Come All Ye: Simon Nicol
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2002 Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
This interview is part of the "Fairport Convention: Come All Ye" story. Please refer to the main article for related biographical and historical information.
What does Fairport's 35th anniversary mean to you?
It's another year, another routine, another tick on the calendar. But at the same time, it's a year with a five or zero at the end. It's a chance to take stock and do a bit of reflection. I think we've done that a bit on the new record too because we've got some very strong new material that's either internally generated, written by Chris [Leslie] or people close to the band. At the same time, we've reinterpreted some of the much older songs that are perhaps associated with different incarnations and early versions of Fairport but are currently valid because they work so well on stage. The audiences we've been playing them to with this line-up have accepted the new songs with as much enthusiasm as the old stuff. And they don't need to compare our version of "Now be thankful" to the version from 1971 to enjoy it for what it is now.
Does the 35th anniversary feel any different from the 25th or 30th?
I think so, yes, because of the way the current record has been received for a start, and also because of the evolution of the Cropredy Festival. It's absolutely central to everything we do. It's hugely energizing in terms of recharging the current and alumni membership, and all of those people who have marked that weekend off in their calendar each year and make the journey to North Oxfordshire. Each year, they get together with people from all over the world—the people who make the thing work. More than 20,000 people come from places as far away as the USA, Scotland or Australia. They don't see each other elsewhere, but they're friends in that field once a year. The festival is a major source of onward momentum for the band—this year especially, after the calamitous foot and mouth disease crisis Great Britain suffered from last year. It had a detrimental effect on our festival. We were lucky to have it at all in fact. So, this year's festival to me is going to be extra special—sort of a reaffirmation about what we're all about.
Where do you feel the new album falls into the band's pantheon of releases?
I'm pleased with it, but I'm probably too close to it to make a properly objective judgment on the relative merit of the different periods of the band's history. I'm sure the songs Chris is coming up with are excellent. He's going through a purple patch as a writer. Vocally, Fairport has never been stronger. Frankly, I don't enjoy the process of recording as much as I enjoy the process of touring and playing.
In what ways can you link the current band's direction and music to the first line-up in the late '60s?
In the very early days, we were like magpies. We'd pick material from more or less anywhere. I think what we're doing now is becoming more like what was started with Liege and Lief. The new material we're doing has a linking factor in that the Liege and Lief songs that have survived into the current repertoire—whether they were written by us or are genuinely traditional songs—have a cinematic quality. They're story songs. Those are the types of songs we're writing or encouraging to be written or adapted. We've become much more focused on story songs, rather than songs that are just a collection of images.
What's the basis of a good story song for you?
It has a beginning, middle and end, in that order. [laughs] It's got to draw you in as a novel will. It's got to be characterized and full of interesting characters, whether you are sympathetic or unsympathetic to them. That's what does it for me. For instance, "My Love Is In America" on the current album is a very strong, very graphic story song.
Do you feel the band competes with its past?
I subscribe to the old fashioned notion that you're only as good as your last gig. You can extend that to say "You're only as good as your last album or tour." What makes me happy to be in Fairport is the way we went down last night to people at the gig. They were all really pleased that they bought a ticket and were standing up, cheering and clapping at the end. That justifies my job. I don't need to put it into the picture of what was going on in my life 20, 25 or 30 years ago to make it work. Those eras are there if you want to look back at them, but they're not central to what's going on now. If someone wants to come along and talk about a gig they saw in a college in 1970 who has lost touch with the band ever since and wants to draw comparisons or ask "What happened to Trevor?" and that sort of thing, then that's absolutely fine. I'll give them all the time of the day. But it's really about tonight and tomorrow's gigs. It's not like a sort of mantra to the past when we go onstage.
I think you'll agree though that when a band like Fairport steps onstage, there are still a lot of ghosts afoot for long-time fans.
Certainly, some people will come and look at us through that filter, but back home in the U.K. and Europe, there are people coming to the gigs who are completely unencumbered with any sense of history. They may know the band's been around for awhile, but it might be the first time they're seeing the band. There are youngsters coming who have never seen us before and are judging us in a contemporary context. We'll simply play and it'll work for them. In those cases, there is no baggage coming onto the stage with us. The demographic in the USA Is a little more in our own age group. There are some young people there in their mid-20s who've sort of come to Fairport through circuitous routes of their own manner which may or may not involve Celtic music. We see many more of those people in Europe and the U.K. sadly. If there was a way of getting through to them in the USA, that would be wonderful, because what we do is approachable, acceptable and there's some very fine playing and very good singing going on.
