Channelling From Some Other Place: Richard Thompson Interviewed
, April 16th, 2013 09:11
Following the release of his 21st album, Electric, earlier this year, Richard Thompson talks to Tariq Goddard about why he prefers living in the suburbs, sidestepping 60s excess and his relationship with his back catalogue
Photograph courtesy of Pamela Littky
The aesthetic rule of thumb of my teenage years, to basically judge a book by its cover, let me down with Richard Thompson. Stumbling upon a set of his at a festival at the beginning of the nineties to discover a man with amiable self possession playing an acoustic guitar, was not consistent with what I thought tents were for (raves). Shallow as it appears on reflection, what generally looked interesting to me at the time usually was (Jane’s Addiction) and what did not, wasn’t (The Farm), so after a few moments I simply stopped listening and went off to dance on the spot somewhere else instead. Happily my criteria adapted, and though it took several years to realise my mistake. Thompson’s music, as he modestly agrees, loses far less than raving would, coming to it a couple of decades late.
Communication is deceptively simple when it succeeds. Thompson’s vast musical skills were easy to overlook as they’re the handmaiden of an ambitious project: his musicianship serves human emotion to a point where the playing, singing and man are less obvious than what he expresses. The comparative invisibility of ego in his work means that unlike many of his peers, rock’s great showmen (Jagger), poets (Dylan) or casualties (Hendrix), Thompson is far from a household name, though it’s difficult to think of an audience that identifies as warmly with the supposed “star” of the show than his. He turns the Basingstoke Anvil into a venue more fashionable destinations would envy, an irony lost on nobody, “to have this kind of love in the home of the Insurance Industry” he only half jokes, “Basingstoke, you rock!”
Playing as part of a tight rocky three-piece promoting his new album, the excellent Electric, unsurprisingly takes Thompson over the louder parts of his five decade career. None of the subtly is lost in the noise, no one conveys the slow erosion of hope better than Thompson, or the heroic stoicism necessary to fight it more nobly. Nor does the irreducible strangeness of much of his work get lost in the celebratory atmosphere; the unsettling 'Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?', a weird enquiry of a ballad from the album Shoot Out The Lights, is one of the show’s many highlights.
If there are benefits to the gradual dissolution of the generation gap it would be comforting to think Thompson could take advantage of them. His passionate movement through a range of styles without a trace of dilettantism (country, AOR, folk, cajun) still endears him to the Fairport Convention generation he grew up with. But his subject matter (serial killers, war, missed opportunities and class anger) shame the vapid universalisations of a generation of landfill folk fops that confuse the dilution of meaning with sincerity, and deserve to win him the ear of anyone unembarrassed by emotion in its rawest forms.
Meeting him earlier in the day I asked whether a friend, an old fan, whose description of Thompson performing in 1968 - "like he was receiving dictation from some other place" - offered a fair summary of his working method: “[laughing] that’s sort of flattering as it implies the music comes from somewhere else, which is what you aim for, though I don’t think I get there that often. The aim is to channel the music from some other place, get your ego out of the way and just let it flow through. I think that’s what Charlie Parker was doing, Mozart was doing. That’s the state. I probably get there once every fifteen years.”
Talking about that “state”, does religion still feature in your work (Thompson converted to Sufism in the 1970s), however indirectly?
Richard Thompson: Yeah, I think so, what your morality, your spirituality is, will always be in there. Not always obviously, maybe not shouting at a superficial level, no listener likes to be beaten over the head by other people’s intentions. I think my audience can deal with metaphors, and those that don’t care for spirituality can always reject it and enjoy the song. I tell stories, they’re often love stories, and if you dig a little deeper they might be about something else, and maybe about something I didn’t even know was there. It amazes me what people find in the songs and that’s always been the thing with music, it’s the hardest thing to pin down or define and can mean seriously different things to people at different times.
Knowing that you grew up in Highgate in London, I was interested that when you moved to the United States, you chose to live in the suburbs again, this time in Los Angeles. Do you think there’s something about suburbia and its superficial normality that appeals to you?
RT: Very probably. The suburbs appeal to me in a John Betjeman, very Metro-land land kind of way. The suburbs are a desert. In a desert you’re alone with yourself, there are no distractions. It’s a place where you can think clearly and I think the suburbs are a bit like that, they’re also a desert, a wasteland, a place to think. And I like the way they’re close to the wild. But also the city. In Los Angeles, I’m twenty minutes from downtown but I walk to the end of the street and I’m close to a National Park that goes for thirty or forty miles. And I think a lot of good music came out of the suburbs, if you look back.
But the people who made it fled the suburbs; you came full circle. You don’t have many of the trappings of that generation of rock stars, as far as I know, the mansions, substance abuse…
RT: What went wrong!
Well you gave up drinking in 1974 and excess has always been part of rock’s criteria, it’s meant to be productive.
RT: Yeah, I miss the lows and highs in that sense. And the artificial euphoria and the artificial depressions. But I looked down the road and thought this is going to kill me if I don’t stop now.
You have an absolutist temperament?
RT: Yes, I think I do. I couldn’t drink in moderation I think. That’s a choice. So I had to find other ways of getting those moments of clarity, of joy, of euphoria, you have to find it in other things. In the last few years I’ve read the Keith Richards autobiography, Townsend’s, the Jagger biog and am now halfway through Captain Beefheart and I’m thinking that I was sure I was there in the sixties but I must have missed it because I didn’t live like this. We used to go into the studio to record an album and it’d take a week without too much trouble and the reason it took these guys a year to make an album was because everyone was so out of it, turning up to Eric’s house on two bottles of brandy a day to see who’s girlfriend was dying of a heroin overdose... I feel quite cheated actually! Still, I’m playing St. Albans tomorrow which is famous for its debauchery...
