Thursday, August 30, 2012
INTERVIEW with DAVE COUSINS of the STRAWBS
It was a great pleasure to review one of the greats of British progressive-folk-rock, Dave Cousins, of the long running Strawbs. We spoke by phone two weeks back and below is the conversation. He is bringing the Acoustic Strawbs to the USA in September and Canada in October. Two DC area shows include the Jammin Java in Vienna, VA on September 5th and the Ram's Head in Annapolis, MD on September 9th.
Dave Hintz - I think I am like a lot of your American fans in that I didn't really discover the Strawbs until later. When I was younger I was into progressive rock and all, but you really didn't get the radio play as other bands. I had a friend in school in the mid-70s who liked the Strawbs, but because he was more of a hanger-on, I didn't trust his opinion as much. But since the late 80s I've purchased about 25 of your albums and have enjoyed your music so much. So with that, are you still meeting new fans since you are still such a hard touring guy?
Dave Cousins - Absolutely, yes. We just did a festival on Friday evening in the Midlands here and I went out in the audience after show and was chatting away to people. They were coming up and saying I have never seen you before and I am so pleased, so we get new fans all the time. And what we also get are a lot of older fans bringing their children along now. One guy brought his six year old along the other day and said 'believe it or not, my six year old son loves your music'. That must be a bit of a record.
DH - Fantastic.. that might be. I do see that more these days, but it is usually high school kids.
DC - (laughs) Yeah.
DH - It's interesting that we are still testing the boundaries of rock music--I mean folk music and blues have been gong a long time, but it's amazing that rock music has now pulled in three generations.
DC - It's astonishing. In looking back, we have a record made in 1968 that is just being reissued, in fact was never issued. It never came off. And I just a read a review in 'Classic Rock', which was a tremendous review. How do people know about all this stuff? But we love it.
DH - Right, and the internet helps people find each other.
DC - Oh yeah, very much so, but the whole world is changing. I find myself now, hearing that downloads are the thing of the future. I am suddenly beginning to realize...and friends around me who are 60 or so, are hearing 'I won't bother to buy it on CD, I'll just download.' And I think I wouldn't know how to download. I've never downloaded in my life--I wouldn't know how to go about it. But I've got my docking system on and it sounds horrible. (laughter) But people want to listen to it and it scares me to death that kids grow up nowadays thinking their MP3s are the be-all and end-all of sound quality, compressed and everything. Thankfully they are going to start bringing out MP4s which are higher quality so maybe they will get the downloads to sound like CDs. So these days, maybe the balance is being restored.
DH - I absolutely agree and even vinyl has made a comeback which surprises me.
DC - Yes. We've run our own little record company, Witchwood Media, and over the last ten years we've sold over 100,000 records which is extraordinary.
DH - Yes.
DC - And it is remarkable with the seven records... but it's astonishing to get that quantity with our own little record label.
DH - Yeah, it's great... I started in the punkrock era of the 70's where you had to do it yourself, especially in America where this was little big label interest in the bands. But now, the Do-It-Yourself movement is for veteran bands like yourself, young kids starting out, it's for everybody.
DC - Yeah, and actually the next release we are going to have is the last album we made in the 70's "Deadlines" and we have additional tracks which creates a lot of interest in that. And what I find astonishing is that in the 70s, we had seven consecutive albums in the Top 200 and we never really made it.... we were never big, we were top of the second division if you like. We are still selling a heck of a lot of records.
DH - The continued selling of back catalog records is great where people continue to go back and find great music... Let me get one question out of the way from Wikipedia. I would like to know if that is accurate that you have degrees in Statistics and Mathematics?
DC - That's right.
DH - Well, I am a Certified Public Accountant myself, so I think that's great...
DC - I've studied from a few months to three years in mathematics, I did mathematical statistics for two years, I also did psychology for a year and a couple more.
DH - But you were doing music at the same time as well, I assume.
DC - Oh yeah, I was doing music most of the time while I was at college. I ran the folk club and the jazz club.
DH - Yes of course, you know there's actually a genre called math rock which is actually probably one of the few genres that the Strawbs have not covered...
DC - We're going to do that next.
DH (laughter) - How do the songs come to you? Is it the mathematical part of your brain with patterns or is it from some other place?
