"I don't normally do interviews, but I checked you out," legendary keyboardist Wix Wickens tells me reassuringly over coffee in midtown Manhattan. Just hours after playing to 18,000 ravenous fans in New Jersey with Paul McCartney, Wickens made time to talk about his unorthodox musical methods, and how playing in a British pub landed him the most coveted gig in Rock and roll.
How many songs are in Paul McCartney’s songbook at present?
The whole list is around 70-75 songs. There are 36 in the show, and another 10-12 we can just whip out. It’s a question of making things flow because it’s long show, and it has to have a shape that works.
You’ve been in the band nearly 30 years?
Yeah, 28 years. I started in 1989.
What’s amazing to me is that when I saw Paul's show in New Jersey, the band seemed just as excited by the music as the audience was!
Well, I think every night we try and treat it like it’s the first time we’ve played. As I said to the guys, it’s somebody’s one and only show, so they don’t want to see a Thelonious Monk version of “Hey Jude.” They want to hear it how they recognize it, along with it being live. It’s not a tribute band - it’s a live version of it. It’s not going to be about totally reproducing the record, because you can go play the record.
From your early days in the band, you seem to have been assembling an interesting collection of gear.
When it looked like we were going to go out on tour, a lot of my job was problem solving. I was asking, “How are we going to do this? What are we going to do on 'Live and Let Die'?” One of the early ones was figuring out how I could have a rig for something like that where I’ve got chords on my feet and my arms and legs are all going at the same time. And stuff like shakers that I play with my feet. I had to build something that set that capability up for me, and that also could change song by song for the balances of everything.
With the technology available today, much of that is now easy to do. But back then, you literally had to figure out a way to do it on your own!
Yeah. We had an old Syco Systems MIDI distribution unit that had a number I could punch in to send program changes to everything. And then we had two rack-mount mixers that had MIDI faders so you could set the balance. You couldn’t see where the balance was because there were no faders, but you could change it and that would change song by song.
Do you remember what gear you were using when you first started with Paul?
I had an Akai weighted motherboard on the bottom, and then a Roland A-50 I think, which was a non-weighted controller. I had two controllers that didn’t make a noise going into a Roland U-110 module. I also had a Roland S-770 sampler because I liked the sonics of it, as well as a few other modules.
I seem to recall that you were one of the first people that I remember seeing on-stage with a computer screen.
The original screen was for the Roland 770 because you could program it and do some editing with on the screen. There wasn’t any kind of MainStage or anything like that around that time.
Were you recreating parts by ear, or were you actually digging into master tapes for reference?
I was very fortunate to be allowed to listen to the 4-tracks and things like that. They were very kind and got stuff for me to listen to so I could reference it. Having said that, we were doing live versions of the songs, so you kind of honor the sounds and you honor the parts that need to be played right. But we’re not trying to be the Beatles or something like that. We’re trying to give you that experience from that time.
When you joined the band, how involved was Paul in terms of hearing a part you were playing and saying, “That’s not quite right.” Was he looking for more of the “forest” versus the “trees?”
Both. Sometimes we’d listen and we’d all kind of pick up on how to play some of the stuff live, because a lot of the Beatles stuff was never played live. Anything after ’67 when they stopped touring. When I joined, Paul hadn’t toured since Wings, which was 1979. For 10 years, he hadn’t been out touring. We were recording the album Flowers in the Dirt. Elvis [Costello] was writing a lot of it with Paul, and he was working with people like Mitchell Froom and others as well. The tour was mainly to go out and promote the album, so we were looking at Beatles and Wings stuff - some of which Linda [McCartney] had played, and then we had to look at how we were going to do other things that maybe hadn’t been played live since then.
Was that daunting for you?
Yeah. The whole thing was like, “Wow, it’s a big deal.” I’ve been a studio musician and I kind of said “No” to going out on the road because I didn’t want to lose my gigs and money. I played on stuff like the Pretenders albums and things like that and had just not gone on the road with them because I didn’t want to leave the studio. But when this gig came along I thought, “If ever I’m going to do it!” I thought it was for one tour. That’s what it was initially for.
