Come All Ye
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2002 Anil Prasad.
One hears the word "friends" a lot when talking to members of Fairport Convention, the venerable British folk-rock institution now celebrating its 35th year together. Though it's an aberration in a music industry fueled by celebrity and conceit, the down-to-earth band includes its loyal, global fan-base among its closest comrades.
"What is it that's given Fairport its longevity? My answer is always the same: the audience," said Ric Sanders, the band's fiddler since 1985. "We have an incredible audience. I'm as proud of how Fairport relates to its audience as I am of any music we have produced. I think we're a real people's band. Massive popular success has never bothered Fairport. We've never been put in the position of being celebrities. A Fairport concert is like a meeting of friends. There's no big, security wall around us. It's kind of how music should be."
Indeed, on any given evening after a gig, the current line-up of Sanders, drummer Gerry Conway, mandolinist/fiddler/vocalist Chris Leslie, vocalist/guitarist Simon Nicol and bassist Dave Pegg can be found milling about with fans—sometimes for hours if a pub or fine imbibements are involved. The group's openness and social nature has no doubt played a role in propelling it through 35 years as a viable, ongoing entity.
Nowhere is that better represented than at the group's annual Cropredy Festival, named after the tiny British village it takes place in every August. The festival is a celebration of Fairport's music and members past and present. Typically, the three-day event features epic-length sets by the group's current line-up, augmented by alumni such as Dave Swarbrick, Richard Thompson, Jerry Donahue and Iain Matthews.
"In England, we have a very loyal bunch of fans, some of which have been with us since the late '60s," explained Pegg or "Peggy" as he's known by most. "It's very much a club, the Fairport audience. Everywhere we go, we know people. At our Cropredy Festival, we probably know half of the 20,000 people who attend by name."
"The Cropredy Festival is absolutely central to everything we do," added Nicol. "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, they get together with people from all over the world. 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."
Founded in 1967, Fairport spurred the storied British folk-rock genre with its seminal 1969 release Liege and Lief. The group is the fountainhead for the movement that spawned other influential acts such as Steeleye Span, The Albion Band, The Home Service and The Oysterband.
With more than three-dozen albums, over 25 members passing through its ranks and thousands of gigs behind it, the band shows no sign of slowing down. It recently released XXXV, an appropriately-titled anniversary release comprising new material and re-recordings of select nuggets from Fairport's vast back catalog such as "Now Be Thankful" and "The Banks of the Sweet Primroses."
There's been a flurry of related 35th anniversary releases too. Recent offerings include a boxed set titled Fairport Unconventional that gathersmany of the group's rarities; Cropredy Festival 2001, a DVD chronicling a typically invigorating festival performance; Before the Moon, a double CD capturing a 1974 performance featuring the late Sandy Denny; and several remastered albums from its heyday including Liege and Lief and Full House.
Innerviews conducted a series of evocative, in-depth interviews with each member of the current line-up, featuring a comprehensive look at the making of the XXXV album, as well as many intriguing recollections and anecdotes about the group's history and legacy.
What does Fairport's 35th Anniversary mean to you?
It reminds me of how long I've known the band—all the past line-ups and members. I've work with many on their solo projects too. It reminds me of my own personal adventures with Sandy Denny and all the people connected with the band over the years, and how lucky we are to be one of the few bands that can say they remember something happening 30 years ago. We can all say "Oh yes, we were there." [laughs] It's a rare thing to be able to do that. The band should be proud of its achievements in staying together and continuing on. There's a huge amount of mental and physical effort that goes into keeping it together. I'm proud of it.
Tell me about your role in creating the new album.
Before the album started, everybody tried to get material together they thought would be nice for the album. I presented some things, but they were not finished, so we didn't really proceed with those. So, the songs were then decided on. Some came from Chris [Leslie], some were things Simon [Nicol] had found and some were older songs we revisited. Then we started rehearsing them. Rehearsing for us is an organic thing where we just play through the songs and an arrangement develops. Everyone puts in their ideas and if they work, they're kept. As if by magic, you arrive at an arrangement and you're ready to go. For my parts, I have the songs in demo form. I just sit down and work out my own drum parts, and then all the percussion overdub parts I'm likely to play. Once the basic tracks are down—bass, drums and guitar—I can go about doing the percussion thing. I have free reign to do that. It's very nice and a rare pleasure. In a lot of situations, people say "We want this" or "We want that," but Fairport does what it wants and somehow it all works out.
Compared to previous Fairport drummers, you're very focused on ornamentation.
Over the last few years, I started developing the percussion side of things. I started collecting a lot of ethnic drums and anything that was unusual. I tried to use those to best effect. When you're playing percussion, you're not thinking about a kit in particular. In my case, I'm thinking about my favorite percussionists and how they might approach something. I go through all those angles because with percussion, you don't feel like you're actually stating time so much. That means you can embellish and fill. It's a freeing thing because the rhythm is there and you can play fills in the strangest places, unlike a kit where a fill will happen in a more straightforward way. If I'm playing an ethnic drum across something, I can be quite free and it's a great feeling to layer things. I'm very pleased I ventured into this side of things.
Where do you feel the new album falls into the band's pantheon of releases?
Other than revisiting old songs, it doesn't because although you know it's Fairport, you're dealing with the chemistry of the musicians currently in the band. It's what creates the end result. It dictates the kind of songs that are best suited for the band and what we're going to get off on. In that respect, it doesn't bear any kind of relationship the past. When Richard [Thompson] and Sandy were in the band, the way they viewed music had a direct impact on how the songs came out. It's the same now. The people in the band result in what we end up with. We don't think "Oh, how does this fit with the past?" or "Is it relevant?" To us, it's just something we enjoy doing. We think "We like this song, so we're going to do it" and hope the fans like it as well, which they seem to, at least for the last album which has been very well received. We're very happy about that.
What were your expectations going into Fairport Convention versus what you've experienced?
It was very scary at the start. [laughs] I've worked with lots of people past and present in Fairport. I've also known the band when I was in different bands. We'd meet at gigs years ago and always had a sort of connection. It's a very long history I have—the longest of all my musical histories concerning one band. I can go back to 1968 when I knew their first drummer Martin Lamble. We were friends and we'd meet up. I've also sort of been friendly with Dave Mattacks, just as two drummers who would meet at gigs or at each other's parties or whatever. He was very long-standing with the band. It was with great trepidation that I accepted. I never thought for one moment that I would be in the band. I wasn't really aware that Dave Mattacks was planning to leave. It was actually a big surprise, but it was the right time—my time—to do it. I thought "Well, here you go. You've got to fill some big shoes and have to try to make your mark with the band." You also hope the fans will accept you as you are, what you're doing and that you'll be able to sustain the job. Those were my biggest fears initially. It wasn't until I'd done my first Cropredy that I felt I had been accepted by the fans. It was a fantastic ride and has been ever since.
Musically, I hope I’ve been able to enhance and add to things, while at the same time contribute to the jigsaw. When I finally came to joining the band, it was like the missing piece of the jigsaw. It suddenly all slotted into place. Suddenly, 32 years later, I was playing with those people I'd known the longest. We all share a common vision in terms of how music should be played, how we like it, so that part has worked out very well for me.
You played on the band's 1973 album Rosie. What can you tell me about those sessions and how you became involved?
The call came out of the blue. The band was already in the studio recording the album, so I turned up and wasn't sure what we were going to do. "Rosie" was one of the songs. I suppose I was a bit in awe at the time. I thought "Goodness me, look at what I'm doing!" [laughs] I think I only spent a day in the studio and tried to do my best. I wasn't quite sure why Dave Mattacks wasn't there. I didn't really understand that, so I just did my bit and that was that. I wasn't expecting anything out of it. It was just "Would you like to play some tracks?" and that was really it. It was an awful long time ago and I don't have too many memories really. I remember Dave Swarbrick well because "Rosie" was his song and he was singing it and giving some direction. It was a pleasant day, but it was over all too quickly.
What's Peggy like to work with as part of a rhythm section?
I've worked with a lot of bass players over the years. The ones I like most are those you can really rely on—players you don't have to push or pull the time with. You can just work together in harmony, so to speak. That's the pleasure I have working with Peggy. He's a great player and sets about working out his parts so they're very solid. I like his arrangements for the bass. I know what he's going to play because we've worked together for a very long time now—decades in different situations, in fact, including Jethro Tull and various sessions. We both know what we're looking for when we play together and work as a solid unit.
Let's discuss a couple of criticisms that have been leveled against the band. The first one is the band's decision to re-record older material in versions some consider less definitive than the originals. What's your opinion on this?
It's a matter of opinion, isn't it? The reason we recorded older material on the new album is because we've been playing it in the set. Obviously, the first version you hear, be it a piece of Fairport or classical music, is the one that sticks with you. But with the line-up changes over the years, we felt it was valid to present those songs with the new line-up. With Chris Leslie, it's a different person singing, different arrangements, different everything. We're not going to please everybody. Somebody's always going to say "It's not as good as the old one" or "Why did you do it?" But I think we're right to. We also benefit from using newer technologies, sounds and all those things.
The second criticism is that the band is veering away from its folk-rock reputation towards a more laid-back sound.
It's about the chemistry of the musicians. Take five musicians and they will play what's comfortable to them. When we play a show, we really do try and ensure that if somebody's been listening to the band 35 years, they go away from the show thinking "Yeah, they played that song." But you can't just stay with the old. During the show, we'll play "Hexhamshire Lass" and a lot of old things, but the band must progress. We must keeping going as musicians. You have to play new material. It's to the band's credit that it doesn't sit on its laurels. There are a lot of bands that just churn out the old stuff and keep everybody happy. This year, Fairport went out with a new album and yes, we are asking a lot of the audience—they're taking in a half-dozen new songs when we play. It's not easy for them, but we've had good response along the way. Many people have gone out and bought the album. I think musicians are entitled to have the freedom to experiment and move forward.
Contrast how Fairport and Pentangle operate in 2002 versus their heydays in the '70s.
I joined Pentangle in 1985 and though the line-up had changed, Bert Jansch and Jacqui McShee were still there. The original band had an amazing chemistry—Basket of Light is my favorite Pentangle record. It was a very unique sound. It was great music. Nobody else could do it. But as the years went by with the line-up changes, a different kind of sound was produced. It's all valid, but when you look at the roots of where the band started, Pentangle became a very different kind of band. It was down to who was in the band and what musical policies were dictated. Eventually, when Bert decided to leave, Jacqui and myself made a Pentangle album called About Thyme. We were very thrilled with this album because we felt we captured the initial musical policies of the original band which was more jazz groove-oriented, rather than the rock thing put to folk music. Even though it's a drastically different line-up, the current band has more resemblance to the original concept of the group than the middle period during the '80s.
Fairport, I think, is deeply steeped in what it does because it has such a huge repertoire of folk music, traditional stuff and contemporary stuff that was written along the way. The fans know these songs so well. When we go onstage today, we do a mixture of the very old and very new. Somehow, everything seems to gel together no matter if a song was written this year or 30 years ago. It just has a very strong style. That's what's driven the band over the years.
Fairport is extremely lucky to have Dave [Pegg] and Christine [Pegg] who do so much work to keep the band working and things happening. A lot of the reason the band is where it is today is because of the work they do. With Pentangle, when it had personnel splits, it depleted the band very seriously. It was very hard to continue. It was a harder ride and a harder story.
The fact is when I go out and play with either band today, the fans are very gracious. Many are of a certain generation that remembers the original line-ups and music. But if a band is to continue, it has to continue improving and write new material. I think a lot of people have a concept of the original bands and every so often you'll get someone come up to you—as they did on Fairport's last winter tour—and say "Where's Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas?" And we'll say "Sorry to tell you, but…" [laughs] You also look out and you see a lot of youngsters who could be the children of the parents I'm talking about or they've just heard about the band and want to see what it's all about.
You've worked with Fairport, Fotheringay, Steeleye Span, Pentangle and the Albion Band—the most influential and pioneering British "hyphenated folk" bands in history. What does that fact mean to you?
