|John Sloman - Interview Exclusive|
|Written by Russ P|
|Tuesday, 24 August 2010 06:00|
John Sloman is one of the great and oft-overlooked rock and roll vocalists and no doubt shares that honour with the equally great Terry Reid. Cut from the same cloth as Robert Plant, David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes John has shared the stage with Gary Moore, Trevor Bolder, Mick Box, Paul Chapman, Pino Palladino and Ian Paice. Guitar legends Jeff Beck and Steve Lukather have both recorded songs written by John.
John made his recording debut on Lone Star's incredible second album 'Firing On All Six' in 1977. John's unique vocal style immediately set himself apart from the average frontman. Like Glenn Hughes his influences spread beyond rock into the wider musical world of soul, blues and jazz.
After the sad demise of Lone Star he joined Uriah Heep and, in 1980, released 'Conquest'. Then in 1983 John was onstage with Gary Moore touring the classic and brilliant 'Corridors Of Power' album.
John finally went solo after the demise of his Badlands project featuring John Sykes and Neil Murray and in 1989 released 'Disappearances Can Be Deceptive'.
Since then John has released 'Dark Matter', '13 Storeys' and 'Reclamation' - albums that combine John's strengths as a singer with his strengths as a musician and multi-instrumentalist. His songs are populated by a cast of colourful and memorable characters and, like the old Welsh bitter advert that tells us "Never Forget Your Welsh", John never forgets his Cardiff roots. So join me as - cue wobbly-screen flashback - I travel back in time and talk to John about where it all began.
I first became aware of you as vocalist with Lone Star. 'Firing On All Six' for me was an amazing album. It had it all. Great vocals, great riffs and great songs. I think that this band could've gone on to bigger and better things. How did you view the band at the time?
I loved Lone Star as a group of musicians. And it was exciting to be a part of it. Dixie and Pete were such a great rhythm section. Paul and Tony worked brilliantly together. And Rick was like a mad professor in his lab, mixing the weird with the wonderful. There was a belief within the band that things were really going to happen. And they did for a while. But 1977 wasn't the best time to be in a hard rock band. Especially in Britain. If we'd made the jump to America, we might've rode it out. But in UK, Punk ruled.
After Lone Star you were on my radar and I was eagerly awaiting your next project. Three years later in 1980 you were singing with Uriah Heep on their Conquest album. Maybe it was because I wasn't a big Uriah Heep fan or maybe it was because you had little to do with the songwriting but I never totally got into that album. How did this differ from your experiences in Lone Star where you'd also been brought in as a replacement singer?
Heep were a different proposition. Lone Star was still work in progress, so it could still be moulded into new and interesting shapes. But Heep had such an established sound, it wasn't so easy to deviate from the script so to speak. Although I did from time to time. Most notably when, one night, out of sheer frustration, I sang a jazz scat
solo over 'Gypsy', which was probably the most radical thing anyone's ever done in the history of rock - although the band didn't seem to think so at the time. I did contribute two songs to 'Conquest', by the way - 'No Return' and 'Won't Have To Wait Too Long' - but was not credited.
What do you remember about the photo session depicting the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima?
The day of the album-sleeve photo-session, we were down in the studio. The final mixes were being done. We were summoned upstairs to Bronze offices where five U.S. Marine outfits awaited us, complete with boots, helmets and fake rifles. Amid much banter, we changed into this stuff and marched along Chalk Farm Road to a piece of wasteland. In the middle of this wasteland was a pile of rubble. We were ushered over to this pile of rubble. And there, with the sound of the North London traffic in the background, our re-enactment of this iconic moment in world history took place. That done, it seemed silly to just return to Bronze offices. So, still in our fatigues, and rifles perched on our shoulders, we marched over the road to The Belmont Arms and had a few beers to celebrate the end of the war.
I read in an interview that you had a couple of Uriah Heep albums, which I interpreted as you being a bit casual about the band. Presumably then for any musician perhaps a big selling point was to work with bassist Trevor Bolder given his background with Bowie?
I really did have a few Heep albums. Went to see them live at Cardiff Capitol back in '74. Of course, I was aware of Trevor. I'd seen him so many times with Bowie on
Top of the Pops during the early seventies, I felt like I already knew him anyway. I've heard a lot of that stuff again recently, and the bass playing is brilliant. Some people you hit it off with right away. And Trevor was one of those people. We shared a lot of the same influences. It was Trevor who pushed for me to be in the band. Heep had been on the same Reading Festival bill as Lone Star in '77. And he'd watched our set from the side of the stage.
