From Art School to Recording Artist

Mike Conway
iCast website

iCAST: What was your day to day life like as a child growing up in Scotland?
JM: I was brought up with my grandmother and my father, I thought it was wonderful, I had a great time. The school was in walking distance and my grandmother being the old school kind of Victorian, she just treated me wonderfully.
And I went to secondary school. I suppose you call it high school. I studied there for five years and got my letters and then I went to art school for a couple of months actually; I really hated it. Because they took us back immediately to line drawing and perspective. I was thinking it was all going to be bohemian, listening to Rolling Stones records all day and smoke dope and drink coffee. That was going to be my life style and it didn't work out that way. It was worse than being in school, to be honest.

iCAST: What didn't you like about art school?
JM: You know, you got to express yourself maybe once a month. And the rest of the time you're just learning the basics. It's important to get up and express yourself. In fact, if you go to guitar lessons and you expected to play note for note what the guy plays, it's not cool.
And then I got a scholarship to University. And during that period I was approached by a fellow who said "Would you like to be a record company employee?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well you could make a record." I went, "Ooh, yes! Thank you sir, thank you."
I was in the right place, which is a tiny little place. It was an audience of 12. And it was a totally amateur folk club. And this guy who was an entrepreneur and a hustler saw me and he happened to be connected with Chris Blackwell who did an album of rugby songs, believe it or not. Rugby is a game like American football. When they lose they all get drunk and sing dreadful songs with filthy words. And he sold a couple of albums. He taped me and took Blackwell the Demo. And Blackwell said, "Yeah, we'll give him a contract." And since then I've just been kind of addicted to it. All the scholastic pursuit went straight out of the window.

Picking Guitar

iCAST: How old were you when you started playing?
JM: Around fifteen, fifteen and a half.

iCAST: And what kind of music were you listening to at that time?
JM: I listened to Joan Baez, and that was the first I'd ever heard finger picking guitar. And I kind of fell in love with that, Silver Dagger I believe it was called. And I just loved the sound of a finger-picked guitar. I found out how you did it.
And then I was introduced to the playing of a guy called Davey Graham, who's something of a genius. I don't use the term loosely at all. I hate people that are better than me. But he really, in his day he was just unbelievable. He had an album called Folk Blues and Beyond on the Decca label in 1965 which was formative for me. Amazingly advanced player, he swung like whoa.

iCAST: When you describe him as a genius?
JM: His soul and the choice of material. I mean, he played all kinds of stuff, like "Wade in the Water" and stuff which you'd never heard. A lot of traditional blues stuff that he picked up from [Slew Seeven] and Gary Davis. And classic as well. Like "Summertime" and shit, which everybody does, but. He wrote a song called "Angie," which was on a Paul Simon album, In fact, it was a test piece for all acoustic guitar players for a long while. Because you have to move the thumb and the forefinger at the same time as the other fingers. They're both going in opposite directions, quite tricky. Good fun though.

iCAST: How has your taste in music changed over the years?
JM: It's become more sophisticated but then again more simple. It's kind of matured with age. I suppose the first thing that really tripped me out was Weather Report. The first time I heard that I went "Whoa! What are they doing?" It took me a couple of stoned sessions to sort of figure out what Weather were doing and why it was so beautiful. And it's really just because it's intrinsically beautiful, there's no why. It's just beautiful music.

Infinite Sustain

iCAST: Now in the early seventies you began experimenting with the sound of your acoustic guitar for effects like fuzz box, echo plex and phase shift. Did you have a particular goal in mind when you started working with that?
JM: I pursued the fuzz box and its various accompanying things just to try and get the sustain that you can get from a sax. I just really wanted infinite sustain at the press of a button. And I almost achieved it. And it sounded so sweet to me. And I knew that people would like to hear it because nothing like it was around. If it makes me feel good, I kind of have this touching faith that it's going to stay with somebody else.

iCAST: Now did you ever run into resistance over your career because of the diverse elements you bring into your music?
JM: Not until I made Inside Out. There was so much shock to that. But again, it wasn't a conscious thing. I just like doing that. For my album Glasgow Walker, I made a conscious effort to become a little less self-obsessed. Because I've been miserable for some considerable years. Not in a day to day sense, but you know, I think I've become very well known for miserable songs and ballads. And you get divorced guys going, "You help me through the hardest times." All that kind of stuff. I go, "Well I wasn't feeling too good myself."

