John Young is the keyboard player and songwriter with the Progressive Rock band Lifesigns. He's also been in Bonnie Tyler's band for many years. Throughout his career, he has worked with many greats of the business, Fish, The Scorpions, John Wetton, Asia, Qango, Uli Jon Roth and Greenslade to name but a few., his best work has been saved for his current band Lifesigns, if you haven't heard them you certainly should rectify that, Altitude their new album is already my album of the year. . John is a really down to earth guy and always makes time for the fans, it was a pleasure as always to talk to him.
Interview February 25 2021
Hello John, Thanks for taking the time to chat today, You've finally released Altitude this week, The third album from your band Lifesigns, what can you tell us about it?
Well a lot of folk are saying it’s our best yet but to be honest we didn’t really think about that. It was made in somewhat adverse conditions we changed drummers, moved out of the studio and made the entire album remotely due to covid restrictions. We had three tracks that we were playing live before lockdown Gregarious, Ivory Tower and Last One Home, to this we added Altitude, Fortitude and Shoreline. I think it’s a good combination of tracks and the album flows well with the Lifesigns trademark… no fillers! Asides from the band also stand out work from Lynsey Ward (Exploring Birdsong) Juliet Wolff a classical cellist and Peter Knight (Steelye Span) on violin.
Its been a long time in the works, last time we spoke in person in 2019 you told me the third album was already written, has it ended up as you wished with everything thats happened in the world?
Yes pretty much although some new tracks came along in the meantime it was only the title track that was underway at that time. It’s strange although we didn’t write any of the tracks with reference to recent events some of them have a somewhat prophetic element :-) Musically I’ve never worked with better musicians so from that point of view it’s a real joy.
How was the recording process, had you much of Altitiude recorded before lockdown?
Not really. We finished touring in March and that’s pretty much around the time we started recording. Our minds were focused on how we do this remotely and asides from the keys and guide vocals Zoltan was first to add his parts followed by Dave and Jon.
When we chatted a few weeks back you said you thought 'it was the first album where you might need a lie down between the tracks'. There are a few very long tracks on Altitude but they don't feel long, you've let the songs breathe and the melodies run rampant, was this a concscious decison?
I think it’s just the way I/we work Mark. I’ve always had a head chock full of melodies and ideas all fighting to get onto the page. So in a world where currently repetition is king (just look at the charts) we tend to take the opposite tack and have bucket loads of ideas in one tune which is usually why it flies by. People often say I needed to hear more of that section to which my response is ‘well you can always go back and play it again’ :)
Even on first listen I felt Altitude was already your best work, a very mature work, the music instantly brought a smile to my face, it gave me a warmth and positivity in life I personally needed at this time and I found it with this album, have you heard similar feedback from the fans?
Yes indeed Mark. One of the beauties for me with regard to music is the healing property it has. For sure it can make a day seem brighter but it can also go much further than that. We’ve already had messages from fans and friends saying it’s helped with everything from Covid to cancer and that is wonderful. Also the different meanings and feeling people get from the songs is often very enlightening for us …we don’t necessarily see it all.
The title track Altitiude is first up and what a monster track it is, at over 15 minutes long, a real epic, it has some choral delights (a nod to your childhood perhaps), swirling keyboards and soaring guitars and the most beautiful instrumental coda which is just stunning. it gave me the feeling of soaring through the clouds which i guess was its intention, can you tell us about this track?
Indeed Mark. I am a little prone to hiding things within the music both lyrically and musically in the hope that things will reveal over time. In my head Altitude actually starts underwater before heading into the open sky. Then it’s all about experiencing the joy of flying until you realise the machine your flying in has a more sinister side. The flight is that of a combat drone and then the focus switches to the operator of the drone who feels guilty for the work he does and dreams of a world where he can be better.
Strangely enough I saw a film on Netflix which went through the entire story of the drone operator with issues due to the remoteness of his work. This even went down to the bar across the road from his base where he eats a burger after having destroyed a target. He then goes to the country concerned to make some amends as best he can. These were all in my thoughts with regard to the song before I saw the film… all quite odd!
I've been listening to music of late while out walking, I know from your facebook posts you do a lot of walking in the countryside, is that where you go to relax or get inspiration or perhaps both?
Hah yes the walking is just to take time out. I’ve always felt we don’t make enough time to take in the joy of the wilds. I recently saw an interview with David Attenborough where he recommended everyone should just go and sit in a forest for 10 minutes. Our attention spans generally don’t allow this so it’s nice to switch off. As for inspiration I couldn’t really say …that tends to come in other ways :-)
'I still remember the warmth of the sun on your golden hair, I loved you fair? for all the times hearts were broken and all the words still left unspoken, i still remember the look in your eyes when you told me lies, i trusted you.'
Some lyrics from Ivory Tower,another beautiful song, a love song tinged with sadness and mistrust, what can you tell us about this one
Well I don’t want to go into great detail on this but it was a very difficult time of my life.
I’ve already had folks say how they can relate to the song and of course these things can happen to anyone. Love and jealousy are so bound to each other it’s kept songwriters in business for years :)
You have a new drummer in ex Flower King Zoltan Csörsz, to my ear he is sounding fantastic, How has he settled in after Frosty's departure?
