Colin H on Fairport Convention
The Quest For Roger Burridge: 50 Years of Fairport Convention
Welcome to an Afterword exclusive: an interview with Dave Pegg (bass) and Chris Leslie (vocals, song writing, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, etc.) from Fairport Convention, recorded on Saturday 27 January at the Black Box in Belfast, in between a sound check and the first of two shows in the venue – the second having been added the following afternoon by popular demand.
And speaking of popular demand, Roger Burridge: if you’re out there, get in touch with Dave Pegg – he’s easy to find! (For everyone else wondering what this is all about, read on. Or better still, make a cup of coffee, set aside half an hour, and then read on.)
It’s Fairport Convention’s 50th anniversary this year. I followed the band in the 80s and early 90s, not having been of an age to experience them ‘back in the day’ (the band is older than I am, just). Although I reviewed them several times in newspapers or magazines in the 90s it occurred to me that 2017 is the 30th anniversary of the one time I interviewed them. It would be nice, I thought, to do so again. I’ve been to their annual Cropredy Festival a few times, from 1987 into the 2000s, and saw them playing (splendidly) at Belfast’s Black Box in 2011 or 2012, either on their ‘Babbacombe Lee’ full-album tour or just before it (certainly, at least some of the songs from that album were in the set for the first time in decades) but I haven’t followed their career as such. It transpires there are four studio albums I missed in between the last one I heard (‘Over The Next Hill’, 2004) and the one just released, ’50:50@50’, and through a kind of mid-90s loss of interest in their new recorded works it seems I missed the four before ‘Over The Next Hill’ too.
Given all that, I was thrilled with the quality of ‘50/50@50’, which I had the time to hear properly only on the afternoon of the interview. Being half studio/half live allows some previously recorded items to be revisited (in concert recordings), although none are the over-familiar items you might expect, with a bunch of new songs and instrumentals. What is most remarkable (once you’ve got used to short bursts of middle-distance applause and speech at the end of some tracks) is how cohesive the whole thing sounds. Producer/engineer John Gale has done a really fantastic job on the album. I’m not going to review it, I’ll just say that I’m playing it for the fourth or fifth time (on headphones) as I type and it’s fabulously engrossing, as both a collection of musical pieces and as a listening experience/a sound-world to dive into. There was a period in the mid-90s when things seemed to be getting a bit bland, and some of the material they recorded was pretty poor, but Chris Leslie brought the missing ingredient when he joined – a within-band song writing capability for the first time in years and a distinctive, plaintive singing voice that balances well in a set shared with Simon Nicol’s more basso-profundo vocal items. This is really an exquisitely-oiled machine that still has grit and can balance the stirring folk-rock with lighter, fun items and a little gentle balladry and quirky instrumentals. Somehow, it all fits seamlessly together. I suppose if, after 50 years, they haven’t worked out how to make a decent album, they really should start thinking about armchairs and cocoa. ‘50/50@50’ is musical, energised, much better and with more of a skip in its step than anyone should really expect after half a century.
Managing 50 years in the music business is an achievement worthy of great respect and, in contrast to their ‘Fairport Confusion’ reputation – having personnel that was at one time almost absurdly fluid – the current line-up has been together since 1998: Simon Nicol (vocal/guitar), Chris Leslie (everything), Ric Sanders (violin) Dave Pegg (bass), Gerry Conway (drums). Even in the dodgy early 90s, when the albums weren’t great, the live show was always good – the buffoonery/scripted gags perhaps a little wearing at times, but the playing was beyond criticism and it often caught fire. Now, with a great well of songs from Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders coming up with one great, distinctive instrumental every album or two, alongside their ‘classic era’ body of work from 1967-79, the band really have no excuses for not delivering a show with both great playing and great content. And so it was in Belfast on Saturday night.
It’s a testament to their doggedness that material like Chris Leslie’s songs ‘Mercy Bay’ (sung brilliantly by Simon) and ‘Myths & Heroes’ and Ric Sanders’ tunes ‘The Gallivant’ and ‘Portmeirion’ stand absolutely without fear or favour in a live set alongside classics from the Dave Swarbrick era like ‘Walk Awhile’ and ‘Ye Mariners All’. The post-1985 ‘reformation era’ may have had a leaner hit rate in terms of throwing up classic repertoire than the band’s original 1967-79 tenure, but that’s still 30+ years of stuff to mine and there are certainly enough numbers in there to have filtered through as classics and balance out the original-era material. I was particularly struck by how ‘The Hiring Fair’, a Ralph McTell song recorded for the 1985 ‘comeback’ album ‘Gladys’ Leap’ and always in the live act in the 80s/early 90s, to the point of becoming a bit dreary, frankly, actually sounded revitalised on Saturday. I don’t know if it’s been out of the set for a while, but it certainly feels refreshed in its arrangement – which was also true of the warhorse to end all warhorses, ‘Matty Groves’, from 1969 and never out of the set. This time around, it’s been rearranged around Chris’ banjo – which I don’t recall being used before onstage in Fairport Convention shows (but see the caveat above about lost weekends). It was a great idea.
