band got out to Poland where we played recorded the DVD [“Coming to Town”].
– What role do you prefer, then: being a band leader or just a player in a band?
I like being a band leader because I get to control what I’m doing and I generally get to experiment and try different things. But I also enjoy working as a part of the band because it’s a different discipline: you get to learn. As a musician, you are always learning, and when you work with other musicians, it’s great because everybody does things differently, and it’s inspirational. I enjoy all forms of music and playing with all sorts of people but, as most musicians, you like to do your own thing. As I said, I like being a leader, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy touring with other bands as well.
– Are there still bands or people you’d like to play with?
Uh… Lots of bands I think are very good, but whether I want to play with them I don’t know – until they call me. (Laughs.)
– But you never were a part of the WAKEMAN & WAKEMAN project. Could it be so because you’re the oldest and the mature one, while Adam had to be working with your dad?
I think what it was is just [because] Adam and dad started working together, as Adam lived with dad at the time. But I always wanted to do things my own way, which maybe made my life harder at the beginning, because I didn’t get what Adam had when I was younger. But then again, Adam has done lots of work as a session musician for lots of different musicians, and his credit is on lots good albums as well, whereas I’ve always taken a path of doing things under my own way. Everybody chooses a path that they think is the best for them. Adam and I did play once with dad together and we’re going to play again in June. We do little bits and pieces now, and it will be good fun. We tend to have fun – it doesn’t get too serious. (Laughs.)
– I tried to avoid asking questions about your father but… Can we compare your family to the family of Bach? I mean Johann Sebastian’s sons were also composers, more popular then him in their lifetime.
Oh, I don’t know. That’s very nice if people did so. (Laughs.) I’m very proud of the work that dad’s done in his life: he’s built a legacy of work and admiration around the world. So I sort of feel that the name “Wakeman” is known. And in some ways it makes me work really hard to make sure that everything that I do adds to the quality. And if at some point I’ll do something that will make me well-known throughout the world, it would be nice. But it’s about doing good music and being able to do music that is the driving force. If you start doing things to be famous, it can be you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and I’ve always done music because I’ve loved it. It’s been hard work sometime but I still love it.