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Interview with John Helliwell for Breakfst in Spain site
Manchester, April 3rd 2003, by MAC
This is an interview made to John Helliwell in his 30th anniversary with Supertramp. John Helliwell is the saxophone player in the band, and also the “showman”, speaker or face of the group for most of the fans, specially in the live gigs, where he’s the speaker, introducing the other musicians and having fun together with the audience.
I would like to thanks John for his kindness, sense of humour and wonderful music.
Miguel Angel Candela
THE LAST TOUR 2002
MAC: Nice to meet you John.
Gonzalo Carrera: Hello John, thanks a lot for giving us this great opportunity to share this great moments for breakfast in spain !!!
JAH: …. It’s a pleasure.
MAC: You are my favourite sax player within Supertramp.
GC: one of the best !!!
JAH: the best sax player in Supertramp !!! (everybody laughing......)
MAC: What’s your opinion about last tour? how would it be your review about it ?
JAH: It’s a really great band, all the musicians really geared together very well.
MAC: What do you think about the reception of the crowd ? I think most of the venues were completely full up....
JAH: Yes, it is. Most of them were sold out. Our best crowds , I think, were in Spain, France and … those are good countries for us. …. And I think they were curious to hear us, the new album… and we played so well and the gigs they went done well.
GC: great reception, them ?
MAC: I remember the Olimpic venue in Barcelona was full, around 17.000 people.
JAH: yeah !!!, that one was very special...
MAC: What has been your largest audience in the last tour ?
JAH: It was at the Paleo Festival in Geneva (Switzerland)…. 35.000 people …. but that was because it’s an open air festival and that night there was a lot of people for us .….but 17.000 people in Barcelona was good… and that was a very special night indeed because … oh how you call it ? I forgot now....., I can’t remember...
GC: el abuelo !!! (grandfather in english)
JAH: that is the one, abuelo !!!
MAC: hahaha !!! Yes, John was in the stage and said to the audience: “hoy he sido abuelo !!!” (today I’ve been a grandfather in english language) I remember John asked it to us in the backstage before the concert, he was really happy !!! I’m still remember his face and the big smile :o)
JAH: I remember the place, it was good night, good people…
MAC: Apart of London (Hyde Park), have you played other outdoor gigs ?
JAH: The Paleo Festival was outdoor. And Zurich as well, the day before …that was a beatiful concert… it was next to a museum…very nice and it look really good … good crowd… and we did some in North America …some outdoor ones. Paleo it’s a big open air festival similar to Hyde Park, each night they have famous headliners like one night they have for instance James Brown, next night Supertramp for instance.
MAC: Do you really know how to say “Buenas noches, Señoras y Señores” (Good night Ladies and Gentlemen) in all the languages ?
JAH: ( Laughs) Bonsoir tout le monde , bienvenue une soirée avec Supertramp…. !!! (perfect french pronunciation)
GC : Ah... that sounds familiar…
JAH: Gutten aben Meine Damen und Herren (perfect german pronunciation)
GC: what about swedish!
JAH: That’s a mistery to me....I need a translator... I can learn it before I go on stage but then I might forget it like I forgot in portuguese...
MAC:… you take your time in everyplace to learn this….
JAH: yeah, yeah… it’s important , it is good to know something from the city where you play … just to make a nice reference to it …
MAC: I was lucky to be in the backstage in some of the gigs and it came to my attention how well organised is everything… I remember the “schedule” in the walls: the time for lunch, fiting up the stage, soundcheck, interviews, press, etc..
JAH: Yes, it’s very important for the crew , actually, to know when things have to be done and finished . On a few ocasions I like to arrive very early in the morning, about 9 or 10 , and watch the whole processes setting up . I find it really interesting.
GC: I remember when you played in Vigo back in 97, you asked me the day of the concert where about was the venue, and this was very early in the morning, I remember you were with Carl Verheyen.
JAH: yeah that is right !!!
MAC: It has to be very hard sometimes to be away from home … but it has positive things as well...
JAH: The main thing is the playing. The other things are the traveling and experiencing new places and it’s hard to be away from the family but that’s the life of a musician for you !!
GC: tell me about it John. I know it haha...
MAC: Would you have preferred a longest tour or it was enough?
