By Ralph Chapman
I still remember the date I bought my first Brand X record, Moroccan Roll: December 27, 1982. I had discovered Genesis the year before and, in full obsessive fan mode, was buying up anything and everything that had to do with any member of the band. Staring at the back cover of the album, it was strange to see Phil, sporting a very cool massive beard, standing with a band that I knew nothing about. Within seconds of hearing the bizarre jazz raga of the opening track, ‘Sun In The Night’, I knew I’d be hooked. Hearing Phil demonstrate his explosive chops outside the context of Genesis was one thing, but what hypnotized me in large part was the hypnotic fretless bass playing of Percy Jones: aggressive, sinewy, extraordinarily proficient but always musical. I quickly bought up all the Brand X records, as well as the records Phil and Percy were used as a hired rhythm section including Brian Eno’s Another Green World and Before And After Science, not forgetting Jack Lancaster’s wonderful concept piece, Marscape (which also included the other members of Brand X). All these years later, Percy is back with Brand X, reuniting for a fall tour. As important, he’s got a fantastic new album out with his band, MJ12. For a diehard Brand X, both the coming tour, and the MJ12 record is real cause to celebrate. Percy Jones is still at the top of his game and it was a real thrill to chat with him over the phone. One of the true greats.
- Ralph Chapman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
RC: How are you?
PJ: I’m okay. I’m hot. It’s hot and humid here.
RC: Same here in Toronto. I was noticing on your website that there are some youtube links of performances by MJ12 that date back a few years. What made you want to take the band in to the studio?
PJ: Just to go back to the beginning, which was a few years ago. MJ12 started out as a very casual thing, drummer Steve Moses and myself used to get together as a duo, then we’d invite guests to come and sit in. So, we would book a gig somewhere in mostly dive bars and D.I.Y. places and there was never any shortage of people to ask, so it would be horn players, guitar players, one time a singer, another time it was a guy who played a bicycle wheel, which was pretty cool. He’d pick at some of the spokes like a cello player. Anyway, we did that for a while and it was all improvisation. That’s where some of those videos come from.
RC: Now, when he was playing the bicycle wheel, was he feeding it through various effects?
PJ: Oh yeah. His name is Lawry Zilmrah. He’s from Brooklyn. Quite inventive, you know? Another time we had a Theremin player. So, we did this for a while and I suggested to Steve that perhaps we should try to make the music a little more structured, so we started writing constructed sections, there was still a lot of improv, but more within a structure. Chris Bacas and David Phelps, they had sat in with us in the past, started to become a little more permanent. We’d call them and they’d be available and we liked their playing. So, the situation morphed into what it is on the record. By summer of last year, I felt that it had shaped up enough, and was structured enough, but not too much, but coherent enough to record, so we went into a studio in Manhattan and recorded it over a weekend.
RC: Two days?
PJ: These days you have to fund it yourself, so we had to work with the budget we had, which wasn’t very big, and actually most of it was done on the second day, because on the first there were some technical problems, then it took a day for everyone to get accustomed to the studio environment. So, the majority was done on the second day. That’s when we got most of it in the can.
RC: Great drum sound on the record.
PJ: I’m glad you liked it. We used a lot of the room sound. The room in the studio had a nice ambience. We were going for a live performance in a studio, if that makes any sense.
RC: How much cutting was done?
PJ: Not a lot. I think ‘Phantom Maracas’, we used two takes and crossfaded between the two, and I redid some of the bass at home, because there were some problems with the sound at the studio. But, all the drum and horn parts were untouched, and some minor editing with the guitar parts, but very little really.
RC: Was this an album of a whole bunch of disparate influences coming together?
PJ: Well, we all come from different backgrounds. For myself, I was keeping a similar approach to Brand X, where you have a structured piece of music with sections where you can have a lot of improvisation and it’s open-ended. There aren’t a set number of bars. If the guy is doing really well as a soloist, you let him keep going until it feels like it’s over. Chris Bacas comes from a big band background. He played with Buddy Rich for about seven or eight years. Steve Moses who I’ve known for a long time, he’s played in rock bands, but he’s also done a lot of jazz stuff. The MJ12 result is just a result of four individuals from different backgrounds coming together to play. That’s the only way I can describe it.
RC: You’ve been in New York City a long time.
PJ: That’s right, I moved here in 1979.
RC: Looking at some of the song titles on the album, ‘Call 911’, ‘Bad American Dream Part 2’ – are those autobiographical?
