Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dave Mattacks interview, 2009, part one

Dave Mattacks Interview
Part 1

In 2009, I was working on a series of interviews with various members of Big Star. As I sometimes do in the middle of a project, I started to get restless. During that period, I was also begun to listen heavily to English and Irish folk music, mainly from the 1960s and 1970s. One of those groups was Fairport Convention, who formed in England in 1966, and remain one of the cornerstones of folk and rock music.

While listening one day to their 1969 album, Liege & Lief, I realized that the album was then forty years old. Why not talk to someone from the band about that record, and more? The name that immediately popped up was Dave Mattacks, who joined Fairport right before the start of Liege & Lief. Mattacks has since on to play on countless amazing albums. Nick Drake, Steeleye Span, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Rosanne Cash, and many, many more.

On a whim, I decided to email Dave’s website, and request an interview. A half hour later, my phone rang. “Hi, it’s Dave. Do you have time to chat?” I hastily set up my tape recorder, and we just talked, as I thought up the questions as we went along. It was an amazing conversation, touching as much on personal philosophy as we did on music. It was a wonderful way to spend an evening.

When I presented the interview to the magazine that had said yes to printing the interview, they only were interested in printing the parts about Liege & Lief. The final piece was nice enough, but for over three years this action has haunted me. The discussion with Dave was so much better than that. It needed to be read on its own, and given the space it deserved.

Recently, my friend and fellow Mattacks fan Chris Garges offered to transcribe the entire interview. It’s remarkable to read this again, and to have this piece finally available in full for you to see.

Part 2 will be published on Monday.

Daniel Coston: So first, at this point in your career when people say, “Oh it’s ‘blank’ years since this record,” do you think about that ever, unless people like myself ask you? Do you think about that much?

Dave Mattacks: Well, I find… generally, I’ve found over the years that it’s journalists and fans who are looking backwards and the musicians are looking forward. That’s generally what I find to be the picture.

That’s a generalization, but one that seems to have a certain amount of truth to it. That’s how I perceive it. Most of the time, most of the musicians, myself included, and the musicians that I tend to work with… everyone is, generally speaking, pleased or proud to varying degrees with achievements in the past, but I’m… most of us are kind of thinking about what’s coming up and moving forward rather than living in the past. But I think that’s not to say that we’re not pleased or proud of things that we may have inadvertently achieved, that are behind us, but that seems to be how it works, so, uh, you know, I’ve kind of come to terms with that and that’s how things are. Yeah.

DC:  Would you say that’s sort of how you’ve looked at things throughout your career? Because you’ve had this amazing career.  You’ve kind of gone from one project to another and just sort of found new things, new people to play with as you’ve gone on, as opposed to, falling back on previous projects.

DM: Yeah, I… part of that is conscious. I’ve never approached anything thinking, “This is the great defining moment in my art,” or anything like that. In fact, I shy away from things like that. Um, I shy away from thinking like that. I don’t think of myself as an artist. I leave that to people much more talented and important than me. I’m a working musician and I’m really just kind of concentrating on the job in hand and trying to make it as good as possible, whether it’s some huge festival or a concert hall or in a recording studio or playing with some friends in a restaurant locally on a Friday night for the fun of it, for the pleasure of it. So, whatever it is, that’s the thing I’m concentrating on. Um, I don’t… I know that I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some really, really super people and some very talented people and wonderful people who I have enormous admiration and respect for, but I’ve always eschewed that kind of, you know, grandiose voice…. “Well, my body of work…” I always think that… That smacks of pretention to me and people (are) taking themselves too seriously. I mean, there was an adage that was, uh, not often spoken but very much adhered to with the Fairports in the early years and it always resonated with us and that was to take the thing that you do seriously and not to take yourself seriously. And that’s always been in the back of my mind without much effort. That’s always the way I’ve felt about what I do.

DC: That’s a great statement. That is great.

DM: Yeah! It’s just… I think it’s something to live by because, um, if you don’t take what it is that you do… If you’re not imbued with that real sense of commitment to what you do, then you’re playing at it and conversely, if you have a kind of a grandiose picture of yourself and your art, then, you know, that just doesn’t ring true with me. Most of the musicians, the people that I look up to, they don’t. They haven’t got this kind of grandiose view of themselves. They kind of “get on with it” and often they know that they’ve created a good body of work, but they haven’t got this kind of, you know,  pretentious… as I like to put the phrase, “The back of their hand pasted to their forehead.”I’ve got no time for that.

