This interview with Peter Blegvad, John Greaves and Chris Cutler was conducted in July 1996 at the MIMI Festival (Arles).
The first time you three played together was in
'74, in Slapp Happy/Henry Cow. Did you only record in the studio or
did both bands also play concerts together?
(PB) No. We never got that far. We made the record "Desperate Straights" together, and then we made "In Praise Of Learning" together, and then we began rehearsing towards the idea of touring together. And in the course of that, it was discovered - not to my surprise - that I actually couldn't play Henry Cow music. The chords and the time signatures were too complicated. And... just generally, Anthony and I felt kinda lost. And Dagmar, who could cut it perfectly well on that stuff, was retained. But for about a year, though, we were an amalgamated group... Maybe it was less than a year... In those days... a little bit of time seemed like a lot of time!
How did the idea come about to amalagamate
(JG) I think Chris probably has a more theoretical answer to this, but I think... What actually happened was that, we discovered Slapp Happy when we were on Virgin Records. Simon Draper, he was a very exploratory kind of A&R man, he had signed Henry Cow to the label, and he was very excited when he heard their first record, which Chris re-released afterwards, which was...
(CC) Casablanca Moon...
(PB) Yeah... I think we only got signed because Chris and maybe other Cows heard the demos that we'd done and said "hey, you gotta sign these guys!".
(CC) A lot of people in Henry Cow were interested in playing pop music. That's what they had all done before.
Was there any particular reason why Henry Cow
had never played vocal material before?
(CC) Oh, we did... It wasn't on record, though.
(JG) Yes, there are tapes with Fred singing. And on record Tim and I...
Yeah, there's this piece called "Nine Funerals
Of The Citizen King"...
(JG) Yeah. But there was definitely stuff made before that, which we did on the Peel Sessions or stuff, I think. There was Fred singing his folk songs!
It took you a long time to discover your own
(JG) Well, I used to sing a lot, when I was with my father's dance band, you know. But it seemed somehow unappropriate with this Henry Cow thing. I kind of stopped and forgot about it, and anyway playing the bass was already much too difficult...
At your Paris concert last April, you barely
touched your bass. Too difficult to be a singer AND a bass player at
the same time?
(JG) Yeah... But that's only a temporary thing, that's one side of what I'm doing, and I do like it a lot... I can sing and play at the same time, but if I can get Paul Rogers to play double bass, and Sophia to play piano... it's quite an ideal thing, and I can sing better anyway. So that's not the whole story, but I like that format.
Peter and John, you've worked together several
times since "Kew Rhone", but you never did material that was similar
to that. What made this album so special at the time
(JG) I think it's because that was still very complicated music which basically doesn't turn Peter on.
So you had a hard time doing that album
(PB) Er... (laughs) Well, I think my resistance to the music, or my inability to play the music, which is what it really comes down to, accounts for the ambition of the lyrics to that record. I don't think I would have been forced to make such experimental lyrics if I could have just comfortably played the music. And then another reason why we never tried, or did anything like that again, was that it sort of had an air of finality about it for me, it was, I mean, pretentiously, it was gonna be, you know... the end, from my point of view it was the end of pop music, of my pop music. But it wasn't really at all, and it wasn't pop music either, so it's... very confused! Anyway, it was an untopical record, there wasn't any way that we could then say "well, how are we gonna go one step further?" - and have, you know, even more complicated diagrams, and lyrics that feed off each other... So it wasn't really until the Lodge record that we tried again...
The Lodge album took a long time to
(JG) ... a VERY long time!
Cause originally it was with Lisa Herman
(PB) Yeah! That's true! The Lodge first started, I think six or seven years before the record... We lacked discipline in those days, or something, I don't know... John and I retired to a Vermont farmhouse one hot summer with the idea of writing an album... and I think I wrote one line in two months! I think I was insane, actually, that's always a bit of a handicap...
[to John & Chris] But as far as you two are
concerned, you still go for complex music?
(CC) I haven't had the chance to play complex music for years...
Can't you create the chance?
(CC) Well, when I get the chance to create something, it's usually in a slightly different direction. I suppose "Domestic Stories" was pretty complicated, that was the last one. That's why I wrote all the texts. Usually when I write all the texts, it's impossible to set a 4/4... You know, when you say groups, like Nick Didkovsky's group, or U Totem, they are a dying group, there are hardly any groups that compose music of that sort these days.
So why don't you?
(CC) I'm not a composer. And also, it takes a certain amount of time to learn to play that stuff...
