“I was side-of-stage and said, ‘You’ve literally just written that, and you’re going to perform it?’ It was a beautiful rendition… much better than on the album!” The Wilson & Wakeman comedy duo get serious(ish)

Wilson & Wakeman
(Image credit: Press)

Some double acts were just meant to be. Wilson & Wakeman – Arena vocalist Damian Wilson and Black Sabbath keysman Adam Wakeman – have become one of prog’s most creative duos, with a chemistry that’s unrivalled. Latest album Can We Leave The Light On Longer? finds the pair exploring topics from AI to absent friends via some of the most heartfelt and tear-jerking songs Prog has heard in a while.

It’s 11am and there’s mayhem on the other side of the Zoom call. Tuning in from the former’s home studio in Buckinghamshire, Adam Wakeman and Damian Wilson are in fits of giggles, faux- bickering, and have set up an elaborate show for this interview.

Wakeman asks if he can move Wilson’s acoustic guitar as he’s concerned about its preservation, which he then picks up and tumbles onto, behind Wilson, with much comedy clanging. Wilson, meanwhile, has a cassette player that he’s fiddling with, and keeps pressing play on a tape titled The Best Of Rick Wakeman – a prop for upcoming live shows that’s designed to irk his bandmate.

Prog is having flashbacks. At Cropredy in 2019, when the duo were post-show and tiddly, this interviewer was playing a Mary Poppins role in bringing the performers down from near-levitating in a Portakabin, just like the I Love To Laugh scene from the 1964 movie.

When you’re around them, even screen-to-screen, the chemistry is like lightning. Best of friends, brilliantly entertaining, they can write a decent tune or two. They met nearly 30 years ago via their mutual musician-producer friend Fraser T Smith – when Wilson was moving from Landmarq to Threshold, with Ayreon guest spots and a spell touring in Les Misérables on the horizon – and gelled for life.

“I went to your house and you had a floor-to-ceiling PA in your room,” Wakeman reminds Wilson. “I thought, ‘Imagine what he’s like on the road. This guy means business.’ Then we started writing and rehearsing together.”

This led to forming prog metal act Headspace – but not all songs were made for a full-throttle, floor-to-ceiling PA type of presentation, and the pair aren’t just about tomfoolery and high jinks. Over eight years together as a duo, deeper ideas have emerged through their mainly acoustic piano-and-guitar style, from 2016’s Weir Keeper’s Tale, 2018’s The Sun Will Dance In Its Twilight Hour and the recently-released Can We Leave The Light On Longer?

With all these things being used against us, the lack of freedom is apparent. Somebody’s got an awful lot of power

Damian Wilson

It was written and recorded in the rare downtime when Wakeman wasn’t playing with Black Sabbath, or the unexpectedly popular Blue Note-style Jazz Sabbath, and between Wilson’s engagements with Arena, Kayak’s Edward Reekers and his own One Knight Only band shows. The album is about “life, and the chaos that makes us human,” Wilson says. “It’s also asking, ‘Can we experience life just a little longer?’”

The opening track, Artificial Intelligence, is about something extremely worrying to Wilson. “I don’t understand why we’re giving so much information out about us so freely, everywhere,” he says. “And it’s not just the information, it’s the connection with algorithms, facial recognition and AI, where everything comes together. We’re producing a fantastic prison for ourselves.

Every day we’re using AI (whether we realise it or not), and in itself it’s not harmful. But in the wrong hands... “We’re being played heavily all the time,” he continues. “We’re getting wise to this now. I think of my dad having this scammer a week before he died, but he was great with it. His bank account could have been cleared out... but he had nothing in it, just enough to cover costs for his funeral.”

Wakeman admits that if an AI-sampled message request for money came through from his daughter, currently travelling around Cambodia, he’d rather send cash than not. “What concerns me more is the political side of things,” says Wilson. “With all these things being used against us, the lack of freedom is apparent. Somebody’s got an awful lot of power.”

Other topics on the record are more personal. As is customary, Wakeman sings on two numbers. November’s inspiration is a step-parent with dementia, looking at the world from their point of view. The Man From The Island comes from Wakeman’s teenage memories.

“I went to school on the Isle Of Man, for about three years,” he says. “My dad was always away. There was loads of music on the island; and when I was 16 I got myself into a band with Anglin Buttimore and two other guys. This is where I cut my teeth, playing three, four, five nights a week.

