John Metcalfe by Tom Oldham 26/4/14

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the world-renowned viola player and musical artist, John Metcalfe. Everybody might not know his name, but they should, if they are fans of rock, prog, classical music, electronica, and other genres that are related. Metcalfe is also known as a musical composer and producer, and has collaborated with bands like Simple Minds and The Pretenders, as well as Peter Gabriel and Cold Play. My review of The Appearance of Colour, his most recent album, other than a remix one, is elsewhere at this site, here. There is still time to enter to win an autographed copy of it, at the same link. What follows is a brief interview I had with John, who is a terrific person as well as an extraordinary musician.

Douglas R. Cobb: Thank you, John, for agreeing to do this interview with me and answering a few questions. I know you are still going out with The John Metcalfe Band and the wonderful singer, Rosie Doonan, in support of your amazing album, The Appearance of Colour, and I have also heard you are currently hard at work on another album, right? What is the working title of it, and will it be much of a departure from the nine songs on The Appearance of Colour?

John Metcalfe: The new album is coming along well – at the mo the working title is “Scream if you want to go faster,” but that will almost definitely change!

Douglas R. Cobb: On The Appearance of Colour, much of the music is very atmospheric, trippy, and instrumental, though their are some vocals by yourself and Natasha Khan, of Bat for Lashes. Will she be on your upcoming album, as well, or will there perhaps be someone else providing vocals, this go-around?

John Metcalfe: Still gigging with Rosie and the band and loving it.
Natasha won’t be singing on this album – it’s Rosie with a little of me also. I wanted it to be entirely the sound of the band.

Douglas R. Cobb: Let’s talk a bit about The Appearance of Colour, John — you played a variety of instruments while recording it, including your viola, made in 1800, but other musical artists contributed to it, also, of course. Would you please give our readers some information about your viola, and also the other members of The John Metclafe Band who performed on The Appearance of Colour?

John Metcalfe: All the music on the album was composed and produced by me. Live drums and live bass were played by Andy Gangadeen (Chase ‘n’ Status) and Ali Friend (Red Snapper) and some of the live piano was performed by Tom Cawley. All other music was performed by me.

Douglas R. Cobb: And, your viola?

John Metcalfe: It’s actually a beautiful Giovanni Battista Ceruti made in 1800, the year Beethoven composed his extraordinary opus 18 quartets. Ceruti is acknowledged as one of the last fine Cremonese makers.

Douglas R. Cobb: You have collaborated with a wide variety of musical artists, and I’d like to ask you a few questions now, John, about some of them, if that is okay with you. For instance, what about your collaborations with The Pretenders and Pete Gabriel, who is with you in the photo below that you kindly provided — what albums of theirs, and his, did you work on?

John Metcalfe: The Pretenders album was called The Aisle of View and is over 20-years-old now! It was a kind of unplugged sound — acoustic guitars and strings which I arranged and performed with the Duke Quartet. We did tour with that — in the States, too. Lots of fun!

Douglas R. Cobb: John, you worked with Peter Gabriel on two of his studio albums, right — “Scratch My Back” a covers album and also “New Blood,” which you co-produced. You and Gabriel did a cover of David Bowie and Brian Eno’s hit, Heroes. How did you strive to help make it sound fresh and new, yet pay homage to Bowie’s version of it?

John Metcalfe: When approaching the arrangement I had to really forget how famous a song it is otherwise I would have been paralysed with fear. Songs like this go very deep for people and when you change them it can cause really strong reactions (which is a good thing I think). So I just responded to Peter’s vocal rather than the history of the song. I don’t think it’s always best to write to the lyric as it may end up being to literal rather I wanted to elevate further the ‘un-narrated’ emotion in Peter’s delivery of the melody. It had to be hopeful and celebratory but not pompous. Of course it’s a huge homage to Reich’s “Different Trains” but I was performing that a lot with my quartet so it was really in my blood at that time.

Douglas R. Cobb: How many of the other songs on the album did you work on with Gabriel? I saw that one was the David Byrne/Talking heads’ song, “Listening Wind,” a great song from an amazing band. Did you also help come up with the version of the song?

John Metcalfe: All of them with he exception of ‘The Book Of Love’ which was a Nick Ingham arrangement. Generally I created the initial arrangement, demoed it and then worked on it further in detail with Peter. With ‘Listening Wind’ he was particularly keen to make the bass part just right to maintain a string element of groove and rhythm.

Douglas R. Cobb: On Gabriel’s album, “New Blood,” you worked with Gabriel at remaking and stripping down some of his classic hits, like “Solsbury Hill,” “San Jacinto,” and “In Your Eyes.” Were there any of them that stood out for you the most, or which you just liked the results of more?

John Metcalfe: Actually they all came out really well! Peter’s music is quite classical in some senses as a lot of his songs change mood and feel within the same track (Rhythm of the Heat being a good example). This is allows such a great opportunity to explore different timbres, moods and textures within one piece. In particular I liked the muscle of ‘In your Eyes’, the filigree detail of ‘Mercy Street’ and the arc and grandeur of ‘San Jacinto’.

Douglas R. Cobb: How were you put in touch with Gabriel and Chrissie Hynde, of The Pretenders? You also worked on The Pretenders’ stripped-down album of their greatest hits, “The Aisle of View.” Were any of the songs more challenging to come up with an acoustic version of than other ones? Brass in Pocket was one that turned out quite well….

John Metcalfe: I came to Chrissie’s attention through the producer Stephen Street. I had known Stephen from early days with the Durutti Column. I worked with him on many projects including Blur, Morrissey and the Cranberries. He asked me to arrange some strings for The Pretender’ version of ‘Angel in the Morning’ for the Friend’s soundtrack and that was when I first met the band. Each song has it’s own challenges but I guess the ‘rockier’ numbers needed closer attention so as not to lose the grit and fire in a song.

I met Peter through his engineer, Dickie Chappell, who had seen me in a mad concert of composing on the spot.

Douglas R. Cobb: On the tour you are currently on, you are touring with the incredible young female musical artist, Rosie Doonan. Where and how did you met her?

John Metcalfe: I met Rosie whilst touring with Peter Gabriel. She was doing backing vocals for him but also sang a couple of songs before the main show each night. Having heard her amazing voice it seemed crazy not to work with her.

Douglas R. Cobb: Simple Minds is another of my favorite bands. What did you do with them, and did you tour with them? How did you get involved with collaborating with them?

John Metcalfe: Many years ago now I arranged a couple of songs for them – they were on ‘Neapolis’ I think. But a long time ago. I too was a huge fan of the band – I went to see them on the ‘New Gold Dream’ tour but my favourite albums were ‘Sons and Fascination’ and ‘Sister Feelings Call’. It certainly was a bit of a thrill meeting them in the string session.

Douglas R. Cobb: One other question I’d like to ask you is about your guitar playing on the song, Gold and Green, from The Appearance of Colour. What brand/type of guitar do you most often play, like in the video, and what strings do you use?

John Metcalfe: I use a Telecaster – I bought it off the 2nd violinist in my string quartet. He’d had it set up by the Pretenders guitar tech and it really plays beautifully. Strings are Ernie Ball Slinkies…

Douglas R. Cobb: It’s been great talking with you, John! Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview with me! I look forward to reviewing your upcoming album when it comes out, and possibly doing another interview with you in the future!

By: Douglas R. Cobb

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