RICHARD
      THOMPSON .
      Sway into emotion
      by Anil Prasad
      Interview date: May 22, 1991
      © Copyright 1991 by Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
 
       Richard Thompsonís name is often bandied about the media as a reply to 
      unasked questions. For some scribes, heís "Britainís answer to Bob Dylan." 
      For others, heís an "intelligent response to the banality of the current 
      pop spectrum." Perhaps Thompsonís unassuming, almost self-effacing 
      reaction to decades of accolades for his high-caliber singer-songwriter 
      and guitar work has encouraged those observations. But heís far too 
      involved in his craft to generate or care about hype-laden soundbites. It 
      makes the title of his new album Rumour and Sigh rather appropriate.
      When Thompson isnít recording and touring as a solo act, he can 
      occasionally be found with his part-time outfit French Frith Kaiser 
      Thompson. The straightforward moniker refers to bandmates John French, 
      Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser. Together, they create humorous, twisted 
      material ranging from venomous takes on pop standards to mini-operas to 
      Okinawan folk songs. The recently-released Invisible Means reveals the 
      depths of the groupís collective eccentricities.
      Thompson discussed his current projects with Innerviews during the Ottawa, 
      Canada stop of the Rumour and Sigh press tour.
      The critical consensus is that Rumour and Sigh is your most accessible 
      record to date. Do you agree?
      Iím always making a conscious effort to be viable and accessible. 
      Obviously, Iím not very good at it or I would have sold billions of 
      records by now. [laughs] With a major label release, I certainly want to 
      give them something they can work with if possible, without compromising 
      my artistic integrity man. [said tongue-in-cheek] I do like to please 
      myself on records though. I donít like making records for other people. 
      Itís a very forced job. So, I try and self-criticize and rely on quality 
      as the yardstick. 
      What overt influence did the label have on the record?
      They changed a song title. One was called "The lost sheep returns to the 
      fold." [original title of "I feel so goodí] They didnít think it was 
      snappy enough. Theyíre probably right, but I like those Gilbert & Sullivan 
      titles. Itís not really interference though, because in a sense, I donít 
      know anything about record companies or how they work as far as marketing. 
      I donít really care what they do in terms of what they put on the radio or 
      how they package something. If they think they know how to do it, Iím 
      willing to see what they come up with.
       Speaking of marketing, Capitol is financing an elaborate animated video 
      for "I feel so good."
      Yes, as we speak, thousands of Taiwanese are slaving over it. Itís being 
      done by the same people who do The Simpsons. It doesnít look like The 
      Simpsons, but itís very, very interesting. Itís quite an original piece. 
      Itís my first promo video since 1983. Since then, theyíve been using bits 
      of a long form concert video called Across a Crowded Room they shot here 
      in Ottawa at Barrymoreís.
      Why was the Ottawa gig chosen for filming?
      They wanted to do it in Canada because the crews are cheaper to hire here, 
      wouldnít you know? [laughs] Barrymoreís was the only gig that would work 
      out and allow us to set-up at the last minute. Iím sure the Ottawa 
      audience couldnít even tell it was Barrymoreís in the video because of the 
      way it was shot with five cameras. The audience were kept hanging around 
      throughout the night. We were there until 8:30 in the morning shooting 
      cut-aways. Then we had to drive to the next show. It was a sleepless 
      night. 
      Rumour and Sighís production is more complex than your previous albums.
      I think sound is important when youíre making popular music. In the past, 
      Iíve tended not to care too much about the sound, as long as it was 
      reasonably true. Iím not sure thatís always a good way to make records. I 
      think some of the great records use studio technology in a creative way to 
      sway a song into motion and to add an emotional atmosphere. I think some 
      records you might have liked when you were a kid may have a sound that 
      might be bad. It could be badly recorded with tape hiss or surface noise, 
      but whatever it is, it has something about it that moves you somehow. On 
      this record, we really explored sound a lotótrack-by-track. We spent a lot 
      of time setting up to record. We would spend the morning figuring out what 
      kind of drum and guitar sounds we would use to fit the atmosphere of a 
      song, then weíd record it quite quickly. There was quite a bit of 
      planning, but it was a quick record. It only took weeks. All of my records 
      are quick. We donít spend much time on them.
      The production on "Why must I plead?" sounds like something out of the 
      late Ď60s.
      Itís because the drums are panned to one side. Normally, you put drums in 
      the middle. But it just didnít sound right with the drums in the middle. 
      Very, very strange. They just sounded better on one side. We all agreed. 
      Even the engineer who was playing with the mix said "You know, I canít 
      deny that it sounds better on one side." [laughs] You probably havenít 
      heard anything like that since a late Ď60s Hollies record. Also, thereís 
      no echo on that track at all. Itís totally dead and dry. It fits the song.
