Interview with Toby Jepson
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Toby Jepson, who in the past has had a number one album, travelled the world and sold out the Royal Albert Hall in the 1990’s with The Little Angels. Last year he formed Wayward Sons who are already starting to make waves within the rock community. We spoke about the past to fill in some of the time between those bands, his views on the present and about the future.
Later this week the Sons will head out on their first UK headline tour and have a slightly unusual format planned with a stand-up comedian acting as compere for the evening. “They used to do this in the 70’s – Cheech and Chong used to open for The Rolling Stones and Steve Martin opened for Led Zeppelin! It happened a lot and specifically in the punk era in the late 70’s in the UK, comedians and what they used to call “punk poets”, John Cooper Clark and people like that, they used to go and do opening slots for The Sex Pistols – they’d read poetry with an audience all spitting at them! I’d met Peter [Pete K. Mally], who’s the comedian, as he’s been around as a fan for a long time and what I really like about what Peter does is he’s like a band himself. He’s a self-made, DIY comedian. He’s set it up entirely on his own, he’s gone out there and organised the whole thing, his own shows – he’s a teacher in his day job but he does that, so he can become a stand-up comedian, and he’s genuinely a very funny guy. His observations about the rock business are hilarious! He talks about growing up in the 80’s and 90’s as a rock fan [in his show] but he’s not really doing a stand-up routine, he’s going to do bits in between and talk about stuff, show the film and take the piss out of us and take the piss out of the audience. He’s also going to do an online blog every day where he’s going to do his report on what’s been going on. I think it could be really good fun.”
The film in question being the zombie videos that were shot back-to-back for the first four releases from the album, with another video having been completed very recently. Together they’ve been combined to make the short film being debuted at these gigs. The thought of making that many connected videos for a first album is the kind of thing that would make most record labels take a sharp intake of breath followed by a quick no, but apparently that wasn’t the case here. “I’ve got to say – and I say it without any reservations at all – Frontiers have been unbelievable. They are a fantastic record label, they are the most supportive, creative people I’ve ever worked with in the music business. They have more balls than any of the major labels put together. They are willing to put their money where their mouth is and support young artists and young bands – and not so young artists! (Laughs) What you’ve got is a couple of guys, Mario and Serafino who run the label, who are utterly committed to creating great music. They left us alone to get on with the album – they didn’t even hear the album until we’d finished mixing it! They didn’t hear any demos, they just trusted me completely. They just said get on with and when you’ve finished, let us hear it. I have never in my experience ever had that, it’s extraordinary trust. So, when I came up with the video idea – I said to Martin, my manager, I wanna do four narrative videos that are all connected and he said, “That’s a great idea, but I don’t know what Frontiers will think about that.” Cos they only give you a small video budget as part of the deal – the last videos I was involved with were the three for Toseland’s last album and I had a tenth of their budget! I thought, what the hell can I do for that, but I found out about this young guy, Jay Hillier, who lives up in Leicester and was an associate of Chrome Molly, who Nick [Wastell, Wayward Sons’ bassist] knew through them and said “We just worked with this guy who charged us a tiny amount for our last video. I’ll send you a link”. I thought this is gonna be terrible, but it was really, really good! I was like, “This looks cool, it’s really beautifully shot, and it looks like it’s had thousands spent on it.” So, I rang him up and said, “Look, I’ve got this idea to shoot four videos back to back…” and he said, “I’ll do it!” Not only that, he charged US peanuts too, so I hadn’t even spent all the budget I had. I went to Frontiers and I said “We’re gonna make four videos” and Serafino went, “How can we possibly afford that! We can’t do that!”, so I said, “Hang on, it’s only gonna cost us this amount” and he said, “Brilliant idea!” (Laughs) So he just left us to it. And Jay is such a clever film-maker. I wrote the script and worked with him very closely, he is an incredible cinematographer and he’s got all the gear - high end DSLR cameras, a steady-cam rig, he’s got a little crane and it all comes in a backpack! He turned up to the film set and I said, ”Where’s your gear? Where’s the van?” and he said, “It’s all in here.” And that’s how we shot them and we had a ball doing it. I believe it’s just about having good ideas and following through with them. You have to be pragmatic, this business now is about people taking chances and being innovative. You have to go, “Just because they did it like that before, doesn’t mean we have to do it like that again, so we’re gonna try our own way of doing it.”
