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Ray Wilson interview Leipzig 2016

Ray Wilson - Interview about Song For A Friend

GNC discusses recent and upcoming activities with Ray Wilson

It's a busy year for Ray Wilson: Plans to release a double album were changed in favor of two separate studio albums. One of them, Song For A Friend, was released earlier this year. The other one, Makes Me Think Of Home, is scheduled for an October release. Reason enough for us to sit down with Ray Wilson and discuss the background of this project. The interview was conducted by Christian Gerhardts before the show in Leipzig, 16th April 2016.

GNC: It’s been a while since the last interview, I also haven’t seen you live since that day in Dresden

Ray: Yes, 2013 it was … things haven't changed a lot since then, but this year will see a lot of new music, which always keeps life interesting for me. When you do as many shows each year, as I do, it is important to keep things fresh and introduce some new songs to the audience, as well as the songs they want to hear from the past.


GNC: The usual thing with fans, especially when they go to multiple shows: They expect setlist changes.

Ray: Exactly, that's it. For an artist, it’s a nightmare. Why don’t you play this instead of this, etc. That’s hard, but most shows are not created for people to see them 20 times, as many of my fans do. I try to keep things changing, but also have to keep in mind that most of the audience only see the show once.


GNC: Some people like Springsteen even play for 4 hours sometimes

Ray: He’s a genius when it comes to performance. But to be honest, a rock show with 2hrs or 2,5 hrs is enough for me. Maybe bands like Pink Floyd could do more, but if you do 4/5 minute tracks, then 2,5 hrs is long enough. Even for me as a fan.


GNC: Song For A Friend - I must say, I was a bit surprised when I heared the album. Some people said, after hearing only the teaser snippets, it could be his best one since Change. I wouldn’t put it that way - Change was a very straight forward album, while Song For A Friend is more melancholic, it has more depth. Also, people were surprised that you did not stick to the original concept with the Backseat Drivers double album, like one acoustic disc and one electric. Why did you change that last minute?

Ray: I changed this idea because everybody told me to, in terms of distributors and marketing people. I was originally thinking of doing a contract with InsideOut. They said they wanted to split the album and didn’t even want the acoustic half at all. They only wanted the electric album, which comes out later this year. I was defending my concept of a double album, but they said it’s not the best idea to do it that way, and the distributors felt the same way. The more I started to think about it, I began to realize that if I did that, the acoustic album which would have been disc two, might have been overlooked a bit. And for me - I prefer the acoustic album, it's magical. The Polish record company didn’t want the acoustic album to come out first, because they were thinking about the songs they could put on radio etc. But I said that’s the way it is. And later they said it’s a brilliant album actually and now they like the idea to have the acoustic album first. From my personal point of view Song For A Friend is too good to be overlooked. In some ways you could compare it with Change, but Change was also an album which was more produced, with drums from Nir, bass from Andy Hess, Adam Holzman on keyboards and so on. That was a different type of album, with me playing guitar. Whereas I don’t play guitar at all on Song For A Friend. I only sing. All of the music is Uwe Metzler, lyrics and vocal melodies are mine. It’s not like Tony Banks, he would often write a melody for you to sing. With Uwe there’s no melody at all. I write that melody line. Sometimes the music inspires the melody. So it’s all Uwe, musically, and sometimes Ali plays some atmospheric ideas and solo parts. I was desperately trying not to produce this album too much. I tried other percussion ideas, but took them out again, I really tried stripping it back all the time. So voice and guitar and that, plus the lyrics, is what you should be focussing on with this album. So the answer is: It just kind of happend that it got separated and the Backseat Drivers idea didn’t seem appropriate any more - it didn’t make sense so I decided to release two albums at different times. When I decided to release them myself again, I thought let’s have a kind of campaign over the next six or eight months. I have six videos, which a record company would seldom do, two album releases and from the marketing side I’ve got press promoters, radio promoters and TV promoter, in the UK as well this time - plus facebook and YouTube advertising. I’m putting my money where my mouth is and give it a go, see what happens. I am really pleased with these albums.

Ray Wilson & Christian Gerhardts There’s a video for a song called Amen To That, which is on the next album, the video is just fantastic and funny. It took us six days to film it, which is a long time for a music video, even Genesis didn’t do that and they had lots of money available. I play 22 different characters in the video, it’s really funny. It’s a bit more commercial, but funny. And the song Makes Me Think Of Home, which we play during the shows already - and that video is being done by Sightsphere. The song is more atmospheric, with great instrumental parts, a little bit Pink Floyd style, little bit Gabriel etc. That video is much more a Pink Floyd type of video. We filmed it without me in it and I thought ok, 60% was really good, so we are filming again another two days with me in it. It’s nice to finally take time to do these things. I never had any time in the past. You release stuff, then it’s out, the fans have it and you think, ok, what now? This time I take it slow. I have lots of different emelents to promote the product with, always hoping people will like the songs.