When we started, nobody really knew what was being started. As a musician, you were meeting various people along the road and were attracted to certain musical situations. By chance or fate, I was drawn into that side of it. I remember at the time, definitely thinking "Yeah, this is something to get my teeth into," because it was complicated trying to put traditional music to contemporary rhythms. Folk music is handed down through generations and everyone has a vision of it. There's 100 versions of the same thing. You'll find that one version is many bars longer than another or someone else's version is very different in another way. It was a challenge as a drummer to learn how to play that music. I was in my early 20s back then. I thought it was interesting and was drawn to it. I had no idea that 30 years on, it would become what it has become. If I stop to think about it, yes, it's astonishing. When you stand up onstage at Cropredy and look out at 20,000 people enjoying this music 30 years on, it's astounding.
Had Fotheringay continued past one album, what do you think would have happened?
That's a difficult question. It was a very happy band. It was very nice working with Sandy. Everyone in the band adored her. I loved to play her songs. I think had the band not been forced to quit, it would have continued for quite a long time. Sandy was the type of person who once she felt comfortable with her musicians, would stick with them. It was a very difficult decision she had to make. Even when she made the decision to be a solo singer, the first thing she did was employ the musicians from the band to play on the solo album. That speaks for itself.
Every so often, someone will come up to me with a Fotheringay album to sign. Every time that happens, I get a very nice feeling. I have a real soft spot for that album and period. It was a very nice thing. Musically, the album's not perfect, but a lot of people tell me how much they enjoy it. It still happens quite often. It's like you suddenly have a bond with that person. It's a weird thing.
What thoughts run through your head when you think about the break-up of the band?
The break-up was very upsetting at the time. We had a meeting with the band after we learned Sandy wasn't going to be in it anymore. We were deciding whether or not to continue without her. I'm usually the last person to say "Let's stop," but I recall in that situation, I said "No Sandy equals no band for me." I was pretty clear-cut on that. So, that's it. It folded.
Did anyone else in the group briefly consider moving ahead with another singer?
It didn’t get that far. Had we decided to stick together, we would have had to undoubtedly find another singer. Whether breaking up was a misguided emotional decision done on the spur of the moment in terms of "If Sandy's not doing it, then I don't want to do it," I can't really say. All I know is when she went, I didn't want to continue.
Would you like to see the aborted Fotheringay sessions released?
They sort of are on the Fotheringay CD reissue. There's a few tracks there that were meant for the second record. Because they needed more material to fill out the CD, they were sort of put together and went on there. There's not a lot else that was recorded that could have been put out. There's maybe a few other tracks. I think we did a version of "Silver threads and golden needles," but I'm not sure where that ended up.
What was Denny like as a bandleader?
It was more of an unspoken thing. Without a rehearsal, we'd play something and it was mostly an intuition thing. You could always see if she was happy or not. When you got it right and it sounded right, she would let you know she was really happy. She was no taskmaster. With Sandy, it was about a kind of feeling from her when you had it right. She would never say "It would be nice if you'd play the fiddle here or do that." It was never that. It was always up to me to construct my own parts and when it was right, it was right. It also had to do with the fact that you had to first gain her acceptance as a musician, but once you did, she really trusted you to do the right thing and you were left to do that.
What was her perspective on rhythm?
Rhythmically, Sandy was pretty laid back. We didn't play anything frenetic. As a drummer, I learned how to play slowly which is possibly twice as hard as learning to play fast. [laughs] Chordally and lyrically speaking, she was fantastic. When I started working with her, it was the first time as a drummer that I was aware of the song. The songs she wrote grabbed me. They did something for me. Suddenly, I found myself wanting to play the best possible thing for the music. That's often quite difficult. The creative process, no matter which instrument you play, is quite a painful thing when you're going from square one to bring something to fruition. It was quite a big learning curve for me to learn how to do the best thing for those songs.
The Eclection album was just re-released on CD. What do you recall about making it and those days in general?
They were reasonably colorful. Prior to Eclection, I was with Alexis Korner in his band. My name was put forward somewhere and I got the Eclection call and they asked if I'd be interested in joining the band. I met them in an apartment just off Marble Arch. We talked awhile and set about rehearsing. We were rehearsing in a warehouse full of Blue Note records. I distinctly remember thumbing through all of them during breaks. We rehearsed up all these songs and went into a studio off Portland Place, a step from the BBC. We found a producer who produced all the early Bee Gees material. I was thrilled because it was my first album recording. Everything was wonder and awe. The tracks went down pretty easy as did the overdubs. It was pretty exciting at the time.
I suppose I think of the record as being a little poppy, but it's definitely of an era. We got classified as progressive rock, whatever that was. I suppose it was a kind of rock music with more adventurous songs than what was currently going on around us at the time. We got on very well with Georg Hultgreen. Things were very nice in the band. The worst thing that happened is Kerrilee Male decided to leave really soon after making the record. She didn't want to be in the business at all and returned to Australia. That was a big blow. We lost an original member and it was never quite the same again. We struggled on, but lost direction. We had a few more personnel changes. I think at the end, it wasn't going anywhere at all. In its last throes, the idea for putting together Fotheringay came together and that seemed a musically better thing to do.
Do you feel Trevor Lucas has received the recognition he deserves for his contributions to the British folk-rock movement?
No, he hasn't really. He should have got more recognition. He had a great voice and was incredibly enthusiastic for the bands. He was a leader. He had all the ideas and was a good sod really, but I suppose he never really came to the forefront in a way he should have. We set about doing a solo album for him and I'm not sure it ever materialized. I remember doing the tracks and they came out very well, but I don't think any of it came out as a solo album for him. Whether he couldn't get a deal or what it was, I don't know. My association with him seemed like ages, but in actual fact, it was only a couple of years in bands together. Fotheringay was only a year and Eclection was maybe 18 months in all.
You worked with John Cale on his 1975 Slow Dazzle album. What was that experience like?
Pat Donaldson had started to work with John and got me involved. We did basic tracks, but Pat explained to me that whatever it was we were playing on, the end result could possibly bear very little resemblance by the time John had done his thing. [laughs] It was like the day I spent doing Rosie. It was maybe a day or two at Sound Techniques. We also made the Fotheringay album there and endless records for all kinds of other people like Mick Softly and Françoise Hardy. It was like our own little music factory. We had my kit set up there almost all of the time. It was a fantastic period because of our ages and the fact that we wanted to experiment musically. At the time, we were able to do that. We could just live in the studio and try stuff out. It was a great learning curve. The John Cale session was just one of those days there. I didn't know him very well. I did hear the finished tracks and thought they were great, but that was it apart from laying them down. I never spent enough time with him to say I knew him well, or even slightly. [laughs] Pat went on afterwards to be in a band with him for some time.
You and Jacqui McShee have been a couple for several years. How did you meet and what's it like to share your lives and careers together?
We met in Pentangle. We were friends for years and were constantly traveling the world as good friends. We shared that tourist thing. When we weren't playing, we liked to get out in places like Italy to see all the architecture and anything that's nice to see. We'd always go out and do that. We've been living together for four years now. We're partners. We're very happy. We have a great time.
To me, she's one of the great singers because no-one on the planet sounds like her. That's rare. You can usually pick some kind of influence in a singer, but I honestly can't find any with her. It's just her unique voice. Since the start of the new Pentangle line-up, we rebuilt it from the ground up, based on the About Thyme record, which was very personal for us. It was the first time we said "Let's make a record and do it ourselves. We'll pay for it. We'll be totally responsible from start to finish—artwork, the whole lot." What came out of it is something we're very proud of. I really like the music. I love all the performances we got from the people who were gracious enough to play on the album. It was one of life's great experiences to make that record. From a drummer's point of view, Jacqui's timing is fantastic. It's like working with Dave Pegg, who's totally reliable—you don't have to worry about time or even think about it. You just lock into it and that's that. It's the same to play live with Jacqui. It's a very unique and rare thing.
You have yet to release a solo album. Do you have any aspirations in that realm?
I did a Drumdrops album in America. There were maybe six volumes of these made by various drummers, prior to drum machines. You'd go into the studio and lay down tracks which would be of use to songwriters. That's about the nearest I've got. I do have a desire to do something solo, but when that might happen, I can't say. I would like to get into my drums and percussion and do something of my own, but the opportunity has to present itself. I think it would be highly rhythmical and definitely be a groove-based thing. As far as the music itself, it could take any form because I like so much music from so many places.
What does Fairport's 35th anniversary mean to you?
I think the 35th year is definitely seen as a marked point. It's something Peggy [Dave Pegg] and Simon [Nicol] are quite rightly very proud of achieving. Simon has been there since the beginning and Peggy since '69. The XXXV album title is a very felt, very "pleased to be" title. For me, it was the realization of a little kind of dream to be part of Fairport. I've followed the band since I was in school. They were my favorite band. I look back at Liege and Lief in '69 as an album where things revolved around it. It actually did point in a new direction for a particular kind of music. Whether people knew that was happening or they were just doing an album with new ideas, I don't know. But it is a pivotal point that launched a whole other genre.
I've known all the members as friends for about 20 years before joining. So, I've kind of gone alongside Fairport for a long time. I also stepped in for Ric [Sanders] in '92 when he had his unfortunate accident. I did a short tour and the Cropredy Festival of that year. Six years since joining, I have to say it's a fantastic experience being in this band that works so incredibly hard.
How does the new album reflect the band's anniversary?
With the title XXXV, it seemed quite okay to have a slightly retrospective look and go back to pick out some numbers we thought the current line-up could do. Happily, my vocal range fits very well with things that Dave Swarbrick has done. My particular way of singing seems to work with them as well. So, I'm more than happy to revisit some of those wonderful songs. I was asked a few years ago in an interview what would be the one song I would pick as a Fairport song and "Now Be Thankful" was it. It's great to sing it and bring it back into the public eye again, whereas it might have stayed as part of the History of Fairport Convention double album when it came out. Also, it was only released as a single when it came out. Hopefully, when we redo songs, we give them life. It's not about bringing out a reproduction or trying to relive the time it was done. It's about trying to make it relevant now.
How did the group go about revitalizing the re-recorded pieces?
For "Now Be Thankful," we were on the road in Germany and thinking about stuff to perform. I said "I would really love to do 'Now be Thankful' and I'd love to sing." I also always wanted to sing "Hexhamshire Lass," which isn't on the album but is in the live set. As is the Fairport way, because someone expresses an interest in something that seems possible, everyone says "Okay, let's give it a go and learn the words." I sing in the same key as the original numbers. On "Now Be Thankful," the instrumental section is different. The way Ric and I play it has the mandolin weaving around the fiddle, with the fiddle playing the tune. On "Banks of the Sweet Primroses," the instrumental section was written by Ric. He came up that line, so it's almost like new.
What I like about Fairport particularly is it has a fantastic back catalog, but it isn't seen as something that has to come back out. Fairport has always had a current album and repertoire. Obviously, people love to hear what's gone before, as I do. All those years of material is like a fantastic box of jewels you can pick things out of. When we do, it's done because we want it to be part of a current set, rather than make it part of a repertoire focusing on what happened 20 to 30 years ago.
Some have criticized the group because they feel the re-recordings are less definitive than the originals.
What can I say? If people think that, you can't argue with it. You just have to say "Well, that's what they think." But, let's take "Portmeirion" as an example. We had Ian Anderson come in on flute to have a go at it. It was fantastic. So, it's different. You have to look at people in the band to see the whole picture and understand why something is done. Decisions are not made in isolation. They're made because of a general feeling of wanting to do it. Imagine what people would think if we never revisited our older stuff in our live show. The fact that we're recording these things is a result of our particular wish to put down some favorites that we really like. It's a nod to the past. 35 years is another threshold. Why not bring things in and do it now? If people prefer the older version, that's fine. I know people have equally come up and said "We really like the new version." We don't try to please everyone. We do it to be creative.
Tell me about your role in creating the new album.
I see myself in terms of my place in the band. I play quite a supportive role. My instrumental playing is always mainly supporting what's going on around me. I tend to use the mandolin and bouzouki to fit in spaces that complement other things, rather than being a lead player. I feel like I put a layer down for a fiddle or vocal to go over. I have contributed a few songs to the album, which is my main contribution, as well as my vocals and harmonies.
