The Acoustic-Electric… John Martyn
The Acoustic-Electric… John Martyn. Jazz, blues, funk, soul, rock – or none of the above? As always, the music of John Martyn denies simple categorisation… Interview by Rick Batey.
John Martyn is looking positively perky. This is probably not unconnected with the fact that a three year struggle to get his twentieth album off the ground has finally come to an end. The Apprentice is released in April on a brand new label, Permanent Records…
“I really haven’t a clue why the old record company didn’t like it. I believed in it; I even re-recorded it in Glasgow at my own expense. But in the end they weren’t interested; the only thing left to do was to sell it myself, so I decided to toddle off. I was very annoyed with life in general at that point, I’m not used to failing! But I’m hoping this signals the end of ‘five board meetings before you’re allowed to record a demo single’, and that the new arrangement with Permanent will enable me to get things out more quickly. If I want to, I’ll be able to nip into the studio for two days and record an EP of standards.”
The trouble with delayed releases is that everyone judges them as current work. It must be frustrating if you’re now thinking about something completely different…
“Well, I’m very pleased with the album. I do like the songs on it, but, like everything else, it’s gone now. I don’t have the same approach to any of the tracks, because my band has changed. It’s difficult to organise a musical career unless you have, what a horrible phrase, a product in the marketplace. Albums really should be current, otherwise people aren’t going to be interested.”
There’s some pretty high-powered musicianship on the album, like Andy Sheppard on saxophone. How did he get involved?
“Andy first came in on that doomed recording for the old record company. We’d done some other stuff with another saxophonist which I didn’t like, and I eventually tracked Andy down in Glasgow at three o’clock in the morning. He’d just finished playing with a Dutch jazz band and I asked him if he could make it to the studio by about seven o’clock that same morning! He ended up improvising solos for four tracks, and he’d finished by ten. It was amazing.’
While we’re on collaborators, you’ve been quoted as saying that out of all the people you’ve worked with, Danny Thompson has taught you the most. Is there any chance of you two working together soon?
‘Well, Danny did give me a lot of insights that I wouldn’t otherwise have had and he pointed me in some directions, but not harmonically; it was very much a two way thing, and I think Danny would admit that I dragged him kicking and screaming into some things, like In A Silent Way, very beautiful, still love that. That wasn’t the kind of jazz he was into at the time; he was a hard bebop man.”
“But after the flap and furore of this tour has died down, I’d really like to do an acoustic album with Danny, we’d maybe even film the making of it. It’d be a complete move away for me, but I could still keep going with the band at the same time. I’m at the point now where I want to do a lot of work. If I don’t, I find myself becoming a little dangerous. I do the wrong things, or just sit and watch television. I deliberately took two and a half months off at the end of December, and at the end of it I was going crazy. I don’t have a car, the weather was awful, and you can’t fish at that time of year (laughs). I ended up sending out for hamburgers and going square eyed by watching videos, the whole Elvis Presley syndrome. The only difficulty with an acoustic project is playing something that hasn’t been played before. The so called New Acoustic Wave is something that I find completely valueless. I don’t want to point the finger at anyone…”
Do you think the acoustic boom doesn’t really exist?
“Well, you tell that to the Tracy Chapman fans, or the Waterboys, all that kind of stuff, it seems that they copy all the wrong values.”
I suppose The Waterboys could be said to borrow heavily from Dylan and Neil Young, but are those bad influences?
“Not necessarily, but I think both Neil and Bob, Neil and Bob, doesn’t that sound cool? I think both Bobby and Neilly-poo would admit that they’re not very subtle or detailed players; they’re both three chord men. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s an awful lot more you can do with the instrument. Stephen Stills, for instance, would be a very good influence, he’s an excellent player, a natural. And the old guys… there’s people like Stefan Grossman, but they’re actually just carbon copies of people from the 1930’s like Doc Watson or The Reverend Gary Davis. Going back to that period would be very valuable for any young acoustic player.”
You’re doing a run at the Shaw Theatre soon with (singer) Mary Coughlan and David Gilmour joining in.
