After the years he spent with Crimson, John Wetton formed UK together with Eddie Jobson, Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford. This line-up recorded and released their self-titled debut in 1978, and a year later as a trio comprised of Wetton, Jobson and new drummer Terry Bozzio, they released their second and final studio release Danger Money.
It was 1981 when John Wetton, together with Yes‘ Steve Howe and Geoff Downes and ELP‘s Carl Palmer formed Asia. Their self-titled debut was the album that saw them becoming Billboard’s #1 Album of the Year for 1982. Indeed, hits like Heat of the Moment and Only Time Will Tell showed a great potential for how the band was to progress over the course of the next 30 years. 1985′s Astra was the final studio release with Wetton in the line-up (excluding the half studio-half compilation album Then & Now), being replaced by John Payne for the band’s next six records.
The original line-up reformed in 2006 and two years later they released Phoenix, with which they entered the Billboard 200 charts for the first time since the 1985′s Astra. In the space of four years Asia put out two more studio albums – Omega in 2010 and XXX in 2012.
Steve Howe left the band in 2013, and a new guitarist, a 27-year old Sam Coulson was brought to the line-up, following the suggestion by Paul Gilbert. In March 2014, Asia released their fourteenth studio album and seventh with John Wetton on bass and vocals. Meanwhile, Wetton had regrouped with Eddie Jobson for concert activities with UK, that resulted with the release of a live album – Reunion Live in Tokyo. In the intervening years, Wetton had collaborated with Steve Hackett for his Genesis Revisited projects, Arjen Lucassen‘s Ayreon and was a part of the live line-up of the US female-fronted progressive metal band District 97.
Prog Sphere spoke to John Wetton in support of the Asia’s new album Gravitas, but we also covered some of his other involvements, including his times with King Crimson.
The new album was originally to be called Valkyrie but you changed it to Gravitas. Why is that?
John Wetton: When the process was started, about 18 months ago, we played a show in San Francisco where Steve announced to us that he needed to concentrate on Yes and that so he would be leaving Asia. And I felt that we had to hit the ground running, so my only concept at that point was a song called Valkyrie. I had a title and I had four chords and I had an idea what it was going to be about, but nothing more. So when I approached the record company and the said “Yes, we are 100% behind the band,” we had a new guitar player, we were gonna record a new album and we had Sweden Rock to play on the 6th of June. We had a whole lot of positive things to say. The record company responded, the said “We’re 100% behind you, get in the studio and start recording.” So Geoff and I started writing the record at that point. Up until six months ago the idea was that the album was called Valkyrie and then at the meeting about six months ago, Carl Palmer said to the rest of us that he felt the title was too feminine. I said I disagree, but I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by forcing the title on them. So I said “By the way, I have another title that I am working on, which is Gravitas.” At that point, everyone in the room did the high five and started whooping and jumping and they said “Yes, that’s the title.” For me, Valkyrie is still the soul of the album, the heart of the album. But in fact it’s called Gravitas. Valkyrie is still the main track at the moment the people are playing.
Gravitas means dignity or seriousness.
Dignity, yeah. The song, actually, is all about divorce and how degrading divorce is. In the court the guy is just saying “Please, just leave me some dignity, give me some dignity.” Because the only people that win in divorce are the lawyers. Everybody gets hurt. And it’s very hard to come out of a divorce with a dignity – I know, I’ve been through one. Lot of the stuff that I write about is fairly dark and negative, but at the same time it’s stuff that most people have been through. This disintegration of relationships and stuff like that. It’s something that seems to resonate with people.
I had written the lyric to Gravitas, to song, when I faced the dilemma in the meeting we had that somebody wasn’t happy with Valkyrie. I just gave them an alternative, I said “Well there’s another track which is called Gravitas.” And at that point everyone in the room said “Yeah, we like that better than Valkyrie,” so that’s how it came across. The fact is that Gravitas, the word actually contains the word “Asia” too, it contains all the letters of the word “Asia.” It had that going for it too, it’s a very compatable word with Asia. But if you look at the lyrics throughout the album, most of them are about disintegrating relationships and it’s very hard to come out of that with any dignity. Gravitas seems to form an umbrella for the whole album.
Speaking about the lyrics, what gave you the inspiration to tackle these weighty subjects?