       Rumour and Sigh is your third record with Mitchell Froom. How does he 
      enhance the proceedings?
      Itís a lot more fun having Mitchell in the studio than me doing it myself. 
      If Iím out on the studio floor trying to play and sing at the same time 
      and keep time and listen to the parts and to what everyone else is doing, 
      it's very hard to get an overall view of whatís going on. I need someone 
      to be more in control with an overviewósomeone who can say "This is good" 
      or "That isnít" because I havenít a clue. Mitchell has a lot of innovative 
      ideas with regard to working in a studio. With the two previous records, I 
      think the first one was us getting acquainted and the second was a pretty 
      good attempt. But on this record, Mitchell and I had a better 
      understanding of each otherís musical ideas. Also, the rhythm section 
      players were playing better this time. There was more aggression in the 
      rhythm section. That was a great help for me.
      Froom recently said that working with you is "largely a matter of keeping 
      out of your way and letting the songs come out as theyíre destined to."
      I think thatís true compared to some of the other stuff Mitchell has 
      doneólike Maria McKeeís album where he had to find songs for her and then 
      arrange them. I think a lot of my stuff already comes arranged because I 
      play the guitar as well. Iím a self-accompanist first and then the 
      accompaniment needs expanding into a band format. Thereís a lot less to do.
      Describe the inspiration for "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." 
      Itís about mythology. A lot of mythology is imported into England from 
      America these days. All of the mythical place names used are American 
      because of the influence of popular songópretty much through the whole of 
      this century since the 1920s. "Going down to Memphis" or "Going down to 
      San Antonio" sounds great. "Going down to Scunthorp" doesnít. [laughs] So, 
      I really like to try and validate the use of British mythology in British 
      songs. The Vincent is a rather wonderful, rare and beautiful beast. It is 
      an object of myth. Thereís not many I can think of in Britain. Itís hard 
      to find these things. So, itís the centeróthe loadstoneóaround which the 
      characters in the song revolve around. Itís a romantic object. I suppose 
      itís a story that relates back to older British and Scottish ballad forms 
      where we have an anti-hero central character, and even though he may die 
      in the end, he sort of triumphs and gets one over on society first. Itís a 
      bit like Robin Hood. There were a lot of ballads about Robin Hood in 
      British folk musicóalways a very popular subject.
      In contrast, "Psycho Street" stems from more contemporary origins.
      Thereís a soap opera on TV in Britain from Australia called Neighbours and 
      itís sapping the minds of our youth who are engulfed in it. And it has 
      this really cheesy sing-along theme tune. I sort of object to the program 
      because it purports to be about real people. In Neighbours, everyone is 
      basically very nice and friendlyóthe salt of the earth. I thought this was 
      really not true, so I wrote an antidote to the Neighbours theme. So, it 
      includes a few episodes from real life from my neighbors, or the people 
      who are supposed to be my neighbors. I made all of them up though.
       Itís the sort of song that would have felt at home on a French Frith 
      Kaiser Thompson release.
      It could have, yeah. In fact, we talked about doing it on the last record, 
      but I thought "Gosh, thatís too obvious." [laughs]
      How did the group initially come together?
      Iíve known Henry Kaiser for a long time. We had been talking about doing 
      something together for awhile. It seemed it might be a good idea to do 
      something as a band. So, we thought "Who else could we get in here?" John 
      French came to mind. Henry had something to do with his rediscovery. And 
      we both knew Fred Frith and thought he was the kind of bass player weíd 
      need for the record. There have been mixed reactions to the albums. Itís 
      difficult for someone to like the records all the way through. Iím not 
      sure I think theyíre the greatest thing ever. [laughs] So far, the only 
      live stuff weíve done are warm up shows in the San Francisco Bay Area. A 
      total of three gigs ever. 
      Despite that, Q Magazine refers to the group as "The Traveling Nobodies."
      The Traveling Nobodies? [breaks into laughter and slaps knee] Oh, thatís 
      brilliant! Thatís great! Weíll have to use that. Thatís wonderful.
      The groupís latest album, Invisible Means, was released through Windham 
      Hill in the States. As a result, itís often found in the new age bins. 
      What do you make of that?
      I think itís wonderful! The sort of people who buy Windham Hill records 
      are the sort of people who say "I need half-a-dozen records and Iíll take 
      a stack!" They donít necessarily look at the cover, title or artist. 
      Theyíre also the kind of people, who if they donít like a record, wouldnít 
      bother taking it back. Theyíd just chuck it in a corner. So, I hope weíve 
      sold thousands by mistake.
      You wrote the very operatic "March of the cosmetic surgeons" for that 
      album. Itís unlike anything youíve done before.