“Yes, there’s a track of Mary’s called As The Leaves Of The Trees which I like very much. I’d like the band to work it out, she can sing it and I’ll just join in on the chorus. If that doesn’t work out then she might just sing backup for some of my stuff. And as for David Gilmour, well, we’ve known each other in passing for a long time and we keep on meeting each other in the oddest places. I’ve got all the Floyd records, and when they were at their height they used to come to see me play in America. I never used to go to theirs, though (laughs); I was never allowed in… I’ve chosen a couple of passages that I know will be good for him, and we’ll get together in a couple of days and sort them out. We’re supposed to be doing something together for television. What’s that thing called, Rock Steady? Rapido is actually my favourite, if only because of Antoine de Caunes. I love that guy, he just makes me laugh so much. He could introduce the Welsh language News At Ten, and I’d probably sit through the whole thing.”
The track I like best on ‘The Apprentice’ is Income Town. It’s the only live track, and the atmosphere is amazing.
“There doesn’t seem to be any half way ground with live recording. It’s either utterly awful, or so wonderful that when you hear it you go, “Cor! I didn’t know we were that good…” That one certainly was a goodie. The rest of the tracks are going to change a great deal when we play them on this tour, because apart from the bass player who I’ve been with for ten years, all the musicians I’m working with now are very young. Well, compared to me they are… There’s Miles Bould on percussion, Spencer Cozens on keyboards, Dave Lewis on sax; they’re more jazzers than anything else, and sometimes it’s very cerebral stuff! They’ve got a very sweet approach to music. They do a lot of organic eating; no, I’m lying about the organic eating, but we’re not a ‘let’s go out, get drunk and wreck a hotel band.'”
Booze seems to be a particularly dangerous area for musicians, because a little tipple can take the edge off your nerves but it’s so hard to keep it in balance.
“It’s all very easy to fall into, and the trouble really starts when you’re playing all the time. You end up doing it night after night and eventually your body starts to scream for it. That’s really the point at which you should stop, but you feel so bad that you just have to go for your first drink, and that’s you off again. It’s a very dangerous vicious circle.”
“But as I say, this tour is spiritually very different. The jazz influence is much stronger, and a thing like Live On Love, which was very rock’n’rollish on the album, now has the piano and sax playing legato almost all the way through it. The new slant is very interesting; it gives me more freedom and choice with what I do on the guitar, and it’s actually changed my singing style. (laughs) There’s a bit more Peggy Lee in the old vocals these days…”
One singing influence you always cite is that of Skip James. Tell us about him…
“Skip James was very unusual. He was a blues player back in the ’20s and ’30s who played a National guitar; his contemporaries all had very raw singing styles, but he had a beautiful voice. He was actually the most wonderful guitarist, more of a player than he was a singer. He was the most delicate of all the blues guitarists, very ornate and flowery. He also had a very dark side to him which appeals to me; a peculiar slant on things, almost a death wish, rather like Robert Johnson had. The probability is that he was just plain crazy and did too much cocaine, or whatever it was they took in those days, but what he played was beautiful. It was almost classical, but not in a stiff kind of way. He swung like a bitch.’ ‘That kind of music was what I started on; Bukka White and Robert Johnson impersonations. I still find myself playing things from years ago when I’m at home -from much the same period as the stuff the Notting Hillbillies are doing I suppose, mostly blues from the 1930s and ’40s. I’ve always liked that kind of music.”
Was it playing acoustic blues that led you into open tunings, or did it happen on the electric?
“All the tunings I use first came about on the acoustic guitar, and when I became more interested in electric guitars I transferred some of them over. These days, though, if I want to play blues on the acoustic then I’d always use straight tuning. I used to do things in DADGAD, but the one that’s been most important for me is a tuning I learned from Dick Gaughan. Funnily enough, he’s just re-released a most beautiful album called A Handful Of Earth. I’ve had it for at least ten years; there’s nothing on it that’s even vaguely weak, it’s just frighteningly good. I think the only thing that’s stopped Dick from being far, far more popular than he is, is because he sings in a hard Edinburgh dialect. A lot of people just wouldn’t understand it.”
