John Lever, drummer and band catalyst
“When two old disenfranchised and disillusioned bandmates meet up and reflect on the past and look to the future.”
Gaz Tops. From the sleeve notes to Endless Sea
The beating heart of any band is its drummer. In John Lever, The Chameleons had one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. Try to imagine Second Skin without the rat – tat “banging on my door”, or Soul In Isolation without the rolling, propulsive drum intro. You can’t. It’s unthinkable. On the records, Lever’s part is pivotal. In concert it was doubly so. From my standpoint (concert attendances well into double figures) John Lever was a powerhouse. I’ve witnessed broken drumsticks and broken fingers (more tape for the fingers than the sticks I reckon!) but I can’t recall any mistakes. I never knew he was unorthodox. Never twigged that he was right handed yet his kit was set up for a leftie. (John taught himself by watching Genesis) All I knew, …or rather, felt, was this muscular counterweight to the more dreamy aspects of The Chameleons lyrics and Fielding’s guitarwork. Lever (and Smithies) added sinew to the other Chameleons shiny stuff. He put the passion behind the prettiness.
He was essential.
And it wasn’t only drums. Sure, he specialises in hitting the skin but Lever also plays other instruments. For The Chameleons traditional (and now legendary) final encore Splitting In Two, John would always take the guitar while Reg would drum. They both seemed happy about this. As was the audience.
In the preamble for our first interview, (Dave Fielding – Follow this link) we spoke of regeneration. This was both literal and figurative. As the city of Manchester has reinvented and revitalised itself, so have the musicians of that legendary band. For John’s part this has involved hand surgery and the subsequent creation of this latest project, The Red Sided Garter Snakes. While John has been the ringleader and driving force behind the Endless Sea album, everyone is at pains to stress that TRSGS is a collaborative effort. To continue Gaz Tops sleeve note quotation, Endless Sea is: “when old friends and collaborators offer help, studios, tunes, time and their skills” The album is wonderful but it couldn’t have happened without Gaz, without Lisa Rankin or indeed without any of those luminaries credited on the back cover.
We put our same questions to John below.
Enjoy the interview.
This interview would not have been possible without some help… So many thanks to:
Lisa Rankin for collecting John’s answers.
Brett Spaceman for writing this lovely introduction.
Photo credit: Lisa Rankin, Jackie Hamilton-Hall, Maisie Wheeler.
History: a quick overview
How did you start playing your first instrument? Is your family musical?
I worked for the Post office, but was sacked for knocking out the deputy post master because he was being a “nuisance” I decided then that I wanted to play the drums, smash the drums instead of faces I did have guidance from my Uncle Tony though, who is a Jazz Drummer.
What is YOUR favourite album by The Chameleons and why?
What does anything mean basically – because it’s raw & ready.
"Script of the Bridge" is more than 30 years old now. What is your 2015 perspective on what that album meant and what it was like making it?
I just turned up – recorded my bit & that’s it really. It was my first album so it will always be special to me, even though I can’t bring myself to listen
to it anymore.
The Red Sided Garter Snakes
How did the idea of this new band come together?
After being ousted from my own band, I just sat one day & realised – why am I sat here crying when I know so many talented musicians, I NEED TO GET UP & DO SOMETHING. So I contacted Stephen Wilson & everything just started from there.
How do you see your personal role in this beautiful collective? Did you always have the idea of a big collective?
I am the Creator of the rabble. It wasn’t planned that there would be so many people involved. Initially it was my plan for me, David Fielding, Andy Clegg & Stephen Wilson to get together. But word got around about the Album & it just got bigger & bigger. We created a monster.
Is it different to work with people you’ve known all your life versus musicians/singers you’ve worked less frequently with?
Not at all, everybody involved in the album, old friends or new all had the same aim. To add their own little piece of musical genius. My initial idea for the concepts was to improve them, But I ended up totally re-arranging them & with direction on all fronts we totally transformed the tracks. I think I may have found my niche
Your fanbase is strong and supportive. Did it play a role in the motivation behind this project?
After my “ousting”, I received so many messages of support from shit loads of disillusioned Chameleons fans that were thirsty for new material, they were sick of remastered crap & half arsed attempts at “original” sounds from MB. So yeah, the fans are the most important thing when you’re creating something new. And so far we have had nothing but praise. Thanks everyone
How did James Mudriczki get involved into the band? Is he the Roy Orbison to your Travelling Wilburys?
James was always a Chameleons fan, & I’d always been a Puressence fan. So it was mentioned by Andy McMahon that maybe James should get involved, Andy made a few phone calls & with Gaz Tops help, we finally got him in the studio & what a shit hot session that was.
The Album – Endless Sea
What was the timeframe of making the new album? Did you always have a strong sense as to what you wanted to accomplish with/in it?
Originally I wanted it done “Yesterday” as in immediately But working at Stephen Wilson’s brilliant “Canalside Studios” Which is a fully working recording studio & practice rooms, we had restricted time, plus the logistics of getting all the musicians in together (thanks to Lisa for arranging most of that).
As more & more musicians became involved, it took longer & longer. But I think it paid off in the end.
I hope that we have accomplished exactly what the fans wanted, which was my aim. New sounds for thirsty ears.
What do you usually start with when working on a new piece? What is your writing process?
I was supplied with some amazing concepts. Most of them I liked immediately. I listen a couple of times & then a drum beat strikes in my head. I have to lay them down first before I can move on. Once I’ve done that, I usually get the bass guitars down and then the magic begins. I can hear David’s guitars in my head & I know he’ll just come in & add his own brilliant style to them.
Could you describe the album with your own words? What is it like for you?
I’m just so made up with it. Everybody involved has been instrumental in its metamorphosis.
What makes this album different from what you’ve done before?
Loyalty, love & friendship – new & old, total dedication instead of manipulation & greed. We had our ups & downs but always ended up laughing. Mostly at me
Will fans get the chance to hear these songs live?
Yeah, definitely. We need to get more material recorded as there are only 10 tracks on the Album. David & myself have some stuff we want to do & I have been given some great concepts from Andy Clegg & Mikey from Bauer. Just a case of studio time & getting David up from Lincoln. Then we’ll tour Endless Sea & the New album – Blue Lake early in 2016. Fingers crossed.
Adders and ladders - Miscellany
Peter Hook says being in a band is like being in a marriage. What’s the nicest thing about being in a band and what is the most difficult?
Not sure about the “nice things” from my past experiences. I got divorced by my last band !!
But I don’t think you can really call the RSGS a band as such. We are a collective but I don’t think we’ll ever stop getting into bed together
Over time have you ever felt the need to modify your music style to keep up with changing times? If not compelled, how do you feel your music has changed over time?
bviously some new music comes out & you think –Yeah that’s OK, but I don’t think we’ve consciously changed our style. There are a lot of eastern influences on the album but I think that just sort of happened.
What’s the most bizarre thing that happened to you when you were on stage?
Chewing gum is my nemesis, mashing my gums together one night on stage I managed to dislodge 2 capped teeth, one was just your bog standard cap but the other was a gold one. The bog standard cap made an appearance within a day but I’m still searching through my shit now for the gold one.
What is the next step for the RSGS?
The next album “Blue Lake” Me & David have lots of material. As I said earlier, it’s just a case of studio time & setting up the logistics of it all. So it looks like Lisa isn’t going to get to relax just yet
The final word is yours, what do you want to tell to your fans?
Thanks to everybody involved, fans, technicians, Simon Lawlor at Blue Apple music, John Delf & Mark Winterburn for your love & continued support – sorry it took so long but we hope you all think it was worth the wait.
Love always John Lever & all the RSGS xx