On March 30 and 31 2007, the legendary Dave Swarbrick was in Adelaide as part of a national tour with Alistair Hulett. They played two gigs at the Trinity Sessions – hear some audio from the gigs here. Swarb suggested he’d like an interview, so how could one refuse? This chat took place at a coffee shop in town on Mar 31. Sadly, both Alistair and Swarb have left us now but they leave behind the huge musical contributions they made individually and together.
This interview was previously unpublished before Swarb’s passing on June 3 2016.
Michael Hunter: You’re about halfway through the tour; there’s a few interesting venues you’ve been playing at like a farm a few days ago. How’s it all been going?
Dave Swarbrick: “It’s been good, actually. We did a winery. That was good except I don’t drink any more so it’s a bit of a shame, really. That was interesting. Before that, we got to stay at an organic farm which was wonderful, with some fabulous people down in New South Wales. Yeah, we’ve had some pretty amazing gigs, some amazing churches. That gig last night, I think that‘s the prettiest little building I’ve seen in Australia so far. Wonderful place.”
And the sound was excellent too.
“Certainly was. Tip top.”
It’s such an obvious question but did you ever think you’d be touring Australia again?
“No. Not really. It’s a harder question than you think to answer because you know, if I’d have given up, well obviously I wouldn’t be here now. But half the time I was unconscious, I was not in a state really where I could contemplate even having a feed [either feed or pee??]. The thought of Australia never entered my head, really. Then when I was getting better and I was recovering, then of course it was an objective, it was something that I could look forward to doing. It was an aim.”
Was it goals like that that got you through the darkest times?
“Yeah. But sometimes it was cussedness too. Patience, a lot of patience because I was kind of strapped to a bed for a long time just looking, staring upwards. I couldn’t lie on my side or anything. I had to lie on my back for six months. But patience, and then Jill would come in every day and she’d bring in all the emails that I got, all the cards that had come in. In all the time I was in hospital, I never once had a hospital meal. No matter how far away I lived, I was sometimes a two and a half hour drive away, Jill always cooked me a meal and brought it in every day, for months and months and months. So there was a lot of things that kept me going, really. Other people kept me going.”
If there’s a lesson to be learned in everything in life, what’s the lesson in all this?
“I don’t know. Don’t smoke, that’s the first thing. It really is not much fun. Then I think the other lesson to be learned is one that people can get behind, is carry a donor card. I was talking to the head of the transplant team, Jill and I were – not really the head, the co-ordinator. She said she wasn’t busy because there was no donors. It’s a whole team which is a minimum of a dozen people I suppose, and they’re all laid off, got nothing to do but able to come to a concert of mine. Because there’s no bloody donors. People are dying, we know people that have died because there were no donors.
“I mean really, I think the law should be that people should request to go out of the system rather than request to go in. Everybody should be eligible to have whatever taken from them unless they say no. I can tell you from first hand experience how wonderful it is to be a disabled person in a wheelchair with all that goes with it, you have to have chairlifts, you have to have support and a lot of people behind you to be able to do anything – and then to be completely free and be able to walk around and stand equal with everybody else. Because the world is made unequal for disabled people, it’s not until you’re disabled that you realise that. But you look at all the people out there that could carry a donor card but just won’t or don’t. It’s incredible really.”
Maybe that’s another lesson from it, that you could be a spokesperson for that.
“I hope so. You invariably get somebody every two or three days come up and say how they expected me to just kind of lie down and knock off now, and that’s not really the idea of having a transplant – or people are surprised that I’m out working. I would like to use myself as an example to people, to be able to say “look, it’s cool. You can do it, there’s really nothing in it.”
On a more pleasant note, how many awards have you won in the last couple of years? Lifetime Achievement, Liege & Lief…
“I got the duo award for this year with Carthy and then I got the best musician of the year for this year for the Hancocks. I think that’s up to date. I think I’m more pleased with the Hancock one than any of the others. I am, because that’s the only one that’s voted for by the people rather than a selected panel who are all in the business. I’d be a lot happier if the BBC award was called Industry Awards, which it should be really. Every member of the panel is in the industry. They’ve all got a hidden agenda, and not so fuckin’ hidden either.”
It is nice to recognised by your peers as well, is it not?
“Of course it is, it’s fantastic to be recognised by your peers but you mustn’t run away with the idea that’s what the BBC awards is all about because it isn’t. It’s a marketing tool. It is, and if you ask me how come I know that, I have to tell you I was told that by a chief executive of a record company. I don’t mind it going on the record, it’s no secret, that’s what it is. It’s a marketing tool. You don’t find anybody winning an award from a minority label, and you don’t find anybody winning an award from a minority label that hasn’t got a chief executive on the panel. If you know of one, tell me.
“And you don’t find any of the folk clubs winning awards two years running, do you? How come you can be the best club of the year one year, but next year you’re not? No club has ever won it two years. It’s a bit funny, isn’t it?”
Politics, do you think?
