Richard Thompson Interview
The quiet hero returns with new album ‘Electric’…
From his early pioneering work with Fairport Convention through his long-running solo career, Richard Thompson has been continually praised as both one of the greatest ever electric guitarists and one of Britain’s finest song craftsmen, whose work has been covered from everyone from R.E.M. and Robert Plant to Elvis Costello and Dinosaur Jr.
Lyrically his songs have often drawn on searingly honest dark thoughts and confessions, but he has always been at pains to point out that these are just snapshots of a mood, rather than representations of his overall character.
New album Electric features his trio - drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk - alongside fiddle player Stuart Duncan, producer/ guitarist Buddy Miller and vocalists Alison Krauss and Siobhan Maher Kennedy, and is easily one of the best and most well rounded pieces of work he has produced in years.
MTV caught up with Thompson for a mid-morning coffee and found that, despite all the accolades, in person he is warm, affable and ridiculously self-depreciating. It’s impossible to tell if this is due to genuine modesty or just a well developed technique to keep the work separate from the man, but in a world overstuffed with pompous, self-aggrandising celebs it’s an endearing trait.
Your last album Dream Attic was recorded live and the new album Electric only took four days at Buddy Miller's home studio - are you consciously trying different ways to approach the recording process, and how important is spontaneity to you?
“I wanted to do a record with the trio - we’re all LA based and have been doing a lot of commando-style hit and run gigs together where it wouldn’t be economical to take a full band - so I began writing for that format. We went down to Nashville and set up in Buddy’s house which was great, a really relaxed environment.
“We recorded really quickly, four tracks a day, which is insanely fast these days. I mean I know the Beatles would record a whole album in two hours but for modern times it’s pretty quick.
“We had a few guests, Alison and Siobhan came and sung and Stuart Duncan is a fantastic fiddle player, I asked him to just ‘play a bit more Scottish’ and he got it straight away.
“It was very spontaneous, all mostly done live with just a few overdubs. I wanted to get that raw, garagy feel where it sounds like it’s going down at the time, with everyone in one room.
“I wanted to avoid something that was too tidy and polished, that sounded immaculate but dull. The rest of my life is immaculate but dull, but musically I like to be a bit more spontaneous."
You’re regularly named as one the greatest electric guitarists of all time, but do you ever feel this overshadows your work as a songwriter and singer?
“I think of myself as a ‘package’, but you do get fans who only see you one way. Some guitar fans don’t care about the context or the folk roots of the music - they just want to hear the guitar playing.
“Now that could be up to a third of the audience so I don’t want to alienate them, but then you get the song fans, who might only like the sad songs and are just hanging on for every third number in a set.
“Then there are the final third of my audience who will take the whole package - they’re the ‘enlightened’ ones of course…”
You obviously have your roots in folk, but do you still categorise yourself as a ‘folk musician’, if you categorise yourself at all?
“It depends what I’m accused of!
"If you accuse me of being a folk musician I’ll swear I’m a rock musician - and vice versa.
“However, having glibly said that I am more of a folk musician. I missed a lot of rock music through the 70s, 80s and 90s so I’ll hear something on the radio and my kids will say ‘how do you not know that, it’s a classic!’ - I guess I just haven’t been paying attention.”
While you often play in a variety of different styles, your music appears to stand apart from contemporary trends or fashions - were you ever under pressure to be 'more commercial’?
“In the 80s and 90s I was under some pressure from the record company to follow fashion a bit more in terms of production, like using a big Bruce Springsteen snare sound, I went along with that a little and if I had a time machine now, and the inclination, I’d go back and fix some things.
But on the whole I’ve been left alone as they don’t understand what I’m doing… which is a good place to be.”
You’ve been based in the States for several years now but many of your songs, such as Salford Sunday on the new album, still reference English settings. How much of this is drawn from memory, and has the idea of England now become a world for your songs to inhabit?
“Yes, I think it is a world that you build for your songs to inhabit. It’s an inner landscape constructed mainly from memory, in a lot of ways I write about a Britain that doesn’t exist any more.
“Salford Sunday for example draws on my memories of the 60s, sometimes things just sit in the back of your head and niggle away for years so you have to write a song about them just to lay them to rest.
“When I write I’m not that influenced by my surroundings. It sounds facetious to say but I can often write best about being miserable while lying on a beach somewhere, where I don’t really have to do anything and my mind is not caught up in the present.”
You are very prolific in terms of both new material and live performance - do you still feel as driven to make music as you’ve always been?
“I think you have to be driven by something. I’m not sure exactly what it is that drives me, I could probably go to a psychiatrist to resolve things and be happy, but then I might never write another song. So I don’t go…
“I prefer to be slightly crazy. It’s nice to create; I love the feeling of making something. Inspiration is always welcome, you have to keep the lights on for ideas, keep the shop open in case something pops in.”
You’ve played with many other artists over the years, but if you could pick anyone, living or dead, to jam with for an evening, who would it be?
“Gosh…. Well it would be fun to hang out with Stravinsky. I always liked the story of how Charlie Parker found out where Stravinsky lived, and kept wanting to introduce himself but never quite got up the confidence to knock on the door.
“Think what might have happened if he did - if Stravinsky wrote an alto-sax concerto for Charlie Parker to perform!
I’m not quite at that level but I’d have loved to have met Stravinsky in order to learn from him, there’s loads of other people I’d love to be a fly on the wall around, like Louis Armstrong or Django Reinhardt… but I don’t think I’d have the self confidence to actually play with them.”
Gavin Cullen @mtvuknews