Are you considered the band’s Musical Director?
Kind of, yes. Things get thrown my way. If something needs to be done - if we’re talking to a choir or strings or whatever, they will come my direction and I have to sort that out.
Because by now you’re pretty comfortable with the whole book?
Yeah, and I kind of know how Paul would like something to be when we’re looking at it. When we were getting this together in the early days, it was fine. I had his kind of sensibility about what he might want. We rehearsed for three weeks before he came in, and then we just carried on from there. Now, we’re kind of a union so if we’re going to try something new we all have a listen to it and we all come together and play and then we fine tune.
When I saw the show, I was amazed at how energized Paul still is. Here he is 60 years into his professional career, and he’s still playing new songs!
He loves music. That’s why we do an hour plus soundcheck. When we’re rehearsing—we got back together after a month off—and it was just like everybody’s energy was up. Paul was in and we were just playing and playing because we love to play. The band loves to play together as a band, which is why it feels like a band and not a bunch of session musicians recreating something very well. This lineup is his longest serving band, and the band he’s been in the longest. We get this whole, single energy, which I think translates.
What kind of gear is in your rig these days?
I’ve still got some of the old Roland modules. I got rid of the U-110, but I’ve got some of the old JV-5080s and 1080s, and I’ve got cards for them. There are certain sounds on them that I haven’t been able to recreate just in software, like some of the pop brass. For orchestral stuff, there’s great libraries around, although some of the streaming libraries are so big and so unwieldly that I’d like to get smaller versions of them. So I’m sticking with that, and a lot of combinations of things. I still use the Akai S5000 software, although I’ve now got a couple of versions of Apple MainStage, and they’re playing some samples and doing some sounds.
You’re not anti-new technology?
No. When the original sequencers came out, like the Yamaha QX1 and things like that, I loved them. I embraced them completely. It was a whole new vista. MIDI was fantastic. I grew up before MIDI and when it came along, I loved it. If I could do what I do all in MainStage, I probably would.
You don’t think it’s possible?
Not yet for me. I think it is for some people, like [Billy Joel keyboardist] David Rosenthal. He’s been on my case for a long time. He’s Mr. MainStage! For me, it’s partly because I don’t have the time to sit and do that, and also partly because when I’ve tried to recreate some of the sounds, I hadn’t been happy with the way they speak. Also, I’m still using the Studio 5 Midi interface by Opcode. It’s fabulous. There’s still nothing that does what it does. There are only really a few of us that play this complicated live without some kind of Pro Tools or tape running.
There’s something about the way those old units speak. They’re coming out of their own outputs, and I’m mixing them all together to make my own balance and change that song by song. I think there’s a certain amount of kind of glue that happens. It’s a bit like when you use tape. Something happens when you’ve got multiple sources giving you a sound together that’s different than trying to sample it all in one box. For me, it has to sound as good as it does now for me to want to move on. I would love the convenience of a smaller rig. I mean, it’s like a house! Plus, it does my guitar sounds and I’ve got a bunch of other things to play, and it all goes through my rig, the accordion—everything. I would love to make it smaller if I could.
What controllers are you using these days to trigger your numerous modules and samples?
I have an old Yamaha Motif 7. I do use a couple sounds out of that still, but mainly that’s a controller. And I’ve got a Kurzweil PC2 that I use sounds out of and as a controller as well. I also have a Korg Kronos at the back as a spare, in case my rig goes down. I’ve been through the show song by song and I’ve got something from the internal Kronos sounds that I can substitute. I can’t recreate my rig exactly because it took 28 years to develop!
I read an interview years ago where you said you were using Native Instruments B4 for your organ sounds. Is that still the case?