Some might argue your singing and songwriting contributions make you one of the band's key drivers.
Perspective is a funny thing. If I'm seen as a key driver or instigator of something, it's from someone else's perspective. My biggest joy is combining what I do with other things. I really enjoy adding a mandolin, violin, bouzouki or vocal line to something, rather than forging ahead with an idea that requires other people to pool around me. I rather like combining as part of something. When that doesn't happen is if I offer a song I've written. I offer a fairly finished product in terms of song structure, but then it's always handed to the band to do what they will. For instance, on some of the demos, I do fiddle lines which are just for me—to get a mood. If the group says "Yeah, we like that—we'll go ahead and work on it," it's always with the proviso that the fiddle line is completely up to what Ric [Sanders] wants to do. There are some link lines I may put in that are very specific because it's almost a part of the vocal line—the melody of the song. Apart from that, I like to leave people to bring what they have to the thing. It's how you get the best results.
When you write material for Fairport, do you do so specifically with the band in mind or does the material come out of a larger, more general pool of pieces you work on?
It's pretty much with the band in mind. This is my sixth year with the band. Since joining, I don't have much time to do other projects. There are a couple of things going on outside of Fairport, but 90 percent of my time is spent with the band on the road or recording.
It's an interesting thing. I've always shied away from the label of being a songwriter. I feel I'm a person who has ideas and comes up with songs, but a songwriter to me is someone who continually observes and writes a whole load of stuff all the time. I'd call myself a fiddle and mandolin player, and singer. I spend most of my time on those. It's those activities that are in my thoughts a lot of the time. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I approach and do those things. Songwriters spend the same amount of time writing songs. They always have a notebook and are constantly jotting down ideas. In contrast, when I have an idea, I hone in on it—the story line or the plot. Then, I go for it. It does occupy my time quite a lot, but only during the length of producing that particular song.
I would point to Ralph McTell as a songwriter, not only because of the fantastic quality of his songs, but also as somebody who has continually, over the years, produced so many songs. Songwriters like him are amazing. They have so many songs that will never see the light of day. Their quality control will put many songs in the bin before they have one that gets used.
Most of the stuff I work on comes out in some way. My throughput of material isn't huge, but I certainly enjoy producing songs and having a vehicle like Fairport to take them up and get them out into the world. I've very pleased with that. Songwriting is something I've always dabbled in since the first album I did with my brother back in '76. I wrote the title track of that very first album called "The Ship of Time" So, songwriting is something that's always been alongside me, but I've never done it full-time. I've always been a musician first—one who has ideas and happens to produce songs. I think there's a big difference, but I'm very glad to have my songs in a band that's had such great writers as Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick. It's quite a thing.
Where do you feel the new album falls into the band's pantheon of releases?
That's a difficult question. I'd say that XXXV is a very consistent album. I listen it from start to finish and think there's an overall sound and there's an identity as a band again. When people come in and move out of the band, the band changes. Replacing Martin Allcock was a hugely difficult thing to do. You never really replace anyone in a band like Fairport. Martin is irreplaceable. He' a fantastic musician. So, I had to come in and slowly, but surely do what I do best with my strengths and hope it got assimilated into the line-up. I feel the album probably has a more gentle approach to the music. I've definitely come from a folk music background—that's my CV if you like. However, I do listen to all kinds of music, but my heart's in acoustic-y folk music, whereas Martin definitely has an electric rock element about him, as well as being a fantastic musician within folk music. Now, I feel this line-up is very settled. It's musically consistent. It's the same band on every track.
There are fans who believe the band is veering too far from its folk-rock reputation. What's your take?
I feel that within a band, you have to look to what's there. You have to see how people are feeling. If I was personally trying to produce or be creative and constantly thinking "folk-rock, electric guitar, folk-rock, electric guitar," it would be very limiting. I think I would be doing something untruthful to my musical creativity. You're never going to please all the people all the time. There will always be people who look back and have their favorite period of the band, and favorite band members who may no longer be there. That's really as it should be. It's human nature. I would never argue with anyone who said "I wish it was like this," because that's how they feel. The fact that it isn't like this now is how it is though. It's what's kept Fairport a moving, viable band.
Fairport has never tried to constrain itself by bringing things in just because it wants to make things sounds like what went before. It's the band's strength. We're not a '60s band that had chart success. When you see those bands go out—and I'm not knocking them at all—they're trying to recreate their heyday. Fairport is a "now" band.
People who want more electric guitar—which is obviously what they're talking about—have to understand it's not how it is, but there are moments on XXXV that are quite rocky I think. "Light of Day" and "Madeleine" have moments where things are quite up and punchy. And for my money, Simon plays a great Stratocaster. I know his playing as soon as I hear a few notes.
Fairport could have easily got in somebody who played guitar. When I was about to join, they could have easily replaced Martin with an electric guitarist. That person wouldn't have been like Martin, because he has his own sound. However, Fairport never goes that way. It goes for what it considers the best ingredient, rather than taking a formulaic approach. It's a bit like cooking. If you use the same ingredients day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out, you're going to get pretty uninspired by the end of the day. So, what you do is look around for different ingredients, spices and ways of doing things. Also, Fairport's always been bigger than the sum of its parts. The sum of its parts always produce something that has a Fairport flavor to it, however much someone thinks the approach moves around.
What were your expectations going into Fairport versus what you've experienced to date?
When Peggy asked me to join, I said "I'd love to, but what am I going to do? You've already got Ric, who's a fantastic fiddle player." Until joining Fairport, my main contribution to anything was fiddle. However, two years before Fairport, I had been in a mandolin quartet with Martin Allcock and Simon Mayor. During that period, my mandolin playing curve took a direction upwards. I’d always dabbled with mandolin but never seriously took to it prior to that. So, I thought I could add some mandolin to Fairport. Also, I was with the Albion Band at a festival and saw a bouzouki instrument and thought I'd get one of those.
My expectations going in were just to try and settle in as quickly as I could. I did feel going in that I was a much quieter animal, so I had some solid instruments made—a solid bouzouki made with a Fender body and five-string Telecaster bouzouki. I used those for a couple of years to get some electric sound in—to get that rocky thing. At one point, our soundman Rob Braviner said he liked the sound of the acoustic as much as the electric one. He gets a fantastic sound out of it. So, I said to myself "I have to go where my heart is" and I put the electric solid body ones, lovely as they are, back under my stairs. Occasionally, I still get them out and play them at home. I now play mandolin and bouzouki—and fiddle when it counts—on the albums and in the live show. I do instrumental medleys with Ric, which is great fun. We're both in the front of the house playing away. Ric and I had wanted to do that for years, but never had the time. Now, we get the time every night.
I was allowed complete freedom to do whatever I wanted when I joined. Simon, Peggy, Ric and Dave Mattacks, the drummer at the time, let me find my way. It was brilliant and that's probably always been the Fairport way. They want to get the best out of people, rather than slot people into something that isn't them. I suppose they choose people because they see something in that person that will fit in. Six years on, the biggest bonus has been the songwriting. I never dreamt I'd be writing material for the albums.
"John Gaudie," which I'd written during my Whippersnapper days was something Martin Allcock liked and suggested that for the Fairport album that was going to be made before he left. So, when I came in, one of my songs was already on the list of things for people to take a look at. It was a fantastic bonus.
When I joined, it was Peggy who suggested I get together with Nigel Stonier. I'd been writing a couple of songs on my own. When I got together with Nigel, who had been writing for Lindisfarne, we really hit it off. We became good friends. He's a fantastic catalyst. We just sat down at my house and produced all those songs that ended up on The Wood and the Wire, including the title track. We haven't worked as much since then. There's one of our joint songs on XXXV and the others are solo efforts.
How did you and Ric come to terms musically and personally with having two fiddlers in the same band?
Ric was fantastic from the moment I joined. I went 'round to his house and he was incredibly welcoming. Not for one second did he show or feel any sort of territoriality, because he isn't at all like that. He was completely open with me playing as much fiddle as I wanted. It was actually me who put the reigns on that and said "No, if there's going to be two fiddles on everything, it's not going to work." I respect what Ric does and it felt wrong to me. So, I went for the option of mandolin and bouzouki with a bit of fiddle and some vocals.
When we do play together, it's interesting in that our styles are very different, yet work together very well. Ric comes from a jazz background, it's his big love in life. I come from the folk direction. But we've had parallel lives in that we've been listening to the same music. I've listened to jazz for years and loved it. He's been listening to folk stuff and loved it. We never have to get out of each other's way when we play. We've never had to sit down and say "Look, we need to do this and that because I need to do that." The two fiddles seem to fit side-by-side and combine nicely. I play exactly how I play and so does Ric.
With things like our version of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" Ric writes the arrangements and that's great, because he knows how I play and what I can and can't do. Things are just never a problem, which is fantastic, because two fiddle players can really get in the way of each other if they're incompatible in terms of style or approach.
You're performing with Ric in his jazz-oriented band. Describe that experience.
It's been a lot of fun. I mostly play mandolin in the group. It's a great experience because it's improvisational. I've always enjoyed improvising within my own approach to music. I'm quite modal—I improvise around modes. I think of modes rather than key signatures, so I would never call myself a jazz musician. But I can improvise in my own way through jazz numbers in that modal way. It's how I relate to improvising, whereas Ric will know exactly what key he's in and where all the flats and sharps are. He can play across keys and chords, whereas I hear things in a spatial way. The group also features a great friend and schoolmate of Ric's named Vo Fletcher, as well as Michael Gregory. I hope to do more with the group as time allows.
Contrast your experience of joining Whippersnapper versus Fairport.
When I was with Swarb in Whippersnapper, I was a lot younger. I was still finding my voice—who I was. That's never stopped actually. Music is an ongoing thing in that way. I hope it's always like that. But during the early '80s with that group, I was still figuring out what I really wanted to be within music. Whippersnapper was fantastic in terms of giving me time to play a lot alongside Dave Swarbrick who was and still is one of my mentors. He's a wonderful musician, not only because of his fiddle playing, but because of his musical heart and the things that come out when he plays. To work alongside him to see how instinctive he is and how he gives to the moment was wonderful. He has a great feel, technique and musicality on the fiddle that's all his own. It all just pours out of him and still does.
I learned so much from Swarb and also from Kevin Dempsey, the guitarist in the group. Kevin has a fantastically funky approach to music—really groovy. I loved his feel. I learned a lot about rhythmic things. Martin Jenkins, the mandocellist, mandolinist and songwriter in the band also taught me a lot. I just sat in that atmosphere and soaked it up. My learning curve was steep. I learned who I was completely through that period. It was great to have those three musical characters to reflect off of.
I was always aware of Ric during those early days. I knew the Fairport catalog and repertoire pretty well, so it was a great thrill to be amongst them. I came into the situation knowing who I was. I was very pleased with that situation because I wasn't in the band long before I was out on tour with them. I had a couple weeks rehearsal for the first winter tour—30 dates back-to-back. I think had I not known a little bit of who I was, going into that situation would have been pretty difficult because I had to get quite a few things together quite quickly. Although I found my way in the band as the years have gone on, during that initial step, I had to know what I was capable of—what I had to offer. During the Whippersnapper days, I was just keen to get in there and be there. The pressure wasn't quite so great. I had time. We had lots of rehearsals—maybe over 12 months—before we went out on the road. I had lots of time to feel more comfortable. With Fairport, there was hardly any time. I had to be ready to go. So, the two occurred at the right time, in the right order.
Swarb's known as a demanding bandleader. What was day-to-day life like in Whippersnapper?
I found Swarb lovely to work with. He was difficult at times, but maybe I was as well. Swarb was very kind to me. He knew I was completely in love with the fiddle. He was very welcoming and inspiring. It was quite something as I was in my mid-to-late 20s when I joined the group. Prior to that, I had been on tour with Steve Ashley in the late '70s as a duo, which was great. That experience introduced me to traveling around and playing on the road, but my experience of being in a band was very limited.