DC - Some of the guitar figures come from patterns I have developed. And I have been reanalyzing them recently and find that there are definite rhythmic patterns. But mostly the ideas usually come from the lyrics first and the music comes afterwards. I wrote out a book of my collected lyrics up to the last album I did as the Strawbs (Secrets Songs & Stories). For some reason some ideas I shoot down, but 18 months later it comes together. But also timing is tough because of the tours where we are traveling a lot. We are coming to America as you know in September and when we come back on the 27th of September, but then fly off to Toronto. There's shows in between and we just don't seem to stop. And I find that distracting from a songwriting point of view as I don't have that much time off. And I have started a new record label called Dark Lord Records and we've signed up some young bands and we are developing that.
DH - Oh really? Well, that was one of my questions--so it appears you do listen to new music then?
DC - Very much so, especially these young bands. We've got a blues band called Snakewater who have terrific reviews on Amazon. We have another sort of gothic band called Spit Like This and we have two American bands, one from Phoenix, Arizona called Chemicals of Democracy and another one from the Carolinas called Blanco Diablo and we just got a Trinidadian band that we signed up called Orange Sky. And they all have cultural differences and all have different individual styles, but astonishingly good music.
DH - Well, that leads into my next question in that it does not surprise me that you would have bands with so many different musical styles since your own Strawbs catalog is so diverse.
DC - People think we are a folk group, but we're not really a folk group. We started down in folk rock and my songs were to an extent influenced by the sound of folk music, but you know maybe for long time you can argue I was trying to write a folk song that could be sung by everybody. But the novelty of rock'n'roll itself, it (authorship) was not thought of until the royalties started to come in and I suddenly realized it was necessary to know who wrote it. (laughter). But modern day folk songs are Beatle songs. I mean "Yellow Submarine" is sung in (various) countries by the seaside.
DH - That's true. Folk music is the music of the era, and continues to be passed along.... Now for many of the people who don't realize this, you have had many musicians pass through the band from Sandy Denny to Rick Wakeman, Sonja Kristina... and I also learned that Lindsay Cooper of Comus was a Strawb?
DC - No that was a different Lindsay Cooper, a bass player and cello player.
DH - Oh OK! That's good to know...
DC - We have had some astonishing players. As you said, Rick Wakeman played. When Rick left to join Yes, then Blue Weaver joined. Blue Weaver left us to go off with the Bee Gees Band and played on 'Saturday Night Fever' and several Bee Gees albums. When he left, we brought John Hawken in who was with the Nashville Teens and Renaissance. He blended very well with the band, but when he left we brought in the keyboard player from If... John Mealing and then we had Robert Kirbey the arranger playing keyboards with us as well at the same time with two keyboard players. And then we go to Andy Richards who you've probably never heard of, but you have the album Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the song 'Relax', you'll find that Andy Richards made an album that at the end of the 70s, but didn't come out at the time--he worked as a school teacher, but he sent the album off to Trevor Horne, the producer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who immediately booked us with the keyboard player for the sessions and a song of mine called 'Heartbreak Hill' were the chords they used to define the song 'Relax'. So the Strawbs influenced Frankie Goes to Hollywood through Andy Richards. Andy Richards now produces music for films, he produced the music for "Slumdog Millionaire" and he's produced the music for "Sweeny Todd" with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. And then we had Don Airey in the band who is now in Deep Purple and on top of that, most recently we played with Oliver Wakeman, Rick's son, before he left us to join Yes, keeping it in the family. And to keep it in the family even more, on our tour in November in the UK with our electric band, we had Adam Wakeman, Rick's other son who has been touring with Ozzy Osbourne's band and Black Sabbath the last eight years. So it's been an astonishing array of people playing in the band.
DH - Definitely, and although I think I know the answer to this, do you feel your sound is carefully planned out or rather that by bringing in so many diverse people, does it shape itself with all that they bring?
DC - The music shapes itself. The basic arrangements... the song has a basic structure, but with Adam Wakeman for example, I emailed him and said by the way we will send you a live recording of the set and you can hear what we are doing, get the chords down, but how you interpret it is entirely up to you. So that is how the band continually evolved and changed, as each musician came in, they would bring their interpretations which meant the band was continually evolving.
DH - Yes, and in the early days you had high powered producers such as Gus Dudgeon briefly and Tony Visconti. Did they push for certain directions or styles and how influential were they in the process?