The band still tours like 18-year-old punk rockers, sometimes going weeks at a time without a day off. How do you manage it given everyone's in their late 40s or early 50s?
It's true. I don't know of other bands that work as continuously as we do. We do take time off in blocks, but when we're on the road, we work seven days a week, rather than doing the two-on, one-off thing. I consider that scenario tough and tiring. Once you're in the daily rhythm, it's physically easier to keep going than breaking it and taking a day off and having the Monday morning factor creeping in. It's just what we've always done. We have years of training. I'm good friends with my suitcase and don't mind the whole business of touring. It'd probably be harder for me to go into an office on a commuting basis and get used to that rhythm. It'd be as tough for me to do that as it would for someone to step into my role.
The band plays to much larger audiences abroad than in the USA. What keeps bringing you back here?
It's a good place to tour because the audiences are terrific. It's hard work. It's a big country. Fairport's always been very connected to its audiences. We get a lot of positive and constructive feedback in this country. We also have a new agent this year and a new label with Compass Records. Compass are very much behind what we do and are enthused. So, we rub along. It's not the cheapest ticket. We're a very premium act, but we are playing places here which on other nights support single solo acts. With a five piece band and a sound man traveling around away from home months at a time, your expenses are not to be considered inconsiderable.
You now share lead vocal duties with Chris Leslie after being known as the sole voice of Fairport for nearly 15 years prior to him joining. Tell me about that decision.
It's worked out brilliantly because not only does it give me a chance to sit back and listen to his really wonderful and enjoyable singing, but it gives us two bites at songs that come along. If it doesn't work for me, it might for him. It gives us a bigger range of keys to go with because we sing in totally different, yet complementary registers. So, it's more hands to the pump really. It works very well.
When recording, do you each take a shot at singing a song and then decide which version to release?
We do that sometimes. And sometimes it's a matter of one of us saying "Oh, I'll have that." [laughs] But we've never had any disagreements because everyone understands everyone else in this group. Chris has been in the band four years, but we've been working on and off with him outside of Fairport as neighbor and friend for almost 20 years, so it was hardly a question of strangers coming together. We have a good working relationship.
So, there are no ego issues afoot?
I hope not! [laughs] If there are, they're so far below the surface they don't matter.
You've been referred to as a reluctant lead vocalist. What's your take?
It's just what happened to me. No-one's led me by the nose kicking and screaming getting me to do what I do. I didn't want to be the only guitarist in the band, but when we were a five piece and Richard [Thompson] left, it was the obvious thing to do. Rather than replace him, we carried on as a four piece. Similarly, when we got back together in '85 and made the Gladys' Leap record and Swarbrick decided he didn't want to be involved, we did it as a trio, putting me in the front again as a singer. You shrug and get on with it and you do your practicing in public—or at least, I do. I hopefully learn through experience what will and won't work.
So, at its core, do you enjoy the role of lead vocalist?
I couldn't do the job otherwise. You couldn't just do this job to pay the mortgage or keep your kids going. You do it because you like it. You have to find a way to make it enjoyable if there are elements of it you don't like. You have to override that and put a different slant or light on it and make it work.
How have you evolved as a vocalist since Thompson's departure from the band?
When Richard left, I was barely 19. I'm now 51 and the fact that I'm a musician is kind of irrelevant to the fact that whatever I was doing—whether I was a carpenter, heart surgeon or singer—I would hope I'd do a better job at my age than when I was starting out. I hope I bring a bit of life experience to bear on the way I sing a song now—particularly songs I've been singing a long tine. I think my vocals continue to evolve and I think about things in hopefully a more mature, better and well-rounded way. I'm fairly confident my voice is better than it used to be, but let the viewer decide. [laughs]
How do you look back at your two solo albums?
I think they were helpful to me in terms of refining what I do. I put myself under a bit of a microscope doing them. It was a learning curve. I enjoyed it more than I was expecting to. I thought I'd be daunted by it and perhaps run out of steam at some point, but we managed to keep going. I was also very heartened by the contributions my friends and colleagues made when putting the records together. Their enthusiasm for those projects far exceeded my expectations. I have a lot of pink and fluffy feelings from that.
