By Joshua Miller
Richard Thompson has made a career of shaking things up with his voice and his guitar.
It started with British folk rockers Fairport Convention.
Around the late Sixties, a teenaged Thompson began searching the local British music scene for a way to express himself and make a difference musically. An opportunity soon arose when he joined Fairport Convention, a new band that found interest in folk and rock sounds. As it turns out, that band did more than provide him an ample outlet to play music; they were one of the first bands to combine traditional British folk with rock and roll into a satisfying new style.
Thompson later transitioned to a solo career, finding much acclaim as a singer-songwriter and guitarist that could use his talents to craft insightful and expressive songs full of his humanity and wit. He could stand with some of the most talented guitarists but had the vocal tenacity to stand out from the crowd. Moreover, he had the drive to find new ways to continually express and reinvent himself.
Fast forward to 2015. Thompson has appeared on more than 40 albums and received countless honors to his name. He could have easily gone into his new album with the mindset of what worked on past albums and still find success from his loyal fanbase.
But he isn't one to take it easy. He wanted something or someone to challenge him. That person turned out to by Jeff Tweedy, lead singer of Chicago rockers Wilco. The pair met at Wilco's rehearsal space, The Loft, for nine days and recorded a dozen songs. The resulting album, titled Still, comes out June 23 via Fantasy Records.
The album features the core trio of Thompson, bassist Taras Prodaniuk, and drummer Michael Jerome, as well as contributions from Siobhan Kennedy and members of Jeff's band Tweedy (guitarist Jim Elkington and harmony vocalists Liam Cunningham and his sister Sima).
Prior to the album's release, Guitar Aficionado caught up with Thompson to discuss the new album that made him feel "like a kid in a candy store."
GUITAR AFICONADO: You're doing a combination of electric and solo shows on this tour. Why do you like mixing it up?
I have all different kinds of sounds. I have acoustic sounds and I have electric sounds and guitar playing sounds and solo sounds. And sometimes they don't overlap. So I have people that only come to acoustic shows and some that only come to electric shows. So I'm just trying to please everyone, I suppose. Perhaps it's misguided but that's my intention.
What you do think each presents you as a songwriter and guitarist?
I write different kinds of songs for acoustic guitar and different kinds of songs for electric guitar. And I see myself really as a songwriter and an accompanist rather than a guitar player. So I like to bring everything into the songwriting arena. If I play a guitar solo I like to extend the narrative of a song through the guitar solo. I see it as one package really. I think some people perceive it as separate things.
The final song on your new album is called "Guitar Heroes," which is almost eight minutes long. Can you talk about what it like writing that one and honoring your profession and your guitar heroes?
I suppose it's an easy song to write. I was really just trying to remember back to being a kid and what that was like and who I was listening to. If I mentioned all the guitar players I was influenced by that would be a very long song. So I was being economical. It's a fun thing to do. It's fun to do little parodies or things in the style of guitar players. It's not an original idea. In the 1950s there was a great country guitar player called [Kenneth] "Thumbs" Carllile. He was a session player and he did a song called "Springfield Guitar Social," which was a tribute to a lot of the country guitar players. It's just a three-minute thing. But it was really fun and I suppose I was trying to do something like that.
There are quite a few sonic twists in the song and it covers quite a bit of ground.
Yeah there are. There's a lot of tempo shifts. It was about finding song extracts that would fit into that one tempo. We put it together in one piece rather than sessions. We recorded it straight through and we selected overdubbing with some of the guitar parts to get the sound of different guitar players.
You mentioned in one interview that if you could put more guitarists on it you would.
Yeah. As I was saying, there are limits to how long a piece of music can be. So it runs to about eight minutes which is enough for most people. The other thing you want to do in a song like that is change it up live. If we want to we can change up the quotes and guitar players and different songs. So it's a flexible piece I think.
What kinds of guitars and amps did you use for recording Still?
Well, because we were recording in Wilco's studio, the studio is a corner of a large loft space. And the loft space stores all their equipment. They have a lot of guitars and millions of amps and bass, drums and keyboards. I mean, tons and tons of stuff. So it was a bit like being like a kid in a candy store. There were so many things to choose from.
I used predominantly a Fender Princeton, like a vintage Princeton, and a Morgan amp. I'm not very familiar with it but it sounded really good, kind of a Vox sounding amp. And I used a few other things but I can't remember. A whole bunch of different guitars. I used a Gibson ES-175 for some things. And endless pedals that were lying around in the studio. So I can't give you an absolute breakdown of everything I used but it was a lot of different stuff that I've forgotten what I used on various tracks. I also used my own Fender Strats and acoustic guitars.
Was that more than you usually use on albums?
I wouldn't say more than usual but certainly a lot. Predominantly the usual stuff I use like Fender Strats and acoustic guitars through various amps.
With guitar playing you have a great grasp of when to show restraint and when to let loose. Can you talk about mastering that art and how do you think it shows up on Still?
Well I hope I do. I think that what would be called taste or musical flexibility or something. I think when you're playing in song format and accompanying the voice you have to fit in as a guitar player so you're not showboating. You're trying to play something that's sympathetic to the song, whatever that may be. It may be distorted or punk, it depends what the song is.
