This interview appeared in the March-April 1995 issue (#10) of Big Bang magazine, the French Progressive Music Magazine. It is reprinted here with the permission of Big Bang's Aymeric Leroy. Access Big Bang's web site at: http://www.alpes-net.fr/~bigbang/bigbang.html.
My first question will of course be : what have you been doing since
Renaissance broke up in 1987? I've heard about a project of a musical
based on "Scheherazade", did you eventually manage to make it happen, or is
it completely abandoned?
Well, it's still going. As with everything in musical theatre, you learn as you go along. But any funding is very difficult to come by. We've moved forward since then, though, I mean it's still very much on the go. And I mean the situation now is where we are shortly to do a presentation for potential investors for the development funding of it, which will be done in London sometime in the next few weeks. So basically most of my time since the band broke up in 1987 has been involved in that. Apart from trying to write songs for other artists which have not been successful acts... and then getting this new Renaissance together which has sort of taken the last two and a half years.
Will this musical sound like the original album, or will it be completely different?
Yes it will. Whereas the original version was very much suited for record - it was a concise story done in nine sections -, what we're obviously doing now is using the basic story of the Tales of 1001 Nights, but expanding the story line.
So you've written more songs?
We actually had written a complete show at one stage, but we have since decided to change the direction slightly. So a number of the songs have been written, but we need to get funding to finish the writing and the actual development, to do a workshop and that sort of things. So we're sort of in the middle really. Some of the key songs have been written, but we need to work further...
Talking of the new album now, it's sometimes hard to hear your acoustic guitar on it...
I'm not on all the tracks... but I play acoustic guitars on all the songs that have acoustic guitars on them, like the first track "Deja-Vu", "Northern Lights" of course, "Somewhere West Of Here"... and some I don't remember the names of right now. You know, I've just been doing some other things now, so... Anyway, that's probably half the songs.
So you're back to more of a 'back seat' role, composing the songs but not playing much...?
Not playing so much, yes. I think that will probably develop a bit more on the next album. What I've tried to do on this one is to be a little more accessible, commercial if you like, to get airplay on the radio, and that sort of things. I also tried to think of what Renaissance would sound like in the nineties, had we carried on... I have ideas for the next album which will probably be a little more acoustic than it is now.
And a bit more 'progressive', like "Somewhere West Of Here"...?Maybe, yes, but I mean, the point is you can't rest on your laurels from years ago. Some of our songs were great at that time, and they were mainly very lengthy sort of tracks. So I think that one has to move on, and I felt that these were strong songs, just trying to imagine them in the way that they would be done if we'd kept going.
"Love Lies, Love Dies" is a re-working of an unreleased Renaissance song from the early eighties...
Yes, it was written by me and Jon Camp under the title "The Dream Maker". When the group finished, Betty said that she thought the melody line was very strong. So I said OK, let's see what we can do. So she wrote new lyrics and it came out as "Love Lies, Love Dies". And in fact, before we actually recorded it for Renaissance, it is actually a song that is in the musical Scheherazade although it's nothing like what it is now, it's much more a classical piece which is sung by one of the main characters, which is a male voice. I'm quite happy about the way it came out on the album, it's got sort of soft, jazzy overtones to it at times...
The song is also on Annie Haslam's new album...Yes, that's right. I mean, she liked the song very much also, remembering it. We did actually perform it a couple of times at a stage in the early eighties, I believe. And so she did it on her album, which is very nice.
Apart from that one, are all the other songs on the album new ones? They're all new songs, yes... apart from "Northern Lights" of course! I suppose you did this one because it was your only real 'hit' in the old days?
Yes... I mean, everybody liked it. It wasn't really my suggestion, it was a couple of other people who suggested we re-did it in a new version. And I think that obviously it could lead to other things. You know, it's very difficult sometimes to start up, especially another band with me being the only original member... So this song is something which relates back to the previous band and a few years ago, so that can't be a bad thing. So our next move now is to get a commercial company involved and try to release this one, or "Don't Talk", which is the other potential single. We're sort of looking to expand and hopefully use it as a vehicle to move the whole project forward, which is obviously what we want...
Has this band existed for a long time already? Have you already played gigs?
No, we haven't played any live gigs at all. And I suppose one of the reasons for that is we really wanted to see how it sounded recorded, the way it evolved from the writing stage. So the next step would be to go out on the road, but it would depend on how the album does. Because you know, it is so expensive to tour these days, so you need some backup from the record company. We're on a very small label at the moment. So if we could get some single success, then maybe that's something we would do in the future.
