From Fairport Convention To Nick Drake: Interview With Legendary Producer Joe Boyd

Ahead of a re-release of the classic album, the man who sat behind the glass opens up about his brilliant career...
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Ahead of a re-release of the classic album, the man who sat behind the glass opens up about his brilliant career...

Few musical journeys have touched upon as many cultural touchstones as Joe Boyd. He helped run the soundboard at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, tour managed jazz and blues greats such as Coleman Hawkins, Muddy Waters and Roland Kirk, ran the legendary UFO club, helped launch the fledgling careers of Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention and Soft Machine and produced artists as diverse as REM, Toots & the Maytals and Nico. His memoir White Bicycles is one of the finest evocations of the 1960’s and chronicles, amongst many things, his work with Nick Drake. Recently Joe assembled performers such as Vashti Bunyan, Robyn Hitchcock and Green Gartside for a live tribute and album to Drake’s songs: Way To Blue.


So you’re currently in the States touring a more low-key version of Way To Blue?
It’s a very different animal. Just a little, quiet evening for 200 people or something. An event built around the Way To Blue release where I talk and show clips and local singers sing Nick Drake songs. I’m going to do a thing at the Grammy Museum in LA, which has a very nice surprise. The very first major artist who ever covered Nick Drake is going to come down and sing a song and that is Lucinda Williams. She sang ‘Which Will’ on Sweet Old World.

Was that when the recognition of him was beginning to crest in a way?

Yeah, I have to say it was starting in 1978 when Island released the Fruit Tree box set. The fact that they released a box set in 1978 says something was stirring. So from two years after his death, more records of Nick’s were sold than the previous year. And then the Volkswagen ad changed the game in America. We were selling 20,000 records a year in America in the mid-nineties and then the ad came along and it went to 70,000 a year.

Do you think the response to Nick is different in the States than in the UK?

It’s curious, it may be early days but I have to say we are getting a much stronger reaction in America to Way To Blue than we are in Britain. People in America seem more passionately interested in the idea of Nick and the idea of other people singing his songs.

In your book you talk about the difference between how people in the US and Britain consumes culture, do you think that’s being replicated there?

One of the great things that still makes me love the fact that I live in England is ‘Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead’ getting into the top ten. That never would have happened when Ronald Reagan died. In a way there’s an element of reflection here as in Britain in the 60’s when the blues was very exotic, but to Americans a lot of R&B was commercial popular music which is why the American folk and blues people had such a snooty attitude about electric guitars. They were trying to differentiate themselves from the pop scene and that’s why there was such an earthquake when Dylan went electric at Newport. Whereas the British thought Brownie McGhee, Reverend Gary Davis, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker were all the same thing, it was all blues and we love it. Now Nick represents something exotic for Americans as it’s so English in a way that Elvis Costello isn’t.

And it must be nice to hear Nick Drake songs live, as he wasn’t the most effusive live performer.

That’s what’s so great about being at all these concerts. Hearing these great songs done by singers who love performing, are very comfortable on the stage and are just kind of reveling in it. Which obviously would have made a huge difference, if Nick had felt that way about performing.

Do you think that if Nick had received that amount of recognition and acclaim at the start of his career, he could have even dealt with that, considering his personality?

Oh yeah, the one time when his performance really worked was when he opened for Fairport at the Festival Hall and you had this audience that was super quiet and respectful because this was the first concert after the death of Martin Lamble and it was the launch of Liege & Lief. They just sat there respectfully and that was of course was what I dreamed would happen when we put Five Leaves Left out, that everybody would say ‘wow, what a fantastic album’ and then go to a small concert hall and sit very quietly. But the record didn’t have that impact, so the master plan didn’t happen.


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Now you’re travelling with a live show again, does it take you back to when you were touring with Muddy Waters and Roland Kirk?

Thankfully it’s a different experience for me now as we have a wonderful guy who’s the Tour Manager. That was my job back in those days. I had to be the one getting people up in the morning and getting them onto the bus. What is parallel is putting on a concert and recording it. It’s the closest I get these days to making records the way I used to. People don’t make records that way anymore. Occasionally someone calls me up and says ‘would you be interested in producing my record’ and usually I’m not but sometimes I say ‘yeah sure, but we’d have to do it live in the studio, spend a week recording and a week mixing’ and then there’s a silence and they say ‘let me get back to you on that’.

Don’t you prefer to do the mixing without the musicians being there?

No, no, I don’t mind them being there. It’s fun to be there, just me and the engineer, but I don’t mind artists being around. Most artists these days are pretty addicted to Pro-Tools and the ability to tweak things. I like trying to do it live and to get that live feeling. To me, that’s one of the reasons why there are fewer classic recordings. How many recordings of the last 20 years are going to be listened to in 50 years? Not as many as records from the 60’s and 70’s. I would say that one of the reasons for that is the click track. Because it just deadens everything. If you get the feeling when you’re listening, that the musicians are in a moment and they don’t know exactly what’s going to come next, then the listener absorbs some of that feeling and you get more excited.

