Although he has arranged strings for a number of artists including Blur, Coldplay, Morrissey, Peter Gabriel and Bat For Lashes, ex-pat Kiwi John Metcalfe has always maintained a reliable ‘day job’. His classical background and ability on viola saw him form the Duke String Quartet as well as playing and recording with guitarist Vini Reilly’s Durutti Column, who recorded for Factory Records in the mid ’80s. Recently back in New Zealand, Trevor Reekie talked with him about his multi-faceted musical career and the release of a new solo album, ‘The Appearance Of Colour’.
Back in Aotearoa on vacation with his English wife and family, John Metcalfe concedes there is still a part of him that is forever Kiwi. He embarked on a journey with a strong musical connection when his parents relocated from Wellington to the UK in the 1970s, just as the British punk movement was gaining momentum.
Metcalfe’s father was an opera singer and his mother was also a musician, so there was no lack of parental encouragement to pursue a career in music. Hearing his parents rehearse together in his formative years and witnessing his father perform live meant, as he says, he had little choice in what he ended up doing.
An extensive classical education helped him on his way. His primary instrument was viola and at a very young age he was asked to audition for the late Yehudi Menuhin, considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century.
“It was a very odd experience… I really had only been learning for about six months … to be honest I don’t think I was ready for it. It was quite a dark room and Menuhin was there with about six other people. I played a little piece and they shuffled some papers and that was it. But Menuhin did come out and gave me a little pat on the head which was a blessing and a nice thing to take away.”
At such a tender age, possibly a life changing experience. Fast forward to the early ’80s when Metcalfe was studying at the Manchester Classical Music College. He was already a fan of the Factory Records label who were releasing seminal records including Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and guitarist Vini Reilly’s Durutti Column.
Some of his friends had formed a horn team that was part of Simply Red before they became a global act. They did an audition for Factory head-honcho Tony Wilson and Reilly at the Hacienda and ended up getting the gig playing and recording on The Durutti Column album ‘Without Mercy’ – still a timeless gem of a record.
Metcalfe admits to being incredibly jealous because they were going to be recording and touring, which was all he had wanted to do since he was 12. However, when Reilly’s violinist left Durutti not long after, he was asked to audition, and got the job. This was to prove to be his entry into the music business.
“I really was like a kid in a sweet shop – a dream come true, cos we were touring, recording and I learnt a lot from Vini… you learn a lot on tour about performing. I used to suffer a lot from stage fright and maybe that was a kind of classical thing because underneath everything, even though I’m classically trained, I’ve always had a rock pop mentality where mistakes and stuff like that don’t seem to matter quite as much as in the classical arena…
“I’ve done plenty of classical performances with the Duke String Quartet where there are people sitting in the front row score reading and comparing your performance to the score on paper. So with Vini I really learnt about not just being on stage, but the ability to interact with the audience who just want to enjoy themselves or have an emotional experience…”
He went on to form the Factory Classical label with Tony Wilson, with the intention of allowing British classical musicians to throw off the ‘white shirt and tails’ image and perform a more challenging repertoire to a younger audience put off by stuffy concert halls and people in bow ties. His Duke Quartet played a lot of venues like prisons, hospitals and schools to bring that kind of music to a new audience.
“So the Factory Classical label was an attempt to draw in a younger Factory audience who were listening to stuff like Durutti Column and Joy Division and later New Order, and also make the artwork more palatable to that audience. It was a prototype for a lot of the post-classical movement today.”
Metcalfe’s significant point of difference is that he has found a place for himself in contemporary music as well as the classical world. Asked if performing and recording classical music has been a significant income stream for him, he says he is what is referred too in the UK as a “portfolio musician”.
The classical recording and performing was his primary income for quite a while when the Duke String Quartet frequently toured and recorded. They also performed with contemporary dance companies who gave them the opportunity to perform some challenging 20th Century repertoire like Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. But these days he makes most of his income writing arrangements for contemporary bands and being a musical director.
“A great arrangement means you get more of the musician’s soul, more of their human-ness. Arranging takes many forms. It can mean a simple transcription of an existing idea or a more fundamental interpretation of the music. Blur’s The Universal, for example, came with the main string riff already written by the band (Damon Albarn used to play violin in a youth orchestra), but I added high violin lines to bring something quite ethereal and delicate.”
A long time association with producer Stephen Street is one connection that has been very good to him.
“In a way Stephen, certainly with my arranging work, put me on the map… right from the first thing I did for him because he produced two or three of Durutti Column records. Then he asked me to write some arrangements on Morrissey’s first solo album ‘Viva Hate’, and then of course, ’cos he’s a great producer, we went on to work with Blur, Catatonia and Cranberries and all sorts of well known artists, which really helped me get my name known as an arranger.”
He has gone on to write and conduct arrangements for Coldplay, Bat For Lashes, Simple Minds and The Pretenders.
“With Coldplay’s Oceans the band gave me a totally free hand. And although I’ve now done this a lot I’m always a bit nervous when the band first hear what I’ve done – particularly with the session musicians and a control room full of the band, producer and technicians sitting there. Luckily with that arrangement they liked it.”
His work with WOMAD originator Peter Gabriel has had a lot to do with his current relationship with Gabriel’s Real World label. It’s all beautifully inter-connected. Gabriel has a personal access to an in-house arranger for much of the recordings on the Real World label, and also signed Metcalfe to record his newly released fourth solo album (his first for Real World), ‘The Appearance of Colour’.
Apart from for one song featuring a vocal performance from singer Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, the album is an exploration of ambient instrumental textures, performed with live musicians who he encouraged to improvise.
Metcalfe wrote all the orchestral arrangements for Gabriel’s 2010 ‘Scratch My Back’ album, which was produced by Bob Ezrin, whose credits include everyone from Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and Nine Inch Nails to Pink Floyd.
“The man who terrified me most was Bob Ezrin, a legendary producer. When I first met him, of course he didn’t know who the hell I was. It’s like, there’s Peter Gabriel, Bob Ezrin, and this guy … who is he? So I think he really needed to know I was legitimate, that I had something to bring to somebody of Peter’s artistry. I actually ended up learning a lot, but in the beginning the whole situation was scary because we were taking these very famous songs and pulling them apart and putting them together again…
“It’s interesting because sometimes when bands are very well known, like Coldplay, of course you go in with a certain amount of trepidation. You don’t just go in all guns blazing, but in fact all those artists that I have worked with, they just have their heads down making an album. They’re working, so all that stuff about any kind of shyness disappears very quickly and it’s literally about, ‘Okay, how are we going to make this music the best that we can?’”
John Metcalfe brings a whole new meaning to the old cliché – don’t give up your day job.