Personally, do you like playing live? I have doubts about it, because in the very beginning of Renaissance, you left the band to concentrate on writing, and didn't appear on either the first albums or subsequent gigs?
Well, I do enjoy playing live! I mean, it's been a while now... but I think it's wonderful to move from the creative process of writing, on to recording, and then onto stage, performing it live and see the reaction from the audience. There's nothing like this... especially if all goes well, of course!!!
At the time when Ashes Are Burning was recorded, in 1973, there was actually no guitar player in the band?
Well, I actually rejoined at that time, but it was too late to be credited as a permanent member on the sleeve. Everything was done so far in advance, way before anything else. And all the sleeve designs and credits had to go to press. So I sort of joined at that time, but I was just down there as sort of like a guest player, if you like.
Before that, you'd concentrated on just writing the songs with Betty Thatcher. Were you actually just staying at home, composing?
Yes... I mean, we spent a lot of time working in the space between the first album, Prologue, which I wasn't on, and Ashes Are Burning. During that period, we actually wrote many songs, a lot of which were used for later albums, up to Scheherazade. So we were, and still are, writing all the time!
Why do you play acoustic guitar rather than electric guitar?
Well, I did move more onto electric guitar towards the end of the seventies, on the album A Song For All Seasons. That was at the instigation of David Hentschel, who produced that album and the following one, Azure D'Or. I didn't really feel comfortable with it, I'm not the best of players, and my role initially, soundwise, complemented the other instruments better than the electric guitar. Although, well, one does need electric guitar sometimes, which is why on the new album, I've got a couple of people in to do that. But in the main, I think it seems to rest for what I was trying to achieve at that particular time in the seventies...
You did begin your musical career playing electric guitar, though, didn't you, with the Nashville Teens? Did you have a folk background or something, which resurfaced later?
No, it was electric guitar from the start, with the Nashville Teens, and I also played in other local bands before that, playing electric guitar, just doing cover songs of many artists, and it sort of just progressed on from there to the point, I suppose, where I thought : well, okay, I'm never gonna be a great guitar player. So I concentrated a little bit more on composing, and it so happened that it fitted in a lot better with what Renaissance were doing at the time. And it's part of the Renaissance sound of that time, acoustic piano and so on, and still now I hope, cause that's one of the things I want to push more. There will definitely be more acoustic guitar on the next album. You know, this is the first studio album in twelve years, I'm sort of getting back into it again, I'm very excited about the project, especially with Stephane, that we can take it that step further again, creatively.
Can you introduce the new members to us?
Well, the keyboard player, Andy Spillar, is really a studio musician, as is Phil Mulford the bass player. The two guitar players on there... Rory has played in a number of bands, he's just on one track. I don't think he's played with anybody of great note, but he's really an "on the road" musician, he's always on the road. Stuart is really new, he's only like twenty years old, I met him through a friend of mine, where I live. He's really a phenomenal player, and I think he's got a great future. He's only had studio experience at the moment, but he's exceptionally keen on the music, and just can't wait to get out on the road!
How did you choose these musicians? Did you want some who could play a certain type of music?
I started work with Andy Spillar first of all, because he's also a programmer, and spent some time with him working on the songs. Then I met Phil Mulford, who is a session player but also plays in a group with Elkie Brooks. I've known Dave before because he's done some work with me, some demos, and we sort of kept in touch. So that was a slow process, over several months, sending demos off and saying, "what do you think of it?". So we eventually got all together and it all worked very well!
And what about Stephanie?
I met her when we were doing some work on the Scheherazade musical, and we were in a studio doing some demos. And through a friend of the director, we had some students down from the Royal Academy of Music for some chorus work, and I suppose it's purely by coincidence, purely by luck, Stephanie was chosen out by the vocal coach to sing two or three different solo parts. And when she began to sang, I thought she really had a beautiful voice... and she looks great, as well, and again she's only very young. So after that, I approached the vocal coach and actually spoke to Stephanie afterwards, and she seemed interested. So she came down to Andy's studio, ran through a couple of songs, cause she'd never done that kind of music before, she'd had a training for the last three years. She really liked the idea of doing something like this, and then it's just grown more and more. She absolutely loves it now, though she wanted a career in musical theater. Now she wants to do what we're doing
So she had no experience in pop music at all?
