Barclay James Harvest
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John Lees Interview, July 1998
This interview was conducted by Keith Domone for the official BJH fan club magazine, Nova Lepidoptera, and first appeared in issue #42 of NL in September 1998.
NL: Tell us about your current project.
John: We’re making a record for Eagle Rock. It’s a solo project, and fifty percent of the music at the moment is new material written by Woolly and myself. Woolly and I are playing on all the songs on the album, including some remakes of classic BJH tracks. We can only record catalogue that’s out of time. There’s a re-recording limitation, so I think it’s anything that was from the St. Annes Music period back.
NL: Is there a benefit to re-recording old things?
John: Just the two of us doing new material would not have been as interesting to the record company as me doing an album that was new material and a re-look at older stuff. We won’t record it in the way that it was recorded in the first place - we’ll take a totally different look at it. It won’t be a straightforward rendition of “Hymn” or “Child Of The Universe” or whatever the songs are that we do.
NL: Do you have any songs in mind at the moment?
I don’t think a decision will be made until the record company have heard the new tracks that we’re doing.
NL: What proportion of the album do you expect to be new?
John: I don’t know. At this particular moment in time it’s fifty-fifty, but that might change dependant on what they feel about the new stuff. It might be sixty-forty, it might be eighty-twenty, old stuff to new! But then it might be the other way.
NL: How’s the new material going?
John: Very well. I would say we’re about half way. It’s very much like the original Barclay James Harvest sound, from before Woolly left. If you can imagine an album that came after Gone To Earth, with all the Barclays together, it’s like that.
NL: Do you feel that that sound was better than the post-Woolly sound?
John: Yeah, because it had a very definite character to it - not just the sound, but what was played as well. Woolly put a certain something into songs that was lacking when he left. Maybe not dramatically at first, but things moved away from the original Barclays sound.
NL: Do you see this as a one-off project or an ongoing thing?
John: The stuff that’s going on the album is only the tip of an iceberg of material. We have found it really easy to go back to square one, where Woolly was and where I was when we were doing Gone To Earth. We don’t have a problem writing songs. We’ve got a wealth of material that won’t go on this album - we’ve got too much material to go on. The possibility is that there will be a second album deal tied in with the contract for the first one. Whether they’ll exercise the option or not would depend on whether the sales warrant it. The deal will give us leeway to record more material, to keep going for a short while. To go on with it if there was no call would be very difficult.
NL: What other musicians are involved?
John: There’s just two local guys: somebody that I’ve known a long time, called Craig [bass], and a mate of his who’s the drummer, Kevin.
NL: Did you consider involving Mel in the project?
John: Yeah. We asked him to come on board. We had a meeting with him, myself and Woolly, explained that we wanted it to go back to a partnership. We went to see Melve to say that was how it was going to work, that if he was on board, we would just split everything three ways like the original partnership. We asked him, but nothing has happened yet. I understand that Les has got the same opportunity to do exactly what we’re doing, and I hope that he does that.
NL: I understand that the deal also involves A Major Fancy.
John: Yeah. The tapes are going down this weekend with Woolly. I would have liked to have done the [remastering] process myself, actually, but we haven’t got the kit up here at the moment. A Major Fancy will come out, it’ll be mid-price and it’ll hopefully have the original sleeve on it. There will also, I think, be some Polydor tracks as well.
NL: Just out of curiosity, will it have the original track titles that were listed in the schedules in 1973, or the ones that were listed on the actual release in 1973?
John: The “Untitled”s? I don’t remember - you’ll have to check and make sure it goes out right!
NL: Are there any plans for live work?
John: That’ll really be generated by what interest is shown in the record. It will depend on Lindsay and David’s perception. We’re certainly willing to do live work. At a personal level, I really want to play in England. It’s just a matter of getting someone to take you on.
NL: Is it too late to organise anything for this year?
John: I don’t know. The album’s scheduled, I think, for October. At the kind of level we’re talking about touring, it shouldn’t take long.
NL: What kind of level would you envisage?
John: Small is good! Small theatres are really nice to do, rep. theatres, universities, things like that.
NL: What are your feelings now about River Of Dreams?
