Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 38, No. 21. September 4 1975
Steel Eye Span — interviewed
Steel Eye Span
Tim Hart the guiding intelligence of Steeleye Span - now the major English electric folk rock group since the departure of Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention - is lolling elegantly in a Travelodge room, on a cold blustery Friday afternoon. Surrounded by the accoutrements of intermediate level success in the rock music business - a small leather satchel, cigars, a silver-inlaid lighter and the obligatory stickered briefcase - he talks amiably, occasionally scratching his head if the New Zealand vernacular escapes him, or stabbing the air with his finger if he wants to emphasise a point.
Hart settles into an animated discussion about the group's electric interpretations of traditional English folk material. Their repertoire consists of songs, dances and jigs culled from the English Folk Dance and Song Society's archives. They also utilised other sources The society's collection of the English folk heritage was started in 1890 by Percy Grainger's recording on to wax cylinders and expanded as time passed to incorporate such modem developments as the phonograph record and magnetised tape.
Steeleye Span, Hart elaborates, take those songs that they traditionally like. Sometimes they will do them intact Sometimes they will alter them.
He continues: On the new album, there's a single coming out called 'All Around My Hat, and the words are from a song called Farewell He 'It's roughly the same theme, it's just that it's a better set of words, fitted into the same tune It's off the new album which is called All Around My Hat.' I mean, if the single is a hit, then you'll have thousands of people who will buy it, because they like the tune because they can dance to it, whatever. And they won't even know it's a traditional song, or they don't need to know it's a traditional song. And by doing that you're far more putting it back into a national repertoire ... and an international one, than by sitting in a folk club and saying This is our music and we shouldn't come out of it.'
What ways do you think the group might change in the future - in so much as you can predict this sort of thing?
We're aiming to be bigger than we are. We'll gradually expand it, but musically, I don't know. It's always in a state of flux - we never have a specific thing, like each song is a step forward. We never know which direction the song is going to take until we've actually worked the long out. We don't map out policy, it just happens.
Are there any plans for a live album?
No, but you do make a lot of mistakes playing live and you get out of tune a lot, when you're playing live, and it doesn't matter .. when you're playing live, but if you put that down on record it does matter. Live you've got all the visual thing going on if you make a mistake and it's forgotten by the next bar. Whereas, on record, every time the mistake comes around you wince. You could go out and record a live album and then overdub the pieces that went wrong, but once you start doing that you might as well go into the studio and do a studio album. The new album, in a lot of ways, is a live-ish album. We went out and played it in the studio and overdubbed things and re-recorded things, and basically it went down live.
You normally play fairly quietly Do you ever find yourself getting yelled at by the audience to turn it up? Or because they couldn't hear?
No I think we usually play too loudly. One of our earlier guitarists - Martin Carthy - turned up was the loudest guitarist in rock.
You know when he played electric guitar - he was just like - everything was on notch 10 and he really didn't know it. I used to sit and play the dulcimer and my eardrums would be going I could feel them moving inside my head. And Martin was quite happily strumming away. He thought it was quite normal And people would shout and say Turn it down.'
But now you ye got a more equitable balance - you've been working together with this line-up for two years now.
It's a much different thing now - it's a very stable unit. To look outwards - up to when Martin and Tyger Hutchings, (the group's original bass player) left we were doing solo gigs as well. Maddy and I had been working as a duo since 1966, and Martin was in solo gigs. And Peter Knight, our violinist, was in a group. It wasn't really a 100 percent effort from everyone Now we don't do anything else, except this. We really don't get the time to do anything else
How do you see yourself as a musician?
One half of me is into folk music, the other half of me is a musician and the two only overlap for a certain .. mostly as a musician. You hear a tune and you work to present that the way you want to do it, but not with the restrictive thing of traditional instrumentation or anything like that I don't know.. it's a strange thing to explain. We're not hampered by being a folk band in folk clubs, which is where the majority of folk music is going on. We are an electric band, playing electric halls, we can't be playing traditional music. The instrumentation, and the whole psyche of the band, is as an electric band.