Have you ever written a record that you were surprised wasn’t a hit?
RT: I was so mortified that our first single with Fairport [1968's "If (Stomp)"/"If I Had a Ribbon Bow"] wasn’t a hit. I mean, I had invested so much in believing in this song, and in believing that it was going to be a successful record, that when it wasn’t I thought never again. I would never let that happen to me again. I was never going to allow myself to work up to that pitch where I could be shattered by the opinions of critics and, of course, of the record-buying public. Since then I’ve hedged my bets by becoming deliberately detached and unemotional about popularity or the lack of it. You have to be stoical.
I heard on the radio on the way here that Roger Taylor, the drummer of Queen, is worth eighty million pounds. Even if you’re not motivated by money, and even if you love Queen and especially the drummer, does that strike you as something of an injustice?
RT: Yes. I would think that for about ten seconds, accept that he’s done what he’s done and I’ve done what I’ve done and that I’d rather be me than him and never think about it again.
The part that interests me is why stuff I don’t care for is and has always been so popular - what’s happening to people that isn’t happening to me when they listen to this music? We tend to blame performers we don’t like for the music they produce but hold off when it comes to their public.
RT: Oh god yes. I’m a bit of an Abba fan and went to see the musical recently. It was quite good hearing the old songs being done again but honestly I was horrified and appalled by the audience reaction and what they reacted to. I thought, I’m enjoying this too but you’re reacting to the wrong bits! I wanted to jump up and say that’s a great bass line you’re all missing. Instead it was like nostalgia evening for a shag at the office party. I could see that the associations people had set out with and come to enjoy didn’t depend on the music, or at least on what I think are the good bits of the music, so I sat there thinking you’re all wrong, what’s the matter with you people? But those audiences engage in music as something else, as as sort of association with things that have nothing to do with music I think. So it’s the audiences that puzzle me to be honest, they’re worrying. Recently I watched some videos of Kenny G’s audience, incredible, dancing round and grooving to Kenny like it’s the coolest thing in the world and that really upsets me. Kenny G doesn’t really upset me. But the audience does.
Was the song 'Crawl Back' based on any particular experience. I know someone who is a huge fan of the album it came from, Mock Tudor, who thinks it must be? He’s from the northeast and the class angle to the song is something he can relate to.
RT: It was. Yes. I was in Norfolk, the northeast of the southeast, living outside Norwich and I was driving along in the country and went past a sign saying the Norfolk Gun Club, and I thought "this is interesting", so I jumped over the fence that said "no entry" as I wanted to find out more about what this place was, thinking, perhaps, I might like to join up, which was very open minded of me. The property thing in the country isn’t as precious as townies think it is, people knock on your door in the country or cut across your land, so I was just taking a short cut. Anyway this guy comes across the fields and he’s deeply offended that I had trespassed into this deeply private domain and he pulled the class thing on me, he was an old Etonian or something, and I as far as he was concerned I was definitely not in the club, I didn’t dress like I was in the club, I didn’t look like I belonged. A gentleman just knows. So he threw me out and was nasty about it. Which shouldn’t matter though obviously it stayed with me as I wrote a song about it! Mock Tudor, there’s some good stuff on there.
It’s funny, I had thought of that song happening indoors.
RT: It’s a good lyric if people can get that from it, the wider the interpretation the better it works.
Is there a period of your work which you think is even more unfairly neglected than the rest that you like to return to, or would like others to reconsider?
RT: I have a very different time scale to music that affects the way I think about it. I don’t think in terms of periods any longer. One of the unique things, or strange things, about being a songwriter is that on any particular night you will drag up songs from anywhere in your career. Every three nights or so someone will ask me to play 'Meet On The Ledge' which I wrote when I was nineteen and struggle to have any emotional attachment to. My reasons for writing it had something to do with my being nineteen. I can’t treat it as belonging to a period, I have to approach it as a song.
At all points I’m reviewing every point of my career, the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s. Every time I go out and play I have to make it atemporal and take it out of time, so I can actually put it in a set and sing it to people. I also don’t think in terms of albums, I think more in terms of songs. I’ll go to an album and there’ll be three songs on it that I still perform. I don’t think, "is it a good album or a bad album", because I know it’ll be like all the others, it’ll be a mixed album and there will be songs on it that don’t have a long shelf life. And then there are others that I’ll still hang onto. They’re the survivors. And a good album has seven or eight of them, basically songs that I can still perform and if a record has that, then fantastic.
On the new album, Electric, you finish with a song called 'Saving The Good Stuff For You', which suggests you may be an easier man to live with now than in the past??
RT: Yes, I would say that is true. I hope most of us are as we get older though saying that some people do definitely go the other way. I think around thirty-five to forty people suddenly grow up, develop a different level of awareness and regret some of the folly of their youth.
RT: Any minute now! I think it happened to me and there were some demons you can lay to rest, for sure. But I think when I’m in writing mode, when I’m basically writing every day, I’m not particularly pleasant to be around because I’m so focussed on the writing. The family suffers, that’s for sure.
I found Miles Davis’s autobiography unnerving, as everything was secondary to his creative development, by which I mean his music, and came at the cost of every other living thing that crossed his path.
RT: Yes. I think the hardest question your loved one can ever ask you is “what is more important, me or the music?” [laughs] I say, "that’s an unfair question, if you really love me you would never ask me that question!"