Richard Thompson,
The TVD Interview

Tracing the steps of a career along the lines of Richard Thompson’s is a fool’s errand any which way you cut it.

Between his eccentric mode of guitar phrasing, which bears an inimitable precision that has made for an uncountable number of acoustic flourishes and electric demolitions over the years, and a penchant for lyrics that can be described as anything from spiritual and acerbic to despondent and crazed (“Roll Over Vaughan Williams” might as well be called “Live in Fear”), Thompson’s singularity is twofold.

Through his time in Fairport Convention, Thompson, alongside many of England’s heavy hitting musicians such as Sandy Denny, Dave Mattacks, and Simon Nicol, helped to reenergize the country’s folk scene into a fusion-based hotbed, suffusing traditional British and Celtic ballads with rock and roll in a profoundly novel manner. Between works like their self-titled debut album and what is perhaps the outright nexus of late ’60s folk, Liege and Lief, Fairport played an integral role in carving out a place for both acoustic and electric folk music as art.

This theme would be taken to perhaps its greatest lengths in the 1970s, and into the early ’80s, by the Island Records triad of Thompson, John Martyn, and (however briefly) Nick Drake. Thompson and then-wife Linda Thompson embarked on a masterful, decade-long string of albums which included I Want to See the Brights Lights Tonight, Pour Down Like Silver, and their final effort Shoot Out the Lights in 1982. From here, Thompson went solo and has managed a balancing act of the acoustic and the electric ever since, releasing some of his most beloved compositions along the way, such as “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and “Beeswing.”

Regarding prolificacy, the longest spell between solo albums is a matter of four years, and that’s dating back to his 1972 LP Henry the Human Fly, whose continued obscurity is nothing if not criminal. In other words, Thompson has never been one for considerable time off, and we’re all the luckier for it.

His latest acoustic tour of America is just about underway, and we managed to get ahold of Thompson for a quick chat about, you guessed it, the old Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea and seminal ’60s baroque poppers, the Left Banke.

Did you know that “Calvary Cross” was just used back in November on an American TV drama called This is Us? To hear it on a primetime show was jarring to say the least.

I didn’t know that, but I’ll actually earn money from it so that’s a good thing [laughs]. Yeah, they’ve always got certain shows like Crossing Jordan where they really like to find interesting soundtracks, but for the most part it’s kind of bland and cheap.

Speaking of soundtracks, what was it that convinced you to get on board with doing the one for Grizzly Man?

I’ve always been a big Werner Herzog fan, so the chance to work with him was very exciting. Because I knew Werner’s producer, I got kind of the in to do the soundtrack. It was a very interesting project.

How involved was Werner with the recording process?

He likes to be fully involved in the music for his films. He was always either on the studio floor or in the control room so he was there for pretty much the whole of the soundtrack.

Was the experience of working with him one that would you make you want to delve back into doing another soundtrack perhaps?

Y’know, I do soundtracks, but it depends on who it’s for. I have friends I do soundtracks for, and that’s probably the easiest. I haven’t done a feature film for a long time. That’s much more of an undertaking. Because I’m on the road so much, I actually have to turn down a lot of offers, but I’d rather be on the road than doing soundtracks because it’s a bit more exciting for me.

Sometimes you do soundtrack work and you become a slave to the picture. Whatever the picture tells you to do is what you have to do for the soundtrack, and then sometimes you don’t have editorial control so you might do a cue for the shopping mall and it ends up being for the love scene. Stuff gets switched around and edited mercilessly sometimes.

Soundtrack work sometimes pays really badly, which is surprising, but for a lot of films they spend the budget somewhere else then they think “Oh, shit—we haven’t done the soundtrack yet. We’ve only got ten thousand bucks left to do the whole thing and we need it by next week,” so sometimes it’s cheap and fast. It isn’t always my favorite thing to do.

And now this is going back a ways, but I’m just curious as to what led to your initial move to Island Records? Because the first Fairport album was released on Polydor in 1968 and then you guys moved over to Island a year later for Liege & Lief.

