Ballad Of A Thin Man
From Spandaus to Thompsons — and Richard is gunning for something more than cult recognition of his massively influential guitar style with a new album, Daring Adventures. Moving target: Paul Trynka
Guitarist Richard Thompson is both a fat man and a thin man. Weightwatching: Paul Trynka
Richard Thompson is nothing if not low-key. He's one of those names who are often quoted as 'influential', yet his public profile is only a couple of feet above sea-level. Tom Verlaine's guitar style, admittedly also underrated, is pretty close to the sound that Thompson had been using for years since his early days with Fairport Convention, and ol' Tom ain't too pleased about his lack of public recognition.
"Being bitter is just a bad attitude; the music business doesn't owe anybody a living. Sooner or later the real innovators generally get credited..."
Although low key, Thompson's solo career has progressed steadily over the last few years; last year's album, Across a Crowded Room, his first for Polydor, sounded remarkably contemporary considering it's a style he's been exploring for years. All the same, it can't be easy making a living in this most fickle of industries?
"I like to be in whatever position gives me the most freedom — I suppose I'm not really free in that I'm restricted to a particular budget, so that there are certain logistical restrictions on the size of band I can take out on the road. But I think I decided at some point that I could be a fat man and a thin man at different times, so that if the budget allows I can let my belt out a couple of notches and take a band out on the road, and then when the going gets tough I can tighten my belt and play solo."
Thompson's new LP is Daring Adventures; the man's fairly rare amongst proficient guitarists in that the guitar work is subservient to the songs but lifts them all the same. The backing tracks were all recorded live to get a better feel, and the guitar work is all spontaneous. But presumably you can't be spontaneous without being a bit technical as well?
"I think that to play any instrument you have to be a technician to some extent; you need to have enough technique to carry your ideas, otherwise you're not giving them full expression"
In terms of equipment, everything is kept fairly simple. You could almost guess what guitar he plays just from listening to it on any of his albums — a Maple-neck Fender, in this case a Strat from around 1958. He uses a combination of pick and fingers, and amplification is usually either an old Fender combo, or a Musicman. He occasionally uses a chorus, which is supplied by an old Boss CE1 pedal, and also has a volume pedal and a Boss digital delay in the effects rack. So, not too many batteries to buy...
The new album was recorded at Townhouse Three; it's hardly a big production job, just a group of people playing together. However, getting that squeaky Strat onto tape isn't totally straightforward.
"All credit to Neil Dorfman, the producer; he did a lot of sneaky things to the guitar sound which I really like, very subtle touches of delay. The acoustic guitar sound we got was great as well - it's a weird guitar, built off centre on a slant; it was custom made by Danny Ferrington. For that we used a combination of a valve mike close up, and a Calrec Soundfield for the room sound. The combination of the two gave a really extraordinary sound."
The new LP is unlikely to have the public suddenly screaming over the man who's been described as looking like a 'typical polytechnic lecturer', but in his own relaxed way he will probably win people over gradually, whilst maintaining that fabled position of artistic independence.
"Polydor have never leaned on me or told me what to do, which I appreciate. I think it's important though, that if you're a musician, you know best the kind of record you want to make, and that they should also trust your judgement in terms of artwork and sleeves."
So what kind of reception would you like to see for the new album?
"I'd like to see a hundred percent more sales — which isn't asking too much! That's about it really. I'd just like to continue with something that just started as a hobby. It's nice to do it professionally — there are a lot of great musicians who only play at weekends."
As our conversation continues, Mr Thompson assumes a more and more relaxed pose, so that by the end he's lying down on one of Polydor's squashy leather sofas. Despite its similarity to a psychiatrist's couch I feel it's unlikely that this man is going to reveal any deep-seated artistic neuroses; disappointingly, he seems just too well adjusted. The man with the archetypal clean Strat sound is still awaiting world acclaim. But he's in no hurry...
Interview by Paul Trynka
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