I use B4 and I also use [GSI] VB3. That thing’s fabulous for certain things. I have to say, I think VB3 is the best sounding emulation. I know people like David Rosenthal have got a real Leslie and all that on stage, and I come from that generation. But what I need from an organ is it to sit in the middle of everything else. There are a few things, like “Let Me Roll It” that are organ heavy.
What are you using for your Leslie simulation?
It’s completely VB3 out of the [Muse Research] Receptor, which I use just for the organs.
So, your rig basically consists of two controllers, the Kronos for backup, plus some modules and MainStage?
I’ve also got a little Novation that I do some of the analog sounds on, as well as an old [E-Mu] Proteus Ultra. The thing about that is that has another sonic signature. You’re mixing strings out of that with your samples, and the samples I’m using are not streaming. They’re out of the S5000, so I use them as a base and I add to them with other cards. And for me, it’s the combination rather than one thing trying to do it that makes the difference. In the studio, if you’re trying to recreate an orchestra, it’s fine. But we’re making big pictures. Some of the finesse that you would put in the studio you’re not going to hear. People want to hear the signature sound playing a signature part.
As far as technology is concerned, do you see yourself adding anything to your rig?
I’m always aware of what’s around, it’s just about slotting something into a system that’s already well-rooted. Take something like the brass parts on "Got to Get You Into My Life…” I’ve got them so specific across the two keyboards and the top and the bottom so I can play an octave with my thumb and then another bit. I’ve split-up the keyboard to enable me to play the different parts. Now, if I want to recreate that with something else it’s a massive amount of work and I can’t just bring something in to the middle of that because it would upset everything. I’m always open to new things and to improve something if I can improve it.
Is Paul playing a regular grand piano?
Yes. I think there’s MIDI on it as well. They’re also mic’ing it, so they’ve got everything covered. The upright piano is the same. We’ve had that since the beginning. It’s the original “magic piano,” where he used to go ‘round and ‘round up into the air on a big platform on it. That was built for him. It’s got a long frame that goes into the ground, which is why it sits high on the thing.
For guys like you who do what amounts to musical gymnastics on stage, I’m wondering what prepared you for this kind of work?
Funny enough, when I played live way back in the day, I used to trigger some stuff with my feet - just because I could set a sample up and it allowed my hands to be free. As soon as the breath controller came out from Yamaha, the BC1, that was like another foot pedal for me. I used that to add brightness to things, or to try and play pretend wind instruments back in the day. I was a very early adopter of that and I’ve used it ever since. I use that in MainStage all for the sax sounds and I use it on the brass now to give it a bit of timbre to help the swells.
What was your musical training like?
Everybody in our family had piano lessons, so I had piano lessons too. I kind of stopped them when I was 15 or 16, when I got turned on to the blues by a friend at school. Then I made a severe left turn from classical music. I always listened to pop music. I’d heard Chuck Berry from my brother and sister. Pinetop Perkins was the first blues record I ever heard on a 78 [RPM record]. I thought, “A piano can do this kind of stuff!” So, I immersed myself in it. The first album I ever bought was a Jerry Lee Lewis record with my own money, and that was it. Rock and roll and blues were my education, and things like The Band and Little Feat, and things progressed from there. I also always strummed the guitar and played accordion. If I pick up an instrument, I try and play it!
Because you wanted to work?
Well, I wasn’t thinking of working. I actually went to college to be a teacher and to have a real job.
It appears you got the last laugh!
I had a great time in college. Actually, I went to be a Phys Ed teacher because I love sports. I came-out with a great qualification, which I never used. I used to play drums in my art college version of the Grateful Dead, because I loved bashing the drums as well. I always played music with people somehow - a bit of guitar, a bit of drums, keyboards if they needed it. And then I was going to form a band with my friends when I left college, and so we did. We said, “Let’s do this.” We got signed to Virgin and made very little waves in the industry.
What was the name of that band?