      I thought it might be amusing to challenge Messrs. French, Frith and 
      Kaiser with something of that ilk. It was a lot of fun to do. We got a 
      real opera singer to come and sing in the middle of it. It was great. The 
      tune is from an opera I never finished. Opera is too pretentious a word. 
      Rather, itís a play with music that I never finished. I was working on a 
      longer-form piece. Iíve got two or three things in the works, but Iíve 
      never been happy with them though. Iím studying opera at the moment in my 
      humble way. I have to study more. I donít necessarily want to write an 
      opera, but a play with music and songs that are connected to a longer 
      piece. Itís difficult to do in popular music. Itís been done very 
      poorlyóit ends up pretentious. I would like to do so something I feel 
      would work and havenít quite hit it, but itís under way.
       What can you tell me about "Hai Sai Oji-San?"
      Itís a very famous song in Okinawa. The big folk rock star over there 
      recorded it and helped revive traditional Okinawan music. Itís very 
      popular in the rest of Japan, even though they canít understand the words. 
      Itís just a great song. We thought "Why not sing something in Okinawan?" 
      We had a coach come in just to go through the pronunciation line-by-line. 
      Iíve been told our version is intelligible.
      Are there any plans for future French Frith Kaiser Thompson projects?
      Theyíre difficult to do because we have four entirely different schedules. 
      But if we do another one, I think we need an angleólike doing an album of 
      Hawaiian Easter Songs. [laughs]
      You recently worked on the soundtrack for the Australian film Sweet 
      Talker. What do you recall about the experience?
      Itís a wacky, lovable romantic comedy that will probably disappear without 
      a trace in another weekís time. The soundtrack is being held a few months 
      because my solo album just came out. It was a difficult film to do. It was 
      the directorís first film and it wasnít quite there the first time. So, 
      there was some serious re-editing. In fact, it was drastically re-edited 
      three times. They probably re-shot a third of the film too. And this was 
      after we had started working on the music. So, we had to tear up endless 
      amounts of music. Very frustrating. It took forever to doóalmost a year. 
      But we were only paid for two weeks. [laughs] I did the soundtrack with 
      Peter Filleul, who is set up for doing films. He has a studio with time 
      code and computersóthe things you need these days for film music. Itís fun 
      learning a trade in a sense. Thereís a lot of technical stuff to learn. 
      Iíve done other documentaries and lots of TV and radio as well. Itís 
      mostly in-house kind of stuff for the BBCófeatures like Scottish Perennial 
      Architecture and The Sudan Today. [laughs]
      I understand youíve written another instrumental album along the lines of 
      Strict Tempo that youíve yet to record.
      Oh yeah. Iíve got lots of that kind of stuff. Itíd be nice to do another 
      instrumental record. Iíd like to do an acoustic record as well. It might 
      be difficult for Capitol. It might be a good thing to put on a subsidiary 
      of Capitol, but itís not a record that could or should be marketed to the 
      highest level. Itís the kind of record that you want to sell 5,000 copies 
      of.
       Your association with Fairport Convention continues via occasional 
      reunion gigs and guest appearances. What do you think of the bandís 
      current output?
      I think theyíre improving as they go towards their fourth decade. I think 
      theyíve got very good in the last few years. Simon Nicol is singing very 
      well and playing good guitar. Martin Allcock has blossomed as a musician. 
      He was always a great keyboard, guitar and bass player. Heís just a 
      phenomenal musician. Ric Sanders is playing some very tasteful stuff too. 
      So, Iím really glad for them. I think theyíre making great records.
      I was surprised to learn that Island held back on decades of Fairport 
      royalties, before finally settling a couple of years ago.
      Theyíre a record company. Itís like any business. If youíre a small 
      business and dealing with a big business, itís hard to get paid. It goes 
      back 20 years. They didnít settle for the correct amount because they 
      didnít have any accounting records from the Ď60s or Ď70s. Whether that was 
      convenience or carelessness, I donít know. Probably carelessness. Theyíre 
      very inefficient. There are a lot of record companies that you have to go 
      after before they pay you a cent. You have to hire expensive people to get 
      your money for you. Iíve been after a couple of record companies in the 
      last couple of years alone.
      Do you concur with the idea that even the best songwriters sometimes trade 
      accuracy or honesty in exchange for a good rhyme?
      I can think of a lot of songwriters for whom it would be true, like Dylan. 
      Heíll write a couple of great lines and then heíll write one that 
      obviously goes for the rhyme. Itís unbelievable! I certainly do sometimes 
      too. I donít think anyone ever intends to do it, but I can think of poets 
      who are the same way. If you look at the works of someone like Wordworth 
      or Shakespeare, youíre going to find a lot of rhymes of convenience. Itís 
      definitely there.

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