“But that tuning is really a violin tuning, and I like it a lot. Once you get the basic shapes down it’s very simple and sounds very sweet. Both the third and fourth strings are tuned to C, there’s a lot of undertones and overtones that you wouldn’t get if those two weren’t in unison, and it’s very sonorous. The reason I use open tunings comes primarily from those years of playing solo. It made it much easier to get a big, warm sound, and I found that the greater gap you get from the bottom string to the top, then the better it is.”
“I basically think of myself as an acoustic player. I do think I’ve become a slightly better lead player; I’ve certainly gained more confidence through experience, but I know I’m never going to be Al DiMeola. I’d normally pick up the acoustic at home, because it’s handy; the electric guitar is something that I tend to play with the band, and under no other circumstances. I’ve always had a nylon-strung guitar around, I love them, they’re very relaxing things to play of an evening, and I ended up using one on the album. Another thing I do all the time is to take an acoustic guitar, leave the top two strings on, but replace the lower four with the high octave strings from a twelve string set.”
Country players do that. They use it to double up an acoustic part, it’s called “Nashville” or “Angel” tuning.
“Is that what they call it? I’ve never used it for that. I just use it for solo stuff.”
Have you given up the Gibson SG for a Les Paul?
“Oh, I never get rid of guitars unless they turn out to be awful. My favourite would have to be the Les Paul, though. It’s a ’54 goldtop and I don’t even take on the road any more, it’s just too beautiful. It’s an utterly adorable thing, so sweet to play, and you can get any noise out of it you like. It buzzes a bit, but that’s a problem with all these old things. What I really like about the Les Paul is that it’s so powerful, it’s just insane. I have it turned up very live, as saucy as possible; it’s more fun that way, and it makes you play with more precision. If there’s a chance that you might drop an enormous clanger by putting your finger in the wrong place or by using a bit too much clout, then you tend to play with a bit more control.”
How do you react to audience requests for older songs like ‘May You Never’ or ‘Solid Air’?
“I always look on that as a compliment, really, but if they do it to the detriment of the current thing then it does become a bit of a bind. You’ve got to push forward to a certain extent, or things become extremely dull.”
Do you think you’ve got a good relationship with audiences in general?
“Yes, I think so. I once went through a quiet patch where I hardly said anything at all. It was as a reaction to people saying I was impossibly garrulous on stage and spent all my time chattering like a magpie and making inane remarks, so I thought, ‘Sod you, I won’t say anything!’ But I’ve found a happy medium now.”
Some players have the attitude that the music ought to speak for itself.
“That’s also true, but if you feel like making a glib remark and making people laugh, then why not do it? That whole rabbit thing was purely because I was used to playing folk clubs, and it’s essential to do it there; your relationship with the audience is all important. I’ve been to see guys whose music I love, and they’ve been as dull as ditch water on stage because they’re intimidated and don’t feel or look comfortable. I think we’ve lost something in this era of huge venues.”
“There’s a school of thought that says that clubland is going to make a comeback, I’d love that. Big, properly run clubs with about a thousand seats, nice service on the tables, no plastic glasses, and good bands that can have a residency for six or seven days. I think that the logistics of mega tours have got a bit stupid. It’s a dinosaur, a thing of the past.”
How about the other end of the spectrum, do you still go to folk clubs?
“I do go sometimes, because that’s the circuit some of my friends are on and it’s the only way I can see them play. It’s not as pleasant these days as it was, there seems to be much more sniping and general rivalry. Perhaps it’s just that I’m more cynical about it now, but to be honest I’ve never been very interested in the ‘folk scene’ or the ‘jazz scene’. Music’s much bigger than that; these places can be so negative, and by its very nature music is a harmonious, all embracing thing.”
“There were some beautiful things coming out of folk scene in the ’60s. It was the place where some great relationships between musicians were built up. It all started to go wrong in the early seventies, around the time I was doing Solid Air. People would actually complain if you brought an amplifier with you, and as far as I can see things have become even more polarised and that attitude has only got worse. In Canada, for instance, they screamed at me when I started by playing the electric guitar. And when I finally picked up the acoustic, they go (adopts a nasal whine) “See, you can do it, John!” Well, of course I can do it!”
1 June 1990