Refining the Essential Elements

iCAST: My next question was about your creative process when you're writing a song. Were you working through stuff as you were addressing those issues?
JM: They pop out. If you got slapped in the face emotionally, you're going to find that you think about it, digest it and then it normally comes out in a song. It's a very cathartic thing. It's a bit like a form of confession.

iCAST: How does your creative process as a songwriter differ from your creative process as a producer or as a player?
JM: The playing runs hand in hand with the songwriting really. But I made the mistake of buying my own studio and simultaneously buying a huge keyboard, a really lovely keyboard. And I had to sort of familiarize myself with digital equipment because in the interim period, like 15 years, there's very little tape now, so I compromised and bought DAT's, so, I have a DAT studio. I'm looking to get a big old-fashioned analog in a studio or something like that. Because it's a very warm sound. It's horrendously expensive.

Scenes From a Marriage

iCAST: Now after you were solo for a few years, you met your first wife, Beverly, and began collaborating with her. How did that come about?
JM: I was playing and she was playing at the same gig. I was getting paid eleven pounds, yes! She came up and kissed me in the middle of the set. And she was a lovely looking women and I was like, "Whoa hey! My luck's changed." And she asked me for my address and I was actually staying with other people at the time, and she popped around one night, gave me a great big kiss and said "Will you take me to dinner?" So I checked the pocket and I said yes, definitely. And from there I never looked back really.

iCAST: What was it like to work with her?
JM: It was lovely for a while but then the record company decided that they didn't want to hear Beverly sing, which is a terrible thing, I still think they're extremely wrong. By then I had two children, I had adopted a child of Beverly's and we had one of our own, and I think it knocked a great hole in her confidence. And of course I had to support the family. It took us apart from each other. I had to go to America, go here and go there and just try and build a career for myself.

iCAST: Do you think that contributed to the breakup?
JM: Undoubtedly. I mean, apart from the fact that she was artistically disappointed. Who likes to be told, we're keeping your husband but you've got to go? I thought it was a very brutal thing for them to do. It's the one and only time I was ever upset with that particular record company.

Famous Friends

iCAST: Was it an easy transition for you to go from working as a solo artist to collaborating with someone?
JM: No. It was tricky at first, simply because of my nature, I tended to dominate. It's an interesting question though, I never thought of it before. I don't know how much of that is being male or more ambitious, or a bit more testosterone. But I think that's what happened.

iCAST: Now over your career you've collaborated with a real diverse group of people and I'll list a couple: Steve Winwood, Paul Kossoff, Lee Scratch Perry. How did these collaborations come about?
JM: They're all friends. Steve Winwood, I think he was introduced by the record company. I've never become very close to him, but Scratch Perry I was very close to. I love him, he's mad.
Lee Perry I met in Jamaica, through Chris Blackwell, who is the head of Island Records at the time. And I was his guest for a while because I was a bit bleached out. And he said, "Well come and stay with me in Kingston--" "Sure," says I and thus the wife and I and the kids all went toddling off there. And actually I wasn't feeling like playing. I had just worked too hard. I wasn't seeing enough of the kids. Chris would take us around and introduce me to the musicians and stuff. And I was very impressed with Scratch Perry's attitude. The black artists in those days was a very exciting place to be because nobody ever got paid. You got a bottle of tequila or a blue movie. It was a culture shock for me; I had never been to the Caribbean before. And I had a phase shift pedal and an echo and they were really entranced by that. And also the fact that Scratch was experimenting using two echoplexes, getting a lot of tape delay, which is what I was interested in at the time as well. I was getting a name for that and he was developing dub then.

iCAST: Is there anyone you wish you could've worked with that you didn't get the opportunity to?
JM: Wayne Shorter.

iCAST: Why?
JM: I adore his playing. If I'd been around when Billie Holiday was around, I think she'd still be around. Billie Holiday's my all time fave.