So when Heep needed a vocalist, he suggested me. I spent a lot of time at his place, enjoying his family's hospitality. We spent a lot of time together, writing and talking music. So the decision to leave the band was not an easy one for me. There were friendships involved. The night I told Trevor, I walked most of the way to his place because I was so nervous about it. Haven't seen him for many years now. But I'll never forget how much he was 'in my corner' during that time.
The next time that I saw you was an amazing experience. I loved Gary Moore's 'Corridors Of Power' album, which was full of great pop rock songs. So when I was watching Gary Moore on TV in 1982 and my friends and I spotted you and watched you come out from behind the keyboards to take lead vocals we were like "fucking hell!" What do you remember about that particular gig?
The show you mention was filmed at a large arena in Dortmund, Germany in December '82. It was actually a festival, which was initially aired in its entirety, but then subsequently edited into separate shows. Aside from ourselves, there was Tom Petty, Chicago, Flock of Seagulls - remember them? - Loverboy, REO Speedwagon. That's as many as I remember. It was filmed over two nights. We'd just played some UK shows, and so, my illness aside, we were up for it. I remember some of the other bands coming to check us out during the soundcheck. I also remember walking around the arena with Ian Paice, just killing time, waiting for the set-up. He looked around and said: "I remember when every night was like this". Playing with Ian was surreal. I'd grown up with bands like Purple, and his solo on 'Made In Japan' was the stuff of legend where I came from. When I did my end of school exams, I had a blast of it every morning before I left for school. Didn't make much difference to the result, but it's an abiding memory all the same. I remember Gary playing out of his skin that night. Also, prior to that, we'd been playing theatres, and suddenly performing to such a large crowd was exciting. I really enjoyed it, in spite of feeling under par. And of course, the band sounded great.
With it being Gary Moore's group it didn't seem like he needed a vocalist. So how did sharing vocal responsibilities come about?
No disrespect to Gary, who I already knew as a brilliant player, but I was reticent about doing it at all. I hadn't sung someone else's material since Uriah Heep. And in the two years since I'd done so, I'd turned down several lucrative offers to be in a band again. I was committed to doing my own thing, come what may. But with Gary, it was a finite period of work. Just three months. I could go off and work with these great players for a couple of months, then get back to my own thing. Badlands had stalled. John Sykes had got the call from Phil Lynott. Neil had already played on 'Corridors Of Power'. He mentioned to me one day that Gary was interested in doing something with me. I'd bumped into Gary once or twice and we'd hit it off. Anyway, I was hired as a vocalist. With some keyboard duties. I had a blow with Gary, Neil and Ian and it sounded good. Don Airey came in later. It was always understood that Gary would sing a couple - 'Parisienne Walkways' of course - couple of others. Personally, I didn't think Gary needed a vocalist. And this was borne out by his subsequent work.
I read that you were ill during the live recording of 'Rockin' Every Night'. I've heard it and it's not bad. Can you not listen to it?
I can honestly say I've listened to it once. And that was more than enough. I was ill during the first leg of the British tour. And such was the schedule; my voice didn't recover till several months afterwards. Imagine someone giving you two dead legs just before you run the Olympic 100 metres sprint. And that's kind of how I felt going on stage every night.
Was it not discussed that perhaps Gary could have performed all the vocals on the nights that you were ill? Were you that determined to make the live recording?
It was never mentioned that Gary would perform all the vocals when I was unwell, because he would've ended up doing most of the tour that way; such was the state of my throat. It was dreadful timing. I caught something during rehearsals, and it worsened in time for the first date of the tour. I love singing. But at times like that, it's the last thing you feel like doing. The pressure on you is suddenly tripled. You really feel like you're letting the side down. But Gary was completely understanding about it. A total gent.
Finally, in 1989, we got to hear the 'real' John Sloman with your album 'Disappearances Can Be Deceptive'. Was this a conscious ambition realised or was it a by-product of band projects falling by the wayside?
'Disappearances' was the end result of a process, which began with my leaving Uriah Heep in 1980. It was always my intention to do an album. The original recordings for 'Disappearances' were made in '84. When I parted company with EMI, the record was shelved for four years. Then, while I was away on tour, EMI did a deal with a label to finally release it. I then re-involved myself in the project, in exchange for some mix time, so I could give the whole thing a fresh coat so to speak. By the time it came out, it was so over-produced, over-mixed, over-everything, it bore little relation to the album I'd set out to record.