DC - Well, Gus Dudgeon was our first producer and he and I fell out, if you like, because he said 'your voice is hopeless and I'll mix it down--I can't stand the sound of it--they can read the words on the sleeve' (laughter). We fell out completely. Every track was treated as an individual track and not as a complete feeling of what the band was. So we ended up sounding like eight different bands and that's why we went off with Tony Visconti who totally understood what we were doing. And we were with him for three albums, and we would have been with him longer except that T. Rex exploded and he had to go off and do albums with them and then we had to get on to our album, so we produced that ourselves. But Tony Visconti was a huge influence on my writing. He told me 'why don't you read that book, why don't you take a look at this, why don't you think about that?' and we were great friends and I hope we work again--we got in touch in London and had chat a year ago where there was a young girl he was producing who covered one of my songs. We worked together on a song in the studio together for the first time in donkey-years which was lovely. And I hope to see him in New York.
DH - That's great. In fact, I think that may have been Kristeen Young. I know that because I wrote a review of her once and he wrote me to correct me on an interpretation. (Laughter). But it is great to encounter people with so much passion for their music like you and he. And he is such a fabulous talent. (Ed... Tony Visconti writes to correct my errant guess.... It was Debbie Clarke, signed to WEA Germany who recorded the Strawbs classic "Lay Down".)
DC - Oh he is remarkable and a fabulous musician.
DH - Right, he's a great player, too. So he understood the Strawbs, but did the record company executives and the people on the business side ever understand the Strawbs?
DC - Our English label did. A&M Records totally understood what we were about. We had a manager who was trying to extract us from the label, and Jerry Moss said 'look we don't want to lose you, you have to get rid of your management' and I said that was impossible and we'd have to extract ourselves. And I was disappointed when we left our label--we were not major sellers, we sold a few hundred thousand albums in the USA. We were good sellers but not multi million sellers. But they all loved our music and were broken hearted when we left. And then we went to Polydor and Polydor loved having us on their label for two albums, but unfortunately they didn't have the muscle when they tried to break into America. And our last album that was released in the seventies was on Arista. Clive Davis understood it and thought it was our best album in years. But unfortunately that album (Deadlines) didn't sell and that was the end of our relationship. Then the band split up after that.
DH - And the whole breaking in the US is interesting to me since I knew of the Strawbs, but not at that major level. So did you tour as much in the 1970s as you do now?
DC - We spent at least two year years of our lives touring the US back then, when we roughly worked it out. We toured with so many bands like the Eagles, with Frank Zappa, Joe Walsh, Santana, Blue Oyster Cult, Lynyrd Skynyrd. We travelled with so many bands and then we did several headline shows ourselves. But we found we were much bigger on the east coast of America than we were in the west. So, we could sell out two nights at the Bijou in New York on the east coast and we would go play in front of 100 people in San Francisco. That was a very strange city, as I thought we would be far more popular on the west coast.
DH - Hmmm.... yeah, and that still is the case today, since you seem to stay more on the east coast and maybe the midwest when you tour.
DC - Yes we have a small niche of followers out west, maybe enough if we had the time.
DH - I was reading that in the early days of touring in England, you did a tour with Roy Harper. Did you get along well with him?
DC - Ummm, on that early tour, no (laughter). We have become great friends since. In fact we were traveling in the same truck together and the same day I finished my song, "The Hangman and the Papist", Roy finished his song, "Me and my Woman". So he looked at the lyrics and said no, I don't like that. But he didn't really like our music at that time. Later on when we toured Scandanavia together with him and we became a rock band, he said this is bloody wonderful and we became the best of friends.
DH - That's a great story about those two songs. I play those two songs all the time.
DC - So those were literally finished in a van within ten minutes of each other.
DH - Wow. How about some of the other classic folk rock artists. For instant did you play with the Sandy Denny Fairport Convention at all?
DC - No, but of course wtih Sandy Denny, we recorded our first album with her.
DH - Right.
DC- In 1967, it was called "All Our Own Work". The trouble was that she left us to join Fairport, and we had been rehearsing for about six months. We made the album and then my job was to get it released in the UK. We had made it in Denmark and by the time I had found someone to put it out, she had gone off to Fairport. So the album did not come out until later, in 1973, which was a terrible shame since nobody knew what it was. But Sandy and I and remained the best of friends until the day she died.
DH - That's good.
DC - About two weeks before she died, I went to stay with her and husband Trevor (Lucas). Their baby had just been born and I had never seen her so happy. It was wonderful. Then she died and it broke my heart. And she was a marvelous singer. And that album, we put it out like about... oh, two years ago and its sold around ten thousand copies. It has been very successful with rave reviews.
DH - It deserves them. I had to buy the vinyl copy many years ago to get it.
DC - You can buy the CD version and get some extras as well.
DH - I should update it (as I have done with many Strawbs records). I try to get both. I want to talk about your (first) solo album "Two Weeks Last Summer" (from 1972). How did that become a solo album and not a Strawbs album?
