Richard thompson full transcript

This is the full transcript of my interview with Richard Thompson back in September 2010, on the subject of his album, Dream Attic. A very pleasant fellow, he was most interesting perhaps on dichotomies …

Oh, and this interview is owned by me, so if you must steal it, at least have the grace to ask permission first!

 

Yours is a career that’s constantly evolving … would you consider writing an autobiography?

RT – I don’t think my life’s very interesting. It’s not as exciting as other people’s. I love to read biographies, but what do I ever do?

[new areas]that’s sort of internal – autobiographies, the good ones, are those where people get married eight times, there’s lots of licentious stuff in there, you know … the occasional trip to the south pole or something … [no plans?] you can always find time to go to the south pole … my life seems a little mundane to be up there in print … [space?] in the sense that a lot of one’s time is taken up, as in i’m either on the road or i’m at home, and when I’m at home I’m writing, and there isn’t time for a lot of other things, a bit of gardening … I live a very colourful internal life, I sublimate a lot and put a lot of the things I don’t do into songs, things I’m frustrated at not doing I channel them somehow into the song process.

[not just one RT]

– interesting question … I see what I do as a package, as a performer I try to bring my various skills into the arena, as songwriter, singer, guitar player, I really try to use those skills to make it a better experience for people coming to hear the music … in performance they’re blended [fourth estate?] there’s performance skill, whatever that is, being able to perform, being able to project, making that part of the musical experience … offstage you can see those as separate units, songwriting is a separate thing, but i’m usually writing with an end in mind, and the end in mind is this performance package … is there a time when all three are equally contributing? I try and do that in most songs, in most songs i’m using the guitar really as an accompaniment, and if i’m playing a solo i’m trying to continue the [??? 08.12] of the song … I don’t think of myself as a joe satriani or something, I should be so lucky! I don’t think of myself as an instrumental virtuoso, I see myself as an accompanist, and if I have any merits as a guitar player then it’s as somebody who accompanies a singer

but the polls! [8.35]

– I think there are a lot of guitar players who we admire, who you’d say are not true soloists, they’re more like blenders, they play a rhythmic role or something – keith richards, who always seems to be in the top ten guitar players is not a great player of solos, but he’s a great inventor of riffs, and he’s a great rhythm guitar player, and those virtues seem to put him very much in people’s minds when they’re constructing polls – you could say BB King might think of himself principally as a singer, and the guitar playing is kind of interjections between vocal phrases … perhaps he thinks of himself as equally a guitar player but not as A guitar player …

[your solos tend to spring from the vocal melodies]

– at some point it’s a conscious decision to play in that way, I think it evolved from playing in Fairport in the 60s, back in about 67 where we’d be playing a song and I’d be trying to glide into the solo, to not make it a big sort of, statement at the beginning of the solo, but to creep into it as a sort of continuation of the vocal narrative …

[live album but not a live album]

– in what sense it it not a live album? [normally one associates a live album as a package] – it’s weird for me as well … be reassured it’s weird all round … people come up to me and say I really prefer the live version to the album version, and perhaps there’s something in that, and that we should chop out the studio process, and see if we can record an album of new songs in front of an audience …

[consistency of sound ]

– recorded over eight nights, which was our quality control. We didn’t have choices of whether to overdub, or we chose not to … we felt that the performances were strong enough without having to do any overdubbing or editing or that kind of thing. At one point we were prepared to cheat and say well if we have to redo the vocals we’ll redo the vocals but it just didn’t happen. All the guitar solos are as played, everything’s pretty much as played – we might have fixed like one bass note, flown in another bass note and that was about it … it was chosen over eight nights, and the last three were at the same place […14.19] and that as probably where most of the performances came from, so there’s a consistency there, the stuff that came from other nights you really can’t tell … another decision that we made was to reduce the size of the room and the size of the audience, so everything’s fairly close-miked, I think we preferred that because it sounds somewhere in between a studio and a live recording …

[then the demos …]