GNC: It’s unusual to have two full albums in one year. So when did you make the decision to have either a double album or two albums, since you had so much material?

Ray: It all started with Uwe and I writing a Stiltskin album but I wasn’t enjoying this. So I asked him, "Can we try something more acoustic"?‘. Uwe is a great acoustic player, but we never really recorded like that, in the past, it was always rock stuff. So I suggested to strip down to acoustic and the ideas he sent me was absolutely fabulous. I had so much more to say with this music. So this really started as a Stiltskin album, but became something, quite the opposite.


GNC: I saw Nir Z is involved on one track

Ray: I asked Nir to play percussion on all of it, but he didn’t have the time. On the second album Makes Me Think Of Home he plays on all the songs, but when it came to working for the acoustic album he got involved in another project. So I asked him to play on How Long Is Too Long, as I wanted drums in the second half of that one and we left it that way. That kept the album from not becoming overproduced. The way it was supposed to be.


GNC: In the sleeve notes you say it’s about different stories in life. The lyrics seem to deal with aging, death, failure, disappointments.

Ray: Depends how you look at it - glass half full or glass half empty. I don’t see it like that, I see a lot of hope and positive elements in these songs. In order to really appreciate positivity, you have to also first experience negativity. With the exception Song For A Friend, which is about the death of a friend and also How Long Is Too Long. Negativity is not what this album is about. It's about hope, faith, self belief, love, passion, anger, frustration and heart.

Old Book On The Shelf is about reflecting on life. It’s fiction of course - sitting in a bar in Amsterdam, taking a book from the shelf, reading it, to find out it’s the story of your life. Over My Dead Body - the emotion in that is one of betrayal, it’s not about sadness, it’s betrayal and hurt. The next time I see you I’ll be dead and buried. That's the idea. The message, however, is that we shouldn't leave it that long to mend fences between one another.

Cold Light Of Day in some way explains the situation of the guys in the band leaving, a couple of years ago and that poison they tried to create in doing so. Backseat Drivers is about the pointless chitter-chatter of life. So it’s not really negative, not at all.


GNC: Having lost my father recently, I kind of had a different connection to the music - at least most likely a different one compared to a situation where that didn’t happen. I was looking for the songs about your friend and I wasn’t sure if I found them. Obviously the title track must be one of them, but that sounded more like a general looking back at things - is it your mum you are singing about?

Ray: No, it’s his mum, it’s all about James. I rented a room in his apartment when I first moved to Edinburgh - he was very helpful. He was a great guy. He was one of these characters, whenever something good happened to me he was the first to congratulate me. The mentality in society these days, certainly in Scotland, can be: when you do well, people resent it. He was never like that. He was always delighted when things went well. He was the loudest guy in the room, girls loved him, he was always fooling around - just a great guy. He had this tragic accident where he was on a trampoline and jumped in a swimming pool and he broke his neck, he hit his neck on the side of the swimming pool, while on vacation with his friends. He was left completely paralyzed. So he went from being this guy with all the energy in the world to being totally paralyzed, basically only being able to move very slightly. He tried for three years or so to get his life back together. He was always so positive and full of ideas. The frustration of being confined to the wheelchair, unable to move and having all these big dreams and not be able to do anything about it, just prooved to be too much for him. In the end he went to where he was born, a little fishing village outside Edinburgh with his helper who was looking after him. He asked her to get a jumper from the car as he was cold. When she went to the car, he pushed his wheelchair off the harbour wall, into the sea and killed himself. That’s the story as I understand it and that’s what the song is all about. Hence my referring to the sea air, in the song.


GNC: So the other track How Long Is Too Long seems to be more about loneliness

Song For A FriendRay: Yes that’s how I feel he must have felt. He’s went from one extreme to the other. How would you feel in that situation. It must be terrible. How Long is Too Long was the first song I wrote for him. It’s a good song, but it also didn’t seem to cover everything, for me. A couple of weeks later I wrote Song For A Friend and that was exactly what I wanted to say. I sang it once in the studio and never sang it again. I didn’t redo it or overdub it. I was very emotional singing it. I had tears in my eyes and I think you can hear or feel that. In the end I thought it would be nice to dedicate the entire album to him. Something else to remember him by.