In Belfast, and in Dublin the night before, we got a 90-minute set that I understand they’ve played for a while but anyone seeing the show on the Great Britain dates on their tour (from Liverpool tonight until Banbury on March 5 – dates can be found via the link attached) will be seeing a 2-hour show with several items added/changed, including more songs from the new album. I should also mention that John Gale is the sound man on the tour and his live sound was BLOODY FANTASTIC at the Black Box. The show is heartily recommended to all Afterworders!
As an aside for the Afterword cognoscenti, it was delightful to meet Word-blog legends Steven C and Dr J (and his spokesperson Mrs J) at the show. Amazingly, Mrs H and I bumped into the Stevemeister and Mrs J in a Marks & Spencer car park the following day, shortly after the Doctor had cleaned out the local Richer Sounds of all their goods.
Anyway, here is the interview, virtually verbatim, below. I’ve added a few things in square brackets for clarity, to help those a bit fuzzy about their Fairport history. It was generous of Dave and Chris to give their time (they had very little between the interview ending and show-time, although there was a short support act): Chris was Zen-like as always and Dave also had the air of a man at peace with himself. I don’t know how they do, but I’d certainly buy some. I began by dealing with the elephant in the room…
When will Fairport Convention retire?
DAVE: Erm… I think it’ll be when nobody comes to see us. You’ll realise you’ve had it when there’s nobody in the audience – which doesn’t happen *too* often nowadays. We call those gigs furniture sales, cos there’s more chairs than people. But we enjoy what we’re doing and while we’re still relatively mobile, and statins improve on a yearly basis… Our favourite song is ‘Nights In With Statins’…
CHRIS: I think it’s as long as it’s still in your heart, that’s the thing.
Is there any one person upon whom the band’s continuation depends?
DAVE: The manager of Lloyds Bank, Banbury! No, everybody’s replaceable in Fairport, apart from our sound man John Gale and our driver Mick Peters. The band – anybody could do what we do, really. Maybe not in quite the same style but certainly…
I’m not sure Dave’s being *entirely* serious here, Chris…
CHRIS: Well, you know, the graveyards are full of ‘irreplaceable people’. No truer word said.
DAVE: If you figure that we’ve had 27 members in our career and we’re still going, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t [keep going].
Most of those people came and went around 1975, didn’t they?
DAVE: Yeah, in the earlier days, obviously when people were younger, there was a lot more change in the band because people wanted to go and do their own thing. But we remained mates. When people like Sandy left, or Richard, we didn’t feel too bad about it because the rest of the guys in the band knew they’d be better off on their own. If you get people who write a lot of songs – I’m not trying to get rid of Chris here (laughs), cos Chris is writing most of our material nowadays… But you can imagine what it would be like for a Richard Thompson or a Sandy Denny, the restriction of being in a band… No matter how good that band is at doing what it did at that time, everybody needs other outlets for their material, and if you’re a songwriter you have to… In Sandy’s case, for sure, Fairport was a restrictive environment for her to work in. Everybody understood why she had to go.
Presumably Chris, for you, it’s not such a restriction?
CHRIS: Not at all. Over the years I’ve been encouraged enormously by the band to follow down the route of song writing. I’ve always seen myself as a musician who writes songs rather than a songwriter as my ‘first thing’.
You must have a good collection of books about the Arctic by now…
CHRIS: I have! It’s a fascinating subject, it’s that derring-do. We’ve got another song [about it] on the new album [‘Eleanor’s Dream’], which is from the point of view of Lord Franklin’s wife. She was a poet and I thought that was an interesting angle to come at it. It’s anyone’s dream who dabbles in song writing to have an outlet, and Fairport’s been fantastic for me.
It’s a win-win situation, isn’t it – to have a songwriter who is very good and with a well of ideas from historical sources that are old enough to feel akin to the traditional songs that the band made its name with. Plus, you don’t seem that keen to go and make solo albums, Chris:
CHRIS: I’m very happy where I am. I’ve known the band from the other side of the stage, as a listener and follower of the band for so long, that my inclinations tend to mostly, naturally coincide with what the band wants to play. And I know songs that I come up with that aren’t for the band – I never even bring them along.
That’s interesting – I was going to ask whether you feel any pressure to write songs that are going to be in the area within which Fairport plays or can play, or do you just write songs…
CHRIS: I just write songs and see what comes out. And If I think, ‘Oh, that might be one for Fairport’, I’ll send it round for the chaps and see what they think.
Dave, have you or the band ever turned down any of Chris’ songs?