It was a band called Young Ones. We got signed the same day XTC did. They went on to have a career, and we went on to not trouble the airwaves too much. And then that was it. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a session musician and I tried really hard and couldn’t. I couldn’t get through the door. It’s like the Catch-22. They won’t employ you on a record because they don’t know who you are. So just through people I knew, I got to play on some other records. It was underground indie stuff, which was great education.
What year are we talking about here?
I left college in ’77 so in ’79 I was playing with a guy called Kevin Coyne, who was signed to Virgin. He was kind of a political underground writer. That gave me a great education into the artistic side of making records, rather than just the mechanics of it, because he was all about the connection with the audience. The performance was kind of secondary to him. If you made a mistake, it didn’t matter as long as you make an emotional connection. And then I got a lucky break playing in a pub. A producer guy came up and said, “Can you play Rock and roll?” That ended up being Tracey Ullman’s first record back in England. It was called Breakaway.
I remember it. “They Don’t Know” was a massive hit here.
I did all that stuff. And then that producer, a guy called Peter Collins, gave me my first break making pop records. I went on to be his keyboard guy. He had a stellar career, so then made it into studio recordings. Later, Peter came over here and worked with Bon Jovi and Rush.
After you worked with Tracey Ullman, things started to roll from there?
Yeah. I became Peter’s guy, so I’d pretty much do all the stuff that he was doing. Then once you’re in the pool, you’re a known quantity so other producers use you. I did about eight years of sessions for lots of people, making lots of records, and like I said, not going on the road!
No touring at all?
I didn’t want to lose my gig. I played on the Pretenders stuff and they said, “Come on the road!” My good friend [guitarist] Robbie McIntosh was in the Pretenders and he was playing in a band with me in the pub when I caught my break. While it would have been great going on the road with my friend and playing stadiums, I never did it. I thought, “I don’t want to disappear for months and not have a job when I get back.” Because you get replaced, so I didn’t do it until gig with Paul came through.
How did Paul first find-out about you?
Robbie McIntosh was already working with him on the Flowers in the Dirt album, as was [drummer] Chris Whitten, who I had done a lot of sessions with. So my name came up from two people that he was already working with. It was kind of word of mouth. Paul came down to have a play and hang out and see how we all gelled and got on.
What was your response?
Well, I just said at the very least I’ve got to go down and do it. Then at least I can say I played with Paul McCartney for 20 minutes!
I think what’s amazing to me is you just wanted to play music. You weren’t thinking of it as a career. You wanted to be around it because it made you feel good. Nowadays, it seems like everyone’s thinking about what can happen from the music, rather than how it makes them feel.
I think the “way in” has changed. Doing things like [UK Television show] “Britain’s Got Talent” are difficult because suddenly you’re catapulted into the mainstream, when you haven’t done any kind of playing in pubs. You haven’t done it with your mates just for fun, or paid your dues.
The whole landscape has changed. We never had games, or gamers, or bloggers. That wasn’t around. In the ‘50s, Rock and roll was just starting. It was being created, so there were many new horizons there that aren’t around now. And the new horizons that have come around now are not necessarily in music, so a lot of the talent that might have gone into writing songs with a message has gone into other forms like gaming. I think that has diluted the kind of energy that people put into music. It’s a whole different marketplace and horizon really. But I think there are always going to be kids who will get a guitar and write what they feel. It maybe is going to be a bit more underground. Apart from poetry and books, it’s not the way you express yourself now. I don’t think it’s going to ever disappear, and I think live music is the last bastion of where that kind of connection is going to stay. I’m talking about live music, not playback. You can go and see whoever your favorite star is come out, jump around with dances—whatever—hear it all perfectly, and there’s some kind of visceral connection that’s not there.
It occurred to me the other day that with the end of the ability of labels to make a ton of money on albums these days, we’re sort of back to a singles culture. But when Paul and the Beatles were getting signed, that was the culture. So we’re sort of returning back to the idea that it’s the song - that one song - that can catapult a career, verses an album.