DC: Yeah, I’d agree with that. A lot of the musicians I’ve worked with, the really good ones, have been really easy to work with real, just… you know, you dealt with them directly. Those are always… the ones you dealt with back and forth. Sometimes the “minders” are a different matter, but you know, it’s…

DM: Well, I couldn’t agree with you more, Daniel. It’s the minders and the managers and the agents and the record company people and one of the advantages about being a freelance musician is I’ve managed to keep most of those people at bay. I mean, not saying… there are some really, really good ones.

There are some very, very good ones. I’m working a lot with Rosanne Cash at the moment and her manager is an absolute sweet guy—very level and just a terrific person—but some of the people in record companies and managers and agents I’ve had to deal with…. Which is why sometimes… (when) people don’t know you sometimes they say things like, “Oh, I hear you’re in the music business,” and I say, “No, Madonna is in the music business, I’m a musician.” You know, that’s kind of my standard reply to that line.

DC: Going back to sort of “pre-Fairport,” you came up in amazing period for music. What was it that you were hearing in that era that made you want to play music and specifically play drums?

DM: Well, the thing that got me into drums was—you’re probably gonna get the same answer out of, you know, 99 out of 100 drummers that you talk to. I actually started a little bit…I was playing drums a little bit “pre-Ringo” and the influences were, I guess the well-known jazz drummers of the time—the Buddy Riches and the Joe Morello’s—and then of course you look backwards if you have any respect for the instrument or whatever it may be and you discover the Chick Webb’s and the Gene Krupa’s and people like that. But then at the same time there was a group in England that were—I guess the nearest comparison over here would be The Ventures—and this group in England was called The Shadows and they were (an) instrumental, kind of surfy-sounding group and that group was the big thing when I was starting off in kind of the mid-teens.  And then of course The Beatles came along and really, from then it was jazz drummers and rock drummers. Probably leaning a little bit more towards the jazz drummers than the rock drummers. These days, it’s about, kinda 80% jazz drummers and 20% rock drummers that I listen to. But back then it seemed kind of maybe equal, half and half.

So that was the stuff that got me going. I mean… the short answer is the same kind of stuff that everybody else was influenced by—The Beatles and all the really good groups around at that time.

DC: Who were you playing with and what were you doing leading up to when you joined Fairport?

DM: I was playing in a Laurence Welk-style dance band.

DC: How long had you been playing with them?

DM: About three and a half years. Yeah. Came from completely left of center. Completely from the sublime to the core-blime, as we used to say in England.

DC: (laughs) How did Fairport hear about you? How did you come to join them?

DM: Um, I heard through mutual friends in the drum world that they were looking for somebody. I didn’t know what had happened and I didn’t know much about them. And I kind of… I remember going out and buying Unhalfbricking and I crammed it and went along to the audition and got very lucky.

DC: Wow! Obviously you found out the story later on, but do you think that it was somewhat of a benefit that you didn’t know the full story?

DM: Um… I did glean what had happened pretty early on. Um… It wasn’t so much that… The thing that really hit me about a year or a year and a half into the band was the aesthetic. Up until that point, I joined, I was enjoying it, I knew they were good musicians, and I was just playing... I was playing the notes, really. I was just kind of playing the notes. But what happened about a year or a year and a half in, a very, very bright and very big light bulb went on and I completely got the aesthetics of what the band was trying to do… was doing. And… to say that it had a profound effect upon how I played and the music I listened to is an understatement. Basically, if it wasn’t for the band. I’d probably be in some bad, dreadful fusion band now of some sort.

That had a most profound effect on how I heard music, how I listened to music, what I listened for in music. They just completely turned me around and it took about a year and a half before that happened.

DC: Did they jump into recording right after you joined or did that sort of build up to recording?

DM: No, pretty much then. I joined and we went away to this house in the Hampshire countryside and rehearsed and then recorded the record.

DC: What were your impressions of those songs? It really is just a startling mixture. Obviously there are some traditional arrangement songs, but there are also some startling originals and it’s almost like, unless you’re reading the liner notes, you don’t know where the traditional songs end and the songs they were writing begin. It feels very seamless.