– we were looking to have something as bonus disc, and one of the ideas was to have the rest of the live show, the part two … more older stuff, more familiar material, but then we thought ho about the demos, the things I sent out to the band as guidelines for learning the songs … and we thought they don’t sound too bad, so let’s stick them on there … there are different versions here or there, different lyrics, things have different shapes here and there, and that’s just because when you get into the rehearsal process things change, new ideas occur to you, and think perhaps you’ll add a verse here, perhaps we’ll cut that there …

[changes]

– something like crime scene, it’s a difficult song, structurally it’s a difficult song, thematically it’s a difficult song, on the demo it’s a little bit more succinct, when it gets in front of an audience with a band, it gets longer, it gets more dramatic, there’s a huge dynamic range in that song, and solos become longer, become more expressive, become more intense, it’s much more intense live …

[recording the demos]

– it’s pretty small, I have a very small room in m house, it’s about 8×7, like a monastic cell, really, and I think of the recording process as being rather monastic as well, really … recorded with a digital performer onto a G5 mac – I used my signature model lowden for most of it … i’m lucky that I’ve got some very nice mics [it’s very nice sounding] it’s a miracle, really …

[the welding of trad with modern]

– yes, moving the tradition forward, yes, influenced by the tradition yes, close to the tradition yes, but somewhere between tradition and contemporary. As I found with fairport and as I still find today, with Fairport it was still necessary to build a bridge, between traditional music and contemporary music because the bridge had really been burnt, especially in english music as opposed to scottish and irish music, I suppose something similar happened in america with someone like the flying burrito brothers who tried to put country and rock together, the eagles did the same thing, because of people neglecting our own tradition or traditions dying out but being replaced by the gramophone, the radio, there becomes this divorce between popular and traditional music.

In fairport we tried to invent a bridge for that and we were very successful, and i’m really doing the same thing all the time, though less self-consciously, and really I like the music that I play to be contemporary traditional, and is suppse that for this project, for this record, I picked a band that was able to play in that crack. So we have two melodic instruments, we have a fiddle and we have Pete zorn playing the flute or the sopranino sax so you have a kind of melodic section there that can play tradition-based melodies that you hear like for instance at the end of sidney wells, this gleeful, sadistic, serial killer type dance tune, as every album should have … it was going to be stanley wells [in reponse to a joke by me] but I had to back off a bit as his lawyers were getting rather intense …

[other people]

– to take the last part first – living in the states doesn’t affect me stylistically, if anything it makes me more one of those zealous exiles, someone who’s slightly divorced from their own culture so they cling to it even more … I think my father was a bit like that, he was a scotsman who lived in london, and he fiercely celebrated burns’ night and every possible scottish tradition, he was more of a scotsman than someone living in scotland. And I think that even though I live in america I don’t absorb american culture, I watch it from a distance, and it’s pretty frightening … but I really don’t think i’m immersed in it … teddy’s music I see as a slight remove from my own, I think teddy’s a great pop singer and writer, and he’s becoming more traditionally influenced now which is interesting. To some extent everything you listen to influences you, in the sense that you say ‘I absorb this’ or ‘I reject this’, or at least “i acknowledge this’, so you hear things and you intuitively pass judgement on them, and sometimes you take ideas on board from what you listen to and sometimes you don’t. I see teddy in a slightly different musical world, and I think that’s a good thing for him, and I love his music, I think it’s fantastic, but I don’t see it as being similar to mine, other people might see a similarity but I don’t. The thousand years show probably has influenced me, doing research, particularly for the earlier musical forms has been very interesting and it’s made me think about how you structure a song, because these days we have accepted ways of structuring a song, you know, verse, chorus, VC b, c or something, ABABCB, and a few variations on that and as you go back into earlier forms there are different kinds of structure that are quite interesting sometimes and it’s fun to play with those and see what happens. And also melodically in early music you hear things that overlap into traditional music, and it’s interesting to explore some of those themes, some of those modes, that has been influential …

