Q&A - Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention
Fairport fan and Sundowners singer Niamh Rowe interviews original member Simon Nicol.
Q: Firstly I'd just like to say I'm a massive fan of Fairport Convention and your works and it's a pleasure to be able to ask you a few questions. Here they are:
A: Thank you Niamh – you are very flattering!
Q: Fairport Convention's first self titled album is quintessentially a psychedelic rock album. When you made the transition to folk rock was it a collective decision?
A: It was a two-stage process, I see in retrospect. When Sandy Denny joined the band there was little rehearsal time before the first run of gigs, so we decided that rather than make her learn the entirety of our repertoire, we would share the load and absorb some of hers. As she had come directly from the folk clubs, this led us to playing music we had formerly only been exposed to as (interested) listeners. It was a natural and happy fit for songs like Nottamun Town and A Sailor’s Life; and the second step was more deliberate: to make Liege and Lief which was consciously trying to blur the line between traditional and brand-new songs, to disguise them as each other.
Q: The 1969 bus crash must of been such a harrowing and painful experience, were there thoughts of ending the band after this or did it make you all more determined to carry on in the memory of Martin?
A: We each came to our decision to continue on our own. There was no get-together and discussion – everyone made the choice to remain playing music (I was only 18 so could easily have chosen to return to education, for instance) so I can’t speak for the others regarding the thought processes. I was the least physically affected of us all; in fact I was the only one who remained in the vehicle after it stopped moving, so perhaps I had the most time to decide. Personally I felt that it was what Martin would have wanted us to do, having achieved quite a lot (professional status, three albums and name recognition) within a very short time.
Q: How was it seeing so many lineup changes with Fairport over the years and who was the hardest member to let go of?
A: That would have to be Sandy, with all her talents and presence, although she clearly left because she had no choice if she was to save her well-being and sanity. Continuing to be a member of an increasingly foreign touring band was something she couldn’t bear. So effectively we had no choice, so we weren’t really “letting go” of her.
Q: With so many key figures coming and going throughout the years how did you deal with your ever changing role in Fairport Convention?
A: Time plays tricks here: things get telescoped when you look back from afar. The majority of the personnel changes were in the earliest years and later incarnations of the outfit enjoyed increasingly longer lifespans. The 1985 group that arose from the rebirth of the band from the reunion years on the back of “Gladys’ Leap” lasted eleven years, three more than The Beatles, and the current outfit goes back to 1998. So the changes happened before I became a stick-in-the-mud – and young people are always more adaptable.
Q: Cliché question but I'm going do ask anyway ha, what was your favourite Fairport Convention album to make and what is your favourite song?
A: I was a total sponge, loving the environment of the studio and learning all I could about recording (on both sides of the glass) in the early years, so our second album “What We Did On Our Holidays” was a real highspot. As for an individual track, I’d choose “Dark-Eyed Molly” from “Red and Gold.”
Q: I'm a lover of working with other people musically and you've worked with many many other artists. Who was your favourite person to work with outside of Fairport Convention and The Albion Band?
A: Me too! Well the Thompson solo albums I was involved in the ‘90s were very stimulating, but he’s a bit close to home for what you’re asking. I loved the live tour I did with Art Garfunkel in 1988 playing Paul Simon’s guitar parts alongside Nicky Hopkins and a pretty elite band, and Beverley Craven had a terrific vibe going on. If you’re talking about an individual player and my life depended on me selecting someone, that would be Russ Kunkel, the drummer. (Name-dropping section closing now.)
Q: Was starting The Albion Band your clean slate to explore everything you couldn't do with Fairport?
A: Not really although it certainly opened a lot of new doors. It was simply a way of creating a new band with enough potential to earn a living, working alongside people I liked.
Q: You've not only started, been part of and fronted bands but your also a producer and of one my favourite albums 'Hokey Pokey'. How was it working on that album with the Thompsons?
A: Great fun. Old friends who made me feel like an equal partner at a time when the creative juices were in full flow.
Q: Cropredy Festival is one of the most successful folk festivals, how is it putting on such a big event?
A: Wonderful in the brief moments when nothing is threatening to go wrong with the weather, the crew, the deliveries, the campsites, the traffic, the staging, lights and PA, the bands or any of the countless threads which are always ready to unravel. That said, my role is largely titular, and all credit should go to our Festival Organizer Proper, Gareth Williams, who has a brain the size of a planet to keep all the plates spinning. I never take it for granted when we pull it off, but aren’t we lucky to have seen this very beloved event slowly grow to fruition?
Q; When you look back on your achievements which are many is there anything you feel you still need to cross off the list?
A: Many things but I accept that the reason I seem to have under-achieved in many areas is deep-seated in my personality. I am less ambitious, more cautious, more inclined to idleness and the soft option than the Bravehearts of the world who see only opportunities, never perils. It was too hard to learn to read music – I can barely read a chord chart for heaven’s sake – and practicing on my own for its own sake is a habit I never could adopt. I never became a songwriter as I knew all along that it would involve me labouriously writing a thousand rubbish ones and tearing them up unseen in order to get the clichés out of my system. Those aspects have both held me back as a significant performer.
I seem to have been born missing the ambition gene which drives many people to have opulent lifestyles with second homes in glamourous locations, big flashy cars or exciting expensive hobbies like heli-skiing or eclipse-chasing. But that makes me content rather than feeling I am missing out, much as I admire the energy (and the trappings) of the more driven of my peers. I’m happier being a journeyman working in the wonderful world of music at my level rather than chasing yet more album sales or commercial reach.
Don’t get me wrong though. I want the next CD we make to be outstanding in its own right, without reference to the arc of music preceding it over the last fifty years. I don’t want to be part of a tribute band to Fairport Convention, nor to have our music put under glass in an exhibition case.
Whether I get too old or keel over doesn’t matter to anyone but me, so why should it bring an end to Fairport? We don’t need to maintain the same lineup any more than the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra does, so long as we observe linear continuity.
I don’t see any reason why Fairport shouldn’t continue building year on year. So long as it doesn’t have to be re-formed completely, it can maintain its identity. I like to think the band can go on for ever. We could become the world’s first self-perpetuating rock band.
Q: What has influenced you the most throughout life, whether it be music, books or films?
Sorry Niamh: I gave up here otherwise you’d never get this back!
Good luck with all you do.
Fairport Convention play the Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room on 12 May.