Interview with Dave Pegg by Anil Prasad
© Copyright 2002 by Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
This interview is part of the "Fairport Convention:
Come All Ye" story. Please refer to the main article
for related biographical and historical information.
What does Fairport's 35th anniversary mean to you? I'm just grateful we're still able to get on the plane or into the van. [laughs] We've always been a working band. We don't sell enough records to sit at home relaxing until it's time to make the next album. It has to be an ongoing thing.We've always had to work and tread the boards. We get most of our fun by going out and playing live. We've already done so much this year. We did 28 concerts in England and Wales, then Tokyo for a couple nights, then a week's worth of gigs in Australia. After that, we did Belgium and Germany for 10 dates. We've already done a year's work already by most band's standards. I'm very pleased we've been able to survive. In England, we have a very loyal bunch of fans, some of which have been with us since the late '60s. We also have some young people who've discovered the group by attending our Cropredy Festival. We're very grateful we still have an audience. It's very much a club, the Fairport audience. Everywhere we go, we know people—especially in England. At our Cropredy Festival, we probably know half of the 20,000 people who attend by name. They've been here for so long. We couldn't survive without people coming to see us live. Where does the new album fall within the group's back catalog? Oh God, I don't know. There are so many Fairport albums. [laughs] Every one is different. Every time we make an album every 18 months or so, the musical content is down to what the guys in the band come up with. We're always on the lookout for good songs. We're kind of selfish in some ways because we just play stuff we feel works in the band. We tend not to overstretch these days. We're at that age where if it doesn't work fairly instantly, we feel it's not right for us and we'll choose something else. We pick from the best of what we've got at the time and that which fits the people in the band. Why is playing material best suited to the band a selfish act? Most other bands probably consider things like airplay or whether the record company will like it. Those aspects have never been a priority for Fairport right from the start of the band's career. We've been lucky enough to do what we want without being pressured by what's popular or fashionable. It's the way people do their best work—playing stuff they really want to play. We just hope our audience likes it. Sometimes, they're not sure about the stuff we come up with, even though we love it. That goes vice-versa too. Sometimes we record stuff we're not convinced of and then people come up saying "Oh, we really like that. It's great." Describe the process of putting the new album together. We're lucky to have Chris Leslie. His songwriting has really developed over the last three or four years. We have several songs on this record that Chris brought to the band. "My Love Is In America" is one of my favorite songs ever actually. Since Chris joined the band, there have also been some songs we've been able to reintroduce into the live format like "Now Be Thankful" and "Banks of the Sweet Primroses." We also looked at "The Deserter" again, a great song by a guy called John Richards which Simon [Nicol] recorded on a solo album. We also previously did a version of it on Old, New, Borrowed, Blue. We had started doing versions of these songs live and many of our English fans said it'd be nice to have a new recording of them. That's why we went back and did that. Also, it's our 35th anniversary, so it's nice to have a look at the past, as well as including new stuff. The way Fairport records is quite old fashioned. We've reverted to the way we recorded in the '60s and '70s which is doing everything mostly live, with very few overdubs. What we do is spend two or three days looking at new material with a view to recording it. Then we play them a few times and go into our studio. We have our own studio in Oxfordshire called Woodworm. It's right next to my house in an old Baptist chapel that we converted. It's not a big place, but it's quite a nice room in which we're able to play at the same time. We also have a great engineer named Marc Tucker. We record everything to 24 track analog and then bounce it over to Marc's Soundscape digital system for overdubs and mixing. It's a fairly easy process. We spent about three weeks in the studio making the new album in total. How does the process differ from the days of the Allcock-Mattacks line-up? It's a different thing. That was a very long-running line-up. We were together about 11 years—the longest of any Fairport line-up. We went through lots of musical changes in the late '80s. It was a great, very adventurous time because we made music utilizing Martin's very good abilities on the keyboards. We got into lots of programming stuff. We would attempt very ambitious pieces like "The Wounded Whale" and "Red and Gold" which used big, orchestrated arrangements that Martin would program in. He'd then play guitar over the top. It was a very interesting period, but completely different. Our records were more formulated then. We spent an awful lot of time in the studio making those albums. There was a lot of sequencing, programming and playing