This wasn’t Toby’s first time in front of a camera however, as there was a period after Little Angels disbanded that his career might have taken a very different path. “I spent about three years in the film business. I started off in Gladiator as an extra in that. I just fell into it really, I’ve always been a massive film fan and when I’d made my first solo record, I had a real bad health scare for a while. That’s the reason I had to get out of the music business because I was very, very poorly. By the time I recovered, almost a year had gone by since I’d done any music and at that time, I genuinely couldn’t raise the enthusiasm. I happened to be visiting my friend and came across an advert in the paper that said “Ridley Scott (one of my favourite directors of all time) is making a new movie, a Roman epic, men between the ages of 35 and 60, if you should wish to apply blah, blah, blah” and the auditions were literally the next day! I was like, “Oh my God, this is a sign!” So, I went down to the open audition and there were two or three thousand guys all queuing up – it took me all day to get through the queue, but I got the job. It was just an extras role, but I ended up becoming a special extra on it and I worked directly with Ridley Scott quite a bit because we lived very close to the location. I was sharing a house with a friend and we lived on the edge of the wood, so we would get the First AD [Assistant Director] ring us up in the morning or even the night before and say, “Ridley needs four of you to come in at four in the morning for the sunrise. Are you willing to?” And we said, “Of course we bloody are!” So, we would get up and literally walk through the hedge and we were there, you know! So, we got called upon to do that quite a lot and I ended up being a stand-in, which is where you basically get associated with an actor and I worked with Christopher Lambert as his stand-in for the last Highlander movie he did and the last thing I did was Band of Brothers. I did the whole thing for ten months and I was one of two main stand-ins. The cast was so huge, there was something like three hundred actors involved in that, but I was Damian Lewis and Michael Fassbender’s stand-in. It was a really exciting time.”
Having worked with Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, a career in the film industry seemed to be blossoming but looking through Jepson’s page on IMDb makes for surprisingly quick reading. “I just got called back [to music]. I got offered a publishing deal for some material I’d been working on and I just couldn’t let it go, I could feel the fingers dragging me back in! (Laughs) By that time, I did have a greater sense of perspective on the Little Angels period and I was coming out the “mourning period” if you like. I was ready to do some more music.”
Photo Credit: Tony Mottram As well as making that music with his bands or on solo projects, Toby has also spent a lot of time on the other side of the sound desk, becoming a successful producer in his own right, with credits including The Virginmarys, Chrome Molly, The Answer and Saxon. “Me and Biff are very close friends but when we’re working together he’s a Rottweiler, you can’t really tell Biff Byford what to do! And I don’t blame him. Because, lets face it, they’re on their 22nd album, so some whippersnapper like me isn’t gonna be able to ever tell him how to make records. My involvement was more about trying to recapture their old-school style and making a Rock album rather than a Heavy Metal album. Biff knows what he wants and the guys are brilliant writers – my effect on that album was more of an attitude based one about how we are physically going to record it and how we think about it. We enjoyed it and it was great fun.”
One of the bands that Toby has worked with most though, is Toseland. “James is an unusual character because, coming from the motorcycle world [where he was double World Superbike Champion] and wanting to be a rock musician, he didn’t have any experience in making records at all, so I’ve had to guide him and it’s been a really interesting journey because he’s an extremely intelligent person. I’ve never met anyone with such a strong work ethic – I mean he really works hard. He’s not really what I would call a dyed-in-the-wool songwriter, I’ve written the majority of the material for him, but we’ve also co-written a lot of it together. What he is great at is realising the vision of it all and being able to organise it all together and to be a leader – he’s a great leader. That’s a lot of the reason they’ve gained some traction is because they’ve recorded some great material and we’ve allowed him to develop and he’s now very confident as a frontman. He’s a lot better singer than when he first started and he’s getting better and better. What’s great about what he’s done with the band is that they’ve played so many gigs and they work so hard that they are a really shit-hot live band now, you get a great night when you see ‘em. He’s evolving too, so he now wants to do something slightly different – the next album probably won’t be as Hard Rock - I think it’s gonna be slightly more accessible. I think there’s gonna be a lot more piano involved, in the realm of something more like Meat Loaf meets Bruce Springsteen meets Brian Adams, that sort of thing.”
Encouraging and developing of talent is one of the most interesting and inspirational parts of the whole production process for Jepson. “I think some of my most exciting production jobs have been finding young artists that are rough diamonds that have never recorded correctly, getting them in a rehearsal room and watching them flower. It’s a wonderful feeling when suddenly the penny drops on something I’ve said to them. When they go, “Oh my God, I get what you mean!”, and all a sudden their whole world has changed. I had that done to me by Chris Tsangarines and Eddie Kramer and Mike Fraser and all these amazing producers. I can remember the moments where I thought I knew exactly what I was doing and they just said two words, “Just do…” and the next minute, your world’s changed. You realise you’ve been doing it all wrong or you haven’t thought about it properly. That’s a really exciting thing to see in young people where they go (wide eyed look) “You’re right! Oh My God, why haven’t I thought about this before?” And that leads into a happy, joyful experience of recording and their songs develop and they flower and they become more enthusiastic. I think the biggest part of a producer is to create a situation for bands or musicians to flower and then to help and guide them. There’s a lot of technical ability involved in it as well though. I’m a ProTools operator and I self-engineer by and large in the studio because it has to sound great, but the truth of the matter is it’s not about how big the riff sounds and how loud it all sounds, it’s all about the songs and the performances.”
