THROUGH THE EYES OF DAVE SWARBRICK
by Mick Donovan
Dave Swarbrick first recorded with Fairport Convention on their third album, 'Unhalfbricking'. His mesmerising contribution was the haunting, daunting violin on 'A Sailor's Life' behind Sandy Denny's soaring ethereal vocals.
Swarbrick's association continued until the late Seventies, when, on his doctor's advice, he stopped playing electric folk in order to minimalise the damage to his hearing. Deafness is a problem that has troubled Swarb since his very earliest days as a musican.
I met up with him in the dressing room of The Cabbage Patch prior to a duo-appearance with Simon Nicol. Swarb related his tale with a mixture of happiness and sadness.
PT: Tell us what your thoughts are of Fairport Convention's late vocalist Sandy Denny as a singer.
DS: I don't think my opinion of her as a singer has altered at all. If anything the passing of the years and the lack of other female singers has really made her stand out even more. She's even more missed now.
And as a person?
As a person I loved her. She was wonderful. But she could be exasperating. Everybody was... I was exasperating. As I get older I wish she'd been around as long so that she could have learned as much about life as I have. She'd certainly be a lot happier now, I think. At the time, I thought she was maybe destined to get more unhappy as the days went by. Now, looking back on it, I think if she could have got over it she could have been great in middle-age and beyond.
Why do you think that?
More understanding is gained as you get older. And I certainly wished that I'd had more understanding then. Those were wonderful times, you know, but they were hard times - people were hard. That's the way everything was then with business. It's a lot nicer now. A lot nicer to be older.
Life's nicer for you now, then.
I don't go on the stage now with the same attitude that I had then now I'm a lot older. I understtand more about what I'm doing, and I'm a lot more lenient now with the audience. You know what I mean.
You seem pretty laid-back.
Well, I'm in my fifties now and I've done one-night stands for over thirty years. You can see how that would mellow one, can't you? It certainly has for me. These years that I'm living now are the happiest I've ever lived in my life, without any qualification whatsoever. I'm just having a ball, now. And it's good that the feelings that I have now come without any of the angst of being young, without any of the hang-ups associated with either making it or not making it or wanting to make it or any of that.
Was it that which was wrong back then, do you think?
I'm not saying that's what was wrong with Sandy, but everybody was the same age. Everybody was growing up, and it was hard. It's hard enough for a single artist, and when you get six together it's really not easy. And it was harder for a woman then than it is now. She had a hard time trying to be herself instead of being what the media wanted her to be. I just think that if she could have somehow lived through all that without any accidents befalling her she would be having a ball now.
Simon said that she was like an accident waiting to happen.
Yeah, she was. She really was accident prone, they happened all the time.
You're still cut up about Sandy's death.
I'm as cut up now almost as the day it happened. I think of her and Trevor [Lucas, Sandy's late husband] very regularly.
You were actually the bigger name when you joined Fairport Convention and recorded on 'Unhalfbricking'.
Well, I knew Joe (Boyd, the producer) from the past. I suppose it was very different playing in a rock band - it certainly wasn't the same as folk.
What was it like working on what's seen as the seminal folk-rock album, 'Liege and Leif'?
The whole thing was remarkably relaxed, believe it or not. We all lived together in a house prior to that. Very relaxed. I don't remember an awful lot about it now. It was over twenty years ago!
How about the other personalities in Fairport Convention besides Sandy Denny - Richard Thompson for example.
I suppose like everybody else, people's personalities were being forged. Richard was always very self-effacing. I think most of that was him being shy as well. He's not so shy now. I think everybody has improved with age - age has done everybody a service.
'Full House' is reckoned to be the band's best period by members of the band itself.
You can't say it's the best period. It's the memories and the fun we had. We were mad. Always mad. We've had some wonderful times will all the different line-ups. You'd have to ask my bank manager which was the best.
Can you think of any examples of that craziness?
Yes, but none of them printable.
What about the lorry smashing into your bedroom, is that a true story?
That happened. That actually happened. I'll tell you something weirder than that, though. The day before that happened we'd had a pay out. It was the first real cheque of any size that any of us had ever had. It was the first cheque of any size that I'd had in all my life. Now, I've always been into antique shops. Still am, but even more so then if that's possible. I used to buy antiques left, right and centre, but with no money! And I had this cheque. So I went straight out and amongst all the things I bought - of course, I spent all the money - amongst all this stuff was a brass bed. When I got it back to the place I was staying in, it wouldn't fit where my bed normally went, which was right in front of the window. The only place it fitted was the opposite corner. The following morning, this effing lorry came crashing through. And the only part of the room that wasn't completely destroyed was the corner where the brass bed was. If I'd have been in the old bed in front of the window, if I'd kept the cheque and been a miser, I would have been killed. How about that?
[after a suitable period of digestion] You joined an acoustic band called Whippersnapper after you left Fairport.
I'm not with them any more - they're still going though.
The reason for leaving though was partly because of your hearing problems - how is your hearing now?
It's better. A lot better. I suppose in the intervening years I've only played electrically three or four times, and only once at volume. So my ears are a lot better. I've still got problems, but they're a lot, lot better. I was told not to play electric any more, that my hearing would deteriorate for as long as I played electric. Going acoustic has stabilised them - they're painful sometimes, but not too bad.
You were involved in the Cropredy Festival which celebrated Fairport's 25th anniversary.
Oh yeah. The most enjoyable aspect of that Cropredy was the warm-up gigs. There was one at the Mill in Banbury.
What does Fairport mean to you, now and in the past?
Now it's a chapter of my life. It's a big chapter and it overhangs a lot of what I do now. I very rarely go to a place to play my music without meeting Fairport fans. And the nature of the beast means they come up and let you know. I think that's good. There was a time a few years back when it wasn't so good... when I saw Fairport then they were fat-bellied drunkards. But they seem to have gone now, and there's a new generation. A nicer type of person altogether.
Finally, let's have your thoughts on unusual time signatures in English traditional music.
If you love English music and traditional music, sooner or later you're going to come up against unusual time signatures. So many of them have great time signatures. It's an aspect of English traditional music, and it's one of its most charming ones. That's what I love about it. We do one called 'Oh Dear Oh'. It's usually done unaccompanied. Martin [Carthy] and myself put that into 7. That's a great rhythm to play, very natural. Eastern European music is much plainer music. If you're standing by listening to it when they clap you notice it. They don't clap like fuckin' seals - they really synchronise. It makes it much more pleasurable.
And with that, Dave Swarbrick received his call to the stage for his duo spot with Simon Nicol. Our thanks to them both for such fascinating interviews...
Interview by Mick Donovan. (c) Terrascope Online. Originally published in Ptolemaic Terrascope issue 17, July 1994