to click tracks. Now, it's kind of gone the other way. It's much more simple. With the kind of music we're doing now, you can literally set up in a pub or someone's front room and play most of it live. Every different line-up and album has been different in its approach. Times change so quickly. When you get new personnel, you want to utilize their unique talents and abilities. The music changes according to who is in the band. What's Gerry Conway like to work with compared to Mattacks? They're both fantastic drummers. I've spent most of my life playing with Dave and we have an instinctive way of playing together which was very satisfying. It's a bit like that with Gerry too. Gerry comes from a different background and is a totally different drummer than Dave. He's more into percussion. He's played with Fairport before. I've also played with him in Jethro Tull on the Broadsword and the Beast album. So, I don't have a problem with Gerry. When Dave left the band, Gerry was our first choice. He's very familiar with the way Fairport records and we're great friends. It was a fairly easy transition. Do you feel the band competes with its own past? It's something I've never thought about because I've been doing it for so long. I've been in the group 32 years now. I have my favorite periods of Fairport and I look back and think "Oh, that was great. It was wonderful what we were doing." I love the Full House line-up. It was a fantastic period having Richard Thompson standing next to you playing such sensational guitar every night. It was a real thrill. I also loved it when Jerry [Donahue] was in the band. I'm kind of a guitar-oriented person. Rising for the Moon is also one of my favorite albums of all time. I also love Fairport Nine. I like Bonny Bunch of Roses too, it's a great album. The stuff the current line-up does is up there too. I never think "Are we as good as we used to be?" because you can never do that. It's the kind of thing the media does. A lot of people wrote Fairport off when Sandy [Denny] left the band in '69 and then when Richard left. It's kind of been diminishing with the media ever since. It's like they think "Oh yeah, I remember Fairport. But now, they don't have Richard, Sandy or Swarbrick." I never think along those lines because I want it to be as good as it can be with the current line-up. Having said that, as time goes by and the older you get, music's one of those things for which you remember how great it was when you were a teenager and first got hold of something that really turns you on. I love The Band and its records like Music from Big Pink and The Beatles. I find I only play records up to 1974. All of my favorite music is from the '60s and '70s. I was playing Kate and Anna McGarrigle's albums the other day. They're sensational. I'm not kind of okay with what's happening in terms of modern music. Let's discuss a couple of criticisms leveled against the band lately. The first one is the band's decision to re-record older material in versions some consider less definitive than the originals. What's your opinion on this? I have to disagree or we wouldn't have bothered recording them. [laughs] If you start listening to what people say, you'd never go in the studio. We make music for ourselves. If people don't like it, fair enough. They can go see another band. But it's also Fairport fans that asked us to do these songs. We're a very sociable band. We always go out and sign CDs after shows and pick up comments from people. We get a lot of feedback. We get lots of letters from people. The versions of "Portmeirion," "The Deserter" and "Banks of the Sweet Primroses" are going down really well. What you have to bear in mind is a lot of people have never heard these songs. They didn't buy Angel Delight or Simon's solo album, but they've heard the band in concert and want versions of the songs. That's why we did it really. Otherwise, if someone wants to hear it, they might not be able to get Angel Delight on CD because it may be difficult to find. So, it's all purely coming from people's demand really. The second criticism is the idea that the band is veering away from its folk-rock reputation towards a more laid-back sound. We're called a folk-rock band and I think we still are. If you look at this current CD, there are some traditional songs like "The Happy Man," which I'm particularly proud of. The songs comes from this village five miles away called Adderbury. They've been singing it for years, but no-one's heard it outside of Adderbury. So, in some respects, we're keeping the tradition going. We've introduced that song to a much wider audience. We're not bothered with comparing anything we do to what we did in the past. We get a bunch of songs together we think we can perform well and that's it—that's an album. We're not trying to make another Liege and Lief. We use outside songs like "The Crowd" that Anna Ryder wrote. We really love the song. Most people are hearing it for the first time with us. It's a song people really get off on. So, I think we're really doing it right. There's no point in trying to make the music sound like something else you did in the past or a particular style. You have to approach everything new and from scratch. Everyone points to you as the key reason Fairport and Cropredy survive to this day. What's kept you committed to this band through its many ups and downs? I wish I knew! [laughs] It's certainly