It’s this belief in the Song (with a capital S) as king that has influenced Jepson’s career from the Little Angels days right through to the present, although now his lyrics are more likely to take a swipe at world leaders or society in general than autobiographical pieces. “When I wrote Don’t Prey For Me and stuff like that, the words were incredibly important emotionally to me because that song – and the character of Johnny in Kickin’ Up Dust - were actually me. They were me as a young man finding ways to talk about trying to escape living in a little Yorkshire town and get out to see the wide world and how I’d been treated pretty badly at school – I went through a lot of bullying – and it was my way of trying to figure that out and talk about it. I’ve always been a bit of a wordsmith, I’ve always enjoyed words and I’ve always had an appreciation of the art of storytelling, specifically literature, and so I’ve read a lot. I read constantly and I massively appreciate the ability for people to put words together in an unusual fashion. But for me, the heart and soul of it is the social implication of it, I like to talk about things that matter to people, certainly matter to me, and as I’ve got older I’m less inclined to pull my punches now. I much prefer to talk about things that I really believe in, albeit poetically.”
On the subject of lyrics, it’s Toby’s use of words and language that is one of the things that sets Wayward Sons apart from many bands. They are succinct and to the point, yet still employ a wonderful turn of phrase that is quite rare today - it’s not often you hear the word transcend in a song!
“I’m enormously into lyrics. Whenever I talk to the bands that I work with and other people that I co-write with I put a massive emphasis on the lyrics. I think anyone can play the same four chords. For example, if David Bowie was doing it he would write something incredibly ethereal and would describe the scene or whatever he was talking about in particular way which would elevate that song beyond expectation. If AC/DC were doing those same four chords, you know what you’re going get with AC/DC but it would probably deliver their “thing” and then if someone else did it….the point is, that the lyric makes a difference between fantastic in one sense and perhaps mediocre in another. I believe that the heart of a song rests entirely in the words, coupled with a great melody, coupled with a fantastic kernel, a central idea. There must be an idea, songs aren’t just words and music, they are an idea. What I’m interested in is the storytelling aspect of songwriting, when it boils down to it. I don’t think songs are anything other than that, I think you’re telling a story really or you’re describing an action or you’re talking about some aspect of life.”
With stories playing such an important part in Toby’s life, it’s no surprise that he has an extensive and ever-growing library. “I’ve discovered some relatively new writers recently that I really love. I love Paul Hoffman, he wrote a series of books and the first one was called The Left Hand of God, which is an alternate universe book. I like fantasy fiction – not so much science fiction but I like fantasy fiction a lot. I read things by Raymond Feist, Phillip K. Dick and Dickens. I love finding writers that have incredible approach to language and brilliant storytellers. I’m a big fan of Stephen King, Clive Barker but I also read a lot of the classics as well. A lot of American novels, particularly from the fifties and sixties. As much as I can cram in my head basically.”
One of the more unusual items of merchandise that is available from the Wayward Sons’ website is a comic book based on the first four videos and again, this idea came from Toby. “I grew up with comics. I became aware politically quite early on in my life really, my Dad was big into politics, there was a lot of politics talked in our house but with a small p – it wasn’t forced down our throats. My Dad was a staunch Socialist - still is – and I grew up through the Thatcher era and hated her and what she did for/to the country. I still believe it was one of the biggest disasters that ever happened to this country, in my personal opinion. At the same sort of time, I was discovering books, literature and great films and I started collecting comics. I remember it distinctly, I went to a local church fete and I found this whole collection, a pile of reprints of this classic series of old comics that were printed in the 1950’s around about the McCarthy era. They were called Weird Stories and Amazing Tales and they were reprints on rough paper – proper pulp fiction. What they really were, of course, were allegory tales about the problems of America at the time but it was really frowned upon to say anything anti-government at that time.–Just like it kind of is now with Trump with all this post-truth bollocks and all the rest of it and exactly the same sort of thing was occurring at that period of time with the House of Un-American Activities and the witch-hunts and I got really interested in all this because they were stories about zombies, monsters, aliens, abduction tales but it was all allegory tales about the problems in America. That coupled with my love of horror movies that were just emerging, you know the George Romero movies, which again are great allegorical tales about American problems – consumerism gone mad and all the rest of it. People think they’re monster films but they’re not at all. Freedom of speech means one thing to some people and it means the complete opposite to others because if you’re saying you have the freedom to say anything, then you should be able to say anything. But in America currently and at that time, that was not true. They were living in a dictatorship just like America is living in a dictatorship now. It’s no good banging on about the North Koreans when the same thing’s happening in their own country. It takes ten or twelve million kids to walk on the streets before they’ll talk about the gun control problem, for that country to take any notice at all and to me, that’s not freedom of speech. But that’s people power, real people power. But what happens is you get the NRA and Trump going on the defensive about young people in America wanting to stop the murdering of their own people and he talks the opposite of that - that’s a dictatorship in my opinion because he’s not listening to anybody, it’s just “you’re going to do it my way” and what else is that? It’s a dictatorship in different clothes and it’s terrifying watching it. And that’s what happened in America in the 1950’s and the thing that gets me about it is that it’s like history is repeating itself. It will be defeated because people aren’t stupid and he cannot renege on the idea that politics is based on people voting. In 2021 I’ll pretty much guarantee you – I would hope anyway – that the penny has dropped enough for the vast majority of people that he needs to be removed. But it’s the same thing with Farage over here – I absolutely loathe and detest that man – he has created a situation through his attitude in this country of allowing bigots and homophobes to have a voice again when we were getting close to a situation where it was unacceptable to be bigoted about anybody. And quite correctly. All this discussion about Political Correctness – it’s a ridiculous thing to use as a term because it was there to protect people who were vulnerable and don’t have a chance to stand up for themselves, to be given that opportunity to be helped. And so, I find this whole discussion and Farage nonsense to be despicable and we will rue the day one day because it’s done nothing but put a wedge between people. There’s no hope there, it’s all about pessimism and anger and hatred.
