In real time
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1992 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
For more than a quarter century, bassist Dave Pegg has played a pivotal role in Fairport Convention, the most influential and enduring British folk-rock act in history. But his contributions go far beyond his instrument. In fact, Pegg—or "Peggy" as he’s better known—has served as the key lifeforce behind the last two decades of the band’s existence. He’s provided the glue that's kept it an ongoing concern from its volatile ‘70s line-ups to today’s long-standing quintet featuring Martin Allcock, Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol and Ric Sanders—a remarkable feat indeed.
Today, Fairport is more stable than it’s ever been, largely because it now operates at the independent level. The band runs its own label—Woodworm Records—and maintains control over every aspect of recording and touring. Woodworm is also responsible for the yearly Cropredy Festival. Originally designed as an annual reunion gig for members past and present, the festival has evolved into one of the largest and most acclaimed folk gatherings in the world.
Currently, Pegg splits his time between Fairport and Jethro Tull. Although he refers to himself as "just the bass player" in Tull’s scheme, the fact is his virtuoso skills and ebullient personality contribute greatly to the group’s continued success.
Innerviews caught up with Pegg during the Ottawa, Canada stop of Tull’s A Little Light Music tour—a roadshow titled after an acoustic album of the same name. We began with a discussion of Fairport’s recently-celebrated 25th anniversary.
Fairport just hit 25 years. And it’s enjoying its most stable line-up since forming. What accounts for the longevity?
The main factor is that we look after everything ourselves. We work when we want to and where we want to. We're not under as much pressure as we once were. Everybody does other things as well apart from the group. It's not the only thing we do in life. It's something that's pleasurable because you do it under your own terms and conditions. I don't feel pressured apart from the fact that I have to do most of the promotion. But I've only got myself to blame if it goes wrong. And also the older you get, the easier it is to tolerate being on the road. We've known each other so long. We all throw our tantrums and wobblers from time to time and perhaps we drink a bit too much. [laughs] But we generally have a good attitude towards working and I'd say 99 percent of our shows are pretty good. I can't think of many bad ones. I can think of maybe five bad gigs since 1986. Considering the number of shows we've done, that’s pretty good going. We all get on quite well. The new boys—Ric [Sanders] and Martin [Allcock]—have always fitted in well. They've also expanded our ideas too. Martin's great at arranging things and he's bought in all this computer technology. He can play any instrument. Some of our new music doesn't sound like anything Fairport did previously. But it's still got those roots in finding good songs and playing them well. We still utilize the outside writers because we'd probably write crap songs ourselves.
The band’s penchant for rocking up traditional pieces remains as well.
If we can't find any songs then we go back and look at things like "Claudy Banks" which is a great song. And for new ears, it's a new song, but for us it's something that's been doing the rounds for years. It was a great song and you can do it because nobody's heard it. That's the great thing about traditional music. Look at "The Card Song." That’s a song I used to do with the Ian Campbell Folk Group. Nobody's heard that and it's just perfect for Fairport. But I admit we do kind of pigeonhole ourselves, really. There's some elements of that on the last two records. There's the drinking song, there's a couple of instrumentals and there's a long ballad and then there's the token kind of rock’n’roll thing. It's sort of the James Taylor approach. James has been making the same album for the past 15 years and I'm the first in line to buy it because that's what I want. So, maybe that's not such a bad thing. To an extent Richard [Thompson] does it too. But that suits me. I mean if he keeps making that record for the next 20 years I'll be happy.
Fairport has become somewhat of a cottage industry in that you personally handle the pressing and distribution of the new records.
Putting an album out on our own label Woodworm for us is real easy. And we sell as many as if we were on a major label—except we actually make a lot of money doing it. I mean, we'd have to sell like 150,000 records in England to generate the same income that selling 15,000 records would on our own label. We have our own Woodworm catalog and there's so many items in it now. Our whole house is taken over with boxes and boxes of CDs.
Is 15,000 the average run for a Fairport release these days?
Yeah, and we'll sell every one. That was certainly true for Red And Gold, Five Seasons and In Real Time.
Richard Thompson told Innerviews Fairport has had extreme difficulty getting Island to settle on past royalties.
I spent four years trying to get royalties for everybody from Island Records, which I did eventually get. It took about four years and it's still kind of ongoing. When Fairport left Island, we owed them a lot of money because we never sold any records. Record companies spend so much money on things like tour support, but ultimately, you're going to have to pay them back. This is something a lot of people don't realize when they're young. In general, musicians aren't interested in the business. Things have improved nowadays because kids are more aware that things can go terribly wrong. But yes, it's true, Island were not good at paying their royalties and in fact we had nothing from about 1976 up until two or three years ago.
The situation is a lot better now though because Island do send the money and they have made some token re-releases. Obviously, you can't pay a debt off if they instantly delete all your albums.
Although you enjoy reaching American audiences, I understand you find touring here a challenge.
It's a different ballgame for us to play here. It's rough because the gigs are so far apart and we play in little clubs. We never have our own lights or P.A. either. It's like going back to the sorts of gigs we were playing 15 years ago, except we're so much older now. It's annoying because you can't do the kind of Fairport production that we have in England. Over there, the sound's always great and we have our own lighting and we can bring in all our own equipment. We feel really comfortable in those kinds of concert halls and theaters. But when you do a club, you sometimes think you're not doing justice to the band as it stands today.