DC - Because the band had recorded the most successful UK record at the time, "Bursting at the Seams". John Ford, the bass player, didn't like "Down by the Sea". He said 'I don't want to do songs like that--that's boring. I want to do pop songs.' And so I had written the song "Blue Angel" and there was no chance that they would record it. It just wasn't the slightest bit of interest for them to do long suites of songs, if you like. So because of that, the band split up, and in sheer frustration, I said I am going to go out and make an album on my own. So I went and made it because they just weren't interested in doing those sort of songs. I had those songs up my sleeve, recorded it, and it is still selling to this day. It gave me the opportunity to work with Roger Glover on bass, who was with Deep Purple, and Jon Hiseman on drums which opened my eyes on the potential of the band as a rock band. And after that, we brought in Dave Lambert on electric guitar and then there was no holding us back.
DH - Now was it the song "Blue Angel" the one written in a hotel room in Indianapolis?
DC - No, the one that was written in Indianapolis was "Ghosts".
DH - Oh Ghosts was written in Indianapolis, ok, I knew it was one of the 'long ones'.
DC - Ghosts was written about the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis. We were staying in a hotel next to it and from my room I could see the angel on top. At night, it is lit with a blue light which comes through the room curtains no matter how tight you draw them. One of my kids was ill and I was trying to phone home to see if he was alright. I couldn't get through. It was a nightmare and the song turned the column into the nightmare. I climbed inside it toward the light.
DH - OK, right. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio about 100 miles east of Indianapolis, so I am happy that Indianapolis inspired something good like "Ghosts".
DC - Do you know there is another very interesting thing about that?
DH - What's that?
DC - There's another very famous song, not that our song was as famous as this one, that was written by a piano player who used to play in a piano bar around that same circle. And he looked up one night and saw all the stars in the sky and he sat down and wrote the melody "Stardust" and it was Hoagy Carmichael.
DH - No kidding.
DC - So there were at least two songs written about Indianapolis, one is "Stardust" and one is not.
DH - (laughs) Good to know.
DC - (laughs) I think I got the short straw.
DH - Yes, the royalties for one is a bit higher than the other. But, I really love the song on your solo album--the vocal work on "October to May". Have you ever done a musical arrangement for that (ed -it's a vocal piece) or sung it live?
DC - No, but it's a good idea that we should try it because the Acoustic Strawbs have got three-part harmonies so we could do it very well. But that was just myself and Dave Lambert singing that. We were in a little village called Tiddington, which is owned by Richard Branson (Virgin Records). And there was a studio there called the Manor. So we (Branson and I) were talking about starring a record label and publishing and as we were discussing how to do it, the next thing I know he's putting out an album on his own label without consulting me which was called "Tubular Bells" (Mike Oldfield) which sold in millions. But anyway, we recorded that song and it was just myself and Dave Lambert singing and it sounded a bit Russian. It is based on a tune that is an old Russian folk song. So that is why I wanted to make it sound like a Russian choir.
DH - It does have a cathedral sound. It's a great sound.
DC - Listen very carefully on headphones. You can hear a guitar backing track.
DH - Ahh, ok, I thought there was something going on there (laughter). That is always fun when you have that in a famous song. The Mamas and the Papas have that in their hit song "California Dreaming" which was to go to Barry McGuire, but they erased most of his voice and put themselves on top because they didn't want to give the song away. But you can still hear a bit of him on the song.
DC - Oh. I have met John Phillips and spoke to him about that song. He told me how it was written in New York and he was there with Michelle who hated being in New York because it was cold and wanted to go back to California. And they went into a church and got the whole inspiration for that song in a church in New York.
DH - Quite the classic.
DC - I think they were wonderful as friends, but I never saw them live. But the sound of that was very influential when were recording with Sandy Denny.
DH - I am curious about the five-person Strawbs which I saw at the Birchmere years ago... with John Hawken and Rod Coombes. Is there any chance of bringing that back to the US?
DC - I would love to, but Rod Coombes is now teaching percussion at college and can only tour in summer or on holiday, so it is very difficult to try and get a time that he could play. And John Hawken just doesn't want to lug keyboards around anymore--he's just had enough of it. So that will never happen again.
DH - OK, but that was a lot of fun. But I do need to point out for people who have not seen the Acoustic Strawbs that Chas Cronk uses pedals for "Grave New World" and Dave Lambert plays very spirited rock solos on acoustic, so I think it is fair to say that the Acoustic Strawbs still provide a great variety of rock sounds when you play.