[covers band … strange covers set … ]

– I think the audience and the performers all know it’s going to be disparate, it’s accepted that every song is not going to sound like every other song, this is why it’s such an insane project, really, and you have to change gears for every song, it’s a hard show to perform and i’m not sure anyone else would find it any more comfortable, it wouldn’t matter which discipline you came from, if you were classically trained that wouldn’t help you, if you played early music that wouldn’t help you after 1700 …

Hugh and I were at school together, and we were friends and we enjoyed talking about music together and at a certain point we started playing music together, and hugh wanted to learn the bass, so he bought a home made instrument off of a schoolfriend, this horrific, really bad home-made bass, just ghastly, anyway he wanted to play and I helped to teach him some things and he picked it up pretty quickly and we added a drummer and for a while we were a band, I think for a couple of years, probably from about the age of 13 to about 16, when I then started to play with the people who became fairport, but we were school chums and bandmates and I just saw hugh about three months ago in los angeles his band played and I got up and we played a song that we’d last played in about 1965 … which was most bizarre … [it went down] great, we did tobacco road, the national teams’ version of tobacco road, which we used to play in our school band and it was interesting to revisit it.

Gear: [30]

the hurdy gurdy]

– playing drone instruments, there’s something soothing about them … you get carried away, too … you sit at home and start playing and before you know it an hour’s gone by, you just get entranced by the sound. I think on an instrument like the HG notes have a lot of value. Every note you play is very significant whereas I think on the guitar you can glide by some notes and it’s not that important it’s more whereabouts you end a phrase o begin a phrase that takes on more significance, but on the HG every note really means something. And it’s just a beautiful thing, it’s got that kind of bagpipe thing which is lovely, it’s also a beautiful melodic instrument, it’s a great vocal accompaniment instrument, it’s comparatively easy to play at a beginner’s level, so it’s easy to get into it, to play it well I think is extremely difficult, to play like Nigel eaton is an extremely tough proposition, but I’d stick myself as somewhere between those two extremes. What you want from any instrument is stability, and what you can get with modern technology is a much more stable HG with tuning pegs, the wheel is more stable, it’s not going to warp, it’s become a more manageable instrument. I have a new one now which is about 50x improvement on my old one, and i’m really enjoying a more stable relationship, should I say …

same with guitars?]

– it’s hard to say. There have been advances in neck design, end pin block design, neck joints are better than they used to be, and I know that the acoustic instruments that I play are very very stable, remarkably stable considering the pounding they get on the road, so i’m very happy about that. The solid body electric guitar was a great innovation, particularly something like a fender, because it’s such a tough, tough guitar, you can fly that thing around the world for years and you hardly have to tweak he neck. It’s ridiculous … I remember pete townshend used to have a very hard time smashing up like a tele onstage …

it’s all about tone – playability’s a factor but I don’t think it’s the first factor because you get to playability later, you can tweak action and strings an frets and heaven knows what, you can adjust them later, but you know the first thing you want is tone, and on an acoustic guitar it has to be there from the beginning, and the tone o most guitars will improve, the more you play it the better it sounds. On an electric guitar it’s down to the wood it’s made of and the pick-ups … there are various theories about what does works and what doesn’t, and it depends what you’re looking for, what sound you’re looking for …

I’ve never been a big fan of humbuckers, so when I owned a gibson I had a gold top LP back in the 60s I liked the old P90 pick-ups, and I still like them, I think it’s a great pick-up, at some point I noticed that the guitar players I liked to listened to were mostly fender players so I switched to fender, and I still play mostly fender type guitars if not actual fenders – I like single coil pick-ups … I like a thinner sound and a slightly more hollow sound …

He’s [danny ferrington] a friend and neighbour of mine and he’s built me several guitars, I’ve got a baritone acoustic that danny built, I’ve got a couple of electrics, and a couple of acoustics as well. He’s a real ideas guy, he really comes up with interesting innovations and ideas, and the electric guitars that we’ve built have been experiments really, a certain kind of a body weight combined with various pick-up combinations, the blue ferrington guitar that I have is more like a test bed really, for different pick-ups and we threw in an assortment and at some point we liked the ones that were in there. I think it’s a p90, and alnicoo strat in the middle and a broadcaster bridge pickup and that seems to work pretty well, and it’s a straight-wired guitar, there’s no tone control, and each pickup has a volume control, so you can blend the pickups in a kind of infinite way by varying the volume on each pickup.