On this album it seems that you finally got to put something out featuring your long-time friend Pino Palladino. When and where did you first meet Pino?
Working with Pino was one of the joys of doing the album. Hopefully we'll do it again someday. I met Pino back in '73. He was the guitar player for a band I auditioned for one lazy Sunday afternoon. The band was called Trapper. The drummer in Trapper was another longstanding friend, John Munro, who also played on 'Disappearances'.
It must have been a great privilege to work with Alan Murphy as well. Alan was a fantastic guitarist with a unique style who was all the more amazing, in my opinion, for putting some serious rock guitar into pop music whether it be for Kate Bush, Go West or yourself.
It really was a privilege to work with Alan. He was a great musician, and also a great guy. Pino told me about this band he saw in a pub down the road from where I lived. The pub was The Cricketers. The band was SFX. I went down there the following week and was blown away. I asked Alan to play on some demos. Not only did he play on them, he drove me to the studio and back. I still have those recordings. I love the stuff he did on 'Disappearances'. He was starting to get some recognition, having played on Mike + The Mechanics, Go West. Also, there was a 12-inch remix of a Nick Hayward track called 'Warning Sign' which was basically Alan blowing all over it. Fantastic! Aside from 'Disappearances', he played on some tracks I did for EMI in the early '80s and a couple of tracks I did for Epic Records in the late '80s. It was bloody awful when he passed away. I'd recently seen him on stage with Level 42, and spoken to him on the phone about playing on some new stuff I'd written. I then heard through the grapevine he was ill. But never had a clue how ill he'd been until Pino called me with the news.
'Disappearances' was recorded at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock. What was the journey that took you there?
The album which became 'Disappearances' began life at Todd Rundgren's studio - Utopia Studios. People often confuse Bearsville with Utopia. They're also down the road from each other. How did I get there? I was signed to EMI. We were looking for a producer. They kept sending me lists comprising of Duran Duran/Spandau Ballet producers. It was the '80s after all. I probably got off lightly. Anyway, I had a meeting one day at EMI, and reeled off a few names, one of which being Todd's. I went home, never thinking for a moment that it might happen. A couple of weeks later, I got a call from my A&R man, telling me he was at Capitol Records in Los Angeles, with Todd, who was interested in producing the album. I was blown away. I'd always loved Todd's stuff. I went to meet him at his place in Woodstock around Easter. And returned with the band in June to start the album...
There wasn't an overall producer per se on 'Disappearances' was there supposed to have been?
Todd was the original producer. But when EMI heard the finished album, they insisted on reworking it back in London with Simon Hanhart at the board. There's not enough time left in the universe to do justice to that story.
Todd Rundgren was credited as playing tambourine on 'Foolin' Myself'. Does that just about sum up Todd's involvement on that album?
There was no way I was going to erase that tambourine part! But even though most of the overdubs were re-recorded back in London, Todd's class as an arranger still shone through on tracks like 'Foolin' Myself' & 'Hooked On A Dream', the backing tracks of which were recorded at his place months before. In spite of what happened back then, I still have the utmost respect for Todd as an artist.
After the release of 'Disappearances' I remember seeing you live for the first time in Cardiff. Do you remember the venue? It was a magic night albeit full of musicians who'd come to see you and the great band that you'd put around yourself - Pino Palladino on bass and Steve Bolton on guitar both of whom had played with Paul Young. What do you remember of that gig?
That was a great gig. Can't remember the venue. But I think it was part of a hotel. I remember staying there the night of the gig. All our friends and family came. It was a real occasion. Every musician in Cardiff was there. I remember we had to lash the P.A. cabinets to the pillars that were dotted round the venue, so they wouldn't come crashing down on people while we played. What made it even more special was spending the week leading up to the gig in Cardiff, rehearsing at some place near The Hayes. We re-connected with our roots, strolling around town, sampling the pubs etc.
At the time it seemed like a really long wait between 'Firing On All Six', 'Conquest', 'Rockin' Every Night' and 'Disappearances Can Be Deceptive' but then there was a 10 year gap before you released 'Dark Matter'. What happened in that decade?
