Songwriter Interviews

John Wetton of Asia (ex-King Crimson)

by Greg Prato

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After a battle with cancer, Wetton passed away on January 31, 2017. This interview took place in 2014.

Few can match the impressive résumé of singer/bassist John Wetton. After all, the British musician is best known for his work with Asia and King Crimson, but over the years, has also been spotted playing with Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, UK, and Wishbone Ash (and additionally, has issued sporadic solo albums on his own).

And Mr. Wetton is quite an underrated songwriter, to boot, as he co-penned Asia's two biggest hits, "Only Time Will Tell" and the mega-hit "Heat of the Moment," as well as such Crimson classics as "One More Red Nightmare" and "The Great Deceiver."

Wetton chatted with Songfacts about Asia's 14th studio album overall, Gravitas, how the band overcame the exit of guitarist Steve Howe, the stories behind some classic compositions, and what he thinks of his band's storyline in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

And to add to his list of accomplishments, he just may have set the Songfacts record for longest answer to an opening interview question...
Greg Prato (Songfacts): If you want to start by discussing the new Asia album, Gravitas.

John Wetton: Okay. The way that Geoff Downes and I operate, we are the songwriting team out of Asia; nearly every song from Day One has been a Wetton/Downes composition. So it's the same method: we sit in a room with a hat full of ideas each, and we sort through them and see which is going to be compatible. Then we get down to stripping it and seeing what's going to work. It's a process we've been through so many times over the last 30 years. We normally do one of these preliminary sessions either at my house here in my music room, or at Geoff's studio in Wales.

And when we've got enough, we start to map out the ideas on a computer. We didn't do that in the early days, but that's what we do these days. We'll set the tempo, we'll set what the format of the song is, what key it's in, where the bridge is, where it modulates to - everything basically.

We'll take that into the main studio, put that down on the hard drive of the main computer and then people will come in one by one and do their overdubs. And somehow miraculously, about 18 months later, we end up with a record.

Now, the last album was done exactly like that, and we had a bit of a crisis. A possible catastrophe in that Steve Howe announced that he was leaving the band. He'd been in the band since the beginning, which was 32 years ago, so one of the big features of us reuniting in 2006 was that it was all four original members, so it could have been a bit of a stumble for us.

I got a little bit of advance warning during the fall tour in 2012 that Steve was going to be announcing his departure when we hit San Francisco. I had three days in Los Angeles with an old friend of mine, Jeff Fayman, whose company, Immediate Music, does a lot of film stuff, orchestral stuff. I was happily ensconced there. We were going out for dinner and I got a call saying Steve will be announcing in three days time that he will be leaving the band, so if we wanted to carry on, we needed to get some homework done.

My favorite candidate would have been Steve Lukather. When I spoke to Carl Palmer, he said yeah. Because Steve has some form with the band. He played on "Days Like These" in 1989 I think it was [the song appeared on 1990's Then & Now], and he's also a personal friend. I thought he would be perfect for this band.

Carl Palmer thought that Paul Gilbert from Mr. Big would also be a really good candidate. We had an incredibly short list. We had two people, really, and both of them were happily ensconced in their respective métiers. Steve said, "Thank you very much, I'm very flattered, but I can't," and then Paul said the same thing. When Paul said that, we said, "Well, hang on. Do you know someone who can?" And he said, "Yeah. I know two guys, actually."

He travels a lot, he teaches a lot, he meets young guitar players all the time. He says, "I know two guys. One's American, one's British. Here's their contact details. Look at them on YouTube."

So we did that. We took a good old weekend looking at the YouTube performances of both of the guitar players. Both were actually neck-in-neck. There wasn't really much to choose between them, except that Sam Coulson, what he had going for him was a vibrato to die for and the fact that he was a completely blank page that had never, ever been involved in anything in the music business at all. So he had no history.

He's got a very good technique. It's quite bluesy, which is the diametric opposite of Steve Howe, which is what we wanted if we were to go different. We didn't want to replace Steve Howe, we wanted to enhance the band with someone different. Someone who people would see and go, "Wow, that guy's good, and he's nothing like the guy that came before." So that's what we were after, no comparisons, just this guy that would blow your head off.