DAVE: Erm, there’s only about one or two that we haven’t done and that’s because, well, we could have done them but we’ve had other songs on other subjects that have fitted better into an album at the time. If you’ve got 14 songs and you can only put 12 on, you’re going to pick 12 that kind of make an album more of an album. Things like the ‘Step By Step’ song, which is one of my favourites off the new CD – Chris didn’t think that would work for the band and I think it’s just absolutely lovely.
CHRIS: It’s interesting, Peggy was in Brittany and I phoned him up one day for a chat, and he said, ‘What you been doing?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve just finished a song’. And he said, ‘Oh, can I hear it?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s not really band stuff…’ ‘No, send it anyway…’ And Peggy really liked it.
DAVE: It’s one of the songs that we probably can’t perform live, because of the nature of the instrumentation. It’s a beautiful song but I don’t think we can reproduce it as it is on the record. Whereas, ‘Eleanor’s Dream’, which is my other favourite one, we‘ve gone in a completely different direction. It’s a more kind of harder-edged, rockier approach than we’ve had for many years and it’s worked really well.
There’s one tune on the album, ‘Danny Jack’s Reward’, that feels like a progressive rock instrumenta:
DAVE: That’s one of Ric’s tunes. It’s an amazing composition. We’re doing another one of his instrumentals tonight, ‘The Gallivant’. He’s a really quirky writer. It’s because of Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire in Birmingham, it’s got all these young musicians – and Ric paid for them himself, actually, to augment the track and overdubbed about 10 of ‘em. And he’s forgotten about that, so I hope he doesn’t read this article, otherwise he’s gonna want the money back!
Fantastic. I’ll reverse the question I asked about the band rejecting your songs, Chris: have *you* ever rejected any of Dave’s playing?
CHRIS: The great thing is, I’ll come up with something, I’ll demo it and I’ll send it out and I’m always, always delighted at what the song ends up being, because everybody brings their own slant to it. I don’t know whether other bands are like that, but it tends to slot in pretty well – we’re all coming from a very sure foot in our own place.
This line-up’s been together for the better part of 20 years, hasn’t it?
DAVE: It has, yeah.
So you must know each other, personally and musically, pretty well by now, so there’d be no time-wasting…
CHRIS: There’s no time-wasting, that’s for sure.
DAVE: Fairport’s never been a band to time-waste in the studio…
You have other places to waste time?
DAVE: Oh, yeah, yeah – pubs, darts, bowls, all that stuff. But to get arrangements in the studio we’ve always sat around, played the song through and come up with ideas. Everybody contributes. And the only time we’ve never done that was on ‘Myths & Heroes’ , where everybody did their thing individually without ever playing the song all together at the same time. That was a really odd process for us. Literally, Chris – the main songwriter on it – would put his bouzouki and guide vocal down and then we’d all overdub our parts individually. I was really worried about this – I thought, ‘This is going to be a disaster!’ But the end result was amazing cos everybody played something that was compatible with what somebody else was gonna do. And that thing about having played together for a while and knowing how other people are gonna react to the arrangements really came into its own. I mean, it was a miracle…
CHRIS: We also have the wonderful John Gale, who’s our on-the-road sound guy on this tour, and every Winter Tour, and he’s an amazing engineer. He knows too what we’re all capable of, so if he’s working with us individually he knows when he’s got enough of what he needs.
DAVE: He’s also a great musician. He can read orchestral charts and do sound at the same time. The guy’s very, very clever.
So he’s the guy who’ll say to you through the intercom, ‘Dave, that bass part… it’s not working…’
DAVE: Well, no, because I finish up paying him, so he can never say that to me – and if he does, I’ll say, ‘Great, *you* do it!’ And he does! Because sometimes he’ll concoct a bass part from something I’ve done.
And you have to relearn it for the shows?
DAVE: Yeah – I’ve had to relearn it for ‘Eleanor’s Dream’.
CHRIS: It’s a fantastic bass part!
DAVE: Well, he did that, he created the bass part.
I must say, having listened to the album on for the first this afternoon, I was thinking, ‘Wow, Dave’s playing really is superb on this’. Chris, between ourselves and the whole of the Internet, would you agree?
CHRIS: Oh, absolutely, it’s true, it’s absolutely true, it’s fabulous!
DAVE: (laughs) Here, have this tenner. The way [the bass part on that song] happened was John said that for the instrumental bit we could almost do a Zeppelin kind of part on it, and I had a go, so it’s all stuff that’s come from me but it’s the way he’s put it into the song.
It’s a very rich, sumptuous sound on the album, isn’t it?
