PORCUPINE TREE’S JOHN WESLEY OPENS ABOUT THE ART OF CREATING ART AND CREATING MUSIC PURELY OUT OF HIS LOVE OF IT.
John Wesley has had quite a career in his life. I could tell you about it myself but I think he does a better job of it in this interview than I ever could do on my own.
I’ve been very fortunate to get to know Wes pretty well over the last couple of years and was even blessed with the opportunity to record some Vestascension material with him down at his studio in Florida. One thing I’ve found out about the guy is that he is real. He’s just an all around great person that has a great heart.
Seeing as how he’s been touring since I was a baby-and he’s slowly worked his way up through the industry while facing MANY hardships and overcoming many obstacles-I jumped at the chance to discuss all of this with him at length.
Check out the interview below and make sure you go check out his latest EP calling The Lilypad Suite by clicking here.
For starters I’d like to ask you a little bit about your background. When did you begin playing guitar and at what point did you realize this was what you wanted to do as a career?
Wes: I started playing piano when I was like 11 or 12 and I quickly gravitated out of that into guitar almost immediately after. I didn’t understand the concept of career at the time and you know, if someone had asked me I’d of said “I wanna be a doctor or lawyer or something” but all I knew is that I wanted to played guitar all the time. Then as you get older you get the whole wanna be in a band dreams and that kind of thing. Even when guys were forming bands when I was younger everyone was kinda like “yeah we’re gonna make it and we’re gonna be rockstars” and I just always kinda focused on the music and the playing and less on the whole rockstar side of things. It was just something I always knew that I wanted to do.
Well it sounds like you already had the right state of mind at the time-the one they try to bash into all these kids heads today that are just in it for the money.
Wes: Yeah pretty much I mean, I just knew what I wanted to do. There was a defining moment in my late 20’s when I’d been in a band for many years and we hadn’t had any real success; we always kind of made a very poor living. At that time I was a single father, the band had crashed, I had no real income, and everyone tried to pursued me to go to college and get some kind of degree and I had to face that decisions and I remember standing in the line to pay for the classes and not having any future plans, not knowing what I could do, but I knew that I couldn’t do that and that I had to continue playing guitar as my focus. A lot of people say “ok I’m going to do this to make a living and guitar’s going to be something I do” or “I’m gonna do this until I ‘make it’ and someone gives me the big deal”. I had none of that. I had a kid and really nothing else. I just didn’t know what I was going to do but I knew that I had to keep playing. I knew if I went to that school and finished up whatever bachelors degree I’d of been working on at the time that I wouldn’t do what I wanted to do.
Obviously you were getting going at a time when the industries landscape looked far different than it does today.
Wes: Oh yeah.
When you were working to establish yourself as an artist how did you do it? Was it through playing countless live gigs, pushing a demo, working on the business side of things, all of the above…?
Wes: All of the above-although I was never really good at the business side of things, and when I say the business side of things I mean I was never good at pushing things for record companies or getting out there and putting flyers out and getting people to the gigs. I was always focused on making the music and then I couldn’t bare the thought of getting out there and selling it, I mean that was someone else’s job-you know-I just make music. Being in Florida it was really really tough because things were different in that landscape in the late 80’s and early 90’s. There were real gatekeepers in place at that time and if you weren’t signed to a major label there was just no avenue out of that. At that time some of the Indie things started to happen around the mid 80’s or so but they weren’t here. It was in London, it was in L.A., it was in Seattle, you know? The whole Seattle thing happened and nobody in Florida knew until it was in full swing, you know what I mean? So there was no internet, there was no indie way out. I did an indie record with this band in 87 or 88 and it was a slight regional success, but the landscape was really different then.
You’ve been playing with Porcupine Tree for almost 10 years now right?
When I’ve seen you live with them your vocals and guitar playing are always just so spot on and it appears to be almost effortless to you-or at least you make it look that way…
Wes: Thank you!
At this stage in the game does it just sort of come from muscle memory? I don’t mean playing the same songs over and over-I just mean playing live in general?