DM: That was the point of the record, yeah. (It was) to try to stop… to make some attempt to A) stop trying to do a secondhand impersonation of American music, and B) to come up with something that was rooted in English music, but put a contemporary twist to it. By the way, have you heard about the festival in England?

DC: Oh, the Cropredy?

DM: Yes.

DC: Yeah, and I know that you guys performed [Liege & Lief]…

DM: Yeah, we did it in ’07. We did the whole record in ’07, yeah. And did you know about the concert next week?

DC: I knew there was one [event] upcoming, I didn’t know what the circumstances were.

DM: Yeah, well it’s really more to celebrate Joe Boyd’s Witch Season. Basically, the first five Fairport records are gonna have selections played. So the first three, before I joined, and then Liege and Lief and Full House. That’s basically the material that’s gonna be played. I just wondered if you knew about that.

DC: I knew that you were scheduled to go over and do that gig and I didn’t know the specifics of that. That’s fantastic.

DM: Should be fun, yeah.

DC: Are you playing on the stuff that you…, obviously you played on a lot more Witch Season stuff than just Fairport. Are you playing specifically on the Fairport stuff that you played on or is it sort of a mixture?

DM: There’s only Fairport stuff being played on the Saturday night. On the Sunday night he’s doing a similar thing with The Incredible String Band and I’m not involved with that.

But on the Saturday night, they’re doing material from the first three, which I didn’t play on but I will be playing and then material from Liege and Leif and Full House, which I did play on.

DC: Well, obviously, I assume you’re looking forward to that and just seeing all of them.

DM: Yeah, should be fun! Yeah, it’s gonna be good to see everyone, yeah.

DC: I think you still stay in touch with Richard Thompson. Do you stay in touch with the guys from Fairport?

DM: Yeah, I mean we… There was a period where due to circumstances things maybe got a little frosty immediately after I left but it’s all blown over now and everyone’s grown up and (been) kind of very mature about it. So yeah, I mean, stuff goes backwards and forwards, yeah.

DC:  What songs on Liege and Lief stood out to you as favorites?

DM: Oh God, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I’ve been actually listening to it today—over the last couple of days, actually—for the first time in a very long time, just to remind myself and I’ve been writing charts out because there’s no way I can remember twenty-two songs. I’ve got so much going on… so much else going on in my life, other things musically, that there’s no way I could remember twenty-two songs. So I’ve literally been listening to that stuff. I’m writing it out and listening to it for the first time in a very long time. And I hear a very naïve and a very excited young drummer (laughs), kind of trying to do his best with the material presented to him and quite a bit of overplaying. But the bottom line is (that) the material is very strong. That’s the great thing about it. It’s just very strong.

DC: One thing, also jumping forward, is I’m also impressed that obviously after Liege and Lief, the lineup changed or kept revolving and every record that Fairport did evolved, changed, but sort of had you as the backbone of it. Did you approach the music as the songs and personnel changed?

DM: Well, I did leave in ’74. I had twelve years off for good behavior. I was out of that band for twelve years and then I finally left in ’97, so there was a long period where I wasn’t the drummer. Um, I mean I don’t know. We just kind of got on with it, really. Just tried to make some good music. That’s all you can ever do.

DC: For Full House, obviously Sandy had gone, but Full House has obviously taken the next step in becoming more of a live… I don’t wanna say, “Rock Band,” but it definitely feels a little bit like another step in the Fairport. Did you approach that record differently as opposed to Liege and Lief?

DM: Well, I can recall that there was just a shift of emphasis because the band didn’t have a female vocalist, which changed the dynamic in the band and we had a very different type of bass player and I think that and Swarbrick and Thompson starting to write together, those three things were why that record is as different as it is.

DC: It also strikes me that Fairport was full of very strong personalities and there was sort of that combination that made that sound.

DM: Well, you’re gonna get that in any band. You know, if you get a band that’s got anything going for it beyond its name and it has some kind of lasting power, you can virtually guarantee that there’s gonna be at least two or three people inside that lineup with pretty clear ideas about what they want to do and how they want the music to be perceived and the direction and, you know… That’s the nature of things.

DC: Did you play on any of the [Incredible] String Band stuff?

DM: I did do, um, I did a couple of tracks on, is it The Lighthouse Daughter’s something, or the other?”