PJ: When I first moved here there were difficulties with immigration. My wife is American, but initially I was ordered to leave the country, so things were getting really quite difficult.
RC: How much did moving New York City shift your musical trajectory as an artist?
PJ: New York City is immensely diverse. People have moved here from all over the world. More diverse than certainly the U.K.. If you want someone to play the sitar, you’ll find somebody. It’s a melting pot of music, plus there is a very high standard of musicianship here, especially in the jazz community. Great players.
RC: I want a mention a few tracks from the album just to see what comes to mind. ‘Magic Mist’. It has kind of a science fiction feel to it in keeping with the band’s name.
PJ: That was a fun track to work on. It’s a departure from a lot of the rest of the tunes. Songs like ‘Call 911’ and ‘Guns And Pussy’ are hard hitting, dense, busy tracks, so we wanted something that was a little more spacious and atmospheric.
RC: Right at the start of that track you make a sound with your bass-
PJ: A kind of growling. It’s a five string bass, and the low string is tuned to a ‘C’, and I pulled the string off the edge of the fingerboard and I’m gradually letting the string back on to the fingerboard. Then I put it through an Eventide TimeFactor to get those stereo repeats, and there is reverb on it.
RC: Did that tune take longer than the others to record?
PJ: We did a few takes, and picked the strongest, but it didn’t take longer, as it was all basically improvised.
RC: Then you bring it back at the end as a reprise.
PJ: The second take was really different, and so we thought the record could use another spacey tune. It was a way to conclude the record as it were. It’s different enough that I don’t think it’s repetitive.
RC: It follows ‘Guns And Pussy’.
PJ: Which is a very busy, in your face type of tune, so it’s a complete contrast. I figured the listener maybe wouldn’t be expecting the transition.
RC: Some of the song titles seem to conjure some strong images.
PJ: Right. ‘Guns And Pussy’ is kind of a comment on Hollywood. That’s the subject matter you see most of. Those are the main themes. (But), ‘Magic Mist’ was inspired by a hilltop in Wales, near where I grew up, and you get this sort of fog bank that appears on the flanking edge of this hill, in certain weather conditions, and quite often it is sitting there and there isn’t a cloud or fog anywhere else. I am sort of in to weather, and that was fascinating to me and had an element of mystery. ‘Call 911’ just seemed appropriate for the music. ‘Big Daddy’s Road’ is about an accident that happened in the 60s. A B-52 broke up in the air over North Carolina. They had a fuel leak and the wing detached, and the plane broke up in the air, and it was carrying two hydrogen bombs, and they both separated from the aircraft, then landed in North Carolina. One of them came close to going off, which would’ve done a number on North Carolina, and the other one imbedded, it’s parachute didn’t deploy, so, it imbedded itself in this field at a depth of about a hundred and eighty feet. And I think the plutonium core is still there and it is right next door to Big Daddy’s Road.
RC: Do these stories inspire the tune or do you record the tune and look for a title that goes with it?
PJ: We finish the tune, then find the title. It’s instrumental music, so it’s a very abstract process, at least for me. There are exceptions. We didn’t have a name for ‘Phantom Maracas’, and Steve (Moses) called me up after I mixed it and asked me who was playing the maracas on the track. I said ‘maracas’? I took a listen and I could hear someone briefly shaking maracas, and it was on a snare track, there were two snare tracks, top and bottom, and it was on the bottom snare track, nowhere else, and we never figured out what caused it, so we called the tune ‘Phantom Maracas’.
RC: I guess, now that the Brand X reunion has been announced, do you worry that this record will get lost in the cracks?
PJ: I did have some concern about that. Steve Moses actually called me and said it was bad timing. Then someone else said it was good timing, Brand X would bring attention to MJ12. I’m hoping the latter is the case because I hadn’t done a record in quite some time and I’m hoping a lot of people get to hear it. I can’t say for sure, I just hope it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
RC: What was your reason for wanting to be part of the Brand X reunion?
PJ: Kenwood Dennard sent me an email and said there was an opportunity to get back together, and I said well, that sounds good, but we’d need to get (guitarist) John Goodsall involved to make a go of it. So, we finally got a hold of John, and he was actually quite excited about the idea. About a month ago we all got together here in New York and played, and we played some of the early stuff that we hadn’t touched or hadn’t even listened to in thirty-five years. We played some of that stuff and it sounded quite good, and we thought maybe we could play some gigs. We were connected with a promoter and he’s been getting some quite good results. So, we got together again for more serious rehearsal and it started sounding even better. The gigs are in late October so, I think by then, we’ll be in pretty good shape. The latest count I have are dates between October 19th and the 25th. Milwaukee, Edwardsville, Illinois, there is a Progfest in Chicago, October 22nd in Cleveland is T.B.D., October 23rd, New Hope, Pennsylvania, October 25th, Arlington, Massachusetts. So, five solid gigs, and one tentative.