Wes: Yes. Part of the thing about Porcupine Tree is that a lot of guys can play the stuff you know? You see a lot of kids on YouTube picking it up and playing the tune-that kind of thing. It’s assembling it with the band, sitting in the pocket with the band, making it mesh, making it sound right, making your sounds mesh with the band sounds. It’s about bringing the feel to the thing that makes it sound like a band and makes it tight. Honestly that only came from years and years and years of live gigging. I started gigging live in ’78 when I was 16 and I was always doing something. Then around ’84 or ’85 I went to playing 5, 6, or 7 nights a week for weeks on end, 4 sets a night in bar bands up until the early 90’s and then I started doing solo gigs in bars. I’ll run into a lot of kids today that are like “yeah man, we’re gonna gig next month” and I’m like “ok, and how many gigs are you going to do before that gig?”. I get a lot of people that, you know, don’t have that experience but that helps me in Porcupine Tree. Again the landscape is different now and if you’re not gonna get out there and do bar-type gigs then you’re not gonna gig much these days. I think that kids today need to acquire that gigging mind/skill-set quicker which leads me to the indie thing. A lot of kids really lean to the indie thing because you can get out there and be really loose and really unexperienced and that’s cool, you know what I’m saying? All of a sudden you’re awesome because you ARE unexperienced and not playing very well and your guitars doesn’t stay in tune and your rig doesn’t work but that won’t work in Porcupine Tree. *laughs* With these guys-and I’ve done over 450 shows with them-it’s the opposite. You had to of played.
So you definitely come from the belief that playing endless amounts of gigs is important when you’re coming up?
Wes: You know there are a lot of guys out there sitting in their bedrooms going “I’m gonna be awesome and I’m gonna build a bunch of chops up and then I’m gonna put my videos on YouTube and someone’s gonna hire me” and they hear these stories of that happening and other than you know, a Filipino guy getting the gig in Journey or a couple of things like that, that rarely happens. What you tend to find with a lot of these guys that will only play in their bedrooms and never get out and play live is that they’re not gonna get those gigs. People perpetuate that myth to, kind of, increase the popularity of YouTube. I mean you can go on YouTube and find cats with just amazing chops, you know, you’ve seen it. Guys doing “Flight Of The Bumblebee” and just, inhuman things, but he’s always doing it sitting on his bed in a room.
Yeah, and of course this guy has no experience with the chemistry of a band or experience touring or doing anything of that nature in the business.
Wes: Right. Exactly. You know, every now and then there might be somebody who is just amazing and they get hired to do a thing and that thing is just that they are so amazing at that one thing and that’s what they get hired for but I couldn’t name one. I know someone’s gotten a gig that way before but I don’t know who they are or who they play for.
One person that comes to mind when I think of that is Orianthi, the guitarist who played with Michael Jackson just before he died-he saw her videos on YouTube and hired her because of that. She’s also with Alice Cooper now.
Wes: You’ve gotten understand that she came to L.A. way before that, she had things going on. She was sitting in with Satriani, she was a local legend, and she practiced and practiced and practiced and she was gigging. Even when she was 13 or 14 years old she was going out and doing things so it wasn’t like she was sitting in her bedroom and someone hired her. She’s sharp, she was on it young, she had experience. There’s no way on God’s green earth she could have walked on stage with Michael, and if you watch the film footage-I don’t know if you’ve seen that film but it’s freaking amazing-but it’s because she was already a super pro! At that point I think she’d already had a solo record in progress as well as a record deal. He might have seen her, someone might have shown him videos of her on YouTube, but she wasn’t discovered by Michael Jackson just trolling YouTube.
Do you still actively practice the guitar in regimented ways such as playing to a metronome or learning new scales and/or theory or do you have other ways of expanding your abilities-or have you just reached a comfortable point where you’re content with where you are as a player?
