Interview with JOHN LEES (Barclay James Harvest) – 17 September 2013

John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest is back with a brand new album called ‘North’. The new CD features 9 new tracks that update the melodic prog rock band’s musical heritage, which is also neatly encapsulated on the accompanying live CD ‘The Opera House, Buxton – 19. February 2011’.

Formed in 1966, Barclay James Harvest survived the musical turmoil in mid 70’s Britain to become firmly established as a popular prog rock tour band and consistent album band in Europe. They probably reached their zenith in the summer of 1980 when they played a free concert in front of the Reichstag in West Berlin in front of an estimated 250,000 people.

The band eventually split in two in 1998, with guitarist composer John Lees pursuing his own musical vision under the name of Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes Of John Lees, which eventually became John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest, featuring fellow founder member, keyboardist Woolly Wolstenholme. The latter started work on the band’s last album, 1999’s’Nexus’ before sadly taking his own life.

The current band features John Lees on guitar and vocals, Craig Fletcher on bass and Kevin Whitehead on drums and percussion – both of whom appeared on the ‘Nexus’ album – and the relatively new member Jezz Smith on keyboards who joined 4 years ago.

During the interview John stresses that the album is collaboration at all levels, and though ‘North’ is an entirely new album, it makes a cyclical connection with the past through the emotional depth and melodic sweeps of John’s songs. Barclay James Harvest may be remembered mostly for their lush orchestrations and Woolly Wolstenholme’s mellotron, but it is John Lees’s songs that have stood the test of time.  With the help of his current band, ‘North’ sounds like a successful updating of the sounds that made Barclay James Harvest unique.

Pete Feenstra talks to John Lees about John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest then and now.

‘North’ feels like a real return to form and embodies the original spirit of the band.

It’s been really good. I wanted to get back to the way it used to be and wanted to get these guys involved in the writing of new material and producing lyrics, music, arrangements and everything.

They’ve been so supportive since the beginning of Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes Of John Lees and they’ve been part of the partnership almost since me and Woolly got back together again.

And this project is a combination of all that, by getting them involved in the writing of new material and arrangements and producing lyrics and music and everything. So it’s been a great experience for me really. There was a little bit of tuition from me with them, but really it was a case of everybody sitting down and producing the music and lyrics together.

The album is called ‘North’, is there a concept behind it?

Originally after the ‘Nexus’ album, the next project was going to be an album with a title ‘North’ as part of it. I had a contract with a record company and an advance, but I just didn’t want to do it so I sent the money back.

When we came to start to record this new entity, we decided well, it would be a good idea to stick to the title ‘North’. At some point,  I think it was me that mentioned we should have a track called ‘North’  and that we should have something that is synonymous with us, reflecting where we come from and the history, and incorporate every kind of atmosphere we could get.

Does the BJH legacy ever weigh heavily on your new material?

It might do if it wasn’t for this instance. Some people have said it smacks of old Barclay James Harvest, you know the feel and everything on it, but that wasn’t intentional at all, as we haven’t listened to old material and tried to recreate it any way, shape or form.

But having said that, as a group we have been playing material from the gamut of the BJH back catalogue, we all come from the same area, and we all have quite eclectic musical tastes. One of the beauties of the collaboration was that you get all that input if you are willing to share your ideas together.

Everybody was willing to do that and to come on board and that’s what has created a sound and feel which is not unlike the early BJH stuff, which in itself was a collaboration of people writing songs and sharing ideas

Did you have a big picture in mind when you wrote the album? Was it conceived as a suite?

No (laughs). It all came together because of the different aspects of things that were inspiring us all on that journey from the start of the album itself. One of the tracks that inspired us was ‘Ancient Waves’ which kind of started the new material ball rolling. And then with all the sadness and tragedy of Woolly, it galvanised everybody into doing something.  He was one of the driving forces in forcing forward and getting us to do the new album, and he actually got me back to saying; ‘right I’m back on board, and Ill do it’. And then of course he becomes ill and we had to do something and that started it all really.

The songs just came out of that collaboration, not as a plan, but because of where they are coming from.  It was the way they have all been written – live recorded and embedded in the studio and the technical features that we had to overcome to actually do all this – that produced the sentiment of the album and made it a pleasant experience from start to finish.

This is your first album since 1999 and you actually had 5 years outside of music, why was that?

I grew up with the internet, I was probably one of the first people with an email address I could never understand the day to day situation of everything I’d ever done was now on line for free and it rubbed me up the wrong way that. It wasn’t fair really, especially if you are a writer, not that I was making mega amounts of money anyway, but really it did me in that.

But isn’t downloading similar to how people taped music back in the 70’s and if they liked it they would buy the album?