We were actually on Track Records, which was The Who’s label, to start off. Our first single was on there. That was Lambert and Stamp’s label. I think Hendrix was on Track as well, so that was a very prestigious label at the time, but they didn’t really do much for us. Then Track got swallowed by Polydor, so our next album was on Polydor. Island was kind of the hip label in the UK around 1967 and ’68, so it was a place that we wanted to be. When we were offered, we were quite excited and the whole of the people on our management company’s roster moved too so John David Martyn, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, all ended up on Island Records. So we were part of a mass move in that direction.

How would you describe the environment at Sound Techniques back around that time? You were working out of there for quite a few years.

Sound Techniques was a great studio. It was probably one of the first really successful independent studios in Britain. We had a great engineer, John Wood, a great sounding room, and I just spent a lot of time in there, playing on other peoples’ session as well, ’cause all the folk-rock stuff was being done in Sound Techniques, so it was just a wonderful place for a number of years, from about ’67 to ’74. I was just in there all the time and you’d always run into people you knew. It was just the one studio there so it wasn’t like a multiplex studio, but it was a great place to work.

I’ve always been fascinated by the little troupe you guys had at Island, how you would all participate in each others’ recordings and serve as session players, like what you did on Five Leaves Left and Solid Air. Considering it was such a specific group of musicians, was any of this a matter of preference on the part of the artist, or was management simply looking to keep things in-house so to speak?

I think they felt that playing something like what might be called folk-rock or something acoustic, that wasn’t necessarily what everybody was playing at that time around London. People were playing a lot of blues. They were starting to play like Deep Purple and that kind of thing. Stuff was getting louder, and there weren’t that many people who could play with a quiet or more singer-songwriter sensitivity behind someone else, so the guys who played in Fairport and Fotheringay got us a lot of sessions. We just ended up doing a lot of studio work. It was a small world, a small clique of people.

So your interactions with, say, John Martyn and Nick Drake were restricted to the studio for the most part?

I didn’t see much of Nick. I’d see him around the management office and that was about it. He was a bit of a loner, a very quiet guy. I was quiet, too, so a conversation between myself and Nick Drake in 1968 would’ve been pretty bad to say the least [laughs]. I knew John Martyn socially so he and I would hang out, and I knew the Incredible String Band as well. That whole scene was fairly tight-knit.

Regardless, from what I know of both Martyn and Danny Thompson, I imagine it’d be difficult to ever be the loudest person in the room.

Yeah, Danny’s a loud person. He could take over a room very easily, and he still does [laughs].

Was Pour Down Like Silver the last album you recorded out of there?

Good question. Let me think…it could be. At some point, it either got too busy for us to be able to book in there or it got sold. It got sold at some point to Olympic Studios. I still recorded various things there when it was Olympic, and now it’s somebody’s house, y’know? It got turned into housing like most of London, which is a real shame. It should’ve had some kind of preservation status and guided tours. Olympic Studios was another great one down the road in Barnes, and it’s now a supermarket. It’s tragic in a sense.

Well they’re pieces of history.

They really are, and in Los Angeles they turned the Beach Boys’ Western Studios into a car park or something. Same thing with Gold Star, Phil Spector’s studio, it’s like a 7-Eleven now.

Would you consider yourself fairly meticulous when it comes to picking who you want to assist you in the studio?

Maybe fussy, yeah. You want to work with certain people because you know that they can work quickly. You know that they can get a good sound of the instrument, and you know that they’re gonna play the right notes, or what you think are the right notes, so that’s fairly picky I think.

Well good things always seem to happen whenever you bring in the original Island crew to help out. You even did a collaborative album with Danny back in ’97 if I’m not mistaken. Industry is the one. And I think Dave Mattacks was on it as well.

Dave Mattacks is a great studio player. He really gets great sounds out of his drums. He’s very economic and a really steady player. You always come out of the studio thinking, “Wow, that’s a great drum performance.” He’s just a really reliable player.

With the last album being put out almost two years ago now, are you gearing up to get back in the studio sometime after your extensive touring lets up for awhile? You’re going kind of nonstop starting in April.

