Inside the Dream Attic: A Conversation with Richard Thompson
Stuart Henderson talks with the living legend about his songwriting methods, his political frustrations, and what makes him such a great guitarist.
Richard Thompson is one of those fabled figures in the music business that critics fawn over, fans obsess about, and most everyone else fails to notice. A founding member of the seminal British folk-rock outfit Fairport Convention in the mid-'60s, and a solo artist now for nigh-on 40 years, Thompson has certainly been around long enough to make his mark. Counted among the best guitarists in the game (Mojo Magazine has granted him “Guitar Legend” status, for example, while Rolling Stone Magazine suggested in 2009 that he might just be the greatest living electric guitarist), and praised by a diversity of his peers for his disarmingly singular songwriting style (Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams can be counted among his many admirers), Thompson is that rarest of double-threats: a musician’s musician, and a songwriter’s songwriter. And yet (or, perhaps, because of this), he is still a relative unknown. Which might just be how he likes it. A nervous laugher, and a bit of a stutterer, Thompson is surprisingly forthright and sardonically funny in a tremendously British way.
Not long after the August release of his latest record, the impressive Dream Attic, I had a chance to talk with Thompson about his songwriting methods, his political frustrations, and what makes him such a great guitarist.
For the new record you decided to record new material live on tour. The result is among the most energetic records you’ve ever released. Was the studio space becoming enervating?
Not really, I mean I enjoy working in the studio and in the studio anyway we tend to record very live. We really try to do everything, the solos, the vocals, as live as possible. But there is something that happens in front of an audience that is a little different, and it gives you more energy. But, I was just trying to… Well, fans say to me, we prefer your live records to your studio records. So I thought, let’s pursue this a little further and just chop out the studio process all together, and just go straight to the live with new material and see what happens. And this is what happened! [laughs]
What were the benefits, and the downsides, to recording live like this? Certainly one upside for fans is that you offer a lengthy guitar solo on virtually every cut
Obviously if you’re recording that way, it’s a bit more hit and miss. You have less choice about fixing stuff. Sometimes you have to go with a performance where you think, well last night the vocal was better, the night before that the guitar solo was better, but this track is better overall, or something. So, you know, recording multiple nights you have some choices, but not as many choices as you’d have in the studio.
Did you get stuck having to do a lot of overdubs?
No. Although I’d say we were prepared to go that way. We were thinking: Well, we’re still going to have to fix the vocals, we might have to fix the odd bass note or something here or there, but really we didn’t have to fix anything. It’s pretty much as we played it.
When you were writing these, did you somehow feel they needed to be recorded like this? Is this the way you always wanted these songs to sound?
Well, yes. If you buy the bonus package that comes with the disc, you do get a disc of the acoustic demos that I did here at home. I did demos for the other musicians to hear the songs. So you can hear a kind of a more restrained studio version of these songs, so people could compare and contrast. And I’d be glad to hear people’s opinions on what they think is a better approach.
You’ve often been described as a guitar hero -- indeed you were recently awarded “Guitar Legend” status by Mojo. You, along with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell, and Robbie Robertson have managed to take an instrument that pretty much everyone plays, and make it sound different. When you pick up the guitar, anyone familiar with your music can immediately identify that it is you playing. That’s quite a feat.
Thanks. It’s something I’ve always worked at. I didn’t want to sound like everybody else. So, I don’t play the blues clichés. And, it was just important to me as a kid, because there were a lot of other guitar players, to try and sound different. I’d try and be totally different. And then, structurally, to have a totally different approach to playing the guitar. And I’m quite glad. I’m pleased that that’s happened.
Was there a moment, is there a song or a performance you can point to where you thought: “Wow, I have found my sound here”?
I still don’t think I’ve got it. It’s an endless process, you know. But there’s things off that very first Fairport [Convention] record, where I’m happy with what I’m playing because it doesn’t sound like most people. So, I started thinking about this quite early, pretty well since I was 16 or 17, I started thinking about being different, and having my own voice as a musician. It was there fairly early on.
I think I always knew that you were doing something different, but to my ears you hit a new level around the time when you recorded the song “Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman” in 1970. That solo blows my mind.
Yeah. That’s a really different structure for a solo. I’m not sure I’ve thought about it that much, really. I think I just played it that way, because, you know, because it happened.
I suppose that’s part of the reason people are drawn to your concerts, too. All of this technical complexity expressed through improvisation, and still sounding amazing – it’s pretty uncanny.
Gosh. Thank you.
Like many of your fans, I’ve spent some time wondering why you don’t release more of these crack live performances to the public? Do you have any plans to start a line of “Bootleg Series”-esque vault releases to accompany the wonderful show from 1975 which came out a year or so ago?
Well if we can judge the response, the potential market for that kind of thing, it’s clearer to us what should be released. There’s a lot of stuff in the archives of varying quality. Some stuff was recorded multi-track for radio stations, etc, while other stuff is board tape which is a bit crappy. So, over the past ten years, we’ve probably released ten different live things, trying to satisfy the fan base. And, obviously there is more, and I suppose we’d like to put out more, but I suppose we’re just a bit slow.