DAVE: It’s brilliant! When you talk about people making records without knowing what everybody else is going to do, Rick Wakeman’s last album, ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, which he had to re-do for CD…
He could have invented a couple of extra wives for bonus tracks…
DAVE: Well, he had to put bonus tracks on it because originally it was vinyl and [he felt] there wasn’t enough time on it for CD. My son, Matt, was playing bass with Rick so he got the guys in the band and booked a studio for a week and sent them guide piano tracks of four or five instrumentals – no chords, nothing. And they said, ‘When are the chords coming? What do you want us to do?’ He said, ‘Do what you like!’ So the four of ‘em literally could do whatever they wanted on Rick’s tunes.
And was it any good?
DAVE: Well, it’s out now. I’m still trying to get a copy, because he’s too tight to send me one – but I’ll buy one eventually.
Dave, wasn’t there a period a few years ago when you were out of the band for a while because of complications in your private life?
DAVE: Yeah, I missed a couple of tours, missed an American tour… I was getting divorced, and anyone who’s ever been divorced knows… and so I was having lots of drugs and lots of drink. Luckily I don’t do the drugs any more apart from statins, but I still drink I a fish! But because I’m a happier person now I hopefully don’t have those kinds of problems.
I mentioned that off the back of the question about whether anyone in the band is irreplaceable. It must have been a strange period for the rest of band, and for you, given that you’ve been the one constant since 1970?
DAVE: Oh, it was horrible for me because it was ‘what I did’. Music – it’s not really a job for us, it’s what we do. All musicians are the same – you want to get out and play music, it doesn’t matter how successful you get. Like, Keith Richard will be out playing in his local pub probably. Actually, I’d love Keith Richard to move to Banbury – I’d love to play with him…
He’d get a gig at Cropredy, then?
DAVE: Of course he would! But, no, it was hard for me. Because I love to play music I started doing more things on my own and I teamed up with PJ Wright, who’s a great writer and a great guitar player… In fact, PJ’s got a new band called Trad Arr – and he wrote a song on our new album, ‘Summer By The Cherwell’, which is brilliant, and he wrote a song on our last album as well, ‘Home’. PJ is the guy who reformed Fotheringay with Jerry Donahue. But I mentioned his new band Trad Arr cos we both love their new CD, which isn’t out yet. It’s revolutionary – it’s a revolutionary folk-rock album…
That sounds like an oxymoron!
DAVE: It is! And it’s been a long time since a new kind of sound has come up and, for me, I can’t stop playing it, I just love it.
Chris, was it a bit weird for the band not having Dave in it for a while?
CHRIS: Well, it was horrible because in a band like this, with longevity, you’re all very close. I think the secret of a good band is you know each other’s needs and requirements, for everyone’s own personal happiness. I have my own things that I like to do – I’m probably the earliest in bed all the time, but that’s my way.
Peggy’s in the pub so you don’t have to be?
DAVE: (laughs) It’s true, it’s very true!
CHRIS: But we all have our own needs and likes, so when you see someone you love going through hard times it’s worrying and it’s a horrible situation. Thankfully, because the band is who it is, I’ve always admired the band – over my time in it – because whatever ructions happen, and any band has them, any relationship has them, the band is always back in the van the next day. That’s really important. Nothing is held over: you sort something out, and it’s sorted. Can I add this: I’ve known Peggy for a long time, much longer than I’ve been in the band, and Peggy’s my dear friend since I was in my teens, you know, so all those things [at that time] – the music took second place for me. What was important was to see a friend going through something that was really difficult and wanting that to be sorted, for him. The music was definitely second for me.
On the same theme of the band as a bunch of people who stick together, Ric was out of the band for a year or so, wasn’t he, for medical reasons, sometime in the early 90s ?
DAVE: Ric had this really bad accident where he had to have 42 stitches in his arm. It took six months for it to get better. Chris came in at very short notice. A couple of weeks after his accident happened we were playing at Cropredy and Chris had to learn three hours’ worth of material.
I remember thinking at the time that it was very honourable that you had a relatively recent member who had this accident, is out of action for a sustained period, and yet you kept his place in the band open. Let’s be honest, on a purely musical level you could have said, ‘Sorry Ric, we’ve had to go with a new guy…’
DAVE: Fairport’s never been like that. It’s always been a band of mates. It’s not like Jethro Tull. People in Fairport have always been great mates and loved each other, you know – even people who have left. There’s never been that much aggravation with people who have left. Sometimes we’ve had to ask people to leave but they’ve always come back as mates.
Though wasn’t it the case, Dave, that there was a long period where you and Iain Matthews had issues, which meant he was infrequently a guest at Cropredy?
DAVE: Oh, I had big issues with Iain Matthews. He was never part of my circle because I was never in the band with him. I have the utmost respect for him as a singer but I didn’t know Iain personally, so when I started organising Cropredy and it was a big anniversary and we wanted to invite everybody who had been in the band, you know, including all the early band members… I didn’t know Iain or Judy [Dyble], except I knew Judy on a social basis only because her husband Simon used to make our cassettes for us… But I had to arrange all the rehearsals and there was only a limited amount of time for these rehearsals. It was like three days, but Iain insisted on spending a lot more time than we could allocate him, really, to do a few songs – whereas we had a set-list with 35 songs in it. We had 30 songs to rehearse and he was only involved in five, and two of those days were rehearsing his five. So it was just to do with that. He kind of fell out with me, but I had no choice – we had all this other stuff to do. It’s going to be worse this year cos we’ve got *everybody*!