not the money. Cropredy is something I'm 100 percent committed to. My wife Chris organizes it and our whole existence is based around it. It's become the biggest folk-rock-related event in England. It's something we're very proud of. We've been doing it for more than 20 years now. Obviously, Fairport plays there every year and it's the biggest event on our calendar. It's something we look forward to immensely. I'm a bass player. I have to play in a band and I like playing in Fairport. They're my friends. I've spent 32 years in the band and I'm 54 years old. I've been involved with the band for well over half my life. There are times when I think I'd like to get away or have a year off from it to do other stuff, but I still get the chance to do other things. I played with Jethro Tull for 16 years as well, which was very musically satisfying. We made some great albums. I still get asked to play on people's records from time-to-time. And when anyone uses our studio, I usually end up playing on their records too. [laughs] So, I'm still very active musically and Fairport remains a great release. When I play with Fairport, I'm doing what I want to do musically. Apart from the historic aspect of it, I enjoy making records with Fairport, playing live and the company. I'd always have to play live even if I wasn't in the group. I'd have to play with someone else. The bass is pretty boring if you play it on your own unless you're Jaco [Pastorius] or Victor Wooten. When you play like I do, you have to play with other people. [laughs] Do you listen to people like Pastorius and Wooten much? Oh yeah, absolutely. I love Victor. He's fantastic. I'm really pleased Fairport is on Compass Records, the same label he's on. The people at Compass like Alison Brown are great. They're all musos. In fact, we have Alison Brown playing at Cropredy this year. How has your bass playing evolved over the last 30 years? It hasn't evolved. [laughs] It's exactly the same as when I was 19 years old. I still play the same three notes! I've never really altered my style at all. I must confess I never practice. Musically, I'm very unschooled, but I do really enjoy playing the bass and performing live. Playing music is the only time I ever play. I put my bass in its case when I'm not playing and it won't come out until I play it again. I might get it out to clean it. [laughs] I don't think my style has really changed at all. I never got involved in the slapping thing. I'm still very old fashioned because 60 percent of the time I still play with a plectrum. But I enjoy it immensely. When you play in your band, you get to do whatever you want. I didn't really enjoy playing sessions, which I did a lot in the '70s with Dave Mattacks. We played on so many people's albums then. I never enjoyed having to change my style to fit somebody else's music. I figure if my style doesn’t work almost instantly, then they have the wrong bass player. How would you describe your style? Lazy. [laughs] It's just something that comes very naturally to me. I try not to get in the way of the vocals. I try to use some taste and restraint whenever possible. I also like having a go and we still have some songs in Fairport in which we get to rock out. In the current line-up, we do "The Light of Day" off the new album which is a chance to stretch. "Matty Groves" is still great fun to play. We've played it every night since I joined the band. It's an opportunity to kind of show off a bit. How did the Fairport Unconventional boxed set come about? It was a real labor of love by Nigel Schofield and Neil Wayne. They did a great job on the Martin Carthy boxed set and wanted to do a Fairport one. It was so difficult for them to get permission from all these different labels, but they had 100 percent cooperation from us. We said "Go for it" because we trust them. We thought the Carthy set was spectacular, with incredible information in a great booklet. I don't think anyone else could have done it. What was your involvement in track selection? None whatsoever. I didn't figure my thoughts on track selection were necessary. There was no point in telling them what I think. I gave them 150 DATs from live gigs and studio outtakes and said "Here, help yourselves." I also had several lengthy meetings with them and gave them old photographs and put them in touch with various people. That's all I did. I think having an outsider put the thing together and choose tracks is what makes it work. There are too many conflicting interests in the band. One person might think "That's crap. I sang out of tune" or "That's a bum note." It would take forever with the band's involvement. It's best to let someone do it for you. Island has taken an interest in reissuing expanded versions of the Fairport back catalog. What accounts for their interest in doing this? I have no idea. It's nice that they do these things because there are people that want to buy them, but they're not going to sell them in vast quantity. There's nothing in it for them. They're not going to sell a lot, maybe 3,000 to 4,000 copies each. For the amount of work involved, the return is negligible. It's taken them awhile to do. People have been asking for this stuff for years and years. I had lots of discussions with Island to do a boxed set for the 25th anniversary, but it's difficult for a big label to justify spending any time or energy on projects which won't sell bucketloads. Also, the