"Music is Just an Emotional Communication"

iCAST: What's your relationship like with a live audience?
JM: Live audience? Oh lovely.

iCAST: How do they affect your performance?
JM: Oh, they don't really. I did a gig with The Verve, a little band from-- well a big band now, they're very popular amongst the 14 to 17 year olds. And they did this huge gig in England, and there were 60.000 16 and 17 year olds, and they hated me. Good Lord they hated me. And I struggled though it, and I said, "Wave to your mothers, wave to your fathers. You are our future." And so I gave them the mayor's speech at the end. It was very funny, but that was somewhat disheartening. Forgive me for saying this because I'm an intellectual snob to a degree, they were most of them very dim and very drunk. You know these are not the solicitors and of the future. They're extremely blue collar. Dirty collar to be exact.

iCAST: What would you consider to be maybe not an ideal audience reaction, but an appropriate audience reaction to your playing?
JM: I like them to listen and understand. And I don't mean understand intellectually, I mean just the emotion. Music is just an emotional communication. If they get moved in some way, that's what I look for. I like to see the couples come in, we sing "Sweet Old Misty" or something. I like to see them go "Ah, remember when we used to go out together, darling?" It gives them nice memories.

"Two Years of Money and Five Years of Pain"

iCAST: Who are some of the players that you like? Guitar players.
JM: Most of the guys I like are dead. I like Scofield, I like Mike Stern, I liked in the day Robin Ford and those West Coast guys. I still love Buddy Guy. I prefer that bluesy approach. He's really my sort of thing. And I still love Johnny McLaughlin.

iCAST: Now you mentioned a frustration at not getting the sort of commercial success to match the critical success.
JM: No, I'm fine. I have to worry about money now and again, I tend to make a whole lot of bread and then do it all-- You know I bought the studio with all the money I had. So then I have to go out and work for like four or five months solid to get back on my feet again. I invented a phrase for this; Two years of money and five years of pain. That's how most musicians of my kind of persuasion tend to work.

iCAST: What do you consider the greatest sacrifice that you've made for your career?
JM: Picking up the damn guitar in the first place. I could have been a doctor, I could've been a contender. I don't think I've made any sacrifices. I've been forced into some decisions. I wouldn't have worked as much as I had between the ages of 20 and 35. But I also got married very young, and I had three kids, so I couldn't afford to say not to anything. I'm nothing but grateful for how lucky I've been and how good music has been to me. I've been three or four times around the world, I've met all kinds of beautiful people. I met a few assholes as well, but that's going to come with the pack anyway no matter where you are.

iCAST: What keeps you going in it?
JM: Just the music, the power of it, and the lifestyle. The lifestyle's a gas. It is very pleasant. We're doing what we like to do. But some people just have to go and work in a shop or a bank or something. They hate it. You know it's 9 to 5 every day. And Saturday to go wild on. That's your one night, that's when you can go out and pull a girl or pull a boy, depending on who you are. And then again, starts again on Monday. Because you have to wash the car on Sunday. That kind of regime would drive me crazy. Because even though being on the road is a regime obviously, it's kind of a psychic regime. But there are all kinds of random factors that creep in there. Like, you breakdown on the motorway. We have to change a tire in rush hour. At least this is something unusual. You're always seeing something new.

People Who Inspire

iCAST: Do you think you've taken a lot of risks in your career?
JM: Yep. Certainly. Against other people's advice too. But I'm really proud of that. I suppose it was never a risk because I knew very well that I could always go back and play acoustic guitar to small audiences and turn them on, and be turned on myself. It doesn't have to be full theatres. The 50 people in a little club would do me fine.

iCAST: Do you think you'll continue to take risks?
JM: I don't think there are any more risks I can take. I improvised all the lyrics in the studio and all the music in the studio. That was my big one, was to improvise a whole album. And I don't mean improvise in the jazz sense but to make up the tunes, find the groove, make up a tune and put some notes down and just leave it there. That's what I like. And I've accomplished that.

