BIG INTERVIEW Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention: ‘It’s a blessing to have avoided the commercial sunshine’

Fairport Convention live at Cropredy Convention 2017. Picture by @davidtjackson

This summer’s Cropredy Festival saw something quite special for fans of the long-running folk legends Fairport Convention.

To mark the band’s 50th anniversary they brought together all of the surviving founder members, including most famous alumni Richard Thompson, plus several others who have passed through the ranks down the decades, for an epic set celebrating their history.

The festival was begun by the band in 1979 and has become a full-blown, 20,000-people annual fixture in the summer calendar – with the Fairports naturally taking pride of place on the bill. And the band is also heavily involved in the actual organisation of the event each year.

Simon Nicol is the sole founder member in the regular band nowadays and, speaking shortly after Cropredy, he tells The Guide: ‘There was a lot of anticipation about it. Inside the band, involving the organisation, it was business as usual, we just had to make a few tweaks to acknowledge the anniversary,’ he says downplaying the logistics of getting everyone back together.

But he is justifiably pleased with the festival, which is often a sell-out.

‘It’s Fairport’s Cropredy Convention – it’s something we’re all hugely proud of, and it’s amazing to have watched it grow from the aftermath of a village fete to a massive international three-day event.

Fairport Convention

‘It will be nice next year to get back to a much simpler approach – let’s look at the five-piece working band that’s been in existence for the last 20 years, without the need to telescope the previous 30 years and shoehorn that in as well.’

Since Gerry Conway took the drum stool from Dave Mattacks in 1998 the band has kept a solid line-up. In an old interview Simon described the band as ‘like a musical bus on a circular route, where people can hop on and off.’ Does he still think of them like that?

‘Nobody gets out of this band alive,’ he says, seemingly only half joking. ‘Yes, it is a bit like that. It’s a family, that’s a better way of putting it. You may emigrate, you may forget to send the odd birthday card, or you may not get to every Christmas reunion, but it’s always going to be your home and I think that’s true of everyone, even if they were only in it briefly. They’re still attached to the snowball that’s still rolling down the hill.’

However, Simon is wary of how the current line-up presents the older material, saying that without the participation of ‘certain members’ – perhaps alluding to vocalist Sandy Denny who died in 1978, or violinist Dave Swarbrick who is credited with leading the band in the ’70s and who died last year – the band would be in danger of ‘becoming a tribute to itself’.

When I play the guitar and sing on those old songs, in my head I’m not still 18. The only reason we do them is because they work, if they didn’t work as the people we are now, then there’d be no room

Simon Nicol

‘There are some songs in the repertoire that go back a very long way, things like Crazy Man Michael and Matty Groves, from Liege and Lief, which was a ’69 album but we don’t attempt to parrot-fashion them, we don’t want them to sound exactly as they did when we recorded them.

‘When I play the guitar and sing on those, in my head I’m not still 18. The only reason we do those is because they work, if they didn’t work as the people we are now, then there’d be no room, no matter how much people cried out for them.

‘Fortunately we don’t have many hits – in fact we have no hits at all! It’s a blessing really to have avoided a moment in the commercial sunshine – if you have a great peak album, one that everyone’s got, everything you do after that is a sort of anti-climax.’

That said, Liege and Lief has come to be regarded as the most influential album of all time. At the 2006 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, it won an award with that exact title.

Fairport Convention photographed in November 2016. Picture by Ben Nicholson.

‘That’s a different matter,’ says Simon, ‘it’s not like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, or Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, it’s not one of those cornerstone albums where every single home in the land has a copy.

‘You just do what you do, but anybody who gets into the world of the arts, if I may include music in that, it’s a risky business, it’s a job without a career structure, it’s a job without an established hierarchy – there are no recognised status improvement levels.

‘You just throw your hat in the ring and battle it out with whoever else is out that week and hope to gain a certain amount of attention, and do something that is pleasing to you, satisfying and fulfilling and that hopefully attracts a degree of attention from the ticket buyers out there, and I think that’s as far as my expectations ever took me, but I never had any expectation that one album would prove to be my key into a great and successful world, or ever think in 10 years time I’ll be doing this, but I’m very happy that the fates have been kind to us.

‘The money would be nice for a while, but it would become burdensome – you’d still spend the money, I’d rather have the situation we have now, which is a viable career – we’re still a cottage industry, and I’m happy for that to continue. I can’t speak for the others but I intend to carry on until my ageing frame can’t take it any more,’ he pauses, ‘and I hope I notice that before the others do!’

And with folk music’s stock currently at a high, Fairport have reaped the benefits: ‘There has been a kind of renaissance, it’s not going to challenge the mainstream music genres, but it’s in healthy heart because there’s so many young players coming through and have been coming through for the past 20 years.

‘They’ve got so much to play and so much to say, and they’re really, really good – they’re technically so much more proficient than my generation could ever hope to be.

‘And because people see young people playing this music, it becomes more attractive and more relevant to their own generation who would look at us as a bunch of old, stooped greybeards and think: “Oh, look at their ridiculous beer bellies and mannerisms. Who do they think they are?”

‘But because we’ve been in the background all the time, this younger generation who are attracting the plaudits have us held in some kind of mythical regard because we’ve been around longer than they have – we’re part of the furniture.’

Despite that status, the band continues to look forward rather than simply rest on its laurels.

‘We haven’t had the studio word mentioned for some time, but we tend to be putting something out every two to three years though. Chris (Leslie) is writing all the time, and I’ve got my ears to the ground – I’ve got a couple of songs I’ve picked up, they’re in the probables rather than possibles file at the moment.

‘And the diary is full right up until the next festival. Each festival has to pay for the next one - there’s no sponsorship or backing, but this year was a great success and there’s been a lot of encouraging words and kindness and a lot of love and good vibes emerging from that corner of north Oxfordshire.’

* Fairport Convention are at Emsworth Baptist Church as part of Wemsfest on Friday, October 20. Tickets £27.50. Check wegottickets.com for returns.

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