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Les Holroyd Interview, April 1990
This interview was conducted by Keith Domone and Kevin Goodman for the official BJH fan club magazine, Nova Lepidoptera, and first appeared in issue #9 of NL in April 1990.
NL: First of all, congratulations on the new album. Now that the dust has settled, how do you feel about it?
LES: I'm still quite happy with it, in fact I played it this morning. I played "Halfway to Freedom" - you know that's going to be the next single? [in Germany] I've been trying to think of a way that we can boost it for a single, maybe do a different mix on it for a 12". What do you feel about it as a single?
NL: For Germany it's ideal, but I don't think it would do much here.
LES: No, I don't think it would, but having said that, who knows? We thought that "Cheap the Bullet" was going to do something - it hasn't done anything here or in France.
NL: Does there come a point in England, though, where whatever you release is not going to do anything?
LES: Sadly, I think yeah; I don't know if we've actually reached that point yet. it's hard to know, because we are aware that we've got people out there that are still very much into the band and want to see the band in concert and want to buy the band's material. On the other hand, we've got to look at it from a future point of view. We' re not kidding ourselves because we are all past forty, so we' re actually on borrowed time here to an extent: Having said that I'll go back on that and say it has changed a lot; certainly for bands like Us and a lot of people like Clapton, for example, because rock has become established. it's not Pop -there's a distinct difference and unfortunately most of the record companies can' t see that. You've got to be promoted as a Pop act; that's where the problem lies for us in England, because the only way to get across now is to do a single and a video.
NL: Which you did with "Cheap the Bullet", didn't you?
LES: Then they won't play it: Top Of the Pops is the one, unfortunately. If you ,re not on there your record doesn't sell. The stupid system is that if you don't get in the top forty nobody puts it in the shops. They don't display it, and if they don't display it, it doesn't sell. There's absolutely nothing we can do.
NL: We're talking about the radio and TV media ignoring it - would you rather have that or would you rather have the press media who gave it some appalling reviews? What's your reaction to those?
LES: I don't take any notice of those, I honestly don't know anybody who does. The main one is TV/radio, that's what annoys me. it's your choice to actually pick up a newspaper or a magazine, - you have to actually physically go in the shop and buy it. If you re driving along and you put the radio on, whatever is on goes into your head.
NL: What kind of thing inspires you to write a song?
LES: Everything, everything that you hear, every situation that you come across. We've done a lot of travelling throughout Europe, seeing Berlin and things like that. Everybody sees what's happening in the world. People that don't write songs, maybe they'll go out to a pub and talk about it with their mates; that's all we' re doing, but we're just putting it down in a song because we don't have many mates!
NL: Do you have a particular favourite song that you've written?
LES: I like "Berlin", and off the new album I like "African Nights", but that's just a personal thing. Whether it's on a musical level or a lyrical thing I couldn't really tell you.
NL: Can you remember the very first song that you wrote?
LES: The very very first one was a track called "I'm The One Who's Loving You". I wrote it on a cello, and that's probably why it wasn't recorded! No, it was all right, actually, it was a sort of McCartney-type ballad. it was a long time ago, that - it was about 1966, 1965 possibly.
NL: How long does it take you to write a song, and how do you go about it?
LES: Normally the idea comes and I put it down in some format on one of these little tape things, I always carry one of those around with me. I never used to - I used to get the most incredible ideas; you wake up and think "that's great, if I remember that's an E and that goes to F sharp, I won't forget it". You go to sleep, you wake up and you've forgotten it, so I always have one of those. From that I put it together with the drum machine and keyboards mostly and work from there. I might do it on the piano here, but it depends on the song. I think "Kiev" was written in two hours complete, arrangement and everything, which was very unusual. I sat down, and just started with the idea for the music. I wrote the lyrics in about half an hour, which is incredible for me, because I always stumble a bit on lyrics. I tend to write the music first.
NL: Apart from your horses, what are your other interests?
LES: Cars, old cars. I've had a few classics: I've got an old Mercedes sports car that I'm doing up, I've just bought another one which is in much better condition, and I've got the old BMW there which is very rare - they only did five hundred.
NL: Have your musical tastes changed since you were last asked?
LES: Not really, no. To be honest I haven't listened to a lot of music recently, or other people's music. You tend to go back over favourite albums - Toto, Chicago; I was listening to Jon & Vangelis' "The Friends of Mr Cairo" in the studio to try and get a similar sort of echo on something. I used to play that all the time, it is a really good album, a beautiful album. That's the sort of thing I tend to listen to rather than anything that's current.
