Simon Slater on composing for Wilko Johnson biographic play at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
In a striking biographic play with live music celebrating the extraordinary life of Wilko Johnson, Jonathan Maitland’s new play Wilko open at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch in February. A name that resonates with rock music enthusiasts and beyond, Wilko Johnson, the iconic rock star and co-founder of legendary band Dr Feelgood, was told he had one year to live in 2012. Refusing all treatment, he decided to spend his last months living meaningfully: seeing the people, places and things which meant most to him during his remarkable life… until a miracle happened. We spoke to composer Simon Slater about his work on the show.
What can the audience expect from the music in Wilko?
The music is woven into the narrative of Wilko’s life. All the Wilko/Dr Feelgood music is played live by our talented actor musicians which is very exciting and of course the songs you know of the band are very present.
How much of the music blended from Dr. Feelgood and your own compositions?
My compositions are very different -filmic if you like -on one hand written to capture Wilko’s geographical life -Essex, Canvey Island , the Haven Oil refinery. And also, a soundscape if you like as well as thematic motifs to guide us through his personal life. All this music is played and recorded by me.
Wilko Johnson was renowned for his 1970s rock and punk style, what kind of music are you personally drawn to and do you find this influences your own style?
To be honest my great loves musically are very different-brought up in the late 60’s/early 70’s -Beatles, Bowie, Supertramp, the great singer songwriters Paul Simon, James Taylor. My first album was by Harry Nilsson. Alongside my lifelong love of early jazz and swing-Louis Armstrong, Sydney Bechet, Benny Goodman. But as a theatre composer you must throw yourself into whatever the world is -in this case Dr. Feelgood - learn it and love it!
What do you enjoy about directing live music on stage?
Well personal interaction -we are lucky with the talented actor musician cast. I enjoy the collaboration. Composing and creating using their talents and ideas as much as what I bring to the rehearsal. Harnessing that. And having fun experimenting with sound.
How do you ensure that the music not only complements the story but also pays homage to Wilko's own music?
We have aimed to capture the Dr Feelgood sound with the band as well as pushing the actor (Johnson Willis) playing Wilko to get his unique guitar style and vocal mannerisms. But also, we have used his music for our own narrative -the story telling of Jonathan Maitland’s fine script. The cast are not a tribute band but tell the story of a fascinating character. So, I and the director Dugald Bruce-Lockhart use the music to support and clarify the story and characters.
Do you have a favourite piece, either your own composition or a song from Wilko’s life, that you are most excited to see onstage?
I love “She does it Right” As Wilko says its percussive poetry as well as romantic. And of course, the 12-bar structure is always wonderful-based of course on early blues and then rock n’ roll.
What impact do you think this story and music will have on the audience?
I think the audience will love it. It is funny, moving, truthful and has great live music. And I do believe it captures and celebrates the life of a great Essex man. I feel people like Wilko who are difficult and brilliant, troubled, and inspiring are rare now on our stages and screens. And to see the story of his life with his humanity in all its shades, is a joy. And the songs are bloody brilliant.
Wilko plays at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch 1 – 24 February 2024, more info and booking here https://www.queens-theatre.co.uk/whatson/wilko/