What happened in that decade? Now that's what I call a question. And thanks for posing it. Because I get very frustrated at times when people assume it's easier for me to get material out there than it actually is. That's one of the reasons why I used the title 'Dark Matter'. Because there was so much more material out there than people were aware of. The 'decade' before 'Dark Matter' was one of my busiest. I got involved with Pino on a project. That eventually became the band with Steve Boltz and John Munro - Souls Unknown. After that I got involved in another project with Pino, a guitar player named Matz Johansson and a drummer named Theodore Thunder. There are some tracks kicking around. But nothing actually released.
I recorded an album at a friend of mine's studio in Cardiff. Another at a studio in Newcastle. Jeff Beck heard one of the tracks - 'Jammin' With Jesus' - and recorded it for his album. But it never made the final cut. I recorded an entire soul album on which I went by the name Earl Grangetown. The band was called The Beat Poets, and featured Pete Hurley on bass and Richard Dunn on keyboards, who also produced the album at his studio.
Frustrated with trying to get a band project moving, I started playing solo acoustic gigs around London at venues such as The Kashmir Club, and The 12-Bar Club. I then started to rehearse with Jonathan Thomas and Steve Wyndham. We played a few gigs. Then a label came into the picture. We found a studio - Loco - owned by Asia. Days before we were due to start the album, the label pulled out, leaving us stranded. However John Payne at Loco suggested we use the time anyway to do our album. This was a great gesture on his part. And had he not done this, 'Dark Matter' would never have been recorded. Months later, there I was with a completed album, but no label. Enter Majestic Rock Records - where do these people get their names from? Anyway, a deal was struck and 'Dark Matter' was released. Sadly, there was absolutely no promotion done on the album at the time. But in spite of this, I still receive emails from all around the world from people who own a copy of 'Dark Matter'.
During this same period, I worked on various vocal sessions for people. I sang on an album of Jools Holland's and featured in a live show he did at Canterbury Cathedral. There are some recordings of this, which I keep meaning to ask Jools about. I also provided a ghost vocal to Robert Palmer on an episode of Chris Evans' show 'Don't Forget Your Toothbrush'. And finally, and most ironically, given my seeming lack of profile at the time, I was also the anonymous voice on the jingle for the Chart Show every Sunday night. As a final note, I intend to make a lot of the unreleased material available one day, in the form of an anthology. If only just to see it get an airing.
I read in an interview that you'd written some scripts. You must be a big film fan. If you could have any living director film one of your scripts who would it be?
I love writing. I currently have a script 'in the works' as they say. I think Terry Gilliam would be my dream choice.
And what if you had a time machine. Would the choice be any different?
If I had a time machine, I would love to have Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger direct it.
I think that 'Dark Matter' signalled the arrival of John Sloman as we know him today. Your lyric writing became deeper and more socially aware - dissatisfied even. How would you describe it?
I'd been writing a long time, and had reached a point where I wanted to say it as I saw it. And from where I was standing, I saw wall-to-wall bullshit. Oil wars, twisted religion, the working class being used as cannon fodder in the aforementioned oil wars. Within that social context, one either escapes into fantasy, or says it like it is. And I chose the latter. My next album will be a tribute to Westlife.
The second time that I saw you perform live was during this period. I was surprised to see you playing as a three-piece with you as the sole guitarist. I didn't expect it. Had you been playing guitar for a long time at that point?
I'd always played a bit of guitar. There was a guitar in the house when I was growing up. I don't even know who it belonged to. I'd pick it up from time to time. I finally got my own guitar at sixteen. From then on I'd always contribute bits of guitar to whatever band I was in. But because I was known as a 'vocalist', no-one knew I played. There's a couple of bits I threw in on 'Firing On All Six'. The chord stuff on 'Time Lays Down' for example. But I never saw myself as a guitar player. I played on all my demo stuff. But I never even considered playing on 'Disappearances'. Especially with Alan in the studio.
The first tour I ever played guitar live on stage, was with Heep. Mick had injured his hand, so I'd played on the demo of 'Think It Over'. He then suggested I also play it live. He was very encouraging. But I'd never been the sole guitar player in a band until I put together that three-piece. I really enjoyed playing and singing. But at the time you saw me, I was still getting the balance right between the singing and the playing. I should also pay tribute to all the great guitar players I've worked with; Paul Chapman, Mick Box, Gary Moore and Alan Murphy. You cannot be around players like that, and not learn something. And I did, from every one of them.
With your next release '13 Storeys' you decided to strip everything down and play most every instrument yourself. Did this start as an 'album' or demo project that gained its own momentum?
