Kevin Wood is a talented man. I first met him at Checkinn99 four years ago. I got to know him a little bit during a rehearsal for a live performance he was directing and starring in for the The Rocky Horror Show. As he admits in this lengthy interview he is not one for small talk. So we went for big. Mr Wood has been involved in the music business for over five decades and he has lived to tell some of that tale here today. It is my pleasure to interview Kevin Wood, finally, at Thailand Footprint. We discuss the music business, introversion and extroversion, writing, audiences, the idiocy of smart phones, and cockroach infested domiciles among other things:
Photo of Kevin Wood by Alasdair McLeod
KC: Hunter S. Thompson famously said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” I want to get to the negative side, but not yet. Tell me about your career highlights in the music business from the time you were just a frisky kitten to recent times when the whiskers turned a whiter shade of pale.
K Wood: The music business is indeed cruel and unforgiving and you have to be strong and know how to keep a smile on your face when you’re hungry, broke, living in cockroach infested accommodation and the only thing to keep you going is an attentive audience and the sound of their applause… of course this is also why alcohol and other mind altering substances often come into play. It’s a roller-coaster ride with lots of lows and some tremendous highs.
As you said, we can get to the low points later. As for the highs, well, I’ve had quite a few in my 50 years in the business but some in particular stand out.
Kevin Wood as a young lad, guitar in hand
The first time was when I was just 17 years old. I was playing in a group called the Gripping Effect; they were considered the best band in our local community and I was elated just to get the job as the lead singer. We played Soul music, Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Sam and Dave, the Temptations etc. We got ourselves an agent and played regular weekends but the highlight came when we were booked to do, (what we considered a big event at the time) an outdoor gig in a marquee that held 300 people. The only problem being that the star attraction was a famous Trad Jazz musician called Humphrey Littleton so, being a young Soul group, we felt like sacrificial lambs to the slaughter but by the end of our set the house erupted and we were encouraged to do an encore and again the audience screamed for more. By the end of our third encore Humphrey Littleton’s manager had pushed passed my crying mother and my beaming girlfriend and was verbally attacking my father; who he thought was our manager, and telling him, in no uncertain terms, to get his bloody group off the stage and make way for the star. Whilst this went on the audience screamed for more so we obliged with our 4th encore but by the end of that we had to stop as HL’s manager was yelling at us and threatening to physically pull us off the stage. But if that in itself wasn’t a tremendous high for 4 teenagers relatively new to the business we then spent the next hour signing autographs and also took great pleasure in noting that HL’s performance got a lukewarm reception.
Kevin Wood paying tribute to one of his few idols, David Bowie
More highlights followed but the next big one was to last 4 years. In the late 70s I was lead singer with a group that had been doing very well for some time and though at first we declined the offer to become the backing band for the ex-60s pop star Wayne Fontana we finally succumbed to the offer of more money, bigger gigs and better opportunities. Over the next 4 years we played almost all the biggest concert halls in the UK including the Hammersmith Odeon in London, Glasgow Apollo, Brighton Dome and many more, as well as touring Germany where Wayne was still considered a big star and consequently we were treated royally. We became stars overnight taken to the best places where everything was free and when I say everything I mean… everything. But for me one of the great joys at the time was getting to work and become friends with many of the big stars whose photographs I’d had plastered all over my bedroom walls when I was kid.
Kevin Wood behind front man Wayne Fontana
In the mid-80s I was working in Singapore with my English band when my keyboard player and I were approached by a local Chinese/Singaporean drummer to form a band which would include a Filipino female singer and 2 Malay/Singaporean musicians making it the first Eurasian band in Singapore. We accepted the job and almost from the start we became very successful and were voted best group of that year in Singapore (1985). We got a great deal of press, worked on TV and radio and I couldn’t go to the local shop without having to sign an autograph or two on the way, but the biggest moment came when we played the open air Police Academy Concert.
