Something Else! Interview: John Waite on his new live set, the Babys, Bad English and going happily solo

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John Waite’s scorching just-released concert souvenir Live: All Access gives us a chance to talk about past successes — from the Babys and Bad English to his newest studio effort, the aptly named Rough and Tumble — as well as this mercurial iconoclast’s plans for the future.

Waite is best known, of course, for a period of hitmaking in the 1970 and ’80s that included 1977’s “Isn’t It Time” and 1979’s “Everytime I Think Of You” with the Babys; 1984’s “Missing You” as a solo artist; and 1989’s “When I See You Smile” with the supergroup Bad English. But he’s continued making music — in fact, some of his most intriguing music — in the years since.

In the first of what will be an exclusive two-part SER Sitdown with Waite, we use Live: Access — which documents the beginnings of his new touring relationship with a nervy trio that includes guitarist Keri Kelli (Jani Lane, Slash and Alice Cooper), bassist Tim Hogan and drummer Rhondo — as a leaping-off point …

NICK DERISO: Live: All Access gets off to a quick start with a muscular new version of “Change,” from 1982’s Ignition. How did you come across Holly Knight’s song?
JOHN WAITE: Well, it came in the mail. I was living on West 72nd Street, in a tiny one-room crash pad with a mattress on the floor. It came in the mail. I don’t know who sent it to me, but I heard it and I thought: “That’s a hit song.” I didn’t like the words, so I rewrote some of them so that it sounded more like me. I’m sure she didn’t like that (laughs), but she made a lot of money out of it. I’m a producer, and arranger and a writer — and it was right for the time. Me and Ivan Kral (who co-wrote “Mr. Wonderful,” as well as three other tracks on Ignition) were suddenly writing some great stuff, and I think left to our own devices we would have written a possible landmark album. But, having got to New York City, and living the life of Batman — I’d sleep all day, and go out all night — the record company wouldn’t leave me alone. They were always messing with me. They were always threatening the cut the record off. In the end, I had to leave. I just got on a plane, and went back to England.

NICK DERISO: You’ve maintained that Chrysalis mishandled things from the start.
JOHN WAITE: I put the record out, and they blew that. They’d blown most of the Babys records. It just broke my heart. I flew back to England, got married, bought a small cottage in the Lake District and disappeared. I disappeared for about a year. Finally, some lawyers got me out of my contract, and I came back and signed to EMI and sold two million records! Chrysalis, wow.

NICK DERISO: “Evil” from Rough and Tumble also finds a home on this new live set. Your work with Kyle Cook on that 2011 album led to such a present, hard-rocking effort. Is that a collaboration that will continue?
JOHN WAITE: Well, we’ve talked about it. Last time I saw Kyle, I was in Indiana doing a private show last Christmas. I called him up, and said: “Come play guitar.” He lives in Nashville, so he jumped in his car and drove up. His mom and dad showed up, because he’s from Indiana — Indianapolis. We hung out, and we talked. We e-mail each other a bit. I hope that we do write together again. We talked about it recently. He’s a very cool guy. When we were still looking for a guitar player to play the American tour, after making the album, he joined the band. Then, when we couldn’t find a guitar player to come with us to Europe, he did the European tour. My mum loves him. It’s one of those things where he’s just a great guy. You meet people, and you go: “My life’s better because I met him.” He’s one of those. And a hell of guitar player.

[ONE TRACK MIND: John Waite goes in depth on songs like “Missing You,” “Mr. Wonderful,” “When I See You Smile,” as well as a key track from the wildly underrated ‘Temple Bar’ album.]

NICK DERISO: Were you familiar with him because of Matchbox 20?
JOHN WAITE: There’s a mutual friend of ours — that’s why I was in Indianapolis — called Jeff Whorley who knew Kyle, and knew the Matchbox guys. He kept saying: “You’ve got to meet John Waite; John Waite and you would write a great song.” I went to stay with Jeff and his family one weekend, and we’re driving and he plays me Kyle’s solo album. It’s very punk, and I’m thinking: “This is pretty good.” I’m very hard to impress anyway, so I’m just sort of listening, with my eyes closed as we’re going down the road. I was living in Nashville at the time. It was one of those crazy things where somebody actually makes a phone call and says: “What are you doing next Tuesday?” We met cold. We met cold, in a writing room in Nashville. He was wearing shorts, an old T-shirt and sandals. I was wearing a black suit. We were really kind of opposites, but within minutes I could tell how serious he was about music — and he could tell that he’d met his match, really. We developed a lot of mutual respect. We started to write what turned into “Better Off Gone,” in the first 10 minutes of being in the same room.