Wes: No I’m never content, I’m always trying to incorporate new scales and things like that. The problem I have these days is a physical problem. I’ve been playing for so long and so much I’ve kind of hurt my wrists and my elbows and so it’s kind of frustrating because in the last year or so I’ve broken through a few barriers as a player and started to explore some new techniques and new things that I hadn’t done before and I would sit down and practice for several hours and then not be able to play for a couple days after. I haven’t quite solved that problem yet-it’s all muscular-but it’s kind of frustrating because yes. I am motivated to practice in ways I probably haven’t ever practiced in my life and I’ve hurt myself doing it so, it’s kind of a bitch. We finished up the last Porcupine Tree tour with a show at Radio City Music Hall and we decided to do these long 3 hour sets and break out a whole bunch of new material that we weren’t doing on the tour at that time. I sat in the hotel room in New York two days before the gig and practiced for 8 hours straight and when I say 8 hours straight it wasn’t like I was just there for 8 hours, I was on the guitar the whole time only stopping long enough for lunch. I paid for it at rehearsal the next day. My hand started to go numb because we did an 8 hour rehearsal the next day and then the day after that was a 2 hour soundcheck and a 3 hour gig. By the end of the Radio City Music Hall show on my left hand my pinky and thumb had stopped working right and I was sitting there trying to do the stretches on this tune called “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” and I’ll never forget it because I was sweating just from trying to get my hands to work. It was just painful. It was literally one of those deals where you’re looking at your hand and trying to make it work and it isn’t working.
Wow. I couldn’t imagine, that must have been terrifying.
Wes: It was terrifying, you know. So yes, I am constantly looking for ways to expand my playing. Another way that I’ve gotten back into it is figuring out stuff like some Van Halen solos and some Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn and I went through and just figured out five different Steely Dan solos. So I’m more motivated to do whatever now. And yeah, I’ve kind of hurt myself where I’ll have to go days now without playing. It’s a weird dichotomy to be in, to have the mental drive to expand more than I ever have and then the physical inability to do so.
Damn man, I’m so sorry to hear that.
Wes: Yeah its one of those things. I mean I’m working through it, you know, what I’ve had to learn is that I need to create balance. It was okay to be obsessed and locked in your room when you’re 25 or 15 but it’s not so much when you’re over 40 and your body doesn’t work the way it used to, you know?
So many musicians starting out seem to have this whole plan of how they’re career is going to go right down to a T. From what I’ve always gathered from talking to seasoned industry veterans is that for a vast majority of them where they eventually ended up was a place they had no idea they’d be at in the beginning-many say they wouldn’t even believe you if you’d of told them. You know, maybe one started out sure he’d be a famous lead singer and ended up managing a successful band, one guy was gonna be the next great drummer but he ended up owning a record label instead. In just about every case what seemed to be a key to their success and climbing their way to the top was to be flexible and willing to try new things. With that said, looking back has your career gone anything like you’d thought it would when you had your first plans in mind way back when?
Wes: No, not at all. Not even close. I was in a really good band, at least we thought we were a really good band, in the 80’s and I was sure that I was going to be successful like so and so and it was just going to happen. If you ever told me back then I’d have been playing 10 years in a prog band, I’ve of told you then “no way”! *laughs* Releasing solo records and doing what I’m doing now and how I ended up here, you know, I don’t know but it’s nowhere near what I thought it was gonna be. But, then the thing I’m encountering a lot now is, especially with some friends of mine who have been doing really well in successful bands in the last several years, a lot of those things are ending you know? People are waking up and going “holy shit, how am I gonna make that mortgage payment? I was doing really good last year. I was making blah blah blah, X a week and I bought this house and that ended and it’s over and the record label I was signed to doesn’t even exist anymore-how am I gonna make those bills?” There’s a lot of that. The only way that guys like us are surviving and moving on and doing the next thing is by being adaptable and by being able to do different things. I heard a great thing the other day, I forget who it was, they were talking about MTV Cribs and he was like MTV Cribs five years on is known as Celebrity Rehab. *laughs* The flip side of that is there’s more opportunity to play music and perform and get out there and be creative and do stuff, it’s just that you’ve gotta get the stars out of your eyes. You’ve gotta be doing this because you love to do it. There are still pop acts out there and some non pop acts that are doing pretty well and are making a pretty good livings but as far as that whole super stardom thing goes, very few bands are doing that anymore you know? I saw the Incubus guys the other night and hung out with them and they’re doing very well right now, but Incubus was doing very well in 1999, you know? They’re still kind of left over from that era when you had the major label still putting the music into the minds of the people. That kind of thing is over now. Lately what I’m running across is a lot of really small independent bands that are doing okay. There are some bands that aren’t even live bands at all but they’re making music, getting on the internet, getting people interested in the music through being a part of the networking thing and making that work. Then there are a lot of people who are sitting in their bedrooms making music and putting it on the internet and hoping someone’s gonna discover it and not really getting out there and working, and not having any success and they are always bitching about it.