So you and Iain have sorted it all out now?
DAVE: Yes, and Iain’s great – he’s just a really nice guy. When I sent him an email saying, ‘Would you like to do it [this year]?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do anything you want, I’d love to do it’. And he’s a fantastic singer.
I only mentioned that because Fairport Convention is known as this big family and I recall hearing rumours of a falling-out with Iain, which was very much in contrast to the band’s general reputation. He was missing from the original Fairport line-up when it played at the 30th anniversary Cropredy in 1997…
DAVE: Ah, but that was nothing to do with me. I wasn’t involved in who was going to play in the early line-up [reunion] – that was down to the early line-up. It was Ashley, Richard and Simon – it’s their decision. I’m sure Iain realises that.
Well, let’s move away from these negative matters. There was a time in the 70s where Fairport Convention was really just you and Dave Swarbrick scrabbling around for members, trying to keep it going, and yet now it seems that the band itself is an entity aside from whoever’s in it:
DAVE: It’s always been that. Fairport *is* bigger than the individuals in the band. We don’t have a Richard Thompson [currently]…
Was there a particular point where you thought, ‘Yes, we’ve got over the hump of trying to keep it alive; it’s working as a cottage industry, there’s no reason it can’t roll on’?
DAVE: Only when the band had come back together again [in the late 70s] with Bruce [Rowland] and Simon [Nicol], when we were bought by the music business, by Phonogram. They gave us 7,000 quid each not to make any more records for them – which was the first time *ever* any of us had made any money from the music business. We all went, ‘Wow! We’re rich!’ Swarb went, ‘I can retire now – I can be self-sufficient and buy a smallholding in Scotland’…
They put the ‘Go’ into Vertigo?
DAVE: Yes. In fact, it was the best thing that ever happened to us financially; it was the worst thing psychologically, cos we all thought, ‘Hang on, suddenly we’ve got some money – we can pay off our mortgages’. In my case I moved to Cropredy and I was going to build a little studio. Swarbrick was going to move to Scotland and retire from the band because he’d got a hearing problem, and we all thought, ‘We’re rich, we don’t need to work anymore, we don’t need to get in the van…’
I’m sure that lasted for a few months…
DAVE: It lasted for a few weeks. I was lucky because I was invited to join Jethro Tull, so I had lots of work playing music, which is what I wanted to do.
Did you see Dave socially during that period, Chris?
What did you think when the band folded in 1979?
CHRIS: Well, it was just really sad. It was one of my favourite bands.
Was it not the right time for it to call it a day?
CHRIS: I couldn’t see it in that light. I just saw it that I potentially wouldn’t be seeing the band play again, and that was very sad for me.
It must be interesting for you, Dave, in that a lot of the recordings the band made in the 60s and 70s are now seen as legendary and yet in retrospect the impression one has is of a band struggling to make a living, shoving things out to see if something sticks…
DAVE: Well, when we were making albums we didn’t have that attitude at all. The two albums that we did for Vertigo, ‘The Bonny Bunch of Roses’ and ‘Tipplers’ Tales’, were in our opinion some of the best work we’d done. They were very traditional. In fact, the opening number tonight, ‘Ye Mariners All’, is from ‘Tipplers’ Tales’.
I always thought that was a great track. I was perhaps being a bit facetious there, but what I was trying to get at was whether, back in the day, when you made records were you thinking, ‘Yes, we’ve made a really great piece of art here, we’re proud of it’ or was it a case of thinking, ‘We’re still in debt, we still can’t quite sell enough albums, let’s just get *something* out and go on tour and perhaps *something* will work…’?
DAVE: Well, that’s what happened when Vertigo dropped us, because we’d come to the conclusion when we got the money from them – and it sounds like we were all bread-heads, but it wasn’t that at all… It really was the first time that we were able to plan something without having to jump in the van. We were desperate for money. Swarb, Simon and myself did a tour as the ‘Three Desperate Mortgages’ around that time, because we were that hard up. It’s never been a band that’s made a lot of money.
You had a Filthy Lucre tour before the Sex Pistols’ reunion:
D. When the punk thing was happening and Swarb had his hearing problem we thought it was probably a good time to knock it on the head, but we still had a tour to do, we still had some dates to do. So my ex-wife Christine and myself formed this little label, Woodworm, and we took over looking after our own business affairs…
That was a wise move:
DAVE: Well, it was an incredible move cos if we hadn’t there would be no Fairport today, basically. We were one of the first bands to actually do our own thing – and it was only because nobody else would do it. Nobody else would put our albums out. It was necessity that made us do it, and that’s how Cropredy started as well, because we were in the village of Cropredy – I lived there, Swarb lived there, my family knew all of the people in the village that were on the Village Hall committee, and we started to do fundraisers [from the late 70s]… The whole thing escalated to what it is today, really.