people working for them now have never heard of Fairport Convention. We were on their label from 1970 to 1975. It was 26 years ago. Now, I call up Island and say "I'm Dave Pegg from Fairport Convention" and they go "Who?" It's like they've never heard of the band. They're a great label and at times they've been very helpful to us, but times change. Everybody I know left years and years ago. It's all these outsiders that put these things together. I'm pleased they're doing it. It's good that Island allowed Free Reed to use some of the stuff they own for the boxed set. The Manor sessions were recently unofficially released. How do you look back at those sessions and that period of the band's history? I don't know where people got the tapes, but we used some of them on the Free Reed boxed set. It's a bit annoying when things like that get out because it was only Swarb and myself that ever had the tapes. Anyway, it doesn't matter because it's a bit of history. It was a time of great stress. The band that recorded those sessions had disintegrated after we made that version of the Rosie album. It wasn't the fault of the people in the band, but it didn't gel. We hadn't played together and it didn't work out, which is why we never utilized any of the tapes and then went on to record it all again for the Rosie album which came out. The Manor sessions don't embarrass me at all. It doesn't bother me that people have them or want to hear them. I'm not embarrassed by any of the stuff on it because you can't be. It's what happened at the time. It's like a photograph. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but at the time, we didn't think the tapes were of good enough quality or content to put out. In my opinion, Tipplers Tales and Bonny Bunch of Roses stand as highlights in the band's pantheon of releases. How do you look back that period of Fairport's history? I'm glad you like those albums. I like them as well. They're very folky. It was a time when most of the stuff on those albums was traditional. We did some nice stuff very well on them. They were recorded very quickly at a studio just up the road here from Oxfordshire. Tipplers Tales was done in 10 days from start to finish. Simon had just come back to the band. We did a few days or rehearsal and started doing gigs. The musical climate of the time was a bit difficult with the punk thing. We felt a bit out of place, but we enjoyed making those albums. Vertigo put them out—a subsidiary of Phonogram. It was a very enjoyable period musically. We got on very well together. But Swarb was having hearing problems. Also, at some of the gigs we were doing, we felt so old and out of place with what was happening around us musically. We weren't sure why we considered it or cared about it. So, Swarb moved up to Scotland where he bought a place and then we went our separate ways. We didn't want to replace Swarb. He didn't want to be in the group, so it was a natural place to stop. Vertigo also played a role in ending the group at that time by buying the band out of its contract. It wasn't a great deal of money. It was about £30,000. It was the first time we had ever made money out of music. We got like £7,000 each. It was more money than we'd ever had in our lives. This was back in '78 and it enabled us to split up. [laughs] It's how Swarb bought his place in Scotland. It was great. Everybody had a bit of money. Prior to that, we had never made any money on Fairport. It was always a real struggle. That was one of the worst aspects after all these years—when you work your balls off and get nothing at the end of the day. It was always a major problem for the group. It was the reason the Rising for the Moon line-up split-up. We did 30 dates in America, 25 in England, worked our balls off, and at the end had nothing. People need money to live. It's why we set up our own label in '79. The main criteria was everybody would have to make a living with it. The only reason we can survive now is because of our own label which pays the artists 80 percent of net profits as opposed to 10 percent, as in most standard record deals. It works by being our own cottage industry in which we do everything ourselves. Tell me about the Woodworm Records release philosophy. It seems you put out a disc for about a year-and-a-half and then license it out to many labels afterwards. We're such a small label that we can't afford to keep a catalog with all of our titles because our storeroom is our garage. There's only so much room in it. [laughs] So, what happens is we'll put out a new Fairport CD and it'll have a selling life of about 18 months. Anybody that wants to buy it will buy it in that timeframe because we'll be playing in their town or they'll get it through the mail order site. If they're in England, they'll be able to get it from the record store for about five weeks after release. The shops don't bother to stock it after that. The new CD is probably selling 100 copies a week across English record shops. It came out January 15th, so its life is going to be another few weeks and then nobody will stock it anymore. It'll disappear from the shops. When we get to the point when we're selling like 10 a week, we can't do it anymore. You have to press up another 1,000 at a time to make it economically viable. So, you have to stop and say "Right, this is it, because I haven't got room to store these CDs anymore." It's as simple as