My brother had just passed away unexpectedly. I wrote a song about him called 'Dream A Dream'. I'd sit there and play it to myself until I couldn't stand it anymore. It was like some strange music therapy. I thought about him. I thought about my family. My parents, my brothers and sisters. About when we were all kids. I wrote the rest of the album in a matter of weeks. I put down some roughs on an old Portastudio. Pino suggested I just release that. But I wanted to take more time over it. It was far more important to me than anything else I'd ever done. And still is. I ended up playing everything myself, because I didn't have a budget to hire musicians. I couldn't just pick up the phone to hire a string section. So I bought a student's violin and scraped away until the neighbours started talking to me again. Likewise with the cello. It took a long time to record and drove me nuts for a while. But it was a relief when it was finished. People deal with bereavement in different ways. Some talk about the person. Others write books about the person. I made an album.
It may have been at this point that you 'became' a multi-instrumentalist but as we pointed out earlier you played keyboards with Gary Moore's band. What came first - the piano playing, the guitar playing or the singing?
I started singing around seven. I had some piano lessons around nine. And, as I mentioned earlier, I had my first guitar at sixteen. I see myself as a vocalist, first and foremost. But I've always been able to play other instruments. I play guitar, but I don't consider myself a guitar player. I play piano/keyboards, but I don't consider myself a keyboard player. I play bass and drums, but I don't see myself as a bass player or a drummer. I remember asking my parents for a drumkit when I was about thirteen. But I think they valued their neighbours too much to oblige. But had they not been such nice neighbours, I would've been a drummer. No mistake. The great drummers have influenced me every bit as much as the great vocalists.
Who were your vocal influences as a young man? I can't help but see you in the same light as Robert Plant and Glenn Hughes. Was Glenn Hughes' major influence on Deep Purple's 'Come Taste The Band' significant to you?
I loved both Robert Plant and Glenn Hughes' stuff. I'm not too familiar with 'Come Taste The Band'. But 'Burn' was great. As was 'Stormbringer'. And, of course, Plant's early stuff with Zeppelin is fabulous.
There are a handful of brilliant and I would say obscure songs that I just love. One is David Coverdale's 'Time And Again', another is Glenn Hughes' 'I Found A Woman' and Lone Star's 'Seasons In Your Eyes'. I could add to that 'Fool's Gold' which was an outtake from the 'Dark Matter' sessions. Can you imagine 'Seasons In Your Eyes' being covered today somewhat like Badfinger's 'Without You'?
I agree with those choices. And thank you for including 'Fool's Gold'. As for 'Seasons'. Yes, I can imagine it being covered in that style. I remember we were at Ridge Farm, writing material. Rick and I were in the rehearsal room, which was basically a barn. He started playing the chord progression. And I came up with the lyric and melody line. I've got a demo somewhere from those writing sessions, with myself and Rick, accompanied by Didier from Gong (remember them?) on sax and flute.
Your last album 'Reclamation' was recorded under difficult circumstances I understand. You lost all of your recordings and had to start from scratch.
I'd recorded a lot of the tracks. Then I came home one day to find I'd been burgled. They'd taken my guitar as well as my computer containing the album so far. I took a year out. I wasn't worth talking to for that whole period. I finally got back in the groove though. And it reminded me that love - and in this case, love of music - conquers all!
'Reclamation' perhaps even more so than '13 Storeys' has carved somewhat of its own musical mood and atmosphere around itself. In the same kind of way that Nick Drake and David Sylvian's albums create a unique soundspace. Would you go along with that?
It's taken a long time to get here, but I think 'Reclamation' has brought me a step closer to where I'd like to be, artistically. And being compared to Nick Drake certainly helps to light the road ahead.
What's next for John Sloman? Any plans for any new recordings and any idea whether they'll be acoustic or full band?
I already have songs for a new acoustic album, which I'll record at home, just like the others. But my priority now is to record a new electric album. I have the album written. It would be great to find a label to get involved with. But most labels who are aware of me, demand AOR tripe, or Uriah Heep meets god-knows-what. I think these days they call it Classic Rock, which is a term I loathe. It has the whiff of the old-folks home about it. But I'm committed now to having the amount of material released to more reflect my work-rate. I'm also working on another script, as well as a kind of monologue with music I'd like to do some time. Maybe next year's Edinburgh Fringe.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to Uber Rock John we've really enjoyed it.
If you would like to check out John on the interweb, he does appear to have two websites (lucky man) dedicated to his work. These are below.