Focus Entertainment Magazine – The Name Game, Fleeting Flame, and a Fish Called Fish
by Virginia Reed
My overcrowded appointment calendar reminds me that British singer/songwriter John Wesley is scheduled for an interview this afternoon. Well no, it’s not John Wesley Harding. That’s another guy and another interview.
The John Wesley will likely be calling to promote his touring slot with the eccentric Scottish rocker known as Fish (coming to The State Theater in July), as well as lend a good word for his latest album (“The Emperor Falls” on Dream Catcher) released last year in England. As a couple of Wesley’s CDs drift in the background, a quick scan of the cover reveals a strong kinship with the British progressive band Marillion. Wesley has opened several tours for them, in payback a few band members guest on his CDs, and as everyone knows, Fish was once a member of Marillion. All of the relationships appear neat and tidy, including Wesley’s mellow-yet-heady folk/rock, which has its own sense of dramatics and accomplished playing.
So who is this Wes Dearth guy that keeps calling and leaving messages?
Wait. Wes Dearth. Isn’t he the folkie guy that occasionally plays around town? Didn’t he used to be in Autodrive? What’s he been up to lately?
Lately, he’s been John Wesley. Yup, one and the same.
And he’s been slowly nurturing a cult following overseas for his expressive songwriting, bell-like tenor and soaring guitarwork, a sound that easily connects on the surface, but is filled with all kinds of intricate passages.
But wasn’t Wes just playing a club around here last weekend?
Maybe we should let him explain…
Focus: So you’re obviously not British, like I expected. Are you from Florida?
Dearth: Born and raised. Born in St. Pete, raised in Brandon. I went through a number of high school bands and then I got a guitar-scholarship to go to HCC. So I did that and got a two-year degree there, but instead of enrolling in a four-year program, I went out on the road in 1984 with a band called Autodrive. We spent most of our time writing and practicing and playing an occasional original show, but the scene back then was so bad that you couldn’t get a gig. Literally, we’d land one about every two months and got mixed responses.
So after four years of doing that, we hired a PA, a light show and a crew, learned three sets of cover material and hit the “A” circuit.
Focus: Which was…
Dearth: Well back then, there was Mark Twain’s, which became the Power Company and the 4th Street Mining Company (all the biggies!), and then we’d go to Daytona, Fern Park, and Orlando. We ended up doing our best work in Hallandale and Miami, but eventually we toured the whole country like that, trying to get a record deal. So out of four sets a night, that one original set of music was worth it. We’d do all of these covers and then last set break into this extended ‘musical journey.’ The audiences mostly sat dumbfounded, but we never got fired. And we did that up until New Year’s of 1991, so it was almost seven years.
Focus: And everyone in the band had decided it had been long enough…
Dearth: Yeah, the circuit was packing up. There really wasn’t anywhere to play anymore.
Focus: What because of punk and new wave?
Dearth: Well, in ’91, Nirvana had hit, but that didn’t really affect us, musically. We just weren’t able to make a living anymore. People weren’t going out to clubs anymore. The new drunk driving laws had changed things and it hurt the big clubs. And we were a band that needed to play five or six nights a week and make $3500. That’s what really crushed us.
Focus: So what did you do?
Dearth: Well, I had a daughter to support, and the only job I had ever had was playing music. The week after Autodrive came off the road I bought an acoustic guitar and bought a bunch of cassettes. Within three days I had earned 40 tunes, and three days after that began gigging as a solo artist. I had only sung four or five songs in Autodrive, and here I was next week singing 40! Luckily, I cut my teeth fast, but it was a quick transition. A few months later, I started writing my own material, started recording some demos, and was chosen to appear the first couple of Southeast Music Conferences.
Focus: How did your writing have to change?
Dearth: Well, I can remember going to New York with producer/engineer Tom Morris to a new music seminar, and around the corner, T-Bon Burnett was playing at Tramps. So we went over and there was Burnett, sitting on a cab, playing his guitar to about ten people. Meanwhile, everyone’s waiting in the club for him to show up. Then he went into Tramps and played those same songs with his band and smoked them. At the end, he came back outside on the cab and played a few more numbers. I was familiar with his songs already, but listening to him play them acoustically really did something for me. It showed me that the heart of a great song could be taken down to just a few chords an a great melody. It really changed my outlook about songwriting.
Focus: So how di you end up opening a tour for one of Britain’s best-loved progressive bands?
Dearth: Well, I got to the point where I could make a decent living playing solo, but I was also burnt out. I hadn’t stopped since before Autodrive. So in early ’92, at the height of this burnout, I got a call from a management friend, who was going to sound engineer some British band on a North American tour for six weeks. The guitar tech and the drum tech had bailed out, and was I interested? I had never done that before, and figured it would be a good change to leave the guitar at home, spend six weeks watching other people play, and reduce my stress.
So I rented a 24-foot truck and picked up this band’s gear. I had heard their hit “Kayleigh,” but didn’t know much about them. But then again, I didn’t really care because it was a paycheck. So I met the band in Quebec, help them set up for a soundcheck and – wham! – the tear into their song and I’m like, ‘where the hell have I been?’
