Fairport Convention interview: Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

Marko Kutlesa spoke to founder member Simon Nicol about reaching the half century mark, booking Alice Cooper for Cropredy Festival and the legacy of folk music.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 9th Jan 2017

Fairport Convention are one of England's most important and most enduring bands. They have been instrumental in helping to form the folk rock genre and have also helped popularise and modernise many old folk songs from Britain and Ireland. They were formed in Muswell Hill, London in 1967 and bar a few years off, and despite suffering several tragedies along the way, have been playing ever since.

The band has undergone many line ups changes throughout its career and former alumni include Sandy Denny, one of Britain's greatest female vocal talents (she sang on Led Zeppelin's 'The Battle Of Evermore'), Richard Thompson, one of Britain's greatest, if perhaps under acknowledged songwriters, Dave Swarbrick, England's finest ever fiddle player and Ashley Hutchings MBE, co-founder not only of Fairport Convention, but also of two other highly influential English folk/folk rock bands Steeleye Span and The Albion Band. They have produced countless studio and live albums including the indispensable late 1960s trio of What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief.

The band's current line up featuring co-founder Simon Nicol on guitar and vocals, Dave Pegg on bass guitar, Chris Leslie on fiddle, mandolin and vocals, Ric Sanders on violin and Gerry Conway on drums and percussion is the band's longest formation in terms of continuity, in existence for close to twenty years.

The group also started the Cropredy Festival in 1976, an annual festival they purposefully headline, and tour continue to annually. Prior to their 2016/2017 Winter Tour, a 50 year anniversary tour which takes in dates across the UK including at Camp and Furnace in Liverpool, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Simon Nicol to ask about the lifespan of this most English of groups.

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50 years is some milestone, sir, congratulations. How's the track list looking for 50:50@50 and the tour?

I haven't done a breakdown minute by minute but it's about that; 50% new songs and 50% favourites, recorded for an album, as we tend to do every couple of years now. That's the frequency of our albums these days. We wanted to show how the band is performing at the moment.

We have some tracks from the Cropredy warm ups and we recorded the recent tour we did through Belgium and Holland in October, and we have 3 or 4 tracks from then. We wanted to show that we're not just a studio group, or that we just look back and has pay tribute to Fairport Convention's past. It's a vibrant working band, we generate new songs and that's what it's all about. At the same time we do perform songs from the past, albeit without being slavish to the historical point of view.

I realise you've done lots of interviews, talked about the past a lot and are no doubt a bit tired of doing so...

No, I understand that there's a good reason for that, but at the same time it's nice if we don't remain in the 1960s. People younger than us have a sort of overly romantic, rose tinted picture of those days, the summer of love, the anti-establishment stuff that went on. It's a fantastic piece of social history and it's wonderful to have first hand memories of it, but when I do interviews I don't want people to think of Fairport as a 60s band. We just started then, that's all.

Did you ever have any personal interaction with Ray and Dave Davies or The Kinks during your time in Muswell Hill?

I did get a tap in the gums off Dave once. I was coming home, in school uniform, just got off the bus. It was unprovoked. He was one of the wild children of Muswell Hill. I went to the wrong kind of school, as far as he was concerned, so I was rewarded by a punch in the face. Apart from that we never had much to do with each other. 

In the very early days of Fairport I did spend a pleasant evening once, after a show, at Ray and his then wife Rasa'a place. They still lived along the road in Fortis Green, although not in what had been the boys' parents' home, which I knew anyway. That was a social evening I remember, although I remember more about Rasa than I do about Ray. I was a young man at the time.

My dad was a doctor and he was Pete Quaife's (the Kinks' late bassist) doctor at the time Pete broke him arm, as a schoolboy. It was my dad who suggested, after his arm had started to get better, that he might try to learn the piano, as a form of physio. It turned out he went to the bass guitar instead. 

Several times I've seen people refer to your earliest line up as a kind of British Jefferson Airplane. Was that something that was just put on you by others or were they ever a direct influence?

We did a couple of Airplane songs in the set, they were a band we respected and liked. 'White Rabbit' we used to do. I think people were easily drawn to the comparison because we had a female singer up front. They had Grace Slick, we had Judy Dyble. The line up was similar, two guitars, bass, drums, male vocals as well. We also had almost exactly the same number of syllables in our names. They were one of the good bands of the era.

The line up was similar, two guitars, bass, drums, male vocals as well. We also had almost exactly the same number of syllables in our names. They were one of the good bands of the era.

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As you moved into the 1970s, three of your chief songwriting contributors in Richard, Ashley and Sandy, went off to do their own things. Considering the great material they contributed to the band's repertoire, were you confident that members from the Angel Delight album onwards could step up to fill the songwriting gaps left?

I didn't really analyse it like that. I was more concerned with the performance side of things rather than where the next batch of songs was going to come from. When the Full House line up started, following Sandy and Ashley's departures, we got fantastically lucky by getting Dave Pegg in. It became a five piece boy band that punched above its weight. It had a much different sound, with a so much more driving bass player and the absence of Sandy's vocals and pizazz up front. We established ourselves as a really strong outfit, so when Richard left that band I was more worried about what we'd do then. But the band that existed on the Angel Delight album was again a great success. It was me that put the spoke in the wheel of that one when I left. 

