John Wesley darts into his rehearsal room at a warehouse in an industrial section of Ybor City hunting for one of his $3,000 Paul Reed Smith guitars.
"Ugh," he groans. "I thought it was in here. I guess it must be at home."
Most guitarists fortunate enough to own a PRS might be panicked if it wasn't within arm's length, but not Wesley — he has eight of them, courtesy of an endorsement deal with the manufacturer.
Nice perk if you can get it.
John Wesley is not a rock star, but he's one of the more successful musicians Tampa Bay has produced. The 46-year-old guitarist/singer/songwriter flies under the local radar for the most part. That's because his main gig — the one that affords him those gaudy axes and a salary that provides a comfortable living — is as a hired-gun guitarist for the British art-rock band Porcupine Tree.
In seven years with the group, Wesley has toured all over the U.S., Europe, Mexico, Australia and Japan. Porcupine Tree routinely plays shows to crowds in excess of 2,000 — more overseas. Wesley performs out front, stage right, covering intricate guitar parts, background vocals and a handful of solos during the band's two-hour sets.
But Wesley also has other musical outlets beyond his role as sideman. "I remember we closed a tour at the Millennium Dome in London in front of several thousand people and three days later I was playing solo in a [local] restaurant in front of three people who weren't sure they wanted me there," he says with a chuckle. "So, it can be humbling."
When in town, Wesley plays cover gigs, just him and a guitar and a loop station, at places like the Green Iguana. In addition, he occasionally does concerts at area clubs with a power trio that showcases his original rock music. A naturally disciplined guy, he usually spends five hours a day in his Brandon home practicing guitar and writing music. Wesley has five solo albums out and all are available for download — free (at john-wesley.com). "About a year and a half ago, I had this kind of nervous breakdown where I was frustrated that people weren't hearing my music," he says. "So I made a move to get all my rights back. It was effectively my life's work, and I wanted people to hear it. I made it available free via download."
During their first week of availability, Wesley says his CDs generated around 10,000 downloads, and have subsequently totaled more than 30,000.
The five albums show that Wesley follows a far-flung muse — ranging from passionate acoustic ballads to proggy rock, but always with melodies, delivered in his urgent, at times tremulous, tenor. He values lyrics, and his themes range from the vagaries of love to young men being killed in senseless wars.
Wesley, whose full name is John Wesley Dearth (friends call him Wes), is telling his story in Red Room Recorders, the cozily lit studio he owns with drummer Mark Prator. He's wearing tight, faded jeans, battered work boots and a gray sweatshirt on an abnormally chilly weekday afternoon.
Wes is one of those fellows to whom the phrase "nicest guy in the world" applies. Affable, talkative and generous, you can see how he can gallivant around the world with a bunch of sarcastic Brits, and then return home and pick up solo gigging right where he left off. He takes an interest in younger musicians on the local scene. When Wes noticed that singer/songwriter Geri X was playing a cheapo acoustic guitar, he pulled one of his Babicz models off a wall and gave it to her.
Wesley lives with his wife Rebecca in a home that's three doors down from the one he grew up in. His parents adopted him in 1962 when he was a couple months old. He loved music practically from the cradle, and at age 12 started taking once-a-week guitar lessons from a guy down the street.
In 1982, Wes, Mark Prator, his keyboardist brother Paul Prator and singer Jimmy Murdock formed Autodrive. Three years in, they became part of a rock showcase circuit and chased the almighty record deal. Autodrive performed five, six, seven nights a week, three sets of covers and one of originals. In the Button South in Miami and similar large clubs around the Southeast, the band played shows with big crowds, big production, big expenses and big hair — but little tangible to show for it.
Although Murdock had the look and the voice, Autodrive just didn't have the heart to become a hair band, although in some respects they tried. "Management tried to make us a hair band, but my favorite album in 1987 was Kate Bush's Hounds of Love," Wes says. "We were always trying to be something we weren't."
The band collapsed in 1991.
Wes returned home, broke, and within days was playing a solo acoustic gig at Scotland Yard pub. Shortly after, struggling to cover his nut, Wesley took a job as a guitar tech on a tour for British prog-rock band Marillion. Early in the trek, they offered Wesley the opening slot on the tour. "I made a hundred bucks on top of my tech pay to do 30 minutes of my own stuff with an acoustic guitar in front of big crowds," he says.
One day in 2002, Steve Wilson, the creative nexus of Porcupine Tree — who had encountered Wes on the road — phoned him in Tampa and asked him to "heavy some guitar parts up a bit."
Wes — an expert on how to exact a well-recorded guitar sound — delivered in spades, and Wilson combined Wes' tracks with his own for the final master of "The Blackest Eyes."
At about that time, Porcupine Tree's music was getting more layered, complex and guitar-oriented — and increasingly difficult to reproduce on stage. They thought of Wes. "He's comfortable playing complicated things and long songs that go off on tangents," Wilson says by phone from England. "It's really a godsend that he can fulfill that role."
An outsider might ask: Why, after this many years, has John Wesley not become a full-fledged member of Porcupine Tree? "They have a particular creative and business dynamic, and it would be difficult to add me into it," Wes explains. "I don't expect to be added as a full member."
Porcupine Tree's tour legs are generally four to six weeks of five to seven shows per. The four band members and Wesley spend a lot of hours together on a luxe tour bus. Porcupine Tree finds Wes a valuable contributor to the off-stage dynamic.
"Wes is different than us, and I think that helps it work," Wilson says. "It's nice to have that kind of positive personality on the bus with these miserable English guys full of sarcasm and cynicism.
"Sometimes after shows, when the fans are waiting outside, us four English guys can't be bothered. We just want to get on the bus. But he's out there chatting with fans, signing autographs, going for a beer with them. He acts as a decoy for us. It's not for nothing that he's known as the nicest bloke in the band."