Interview with Gerry Conway
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? It reminds me of how long I've known the band—all the past line-ups and members. I've work with many on their solo projects too. It reminds me of my own personal adventures with Sandy Denny and all the people connected with the band over the years, and how lucky we are to be one of the few bands that can say they remember something happening 30 years ago. We can all say "Oh yes, we were there." [laughs] It's a rare thing to be able to do that. The band should be proud of its achievements in staying together and continuing as they do. There's a huge amount of mental and physical effort that goes into keeping it together. I'm proud of it. Tell me about your role in creating the new album. Before the album started, everybody tried to get material together they thought would be nice for the album. I presented some things, but they were not finished, so we didn't really proceed with those. So, the songs were then decided on. Some came from Chris [Leslie], some were things Simon [Nicol] had found and some were older songs we revisited. Then we started rehearsing them. Rehearsing for us is an organic thing where we just play through the songs and an arrangement develops. Everyone puts in their ideas and if they work, they're kept. As if by magic, you arrive at an arrangement and you're ready to go. For my parts, I have the songs in demo form. I just sit down and work out my own drum parts, and then all the percussion overdub parts I'm likely to play. Once the basic tracks are down—bass, drums and guitar—I can go about doing the percussion thing. I have free reign to do that. It's very nice and a rare pleasure. In a lot of situations, people say "We want this" or "We want that," but Fairport does what it wants and somehow it all works out. Compared to previous Fairport drummers, you're very focused on ornamentation. Over the last few years, I started developing the percussion side of things. I started collecting a lot of ethnic drums and anything that was unusual. I tried to use those to best effect. When you're playing percussion, you're not thinking about a kit in particular. In my case, I'm thinking about my favorite percussionists and how they might approach something. I go through all those angles because with percussion, you don't feel like you're actually stating time so much. That means you can embellish and fill. It's a freeing thing because the rhythm is there and you can play fills in the strangest places, unlike a kit where a fill will happen in a more straightforward way. If I'm playing an ethnic drum across something, I can be quite free and it's a great feeling to layer things. I'm very pleased I ventured into this side of things. Where do you feel the new album falls into the band's pantheon of releases? Other than revisiting old songs, it doesn't because although you know it's Fairport, you're dealing with the chemistry of the musicians currently in the band. It's what creates the end result. It dictates the kind of songs that are best suited for the band and what we're going to get off on. In that respect, it doesn't bear any kind of relationship the past. When Richard [Thompson] and Sandy were in the band, the way they viewed music had a direct impact on how the songs came out. It's the same now. The people in the band result in what we end up with. We don't think "Oh, how does this fit with the past?" or "Is it relevant?" To us, it's just something we enjoy doing. We think "We like this song, so we're going to do it" and hope the fans like it as well, which they seem to, at least for the last album which has been very well received. We're very happy about that. What were your expectations going into Fairport Convention versus what you've experienced? It was very scary at the start. [laughs] I've worked with lots of people past and present in Fairport. I've also known the band when I was in different bands. We'd meet at gigs years ago and always had a sort of connection. It's a very long history I have—the longest of all my musical histories concerning one band. I can go back to 1968 when I knew their first drummer Martin Lamble. We were friends and we'd meet up. I've also sort of been friendly with Dave Mattacks, just as two drummers who would meet at gigs or at each other's parties or whatever. He was very long-standing with the band. It was with great trepidation that I accepted. I never thought for one moment that I would be in the band. I wasn't really aware that Dave Mattacks was planning to leave. It was actually a big surprise, but it was the right time—my time—to do it. I thought "Well, here you go. You've got to fill some big shoes and have to try to make your mark with the band." You also hope the fans will accept you as you are, what you're doing and that you'll be able to sustain the job. Those were my biggest fears initially. It wasn't until I'd done my first Cropredy that I felt I had been accepted by the fans. It was a fantastic ride and has been ever since. Musically, I hope I’ve been able to enhance and add to things, while at the same time contribute to the jigsaw. When I finally came to joining the band, it was like the missing piece of the jigsaw. It suddenly all slotted into place. Suddenly, 32 years later, I was playing with those people I'd known the longest. We all share a common vision in terms of how music should be played, how we like it, so that part has worked out very well for me. You played on the band's 1973 album Rosie. What can you tell me about those sessions and how you became involved? The call came out of the blue. The band was already in the studio recording the album, so I turned up and wasn't sure what we