Yeah, so many bands/musicians these days just seem to feel so entitled and they’re really quite lazy when it comes down to it. Just sitting there putting waiting for a label to come find them and carry them into the nether.
Wes: Yeah, yeah. Then there’s the flip side of that. There are a lot of talented cats out there who spend a lot of years learning how to record but haven’t learned how to market themselves and we may never hear that music because it may never get to us. Just because you’re not popular doesn’t mean you suck. I mean, we talked about Lefsetz and Lefsetz will say “if we haven’t heard of you it’s because you suck and you know blah blah blah blah blah” and it’s not necessarily true because I know a lot of unbelievably talented people that don’t have an inkling on how to get their music out to where it would grow and would become available for us to hear. So there is a little of both in that. There is a lot of the music out there that just does suck and no matter how much you promote yourself it’s never gonna go.
For an up and coming musician who’s lucked out and happened to land an audition with an established act what advice would you give them prior to them trying out?
Wes: Well they’re gonna give you some tunes to learn, usually 3. Learn them just drop dead, unbelievably perfect, just every aspect of it. Walk into the audition totally prepared. If you’re gonna bring in a guitar or bass into the audition make sure it sounds good. Make sure it tunes up. If you’re gonna bring a pedal board, make sure you’ve got good cables and that it’s not gonna take a shit on you right in the middle of the session. And know the music. I know these are simple sounding things, but these are things that I’ve just watched happen, you know. One audition the guy couldn’t get his guitar in tune to save his life and I’m like “what?” So it’s simple stuff man-just know the songs inside and out. Look stylistically at the band that you’re auditioning for and look how they dress, see what kind if image they’re going for. If they’re a metal band and you walk in there looking like an Indie guy and if they’re an Indie band and you walk in there with black leather chaps and black spiky hair, you know, the gig isn’t gonna happen for you! *laughs*
In August of 2007 you made all of your back catalog of solo material available for free download on your website. That was over 4 years ago at a time when far less bands were doing the whole free music thing. What led to your decision to do that?
Wes: A couple things. Desperation, in that I had this body of work over a good portion of my lifetime and I was stuck in a couple of record deals where they were just taking the sell through out and not ever marketing the stuff. They knew I was gonna sell a couple thousand records and they could make a good twenty grand off of each one and put it in their pocket and not have to do anything. So at that point I was selling maybe five copies a week. If someone in Ohio wanted to get my record you had to pay twenty seven dollars to get it shipped from Europe to hear that music. The only way you could hear my music was either running into me on the road somewhere or paying twenty seven dollars to import a disc. So, I just freaked out one day and I had been reading a guy named Bob Lefsetz-who obviously I know you did an interview with him-and he was like “just give it away, just give it away” you know? Just get people to hear your music. Why do you do this? Is it about the money or is it about the music? Ultimately I realized I’d never really made a lot of money off of record sales anyway and I always just figured out a way to stay alive as a player and a side man and make a little bit here and there. I realized that people have to hear this music and if people don’t hear this music I could make all the money in the world and it would be soul destroying. So my wife figured out a way to take all the digital parts of the CDs and put it up on a server. So, we made a big plan to do this and we sent out a few emails that went into a message boards, a porcupine tree board, and a Phish board, and a Marillion board, etc. We told them that on this certain day all my back catalog was gonna be free. Within a week it had crashed the server. From the bandwidth we figured out we did around ten thousand album downloads in the first week. Now, it obviously trickled off after that but it definitely let me know there were a lot of people out there that wanted to hear this music but they just didn’t wanna pay twenty seven dollars a disc for it! *laughs* Since then we’ve done about sixty thousand downloads of albums which led tabus selling more by giving it away than I ever had sold not giving it away. That just opened a whole new world for me and has allowed me to kind of get back into the creative game and, well, not back into it; it’s not like I ever left it. I had a long spell between records because I was so caught up in Porcupine Tree and I own a recording studio here in town. Between the two of them I kind of had neglected myself. In the last year since we took a break on Porcupine Tree I’ve basically written two records. I managed to just get one out independently and sold a few thousand copies just on my own, which prompted a deal with MadFish Snapper. It’s the record label that releases all the Porcupine Tree stuff-all the Porcupine Tree back catalogue. So, that disc just came out through Snapper and is selling. So, what you said before, that whole thing about having to figure out how to adapt has been the keyword of my whole career. Now I’ve got more music available than ever, you know? How I’m gonna get paid for it, who knows? But I’ll figure out a way.
