Iain Matthews Interview with Richie Unterberger
Iain Matthews (known in the 1960s as Ian Matthews) was one of  the 
singer-songwriters on the first Fairport Convention albums in the late 1960s, 
going on to perform both as a solo act and a member of groups such as Plainsong 
over the course of the next few decades. In this interview he remembers his 
stint in Fairport. 
When you joined Fairport after having done the one single with Pyramid, my 
impression is that you, and to varying degrees some of the other Fairporters, 
really were not too deeply steeped in traditional folk music. Rather, your 
influences were more early American electric folk-rockers: the Byrds, Ian & 
Sylvia (who of course were really more folkies), the Fariņas, Love, and so 
forth. What was it that was attracting you and the band to such folk-rock, and 
were you conscious at this point of pursuing a, quote, "folk-rock" direction? 
When I received the invitation to "check out" Fairport I knew absolutely nothing 
about them, all I knew was that they were beginning to establish themselves as 
an underground favorite, by playing regularly at the UFO club in Covent Garden. 
But the crowd I was running with at the time were listening to a completely 
different genre of music.  So I  had nothing to go on, there was nothing on 
vinyl, Fairport's recording days were still ahead of them. 
The day I met the band for the first time they had gathered in a small studio in 
south London called Sound Techniques, to record their first single. I was 
between homes at the time and I walked in with my suitcase and a dozen albums 
under my arm, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Tim Buckley, Byrds, David Ackles etc., 
and I believe these albums got me the job, because it was coincidentally exactly 
what they were all listening to, plus Dylan, Joni and Richard Fariņa, of course. 

At the time no one in the band was writing with any seriousness, so we dug deep 
into that type of approach for inspiration and for stage material. I don't think 
anyone apart from possibly Joe Boyd had any vision of where the band was headed, 
or what we might become. We were developing something and placed no boundaries 
on it. At the back of our minds American folk-rock was the happening thing both 
musically and inspirationally. We loved the Airplane and the two lead vocalist 
approach appealed to us. Because of our name and our scruffy onstage presence, 
lot of people around that time thought we were American and considering the 
possible rewards, we were not about to attempt to dispel that presumption. 
It seems to me that prior to Fairport's first album, there were very few British 
artists producing folk-rock in the classic style, other than Donovan. It is 
certainly true that folk-rock informed the work of some of the recordings by the 
mid?1960s Beatles and other British acts. However, Donovan (from 1966 onward) 
was the only major British pre-1968 act that combined roughly equal parts of 
folk and rock (with some pop). British artists such as Pentangle/Bert 
Jansch/Davy Graham, as fine as they were, seemed much more folkies with a bit of 
rock influence, rather than acts trying to electrify folk music or combine folk 
with rock. And even in 1967-68, the only other British act that was doing 
classic-style harmony-guitar folk-rock was Eclection, who had the one rather 
little-heard album on Elektra. Would you agree with this? 
Not only then, but for the next 10 years in the UK, to our great surprise no one 
tried to emulate the Fairport "thing." Some triffled with pale reflections, but 
there has never been, to my knowledge, a serious emulation. 
And whether or not you agree with the view above, how do you feel Fairport's 
earliest work contributed to the evolution of the British folk-rock style? 
I believe that Fairport, in all its incarnations, has almost single-handedly 
been responsible for and has written the book on the history of the evolution of 
folk-rock in the UK.  Over the years Ashley Hutchings, with his Albion Bands and 
Richard through his solo work have carried the torch to another level. 
