Something Else! Interview: Laurence Juber, formerly of Wings

Laurence Juber, a member of Wings from 1978-81, has since gone on to a celebrated second career as a world-class solo guitar virtuoso – releasing nearly 20 solo albums since the demise of Paul McCartney’s 1970s-era band.

A two-time Grammy winner (once with Wings, and then for his 2004 solo arrangement of Henry Mancini’s “The Pink Panther”), Juber nurtured an interest in fingerstyle guitar playing long before he joined the ever-evolving stable of Wings sidemen. Not long after he helped the group to its final charttopping success with a live version of “Coming Up,” Juber began more fully exploring this style – beginning with 1982’s Standard Time. He then set about fine tuning his craft, both as a performer and arranger, eventually earning guitarist of the year honors from the readers of Fingerstyle Guitar magazine.

Possessing a restless musical ambition, Juber played lead guitar, bass and slide acoustic on his lone album with Wings, 1979’s Back to the Egg, as well as the familiar flamenco lead acoustic solo on the band’s stand-alone single “Goodnight Tonight,” which became a Top 5 hit in 1979. Juber has also worked as producer and collaborator on four albums with Al Stewart of “Year of the Cat” fame, and done a series of notable turns in television, stage and film – including, perhaps most famously, playing the James Bond theme for the movie The Spy Who Loved Me.

Juber joined us for the latest SER Sitdown to talk about his abiding passion for the guitar, his stint as a member of Wings – something the guitarist likened to graduating from “McCartney University” – and then transitioning into his ongoing role as a solo artist …

NICK DERISO: How did your interest in fingerstyle guitar playing begin?
LAURENCE JUBER: This goes back to very early on. My ambition was to become a studio musician. I was not terribly motivated to seek the spotlight. I just loved to play guitar, and on one level I was working toward becoming a studio musician – maximizing my versatility. On another level, I really enjoyed getting up and playing with a blues band or a jazz band, because I loved the improvisational aspect. Behind it all, though, the kind of meta-guitarist in me was really just absorbing all of this musical information. I’ve been playing nearly 50 years and when I first started in ’63, there were really a couple of parallel tracks going on in my interests. One was what you’d describe as the British Invasion here, but it was all homegrown for us – the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, just all of the English bands of that era. I was fascinated by their pop rock music. I listened to the radio a lot, and I discovered that I would deconstruct things. I would listen to the bass parts and I would listen to the drums, not just the guitar playing. I then got interested in orchestral music, and classical music, and big band jazz – and in jazz guitar.

NICK DERISO: Did you listen to classical guitar back then? Seems it’s the very rare youngster who finds that kind of thing interesting.
LAURENCE JUBER: That was fed by me, studying classical guitar. It was something I was really obligated to do. In high school, they wouldn’t let you study music unless you had a certain level of classical guitar technique. I was never particularly enamored by the classical repertoire – outside of Bach, in particular. But Bach kind of transcends any specific instrument, and is really takes you into the upper stratosphere of music. One of the pieces that was kind of a right-of-passage piece for all of us in junior high was a composition by Davey Graham, a British guitar player, called Anji – which Paul Simon did on one of his early albums. You had to be able to play the bass line and the melody at the same time. If you could do that, then you were on your way to understanding fingerstyle guitar. That one was something of an iconic piece, and I had mastered it. That led me into getting more interested in folk picking, and ragtime and stuff like that. At the same time, though, I was slowing down Eric Clapton solos on the Bluesbreaker albums or Django Reinhardt or Barney Kessell or, a little bit later, Joe Pass. All of this stuff was going on at the same time. In the background for me was the self sufficiency of fingerstyle guitar – and the challenge of having a complete musical statement happen within the one instrument.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Laurence Juber discusses key songs from his tenure with Paul McCartney and Wings, along with favorite sides from his solo career and Al Stewart projects.]

NICK DERISO: Fast forward a few years, and you find yourself playing alongside Paul McCartney. In your opinion, why was the final incarnation of Wings so overlooked?
LAURENCE JUBER: I like to think of our version of Wings as an Indian summer. There was a kind of late blooming, though it took a long time for people to even realize. Back to the Egg went from being a two-star album to a four-star album over the course of a generation. It’s a very, very eclectic album – so, perhaps not so consistent and coherent as would be typical of an American rock record from that era. But the English have always been able to be somewhat more eccentric. Also, Columbia Records was struggling at that point. There was a recession hitting. The timing of Back to the Egg was not great. The economy was starting to go downhill at that time. There was also the fact that the record industry had become accustomed to an album selling 10, 15 million copies. You look at Rumours, and Saturday Night Fever from that era – and it was like, ‘Oh, everything is going to sell like this.’ And then along comes Back to the Egg, which goes platinum, selling a normal number of albums – and somehow that didn’t fit the new business paradigm. Then over the course of the next few years, they realized: Actually, it did fit the new business paradigm. But by then, it was just too late to recognize the album.

