John Waite: An All Access Interview with the Legendary Rocker
As the legendary voice of The Babys and Bad English – and especially as a successful solo artist on his own accord, John Waite has presented the world with wondrously unforgettable rock and roll classics. In 1982, Change, from his solo debut Ignition, was all over the radio airwaves and MTV. And then two years later, a massive hit single entitled Missing You from No Brakes would launch John Waite into the stratosphere. Not one to ever rely on triumphs from the past, Mr. Waite released an all-new collection of tunes a few years ago entitled Rough and Tumble. Now in the year 2013, noted guitarist Keri Kelli (best known for own his trademark work in Slash’s Snake Pit and the Alice Cooper Band) has joined forces, resulting in nothing short of a creative renaissance. In this interview, John Waite discusses his collaboration with Keri Kelli and their dynamic new album Live All Access, glories of the past, meeting famous people such as President Clinton and Ringo Starr, and other vast and revealing topics of interest. And now, Highwire Daze is pleased to present our conversation with the amazing Mr. John Waite…
How did your Live All Access project come about and with such as vast catalog, how were you able to whittle it down to 8 songs?
About 8 months ago, Keri Kelli joined the band. He came to see me and the bass player. We sat there and jammed a bit – got on well. We had a gig in three week in Detroit; it was this big opener gig. I gave him a list of songs and said “See you there.” We didn’t even rehearse the songs – it was like I threw him in the deep end. He got through that and that was the test. And then gradually over the next two months, the gigs got way better and really focused – and I started singing differently because of it. And the rhythm section got tighter because of it. And Kelli – he brought a lot of energy – and his musicianship – it was like he just came into focus. He’d always been used to playing with a second guitar player in the band – with Alice Cooper he had Damon Johnson and with Slash’s Snake Pit he had Slash – so it’s sort of throwing somebody into the deep end as being the only guitar player in the band. It’s a big thing. But as soon as he got it – and you could tell almost the night he got it – he took the basics and improvised – and we all started looking at each other and the set seemed to be getting shorter and shorter because it was going by faster, because we were having such a great time! So I decided it’s now or never – I’d like to get that on tape, no matter what I use it for – whether it’s give to the radio, give it as a free track to some charity or whatever it would be – or get it just for me. And we started recording dates – we did some Philly, we did some in the state of New York, we did New Hampshire – and from basically two shows we got the whole thing. It wasn’t necessarily a walk through the past – I didn’t want it to be one of those records where you just put the greatest hits on. I’m not in the music business –I’m a musician. And the songs that I picked were the ones that we played best – and that is what we really nailed. Quite a few of those songs come from Rough and Tumble – the last album. But there’s a couple of big songs that people would know, but they’re not the obvious big songs. It’s just all done on instinct – it was a pure musical statement. And that’s it – that’s my story.
Your biggest hit Missing You is missing from Live All Access. Do you still like playing Missing You after all of this time and what made you decide not to include that particular song?
It just didn’t fit. We’re thinking about doing another live album in about six months. They’ll be another bunch of songs recorded, and if it fits on that record, then maybe it’ll go on that one. If not, it won’t, I don’t get sick of singing it – it’s a beautiful song and it touches the audience so deeply. We owe it to the audience to play it. We’re only forgotten to play it twice I think in the last five years where somebody wrote out the set list wrong and we left it out. There was no real reason. It’s a statement record. I’m not going to be coy – there’s way more to me than Missing You. And it seems to be such a gigantic song in my career, that it has overshadowed quite a lot of what I’ve done since. If you’re lucky enough to write one of those in your life, then to complain about it would be the mark of an idiot. I’ve managed to write something there that’s touched millions of people. And I hope that If You Ever Get Lonely – the track that we have out now – has the same effect. Love And Theft – a band down in Nashville – has recorded If You Ever Get Lonely and put it out. It’s 48 I think this week – they had a number one single last year with Angel Eyes, so they’re quite an up and coming band. So there’s quite a possibility of having a hit on country and having a hit on rock simultaneously. But I don’t know – we released a remastered version of If You Ever Get Lonely – and I’m on the phone with you talking about the new album, so obviously the focus is on the record doing well and If You Ever Get Lonely actually going Top Ten. But I can’t say what’s going to happen. It’s enough to make the record – you just make these things and you put them out there. Rough and Tumble, the last record, the track itself went to number one on Classic Rock. We were working like four nights a week, sleeping in Motel 6, getting up at 4 in the morning to do TV or fly somewhere – doing Fox Regional TV and we stayed on the road for a long time – but we got the single to Number One. But it cost me half a million dollars.
A half a million dollars? Really?
I didn’t make any money at all. You just spent all of the money touring. But it got us a number one single, so we got back in the public eye. And then Missing You showed up in the Warm Bodies movie, which was like a big press thing. We did a lot of things that just happened – and it just seemed right to release something. And the songs I picked like Evil – they’re just great songs – I just wanted to share it with people. It’s on ITunes – if you want it, you can just hit the button and then you get it. As a musician, I’m just putting music out.