We arrived early for the sound check and noted that only a couple of hundred people were scattered around the enormous grounds so we adjourned to the dressing rooms to relax and have a beer thinking the event was going to fall flat, only to find that by the time we went on to do our show a few more people had arrived… 55 thousand to be exact. When I saw the crowd my legs turned to stone and the only way I managed to climb the stairs to the stage was because my mind was completely focused on trying not to throw up and soil my pants at the same time, but the audience were with us from the first few chords.
Kevin Wood (in the dark pants) in front of 55,000 adoring fans
I can tell you in all honesty there is nothing better than holding an audience in the palm of your hand; it’s even better than the best sex you could have. But what made it even better was making the front page of the Straits Times the next day; just me in the corner of the picture with my arm raised in a fisted salute and 55 thousand people doing exactly the same.
There have been quite a few highlights since then, such as singing with Bangkok’s 72 piece National Symphony Orchestra, or singing My Girl with the Temptations but I think I’ve blown my own trumpet long enough.
KC: Let’s talk psychology. It’s one of many licenses I don’t have so why not? Specifically introversion and extroversion. How do these two traits play a role in your performances, and in your preparation as a musical artist? Put another way, how do you use introversion and extroversion in your art and in your life to your benefit?
Kevin Wood: part introvert – part extrovert
K Wood: Difficult question… I suffered a childhood trauma when I was 6 years old that made it very difficult for me and although I wanted to be the center of attention (like most kids) I tended to keep to myself just to stay out of harm’s way, this made me an introvert who enjoyed his own company. Then when I was 12 years old The Beatles hit the music scene and I burst out of my shell with a vengeance, only I actually had to learn how to be an extrovert, but once I got the hang of it I enjoyed it, so over the years I’ve developed a kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality but these personalities are both very real and very me… I think.
As a singer I think it’s important to do the music you like best because, as with everything, what you like to do best is usually what you do best but I think of myself as an entertainer first.
An example of the two opposing traits is; when I was younger I had my own back stage mantra; the introvert in me was a nervous wreck who desperately wanted to crawl back under his isolated rock, so to force out the extrovert I would repeat to myself, “the audience is a multi-headed monster and you have to go out there and kill it or, sure as hell, it will kill you.” So once I’d psyched myself up I’d go out there guns blazing and taking no prisoners… except maybe the cute chick with the low cut top and cheeky grin.
As a writer there have been various reasons for writing my books but an audience was always there, to a lesser or larger degree, I see no joy in doing it if you can’t share the joy with other people.
Art on the other hand, for me, can’t be anything else but introverted, yes I want other people to like my work but art has to be introverted or you’re lying to yourself and the public.
KC: Sticking with personalities, can you describe the various types of audiences you have had in your five decades in show business?
K Wood: Well, it would be easier to describe the kind of audiences I haven’t had.
Apart from doing my party piece for mum and gran I guess my first audience was in our carriage for some neighborhood friends. My older brother acted as my manager and tried to extort money for my performance. I sang Emile Fords ‘What do you wanna make those eyes at me for’ acapella, which resulted in a swift mass exodus of said friends and I think my cat attempted suicide because it couldn’t get out… I was 9 years old at the time. Since then I’ve played to almost every kind of audience there is, including, some of the more notable; the Queens Guards in London, patients and nurses of a Mental Asylum near Manchester, Strangways Prison in Manchester, British soldiers stationed at Bergen-Belson (formerly a Nazi concentration camp) in Germany, and several members of the Thai Royal Family.
I’ve performed to very large audiences in football stadiums and concert halls and I’ve performed to as little as 2 people in a small club but, as they say, size doesn’t matter. In fact some of the best shows I feel I’ve done have been to an intimate crowd in a small club. Queen Bee in Sukhumvit 26 is a fine example, performing with a couple of musicians whom I like and respect (Ted Lewand and John Branton) to regular customers who pay attention and get involved in the performance and allow and encourage us to be adventurous and go off the rails; that’s a blast. On the other hand the worst audience I ever performed to was Strangways Prison; the audience paid us no attention at all and we were a very visual and excitingly insane rock/pop band that incorporated many stage changes and pyrotechnics. To cut a long story short we could have all committed ritual hara-kiri on stage and the only reaction we would have got would have been from an angry janitor who had to clean up the blood afterwards.