And it’s interesting as now everyone is influenced by everything now as everything from the past is instantly accessible, while Jagger and Richards had one record each and that was the width of their influence…

That’s one of the reasons why they came up with such a distinctive sound. I heard an interview with Keith Richards where he talked about this Stateside EP that had two tracks by Slim Harpo on one side and two tracks by Lazy Lester on the other and that’s the Stones sound. So influenced by that Nashboro Records blues sound filtered through South London. I think if they had an iPod with every recording by Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson and Tommy McClennan and Junior Wells, that would have flattened out their influence and blurred the eccentricity of the particular singers they were drawn to when they first started out.

I guess people were much more protective of what they were into back then and there was a lot more slowly discovered mystery, which has mainly gone now.

When I listen to a Charlie Patton track, the Louis Armstrong Hot Five or something like that I remember with fondness how startling and exciting it was to hear it the first four or five times and that I’ll never be able to hear this track that way again.

Does music still have that same power over you?

I moved flats about seven years ago. And in my old flat I had about 5,500 vinyl albums and I had them all filed alphabetically. Meanwhile my CD collection, because I was buying more and more things you would call World Music, you can’t file things that way. How are you going to remember the name of that Kora player from Guinea? You have to have it under Guinea. So I decided that when I went to the new place that, I just jumbled them all up, I filed them any old way, a complete mess. Then I got a divider and I counted 13 records from the top shelf, pulled the LP out and listened to it. So now I listen to every 13th unfiled LP. Sometimes I give it to Oxfam when I’ve listened to half the first side. In the 70’s I was working for Warner Brothers and getting all these promos. I used to go down to Aron’s Record Store in Hollywood with a stack of promos and I’d come out with 30 LPs and then not listen to them. So I’m opening these things that have been shrink-wrapped since 1973 that I’ve never listened to which are just wonderful. Listening for me is still a great adventure, I still really enjoy it.

I think what we’d all like to know is the location of that Oxfam by your house…

It’s just the stuff that’s crap.

Crap to you…
Believe me I think it would be crap to you too.

It’s odd isn’t it that CDs are basically this outmoded, redundant form. You just load them onto a computer and that’s it, you don’t need them anymore.

I can’t listen to MP3s. I find them unpleasant. Too compressed. I have a digital set-up in my car and I put my iPod in there, but all the files are Lossless or AIFF or 96k, 24 bit transfers from vinyl. To me it just sounds so much better to have the full CD version or even better the 24 bit 96K version from vinyl. It just sounds so much better. MP3s just annoy me.

You and Neil Young.

Yeah me and Neil Young. I guess you have to have old fashioned ears. But look at the acreage devoted to vinyl these days when you go into a record store. I prefer listening to vinyl. A few years ago I decided to go mad and I bought a tube amp and a Garrard 401 turntable, mounted onto a plinth, drilled into the wall so that footsteps don’t affect the tracking and it sounds fantastic.

But even listening to records that way, do you ever hear what you consider a production mistake, something you’ll catch that I’d never hear?

Not really. Once it’s finished and once it’s committed to vinyl, it becomes the record. And it seals off those kinds of doubts about whether this was the right choice or not. Even my own productions, things that I remember having doubts about at the time, I can’t remember what those doubts were when I listen back now. I just think it sounds like the record, it is what it is. I’m slightly dubious about those six takes of Charlie Parker’s version of something .

It’s been around in jazz for a long time but now that’s the norm for everything. Like that Stooges Fun House box set which had 20 versions of ‘Down On The Street’…

I had a brief moment in the 80’s before digital took over when I tried to hold the line and say we shouldn’t put out all these out-takes of Nick or Sandy Denny, but of course, everything came out. I’m being slightly distracted at the moment by two gigantic wild turkeys that are eating seeds on the back porch of the house that I’m staying in.

That is not currently happening in Walthamstow. It’s now such an industry in itself those historical musical documents.

I gave up. In 1986 I engaged in a kind of battle in print with Clinton Heylin. He had written something about my Sandy Denny box set and how I didn’t have that many demos and out-takes and I left out a lot of her later songs that didn’t get onto records because I didn’t think they were very good songs. I felt like it was my duty to her to put out the ones that would enhance her reputation rather than detract from it. He was outraged that I was playing gatekeeper and we had this dialogue in Goldmine magazine. And now it seems so naïve because now everything is out.

Are you working on another book?

Yeah, I’ve been working on a book for quite some time. It’s a different task to White Bicycles. It’s not just a memoir, it’s more the story of what we call ‘World Music’. Which is more of an examination of the way the decadent west has gone in search of exotic musical authenticity.

Do you think there’s a connection between your love of blues and jazz and what might be considered authentic American music and then looking for a similar thing in Africa or Cuba?

Absolutely. In a way World Music is a continuation of what was going on in the 50’s and 60’s which was interrupted by this revolution called rock in which people found authenticity in their backyard for a while but then the growth of synthesizers and drum machines in the 80’s forced a certain part of the audience back out into the wilderness looking for more exotic authenticity.

So it’s not entirely uncritical?

There are heroes and villains for sure. I’m reading a lot of history and it’s taking a long time, but I’m enjoying it.

Way To Blue – The Songs of Nick Drake is out now on Navigator Records. A special edition of Nick Drake’s Bryter Later is out now on Island Records.