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Who's That Bloke With Wix?

Paul 'Wix' Wickens


Q: What do Paul McCartney, Barry Manilow, Tasmin Archer and The Damned have in common? A: Paul 'Wix' Wickens. Mark Cunningham hears about playing keys with the Fab One, and about how to produce a No.1 single without even knowing it...


The Maracana Stadium, Rio, April 21 1990: Paul McCartney leads his new band of crack musicians onstage in front of a record-breaking 184,368 crowd. Seated amongst a plethora of keyboard hardware is a shy looking guy with long, pointy sideburns and a black hat, ready to recreate the pomp and circumstance of a bygone age. To his mum, he is Paul Wickens, but we know him better as 'Wix'.

I met Wix during a month-long rehearsal stint at London's Docklands Arena for the Paul McCartney New World Tour. Now fully recovered from that milestone concert in Rio, and all the other ports of call on the 1989-90 tour, Wix is ready to take on the world once again as the ex-Beatle's one man orchestra.

BEATLEMANIA



As a child, Wix idolized the Beatles, and the first album he ever bought was 'Abbey Road' back in 1969. It is not surprising, therefore, that performing the album's famous closing medley, on stage with its creator, remains a career highlight.

"It was brilliant," says Wix. "Especially as it was my idea for us to do it. I knew it note for note and it was always my favourite section of the album. I used to sit there with the headphones on and imagine being on stage playing it! I suggested we ought to do something like that, but it's a complicated piece to play well so we thought we'd better do our homework before running it past Paul. It was too good an idea to risk blowing it.

"Doing that at the end of the show was always a big buzz for me. That tour was fun and very emotional at times too. There were nights when a lump would swell up in your throat during 'Hey Jude' or 'The Long And Winding Road'. It wasn't just the audience who were affected by the sheer power of romantic nostalgia. And that power doesn't come stronger than on Beatles songs."

Born in Brentwood, Essex, Wix (37), hails from a family of tutored pianists and fondly remembers his first tickling of the ivories. "I started lessons at six. My brother and sister were both doing it, so it was just like following them. My first public performances were, in fact, local piano competitions. They were very nerve-racking."

It wasn't long before Wix rebelled against his classical background. "There was a guitarist at my school, Brentwood Prep, and I used to sit in on congas with his band. I was a mad keen drummer, and hit anything that moved. As I was playing classical music on piano, my first forays away from that were not on keyboards. After I left school, I went to teacher training college in Cheltenham. I was living close to the Art College and while I was there I played drums in a college equivalent of The Grateful Dead. We'd just turn up an play at student parties. It wasn't until I left college that it started getting serious."

Student life over and now on the dole, Wix formed Woodhead Monroe, a songwriting duo with Ed Sears (now an NME photographer). The Woodheads strove to make perfect garage pop, recording in Ed's lounge with a Teac 4-track and "any old bits of gear we could borrow or find". Eventually, they seized a deal with Oval Records. But then came the break which would secure Wix's future.

Joining Chris Thompson (ex-Manfred Mann's Earth Band) and The Islands was a smart move. It was here that he met Robbie McIntosh, now McCartney's lead guitarist, and found his way into the session world.

"Robbie and I met in a room called The Pit at E-Zee Hire where The Islands used to rehearse. They used to let us have the room for next to nothing because it's where they stored all the gear. Through that band I met the producer Peter Collins, who was Chris' friend and jingle production colleague. Peter came to see us one night at The Golden Lion in Fulham Palace Road and asked me if I'd like to do a session for him, playing rock 'n' roll piano."

LUCKY BREAK AWAY



That session, for Tracey Ullman's 'Break Away' single, was the first in a long line of work with Collins over the next four years, including albums by Blancmange and Nik Kershaw. More than a decade later, as part of the McCartney entourage and with extensive credits now ranging from The Damned to Barry Manilow, Wix is philosophical about his outstanding record as a sessioneer.

"I think word of mouth plays a big part in deciding who does what in this business. Getting into sessions is all about lucky breaks and I was very lucky. But you also have to put a lot of work into what you do. You don't always have much control over what happens.

"Just playing in the pub that evening with Peter Collins in the audience spawned my whole career. You could argue that if it wasn't Peter, someone else would have come along later. But you need breaks like that. This break came out of a period of time when I thought I had it all sewn up. I was beginning to make enough money to sign off the dole and had a bit of a plan. But it proves my theory that if you don't try or look too hard, something always comes along. That's been true for practically all my career."