that. At that point, we figure everybody who hasn't bought it now is never going to. So, then I sell the stuff to various labels and they put out compilations. The compilations benefit the band when we go abroad. People bring us these compilations to sign. When they do, it's often the first time I see them even though I licensed them. Sometimes it is the compilations, not the original albums, through which they learn about us. It's because the people who put out the compilation CDs often have better worldwide distribution than we do. We have Compass in America and their have licensees and we have a distributor in England. That's about it. So, the compilations mean Fairport's music has a chance to get onto some shelves in other countries. It's the only way we can work. It's the way we do things. As a tiny label, we don't have an office with a dozen people. So, I figure it's a way of getting our music to more people. People who have bought all the proper albums don't have to buy the compilations because they've already got the music. It makes no difference if you're a Fairport fan. You don't need to feel obliged to buy the compilations. Tell me about the logistical challenges and risks involved with putting Cropredy on every year. Every year, we have to look at the festival to see how it did. We always hope to have one the following year. Last year was a very bad one for us because England had the foot and mouth disease epidemic. It was a real worrier because our ticket sales were down 25 percent on the year before. Cropredy costs so much to put on. It's like building a little town in the middle of nowhere. You're laying on everything like toilets and electricity. Logistically, it's a nightmare and is very expensive. If Cropredy ever didn't make money, we'd have to stop doing it. We hope this year it will be better because—touch wood—there's no foot and mouth at the moment. You can't insure against it, you see. It's such a risk. If it happens, you don't have a festival. You're bankrupt. We try to make our ticket prices really cheaper than any other event you go to. We look at other festivals and we think Cropredy is very good value, especially the camping aspect. Most other festivals really sting people who bring camping tents. We need a good year this year. If we have a good year, I'm sure things will be fine. Also, when you have a big anniversary year like this one coming up, more people from abroad are more likely to come. Last year, they might have thought "I won't come this year, I'll wait for the next." You raised eyebrows by booking the Oysterband for Cropredy this year, despite the rumored tension between them and Fairport. It's a bit of a joke really. I once made a joke about the Oysterband because they once slagged us off. It was before I ever saw them—before they changed their name. I read some article about them and how they were supposedly revolutionizing folk music. They implied the Fairports are boring old farts. Then I saw the Oysterband and I wasn't that impressed to be honest. [laughs] It sounded like an early version of Fairport, but without the musicality, I have to say. I get upset when people slag off Fairport without really seeing the band or knowing what they're talking about. But I don't have any argument with the Oysterband. Young people love them and I've seen them a couple of times. But it's nothing new for me. I can't get that excited. Why should I? You know what I'm saying? They're a folk-rock band with accordion and violin. I always joke about the Oysterband and it always gets back to them which is fantastic. [laughs] It's something that's really built up over the years. But I have nothing negative to say about them. I hope to be pleasantly surprised when they play Cropredy. So, does their forthcoming Cropredy appearance represent a burying of the hatchet? [laughs] There is no hatchet. Obviously, we've booked them, so I have nothing against them at all and neither do our audience. They love the Oysterband. They've been around a long time as well and work very hard. They've got their own kind of following as well and whether that following will come to Cropredy to see the other boring old farts is debatable. [laughs] Cropredy has something for everybody. The only criterion for booking a band is that we like them. You just said you weren't impressed with them. It sure sounds like you don't dig them. I do! I mean, I don't dislike them! [laughs] They're a great band, but they're not revolutionizing folk-rock for me—at least, they haven't the times I've seen them. It's just that one of them said something negative. I don't even know the guy's name. It was something like "We're the greatest. This is what folk-rock is all about. We're not boring old fart has-beens" And then you see them and blimey, they sound like Fairport! [laughs] Your relationship with Iain Matthews is another one that was said to be strained. I have no problem with Iain now. He's a very nice chap. I did have a problem with him years and years ago. He came to Cropredy and there was a problem between him and the rest of the band. He kind of upset me. It's not the kind of thing you talk about in interviews. It's got nothing to do with Iain musically. It's all been resolved and everyone is happy to have him come out and play at Cropredy this year. Iain's a great singer and part of the early Fairport. For this year's Cropredy, we're having the early Fairport line-up