NL: I wanted to ask about a few specific songs. Somebody asked me whether "Shadows on the Sky" was written about Vietnam.
LES: No. That is a problem when you write things like that that tend to be a bit abstract in the lyrics. No, it's actually about the elephants and rhinos; it's hard to explain if people haven't been to Africa, but you can actually see for miles and miles, and if you see any animal it looks like a shadow on the horizon
NL: Staying on that one, why did you re-record it?
LES: Because it wasn't finished!
NL: Were you annoyed, then, that the unfinished version came out on the single?
LES: A little bit, yeah, but it tends to happen. That was an edited version. it was all right, but it wasn't musically correct; there was half a chorus missing on the second chorus where it went into the middle eight, there were odd vocals missing. There was nothing lyrically there that changed. it was a totally different mix, it was a softer vocal: I think on the original mix we put the oral exciter on it and tended to overdo it a little bit. We were pretty close to distortion on a couple of tracks on the original mix; that's certainly what happened to "Cheap The Bullet". We had to be very very careful bringing that up for a single, because it was very dose to distortion, so you have to compensate, you roll off a little bit of bass to push the vocal out.
NL: When you first started doing the album John said it was going to be all digital, and it's come out with an AAD rating.
LES: Andy Mac is absolutely furious about that: it is totally digital. The only thing you can do when they do the rerun on it is change it then. The problem is there's so many formats.
NL: "Halfway To Freedom" was written before the events in Eastern Europe towards the end of last year. Was it prophetic?
LES: Quite probably! I've done that on several occasions. I think it was on the cards if people had looked; certainly after doing the East Berlin concert I was convinced that the Wall was definitely going to be down before Christmas. it wasn't specifically about Germany, I must confess that. I think what sparked it off was Romania, because I'd been following that for quite some time. I just couldn't believe what was happening out there, and I couldn't believe furthermore that no one knew about it in England - no one wanted to know. I think it was about the whole of that situation.
NL: Could you see the band doing another big Berlin gig?
LES: I can, yeah. This is probably a bit of a prophecy, too, but I can see us doing a concert at the Brandenburg Gate. I don't know how we'd do it, because to organise a gig that size you'd need so much sponsorship and everything, but I think it's on the cards to do something like that. it's a problem at the moment because everyone wants to do something in Berlin. I don't want to be seen as jumping on any bandwagon. We never have. I mean, if we wanted to do that we've had 20-odd years to do it - we've had plenty of opportunities!
NL: What's your feeling about the most recent developments in Germany, about reunification and the East German elections? Are they going the right way about it do you think?
LES: That's a difficult one. I think they've moved with their hearts instead of their heads, and that's understandable. I think it needed to happen that fast, otherwise it wouldn't have happened, because they'd have got bogged down in so much red tape (if you'll pardon the pun!), so it's got to be a good thing.
NL: "Welcome To The Show" is in many ways the most interesting of your songs lyrically on the new album. it seems that you're using the metaphor of the entertainment business to attack the political use of entertainment methods; does that kind of cynical attitude also reflect what you think about the music business?
LES: Not really, no. I think it's just something that from my own personal point of view had to be said. it's interesting that you picked up on that, because nobody wanted that track to go on! They were all a bit sort of, "I don't really like the lyrics on that one"! it was just my own view of the whole media thing, and it was really saying that it's totally irrelevant to what we're doing. We're not Bananarama: we don't need Cyril Smith to sell our albums, thank you very much!
NL: What's the difference for you between recording songs and playing them live?
LES: Recording tends to get a bit boring. I like both of them, but recording you can only actually see it when you get to the finished thing, or the mixing stages. You might go over a song 500 times, probably more, I've never actually counted. it's difficult to get any enthusiasm. it's obviously better to do it live because you only have to do it once.
NL: Would you ever think about recording an album "live", actually playing as a band - one take and that's it?
LES: We have thought about it, yeah. We did get close to that on "Time Honoured Ghosts"; we actually did that fairly live, even to the point where John had to change from acoustic guitar to electric halfway through the number. He had to get out of his acoustic, tiptoe over, pick his guitar up and it was a Strat, so he had to get away from the amp and turn it off!
NL: Are you a perfectionist in the studio?