[to lowdon]

– someone brought a lowdon to me when I was playing in washington dc, to the backstage area, and they said you should try one of these, he was trying to sell it to me, of course, and that was just fine, and I tried it and it was a really fantastic guitar, had amazing sustain and great evenness of tone, and he said i’m the biggest dealer in Lowdons in the US, so I’ve got 30 at my shop, so come around tomorrow and try a few, so I went round and tried 30 lowdons and became a convert right there, and I bought one and I used that for years and I became associated with the company, and I now have a signature guitar … and I just think there are some innovations on lowdon guitars that I think are tremendous, and I just think it’s the best small production guitar in the world. I think it’s as good as anything out there …

[tunings]

– I do a lot of stuff just in dropped d, I use DADGAD, I use c modal, which is CG, hang on, CGDGBA, sorry … CG crikey CGBGBE –

I think either way, some definitely start in a tuning, and the tuning inspires what the song becomes, particularly as an acoustic performer, I’m looking for something that sounds full in a certain key – sometimes you start writing a song and you have to fit it to your vocal range, and sometimes you start in the wrong key, so you have to find a better key … and sometimes in finding a better key you have to go into a tuning to make it sound better, make it sound fuller … another interesting way of writing a song is to invent a tuning right there, just something you’ve never tried before, and just see what happens as you try to find chords in this new tuning – it can take you melodically to places you wouldn’t normally go. And then you can rationalise it into a more accessible tuning, but as a starting point it’s sometimes good not to know where your fingers are going to go.

Absolutely, your fingers fall into patterns that’s what they’re supposed to do, you practice scales and things so that they do, but sometimes it’s good to break up the patterns if you’re trying to be inventive (42.48)

usually just chords, then I might practice some runs, it’s good to warm up … I do slow slow stuff …

pre-amp?

It’s a ridge farm gas cooker, designed for studio use, it’s a 2-channel valve pre-amp that accepts – has phantom power on it – it’s good for the little condenser mic I have on the guitar, and also for the sunrise pickup, which is a magnetic pickup … it accepts both of those very well, matches those very well … it’s not designed to go on the road, we’ve had some modifications so we can take it on the road, it’s a little delicate for all the flying, but we’ve done a few mods it’s a great pre-amp because it eally warms up the magnetic pickup especially … I think amplifying an acoustic guitar is an endless quest, because you’re doing something very artificial, you’re taking something that’s acoustic and trying to make it louder, so it’s all cheating, so the sunrise pickup has tons of gain, so you can really crank it up a long way, and the little internal mic gives it the air … I find that amplifying an acoustic guitar you need two systems, asa one doesn’t really give you enough choices. Because it’s an artificial thing it’s always going to be a compromise …

[the tunes at the heart of your playing]

– maybe perhaps a traditional tune like the choice wife, which is a guitar transcription of an irish pipe tune, that would show some of the influences that go into it … something like turning of the tide, where i’m playing rhythm with a flatpick and my fingers to play leadlines …

I hate all of them [his solos] perhaps hard on me from mock tudor, I think that solos quite good, and there’s a live version of that solo which is longer longer and also, I think quite good …

tunes that no-one seemed to get ]

– there’s a song I used to play religiously for years in live sets, and I thought everyone seems to like this and it goes down really well and this song has to be a staple of my set, and then there were a couple of online polls on my website or wherever where fans would write in and say which their favourite songs were, and this particular song was you know, 185, had half a vote or something, and I was absolutely stunned, it’s interesting to get some feedback from the audience sometimes!