DC - It essentially is a rock band with acoustic guitars. We make a huge noise for three guys with acoustic guitars. People actually are astounded by it.
DH - Yes, I love what have you done with your sound.
DC - The person that was most impressed with it was Steve Hackett, the guitarist formerly of Genesis. He saw a show of outs at Hampton Court that Rick Wakeman did and he said ' how the hell do you make that sound? It's enormous, as big as Wakeman with an orchestra.' It's not that we turn the volume up, but it's the fact that for our guitars, we use a combination of a 12-string guitar, my guitar in an open tuning, and Dave Lambert in a normal tuning, but we are all playing different registers, so we get the sound of about 12 guitars instead of three. It sounds huge. We are able to weave melodic lines into the guitar playing--it's astonishing what comes out in the mix.
DH - I love what you do with "Grave New World" which is such a great song, but unfortunately the world is still a mess, so I guess you will be singing that song for decades further....
DC - There was the one time that we played it after 9/11 where we played New York about six months later. I introduced the song on stage and I can't remember what I said but I said that it is dedicated to those that died in the twin towers. And the crowd stood up and applauded like crazy.
DH - Oh yes.... I read that you recently played some shows with Ian Cutler, and for every psychedelic folk fan like myself, he's well known as the violinist in "The Wicker Man" and the band Bully Wee, so how did those shows go?
DC - Bully Wee, yes. We did a show about a month ago. It was absolutely wonderful. I enjoyed doing shows with him and in fact, I did a brand new song with him and the lyrics haven't quite been finished. He is a wonderful, wonderful fiddle player.
DC - A ton. (laughter) And there are even more chances for these, but I rarely get the time to do it.
DH - And what keeps you going so strong for 40-some years now.
DC - I really enjoy playing, let's put it that way. The playing makes it bearable.
DH - And specifically the live performances are the joy?
DC - Very much. And the whole show has changed. I call it the Imaginative Mystery Tour. We go through the very beginning with the older songs and gradually go to the newer songs to the present day. It's great fun to do. And I've got a banjo, well waiting in New Jersey, and I just sent my dulcimer over. The audience in America hasn't seen my dulcimer in about ten years. We do "Benedictus" on the dulcimer, but it's an electric dulcimer, not the acoustic one. So, we'll do some different things and the different instruments makes things interesting.
DH - Oh very much. I have missed the dulcimer in recent years.
DC - Well, it will be there and its arrived already.
DH - Excellent. How about when you go to the studio these days. Are you working in a classic studio set-up or do you use more computers and modern technology now?
DC - Lately we have been working in sort of hybrids, really. The last was a classic analog studio--we recorded with a guy called Chris Tsangarides, a very well known producer, but he's a heavy metal producer. He's done Yngwie Malmstein, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and others. He also did the band called The Tragically Hip in Canada, an album that sold ten million copies in Canada--a huge selling record. He did the Concrete Blonde, do you remember that band?
DH - I do.
DC - So we went into his studio and he's got an analog desk and a 16 track digital recorder, actually a 24 track recorder, you can do anything. So we're recording the album all digitally but it is all mixed analog, so you get wonderful sounds. In fact, he's my partner in a new record label I mentioned earlier.
DH - Oh, excellent.
DC - Dark Lord Records.
DH - Sounds like a good metal label.
DC - (laughs) People don't understand what I'm doing, but I do.
DH - (laughs) As long as you start there, there is a good chance people will pick up on it. You mentioned a lot of your previous members in the Strawbs and although I won't ask, could you name every Strawbs member or what percentage would you get?
DC - Oh, I probably would get to 100%, but it would take an hour and half to do it.
DH - (laughter) which leads me to my next question--are you ever going to put this all together in an autobiography if you have the time?
DC - I've started it. I've knocked the chapters out and started writing notes for each chapter. But then I got to the Hero & Heroine era and it became very harrowing on a personal level so I put it off. But next year, I am going to set aside some time and do it.
DH - Ah, great, well I look forward to that for sure. One last oddball question... I am a big Premier League fan and was curious if you had a favorite football club?
DC - Well, I am going out tonight to my local pub since it's the opening weekend to the season and Manchester United will be the team.
DH - I'll be watching that here.
DC - They signed Robin van Persie and it will be really fascinating to see how he fits in.
DH - Yes, they are loaded up front.
And then it was a brief discussion of the tour which starts right here at the Jammin Java on Wednesday, September 5th. Be there or head to Annapolis on Sunday!