JAH: eh.....I could do some more (Laughs )…
GC: I know that you love being on stage…
JAH: I could have done more… but I think it was enough for the band as a whole.
MAC: You performed more concerts in Canada than in the States . What do you think is the reason ? Promoters? The audience ?
JAH: I think it was … getting together with a promoter .. they gave us the best offer from the canadian ones .. and it seems like we are still quite popular in Canada… but not as popular in the States
MAC: Really ?
JAH: Yeah, it is true.
GC: Do you reckon that it happened the same thing in Europe, in Germany ,France , Spain or Italy you played at a lot of different cities in each different country, and in UK you just did 5 major concerts, 2 in Scottland and 3 in England...
JAH: yeah it’s a similar situation, here in England we are consider like an old band, because we dont get as much playing at the radio like it happened at France, Spain, Italy, Germany or Holland ..., in England they rather played some of the new bands on the radios...on the other european countries we are still very popular.
MAC: Do you have special feeling to play in your own country?
JAH: It’s interesting .… oh not. The thing that is different is when I’m playing here or at Canada or in the States I’m speaking their language and I can be more confortable. I can feel much more fluent, I think is much easy talk to them.
MAC: The band did some little changes in the setlist every night. What is the reason? Who decides the changes ?
JAH: It’s allways a discussion with usually Rick and ourselves, the rest …. And we are allways trying to improve it .. but we make all the set in a particular country if one particular tune or album is very, very popular there….. but really usually is in an effort to improve
MAC: But in Spain you were changing one or two songs from the setlist every night !!
JAH: We keep trying… Spain was at the beginning of the tour so we were… well, we were changing through all the 88 concerts of the tour.
GC: I think sometimes there were in some songs a little bit more of freedom for the musicians for improvising and maybe extending guitar, sax or keyboard solos...
JAH: yeah that’s right.
MAC: I remember in Spain … one concert was.. 24 songs… next one 23… next one 22… we were joking about thinking on a concert in England at the end of the tour with only 5 songs !! (Laughs)
JAH: Yeah, probably we did might think it was too long. Someone might say it seems long, it seems too long. It’s got a number out. A number in. That’s a change around. First of all, for example, it was Mark Hart singing Give a little bit and eventually Mark was replaced by Jesse .
MAC: When ? In the rehearsals ?
JAH: No, no..At the gigs !! Mark started singing it in Benidorm … I think so.
MAC: Yeah, I understand it know, we were outside there during the soundcheck and we did hear the song sung by Mark…. And then in the concert it was Jessie !
JAH: What about Granada ? Who was singing it ?
MAC: No, no, every night was Jessie.
JAH: oh you are right !!! that was only at the rehearses, what happened Mark started with give a little bit but them eventually jesse had a go and we though his version was better than Mark actually... Ah… we were changing.
GC: I though Jesse’s version was excellent!
MAC: Why you did not play Gold Rush ? I think it’s a good song to be played live, powerfull song, perhaps better than “Little by little”. I think Bob told somewhere that you were thinking on including it in the tour….
JAH: Yes, we rehearsed it quite a lot. We might have played somewhere though… maybe we have played it in Canada ... . I think we did it... It was one of the numbers people were waiting, you know … one of the numbers waiting on the wings.
MAC: Yes, I remember you played it in the soundcheck of Malaga !!.
GC: actually that was cowritten with Richard Palmer.
JAH: Yeah that’s right.
MAC: Well, I can tell you a funny story about it. I was in San Diego two years ago and Roger Hodgson played “Gold rush” for us, a small group of friends, one year before the album “Slow Motion”.
JAH: really ?
MAC: yeah!!! and then I told Roger “that’s Rick’s !!!”, as you know Roger just play his own songs, and Roger was really surprised and told us “The lyrics are from R. Palmer and the music is from Rick and me !!!”
JAH: I didn’t know it. I’ve joined the band time after this song, an old song.
GC: it’s a great song !!!
MAC: Roger played for us some really beautiful new songs !!!
JAH: Lovely !!
GC: maybe they will be at the next Supertramp album ????
JAH: I’d love to play with Roger !
MAC: Well, comming back to the tour, It was a big surprise to have “Asylum” back, congratulations, it was a great idea and we enjoyed it a lot !!!