Yes what an amazing player and lovely chap. It was sheer luck really Dave B suggested him although they didn’t know each other. I got in touch and sent Zoltan ’N’ as a test which he nailed in a couple of hours it was mind blowing. When we spoke he said we were exactly the kind of band we were looking for and he absolutely loved the music the rest as they say is history. Jon P put together some quirky off beat stuff in Gregarious which he Zoltan to play. Jon got back to me and said ‘Not only has he done it but he’s added some bits too!’ I think the only thing he had to work on a little was the 57/64 section in Altitude but that isn’t exactly easy.
One of the things with Lifesigns is that we have some of the best talent the world has to offer but it’s all about the songs . This isn’t a band where you solo on everything this is something where you use your skill set to make the song sound good this can vary from something really tricky to actually not playing at all. Zoltan totally gets this I am happy to say.
Last time we all had a beer together I asked Producer Steve Rispin what his secret was to his sound, he gave a brief outline which i didnt have the knowledge to fully understand ..haha! he truly is a magician of sound, how important is he to the band's sound.
Steve’s contribution is paramount that’s why he was part of the band from Day 1. He helps to make it all breathe. I often leave him to his own devices as he understands so well what we are trying to do. He’s know me for many years and so completely gets my songwriting for both recording and live work. I can of course say this doesn’t work or that’s not right …but I don’t have a clue how to fix it, the next day I come in and all the tweaks are in place with a few more besides! As we get towards producing the finished article Steve and I become the most pernickety people you’ve ever met. The minutiae is so so important when making a Lifesigns album.
In this time of worldwide despair, How do you stay positive and write such positive soulful music?
Interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily say all our music is positive but the soul within it definitely is. We are all about optimism and happiness I think that comes across in both the records and the live shows. When I was young there were albums that gave me that solace and we are just using a similar tactic. The thing I find amazing is the variance in what people get from the music as I said earlier often things we’ve never thought of… long may it continue!
You're very outspoken on the state of the music business, on streaming, big business like Amazon and how they treat artists, Covid hasn't helped an already ailing business, do you have any faith for the future of the business?
Indeed Mark. Well streaming is basically legalized piracy and the Music Business is best summed up in the Hunter S Thompson phrase which I’m sure you are well aware of. So neither are particularly pretty. Add to this that IMHO the mainstream media (TV, radio and the newspapers) have little or no interest in modern popular music with substance and depth. All of the above makes music a most poisoned chalice.
I think that the only way to beat this is independence. We run our own label and crowd fund everything. We have 4 sample tracks on Spotify and all the streaming services and that’s it. If you want product you can buy it …you have a choice there :-) We also put our prices up rather than down. CD’s with inflation should be around £46.50 now. I could write chapter and verse on this but suffice to say our approach is working and we hope more artists and indeed labels will follow our approach.
Indeed, it's all sadly very true, well said John. Getting back to the new album, Fortitude is another stunning epic, it has familiar Prog tropes but sounds very fresh and modern, again keyboards and guitar are the best I've heard on record for a long time, tell us about that track?
I like to write tracks that are generic and build accordingly. Fortitude is just that.There are many sections but one of the jobs we work hard on is to make sure all our pieces flow. Even though some of the chord changes or time and tempo changes may take you by surprise but there should be no point where you think it doesn’t fit. I feel the track builds beautifully with some amazing playing from everyone. Jon Poole always amazes me with his choice of notes and inversions and he excels himself on this song. The final ‘epic’ part of the song I constructed at home we keep it simple it’s all about the power of the melody and the chord changes. I remember when Steve and I first listened back to that in the studio …we just grinned
Gregarious is a great commercial sounding tune, could this be a single ( whatever they are these days) or the track to push on radio?
Hah! good question we do have a single version Mark although we always think the longer versions are better. The same with Impossible and Telephone in the past. We tried pushing Impossible on radio last year it cost quite a lot to employ pluggers. They talked a good fight but in the end it was only really played on a few stations (mostly ones we got!) That said as Dave B pointed out …we were massive on hospital radio! On the other fan based digital radio stations have always helped us greatly they are generally small communities but they are the soul of radio for sure.
We've spoken a few times about how hard it is to get airplay? How can the fans help to promote this album? and where can we buy it?
We’ve slimmed things down a great deal this time around. Firstly everything is available from us. CD’s, Vinyl, downloads etc are all available from www.lifesignsmusic.co.uk the CD will also be available on Amazon. Vinyl will be available everywhere.
As for helping we are looking at a number of possibilities. Firstly anyone who has a good friend who likes this kind of music ..send them a download as a gift for £10. They will love you for it. Secondly share our you tube sampler where ever you can. Thirdly if you are a member of an online group then share us there … it’s always much better if it comes from you (and not us!)
We are a bunch who tend to think outside of the box so we may well look at things that range from pop up shops to advertising in the Times… you never know where we’ll turn up.
In the past, You've worked with a lot of musicians local to you including Robin Boult from the Fish band on the new album, how did that come about and what songs does he play on?