were going to do. "Rosie" was one of the songs. I suppose I was a bit in awe at the time. I thought "Goodness me, look at what I'm doing!" [laughs] I think I only spent a day in the studio and tried to do my best. I wasn't quite sure why Dave Mattacks wasn't there. I didn't really understand that, so I just did my bit and that was that. I wasn't expecting anything out of it. It was just "Would you like to play some tracks?" and that was really it. It was an awful long time ago and I don't have too many memories really. I remember Dave Swarbrick well because "Rosie" was his song and he was singing it and giving some direction. It was a pleasant day, but it was over all too quickly. What's Peggy like to work with as part of a rhythm section? I've worked with a lot of bass players over the years. The ones I like most are those you can really rely on—players you don't have to push or pull the time with. You can just work together in harmony, so to speak. That's the pleasure I have working with Peggy. He's a great player and sets about working out his parts so they're very solid. I like his arrangements for the bass. I know what he's going to play because we've worked together for a very long time now—decades in different situations, in fact, including Jethro Tull and various sessions. We both know what we're looking for when we play together and work as a solid unit. Let's discuss a couple of criticisms that have been leveled against the band. 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? It's a matter of opinion, isn't it? The reason we recorded older material on the new album is because we've been playing it in the set. Obviously, the first version you hear, be it a piece of Fairport or classical music, is the one that sticks with you. But with the line-up changes over the years, we felt it was valid to present those songs with the new line-up. With Chris Leslie, it's a different person singing, different arrangements, different everything. We're not going to please everybody. Somebody's always going to say "It's not as good as the old one" or "Why did you do it?" But I think we're right to. We also benefit from using newer technologies, sounds and all those things. The second criticism is that the band is veering away from its folk-rock reputation towards a more laid-back sound. It's about the chemistry of the musicians. Take five musicians and they will play what's comfortable to them. When we play a show, we really do try and ensure that if somebody's been listening to the band 35 years, they go away from the show thinking "Yeah, they played that song." But you can't just stay with the old. During the show, we'll play "Hexhamshire Lass" and a lot of old things, but the band must progress. We must keeping going as musicians. You have to play new material. It's to the band's credit that it doesn't sit on its laurels. There are a lot of bands that just churn out the old stuff and keep everybody happy. This year, Fairport went out with a new album and yes, we are asking a lot of the audience—they're taking in a half-dozen new songs when we play. It's not easy for them, but we've had good response along the way. Many people have gone out and bought the album. I think musicians are entitled to have the freedom to experiment and move forward. Contrast how Fairport and Pentangle operate in 2002 versus their heydays in the '70s. I joined Pentangle in 1985 and though the line-up had changed, Bert Jansch and Jacqui McShee were still there. The original band had an amazing chemistry—Basket of Light is my favorite Pentangle record. It was a very unique sound. It was great music. Nobody else could do it. But as the years went by with the line-up changes, a different kind of sound was produced. It's all valid, but when you look at the roots of where the band started, Pentangle became a very different kind of band. It was down to who was in the band and what musical policies were dictated. Eventually, when Bert decided to leave, Jacqui and myself made a Pentangle album called About Thyme. We were very thrilled with this album because we felt we captured the initial musical policies of the original band which was more jazz groove-oriented, rather than the rock thing put to folk music. Even though it's a drastically different line-up, the current band has more resemblance to the original concept of the group than the middle period during the '80s. Fairport, I think, is deeply steeped in what it does because it has such a huge repertoire of folk music, traditional stuff and contemporary stuff that was written along the way. The fans know these songs so well. When we go onstage today, we do a mixture of the very old and very new. Somehow, everything seems to gel together no matter if a song was written this year or 30 years ago. It just has a very strong style. That's what's driven the band over the years. Fairport is extremely lucky to have Dave [Pegg] and Christine [Pegg] who do so much work to keep the band working and things happening. A lot of the reason the band is where it is today is because of the work they do. With Pentangle, when it had personnel splits, it depleted the band very seriously. It was very hard to continue. It was a harder ride and a harder story. The fact is when I go out and play with either band today, the fans are very gracious. Many are of a certain generation that remembers the original line-ups and music. But if a band is to continue, it has to continue improving and write new material. I think a lot of people have a concept of the original bands and every so often you'll get someone come up to you—as they did on Fairport's last winter tour—and say "Where's Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas?" And