GC: another beautiful song !
JAH: great dynamics isn’t it...???
GC: yeah very strong !!!
MAC: beautiful contrast at the stage, Rick playing seriously at the piano, screaming, almost crying.... and you, happy man, with the phone, in the humorous side, great contrast.
JAH: it was a great inspiration !!!
MAC: yeah, but in the opposite, most of us were waiting for numbers like “Waiting so long”, “Gone Hollywood” or “Lover Boy”.
JAH: First of all, we can’t play everything. “Gone Hollywood” is the one we have never done it live….
GC: I love Gone Hollywood, is one of my favourites, I love your solo !!!
JAH: and we have not played “Lover Boy” neither. Maybe is just we have not the right sounds for it … maybe there was a lot of overdubs at the studio... and it’s the same with “Gone Hollywood” . I allways say “We must play Gone Hollywood”. In 1979 , for the tour, we tried and rehearse it and it wasn’t right. But every tour that we do I allways say “Let’s do Gone Hollywood”….
MAC: Yeah, really ? Thanks John !!
JAH: Maybe we tried it in 79, and again in the 83 tour but it wasn’t right for some reason.
GC: wich sax did you use on your solo John? at Gone Hollywood..
JAH: well it is a tenor sax...
GC: and there is like a keyboard sound underneath the sax doubling up the solo...
JAH: it’s an octaver synth and there was a direct link between the sax and the synth...
MAC: How did it come out the idea of inviting four sax players at the Paris concert, during last tour ?
JAH: Because of the track.. “Over You”. There are five different harmonies for the sax parts on the studio, so it was just an idea . Laurent knew some of the top sax players in Paris and I was just talking to him and I just say “Can you find three other saxophone players ?” … “Laurent, can you organise it , get these people together ?” …and I wrote out the music for them in a letter to Laurent. I remember I was in Bordeaux . I wrote the music there and I sent it to him…
MAC: During the tour ?
JAH: Yeah…on tour….before we arrive to Paris. We just did it for one night, very special night. Good saxophone players they were.
GC: and Laurent was all over the moon about it !!! What a nice guy. I had the pleasure meeting Laurent and Mac the fist time in the backstage of London thanks to your invitation John.
MAC: it was a great week end, my first time in London. The music is a really good way to meet good friends ...
GC: Laurent will be playing with my band Landmarq at a special concert at london, the underworld-candem town and we will have as very special guests Laurent Hunziker on the sax and Hugh Mcdowell(cello for the Elo fame)!!!
JAH: I konw it and he will be playing the sax he bought from me the tenor one the one I recorded some of the supertramp hits like Crime of the century, Bloody well right or It’s raining again, hopefully i can make it myself too and i will play on the last number if i am not busy with the Gaia project with Alan Simon...!!!
GC: it would be fantastic !!!
MAC: I would like to make a comment or a criticism about the last tour.
JAH: that’s allrigth...
MAC: When people attends a concert and pays, they want to enjoy music but they also want to enjoy seeing musicians faces and see how you play, specially in the big venues. Why don’t you use a video screen system or something similar like other artists do ? That’s because of piracy ? In some gigs you have joked about this, saying you are getting older and you don’t want people to see your faces….
JAH: Yeah, it’s true. We are not beautiful enough. It’s not for security reasons. It’s something we have never really got into. Because when we started it wasn’t there really , we didn’t have that facility and we never really done it. … maybe we just did it a few times…
MAC: But do you think it’s a good idea for people … to see the faces when you play it?
JAH: But I think it’s a second do it to… we are not really bother about it...the music is more important than the image for us...
MAC: A second criticism. The big video screen for some projections like the ones in Rudy and Crime of the Century is excellent. Better than last tour. Congratulations… but why don’t you use it more, with new videos ?
JAH: Beucause originally those numbers were something really special and we didn’t want to do it with …. We just want to do it with few of that numbers … and now with the new numbers I think it might be a question of economics…because it can be very expensive. On the last tour although (97)....we had that situation where it was me on the screen talking … I was talking with me in Take the long way home. We did that….
MAC: And what about this tour ?
JAH: We did it once…we did not want to do it again. We have done it already. yeah I know we could have done more movies, but maybe is due to economics.