It seems like you plugged away for a long time in what seem now to have been the glory days in British music, and come the end of the 70s the wheels fall off the van, but then, fairly quickly, you’ve created a cottage industry and the wheels are put back on. Does it feel like that in retrospect?
DAVE: Yes, it does indeed. The late 70s, the whole punk thing, the way the music industry was – we were not part of the music industry. We created our own survival and a lot of that came from Cropredy. The festival was only once a year and then we would start doing half a dozen gigs in the New Year… There are few acts who have done it, very few bands who have their own festival, as it were. And of course it all came together when there was a period in 1985 when [1969-75 drummer] Dave Mattacks and Simon [Nicol] had nothing in their schedules and I had some time off Jethro Tull, and because of Jethro Tull I had the good fortune to be able to build our studio, which we had in Barford, which was the perfect vehicle for the Fairports, and that’s when we made [our ‘comeback’ album] ‘Gladys’ Leap’.
Sounds like it was almost inevitable in a way:
DAVE: Well, the fact was the band were having reunions every year [at Cropredy] and Dave Mattacks, Simon and myself, we still loved playing together. We asked Dave Swarbrick if he wanted to play on it but Dave had started Whippersnapper, which had Chris involved in it. So we got Ric [Sanders]and [multi-instrumentalist] Martin Allcock. It was ‘Gladys’ Leap’ that brought Fairport back together again.
Chris, was Dave Swarbrick a particular influence on your style of playing?
CHRIS: Absolutely, yeah, he was. I mean, I consider myself lucky to have started playing fiddle in an era when there were fantastic fiddle players around to listen to – people like Aly Bain, Barry Dransfield, Peter Knight, Kevin Burke, John Sheehan from the Dubliners, and Dave Swarbrick. I was just blessed with people to listen to. But of all of those great influences – and I have a bit of all of those in me, I think – it was Swarb’s swing and lightness and that skipping, dancing thing in his playing that went straight to my heart. I just loved it.
It’s a unique style, isn’t it? Like Scottish music with a glint in its eye, a particular kind of mischievousness…
DAVE: Yes, that’s good.
CHRIS: A glint in its eye, absolutely, that’s it – and a fantastic way of accompanying songs, too. Not only was his tune playing brilliant but his accompaniment was just incredible. So he was, and still is and always will be, a big influence.
To change the subject, is there any piece of music that you feel Fairport Convention *has* to play every night?
DAVE: Well, the ones that are there every night and have been for many, many years are obviously ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘Meet on the Ledge’. With ‘Matty Groves’ I think there’s only been about four occasions in the band’s history when it hasn’t been played and that’s because we’ve run out of time or miscalculated – we’ve got to where we should be doing it and find we’re supposed to have been off 10 minutes ago! With ‘Meet on the Ledge’, our audience expect us to sing that and if we’re lucky enough to get an encore, that’s the song we’ll always finish with.
Do you feel the same way Chris – do those songs have to be in the set?
CHRIS: Yeah, I think so, more and more. I mean, ‘Matty’ is a fantastic way to finish a night, and people respond to it really great to.
DAVE: And it’s worldwide, that’s the thing as well – Holland, Belgium, Italy, wherever you play, they know ‘Matty Groves’. We’ve never analysed it to that extent: it’s the traditional Fairport finisher and has been …
CHRIS: The thing is, that song has changed, it has its own momentum.
How have you approached choosing a set-list for this 50th anniversary tour: has been similar to any other tour or have you really thought about it in a different way *because* ‘it’s 50’?
DAVE: We’ve thought about it as much as you can, but to play for two hours and represent 50 years… But what we did do a couple of tours ago we asked our fan base to find out the most popular songs in the repertoire, so we’ve got the Top 300 songs. We know which ones the audience would really like to hear. From the early days it’s ’Time Will Show the Wiser’ . When you hear that it’s incredible, it’s just so good, and the guitar solo is devastating and Iain sings it so brilliantly. But obviously the biggest song is ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’  and we’re putting that in the day after tomorrow – it’s not in the set tonight. Tonight’s set is our ‘festival set’ and it’s only 90 minutes, it’s not what we’re going to be doing [from] the day after tomorrow. We’ve got some of the songs from the new album in for the day after tomorrow, which we haven’t played live yet…
You must be looking forward to that…
DAVE: Terrified, I am! (laughs)
CHRIS: I have to say I look forward to every night, I do, I genuinely look forward to it every night.
