Return to the Promised Land – talking Cast with John Power

John Power and his band, Cast, were backstage at the Academy in Liverpool before a sell-out show when I caught up with him, and it was clear that the adrenalin was up.

“We always look forward to playing hometown shows. And it’s not like you get nervous, it’s just that there’s a slightly more simmering …until you get on stage and start doing your thing. But because it’s a hometown (show), I suppose you always want to give a good representation of yourself. And once you go on and play the first chord, you tend to be amongst family. People get into it.”

At the same time, I’m guessing a Liverpool crowd will keep you in check. They won’t let you get above yourselves.

“Course not, and we’ll always be humble. But the thing is the music. Once the crowd relax – and they’re there for the same reasons – what happens is you’ve got this extra sense of excitement.

“Because they want to enjoy themselves, one of their own is coming back to town, and they want to celebrate that as much as we want to celebrate coming back to our own hometown. So you might have an awkward five minutes, but then you relax, and everybody will have a great night.”

The Liverpool return was part of an ongoing nationwide tour, the Britpop legends initially set to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of All Change, playing that classic LP in its entirety. However, Covid 19 restrictions led to major delays, that record – the highest-selling debut album in the history of the Polydor label – now closer to a 27th anniversary.

For all that time passed though, All Change – best known I guess for top-20 singles ‘Finetime’ and ‘Alright’, and top-10s ‘Sandstorm’ and ‘Walkaway’ – remains as sharp today as on its October 1995 release, something its songwriter only now truly appreciates.

And as John (vocals/guitar) put it, ‘All Change will always be special to me and the band. It captured all the energy and all our hopes, and it was packed to the hilt with great songs’.

For the ongoing tour, he’s joined by fellow long-servers Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson (guitar) and Keith O’Neill (drums), plus Jay Lewis (bass), a more recent acquisition but one also going a fair way back with his bandleader.

But first I tackled John on the premise of the anniversary, suggesting these shows have been so long coming, he should really be planning 25th anniversary shows for follow-up – and fellow platinum-selling long player – Mother Nature Calls instead.

“Yeah, it’s nearly the 27th anniversary! Of course, it’s been put off through all the shenanigans of lockdowns. But it’s just good to go out and play. I listened to the album the other day and I’d actually forgot how fucking good it was!

“Seriously. I don’t listen to my own stuff all the time, and people bandy around ‘classic album’. I hear that quite a bit, but maybe the right time has now gone since recording it. When people say it’s a classic album, it truly is a classic.

“I listened to it two nights ago, and it sounded fresh as a daisy. Everything was great on it. I mean, the band were great, the songs were great, the sound was great. I was impressed … blown away by it.”

Agreed. It struck me back in 1995 that it was very much in your face, a statement of intent, and I think it’s retained that power.

“Oh God, yeah, it has indeed. This is what I’m saying. It set the benchmark, setting the standard straight away when it comes in. And I really enjoyed playing last night {Cast’s tour opener at Oxford Academy}, playing ‘Mankind’, ‘Reflections’ … songs I haven’t really played …

Rather than just the singles you’re more likely to play on every tour.

“Yeah, that’s right. So you put ‘Promised Land’, ‘Mankind’, ‘Reflections’. ‘Tell it Like it is’, and the thing’s rockin’! I mean, ‘Back of my Mind’. It felt great, and we’re really in a good place to celebrate it ourselves. It’s come at the right time.

“I’ve been writing a new album with the idea of trying to get the feeling of writing a debut album for now, y’know, to represent if I was in a new band now, with all the influences I’ve known. I’ve been writing these songs, and it’s funny listening back to All Change, because it’s like, ‘Right, yeah!’

“There’s a lot of good stuff. There’s actually not that much going on. I mean, the riffs are there and they’re there to be heard. We played that album for two years, probably, before we recorded it. So when we got in the studio to record it, we knew exactly what we wanted.

“We weren’t looking for riffs. We weren’t writing in the studio. We had it all, every song was ready – waterproof and bullet-proof! It had all the riffs, all the drums, and we were tight as anything. So it went down like that – probably a big reason why it sounds so fresh and why all the parts work on it.”

I mentioned the follow-up, 1997’s Mother Nature Calls, and in a sense that was a continuation of what you were doing really, wasn’t it?

“It was, but I made a conscious decision to try and make it sound different. Songs like ‘Free Me’, ‘Guiding Star’, ‘Live the Dream’ and all that, I could have done them a bit harder, I guess, a bit more electric, but I thought it’d be a bit passe to repeat the same, although speaking to fans all these years later, everybody would have loved another All Change. But that’s hindsight.