GNC: You have called the album Song For A Friend, maybe Album For A Friend would have been more appropriate?

Ray: Well - Song For A Friend sounds better than Album For A Friend. That’s also the song that has the most significance on the album. It allows his spirit to continue through the music.


GNC: There’a line in your songs that appears frequently. It’s „good things come to those who wait“, but now, in Not Long Till Springtime it’s „good things come to those who fight to win the day“. Why did you change your mind?

Ray: I didn’t think about it that way. I think both statements are true. If you don’t give in, keep pushing, you eventually get there. I think it’s also true that if you are lucky enough to be patient, which I am not, then if you focus on what you need in your life and work on achieving that, it may well find you, if you are patient enough to allow it to. That’s why I keep using this line. I also use freedom is everything a lot. Its a significant statement for me. Especially now when you see what’s going on in Europe, it’s even more important to remember how lucky we are to be free. There are a lot in politics trying to stop or control people’s freedom, and that’s dangerous for me.


GNC: You live in Poland - how does it feel since it’s not the easiest country to be in right now when such things as freedom are important for you

Ray: That’s true, but actually that type of far right thinking going on just now, is not typical of the Poland I know or anywhere else in Europe. It's still a minority and I hope it stays that way. That type of thinking may be typical for those people who never go anywhere and live life in front of a TV and for those people who don’t travel, meet, make friends and experience different cultures. This can perhaps lead you to become more nationalistic and to have a small minded mentality, because you believe what the TV and media feeds you. We have to be careful to keep a perspective on this situation. Talking about migration, what Germany is doing is in many ways hard for the country - of course. But I’ve got the deepest respect for what Germany is doing, it’s such a humanitarian thing to do. Whether or not you agree with it politically, is your own choice. You can vote accordingly. But it’s a massive statement from a humanitarian point of view, especially coming from a country with a negative history created by two world wars. To have turned around and do something so humane and courageous is magnificent. I hope in time the majority of Germany will one day look back and see it as the great gesture that it is. I can understand the frustrations and arguments, but it’s a very humane thing to do and takes a strong people to see it though.


GNC: Talking about hope - High Hopes. Was it your idea to include that?

Ray: No, this has nothing to do with me. Uwe told me he had recorded a version of High Hopes but I do not have a David Gilmour type kind of voice - the Gilmour stuff, that’s Ali's department, he does that. He sent it and I said, ok, I will sing it. Then I thought it was quite good. And it’s a great song anyway. And also the message in it is quite appropriate for the end of this album. The funny thing is, Ali doesn’t play on that one at all [laughs], which is weired, as he’s such a Floyd fan and he plays this Gilmour style incredibly well and he’s not playing on that at all.


GNC: The album is 44 minutes long ...

Ray: Yes, as an album should be. It’s fine. With that type of song, it’s a good length for an album. If you are Tangerine Dream or Floyd you can have longer albums, but here it didn’t need to be longer, I am absolutely happy with the length of this album - and the next one will not be much different, I think it’s a bit longer, but not much. Like the old days. And the beautiful thing is, you can put it on vinyl. You don’t actually have to lose a song to two or make a double album and then not having enough songs for that. With Chasing Rainbows, I had to take off two songs for the vinyl edition. It was too much for a single LP.


GNC: Once I have asked you whether or not you are eager to do an album with cover versions. And you said you would never do a cover version on an album. No you have done that with High Hopes, can you now imagine doing a full album with cover versions?

Ray: Well I did a Springsteen thing live on the radio. I love that music. But I don’t think there’s a point doing that for a full album, just yet. If I did, it would be a surprise selection, like Neil Diamond, or Can’t Take My Eyes Off You (Frankie Valli). I certainly wouldn’t do stuff you might expect. I probably would sing Thin Lizzy very well. I sang Still In Love With You with their ex guitarist Brian Robertson at a Frankie Miller Tribute Concert. So yes maybe an early eighties heavy metal album or a Harry Belafonte cover project [laughs].


GNC: Live shows - you played two or three songs from the albums. Will you do more in the coming weeks and what will your set be like when both albums are out?