MAC: But you have a expensive big screen…and it’s a pitty… just two songs.
GC: well that is true otherwise people they pay more attention to the screen than the music.
JAH: I think that’s not enough. But I think that’s better than too much. Your criticism is very valid, they are right. They are good criticisms…. It’s good. We are not perfect. So, next time we come out we can be better !!!.
MAC: Finally I want to let you know that everybody enjoyed the tour and the band. Thanks for the fantastic tour.
JAH: We worked hard. We don’t mess about . We really tried hard. We rehearlsed a lot!
THE EARLY YEARS
MAC: How did you start your passion for the saxophone?
JAH: First before the sax was the clarinet and and my first influence was Sidney Bechet-an American soprano saxist and clarinet player that wrote a number called “Petite Fleur” . The version I heard was by Chris Barber and his Jazzband with Monty Sunshine on clarinet, that inspired me a lot!... and then I heared Cannonball adderley, a clarinet player, I was 13 or 14, I really enjoyed this playing so I eventually bought the saxophone, so he was my main inspiration. I was 15. 15 the saxophone, 13 the clarinet.
MAC: At that time, the 60’s, at the beginnings of pop and rock, saxo was not really usual in that styles, wasn’t ? How did you manage to integrate saxophone in pop and rock ? Were you one of the pioneers ? Were you one of the first guys ?
JAH: There was a direct inspiration . At that time I was into jazz. And I went to a jazz concert to see a jazz saxophone player called Toby Hayes and in the interval I heared this other music coming from downstairs and I was intrigued and I went down to listen and playing underneath downstairs there was the “Graham Bond Organisation” with Henstall Smith on saxophone and Ginger Baker on drums and Jack Bruce on bass there was a complete revelation for me and that ‘s what made me start playing more in rythm and blues, blues and stuff like that and I join a group in Birmingham, in England when I was still a computer programmer . This group is called “Jugs O’Henry” and we played blues, and then is when I started. It wasn’t until I joined the Alan Bown wich this one was a mixture of blues, pop and rock and this was just before “Chicago” and “blood,sweat and tears. Just around this time this bands they would start coming out.
MAC: I had some melodicas (instrument) when I was a child, before knowing Supertramp. Why did you started using it in the Supertramp albums?
JAH: I like melodicas. It’s just the sound of it. It’s just another sound . Rick playes it very well. He plays it in “Put on your old brown shoes”.
GC: yeah, and in "it is raining again" as well.
JAH: yeah! that was Rick as well!
MAC: But did you play it before joining Supertramp ?
MAC: Another saxophone player (Bradford Marsalis) said that he started out by playing clarinet, but he switched to the saxophone when he was a teenager because that’s what attracted the girls. I would like to know if you agree with that.
JAH: well, It’s interesting. The real answer is no. But I didn’t switch. I still keep playing the clarinet. A clarinet is more unusual in rock music. When I was at school , in 1960, I wrote an essay called “myself in 1970” which is a projection for the future and in this essay I projected myself …
MAC: I know it. I’ve read it on the biography.
JAH: it was like a profecy, I was telling on it when I would be 25 I would be married and playing in a famous bands and atraccting a lot of fans, boys and girls from all over the world, so this was like a profecy!!! it was my projection of my future.... …. But the real answer is no.
MAC: Do you remember your first concert with Supertramp ?
JAH: Yes, it was in 1973, before we made Crime of the Century. It was in August, I think. And we played in somebody’s wedding, on the island of Jersey. And then we played two halfs and before we started playing, Bob …drink, drink, drink … and so the first half it wasn’t very good because Bob was drunk.
MAC: Can I write this ??
JAH: (Laughs) Yes !!!, fine, it’s part of the Supertramp history !!! . So in the interval , between the sets, Bob drunk black coffee so Bob soberd up he was fine by them, but just before the second half started Dougie lost his plectrum, so when he bent himself for to try to find it, and he picked the plectrum, he smashed his head!!! into a cannon!!! his head on this cannon, Dougie was still conscious but the 2nd half was still really very terrible becuse Bob was feeling fine but Dougie was feeling very ill ! but since that day Bob Siebenberg never ever drinks alcohol before a performance. Even like in the seventies when Bob used to drink a lot but never ever before the show. He still keeps to that…thirty years later.