Fairport's early repertoire was striking for its inclusion of many songs that 
would have been quite obscure in Britain (and sometimes even the US) at that 
point: "One Sure Thing" (Jim & Jean), "Reno Nevada" (Fariņas), "Chelsea 
Morning," "Eastern Rain" and "I Don't Know Where I Stand" (Joni Mitchell, before 
she had recorded anything official on her own), "Tried So Hard" (Gene Clark), 
"Some Sweet Day" (Everly Brothers), "Close the Door Lightly" (Eric Andersen), 
"Suzanne" (Leonard Cohen before he was big), "Time Will Show the Wiser" (Emitt 
Rhodes), "Jack O'Diamonds" (Ben Carruthers -- WAY obscure!), "Morning Glory" 
(Tim Buckley), "Percy's Song" (Bob Dylan, at that point unreleased by Dylan), 
etc. In a way this was like what British R&B/rock bands had been doing a few 
years earlier by covering little-known American blues/R&B songs, different 
perhaps in that you were covering material that was usually very recent. Was the 
band deliberately using something of an archivist's approach to selecting 
material, searching for tunes on hard-to-find imports, publisher's demos, and 
the like? 
We were quite fortunate really, because in Joe and his direct link to Warners at 
the time, we had a private source to whatever American material we wanted. He 
was responsible for many of our early influences. Were it not for him, I may not 
have listened to Moby Grape, or Buffalo Springfield for quite some time. Joni 
Mitchell too, Joe had a direct line to her publishing demos and supplied us with 
whatever we could handle. I'm sure the Joe pipeline was how Sandy got "Who 
Knows" to Judy Collins. 
And if so, what do you feel Fairport might have added to the original versions? 
I have to say again here that I was not one of the driving forces behind the 
early Fairport direction. Most of this was engineered behind the scenes by Joe. 
He was very good at dropping subtle ideas and Richard, Ashley and to a lesser 
degree Simon, were very open and good at picking up the idea and running with 
it. I was a simply a singer at that point, struggling to find direction. 
Richard was one to never even consider the possibility of simply recording a 
soundalike cover. He was constantly searching for an alternate way to interpret 
these great songs. In retrospect, I see that he was a fine influence on my own 
ability to do that too. If we couldn't somehow add to the original, in some way, 
then we inevitably abandoned the song. 
I have thought in recent times that it might be a neat idea to take all of that 
great cover material we interpreted so well back then and put it all on a solo 
album, with a tip of the hat to the boys. 
At the point at which Fairport began writing original material, what if anything 
did the band have in mind as far as trying to evolve from the cover-heavy 
original repertoire? 
At the point at which we began to flirt with writing, we had no preconceptions 
as to form, or style. The writing itself was our inspiration. I began as a 
lyricist. I would take my lyrics and a hummable melody to Richard, (he and I 
were living in same house) and he would come up with the accompanying chords. We 
wrote two songs that way before I began my loose acquaintance with the guitar 
and thought I could do it alone, big mistake number one. 
In what I would argue was Fairport's best lineup -- you, Sandy Denny, Thompson, 
Hutchings, Nicol, and Lamble -- I am particularly interested in your view what 
the crucial contributions were by yourself, Denny, Thompson, and producer Joe 
As I previously mentioned, I was at that point simply a pawn in the Fairport 
game. I was the male vocal energy on the right side of the stage. Ultimately I 
can't think of any long-lasting effect that my presence in the band had. It was 
a good schooling for me and a nice reference for my later endeavors. Sandy on 
the other hand was already becoming the undeniable writing force she would later 
be considered. Richard, well we all know what Richard's contribution was. Ashley 
was the driving force that Richard could never quite muster. Simon was the glue, 
the calming influence. I mean look at him, he's the only one still at ease with 
tying it all together after all these years. In my opinion, Martin, I am 
convinced, would have developed into one of the great British drummers, he had 
all the tools at his fingertips, tragic. Joe had a ruthless side to him also, 
nothing got in the way of his vision, not even me! 
Now we come to the question that interests me most, and is going to be somewhat 
lengthy and involved. Over the years, a critical party line among rock and folk 
historians has developed which holds that Fairport Convention did not reach 
their peak, and truly develop their own vision, until the Liege and Lief album 
in 1969. The view often expounded by critics is that prior to this, Fairport 
were too derivative of west coast folk-rock, and found their identity when they 
decided to focus primarily on electrified English traditional folk. I personally 
disagree with this. I feel, first of all, that the very first (pre-Denny) album 
is quite respectable, and also that the band was truly at their best in the 
early, pre-Liege and Lief Denny period, when there was a very good balance 
between original folk-rock material, covers of traditional folk songs, and 
covers of contemporary songs by other folk-rock songwriters. I am not just 
saying this because this is when you were in the band; I feel it to be true. 
