I recently had the enormous pleasure of talking to the renowned Irish Weissenborn player John Wilde to talk about his amazing new debut album “After 8” and all things Weissenborn.
“The album is everything i hoped it would be and more. A lot of care and attention to detail has gone into making this first impression debut album gold standard and that’s exactly what it is “Gold Standard”. 10/10” (Aron Radford ‘The Weissenborn Information Exchange’)
We all have a story to tell on how we first fell in love with the weissenborn, mine was Ed Gerhard’s “Homage” lets hear your “Falling in love story” John.
Ok, like many people I suppose, the first time I heard anyone playing a Weissenborn was Ben Harper’s ‘Welcome to the Cruel World’ but at that time I was doing a lot of drumming and not much guitar so I forgot about it really. A couple of years ago I got a call from my brother Stuart and he mentioned he had bought a weissenborn but he wasn’t really into it too much and he asked if I’d like to try it out. I said that I would love to see one. So he brought it over and that was it. I fell instantly in love with the sound of it and over the next year or so I started playing less and less drums and more and more weissenborn!
So how does a drummer by trade end up playing this obscure stringed instrument to such a high exacting standard. How did you learn to play the Weissenborn, an obvious question I know but I’m sure people would like to hear about your experiences and how you learnt your playing craft:
I have always played a bit of guitar and bass as well as the drums and I had mucked around with lap style a bit in the past. I learned music in a brass band playing the cornet from an early age so I have a good musical grounding and I find it useful when I’m learning a new instrument to apply the same techniques. I use my ears a lot, if there is something that I want to learn and find difficult, I focus in on that part and break it down until it becomes fluid and move on to the next part. Thomas Oliver was kind enough to send me the tab for ‘The Moment’ which was the first piece I ever learned and from there I used my ear to work out other tunes.
How would you describe your style of Weissenborn music and playing to someone who hasn’t heard it before?
I like to try to play melodies whilst playing accompanying parts although I gave in to a lot of over-dubbing on the album, all the arrangements started out that way. I like to try to keep my playing as natural as possible showing off the woody and tonal characteristics of the instrument, the sound of the fingers on the strings etc.
Talk us through the album track by track just briefly touching on any stories behind each one.
1. Finding Basil – This was written for a short film by a young Texan filmmaker called Timothy Edwards. The film is set in Hawaii and Basil is the name of one of the main characters. I wrote four pieces for the film and two made it on to album.
2. Five – ‘Five’ was written in the very early hours of the morning, my daughter’s waking time was and sometimes still is 5am!
3. First Thing – First Thing…….first thing in the morning, yet another piece written on the dawn shift with my little Lucy.
4. John O’Dreams – This was one of the first arrangements I made for the Anderwood videos. The tune was written by Tchaikovsky but it also exists in song form, made famous by Christy Moore. Really beautiful lyrics.
5. Rachel’s Song – Written for my wife Rachel in the tuning of F, A, C, F, G, C.
6. Derry Air ( Danny Boy) – This was one of my Grandfather’s favourite tunes. I made this arrangement with the intention of playing it at his funeral last year. He died at the age of 92, a month short of his 93rd birthday.
7. Teardrops – This tune was written specifically for demoing one of Anderwood’s teardrop models 🙂 When I came to record it for the album, I thought it needed a bit of embellishment so I whipped out all my bass drums and layered them all down and had loads of fun in the studio. C#, G#, C#, F, G#, C# (ie. open D, down a semi-tone)
8. Song for Ireland – A very popular ballad written by an English couple about their holiday on the West Coast of Ireland. Best versions of the song are by Luke Kelly and Mary Black. I always loved the melody.
9. A Short Dance – I was playing around with this tune for a while when Ed asked me to make another couple of videos – for some reason it makes me think of Medieval dance 😉
10. Waiting for Word – Written for my daughter Lucy
11. Mr. Pips – Mr. Pips was the name of the corner shop right outside the very first flat I lived in in Dublin. When I wrote this tune it reminded me of that time in my life, sitting in the flat listening to a lot of folk music and looking out the window at Mr. Pips!
12. You’ll Never be the Sun – Written by Irish man Donagh Long, sung by Delores Keane. A gorgeous lyric too.
13. Bounce – This is the first tune I ever wrote on weissenborn. I played drums, upright bass and ukulele on this track along with about 5 different weissenborns and a couple of weissenbros!
14. To Say Goodbye – This was written for the short film ‘Po’ by Timothy Edwards. I wrote the tune while watching the scene. It is intended to move with the sequence – the final scene in the film.
What is your personal favourite track on the album and why?
I think ‘Waiting for Word’ is probably the track that resonates with me the most and sums up where my head has been at for the last few years. It was written back when I was waiting for my daughter to speak. She wasn’t vocalising at all and I longed for a time when I would hear her voice. She was an early riser and the track was written in the early hours of the morning when it was just the two of us and the house was quiet and she would really love listening to me play. I really enjoyed our morning time together. She’s more of a 6am riser these days though thank goodness!
Photography is an important part of your life (and your families) isn’t it John? How did the album cover come together?
Yes, we love photography here and just started our own photography business in January 2014 (which also contributed to the delay in finishing the album) I didn’t really have plan for the album cover but Rachel took the picture of Lucy while out on a walk and when I saw it I thought it was perfect as the album was mostly written with Lucy on my mind and this pic for me signifies her walking into her future.
The album title “After 8” is there any significance behind that title?