“At the time, I didn’t really want to. I thought it would have been a bit easy for us to just do the same thing. But I don’t look back too much … and Mother Nature Calls is a cracking album.”

They’ve both stood the test of time, so you must have got something right.

“Yeah, definitely.”

By 1999’s silver-certified Magic Hour, Cast had brought in Gil Norton and Danton Supple, production-wise, while John co-produced with Tristin Norwell on 2001’s Beetroot (the band splitting two weeks after its release). But those first two LPs were both made with John Leckie. And the two Johns clearly got on well enough to work again when it came to my interviewee’s debut solo LP, Happening for Love, in 2003.

How would you best describe your working relationship with John Leckie?

“John is a very close friend and a wonderful kind of engineer/producer. He’s probably the last of a certain breed. There’s a lot of good producers and engineers out there, but it was a different art form those days, it was ‘tape and slice’.

“To edit, you had to cut the tape in half, put them together. Watching John do that was like watching a cordon bleu cook putting together something amazing. Literally, he was spinning two-inch tapes, pulling them together, and it would just match.

“He’d fucking tape the things together, you’d play it back and it would be amazing! John is great. We still keep in sorts, and hopefully he’ll come to one of the shows on this tour.”

That was recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire and Sawmill in South Cornwall, wasn’t it?

“It was … and Abbey Road, and Eden. We recorded all over the place with John. He also did Troubled Times. I’ve done four records with him.”

Ah, of course, the 2011 Cast comeback LP, now itself a decade old. Have you got good memories of those recording sessions with him back in ’95 and ‘97? And were you a well-behaved band, or up to no good antics, Britpop-era style?

“Well, you know … look, it wasn’t that you were up to no good antics – they were the antics! That was just the way. That whole epoch of music … I mean, everybody was partying, y’know, from the people in the record industry offices to the journalists and bands. It was a big knees-up!”

And it was the end of an era, in a sense, I guess. The record industry has changed so much since.

“It has. Everything seemed to change. I do believe that was the last sort of gung-ho era of massive record deals and million-selling records. And every Saturday, pretty much every bloody music listener in the nation would go and buy a record.

“Everyone was glued to Top of the Pops or The White Room, there was only one chart, and everyone was interested in it. Now, I don’t even know who gives a shit about the charts! It was a different time, with this eclectic genre of music knocking around. There were loads of different bands. It wasn’t all just one type of guitar band. It was a big mixture of a lot of great artists.”

How did working with John Leckie compare to working with Steve Lillywhite in your days with The La’s?

“Well, John and Steve are probably slightly of the same … we worked with John with The La’s as well. It just didn’t see fruition. That’s when I met John. Steve probably wasn’t as ‘hands on’ as John. He’d produce but couldn’t help himself jumping on and engineering as well, whereas Steve Lillywhite was your architectural kind of producer, telling the engineer what to do.

“But both … well, you know, their records speak for themselves. And although Steve Lilywhite didn’t quite see eye to eye with The La’s, he’s worked with numerous amazing artists and made numerous amazing records, just like John has.

“And they’re both of a tape-operating nature and came through producing records with tape. I don’t know how it works now. I’ve just been in the studio doing some demos, and the engineer I was working with threw up some drum loops, and it was like a fucking drummer, y’know!

“It’s quick and fast, especially with just getting your ideas down. You don’t have to get the whole band in to record demos. That’s one thing good now. You can just splice something, you can slow it down. Your sketch pad is a lot broader. But when you do the real record, you do it properly, I suppose.”

Seeing as you mentioned a drummer, you came up recently in an interview I did with one of the early La’s drummers, Iain ‘Tempo’ Templeton, later of Shack. It always seems to me that must have been a rather tortuous time ….

“Well, it was for him, ha!”

Indeed. I don’t think he’d argue with that. But I was going to say it was ultimately worth it for the finished product, released in 1990, another classic debut LP, painstaking as it seems to have been with regard to the intricate way those songs were made. How do you look back on those years now?

“It wasn’t tortuous. That was just the way it was, y’know. You did take after take, until you got the right take. Now, I guess it’s a bit different. I don’t know how people record modern records. It just depends on what type of band you are and if you want to sculpt out of a block of stone or marble, or you want to buy some sort of 3D printer that can print half of it out for you.”

Was that time recording with The La’s about you taking it all in, thinking ahead, working towards your own future, going out on your own or at least with your own band? Clearly there came a time when you thought, ‘I know what I want to do my own thing’. Were you a bit of a sponge in those days?