NICK DERISO: Does it bother you that, 20 years later, Bad English isn’t best known for originals like “Forget me Not” — which is much more in keeping, it seems to be, with your core aesthetic — but rather for a Diane Warren cover song?
JOHN WAITE: The Journey audience wanted Journey, and the Babys audience wanted the Babys. But “Forget Me Not” was based on the Anne Rice books. “Ghost in Your Heart” was written, really, about some kind of unrequited suicidal love. (Stream it!: “Ghost in Your Heart.”) There were darker themes. And you could see the audience wanting to just — sing along. That was too sophisticated. So, I think I was the odd man out. An old girlfriend of mine once told me backstage at a Bad English concert: I was the guy that didn’t fit. And I was glad. (Laughs.) I’m still glad.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Before Bad Engish, Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon were in Journey, a band that’s continued without either of its original frontmen. Still, there have been some notable reunions.]

NICK DERISO: As with that band and Neal Schon, you’ve got a distinctive and hard-edged guitarist in Keri Kelli for the current tour. What makes that such an attractive combination for you?
JOHN WAITE: Neal’s a brilliant guitar player. Sometimes, when you’re writing with him, you have to find a place to put the vocals. (Chuckles.) But he’s a brilliant guy, and he loves to play. I love Neal, I do. I miss playing with him. We were both pretty much up for having a great time. We’d rip it up on stage, then go out and rip it up in every club in town afterward. I don’t know how we survived it, but we had the best time possible. I was sad to see it go, but there were personalities that made the band more difficult, and that’s just the way it went, you know? You can’t have a great singer in a rock band without a great guitar player, though. It’s a relationship that’s confrontational, and it’s one that’s extremely emotional. It’s loud; it’s like a musical argument — or at best, a musical conversation. Without the guitar player, the singer ain’t much.

NICK DERISO: Keri certainly brings such an edge to Live: All Access.
JOHN WAITE: And we’ve only heard the beginning of it. If we could do another live album in eight months, I think that would be our high-water mark. I think it’s going to be absolutely off the hook. That might turn into a studio record. We might do it like that. I haven’t decided what yet. I’m doing everything on instinct. I’ve got great faith in Keri. He’s a great guy. Tim, our bass player, is the cement of the band. And Rhondo is like Big Ben: Completely in time. It’s very difficult being in a three-piece band, and that’s the way I want it. I want it to be where anything can happen at any moment. I want to be able to take off. There is no plan. The only plan is: “Make sure you play the right chords at the right time. Show up for rehearsals, and I’ll buy you a drink later.” It’s something you can’t interfere with. It’s just the force of life. You count it in, and it’s the most fun you’re ever going to have.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The Babys, who are still somehow one of rock ‘n’ roll’s best kept secrets, crafted tunes that resonated with soul and substance.]

NICK DERISO: I wonder if the tough tenor of some of this new music led you to pick a rocker like “Saturday Night” for Live: All Access over the smash “Missing You” — which is from the same album?
JOHN WAITE: Right, yeah. I put out a live album a couple of years ago, and it did have “Missing You” — and thank you very much, good night! (Stream it!: “Missing You.”) Somebody gave me a review in England and said “Saturday Night” is the only song where somebody’s mentioned Gene Vincent, Verlaine and Vermeer in the same song, and I thought to myself: “Quite right!” (Laughs.) I have this sort of thing where I am reading William Blake in one hand, and playing guitar with the other. I’m aware of a lot things, and I try to reflect that in the music. When I walk through the city, I’m sort of seeing the architecture and the people and the colors and the shapes and the size of everything. I’m wide awake.

NICK DERISO: There certainly is this sense of freedom coursing through your music now.
JOHN WAITE: I think I’m free of the constraints of a career. I don’t care anymore. That’s what’s going on here. Before, I’d always have to deal with people. Now, I have absolute autonomy, and it fits. So, I’m sort of edging around the keyboard every day, and then I’ll hit a few chords on the guitar. Every time I do it, I get a new song!

NICK DERISO: I guess that answers the question of why you didn’t rejoin the Babys, when Tony Brock and Wally Stocker fired the group back up recently. You seem to be perfectly happy all by yourself.
JOHN WAITE: I love Tony, and I love Wally, and I wish them the best. I want them to have as much fun as possible. I think they were meant to play together. That’s what made the Babys work, to me, those two guys. Everything else was irrelevant. When Wally came to join the band, he was the last guy to join, and everything changed. I have giant respect for both of them, and I hope that they can take it where it needs to go. They’ve seem to have very responsible, capable players with them. Who says they can’t do it, you know?

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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