Interview John Jowitt (ArK)

“It's been a joy to do this again and meet and work with my old pals”

(November 2010, text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen, live pictures by Chris Walkden)

Most people who has progressive rock albums in their collection know John Jowitt. He currently plays bass guitar in bands as IQ and Frost* and he was the former bass player of Jadis and Arena. However, probably few people know that he also played in the British band Ark. They recently got back together, changed their name into arK and released Wild Untamed Imaginings (see review). The music on the album shows a glimpse of the past. Background talked with Jowitt not only about the past, but also about the present and the future of this rather unknown prog band. 

You're now the spokesman for arK. Does it have anything to do with being the most famous musician in the band?

John Jowitt: “There's no reason for it really, you're free to speak to any other band member - I'm sure they'd love to help! Peter Wheatley (guitars) and Tony Short (vocals, flute) always ran the band in the past. They're family men now. I've only got three kids, three bands, four cats and my own business to run... but seriously, I've been lucky with IQ and the other bands I've played in. Having a profile is always helpful, it gets people interested, I hope!”

Would you please tell us a bit about arK's past and why you left the band in 1990?

“Well, I joined in 1987, at a time when I'd actually decided to grow up and stop playing altogether. We'd previously done a favour to a studio in Birmingham by rehearsing there with Angie Bowie. They returned the favour by recommending me for Ark. We played about eighty gigs a year, literally rehearsing three times a week, gigging up to three times a week and playing football on the other night! The band built up a good reputation, won a Battle of the Bands competition and ended up playing in Paris, The Netherlands and at The Marquee. Just as Fish left Marillion, a couple of them came to check out Tony as a replacement, but deemed him too much like Fish. Everyone was looking for a replacement; we all went 'Guns 'n Roses', w hereupon I said no, no, no and left the band. I've got nothing against heavy metal, but it wasn't us any longer. The metal fans thought we were still a prog band, and the prog fans got disenchanted, and so did I.”

John Jowitt

Why did the band never get the attention it certainly deserved?

“At the time we were a prog band and this kind of music was deeply unfashionable and there was no internet. The eighties wave of prog was on the back foot. If we could get people to the gigs, we had a great live reputation and could win an audience over. When I joined IQ and started talking to promoters about gigs, I often got the response 'yeah great, but what about Ark?'. But the view from the media was an anti-prog sneer and indifference.”

How did you all get together again and decided to make a fresh start with arK?

Steve Harris got in touch through Facebook last year, and we started talking about doing some writing together. I'd wanted to re-do some of the old songs for years, and suggested this as a way of getting us going, so we started trading ideas about what to do. A few days later I was having a beer with Mark Westwood and Martin Bowen in a pub about a hundred yards from my house, when Peter Wheatley walked in. We started talking about what we were doing, and it turned out he was still in touch with Tony and they were interested. Seems they'd talked about doing something for a long time, but nothing had happened.”

Why is Dave Robbins, the original drummer of Ark, not involved? What has happened to him?

“I'd not been in touch with anyone in the band since the last gig in 1995, when I got up and played Through The Night with the band. Other than Pete, who'd asked me to play bass at a couple of corporate functions over the years. So I didn't have any contact details for anyone. I asked if anyone in the band knew about any of the old drummers - we had three during my time in the band - but no-one knew anything about them. Later on it turned out that Pete had been playing in a band with Dave, but I don't know why he didn't ask him to join the band.” 

How did you get in touch with his substitute Tim Churchman formerly of Darwin's Radio?

“I'd met Tim and Dec Burke at an It Bites-gig at The Robin in Bilston, where Tim had said he was up for gigs, so...”

Would you please introduce the other band members?

“Tony Short is a great lyricist and a great frontman on stage.  Peter Wheatley, the other original member, is a lovely fluid slow hand guitar player. He just makes guitar playing looks effortless. Steve Harris plays guitar synth, so no keyboard player as such - he's extremely clever, keen and... tall.”

Why did you change the band's name to arK instead of Ark?

“We changed the capital to the end to differentiate the band now from the band then. And from the 481 other bands called Ark...”

Is it true that all songs on Wild Untamed Imaginings are new versions of old songs?

“Yes they are, we never had the time, technology or opportunity to record them properly, so I felt this was a great chance to do them justice. Several tracks, such as Hagley, were never properly released before, but were great songs that deserve to be heard.”

Were record companies willing to release the album?

“Yes, they were. The unfortunate thing was that the label that should have released the album, Giant Electric Pea, messed us around so much that we had to get a deal at short notice in order to get the album recorded on schedule and to keep things moving. Whilst I was very pleased to have a deal with Shawn Gordon at ProgRock Records, I find it difficult to forgive the way that GEP messed me around.”

Was it difficult to record the songs in the studio?

“We recorded the drums at Base in Stourbridge, which is about half a mile away. The rest was recorded at Mark Westwood's lovely little studio in Quinton, very good, very cheap, about seven miles away, so I was there for a lot of it. I trust Mark implicitly, and Steve and Pete in particular did a good job working on the production. Mark was scrupulous in getting a good sound, and went above and beyond.”

What about your availability since you play in other bands as well?

“People forget that whilst I'm in a lot of bands, I could easily do more - I'm still having a mindset for eighty gigs a year, six to seven nights a week out with the band.”