LES: I would think so, yeah, I think we all are. I think that the people we work with are as well. For example, I'll probably say "That's as good as we can get" and Andy Mac'd probably say "Well, let's just try for one more", and then you try for one more and you think "Well, that's not right", so you go for another one so that you're both happy. Hopefully it comes across on record. A live thing's totally different and it annoys me when people say you've overdubbed something on the record. Of course you have to do that sometimes, because in a live situation nobody is perfect.
NL: But should a live album be perfect?
LES: I don't think you'd do anyone a favour by putting, for example, a bass guitar passage on with some sort of distortion or a mains hum on it. So you replace things like that. it's not that you played it wrong, it's that the sound is wrong and is messing everything else up. The same thing with occasional vocals - if they're drastically flat, because in a big gig situation sometimes you can't hear it, or you're just singing badly - like I say nobody's perfect: - I really wouldn't like that to go down on disc to be played over and over and over again. Certain things like keyboards, if you play a bum note then fine, but vocals are very personal things. I'm not saying it's done all the time because it isn't, but on several occasions we have had to do that. On a live gig it's there and it's gone; ten seconds later you're into the next line and you'll never hear that again, but on disc the more you play it the worse it gets, particularly if it's on video as well. That's even worse -looking at yourself doing bum notes:
NL: What did you think of the "Victims of Circumstance" video?
LES: I didn't like it.
NL: Did you have any say in the non-live footage?
LES: Not a lot. We just let them get on with it, basically because we were too busy to do anything else. it is a problem that we've got round recently by saying that any videos of the band must be done in a semi-live or live context, because that's what we are.
NL: You didn't take exception to my comments in the last magazine, then, when I said it looked like an advert for Turkish Delight?
LES: Actually it did, didn't it - except the Turkish Delight one was better! The other side of it is that because we haven it had the major successes in Britain, a lot of these people go back to the roots of the band, and this is why we can never lose this image of being like boring old hippies. I don't think we are, in fact I know we're not: They won't let you lose that image, and consequently when you get someone in like Mike Mansfield to do the video, it's back to the old image of peace and love and all that.
NL: Have there been any funny incidents on tour?
LES: One that springs to mind was a big Friday night concert at the Students' Union at Manchester University or UMIST, and the Moody Blues were supposed to be playing. The Moodies didn't turn up, so they asked US to play. it was a really big audience and we finished the gig with "Nights in White Satin", because at that point in time we did actually do that number, and we got an encore for it! The best thing of the lot was when we met the drummer, Graeme Edge, and John Lodge. it was the first time that we'd actually come face to face with them, at a Christmas party or something, and Graeme Edge was under the impression that we were just starting in the business. He was spouting on for about an hour about the dos and don'ts of the business; at that point Lindsay walked in and introduced US and the guy's face was incredible! He never lived it down.
NL: What's your earliest memory of Barclay James Harvest?
LES: As a four piece - because we were Barclay James Harvest a little before then, when we started with a singer, but I can't remember having gigged or done anything at that time - one of the earliest must have been the gigs in Belgium that we did. I can remember playing a gig in Londerzeel with the Nice, so that must be '68 or something like that. Our manager at the time had a Ferrari, and I remember driving from Ostend to Londerzeel in this Ferrari doing about 150 miles an hour -a Ferrari "Superfast" - and it was!
NL: When Woolly left, how did that affect your role within BJH?
LES: Not a lot, to be honest. We'd always all of us played guitars and keyboards, so even in the days when Woolly was there a lot of the keyboard stuff was done by myself and John. From that point of view getting our personal ideas across was much easier. In recording I could take my song in and play it rather than having to say to someone how I wanted it and having to compromise. Not replacing him, not getting a fourth member as such didn't limit us in any way. it didn't matter if it was one, two, three or ten people there so long as the band was still the three of us.
NL: At the time did you think that that was the end of the band?
LES: No, definitely not. it was the start of the real big concert circuit in Germany. I think that's one of the reasons why he left. We did the big venues after that and the Berlin gig, so we've never looked back. I think that's wrong to do that, because if you start analysing I don't think you'd ever go out on the road again. You've got to think forward - this is why I don't take any notice of what people write about us.
NL: Do you take any notice of what fans write about you?
LES: To an extent you've got to listen to the fans; the fans are more relevant than the press, aren't they? They're the ones that have actually stood there for hours waiting to see you and watched while we played, bought all the records. If they've spent that much time and money then they want it to be good.
NL: Did you enjoy working with Jon Astley and Andy Mac?