I've really no urge to make another one. The first one was in '86 and the second in '92. People have been nagging me to get back in the studio, but as a non-writer, I don't have a continuing supply of material coming through which might spur me to do that. There's no sign of me becoming a writer either. I'd never say never. If I suddenly discover songwriting or came across one or two songs I really desperately wanted to do and couldn't accommodate within the Fairport framework, it wouldn't be that difficult to get into a studio situation and do it in-house. I'd just have to borrow the studio keys and get to work. It's possible, but I don't see it in a very nearby page of the diary. But I did enjoy doing them and was very flattered by the way they were received.
What's the challenge for you in terms of writing your own songs?
I don't have a challenge. [laughs] It's really outside of my experience, interest and ambition. I’m also too busy touring and getting on with life. Obviously, what happens when you start writing songs is you start recycling other people's ideas and you come up with cliché after cliché and that's kind of dispiriting. I think the secret to songwriting is probably writing a thousand songs and then tearing most of them up.
Let's discuss a couple of criticisms leveled against the current line-up. Some question the band's decision to re-record older material in versions they consider less definitive than the originals. What's your opinion?
That's absolutely fine if people want to think that. I'm not telling them that the 2002 version of a song first recorded in 1970 is by nature going to be better. It's a question of personal response to that if they prefer one above the other. I don't feel like I'm competing with myself in a former life.
The second criticism is that the band appears to be veering away from its folk-rock roots towards a more laid-back sound.
If life isn't about change, it's not about anything. We've always been spontaneous rather than planed. We've always shot from the hip. The heart has always ruled the head and I think we're just doing things honestly the way we always have. We're just making the music that comes naturally to us. That's always been the Fairport ethos. I don't have to put myself up for election. I'm not a politician that has to please a particular focus group or interest group. We'll rub along doing things our way I think. If next year, there are 10,000 people at Cropredy instead of 20,000 and then the following year there are 5,000, perhaps we would start running around in circles thinking we've alienated our fan base and ask "How can we win them back?" But I don't see that happening. I see a tremendous amount of constructive feedback and criticism from our fan base. I don't see any reason to change in any particular direction. People are always going to have their own little axes to grind, but they usually don't represent more than their own opinion.
Fairport has one of the most devoted, loyal and obsessive fan bases around. Is it a help or hindrance to have fans who are more of an authority on the group than the group itself?
We don't have any stalkers if that's what you mean. [laughs] Or at least they're below the horizon if they're out there. It's all more mildly amusing than anything else. It's certainly not bothersome. I don't have anything resembling the totality of Fairport Convention albums and that doesn't bother me, but it would probably surprise the completists—the people who have desk recordings from gigs I can't even remember. For them, everything is neatly filed away and alphabetized and they can tell you the color of your socks when you recorded the guitar solo on such and such. That's redundant information as far as I'm concerned, but if it's important to them, so be it. Good luck to them.
What do you make of the forthcoming Fairport Unconventional boxed set?
I've proofread the editorial stuff, so I basically know what's there. I'm a very big fan of the work done on The Carthy Chronicles, which is a parallel project done by the same people. I think that was a huge success combining the right degree of scholarship without that sort of fawning "This man walks on water" kind of approach. I'm sure it'll be very well received and very well done.
Island recently began reissuing remastered versions of the Fairport back catalog.
Yeah, I don't know why that is. It's probably a boardroom decision somewhere.
According to Joe Boyd's new liner notes in the Liege and Lief remaster, Fairport shifted its focus to English traditional music as a way of distancing itself from the output associated with the Martin Lamble-era.
Not really, because if you consider the songs we recorded before that album, that's obviously a fallacious oversimplification. Liege and Lief hadn't been made, sure, but we had already put a toe in the water with "Nottamun Town" and "A Sailor's Life." So, I disagree with that. I say the eras were perfectly compatible.
How do you feel about Boyd serving as the authority on the halcyon days of the group?
Well, he was responsible for taking us from semi-professional to fully professional status and acted as a father figure to the band. He wasn't just a record producer, he was our manager. He didn't do an absolutely perfect job, but he's due a huge amount of thanks and credit for the good work he did on our behalf during that time.