With Whippersnapper, my eyes were opened to how strong-willed people can be. When you're in a band, it can be quite an unnatural thing, really. Not only are you traveling together as people, but you have to get up onstage, open yourself up a bit, and play for people. Then you get back to your room and then, the next morning, you're all back together again. I suppose it shows up—the sides of people that aren't so easy to deal with. You're asking so much of people's sense of acceptance. Every band has those problems I'm sure. I suppose I'm a fairly placid person. The difficulties with people with strong ways are essentially the same as when lions meet. Two people with strong ways tend to create disruptions.
What I've learned on the road is tolerance. You learn to put yourself in other people's shoes sometimes. When someone wants their way on a particular thing, you have two choices. You say "Actually, I disagree and I want this" or you say "Okay, I can see that. Let's go down that road and see what happens." I've learned that the first choice has to be based on something that's really true. You also have to know when it doesn't matter, as in "I don't really mind which way it goes." Within that, you build up a more tolerant atmosphere.
If people are being difficult—and we all are sometimes—that's being human, isn't it? I think creativity brings those things out as well. People trying to create something tend to be more fragile. It's that fragility that sometimes brings out idiosyncrasies or dominance. It's kind of a reaction to the creative process, but sometimes they are just being difficult. [laughs]
What Swarb is fantastic at is providing strong musical direction. In Whippersnapper, I always more or less was following his lead on what we did with fiddles. I had no qualms about doing that because I was learning so much and his ideas were fantastic. Musically, my ideas at the time were very limited. I could play, but I learned so much. So, the single-mindedness Swarb is known for sometimes brought me is a fantastic experience. I was delighted to soak things up.
I had some great times with Swarb. I owe a lot to him, as countless hundreds or thousands of musicians do. I got to know him and play alongside him. It had its down times, but that's life. You only know good times if you have some down times.
You were asked to overdub parts onto the Sandy Denny Gold Dust release. What’s your take on the controversy over modifying the original tapes?
Simon asked me to do it. He thought my vocal range would fit in well with his for harmonies. The fact is, the recording was all being reworked. It's difficult to judge because I didn't know what went before. I didn't hear the original guitar parts. I can only presume the reason they were being replaced is because they were poorly recorded or there was some wrong things on them.
You can look at it in two ways: You want to get the best musical result out of some great singing, songs and performances, or you want a historical document with warts and all. I guess the people producing it were more interested in getting a really good musical result by sensitively using people who were involved with Sandy anyway. For instance, Jerry Donahue went in and did loads of guitar work. Historic documents are great on one level, but sometimes a good, sensitive musical result is a great idea too. That's how I see it. My involvement was very tiny and I had no discussions with anyone about musical policies.
This is me looking at it from the outside, but I did meet Sandy a few times because she and Trevor Lucas lived locally to the area here in Byfield. I went back to their house a few times. I remember those moments well. She's someone you hear stories about, but she was a very creative person and was lovely to me. She was very interesting to be around.
What did you make of the end result?
I like it very much. I almost can't listen to it because I know I'm on the album. It's very strange. It's the closest thing I'll ever get to time travel. However small my part is, my vocals are actually there. It's difficult to look at something you're involved with sometimes. The perspectives with which the people involved see it may be very different from those who weren't. That may be a good thing because you can't detach yourself completely and look at it that way.
You played on the ColdCut CD Let Us Replay. Tell me about that collaboration.
Yeah, I did. They never sent me one. [laughs] I'm told it did very well. It was an interesting experience. It happened through a musician called Paul Brook who is a fantastic drummer and percussionist. He's been working with ColdCut for awhile. I met him through working with Kevin Dempsey. Kevin and I did a duo album back in '89 called Always With You and Paul did the programming and percussion for it.
ColdCut were looking for a mandolin player and fiddler for a track they were doing. Paul said "Why don't you get Chris in?" The way they recorded the track was very interesting. It was so different from anything I'd ever done. They played me parts of the track and it was pretty out there, atmospheric, ambient groovy stuff. They got me to play along with little bits of it. Then they'd lift out everything I'd done and rearrange it. They'd conduct massive surgery on what I'd done and place it how they wanted it within the track. It was fine by me. It's another way of working. They weren't actually interested in what lines I had to play. They were interested in my sound. They'd take it and sculpt it in a completely different way. They weren't after my melodic input, just my playing. It's probably the same way they'd worked on everything else within the track.
You're a teetotal vegetarian. How does your approach mesh with Peggy and Simon's entertainment philosophies?
[laughs] It meshes very well. It goes back to your question about Swarb. You have to be tolerant in a band. You also have to be able to have your own space and let others have theirs as well. Peggy and Simon don't expect me to drink. That could be considered a tolerance from their point of view. It's all down to labels and it's a difficult thing. Musicians on the whole generally are expected to drink and be party animals and that's fine. Why not be a party animal? There's no reason not to. But within that, I'm just as happy not having a drink. I'm not saying anybody shouldn't have a drink or eat meat. It's just my way of life. It's something I've come to at age 45. In my 45th year, I'm really happy to not have a drink or eat meat. And I'm really happy for anybody else to live their life in a way that makes them feel happy within themselves.
What was your previous lifestyle like?
I used to drink, smoke and eat meat. I can still have a good time. I can be at a party and have at least as good a time as anyone else. I remember having a pint in my hand one night and thinking "God, I'm not enjoying this anymore. This is an awful lot of liquid to get down my neck. Why do it? Why am I drinking? Actually, I can be in this scene and not have a drink. So, why not do that?" So, I stopped. I finished one night and never looked back. It's just latching on to how I’m happiest within myself—what makes me tick best and feel more centered. For me, it’s not drinking or eating meat. The trouble with this is saying to someone "I don't drink" can be construed as saying "and I don't think you should either." But this is exactly how it isn't. It's not that at all. I think people shouldn't kill themselves with alcohol, but that's common sense. It's like saying "Don't walk under a bus." [laughs] I'm not telling anybody how to lead their life, as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else's. My not eating meat or drinking doesn't affect anyone else.
Do these decisions have a basis in a spiritual perspective?
I am a Buddhist practitioner. It's by being happy inside instead of living by labels that's brought me to live the way I do. So, I'm not saying alcohol is bad because it's alcohol or meat is bad because it's meat. If I was living in certain parts of the world, I wouldn't have the luxury of not eating meat. I'm totally happy with that. It's a good way of life. But I'm lucky to live in a society where there are other things available. If I lived in Siberia, it would be a very different kind of thing. I do have that outlook on life now. I don't call it "giving up" something. I've come to the point in my life where I simply don't want these things. I think the two ideas are very different.
What non-Fairport activities are you up to at the moment?
I'm about to make another fiddle. Fiddle-making is something I was trained to do in the early '80s here in England. I went to a violin-making school. Doing that is a great balance with being on the road. It's just me in my little workshop with my tools, carving away. Musically, I'll hopefully be doing some work with Ric's trio as a guest on upcoming gigs. I'm also part of a group called St. Agnes Fountain. We went out for the first time last Christmas. We did 18 shows back-to-back, which is really great fun. The other people in the group are Chris While, Julie Matthews and David Hughes—a fantastic singer and songwriter who supported Fairport on a tour. The four of us did a Christmas album which I don't think is like most. We took Christmas material we liked and played it as we'd play anything else. We didn't try to make it Christmas-y. We just took the material we loved because some of the melodies are fantastic. The tour and album were very well received. We're hoping to do the same this coming December.
It's good to do outside projects. Whenever you do something outside the main thing you do, you come back to the main thing you do with a bit of freshness. It's like the old food analogy. It's like sampling a bit of another taste. You bring your tongue back to the other food you're eating with a different receptivity.
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 an 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.
What's your perspective on the role Boyd played during the group's early days?
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. 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]
What does Fairport's 35th anniversary mean to you?
I'm just grateful we're still able to get on the plane or into the van. [laughs] We've always been a working band. We don't sell enough records to sit at home relaxing until it's time to make the next album. It has to be an ongoing thing.We've always had to work and tread the boards. We get most of our fun by going out and playing live. We've already done so much this year. We did 28 concerts in England and Wales, then Tokyo for a couple nights, then a week's worth of gigs in Australia. After that, we did Belgium and Germany for 10 dates. We've already done a year's work already by most band's standards.
I'm very pleased we've been able to survive. In England, we have a very loyal bunch of fans, some of which have been with us since the late '60s. We also have some young people who've discovered the group by attending our Cropredy Festival. We're very grateful we still have an audience. It's very much a club, the Fairport audience. Everywhere we go, we know people—especially in England. At our Cropredy Festival, we probably know half of the 20,000 people who attend by name. They've been here for so long. We couldn't survive without people coming to see us live.
Where does the new album fall within the group's back catalog?
Oh God, I don't know. There are so many Fairport albums. [laughs] Every one is different. Every time we make an album every 18 months or so, the musical content is down to what the guys in the band come up with. We're always on the lookout for good songs. We're kind of selfish in some ways because we just play stuff we feel works in the band. We tend not to overstretch these days. We're at that age where if it doesn't work fairly instantly, we feel it's not right for us and we'll choose something else. We pick from the best of what we've got at the time and that which fits the people in the band.
Why is playing material best suited to the band a selfish act?
Most other bands probably consider things like airplay or whether the record company will like it. Those aspects have never been a priority for Fairport right from the start of the band's career. We've been lucky enough to do what we want without being pressured by what's popular or fashionable. It's the way people do their best work—playing stuff they really want to play. We just hope our audience likes it. Sometimes, they're not sure about the stuff we come up with, even though we love it. That goes vice-versa too. Sometimes we record stuff we're not convinced of and then people come up saying "Oh, we really like that. It's great."
Describe the process of putting the new album together.
We're lucky to have Chris Leslie. His songwriting has really developed over the last three or four years. We have several songs on this record that Chris brought to the band. "My Love Is In America" is one of my favorite songs ever actually. Since Chris joined the band, there have also been some songs we've been able to reintroduce into the live format like "Now Be Thankful" and "Banks of the Sweet Primroses." We also looked at "The Deserter" again, a great song by a guy called John Richards which Simon [Nicol] recorded on a solo album. We also previously did a version of it on Old, New, Borrowed, Blue. We had started doing versions of these songs live and many of our English fans said it'd be nice to have a new recording of them. That's why we went back and did that. Also, it's our 35th anniversary, so it's nice to have a look at the past, as well as including new stuff.
The way Fairport records is quite old fashioned. We've reverted to the way we recorded in the '60s and '70s which is doing everything mostly live, with very few overdubs. What we do is spend two or three days looking at new material with a view to recording it. Then we play them a few times and go into our studio. We have our own studio in Oxfordshire called Woodworm. It's right next to my house in an old Baptist chapel that we converted. It's not a big place, but it's quite a nice room in which we're able to play at the same time. We also have a great engineer named Marc Tucker. We record everything to 24 track analog and then bounce it over to Marc's Soundscape digital system for overdubs and mixing. It's a fairly easy process. We spent about three weeks in the studio making the new album in total.
How does the process differ from the days of the Allcock-Mattacks line-up?
It's a different thing. That was a very long-running line-up. We were together about 11 years—the longest of any Fairport line-up. We went through lots of musical changes in the late '80s. It was a great, very adventurous time because we made music utilizing Martin's very good abilities on the keyboards. We got into lots of programming stuff. We would attempt very ambitious pieces like "The Wounded Whale" and "Red and Gold" which used big, orchestrated arrangements that Martin would program in. He'd then play guitar over the top. It was a very interesting period, but completely different. Our records were more formulated then. We spent an awful lot of time in the studio making those albums. There was a lot of sequencing, programming and playing to click tracks. Now, it's kind of gone the other way. It's much more simple. With the kind of music we're doing now, you can literally set up in a pub or someone's front room and play most of it live. Every different line-up and album has been different in its approach. Times change so quickly. When you get new personnel, you want to utilize their unique talents and abilities. The music changes according to who is in the band.
What's Gerry Conway like to work with compared to Mattacks?
They're both fantastic drummers. I've spent most of my life playing with Dave and we have an instinctive way of playing together which was very satisfying. It's a bit like that with Gerry too. Gerry comes from a different background and is a totally different drummer than Dave. He's more into percussion. He's played with Fairport before. I've also played with him in Jethro Tull on the Broadsword and the Beast album. So, I don't have a problem with Gerry. When Dave left the band, Gerry was our first choice. He's very familiar with the way Fairport records and we're great friends. It was a fairly easy transition.
