Weird tales from ace guitarist's LP sessions; shawms, theremins, and a silver band.
Richard Thompson is a rather fine guitarist with a rather fine new album. And he's been doing funny things in America with horror movie instruments. Tony Bacon is a... er... writer.
"AREN'T YOU going to ask me about my strings?" enquires Richard Thompson in mock horror toward the end of our interview. He answers the non-existent question anyway. "They're LaBellas actually. My secret is that I put them on in any order," he laughs. "I don't always put the sixth string on the sixth, you know? You find all these exciting chords."
Richard has a habit not only of finding exciting chords, usually by marginally more orthodox methods, but of arranging them into well-crafted, atmospheric songs and decorating them with superlative guitaring and apposite musical noises from accomplished collaborators. What we might more simply call good music: yes, it can be done.
This Richard has been doing for some time — way back with Fairport Convention (listen to the LP "Liege & Lief' from 1969 for the peak), then with singer Linda Peters (soon to become Thompson) on the superb post-Fairport solo LP "Henry The Human Fly" and on subsequent Richard-and-Linda team efforts ("I Want To See The Bright Lights" is perhaps their best album), and recently Richard (now without Linda, musically and domestically) has made a series of records both with bands and in solo mode, the latest of which is a band album called "Daring Adventures". Its dreary cover disguises another cracking mixture of songs, styles and sounds worthy of your investigation.
Mitchell Froom produced it in several Los Angeles and London studios — he's done stuff by the Del Fuegos, and played keyboards on Elvis Costello's "King Of America" LP. It was good to have a musician producing the record, says Richard.
Indeed there's plenty of instrumental experimentation if you care to listen beyond the evidently conventional surface. On 'Cash Down', for example, there's an odd device called a theremin. It's the thing that makes the wobbling, eerie noise on horror films, though its best-known musical appearance is on the end of the Beach Boys' 'Good Vibrations'. It was invented by a Russian bloke called Lev Termen (anglicised to Leon Theremin, as was the original name 'termenvoks' to theremin). Our Lev first demo'd his object in 1920. After he'd visited the US later in the 1920s, the RCA company decided to mass-produce theremins, and people started wobbling all over the place. The theremin makes its noise from two oscillators, one at a fixed frequency, the other varying as you move your hand around an antenna sticking up from the main box.
"Ah yes, we did the theremin overdub in Los Angeles," Richard explains, still smiling. "Actually LA is the favoured place for theremin, and there's probably the world's only session theremin player there — it's used on all that horror movie stuff still, so that's the place to do it. Apparently there's this guy who looks like he's just walked out of a Hammer horror film and actually is the session theremin player, looks like Count Dracula. But we didn't use him, we wanted to play with it ourselves.
"We had Professor Phil Pickett play some of his veritable battery of weirdnesses, too, back in London. He's an early music performer, medieval stuff. I think he plays just about everything that you can blow down from those days."
On 'Bone Through Her Nose' Phil's playing two Chinese shawms and two everyday shawms, the sort you and I have at home. Actually a shawm is something like an early oboe, a double-reed woodwind instrument widely used in European music in medieval times. "A pretty whacky, wild instrument," Richard suggests. On 'Lover's Lane' Phil plays a symphonie, like a small hurdy gurdy.
And on 'Al Bowlly's In Heaven' Richard used a silver band (like a brass band only shinier, made up of two cornets, a tenor horn and a euphonium). The band were from Fairey Engineering, the reigning quartet champions. Did he use them to help create the 1940s atmosphere of the song? "Well, that sort or quartet is very 'Coronation Street'," says Richard. "It's a little too modern and too northern, but I just like that sound. Those guys are great brass players, it's hard to find session brass players with that kind of blend and that mellowness of tone. Staggering, it's a unique sound."
I'd spotted the tell-tale jangle of a 12-string on a track called 'Dead Man's Handle', and Richard reveals how delighted he was with the Fender XII he hired in to use on the track. "A lovely guitar," he enthuses, "I think it's the best 12-string ever made, better than the Rickenbacker, it sounds mighty. It's easier to play than the Rickenbacker, a bigger neck, and an incredibly punchy tone. I was seriously reluctant to give it back. There was a rumour that Japanese Fender were gonna re-issue it, as they did with the Jaguar, because it hasn't been made for ages."
"THERE'S THIS GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE HE'S JUST WALKED OUT OF A HAMMER FILM AND ACTUALLY IS THE SESSION THEREMIN PLAYER."