Steve Harris

It's rather strange that arK doesn't have a keyboard player. Steve Harris makes all the keyboard sounds on his guitar synthesizer. Does he also play it during live performances?

“Yes, that's how we've always done it. And it's partly been a child of necessity, born out of the band being a gigging creature. Pete's guitar rig is very small.  Having just a guitar synth means you take up very little room on stage compared to shed loads of keyboards. You get the same sounds, but a more dynamic performance. Moreover, it sets us apart from other bands. My own rig has never been that big. It's easy to get in and out when you're playing a lot of gigs. You got less hassle then. If you're playing on small stages or supporting bands it means you have more room. And if you're playing on a big stage, it means you have a lot more room to use and move in.”

Why did you name the album Wild Untamed Imaginings and what's the importance of the English flag on the album's artwork?

Wild Untamed Imaginings is just a line from the song Eighth Deadly Sin. Tony's songs are all story based, which helps the stage performance. It's a very English sound: a bit prog, a bit folk, a bit rock. And a lot of the themes go back to a view of old England as we'd like to imagine she was. Boudicca's Chariot is a song about kids going on holiday and imaginations running wild, the car becoming the chariot in their mind's eye. Kaleidoscope is a song about decline of old England, Britannia losing her way and that's probably the one most associated with the Union Jack, which is shown on her shield.”

Is it your alarm bell we hear at the start of the album?

“Heh..., oh, no, no, mine goes beep, beep, beep! The first line of the song is 'the morning alarm brings the start of the day' so it seemed appropriate. I think it's a sound effect Mark found.”

In the booklet we see a face with a cross on the forehead. Is it your face?

“No, it isn't. Some other bald bloke thought up by Antonio Seijas!”

The images and pictures in the booklet look beautiful, but show a lot of aggression and violence. Why? Is it the reason why the album sounds very aggressive too with a lot of guitars?

“The artwork reflects the theme of the songs, and the song lyrics range in subject. Flagday is about the French Revolution, Coats Of Red about the American War of Independence, Nowhere's Ark is about people leaving the planet to escape a catastrophe and Eighth Deadly Sin is about the vicar and his homicidal son who he's protecting. It's so historical, but in places almost a comic book. Hagley on the other hand is about meeting your true love in a situation where you know: this is the one, my soul mate, but you can do nothing about it. It's a true story. Tony's family are Catholic, as a young girl his Aunty Elsie met the man of her life, the only man she would ever love actually on the way to join a convent...”

How did you find Antonio Seijas, the man who's responsible for this great artwork?

“I'm glad you like it. Antonio was someone I came across on the internet when looking for someone different, but who could capture what we were looking for.”

On Eighth Deadly Sins we hear a kid's choir. Was it difficult to get these kids together?

“No, that was easy. We got all the families together at my house one sunny Sunday afternoon. The adults had a few beers and the kids had lots of jelly. We got he kids together in the garden, ran through it a few times, made them laugh and got the take. They made plenty of noise for the incidental sounds too. We can embarrass them with it in a few years time when they bring their boy and girlfriends home.”

Anthony Short & Peter Weatley

In the booklet one Wulfie is mentioned. Who is he anyway?

“Wulfie was the sixth member of the band for many years: driver, friend, and roadie, whatever was needed. Then one day he stopped, after I'd left. We were great friends, and the 'Where's Wulfie!' cry often went up when we needed help. I couldn't find him, I hadn't seen him for years, but then he came along to the Robin gig, so the album was worth it if only for getting us back in touch! We used to hire the same van, and I'd sit mostly in the front with Wulfie. The van was so old, it had an 8-track, and only three tapes, one of which was Desperado by The Eagles. When we got pushed, Wulfie and I can probably still sing every line of that album!”

Steve Harris says in the 'thank you' section that 'boys need big toys'. Can you tell me what he meant by that?

“I think he's used the band as a great excuse to his family to justify a need for new equipment in his rack, new speakers, new samplers, new interface and a new guitar. So that quote was probably a further part of the softening up process.”

You're going to perform the songs from the album live on stage. Are you going to play new material as well and when can we expect a new album?

“Well, we've got plenty of tracks to chose from, not just those recorded. We actually recorded three more, which will undoubtedly see the light of day at some point. And we're playing Fatal Distraction, a song which we didn't record because it's a great visual number with a lot of things going on. We start writing new material properly during November, with plans for a new disc in early 2011.”

Anthony Short

I heard you're also going to record a live DVD. Can you tell us a bit more about these plans?

“Yes, that's correct. There's lots of footage of the band, which shows what a strong impact it has. Tony is actually more theatrical now than he was before, and it would be great for people to see that. It's pretty unique what he does, also the interaction of the band and the humour.”

Is there any chance the rest of Europe is going to see the band live?

“I certainly hope so; we are working on possible shows now.”

Thank you for answering my questions John and good luck with the band?  

“Thank you, Henri. The worst day of playing music is still better than the best day at work. Once you're on stage nothing else matters, and it's what everything else in a band is there for, as far as I'm concerned and it's been a joy to do this again and meet and work with my old pals.”

More info about ArK on the Internet:
ArK Website
review 'Wild untamed Imaginings'

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