I suggested to Wix that whilst today's technology may be making it easier for average keyboard players to sound proficient, it must be more difficult these days for the cream of the crop to get session work. "I think the sounds continue to get better, but it doesn't automatically mean the players do. Talent will always shine through in the way a player uses the equipment, really. With technology, you can be fooled into thinking something sounds brilliant and you miss the point. Instead of making a song, you just have a collection of sounds. That's a big mistake to make. Arguably, you can press a bunch of presets and pretend you've made a song. But you should be able to make a song on the most basic of levels.

"There are a few more bands coming out, and that's great because you can't beat the interaction of people playing together. You'll never recreate that with just one person playing all the parts. You don't get the happy accidents which sometimes add a spark. Bands like Little Feat, The Band and NRBQ had a healthy attitude. There was a sloppiness involved which many people would try to iron out. But you can lose a lot of feel and they were prepared to let the odd mistake go. In doing that they created a kind of genius. You can't plan that sort of thing in advance, and it's very easy to remove that feel in the production process. It's funny because you can hand pick the best musicians in the world and form a supergroup, but it wouldn't necessarily work. The best bands for me are the collections of people who really click. You wouldn't, for instance, expect Levon Helm to do a drum clinic tour. But in the context of The Band, he was the best drummer for them."

PRODUCTION LINES



In between sessions for the new Paul McCartney album, Off The Ground, Wix filled spare time by co-producing and appearing on Tasmin Archer's debut album, Great Expectations. This, of course, featured last year's No 1 hit single 'Sleeping Satellite'.

"That project came about through Julian Mendelsohn, who I've known since working on the early Nik Kershaw records. We always said that if the chance arose, we should co-produce something. He suggested we work with Tasmin, but I originally agreed to work only on the single, just to see how we'd get along. It worked fine and I eventually worked on a few more tracks. I'd have done the whole album, but I was house-hunting at the time. I put Julian's name forward to produce Paul's new album."

No one was more surprised at the single's mega success than Wix. "I was completely gobsmacked — I didn't even know it was out until someone told me it looked like being a hit. And of course it made No. 1. I was so busy with the preparations for Paul's tour that I wasn't keeping tabs on anything else. That's normally the case with me anyway. I'm too wrapped in work. You can imagine that a lot of music has escaped me over the years!"

A major milestone pointing the way forward to the McCartney camp in 1987, when Wix flew to New York to join The Pretenders for the recording of 'Don't Get Me Wrong'. It was there that he was reunited with Robbie McIntosh and introduced to current McCartney drummer, Blair Cunningham. A year later, when McIntosh was hired to contribute guitar to the Flowers In The Dirt album, he recommended Wix for the vacant keyboard role and a new band was born.

At the first rehearsal, Wix suffered a nostalgia attack when confronted by the vision of McCartney's original Hofner Violin bass. "I was amazed he still played it. All sorts of things go through your mind when you're up close to it, especially when you see the last Beatles set stuck to the side of it with tape. It's a piece of history and it's looked after very well, I can tell you!"

Apart from George Martin string arrangement at Abbey Road, Off The Ground was entirely recorded at The Mill, McCartney's East Sussex studio, and has been hailed by many as his best since The Beatles. Between the lines, one can imagine that Wix's comparatively fresh talents have helped reactivate McCartney's legendary thirst for studio exploration. Delightfully free of megastar appearances, the album is full to the brim with innovative new sounds. Yet a live charm prevails, with the production stripped down to reveal the nuts and bolts of a hard-working band, namely Robbie McIntosh (guitar), Hamish Stuart (guitar & bass), Blair Cunningham (drums), Linda McCartney (keyboards), and of course Wix.


DIVISION OF LABOUR



Given that McCartney is himself a highly proficient pianist, it's easy to imagine that problems could arise over who actually plays the instrument. Wix offers a simple solution: "Whatever instrument Paul used to write the song will normally govern what he plays on the recording. 'Golden Earth Girl' and 'C'Mon People' are prime examples of Paul at the piano. If you listen to the way he phrased the chords on 'Maybe I'm Amazed', you can spot a certain style that is recognizable on the new album."

Forthcoming live renditions of the hit 'Hope Of Deliverance', plus oldies 'All My Loving' and 'Another Day', will feature Wix on acoustic guitar during an 'unplugged' section of the show. Wix warns audiences to watch his feet at the end of 'Deliverance', as he'll be triggering a half-speed piano sample by footswitch at the end of the number. "The acoustic set will be similar to what Wings did on their 1976 tour. I'll also be playing accordion on a few of those numbers, so I'm branching out. My first professional session was on accordion, but I'm a half-assed player really. The instrument is difficult to learn properly. You just have to remember that nothing comes out unless you suck and blow and co-ordinate the thing. The left hand movement looks more complicated than it is."