I’m always writing about the stuff that is very personal. And that’s from the word go, from 1981 when we first came out. The band’s ethos really was taking kind of bombastic, melodic tracks which have lots of overdubs and deep layers of keyboards, and the vocals and guitars and put on top of that very, very personal lyrics. For instance, Heat of the Moment, Only Time Will Tell – it’s all about personal, things going wrong. In fact, Heat of the Moment is an apology. It’s the first time I ever heard the first line of a rock song being an apology. It’s not a formula, it’s just what we do. We make spectactularly melodic orchestral backing tracks and then we put something incredibly personal on top of that. Rather than the vocal being bombastic, the vocal is very close to home, it’s very personal. But sometimes the voice is very small as in The Closer I Get (To You), which is the third track on the record, the vocal is almost, there is no reverb in it, it’s very close. it’s like I’m talking to you. So, that’s kind of what we do and it’s a tradition. I think it comes across stronger on this album because we produced it ourselves. Because Geoff Downes and I produced it, we wrote the songs so you are getting our view of what the band sounds like rather than a producer. However good a producer is, we are getting his idea of what the band should sound like. And this time you are getting it absolutely from the band.
In spite of the heavy meaning of the word, Gravitas does feel optimistic. Where does that optimism come from or where does it go?
Usually, however dark the subject matter in a song, however dark the story, I am always trying to give a listener a hope. Usually in the last verse the whole thing turns around and it becomes very positive. I always feel there is a muse writing this for me, you know, she’s standing behind me when I’m at the computer and she says “Please let me write the last verse,” so I just hand it to the muse and let her write it. It seems like a different person writes the last verse, but I always like to take the positive line toward the end of the song rather than leave the listener with no hope at all. I try to take them to a safe place.
How did the creative process for Gravitas go? Is there a set pattern to the band’s creative process?
The creative process is that Geoff and I will write the song – we’ll make the template of the song which is like a map. It’s like a road map of the song, it tells you what key it’s in, what the tempo is, how many verses there are, where the bridge is, and the middle eight, and it gives you all the information, and then we’ll gradually replace that, we’ll put all the instruments on top of there and then we put the drums on last. All the instruments are on there and the drums go on the last, the very last thing. Everything is on there: vocals, keyboards, bass, guitar – they’re all on there and then the drums go on last. So we use a very unconventional way of recording, but you get there in the end. We know what are we doing. We just record in this way because it’s a lot easier for us to concentrate on exactly what’s going down at each time. Each time we make an overdub you can really look at it in detail and make sure that it’s right before you put the next thing on. It’s very hard to do that when you already have the drums there, because everything has to sit around the drums at that point. So we do it in an unconventional manner that hopefully we know what we’re doing.
Asia is considered as one of rock’s most loved and influential supergroups. Have you ever thought about the status of the band after hiring the relatively unknown Sam Coulson as a replacement for Steve Howe?
We went to guys who were incredibly well known. My first choice was Steve Lukather when Steve Howe decided to leave, to replace one superstar with another superstar if you like. But Steve Lukather said to me while he was flattered he couldn’t do it. He had so much to do with Toto and Ringo [Starr & His All-Starr Band]. He had so much to do that he couldn’t do the job. The next person we went to was Carl’s favorite guitar player, who is Paul Gilbert. And he said the same thing, he said the same as Steve Lukather that he is very flattered and that he would love to do it, but he can’t. So at that point we said “Well if you can’t, do you know someone who can?” And he said “Yes, I do. I know two people. I know an American guy and I know a British guy. The British guy might appeal to you because he comes from the Midlands and he comes from the same place I do, the same place where Carl comes from. Not very far from where Geoff came from.” As a personality, he fit in perfectly. We looked to the American guy, brilliant player, but the thing that we liked about Sam was that (a) he was brilliant soloist, fantastic soloist, (b) he was willing to play the structural parts in the songs, like the unison lines of bass, the chords, the arpeggios, all that stuff – he was willing to be a member of the band, (c) but he had a very good personality, he was ideal for us because he comes with no baggage, he is an unknown quantity, most people have never heard of him and so there was no pre-judgement of what he would be like. And the other thing is that he is married man, he is very trustworthy, he is very calm. It was very important for us to find someone like that because we’re gonna be on the road for a lot of times with him and we need to know that he’s not gonna go off the rails. He had everything going, he ticked every box and Sam Coulson seems to be working out great.
Creatively speaking, what did he bring to the album’s sound?
He’s harder, he’s tougher, he’s slightly more metal, but at the same time he’s very melodic. He plays structural parts within the song as well as being able to play solo, and he’s happy to do that too. Which is very important. When there’s only four people in the band, everyone has to play their part. So what he brings to the sound is the freshness, the slightly harder edge and the ability to be the member of this band.
Let’s talk about Valkyrie. It seems that the song became an instant hit, it’s a great album opener. I’m wondering if this song, in some way, traced the route for the rest of the material on Gravitas.