"Always Follow Your Heart"

iCAST: How do you define success?
JM: If you can look at yourself in the mirror and not be ashamed, if you can examine yourself from the inside, not from the outside, and not be ashamed-- That's about it really. Just be as good as you can. That's being successful.

iCAST: Do you consider yourself a success?
JM: I try all the time. I have to be dead to answer that question. I'm still trying.

iCAST: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
JM: Use the system, but don't allow the system to use you. That's from a purely financial and survival point of view. And follow your heart and not your head. That's where life lies, in the heart and not in the mind.

iCAST: How do you do that?
JM: Don't use too many logical premises on which to base your life or your performance or your attempts to get forward. And obviously, never be discouraged.

iCAST: What do you consider to be the greatest lesson that you've learned in life?
JM: Love, I suppose, and the power thereof. Just the power of love, I think, is constant amusement. It was not a lesson; it's just a way of life to me. I'm a fairly conscious Buddhist, so obviously love is a big thing in my life. To exercise the power of love whenever possible, and to appreciate it greatly whenever it comes to you, because it really is the driving force.

Glasgow Hippies and Tibetan Monks

iCAST: How did you get involved with Buddhism?
JM: That started when I was very young. I read "Siddhartha" by Herman Hesse. and Aldous Huxley, "The Gates of Perception", which is actually intrinsically Buddhist.
And then it became trendy for a while amongst the Glasgow hippie scene. We were all playing guitar to varying degrees of excellence or not. I wasn't involved in that, but there was a lot of drugs going around. And Buddhism was seen as something of a panacea for people who had troubled brains. And in this small town in Scotland, and there's a Sammy Ling Monastery and Retreat which is all guys who fled from Tibet when things got nasty with the Chinese. And they set up a monastery there. And you're welcome to go there--it's like less than a dollar, and they give you a little room and three meals a day, just rice and a box of plums. It was a great place to retreat to.
The monks themselves were delightful people. The regime was just nice, and it was very cool to go up in Glasgow where one junkie was smoking this, the other was doing that, the one was drinking, and beating up their wives and stuff, and it was really nice to get away from that. And that intrigued me; I thought it was beautiful. I've really never looked back. Zen is my particular branch.

iCAST: How does it affect the way you live or affect your heart?
JM: It helps every day to reinforce the love in your heart and your life. And it also makes it easy to follow your heart. Zen is a wonderful non-discipline.

iCAST: When you look back over your life, do you have any regrets?
JM: None whatsoever. A few girls I wish I had not appeared so heartless. But that's the traveling life. At 20 years old, young girls are saying come to bed with me, you tend to forget your wife for that extra half hour. The infidelity I regret. But that's the only thing. It's just a lie. Everyone regrets lies.

iCAST: Where do you want to be 20 years from now?
JM: Alive. By then I should be creature-comfort worthy. I'm very happy the way I am. I may end up in Ireland. Ireland for me is like being in Scotland 20 years ago. Scotland is 50 years back in America. I like quaint and quiet.

iCAST: What message would you give to future generations?
JM: Look at all those people who did it before you, because they didn't do it for nothing. There's a great deal to be learned from your heritage.

The Smell of the Crowd

iCAST: Over your career you've used technological advances to affect the sound of your music through effects and that kind of thing. What role do you think technology will play in the future of music?
JM: I was jamming with a guy in San Francisco from my home in Scotland. And here we were, just jamming across the 'net. That's interesting. And obviously there's going to be a lot more of that going down, and as the technology continues to improve. People are never going to have to leave their own houses.
It's going to make live shows more interesting. No matter how cool the net is, nothing will ever take the place of the smell of popcorn, loads of people to look at who are behaving like fools or not, depending on which gig you go to, and a live band. People are always going to love people who play live. There's nothing like the real thing.
There's something about a taxi ride, and giving the wife the flowers, and the dinner beforehand, and the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.


muffnote:
The original interview went uncredited but Mike Conway claims he conducted it. Moreover: "John was a delight to speak with."


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