On the occasion of the recent release of his new album “Don’t Ever Leave Me”, Juan Lago and Abel Fuentes interviewed for THE LOGICAL WEB Supertramp's legendary saxophonist and master of ceremonies.
TLW: You have just released your new album “Don’t Ever Leave Me” together with three Dutch jazz musicians... How was the project born and developed?
JOHN: I met Jasper Somsen in Amsterdam three years ago during my negotiations with Challenge Records and we agreed to make an album. We communicated mostly by email and the recording was delayed for over two years by the covid outbreak. We both suggested tunes.
TLW: Why does the song that gives the album its title appear four times (solo, duet, trio and quartet)? What would you highlight about this song, which was written by American musicians Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein in 1929 and popularised by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett in the 1990s?
JOHN: “Don’t Ever Leave Me” is a beautiful tune but very short (16 bars). I had an idea to start and finish each side of our LP (vinyl) with different versions of it so as to create ‘book-ends’ for our music.
TLW: What percentage of responsibility do you have in the arrangements of the songs? Are they yours and double bassist Jasper Somsen's in equal parts?
JOHN: We shared the arrangements, which later, in the recording studio, underwent further changes according to how we all felt.
TLW: It took you a lot of years to release your first solo album, “Creme Anglaise”, and now you have released “Ever Open Door” and “Don't Ever Leave Me” in just thirteen months... Are you enjoying more recording things on your own?
JOHN: I am quite free to be creative and despite covid I have been making music. I hope to do more.
TLW: This new album will also be released in a vinyl edition... Do you plan to release your two previous solo albums in that format too?
JOHN: There are no plans for “Crème Anglaise” or “Ever Open Door” to be released in vinyl. There is an album of mine released about a year ago in CD and vinyl forms called “The Bari Session” by The Paul Wertico/John Helliwell Project. This is a ‘live’ in the studio session made during an Italian tour with drummer Paul Wertico along with Raimondo Meli Lupi (guitar) and Gianmarco Scaglia (bass)
TLW: Why did you include Mark Hart's “Lullaby For Channing” and the traditional song “Waly Waly” on both your first and second albums? What is special about these two pieces for you?
JOHN: I am a lover of beautiful tunes. I thought that both, although already recorded, would sound good with the string quartet.
TLW: On your first album you released a song called “When I Was Young” and on your second album another one called “It Seemed That Life Was So Wonderful”, whose linked titles form the first verse of “The Logical Song”... Is there any kind of connection between both songs or with that Supertramp hit?
JOHN: The connection is only with the words. I wrote “It Seemed That Life Was So Wonderful” and gave it that title because, at the time, I was going to record “When I was Young” (by Arthur Lea) and make it the title of the album, but somehow we dropped it from the recording list.
TLW: What was the reason for using five Supertramp songs (“If Everyone Was Listening”, “Ever Open Door”, “Two of Us”, “You Started Laughing” and “Just a Normal Day”) in your last two records? Why did you choose those ones? Did Rick Davies or Roger Hodgson listen to those versions and give their feedback to you?
JOHN: I thought that “Ever Open Door” and “If Everyone Was Listening” would be suitable for my playing with the string quartet. With the other three tunes I thought that the jazz quartet format could lead to something creative. I have had no comments from either Rick or Roger on my versions of their songs.
TLW: The versions of the Supertramp classics that you use to perform with The Super Big Tramp Band sound really good... What happened to the album you were recording with that kind of music? Will it see the light of day in the future?
JOHN: The album is finished, and we are waiting for permission from the songs’ publishers to go ahead — so far our request has been denied!
TLW: Unlike most of your colleagues in the classic Supertramp line-up, who are practically retired, you are a tireless musician... How did the global pandemic affect your work? What other projects do you plan to work on shortly?
JOHN: I have been playing with Leslie Mandoki’s Soulmates and with various Alan Simon projects. I do sessions at home for various people. The live gigs were affected by the covid outbreak but they will pick up in the next year I’m sure. I have enquiries about the Dutch quartet and The Super Big Tramp Band for 2023 — so look out!