Yes, but as well as that, for people like myself and all the copyright deals we’ve done, they didn’t have any clauses for the internet or downloads, or anything like that and of course the record companies were really generous weren’t they????.

They would say: ‘oh yeah downloads, oh yeah, well’.  So what was offered to the actual creators of the copyright, – the writers – was zilch really, there was nothing from any downloads really. So the whole thing became very upsetting.

But there comes a point when you think that life’s too short, I’m still writing songs and I’ve got all the social comments inside of me that I normally express in a song or some other form, its just stupid so its just got to be done

How long did it take to put the new album together?

It’s difficult to say, it started and then it stopped. I suppose we’ve been actively working at the album since ‘Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios’ which was back in 2010. You have to imagine we’re really a semi pro outfit now, I’m an OAP with a bus pass now (laughs) and I’m semi retired, but the other guys have full time jobs, so the album has been recorded in the evenings and weekends.

We’re like a little club really, we meet up twice a week and weekends to play and record music. It’s a real achievement for everyone, Not only have we been doing that, but we’ve been collaborating with the writing in a fantastic way. It’s a big achievement for all of us.

You took out 5 years to teach music technology. Was there a sense that you were passing on your musical experience?

Hopefully yeah. Hopefully so. I had a really great time actually. The head of music at the school was a guy called Jack Dickson and he was really a forward thinking, progressive kind of a guy.

He made it possible to do create a new music technology department in a Church of England school, but it was all changing over to an academy last September, and I thought if there was ever a time to go, it was then, as the two biggest victims of the cuts were music and the arts. I thought that was very short sighted, as those kids were academically the highest achievers, so I thought it was good time to go back to my main thing which was Barclay James Harvest, and the guys who have been so supportive in the past

The title track certainly stands out. Is that why it was the leading track?

No it wasn’t really because of that.  It had more to do with what key it was in and how it all fitted together, that kind of thing, and the kind of atmosphere as well.

‘If You Were Here Now’ is a very radio friendly (It could be Chicago) and yet ‘Unreservedly Yours’ was chosen as the single?

It wasn’t a single as such.  It was more of a way to let people know that we were actually doing an album again, as there was some doubt as to whether we would ever produce a new album at all, and whether we were just kidding people. It was put together very quickly to persuade people that it was one of the new songs coming from a new album.

You always seem to have the ability to make the music evoke the feeling of the lyrics?

Yeah, again it’s the atmosphere of the music and lyrics coming together. Sometimes you’d come up with a musical idea which would suggest a lyric to you and those are usually the quite easy ones. Other times you may have a lyric and then you have to create an atmosphere and it’s a little more difficult to do that. But when you’re in collaboration with 4 people – Jezz, Kev and Craig- and at the level that we are at, you can openly discuss what you are collectively trying to achieve. One of us might see it in a different way, and it helps create these lovely atmospheres that back up the melody, lyrics and the song

Presumably after a while it all becomes more intuitive? 

Yeah it’s true, Kev, Craig & I have been together now for 15 years odd years or so, I’ve known know Craig for 20 odd years, and Jezz is a relative newcomer really….

Did you want to take the band in a different direction after you split with Les Holroyd?

It was a trust issue. It actually had nothing to do with the musical direction. I can’t go into details but it was a trust issue and after that I think it would have been very difficult for the two of us to work together again, so that was the decision that was made.

I then had management who saw the way forward as being for the remaining members to be in Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes John Lees. I stuck to that initially and Les was adamant he wasn’t going to do that.

You’ve produced an album that is an update of what the band used to be and you’ve almost come full circle

It is yes and we have really.

The album sounds like classic BJH, but some of the tracks like ‘In Wonderland’ are a stylistic departure. It’s got fusion feel and sounds a bit like Steely Dan with Crosby Still & Nash harmonies?

The song was dictated by what the musical treatment would be. It’s a true story that, it’s a real person but we changed the name to protect the innocent (laughs).

‘On Leave’ is one of the album highlights and is almost in two parts, with a proggy instrumental section. How did that all come together?

There were two of us in the band that were coming from 2 completely different directions but with the same aim, which was to produce a song that would say goodbye to the tragedy that had befallen Woolly. It started off with the two of us crashing into one another, but again it’s a collaboration that shows you, or showed me especially, how things can really blossom from combining ideas.

‘The Real Deal’ is another noticeably different song from the normal BJH template?

I’ll tell you the story (laughs).  We’d got to the end and had done everything and Jezz turned round and said; ‘I think, looking at it, we’re about 5 minutes short, it should be longer than this’, and I said: ‘there’s not really a rock song in this is there?’ and everyone agreed.