Several past and present members harbor a great deal of resentment towards him.
Count me out. I don't feel that. I'm always pleased to bump into him and I think he did a great deal of good, not just for us, but for the whole corner of the music industry in England when he came over from the States and started weaving his web.
Martin Lamble's name doesn't come up much when discussing Fairport's history. What can you tell me about his contributions to the group?
He was very much an equal member. He wasn't just a lad at the back who played the drums. He was a very inspiring, intelligent, well-rounded, very funny young man. He had an open-minded attitude to his instrument. He was not afraid to get away from playing the straight 4/4 kick-snare-hat sort of thing. He'd approach it the same way Gerry [Conway] does now. He was an open-minded percussionist, rather than just a drummer. I'm sure that had he survived that crash, we'd have somebody of quite serious intellectual capabilities around us. Whether he'd still be working with Fairport I can't possibly imagine, because life takes many turns, but Martin's somebody I always looked up to.
Thompson's shadow still looms large on the group. It's rare to see a mention of the group without his name.
It's very rare to see a mention of him without Fairport too. [laughs] I'm sure it's more of a bother to him than it is to me. I don't mind being associated with Richard. I love it when I get to play with him. I wish I could do more recording with him on his solo stuff. And it's great when he comes back to Cropredy to occasionally join us. He's just like a brother to me really. But you don't see your brother every day and you don't always remember to send him a birthday card and that sort of thing. That's just natural. But I feel a very strong kinship. We were together a lot during periods of our lives which by their nature were formative. I hope he has more good memories than unpleasant ones, because I do.
Do you find yourself often reflecting on members who've come and gone during your quieter moments?
Definitely. Fairport is a family and when you lose someone in your family they don't go away. It's nice to have had partnerships and associations, but if we were a small office, over a 35-year period, you'd expect people to come and go, and some to fall off the perch. You just get on with it.
Tipplers Tales and Bonny Bunch of Roses have been disparaged as two of the band's weaker efforts. I advocate the opposite and believe they're two of the better records the band did. How do you feel about them?
They have very strong material, but sonically, they're quite compromised. They aren't very well recorded. I have to take some responsibility because I was in the production chair and engineer's chair quite a lot of the time. It was a time when the band was enjoying hitherto unknown stability. It was a very productive, busy group. We were doing a tremendous amount of touring—almost as much as we're doing now. Pegg and myself represented one axis in the band and Rowland and Swarbrick the other. But together, they were very complementary and very well-balanced. Swarb was going through a very strong period. He was writing and adapting songs very well. "Jack Orion" and "Ye Mariners All" stand out to me, as does "The Bonny Bunch of Roses" itself. That four piece lasted a great deal of time by the standards of the day. It only came to an end because of forces outside of the band including the whole reshaping of the professional music industry in light of punk rock and Swarbrick's hearing problems.
Do you ever pull out the old albums and give them a spin?
I don't listen to them as a matter of course. I might if I see something written about the band that makes reference to them. I might dig one out, listen to it and say "Oh, that's a cogent point," but I don't sort of sit down and consciously reflect on what I was doing in any particular period.
The Albion Band's Rise Up Like The Sun was just reissued. Many consider it a cornerstone in folk-rock history. How do you look back at your involvement with that record and the group in general?
It's a very strong record made during a very productive period of that band's life. I was delighted to be a part of it. It was Ashley's baby really. He's always been a great ringmaster and still is. He's great at putting people together who might not have met before and getting them to cooperate in musical ventures. Hats off to him I think. That's his strength and I'm always pleased to hear from Ashley if he has a project coming along. I always know it'll be interesting. I've been in and out of the Albion Band four times. It's another parallel family. Everyone that's been involved in it has remained buddies. As long as I've got his phone number and he has mine, there's a possibility of working together.
Peggy once said "It's not essential to be an alcoholic to be in the band but it does help." What do you think?
[laughs] It's important to the image of the band I think, but as far as everyone having to be stocious before they get onstage, that's completely untrue. We couldn’t do what we do and put up with this schedule if you weren't at least sensible in terms of what you're doing to yourself. Also, Chris Leslie is a vegetarian teetotal Buddhist. So, we're not all rampant, self-destructive hedonists. Trust me on this. I have this discussion with my doctor frequently. [laughs]
More XXXV Innerviews: