Our practice when we do an interview is to present a fairly complete transcript, wherever possible, as well as an edited version. Not only does that provide more information, but it allows interested readers to filter out the biases in our editing process. (We don't include introductions, pleasantries, repeated sentences, etc.)
Our conversation with Richard Thompson was divided into specific topics: Songwriting, Guitar, Being Richard Thompson, Islam, and Politics.
So, here’s a classic songwriter’s question: Do you start with a lyric, a title, a melody, or a chord progression …
All of the above, but I have to admit I love titles. Titles are a great place to start. But it’s everything you said. It could be a fragment of a tune, or people overheard talking on the bus.
”Easy There, Steady Now.” Where did that come from?
That popped up in the margins while I was working on a couple of other songs. That happens sometimes. It was a break from the other songs I was working on.
Your lyric writing is very stripped down and economical. Is that something you set out to learn early on?
Well, you have to remember that I grew up with the folk tradition. I’ve been listening to Scottish ballads since I was a kid. That’s the place to learn about language - about succinct language, about not wasting a word.
That sort of precision comes with the folk process. Folk songs aren’t really written by one person. They’re handed down from generation to generation, always being honed, always being polished, until there’s nothing left that isn’t vital. Anything else gets cut away, ruthlessly.
The weak words get eliminated.
Beyond that, it’s hard to remember the creating process. You go into another state. You’re making yourself a conduit. To do that, you have to switch part of your brain off. Including the part that remembers the process …
What’s your favorite song about murder. You can choose a ballad, or something more modern.
(laughs) Murder. Hmmm. There’s “Maria Martin.” It was written about 150 years ago about something they called the Red Barn Murder. It became a ballad. People kept telling stories about her ghost returning to the scene of the crime.
What’s your favorite political song, topical song?
I like the ones that are universal in imagery, the ones that couch political themes as a metaphor. My favorite is probably the “Bonny Bunch o’ Roses.” The roses are the British Isles, and the song is about Napoleon’s dream of conquering them. It dates back to the 19th Century and people are still singing it.
Why don’t you do an album of traditional songs?
I’m reluctant to do that because I think there are much better interpreters out there, like Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy.
What songs of yours do you wish you could get a ‘do-over’ for, that you’d like to change – either as a composition or as a recording?
For recording, I would probably redo 75% of my material if I could. There’s a lot of pressure on your time and resources when you’re in the studio. There comes a time when you have to say “That’s the best I can do for now.” But given unlimited resources, there’s a lot that I would change.
As for songwriting, I suppose I’m happy with about 50% of my songs as they stand now. But remember: Look at somebody like Cole Porter. He wrote 1,000 songs and he’s remembered for, what, 100 of them? That’s 10%. That’s the way it typically works, I think.
Are you a ‘gearhead,’ as guitarists say? Do you love guitars as objects? Do you haunt vintage music shops?
No, I’m not a gearhead or guitar fanatic at all. They’re just tools to me. They can be lovely tools, and I enjoy them, but I’m not a guitar polisher. I suppose I’m a bit detached from the ownership of a guitar. I think of them as functional things.
You bought a Peerless guitar from a mutual friend, Fred Walecki at Westwood Music in LA. You seem more like a Fender man, and the Peerless seems more in the Gibson class, like a jazz guitar, maybe an L6 or something.
It’s a lovely guitar. I don’t take it on the road, but I’ve used it in the studio a number of times. But I don’t own more than a dozen guitars, which is quite low by the standards of many professional guitar players.
I always appreciated your electric guitar playing, but your technique and phrasing seemed to make a quantum leap of some kind in the late 1970’s or so. Do you agree? If so, why? Was it because you stopped playing electric for a while, then went back to it?
I’m not aware of a leap, or a watershed moment. I’ve steadily tried to study harmony and phrasing, all the components of guitar playing and music in general, for the last 50 years.
I’ll try to ask a less predictable question: What’s your favorite James Burton guitar solo?
(laughs) Ah, haven’t been asked that one. What a great player. Hmmm … I don’t know … what’s yours?
”Young World,” by Ricky Nelson.
“Young World.” That’s a subtle solo. Interesting. “Hello Mary Lou” was a breakthrough solo. But I’d have to say that my favorite James Burton solo may well be on a pretty obscure Everly Brothers track, “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby.”
The Jimmy Reed song?
Yes. It’s a ferocious solo. Powerful stuff.
OK – how about Roy Nichols? (Nichols was the longtime lead guitarist for Merle Haggard and his recording/live band, the Strangers.)
(enthusiastic) What fantastic tone he had. Absolutely terrific. And I would have to say his playing on Haggard’s “Live In Muskogee” album was probably my favorite.
”Lonesome Fugitive” live. Great. Great album.
Yes. Good old Merle Haggard. He was so good that we can almost forgive him his politics.
We can forgive him. (laughter) Especially since he’s come around. What about (Chicago blues legend) Otis Rush?
He was an extraordinary player, and he developed really quickly. I don’t listen much to the Chicago players now, but when blues and R&B hit Britain in 1962 I listened to all of them. Everybody did. But I don’t really play the blues. I don’t think its culturally really me.
You play country, though, American country/western. You’ve done Buck Owens material, Johnny Paycheck songs. And there’s playing style you have, a way of bending multiple strings, that seems to have come from either steel guitar or Celtic music.
Pipe music and other Celtic music is definitely present in my lead guitar playing. But slide or note bending? Lonnie Johnson pretty much started that note-bending, but I don’t hear much of that in my playing.
I didn’t mean slide guitar or single-note bending. I was thinking of pedal steel.
There’s some of that, probably. But Celtic music has some very strange intervals, and I use those quite a bit.
Do you think you’ve influenced many other guitarists> Some people say Mark Knopfler was heavily influenced by you – I’d say you, and J.J. Cale. Do you agree, or are there others?