“You tell me. I’ve just presented the facts. It’s not an award by your peers, don’t go thinking it is. Many’s the people who make the awards far younger than I am, and I don’t know of any player that’s on the panel. I can’t think of any musicians on it. To be on the panel, you either run a club, you run a record company or you run a festival – or you run distribution for a record company. There ain’t no other criteria. And then you get to things like, you have to have a record out that year. That is amazing. So when they say “best musician” or “best duo” for whatever year, they’re only talking about the best musician on record, in their opinion that year.
“I’ve got no axe to grind there, that’s cool you know. I’d be a fool to do anything else but say “good, go ahead.” It’s a wonderful occasion where we can all meet up and have a few drinks and meet each other. It’s the only occasion of the year that one can do it, and it’s nice to walk up on the platform and get an award and it’s nice to sell some more records. It’s nice but don’t go running away with the idea that it means the best of the year, because it don’t. There’s plenty of musicians and duos who put out a record that year but whose name don’t even go into the hat. It could carry on like that forever and ever and I would never say a word against it if it would just call itself the Industry Awards because then it’s honest and upright and that’s what it is.”
Maybe it doesn’t have the same ring to it.
“Yeah but you don’t think of the Oscars as being anything else but an industry award, do you? Who do you think sits on the panel for the Oscars? Bet your fucking dollar it ain’t Glenn Ford, is it?”
I have seen some webcasts of the awards, and one good thing was seeing the Liege & Lief line-up reformed. Now, that was something, even if the awards never did anything else before or since. I thought that was a really good version of Matty Groves.
“You’re all fucking Matty Groves mad, all you Fairport fans, you’re all stark raving mad! Matty Grooves…”
I thought it was really good because it sounded like Matty Groves 2006 as opposed to Matty Groves 1969. That was my point, if I had one.
“You’ve got a point. I share the same opinion as you, I think it was a great idea to get the line-up together again and I think it was the greatest Fairport line-up, without a doubt. I think there were others that were close on their heels because of necessity, really. But that was a groundbreaking lineup. I can’t imagine getting six other people together and making that sound, it was and is wonderful.”
And that Chris While can sing a bit, can’t she?
“She can yes, she certainly can.”
Of course, the whole line-up is being reformed to do the entire album again for this year’s Cropredy. Will that need a lot of rehearsal, or is it all still pretty much in your head?
“Oddly enough, most of it’s still in the head. In fact, a fair percentage of it is still performed by all the people, old members of the lineup. I mean, Matty Groves is a pretty good example. I don’t suppose we’ll have to rehearse that much, and Crazy Man Michael of course. Farewell Farewell; it ain’t going to be a lot of hard work. People know most of it.”
I remember somewhere, someone asking if you’d be doing the original album, or the reissue with the extra tracks!
“Well, I wouldn’t even know what the extra tracks were! I haven’t the faintest idea.”
Have you heard the current Fairport album [‘Sense Of Occasion’]? They’ve redone Tam Lin on that.
“Not yet. They sent me a copy but I haven’t had a chance to play it yet.”
The new version is good but obviously not groundbreaking because it couldn’t be again…
“Well there’s no point in doing it if you’re not going to be. I can’t see the sense in doing it at all. I don’t know why one would want to. You know, there’s a vast amount of material out there, traditional material, a huge amount. Martin and myself managed to do records periodically that haven’t got a single track that’s been recorded by anybody else on. So all you’ve got to do is look to the collections, the great collections that abound, or spend an afternoon in Cecil Sharp House, for Christ’s sake. There’s absolutely no need for the band that calls itself a folk band to keep rehashing stuff that’s been done in the past. I don’t know why you’d want to do it. It’s been done, why not find another fucking ballad? There are enough of them, for God’s sake.”
Would one call the current Fairport a folk band necessarily? I believe Simon has been saying onstage recently that he doesn’t consider them to be folk.
“It isn’t a folk band. It probably never was, actually. But it was certainly a folk-rock band. I think it’s been a bone of contention for many years amongst members, that’s probably the reason why Sandy left, because it was doing too much traditional and not enough Sandy stuff. And probably the reason why Richard left, because he wanted to do his own stuff. Probably the reason why Ashley left because he wanted to do more trad, you know, so I don’t know.
“If he doesn’t consider it a folk band, why do folk stuff? Why keep picking the pop and stuff? You’ve got to be faithful to one side or the other. I mean, why continue to do Matty Groves? Why do Tam Lin if you’re not a folk rock band? Why use folk rock players? Why have Chris Leslie in the band? It doesn’t make any fucking sense to me whatsoever.”
Mind you, they’re still doing things like Sir Patrick Spens live too.
“But all those songs I put together, that’s the infuriating part. That’s what annoys me. Why not go out and do it themselves, you know? What’s to stop somebody from opening a fucking book or go to the library, or listening to someone else’s records if that’s what he can do? I mean, I know it sounds rotten but I feel that way. It’s not the way to carry on nowadays, I don’t like them doing it.”
Of course, they’re doing what they’re doing, you’re doing what you’re doing – neither’s going to influence the other really, is it?
