John Helliwell: It's the passion of the musicians that drives it all! (interview)



Recently a big European Supertramp tour was announced and then cancelled due to Rick Davies’ illness. As Supertramp did not tour very often, many fans were disappointed.  Who is usually the main iniciator of the band’s tours? How much was the decision to go on tour busines-driven by the management and how much by audience’s hunger to see the band again?


Since the departure of Roger Hodgson in 1983, the band has centred around Rick, so it always was at his instigation when we would tour.  When Rick had a big 70th birthday celebration at his home on Long Island last year, Mark Hart, Carl Verheyen and I played some R&B tunes with him and some local musicians - this seemed to excite him about the possibility of touring again!  It's a difficult thing to set up a European tour, but it was all organised and we all were looking forward to it.  It's the passion of the musicians that drives it all!


What feeling is it for the band to go on tour once in a few years? Is it still possible to have lot of fun as you used to have when you were younger? Or do you feel more responsibility to deliver perfect concert?


We have always felt the need and drive to deliver the very best we can do - we have built up a reputation over 40 years and most of the audience know this. We certainly had a great time doing the gigs thus making them very enjoyable.  It has been slightly frustrating for me, touring so infrequently, but especially over the last 20 years I have been playing other music, most notably jazz with my group Crème Anglaise.


In the period of Supertramp’s biggest fame (70-80ties) the band was selling out stadiums, millions of albums. For sure, times have changed since then. Not many bands that used to play at stadiums are able to fill such big venues anymore. How do you see differences between now and then when it comes to music industry, touring, music competition? Is it possible for Supertramp’s ex-members to live from royalties? Not many albums are sold nowadays, completely different music is played on radios.


It's a very different musical world now compared to the 70s - I think the main difference with us was the amount of support we had from our Record Company - A&M - who helped us in the long term, not just selling a single or two and moving on - they backed us album by album.  We did make some good money in the 70s and 80s - anticipating slightly leaner times ahead, I invested some of the money in my own pension.  We still do earn from our catalogue, so I live on that and my own pension - I don't make money from playing jazz! 


Roger Hodgson left the band in 1983. How did Roger and Rick deal with copyrights and the band’s trademark? I’ve read that some disputes appeared in 2010 when the band played some of Rick’s songs. Whilst the agreement was that Rick can keep the Supertramp trademark an Roger will have exclusive right to play his songs from Supertramp’s period. Have there also been any disputes about authorship of some songs?


Rick started the band, so he kept the name, Roger cannot call himself "Supertramp" - although he does appear as "The voice of Supertramp"!  When we toured in 1985, we did not play any of Roger's song as we wanted to establish the band with Rick at the helm.  The audiences clamoured for some of Roger's songs, so eventually, on subsequent tours, we played a few of them.  Roger did not like this and, especially on our 2010 tour, kicked up a fuss about it.  We can play anyone's songs if we like without their permission, and anyone else can play our songs - it's a free situation.  There was no written agreement to not play Roger's songs.  Rick and Roger wrote most songs separately and a few together, however, like Lennon and McCartney, they always put both their names as songwriters.  I think Roger would like to change this, but I do not think it is possible - I'm not a songwriter.


Two years ago a DVD and Blue-ray format of a very successful 1979 Supertramp’s concert  was released. Until then the concert had only been released  as a double LP and double CD. How much did the DVD meet your expectations and expectations of your fans?


The public reaction to the DVD of "Paris" has been tremendous!  The film was lost or misplaced for many years in Australia and then when we looked at it we realised that it was very good, although because of financial restrictions at the time, not every song had been filmed, even though we had the audio in full.  The fact that the film has been released is due to the efforts of Bob Siebenberg, Dougie Thomson, myself and our first manager, Dave Margereson.  Rick did not want to release it!  I don't know exactly why.  I think that the DVD is very good indeed and I am proud of it!


In 1997 you were awarded the “Chevalier de l’ordre des Aarts et Lettres“ medal by the French Government. The award is country’s most distinguisjed cultural award. Why do you think was Supertramp so popular in France? Except your command of French that you presented at Paris concert in 1979?