As a player it's good to have a range. It's good to go from a whisper to a scream to being able to play something subtle and melodic. To play in distinct phrases and to have balance in your playing. And then to play something with more attitude when it's needed, when you need to play something that's more aggressive or more committed.
With guitar playing, are you finding yourself doing more of some kind of habit lately, like how you play?
I just practice different things and practice the basics and then when it comes to playing you try to use your imagination. And that can take you anywhere.
From what I understand your connection with Wilco and Jeff Tweedy kind of started with the AmericanaramA festival shows from a few years ago.
I've probably known Wilco for about 20 years. We've done the occasional show together. But being on the AmericanaramA tour it gave us more chances to spend time together and to jam together. So that was probably the seed of having Jeff produce an album for us.
You and Jeff come from slightly different musical paths. What led you to want him to produce the record?
We definitely come from different worlds but I think we're both roots-based musicians from slightly different generations. And I think having someone who isn't absolutely from your world and your mindset is a good thing. That's a useful person to bounce ideas off because they'll have a slightly different perspective. You don't want someone who's the same as you and thinks the same way as you.
From what I've read it sounds like you wanted to shake things up and keep things interesting for yourself.
I've made a lot of records over the years, probably 40-plus records. And I sort of have a way of doing it when I'm my own producer. And sometimes I think you need to change that up and you need to be a bit more challenged and bring other point of views into the project. So it's good to call upon other musicians to give you a different perspective and to give a record a different sound, really, and a different kind of musical landscape.
You recorded the album at Wilco's rehearsal loft in Chicago about nine days. What was that like? How do you think the environment impacted the songs?
We actually had a very small window so that was all the time we had available. It's a loose kind of place to record. It's not like a real studio with a control booth and studio separate and separate vocal both and those things.
It was all in one room. It's a more informal environment. There's no red light that goes on and tells you're recording. So it's just casual. That's a nice way of doing it. You don't feel tense about it, you can kind of relax and start playing with your friends when you're recording. So it's a nice and easy way of recording.
With the album you had a combination of musicians from Jeff's band and your band. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
I wanted to use my own rhythm section [drummer Michael Jerome and bass player Taras Prodaniuk], just because I feel we've developed a certain understanding and that it would be difficult for someone else to come in and play in the same way. So that's the basic trio. It's nice when you're recording with another guitar player to play some of the harmonic structure of the songs. So we borrowed Jim Elkington from the band Tweedy, and for backing vocals we had Liam and Siam Cunningham, also from Tweedy, and that worked out really well. It was a really seamless and a easy bunch of people to get to work with.
How do you think Jeff impacted the songs and guitar playing on the album?
Probably not that much. He impacted more the arrangements of the songs. I think the songs were already pretty much written. I think between us we might have done some editing, changing a verse here and there. But on the whole the songs didn't change that much. Sometimes the arrangements changed or the way we approached the songs changed or instrumentation changed. And I think Jeff's ideas in that realm were just great. He'd come up with really good suggestions.
What were the biggest surprises during the recording?
Apart from how unbelievably cold it was in Chicago in January, which was a surprise, I was surprised by how easy it was to record and that we didn't have to really sweat over anything.
Why did you name the album Still?
Originally that was supposed to go with a concept or [album cover] picture but the picture got changed out. So the title remained. I mean I quite like the title as it's ambiguous. It can mean a lot of different things. So I wouldn't read too much into it.
Some people have taken it as a theme of resilience and your own resilience through the years with playing music.
Yeah you can take it that way, I suppose. I think to say it means any one thing is to give it too much weight and significance. Which I don't. It's just a title, you can translate it however you want.
Do you think there's a theme for these songs?
All these songs were written in a certain timeframe, probably within a six-month timeframe. And I think when you do that songs have a relationship with each other that have a harmonic or thematic connection. So I feel they're connected in that way and belong on the same record in that way. But there's isn't an overriding theme on this record.
Can you talk about writing the song "Dungeons for Eyes"?
What the song is about is meeting somebody who you love and has a past. And in that past they were either responsible for people dying or they used to kill people themselves. That was in that past and now the people are probably now politicians. And the song is what happens when you meet these people and how you'd react. That dilemma of how I going to shake this guy's hand or not. I was in this position a few years ago.
What new music are you listening to these days?
Probably mostly singer-songwriters and classical music. I'm listening to a lot of guitar players right now, except old dead ones. [Laughs]
Besides Jeff, are there any other artists that you've collaborated with recently that you really enjoyed?
Lately not much. I've mostly been working solo and with my trio. I can't think of anyone else in the past year that I've worked with in that way.
You've had such a big impact on British folk rock. What's it been like to be leading the way of that genre and keeping it relevant all these years later?
That's not something I'm really aware of or think about. I tried to explore musically in a area that interests me that was between traditional British music and rock music. There's still people in the U.K. that do the same thing and that's continuing tradition and I happen to be one of the first people to do it. But I don't think of myself as being a pioneer of anything. I just try to play the music that to me is relevant.