RC: Any Canadian dates?
PJ: Apparently, there is a lot of interest.
RC: I guess you could tag the tour as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Unorthodox Behaviour.
PJ: Yes, someone just pointed that out to me yesterday.
RC: When you say ‘early stuff’, is that album that you’re talking about?
PJ: Yes, the first three records: Unorthodox Behaviour, Moroccan Roll and Livestock. Kenwood actually played on Livestock.
RC: His bass pedal work on ‘Malaga Virgin’ on that record is insane.
PJ: Yeah, I know! Now, he’s even better. And he was good back then. Phenomenal drummer.
RC: When you guys went in to record Masques, how come it ended up being Chuck Burgi and not Kenwood?
PJ: Well, some of the guys in the band felt we needed a change in that respect. I actually didn’t agree at the time, but went with the consensus. Chuck’s style was more rock orientated, than jazz, although I hate to use those terms. The music is what it is.
RC: You guys were a bit like Spinal Tap. You had a lot of drummers.
PJ: Yes, Mike Clark came in after Chuck. We’ve had some great drummers. Lucky for me.
RC: Do you mind me asking what songs you’ve been rehearsing so far?
PJ: ‘Nuclear Burn’, ‘Malaga Virgin’, ‘Born Ugly’, ‘Euthanasia Waltz’, ‘Nightmare Patrol’ – those we’ve got pretty close to where they should be. Also on the list is: ‘Why Should I Lend You Mine...?’, ‘Macrocosm’, and another one I can’t remember.
RC: ‘Hate Zone’?
PJ: “Hate Zone’! Right. You must by psychic. That’s the one.
RC: That’s one of my favourites.
PJ: That’s a tune where the name really fits the tune.
RC: Those first two records, produced by Dennis Mackay, are very aggressive sounding records, especially Unorthodox Behaviour.
PJ: Yeah. He was an innovative guy. I think he learned his trade under Ken Scott. He would do unconventional stuff. He recorded the bass on Unorthodox Behaviour really, really hot, to the point where the VU meter was pegging. I thought he was going to break the meter. This was the analogue days, so, you got tape saturation. You didn’t get clipping like you do with digital now, you got the third harmonic creeping in. This distortion that can be quite musical, and he recorded the bass guitar like that, which was my Fender Precision Fretless. So, he got this very nice bass sound, very upfront too.
RC: The drums as well. That opening burst on ‘Running On Three’, Phil’s drums almost leap out of the speakers.
PJ: He had an innovative way of recording drums. He’d put gates on all the drum tracks for separation.
RC: There is quite a transition between Unorthodox Behaviour to Moroccan Roll. There is an evolution there.
PJ: Yeah, that’s right. I agree with you, but I don’t know the reason.
RC: Moroccan Roll starts with the strum of a sitar and then a vocal. I’m wondering if you thought at the time, ‘Hang on, this is a very different kind of approach.’
PJ: I remember there was a departure simply because there were vocals. I can’t remember who suggested doing that tune (‘Sun In The Night’), it wasn’t me, but someone heard it, and suggested we do it.
RC: And with Moroccan Roll, it is an album of individually written pieces as opposed to a band collective credit.
PJ: It’s interesting you brought that up. I had forgotten about that. Unorthodox Behaviour, the situation was so convoluted as to who wrote what. Something like ‘Nuclear Burn’, I wrote some bits, Lumley wrote some bits… Everyone was throwing in bits and pieces and between the four of us we’d try to put together a coherent tune, kind of like MJ12 in that respect. But when we got to Moroccan Roll, the band had gotten on a roll and everyone was starting to write individual tunes, beginning to end.
RC: Something like ‘Orbits’ I get, because that’s just you, but a track like ‘Disco Suicide’, what did Robin Lumley bring in initially?
PJ: He’d pretty much written the whole thing; he had it all worked out. I remember going to his apartment in London and working on it. I embellished some of his bass lines, but he done all the donkeywork, as it were.
RC: Had the band reached the point where you understood each other as musicians?