LES: Jon did pre-production more than anything and he had a lot of ideas, but when it comes to the actual production of the album I think it should have been credited the other way round: Andy MacPherson and Jon Astley. Andy didn't really get the credit; I hope he does because he is a perfectionist.
NL: So you'd be happy to work with Andy again?
LES: Absolutely, absolutely. it's completely in the dark at the moment as to what we're going to do for the next album; the only definite, or rather 99.9% definite, is that we will be recording at Revo, and we will be using Andy Mac.
NL: Were the session musicians on this album your choice or Andy's?
LES: Andy's been around a long time, he's a musician himself, so he's obviously got a stable of session people that he uses, so it's partly Andy's friends and partly people that we know or knew of. Ritchie's worked with us before, we knew Ian Wilson through his work with Sad Café, and we'd heard of the Living In A Box keyboard player, Steve Pigott.
NL: Are there any songs by other people that you would like to interpret?
LES: I can't really think of any. I'm sure there are; it's difficult with rock songs, you can only do them one way, but ballads you can put your own interpretation on. I'll tell you what I would like to do - an album of carols. Just picking various carols and having various bands do them, and maybe trying it ourselves.
NL: Which one would you like to do?
LES: I think "Silent Night" is a good one, particularly if you did the German version as well, because it is a German carol.
NL: Who has been a particular influence on the way you write?
LES: I can't think of any one individual. I suppose the people that I have listened to most in the past have been the American bands; obviously a lot of influence from the early Crosby, Stills & Nash era, Chicago would be a big influence, I think, Toto. Individual singer/songwriters, I suppose currently, or going back just a few years, I like the Phil Collins/Steve Winwood type people. it's a difficult question: I think everyone that you hear that you like; it might even be classical music that you play.
NL: Are there any new bands around that you like?
LES: I can't really say that there are, because I don't listen to any. it's not by choice, it's just that I hate listening to the radio - the only time I listen to radio is when I'm on the road. Bands like Wet Wet Wet, who for me were one of the better bands of recent years, aren't new any more. Maybe I'm just getting old!
NL: Going back to playing live, you said that you like to look to the future. How do you feel about playing your old songs live?
LES: It doesn't bother me - I'd play them all! The problem is that you're getting to a three or four hour concert; this is what you can it get over to people. When you actually get the stage act together, people say "You can't leave that out", but if you leave that out it means you can do one more new one, or conversely, if you put that in you've got to lose one more new one.
NL: Are there songs in the set that you think you can't leave out?
LES: ",Hymn". John tried to drop it last time, and we said "There's no way you can drop that". If one of the new ones is a massive hit, then maybe we'll consider finishing with "Hymn" and then coming back and doing whatever it is, but it would have to be very strong to do that because "Hymn" is a real killer!
NL: People have suggested that you could drop things like "Child of the Universe" or "Poor Man's Moody Blues" and put in different old ones.
LES: Yeah, that's a possibility; we did put "Medicine Man" in - I really wouldn't mind. When I write songs for an album I'm thinking of the big gigs that we're going to be doing, and if I do a big ballad I always try and envisage myself in an open air situation, and think about how this sound comes across at night; you can judge that songs like, for example, "Halfway To Freeedom" would go down well. Certain tracks can't really be done They'd be nice to try, but you know that they'd sound a poor second best to some of the other ones that perhaps don it come across as well as they should do on record, but in a live situation they would. I'm thinking specifically about "African Nights"; that wouldn't be a good live number, because it's a singalong acoustic-type thing. From my point of view, my tracks, there are certainly three good ones that could be done. I think "Halfway To Freedom" definitely, "The Life You Lead" is another good live one, possibly "Shadows" would be a good live number. You never know until you get to rehearsal.
NL: It's interesting that a lot of the German venues are smaller this time than you've played before.
LES: Everyone's gone down a notch - even Prince has had problems this time. It's just the state of the market, and we're all hoping it's going to pick up again. We've had a problem in Germany this time, because the Olympiahalle is closed for a few months because they've got structural problems, and it just so happens that it's closed when we're touring, so instead of doing that which has a capacity of 7, 8 or 9,000, we're doing the Deutsches Museum for two nights which is the same capacity. it's a problem when you start booking at venue availability.
NL: Any chance of any summer open airs this year?
LES: I think so. I think it's inevitable if this record keeps selling for another two or three weeks as it is doing, and jumps back up the charts - if it gets to Top 5 there's a very strong chance. Another prophecy!