Because it was the first idea that I had, for me, it encapsulates the album sound. It’s like an aria in an opera. It’s the four minutes that tells it’s a very, very easily listenable track. It has all the sounds on it that you’re gonna hear throughout the album. It has the harmony vocals, it has the big keyboards, it has the guitar solo and it has these heavy drums going through it. The ethos of Valkyrie is wishing someone who has died before they should have done a safe passage through to wherever they are going. That was the Valkyrie’s role in Norse mythology, she was the one that chose the warrior from the battlefield and took him through to Valhalla to ease the passage into the next world. Now, wherever this girl has gone, I want it to be the easiest passage that you can have. And to me that’s very personal, but it also has a landscape, a kind of big vision. The song for me is a little taste of everything you are gonna get on Gravitas.
Do you think that there is any kind of modern metaphorical equivalent to the mythical Valkyrie of legend?
If you believe in guardian angels, I mean, my age is now 64 and I am amazed that I’ve got to 64 considering some of the stuff that I did when I was young. And now I have to think that there was maybe somebody watching over me at that point. There is a guardian angel of some description. They come in lots of different shapes and forms; it could be someone who helps you with something very simple. All I know is that I’m grateful for all the help I’ve had to get to this age. Because I really could not have done it on my own. So, every song contains a reference to a guardian angel of some kind. And it’s something I didn’t really have a choice in, I wasn’t aware that I was doing that when I was writing. It just happened that way. So I think there’s a subconscious gratitude for me for something that’s helped me to get this far. And you get that all the way through the album. Above all, there’s a lot of gratitude in Gravitas. A lot. I’ve described some pretty desperate situation at times, but in fact the overall, the net result is that we get through it. That we come through it all, and however bad the situation we come through it and that gives everybody a little bit of hope, particularly me, but I can’t pretend that I do it on my own. I need someone to do that.
Over the last ten years or so Asia comes across more like a band than a collaborative project. Is there something in particular that inspired that transformation?
Well I think what we are doing now is we are experiencing being a bandfor the first time because when we formed in 1981, we got our first album out in ’82 and when that came out we were in a great elevator of life, we got out at a penthouse, not at the first floor! We went straight into doing arenas, we were on MTV, we never got the chance to grow up in the band together. Thirty years on, when we reformed in 2006, we’ve now recorded four studio albums, since 2006. We’ve recorded three live videos. We’ve had five or six tours of America, five or six tours of UK, Europe, Japan and South America. We learned to do all the stuff all over again and it’s great. So I believe that now we are more of the band than we ever were when we first formed because we go out on the road and we do tours, we have plenty of material so every time we go out on the road we take three songs out of the set and we put three new one in, and we didn’t have that luxury when we first formed. All we had was 40 minutes of music which was the first album so when we went out on the road we had to just kind of do solos and all kinds of stuff. Now we’ve got seven albums to choose from that we can do any of the material from seven albums. So, it’s great, I’m really enjoying it but we’ve had to learn to be a band and to grow in an organic way.
One of the interesting aspects of Asia is your cross-generational audience coming from progressive rock, classic rock and pop. Have you ever felt some kind of pressure that music won’t meet the expectations for any of these three distinctive groups of fans?
Quite possibly. I think that as individuals we qualify with the progressive people, whether we make that noise as a band I don’t know! Certainly in America we are classified as a progressive rock band. But some of the people who are from the neo-prog crowd, they don’t like us so much because we tend to play songs, we don’t use weird time signatures as much as our previous bands did. But we have to stick to our guns. The market stall we set out in 1982 is the one that we still do today and I think we do it really well and I think that we were in a corner of the market that noone else has had. We are unique in that we do some kind of cross-pollination of progressive rock and pop that somehow becomes classic rock. I sing with Steve Hackett sometimes, and his stuff is a lot darker than ours, it’s much more progressive, but at the same time my voice fits both styles. I can sing King Crimson tunes because I was in that band. I can sing UK tunes which is also progressive rock, because I was in that band. I feel happiest in Asia rather than anything else that I’ve done. It seems to suit my style, it suits my voice and my way of writing. I don’t see too many unhappy faces at our concerts. Some of the concerts are tweeted – last summer when we were in the middle of the German tour I said if you don’t believe that Asia is a real bonafide rock band, come to a German club and see us play ‘cause it’s pretty, pretty impressive. It’s really, really good and whether you classify that, as classic rock or progressive rock or just plain pop rock I don’t know, but it’s really good. If I was in another band I’d want to be in the band!
You said it before that implicitly Asia would not be as we know it if it was not for being “personal”. How did that in particular shape your music over the course of time?
Something happened to me in the early 1970′s. I heard a record by Joni Mitchell. The record was called Blue and it changed my life completely. There were two records that I played that summer – actually there were three – there was Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys, there was What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and there was Blue by Joni Mitchell, and I played those records all summer, I think in 1971 or 1972, and that kinda shaped the way I wanted the music to be. It needed to be personal, it needed to be orchestral, it needed huge vocals like The Beach Boys did and it needed to be intensely personal. It completely changed my life when I heard Joni Mitchell because she sings that confessional sort of style like she’s reading out of her personal diary, from a journal. I found quite shocking at the time but I thought that’s gonna be the way to go for me because I’d grown up with hard rock bands that were standing outside, pointing their fingers at someone else’s experiences, but I thought that it was much better when it comes from the person who is experiencing it. So what we did with Asia, we took this bombastic style of our previous bands, like King Crimson, ELP, Yes and what we did was, rather than fantasy lyrics, we put real personal lyrics on top of those. I think it was a winner for 1982 – certainly it still appeals to people today because they can relate to that personal experience.