MAC: Did you play more concerts after that and before Crime of the Century ?
JAH: Yes, we played different places. Actually, we did a tour in England , playing small theaters and clubs.
MAC: What did you play then?
JAH: It was Crime of the century music.
MAC: Only this? Did you play something from Indelibly Stamped ?
JAH: No, I don’t think we didn’t play anything from Indelibly Stamped. We played only Crime of the Century and some other numbers they would come in Crisis.
MAC: So, from that time, why haven’t you played any number from the earlier albums ?
JAH: We just wanted to play new material.
MAC: How did you become the “speaker” on the shows ?
JAH: Because nobody else wanted to do it. (Laughs)
MAC: I think you were the first getting married.
JAH: I already was married when I joined Supertramp.
MAC: Was it very difficult for you to arrange wife and kids with recording and tours?
JAH: Yes, it’s allways difficult. It’s hard. The two things that happened were both births of my two sons: I wasn’t there because I was touring with Supertramp. It was hard. ! That happened on each ocassion and it was very hard for me !
MAC: You have collaborated with Pink Floyd, Jean Jacques Goldman and Bob Siebenberg, Roger Hodgson…. Have you done something more?
JAH: Yes, Thin Lizzy, whose guitarist is Scott.Gorham, Bob’s brother in law. I played on the record “Dancing in the moonlight” , around 1977-78. I played with Bob, later. Roger….and Diana Ross as well, I just did a session. I don’t remember the name of the album. And Johny Matthis …
MAC: During the time Supertramp was not playing, have you received offers from any other bands ?
JAH: No. I din’t get any offer. Actually, I was fired from Milene Farmer, very famous french pop star. Well, it was not Milene but the musical director. She came to me and said “I’m really sorry but the musical director wants to fire you” And she said “I can’t go and play without the musical director because he’s controlling all the group. I’m really sorry because I want to play with you but I have to please him” . Anyway I had two weeks of rehearlse and holidays in Paris, I enjoyed myself. I think maybe he was jealous, I dont know it !
MAC: As a personal curiousity and as I like motorcycles too I would like to know the ones you have had all over the years…
JAH: Yes, my first motorcycle was an Honda 360 CBS, my second was a Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans, which I still have. I got it in 1978. Then I had a Yamaha XS 1100 and I also had a BMW R65 LS. Good bike. And then in 1983 I got a Ducati 900 S Mike Hailwood replica and I still have that one.
In England about 5 or 6 years ago I bought a BMW R 1100 RS, which I sell. If anybody wants to buy they can…. Put it out in the Internet, please.
MAC: You were computer programmer and also I am, another coincidence. Do you remember the languages you did use ?
JAH: Yes, Fortran and Cobol, long time ago….in 1963.
MAC: Interesting…We still use Cobol in my job, for the mainframe.….What do you remember about living in Topanga ?
JAH: I lived there 15 years at least. I moved there in 1978. I liked very much because it’s very free. I did a lot of cycling and motocycling. The people are free. You can do what you want.
MAC: Why did you come back to England?
JAH: To study
MAC: Did you really miss the Queen ?
JAH: (Laughs) I missed the beer...yeah, the good beer !
MAC: You started as an english band with an american drummer. Now, you are an american band and you are the only one living in England.
JAH: Yes, it’s just how life goes on. We decided to live in California because it seemed attractive at that time. Now, the majority of the band is american. Rick Davies is american now (Laughs)
JAH : Yes. He has turned. I’m the only one who is british.
MAC: Did you meet some of the members from The Beatles ?
JAH: Well, only one time. In a club called “Speak easy” , in London, in the sixties. I was in there with some of the guys from Alan Bown and John Lennon and Paul McCartney were sitting behind us and they asked me if they could borrow a chair or something. “Are you using that chair?” one of them said. And I said “No man, take it, it’s ok”. And this is just the conversation I had with them. And he said “Thank you”.
MAC: is there any musical hero, in your young days that you ende up meeting years later?
JAH: interesting question (thinking about.....)
MAC: it happened to me and Gonzalo !!!
JAH: I can’t remenber now , probably not because most of them they were out of my reach or they have died ! I haven’t had that experiece....
MAC: you met gonzalo !!! (everybody laughing.....) he will be famous !