I think the problem with that is one song can be your career. If you don’t have a second song, you get dumped. There’s nobody looking going, “You’ve got talent. We didn’t hit with that one, but your next one or the one after that is going to be good.” Take a band like Free, who started when they were like 16 or 17 and Island Records looked after them because they said, “There’s something here and it’s going to be fantastic.” That, I don’t think is around. I think it’s instant throwaway.
When you’re not touring with Paul, are you interested in other musical projects?
I’m happy to have time off because we’re doing quite a lot. I mean, it’s unbelievable. This year has been probably our second busiest year. We’ll do over 40 shows this year, plus we’ve been recording.
Paul is working on a new album?
I think he’s got 20 tracks underway. We’ve been recording on and off and he’s been going in and out on his own.
Do you produce or mentor other musicians?
I do a bit more mentoring now. I had a young band called the Shantics, who are a couple of English brothers. And I do get asked to play. The session scene has changed and I’m also not around that often. Mainly, if I do anything, it’s usually for charity. I’ve got a pool of 15 musicians, so I can throw a particular band around to be a house band for charity things. That kind of fills my time, and then the rest of the time is time off. I did do some production way back and I was getting into that. I had a hit called "Sleeping Satellite” with a girl called Tasmin Archer. It was with [producer] Julian Mendelsohn. The drag for her, bless her, was that it all happened so quick. That first record was massive. It freaked her out a bit. She was doing demos in her bedroom, we recorded it, and then it was number one. That was a little bit tough for her. She carried on, though. She still makes records. That was a great thing to have on your resume, but I was still working with Paul so I didn’t have a chance to really focus on doing production. But I enjoy that whole side of things - working in the studio. It’s a familiar environment for me. I would like to do that again.
Do you have a studio in your house?
Yeah. I’ve got the whole basement so I’ve got a live room and a control room. When we looked for a house 30 years ago, I said, “We’ve got to have one with a basement!”
Have you ever consulted with any software or gear companies when they are working on new products?
Yes. I used to do more with people back in the day. I was connected with Yamaha for quite a long time. There’s so much around now. When I started there were three or four manufacturers. Now with software synths and stuff like that, there’s so much of it.
Do you use a lot of virtual instruments, like those by Arturia?
I’ve got the Arturia stuff in my studio. I don’t actually have it on the rig, but I use it and it sounds great. They just came out a little while ago with their own version of a B3 organ. Again, it’s very difficult to bring things into the live rig. There’s quite a lot of stuff that sounds great, so it’s about having time to wade through everything that’s there. But I do get a lot of recommendations, and I do check things out. In the studio, no rules apply. You can put something through an amp - whatever. You make an exciting sound. It doesn’t matter how you get it.
You still sound infinitely excited by what you do.
I love music, and I love playing music. I can’t imagine having to go to an office to go to work. And that was one of the things that was driving me to make money from doing music - not having to do that. And I love teaching kids. But I couldn’t imagine 40 years of being a Phys Ed teacher!
What would you tell a 16-year old kid who asked you, “How can I have a career like yours?”
It was hard enough back in the day when there were lots of pub gigs and there was lots of live music around. These days it’s even harder. Now, you’ve got to really want it. And there are different vistas - you can get into music for games or whatever. There’s so much more that you can do from your laptop and so many more people are doing it, it’s become a harder marketplace. I didn’t want to do anything else. I didn’t want to work in some shops to earn money to stay alive. I knew I wanted to something that made me money and was connected with music somehow. You have to absolutely “blink it” to everything else, and at the same time, be open to opportunities. If I hadn’t been playing in that pub, Peter wouldn’t have asked me to do the session, that wouldn’t turn into nine years working with him, which wouldn’t through my connection with Robbie have gotten me an introduction to McCartney and turned into what it is. Things come from left field and you have to be open to them. But you have to be single-minded and say, "This is what I'm going to do."