Focus: We should probably mention here that Marillion perform a very complex brand of music. It’s very grand…
Dearth: There’s some depth to the songs…
Focus: …and takes a certain level of musical accomplishment to play them.
Dearth: There’s a definite skill level involved. Eventually, we all became really good friends, and the sound engineer tells them that I play out a lot at home. On our very first night, we go out and gt drunk in a rock bar in Quebec, and in my drunkenness, I got up with the local band onstage and ripped into some Led Zeppelin-type, long guitar solo thing. Which, I suppose, impressed them. So we talked about it the next day, and I handed them a demo tape I’d made.
Meanwhile, on the tour, our first two opening acts had really bombed. One of the bands had actually damaged some of our equipment early on. On the fourth night of the tour, the production manager became very frustrated and had been talking to the sound guy who suggested that I could open up. I could play a half-hour’s worth of acoustic material and we wouldn’t need to hustle the equipment on and off.
At first I made some excuses. I was there to get away from playing. But the production manager offered me some more money, so literally, I set up the gear, went back to the motel, showered came back and opened the gig. It went down so well, that I ended up opening for the rest of the tour.
Focus: Nice break…
Dearth: Yeah, they ended up calling the promoters and firing all of the opening acts. Meanwhile, I became friends with the band, and Mark Kelly (Marillion’s keyboardist) says, ‘We think you’ve got an album in you.’ So I talked Tom Morris into putting it out on his label, and a few guys in the band played on it (titled “Under The Red And White Sky”). A few weeks later, I get a call saying that the band are going on a four-and-a-half month tour of Europe, and they want me…but just as the opening act!
Focus: Which must have been daunting, since no one really knows who you are over there…
Dearth: Exactly! So the band produced 500 copies of my album, figuring I could sell just about all of them in a tour of 65 shows. Those sold within the first two weeks. By the end of the tour, we had sold over 3000 copies just at the T-shirt stand, not to mention that I got a small distribution deal over there.
Focus: And you’ve been touring with them ever since…
Dearth: Right over the next three tours. So I’ve done some 250 shows with them over the last six or seven years, in 17 different countries.
Focus: Of course, I should probably mention that even though Marillion are a kind of cult band here in the States, they are immensely popular in Europe and Asia.
Focus: And that opening for them is a major slot.
Dearth: Pretty major.
Focus: So what about the two names?
Dearth: Well my real name is actually John Wesley Dearth. On the first Marillion tour, the manager would call the promoters and tell them Wes Dearth was playing. But then we’d pull into town, and the marquee would read, ‘featuring Wet Dirt.’ Or ‘West Death.’ It became such a joke, that the manager would give out a different name at each show. One night I was ‘The Amazing Wes’. But then, someone saw my passport and remarked, ‘I really like John Wesley, why don’t we use that?’
Focus: So how often are you confused with the other guy, you know, John Wesley Harding?
Dearth: (laughs) He called me, politely, to stop using my real name! I said, ‘I’m not famous, You’re famous. ’ You’re John Wesley Harding. You’re records are in the ‘H’ section. Prince. Fresh Prince. Queen. Queen Latifah. It’s just not that big a deal. His lawyer once sent me a letter about the matter, and my lawyer responded that it is my real name, and you can’t copyright that. But Harding was never a jerk about it. Besides, his real name is Wesley Stace. Hey dude, I didn’t cop a Bob Dylan album title. This is my real name, my grandfather’s and his father’s.
Focus: Your small fame overseas is a pretty interesting business dynamic. Like a few jazz artists and metal bands around Tampa that are more popular overseas than they are in their hometown…
Dearth: Well, I suppose I would care more if I were a publicity hound. Around here I just try to make a living. But literally I’ve gone from playing a 10,000-seat arena one night in Canada, to playing for four people here the next night.
Focus: It must be very strange.
Dearth: Well, I can remember Tom Morris telling me once, ‘You can’t be a prophet in your hometown.’ Besides, it’s not like I’m massively popular over there. It does, however, make it nice to perpetuate a career, playing music, staying creative, and know that somebody will buy my records.
But you know, people overseas will take a chance on something. The radio over there is extremely trendy, so people are m ore willing to buy an album that someone recommends to them or that they’ve read a review about it. And besides, all of the connections led me to my new gig with Fish.
Focus: Which a log of guitarists would kill for…
Dearth: Exactly. It’s not about huge tons of cash or fame and fortune. But it is the ability to sustain a career. I can still play and get paid for it. I played for Mike Tramp, White Lion’s singer, last summer, opening for Peter Frampton and Lynrd Skynrd. I flew to London a couple of weeks ago to play on a session and headline a few clubs.
Focus: It’s all a part of the music business.
Dearth: Right. Ever since I was sixteen, playing in Autodrive. I was looking for that ‘Big Deal,’ that ‘Big Payoff.’ Well, when the payoff doesn’t come, you’re faced with a big decision: do I really love doing this? I realized that I loved playing and wanted to do this the rest of my life. Whatever it takes.