Wet Wet Wet: On The Journey With Graeme Clark - Part 1
On the day that storied - and phenomenally successful - Scottish pop act Wet Wet Wet reveal 'The Conversation', their second single from upcoming album The Journey, we embark on this exclusive in-depth two-part interview with the band's beloved bassist Graeme Clark. Over the next two weeks, Graeme talks us through everything from lockdown to live shows and deep into the Zoom-enabled writing process of the hotly-anticipated new record.
TM: Over the last few weeks, the comeback shows you've been playing like the Rewind Festival and Let's Rock Southampton have been on our timelines. How has it been being back on the road and playing gigs again? Was there any trepidation?
No real trepidation for me; I'm double jabbed so there was a good chance that I won't end up in hospital. It’s a binary thing - I’m either on or off - so I was perfectly happy to go back out there. In fact, to be honest, for the last 18 months we’ve been parked up and not been allowed to do much. In the past had sabbaticals where we wouldn't really do anything - maybe for a year or two years over 20-year history - but it’s entirely new to hear “you can’t go there and you can't play gigs.” You become blasé. You’re on the road and you're like: “Oh, not the M5 again, not Scunthorpe, again, not Inverness again”. So I promised myself over that I will never moan about being stuck in a traffic jam or having to play a different set because it’s hard when that is taken away from you. My life was parked up, I couldn't do my job! Really, if you don't do your job, then you stop being what you are and you start to lose your identity.
TM: So, so how were the gigs themselves? Getting up there and doing it again - was that cathartic? Was that scary? How did that all feel, emotionally?
Completely emotional. Overwhelming. Being a musician and playing music sometimes you go into automatic pilot and you’re just out there doing these things. There would be times in the studio way back, where everything falls into place and nobody even has to communicate. That communication is done through music. And sometimes you lose that emotional attachment to your music. So, for me, going back on stage was reconnecting. We hadn’t done it for a long time. You always have stage nerves - you always have to manage that - but the whole thing was heightened. If the music was in a particularly sad key or a minor key, man, suddenly you're like “why am I suddenly getting waves of emotion over me?!” And that's the thing that music does: it hits emotions. And in a really unexpected way. What I understood from going back on stage was just how valuable music is to me and hopefully, to everyone else, because let's face it, through all the streaming stuff, music and bands have had a pretty torrid time over the last 20 years. There seems to have been this attitude that music had lost its value, because, as a musician, I can go on my computer and say “right, where do I want to go and record today? Oh, I'll go to Abbey Road” and there’s the app to do it! Music now has this association with apps and computers. The genie’s out of the bottle - you can't change that - you just have to adapt with it. But the gigs made me remember that when I first started doing this, that was an emotional connection between the people that were doing it.
And in between there, that's where the magic happens. Between the people.
I can't figure that out. I don't know how that happens, I just know that there's something special about it. And we shouldn't really question that - we should just try and embrace that when it's there.
TM: So perhaps a silver lining of lockdown is that people are reassessing some of those fundamental ways that they live their life and saying: “Okay, well, these things we took for granted”. And some of those things that we took for granted were not only part of our identity, but part of what makes us happy and what makes life worth living?
It’s a salient point - the fact is that lockdown made you reassess and reevaluate everything in your life. The thing that dawned on me was that I'm not going to get on my deathbed and think “Oh, I wish I had worked harder.” It brings into a sharp focus what’s important in your life. I was lucky: when we were locked down, I have a wife and a son. I live in a nice place and a nice environment. And so it was a lot worse for other people I think than it was for me. I had my family - my love - around me and saw that that that carries you through these times. Then you had guys like (Conservative politician) Rishi Sunak who said you might not be able to come back as a musician, you might need to train to use a computer. But that was great for the songwriting, wasn't it? If I couldn’t have written a song about that, then I'm in the wrong job!
The funny thing is, musicians are adaptable and creatives are adaptable so we’ve all started using Zoom. So Zoom was the medium that we had to adapt to. If we were going to do anything, we had to do it through this thing! It's not ideal man. But it was a way of keeping those juices flowing.
TM: So not only is this the first album you’ve written remotely, this is the first album you’ve written with new vocalist Kevin Simm (formerly of Liberty X) who has been in the band several years now.
It was so nice to get Kevin's creativity involved because he'd sing all the old songs and we’d done tours but we’ve never been in a writing environment together.
Kev's from a different place than us, he’s adding a completely new dynamic to the creative writing force that we’re tapping into.
We've been down here for 35 years, chipping away the sculpture and then somebody comes down and just knocks the head off and goes, “I'm gonna take it this way”. And you're like “yeah, actually, that’s not such a bad idea man, let's run down this road…”
TM: How did writing remotely change your writing process?
Had the lockdown not happened, I do wonder if we would have made an album at all. The fact is it forced us into a corner and we were thinking "what are we going to do?" If you're out on the road, it's difficult to switch the live thing off in your head and use the different side of the brain to try and come up with some ideas. So, inadvertently, we reevaluated things and it was like “well, we can't play live, so let's make some music!"
I had a wee bit of trepidation. Because I'd never been with Kev and sat in a room, nose to nose and exchanged chords and ideas, so you never know how you're going to work off each other. But I needn't have worried - it was just a different dynamic. There were things to get used to like that split second delay! But that made it much more succinct because you can only be on here (Zoom) for a certain amount of time and then it sort of begins to annoy you.
TM: So you're more focused on what you're actually there to do?
Exactly. We had shorts bursts, we would go in and somebody would have an idea.
TM: The first thing from the record we heard is the single ‘Back to Memphis’.