And he has no history. He's kind of a man of mystery. He's 27 years old. He comes from the same part of the UK that I come from, same part of the country that Carl comes from. That in no way swayed the vote his way at all - we would have been just as happy with an American. But both of our first choices were American.

So he had that kind of unknown, and he had this blinding vibrato. Fantastic. He could play the parts on the old stuff, but with a different take on them.

We wanted to make an album that was a little bit tougher, had a little bit more of an edge to it, so he fitted the bill perfectly. He didn't have this massive influence on the band - we were going that way anyway.

So we came up with this slightly harder, tougher album. And at the time what I wanted to do in San Francisco was after Steve Howe had made an announcement that he was leaving the band to concentrate on Yes, I wanted to come out three hours later with a statement that said, "But Asia continues, Asia has a new guitar player, it's working on a new album called Valkyrie, it's going to be headlining one night at the Sweden Rock," which is the big festival in Europe. And with full backing of record company and management. So it looked like a fairly seamless recovery for us. We didn't miss a beat, so that's the way it came out.

At that time the new album was only one title, which was Valkyrie, and four chords, which was the chorus. That's all we had, but we bluffed our way through it. It looked like we had a lot more than we did, in fact.

But I'm fairly confident; when I've got four chords and a title I know I can walk into a room with Geoff Downes and six hours later we come out with a song. I'm that confident. [Laughs] We've done it before, we'll do it again, I'm sure.

So we kind of muddled the whole album around Valkyrie, really. It was not a concept, but it was kind of a direction for us. It has a slightly darker edge to it than we've had in the past. In the past we've had criticisms leveled at us that we stand on slightly the pop side of progressive rock, and we've always wanted to go a bit darker.

Some of our subject matter is quite dark, but traditionally, Asia material is incredibly personal lyrics, incredibly personal. Stuff that I wouldn't tell a priest, over fairly lush, colorful, pop-y backgrounds. It's been the same story since Day One, really. If you look at "Only Time Will Tell," "Heat of the Moment," "Wildest Dreams," it's the same story. These are very intensely personal lyrics, over this bombastic, lush soundscape.

So it's very much business as usual, except you've got a slightly different guitar color in the mix, which is a bit harder, so it fitted the mood perfectly. Some big chords and there's bluesy, blues orientated solos that really hit the button. And the album, Gravitas, captured this mood, every part of it has this little atmosphere, which is great. A lot of it is about the breakup of relationships - it's about divorce, it's about all kinds of stuff like that. It's got the odd bit of positive love in there, but there's a lot of disorientation in it, as far as I'm concerned.

But actually that kind of stuff strikes a chord with a lot of people not only my age, but in these desperate times that we live in. A lot of people aren't that happy with what they've got, so a lot of people identify with that. I get lots of feedback from fans, from people who have followed the band, and they liked it immediately.

We just do the same thing, really. I always try and make a record that I would buy. I want to be in a band that if I wasn't in it, I'd want to be in it, and I want to make an album I'd want to buy, and that I'd tear my arm off to play on.

For Geoff and myself, the song is the king. We both agree 100 percent on that. The song has to win over any individual performance every time. The song has to come out looking like the king of the heap. For us, it's paramount that you don't sacrifice the song to enhance one guy's reputation. The song comes first - that's our bread and butter, and we guard it jealously.

So we are intensely careful about how we craft our songs. We use conventional techniques: Almost every song that we write has a bridge, which will have a chord modulation that takes you away from what you've been used to in the verse and chorus and brings you smack back. It takes you around the block and lands you in the same place that it left you. I heard Don Henley do it, and it's absolutely brilliant. I love it. Someone's actually taken the time to craft that bridge so it brings you back either in a new key or it brings you back to where it left you. I love that.

There's a certain kind of professional pride that we have when we do that. So we're not unconventional songwriters, we just go the way that the song seems to want to go... I'm doing all the talking here!

Songfacts: Who was the American guitarist that Paul Gilbert recommended?