Yeah, I just finished a new acoustic record which I did in my home studio. One record is called Acoustic Classics Vol. 2, and it’s a followup to the acoustic record I did a couple years ago. It actually went to #6 on the UK charts, which is unbelievable. And I also have another called Acoustic Rarities which is kind of odds and ends and a bunch of unreleased material, so they’re both coming out I think in May. I’ll possibly go back into the studio in September with a band to record another band album which I assume would come out at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

And I believe you’re starting out your US tour down at the Savannah Music Festival. I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of festivals.

Only about three million [laughs]. Y’know, it’s a seasonal thing. I love festivals. Sometimes you’re reaching a different audience because people are there to see multiple artists, so that’s a good thing. Sometimes you run into musicians you know, and sometimes it’s the only place where you run into musicians you know because usually you’re on the road and they’re on the road. So a festival is a chance to actually see some friends and bump into people, and I love playing outdoors too, so it’s great.

You even managed the Meltdown festival in London once, didn’t you?

Yes I did. It’s an annual festival in the UK. It’s sort of multidisciplinary, across the whole spectrum of the arts, so it’s music, dancing, plays. It’s whatever you want to do basically. They have various venues to do it in, and every year they hire someone to be the director of that. I think they’ve had David Byrne do it, and Lou Reed one year as well. I can’t remember which year I did, but it was a while ago now. There is a budget, but to put your own festival on? It was fantastic and so much fun.

It looks like you’re also getting back together with Fairport for some gigs in August. That’s for the band’s own sort of festival at Cropredy?

That’s right and this will be the fiftieth anniversary of the band, which is an absolutely terrifying thought. So yeah, this is a big one. Can we stagger on past this point? I don’t know [laughs]. Fairport does a performance on Saturday, and I’m playing with my band on Friday night. They do a couple of paid rehearsals the week before, almost like warm-up shows, but that’s basically it. Fairport still exists, and I’ll go out and do some shows, but I’m not apart of that.

But from April until then, you’re sticking with the solo acoustic shows, correct?

This year is pretty much acoustic for me and I think next year will be much more electric and more of a band year.

I know you’ll often take audience requests during those performances. Do you base entire gigs around this approach, or hold off until the end of the set and then pick out a few covers here and there?

I’ve been doing all-request shows for a number of years now, probably for the last ten years, where the people will write something on a slip of paper and put it into a bucket and I’ll play whatever comes out. It can be anything from Pacini to Rodgers and Hammerstein, so that’s quite fun and it’s a whole dedicated show. At a normal show, people shout things out and if I can hear them then I’ll change the set around. I’m not precious about having to do things how they were planned.

So what prompted you to start doing these kinds of shows in the first place? Is it kind of a way of challenging yourself to adapt to a wide range of songs just on the fly?

Yeah, it’s challenging myself and I think you can get kind of complacent with your own performance, so this is a way to really challenge yourself, y’know, having to think on the fly and play songs you’ve never played before. I think the audience appreciates the convolutions that you’re going through to deliver a performance. The best thing about it is that it’s beyond my control, so what comes out comes out. Sometimes you get stuff that really doesn’t work, and I’ll think I know something but I really don’t know it so I’ll just stumble through. Other times, I think it can be revelatory and occasionally sublime.

Off the top of your head, what’s one of the more head-scratching requests you’ve have to perform?

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. I’m thinking, “Shit, this song requires a large range [laughs], and what key am I going to do it in?” I think I know the words, so I’ll start doing it and hope it’s the right key ‘cause I know it’s going to end up on a high G, which is going to be a challenge. But I think it turned out really great, and sometimes someone will request something you’d never thought of doing and it works so well that you’ll add it to the set. You like it, the audience likes it. Strange things happen.

On the subject of records and vinyl, how healthy was your record collection growing up? Were you the type to go down to the local shops on a frequent basis in search of new music?

The budget was always a problem with money as a teenager. I think at one point I had three records [laughs]. I had Debussy’s La Mer, Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, and I think East-West by Paul Butterfield. Those were my three records, and they lasted me about a year, so I got to know them very well. My father had a record collection which had some really good jazz in it, some Django Reinhardt and Les Paul in it. My sister also had a record collection, which was mostly rock ’n’ roll, so from the age of four or five, I had been hearing this music and really enjoying it. She had blues records quite early on, so I heard my first blues album when I was about twelve.

