Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Man At The Back, Part 2 - Blues Enthused chats with King King drummer Wayne Proctor

In addition to being the 'Man At The Back’ with King King, Wayne Proctor is, of course, a highly regarded backroom boy, as a producer under his House Of Tone banner. His latest output on that front is Ben Poole’s forthcoming album Anytime You Need Me, which I reckon represents a big step forward for Poole in several respects – and features a great drum sound from Proctor into the bargain.  So how did he and Poole set about bringing the new album into being?
“Well, for his last album Time Has Come, Alan Robinson, King King and Ben’s manager, kind of picked the songs. I think he felt at the time that Ben - as much as he had a couple of
"You lookin' at me?"
Pic by Rob Blackham
real corkers of songs, like ‘The Time Might Never Come’, which is a stunning tune, and he had a couple of other little ideas - wasn’t yet in the place to write a whole record, with the kind of lyrical and melodic content needed to make a great record.”
As Proctor points out, this is hardly unheard of. Whether they’re newcomers or big stars, artists have long taken advantage of outside help to line up suitable material. Labels like Motown and Stax relied heavily on writing teams, Aerosmith made a mint out of stuff provided by Diane Warren when their own well was drying up, and Bonnie Raitt continues to pepper her albums with covers in addition to originals. So for Time Has Come, Proctor recalls, they selected material from a ‘long list’ of about 25 songs.
“And most of it was a singer-songwriter style in a bluesy manner,” he says. “So it ended up being quite light. Vocally Ben didn’t really have the grit then. But he was also singing other people’s songs, so him singing them a bit softer was kind of intentional to make it more emotional, in a kind of John Mayer way. So after that record, Ben and I chatted, and when Alan Nimmo had the little mishap with his voice last year I said to Ben, ‘Look, do you fancy us writing an album together? Writing a heavier album, writing songs that are written to your strengths, picking keys that suit you, writing with attitude, and trying to put something together that is more for you, that sounds like you on 100%?’  And Ben was absolutely up for it.
“So then Steve Wright [Proctor’s House Of Tone production compadre], Ben and I wrote ‘Take It No More’ and ‘Further On Down The Line’.  We did it over three days – we wrote the lyrics, melodies and arrangements. We had no idea what the chemistry would be.  We just knew we all got on.  But we came up with these two songs, and we were like, ‘These are really good – in fact they’re great.’  They were just demos – the drums were done out in Steve’s house, and it was all done quite quickly, but it had a vibe, it definitely had a vibe, and we were excited about them.  So we just carried on going.”
Between them they sifted whatever ideas were kicking around for things that caught the ear.
“And then we’d just work and work and work – a load of gestating the idea, and developing it, and ‘Let’s try it with this kind of feel, or this tempo, or this key’.  And then lyrically we all just sat down and said, what atmosphere did we think this song was about?  So something like ‘Take It No More’ had a lot of attitude in it, and we wanted it to be like where you’re pointing your finger at someone, having a go.  And ‘Anytime You Need Me’ should have this positive thing about it - I was going through something at the time, so I was like, ‘Can we do a song about this?  About always being there for someone, and not abandoning them.’”
As Ben Poole himself has observed, they spent six months writing and demoing material, off and on.
“And eventually we had a whole record,” says Proctor. “We did it without telling anybody we were doing it.  I literally just handed the album into Alan Robinson and said ‘Look, here you go. If you want to put it out on Manhaton Records, great, If not, I’ll shop it to somebody else.’  It was like, this is our album, we’ve done it on our terms. We’ve done it without any interference getting in the way of the creativity, without being told you’ve got to mix it this way, or you’ve got to use these musicians, or you can’t play the drums on it. I didn’t want to hear any of that. I just wanted to make the artist I was working with sound the best I could make him sound.  And if that meant us writing some songs together because we had a good chemistry, then perfect! Ben was more than happy to do that. At times the three of us were just sitting there with blank expressions on our faces, not knowing where to go, and then all of a sudden one of us would shout, ‘That’s it, I’ve got it. I’ve got the lyric, I’ve got the key to the gateway that lets us into the next line.’  And slowly but surely the song would present itself.”
Earlier in our conversation, Proctor had referred to King King’s albums emerging organically, as if from a lump of clay.  I recall the sculptor’s line about the big block of marble, that the statue is in there somewhere, it’s just a question of finding it.
“Exactly. You’ve just got to chip away at it and be really honest with yourself. Is it as good as you can make it?  Anyone I ever produce, I say to them, please just be honest with yourselves. If this is the best you can do, then fair enough. But I’m sure when you ask yourself, this is you on a six out of ten.  And pretty much everyone I’ve worked with then says, ‘Yeah, I can do better.’  ‘Well, why have you played this to me then?
“Although I don’t think I’ve ever actually said that, to be honest,” he laughs.  “You’re trying to light a fire up their ass, so that they go, ‘Yeah, yeah. I can do better.’  And nine times out of ten it works – and Ben absolutely rose to the challenge in every way shape and form for me on Anytime You Need Me.  I love it – I’m so proud of him and the album we’ve made.”
Part of the challenge is also about positioning things correctly though, I suggest.  Poole’s Live At The Royal Albert Hall album showed that he has a good voice – not especially bluesy, but soulful in his own way, with musicality.  But as Proctor noted, this didn’t really come over on Time Has Come.  It seems to me though, that some of the newer songs are in lower keys that enable him to come across more strongly.  Or is that just my imagination?
“No, that’s exactly right,” says Proctor. “All the songs were written with his voice in mind, in