So, that famous lyric in Heat of the Moment (“I never meant to be so bad to you”) is also personal?
Extremely personal. It’s all from my personal experience, yeah. So is Only Time Will Tell and so is the all the things from Valkyrie through to the last track Till We Meet Again. It’s all personal stuff, yeah.It’s all autobiographical.
Back to the new album, are you guys fans of the New York Yankees?
No, I heard that expression. Someone said to me last year and they said: “Oh, that stuff is as soft as Joe DiMaggio’s glove.” And I thought “Wow! That’s a great phrase.” I guess now we have to be under the New York Yankees, don’t we? What it describes in the song is the guy who is kind of set in his ways, he is very macho, he’s very independent, he’s very self-reliant and deep. He doesn’t think he’s gonna fall in love and then he does. In the course he falls in love and asks himself the question: “So what has made my heart soft as Joe DiMaggio’s glove?” I just think it’s a beautiful phrase and I wanted to use it in a song. And there it is. We are all very fond of sport in our band, but not baseball – not yet!!
I get the impression that Gravitas is a new beginning for the band. Do you agree?
Yes very much so, it’s a new chapter. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve not shut the door on the past, but we are walking down a new road now. I’m very, very happy about that. We feel free, we feel able to do our gigs, we are looking forward to getting on stage – that’s where we feel the most at home and I think we’ve done a good job with the album. It’s a very, very optimistic phase where we are going through now and Sam is the part of that. I’m really looking forward to the next year.
You will be touring in support of the new album. What will the tour setlist look like?
We are doing two shows in the UK, as kind of preview shows, which are Malvern Theater and Holmfirth Picturedrome on June 11th and June 12th. The next day we fly to Japan for four dates, we do one in Osaka, one in Nagoya and two in Tokyo. Then we come back and we come more UK dates coming in, we’re not quite sure what the tour is, but we will have more UK dates later on in the year and we go to the US in October.
What about the rest of the Europe?
Rest of Europe will be in there somewhere and so will South America, but we are not quite sure. We don’t have all the dates from our agent yet but we will be doing the comprehensive tour of the globe.
Besides Asia, you will be playing this year’s Cruise to the Edge festival, again with UK.
That’s right. Yeah, I’m leaving next week to do that. I’ll go to Los Angeles for about three days rehearsals and then we fly to Miami and get on the cruise. I enjoyed it very much last year. There’ll be lots and lots of cross-pollination as well, and I think I’m going to sing a song with Steve Hackett and I’m gonna sing a song with Renaissance as well, while we are on the ship.UK will have a different drummer this year, we will have Virgil Donati instead of Terry Bozzio this year. But yeah, if anyone’s been on the cruise they’ll know it’s really, really great fun. It’s terrific.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Well apart from guest spots with Steve Hackett and other stuff that I did, I did a guest spot on Arjen Lucassen’s album this year. I do lots and lots of things. When people ask me to do something, I generally say yes, so I keep active, but my main concern is Asia – always has been, always will be. I enjoy working with UK, I like working with Eddie Jobson but in that situation he drives the bus, it’s his baby, not so much mine. I feel much more comfortable with Asia, I feel at home with Asia.
How do you look at the times you spent with King Crimson today?
Oh, I very much enjoyed it. They were very happy times for me, 1972 to 1974. I wanted that to go on forever, but it didn’t. I see now why it couldn’t go on any longer than it did, but I regard it very much like kind of university. Passing through university and learning how to do stuff. I learned what I didn’t want to do and I learned what I did want to do. It was great experience for me, I loved it, absolutely loved it. It was a very daring band, because half of us loved to improvise and would go on stage and just not know what we were going to start with and the band was so good that it could just improvise and make it sound like we rehearsed it. Great band.
What is your view on today’s progressive rock scene? Are there any modern progressive bands that you listen to?
I saw Spock’s Beard – I played a gig with District 97; I did a whole tour with them last year. I think they are fantastic band and one of those gigs that we played, we were on a festival with Spock’s Beard. I was very impressed with Spock’s Beard, I thought they were absolutely amazing. Another band that was on that was on the bill was Beardfish and they were terrific too. I like Sound of Contact, they are really good band. There is plenty of good stuff out there.
Asia’s Gravitas is out now. Get a copy of the album HERE.