Do you feel the band competes with its own past?
It's something I've never thought about because I've been doing it for so long. I've been in the group 32 years now. I have my favorite periods of Fairport and I look back and think "Oh, that was great. It was wonderful what we were doing." I love the Full House line-up. It was a fantastic period having Richard Thompson standing next to you playing such sensational guitar every night. It was a real thrill. I also loved it when Jerry [Donahue] was in the band. I'm kind of a guitar-oriented person. Rising for the Moon is also one of my favorite albums of all time. I also love Fairport Nine. I like Bonny Bunch of Roses too, it's a great album. The stuff the current line-up does is up there too.
I never think "Are we as good as we used to be?" because you can never do that. It's the kind of thing the media does. A lot of people wrote Fairport off when Sandy [Denny] left the band in '69 and then when Richard left. It's kind of been diminishing with the media ever since. It's like they think "Oh yeah, I remember Fairport. But now, they don't have Richard, Sandy or Swarbrick." I never think along those lines because I want it to be as good as it can be with the current line-up.
Having said that, as time goes by and the older you get, music's one of those things for which you remember how great it was when you were a teenager and first got hold of something that really turns you on. I love The Band and its records like Music from Big Pink and The Beatles. I find I only play records up to 1974. All of my favorite music is from the '60s and '70s. I was playing Kate and Anna McGarrigle's albums the other day. They're sensational. I'm not kind of okay with what's happening in terms of modern music.
Let's discuss a couple of criticisms leveled against the band lately. The first one is the band's decision to re-record older material in versions some consider less definitive than the originals. What's your opinion on this?
I have to disagree or we wouldn't have bothered recording them. [laughs] If you start listening to what people say, you'd never go in the studio. We make music for ourselves. If people don't like it, fair enough. They can go see another band. But it's also Fairport fans that asked us to do these songs. We're a very sociable band. We always go out and sign CDs after shows and pick up comments from people. We get a lot of feedback. We get lots of letters from people. The versions of "Portmeirion," "The Deserter" and "Banks of the Sweet Primroses" are going down really well. What you have to bear in mind is a lot of people have never heard these songs. They didn't buy Angel Delight or Simon's solo album, but they've heard the band in concert and want versions of the songs. That's why we did it really. Otherwise, if someone wants to hear it, they might not be able to get Angel Delight on CD because it may be difficult to find. So, it's all purely coming from people's demand really.
The second criticism is the idea that the band is veering away from its folk-rock reputation towards a more laid-back sound.
We're called a folk-rock band and I think we still are. If you look at this current CD, there are some traditional songs like "The Happy Man," which I'm particularly proud of. The songs comes from this village five miles away called Adderbury. They've been singing it for years, but no-one's heard it outside of Adderbury. So, in some respects, we're keeping the tradition going. We've introduced that song to a much wider audience.
We're not bothered with comparing anything we do to what we did in the past. We get a bunch of songs together we think we can perform well and that's it—that's an album. We're not trying to make another Liege and Lief. We use outside songs like "The Crowd" that Anna Ryder wrote. We really love the song. Most people are hearing it for the first time with us. It's a song people really get off on. So, I think we're really doing it right. There's no point in trying to make the music sound like something else you did in the past or a particular style. You have to approach everything new and from scratch.
Everyone points to you as the key reason Fairport and Cropredy survive to this day. What's kept you committed to this band through its many ups and downs?
I wish I knew! [laughs] It's certainly not the money. Cropredy is something I'm 100 percent committed to. My wife Chris organizes it and our whole existence is based around it. It's become the biggest folk-rock-related event in England. It's something we're very proud of. We've been doing it for more than 20 years now. Obviously, Fairport plays there every year and it's the biggest event on our calendar. It's something we look forward to immensely.
I'm a bass player. I have to play in a band and I like playing in Fairport. They're my friends. I've spent 32 years in the band and I'm 54 years old. I've been involved with the band for well over half my life. There are times when I think I'd like to get away or have a year off from it to do other stuff, but I still get the chance to do other things. I played with Jethro Tull for 16 years as well, which was very musically satisfying. We made some great albums. I still get asked to play on people's records from time-to-time. And when anyone uses our studio, I usually end up playing on their records too. [laughs] So, I'm still very active musically and Fairport remains a great release.
When I play with Fairport, I'm doing what I want to do musically. Apart from the historic aspect of it, I enjoy making records with Fairport, playing live and the company. I'd always have to play live even if I wasn't in the group. I'd have to play with someone else. The bass is pretty boring if you play it on your own unless you're Jaco [Pastorius] or Victor Wooten. When you play like I do, you have to play with other people. [laughs]
Do you listen to people like Pastorius and Wooten much?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I love Victor. He's fantastic. I'm really pleased Fairport is on Compass Records, the same label he's on. The people at Compass like Alison Brown are great. They're all musos. In fact, we have Alison Brown playing at Cropredy this year.
How has your bass playing evolved over the last 30 years?
It hasn't evolved. [laughs] It's exactly the same as when I was 19 years old. I still play the same three notes! I've never really altered my style at all. I must confess I never practice. Musically, I'm very unschooled, but I do really enjoy playing the bass and performing live. Playing music is the only time I ever play. I put my bass in its case when I'm not playing and it won't come out until I play it again. I might get it out to clean it. [laughs] I don't think my style has really changed at all. I never got involved in the slapping thing. I'm still very old fashioned because 60 percent of the time I still play with a plectrum. But I enjoy it immensely. When you play in your band, you get to do whatever you want. I didn't really enjoy playing sessions, which I did a lot in the '70s with Dave Mattacks. We played on so many people's albums then. I never enjoyed having to change my style to fit somebody else's music. I figure if my style doesn’t work almost instantly, then they have the wrong bass player.
How would you describe your style?
Lazy. [laughs] It's just something that comes very naturally to me. I try not to get in the way of the vocals. I try to use some taste and restraint whenever possible. I also like having a go and we still have some songs in Fairport in which we get to rock out. In the current line-up, we do "The Light of Day" off the new album which is a chance to stretch. "Matty Groves" is still great fun to play. We've played it every night since I joined the band. It's an opportunity to kind of show off a bit.
How did the Fairport Unconventional boxed set come about?
It was a real labor of love by Nigel Schofield and Neil Wayne. They did a great job on the Martin Carthy boxed set and wanted to do a Fairport one. It was so difficult for them to get permission from all these different labels, but they had 100 percent cooperation from us. We said "Go for it" because we trust them. We thought the Carthy set was spectacular, with incredible information in a great booklet. I don't think anyone else could have done it.
What was your involvement in track selection?
None whatsoever. I didn't figure my thoughts on track selection were necessary. There was no point in telling them what I think. I gave them 150 DATs from live gigs and studio outtakes and said "Here, help yourselves." I also had several lengthy meetings with them and gave them old photographs and put them in touch with various people. That's all I did. I think having an outsider put the thing together and choose tracks is what makes it work. There are too many conflicting interests in the band. One person might think "That's crap. I sang out of tune" or "That's a bum note." It would take forever with the band's involvement. It's best to let someone do it for you.
Island has taken an interest in reissuing expanded versions of the Fairport back catalog. What accounts for their interest in doing this?
I have no idea. It's nice that they do these things because there are people that want to buy them, but they're not going to sell them in vast quantity. There's nothing in it for them. They're not going to sell a lot, maybe 3,000 to 4,000 copies each. For the amount of work involved, the return is negligible.
It's taken them awhile to do. People have been asking for this stuff for years and years. I had lots of discussions with Island to do a boxed set for the 25th anniversary, but it's difficult for a big label to justify spending any time or energy on projects which won't sell bucketloads. Also, the people working for them now have never heard of Fairport Convention. We were on their label from 1970 to 1975. It was 26 years ago. Now, I call up Island and say "I'm Dave Pegg from Fairport Convention" and they go "Who?" It's like they've never heard of the band. They're a great label and at times they've been very helpful to us, but times change. Everybody I know left years and years ago. It's all these outsiders that put these things together. I'm pleased they're doing it. It's good that Island allowed Free Reed to use some of the stuff they own for the boxed set.
The Manor sessions were recently unofficially released. How do you look back at those sessions and that period of the band's history?
I don't know where people got the tapes, but we used some of them on the Free Reed boxed set. It's a bit annoying when things like that get out because it was only Swarb and myself that ever had the tapes. Anyway, it doesn't matter because it's a bit of history. It was a time of great stress. The band that recorded those sessions had disintegrated after we made that version of the Rosie album. It wasn't the fault of the people in the band, but it didn't gel. We hadn't played together and it didn't work out, which is why we never utilized any of the tapes and then went on to record it all again for the Rosie album which came out. The Manor sessions don't embarrass me at all. It doesn't bother me that people have them or want to hear them. I'm not embarrassed by any of the stuff on it because you can't be. It's what happened at the time. It's like a photograph. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but at the time, we didn't think the tapes were of good enough quality or content to put out.
In my opinion, Tipplers Tales and Bonny Bunch of Roses stand as highlights in the band's pantheon of releases. How do you look back that period of Fairport's history?
I'm glad you like those albums. I like them as well. They're very folky. It was a time when most of the stuff on those albums was traditional. We did some nice stuff very well on them. They were recorded very quickly at a studio just up the road here from Oxfordshire. Tipplers Tales was done in 10 days from start to finish.
Simon had just come back to the band. We did a few days or rehearsal and started doing gigs. The musical climate of the time was a bit difficult with the punk thing. We felt a bit out of place, but we enjoyed making those albums. Vertigo put them out—a subsidiary of Phonogram. It was a very enjoyable period musically. We got on very well together. But Swarb was having hearing problems. Also, at some of the gigs we were doing, we felt so old and out of place with what was happening around us musically. We weren't sure why we considered it or cared about it. So, Swarb moved up to Scotland where he bought a place and then we went our separate ways. We didn't want to replace Swarb. He didn't want to be in the group, so it was a natural place to stop.
Vertigo also played a role in ending the group at that time by buying the band out of its contract.
It wasn't a great deal of money. It was about £30,000. It was the first time we had ever made money out of music. We got like £7,000 each. It was more money than we'd ever had in our lives. This was back in '78 and it enabled us to split up. [laughs] It's how Swarb bought his place in Scotland. It was great. Everybody had a bit of money. Prior to that, we had never made any money on Fairport. It was always a real struggle. That was one of the worst aspects after all these years—when you work your balls off and get nothing at the end of the day. It was always a major problem for the group. It was the reason the Rising for the Moon line-up split-up. We did 30 dates in America, 25 in England, worked our balls off, and at the end had nothing. People need money to live. It's why we set up our own label in '79. The main criteria was everybody would have to make a living with it. The only reason we can survive now is because of our own label which pays the artists 80 percent of net profits as opposed to 10 percent, as in most standard record deals. It works by being our own cottage industry in which we do everything ourselves.
Tell me about the Woodworm Records release philosophy. It seems you put out a disc for about a year-and-a-half and then license it out to many labels afterwards.
We're such a small label that we can't afford to keep a catalog with all of our titles because our storeroom is our garage. There's only so much room in it. [laughs] So, what happens is we'll put out a new Fairport CD and it'll have a selling life of about 18 months. Anybody that wants to buy it will buy it in that timeframe because we'll be playing in their town or they'll get it through the mail order site. If they're in England, they'll be able to get it from the record store for about five weeks after release. The shops don't bother to stock it after that. The new CD is probably selling 100 copies a week across English record shops. It came out January 15th, so its life is going to be another few weeks and then nobody will stock it anymore. It'll disappear from the shops. When we get to the point when we're selling like 10 a week, we can't do it anymore. You have to press up another 1,000 at a time to make it economically viable. So, you have to stop and say "Right, this is it, because I haven't got room to store these CDs anymore." It's as simple as that. At that point, we figure everybody who hasn't bought it now is never going to. So, then I sell the stuff to various labels and they put out compilations.