Yes, as you may have guessed it has nothing to do with my fondness for after dinner mints, although they are quite delicious! After 8, is about everything that has happened since 2008, my life has changed in many ways for the better but it has been rough ride. When the recession kicked in, I became a father for the first time and then the phone didn’t ring so often for work. There was less work around for drummers. We lost 3 members of our family, including my father and gained three also – so very mixed emotions. So much has changed for the worse and for the better, I’m on a new path now and it’s looking good! I learned this wonderful instrument and started a new business, very busy!
The youtube videos; We all salver over them as they look and sound so professional, tell us about how you achieve this high standard of audio and visual?
I worked for many years (since I was 19) in a pro audio environment as both a sound engineer and a musician. I have a very small recording studio here at my home where I shoot most of the videos. We own high quality DSLR lenses and cameras for the business and use those for shooting the videos. I also built a homemade dolly track which I used for the Mr. Pips video. I am also lucky enough sometimes to have the help of the fabulous George Karellas who lends a hand from time to time with the lighting and filming. My brother Stuart helped me make some of the first videos before I owned a camera!
Talk us through your creative writing process. How does it start, a melody? a lick? do you write ideas down and work on building them up gradually or is it very quick and spontaneous?
It depends really. It’s normally quite spontaneous, ‘Mr. Pips’ for example was written in 10 minutes. Where as ‘Waiting for Word’ took much longer, I kept having to come back to that one trying new ideas and new arrangements. I don’t write anything down. Sometimes I use my iPhone to record an idea and to remind me where I left off.
The album seemed to take a while getting finished and ready for release, talk us through whats involved in making an instrumental album these days from conception to recording to mixing.
I recorded the album totally alone which is why it took so long… I would set up microphones in the live room in a position that I thought would sound good. I would then record a section and have to run back into the control room, have a listen, tweak the position of the mics, record a bit more and tweak a bit more. Then when the sound was right, go for a take. The biggest problem I found was not having another person to bounce off to say for example “that last take was a bit slower than the first one, it sounded better faster”, that kind of feedback was missed and it took longer because of that. Sometimes I really wished I’d had someone there to press record and to give a thumbs up or down through the control room window. Another thing which delayed the release was during the recording, my speakers blew up and had to be replaced, 4 microphones decided to break, the hard drive in the computer died and needed to be replaced. Luckily we were able to save all our files! Then, the night I finished mixing the album and looking forward to starting the mastering process the following morning, my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) blew up literally in a big puff of smoke so I had to source a second hand replacement and then I was ready to master.
What has the reaction been like so far to “After 8”from the informed and the uninitiated?
I wasn’t quite sure what people would think of it but so far so good, the reaction has been very positive.
What’s your all time favourite piece of Weissenborn music? And what slide artists do you listen to for inspiration or pleasure?
That’s such a difficult question. I’d probably say ‘Look so Good’ by David Lindley is one of my favourite tunes, you can’t get much better than that! For pleasure I type “weissenborn” into youtube and listen to it all – I can’t get enough of this instrument.
What are your personal gear preferences?
Guitars (wood type): Wood type is definitely Koa and my favourite Anderwood guitars are the Koa, the spruce top and the style 1M, all lovely guitars.
Strings and gauges: Usually it’s D’addario Phosphor Bronze 13-56 gauge but lately I’m really into the 12-53s.
Tunings (what tunings did you use on “After 8”): Mostly Open D but I would detune that sometimes to C# or C and then on Rachel’s Song F, A, C, F, G, C.
Tone bar: I’m using the Dunlop Lap Dawg tone bar and I also use a Shubb SP2.
Fingers or picks: Fingers!
Pickups: Either a Fishman Neo-D Humbucker or the Seymour Duncan SA6 MagMic.
Amps: No amps, I play through a PA. I have a small PA from LD Systems.
Pedals: I use a BBE Acoustimax Pre-amp DI box and a cheap Berringer reverb pedal if I’m not using reverb off a desk or other reverb.
What Effects do you use in the studio and mixing process? Just some compression and some reverb.
Microphones (and method, i.e two or three and where you place them for recording etc) I use either 1, 2 or 3 microphones for recording and I might use a pick-up as well. I use a variety of different microphones. On the album I used a Neumann TLM 102, a Rode K2 Tube Mic, a Neumann KM 184, sE Electronics sE 4’s and sE Electronics 2200A. A typical set-up for recording would be 2 small diaphragm microphones in a stereo pair, 2 ft approximately away from the soundboard of the guitar with a distance of 3 ft between them and a large diaphragm microphone in the middle capturing the mono signal and using the small diaphragm microphones to give stereo width. I would run those through a couple of nice SSL Compressors, maybe a smidge of reverb and that’s it really.
Have you played any solo weissenborn gigs for these tunes yet and is there any plans to do so in the near future?
Yes, I have been playing a bit locally to see how it works and to refine the sound. I’m used to sitting in the back behind the drums so it’s been great changing it up. I am looking into the possibility of living room gigs at the moment but I’m not sure how that’s going to work right now.
Tabs? Any plans to release any tabs in the future such as “Mr. Pips” for instance as that seems to be a big favourite amongst many players at the moment?
Yes, I do have plans to release tabs at some stage but just can’t seem to find the time at the moment. Mr. Pips will definitely be the first one I tackle.
Is this something you’d like to repeat and expand on in the future or is this just a box to tick in your long list of personal milestones “record a world class weissenborn album……tick”?
Ha Ha (embarrassed face) Yes, I do plan to make another album but not for a while yet. There will be new videos on the way soon.
And finally John What’s the best bit of advice you could give a beginner just starting out on the weissenborn?
Try to work out as many pieces you can by ear. Training your ear is the best tool you can have in my opinion and try to listen to singers, saxophone players and other lead instruments that don’t have frets. Try to work out how they voice certain sections.