No experience whatsoever, no, she's purely been training, and been at school. So she actually graduates in, I think, a few months time, which would coincide nicely if the new Renaissance gets off the ground. Then of course, we'd look to doing a lot more work together, and planning a new album. She's a really exciting find, actually, cause she would obviously have experience, in being taught - acting, dancing...
What do you expect the press's reaction to be? They've never been really kind towards the band in the old days, except perhaps in America...
Well, I think probably one of the reasons is the band did change and evolve completely from the early days, from the band that was formed by Keith Relf and Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds. The problems in the UK especially were because of that. And we tended to get reviewed through comparisons rather than what we actually sounded like and played. But at the same time also, with that, we were hardly a commercial type of band, more soft of a cult-type band, so I'm hoping that now, albeit the fact that I'm the only original member and that there's a new girl singer, that what fans we did have and also new ones can see that there is a lot of potential in the more accessible songs. So I think that the reason for us being successful only in America was that when we first went there, it didn't really matter that much. If they liked what they heard, then that was good enough. It didn't matter that the band wasn't the same. So I'm hoping that we will get a good reaction, but then again, because Annie isn't in the band, I do expect some criticism, which is understandable of course...
Didn't you try to get Annie back in the line-up?
I did, some time ago. I suggested to Annie by he manager, who is also her husband. But she wasn't interested. I had a long fax back from her saying that she really wanted to pursue her solo career.
I hear some rumours, some months ago, about a one-off reunion to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Carnegie Hall concert. Did this have any truth in it?
There was some talk of it, but that won't happen. There was some suggestion, but there was a lot of misunderstanding through various members of the old band, and nobody really wanted to do it at all, like John Tout for instance. I don't know what happened eventually, I was concentrating on this and wanted to push for its release. There was just too much work involved, and there's too much water under the bridge for the old band to get back together again. It wouldn't work anyway. It's a nice idea, but it's a little bit too late. Because everybody has been involved in so many different things now over the past few years...
Little was heard of these projects though...
Terry Sullivan, I think, is still playing with a local band, where he lives, and both his sons play with him, which is quite nice. Jon Camp, I know very little about, I'm afraid. He was involved in a couple of projects, but I don't think that came to anything, so I don't really know what happened to him. Anyway, something that I've always wanted to do was to get another Renaissance together again, for a number of years, but I never really got the opportunity of doing so, so when the opportunity did present itself, I took it with both hands.
Speaking of the music you played in the seventies, don't you think it indeed had some commercial potential. I mean, I know a lot of people who are not necessarily into 'progressive rock', yet really like it!
We were obviously trying to be in a more commercial position. But at that time, albums were the name of the game, so therefore we tended to do these long tracks which obviously came from the late 60's, early 70's. But in the late 70's, things started to change a little bit, more so from progressive bands such as ourselves and Genesis, Yes, ELP, all those bands. And whereas Yes sort of folded then reformed and came back in a more commercial vein, and as Genesis moved to shorter tracks... so I think if any mistakes were made from our point of view, it was the fact that we maybe should have done some shorter tracks, so that we could have got more airplay and a larger audience.
But personally, do you prefer these long tracks, or shorter, more accessible, songs?
I don't prefer either, really. I think that however the composition is involved... I think nowadays you can't have tracks that are too long. Music evolves, obviously, and in the 70's that was the time for those sorts of tracks, but now... It doesn't have to be three minutes long, it can be double that length of time, but nothing gets too involved. I think the attention span can't take it anymore. So, from my point of view, if I felt like composing something that was absolutely ten minutes long, I mean for an album in the future, and it felt right, then I possibly might do it... but in the main it will be the shorter material.
By the way, there is a fade-out at the end of "Somewhere West Of Here" which sounds a bit premature. Did the song actually continue for a long time beyond that point?
No, it didn't. I mean, it did originally go off quite a bit longer than that, but we decided that we would fadedown at that point. There was just a couple of melodies from the album, a reprise at the end. I did have other ideas, but in the end, it felt as though it should fade down in that particular way, at that particular time, I mean.
This fade-out quite frustrates me, actually...
Oh yeah? Well, I must admit it was a cop-out, really, you know in pop music it's always easy to fade out when you can't find an ending. But I think it seemed to fit in with this track...
