London-born folk rock legend Richard Thompson has been steadily recording and touring since his teens, first as a member of Fairport Convention in the 1960s, and then primarily as a solo artist since the early 1970s.
He kicks off 2012 with the release of Live at Celtic Connections, his latest concert DVD (and Blu-ray debut). Shot at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow and performed with his titular band, the film sports a full airing of his most recent album, 2010’s Dream Attic, along with some of his greatest hits (“with a small ‘h,’” he quips) and explosive guitar work from the prolific 62-year-old.
In this exclusive interview, I spoke with Thompson about the show and his upcoming American tour; how humor, religion and injustice all play a role in his creations; and whose career he wishes he could have had (the answer will surprise you).
What makes this DVD different from your previous concert films?
Uh, it’s newer (laughs). It’s composed, basically, of the Dream Attic album, which was recorded live. It was a live recording of new material, which is fairly unusual. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say rare. And so this is the live recording of the live recording. [It’s at] the Celtic Connections festival up in Glasgow, which is a great festival that’s been going for about 20 years, and I’ve been there four or five times. It’s always fun to play, and famous for hecklers—they have a wicked sense of humor. When you step on a Glaswegian stage, you’d better have your act together.
Dream Attic contained live performances of all the tunes with your band, but also solo acoustic versions of every song as well. Whose idea was that, and how did you put the wheels in motion for such a unique package?
I think these days, people are always looking for sort of a value added component, and I thought it was a nice choice for people to be able to buy the electric CD and have the acoustic versions packaged in. The acoustic versions were basic demos that I did to teach the band the songs before we’d get together to rehearse. I sent out the CDs as demos so that the band could learn the material a bit quicker, and that’s basically what those were. So they’re real slightly crude recordings, but perhaps they have a charm of their own, maybe.
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of your solo debut…
What does that mean to you?
Well, I don’t know. Not much (laughs).
At the time, when I put out my first solo record, I wasn’t thinking of a solo career—it was just a regular bit of songs that I’d accumulated. At the time, I was really working as a guitarist, as a sideman, and I wasn’t thinking that this is a career, you know? I was playing with other bands and doing session work, which is basically what I was occupied with in 1972. It’s nice to be able to play solo—I’m really glad that I have the opportunity now. It’s a great way to be able to communicate with an audience. Much as I like playing with a band as well, solo gives you a chance to really get intimate with an audience.
Your songs are generally serious, but you employ a lot of humor onstage. Where does this come from? Can you pinpoint a certain time where you decided to have this jocular banter with the crowd?
I think it’s because I was very shy onstage—I never used to speak onstage while I was in the band, and I tended to be the one not at the lip of the stage but behind the drummer, you know? When it was kind of thrust upon me, I was compensating for that, I suppose, to be funny, or try to be funny—I think “try” is the word; I’m not sure if I am funny. But I think also, if you have some serious songs—and some of my songs are described as serious, depressing (laughs), melancholic—if you have some of those songs, I think it’s good to kind of mix it up with the audience so that the mood changes between songs. And I think it also kind of confuses the audience, which I’m in favor of; it’s always good to confuse audiences. So the audience isn’t quite sure what mood is coming next, and I think that’s a good way of setting up a lot of songs.
The last time you played New York, you performed Dream Attic’s “The Money Shuffle” while the Occupy Wall Street protests were happening just blocks away in Times Square.
What kind of reception have you received about that song in the wake of this movement?
Generally positive. I think it’s the role of the songwriter to kind of point fingers sometimes, and I think that the Occupy Wall Street movement is very valid. It’s based on the horrific selfishness and greed that we’ve seen over the last few years, and hopefully its effect will be seen politically very soon.
Last month you appeared in the New York Times Magazine’s Styled to a T section…
(Laughs.) Yes, I did.
How did this happen, and was there any coaxing applied to get you to appear hatless for the shoot?
I had to think long and hard about that one, you know? I really did. But to get into the New York Times in any section is a desirable thing, if you’re a publicity craving fool like I am. So to get in the style section was a little strange. I was sort of glad to be there; I looked at who they’d had before in there, and there’s people like the manager of Manchester United football club, you know? Ordinary blokes. So I thought, I’m not a fashion icon, but I can qualify as an ordinary bloke. So I was happy at that level.
Your image these days is very much tied to the Kangol Monty Beret. Out of curiosity, how many do you own?
Uh, one (laughs). Cost me, too!
Has the company ever reached out to you to express its pleasure with this unintended association?
(Laughs.) I don’t actually wear Kangols; that would be easy if I did. I tend to wear Czechoslovakian army surplus, which are a bit harder to get a hold of, which for me are just the right size.
We’ll make a note of that.
Regarding your upcoming tour plans, you’ll be back at New York’s City Winery for three nights for your special all-request shows. Since the first night is on Valentine’s Day, do you plan to slip in some more romantically inclined tunes?
When I do an all-request show, that’s entirely up to the audience. But I fully expect every other song to be something by Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond. I’m expecting the syrupy stuff, frankly.
That’s exactly what I was going to ask: which ones are you dreading?
(Laughs.) “Feelings”; that would be a good one. “Sometimes When We Touch (the honesty’s too much)”; that’s another one that always touches me very deeply. That kind of thing, you know?
You’ll also be touring Japan in April. When was the last time you were over there?
About seven or eight years, I’m thinking. I love to go to Japan; I was supposed to go last year, but it was at the time of the tsunami and radiation meltdown, so the cancellation was forced upon us, but it’s a great place and wonderful people. I don’t go every year, but I’ve been on probably five trips to Japan.