“I was a sponge. I very much listened and consciously and very much subconsciously absorbed things that were said. And they seemed to be the true cornerstones of something. I tended to recognise that very quickly. Never mind the detail at first, what you need is the foundation and rock cornerstones. Once you get that sorted, once you know what they are, you can spend time colouring it in, doing different shapes within that.

“So yeah, I think I was, and a lot of that probably stemmed from being around Lee {Mavers}, very closely, when I was very young. And he was a master songwriter – and still is – probably the most gifted songwriter of a generation, no doubt about it.”

Are you a believer in fate? I’m thinking specifically of you as an 18-year-old in July ’86 when you were on that course for unemployed musicians in Liverpool and happened to meet Mike Badger, in what proved ultimately to be your big break, joining The La’s, going on from there. Or was that just an exciting time, having a crack at this and that, living for the moment?

“I do believe in fate. I had a narrative, and seemed to read it off the page, and it kind of happened. I mean, I do believe in fate, but … it’s not a contradiction, but y’know, you keep coming to forks in the roads. And if you turn left, your fate opens a different reality or something else, but if you keep on your true course, I do believe there is a fate for us all.

“You’ve got to believe in magic and storytelling, you’ve got to believe in something that’s bigger than the mundane flesh and blood of yourself. Otherwise, you may think, ‘What’s it all worth anyway? Why am I trying? I’m only clay and blood. I go to bed, and I wake up’.

“So yeah, I believe in what can’t be expressed. But it can be expressed through things that are further than words and further than comprehension, y’know. We have instincts, and you choose to follow them or you don’t.

“Sometimes with those instincts, it feels like it could be a foolish thing to do. But if that instinct is strong, you’ll do it. And you’ll find out further down the path that actually you had to go through that, whereas other people will get off, where it feels unnatural to them maybe.

“Sometimes you’ve got to ride the white rapids, y’know, to get through. And it’s all part of the journey. Listen, we’ve been believing in things that are unattainable, and unformed … like grabbed … we haven’t made them yet. But isn’t that’s what evolution is?

“I’ve always imagined things that were not present, and in the future they become present, they become normal, you know. We’re sat here talking on the phone, or driving, and all these things are futuristic to one generation, but to another generation they’ll be looked on as primitive.

“The crazy thing about human nature is we’ve been trying to express our solitary soul in the universe, and our connection with many other people, you know. This is the big question … but I’m a big believer in something!”

Talking of forks in the road, it’s close to 30 years now that Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson and Keith O’Neill came on board the good ship Cast. Remind me, did you know them quite well before?

“Not particularly. But I knew when Keith and Skin joined the band that was right. We had numerous line-ups before, and it was never right. Another instinct. Some of them were closer friends, from around the area that I grew up. But it just wasn’t right. We had to disband and be cruel sometimes.

“But once they joined, it was obvious that they were the right ones. Keith was an exciting type of drummer, the kind I’d like to watch myself if he wasn’t in my band. While Skin is just, y’know, an amazing guitarist. So yeah, once you add that in … I had amazing songs, I knew that. I just needed an amazing band.”

It was a lot further down the line before Jay Lewis came in, but I’m guessing that, again, he clicked with you straight away.

“Well, of course, before that, Peter {Wilkinson} was integral to the band. But yeah, me and Jay are very close, and he’s very close with Keith and Skin. He played in The La’s and on my solo stuff. And he was the first man I called when Pete decided he didn’t want to be part of the band anymore.”

Peter Wilkinson (bass, backing vocals), previously with Shack, co-founded Cast with John, and was key to the set-up throughout the first coming. He initially returned in 2010, but departed in March 2015, having abruptly left a tour in December 2014, when Jay took over.

“Jay knew the songs and was playing with me acoustically. But Jay had to forge his own dynamic with the rest of the band. He’s not in the band because he’s my buddy, but because he’s an outstanding musician. He’s also a really cool soul, a really cool guy. He fits in and there’s a lot of love there.”

Now, as I mentioned, it’s even 10 years since Cast’s comeback LP, Troubled Times. Time flies. You mention new material, but do you instinctively know these days if you’ve written a song for Cast or for yourself?

“I think in the past, on Kicking up the Dust {Cast’s sixth LP, from 2017} I might have been guilty of maybe just throwing in a lot of good songs. But not on this one. I mean, I don’t want to make an OK record, I want to make one more seminal record. And then we’ll see what we do after that.

“I’m not talking about splitting up, we’ll keep playing and keep doing things. But the idea is to go back to our roots, and I now have some really good songs … I mean, I’d play them to you and you’d think it’s fucking brilliant, but they’re not going to be on this album.

