Lifesigns

It’s four long years since Lifesigns’ de­but al­bum earned them much ac­claim and love on the prog cir­cuit. As they prepare to lift off again with the crowd­funded follow‑up, their cap­tain John Young takes us be­hind the scenes of Card­ing­ton.

Prog - - Contents - Nav­i­ga­tor: Grant Moon Images: Kevin Nixon

New line-up and new al­bum shows all is well in Lifesigns land.

The two enor­mous hangars still dom­i­nate the land­scape at RAF Card­ing­ton, Bed­ford­shire. The en­gi­neers who worked on air­ships here in the 1920s called them ‘sheds’, and the base be­came syn­ony­mous with this most proggy form of trans­port.

For a while, it seemed like a whole new fu­ture lay ahead, when the skies would be stud­ded with th­ese gar­gan­tuan ‘di­ri­gi­bles’, but tragedy struck in 1930. Tak­ing off from Card­ing­ton, the R101 – a 720-feet-long

ship loaded with hy­dro­gen – crashed in

France dur­ing its maiden over­seas flight.

It was the worst civil­ian air­ship dis­as­ter in his­tory. The 48 peo­ple who lost their lives were buried be­neath the Card­ing­ton soil, and with them that utopian vi­sion of 20th-cen­tury air travel.

John Young is an avi­a­tion buff. Af­ter study­ing mu­sic with the Liver­pool Cathe­dral Choir, and be­fore he be­came a Zelig-like fig­ure in rock – crop­ping up as key­boardist for Uli Jon Roth, Asia, the Strawbs and Bon­nie Tyler – he dreamed of be­ing a pi­lot, and spent many years work­ing for a large freight com­pany based at Heathrow. Lit­tle won­der Card­ing­ton caught his imag­i­na­tion that night. “I was driv­ing through,” he tells Prog. “It was late, and I just stopped the car to look at it. It’s such a unique place. There’s his­tory and mys­tery there. The moon was ris­ing be­hind th­ese mono­lithic sheds, and I knew right then I should write about it.”

The ti­tle track to Lifesigns’ sec­ond al­bum came quickly. As you’d ex­pect, it’s a ma­jes­tic, pro­gres­sive jour­ney that cap­tures the pi­o­neer­ing spirit of the place: haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful, de­cep­tively com­plex and painstak­ingly ren­dered. Young asked Lifesigns’ res­i­dent en­gi­neer/pro­ducer Steve Rispin to ‘build him an air­ship’ – or at least its sound. “It had to be in tune and in time with the track,” Young says. “We dropped it in, and it was in time and in tune. Now what are the chances of that? It’s just one ex­am­ple of not just how bril­liant Steve is, but about the serendip­ity there’s been around this al­bum.”

The Card­ing­ton LP is land­ing a whole four years af­ter the band’s acclaimed de­but. Lifesigns quickly won them a large fan base, bol­stered by a se­ries of club dates, fes­ti­vals such as HRH Prog and Night Of The Prog, and a sup­port slot with Mar­il­lion. But the fact re­mains that un­less you’re one of the genre’s mar­quee names, prog don’t pay.

And so it proves a bug­ger to pin Young

“When bands like UK or It Bites came

along, I al­ways felt I’d missed the boat, I was a step be­hind. But with Lifesigns we have our own iden­tity, our own sound, and it’s our time.”

down for our interview – he’s in San­ti­ago, then Aus­tralia, then Zurich, play­ing key­boards for his reg­u­lar em­ployer and friend Bon­nie Tyler, who’s still qui­etly huge across the world.

Martin ‘Frosty’ Bee­dle has been the main drum­mer for the smash hit ABBA musical Mamma Mia! since it opened in

1999; Rispin is much in de­mand for sound en­gi­neer­ing du­ties (he’s off on the road with Yes for their Yes­ti­val dates). Jon Poole re­placed Nick Beggs on bass af­ter the de­but record, and has his own money gig with 70s hit­mak­ers Dr Hook.

“Get­ting us all in the stu­dio at the same time is re­ally hard,” ad­mits Young. “Lifesigns isn’t my day job, but I’d love it if, be­fore I left the planet, it was. But also, we’re per­nick­ety. The hub of the whole thing is Steve, Frosty and me in our stu­dio. We’re a democ­racy, we all bring dif­fer­ent things to the ta­ble, and we re­ally get into the minu­tiae, which takes time. But that’s the whole point of making the record. Every­body has to be happy with it.”

Young’s plan­ning a ‘gui­tar map’ so lis­ten­ers can follow who plays what gui­tar part across the al­bum. On it will be for­mer full-time gui­tarist Nico Tsonev, Fo­cus’ Menno Goot­jes and the ever-un­der­rated Iona/Ce­les­tial Fire gui­tarist Dave Bain­bridge, who will join the band on their up­com­ing live dates. “Dave’s a master,” says Young, “and he’s a bet­ter key­boardist than me. We were amazed by the traf­fic on Face­book when we announced he’d be tour­ing with us, peo­ple say­ing it’s a mar­riage made in heaven.”

The band’s 2014 live DVD Live In Lon­don – Un­der The Bridge was funded with a Pledge cam­paign, and that’s how they raised the money for Card­ing­ton too. The re­sponse was such that they hit their tar­get within just 48 hours. “It was amaz­ing. If we’d hit it in a month I’d have been happy, but two days? It tells us we’re do­ing some­thing right. Peo­ple seem to care. Some peo­ple sent 14 quid plus an­other 500 say­ing, ‘Just get it done!’ We’re of a cer­tain age – some of the peo­ple we grew up with are CEOs of com­pa­nies now. In­flu­en­tial peo­ple get in­volved.”