A lot of your songs are very dependent on the lyrics in addition to the guitar work. What is it like performing in countries like Japan where people may not completely understand your songs? Do you think they come more for the music?
Yes, I think so. In countries where I perform where English isn’t an immediate choice of language, I think I tend to play more guitar folk songs, I should say. But something that happens in Japan is, the promoters will translate your lyrics—they ask you for your setlist ahead of time, and they translate lyrics and they have a lyric sheet on every seat in the house before people come in, which I think is a fantastic idea. So that really helps to put ideas in songs across, but I think obviously, subtleties in language sometimes get lost.
Do you still explore or discover new music?
I try to listen to contemporary popular music. I wouldn’t say I’m able to keep up—I don’t think I’ve really kept up with popular music since 1972, but sometimes I hear interesting stuff. I probably explore more things as a student of harmony, so I listen to a lot of classical music. I listen to a lot of jazz; as a way of just understanding and exploring music, really, as a student.
Aside from your kids, what new artists do you like and why?
Oh, crumbs. I can’t think of anybody (laughs). That doesn’t mean I don’t, but I just can’t think of…if I had an hour, I could start remembering.
What lessons or advice can you give other musicians about working and collaborating creatively with their spouse or significant other?
Boy, I would say it’s very tough, and I don’t know how you’d do it successfully. I did it for 10 years at one point [with ex-wife Linda Thompson], and I think that was a good, long stretch of a collaboration. If you’re married to someone and you’re working with them and creating with them at the same time, I think you need an outlet somehow, because if you’ve been at a concert, you’ve been recording all day and then you go home, you don’t have someone to vent to, if you like, or complain to or express your frustrations or whatever, you know? You’re not getting a change of scene or a change of personnel, which can be a hard thing, I think. If your spouse or significant other is more of a friend than anything else, I think that can be more successful. But I would say it’s tough; very tough.
What issues or subjects get your blood boiling?
Probably injustice, I suppose. Social injustice, personal injustice, yeah.
George Carlin once said that comedians gravitate toward that a lot, too—that the world isn’t right the way they want it to be.
It certainly worked for George Carlin.
Do you ever just want to thrash to get your aggression out?
Yes, and I probably do thrash occasionally, yes. But thrashing is good; it’s healthy. I think a lot of classical piano music, there’s a lot of thrashing that goes on in that, but people are usually too polite to mention it—in Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, a lot of pounding goes on.
That’s a good point.
It’s sort of the death metal of its day.
What are your passions/loves outside of music?
My interests include the natural world, especially botany, horticulture, and birds; sports, particularly rugby, cricket, soccer, ice hockey and cage fighting; and reading, cinema, etc.
You’ve been living in America for a while. What are some things that you love, and at the same time, can’t wrap your head around, with this country?
The thing I can’t wrap my head around is probably the political structure. Things I love: generosity, freedom, open-mindedness. Not true of all parts of America, but it’s certainly true of the bits that I like to go to.
What genre or artist would people be surprised that you like?
Any favorites you want to give a mention to here?
[Benjamin Britten’s] Peter Grimes. Anything by Puccini. [Alban Berg’s] Lulu. I tend to like the weirder 20th century stuff.
As a guitar player, who else’s skills do you admire?
I just admire dead people. Django Reinhardt or Joe Pass, people like that. Ida Presti.
What did you make of the neoclassical shredder era?
(Laughs.) It’s a lot of notes to deal with, you know? I just find that harmonically, you know, it’s not that interesting. I think you could play a lot of notes but not necessarily much music in there. If you had Yngwie Malmsteen versus J.J. Cale, I’d take J.J. Cale’s three notes over Yngwie’s 17,000.
If being Richard Thompson was not an option, whose career would you rather have had?
(Laughs.) Eeee—ouch. Gosh, that’s a tough one. The Archies, probably.
You became a Muslim in 1974. If I may ask, what is your commitment to the Islamic faith like these days?
In regards to your own playing and musicianship, are there any things about it that have given you direction, or do you keep it secular?
You know, I don’t have two brains, I don’t have two hearts, so I think that whatever I believe is in whatever I express. It’s all in there, folks.
Have you ever thought about doing another collaboration with someone else on record to let them handle the music or lyrics?
I think about collaborations sometimes, and I do some collaborations. I have a big collaboration coming up that I can’t even tell you about, it’s just so unbelievably top secret. I’m not averse to the idea; I probably tend to be selfish with my time because I seem to be busy all the time doing the things I do anyway, so it’s not as if I’m looking for collaborations.
Now that you’ve done cruise ship tours, do you have any other major career goals that you’d still like to achieve?
I don’t think in those terms, in that sense. There are projects that I’m planning in the future for some of those bigger things, like a thing I did called Cabaret of Souls, which is a larger piece. And there are a couple more of those in the pipeline that I’d like to see fulfilled. In that sense, those are the kind of goals I would like to set for myself.
Any other messages for your fans in the new year?
(Laughs.) Please support your local musicians. That’s all I can say.
The Richard Thompson Band Live at Celtic Connections is available Jan. 31. For more information, visit www.richardthompson-music.com. Catch Richard on tour in America Feb. 2-17.
Thoughts on this Q&A? Leave a comment below, and follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
Want more from this Examiner? Click the “subscribe” button above for free alerts to his newly published stories, and visit his Performing Arts Interview and Japanese Culture pages here.