Non-Diet Ben Poole gets potent
terms of where does it sound good?  Where do you sound the most meaningful?  Where can you get the grit into your voice?  But I know, even at the recording stage, we still dropped the keys of ‘Take It No More’, ‘Further On Down The Line’, and ‘Dirty Laundry’, because Ben couldn’t get to the high notes in a manner that we felt was ballsy and convincing.  And one thing that’s become apparent is that with ‘Dirty Laundry' in particular he just owned it, he just sang it great. I remember when he did those first few verses, he literally did two or three takes of each verse, and it was like, ‘Dude – do you wanna come and listen to how good your voice your sounds here?’
One aspect of Poole’s singing that I like, and which ‘Dirty Laundry’ shows off, is his diction, his ability to really pop consonants out very clearly, as in the line about the ‘bubble-headed bleach blonde’.
“Well, there are two elements to this thing with the diction. If you go back to the Albert Hall live CD, there’s a studio song on there called ‘Starting All Over Again’ that we worked on together. And one of the things that Alan Robinson had said to me was that we’ve got to work on his diction, ‘cause I can’t work out what he’s saying.  So it’s always been something that we’ve been very conscious of.  But also, writing melodies and picking lyrics that have a lot of syllables and a lot of percussive sounds in them. I remember Rob Temperton when he was writing for Michael Jackson, saying that he purposely wrote melodies, and words, that had a lot of percussive sounds, to allow Michael Jackson to really spit it out, and so it had a lot of rhythm to it, and a lot of attack.  So one of the things we did with the lyric writing on this album was to really try and find things that complemented Ben’s natural ability to spit a lyric out. So there are all those elements in there that are percussive and strong, and it not only makes his voice sound stronger, but it makes the lyrics sound clearer, and puts the lyric on the top of the music a lot easier.”
The difference is marked, in my book. Proctor may have produced Time Has Come, but I tell him that by the time I got to the end of the end of that album I was desperate for Poole to man up a bit, vocally.
“Well, on Time Has Come these were songs that weren’t written for him,” he repeats, “and they had a particular atmosphere, and they didn’t sound right being sung aggressively.  We did try it, but it just sounded weird, it didn’t sound like there was context.”
So defaulting to a style that fitted the songs didn’t really bring the best out of him.
“Exactly,” Proctor agrees. “So this time around I said, ‘Well man, we’re writing the songs ourselves, so let’s make every song work for you.’  And luckily it worked out great, and we had a load of fun doing it, and it was at the right time for me to be doing that as well. Me and Steve were already starting to write together, and I think we just knew what he wanted, we just knew that Ben needed to sound more convincing, to sound more aggressive. And I love the results. Honestly, I couldn’t say enough good things about the album, and the experience of making it. 
A blur of motion at the back with King King
“King King is Alan’s baby,” he goes on, “and I love and adore being in that band. But it’s Alan’s baby, and I don’t want to offer lyrics to him, I don’t want to offer chord structures to him and potentially water down our process. It’s not what he wants, he wants us to support him and facilitate the sound of the songs in his head - Alan always has a very strong vision for King King, which is great and definitely works. So, when this opportunity came up to co-write the lyrics, melodies and generally chord structures rather than just arrangements, I said ‘Great, let’s do it!’  It was just another asset to the House Of Tone arsenal of tools, another string to the bow and a lot of fun to do! Ben and I had a conversation the other day about the next album, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we know exactly where we want to go next time around!’
I make the observation that Don Henley’s recording of ‘Dirty Laundry’ featured Steve Lukather and Jeff Porcaro from Toto, so it gave Proctor the chance to emulate one of his inspirations, as he acknowledges. For me, it’s also symptomatic of Anytime You Need Me being something of a crossover album into AOR territory, in a good way, though tracks like ‘Don’t Cry For Me’ and ‘Found Out The Hard Way’ still give Poole room to breathe musically, and be expansive. Was that something Proctor had in mind?
“I just think that’s who he is, in all honesty,” he says. “He wants to be able to play the guitar, he wants to play cool, get-behind-it kind of riffs, so he can really make them mean something, and obviously he wants to solo as well. But it’s not about ironing all that stuff out, it’s about giving him a vehicle where he can be meaningful with what he’s playing, and one that you can transfer to a live setting.  And Ben likes mainstream music, you know?  That’s it, full stop.  So why shouldn’t that be incorporated into his style?  But he wants to do it in a non-emaciated way. You don’t want it to feel like it’s Diet Ben, because it’s a bit poppy, or it’s a bit mainstream in any way, it still needs to feel like it’s potent, and it’s got some attitude and meaning to it.”
At which point the self-confessed ‘studio rat’ has to get back to work knob-twiddling at Steve Wright’s Y Dream Studios on another project, this time for a forthcoming album tribute album to Willie Dixon by Ian Parker.
Drummers have a bit of a reputation – Moon the Loon, John Bonham the wild man, Phil Rudd and his recent, er, misadventures.  Hell, Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer Sam Lay even managed to shoot one of his knackers off due to carrying a loaded gun in his trouser pocket while playing. Wayne Proctor doesn’t fit the stereotype. Instead he’s a guy who’s passionate about the creative process, and evidently a detail freak with very high quality standards. But hey, he got through our discussion of the production process without sharing his extensive knowledge of microphones, for which I’m truly grateful!

You can find Part 1 of the Wayne Proctor interview here.
Ben Poole's new album Anytime You Need Me is released by Manhaton Records on 14 September.
Ben Poole's European and UK tour dates can be found here.

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