perform—the one that goes up to the end of '69. Iain was in the band for only a couple of years, but you really can't have an early Fairport line-up without him. It's difficult for those guys to do early Fairport because there's only Richard, Ashley [Hutchings], Simon and Iain. On Friday at Cropredy, the albums from '67 to Liege and Lief are what the band will do. I've nothing to do with it. I don't know what they're going to do. I'm not on any of those albums, but Ashley was. So it's his department. He'll pick the repertoire and do all that stuff. I can't get involved in it. I'm just pleased Iain is coming over. We saw Iain in Amsterdam last year when we played a festival. He's doing well, he's got a new band and is touring quite a bit. Do you have time for any non-Fairport activities these days? There's nothing in a non-Fairport capacity at all. When I'm not on the road, I'm sitting here in my office putting together the Cropredy Festival or doing things like sorting stuff out for the Free Reed boxed set. It's a proper job. When I do get any time off, I'm going sailing. We've got a boat. I'm also going to a Bar mitzvah in Florida soon. Then I'm going to Las Vegas for three days because Dave Swarbrick's ex-wife Gloria is getting remarried there. My wife Chris and I are best lady and best man. How large does Richard Thompson's shadow loom on Fairport? Even after leaving more than 30 years ago, it's rare to see a mention of the group without his name. It's probably frustrating for Richard to have Fairport Convention's name stuck 'round every time you read "Richard Thompson, former guitarist with Fairport." It's not frustrating for us at all. Richard is our favorite guitarist-singer-songwriter and always will be. In my opinion, he's untouchable. I worship the ground he walks on. I love his stuff. It's magnificent to get the chance to play with him occasionally. It makes us very happy. But we got over his departure very quickly. The year after Richard left, the band became its own thing. It's different with the shadow of Sandy. We worry that people go "Who's Sandy Denny?" When we do gigs, we play "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" because many have never heard of her. Everybody has heard of Richard because he's never stopped working. He's always coming up with stuff and making new albums. He almost has enough credit in the music industry and there's almost enough appreciation for what he's done. It's taken him a lifetime to get the recognition he deserves, especially when you think about how big a talent he is. There are still people who don't know about him. Everyone knows who Eric Clapton is, but they don't know about Richard Thompson. It's getting there. Everybody leaves a shadow when they leave the band, but once you have a new-line-up, you have to rethink everything. It's who's in the band at the time that becomes important. We don't live in the past. Our repertoire has three or four old songs out of 16. We like playing the music we've made with this line-up. What did you make of Clinton Heylin's Sandy Denny book? I can't get into all the politics of it, but I enjoyed reading it. There are some things in it you don't even want to go into really. I don't have much time on my hands, so I read it very quickly and looked for nice things rather than negative things. I think for somebody who wants to know about Sandy, it's a nice book to have, but there's all those negative things I'd rather just gloss over. During your teen years, you worked with John Bonham in a band called The Way of Life. What do you recall about those days? We did covers of stuff by The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix pieces like "Hey Joe," some blues and rock and roll stuff. We also did some of our songs that Chris Jones, our guitarist wrote. We only did about 18 gigs because we never got re-booked. It was because we were so loud. [laughs] Even then, John was the loudest drummer in the world. He was already a fantastic drummer and it was great working with him. He would throw himself 100 percent into everything. He was very much into music. I would have liked to work with him more, but never got the chance. We were 18 years old and full of the joys of youth. [laughs] We had a good time, I think you could say. [laughs] He used to drink excessively. In fact, I think he taught me. I blame him for my drink problem. You once said "It's not essential to be an alcoholic to be in the band, but it does help." Does that still hold true with the teetotal Chris Leslie in the band? It's nice having Chris in the group. He's been a very sobering influence on us. [laughs] There have been times when Fairport have been worse for the wear for drinking stuff. Hopefully, those days are gone. We work incredibly hard. We're more or less out every night performing. It's an average of a five hour drive to the gig, two-and-a-half hours for soundcheck, and then the gig itself. It does kind of take it out of you. It's true, there are some nights when people get too relaxed, but we haven't had any of those this year so far. Accidents do happen. People have problems. Everyone has an off-night. There's five people playing music. You can't expect everyone to be having a great time every time. But the highlight of my day is playing. I touch wood that I can shun the curse of drink for another month during the next tour until I return home and can put my bass away. [laughs]