These days, the legendary folk-rock band Fairport Convention isn't as widely known as it once was, and yet Richard Thompson, the band's most storied guitarist, is often cited as an influence by a wide range of musicians and frequently included on the short list of the most talented living guitar players.
After leaving Fairport in the early '70s, Thompson went on to a critically acclaimed solo career including a string of well-received albums, movie soundtrack scores and his famous interpretations of pop music over the centuries, called 1,000 Years of Popular Music.
Now in his sixth decade, Thompson is still going strong as a touring musician and recording artist (his latest album, Dream Attic, was just issued at the end of August). We spoke with Thompson at length on a variety of topics, including his time with Fairport Convention, his work with Nick Drake, Sufism and his craft.
How did you meet the other members of Fairport Convention, and what was it that initially bonded you as people and as musicians?
Richard Thompson: We all lived in a similar area of north London, and we had mutual friends. I had friends at school who knew a couple of the guys in Fairport, and if a guitar player couldn't make a gig, I could substitute. That's how I got to know them better.
What inspired that classic song, "Meet on the Ledge"?
I have no idea. It might have been something I was taking [laughs]. In the '60s, you could have a song that abstract and no one would ever question what it was about. It seemed like a reasonable premise for a song to be something unfathomable. I think it's about old friends and ideals. I keep asking myself that question, and I can never really come up with an answer.
What sparked your interest in Sufism, and how has it informed your music over the years?
I used to read a lot about spiritual disciplines like Zen and everything. Gurdjieff. I read through the entire section at the book shop. I was looking for spiritual answers, and I read that Idraes Shah book when I was younger. But I don't recognize anything in any of those books that related to real life or real people or real practices. It was kind of a bridge to the West, and I find it rather strange now. I went on trips to North Africa, and I met the real thing.
Did you ever experience real Qawwali music firsthand?
I'd heard Qawwali before I got interested in Sufism. In 1967, I wouldn't say you had to do it, but it was a very viable option to take sitar lessons. So I was in a class with Andy Summers from the Police. We used to go every Sunday for our sitar lesson. The guy who taught us was the head of Asian Studies at London University.
He used to have concerts every week, amazing house concerts with the cream of Indian and Pakistani music and dance artists. In '67, as well, I recorded with the Sabri Brothers in Chelsea, in London. It was fantastic, and I got to sit in the corner watching this amazing recording.
You're a performer on the first two Nick Drake albums. How did you end up with that gig? What was it like working with Nick Drake?
He was with the same management company and on the same record label as me. It was a fairly small community. John Boyd used to run this management and production company. There was John W. Martin, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Chris MacGregor -- it was a small, tight-knit community.
So the obvious place to look for other musicians was within that musical family. So I got to play on a couple of Nick's records. He was pretty quiet, didn't say much. But in 1968 and '69, a lot of people didn't say anything, so it didn't seem unusual at the time.
How did Werner Herzog approach you to do the score for Grizzly Man, and are there particular moments of that movie that inspired you the most in composing the music?
Werner's producer was a friend of mine. It's all very Hollywood and incestuous, I'm afraid. He's a fellow named Eric Nelson. He suggested to Werner some of my older instrumental stuff as a temporary track. It became embedded in the director's brain, and they were looking for something similar for the real thing. The whole film is visually extraordinary. I think just the size of the Alaskan landscape was very inspiring. The vastness, the scale was spectacular.
What is it about the Lowden 32C guitar that you like so much for the type of music you play on it?
I wish I could say what I like about it. It's loud, it's kind of punchy, and it's very well balanced. It has sweetness and strength of tone. It has a good balance between bass and treble. It projects well and plays nicely. It's extremely well-made; it's durable. I've rarely played a bad Lowden guitar.
What can you tell me about Danny Ferrington guitars?
I think I own more Ferringtons than anybody else on the planet. I think I have three electrics and two or three acoustics. He's a friend, and he's an experimental maker, and we often throw things together to see if they'll work. He's kind of a one-off guitar maker.
What were the earliest pieces of music you selected for the 1,000 Years of Popular Music project, and why did you pick that Britney Spears song to represent the present?
The further you got back, the less material there is for which you have written music, unless you're talking about church music. We didn't really want to play church music. I think the earliest piece of music we played was from 1050 A.D., which was something written by Saint Godric. The title translates as "The World's Bliss Doesn't Last." While it's not a church piece, it's very moralistic.
The tune is very sketchy, and you have to imagine the phrasing of the tune. When you get to the 1100s, there's a lot more written down, and you have the music of the troubadours, which was very accessible. When you get to the 1300s and the 1400s, there's more stuff. You have to kind of take what's there. If you're going to go outside of England, your choices widen and you get Spanish, German, French and Italian songs.
As for the Britney Spears song, when we chose it, it was closer to the year 2000, so it was more current and closer to people's consciousness. So young people knew it, mostly, and some old people dismissed it as cheap pop trash -- which it is, but in another sense it's a quite well-structured song.
One of the things we liked about it is that the chord sequence isn't that much different from God's music from the sixteenth century. Sometimes we'd play it at the end of the show, and it brings the show full circle. It's a nice closing statement.
You have a new album, Dream Attic. What can you tell me about it, and why did you record it live in front of an audience?
I think the original reason we were thinking of recording it live was financial, because it's harder to get record companies to commit to giving you an advance to make a record. So I thought, surely it's cheaper to just skip the studio process and go straight on the road and record it live. As it turns out, it costs almost exactly the same amount to record it live as it would in a studio.
So that wasn't such a good idea. But thinking about the idea, it seemed a way to get more energy into the performance. Obviously what you lose is accuracy in the performance, but you gain the energy, so it's a trade-off. I thought just for once it would be an interesting thing to do.
I called it Dream Attic because I had a dream in which I was up in an attic and there were all these children's toys wrapped up on plastic. It was a rather surreal and spooky dream. It says something about childhood, but I'm not sure quite what.
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At this point, you're considered a legendary guitar player with creative technique. Who have been your favorite guitar players over the years, and why?
Whew! Probably the people I grew up listening to -- people like Les Paul, Django Reinhardt. My dad had some jazz records in his collection, so he had a great Django LP and a bunch of Les Paul singles. That was the first guitar playing I'd heard, and I thought it was just fantastic. I listened less to guitar players and more to other instruments. It was a way to widen the vocabulary of the guitar, so I took things from other instruments.
You say to yourself, "I wish I could play things the pianist can play. How can I get the left hand and the right hand on the guitar?" People like Chet Atkins tried to do the same thing in playing the accompaniment and lead at the same time. You look outside the guitar to take it forward and further. I tried to make the guitar more orchestral.