Nowadays the cell phone is the curse of all musicians; there’s nothing worse than performing to a bunch of ignorant, zombiefied, people who neither know nor care if you are even there; I simply can’t get my head round it, why would anyone go to a live music bar with their friends, then all of them spend the evening staring at their phones?
KC: How important is the audience to the performance? Can you perform well to a bad audience and conversely can you bomb in front of a great audience?
K Wood: To me audiences are extremely important, it’s a two way street, it’s like making love; you give the best you can give and if they do the same it’s gonna be a great night, but if they don’t, well, you might as well stay home and play with yourself.
For me applause and reaction spell satisfaction. A great audience usually makes for a great night even if I’m off form but there have been times when things have gone badly wrong; usually equipment failures, vocal problems, the bass player being fall down drunk, the girl singer has just broken up with her boyfriend who, as usual, is a member of the same band.
The trick for me of doing a good gig in front of a bad audience is just to let it go and have fun with the guys in the band. Of course sometimes that’s not easy because you don’t like the guys in the band, because the bass player is fall down drunk, the girl singer…
KC: In addition to being a singer and musical performer you’ve also written a number of books and you are a visual artist as well. Tell me about these art forms. What do you get out of them that you don’t get out of singing and performing in front of an audience?
K Wood: As a singer/entertainer I enjoy making people happy, making them laugh and even making them cry; for all the right reasons of course, but it’s a sequence of passing moments and all the things you do in those moments flash by ‘warts and all’ they can’t be changed, you can’t say, “damn that was bad, or good, let’s do it again”… it’s gone. This is why I prefer to write E-mails rather than speak on the phone. The same applies to my writing and my art; I can do it again, I can trash it if I think it’s bad and I can keep it if I think it’s good.
KC: What books are you most proud of?
K Wood: I wrote my first book, Onist specifically for my children because I believed it was important for them to know about my upbringing and about their descendants. I re-wrote it 5 times over a period of 12 years till I was happy with it… or maybe just sick of rewriting it; at Art College I was taught that art is never finished, you just have to know when to stop and move on.
My second book, Opium Sparrows was about my personal experiences living in Bangkok and working as a singer, Radio DJ and manager of a live music bar in Patpong. I wrote it as a novel and all the names were changed to protect the innocent (me) but it was a very graphic and true account of what I’d seen and done, you could say it’s my biggest seller but now I look back at it and think it was way too graphic.
I was commissioned to write another book Sin, Singer, Singapore about the music scene back in the 80s in Singapore and my days as a “pop star” there, note the inverted commas; the jury is still out on that one.
I had no intention of ever writing a book again, but one day this idea popped into my head and it wouldn’t leave me alone, it wouldn’t let me sleep at night, it kept poking me when I was nodding off and if I did get to sleep it would prowl round my subconscious and then attack me with a big stick yelling, “Write me down or I’ll eat your children” so in an effort to exorcise the demon I wrote The Bougainvillea Bush (basically it’s a love affair between two orphans, a street cat and an ageing, reclusive, disillusioned musician) and, as it turned out, it’s the book I’m most proud of. But I only printed 50 copies so I could give it to loved ones and friends and sell enough to pay for the printing costs. Several people have said it would make a great Disney Movie but I’m way too long in the tooth and short in the pocket to chase that carrot.
KC: I’m too big of a Temptations fan to not ask for the back story of singing My Girl with them. What is it?
K Wood: I went to their concert here in Bangkok (11th May 1993) and in the show they asked for volunteers to get up and sing My Girl with them. The person I went with, knowing I knew the song, insisted I get up and against my better judgment I did.
But there’s an interesting back story to the back story.
When big name artists invite guests onto the stage to sing with them those guests are, more often than not, pre-rehearsed plants in the audience as it was in this case; enter me.