The ‘Back To Memphis’ thing came around as we came offstage one night in the tour in 2019. The adrenaline's pumping through everybody and we’re running back to the dressing room. You’ve just come offstage as you’ve done a performance, and everyone's so invigorated. And Kevin, at the top of his lungs, went and sang the ‘Georgia’ song, the Ray Charles thing, (‘Georgia Is On My Mind’) and just killed it. And I thought it was such a brilliant thing, the word Georgia evoked so many emotions; I’ve sort of lived my life looking at America. It’s a vast country, considering what’s come out there culturally and musically. At one point I said, “we should write a song about America... what about Memphis?” And Kevin said, “I’ve never been to Memphis”. Suddenly this door opens and we run through it on Zoom for 15-20 minutes.
And that was because we were locked down; this sort of little acorn of an idea came from the fact that we couldn’t go anywhere, so let's go somewhere in our heads. Let's expand that idea.
The chords were something we'd mucked around with as a progression on the live tour, it was actually a derivative from ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’. Neil (Mitchell) and I expanded that and turned it into a verse and a chorus. And, from that, Kevin gave us a rough sketch of what he thought the song should be. So we’d have these 15-minute bursts, you work a sketch out, and then it's over to you, Kevin. And of course, then it goes to him and he has his turn. The song’s there up in the air, floating around...
TM: So you've got constituent parts that are important, the concept of the song, rather than the details?
Aye, because it was early and so different in this environment, we were just feeling our way through so we didn’t focus on the detail and waited to hone everything in. When Kevin sang his parts and it came back to me, I was taken by surprise, because I was like “well, I wouldn't have done that. And I wouldn't have done this”. But that in itself was a massive shining light because this is how he interprets an idea and how he delivers it. So of course, it comes back and then that just inspired me to take it another way. And of course, it inspired Neil and Tommy (Cunningham) and Graeme Duffin as well. So it was much more of a collective kind of thing.
TM: Perhaps if you’re stood together in the rehearsal room, it might be that one person is going off down a rabbit hole with a vocal melody or harmony, someone might have said “I'm not feeling that” and then you might have dropped it. But when you’re not together you’re free to go there.
It was a great way of doing it because it cut out that thing that you're talking about where you're like “oh, man, I'm not really feeling that”. There are things that you do change working this way, don’t get me wrong, but more often than not, you think “I wouldn't have done that but doesn't necessarily mean that it's not good." That was the beauty of finding a new way of processing ideas and creativity and to me, that is exciting because it's taken me out of my comfort zone.
It's reinventing the wheel for me because I've been doing this for 35 years. When you do your job, you do certain things a certain way. And, and suddenly the framework wasn't there to do that anymore. If you're all in the studio, there’s a fluidity of the creativity of four guys, and everyone's writing the number and saying "let's pull it this way” then somebody will say “let's pull it that way.” It’s now almost like everyone's holding an elastic band and creating the tension and getting to the creative, juicy parts. But you can be really creative nonetheless by just letting somebody go away and have their moment to do what they want.
We were satellite systems, music coming in, doing our bits on it, sending it on.
Some other songs we would sketch out - have a three-minute demo with a little drum track and then I would put the acoustic on but deliberately leave bits out where I would get stuck. I'd just shut it down and hand it over. "There’s the idea, now go and sing on it, it’s over to you." TM: I suppose writing by hearing these demos played back is different than hearing it played live in a room together?
You’re building a house, sometimes you're building it from the inside, and then you saw you go outside and look at it and see “Oh man, I wish I'd made the roof bigger.” Leonard Cohen said “songs are never finished, they're only ever abandoned” and that’s great, I really relate to that. We’re looking at artwork now and I’m sometimes going “why does that not seem complete to me?” It's the whole perception thing.
TM: The new album is called The Journey. We’ve all seen the cover art and heard ‘Back To Memphis’ and ‘The Conversation’ but where are we as far as the release?
The album's done, man, we’ve had to learn from Leonard Cohen and abandon it - it’s finished. It's time for it to go out there and integrate with people. Because otherwise you'll just sit and chip away at it all the time. You have to put it down and let it go out and grow. I think we've written twelve great songs.
We cut a lot out - there were 16-17 songs at one point. So everybody was a bit upset because everybody had songs that they had dropped but you have to have that discipline of boiling down the gravy and saying “the best songs win”. Everyone had things that we put forward that never made it and that that's a collective man, that's the nature of being in a band.
TM: In this brave new world of Zoom and the internet era are there any artists that have inspired you as far as production and songwriting? Any modern acts that have had fingerprints on this album?
There’s certainly modern stuff that I like, the Fleet Foxes for instance. I think they’re an interesting band but I don't know if that plays a part in influencing our album. I've got ‘go to’ albums. Embracing new music is a difficult thing nowadays, especially with the advent of Spotify! I don't have Spotify, so very rarely am I streaming. Lots of people say to me “maybe you should listen to what’s being played on the radio” and, say, Billy Eilish sounds great, but to just say “if we could do that too…” it’s too easy to do. We’ve got to be careful because to me a lot of modern-sounding records sound like they've been done on apps. We're a band. Yes, we do try and embrace the technology that's there but it's finding that balance of also playing, which is where I come from. Kevin comes from a different era than we do. So the way he sings a line is a different timing than I would sing. So this is a marriage - the cross-pollination of genres - and that is always going to be the way forward for us. If we were to go into the studio and look at Billy Eilish and use that as a template, we would look pretty daft.
It would be us going “look, we’re really hip and modern”, so I don't know, man. I do feel quite strongly about not going down that road.
The Journey is available to pre-order now on the official Wet Wet Wet store. Everyone who pre-orders the new album will automatically receive access to exclusive Making Music content from Wet Wet Wet.
See you here for Wet Wet Wet: Graeme Clark On The Journey - Part 1 next week.