Hammond organ features strongly on the new track 'The Lovers That Never Were', cowritten with Elvis Costello. Although Wix will be taking one on the road, he has a surprise in store for the manufacturer. "I've got a Hammond XB2 single manual organ which, I'm sorry to say, I've hacked in half. Sorry Hammond! I took the drawbar section off, which they won't know about until they read this."

For players who yearn for that classic raspy Hammond sound ('Gimme Some Loving', for example), yet lack the real thing, Wix offers a few tips. "If you can get hold of a Leslie, you're halfway there. You can put lots of things through a Leslie and it'll sound pretty good. I used to use my old OBX with one. Try putting any keyboard organ sound through an overdriven guitar amp and send it to a Leslie. By speeding up and slowing down the rotary speaker, you'll get that classic effect."

Fans of 'Off The Ground' will have pondered over the curious psychedelic pastiche finale, 'Cosmically Conscious'. It is interesting to note that the song was originally written by McCartney when The Beatles visited the Maharishi in India, in 1968. Wix spills the beans: "He played it to us one day during rehearsals and explained what it was. It wasn't originally lined up for the album but we played through it and, of course, the tapes were rolling all the time. It was a deliberate snatch of it at the end of the album for a laugh."

DUSTING OFF THE OLD FAVOURITES



The forthcoming tour will see the band running through a set of Beatles classics that differs to that featured on the last outing. These songs will include 'Drive My Car', 'We Can Work It Out', 'All My Loving', 'Penny Lane', 'Fixing A Hole', 'Paperback Writer' and a funked-up version of 'I Wanna Be Your Man'. 'Penny Lane', in particular, will give Wix the opportunity to exercise his re-creations of George Martin's orchestral arrangements.

"It all keeps me on my toes!" laughs Wix. "I've always had my work cut out with Paul. It's quite a challenge, playing everything from a straight rock'n'roll piano and organ, through to being a string quartet on 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Yesterday', to being half an orchestra on 'Live And Let Die'. It's a very varied job. The best thing is that I'm playing classic lines and riffs. To the audience, they automatically suggest the original sounds anyway. On the last tour, everybody knew 'Got To Get You Into My Life' had a brass intro. So if you've got a half decent brass sound on the keyboards, people will assume that's what they're hearing. We're thinking of doing 'Get Out Of My Way' from the new album. That's got a real horn section on the album, but I'll probably use the same brass sound to re-create that on stage. Some of the other brass sounds I use are more orchestral than raucous and poppy."

He continued: "I've updated my system a little since the last tour so some things will sound different. My keyboard technician, Andy Ledbetter, has built me a whole new console for my rack equipment and it's much easier to work with."

One of the greatest testimonies to Wix's dedication to authenticity came from George Martin himself. "He was very kind. When he came down to watch us, I felt like he was looking over my shoulder, especially on the Beatles songs where we stick to his arrangements. I try to be as faithful as possible. He was quite impressed by how I got those sounds and he didn't realise it could be done like that. I was very pleased. You can't really mess around too much with the original arrangements. Fortunately, we all know most of the Beatles songs well, so we can work on them straight away. But there have been some which we didn't quite know quite as well as we thought."

How does he get so close to those sounds?

"It's a combination of things, but I think you have to play the parts in the style of who you are copying. You shouldn't pile on too many things. If you have six items of equipment and put all their best brass sounds together, it will end up sounding like a cinema organ. There will be too many things going on; too many individual LFO's. More isn't always better."

Wix was very supportive of Mrs. McCartney when I asked him about their working relationship and how they share keyboard parts.

"It depends what we're doing. On the Wings stuff, Linda will play the parts she did on the records or the previous tours. On the other songs, we look at what needs to be done and I give her a part that she can cope with and I'll fit my parts around her. In some cases, like 'Live And Let Die', for example, we're both going flat out to get the authenticity of an orchestra. I will sit down and work out what we have to do between us and she might have to go away and learn a completely new part."

Has he become Linda's keyboard guru? "Taskmaster, maybe. People think she's completely redundant, but you have to bear in mind that she's been playing since she married Paul, and that's around 24 years. She was thrown in at the deep end when Wings started, so she has a firm grounding. She's not the world's best technician, and she doesn't claim to be. So you have to give her parts that are within her limitations to make her comfortable. We're very honest with each other and get on fine. There are no problems."