Would you agree with this, and if so why or why not? 
I disagree with this too. Even in retrospect, I find early Fairport neither 
derivative nor unfocused. Most critics seem to have a hard time resisting 
labeling anything, even if it's unlabelable. Fairport was such an act, original 
from the get go. OK, they found a niche that no-one else had explored with Liege 
and Lief, but I challenge anyone to show me a band from that era and be able to 
say "that sounds like early Fairport." 
I believe Liege was a huge turning point in the bands identity and acceptance, 
and I respect the many stylistic changes they made for that album, but listening 
back, my favorites were Holidays and Unhalfbricking. And let's not forget the 
oft overlooked Heyday: not sonically the best, but what great material and 
drive, you can taste the enthusiasm. 
This question ties in with the previous one. Was it a frustration to you that 
the band swung more in the trad direction by the end of the decade, and how much 
of that was a factor in your exit from the band? 
My exit from the band was no surprise to me. Given a choice, which I was not, I 
would have stayed another six months and thoroughly learned my craft. They were 
exploring the trad side of things heavily at that time and the end of my tenure 
came when I discovered accidentally that they were in the studio without me. 
As it was, Joe (yeah, again) wanted to move on to phase 3 quickly and sentiments 
had no place in his plan. I was asked to leave and dumped on the same day. 
Presuming that he meant soon, I got in van to go to the show, Ashley turned to 
me and said ,"Where do you think you're going." Sandy bless her, turned to him 
and said, "You heartless bastard." I got out and away they sped. 
My book is only covering the 1960s, stopping at the end of 1969, which is why 
there are not more questions about your solo career and work with Plainsong. 
However, you were starting your post-Fairport output by 1969. Knowing that this 
question has a rather grand sweep, how (if at all) were you determined to 
explore different territory at this point than you had in Fairport? 
I didn't know what I wanted to do after Fairport, I moped around for a week or 
so and then set out in search of help. I found management, got a deal and made 
an album. The first thing I did, just to show no hard feelings, was to employ my 
former bandmates as session men. I was beginning to write quite a bit at that 
point, but I felt much safer exploring the west coast material that Fairport had 
abandoned in favor of folk. 
Then my friend Marc Ellington put me in touch with the future M.S.C players and 
I was off and running. Our first date was at a club in Birmingham called 
Mothers, with Fairport and  Fotheringay. Unwittingly they actually did me a 
great service, because no one else was really covering that stuff, you know, 
Hardin, Taylor, Ian and Sylvia, Arlo, Fariņa and the like. I had the whole field 
to myself practically. 
There is a country-rock flavor to much of your early post-Fairport work; was 
this a conscious decision, to integrate more of that influence? I'm guessing it 
might be, as Kingsley Abbott has written about listening to country-rock with 
you during this time. 
Yeah, I listened to lots of country-rock, it was a natural for me. I loved pedal 
steel and vocals and most of the material adapted so easily into that mode so 
A general question I am asking of several British musicians: how would you 
summarize the key differences between American and British folk-rock, as it 
evolved throughout the mid-to-late 1960s? 
The Americans carried the ball as far as I was concerned, no contest. All the 
great songs from that era came from the USA. The British scene was so very 
different, different attitude, different social structure and very different 
things to say. To me the American writing was so much more glamorous and 
worldly, I related to it much stronger than anything Al Stewart or Bert Jansch  
had to say. 
And my final question, again one I am asking of many people I interview: how do 
you feel the legacy of the "classic" 1960s folk-rock era has been felt in the 
music that has been since then, whether by yourself or your peers? 
Well, just listen to Wilco and the question answers itself. 
contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2003