That’s excellent, congratulations Wes!
You know, one thing I admire about you-you aren’t afraid to just get out there, just you and your guitar, and just play. I’d be terrified of being on stage by myself and baring my soul to others that way. You do it, you just get out there and do it.
Wes: I’ll tell you what, there’s no falling back on anyone else, you’ve got to depend on yourself at that point. But, I love doing it so much that given the opportunity where I’m not gonna lose my ass I’ll go out there. There’s a lot of disheartening moments, I mean a lot of guys are going “man, I can’t do this, we lose money here, we lose money there.” I lose money everywhere, you know? Well all do. On that particular tour I broke even and I felt really good about that but then I went and did a tour out West for a couple of weeks later. I did okay in San Francisco and then I rolled into L.A. and I thought I was gonna do okay there too. However, the club had this minimum person rule that I didn’t hear about. So, the door guy was like “oh yeah man you didn’t make the minimum person rule, you had too many people on your guest list; so you don’t get paid tonight.” Instantly lost five hundred bucks and I was like “woah! You mean all I had to do was flip three people off my guest list and I would have gotten paid?” So, even at this stage of the game I still have those stories too. When I hear those stories from younger bands I’m like “I know man”. That’s a part of it that we all have to go through and as far as I’ve come, you know, from Royal Albert Hall to a gig in L.A. where I can barely get enough people there to where I don’t even make the minimum requirement to get paid it. All it took would have been to turn down three for the guest like-that was the difference between them putting four or five hundred bucks in my pocket and them putting four or five hundred bucks in their own pockets.
That’s fucking bullshit! I would grabbed the $500 out of their hand and been like “here asshole, this is what 3 tickets cost, you can have it back!!”
Wes: Yeah, had I of known I would have said “Look, take three people off my guest list, give them tickets, and pay me” *laughs* It’s the thing in L.A., if you don’t get this many paid guests show up, well, that’s that. My point is that still happens to all of us in one stage of the game or another, you know? So you give to get. You just try to make it up where you can. But, the bottom line is I love doing it, I love playing, I love creating, and I’ll figure out some way to make money, you know?
You released a new solo album entitled “the lilipad suite” earlier this year. It’s a fucking great EP-my favorite track off of it is Still Waiting.
Wes: Oh thank you man!
Yeah dude for sure. The Ep’s a concept piece of sorts, can you tell me some more about it all the way from the concept behind it to the actual creation of it?
Wes: In the 80s I became a father, I was married. That marriage ended. Four or five years later I gained custody of my daughter and her mother was very ill at the time and, I wasn’t able to participate in her life like she wanted to, so there was a lot of disappointing moments that went along with that. Over the years I had to figure out how to deal with that and watch her go through a lot of that. You know, not having a parent always involved the way she wanted her to be. So, she eventually grew up and through the years I met another girl who became very close to me and she got married and got pregnant. They were living in England and five months after the pregnancy and one month after the marriage he just decided he was going to go to L.A. and be a movie star. He literally just said “I’ve read this book”-I think it was The Secret-and he said “I’ve gotta follow my bliss and go to L.A. and be a movie star”. She’s like “wait a minute, we just got married and I’m pregnant”. So, he hauled ass on her and went to L.A. and never came back basically. So this little girl, I kinda watched her grow for about nine years now I’ve and watched her be kind of tortured with the specter of her father just popping in and out of her life on Skype from America every couple of years. Some kids freak out if they can’t see their father every couple of days. So, it was that and a couple other children who were going through the same sort of thing, the same story but in eighty different shades. I think one segment of our population has a seventy nine percent absentee father rate so that as I was writing the songs for Disconnect that theme kept creeping into it. Her nickname was Lillypad. The lyrics/songs became a conglomeration; an amalgam of these different people. Some of them were adults because the interesting thing is, I’ve gotten to see both sides of it. I’ve not only gotten to see what can happen in a little child’s life as they deal with the absence of a parent. So, I wrote the record from the sort of perspective of both things so it’s kind of hard because, well, we’re talking on a metal site here and it gets back to that whole thing of I’m in a position now where I create because I wanna create and I do it strictly from an artistic perspective. Lillypad Suite is an art piece. It’s conceptual lyrically. I hate that word ‘conceptual’ because it sounds so prog but it’s thematic and it was written, well, art is an expression of things that you learn and that go on inside of you and the Lillypad Suite is one hundred and ten percent an art piece.