we'll say "Sorry to tell you, but…" [laughs] You also look out and you see a lot of youngsters who could be the children of the parents I'm talking about or they've just heard about the band and want to see what it's all about. You've worked with Fairport, Fotheringay, Steeleye Span, Pentangle and the Albion Band—the most influential and pioneering British "hyphenated folk" bands in history. What does that fact mean to you? When we started, nobody really knew what was being started. As a musician, you were meeting various people along the road and were attracted to certain musical situations. By chance or fate, I was drawn into that side of it. I remember at the time, definitely thinking "Yeah, this is something to get my teeth into," because it was complicated trying to put traditional music to contemporary rhythms. Folk music is handed down through generations and everyone has a vision of it. There's 100 versions of the same thing. You'll find that one version is many bars longer than another or someone else's version is very different in another way. It was a challenge as a drummer to learn how to play that music. I was in my early 20s back then. I thought it was interesting and was drawn to it. I had no idea that 30 years on, it would become what it has become. If I stop to think about it, yes, it's astonishing. When you stand up onstage at Cropredy and look out at 20,000 people enjoying this music 30 years on, it's astounding. Had Joe Boyd not interfered with Fotheringay and it continued, what do you think would have happened? That's a difficult question. It was a very happy band. It was very nice working with Sandy. Everyone in the band adored her. I loved to play her songs. I think had the band not been forced to quit, it would have continued for quite a long time. Sandy was the type of person who once she felt comfortable with her musicians, would stick with them. It was a very difficult decision she had to make. Even when she made the decision to be a solo singer, the first thing she did was employ the musicians from the band to play on the solo album. That speaks for itself. Every so often, someone will come up to me with a Fotheringay album to sign. Every time that happens, I get a very nice feeling. I have a real soft spot for that album and period. It was a very nice thing. Musically, the album's not perfect, but a lot of people tell me how much they enjoy it. It still happens quite often. It's like you suddenly have a bond with that person. It's a weird thing. What thoughts run through your head when you think about the break-up of the band? The break-up was very upsetting at the time. We had a meeting with the band after we learned Sandy wasn't going to be in it anymore. We were deciding whether or not to continue without her. I'm usually the last person to say "Let's stop," but I recall in that situation, I said "No Sandy equals no band for me." I was pretty clear-cut on that. So, that's it. It folded. Did anyone else in the group briefly consider moving ahead with another singer? It didn’t get that far. Had we decided to stick together, we would have had to undoubtedly find another singer. Whether breaking up was a misguided emotional decision done on the spur of the moment in terms of "If Sandy's not doing it, then I don't want to do it," I can't really say. All I know is when she went, I didn't want to continue. Would you like to see the aborted Fotheringay sessions released? They sort of are on the Fotheringay CD reissue. There's a few tracks there that were meant for the second record. Because they needed more material to fill out the CD, they were sort of put together and went on there. There's not a lot else that was recorded that could have been put out. There's maybe a few other tracks. I think we did a version of "Silver threads and golden needles," but I'm not sure where that ended up. What was Denny like as a bandleader? It was more of an unspoken thing. Without a rehearsal, we'd play something and it was mostly an intuition thing. You could always see if she was happy or not. When you got it right and it sounded right, she would let you know she was really happy. She was no taskmaster. With Sandy, it was about a kind of feeling from her when you had it right. She would never say "It would be nice if you'd play the fiddle here or do that." It was never that. It was always up to me to construct my own parts and when it was right, it was right. It also had to do with the fact that you had to first gain her acceptance as a musician, but once you did, she really trusted you to do the right thing and you were left to do that. What was her perspective on rhythm? Rhythmically, Sandy was pretty laid back. We didn't play anything frenetic. As a drummer, I learned how to play slowly which is possibly twice as hard as learning to play fast. [laughs] Chordally and lyrically speaking, she was fantastic. When I started working with her, it was the first time as a drummer that I was aware of the song. The songs she wrote grabbed me. They did something for me. Suddenly, I found myself wanting to play the best possible thing for the music. That's often quite difficult. The creative process, no matter which instrument you play, is quite a painful thing when you're going from square one to bring something to fruition. It was quite a big learning curve for me to learn how to do the best thing for those songs. The Eclection album was just re-released on CD. What do you recall about making it and those days in general? They were reasonably colorful. Prior to Eclection, I was with Alexis Korner in his band. My name was put forward somewhere and I got the Eclection call and they asked if I'd be interested in joining the band. I met them