DM: I think I might be on one or two tracks on that, yeah.

DC: How was it working with them? Because…

DM: Well, I didn’t really understand that band the way I understand it now. I had a much more literal, um… approach to music in those days. I didn’t really start to get the aesthetics and start to approach things a little bit more organically in terms of really kind of having some kind of a deeper understanding of material until a bit later on. So, I remember I approached it and I remember thinking (laughs) it was very strange, but again, you know, realizing that they were just great musicians. I mean, (it’s) a bit of a cliché, but the point could be made if it hasn’t been made already, that they really were doing the world music thing way before anybody else. I mean, that was definitely one of the leading lights of that approach to music. You know, I mean Dylan recognized it. I remember him making some very favorable comments about the band—rightfully so—and saying, “That’s the real interesting stuff that’s going on,” you know?

DC: And of course, I have to ask about, actually some stuff I was listening to before you called. I wanted to ask you about recording the Nick Drake record, Bryter Layter. Tell me about the recording process.

DM: He came up to where we were staying, we ran through a couple of songs with him and Dave Pegg and myself, and we went in to the studio and tracked it. Played all together at the same time, vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, and then added stuff after that. Added the strings and stuff after that.

My impression of the whole record was just that it was really, really good and that Nick was incredibly talented and scaryingly shy. And I think the shyness just got worse.

DC: And even by this point you were working with different people, weren’t you?

DM: Oh yeah, I mean Dave Pegg and myself became, for a while there, we became THE folk-rock rhythm section in London. We seemed to be doing so many sessions, which I guess is how I got into that world and the more I got into it, the more I liked it.

DC: Was there any point when you were doing those records that you thought, “This is really something. This is something that I might look back later and go, ‘This means something?’”

DM: No. No, I… no, ‘cause I’ve done… It’s one thing to acknowledge when you’re doing or playing on a record that it’s good and there’s always an enjoyment factor when you recognize that the songs are really good and the performances are really good and it sounds good and there’s a certain vibe to it, but I’ve done so many... I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of records and out of those hundreds and hundreds of records I’ve done, I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve done ones that I thought were really mediocre and they’ve been incredibly successful and the times where I’ve done ones that I thought, “This is really, really terrific,” and they disappear without a trace.

And then everything in between—the really good ones that do something and the really bad ones that sink like a stone. So there’s no rhyme, nor reason… and I think because the way I approach music is I go in there and whether it’s, you know, whether it’s Paul McCartney or whether it’s Joe Blow, I go in there and I… sounds corny, but I really play to utterly the best of my ability, I want the sound to be good, I want the songs… I want to make the most sympathetic playing for the songs that I’m working on, and I don’t have this… I’ve never had this thing where somebody deserves more than someone else. Everybody deserves the same ‘cause that’s what you’re getting paid to do. That’s the job. You go in and you do absolutely the best you can and when you do that, yeah, sure, of course there are times when you recognize that maybe a song or a performance or a vocal performance… I mean, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether it’s me or who the hell it is is playing the drums because that’s not what matters. What matters is the singer and the song. That’s what people respond to. That’s… when you get a really great song and a really great singer, it really doesn’t matter. If there is the advantage of a good “supporting cast,” for want of a better turn of phrase, then so be it. But if there isn’t, then if the song is really, really good and the singer’s really, really good, that’s what people respond to. So, I’m just so far past… again, Daniel, it comes back to that thing about perceiving, you know, your “body of work” as some kind of great thing, you know? It’s… it just smacks of pretention to me. When I did the XTC record I remember thinking, “This is really good and I’m very proud of it,” but to walk away from a session saying, “Yes, I’ve created a great piece of art, here,” you know, I think it’s just dreadful and I can’t… I have no time for people that do that or perceive what they do that way. I think it’s pretentiousness at its worst. So, I think one does what one does and you do it to the best of your ability and of course you recognize when there’s a special song or a special vocal performance. But, as I said, I’ve done so many things where I’ve thought, “This is really great,” and it’s died without a trace and I’ve done other things where I thought, “Yeah, this is okay. I’ve done my best and it’s okay,” and the next thing you know, somebody’s raving about it a year later, saying, “Oh, I can’t believe that thing! That’s unbelievable!”

Part two coming shortly.

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