“All of these attitudes from when I was a young boy getting into these comics and all the rest of it, it’s re-surfaced over the last few years because of Brexit and because of Trump and it made me, when I started writing this album, I just thought “now is my time.” I’m older and wiser, I can talk about these things with some conviction now, where I feel I will absolutely stand up and be counted on this. And so, the whole thing crystallised into “OK I’m writing the lyrics about that, I’m going to give my opinion about this” but what a fantastic way of utilising that old idea that you use comic book stories, you use graphics, colour, vibrancy to depict these things in pictorial fashion. And, of course I have another love which is album art. I’ve got books and books of album art at home because I absolutely love the album art period, the great album art period from say, the late fifties right through to the mid-eighties, early nineties. There’s nothing greater than looking at that wonderful piece of artwork. You used to get down to HMV or your local store and buy the latest album by your favourite band and you got home and you caressed the album sleeve, pull out the inner bag and read the lyrics and you read in every detail. The whole art of putting the needle on the record and the smell of it and everything! It was an experience wasn’t it – it could take over an entire week, where you don’t do anything else apart from do that It’s not about instant – that’s my biggest problem with the whole world now is that everyone wants everything NOW! I don’t want everything now, why can’t we absorb it and enjoy it, understand it and interpret it and love it and care for it. That to me is a massive human experience that is getting eroded on a daily basis and I don’t want that to happen to my stuff, I wanna fight back at that and kick back at it because it’s nothing to do with being an old-fashioned bastard, it’s to do with wanting some quality and wanting to do things with some heart and soul, that really delivers something for people. So, the whole idea was, let’s make a great album sleeve that really takes a lot of looking at, that people will keep seeing new thing in every time they look at it and we wanna extend that, I’m planning on making every album sleeve a piece of artwork just like that. I plan to make as many albums as I’m allowed to make and each one will have a unique piece of artwork which is very similar to this one – it’ll be different, but it’ll be similar – and we’re gonna build it. Because I love the way that, say Iron Maiden for example have done that, they’ve created that whole world around Eddie and the art and you know what you’re gonna get. The same with Rodney Matthews’ stuff, I love his work – On A Storyteller’s Night is still such an evocative sleeve for me, I love it. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.”
What with Toby’s earlier musical career reaching such heights, starting again with a new band could have either found the frontman cynical and wary of every step or because the whole industry had changed so much, feeling hopeful and positive about the future.
“Well, isn’t the definition of madness doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results! (Laughs) So maybe some people would call me completely mad – I wouldn’t say that - I would say that I’m a passionate music fan. My belief in what music does to people and how it can affect people’s lives has never wavered. I believe that it’s a positive force for good and I believe that my responsibility as an artist – especially to the people that have followed me all of my career – is that I continue to make music. It might be that it never reaches the heights that it did before – I hope it does, but it might not – but the reality is that it’s so much a part of me that it’s hard for me to let it go. That brings its challenges, I’ve never been a wealthy man, I probably never will be, but the reality is I’m rich in other ways. I’m rich because I can do this for a living, so I don’t tend to look at it as a business with a capital B, I tend to look at it as a far more holistic and emotional, some would say a spiritual position really. I’m far more interested in that stuff – writing music that can reach people and can allow us all to feel part of the same community of the human race and that’s how I look at it. That might sound incredibly hippy, but I don’t care! (Laughs)
I would like to thank Mr. Jepson for being so generous with his time and for agreeing to this interview.