IN THE STUDIO



During the Wings period in the '70's, McCartney had a reputation for being difficult to work with. Many an ex-Wings guitarist complained of being bullied into playing solos the McCartney way, or even relegated to the control room while the frustrated Fab took over. If this was the case, it would appear that, in Wix's experience, much has been learned from the past.

"He tended not to tell people how to play parts, if that's what you mean. If he has ideas, he'll come across and play them to you. But he's never said 'This is what I want you to play'. When I first joined, it was really only to do the initial tour. We were doing material from the Flowers In The Dirt album and picking stuff from Paul's back catalogue, so I was only re-creating parts from existing albums. I would try to get as close as I could to those parts and sounds, and he'd advise me if I was going wrong. He's very open for ideas. For the new album, Paul would play rough versions of his songs on guitar or piano and then we'd rehearse them up as the band, with ideas flying all around the room."

Surprisingly, deciding the tour set list has been a democratic process, with McCartney happy to accept suggestions from all the band. "It's difficult with Paul's enormous back catalogue of songs, and it's one of the hardest parts of the planing stage. There's over 2000 Beatles songs and God knows how many since. So getting it down to a set of 33 numbers is murder. You have to decide which tracks will work best together in front of an audience, which instruments Paul will play on them, how you're going to structure the show, what you did on the last tour. There are many things to consider. We're kicking off the tour in Australia and New Zealand because we didn't go there last time around, so the set will be even harder to choose."

Returning from the 1993 New World Tour will give Wix the chance to take a well-earned holiday and invest some time in his own writing, with the aid of his recording set-up at home in Muswell Hill. "I've been mad keen on recording since I worked with Ed on his 4-track. I started with a little Fostex 4-track and then I had a 1/4" 8-track. Now I have a 1/2" Fostex 16-track which is great. I mainly use it for writing and demoing. I get hit upon by friends who ask me to record their tracks for them. I mess around with new bits of gear and record it. Sometimes if you're trying out a keyboard in a shop with the headphones on, it sounds all-singing, all-dancing. But when you're back at home and trying it alongside a drum track and a guitar, it can be a little disappointing. So the best thing is to use it in a practical situation, and my home studio is very handy for that."

Conveniently, Robbie McIntosh boasts a similar 16-track arrangement at his Weymouth residence. "I often send him tapes by Red Star so he can overdub guitar. Ideally, I'd like to get eight tracks on a Madonna album and retire!"

How about if it all fell through in the future? "I just let things happen. When I started earning money from all this, I lived like it was going to be temporary, even though I was ambitious. It took me two years before I felt secure enough to turn down work, and it could still all end one day. It would be nice to do something different in the future. I could get involved with Music Therapy. I've trained as a teacher, so I have some experience with kids, and the music side speaks for itself. Who knows?"

WIX'S GEAR: 1993 PAUL McCARTNEY NEW WORLD TOUR

Roland A50 master keyboard
Akai MX 1000 master keyboard
Roland S750 sampler
Korg M1R module
Roland P330 digital piano module
Fast Forward Designs MIDI Step Pedals
Roland U110 module
Dynacord CLS222 rotatory cabinet simulator
SycoLogic MIDI Matrix System
2 x Fostex DCM100 MIDI mixers
2 x Emu Proformance piano modules
Yamaha TG500 module
Roland JV880 module
Yamaha SPX1000 digital effects
Hammond XB2 organ (customised)
Voce organ module
Roland MC50 sequencer
Zoom 9120 reverb
Emu Proteus 1+ module
Soprani accordion
Hohner Custom accordion
Alvarez acoustic guitar


WIX'S SESSION CREDITS

Texas (Southside, Mother's Heaven)
Paul Young (Other Voices)
Helen Watson
Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians (Shooting Rubber Bands At The Moon)
Aswad
Living In A Box
Paul Johnson (Who Shot Cupid)
The The (Mind Bomb, Soul Mining)
The Pretenders (Get Close)
Barry Manilow (Keep Each Other Warm)
The Damned
Status Quo ('In The Army Now')
Alison Moyet (Raindancing)
Nik Kershaw
Blacmange ('Living On The Ceiling')
Tracey Ullman (Break Away, They Don't Know — the latter, spookily enough, featuring a McCartney cameo appearance in the video!)
Kevin Coyne
Tasmin Archer (Great Expectations)
Kane Gang ('Gun Law')
Jim Diamond (I Should Have Known Better)
Cry Before Dawn
George Michael (My Memories)
John Hiatt



Previous Article in this issue

Drum Programming

Next article in this issue

A Touch Of Magic


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - May 1993

Interview by Mark Cunningham

Previous article in this issue:

> Drum Programming

Next article in this issue:

> A Touch Of Magic


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