Inside the Dream Attic: A Conversation with Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson
Dream Attic
Shout Factory!

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.

Turning an Acid Gaze on the Financial Crisis

On this new record (specifically on the opening track “The Money Shuffle”) you turn an acid gaze on the financial crisis, teasing out the absurdity from a treacherous situation. You really nail these people who claim to know all the right answers but have steered us into ruin.

I find that experts are not to be trusted. In most fields. You can believe in experts, you know, financial experts, but if they’re experts how did they get us into such an unbelievable mess? In this case it is because they were unbelievably greedy. And the whole thing just made me boil with rage. It just made me so mad. So I wanted to skewer the greed of these people, which is just off the scale. It’s a complicated issue, and you can’t get everything into a song. There were other components that led to this financial meltdown, but I really wanted to get after the greed aspect.

What an evocative opening line. “I love kittens, and little babies, oh, can’t you see that’s the guy I am?” Was there a precipitating event or particular person who inspired this rebuke?

I was just trying to set up the character. Since recording it I have actually changed the last verse to something a bit more cutting because I read Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short which is all about the whole thing, so I now know more. Which only made me angrier. Really depressed and really angry. [Playing the song] helps in a small way.

Here in Toronto, The Globe and Mail newspaper ran a thing which attempted a close reading of your satirical song “Here Comes Geordie”, about a pretentious artist, and declared that it must be about Sting. Do you have anything to say to this?

Oh. It’s not really about, or supposed to be about anyone specific. I certainly didn’t intend it to be that specific. I actually wrote it about somebody else, but I can see how people could mistake it for Sting.

I’m curious about the song “Burning Man”. As you do elsewhere on the record, you focus on the hypocrisy inherent in your subject, but yet here you do recognize the healing power of this transient, or fleeting, gathering.

Yes, well, it’s about the burning man festival and everything in the song was there at the festival. “The penguin meets the polar bear”? There was a guy dressed as a penguin, there was a mechanical polar bear. I mean: all this bizarre stuff. It strikes me as a mixture of Mad Max meets a kind of art museum. It’s a very creative place, a very strange place. And, obviously, a very anarchistic place. It makes you ask a lot of questions about people, and what society is, and what happens when you choose alternative societies, and how desirable are the things that you get when you set up other kinds of structures. Interesting place.

Are you a regular Burning Man participant? What drew you to such a place?

I just went once last year. I’m not strongly drawn to it. But it’s something we might all have to deal with soon if the whole financial empire of America collapses and drags the world with it. We’re all going to be bartering and trying to find alternative ways to scratch a living. Could be a lesson plan in there somewhere. [laughs]

[laughing] I should probably ask you about that. But I’m now too depressed. Instead, could you talk a bit about “Stumble On”? For a man who is not exactly known for his cheerful numbers, this is a particularly dark piece.

Everybody has been dumped. Everybody has had romantic relationships that break down, so that’s something I just draw on sometimes. Everyone’s had that feeling. Sometimes you draw on those stronger feelings. I wouldn’t say it’s a dark song; it’s a sad song. But, it’s not dark. It’s kind of… desperate. When you love something so much that you can’t contain it. It’s this wrenching feeling inside you.

You’re not known for doing much confessional writing, but rather as a real master of the character study. But how much of your “characters” are narrations of yourself?

I don’t know where one ends and the other begins. I suppose all songs are autobiographical. Am I in this song? Yes I am. Is it literally about me? No. It’s a little bit twisted. But I think that happens when you start writing a song. You have to come up with a rhyme scheme — when you rhyme fish with dish you have already entered into the realm of fiction. It has already removed you 2% from your original intention of writing about you. It’s very hard to find the line with this type of thing.

You know, semiologists like Jacques Derrida theorized that, in writing about yourself, all attempts at truth wind up as fiction since you have to make all of these choices. Does that resonate at all with what you’re saying?

Yeah, I have heard this. I don’t always agree with those people.

So, no. Anyway. You are a religious man, I understand. Yet you rarely make reference to your faith in your music, and you use religious imagery sparingly. On “Haul Me Up”, however, it’s clear that the protagonist’s struggle is, in a radical sense, metaphysical. He’s caught in the mire, looking for help from above as they pull at him from below. Could you talk a bit about the genesis of this song?

I don’t know what the genesis is. I don’t remember with a song like that. I wrote it very quickly. It’s based on somewhere between a Scottish traditional model and a gospel model. In American gospel music you actually find a lot of Celtic music as a root. It’s like half… gospel music is like half African and half Scottish, I would say. This song comes out of another song, as a segue from a song called “Among the Gorse, Among the Grey” which is a song about innocence into experience. And this song is really about experience yearning for that innocence again. That’s one of the reasons I put those two songs together. In a sense it is a spiritual song. It is about yearning to lift up out of this existence, out of this realm, into a clearer state. A more peaceful state.

You make the biblical Jezebel a character here. She’s here to represent experience, then?

She represents the temptations of this life. She doesn’t have to be a hooker, of course.

I’m curious about your process. Lyrics have always been as important to your songs as melody. This may sound like a bland statement, but for so many artists lyrics exist merely to fill time in a phrase, or to deliver some pat idea. What comes first, for you: lyrics or melody?

Oh, I don’t think it matters. I suppose, there’s a kind of a room. An imaginary room which is the room of creativity with a capital C. And there’s various doors into that room. There’s the lyric door, there’s the riff door, there’s the melody door, you know, there’s the reading-the-telephone-directory door, there’s the out-jogging door. There’s various ways into the room, and I don’t think you should limit yourself to just one door, you know? I know some people who actually always start lyrics first. But I think it’s interesting to have various approaches, because it gives you different types of songs. If you always start with the melody, then certain kinds of structures take over. Whereas, if you could go about it another way then you force melodies out of yourself you wouldn’t normally write.

So, it’s good to be open minded. It’s good to be open about your process. And, my process is not to have a process.