Oui, je parle français très bien comme vous pouvez voir de cette phrase!  I learnt French at school but failed my examination in it!  The Chevalier…. award is something of which I am very proud. The French people really took to us from the mid 70s, and, unlike some other countries, they have never forgotten us - we seem to be a small part of French culture now and I am happy about it

At the beginning of your career you worked as a computer programmer. Later you decided to pursue the journey of a musician. Given the rapid development and key role of IT industry in late 70-ties and 80-ties, have you never regretted your decision to leave computer industry? Where do you think would you be today if you had not decided for your music journey?


I was reasonably good at computer programming - I did it from age 18 to 20 - then decided to take a chance turning professional musician with a band from Birmingham called "Jugs O'Henry" which was short-lived.  In 1965 I was offered two jobs - one as a programmer in Sweden and another playing for a band - "The Alan Bown Set" -  I chose the music and have been a professional for 50 years so far.  If I had gone down the computer route I would probably be speaking Swedish and living in Stockholm now and playing jazz saxophone in my spare time.


I assume that you, as an ex-programmer must have had highly developed technical and abstract thinking as well as imagination. How much are such features important for a musician? Do e.g. improvisation capabilities to certain extent depend on abstract thinking and imagination?


My programming skills involved logical thinking.  My playing now, especially improvising, requires me to know my instrument, my playing, the tune, the whole history of jazz music, and then to forget it all and let emotions flow without specific reference to that knowledge  My playing does not seem to come from the part of my brain that deals with logic, although there is no doubt that there is a great deal of logic in the structure of music.


Supertramp was renowned for top quality sound on the concerts (also PA systems on the stage). Technologies have improved a lot since then. How do you keep up with latest technologies?


I am essentially an acoustic musician therefore I like that if there is any sound reinforcement involved, it should purely amplify the saxophone's sound and not alter it in any other way.  We wanted the Supertramp sound to be like a giant HiFi and we succeeded.  There are some wonderful sound systems nowadays. My ideal jazz group would be to play with drums, double bass, grand piano - I do like electric guitar though, and the mighty Hammond Organ.


Besides Supertramp (who go on tour once in a while) you are active in other projects. In 2004 you established the band Crème Anglaise. The band’s direction is more to jazz, soul, blues. This is way different from Supertramp’s music. Is this where you feel now most comfortable?


I do feel comfortable in that sound-world but I also like the challenge of entering a new musical situation and having an immediate reaction to it, such as a recording session.  I play with a few other musicians and get a kick out of it, both musically and socially.  Crème Anglaise is a fine group of which I am proud - we don't play enough!  I hope to make another CD soon.



Which jazz style do you like most and which jazz musician were you influenced by?


I started listening to traditional jazz when I was about 13 and then found the jazz of the 50s and 60s with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver and Art Blakey.  I still prefer small-group post-bop and beyond.   I was knocked out with Weather Report in the 70s.  My saxophone hero is Cannonball Adderley. enjoy the music of Chris Potter,  Mike Stern, The Wood Brothers, Muse and the late and great Charlie Haden.

If I could only listen to one jazz group for the rest of my life, it would be the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio.


What concerts do you go to see as spectacor? Do you prefer smaller clubs or big venues?    


I usually prefer the intimacy of music in a small place, but occasionally I go to a concert hall - last year I saw Pat Metheny in concert and later this year I am going to see the Maria Schneider Orchestra.  Of course I usually go to concert halls to hear orchestras, such as the Halle in Manchester.


Your son William is also a musician, trumpet player. What music does he do and how much was he influenced by his father? Were you his big music idol in his childhood?

When William entered The Birmingham Conservatoire to study trumpet, he also sang for them (he has a fine tenor voice) and was immediately offered a place studying singing, which he accepted.  After studying also at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama he now sings in the chorus of the Opera Vlaanderen in Antwerp.  I'm glad he liked and started out on trumpet because it took him away from my direct influence.  He also never really liked jazz, which I played around the house all the time in his formative years!


What other projects, besides Creme Anglaise are you active in nowadays?

I recently had the pleasure to play with two of my jazz heroes when I gigged with Leslie ManDoki in Budapest - Mike Stern and Randy Brecker - what a thrill - life is always throwing up surprises - long may it continue!


Foto (portraits): Brendan van den Beuken

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