I ended up with a large vinyl collection, until CDs came along and I kind of switched. But I have gone back to vinyl a little bit. I’m slightly daunted at the thought of, “Well, do I really want to go back and get vinyl versions of everything I’ve gotten in the last sixteen years?” It’s still a wonderful thing. I love the warmth of vinyl and the authenticity of it in a different way. It’s hard to describe the sound of it but it seems like it has more depth to me, like I have to create a deeper stereo picture. You’re more aware of the spacing between the stuff at the front and the stuff at the back.

This came out a little later on, but I’ve heard you could play the Left Banke’s debut album front to back if you wanted to.

Yeah, I loved that record and still do. They kind of fell apart immediately after, but that’s a great record. I like to do “She May Call You Up Tonight” as a duet with my son Teddy whenever we’re performing together.

How well-versed were you with what was being put out in the States in the late ’60s?

There was a really good weekly music magazine in the UK called Melody Maker, and you could educate yourself just by reading it. It was quite good at the time and very inclusive. There was a jazz page, a folk page, and it also had Los Angeles and New York City columns. You could actually find out about everything through Melody Maker, so we were really aware of just about everything and everybody, y’know, all bands and all styles. Of course, in the UK, you’re also aware of the bands from Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Newcastle, so I think the music business was small enough that you really could keep your finger on the pulse of just about everything. I think now there’s something like twenty times the number of acts and records being released per year, so it’s much harder to keep up.

How exactly did traditional English folk music come into the picture? Was that a standard form of music for households to listen to at that point?

I wouldn’t say so, no. Everybody knew some traditional music because it was taught to you in school. You got taught the cleaned-up version, without the saucy, racy verses. It was really considered old people’s music, almost like novelty music, but it certainly wasn’t the mainstream of what people were listening to. Especially in the 1960s, from ’59 onwards, there was a growing underground.

Folks clubs sprung up in the UK. We’d have a mixture of acoustic music, some English, Irish, and Scottish traditional music. You’d have people playing American folk songs and Leadbelly songs, along with people playing Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell songs. So you had this mixture in the folk clubs, but it still wasn’t mainstream. What most households were listening to was pop music. The predominant thing was for people to listen to the Beatles and Glenn Miller for the older generations. What Fairport did was really try to bring folk music across and into rock ’n’ roll, into popular music, and that was kind of a new thing at the time.

I understand that the early proponents of the folk revival, like Martin Cathy and Ewan MacColl, were the foundation for the more elaborate songwriting and fretwork that would be extended through artists such as Bert Jansch and yourself, but how did the decision to go electric come about?

Before Fairport started recording, we played a very wide range of music, and we would also adapt ourselves to the work available, so if there was a gig going on at a blues club then we’d put together a blues set. If there was a gig in the folk club, then we’d put together an acoustic band and go do that. Our range was extremely wide at the time, so when we decided to concentrate more on British traditional music, it was something that we had some, but not total, knowledge of. It was kind of an intellectual decision, if you like. It was something we had thought about, “Well, this is something we should do. It will be meaningful to us. It will mean that we’re playing music at which we can excel rather than always being imitators of Chicago blues or something, always feeling second best to America’s stars of music. I think we also thought that it would resonate with the audience, that they would recognize the music as their own and make us rich and famous, which didn’t really happen unfortunately.

I know you’ve said how going into a folk club nowadays isn’t all that much different from going into one back in, say, 1965, despite how successful the folk artists of the ’60s and ’70s were at really hammering away at this jazz-folk-rock fusion, I think it’s interesting that you can still go to these places to find that the environment remains by and large the same.

Yeah, it is the same. There aren’t as many folk clubs as there used to be. I think in 1966 there was something like five hundred folks clubs in Britain, which is not a big country, so that was a living. You could actually go around the folk clubs, and I did it for a year, with Fairport and Linda as well. It was a good living, actually. That number is greatly reduced now. It’s down to one hundred or maybe even fifty clubs left in the country, but people like Martin Cathy still play them, and it’s a great thing since it preserves a certain tradition and keeps that way of life going. I hope they’re there forever.

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