Ray: Depends what the gig is. Obviously I still do Genesis Classic shows. Not so much as I did. but when we play certain clubs like Aschaffenburg, Augsburg and Hamburg, Hannover, Berlin etc, it will be a lot new material. But before the albums come out, you probably can only do 6 or 7 songs, which are more or less unknown. More songs will be added later and also some songs don’t sound as good live as they do on the album, that happens. We had that with Shouting In My Sleep, which we tried countless times, but it wasn’t as good live, as on the album. At the moment we’ve got six songs from the acoustic album that are being rehearsed. Some songs also need Uwe to be involved, like Song For A Friend. From the electric album, we are rehearsing five of them.


GNC: Will you also strip down songs from the electric album for the acoustic shows?

Ray: I wouldn’t think so! No. I don’t do so many acoustic shows anyway. Mainly with Ali and Kool, sometimes with Uwe. We do songs from the Song For A Friend album. Maybe one or two from Makes Me Think Of Home could work that way, but I don’t think I will do it. Not sure yet.

GNC: Is there another significant difference between the two albums, apart from the fact one is acoustic, one electric?

Ray: Lyrically, Song for a Friend, is more personal. The electric album has a song about Scottish independence movement. I stopped drinking alcohol two years ago because I thought I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t stop - and wrote a song about that - The Next Life. And Makes Me Think Of Home may suggest it’s about me thinking of going home, but in fact it’s the opposite. Calvin & Hobbes is written by Scott Spence and is about the cartoon his children love so much. He wrote that for his daughter. The Spirit by Uwe Metzler, kind of Country and Western song. The album has three styles on it. There’s melancholy/Prog like Makes Me Think Of Home and Anyone Out There?, also by Scott. And then it get’s more pop and Rock.


Makes Me Think Of Home

GNC: So you didn’t sign to any record company in the end?

Ray: No. The reality is, digitally the world is open to you. From a marketing point of view, you are limited to the territories you can afford to market in. For me, it’s Poland, Germany and the UK. I have a small company. If I signed to a record company, they certainly would have some more opportunities in other parts of Europe and the USA. You would also have to sign a 10 or 12 year license and it’s not your album for that time. I didn’t want to do that. I am a control freak. It’s the best and the worst thing about my character. I have enough money to do the things I want to, as my desires and ambitions are realistic. And I don’t have desires to buy a Ferrari. Where it might help to have a record company is when you are signed to a major, where they have worlwide marketing andbdistribution, but that could only happen if I had something on the album which has commercial success - that would change things. But do I want that? Not sure. It doesn’t matter so much to me. I was number one in the charts, I sang with one of the biggest bands in the world. I have done this. What I do need to be happy is to have control about my destiny. And I like to do shows and there are not so many small to mid size bands out there able to do as many concerts as I do, year after year. It’s just fine for me the way it is.

GNC: People keep asking, why is Ray not doing anything in Italy, UK or the USA

Ray: it’s a marketing issue, very simple. Unless there is something that really could make a difference - what’s the point? It would be fun playing in North America or the far east but it's not a reality at the moment and also, to play there would be with Genesis Classic, so maybe one day. We'll see

Next year, we will add tracks like The Dividing Line or There Must Be Some Other Way to the shows, as Calling All Stations will have its 20th anniversary.


GNC: Do you have plans to play the full album Calling All Stations?

Ray: I wouldn’t do the full album, it’s just not good enough for me. That’s the truth of the matter. Maybe six or seven tracks, but not all. The tracks I mentioned, The Dividing Line was great live, Congo is live far better than on record etc. In Germany and Poland it’s important to refresh the show. If I go to the UK or North America, I can play the existing show, as they haven’t seen me perform yet, so it would be new for the audience.


GNC: You played some shows with Steve Hackett. Any plans for further collaborations, even on record?

Ray: Maybe. But to be honest, it’s not important to do that, it was fun, as I liked the songs and Steve is a great guy. Whether we do something new … Steve mentioned it a year ago that he has a new song written - but he’s very busy, so it’s hard to say. I am not against the idea, if he has something interesting. But if not, fine.


GNC: What do you think about the music business in general these days?

Ray: It’s tough to answer that. At the moment we are approaching a time where you have to think, does it make sense to release an album, commercially? I think we are near the point where it doesn’t make much financial sense to produce albums, unless you are Adele. It’s really tough with all these streaming services etc. Vinyl is coming back, but it is not enough to cover the costs of an album production. I always wonder if the one I am working on - is that the last one I'll do? Should I put it all on Spotify? Absolutely not. You cannot make any money from that. You only lose. Great for the consumer though. Free music :-)


GNC: Ok then - thanks for the interesting chat!
Ray: A pleasure, as always.

Interview / transcript: Christian Gerhardts