Conflict, disarray, and discontent are running themes throughout John Wesley’s Disconnect [Inside Out]. The expansive rock effort—infused with dramatic moods, dark textures, and soaring vocal harmonies—looks at the challenges of modern life. It deals with perspectives including fractured relationships, post-war angst, spirituality, greed, and economic survival. It’s deep stuff, but tempered with resolution and hope.
Wesley’s virtuoso guitar work shares center stage with the album’s reflective motifs. He invokes a diverse array of sounds, tones, and characters from his instruments. And while he’s known for lengthy, exploratory solos as a long-time member of Porcupine Tree’s live band, the entirety of his guitar work on Disconnect is designed to serve the song’s structural and emotional contexts. However, there are plenty of heated, searing guitar moments on the album, including a guest appearance from Rush’s Alex Lifeson.
Delve into the creative process behind the title track.
It started as an acoustic track that I performed for a long time. My co-producer Dean Tidy, drummer Mark Prator, and I experimented with grooves for it when making the album, and I realized there were more possibilities for it. So, I put the acoustic down and changed the inversions of the chords. I knew the melody I was going to sing was based on a G minor section, so I focused on creating chord changes that would support it. I came up with a completely different rhythm part that worked on electric and would create more of a unique groove for the drums. There are elements of Porcupine Tree in the rhythms. I’ve played 450 shows with the band, so that influence is going to come through. Part of the creative process was paying attention to who I am, accepting it, and going with it. Once I did that, the songs came out more naturally.
How did you get Alex Lifeson to contribute a solo to “Once a Warrior?”
He played on the Porcupine Tree track “Anesthetize” and I would cover his solo live. During the 2007 tour, we learned Alex was going to attend the Toronto show. So many of my formative guitar influences came from Rush records. I remember warming up before the show thinking, “Oh my god, he’s going to watch me play and know I stole everything from him.” [Laughs.] But he was a lot of fun and gracious, and we became friends. At a subsequent Rush gig he asked me what I was up to and I said, “I’m finishing up Disconnect.” He said, “Got any space left for me?” I looked at him and said, “Why, yes I do.” Dean and I then went back and created solo space in the track that would really allow Alex to breathe and do what he wants, while still serving the song. I sent the piece to Alex with no instructions other than, “Just play.” Two weeks later, he sent it back and I thought it was such an appropriate solo. He really listened to the song, and you can hear its melodies reflected in his solo. He didn’t just blast something out over the chord changes. He created something that really fit.
Does Lifeson’s approach also reflect your own soloing philosophy?
Definitely. For me, guitar soloing is an extension of melodic, vocal ideas. I’ve always gravitated to players who did that, including Clapton, Gilmour, and Hendrix. You’ll also hear it in guys like Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. How many Lifeson solos can most people sing in their head? Go to a Rush gig and tell me you don’t know all the licks before they happen. So, it’s less about chops and technique and more about a singing guitar approach, which you’ll hear me engaging in across the album.
Take us through the guitars, amps, and mics you used for the album.
On the album I really go for a palette of tones. My main guitar is a custom PRS Singlecut from the Artist Shop. I have a ’71 Telecaster with Joe Barden pickups that is also on almost every track. Combining a Tele tone with the PRS can make a part cut through. I used a Gretsch White Falcon quite a bit, too.
I have two mid-’70s Marshall JMPs that were modded by Mark Cameron. I have an orange one that’s all heavy tones—a very gainy amp. The black one was modified to have three channels: a plexi channel, a JMPstyle channel, and a “Jose Mod,” a Van Halenesque channel. I pretty much hang with the first two as the plexi channel is voiced beautifully and the JMP channel is so versatile that I’ve never needed to go for the third channel. These amps also have a tube-buffered effects loop that I use for delays and reverbs. For some of the clean stuff, we also used a Dr. Z Maz SR 38 for chimey tones.
My miking method is very old school. Jim Morris of Morrisound taught me to use a Sennheiser 421 and a Shure SM57 on the same speaker. I put the SM57 near or on the dust cover and the 421 on the same axis a little bit more into the cone. I route them into separate busses and then combine them down to a single track. Instead of using any EQ in the tracking process, I raise or lower the input of each mic depending on what tone I feel needs to be added or subtracted. The SM57 brings the “rip” and the 421 delivers the “guts.” A crucial part of the signal chain is the mic pre. I use Vintech X73 mic pres. They color the sound in a very Neve-like way.
You refer to your effects rig as a “Pandora’s box.” What’s inside it?
The GigRig G2 Switching System is the heart of the rig. It powers everything, keeps all my pedals out of line until needed, and controls channel switching. My effects chain is based around a kind of holy grail set of drive pedals. I’ve got a Klon Centaur and the AnalogMan King of Tone. My main delay is the Diamond Memory Lane 2. I use it in the effects loop for solos and that thick analog “color” delay. I have some Fulltone pedals, including the Deja Vibe, Choralflange and Wah. Sometimes, I use the AnalogMan Mini Chorus. There’s also the Electro-Harmonix Micro POG and Bass MicroSynth, which created a few of the more outside sounds on the album. The Strymon Timeline Delay, BigSky Reverb, Lex Rotary, Mobius Modulation, and El Capistan dTape Echo delay pedals are other favorites all over Disconnect too.
You chose to give away your earlier material in order to create interest in your newer work. How has that strategy worked out?
During the first years of my solo career, people were either paying $35 to buy my albums as imports from a British label or weren’t buying them at all. I read how file sharing had ruined everything, so why not take what I had, let people hear it, and make believers out of them? I don’t think musicians play for fans anymore, they play for believers. There are casual listeners who might buy a ticket or listen to you on Spotify, but you’ll never know them. Believers will go one step beyond and support what you do. With Disconnect, I didn’t make any conscious decisions to change the music to cater to an audience or adhere to rules in the book of songwriting. This is an album for the believers—the people who still really care about music.
ALEX LIFESON ON JOHN WESLEY
What made you want to contribute to Disconnect?
I could tell that John and I shared the same discipline in our guitar playing in terms of context and content; that’s evident throughout Wes’ songs on the album. The dynamics employed in his songwriting, and the strong vocal and guitar performances on every track make Disconnect cohesive and meaty. It was a privilege to be a part of it.
How did you record your solo for “Once a Warrior”?
Wes provided stems, but I found the supplied stereo main mix great to track to. I created a session in Logic Pro X and opened five tracks to record solo passes, using Guitar Rig 5’s 004–94 Rock Solo preset, with a touch of the overdrive pulled down. I recorded five passes from beginning to end, most starting essentially the same for the first four bars then taking off in different dynamic directions. I created a comp from those five takes and that’s what you hear.
What guitar did you use?
I recently had my Hentor Sportscaster refurbished by Freddy Gabrsek at Freddy’s Frets after about 20 years of inactivity. This session was the first project I did after its overhaul. It’s always been an inspiration to play and felt perfect for this piece.