Do you still see any sort of continuity in Renaissance's musical evolution throughout the years? Do you think for instance your current music relates to the very early albums with John Hawken?
I think very loosely... it might do. I tend to think the music is a little "rockier", which it is of course. It doesn't have so much of the classical influence which originally came from John Hawken. It has more of a jazzy feel to it, and there are the folk elements in it as well. So, broadly speaking, I think it is still the same, really, there's more concentrations in different areas, more rock. I'm working on a couple of other tracks, maybe the next album will be a bit different, but I can only do that when I'm a bit more in control. In the early part of the band's history, Betty and I wrote nearly all the songs, as we have done on this one. That's how I feel that we got the right continuity and do what we really want to do musically, and say lyrically.
Do you plan to let the other musicians compose too, though?
No. I think probably Betty and I will write all the tracks. I'm not saying categorically so. Anyway, everyone makes his contributions. Andy Spillar is great at the arrangements. So there may well be a time in the future where there are other participations, but for the moment it's gonna be Betty and myself.
What are your plans for the near future? Trying to get a management?
Yeah, someone's looking at that. We're looking for the record to come out in America, and other territories around the world. From my own point of view, as I said earlier on, I'm still involved in Scheherazade, the musical project, so that takes up some of my time. But the main thing with Renaissance is to move forward, and if we are accepted by the old fans, and can get lots of new ones at the same time, we can build on that, and look forward to the next album and the one after that, then play live and... well, just see how we go!
So you have long-term plans for the band? Do you plan to carry on until you're 70 years old?
Well, that'd be all right! (laughs) But yes, I mean I have plans for the next number of years. I feel very creative, and Betty does as well, and I feel that we could continue on for a good number of years. And hopefully, write and record, and perform some great songs. I'm really so enthusiastic about it now, more so than I have been for a long time. I hope it all works, that's all!
I wanted to ask you something about Betty Thatcher. I've heard this story about both of you communicating by mail, you sending tapes of music, and her sending back lyrics. Do you still work the same way together?
Yes, we do! But I meet her also, I go down to Cornwall, or she comes up to me, we live about 250 miles apart. It worked very well right from the very beginning, in 1970 which I think is when we first started writing together. So there's no reason to change it, I think! For this album, it worked exactly the same sort of way, although you know I have a bit more equipment now than I used to before. But it works very well, and occasionally we sort of meet up and go through things, but other than that, it's really down on tape and she sends... I mean, we have faxes now, so no more waiting for the post! (laughs)
What is Betty doing apart from writing songs with you?
I don't know what else she's doing at the moment. She's been involved in a number of different projects. She wrote some material when Annie did this solo project with Louis Clark, the Still Life album. She's been involved in lots of different projects over the years, nothing of great note, unfortunately for her. But at the moment we're really working together on the Scheherazade project as well as talking about what we're going to do in the future regarding Renaissance. I think she's quite happy. Where she lives in Cornwall, there's sort of a slower pace of life, more relaxed...
Can you think of a possible date for Scheherazade to be staged?
No... I'd like to very much, tell you! When you have success, you can move things a lot faster than if you've never done it before. And with any large project, it takes an enormous amount of time, and we spent a lot of time on it before, obviously not earning any money, which we can't do anymore. But once we have the funding, it can move forward. I suppose at the earliest time, it would be two years away. So in the end, it would be sort of ten years, which is not unduly long for any large project from unknown composers and authors.
Do you manage to get royalties from the old Renaissance albums all right?
Yes... although that doesn't materialize quite to the extent that it did before. But with other projects that have been released, or are being released, like the reissues of Turn Of The Cards, Scheherazade, and Live At Carnegie Hall, and also an anthology album, a double CD that's coming out on Repertoire, in the springtime I believe. It's the history of Renaissance, starting from the very beginnings. In fact today, I had some paperwork through from Chris Welch, who used to be on the Melody Maker. He called me up. I'd spoken to Repertoire in Germany, and they said they were doing this, and could Chris call me. I said, yes sure. So I did an interview with me. He's doing all the sleevenotes and I got the paperwork this morning. He obviously has spoken with Jim McCarty, to Annie and other people. And he did a history that starts with the first album, "Kings And Queens" and "Islands", right to the very last tracks that we did on an album called Time Line, which is pretty awful by the way... Well, I guess that's it!
Thanks very much for your time, Michael.