How do you react to the purists who screamed sell out when you switched to electric?
There will always be some of those -but the majority ... the argument I always use is that traditional is going to die - unless it's brought up to date. And the traditional music they collected in 1890 is not the traditional music of today, it's the traditional music of 1890, but it would have progressed from 1800, The section of the folk world that we don't see eye to eye with are those who maintain that traditional should be unaccompanied sining in the fields type of thing, which it cannot be. I mean, it's got to die It can only artificially be kept alive within the folk clubs - it has to keep pace with modern music. Traditional music was always up to date on current affairs, and love songs, and the only way to keep it alive is to put it into the stream of popular music
What about working with people like Ian Anderson the flautist from jethro Tull who produced your Now We are Six Album?
We were talking about what we wanted from a producer and we wanted someone who liked our music and had listened to a lot of it, and Ian had done both. He was also a good friend, so we got him down to do it. It was like having an extra member of the band sitting outside and being objective, because it's very difficult to be objective when you're actually playing it. You listen to playback, and you always hear whether your bits in there or not, and how it is - more than anybody elses - and you need just another musician, almost, just to sit back and say: No, that's not quite right. It wasn't what we were going to do. During 1973, we toured with [unclear: jethro tull and learned] from them the value of stagecraft - the value of projecting the show, because you work in vast auditoriums working 20,000 seats and if you go out to the back of 20,000 scats and look done to the stage, people appear to be about five inches Call. And you sprint from one side of the stage to the other and it's - visually like me moving my hand about a foot sideways. So really, you learn to work as a unit pushing out, you can't come out as an individual
What about working with David Bowie? Where did he spring from?
Rick Kemp our base-player, knew David .. and Rick was in a band with Mike Ronson Bowie's guitarist, years ago.
What do you think of the whole Bowie Ronson - Mott the Hoople cabal - the heavier side of glam rock, people like Sweet?
I like a lot of it - a lot of it's very good. If it's done well, it's astonishing. The Bowie things been handled very well. I mean, if the music's good enough, it can handle the type Bowie's music was very good, so you could put loads of hype on it, but it was still .... the music still stood up.
Why do you think that Steeleye Span could lay claim to, more or less, to being a unique group?
I don't know. We just sort of moved ahead of everybody else - it was actually a shame, because, if you like, there's a market there We're opening a new area of listening, and nobody's sort of coming in there with us. It's a shame - it would be great for us, to have two or three bands doing a similar thing .. who are up there with us, rather than us being the lone example I mean Fairport Convention are there but even Fairport are so confused.
Yes, you seem to produce a logical sound though
Well, it's getting more and more a straight, completely open musical approach to the song rather than there was a time when we would be a lot more folkie with a song, because it was a folk song, whereas now we are far more likely to be a lot rockier with it, which actually works a lot better The single which will be coming out soon 'All Around my Hat,' is just a straight traditional song with a 'da, boom a bomp a da boom a da bomp' backing behind it, and it really works - you know, the song comes right out front. I mean, it's strong enough to pick out as a good single. We haven't altered the song itself just put a really heavy rock backing on it, which two or three years ago, we wouldn't have done. We would have tried to treat it as a folk song.
Do you think doing something like that is going to draw allegations of commercial?
Of course it's commercial. What's wrong with a traditional song bring given a commercial treatment. The ideal, the whole ideal is to see that traditional songs go into the hit parade as a pop song. Not as a folk freak, as they occasionally do, but they're up there, holding their own against Mud and Sweet and 10cc and all those bands. I mean, that's where the music should be - it should be an electric thing - it should be up there, holding its own. It's strong enough to hold its own musically. That's where the music should be, not tucked away in folk clubs. This is the whole thing here. If there's any sort of politicking behind the music, it's to get it out of that - like saying that's a biscuit (waving a biscuit). It doesn't matter who made the biscuit, it's a biscuit and lots of people eat biscuits so you sell it to everybody. You don't say, well, this is a special biscuit and we're going to keep a bit quiet about it.
Patrick O'Dea and Lionel Klee