NICK DERISO: I always thought your work on Back the Egg helped give the album an energy, an edgy definition, that makes it stand out amongst Wings projects.
LAURENCE JUBER: I appreciate your comments about it. I think part of it was just our age, where we were in the progression of English rock music by that point in the ’70s. We were past that first blush of the British Invasion, and really looking toward a later era. It helped having Chris Thomas co-producing because Chris, I think, was generally more adventurous in where he would want to go on the rock end of the spectrum. Paul can always strap on the Epiphone Casino and come up with some kind of guitar part. But we wanted to take it out of that zone and get into some new stuff. I continue to get compliments on my contributions to that record. And I think it’s not insignificant that Chris Thomas did Back to the Egg between the Sex Pistols and the Pretenders. That’s why he was there. Paul wanted to have a more progressive kind of production, and also because Chris had such a history with the Beatles – going back to the White Album. There was a certain comfort zone in that.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: S. Victor Aaron, Nick DeRiso and Beverly Paterson reconsider ‘Back to the Egg,’ with a track-by-track review of this overlooked gem from Paul McCartney and Wings.]

NICK DERISO: Then comes Paul’s drug bust in Japan, on the eve of a series of tour dates. Then John Lennon was murdered. Most people mark that as the symbolic – if not the actual – end of things for Wings.
LAURENCE JUBER: The Japanese bust was a lot of pressure on the family. There was kind of sense that ‘we can’t keep doing what we were doing in the ‘70s.’ He didn’t tour again until ’89, and John Lennon’s death had a lot of do with it too – not wanting to get put in that vulnerable position. But that kind of goes against Paul’s nature, not to tour. You look at now: He doesn’t have to tour but he loves to. It was a different era. When you have young kids, you don’t want to be taking them out of school nor do you want to be going away and not being home for three months – especially because Paul had positioned Linda as being an essential ingredient. (Linda McCartney had given birth to son James during the sessions for 1978’s London Town.) So what are you going to do? Go off and leave the kids with a housekeeper? It didn’t make sense, in terms of the family. As far as I am concerned, it was a fantastic period, a fantastic experience. I got my master’s degree from McCartney University, in a metaphorical sense.

NICK DERISO: Did you have a sense that things were coming to a conclusion, or were you surprised when McCartney began work on 1982’s Tug of War as a solo project?
LAURENCE JUBER: I think Paul had created this really cool rock band, and then realized he didn’t need it – or didn’t want it, because where he was going as a family man was not in the same direction. His creative impetus was changing. Still, we were able to establish something that has some enduring qualities. You can certainly go back and listen to Back to the Egg, and find some amazing things on it. He had put together this killer rock band, and it’s hard to avoid the fact that if you listen to the live Glasgow stuff, by that point we had really started to earn our stripes. Unfortunately, Kampuchea has become the video evidence of that era and we had already had Christmas and we were a little too full of turkey and stuffing. (Laughs.) We rehearsed a lot of the Tug of War stuff and it just didn’t need to be in that rock band context. He made the right choice, as far as going with George Martin and producing something that was in a different realm – kind of more of a pop hit record. He got together with Stevie Wonder, and with Michael Jackson. It was a different direction.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Henry McCullough talks about his time with Paul McCartney and Wings, Joe Cocker and the Grease Band — and how addiction almost cost him everything.]

NICK DERISO: You seem to have come to fingerstyle at the right time, as Windham Hill began to make solo acoustic music more of a mainstream product in the 1980s.
LAURENCE JUBER: When I got to post-Wings and started settling down and raising a family, I finally had time to sit and compose and work on stuff for myself. It was always driven by the solo fingerstyle thing. And by coincidence, from the early part of the 1980s the Windham Hill school emerged and Alex DeGrassi – though not so much Michael Hedges, I was not really paying a lot of attention to Hedges at that time, nor Leo Kottke. A lot of it was just developing challenges. I got challenged to do some exploring in altered tunings, and that was a whole new universe for me. I was hyper-focused for the longest time on being a composer for solo guitar, and then somehow I started doing arrangements – and that seemed to have some success. I enjoyed the challenge of being an arranger, as well.

NICK DERISO: Was it difficult to transition from playing a supporting role in a band like Wings to going solo in the most complete sense of the word – alone on stage with your instrument?
LAURENCE JUBER: Ultimately, because as a teenager I was really quite shy and self-conscious, there was something very therapeutic about having to get up in front of an audience where it’s just you and there’s no one else to hide behind. That gave me an opportunity to develop a certain confidence in my performance skills. It also helps being married to a woman (Hope, daughter of legendary TV producer Sherwood Schwartz of “Gilligan’s Island” and “Brady Bunch” fame) who understands stage performance and has a degree in directing and is a writer. Just having that guidance has helped me move past simply getting up on stage behind a microphone and playing fiddly-fingered stuff – but actually telling stories, and seeking to engage an audience. That was another dimension that developed in all of this.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.