Wetton: His name is Timmons.

Songfacts: Oh, is it Andy Timmons?

Wetton: Andy Timmons, that's right. Great guitar player. Fantastic. I just think that we did the right thing. No disrespect to Andy at all. He's fabulous. Andy will find his niche. He was playing the Iridium the week after me, so he's obviously gigging.

But on every level I feel that we got the right guy. And when you're looking for a guitar player, you don't ask what school they went to. What color they are, or religion. It doesn't matter. You're after the guy that's going to be the right person.

The two aforementioned guitarists that were in the running to replace Steve Howe in Asia certainly could have fit the bill. Andy Timmons first hit the scene as a member of hair metallists Danger Danger, but has matured into quite a well-rounded player, as evidenced by clips on his official site. But it was Sam Coulson who landed the spot, impressing the band with YouTube clips like this one. You can find out more about the mysterious Mr. Coulson via his official site, as well.
Songfacts: Sorry to get you sidetracked, you were discussing the new album...

Wetton: So yeah, we got the first one under our belt, "Valkyrie." The album was always going to be called Valkyrie. Always. The whole concept was Valkyrie, right up until the last minute when we had a band meeting. There's one thing we do which we never used to do, which has I'm sure contributed to the longevity of this band: We have regular band meetings where everybody gets to say exactly how they feel, so nothing gets swept under the carpet, nothing gets left to fester. We get it all out. If someone's got something to say, they say it.

And at one of these meetings just before the meeting was going to be wrapped up, we were just at the mixing stage and Carl voiced an opinion. He said that he felt that "Valkyrie" was too feminine, that it wasn't tough enough. I said, "Well, I think you're wrong, because if you look at the mythology, the Valkyrie has actually got more power, she's got more balls than the male deities. She's actually a quite serious shaker. But I take your point, and I don't want to force someone into one of my titles that they can't live with."

So I said, "The next one we're working on, let's call Gravitas." And at that point high fives all the way around the room and whoops and gleeful noises coming out. And I said, "Well, okay, I don't mind. Gravitas is a good title, let's go with it."

Actually, "Gravitas" the song, refers to dignity. It's a guy going through divorce. And we all know what joyful occasions divorces are. He's just saying, "For Christ sake, can I come out of this with some dignity?" It's so demoralizing and so demeaning. I mean, anyone that's been through a goddamn divorce will know that. It's horrible. No good for anyone. Nobody wins. Just it's a war of attrition.

So the title comes down to, really, dignity. But it's a nice title, Gravitas, and it works perfectly with the graphics. There's lots of A's in it. In fact, there's all four letters of "Asia" contained in the title. It kind of works, it's karmically quite good. Roger Dean did the cover again, and I think he did a spectacular job.

Songfacts: You mentioned the song "Valkyrie" - what is the lyrical inspiration behind that song?

Wetton: Somebody passed away close to us a couple of years ago, and it hit me very hard, certainly hit both of the songwriters quite hard. It's about wishing and hoping that somebody took them to a better place.

The Valkyrie's job in Nordic folklore was to choose who would die and who would live on the battlefield. Her job then was to make sure that they got safely to Valhalla. It's just wishing someone a safe passage to whatever the next life is - whatever lies beyond this one.

The lyrics, they go beyond that in the song. I put myself in the position of the person who is lying dead on the battlefield, and this spirit comes along and takes me away. It's a joyful song. I would say it's quite dark, but it's joyous. It's triumphant in the end. What I try to do is not leave people in the shit, basically. If I've got a verse to go and my song is in the murky depths somewhere, I'll try and bring it out at the end, the last verse, and give people something to hang onto, because I don't like leaving them down there. They have to have a little bit of optimism at the end. Life's tough, but there is some little ray of hope there at the end.