How did Dave Mattacks get involved in Tull’s current line-up?
We wanted to do this album which is currently out called A Little Light Music. What happened is that we had come to America to do a promo thing last August. I came over the day after the Cropredy festival. And along with Martin [Barre] and Ian [Anderson], we went around to six major cities in the States playing live in radio stations. Sometimes we'd have an audience and we even did a special thing from Electric Ladyland. It was just the three of us and it was almost entirely acoustic. We did it to promote the record Catfish Rising. It was great fun. So, the idea came up of doing a little tour in really small theaters—although my idea of really small and Ian's are two different things. [laughs] When we finished up, some of them were 2,000-seaters! We came to the conclusion that we couldn't really do this tour as a three-piece. So, in came Dave. For the album, we borrowed a Yamaha eight-track digital recorder and recorded the gigs we did in about 20 places.
Doane Perry seemed a reasonably permanent Tull fixture prior to Mattacks joining. Why did he leave?
Doane was never considered part of this acoustic tour because his drum kit's the size of this living room. And originally it was just going to be the three of us, but we decided we needed another person and I suggested Dave Mattacks. Apart from being able to do an awful lot with a minimal amounts of drums—on this particular tour he just used hi-hat, one cymbal, a snare drum and a bass drum—he can also play keyboards. So, Dave was playing a lot of the string parts on this little Yamaha synth and the glock. He's used to playing that kind of music in a quiet setting. We did about three days rehearsal and it was great and it sounded really good. And we could still do things like "Locomotive Breath." In fact we did "Aqualung" as well.
The thing is, the Jethro Tull audience, some of them like the quiet stuff, others just like the loud stuff. It's always a big compromise. But by doing it in a really small format in small theaters, we thought we'd get people's attention enough for them to listen. So, we were able to do some of the gentler songs like "Life's A Long Song" and "Christmas Song" that you couldn't normally do in concert. It was very beneficial and Dave Mattacks did really well doing that. This current tour happened very shortly afterwards and there was talk about Doane coming back for it, but we wouldn't have been able to rehearse the set in time. So, Dave was asked to stay on. And he does a great job. I like it. That's not to put Doane down, but I personally play better with Dave. After all, I've been playing with him for 20 years. Whether Dave is with the band permanently, I don't know. It's not my decision. It's not my band.
Steeleye Span recently had a go at "Tam Lin." What did you think of it?
I was very impressed with the new Steeleye album Tonight's The Night. It really surprised me. I'm a Steeleye fan anyway, but I always slag 'em off and put 'em down for fun. But I was really, really impressed with it. A friend of mine was playing it to me in Boston and it's a great record. It's a very different version from Fairport's.
Several younger bands are tackling traditional material like "Tam Lin" too. What do you make of the approach of newer folk-rock acts such as the Pogues?
There's something about that kind of new wave approach to doing all that traditional stuff that doesn't work for me. I'm too old I guess. Forty-five is old if you've been playing music for 25 or 30 years because you just can't tolerate stuff that's not played well. The newer kind of folk-rock acts haven't been playing that long and it just puts me off. I can't listen past the fact they're not even playing in time or tune. A lot of them are crap players but they have got a lot of energy and stuff. Anyway, it's something I can't come to terms with. Luckily, neither can any of my friends.
I recently heard a story about Swarb tossing a cat out of a high-rise window during a Fairport tour long ago.
A cat? A real cat? Yeah, I think he did that in ‘76 or '77. I think the cat survived. It was keeping him awake. [laughs] He's thrown other things out the window too. During his third marriage—or it might have been his fourth—his wife, an American girl, and the band stopped at a hotel in San Francisco and they were on the top floor. They'd had an argument and he was standing by the window. She threw a guitar case at him and he ducked. [laughs] The guitar case went out the window and landed on somebody's limousine downstairs and they had the police look into it and everything. The guy thought somebody was trying to murder him. Swarb got out of it okay, but it was tricky. He had to wrap his coat over the guitar because the police were looking for a guy who would be walking out with a guitar without a case.
You've been threatening to unleash another solo album for several years now.
I'd like to. Maybe if Jethro Tull stops working for awhile and if I have some inspiration, then I would. But you know, I don't have inspiration that way. I can't write songs and I've stopped writing music because Ric and Martin do it so much better than I do. So, there's little point. That's the great thing about being in a band—you don't have to try if somebody else does a better job at doing something than you. My strength is organizational. I'd rather apply myself to something I feel I'm good at than try and write some instrumentals or, even worse, trying to sing some songs.
When I made my record it was a fun thing to do. At the time, it gave me great pleasure. But now, I cringe every time I hear it. The thing is okay. I'd like to do it again, but there's no point in doing it just for the sake of doing it. You have to be motivated enough to want to do a really good job of it. I'd love to do something like that because now I've got a proper studio with 24 tracks and a lot more toys. What I don't have is the time or the inspiration. Maybe in two or three years I will.