Top 3 players]

– probably as a kid, listening to django rheinhardt was pretty scary, that was in my dad’s record collection, so I’d been listening to django since I was like two or something. Django’s solo on something like running wild which is like terrifying, could put you off guitar playing right there … similarly, there’s probably a Les Paul song … how high the moon by le paul, it’s kind of pre rock n roll rock and roll, it’s writing the book of rock and roll guitar playing in about 1950. that’s pretty extraordinary … [what made you play] probably the shadows. Like so many people of that generation we wanted to play apache, so from the age of 11 that’s what I was trying to do, and I found a friend who was like-minded and we found another and we had a little instrumental band, when we were like 11/12 years old …

pivotal times]

– I suppose when I was in fairport in 1968 when we were thinking of changing our style to play this blend of traditional and contemporary, that was kind of a pivotal point, and i’m really still there, it’s still what i’m doing, it was a kind of lifetime decision really, that guitar technique, probably … on acoustic guitar finding things that you think no-one’s found before, finding things you can do with flatpick and fingers … you can play certain patterns on the bass string you can’t play with a thumb pick, you can’t play with your thumb … but with a pick you can pick up and down, and at the same time you can play a melody with your fingers … I started doing it unconsciously, I didn’t know I was doing it … I learnt fingerstyle, I learnt classical fingerstyle when I was a kid, and I learnt the flatpicking … at some point I was too lazy to put the pick down or something, and I was watching tv and playing and not thinking about it and it just became a style … a few other people have done that, I think albert lee has done that as well, I think glenn campbell plays that way too, it’s a style of convenience, really … but having done that style I then found some things that seemed to be innovations …

I love kittens?]

– well I do … it’s the first line of the song, I didn’t know it was going to be the first line of the record, I wanted to get the audience’s attention, and it’s a good way into the character who’s singing the song …

[narrative]

– to some extent it is folk influenced, it’s also easier to tell a story when you don’t have much time, and in popular music you don’t have much time, you only have a few verses to get something across, so if it’s in the first person you’re seeing things through the eyes of that person, you enter the story quicker,

harder work because of story?]

– harder but it’s easier … it’s harder to get inside the character, but having done that, you’re really just telling a story from someone else’s point of view, and as long as you truly represent the character, then it’s going to be a true picture …

I don’t have a favourite, like I don’t have a favourite child … you shouldn’t favour one child over the other, and I feel the same about songs.

The difference between the two recordings]

– the record is basically the electric (57.24) that’s the one that’s being promoted, the demos are just an add-on … and I wouldn’t see them as important otherwise we would have released it the other way around … people will just have to make of that what they will … I see it as interesting for people to see the process, and there will be some people who are more folk fans who’ll say the acoustic versions are much better than the electric versions, I’m not sure how people are going to take it, and i’m not overly concerned at this point …

diff aud performances ]

generally we record as live as possible in the studio, inevitably there’s some stuff – you might want to add some backing vocals, but it’s more of an afterthought – you might want to add a saxophone as an afterthought, but we really play as much as we can live because that’s the way that we work better, everyone has different studio techniques, and someone like brian wilson who does things very methodically one thing at a time gets amazing results, but I find I can’t work that way …

rapport]

– the studio is an artificial place to make music because music should always be in front of an audience, so the studio process can feel a little artificial, it can feel a little introverted … a little indulgent sometimes, some people get over that by actually having a few people in the studio, who they can perform to, and if you don’t have that you’re sort of performing to each other …

the influence of the band is stronger than the audience, the band are reacting to each other all the time, you pick up a certain spirit from the audience, if the audience is enjoying the show then you’re probably going to play better, and it becomes more of an interaction, and I suppose the nice thing about the audience is it’s a focus and somewhere to aim the music

autotune]