The compilations benefit the band when we go abroad. People bring us these compilations to sign. When they do, it's often the first time I see them even though I licensed them. Sometimes it is the compilations, not the original albums, through which they learn about us. It's because the people who put out the compilation CDs often have better worldwide distribution than we do. We have Compass in America and their have licensees and we have a distributor in England. That's about it. So, the compilations mean Fairport's music has a chance to get onto some shelves in other countries. It's the only way we can work. It's the way we do things. As a tiny label, we don't have an office with a dozen people. So, I figure it's a way of getting our music to more people. People who have bought all the proper albums don't have to buy the compilations because they've already got the music. It makes no difference if you're a Fairport fan. You don't need to feel obliged to buy the compilations.
Tell me about the logistical challenges and risks involved with putting Cropredy on every year.
Every year, we have to look at the festival to see how it did. We always hope to have one the following year. Last year was a very bad one for us because England had the foot and mouth disease epidemic. It was a real worrier because our ticket sales were down 25 percent on the year before. Cropredy costs so much to put on. It's like building a little town in the middle of nowhere. You're laying on everything like toilets and electricity. Logistically, it's a nightmare and is very expensive. If Cropredy ever didn't make money, we'd have to stop doing it. We hope this year it will be better because—touch wood—there's no foot and mouth at the moment. You can't insure against it, you see. It's such a risk. If it happens, you don't have a festival. You're bankrupt. We try to make our ticket prices really cheaper than any other event you go to. We look at other festivals and we think Cropredy is very good value, especially the camping aspect. Most other festivals really sting people who bring camping tents. We need a good year this year. If we have a good year, I'm sure things will be fine. Also, when you have a big anniversary year like this one coming up, more people from abroad are more likely to come. Last year, they might have thought "I won't come this year, I'll wait for the next."
You raised eyebrows by booking the Oysterband for Cropredy this year, despite the rumored tension between them and Fairport.
It's a bit of a joke really. I once made a joke about the Oysterband because they once slagged us off. It was before I ever saw them—before they changed their name. I read some article about them and how they were supposedly revolutionizing folk music. They implied the Fairports are boring old farts. Then I saw the Oysterband and I wasn't that impressed to be honest. [laughs] It sounded like an early version of Fairport, but without the musicality, I have to say.
I get upset when people slag off Fairport without really seeing the band or knowing what they're talking about. But I don't have any argument with the Oysterband. Young people love them and I've seen them a couple of times. But it's nothing new for me. I can't get that excited. Why should I? You know what I'm saying? They're a folk-rock band with accordion and violin.
I always joke about the Oysterband and it always gets back to them which is fantastic. [laughs] It's something that's really built up over the years. But I have nothing negative to say about them. I hope to be pleasantly surprised when they play Cropredy.
So, does their forthcoming Cropredy appearance represent a burying of the hatchet?
[laughs] There is no hatchet. Obviously, we've booked them, so I have nothing against them at all and neither do our audience. They love the Oysterband. They've been around a long time as well and work very hard. They've got their own kind of following as well and whether that following will come to Cropredy to see the other boring old farts is debatable. [laughs] Cropredy has something for everybody. The only criterion for booking a band is that we like them.
You just said you weren't impressed with them. It sure sounds like you don't dig them.
I do! I mean, I don't dislike them! [laughs] They're a great band, but they're not revolutionizing folk-rock for me—at least, they haven't the times I've seen them. It's just that one of them said something negative. I don't even know the guy's name. It was something like "We're the greatest. This is what folk-rock is all about. We're not boring old fart has-beens" And then you see them and blimey, they sound like Fairport! [laughs]
Your relationship with Iain Matthews is another one that was said to be strained.
I have no problem with Iain now. He's a very nice chap. I did have a problem with him years and years ago. He came to Cropredy and there was a problem between him and the rest of the band. He kind of upset me. It's not the kind of thing you talk about in interviews. It's got nothing to do with Iain musically. It's all been resolved and everyone is happy to have him come out and play at Cropredy this year.
Iain's a great singer and part of the early Fairport. For this year's Cropredy, we're having the early Fairport line-up perform—the one that goes up to the end of '69. Iain was in the band for only a couple of years, but you really can't have an early Fairport line-up without him. It's difficult for those guys to do early Fairport because there's only Richard, Ashley [Hutchings], Simon and Iain.
On Friday at Cropredy, the albums from '67 to Liege and Lief are what the band will do. I've nothing to do with it. I don't know what they're going to do. I'm not on any of those albums, but Ashley was. So it's his department. He'll pick the repertoire and do all that stuff. I can't get involved in it. I'm just pleased Iain is coming over. We saw Iain in Amsterdam last year when we played a festival. He's doing well, he's got a new band and is touring quite a bit.
Do you have time for any non-Fairport activities these days?
There's nothing in a non-Fairport capacity at all. When I'm not on the road, I'm sitting here in my office putting together the Cropredy Festival or doing things like sorting stuff out for the Free Reed boxed set. It's a proper job. When I do get any time off, I'm going sailing. We've got a boat. I'm also going to a Bar mitzvah in Florida soon. Then I'm going to Las Vegas for three days because Dave Swarbrick's ex-wife Gloria is getting remarried there. My wife Chris and I are best lady and best man.
How large does Richard Thompson's shadow loom on Fairport? Even after leaving more than 30 years ago, it's rare to see a mention of the group without his name.
It's probably frustrating for Richard to have Fairport Convention's name stuck 'round every time you read "Richard Thompson, former guitarist with Fairport." It's not frustrating for us at all. Richard is our favorite guitarist-singer-songwriter and always will be. In my opinion, he's untouchable. I worship the ground he walks on. I love his stuff. It's magnificent to get the chance to play with him occasionally. It makes us very happy. But we got over his departure very quickly. The year after Richard left, the band became its own thing.
It's different with the shadow of Sandy. We worry that people go "Who's Sandy Denny?" When we do gigs, we play "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" because many have never heard of her. Everybody has heard of Richard because he's never stopped working. He's always coming up with stuff and making new albums. He almost has enough credit in the music industry and there's almost enough appreciation for what he's done. It's taken him a lifetime to get the recognition he deserves, especially when you think about how big a talent he is. There are still people who don't know about him. Everyone knows who Eric Clapton is, but they don't know about Richard Thompson. It's getting there.
Everybody leaves a shadow when they leave the band, but once you have a new-line-up, you have to rethink everything. It's who's in the band at the time that becomes important. We don't live in the past. Our repertoire has three or four old songs out of 16. We like playing the music we've made with this line-up.
What did you make of Clinton Heylin's Sandy Denny book?
I can't get into all the politics of it, but I enjoyed reading it. There are some things in it you don't even want to go into really. I don't have much time on my hands, so I read it very quickly and looked for nice things rather than negative things. I think for somebody who wants to know about Sandy, it's a nice book to have, but there's all those negative things I'd rather just gloss over.
During your teen years, you worked with John Bonham in a band called The Way of Life. What do you recall about those days?
We did covers of stuff by The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix pieces like "Hey Joe," some blues and rock and roll stuff. We also did some of our songs that Chris Jones, our guitarist wrote. We only did about 18 gigs because we never got re-booked. It was because we were so loud. [laughs] Even then, John was the loudest drummer in the world. He was already a fantastic drummer and it was great working with him. He would throw himself 100 percent into everything. He was very much into music. I would have liked to work with him more, but never got the chance.
We were 18 years old and full of the joys of youth. [laughs] We had a good time, I think you could say. [laughs] He used to drink excessively. In fact, I think he taught me. I blame him for my drink problem.
You once said "It's not essential to be an alcoholic to be in the band, but it does help." Does that still hold true with the teetotal Chris Leslie in the band?
It's nice having Chris in the group. He's been a very sobering influence on us. [laughs] There have been times when Fairport have been worse for the wear for drinking stuff. Hopefully, those days are gone. We work incredibly hard. We're more or less out every night performing. It's an average of a five hour drive to the gig, two-and-a-half hours for soundcheck, and then the gig itself. It does kind of take it out of you. It's true, there are some nights when people get too relaxed, but we haven't had any of those this year so far. Accidents do happen. People have problems. Everyone has an off-night. There's five people playing music. You can't expect everyone to be having a great time every time. But the highlight of my day is playing. I touch wood that I can shun the curse of drink for another month during the next tour until I return home and can put my bass away. [laughs]
What does Fairport's 35th Anniversary mean to you?
It's amazing, we recently got the BBC Radio Lifetime Achievement Award. I thought "My God, it's weird to get. I still feel like a beginner." Some people might say I still sound like one. [laughs] I feel like a student. I don't feel like I've hit a lifetime's achievement. I feel I'm just now starting to get the knack of things. It's also weird because we live in a world where youth and teenage culture predominates. Pre-teen music is almost totally dominant in the corporate music industry, whereas for me or any folk or jazz musician, music making is a lifetime's activity. It's not a flash-in-the-pan thing you do when you're young and than move into production or management. My icon is Stephane Grappelli. He just got better and better. As he got older, his music got younger and ever more adventurous and brilliant. The music industry is a strange beast at the moment and I think we survive despite it, not because of it.
I'm not critical of anything a musician does. I do listen to dance music and think there's some great music produced by people like the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy and Basement Jaxx. However, I am critical of the industry because I don't think it offers a true freedom of choice. It targets kids through millions of dollars of advertising. Kids have the freedom to buy what they're told. It's an illusory freedom of choice.
So, what does Fairport's 35th mean to me? At age 49, I'm very gratified to still be afforded the privilege of traveling around the planet playing music to people. That often begs the question of "What is it that's given Fairport its longevity?" My answer is always the same: the audience. We have an incredible audience. I'm as proud of how Fairport relates to its audience as I am of any music we have produced. I think we're a real people's band. Massive popular success has never bothered Fairport. We've never been put in the position of being celebrities which is good because I think celebrity is a fairly sick thing in this world. The massive celebrities we get now I don't think are healthy for the public or the celebrities. What's glamorous about having your own stalker? [laughs] Our relationship to the audience is that of friends. A Fairport concert is like a meeting of friends. We come out and chat afterwards. There's no big, security wall around us. It's kind of how music should be.
It's lovely to play for and meet all these great people, and to just make a small contribution. I play music to communicate with people, not to play in a vacuum. I believe music has a very healing power to it. I think our troubled world has never had a greater need for the power of music to bring people together. I'm very proud to be part of the greater musical community that brings people together. I remember how proud I was on the day of Live Aid, even though I had nothing to do with it. I was just proud to be a musician that day. I fervently hope I'll be able to play until the day I die.
Where do you feel the new album falls into the band's pantheon of releases?
It's not for me to say. Some of the reviews I've read have been kind enough to say it harks back to some of the band's earlier successes like Liege and Lief. All I can say is I'm very pleased with it. One thing that's interesting is when we went out on the last British tour and put the set together, we realized the first 10 items on the set list were from the new album—albeit it, three were old pieces we recorded new versions of, like "The Banks of Sweet Primroses," "Portmeirion" and "Hexhamshire Lass." We don't rely on any past glories. We're not just hacking out old stuff. It's a very current band that's continually evolving and creating. We're also very much a working band.
Some people might think "Ooh, Fairport—a '60s band." I don't think that at all. When I think of Liege and Lief, that's a whole different bunch of people. We have the name Fairport Convention. Those two words enable us guys to go out and work because the name has momentum, but actually, I don't think I'm in the same Fairport Convention that made Liege and Lief. We're just guys making music together. We're lucky enough to be able to call ourselves that name and have the lineage going back all those years so we can work. If we called ourselves "Dave Pegg's Cocktail Cowboys" and made the same records, we probably wouldn't get nearly as much work or interest. Isn't that weird? That's how it works, I guess.
Describe the considerations and musical approach the band chose for the new album.
Whenever you talk to an artist about a new record they've made, they always say it's the best one. I'm afraid I'm going to fall into that cliché too. [laughs] I think the last two records we've made—The Wood and the Wire and XXXV—sound like the work of one, together band. They have a consistent texture, soundscape and feel to them. It's because the new band has settled in and due to the wonderful work of Chris Leslie. His songwriting has been a great thing for Fairport. We also have a more open and acoustic feel to the last two albums. I think the guy who should take the most credit for the way the albums sound is the engineer Mark Tucker. He co-produced the albums and gave them a kind of space they haven't had for a few years.