JAH: yeah!!!, asked me the same question ten years later !
MAC: I know you keep the contact with Roger, you speak on the phone sometimes. A lot of people thinks one of the reasons Roger did leave the band is because he did not like the saxophone. And you don’t like the guitar. I’ve read that you and Roger were joking about it sometimes.
JAH: Yes, it’s only a joke. It must be a joke because Roger loves my playing. I thought one of the reasons for Roger spliting was the fact him writing and playing with Supertramp was not enough, because he has so much music in him and to write 4 songs every two years or an album was not enough for him . He needed to get more music out.
MAC: Until which point Rick and Roger’s wife did influence on the split of the band?
JAH: Well..maybe there is an influence, just a bit, but not much I think.
MAC: Was Roger’s leaving the best option at that time ?
JAH: artistically ?
MAC: I mind, perhaps he could stay in the band and working in solo albums as well....
JAH: Well, financially the best decission would have been Rick and Roger staying together but at the end it could be I think it would have been great if they would have carry on doing some solo albums outside the band, and them carry on writing toghether, I think financially it would have been much more clever !, we could make more money, but you cannot make the decission of artists based on money unless it is a very commercial artis, you know.
GC: sometimes money doesn’t buy happiness !
JAH: No !
GC: John, did you ever you, Bob or Dougie apart from Rick and Roger, tried to write some songs for the band ?
JAH: no, we were just happy to leave Rick and Roger in charge of all the material.
PRESENT AND FUTURE
MAC: Tell us something about the Gaia project, your next plans...
JAH: yeah I’m going to Nepal for a trekking together with Alan and Jesse Siebenberg and Anggun, just one week and an acoustic concert there it is gonna be filmed and a short world tour maybe in August - September, only big cities like Paris, New York or Tokyo.
MAC: Did you meet Andrew Hodgson at the recording ?
JAH: no, he recorded his part at the studio at Los Angeles, I recorded my sax parts at a studio in South Wales, and I am sure Gonzalo might know the studio !
GC: where about ?
JAH: I can’t remenber when in South Wales but it is inside the credits of the CD.
MAC: Some other special projects ?
JAH: no, not at the moment.
MAC: Did you hear Open the door ?
JAH: yeah ! nice album !
MAC: Is there something from the modern artists that you like ? Some music call you when you hear the radio ?
JAH: I like Beck a lot and I mainly listening to jazz and classical music.
MAC: wich one is your favourite album of Supertramp ?
JAH: Crime of the century, the first album after joining the band, it’s very emotional we were recording the album at this farmhouse down in Somerset, and we have to be living together while we were recordign the album, Rick went through a bit of a dificult time becuse his father died during this time. Special memories.
MAC: My favourite songs on the last album are Over you and Slow Motion. What really likes you about the last album ?
JAH: I think it’s very bluesy, I like a lot the kind of old fashion style it has.
GC: I think Over you is like the 2nd part of "My kind of lady"! it reminds me a lot of it.20 years later!
JAH: yes, it do.
MAC: I’ve read an interview of you in Vancouver last September that it said that some of the sax solos on the last album there would be ideas that would come from Rick, not like it used to be in the past.
JAH: not the solos ! some of the melodic lines maybe..., it is always a combination of the whole band developing Rick’s ideas. Anyone can suggest any thing.
GC: the sax solo on "The logical song" was it written by you ?
GC: beautiful solo !
MAC: I dont remember on the last album any clarinet..
JAH: yes you are right ! I haven’t even realized myself, there is a bit of flute mind you.
GC: was it truth that on the last tour when you were playing the flute were you imitating Ian Anderson lifting up one of your legs !!!
JAH: yeah (laughing a lot) you are rigth, I remenber that !
MAC: what do you know about Dougie now ?
JAH: he is working for Moby, and he is living in Chicago he works as music publisher, doing vey well.
MAC: The last question..... Will we have more Supertramp ?
JAH: I hope so !!!!! I would love to do a Supertramp reunion. I wanted to do in 2000, the 30 Supertramp anniversary with everybody ever played ....but it didn’t work out.
MAC: Hope your wishes became true !!! Thanks a lot for your time !
GC: thank you John.
JAH: Let’s keep in touch guys, it has been a great pleasure !