One of the songs that did make it on the Live All Access album was Change – which was all over MTV in 1982. How do you feel about that song after all this time, and especially the Change video when you look at it again?
It’s an interesting time. I had just moved to New York and I had been there about 18 months when I finally recorded that album. But my life had come to revolve around New York City. I was very interested in film – still am – I could talk to you about any director you could bring up – I probably know his movies and even in some cases who the camera man was – I mean I’ve always been into film. The idea was to make a small movie. There was this director called Kort Falkenberg III who also did Missing You. There was a strong story line in both videos. I look at it now and I see a 28-29 year old John Waite running up and down in what is like a small movie. When I tear my face off at the end and “There’s John!” There’s humor in it and there’s depth in it, so I’m pretty proud of the work I’ve done. I don’t think I’ve made one of those videos where you go like, “Oh Christ!” I’ve seen a couple of people do that, and it’s ruined their careers. I’ve seen a couple of people that I knew make videos that were so ridiculous; it took them out of the music business.
Do you remember who the blonde girl in the Change video was?
You know, I’ve forgotten, but she’s a lovely girl. She’s a guitar player that has a band that tours. I bumped into her a while ago and although I’ve spaced on her name, she’s a professional guitar player. (Editor’s Note: Her name is Tina Gullickson and she plays with Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band.)
Rough and Tumble – is there any story or particular concept behind that title?
The idea was – I was listening to a lot of Tina Turner and I was listening to a lot of black music. And I was coming out of relationship where I was going to get married again. And I wrote it about sticking together through – you know, people make the big mistake of falling in love and they’re thinking it’s going to be all rose pedals and blue skies – but it’s not. To survive in love – you’ve got to work at it and you’ve got to go through a lot of things together and be open-hearted. Although it’s a very intense sexual song, it’s about living life together and getting through it together. “Rough and Tumble with me” – it’s about no matter what they throw at us; we’re going to survive it. And I thought that was kind of a different kind of love story – and that’s a real masculine “Come on baby, let’s go, let’s dance.”
How close are you to recording a new album, since I think Rough and Tumble came out about two years ago?
I’m pretty close. We’re going to do a live album like I said for release in six months, and then we might actually be in the studio around that time and just go out and record a few gigs and put it out. But I think I’ve got a beat on what I’m going to do – I’ve got two songs in my back pocket that are really out there. But me and Keri have been throwing ideas back and forth so there’s been a lot of writing there. And by the time November comes around, we’ll probably make our first steps into the studio, cut everything, see what we’ve got, go back in, cut everything again – tweak it and put it out. When you go into the studio and you cut the first track – it tells you where the rest of the record is going. There’s a really mystical, magical thing that happens in the first day – I suppose it’s like being a professional. You look at every aspect of what’s going on psychologically, mechanically, technically, politically – and if you’re any good at all, you take those components and move forward and problem solve as you go. But the idea is to capture it – it’s lightning in a bottle, and I try to go for everything live. I don’t like arena rock – I keep saying it and I keep catching myself – but arena rock to me is really huge sounding because they are playing to tapes and there’s been multiple takes and multiple tracks of all of their instruments and there’s reverb and echo on everything. I look at that and think its dog shit – it’s not even music! I’m digging a hole for myself with big classic rock fans, but I really love that purity of seeing a band play live together. And why not? It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.
You mentioned Tina Turner a few minutes ago. What was your opinion of her cover of Missing You?
I wish I had a chance to produce it. She sang the hell out of it and it’s my favorite version somebody’s done of it. Because I remember listening to Tina when I was about 12. It was either Proud Mary or one of the great big hits. I remember looking at the 7 inches of plastic going round. It must have been Proud Mary because I always think of a steamboat when I think about it. But the incredible, sophisticated, beautiful African American spirit – the defiant, gorgeous, sexual throw down excellence of Ike and Tina Turner at that point. And then you go forward a lifetime and there’s Tina singing my song – my words and my melody – and there’s something so beautiful about that, that a little 10-12 year old boy (whatever age I was) – that circle was completed. I love African American music like the blues – it’s been a constant in my life and it’s informed my singing in every aspect. As a writer, I’m influenced by country music – in fact I was all impressed by Western music as a little boy. So a lot of my influences are purely American – with a big slice of Celtic folk Appalachian thrown in. But yeah, Tina, she’s really, really something! There’s Ella Fitzgerald, there’s Etta James and there’s Tina Turner – Bonnie Riatt. A lot of great singers are female –there’s Alison Krauss – entirely different – but I listen to a lot of female singers. The guy thing – I could do what they do really pretty well – I don’t really compete. So when I listen to the singers sing, I like listening to women.
What was it like meeting President Clinton and what brought that together?
