Eight years ago the debut album by UK prog supergroup Lifesigns entered the UK top 100 album chart. Thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign, the band's third album, Altitude is due to be released in the middle of March.
Here founder-member John Young tells DPRP about Lifesigns' changing line-up, future touring plans and his work with the likes of Bonnie Tyler and The Scorpions. Patrick McAfee asks the questions.
I've just had my first few listens of Altitude and it is excellent! Congrats on another fantastic Lifesigns album! Pretty much from the start, Lifesigns has been embraced by the prog community as a band of true substance and quality. How rewarding has the positive response to the band been for you?
John Young: I think that is something that is right at the core of everything that is Lifesigns. The band was actually formed as we felt there was a lack of substance and depth in the prog world at that time; although in more recent years it seems like it's making a comeback I'm glad to say. We have built a very positive community and the music itself carries a very positive and optimistic message for these difficult times.
Prior to the release of the debut Lifesigns album in 2013, you were probably best known in prog circles for your song-writing and performances with artists such as John Wetton, Greenslade, Asia, Fish, Quango, Jon Anderson and your solo releases. Are there any particular career highlights for you in those years?
Crikey that's a big question and probably hard to pin down to one band or event. I've been very lucky. My first tour with Uli Roth was back in 85 from a Melody Maker (magazine) advert I applied to (those were the days). I got my second major job in Asia from playing with the MTV band when John Wetton guested. I owned a lot of his music but was too shy to say anything on the night. I got a phone call the following week saying: "Have you heard of Asia?" "Of course," I replied; "Well you start Monday," said the voice! It was great to work and write over the years with John Wetton.
Paul Rodgers was another great voice I worked with for 18 months. There were really highlights with everyone I guess. My main live employer these last 27 years has been Bonnie Tyler which is like family to me and I really enjoyed The Scorpions which was a five or six-year spell. In some ways for me it's not so much the gigs but the off-stage or back-stage stuff that remains in my head long after the gigs are gone. I love the humour. I went to see a comedian not that long ago (pre-Covid) and I didn't laugh. As we left, a friend said to me: "You didn't laugh John." I replied: "Well to be honest it wasn't that funny. Have you ever been on a tour bus?"
Are there musicians/bands in the genre that you have worked with or not, who were a prominent influence on you?
I don't think there were too many influences. I was classically trained both in piano and vocals (a cathedral choir) so anything from Tallis and Palestrina, to Howells and Matthias were in there. I liked the romantics like Chopin and Debussy. I think this is why I was more of a Refugee or Trace fan than ELP. It had to have some romance in it to capture me. I loved Genesis and Yes, but also Caravan, Camel, Gentle Giant, Bruford, Brand X. I was always looking for more.
As a big John Wetton fan it was a pleasure to become part of his team, both live and writing wise. I saw an article he wrote where he singled-out just three people he could write with. Geoff Downes was obviously in there but so was I ... which was a great honour.
After working with so many people I have tended to not listen to much, and to avoid influence in order to build up an identity of my own. I hope it has worked!
Lifesigns have gone through some significant line-up changes over the years. Although losing key members like Nick Beggs, Niko Tsonev and Frosty Beedle could have been detrimental, Altitude proves that the band's musical mission continues undaunted. Dave Bainbridge and Zoltan Csorsz bring a great new dynamic to the music. How has Lifesigns been so successful in manoeuvring through these changes?
Yes it's been quite a force of nature Patrick. I think, firstly I have been so lucky to work with so many wonderfully talented guys. It's been a real honour. Going back to your first point, I also think that as our reputation grew with regard to the substance of the material, then fortunately people really wanted to work with us. Timing of course is everything but generally if we have a 'name in the frame' then they come and help, whether as permanent members or guest artists.
We realise that we are not the 'day job' of pro musicians and we work around that where we can. We are very independent and so if we have to consult the management or the record company ... it's all us! It makes life a little easier.
There is a lot of musical variety contained on Altitude. The songs are accessible and melodic, but in many ways it feels like the most adventurous Lifesigns release. The music is very BIG in its scope. As an example, I predict that songs like the title track, Shoreline, Fortitude and Last One Home are going to go over substantially well with prog fans. When recording a new album, how do you approach it in terms of what the concept, structure and style will be?
I hate to throw water on this question but we don't have one really. It just worked out that way. So I go into the studio with a blank sheet of paper and see what happens. We sometimes have a couple of older tunes that we feel should see the light of day, and this was the case this time with Ivory Tower and Last One Home. Then the rest is really up for grabs.
Without becoming too obscure, I write through a process called 'channelling', so it really just turns up and I try and put it into some kind of order. I remember when the chord sequence turned up for Shoreline. I wrote it down and then just mailed it to everyone. I received a barrage of 'yes' emails and away we went. The guys trust me I guess, and as it was all recorded, mixed and produced in bedrooms, I think it turned out quite well. Steve Rispin is our 'quality control'. Not much gets past him. We sometimes have to be blunt with the guys but that is far outweighed by the wonderful creativity they all possess.
I remember when we finished Fortitude. Steve and I just looked at each other and grinned. It did what we wanted it to!
The cover artwork for Lifesigns albums are fantastic and so distinctive. Altitude continues that wonderful tradition. They are made for the vinyl format and are some of the best album covers of the last decade. How important do you think it is for bands to utilise artwork as part of their brand, and is this new album again the work of Brett Wilde?
We only work with Brett. He is part of the Lifesigns family. He understands us so well and is just as hard to please as the rest of us.
Quite often I will give Brett an idea of something we are after and then after a sleepless night it will be there in all its glory the next morning; sometimes in three different versions. He is really an extension of the band, a master with artwork and photography. He can see things in the ordinary and bring them to life. Brett creates our brand and the team around us make it work. You have the players, Steve, Brett and Julie Crowe who looks after all things office, web and merch'. We are quite the cottage industry.
When touring resumes, hopefully in the coming months, are there plans to do any shows around the new album?
Of course Patrick. We've not met Zoltan yet (or Lynsey Ward who provides the amazing backing vocals) so I think it would be nice to have dinner with the band at some point... don't you agree?
John, thanks again for taking the time to answer DPRP's questions. I wish you great luck with Altitude. I think fans are going to love it and it is one of those albums that has broad musical appeal. Hopefully, you will make a lot of new fans with it as well.
I hope so Patrick, thank you so much.