[to John] Same problem for you
(JG) Yeah. I think it is a question of outlet. I don't have an outlet for instrumental music of any sort, actually. I already find it difficult enough to write songs... I do still write a lot of... well, none of it is terribly complicated, but it's not straight 4/4's, it's quite complex music, but quite frankly, at the moment I don't know what to do with it! So I could imagine doing it myself, doing all the arrangements, and somebody would give me an orchestra to do it, then great! Otherwise, as Chris said, the commitment of working with a band for a long time, it takes a lot of people's time, for NO, no financial reward whatsoever and... It's something that is hard...
Do bands like Henry Cow and National Health
belong to the past somehow? I mean, bands that spend a lot of their
time rehearsing together...
(CC) Young people can do it!
(PB) Doctor Nerve is a good example. Eleven years, they said they've been together. And they may spawn an imitator or two, who knows, they're so good, it wouldn't surprise me at all!... But you know, people want quick rewards, it's nothing new, but I think it gets more and more extreme.
(CC) And also, you know, the areas in which people want to experiment have changed. Henry Cow was putting together that particular mix of stuff that we pulled in from other musical disciplines, and experimenting with the instruments, the rock form, by basically making it much more complex. And now new technologies are being used...
Do you feel interested at all by these new
musical forms derivated from the new electronic equipment, like
techno and stuff?
(JG) No (smiles)
(PB) There's some great stuff, very good stuff... Yeah!
But you're not interested in using that
(PB) I'm always sort of put off by the enormous sums of money you have to invest to acquire good samplers and things like that. Nevertheless I was very serious about it.
(JG) Yeah... but it would be a different style, (to Peter) I mean you're not interested in doing techno stuff yourself?
(PB) Mmh... (laughs) Not really, no! But techno means... does that mean using samplers?
Samplers, drum machines, synthesizers... But
not necessarily those repetitive beats...
(PB) Well, I mean, I have no experience with it, so I've no idea. I'd be interested in trying anything, but it doesn't occur to me... I have a guitar at home, I work with that, it's cheap, it's there...
(JG) I think... I always say this, cause I think somebody who should be mentioned in the context of this, you know, how long it takes to do stuff, and the lack of reward... is Albert Marcoeur. I mean he's still doing it, and he's still absolutely amazing. He's incorporated new technologies, but the music is still extraordinarily complicated to play. Just so right and funny... cause I think, the problem that can exist with the fiercely complicated music is that it can tend to lose its sense of humour or generosity about it...
(PB) If I used the new technology, I think I'd use it to serve the language which I've already developed, you know. And that does happen anyway, when you're in a studio and the engineer says "oh, listen, I've got this gizmo which does so-and-so", and you find yourself being amazed by...
(CC) I've certainly worked with a lot of people who used samplers, turntables, computers...
(PB) On that record of John and me that you have here - what's it called? "Unearthed"? - yes, with the texts... John was able to do the music there, on a little computer, it's all done with 'technology', really.
(JG) Yeah, I write with computers all the time. So I do use them, but it still tends to sound like me, and not like anyone else...
Strange, cause your music tends to get more and
(JG) It seems to be the case (laughs)... But it's not necessarily a decision I made. I can't develop the instrumental side of what I do at the moment, I'm waiting for the opportunity to do that. It seemed much more possible to do something like the "Songs" album...
Peter, what level of success do you enjoy? Are
you more successful in the States or in Europe?
(PB) (laughing) I would say, without too much irony I hope, that I'm not really successful in either place, but I think there's maybe more people who are aware that I even exist, in Europe. But I don't know... I think there's about 75 people in Europe who know that I exist, and there's about 65 in America... And I know them all personally! (laughs)
Why did you come to Europe in the first place
(PB) My family moved in the early 60's, when the climate in America was becoming increasingly nasty. The assassinations of JFK and Dr. Martin Luther King, and the Vietnam war... various things - it was getting kinda nasty. My brother and I were becoming of an age where we could be recruited into the army, and my parents both had connections in Europe, and a cheap appartment became available in London. All those things.
What is your origin?
(PB) I'm a New Yorker... My father's Danish, my mother is a New Yorker. I was born in New York.
Do you still feel an American after all these
years spent in Europe?
(PB) Yes, I have to say. I spent almost half my life in England, but actually that tends to make me feel even more American.
None of you is English, but you still get
billed as a 'British trio'. What's your reaction to that
(PB) That's okay, that's understandable. The program for the gig here says : "where would the world be without these eccentric Britsh poets ?", or something! (laughs)... Well, I'm not a poet, I'm not British... and I'm certainly not eccentric! (laughs)
And you, John, do you feel Welsh
(JG) Very Welsh, thank you! (laughs)... Curiously, though, it comes out from time to time. I have no particular fondness either for the country or the people, or the language, which I don't know very well... But sometimes... maybe it's getting older, but there is a certain 'welshness' which I emphasize with. When the 'Five Nations' tornament [European rugby tornament] comes up, I become very Welsh.