That’s a good question I don’t remember how Robin and I started you may have to ask him (it was that long ago). With Dave Stewart and Steve Vantsis I obviously met them at a Fish rehearsal. Steve said to me as I arrived ‘you better be bloody good!’ and then a few weeks later he said ‘you’re not bad are you’ :-)
.......and now with that seemless link and as this is a Fish/Marillion related page, we shall delve into your time writing with Fish.....
Can you tell us about how and when Fish first approached you to write with him on his album Fellini Days and how did he sell that idea to you?
Mmm it’s a long time ago all this Mark but I’ll do my best. I’m not sure if Robin recommended me. I wasn’t really a Marillion fan and didn’t know any of the tunes but obviously the band were in the most all quite local to me. I vaguely knew Steve Rothery too.
At that time I was busy playing with anyone and everyone. I was playing solo gigs to make any money I could and more often or not the audiences would not want to listen to original music and be quite abusive in telling you so…. and then along came Fish. (phew)
The idea of being on a farm in the middle of nowhere seemed quite appealing. I also loved the idea of working with John Wesley who is a fabulous talent.
Had you known Fish well before you worked together?
Not at all
What if any directives, lyrical themes or vocal melodies did he give you for song ideas? Did you already have musical ideas ready to go?
Hah… one of Fish’s main directives was the word ‘Pub’… which usually arrived just as Wes (John Wesley) and I were getting down to things. That all said Wes and I would rustle up some ideas. There would be the odd melody taken from our work but Fish would generally put the melodies and lyrics together and then turn up in the studio with a bunch of scribbled lyrics that we would bat around until it sat. I enjoyed these times and it was great as we incorporated this with the guys.
Did you guys have writing sessions in the same room, or was it all done remotely?
No in those days it was all done together. John and I would work on both new ideas and things that we already had brewing
Fish is known to have a vision of how he wants songs to sound , how did you find the recording process together
Pretty good although for me I felt Fellini Days was over produced. The new pro-tools system had arrived which I found fascinating but there were several guys involved in mixing and production and in some ways I felt this reduced the power of the record. 3D in it’s raw state was a monster.
You're a great songwriter in your own own right of course, I was wondering, is it hard to share a song you've written, maybe you had an idea for a song but thematically it went somewhere else with Fish?
It’s all compromise I guess Mark. With an artist there are times when you disagree but fundamentally it’s their decision as after all it’s their album. I co-wrote with a lot of people so it was something I was quite used to. That said these days I generally tend to write on my own.
Steven Wilson spoke about his time with Fish a few years back, saying he'd love to work with him again but the process of writing with Fish takes a long time, time he didn't have to spare, did you have a similar issues of time constraint?
That made me smile yes I can imagine that Steven and Fish work at different paces. Fish is an artist with an element of muse so it has to be the right day the right time etc. Sometimes Fish would come in with an idea when everyone else was done but you knew that was a moment you had to capture as he was ‘in the moment’ so to speak. I would imagine Steven never stops he’s always doing something so as such he might find that difficult. I think they probably work at opposite ends of the spectrum but both are great talents.
Do you have a favourite song from the Fellini Days collaboration?
Yes 3D … I loved the original version of it (pre mix etc ) it was great to play live and I felt in someways Fellini Nights the live CD captured some of that magic.
Do have memorable stories funny or otherwise about your time in the band?
Yes. loads …next question ;)
Any reason it was a one off collaboration?
Yes indeed during the tour I got a phone call from Rudy Schenker asking me to join the Scorpions. I asked Fish and Fish said ‘if you can replace you, then be my guest’. I thought this was very magnanimous of him but finding someone was really difficult. John Wesley was brilliant during this time I nearly gave up but he said to me ‘it’s the Scorps man you’ve got to do it!” In the end we found Jim Hayden and we swapped over in a field in Switzerland at 0230 in the morning. I headed off on a plane for Germany at 0730 for a rehearsal at 10.00am and that was that.
I still enjoy meeting up with Fish when he’s on tour, we’re good friends even if he does call me a ‘long haired hippy’.
You've also toured with the Marillion boys on occasion in Europe and of course on a few Cruises to the Edge, How did you find working with them?
To be honest we didn’t really see them much. The gigs in Europe were quite large and as such we’d normally be gone an hour after they hit the stage. I do remember them and the crew watching our soundcheck in Stuttgart which was nice:-). I’m friends with Pete Trewavas probably more from my friendship with Robin Boult than anything else. I remember on Cruise to the Edge one year there was a tribute to Chris Squire and Pete played Fish out of Water (I think you were there Mark?) absolutely blinding stuff.
Yes indeed I was there, amazing show it was too. We'll finish off with Lifesigns again, I'm sure the fans will be looking out for live dates, I can't wait to hear these songs on a beautiful sunny day some day soon, have you started the process of provisionally booking venues yet or is it still too early?
At the moment we are only booked to play the Big Big Train support in Aylesbury in July. That is still in the book but obviously will depend on government guidelines as to whether or not it can go ahead.
Most Welcome Mark :)