Chris, you don’t seem like a man who gets terribly flustered about things:
CHRIS: I try not to. Sometimes…
And yet your songs are quite wordy, plus you’ve so many of Dave Swarbrick’s songs to do as well. You must have a good memory:
CHRIS: It comes and goes. I have to work again on whatever we’re doing in the current set. I’m not one of those people who can pluck a song from three tours ago and just do it. But they ‘stay in’ for the tour.
DAVE: We’ve gone from the list [of 300, for the coming tour]. You can’t just pick the top 20 – some of them aren’t by our current line-up – but there are things that have been requested, like ‘Farewell, Farewell’ , which we think we do justice to, though obviously our version of that is way different to the original one. We love playing it. The songs are so classic, they are such great songs.
Is it a blessing or a curse to have such a huge back catalogue? You must get fed up with people asking, ‘Aren’t you doing ‘Tam Lin’ tonight?’ or whatever?
DAVE: Well, there’s always songs that you’re never gonna do because there’s so many of ‘em, as you say, and we can’t do all of ‘Liege & Lief’ , which is the biggest album. The new [!] line-up couldn’t do ‘Liege & Lief’, although we’ve done most of it at various times. It’s the fact that Sandy stuck her imprint on it, it was such a big thing for Sandy, and some of those songs don’t work without Sandy singing them. We did do it [as one-offs] a couple of times in its entirety, when Swarb was alive, with Cathy Lesurf and we also did it with Chris While …
This is just a pet idea, but you could conceivably do a whole-album tour, as you did with ‘Babbacombe Lee’ [ 1971, performed in full on a 2012 tour], of ‘Full House’ :
DAVE: You can’t do a ‘Full House’ tour, really, without a Richard Thompson.
Well, you do have *two* lead instrumentalists…
DAVE: Yeah, I know, but it’s not quite the same thing.
And your lead bass playing, Dave, is particularly fine…
DAVE: It used to be. It’s not as good as it used to be. But at Cropredy, for example, we can represent ‘Full House’ probably with Chris playing the fiddle. I just have to suggest things to Richard – Richard’s God, still, in our opinion, obviously, but he’s also very amenable and he’ll go along with the flow usually. But for the ‘Full House’ thing I think it’ll be Chris playing the violin for it because Chris is more of a Swarbrick-style player [than Ric] and Swarbrick’s playing on ‘Full House’ is so much a part of that album.
Chris, your singing style also seems to inhabit the same space as Swarbrick’s:
CHRIS: It’s like us all: when you start in music you pick someone to delve into and then you get all their things off as best you can and then you find your own space – but some of that carries with you.
The ‘Babbacombe Lee’ tour in 2012 was a really brave and successful venture. Nobody would have expected that:
DAVE: We loved that, it was great fun to do.
Is there any other album from the classic era that you would consider revisiting in full for a tour?
DAVE: No, it doesn’t jump out to me, although we’re doing things like ‘Rising For the Moon’  – we’ve got a lovely version, which we’re going to be doing in the next couple of days, with Sally Barker singing. And Chris and Ric have actually emulated Jerry’s guitar, because again all of those tracks, the way Jerry played guitar on ‘Rising For The Moon’, it’s just a beautiful solo, you don’t want to improvise it really. With that album, ‘Rising For the Moon’, it’s going to be hard for us to do more than probably that one track this year at Cropredy. In the past we’ve done big stuff like ‘One More Chance’ a few times, which is an epic thing.
I had a thought while listening to ‘Our Bus Rolls On’ [a Chris Leslie song on the new album], which is one of your occasional self-referential songs – I wondered had the post-reformation Fairport Convention ever performed Swarbrick’s ‘Our Band’ from ‘Gottle O’Gear’ ?
DAVE: I love that song.
You’d do a great version of it, Chris:
DAVE: Yeah, you would… No, we haven’t done it. When we had that line-up with Bruce Rowland and Bob Brady and Roger Burridge and Dan Ar Braz it was in the set-list. And Swarbrick – it was fantastic at the time, cos he’d got this white suite with nudie embroidery on it and he was very flamboyant, Swarb. He used to go to nightclubs. He’d got this brown leather coat with a big fur collar, and we were still young enough to go to nightclubs sometimes. I remember him somewhere in New York – it wasn’t Studio 54…
Was it the one next door, Studio 56?
DAVE: (laughs) I’ve been to Studio 54, believe it or not, when I was in Jethro Tull. But I came in behind Swarb as if he was like a multi-millionaire, dancing in this club, and he took his leather coat off, threw it at me and said ‘‘ang that up!’ – straight away on the dancefloor with his white suit on!
Chris, what is the best thing for you about being in Fairport Convention?
CHRIS: Playing in exactly the area of music that I love, not having to change anything in my heart.
That’s quite a Zen answer, Dave?