Several well-know 'Canterbury' musicians - Pip
Pyle, Elton Dean and you, John - now live in Paris. Is France a
better place for your kind of music?
(JG) As a lifestyle, as a culture, yes. In terms of musical scene, I must say it isn't. I've done much less collective musical work in France than I did before I came. I mean I've done a lot of stuff, but not...
(CC) I don't think it really matters where you live, anyway, cause you don't play where you live. The last project I did was with one Canadian, one Japanese, one Polish and one German. And the next one will be with two Americans, one Yugoslav and an Austrian... The festivals are always somewhere else at the end of an aeroplane journey, and it doesn't matter where you start that journey. And it doesn't matter if you live with the people you're going to play with, cause mostly you don't rehearse every day of the month, in your backyard. Americans do that much more cause it's a big country.
Was Britain once a good place for music like
yours, at the time of Henry Cow, and then it changed
(CC) France was better for us than England. But it was better in general, back in the late 60's and early 70's. France was quite good, and Germany became great in the last years, very supportive, lots of musicians doing lots of concerts, lots of festivals. Italy is now becoming... It moves around.
Did things become harder with the punk era
(CC) It didn't make any difference.
(PB) I can remember Johnny Rotten saying in an interview, well, "I'd rather listen to Fred Frith than - I don't know - Mick Jagger", or... (laughs).
National Health had things in common with
'progressive rock' bands like Yes and Genesis who were so criticized
by the punks.
(JG) Unfortunately, yes (laughs). That was the side of it that I didn't like. I liked... a lot of it, obviously. The more eccentric side of it, of Dave Stewart's compositions.
How many albums have you recorded so far, Peter
Blegvad albums featuring John and Chris?
(PB) Well, only one really, and we're working on a second one right now.
(CC) I'd say two. I guess Downtime would count.
(PB) Yeah, although John is featured on only a few things. Yeah, so two and we're working on a third!
Can you say a few words about it
(PB) Well, I think the new one is going to try and be a worthy successor to "Just Woke Up" and follow along pretty similarly. We think we have a good formula with "Just Woke Up", and we want to see if we can build on that. So we'll employ the same session men, B.J. Cole, Geraint Watkins and a few of the others too. So, basically, it's American sort-of 'roots' music, coming from me but then fed through and interpreted by (laughs) masterful European virtuosos of their instruments, so it changes it and comes out sounding pretty original somehow. Gives it a spin.
It's music that could be played on only guitar
and vocals, though...
(PB) It can, yes, a lot of it can, and in fact has to be, because it's usually prohibitively expensive to travel as a trio, this is a big treat for us, and in fact MIMI is our debut... because it costs so much money. Otherwise it's pretty cheap for me to travel around with only a guitar, so... that's what I usually do.
[to John and Chris] How much of your own
personality do you manage to feed Peter's songs with? Is it a group
or do you rather feel like backing musicians?
(JG) Er... Is it really contradictory being a group and being a group and being backing musicians? I don't think it is.
(PB) I can say, as the composer, that they contribute a lot of the basic structural ideas to the songs, they change them a lot. I don't have ideas for the bass parts, arrangements, drums. I have very simple ideas, sometimes they're just the basis for what is eventually recorded. So it's a very creative relationship.
(JG) Yes, I feel it like a compositional role as much as a playing role.
I see you have scores for the songs here. Did
you write down all your bass parts?
(JG) No, I have little maps of the songs... just chord changes.
(PB) And special notes, like 'ba-dee, ba-da-da-boo', he writes, and only he knows what that means! (laughs)
(CC) I think it's not a question of being a backing musician *or* having you own ideas and expressing yourself. That's the problem, you have to find out what the song wants.
(PB) That's a very good point. We're all equally serving the songs... slaves to the songs! (laughs).
Would you 'serve' as rhythm section for other
singers than Peter?
(JG) Sure! Anybody looking for a backup band... and Peter can be in the band too! But seriously, in terms of what's actually going on, yes I'd like to do more stuff like that, but - of course - given it was really good music.
(PB) I remember - this was in the seventies - we were going to send off a tape and some charts to a record company in Florida that advertised in the back of Guitar Player magazine or something, and they said "send us your ideas for a song and we will record your song for you with our trained musicians", so that then you can become a songwriter, you know, and use that as a demo tape. And you know, John and I were gonna do that for Kew Rhone...
(JG) Yeah, I think we should have done it. Send them the parts, and...
(PB) Yes, it would have been great. That company doesn't exist anymore, not surprisingly... (laughs)
(c) 1996 Calyx - The Canterbury Website