That's as far as my conscience will go, because there are songs where it just doesn't get any better. There's one, the third song on side... we don't have sides anymore, but if it were on the vinyl album, it would be the third track on Side 1. It's called "The Closer I Get to You," and it starts off as a fairly innocuous ballad. But actually it doesn't get any better. The guy is just completely in bits, he's in pieces. His entire life is falling apart and he doesn't know why. And for some reason I didn't put the Band-Aid on the end, I just let it go. The guy's still completely lost at the end of the song. It's going around in circles. It just didn't seem right. It seemed trite, in fact, to try and resurrect that one. The guy's on his way down and that's it, bye bye. So the old ray of hope thing didn't work in that one.

I'm trying to give you an insight into songwriting as we go along. That's all right, is it?

Songfacts: I'm finding it very interesting, because each songwriter follows a different path as far as songwriting.

Wetton: Well, there aren't any rules, really. I have no idea where it comes from, actually. Usually I'm driving home from the studio and if I've got a backing track and I have a two-and-a-half hour drive back from the studio, I'll be listening to maybe three or four backing tracks. I'll know roughly what the song is going to be about, and sometimes it just hits me. I'm halfway home and it'll be about midnight, and then the whole thing will just spew out. I have no idea where it comes from at all. And my only thought will be that maybe there's a muse sitting in the passenger seat and she's just dictating to me.

The weird thing is, when I get home, I transcribe the whole thing from the Dictaphone in the car onto the computer at home and I'll maybe have four verses out of five. And suddenly I'll get this feeling that the muse says, "Give me that!" And she finishes it for me. I have no idea how that happens at all. It's really mysterious - there's nothing about it that is like doing a math lesson.

I don't take it very badly if someone criticizes what I do. I kind of get the feeling, well, it didn't really come from me, anyway. So how can I take it personally?

But it's a very weird feeling. The pen just flows, the keyboard just writes it. Once it starts rolling, it's very hard to stop it.

Songfacts: Before you were saying that some of the Asia lyrics have been very personal. Where did the lyrical inspirations behind "Heat of the Moment" and "Only Time Will Tell" come from?

Wetton: Okay. "Heat of The Moment," it starts off with an apology. You've never heard that in a rock song before, either. "I never meant to be so bad to you, one thing I said that I would never do." It's not exactly the "macho rock stuff," is it?

My big inspiration when I came out of school and college was learning Dylan Thomas' stuff. And when I came out into the big world of music, one of the main things that hit me was Joni Mitchell. I was so shocked when I heard Joni Mitchell. The honesty of her first-person lyrics were shattering to me as an art school kid who grew up writing six-form lyrics with Richard Palmer-James for our arty school bands. And we would always be looking at someone else, making observations, pointing fingers, making judgments about other people. Never, ever looking at ourselves.

And Joni Mitchell, suddenly there she is, boom. In your face, this is how I feel. Told you about her love life, told you about her disappointments. Fuck. It was like, Oh, okay. That's how it's done. And it was like someone was standing there saying, "If you've got pain, mate, write about your own. Not someone else's." So it took me a little while to get into first person lyrics, but that's where I've ended up. And consequently, the first Asia record was just splattered with my experiences, my emotions. Nearly every song... nearly every song on that album is personal experience.

So certainly "Heat of The Moment," the whole song is just an apology. It's just saying I fucked up. I hold my hand out and I got it wrong. I never meant it to be like that. I didn't want it to be like that. And so I'm sorry. That's basically what "Heat of the Moment" is.

And "Only Time Will Tell," well, it's all gone wrong and it's all your fault, and you'll see. I got stick for that being misogynistic. I'd probably get even worse stick now if it came out today.

But a lot of people didn't realize that in "Heat of the Moment," I was the one saying, "Look, it's my fault, I screwed up." In "Only Time Will Tell," I'm saying, "Well, I know this new guy is not as good as I am, but only time will tell. But you're making a big mistake." That's what I was saying with that one. And they're all from personal experience.

So those are the kind of things that I remember from my romantic experiments in my early 20s. That's the sort of thing I carried into my writing for Asia when I was 30, 31 years old. I'd just done the Wishbone Ash record [1981's Number the Brave] at Criteria in Miami. They would knock off at about 6:00 at night and go to Tony Roma's and goof about for the rest of the night, and I would stay in the studio. I couldn't waste a studio like that with the best time in it - I couldn't do it. Tony Roma's was very nice, but I could go there later.