The ap­peal is broad. Re­cently they’ve been fol­lowed on Twitter by the Eng­land hockey coach. Young has been told by a big 80s pop star­let that Lifesigns is in her top five al­bums of all time. At a Lazuli gig he was asked for a photo with three young lads from New Delhi. As well as In­dia, Lifesigns merch is reg­u­larly shipped to Iran.

Wher­ever they are, those fans have much to look for­ward to. Card­ing­ton is a step on from their im­pres­sive de­but. The gig­ging has made them taut, and the sprawl­ing, key­boar­d­led prog epics are tem­pered this time by some shorter, catchy songs. With its ur­gent ear­worm of a cho­rus, Chas­ing Rain­bows is Lifesigns’ Have A Cigar mo­ment, in­spired by Young’s meet­ings with num­ber-crunch­ing record com­pany types over the years.

Touch, mean­while, takes a swipe at the

X Fac­tor/Pop Idol strain of mu­sic dom­i­nat­ing and eating away at the cul­tural land­scape. (‘You think in one di­rec­tion, you think in one di­men­sion.’) “It’s the cheap­est, low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor tele­vi­sion,” says Young, “and th­ese peo­ple don’t care who they hurt. It’s hor­ri­ble the way it works. It’s one of the worst things that could’ve hap­pened over the last 15 years.”

“There’s a whole spir­i­tual side to mu­sic, and the mu­si­cian’s life – turn left or turn right and some­thing dif­fer­ent will hap­pen. That’s the beauty of it – so many things can hap­pen, or you could work in a job you hate all your life.”

Orig­i­nally writ­ten for the John Young Band, Dif­fer­ent runs with that theme of in­di­vid­u­al­ity. It’s stri­dent, re­fresh­ing, in­tel­li­gent, a fine blend of prog and AOR. Young’s own voice is clear and ar­tic­u­late, its lack of var­nish or ex­ces­sive adorn­ment only adding to its di­rect power.

Re­tooled from the ver­sion they played on the road, Im­pos­si­ble was in­spired, sweetly, by the em­pa­thy of Young’s bor­der col­lies.

“They know when you’re up­set, when you’re happy – they have that un­der­stand­ing of hu­mans that we should have of each other. We don’t find it pos­si­ble. They do. I told Menno to play a solo that was go­ing to last for cen­turies. He’s an amaz­ing mu­si­cian.”

The al­bum’s other 10-minute epic, N is fiendishly com­pli­cated and lay­ered, rid­dled with var­i­ous time changes and tex­tures, but all the while tune­ful. You can hear why it was the hard­est piece to fin­ish.

“There are cer­tain sec­tions I felt were al­most rev­o­lu­tion­ary,” says Young. “The mid­dle sec­tion’s not about the Mel­lotron, it’s about what you can do with vo­cal har­monies. I was in a car with a friend, and I said I was af­ter a choral, clas­si­cal feel hark­ing back to my cathe­dral days. I put the ra­dio on, and there was a piece by [Bri­tish choral com­poser] Robert Chilcott, and it was just the sort of thing I had in mind. Again, it was serendip­ity, an­other in­spi­ra­tional mo­ment.”

Voice In My Head is about the in­ter­nal di­a­logue we all have, the one qui­etly di­rect­ing you where you need to go. Young re­cently en­tered his sixth decade, and has peers who are re­tir­ing now. “Some of them tell me they were un­happy in their job all their life, which is such a shame. The voice in my head has al­ways pointed me to things I wanted to do that other peo­ple said were crazy, but it’s worked for me. There’s a whole spir­i­tual side to mu­sic, and the mu­si­cian’s life – turn left or turn right and some­thing dif­fer­ent will hap­pen. That’s the beauty of it – so many things can hap­pen, or you could work in a job you hate all your life. Serendip­ity is there ev­ery day if you have the eyes to see it.”

Based on the Pledge pre-sales, Card­ing­ton is set to chart in its first week of re­lease. The band will sup­port the al­bum with a se­ries of dates, in­clud­ing their third Cruise To The Edge, and plans are al­ready afoot to record the third al­bum, to build on their mo­men­tum.

For all Young’s own achieve­ments and self-con­fi­dence, there’s a sense that he’s never quite found his place – un­til now.

“For a long time I wasn’t con­vinced my own writ­ing was where it needed to be. When bands like UK or It Bites came along, I al­ways felt I’d missed the boat, I was a step be­hind. But with Lifesigns we have our own iden­tity, our own sound, and it’s our time. Some­one asked me once if I wanted to be fa­mous.

I said, ‘No – I just want to be heard.’ It’s the cul­mi­na­tion of years of ef­fort, but I’m now in the band I’ve al­ways wanted to be in.”

Card­ing­ton is due for re­lease in mid-Au­gust and is self-re­leased. See www.lifesigns.me for more in­for­ma­tion.

ALIVE AND KICKING: LIFESIGNS, SHOT EX­CLU­SIVELY FOR PROG.

THE AIR­SHIP R101 AT ITS MOORING MAST AT CARD­ING­TON, BEDFORD.

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