CHICAGO — Again Richard Thompson makes the case with his latest album, “Electric” (New West): He belongs with Bob Dylan, Neil Young and a handful of others in his ability to sustain a high level of artistic intensity and integrity in a career that has been going strong since the ‘60s.
Thompson knocked out “Electric” in four days with his self-described “Celtic power trio” (which includes bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome) at Buddy Miller’s Nashville home studio last year. As with most of his records, the album was recorded with minimal overdubs, and it crackles with energy, surprise and sharp songs, from the fired-up social commentary of “Stuck on the Treadmill” to a fascinating character study that examines the power of negative psychic energy, “My Enemy.” In an interview, Thompson discussed how he continues to innovate when so many of his peers have turned into oldies acts.
Q: You prefer quick recordings to more elaborate ones. Why?
A: I do get bored in the studio fairly quickly. If I have to do a lot of overdubs, I get distracted. I like to nail things down as fast as possible. We have always recorded that way. My records in the ‘70s were ridiculously cheap. We never had the budgets. I just got used to doing it that way. There are always regrets, but I don’t sit and listen to my own records and worry about it. I think, ‘This is just a recording. I did the best I could at the time, and now I’ve played this song live 2,000 times since I recorded it, and I can probably play it better now.’ There is no ultimate satisfaction in recording for me, because the songs keep evolving.
Q: There’s a faction of your fans who want you to do more and longer guitar solos. They’d be very happy if you did an album of four long tracks where you basically go nuts on the guitar. Might they ever hear a record like that?
A: It might not be such a bad idea to do one like that. But I am song-focused — I like songs. I like to think I’m playing economically, even on a 10-minute song. I’d rather see more songs with fewer guitar solos, rather than fewer songs with more solos. It’s the way I’m wired. I’m also subtly conscious of people looking at their watches when I’m going off on a solo, especially the girlfriends yawning. That’s when I’m thinking, “Oops! It’s time to get back to the love songs.”
Q: Is it true that even at this stage in your career, you practice playing guitar almost daily?
A: Yes. If you play blues, pentatonic scales, perhaps you don’t need to practice so much. You might stay away from the instrument so you can be more spontaneous. But I want to expand my knowledge of music. I study harmony because I want to know more about the music I hear and incorporate it into my playing. I need to practice. There are still some things I hear in my head that I can’t play, so I need to practice to get that sound.
Q: What kind of new ideas are you bringing into your playing lately?
A: I’ve been a fan of classical music since I was a teenager. There a lot of ideas in there that I like to steal and adapt to guitar from people like Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten. As an entertainer you can’t literally play those styles and those ideas with harmonic complexity, but you can steal an idea or two and stick it into a song. It makes for a richer vocabulary in what you do. It’s my hope that we can evolve pop music into something more interesting than it already is, so you keep reaching outside it for ideas and inspiration.
Q: How do you innovate while still keeping the fans happy? Many classic bands are content to recycle themselves, and their fans encourage it because they just want to hear the hits, not the new stuff.
A: It’s a balance. You do recycle yourself to an extent because once you establish a style, a characteristic of what you do, that’s what distinguishes you from everybody else. It’s important to have a style. But beyond that you have to push yourself to not repeat yourself. A wiser man than me once said, ‘You steal from everybody except yourself,’ and it’s absolutely true. You can be a magpie and pick up ideas from jazz, classical, African music, as long as you have a foundation that’s strong enough. You look at a Picasso painting and you know it’s him, even though he had six different styles.
Q: But continuing to innovate isn’t the path many of your ‘60s peers have taken. Why do you think that is?
A: You’re expected to peak when you’re 25, and then die or quietly go away. There is this misconception that it’s youth music. But we now have the Stones and Beatles pushing 70, and some of them actually are 70. This is now a multi-generational form of music. It’s not flash-in-the-pan teen music, and the music has to change to reflect that. You have to write about things relevant to your age, real issues, and be more honest about the content of the music. What excited you as a kid getting into music, you have to rekindle that on a regular basis. But you don’t always find that in the same place, you have to seek out new sources of inspiration.
Q: Where do you find it?
A: I’m excited about what’s around the corner, what’s out of sight. You get ideas from reading Science Journal, a novel, or hearing an opera on the radio. There are ideas all over the place and you have to be open to receiving them. The audience has to expect you to do this as well. It’s no good for you to have that ambition if the audience won’t let you. You go to a Stones or Eagles concert, and you expect them to play the hits. You’re not expecting them to be ground-breaking past the age of 40. Big bucks are being paid to wallow in nostalgia. If I went to a Stones concert I wouldn’t want to hear new material. The band doesn’t challenge the audience and the audience doesn’t challenge the band. I’m glad to say my audience challenges me to come up with new stuff. You have to start by dragging the audience forward.
Q: I understand you have a disciplined songwriting routine instead of just waiting around for inspiration to strike. How does that work?
A: Half my life is spent on the road, and the other half is spent at home, and when I’m home, I’m writing on a regular basis. Some days I’m at the dentist, some days I’m taking the kids to school, there are distractions. But if I set time aside I’ll write everyday for month, from 7 a.m. to noon, and longer if it’s going well. That’s really productive. The more days you can string together, the better things start flowing. I usually have a guitar for reference. Sometimes the best way to write is when you’re out walking. Hiking in the hills, you start to get ideas. Sometimes it’s better to write away from an instrument. If you’re a fully conscientious songwriter you have a notepad with you at all times. But you don’t always. At the country music museum (Country Music Hall of Fame) in Nashville, you see original copies of famous song lyrics that are written on Howard Johnson hotel pads, the back of tax forms — when inspiration strikes you grab the nearest paper and jot it down. There are days where you’re just staring out the window. But I try to have some tails of things I can connect. There are always a few unfinished songs to work on, where you can start with the third verse, and then your mind gets into the right state to be receptive. If you’re waiting for inspiration to strike, that’s pretty hit and miss. It might strike someone else (laughs) and you’re out of luck.
Q: You’ve always had a knack for writing political songs like “Stuck on the Treadmill” from the new album. What role did those kinds of more topical songs play in your life?
A: As a kid hanging out in folk clubs or school, we would know these kinds of folk songs. There are different types of political songs. Some are more veiled, metaphorical. That can be more powerful than an overtly political song, with a subtle message that sends you away and hits you later. And sometimes you need a song you can sing at a rally. That’s a kind of song that’s way more direct. Maybe it doesn’t have the shelf life of the more subtle song, but it’s an important thing at the time. It’s a component of what you should do as a songwriter. You should have that string in your bow. I remember being struck by (Bob Dylan’s) ‘Blowin in the Wind’ and Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes,’ a more subtle social commentary, but a funny song, and it had impact. In the early ‘60s, I went on anti-nuclear marches, and people would sing an adaptation of folk songs like “Down by the Riverside”: “I’m gonna lay down my hydrogen bomb down by the riverside.” It gets in your blood at an early age.