So I would stay there and write stuff, and it was ideal. I was exposed, I was soaking in Americana. I was living in Miami with a multimillion dollar recording studio at my fingertips, and I made the most of it. I would listen to the radio driving to the studio.

Lennon died while I was there. That was quite an experience. He was one of my childhood heroes, of course. Songwriting, signing - John Lennon was the governor, I thought. So I was completely knocked sideways with that, but it added to the experience for me.

That was an incredibly potent time in my life, and I wrote most of the ideas for Asia I during that period. When I came to meet Geoff Downes, he just put the other bits in. We fit together like two peas in a pod. We come from exactly the same upbringing from the church, an English church music upbringing. What I had when I came out of Miami was a couple of complete songs and a hat full of stuff that wasn't finished. And when Geoff and I got together, suddenly we were chucking out finished songs. Amazing at that time.

Songfacts: One of my favorite albums that you played on was the King Crimson album Red. Can you remember what the lyrical inspiration was behind the song "One More Red Nightmare"? That's one of my favorite songs.

Wetton: Yeah. At that time we were taking about three flights a day. If we had air miles in those days, I'd still be flying on them! This went on for months and months and months on end. It goes without saying that we knew airline crews personally. We'd walk on the plane, "Oh, hi, Joe. Hi Cindy, how you doing? How are the kids?" It's just incredible the amount of flying that that band did. And we had some pretty hairy experiences. "One More Red Nightmare" is just that. It's one of my pre-Joni Mitchell lyrics. It's kind of arty.

I learned a lot from Richard Palmer-James. He's a superb lyricist. I went to school with him. Where he crafts the lyric, I just chuck it out. I just throw the stuff out, and if there's anything clever in my lyrics, it's completely by coincidence or accident. Richard is a wonderful poet.

But on that song, Richard was living in Germany, and we were recording it in London. At that time I was collaborating with Richard on a lot of the lyrics. For instance, we wrote "Starless" in rehearsal, and we went on the road with it. The lyric that I started singing on the road, by the time we got to record it, it was almost finished. It just kind of evolved on the road. I gave it to Richard and I said, "Can you just put that into some kind of order, because it's just a lot of jumbled unconnected ideas," and he crafted it into the lyric that we now know as "Starless." It was just beautiful. But when I gave it to him it was just a load of unconnected phrases that sounded good when you sang them.

So we kind of wrote that one together. We did the same thing with "Fallen Angel." We never played that on the road, but I had ideas for that and Richard just finished them off and we collaborated on some stuff.

Before that he delivered finished poems, basically, so for something like "The Night Watch" from the album Starless and Bible Black, that was a poem. "Lament" was a poem and we just put music to it.

Listen for John on the 2014 Renaissance album Symphony of Light. He appears on the track "Blood Silver Like Moonlight" duetting with Annie Haslam.
But as the band progressed, we sort of developed unbelievably. We were starting to be a really good live band during Starless and Bible Black. You can tell that when we started interspersing bits of improvisation with real studio tracks.

And then by Red, we're actually a fully fledged, in your face, shit-kicking unit, because we'd been on the road for three years. And that does things to you.

So when we recorded Red, all we needed was a setup where we could play it live, basically. We used our live engineer, George Chkiantz, at the Olympic Studios and we set the band up in a live room so that all we had to do was play it, because we'd played it a thousand times before on the road, and it worked.

I think Red is a great-sounding album, and it's basically only three people. Sure, we do little overdubs and there are guests, but essentially, it's three people. The noise that you hear is three people.

And when Steven [Wilson, of Porcupine Tree] did the remix and the remaster, the 5.2 of Red [issued as a "40th Anniversary Edition" in 2009], they had the playback in this big sort of church hall in north London. And Steve Wilson came up to me and he said, "Sounds great, doesn't it?" I said, "Yeah, Steve. It does sound great. But it sounded great in 1974, actually." And I'm not demeaning anything that he's done, but it sounded fucking great in '74. It's bound to sound good.