I think we relied on Dave Swarbrick's songwriting and ear for new material a lot after he joined. But it wasn't, as I say, that I was overly concerned about. I was primarily concerned about the live performance aspect, what we'd lost with Richard. The others were pretty good about saying, come on, it'll be alright, have another beer, let's go. 

For a non musician like me, it's difficult to know the distinct difference between what an engineer and a record producer does in studio recordings. I've wondered does an engineer do most of the work on how a record sounds and the producer take the credit? In reference to Fairport's career, how much did your former engineer, then producer John Wood's role actually change when Joe Boyd's name as producer ceased to appear on your album credits after the Full House album?

I'd already got used to putting my hand up with ideas, having watched what Joe was doing. Joe was a very hands off kind of producer anyway. He was very successful by not getting too involved. He would steer the ship and try and do it subliminally, by understanding the band, its dynamics and playing the people, rather than by dictating: “You need to do this and that.”

When he stopped being there and John and I were working together, it was very easy for me to ease into his chair. I had a great interest, at that time, of being on both sides of the glass. I was fascinated by the business of recording and had been soaking it up, the technical side of things, like a sponge. That's how I'd ended up engineering what became the Gottle O Geer album in 1976. That was my way back into the band. I went into that project, which was supposed to be a Dave Swarbrick album, as a mate who could make sure it all went down on tape properly.

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that one. Considering Fairport's last album before that Rising For The Moon was their first of all original material (and their last with Sandy), how did Dave Pegg and Dave Swarbrick persuade you to rejoin as, at that time, you were entrenched in a band with Ashley, The Albion Band, that was firmly rooted in traditional music?

Well, Rising For The Moon was a great album on its own, but you can see now that it was at a tangent to what Fairport was really doing, it's off to the side. It's the only one that was produced by a recognised pop, showbiz producer, in Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, The Who, Eagles). Trevor (Lucas), Sandy and he were forging to take the band down this path. It was an experiment, a possible opening of a new area for the band to go in.

But it wasn't representative and history depicts that it did all fall apart immediately after the record was finished. (Drummer) Dave Mattacks hired himself off, Sandy and Trevor decided it wasn't really working and the band was left floundering, back to essentially being just Dave Pegg and Dave Swarbrick. I'd maintained very strong contacts with them, both personally and musically, we had an occasional folk trio called The Three Desperate Mortgages, so the three of us were quite used to working together.

They had this contractual obligation to produce another album for Island, which is how it became a Fairport album, and my diary was empty enough that I was happy to help. It was just another adventure for me. When I started I didn't have any idea that it was going to lead to the formation of a four piece band that would have a long life, by the standards of Fairport in those years. It went on for nearly 4 years. 

I don't think I've ever really thought ahead in my career. I think if you're involved in the arts, at any level, it's unlikely that you've got a 5 year plan or a 10 year plan. You tend to steer by the seat of your pants and live hand to mouth. If somebody offers you a gig that's going to put bread on the table and pay the rent for a bit, you give it a go. You go into things and you hope for the best. When you get older you prepare for the worst as well. 

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Do you think Fairport Convention would have survived without the Cropredy Festival?

I think one hand washes the other with Cropredy. Certainly it's an engine of enterprise for the rest of the year. The buzz you get from being there over the three days and living on the site. You meet so many people in your peregrinations around the field, it's unbelievable how many of them I know by name and many, many more by sight. You can't place them all, like, you always come to the gig in Cambridge, or you're always at the gig in Melbourne, but you just know their faces.

I can't stop smiling when I think about it, it's the highlight of my year and it's something we're very very proud of as a band, to have created and be a part of. It's a remarkable event, there's no other like it. It's an event that's developed simply from the fact that, at some point, everyone who comes has been touched by what Fairport has done. It certainly gives us credibility, like turning 50 does because obviously we've become an establishment band, one that's recognised. So, it is very important and I'm very proud. I don't expect that the band would have as viable a touring career were it not for the fact that Cropredy keeps it in the public eye a bit and gives us the chance to refresh ourselves every year.

So, it is very important and I'm very proud. I don't expect that the band would have as viable a touring career were it not for the fact that Cropredy keeps it in the public eye a bit and gives us the chance to refresh ourselves every year.

I'm a big Alice Cooper fan, but it surprised me that you booked him for Cropredy, not the first time I've been surprised by your bookings there. Have you ever booked an artist and worried how the announcement would go down with the event's audience? Who's on the cards play in 2017?

Booking Alice was a dream come true, we were so lucky. I can't remember the first time I had that feeling, but I'm utterly confident now that whoever we were to announce there would be a certain element of people who would complain about it. The ones who bitched about Alice Cooper, saying "this is totally unsuitable, there are loads of children at Cropredy, what are they going to think?" they were the first ones down the front. What's not to love with Alice Cooper? It's wonderful what he does. 