TLW: As you know, the legendary Spanish rock group Asfalto is retiring, and in fact you sent them a nice farewell video message that was broadcast at the event with which they officially announced it... What memories do you have of your collaborations with Asfalto a few years ago? Will you be present at that last concert in Madrid on May 13?
JOHN: Playing with Asfalto was a real pleasure! It was exciting and LOUD! I have not been asked about the May concert...
TLW: Do you have any recent news on Rick Davies’ health? Have you seen any of the videos that have been spread of the concert he performed on Long Island in June? What is your opinion about them?
JOHN: Rick looks in good health. I’ve seen the videos of his gig at The Stephen Talkhouse — it’s a bit rough and ready, but that’s good for a casual club gig. It looks like they all were having a good time!
TLW: As a great football fan, you should be looking forward to the 2022 World Cup, that has just started... Do you think England will succeed? What national team do you think will be the champion?
JOHN: England should do well — maybe Argentina or Portugal could win.
TLW: Another football question... How is your team Manchester City doing this season? Do you think that this time they will finally manage to win the Champions League, after they almost did it in the last few years?
JOHN: If Manchester City could play in the World Cup, they would surely win it! They should win the Champions League. We’re struggling with Arsenal in the Premiership at the moment.
TLW: After living almost all your life under the reign of Elizabeth II, how did you receive the recent replacement on the throne of England? What do you expect from Charles III as King?
JOHN: I think that King Charles III will be steady and ecologically concerned. The last thing he said to me in 1986, when I mentioned that, as well as playing the saxophone, I was also the MC of the Supertramp concert was — “Well I hope you’re going to be funny”.
TLW: Having been a very important part of the history of Supertramp, what is your opinion of the book “Tramp’s Footprints”? Do you have any feedback from other members of the band who have read the book?
JOHN: Bob Siebenberg likes it. I don’t know about the others. I think that it is a very well researched and interesting book.
TLW: When have you enjoyed the most, when you were in a massively successful group and therefore forced to a series of demands and commitments, or in your latest projects, smaller but with much more free rein for you?
JOHN: The most exciting times were with large and enthusiastic crowds at Supertramp concerts. The most satisfying, musically, are the last two albums I have recorded — “Ever Open Door” and “Don’t Ever Leave Me” — because I am able to play in a very creative environment.
TLW: In some interviews you said that you knew that the post-1983 Supertramp would no longer be as successful as before... Was there ever a kind of approach (including band members living together) to make a hugely successful album, as you did with “Crime of the Century”, “Even in the Quietest Moments” and “Breakfast in America”?
JOHN: I knew that we probably would not sell as many recordings as “Breakfast in America” but ‘success’ can also apply to the music — I think that “Brother Where You Bound” is successful.
TLW: Do you think that the 1960s and 1970s era was the golden age of pop-rock?
JOHN: Yes, in the 1960s pop-rock broke free and in the 1970s it flowered. In the 1980s and beyond it fragmented — more so nowadays.
TLW: How do you feel when you get up every morning knowing that in a hundred years your music will still be heard and even studied?
JOHN: I feel very proud that I have been associated with Supertramp’s music.
TLW: Looking at so many cases from the past... Is it really impossible to remain friends or even partners in a massively successful rock band?
JOHN: Success brings problems not envisaged that can be hard to deal with. It’s not impossible to be friends.
TLW: Nick Mason, from Pink Floyd, says in his biography that Scott Page had to be tied down so he wouldn't invade the stage... Was he that ‘explosive’ in Supertramp? Did you have to stop him from those thunderous blows that, however, delighted the Floyds?
JOHN: Scott was a volatile performer with us, and we had to curb his over-enthusiastic antics occasionally!
TLW: A question to put you in an awkward situation... Please, don’t reflect, answer immediately, in less than a second, and whatever comes out of your mind, without paying attention to any criteria: Rick or Roger?
TLW: You have always liked to enjoy the good things in life, in their proper measure. However, you live in rainy, cloudy Manchester... Have you ever been tempted to live in Ibiza or any of the Canary Islands, like Mike OIdfield, Rick Wakeman, Chris Squire and many other musicians?
JOHN: We like to be somewhere ‘real’ — we tried California for seventeen years but we prefer the UK.
John and his new record “Don’t Ever Leave Me”.