It think there were other albums of King Crimson that would benefit a lot more from Steven Wilson's touch, like Lark's Tongues in Aspic, which is actually very badly recorded. And I think that would benefit an awful lot more from Steven's touch than, say, Red, which was actually recorded pretty much as we played it.

By the time we did Red we were fairly confident, and you can hear that just listening to the record. The confidence just kind of spews out from the record. Just such a pity the band had to end there for me - I thought we could have done a lot more with that lineup.

Although King Crimson seemed to be entering a very interesting musical phase (as discussed here, a merger of heavy metal and prog rock - one of the first bands to do so), it all came to an abrupt halt on September 25, 1974 - two months before Red was released. Crimson would issue a posthumous live album in 1975 (USA), while Wetton and ex-Crimson drummer Bill Bruford would unite as UK, issuing their self-titled debut in 1978.
Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "The Great Deceiver"?

Wetton: That was about the devil. Everything that Richard Palmer-James wrote is either about the devil or about sex. Or about both. [Laughing] Apart from the odd song about a painting - it's usually about the devil, including loads of sex.

Songfacts: Something else I've always loved about the Red album is it seemed like King Crimson at that point was the heaviest prog band - almost like a mixture of Black Sabbath and prog.

Wetton: Yeah. That's a very accurate summation of what we were doing. We'd learned how to be in-your-face on the road. There are some gigs that you play where you can't be a namby pamby. You can't be pussy-footing around. You've got to hit people really hard, and we'd learned how to do that.

It's just purely from road experience: You go on stage opening up for ZZ Top in Texas, you can't go on the English flowers of the poet's society. It ain't going to work. You've got to come on like a ton of bricks. And by the time Crimson finished, that's exactly what we were. And, yeah, a lot of it was killer metal from the guitar department, and for the bass, sure.

We'd virtually learned to do it as a three-piece by the end. David [Cross, the band's violinist], I like David a lot, but he was becoming more and more ineffectual as the tour went on. At that point you either grasp it or you run away screaming.

Songfacts: Did you ever see the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and are you aware that the head character's a big Asia fan?

While it was such films as The 40-Year-Old Virgin that brought mass attention to the talents of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, they first crossed paths as part of the cult classic TV show Freaks and Geeks. The show only lasted for 18 episodes (originally aired on NBC during the 1999-2000 television series), but helped launch the careers of James Franco, Jason Segel, and Linda Cardellini. Following the lives of several teen (and pre-teen) students set in Michigan circa the early '80s, each episode included some great rockin' tunes, including selections by Queen, The Who, Rush, Styx, Van Halen, Kiss, Joan Jett, Black Flag, X, and XTC, among others.
Wetton: Yeah. Loved the movie. I absolutely loved it! I thought the timing of where they put "Heat of the Moment," when he goes through the billboard was absolutely brilliant. [Laughing] Whoever put that in - they got the timing exactly right.

I love the thing about the guy in the poster, and then the other two discussing why he was gay, because he'd got the poster. I thought that was fantastic. Yeah, I loved it. And that was a seminal movie, wasn't it? As far as that bunch of actors. They've gone on to do fantastic things, all of them. I think it's wonderful. I've followed most of their stuff since. It kind of pushed me into a new area that I haven't been in terms of film. Have you ever seen Sex Drive?

Songfacts: No, I haven't seen it.

Wetton: [Laughing] Okay. If you've got the two-dollar bargain bin version of it, just stick it on for an evening. It's so funny.

Songfacts: Actually, prior to The 40-Year-Old Virgin a few years ago I think it was the director or writer of that movie and also a few of those actors, they were in a short-lived TV series here in the US called Freaks and Geeks. Did you ever hear of that series?

Wetton: No. I didn't know that one.

Songfacts: I highly, highly recommend that. What it is, it's a series that focuses on a group of high school students that were into rock music back in 1980/1981. And they use all the music from that time period, but it's really funny and really well written. I'm pretty sure it's on Netflix and you could also get it on DVD.

Wetton: I will look for that. I'm a big fan of all that stuff.

September 16, 2014
For more Asia, visit the band's official site.

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