“No (laughs). I’m not annoyed with them or anything for God’s sake. Like you say, we all do our own things but a lot of the stuff that I did the arrangements of, or wrote, it’s quite a list actually, I just think it’s about time they found some more traditional material from somewhere else. I think most people would agree with me.”
Are you still writing tunes yourself?
“Yeah, now and again. I just finished a reel which I might give an airing tonight and see.”
On the last track on “English Fiddler”, the last tune has you back on the electric fiddle with wah wah pedal again. I have a technical question that I’m intrigued about. You were in a wheelchair at the time – how were you using a wah wah pedal??
“That’s a good bloody question. I had a board made up for it that was at an angle. A piece of wood with two angle blocks on it, so that put the pedals at a forty-five degree angle and I could sit down and play it.”
The current band of course is Lazarus. I believe you’d all like to come out for WOMADelaide if not a full tour.
“Well the lads would love to come over. Maartin (Allcock) was here ’84 to ’94 I think and he reckons it’s time he was back, and then Kev would swim over if he could get over here. So I think it would be great, I’d love to come over with the group. It’s nice coming over accompanying people and doing other people’s repertoire – it’s not really other people’s repertoire but you know what I mean. It’s not specifically the group’s repertoire, what I’m currently doing the majority of the time. It’s very difficult isn’t it, having an interview without offending some fucker! (laughs) I don’t mean to. But it would be nice to come over and do the Lazarus thing. I’d like that.”
So is it just the eternal question of making it worth everyone’s while?
“I don’t think it’s a question of making it worthwhile because I think one appreciates if you’re coming to Australia, you’re not going to make a lot of money. The trouble is the expenses of getting here and the expenses of living here. It all adds up and it can be quite considerable so you’ve got to try and cover that. The reason why people come here is because it’s a fantastic place, you know – the wildlife, the outdoor life here is just to be dreamed of. It’s a fantasy land, it’s enchanting country and that’s the reason people want to come here of course. It’s not to play the gigs, it’s to see the country. The gigs are nice enough but it’s the country you come for.”
Is what I hear correct, that you may be singing again in a few years?
“It’s a hard one to say. Theoretically, but what’s happened is… two things have happened. The muscles that control coughing have wasted because of lack of use when my lungs were – the other ones, and because of being inert for six years. So with exercise and so on and so forth, it’s possible that they can be improved upon, because the problem is being able to cough up phlegm and stuff, that everybody gets from their chest, which I can’t do. So in order for that to happen, I’ve got this trachy inserted.
“But the other problem is that because this is my sixth trachy, when I was kept alive on ventilators for a few years and each time I had a crisis, I had to have another tracheotomy, and it always had to be bigger than the previous ones. So I ended up having six, which means six times my vocal cords were cut and it also means that the scar tissue from those six cuttings have built up to a degree where I’m unable to cough up the phlegm again past the scar tissue. It takes five years for your vocal cords to heal up so that you can sing. Those people that have known me since the operation will know that I’m speaking a lot better now than I was when I started. In fact, I can sing (“la, la la…!”) a little bit But I’ll wait five years for that and then if I can manage to do the coughing bit, then I can have this taken out. So it’s all a bit in the lap of the gods, we’ve got to wait and see. As the days go by, I get stronger.”
So you would if you could?
“I would if I could yeah, like mad. Of course.”
(To talk of changing technology, laptop versus cassette recorders…)
“It’s a whole different world. Maartin’s just fantastic with all that gear. He even plays it in the group, plays the laptop.”
Well that’s not very folky!
“No, it is when he plays it though! He produces like a drone on it.”
Alistair always tells the story of how you said you’d like to work with him, and how he had to get up the courage to speak with you. How’d you feel when you got that phone call?
“I was kind of expecting it ‘cause I’d sowed the seed, you know. I was hoping he would ring. I didn’t know he was doing a record. But I liked what he mentioned he was doing. But then I liked very much Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd and all that stuff and Ally was kind of a progression from that. In many ways, he was like a contemporary even though he wasn’t, if you know what I mean. I love all that, Matt McGinn and Ewan MacColl stuff. There’s not enough of it nowadays, I don’t think.”
They’re probably too scared to try!
“Yeah, that’s true. It’s all gone a bit too lovey dovey, hasn’t it?”
So how agreeable are you, or how much affinity do you feel to the subjects that Ally sings about?
“I’m basically in accord with everything that he says. I may differ in the way that I would say it or in my mode of going about things, you know, but I’m basically in accord with just about everything that he says, and always have been.”
You wouldn’t have stayed with him this long if you weren’t.
“No you couldn’t. How could you? I’m a pretty politicised person as it happens.”
There’s been the work with Ally and Ewan MacColl etc but in between, has there been much overt political stuff that you’ve been a part of?
“Well, Ian Campbell Folk Group in its time was about as left wing as you could possibly get. All members of the Campbell group were CP members. And Band Of Hope. I would think that I’ve been on the left of middle all my life, all my career, but I don’t necessarily get up there and shout about it. I leave that to others. I’m an accompanying musician in this sense, but I wouldn’t be there otherwise. I couldn’t be. And you’ll never get me up there with a Tory.”
Interview (c) Michael Hunter 2007.