in an apartment just off Marble Arch. We talked awhile and set about rehearsing. We were rehearsing in a warehouse full of Blue Note records. I distinctly remember thumbing through all of them during breaks. We rehearsed up all these songs and went into a studio off Portland Place, a step from the BBC. We found a producer who produced all the early Bee Gees material. I was thrilled because it was my first album recording. Everything was wonder and awe. The tracks went down pretty easy as did the overdubs. It was pretty exciting at the time. I suppose I think of the record as being a little poppy, but it's definitely of an era. We got classified as progressive rock, whatever that was. I suppose it was a kind of rock music with more adventurous songs than what was currently going on around us at the time. We got on very well with Georg Hultgreen. Things were very nice in the band. The worst thing that happened is Kerrilee Male decided to leave really soon after making the record. She didn't want to be in the business at all and returned to Australia. That was a big blow. We lost an original member and it was never quite the same again. We struggled on, but lost direction. We had a few more personnel changes. I think at the end, it wasn't going anywhere at all. In its last throes, the idea for putting together Fotheringay came together and that seemed a musically better thing to do. Do you feel Trevor Lucas has received the recognition he deserves for his contributions to the British folk-rock movement? No, he hasn't really. He should have got more recognition. He had a great voice and was incredibly enthusiastic for the bands. He was a leader. He had all the ideas and was a good sod really, but I suppose he never really came to the forefront in a way he should have. We set about doing a solo album for him and I'm not sure it ever materialized. I remember doing the tracks and they came out very well, but I don't think any of it came out as a solo album for him. Whether he couldn't get a deal or what it was, I don't know. My association with him seemed like ages, but in actual fact, it was only a couple of years in bands together. Fotheringay was only a year and Eclection was maybe 18 months in all. You worked with John Cale on his 1975 Slow Dazzle album. What was that experience like? Pat Donaldson had started to work with John and got me involved. We did basic tracks, but Pat explained to me that whatever it was we were playing on, the end result could possibly bear very little resemblance by the time John had done his thing. [laughs] It was like the day I spent doing Rosie. It was maybe a day or two at Sound Techniques. We also made the Fotheringay album there and endless records for all kinds of other people like Mick Softly and Françoise Hardy. It was like our own little music factory. We had my kit set up there almost all of the time. It was a fantastic period because of our ages and the fact that we wanted to experiment musically. At the time, we were able to do that. We could just live in the studio and try stuff out. It was a great learning curve. The John Cale session was just one of those days there. I didn't know him very well. I did hear the finished tracks and thought they were great, but that was it apart from laying them down. I never spent enough time with him to say I knew him well, or even slightly. [laughs] Pat went on afterwards to be in a band with him for some time. You and Jacqui McShee have been a couple for several years. How did you meet and what's it like to share your lives and careers together? We met in Pentangle. We were friends for years and were constantly traveling the world as good friends. We shared that tourist thing. When we weren't playing, we liked to get out in places like Italy to see all the architecture and anything that's nice to see. We'd always go out and do that. We've been living together for four years now. We're partners. We're very happy. We have a great time. To me, she's one of the great singers because no-one on the planet sounds like her. That's rare. You can usually pick some kind of influence in a singer, but I honestly can't find any with her. It's just her unique voice. Since the start of the new Pentangle line-up, we rebuilt it from the ground up, based on the About Thyme record, which was very personal for us. It was the first time we said "Let's make a record and do it ourselves. We'll pay for it. We'll be totally responsible from start to finish—artwork, the whole lot." What came out of it is something we're very proud of. I really like the music. I love all the performances we got from the people who were gracious enough to play on the album. It was one of life's great experiences to make that record. From a drummer's point of view, Jacqui's timing is fantastic. It's like working with Dave Pegg, who's totally reliable—you don't have to worry about time or even think about it. You just lock into it and that's that. It's the same to play live with Jacqui. It's a very unique and rare thing. You have yet to release a solo album. Do you have any aspirations in that realm? I did a Drumdrops album in America. There were maybe six volumes of these made by various drummers, prior to drum machines. You'd go into the studio and lay down tracks which would be of use to songwriters. That's about the nearest I've got. I do have a desire to do something solo, but when that might happen, I can't say. I would like to get into my drums and percussion and do something of my own, but the opportunity has to present itself. I think it would be highly rhythmical and definitely be a groove-based thing. As far as the music itself, it could take any form because I like so much music from so many places.