“They just don’t feel right to go with these 12 or 13 songs … which are like little bullets, and they come flying out! They’re two and a half minutes long, they’re in and they’re out, and they sound just how I envisaged the new album to.

“And I’ve learned a lot from playing All Change recently, because I’ve realised those songs run together … they run together in a pack!

“So the next album has to have that sort of belief and outlook where they’re all parts of the same gang. I’ve got some beautiful songs, but they’re not going to make it on this album. They’ll be on a solo record, which I’m writing as well.”

Were all these songs you mention lockdown-built?

“Some of them. I’ve been thinking about the Cast album for a long time. I’ve wanted to go back to that space between The La’s and Cast, writing a record from that perception. I’ve never really done that. I’ve been working on this as an idea for a long time.

“It’s only over the last so many years that I’ve started to truly pull the songs out that actually sound like the idea. It’s alright talking the talk, but you’ve got to come up with the songs as well. I’ve got that for Cast and I’ve got some other good songs, which I’m not sure what I’ll do with them, but they sound great too. They might be a solo thing. It’s not all been written in lockdown, but a lot of it came together in lockdown.”

Did that prove a productive time for you?

“The first year was unproductive. I think like everyone else I just drank some wine in the garden. But the last year has been very productive. I’ve gone through all my ideas and got a better idea and a better picture of what the Cast album’s got to be.

“I did some demos about six months ago or whatever, then I got about five or six songs that were just fucking rad on the button! And I was like, ‘That’s how they’ve got to be!’. So it’s taken me another six months to find the other five or six …. but now I’m ready to go.”

I should point out there that following a brief La’s reformation around 2005, John went on to release his second and third solo albums, more in the acoustic folk vein, Willow She Weeps (October 2006) and Stormbreaker (January 2008). By then he was performing live in the John Power Band, featuring Jay Lewis (bass, slide guitar) and Steve Pilgrim (drums), Oli Hughes replacing Pilgrim after he joined Paul Weller’s band. John also went out on a solo acoustic tour with Jay in 2015.

Finally, if you could go back to the day you decided to bite the bullet and form your own band, post-La’s, what advice might you give yourself to save a few sleepless nights? Or did you always have that inner belief?

“I did always have the belief, but I suppose if I could do anything I would tell myself to enjoy it a bit more. All through the Cast success I was kind of a bit uptight, because I was writing songs and singing every night, y’know?

“I think I would say. ‘Just enjoy it a bit more’, because actually it wasn’t actually the greatest time of my life. Everybody thinks it was because we had big success, but there was plenty of that I didn’t really enjoy, being like a paranoid fucking freak putting yourself under extreme pressure. I mean, it was good fun. It was all a nice big knees-up, but it took me 10 years to get over it!”

But now you can go back to listen to those early records and enjoy them like the rest of us.  

“Now I’m alright. I’ve made my peace with everything. It sounds great now, and, I mean, I don’t ever like to sit back on my laurels, but …”

I’m guessing you’re not quite ready for Rewind Festival type shenanigans then?

“No, not at all! But as I say, I played the first album the other day and I was quite gobsmacked at how fucking great it sounded! I was made up. And when people say ‘a classic album’, I believe them now.”

Quite right too.

“Alright, mate. I best go. I’ve got a soundcheck to do. Take care!”

For a previous WriteWyattUK interview with John Power, from October 2015, head here.

The All Change 25th  anniversary tour, which started on January 13 in Oxford and carried on in  Liverpool, Birmingham, Leicester, and Dumfries, reaches The Foundry, Sheffield tonight (Thursday 20th), then heads for Manchester’s O2 Ritz (Friday 21st), Leeds’ O2 Academy (Saturday 22nd), Newcastle’s  O2 City Hall (Sunday 23rd), Cardiff’s Tramshed (Thursday 27th), Southampton’s Engine Rooms (Friday 28th), London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire (Saturday 29th), and Norwich’s The Waterfront (Sunday 30th), before February dates at Glasgow’s SWG3 (Friday 4th), Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms (Saturday 5th), and a finale at Hull’s Asylum (Sunday 6th). Full ticket details of the remaining dates can be accessed via this link. And for more about Cast, check out their Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and Twitter links.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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1 Response to Return to the Promised Land – talking Cast with John Power

  1. Another extraordinarily wide ranging and thorough interview, Malcolm. Congratulations.

    When I posted ‘All Change’ a while back at Vinyl Connection, it drew some fire for being ‘too commercial’. I was politely bemused, but what I really wanted to say was, ‘Bollocks! It’s top class power pop!’.

    Thanks again (…bustles off to spin Mother Nature).

    Bruce

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