I think the last two albums in some ways hark back to the earlier Fairport albums. There's not many overdubs, whereas in many of the previous albums I was involved in, I would find myself overdubbing violins and string sections. Now, I pretty much stick to one fiddle part per track. It may be simplified, but it sounds good to me.
The period when we had a lot of electronic keyboards wasn't my favorite. I prefer the sound texture we have now. I love electronic keyboards, particularly when Joe Zawinul or Chick Corea are playing them, but not necessarily in Fairport. There were some good things though—I think Dave Mattacks did some beautiful stuff with his Fender-type sound. But as for some of those big, sequenced things we did in the past, I'm not sure the audience got off on them that much either.
In addition to Chris' writing, Gerry Conway is now settled in too. He's a very different drummer from Dave Mattacks. I love Dave's playing. He's a great friend and fantastic musician. One of Gerry's main differences is he's a great fan of using percussion outside of the kit. Gerry loves playing hand percussion, tambourine or anything he can get a noise out of.
How does the band work these days? Are decisions made democratically?
I think it's a complete democracy in as much as we'll sit 'round and talk about things and then do what Peggy [Dave Pegg] says. [laughs] Peggy is definitely the boss. That's it really. He's the group's manager as well. Without Peggy, there wouldn't be a Fairport. The energy he puts into keeping this band going is fantastic. He has quite an aggressive energy which is scary sometimes. Peggy's role is very interesting and I don't know where he gets that energy from. He's a very active person. None of us can fulfill his role. If it was left up to me, Chris or Simon [Nicol] to hustle for the band, securing fees and doing publicity, we wouldn't be able to do it. Peggy's role is far more than that of a musician. He's very ambitious and kind of streetwise as well. Fairport is kind of his thing, even though Simon is the original member. It's great that Simon is still in the group. He gives us that lineage back to the group's beginnings.
As far as the music goes, it's pretty open. From my point of view, my role is quite straightforward—it's to simply play fiddle. I'm not a multi-instrumentalist. I do play keyboards, but I don't like doing that in Fairport. For the most part, I don't think Fairport needs keyboards. So, my gig is to play and find the most appropriate playing for Fairport. As my background comes the jazz and jazz-fusion side of things, it was a surprise for me to even be in Fairport. I think in the past, maybe my playing hasn't always been appropriate. Hopefully, as the years have gone on, I've got better.
Can you elaborate on that?
It's hard to judge your own playing, but I hope my playing is more melodic now and in keeping with what Fairport is. The other thing I do on a regular basis is provide instrumentals for the group to play. I provide one or two per album including crazy dance medleys and things I would never have written had I not been in Fairport—pieces like "The Bowman's Retreat" and "The Rutland Reel." The latest one is "Everything but the Skirl." They're lighthearted, exuberant and intended to be nothing more than that. But the area of repertoire I most enjoy contributing to is the series of tunes that started with "Portmeirion" and then "Rose Hip," "Summer in December" and "A Year and a Day." We did a new version of "Portmeirion" on XXXV with Ian Anderson playing on it. Those pieces have folk-influenced, pastoral melodies. They're my best contributions to Fairport—that, and just playing good, melodic fiddle and chipping in with everyone else on the arrangements. Things are definitely arranged organically with the group of us sitting around to discuss them.
Some of Chris' songs come completely formed and I tend to bring in the instrumentals with complete sketches of them. A lot of the material we do also comes from outside the band from people like Huw Williams. Those songs will arrive in demo form or as something recorded on another album. For those pieces, we'll sit down together and arrange the hell out of them. DM [Dave Mattacks] and Martin Allcock used to do a lot of the arranging that way. The last two albums have fallen together pretty well and painlessly. I would have liked a few more days in the studio. They were made pretty fast, but that's just how the schedule works out.
How did you and Chris come to terms musically and personally with having two fiddlers in Fairport?
We've been friends for years. We'd been planning to do some duo projects together for years before Chris came into Fairport. We were always saying "We must do something," but we could never get our schedules to work together. So, when Chris came into Fairport, it was "Hey, this is great." It's fantastic having Chris here. He feels like my brother. And now there's another vegetarian in the group. It's not just me when we go to restaurants in some foreign country trying to find out what on the menu I can eat. We can hang out and drink a lot of herbal tea and light a lot of joss sticks. [laughs] And the audience loves the two fiddle thing.
Let's discuss a couple of criticisms that have been leveled against the band. The first one is the band's decision to re-record older material in versions some consider less definitive than the originals. What's your opinion on this?
It’s their right to think what they like. I don't mind, as long as they enjoy some of it. We just do the best we can to produce music people will like. I have a relaxed attitude towards it. We're doing new versions of those pieces because we like them. Whether or not an item of folk-rock repertoire is definitive or not is monumentally unimportant to me. I'd say to them "Watch the news and get real." We haven't destroyed the previous versions. They're there for them. We're not dealing with something sacred here. We're a bunch of very human guys. When people come up and tell us after a concert what they like or don't like, we have a listen to what they have to say and take it onboard. This is a very interactive band. But if you've got enough energy to worry about if a folk-rock piece is definitive or not, surely that energy would be better directed elsewhere. [laughs]
I wouldn't disagree with someone. They may be right. They're certainly right from their point of view. If they feel the original version of "Banks of the Sweet Primroses" is better than the new one, who knows? I kind of like them both. With my own piece "Portmeirion," I like the new version better because it's recorded better. It has Ian Anderson on it. It also has beautiful mandolin playing from Chris Leslie and percussion on it.
Often, you prefer the first version you've heard of something. For instance, with classical music, my favorite interpretation is the one I heard when I was youngest—it's kind of a bias. But I kind of have the jazz musician's angle on recording pieces. I must have four or five versions of Chick Corea playing "La Fiesta." I love every one of them. I think the idea of having a definitive version of a piece is a very pop thing. It ties into the production of pop. Look at Stephane Grappelli. I must have a dozen versions or more of him playing "Sweet Georgia Brown." If I was narrow-minded, I might say "Oh no, he should have just left the one he recorded with Django Reinhardt. He should have never recorded it again." I think that's really silly.
The second criticism is that the band is veering away from its folk-rock reputation towards a more laid-back sound.
Miles Davis went in reverse. As he got older, he got more electric. People would say "Hey man, why aren't you playing 'My Funny Valentine' anymore?" And he said "Listen, that stuff's still there. The fact that we're doing what we do now doesn't take away from the fact that we did that. The records are still there. You can still listen to them."
I only have very slight control over the way this band goes. It just evolves. There's no plan, but I can think of practical reasons for why we've gone acoustic. The world is not crying out for us to tour. We're not having big promoters in America saying "Hey, forget that Britney Spears tour. We'll have Fairport instead!" When we tour America, we're playing tiny little clubs. We have to carry our own equipment in. I'm 49 now and if I’m to carry my own equipment, it's not going to include a big amplifier. Rather, I'm going to carry an acoustic fiddle. The fact that we have Chris Leslie onboard who is a more folk-oriented person kind of leaned us in an acoustic way too. It's just how things have developed.
You just go with the flow—with what feels good and what's happening. I used to always play Zeta fiddles or solid electric fiddles. When Chris came onboard, he would play the acoustic fiddle. Most of his instruments are acoustic. They're what he feels comfortable with, so I kind of went with that. I still have the electric fiddles and plan to use them on my own records.
For Fairport, when we played on our last Winter tour, Simon was playing electric guitar as well. I used to use all sorts of peddles and that stuff, but different people are always going to have different opinions. When I used to play very electric, the people who say we're too acoustic now were silent. The ones who were vocal with criticism were people who said it's too electric. So, you can't please everybody.
I'd still love to play in a kind of Weather Report-style group like my old 2nd Vision group or Soft Machine, when we had that sort of power and full-on jazz-fusion drumming, electric keyboards and Johnny Etheridge on guitar. I fantasize about going out with a big old electric band again, but it may never happen because you have to tailor things to what's practical. The production values of that sort of music are so expensive. You need roadies and a crew. I have my own trio now called The Ric Sanders Group with Vo Fletcher and Michael Gregory. We're playing that sort of repertoire. We play "Birdland," "In a Silent Way," "It's About That Time" and "Jean Pierre." We do it all with percussion, guitar and acoustic fiddle. It's practical and it all fits in a couple of cars.
Tell me about the seeds of your new band and its musical approach.
Vo Fletcher is one of my oldest and dearest friends. He's played with Nigel Kennedy's group and makes a living writing for TV and film. Michael Gregory, who plays drums and percussion, was part of the Albion Band when I was in it during the late '70s. The three of us have a shared love of music of all sorts. We start our sets with little suites of music that are joined together by any tenuous connection we can think of. Sometimes it's just by name. For instance, we'll start with the standard "Nature Boy" by Eden Ahbez and then go into "Mother Nature's Son" by Paul McCartney from the Beatles' White Album.
We improvise as we flow from one piece to another in the same way modern dance groups do who connect lots of movements together. We spark off whatever we feel at the moment. It can be totally free, feature atonal improvisation and even incorporate select melodies from the classical canon—anything we can think of that has a nice groove or melody.
On the group's forthcoming record, we do "Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix with Rick Wakeman guesting. He was brilliant. It's the result of a series of recordings that were made over three nights in Lincoln Cathedral, a magnificent cathedral with remarkable acoustics. They recorded two artists a night—that's two albums a night. Each group had two-and-a-half hours to record an album, which was scary. [laughs] Rick Wakeman was doing a solo album on the cathedral organ and piano. Our sessions crossed and I said "Would you hang on and jam with us?"
Because of the cathedral's acoustics, you have to be careful. There's such a massive echo in there. You have to be careful about playing rhythmic stuff, so we went for the more spacey side. For instance, we did "Crystal Silence" by Chick Corea which was made for that acoustic environment.
The music was recorded in stereo, binaural and Sensuround. It'll be a two-disc release, one CD will be regular stereo and the second disc will be part binaural, part Sensurround and include a little CD-ROM segment they filmed of us recording. It's a nice package. The album will come out on Voiceprint. They seem like a real nice company. It's been quite awhile since I had a relationship with a label with which I can pretty much do what I want. They also put out the 2nd Vision album.
Chris Leslie occasionally guests with the group too. Tell me about his involvement.
One of the ideas for this trio is that whenever possible, we'll have guests with us. Chris has done a number of gigs with us. We do some Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli pieces with Chris playing hot mandolin. He'll also bring his Tibetan singing bowls and we'll go cosmic. There's a number of collaborations down the line. I'd like to do something with Troy Donockley, the great Irish pipe player who's with Maddy Prior's group. I'd love to do some stuff with John Etheridge and Martin Taylor. We'd love to get Nigel Kennedy to play with us too. He's an old pal. We've only jammed together previously in his pub. So, there's some good things to come down the line.
What original material does the album contain?
Vo and I write quite a lot of stuff. On the album we did "Remembrance Day" and "The Rose Hip" from my own repertoire. I also wrote one new piece for it called "A Lifetime's Love." We do a Chris Leslie piece on there too called "Tune From The Land of Snow" which was his piece dedicated to Tibet. It appears as the last track on his solo album The Flow. It was two-and-a-half-minutes on his record. When I heard it, I told Chris "There's only one thing wrong with it." He said "What? What?" I said "It should be a whole side, it's so good. It's such a great springboard for improvising." So, we did a 14 minute version of his tune. I didn't tell him about it until after we did it. We did it without him. I said "We've got a surprise for you. Here's your tune on the album!" He's since played it in public with us. I think we'll do more recording with Chris. There's no doubt about it.
How do you look back at your days with Soft Machine?
I loved Soft Machine. It was a great band to be in. I was very young and couldn't believe I was suddenly in this group. The line-up at the time was Karl Jenkins on keyboards—nominally, the group's leader and composer, the amazing John Marshall on drums, John Etheridge on guitar and Percy Jones on bass. Percy Jones was also playing with Brand X with Phil Collins back in those days, so his responsibilities crossed. Brand X started doing exceptionally well, and as he was a major contributor and composer to that group, he opted for that full-time. So, Steve Cook, a great bass player, came into the picture. That ended up being the main band I toured with. It's when I started a great relationship with John Etheridge who is a friend to this day. He's a fantastic musician, and a very easy-going, kind person. He's also very funny.