DAVE: Well, it’s similar for me. It’s a very selfish thing for me because I play exactly what I want to play and always have done and it’s like not having a boss, really. It’s like going to work and just doing what you want to do, and enjoying it – it’s a great pleasure.
Is there anything you can tell me about the band’s Saturday night set at this year’s Cropredy?
DAVE: Well, only the fact that we’re trying to represent everybody that’s been in the band at it. Ashley and Simon and Richard and Judy and Iain, they’ll be putting together their early-days thing…
Will Dan [Ar Braz] be there?
DAVE: Well, Dan, actually, wanted to come if we could find Roger Burridge, who’s a fiddle player who was in that line-up [with Dan in 1976]. I’ve been trying for months to find him. He comes from Devon but he lives in America now. We’ve found Bob Brady, who was the pianist in that line-up. Bob wants to come along. Dan will come along if we can find Roger. We talked to you [Chris] about doing ‘When First Into This Country’…
Couldn’t Chris just dress up as Roger Burridge and try and fool Dan?
DAVE: Roger’s put on a bit of weight since he was in the band…
I’m sure we could find a pillow…
DAVE: I hope he gets in touch. Even if we can get in touch with him it’s only gonna be one song. It would be great, and it would be lovely to have Dan. If we have Roger and Dan and Bob we have more flexibility in some of the big numbers, cos Bob can play piano, and by having three violins [with Chris, Ric and Roger] we can do big violin stuff and Dan can do some other stuff… It’s early days.
In this information age it surely can’t be that difficult to find someone?
DAVE: I’ve tried everything. I’ve put it on our website, I’ve got in touch on ‘Sessions In America’ where he was seen recently – there’s pictures of him and the person who organises that, I’ve sent him emails. I’ve had no luck whatsoever.
CHRIS: I wonder if Martin Hayes knows him?
DAVE: I saw him the other day. I can email him…
Has anyone at Universal approached you about doing one of those tombstone-sized Island-label box sets they seem keen on?
DAVE: They’re doing a box set coming out in July, but it won’t be tombstone-sized. It’s five or seven CDs. There isn’t enough material for a tombstone box set from Fairport. Well, there is, but not from stuff that Island own, so they’re doing five or seven CDs of the first 10 years, which includes some interesting stuff from the Manor Studios [in 1972] with David Rea and Tom Farnell playing drums, in fact. I’ve looked at the track-listing and it looks pretty good to me. I was worried because I thought, ‘There won’t be enough stuff’, and it’s a bit of a rip-off for Fairport fans if there isn’t. But there’s sufficient stuff to make it [worthwhile].
Would the band typically have done two or three takes of things in the studio in the Island era?
DAVE: It was never more than two or three takes and often the other takes disappeared anyway.
So are there a few alternate takes of things on the forthcoming set?
DAVE: There are, yeah.
There must be further material from the live recordings that were made of the ‘Full House’ line-up at the Troubadour in LA in 1970 [some of which appeared as the 1976 LP ‘House Full’]?
DAVE: There’s some Troubadour things on there, but whether they’re newly released I don’t know. But there’s nice things on there, like ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ with Sandy [Denny] singing and some Sandy solo stuff and Trevor [Lucas] doing some solo things. The plan was to do many more CDs but then you get into problems like having to lease stuff from Phonogram and from Woodworm, which we’ve sold on. I can’t see an audience for it. I can see an audience for the early stuff.
It’s strange though that there is relatively little in the way of Island outtakes, because I’ve been involved in several archive-trawl projects from the Island vaults – Quintessence, for example, five CDs’ worth of unreleased studio and live material. Island seemed to have a very generous approach to studio time for their artists in that late 60s/early 70s period, and often recorded at least one concert – all of which is gradually appearing now on various colossal box sets [e.g. John Martyn, Spooky Tooth, Free, Sandy Denny, et al.]. Was this not the case with Fairport Convention?
DAVE: Not really, no. Not that I can recall. There was no waste, really. Everything we recorded was used, as far as I can recall. Multi-tracks were always re-used because of the cost of tape. Folk-rock music was expensive! (laughs) You’d do a stereo mix and then the reel… You’d lose all your multi-tracks. You could use them three or four times. We used to do that at Woodworm [in the 80s].
A final question for each of you: is there one particular track from the band’s history, whether you were involved in it or not, that stands out as a personal favourite?
DAVE: Well, for me, one of the first things I heard by Fairport, and which has remained a favourite for me – and I’m not on it – is ‘Percy’s Song’ from ‘Unhalfbricking’ . It’s beautiful. Bob Dylan also really rates that track.
CHRIS: There’s one that stands out purely because of my circumstance at the time. I was courting my wife on the Norfolk Broads and we listened over and over again to ‘Fairport Nine’  and the track from that was ‘The Hexhamshire Lass’.
And is your wife from Hexhamshire?