– I can see how you might use autotune on a record where you just want to sweeten things up a bit, there’s a bass note a bit out of tune, there’s a harmony note a bit out of tune … I think maybe that’s ok, maybe if you didn’t use it it would be better, I don’t know, because some of the records that we like, that we grew up listening to, things are out of tune … things are out of tune, things are out of time, but they’re classic records … and if you sweeten them up too much, if you pull the tuning in too much it’s going to lose something … there’s a certain edge that’s going to be missing … using autotune live I think is very controversial, as far as i’m concerned I don’t like the fact that there are people having their vocals tuned in concert, it feels like it’s kind of cheating, it’s a misrepresentation to the audience, you’re saying that you’re a better singer than you really are … there are also performers who have other singers offstage who are basically singing their parts, if not for them then certainly along with them … so it’s like a double track. Because stage shows are very energetic these days, people are dancing around, it’s almost as if there’s more focus on the show than there is on the musical aspect … it’s the lights, it’s the production it’s the dancing and it’s the singing … and the singing is a component but it’s not the main factor, maybe … so they’re tuning vocals, using other singers, all that kind of stuff … for a tv show .. it’s a talent contest, right? Then it’s about talent, and if you’re tuning vocals you’re giving people more talent than they have … I fail to understand that policy, but I think those shows are disgusting anyway, because it’s a deeply conservative unimaginative non-innovative approach to televising music … i’d like to think that at some time I the future there’ll be a tv talent show in which the most important consideration was innovation … was ideas, performance was almost irrelevant …

would you have entered?]

– a talent show like that, no – I did enter talent contests when I was young, they had battle of the bands kind of things, just around north london where they’d get four bands or six bands and everyone would go on and play and there’d be a prize at the end, maybe a record contract, and our band entered a couple of those, we usually finished last – probably deservedly so, we were usually the youngest band, by about five years, and we just weren’t as polished as the other bands,

study?]

– I study music a lot, I listen to a lot of forms of music, a lot of jazz, a lot of classical music, styles that I don’t play, because i’m listening for new harmonic ideas, and i’m looking to extend my harmonic vocabulary … a lot of C20th classical, I like some of the idea where it comes close to dissonance, or becomes totally dissonant, I think those are ideas you can incorporate into popular music to a small extent …

speaking to a young player ]

– I think i’d say it’s an overcrowded music profession, and rock and roll has been around for 50 years, and the longer it goes on, the fewer new ideas, and I think to stand out these days musicians have to make a virtue of their individuality, that’s what you have to emphasise, instead of trying to blend with everybody else, be different …

absolutely, I think we absolutely did, in fairport that’s what we did at a time when there was a much smaller music business, and actually in 1967 audiences were either stoned or confused or just plain generous, and would accept a whole range of different music styles. I’m not sure you find that openness any more, and certainly the music business was much more open to new ideas then, basically because they didn’t know what was going on, they were signing everything, for fear of being left out – it’s harder now …

backwards and forwards ]

– the first thing is that you have to know your musical history to know that you’re not repeating something, if your musical roots are shallow, if you go back 20 years musically the chances are that you’re going to be recycling ideas that really aren’t that profound, if you know where your heroes got their ideas from and go back a couple of generations you learn so much more.

What started the folk ]

– i’d been listening to folk music since I was very small and it didn’t eem to be important, when I was younger I was hearing trad scottish dance music, and as a kid I used to read scottish ballads, this was when I was like [ …] just because it wa in the book collection at home, and at school we learnt folk songs, some of which were pretty good songs, it was part of govt policy to teach kids traditional music, but it didn’t seem as exciting as the kinks or muddy waters, that seemed far more exciting, and it wasn’t until fairport made this decision to go back to those roots that we really started to feel the importance of that music

I don’t remember the actual catalyst … the catalyst was probably ashley hutchings, who was probably thinking about this before the rest of us, and I think when sandy joined the band she actually came to the band with some traditional music, and that was the point where we actually started to play [ … 68] …

© Pete Langman 2010 – please ask nicely before you steal it!

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