I had a mutual friend, Joe Kiani (Masimo Corporation CEO) – he heads up a medical research company that make all sort of breakthrough, innovative instruments you could use in hospitals – like an unobtrusive check for hemoglobin without breaking your skin. Joe is a personal friend of mine – I’ve been a supporter for years and I’ve become very good friends with him. He had these big bashes down the Coast – a hotel called the Ritz Carlton. It’s like booking a palace by the sea. He had these fundraisers – and he’s personal friends with Bill – they went to Africa last year and toured around in a private jet and were trying to work out how to help villages get water – and how cell phones can help fishermen stay fisherman because they could go into the markets on land and see what the best prices were and get to that market before the more professional markets muscle in. It’s all done in the spirit of helping people and Bill Clinton was an amazing president and Joe Kiani is an amazing human being. And I’m blessed I got to spend a little time with Joe and even just more blessed to shake hands with the President. I thought he was a great guy – he gave a great speech. He’s a very impressive human being and he was an impressive president. Clinton left the country in a pretty much raging good condition – and you can’t argue with it really.
What was it like working with Ringo Starr and His All Star Band and how did that come about?
I had been offered to do something else for a considerable amount of money in New York live – and I was thinking about doing it. It was acting onstage and I was thinking about “Well, I’ve acted before, and I’d like to really take it seriously.” But then Ringo – ex-Beatle called – what are you going to do? So I just said yes. And I didn’t hear anything back for about a month – and I was in the bathtub – and the phone rang and it was Ringo. I jumped out of the bathtub and picked the phone up and he says, “How ya doing?” like he was ringing up to say hello. Ringo’s a human being. I was very nervous to meet him, because he’s been a hero of mine since I was about 11. But once you get past the immediate thing – it would be absurd to treat him like a Beatle. I was always cracking jokes and just being myself around him. I can’t really do anything else – I treat everyone the same way – I’m pretty friendly. So I think we got on pretty well. I mean, he’s Ringo! There were a lot of other All Stars in that band, and I was just trying to do my best and play the very best bass I could and sing on key and have fun. But there are odd moments when you think “Jesus Christ, he played with Paul McCartney! What am I doing up here?” But there were a couple of times where I did something on this bass where he followed me or I followed him on the drums, and it was absolutely smack on! And we looked at each other and just grinned – it was good! And those moments make it all worthwhile really.
If you were ever offered to do a reunion with The Babys or even Bad English, is that something you would want to do?
No, I don’t think so. I think the first Bad English record is a pretty good record. The second one was like pulling teeth because we hadn’t written any songs and we were trying to meet a deadline. The Babys – I was in The Babys for seven years – people left and came back. People were there for six years, but I was the guy that served the longest.
Do you still keep in touch with any of the previous members?
I’ve always been on good terms with Wally and Tony – although I’ve never spoken to Wally since the last night The Babys played together. I have never been in touch with Wally and Wally has never called me. And I love Wally – and he respects and loves me I think. I’ve gotten emails back and forth with Tony – we were going to go off for a drink one Sunday about a year and a half ago to talk about The Babys – he kept bringing it up. But it was his son’s birthday, and he had to go to San Diego at the last minute – so we didn’t meet up. I made it pretty clear when we did break up 30 years ago that there wasn’t going to be a reunion. I don’t do that. I give it everything I’ve got, but if it’s broken and it can’t be fixed or it’s going backwards – for me, my head is in a different place as a songwriter. I do throw in the odd Babys song – we do Every Time I Think Of You and Head First and it brings the house down. But if both those songs take 5 minutes to play, we have 80 minutes of other songs that are huge hits that I wrote. We don’t really do any Bad English. But it’s not going to happen. I don’t like that sort of reunion thing – I never did as a kid. I think it’s great to go out on a high note. I’ve read a lot of interviews, and they speak very highly and warmly of me. The Babys are back together and they played a show about a month ago – and it was packed and they had a great show! So there could be a good future for them, and I hope they do really well.
Do you have any message for John Waite fans and when could we see you out on the road touring again?
We’re on the road all the time. Like I said, two years ago, we went out and played every club we could think of. We did radio and TV in the morning and we got that Number One single, but it costs so much money! It almost took me out of the business. I made almost five grand for a year. It was like, “Whoa, okay thanks.” So I can’t do that again, and I think I spent enough time making the point that I could blow any place apart. When we get on a big stage – like we’re doing now – we’re doing fewer gigs but much bigger gigs – the band steps up to a whole different level, and it’s really joyful to be where you could hear everything and you could hear it loud! And you could see people’s faces through the horizon – and it’s really what it’s meant to be. So if you want to check it out, Live All Access is what we are. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done – it’s certainly the best I’ve sung in a very long time. It’s completely live – there’s no overdubs. And there’s a lot of guitar in it. I think you will really have a great time listening to it. I hope you do try it!
(Interview by Kenneth Morton)