It gets better. After the show I left and went to work at the club I was performing in 3 days a week and some hours later a woman, who was a regular customer and knew me, came racing over to me excitedly and, to cut a long story short, she was in fact the organizer of the Temptations concert. She went on to tell me that when the Temptations had seen me heading for the stage they panicked and told her to stop me but she told them not to worry, that she knew me and that I was a pro.
When I’d finished the song Melvin Franklin (an original Temptation) called out to me and when I turned he gave me the thumbs up and said, “Great man” I said thanks and asked him how he was doing he smiled and gave me thumbs up again.
After the concert they told her to come out and find me and join them at the after show party but I’d already left.
Kevin Wood on stage with The Temptations
KC: You mentioned Queen Bee and Ted Lewand along with the proprietor and musician John Branton. Tell me what those two friends and colleagues mean to you at this stage of your career?
K Wood: The collaboration between Ted and I wasn’t intentional, in fact we hardly knew each other when we were asked to form the duo, we weren’t even sure we liked each other but were quite sure it wasn’t going to work. Nonetheless we decided to give it a shot and to our mutual surprise it did work and it was a great fun, largely because we didn’t think it would work. It worked so well that at one time we were working 6 days a week until we decided to cut back.
Jump ahead almost four years to Queen Bee and we’re now a three piece duo with John on keyboards and I find myself working with two extremely accomplished musicians. Ted is a music teacher and John was a music examiner; there is almost nothing these guys don’t know about music. Both Ted and John are great guys whom I have a great deal of respect for and fun with.
Ted Lewand on a typical evening working with Kevin Wood at Queen Bee
Photo by Alasdair McLeod
This is not to say that it’s all hearts and flowers there are times when Ted and I piss each other off, we’re not kindred spirits, we perceive entertainment differently but I guess you could use the old adage that ‘opposites attract’. We’re often told that we have a chemistry and that what we do is special, we approach our performance as if we’re amongst friends and for the most part Ted, John and I make a great team.
Ted Lewand, Kevin Wood and John Branton
KC: What do the three of you talk about in the wee small hours of the morning after your gigs?
K Wood: Philosophy, religion, life in general, aches and pains, knife wielding maniacs and sometimes music.
KC: How important is the wind down portion of the evening?
K Wood: For me, usually, it’s the only time I get to socialize with friends and acquaintances and I enjoy it very much, I’m not one for small talk but when the alcohol kicks in people tend to go deeper.
KC: What’s the future of live music, specifically for Bangkok.
K Wood: I think live music is reaching its zenith. Gone are the days when people would go out specifically to watch an unknown band. Nowadays people in general seem to see live performances as background music, but the onus doesn’t lie squarely on the shoulders of the potential customer; club owners deserve some of the responsibility. There was a time when a club was judged on the quality of its performers. Now it’s more a case of, why pay a lot of money for a great show when you can get some relatively decent singer to sing to backing tracks for the price of a couple of beers and a packet of fags, or some wannabes who’ll do it for nothing?
In Bangkok it’s very difficult for musicians because Thai’s love familiarity so any musician who tries to break out of the mold often finds themselves without work, extremely under paid or playing to an empty house. It’s a vicious circle.
KC: Besides Queen Bee what places can you recommend?
K Wood: I don’t go out to other clubs (unless I’m working) it’s a busman’s holiday for me. Even though I haven’t been to the new Check Inn 99 I do know the boss and the Music of the Heart Band who perform there so I can safely say you’ll be in good hands and have a good time there.
Ted Lewand and Kevin Wood at the Old Checkinn99
Picture Courtesy of Bangkok Beat and Alasdair McLeod 🙂
KC: Thanks, Kev. See you at Queen Bee soon. I want to hear more about those freebies sometime.
Kevin Wood appears regularly at Queen Bee as does Ted Lewand with his band Saranac. Check the Queen Bee Facebook site for information regarding their live music schedules:
One last picture of Kevin Wood smiling for some reason, with Posh and those other Spice Girls, just because I can.