John Waite is in a Winnebago sailing down the Pacific Coast Highway, finished performing old hits and new songs for a group of record company bigwigs, and headed to another industry show in San Diego.
“Shaking the hand that feeds me,” says the singer with a laugh.
It’s been a whirlwind week; Waite’s regular guitarist pulled out just before the tour was set to begin. Fortunately, Kyle Cook (Matchbox 20) was available, but the hastily assembled band had to do their first gig in New Orleans with little preparation.
“We went straight to a very shady part of town to do a rehearsal in this big warehouse and we couldn’t get in,” Waite explains. “Then we finally got in and the gear wasn’t there. So we went to a Starbucks, sat around a computer and put a set list together … the next day we went to the sound check.”
It helped that Cook and Waite have been a creative team for the past two years. Together, they co-wrote half of the originals on the just-released Rough and Tumble. It’s an easy partnership, says Waite: “From the downbeat with Kyle, I just really liked him. He’s intelligent and really musical and has a good philosophy and energy.”
After New Orleans, the band headed to southern California for a secret show at the Capitol Records tower (in the same studio where Gene Vincent cut “Be Bop a Lula,” notes Waite), radio station KLOS and Michele Clark’s buzzworthy Sunset Sessions.
“By all accounts, it was off the charts,” said Waite’s manager Jason Henke, noting that this same band will back Waite at Boynton’s Taproom on Saturday, March 5. “I think the guys are having a great time. There is a definite chemistry between John and Kyle musically, and it will be fun to see that play out live — as opposed to just in the writing room and in the studio.”
The new album is as good as anything he’s done, with a spirit Waite’s wanted to capture since his teenage days in England.
“Sonically, it’s cut back and the keyboards are at a complete minimum,” Waite says. “There’s a hint of Hammond organ and three piano chords that Kyle threw in, but basically it’s just very spartan. I think the currency of that is that it’s very truthful. I don’t like songs that are dressed up too much and I don’t like double tracking [or] overdubs.”
The late-night phone call depicted in “If You Ever Get Lonely” recalls Waite’s biggest hit, “Missing You,” but apart from that ballad, Rough and Tumble is a pretty raucous affair, embodied by tracks like the boisterous “Better Off Gone.”
Much of the record’s urgency, says Waite, has to do with the way it came to be made. He and Cook had recorded a five-song EP, planning to shop it around at different labels. However, when Waite returned from Europe last summer, management told him he’d stand a better chance with a long player.
That wasn’t what Waite wanted to hear. “I was pissed,” he says bluntly. “I was proud of myself, it was a very successful European tour and I thought the manager would probably have a deal in place …. I’m thinking … I really don’t know what to do next. So it was awkward.”
Waite’s touring band, on the other hand, hadn’t worked on the EP and was itching to contribute.
“They felt a little left out,” says Waite. “So when I came back, they were really ready to show me the way home. It was a point being made there, I think.”
So he e-mailed them some song ideas, and a week later they gathered in a Santa Monica studio. It took Waite and guitarist Luis Maldonado an hour to write the title track.
“We spent the other three hours learning songs, changing things around and arranging,” says Waite. “It was a kind of wound up energy, thinking-on-your-feet sort of thing. But there was not really time to blink — that’s where I think I got lucky. There was just a focus there and a necessity to get it done and meet the deadline.”
Along with the originals, Waite covered Gabe Dixon’s soaring “Further the Sky,” recommended by friend and occasional collaborator Alison Krauss, and Ike &Tina Turner’s “Sweet Rhode Island Red,” a rollicking rocker Waite enjoyed back in his days with the Babys. “I always wanted to do it, and I was running short of songs, so I took a crack at it,” he says, adding, “now is better than later — there are some pretty high notes.”
In a promotional film for Rough and Tumble, Waite is seen walking past a Nashville curio shop and stopping to head-butt a statue of Elvis Presley. That’s the mood of the record — pound it out and let the world decide what to do with it.
It’s something the singer claims is true for him as well.
“Honestly, I don’t want to sound naïve but it surprises me still,” he says. “It was like jumping off a cliff into a pool. I immersed myself in it, and when I finally climbed out and moved away … I’m still sizing up what I’ve done.