Prior to his performance at Cambridge Rock Festival on the 5th of August, I was fortunate enough to sit down with outsider legend and the king of cult followings, John Otway, known for a particularly athletic performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977 and his self-deprecating, underdog persona. With his latest album from earlier this year, Montserrat, arriving after a decade of studio silence from the underground oddball, I spoke to Otway about his history in the music industry and the context surrounding his recent undertakings.
You’ve described yourself as “rock and roll’s greatest failure”. Can you tell me about how your image as somewhat of a self-deprecating stooge came about?
That came about because a hit record came off the back of my famous Old Grey Whistle Test performance, which was then followed by an extraordinary number of flop records. When my career had reached this low point, I thought it would be a good idea to write a book and, rather than other documentaries or autobiographies where the artist will blame the management or the record company for the things that went wrong, I thought it would be a good idea to write my book with the artist basically being the bad guy, as a sort of self-deprecating look back on my career. The publishers decided that we were going to market it as a document on rock and roll’s greatest failure, so I then basically had to go out and market myself as rock and roll’s greatest failure. I honestly enjoyed it like that because I found it a fair bit easier than trying to sell myself as any sort of success.
That’s interesting because, to this day, you’ve maintained that your greatest ambition is to get some more hits, but do you nevertheless feel more of an affiliation with artists that lie outside of the mainstream understanding of what a musician should be, or is it still simply a case of you striving to be like the idols that most musicians of your time would look up to?
I definitely feel more of an affinity with the bigger acts, but it doesn’t go any farther than just an affinity. It’s not like it turned into any sort of the success that they had, and that was the whole point of doing it in the first place.
Well, if we’re talking about success in terms of fan following, you’ve maintained a spectacularly loyal cult following across your career, and that’s remained quite consistent, even, as you say, during the period of your flop records. What do you attribute to how well you’ve managed to maintain such a consistent and concentrated level of interest in your work?
Well, there’s a lot of work on my part in terms of live performances and interacting with the fans, and my motivation for that, I think, is just out of desperation to not have to get a proper job. Other than that, though, I do genuinely enjoy live work, so I’ve been doing about 100-150 live shows a year since 1977, all basically UK-based, and then there’s a lot of projects with the fans; things like selling out the Albert Hall, getting another hit record, doing the movie and things like that. And, of course, last year we did the crowdfunding to raise money to record the Montserrat album.
Yeah, I can imagine you’ve witnessed how crowd support has evolved over the years, with websites like Kickstarter allowing your loyal following to fund an album and stuff like that. On the topic of Montserrat, could you talk a bit about the recording process because, from what I understand, you actually recorded it on the island of Montserrat, so how did all this come about?
I wrote a song called Dancing With Ghosts after watching a George Martin documentary and it said how no one had recorded on the island since The Rolling Stones in 1989, so I just thought it would be a neat thing to be the first act to be back on the island recording. Originally I thought I would try and do it at AIR Studios, but that’s completely derelict. Instead, Sir George Martin had a house in the north part of the island, which had a suitable room for a studio in it, so we took the band over there. It was a nice thing to do because that is an old-fashioned thing in the sense of what used to happen. You know, bands would go and do a residential thing and stay in places like Montserrat and record an album, but nobody does that anymore, so I liked that we got to do it in an old-fashioned way. Also, because you don’t have much time over there, everything was basically ready and everybody had learned their parts and stuff like that before we went, so it had that 60s feel of recording, in that studio time was precious, so you knew what you were doing before you went.
So with regards to the musicians you were working with, as you’re now recording and performing as John Otway & The Big Band, can you tell me about the band and how they came about, as opposed to your previous material with Wild Willy Barrett.
Well, The Big Band have been around for about 25 years without any line-up changes, so they’re really just part of the family and had been before we started recording. As it happens, though, this afternoon, we have a roadie stepping in as bass player, which is… interesting because, in the whole past 25 years, the bassist has only missed three gigs.