There will always be an element who will complain about any little change you make and that's because it's in human nature to think you have a proprietorial interest in something you've discovered, that you hold dear, that you put in your diary every year. You feel a little bit like “What are they doing to my festival?” The secret of keeping Cropredy going is to improve it and refine it every year, because you learn every year. 

Who's playing in 2017? We have an ongoing wish list. Until about two months ago I had high hopes of getting Leonard Cohen there, he's been on my wish list forever. We've had some A-listers in the frame for a long time and when we do get them it's usually the result of decades of waiting and negotiating, waiting for the stars to align. I can't really say yet, we're still in talks. 

Is there always a slot open to Richard (Thompson), should he want to come?

It tends to be every fifth anniversary, so a year with a 7 or a 2 at the end I think we can be assured that, if Richard's still this side of the turf, he'll be along.

When I grew up in the 1980s I remember seeing skinheads and people like the BNP waving the Union Jack. The only other times I remember seeing it were when it was used by the Royal family or by the hierarchy. Similarly, in school we used to learn all about the history of the British kings and queens, about the British Empire and about Winston Churchill, so I grew up with a pretty skewiffed and uncomfortable view of what it meant to be British. As folk music is the music of the people, do you think it's possible to find an alternate British identity within British folk music?

I don't think it's a political matter or one of national identity. I think music is music of the people, it's not music of a nation's people. The stories that get told in Welsh, in Gaelic, in English, French, German or Scandinavian languages are all going to be about the same issues, if they're genuine folk songs. They're all going to be about the oppression of the lower classes by the rulers, love and betrayal. Sure, some of them will be about individual revolts about individual rulers, but it's not, for me, a nationalist thing. 

In my world, politics and music are not comfortable bedfellows. I respect people who want to do that, who want to make points and bang drums for a cause, putting contemporary political thought into a song, but it's not something I choose to do myself. I think if you leave 500 years to elapse and then you tell a story about a political event, I'm more comfortable with that. [laughs]

You want to see King Lear? That's a story about a dynasty with the wheels coming off it, let's see what happens in the White House in the next four years. It looks like King Lear is surrounding himself with his children again. I've gone off track from your original question because, as I say, music and politics make me uncomfortable. 

To focus on then a more emotional aspect of it, a lot of British folk music is a bit of a downer. People die or get murdered, they never find their true love, there's rarely a happy ending. Is such misery an intrinsic part of British storytelling?

Well, I'd refer you to my last answer. Those themes are universal. That's what people write about. Most great novels are more tragic than comic. These things touch us. If you are happy why would you want to listen to a song or read a book? You'd just live your life and be happy.

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One song I always come back to is “30 Foot Trailer” by The Watersons. It tells of a lifestyle that has almost disappeared as, largely, have the eras of such family groups touring the lands and playing to people in the manner that The Watersons did. Do you think there would be a detrimental effect to folk music if, in the future, it was only performed at festivals and performance venues and not also at folk clubs?

I can't see that day ever coming. Folk clubs are the feeder stream. They are where people find what they need to perform. They do it in front of their peer group first. Folk clubs are incredibly encouraging. In the current throng of 20 and 30 somethings, great young players coming through, there are several people who are part of a family dynasty. Obviously Eliza Carthy (daughter of Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy) is now a big mover and shaker. The Lakeman Brothers (Sean, Sam and Seth), all three of them have their own musical threads happening now, going out from their parents who I remember. Kate Rusby, I remember her dad. It's quite widespread. 

You can't go from playing in your bedroom to playing on a folk festival stage, you have to be brought along and encouraged by your own peer group and perhaps the next generation up. Because it's a friendly and sharing society, encouragement is at the core of getting youngsters involved. If I could have my time again, and start now, I'd be a much better player. Back when I started you didn't have anywhere to go to learn how to play, you had to figure it out yourself or, if you were lucky, stand next to Richard Thompson. [laughs] Now, it's really easy to access support networks and education on Youtube as well as in folk clubs. People just share more. 

From a certain perspective, the Scottish and Irish folk music scenes seem to be populated by a much larger group of young people than the English folk music scene. Why do you think that is? Could it in part be attributed to the rigid and faithful style some have traditionally viewed English folk music should be performed in?

I think the main reason is that the backbone of Celtic music is much more instrumental, which is easy to get your teeth into. There's less of that in straightforward English music. If you think of traditional English accompaniment and instrumentation, there just isn't that tradition of flair, virtuosity and expertise which is at the heart of Celtic playing. It's more song based. If there is great playing it tends to be on less handy instruments, like the melodeon. It just doesn't have that instrumental root that our luckier brothers to the north and the west have.

Do you think the future of folk music in the UK is safe in the hands of younger generations?

Oh, I do, yes. I see it all the time. The young folk awards, there are people coming up from all over the place. They have the songwriting skills now. They just get it. They can get inside songs really quickly, it's a mystery to me just how wise and old some of the heads are on some of those young shoulders. I think we're in better shape now than we were 50 years ago.

Fairport Convention come to Liverpool's Camp and Furnace on Sunday 29th January, grab your tickets below.

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