You know you’ve got a good, powerful song if you’re bent over your guitar in floods of tears

Damian Wilson

“Anglin passed away in 2020. It took me ages to finish the song for him, but it was a bit like therapy and I wanted it to be good. I actually finished when Damian and I were on tour on the Isle. I played it the night it was completed and Anglin’s wife Jen was there.”

“It was amazing,” says Wilson. “I was side-of-stage and said to him, ‘You’ve literally just written that, and you’re going to perform it? OK.’ But he got me [clutches chest]. It was a beautiful rendition… much better than on the album!”

Wakeman then added the talents of a local community choir thanks to his old school friend Mandy Griffin, a singing teacher and music director. “I wanted a hymn-like part at the start, and Mandy gathered her crew. Then Dave The Chem – no one has a surname on the Isle, and he used to run the chemist – recorded it for me and sent it over.”

Let’s Talk also employs a church and gospel sound. “That’s a break-up song,” says Wilson. “It’s heartbreak and tragedy... isn’t it funny how our best friends can then become our worst enemies? I love music and I refuse to have malice enter it. So whatever might have happened, after the initial emotions, I’ll throw that malice away.”

“This is what we have with our music,” Wakeman says. “The songwriting is genuine, even if it’s not a direct experience of ours.”

“You know you’ve got a good, powerful song if you’re bent over your guitar in floods of tears,” Wilson nods.

This was for listeners who don’t go for Sabbath or the heavy stuff we do

Adam Wakeman

He details “his own mindset” with Multiplicity – “I’m not diagnosed with anything, but I have a child in my head as well as the reasonable, rational side, and I don’t need it labelling” – and speaks of his nephew with Hero, who took his own life in 2023. “Adam was absolutely amazing on this,” he says. “In support as well as songwriting.”

It might not be a tear-jerker, but the jaunty The Battle Of The Bare Knuckle Fighter is dedicated to their friend and dance music DJ Paul Spencer, aka Dario G, currently being treated for cancer. “It’s got trumpet on it, which he plays,” says Wilson. “Paul’s a real fighter, and part of that is his amazing positivity.”

Leaning into self-improvement, Turn Your Life Around is about “the spirit of the road,” making a case for ‘it’s never too late to make a change.’ “I thought that was about my neighbour shouting at Damian when he pulled his van up on his driveway,” Wakeman says.

“The van I’m living in...” Wilson says. Ah yes, let’s circle back to Cropredy in 2019 when, just before the festival, Wilson’s houseboat sank on the Thames, with all his stuff on board. “I just managed to dive in and get my guitar,” he remembers. Home sweet home is now his “rustbucket” Mercedes Sprinter.

“I can hear you coming from miles off,” says Wakeman. “And the next sound I hear is my neighbours locking their sheds.”

Oh, the banter, it continues, especially with some mickey-taking from Wakeman around Wilson’s track, Addlestone, where he recalls his childhood in Surrey, riding wild horses and trying to impress older girls.

Laughter aside, what was the aim for Can We Leave The Light On Longer? “This was for listeners who don’t go for Sabbath or the heavy stuff we do,” says Wakeman. “I think it’s our most personal, yet encompassing, album yet. Lyrically, listeners can pull different things from the songs, but it’s been more of a window into what’s been going on in Damian’s life and the people that are close to him.”

“But the best songs are our songs,” Wilson says. “I always want my music to connect with a listener. But the reason for these albums is my continuing connection to Adam. That’s the most important thing.”

Jo Kendall

Jo is a journalist, podcaster, event host and music industry lecturer with 23 years in music magazines since joining Kerrang! as office manager in 1999. But before that Jo had 10 years as a London-based gig promoter and DJ, also working in various vintage record shops and for the UK arm of the Sub Pop label as a warehouse and press assistant. Jo's had tea with Robert Fripp, touched Ian Anderson's favourite flute (!), asked Suzi Quatro what one wears under a leather catsuit, and invented several ridiculous editorial ideas such as the regular celebrity cooking column for Prog, Supper's Ready. After being Deputy Editor for Prog for five years and Managing Editor of Classic Rock for three, Jo is now Associate Editor of Prog, where she's been since its inception in 2009, and a regular contributor to Classic Rock. She continues to spread the experimental and psychedelic music-based word amid unsuspecting students at BIMM Institute London, hoping to inspire the next gen of rock, metal, prog and indie creators and appreciators.