So I’d been playing some blues riffs a couple of weeks before in the studio with Jezz and we all sat down the 4 of us and I said what about that rock riff we’ve were messing around with the other day? We worked on it just in the evenings and from start to finish it took 3 days.

Where did the idea of the Brass band arrangement for ‘On Top Of The World’ come from?

We discussed the possibility of doing the song with a brass band, rather than an orchestra and Craig got a bee in his bonnet about it. My son has been in brass bands for long time and he played several kinds of instruments and when this song came up, we decided to record brass on it. I had a lot of contacts and called in a few favours and we had some great musicians on it and it all came together really lovely.

‘At The End Of The Day’, is set to a poem by early 20th Century northern poet Ammon Wrigley. How did you come across him and what inspired you to match the words with the music?

Well, He is a very famous figure in this area and he worked as a part time archaeologist, historian and poet and my wife’s grandfather who was a big fan of this guy knew him. He also had one of his books ‘Wind in the Heather’ and I was looking at this book and there was an old pamphlet inside the book.

These guys couldn’t always afford to produce books and used to make small pamphlets with poems in it and stories. Inside this book was one of those pamphlets they’d written. The poem was written in pencil and signed by the scribbler AW, and I’d read it and thought it was a moving bit of poetry really. Its only short and I think this guy must have written it for a pint in the pub,  you know, write me a poem and I’ll buy you pint and I could see this all happening.

So I found it in the book, and I wanted to use it, but as good as it was, it hadn’t been published yet and I asked around about it, I asked people who specialize in reading this guy’s poetry among other people and no one had ever heard of it. Someone might come out of the woodwork now and say they have, so we had to go to remaining relatives to ask to use it

‘Medicine Man’ was inspired by a book by Ray Bradbury. Do you still look to literature for your lyrical inspiration?

Sometimes yes and that goes for the other guys in the band as well.

Did you realise ‘Mockingbird’ was a classic when you wrote it?

No not really, it’s just when we play it now I’m just gob smacked and see it from another point of view really, it’s just a beautiful song, yeah.

When you play the band’s early material does it feel familiar or from another time?

It’s like visiting another life. I’m going to have do a lot more of that in the coming weeks for the next tour, because although we’re going to be doing a lot of ‘North’, the guys are picking numbers that they like from the back catalogue and that they want to have a go at. And I’m thinking the songs are as strange to me as they would be anyone who hasn’t played them before.

Was ‘Poor Man’s Moody Blues’ written specifically to sound like ‘Knights in White Satin’, or was that only apparent after it was written?

Oh no, it is, but its not. It was me being clever in retaliation to some stupid comment by a journalist at the time.

Wally Waller seemed a strange choice to produce ‘Barclay James Harvest and Other Short Stories’, as was Rodger Bain on ‘Everyone Is Everybody Else’. How were those decisions made?

Uh, it wasn’t really something we had have any control over, Wally bless him, is a really nice guy……I think Norman Smith was the pusher for Wally at the time and it probably happened that way and it was probably also the same for Rodger (I think he’d just done Black Sabbath or someone?).

Neil Young producer Elliot Mazer oversaw ‘Time Honoured Ghosts’ and he was quoted as saying: ‘I’d seen the band overpowered by an orchestra and working these terrible arrangements at the Festival Hall’. Did you feel that at the time?

No, we fancied the idea of recording in San Francisco because we wanted to get that American sound he had on Neil’s album ‘Harvest,’ I think. But it was the same with Rodger too, I think it was the record companies attempt at hoisting people on us that they thought would produce something different. I think they were trying to make a rock band out of us or something.

‘Gone To Earth’ was self produced and it broke you in Europe. Did you feel vindicated at the time? 

Yeah, yeah, I think we’d never really been satisfied with the people we’d worked with before really, and ‘Gone To Earth’ was a result of a good collaboration and that made it better.

‘Gone To Earth’ was also voted as the best BJH album in a recent poll with ‘Everyone Is Everbody Else’ and ‘Time Honoured Ghosts’ coming second and third respectively. Do you have any views on that?

Uhm, it doesn’t affect me one way or another, but I think in retrospect it’s probably quite a good choice, If you asked me what was my number one BJH record, I’d say ‘Gone To Earth’.

How did you hook up with the Esoteric/Antenna label who have done such a great job on bands from the same era?

We’d been with Mark Powell when he was at Eclectic – and now Esoteric – for a while and he’s a great friend who was really instrumental in keeping the John Lees Barclay James Harvest side, John Lee’s side going over the years. His enthusiasm for the music is unbelievable, and I would say it was he who pushed us all to produce this album as well.

Interview © September 2013 Pete Feenstra

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