He used the XII on 'Handle' to give a strong sound to the riff — instead of layering guitars on, one 12-string will do much the same job, making the line sound bigger. You can't play it like a six, Richard points out. Playing a full barre chord is pretty painful. "You need to be Leadbelly to do that," he reckons. What, dead?
"Also if you bend strings then you're limited, but it's very effective because the pairs never bend exactly in pitch. Like on early Byrds albums, 'Younger Than Yesterday' era, listen there for Roger McGuinn's bent 12-string notes. And it's just such a different sounding instrument that you have to respond to its sound and play something appropriate. It's very good for horn lines, for example, you can state things melodically but quite strongly. Great instrument."
Richard also prefers the thin-string-on-top arrangement of the course (or string-pair) of the Fender, as opposed to Rickenbacker's thick-string-on-top which seems, he says, to make the striking of the thin string something of a hit and miss affair. You'll see Ricky 12-strings that have been converted for this reason, involving some fiddling with the saddles. Not a fan of Rickenbackers really, is our Richard — he mentions "the famous weak heads and flimsy necks. The 12-string I once had was on its third head," he complains.
It was also supposed to be an ex-McGuinn Rickenbacker. Is there anything to the idea that a musician's spirit lives on through the instrument, as in the famous ex-Hendrix Strats? "To some extent, I don't know how long it lasts. But there's certainly a strange thing where a superior guitarist can pick up your guitar and play it, and then later you find that it's easier to play. This seems to happen. The molecular structure of the wood is changing all the time with the vibration of the notes, plus you've got the wood drying out and the glue drying out. Guitars change all the time, from a wet day to a dry day to a humid day, this country to that country. And if I lend a guitar to someone, there's no question that it comes back different. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. A definite, perceivable difference in the way it plays and the way it sounds. Beats me!"
Back in the real world, the conversation turns to songwriting. What a strange mixture of rules and rule-breaking it is. Take 'Nearly In Love' on the new record — a classic middle eight? Richard says it was an afterthought. He'd been playing the song happily as a verse-chorus-verse-chorus continuum for some time, and only when it came to recording did he realise that it needed something to add drama. Hence the middle eight, or bridge, or whatever you want to call it. The main thrust of the song hovers around a tonal centre of D — but in the bridge it shifts to A, giving a suggested key change. Richard aided the drama by bringing in the bridge a bar early, too, chopping off a bar from the end of the previous chorus. "Classic bridges in popular songs, not necessarily in rock 'n' roll, nearly always involve a key change of some sort. Cole Porter did them all and the Beatles followed suit. And that's basically it Brian: that's music, a fun business."
What else can you use to add drama to an existing song? "You can permanently change key at some point, which can be really effective. I don't just mean slide up a semitone which is something of a cliche. But you can seriously change key in a subtle way; that can sound very natural, but will definitely shift gear. It doesn't radically change the tune, either. Insertion or removal of beats or bars or half bars and half beats gives something a jolt if the attention is wandering. And a lot can be done with instrumentation where you bring in or take out certain instruments at different times. That's a basic way of changing the texture. I like the idea of melodic lines on different instruments. I'm a big unison fan, I like unisons, fourths, fifths, hard harmonies."
And so we get near the end of the interview and Richard tells me about his strings. I explain that we have an in-house all-purpose Making Music question that covers any interviewee. I ask Richard the infamous question. "How do you get that fantastic sound?"
"Practice," he answers. "I practise cos I feel I need to, but other people just get up and play without touching their guitar in between. So that can be good too. I didn't practise much till I did a tour with Steve Morse and then I was so intimidated. This guy would get up in the morning and put in three hours before I'd even think about music. That was quite inspirational, so I've practised more since then."
American musicians are more inclined to take the whole thing seriously, though, aren't they? "Yeah: they work hard and there's more competition for jobs. In England people approach popular music from another angle almost. Here there's more innovation in music, more invention and ideas. In America it's much more conservative, much more of a linear tradition — musicians there feel that if you go into music you've got to know how to play. And you can get a job in a bar there on Friday nights with your band, playing live music. Which you can't necessarily do here. There's more accent on musicianship there, and that's a good thing if you have an open mind and don't become a slave to it. Some American guitar players do. They can be staggering in their technique but what they're actually saying is fairly insignificant. British players have a different attitude, generally."
And ne'er the twain shall meet? "Well... Steve Lukather playing with Gary Numan? No, probably not."
Interview by Tony Bacon
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