I got into the group because Alan Wakeman—Rick's cousin—who was playing soprano sax left the group. So, they were looking for another sax player. At the time, I was playing with the great British jazz pianist Michael Garrick—an unsung hero of British jazz who's coming up on 70 years of age now. As an aside, Michael's son Christian is a very fine jazz violinist who plays in John Etheridge's group Sweet Chorus—a kind of Django and Stephane tribute group, so it all comes 'round again.
I'd sent a tape to Michael asking for jazz theory lessons. Michael responded by saying "Why don't you come and do some gigs instead?" Very nervously, I went along and played some gigs. John Marshall was also Michael's drummer. Because violin covers a similar tonal area to soprano sax, I got the gig after playing with John in Michael's group.
I still remember the Soft Machine audition, such as it was. I was terrified. John Etheridge wasn't there. It was just Karl Jenkins, Percy Jones and John Marshall. I remember Karl saying "Right, you start!" So, I started jamming and we jammed for two hours. We didn’t play any pieces. It was completely improvising and grooving. Then Karl said "Right, that's it! Down to the pub then!" So, we went down to the pub near the rehearsal space in London and he took out two albums: Bundles and Softs, picked out 10 or 12 pieces and said "Right, learn them! We're going on tour next Tuesday with Shakti."
I took those albums home. I had never worked so hard in a few days in my life. I learned the stuff and suddenly I'm in a van with John McLaughlin, Shankar, Vikku [Vinayakram] and Zakir Hussain. I'm like 23 and just couldn't believe it. I think John McLaughlin must have thought I was pretty strange the first week. Every time he would say anything to me during the first week, I would just reply "Ahhh…" because I just couldn't believe it was happening. [laughs] It was a knock-out of an experience. I remember Shankar being overwhelmingly generous. During the soundcheck of the first gig, he came up and said "You play violin too!" We'd sit in the back of the bus and he'd show me these incredible ragas and then I'd play him some Morris dance tunes. [laughs] It was great.
I wish Soft Machine had carried on longer, but in actual fact, the title of the album I recorded with them: Alive and Well—Recorded in Paris wasn't exactly accurate, the "Alive and Well" part in particular. The band had pretty disastrous management over the years and it was not in a particularly good way financially. I don't really know the details, but it kind of fell apart. It kind of ceased to operate. It was a shame because they were very nice people to work with and great musicians. It happened during the same period when I was in the Albion Band which was having a golden period. We had just made the album Rise Up Like the Sun which was getting a lot of attention. The manager Joe Lustif gave me the opportunity of putting together a group and that's where 2nd Vision came from. John Etheridge and I never really left Soft Machine. It was a sinking ship really.
I haven't seen you discuss 2nd Vision much. What can you tell me about your time with the group?
It was an impossible time to do what we were doing because it was during the New Wave movement. We were moving into the '80s, coming out of punk. It wasn't the right time to form a jazz-fusion-folk-world music-influenced group like ours. We did get some great reviews. The inner sleeve of the record was done by the great Derek Jewell, one of the finest music journalists. He had a radio show and was a genuinely open-minded and enthusiastic person. He's the best type of music journalist. Like what you do with Innerviews, it was about enthusiasm, not criticism. He wanted to turn people on to music and open their minds.
I love the album. I can't believe it was 22 years ago. John Cameron, a really good musician, produced us. We recorded at Sound Techniques, the same studio Liege and Lief was made. It was very enjoyable. It will always be one of my favorite things I've done. I've got some tapes of demos and a few live recordings of 2nd Vision which may see the light of day some time.
The group never worked very much. What limited work 2nd Vision did live was great. We did our debut concerts at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Joe Lustif had the idea we should each night have an opening act who was more famous than we were. Each night we would play a 2nd Vision set and also play with the guest artist. Over the course of four nights, we had June Tabor, The Albion Morris Men, Gordon Giltrap, David Palmer—the keyboard player from Jethro Tull and Richard Thompson. For instance, I would play a few tunes with Richard. Dave Bristow would do a keyboard thing with David Palmer. It's during those gigs that I met Gordon Giltrap which turned out to be a fruitful meeting. I've worked a lot with him.
We also did the Capitol Radio Jazz Festival which was fantastic. We were on before Stephane Grappelli—a great honor. John Etheridge was playing guitar in Stephane's group as well. So, John did the 2nd Vision set, left the stage after playing searing jazz-rock guitar, then came right back on with Stephane with an acoustic guitar. I got to meet Stephane at that time through John, which was fantastic.
During my whole career, 2nd Vision was the thing I most wanted to happen that didn't happen. I'm glad we made the album and wish we'd done more. Certainly, the trio with Vo Fletcher and Michael Gregory is trying to carry on with that line of musical thinking—to stay open to everything in approach. I still keep in touch with all the 2nd Vision guys, like Dave Bristow, who went into the programming side of things, working with Yamaha to develop the DX7. He now works with Emu, based in California. I hope in the future each of the 2nd Vision guys will be able to collaborate with the new trio.
After 2nd Vision, we changed the name to The John Etheridge-Ric Sanders group and toured all of the British jazz venues. It was a slightly different group because Mickey Barker, the drummer, had joined Magnum. Dave Bristow toured with us and we got a young bass player named Fred Thelonious Baker who I'd met while visiting the Birmingham School of Music where he was studying. We also had a drummer named Nick Wyman and did a nationwide tour. It was the closest thing we'd ever done to a 2nd Vision tour, although we had a lot of new repertoire by then. After doing the tour of British jazz venues, there was nowhere else to go and we turned to earning our living doing different projects.
It'd be lovely to do stuff with all these guys again. Look at Michael Gregory. The last time I played in a band with him was 1979 in the Albion Band. He went off to a group called The Home Service, a great band led by John Tams. Since then, Michael and I have talked, planned, plotted and schemed to work together, then we'd go off on our different ways. Amazingly enough, now, we've just got 'round to doing it and it's 20 years later! You think "My God! It took us 20 years." But it's kind of encouraging because it's never too late.
What are some of your key memories of the Rise Up Like The Sun sessions?
From my point of view, the interesting tale is about the track "Afro Blue/Danse Royale." I was just sitting around in rehearsal, just dingling away, playing the theme to "Afro Blue" to myself. Ashley Hutchings came along and said "That's a nice jig." That's how he heard it. I said it's actually a Mongo Santamaria tune that John Coltrane played. Ashley wasn't particularly familiar with jazz repertoire, but he thought it was a nice tune and said "Would you like to do it on the record?" I said "You bet!" Then he said "How about doing it as a violin solo?" I thought to myself "Yeah, but what I really need is Dave Bristow playing keyboards, but he's not in the group." Dave at the time was demonstrating keyboards in a big keyboard store in Birmingham. He was just becoming a master of the new Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer, one of the first to come out.
To get Dave on the record, I went down the store one day and said "Listen, can you play a backing track for 'Afro Blue?'" He agreed, so I played my acoustic fiddle in the store, so we could play it as a duo. He had a Revox two-track stereo recorder and played the synth part straight down to tape. There were actually people milling around the store. I think someone actually asked him while he was playing to have a look at something. Dave said "Let me have a minute and I will." [laughs] So, I got the keyboard backing on tape recorded that day in the shop and went back to Sound Techniques and worked with the engineer to put it onto the multitrack and then added violin to it. I played it back to the band the next morning and said "I hope you don't mind, I took the liberty of recording this keyboard part." I hadn't told them I recorded it in a shop. They said "Oh, we love that! Let's get it on the record." So, that part was recorded in a shop and we then fused it to that "Danse Royal" thing which was a tune from Phil Pickett's repertoire—a stompy, dance tune. It worked well and made for a very quirky instrumental.
Many point to the album as one of the most important folk-rock records ever made. Do you agree?
It sounds arrogant to agree when it's something you've done, but I'd like to agree with that very much. It's a great record. I'm proud to be on it. I consider it a great privilege to have been a part of that. It came together very organically. In my opinion, a great deal of credit for how that album came together should be given to John Tams. Joe Boyd was commissioned to be the album's producer, but in actual fact, John Tams really produced it from the point of view of the music. What Joe Boyd provided was getting great people in like Kate McGarrigle, Martin Carthy and Andy Fairweather-Low to play on it. Joe was great at overseeing a lot of that, but the actual flavor of the record—if it came from one particular person—came from John Tams.
When the reviews came out, there was a lot of attention given to the fact that Richard Thompson and Kate McGarrigle were on there. I got a fair amount of attention because I was known as the guy from Soft Machine. For the press it was "Oh, the guy from Soft Machine plays with the Albions." I was very pleased for that attention, but I certainly would say the lesser-known players deserve a great deal of credit such as Graeme Taylor, Michael Gregory and Pete Bullock.
I love the album to this day. There's never been another one quite like it. It was one of those magic times when things just fall into place—everything. I love the cover as well. There's never been an Albions cover like that before. It just has a special flavor to it.
People say there's Liege and Lief, Please To See The King and Rise Up Like The Sun as the great folk-rock records. Personally, I'd add Alright Jack by The Home Service to that. It's the same team who did Rise Up—John Tams, Graeme Taylor and Michael Gregory.
You've often said you're more of a jazz musician than a folk musician. What keeps Fairport interesting as a full-time gig given that?
I like playing for people and Fairport affords me the opportunity to do that. I hope that over the years I've learned to tailor my playing to the group. Actually, there's more of a jazz influence in what I do in Fairport now than I ever did before, but in a more subtle way. I still think of my heart as the heart of jazz musician because I feel my best playing is improvised. Improvising is a magical thing. It's an art form that lets you play stuff you can't play. Keith Jarrett calls it a "state of grace." He seems to be able to tap into that miraculous energy any time he wants. Stephane Grappelli, Coltrane and Miles could too.
I don't consider myself a fiddle virtuoso. And though I think I have the heart of a jazz musician, I don't know what I am. I do have great affection for folk music and have played a lot of that repertoire, but jazz is still the music I listen to the most. It's the closest to my heart. I love the way Miles used to play just one note and the quality of that note would be magical.
Are you more enamored with straightahead jazz or fusion?
It's the whole lot. Right now, my trio is working up pieces by both Joe Zawinul and Sting. We're quite interested in doing what Stephane Grappelli used to do which is take popular songs of the day and interpret them as jazz instrumentals and use them as vehicles for jazz improvisation. Admittedly, it's not possible with most of what's in the charts because things have become so production-based. You don't really get melodies in popular music much anymore, rather, you get repeated motifs with bass patterns reacting underneath. You don't get many autonomous melodies in pop music these days—the sort that Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Stevie Wonder mastered.
We're also working up stuff that's timeless, such as Joe-John-Keith-Chick-Herbie repertoire. But I don't make much distinction between any music. There's enough barriers keeping people apart in life. I sometimes think it's a shame when I hear people argue about music. I think "Come on, it's music! You're missing the point here. Let's share the enthusiasm." No-one likes everything, but let music bring people together. There's so many religious, economic, philosophical and national barriers keeping people apart. It's a shame that musicians can't always agree on things.
I am proud of music when it demonstrates an open mind and when its energy is positive. When you hear some young musician talking about older musicians like they're dinosaurs and when you hear some older musician saying "The young guys can't play. They're just messing about on computers" and slagging people off, it's just negative. The arts are here to pave way the way for togetherness. I'd happily play with almost anybody, just for the coming together of it. I'd do a session with Kylie Minogue, but she hasn't asked. [laughs]
A bandleader friend of mine claims violinists are the most eccentric musicians to work with. What do you think?
Let's look at the evidence: Dave Swarbrick. Yeah, he's right! That's enough on its own! Swarb is the proof! You don't need to go any further. [laughs] I'd like to think I'm eccentric. Eccentrics make the world a more interesting place—as long as they're harmless eccentrics. It's an eccentric world in which we live. I can't puzzle out who is sane. Playing music is an eccentric thing to do, really. What I love about music is the passion. I love being passionate about things, and opinionated, but still saying "That's cool. You don't have to agree."