I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t be able to hear it. I would assume they were listening to what I was listening to.
How does your spiritual life affect your playing? Does it impose a discipline or a focus, and does it provide inspiration?
What you believe affects everything you do. Your morality, whatever it is, goes into everything you do in life. But I’m not sure it’s necessarily visible. Being spiritual is about appreciating life. After all, life is a finite thing. After life, there might be somewhere else to go. Being alive in the moment is being spiritual.
So are you in the moment when you’re playing live, or are you transported somewhere else?
It’s the same thing in the end. You’re inside the music as its being played. The music forces you to be in the moment. You have to live it. And when you’re playing with a band, you have to be present with every other member of the band.
Being Richard Thompson
You’re probably aware from fan sites and so on, that people who love and follow your music perceive several Richard Thompsons. There’s the guitar hero. The songwriter, with his “doom and gloom” outlook. There’s the acoustic folkie, the Renaissance Festival-with-a-twist performer modernizing the traditional styles. And there’s the Sufi, Western Muslim mystic.
Do any of these identities intersect in any way with the subjective experience of being Richard Thompson on a daily basis?
(laughs) Do any of us have any idea how others really see us? And how close can that perception ever be to the way we really are?
Do you see yourself primarily as a guitarist, a songwriter, or a vocalist? Or are those distinctions meaningless to you?
I would have to see myself as a package, I suppose, but what I focus on is the songs. That’s my primary goal, to present the song as best I can. I try to bring my other skills to it, and to continue the narrative of the song instrumentally. But as a singer, and as a guitarist, the song is always the focus.
Any chance you’ll be producing other artists, or doing more soundtracks?
I don’t have a lot of time to produce other people. That takes a great deal of time, a month or two to get an album done. My skills are better employed working on my songs. I’ll do session work. That can be done in an hour or two.
Soundtracks are usually a quicker activity. (Werner Herzog’s) Grizzly Man only took two days, with very little preconception of what I was going to do. And I’ve done a documentary on Harlan Ellison, the science-fiction writer.
So you’d do more soundtrack work?
Yes. It can stretch you in ways you wouldn’t otherwise have thought about.
The fact that you’re a Muslim interests people. Years ago you entered Islam, as many young Westerners do, through Sufism. Yet I’ve heard you’re no longer a Sufi?
I suppose I’m not. You could call me a ‘lapsed Sufi.’ But I still embrace the Sufic interpretation of Islam.
Among music fans, you’re probably the best-known Western Muslim around besides Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam. Do you feel that gives you a certain responsibility?
I hate to be a spokesman for anything as broad as Islam. You can easily get yourself misinterpreted.
Yet, looking at you or your sometime bassist Danny Thompson (no relation), you don’t look like what many Westerners picture as Muslims. You look like guys you might have a beer with at the pub. Do you still describe yourself as a ‘liberal Muslim’?
Sure. A lot of what is seen as Islam in the West comes from the loudest shouting voices, the neo-Islamic fundamentalists. The willingness to fight, that violent side, is a misinterpretation and a misapplication of the teachings of the Prophet. It ignores the heart of Islam: peace, generosity, compassion. Islam is about winning hearts and minds.
There is no compulsion in Islam at all. That’s a fact.
Your songs aren’t exactly what people think of as ‘traditionally Muslim.’ “Don’t Tempt Me,” for example, is about a barfight. And you name weapons in it I’ve never heard of: “Lazy Susans,” “blockbusters” ...
My songs are observations about life, of course, and not necessarily autobiographical. But overall, the important thing is to represent who you are. If something is fundamentally true, then whatever I am, I was always that. I recognize that in other teachings, too. This is who I am, this is who I’ve always been.
You have to embody that and be honest about who you are. I’m a rock and roll musician. Whatever else I am, I’m that too. And my religion makes me a better musician, better able to navigate these shark-infested waters a musician must navigate to survive.
(Our allotted time was up, but I thought I’d ask Richard one last question about politics. He apparently felt too strongly about politics, though, so we went on for at least another twenty minutes.)
You put your Iraq song, “Dad’s Gonna Get Me,” up on the Huffington Post, so you know that they’re a politically-minded crowd. This interview will be published there, so do you have anything to say to them of a political nature before we conclude?
If we start talking about politics this could go on for hours.
Well, then I can’t resist at least one question. I’ve just written a magazine piece on the conflict between living a spiritually serene life and staying aware politically. What are your thoughts on that?
I understand the problem. It’s very difficult to follow politics without feeling rage, resentment, and despair. But things are changing.
You think? In what way?
I see America headed toward something like a Socialist revolution. The big corporations, the banks, the other powerful interests who decide policy now – their policies are incredibly unpopular. Of course, they’re not going to give up without a fight. And as they drive the American middle class into poverty this huge, poor, dispossessed middle class is going to be really pissed off.
They’re going to demand a say. The American people have no say in their destiny. Everything is manipulated. That can only last for so long. The only opportunity for reform may come from a revolution, fifteen years or so down the road.
If you look back at the 20th Century, it seems that every decade or so a political “theme song” came along to capture the spirit of the times. “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Blowing in the Wind.” “Give Peace a Chance.” Then, thirty years ago or so, it stopped. Why?
I think it’s coming. Incumbent politicians have managed to diffuse opposition, skillfully and effectively.
I wonder, too, if the fragmentation of popular culture through cable TV and the Internet isn’t also a factor. It’s like there’s no zeitgeist anymore, no shared cultural space where everyone can meet and either fight it out or find common ground.
That’s interesting. They’ve managed to defocus opposition somehow, we know that. But it’s just a matter of time before it changes. It’ll happen.
Want to check your quotes for accuracy before this goes out?
Nah. Publish and be damned.