That’s intense. One thing that I really think is so great about that is that it is art. It seems that so much of the music today is all about getting pussy and drinking beer.
Wes: *laughs* Yeah and you know, there is a lot of place for that. I mean, one of my favorite things is to put on the Thin Lizzy Live and Dangerous record and just go fucking crazy. All their songs are about chicks and beer. *laughs* so there is a place for that. It’s just that where I am in my life, it’s just about a different kind of expression. For the last fifteen, twenty years of my creative life I was aiming towards commerciality and aiming towards getting the big record deal and aiming towards being on FM radio. All that disappeared to the point where I just wanted to create. If you go back into my back catalogue, which you can download all of it for free off my website, all of the themes of all those songs are told not from the perspective of a record I’m trying to sell, but the perspective of I’m trying to paint a painting with what I was doing. And that’s been, creatively, fulfilling for me.
That’s so great. It seems to me that art has really gone underground. To me, in the 90’s, those bands were creating art and it just so happened to be mainstream in it’s appeal/success. Now it seems like what’s mainstream, like on rock radio, is just completely contrived and devoid of any actual art. I really feel art has gone underground in music without a doubt.
Wes: It has. Creativity has gone underground. But, there are some amazingly creative things that get to peak out commercially from time to time. Check out the latest Elbow record-it’s an art piece. The whole record is fantastic. They actually got the support of some of the industry hip stuff. The biggest thing is if you’re a young artist and you’re trying to create and you’re trying to define yourself, just create music in a vacuum. Obviously, let the music you hear influence you but don’t let the commercial influences influence you. If you love something and you want that to be part of your sound, take it in and adopt it and make it a part of your sound but don’t do it because you think it’s gonna get you somewhere because it won’t.
My last question-given all your years of experience in the industry I’d like to ask-what do you think is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far?
Wes: Steve Wilson-he just hit me with that last phrase. Create music in a vacuum. When I was struggling in between records I hadn’t had any commercial success and I was like “God dammit, I’d like to make some money with this” and I was kinda having one of those confusing conversations inside of my head. He just said “you just gotta create music in a vacuum and you have to create music for the music’s sake.” Steve is prodigious, he’s prodigious in a way that, I mean, that most of us wouldn’t understand. He doesn’t have anything else in his life. He doesn’t go to the beach, he doesn’t surf, he doesn’t do anything but make music. He just makes music. He gets up in the morning and it’s all he does. In the early days when he didn’t have much money he geared his lifestyle in a way that he didn’t have to have a lot of money so that he could just make music. The little bit of income he was generating from the music at the time, he could use to free himself up to make music all the time. And now, you know, he’s got a big house with a studio in it and still, he’s not hanging out with chicks and going out on the town. If you call him up on any hour of any given day-the man is home making music, you know? So through that and his prodigious output he’s created quite a career. That’s a lesson for all of us and that’s a big lesson I’ve learned. Since being around that in the last nine or ten years, I’ve worked really hard to gear my life to where I make music, you know. I don’t have a big house, I don’t have a Porsche, but I make music all the time and the only way I earn a living these days is by playing guitar. So that makes me happy.
Thanks so much Wes for doing this, I really appreciate it.
Wes: You’re welcome! I hope I’ve provided you with some of the answers you were looking for! *laughs*
Oh you definitely have.