PJ: Yes, by that time, we could read each other’s styles. It happens a lot in music – you can almost predict what someone is thinking, which can be great, especially with rhythm sections. So, you get good musical chemistry. It makes it easier to learn their tunes.
RC: And you had brought in Morris Pert.
PJ: He had worked a lot with Robin. Robin would bring him in for some projects, so he recommended him to us saying he would be a great addition. So, we brought him in and really liked him, so he joined the band.
RC: Having a drummer who was on the verge of big success with another band, did that curb your sense of ambition for the band? This idea that the drummer could go at any moment.
PJ: When Danny Wilding at Island Records mentioned that he knew this really great drummer with Genesis, I was pretty much unfamiliar with them. I knew they were a prog band, but I was listening to Miles Davis, people like that, at that time. But problems did start to come up later on with Phil’s Genesis commitments. We would get offers for North American tours and Phil would be unavailable. That’s when we had to look for other drummers. We didn’t have any luck in England, so I called Alphonso Johnson and he said I should get in touch with this guy, Kenwood Dennard. So, we got together just the two of us and did some rehearsals and I knew immediately he was a good drummer. But, that problem with Phil’s Genesis commitment was a problem all the way through. Initially, we would do one-nighters in England. You know, we’d drive up to Manchester, then drive back home, and Phil would do those kinds of gigs. But when it came to touring, he would hardly do any of them.
RC: I wonder why Phil didn’t quit Brand X.
PJ: I don’t know. At one point, he told me he was thinking of quitting Genesis and if we could hang around a couple of years he might be able to play with Brand X full time. I told him he couldn’t expect us to wait around for two years on the premise that he might play with us permanently. He never expressed quitting Brand X to me though, and he actually did one of the last American tours we did in 1979.
RC: Why did things fall apart with the band back in 1980?
PJ: I got the sense that things were going off the rails with the management and the record company both on our case, telling us we needed to be more accessible, and that was a harbinger of problems. Then not long after I moved to New York, I got a call from (manager) Tony Smith saying ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ At the time, I was still under the impression we would do another tour, but instead I got word that it was all over. Out of the blue.
RC: Since then, you and John have become custodians of Brand X.
PJ: By circumstance, really.
RC: There is a certain irony that Brand X has actually become a brand.
PJ: (laughs) Yes, right.
RC: For people like me who were too young to see you the first go-round, it’s a pretty exciting proposition to have the band back on the road.
PJ: Yeah, yeah. The idea of getting back together, from the get-go, I was thinking we couldn’t do it half assed. We have to go out there sounding good. We needed plenty of rehearsal. Sometimes business people don’t appreciate the practicalities of what goes in to the music.
RC: A song like ‘Hate Zone’, you probably haven’t heard in over thirty years. What was it like listening to that recording after all these years?
PJ: It’s a strange feeling. It takes you back to that time, emotionally. And then, I started wondering what it’s going to feel like to play it now. But at rehearsal it felt pretty comfortable, and so, that was a relief, because I didn’t know what to expect. There had been a sense of trepidation.
RC: Being back with John, is that an interesting experience, playing with him again?
PJ: Yes, he got a style of his own. When I play with him, it brings back that connection I talked about earlier. It’s never left.
RC: Was there an irony that Kenwood, the guy who only played on only two Brand X tunes, was the guy getting the band back together?
PJ: It was, actually. Yes, ironic. I think Kenwood should have played on all of Livestock because he was doing all the roadwork with us at the time, but Phil insisted that he be on some of it.
RC: Are there recordings of that complete show with Kenwood stuck in a vault somewhere?
PJ: Yeah, but I don’t know who has them, or whether they even still exist…
RC: With this reunion, is there the hope that there will be a proper live recording or a film shot of any of the shows?
PJ: Yes, that’s in the cards, but we’re taking it one step at a time. We’ve been taking it a step at a time ever since I got that email from Kenwood. Initially, we got together just to see what it would sound like, and if it sounded bad we’d just forget about it. As it turned out, it sounded pretty good, then we had another rehearsal and actually worked on getting some material together. A promoter has booked these six shows in October, so we’ll do those, and if that goes well, he’ll get another few gigs, probably in November. And if it gets on a roll, it will probably make sense to make a record, but I’m not going to make any predictions as to what’s going to happen.
RC: Did you ever envision that, decades later, people would still want see you guys and listen to those Brand X records?
PJ: No, back in the day, I was just accepting where it was at the time. I didn’t think of the future and I didn’t even try. I just looked a few months ahead, hoping things would keep going in the right direction.
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