Dancing About Architecture With Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson holds forth on the 'burbs, songcraft and burdens of selling fifteen million albums
Posted Sep 7, 1999 at 12:00am
Very few writers can pack as much wit, pathos and venom into song (often the same song) as Richard Thompson. Even fewer can match him as a guitarist. For thirty years -- from his beginnings with the English folk group Fairport Convention through his landmark albums with his ex-wife Linda Thompson (including Shoot Out the Lights) to his latest, the acclaimed Mock Tudor -- Thompson has remained one of rock's most original, stunning and frequently disturbing artists.

Talk to the chap on the phone, however, and you're reminded less of some dark, towering musical icon than an exceptionally shy, polite and quietly charming Hugh Grant character. It's a little unsettling coming from a guy whose new album ends with the chilling verse, "I stole your soul -- when you weren't looking . . . Hope you like the new me." But in its own way, it all fits. Mock Tudor as a whole concerns life in and around London, particularly as viewed from the endless suburbs that surround it. The cover captures a scene of plastic paradise, replete with perfect, cookie-cutter house, vast green yard and happy, argyle-sweatered family. Though you can't quite put your finger on it, there's something decidedly creepy in the state of Pleasantville.

Mock Tudor is all about your life growing up in and around the suburbs of London. You're not still out in the 'burbs, are you?

Well, yeah, I'm afraid I am. But certainly a nicer suburb than where I started. I'm in Hampstead. I grew up in Archway. Hampstead is further up the hill -- I've been crawling my way up.

How long have you wanted to make this particular album about your roots?

Well it's one of several possible projects that I've had kicking around or stashed away in a small corner. And I suppose I had a couple of songs that seemed to go with that theme already written, and it just seemed like a good time to try and do a whole album about London. So I started writing to see what would happen, and it turned out to be pretty easy.

How have your feelings about London changed?

I've always loved it and hated it. The suburbs I don't particularly care for. I actually grew up in a block of apartment flats, but at some point we moved out to a true Mock Tudor for a few years, which was a very boring two years. I was about fifteen, sixteen. And we moved further out in the suburbs, which was a disaster. Absolute hell -- endless commuting to get to anything good. But there's extraordinary history in the city itself. At the moment, London has become very cosmopolitan, more so than ever. It's a real jumping city, especially for young people.

A lot has been made about your change of producers for this album, from Mitchell Froom to Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf. What was the most dramatic thing that they brought to the mix?

I don't think there was anything that dramatic. On record, I always like a simpler sound, a garagey sort of sound. Mitchell Froom achieved that with more off-mic stuff and distorted stuff, whereas Mock Tudor is very much a straight-ahead kind of record. It didn't need anything particularly to be done with it. And it just sounded complete. There wasn't a need to go in and mash it around. And to pay tribute to the producers, it was the kind or record that I wanted to make, and I feel like they presented me with that -- like giving me my own record, which is the highest thing you can say, really.

Your son Teddy plays guitar on this album, and he's touring with you. When were you first fully aware of his own musical leanings?

I don't know. He was sort of sneaky about it, really. I think he started playing guitar when he was about six, but he wasn't the most diligent student. He was in a school group when he was about fourteen, fifteen, which was actually a great band. But in terms of writing, I'm not sure when I first heard one of his songs. But it was a pleasant surprise. It's nice to say he really is a good writer, not just because he's a member of your family. It's a relief, actually, to not have to be nepotistic about it.

When you listen to music today, do you get the sense that the guitar as a melodic instrument is a dying breed, or are you intrigued with the way music's changed?

In terms of guitar playing, I don't think anybody's really gotten past Hendrix. There's been flashes of good guitar players, and there's been a lot more notes, but I don't think there's been quite that balance of experimentation and musicianship and soul that you had with Hendrix. So the future of the guitar, well, who knows, it could be bleak. In terms of popular music, it seems like something's around the corner. It's at kind of a low ebb at the moment, but that's often the time when something really interesting is about to happen.

You've always excelled at great broken love songs, from "Walking on a Wire" on Shoot Out the Lights to "Dry My Tears and Move On" on Mock Tudor. Is that just theme you enjoy, or do they all come from one particular muse, one great love of your life?

Well, I wouldn't tell you anyway [laughs]. But actually, I think I sit down to try and entertain myself and to see what will happen, to write a first line and think, "Hmm, that seems interesting," and then I want to see what the next line will be. Obviously there are things about your own life in there, but I don't think that's the point of it. The point is to write a good song, and if the audience likes it, then generally you've succeeded in communicating something. But I don't think you always write with that kind of self-consciousness.

When you write today, do you feel more assured of your abilities, or is it a matter of, "How much more can I wring out of myself?"

[Laughs] How much more can I wring out of myself? I don't know. But I think I've got the craft a bit better now. There's less wastage, and I can focus on writing better and come up with the goods a bit quicker. But I think emotionally it's still as intense. It takes a lot out of oneself to play music, to write, to make records. And I don't see any end to that really.

Mock Tudor is being hailed as one of your best albums in years. When you listen to it, or any album you've just completed, do you feel like you've gotten better? Or do you still match everything you do up against something from your past?

I think generally it improves in terms of skill, but you don't hit it on every record. I think I've done a lot of records that are half-good, and I think a lot of other musicians would say the same thing. It's easy to be satisfied with about six tracks on an album, but it's hard to like twelve tracks on an album. On the new record, however, I'm still fairly fond of most of it. That's a good thing. I don't think there's any tracks on it I hate. We're still on the honeymoon period.

Any idea what you want to do on your next album? Your projects tend to vary dramatically each time out.

I do have a pile of projects, but I'm not sure which is the best one to go with.

What are some of the options?

That would be telling. I'm not allowed to tell. That's called counting your chickens I think. But I don't know. If this album is an enormous smash and sells fifteen million, there will be pressure to do more of the same, so we might have to do Mock Tudor II, or perhaps pick up with a different architectural style.

Written by RICHARD SKANSE for RollingStone.com News

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