Two songs were recorded like we’re recording now, “River Of Dreams” and “Yesterday’s Heroes”, and they’ve definitely got a different feel from all the other tracks. As soon as we got the deal with Polydor and we came into the studio it went right back to square one, people working on their own. All those songs were wasted, because they never turned out like they were supposed to turn out.
NL: Do you think that BJH will ever play together again?
John: There is a way, as a four-piece, but not in any other form as far as I’m concerned. I can’t see it, unless somebody comes along with a couple of million quid! I just think that it’s come to the end of the road, it doesn’t function as a unit. I wouldn’t close the door on it - if something came in I’d consider it, but we should really pull away from it for a while.
NL: Did you enjoy doing last year’s tour in Germany and Switzerland?
John: No, it didn’t feel right. There was constant competition within the band, and eventually it tears itself apart. I’m as guilty as anybody else, but if you’re trying to promote something and you don’t believe in it, then you won’t give it 100%.
NL: Is it going to be different this time with Woolly?
John: It’s gonna be as it was. Until he left, he was very involved, and it was significantly different. I don’t know whether people understand how the original Barclay James Harvest worked, but it was a partnership between four people. When Woolly left it became a limited company. When Barclay James Harvest first started off, it didn’t matter who wrote the song, it was split four ways. In the early days it was credited to “Barclay James Harvest”, then it went to credits to whoever had written it, but monetarily it was still split four ways. Somewhere along the way that changed. People weren’t satisfied with that, they wanted to get their own royalties and not share them. When we went back to this project, I really felt that if things were shared, it got rid of this element of competition, which is really destructive. When we’re writing, it’s a meltdown of ideas and it’s very difficult to say that one person wrote this. You can tell from the style who’s had the most input, but there are things going on that are every bit as important to the finished song as the actual writing of the song itself - you can’t see the line!
NL: After nearly twenty years, is it easy to get that chemistry back between Woolly and yourself?
John: I didn’t know whether it would be, and that’s why we had a couple of days together to see how things went initially. We weren’t any different to when we were at school together or when we were in the early bands. It became obvious that it was something that hadn’t changed. I have my way of looking, he has his way of looking, and when the two come together, I think you get a pretty magic sound - other people might not think so! Woolly was the soul of Barclay James Harvest, and when he left the soul went out. Of any of us, he was the one that wasn’t doing it for fabulous wealth and riches, he wasn’t the one that was looking for the pot of gold and the superstardom, and he was the least competitive of all of us.
NL: What are your musical hopes for the future now?
John: That people listen to what we’re doing in the right context. We’re not trying to re-live past glories, we’re not trying to be rock stars, superstars, anything like that, we’re just songwriters writing songs. We’re middle-aged guys, we’re not trying to appeal to Radio One or Top Of The Pops or anything like like that. People should listen to it as mature music. If they do that, then we’ll be OK.
NL: What kind of music are you listening to yourself these days?
John: Brass bands!
NL: So can we expect a brass band album?!
John: No, but you might get a brass band on one of the tracks! I have really strange tastes; Classic FM, brass band music, I like Pulp, I like Oasis, I like Paul Carrack. The last CD I bought was This Is Hardcore by Pulp. I think it’s great - it’s like what we do! I think he is a very clever man, I like him very much, especially what he did to Michael Jackson!!
NL: For what would you like Barclay James Harvest to be remembered?
John: Gone To Earth. I though it was a good album, it was perhaps the last of the good times.
NL: What have been the best times? Anything that particularly stands out?
John: Recording with Eliot Mazer in San Francisco. It was fabulous - we had an absolute ball recording Time Honoured Ghosts. A fantastic place, someone paying you to make a record in San Francisco, it was great.
NL: Are there any concerts that stand out in your memory?
John: Well, obviously Berlin, whether for all the right reasons or not - it was a terrifying experience. I think both of the Berlin concerts, but of all the things that stick in my mind, I think when we went back to Germany [in 1977] to do the tour that got cancelled. The first gig was at the Philipshalle in Düsseldorf, and it was just phenomenal. That tour was really great, and I suppose the pinnacle was the open-air concerts, Loreley and all those [in 1979].
NL: Finally, any message for the fans reading this?
John: I just hope that they carry on enjoying the music and getting something out of it, because that’s what it’s all about, really.