Richard Thompson's Guitar Heroes

Music Features Richard Thompson
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Richard Thompson's Guitar Heroes

As Richard Thompson starts listing the names of his heroes, the decades fade away and what emerges is that long-ago London kid, utterly obsessed with the guitar.

At 66, Thompson is still at it, still testing the limits of how his guitar can sound, and long past the years of emulating that list of pioneering guitarists, still challenging himself to turn up some new tricks.

Beginning with his days in Fairport Convention—Thompson’s folk-rock band that released its debut in 1968—Thompson has forged a career built around his versatile guitar style, one that’s equally powerful on acoustic or electric.

A guitar hero in his own right, he closes his 40th studio album with “Guitar Heroes,” an autobiographical look back at that young London kid who, after pulling inspiration from his dad’s jazz records and his older sister’s early rock ‘n’ roll tunes, couldn’t put down his own instrument.

Name-checking—and then bursting into the signature styles of—Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton and Hank Marvin, “Guitar Heroes” is a song concept Thompson has had rattling around since the start of his career. Sitting for a mid-afternoon interview at a lower Manhattan café, Thompson talks of growing up and finding his guitar heroes, writing and performing throughout the years and how his latest record, Still came to life in Wilco’s Chicago loft.

“Since 1966 I’ve had this record called Springfield Guitar Social, by Thumbs Carlisle,” Thompson says. “It’s a brilliant record and he imitates all the National guitar players. It’s one of my favorite records. I thought well, it’s been 45 years and it’s time for another version, an update, and it just seemed like a fun thing to do.”

Thompson and his band—bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome—recorded the song as one piece instead of editing it section by section, so when the music leaps from Thompson to Reinhardt, and on and on, it has the thrill of a quick flight and landing. As for who made the cut and why, Thompson readily admits that many more could have warranted inclusion, but in a song that stretches to nearly eight minutes already, there was only room for those who hit him hardest and earliest.

“We could make it a 48-hour song and put everybody in there,” Thompson says. “You appreciate the pioneers and everybody in this song is really a pioneer. They’re not just technically great guitar players. Somebody like Django Reinhardt, a whole school starts right there. And he’s listening to Eddie Lang, but that’s all he has to go on. After that, he broadens the vocabulary so much that people are still trying to ape that.

“In my dad’s record collection, he had Django and Les Paul, so I tuned into that stuff from a very early age. As a kid it was fascinating. ‘Wow, Dad’s got a weird record.’ I had an older sister who was buying rock ‘n’ roll records. When I was 5, she was 10 and buying Bill Haley and Elvis and Buddy Holly. I thought ‘Well, I’d love to do this.’ When The Shadows and Hank Marvin came along, I finally got a guitar and I could start playing with my friends. We put a little band together and started playing instrumentals,” Thompson says.

As the closing song on Still, “Guitar Heroes” is the one that stays with the listener, lingering after the other 11. It’s a purposeful bit of sequencing, but like with most of Thompson’s albums, there isn’t a defining song on Still. It’s a record of breadth and movement, the folk and rock standing hand in hand, Thompson and his longtime trio playing everything at their command. To help push himself and his bandmates musically, Thompson sought an outside producer.

“I thought it would be really nice to stretch in another direction,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of records at this point and I can do it myself and it’ll turn out a certain way. It will be predictable for me probably and that’s OK, but it’s nice to switch it up occasionally, to be surprised by someone else’s energy or input, someone else’s different point-of-view. We did it on the last record with Buddy Miller, and that worked really well. I really like what Jeff Tweedy did during the Mavis Staples records. He did a particular kind of production that I thought was very strong, putting her at the center of the project in a very positive way.”

Thompson and Tweedy had connected on 2013’s Americanarama tour, and the pair settled on a nine-day window to work on the new record. Thompson searched for pictures online to get an idea of the space before arriving in Chicago and still found himself walking into the studio in a state of awe.

“You don’t get an impression of the size,” he says. “It’s a big space. I think it’s about the size of an ice hockey pitch, two floors like that. The lower floor is all the touring gear. The upper floors is just instruments, forever. Guitars forever, amps forever, keyboards forever, drums forever. The studio is in a corner of that space, so you sit and marvel at all the stuff.”

The studio could’ve been made for Thompson himself. The studio manager had selected half a dozen amps set aside that he thought Thompson might like. And when recording “Guitar Heroes” called for a vintage Les Paul guitar, or a ‘50s Telecaster to play some James Burton licks, the Loft had everything Thompson needed. The recording sessions were relaxed but always focused on the work.

“I’m happy to go quick, and we’ve always sort of done that,” he says. “I’ve never had the luxury to really spend a long time making a record, and maybe that’s a good thing. I’ve gotten used to working that way and I’ve found that stuff sounds better when it’s done quicker and sounds fresh.”

Still began, as Thompson albums usually do, with a “pile” of songs.

“I wasn’t thinking about albums, I was just writing songs,” he says. “I tend to write songs in piles. I was just writing and I hadn’t really allocated them to any particular pile. But when I got to four or five or six of them, I thought it was time to do an album.”

Like much of the rest of his varied career, Still finds Thompson jumping from acoustic to electric guitar. And as a songwriter, Thompson says it’s not always clear from the start when something becomes an acoustic song like “Beeswing” or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” or an electric one like “Tear Stained Letter” or “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me.”

“You might have a feeling for a song very early on that it’s one way or another. Or you might sit down with the intention of writing a song for the band, it’s got to be up-tempo, it’s got to be in E and then you write a song to order. Sometimes that turns out to be a great song,” he says. “Sometimes songs flip-flop after that. You think you’re writing an electric song, and it always sounds better acoustic.”

Sometimes songs start with something specific in mind. Album opener “She Never Could Resist A Winding Road” isn’t making a metaphor that compares the road to life, but a tribute to a particular person and her wandering, hopeful spirit. “Josephine,” on the other hand, started as stream-of-consciousness: “I wasn’t thinking. I just started writing. I thought ‘Wow, this is weird shit.’ I don’t know what the song is about, which is great. It’s a collection of verses that paint a strange picture.”

With other songs, the effort drags out over years, a nameless tune in search of the right words to draw it into completion.

“Sometimes songs definitely belong in a particular pile. Sometimes I can cheat and grab a song of a pile that’s going absolutely nowhere and repurpose it,” Thompson says. “There’s a tune that I’d had kicking around for 10 years and I could never quite make it work. A singer I admire, June Tabor, asked me to write a song for her and I said no problem. It’s about conflict and injustice and I said I’d get back to you but I never did. I had come up with a tune for that project which I really liked and I never found words for it. This is probably my third attempt to put words to the song and I finally got something I liked.”

The song, “No Peace, No End,” is a fiery blast of electric guitar, fitting for a song about a world so unsettled by war that the lyrics could be about so many different places, in so many eras. “Dungeons for Eyes” mines similar territory, Thompson reflecting on meeting a one-time killer who later found himself on the right side of politics and history.

Elsewhere on Still, Thompson’s lyrics are light and witty. “Beatnik Walking” is a slyly humorous tune about a hippie trip to Amsterdam, while “All Buttoned Up” is a bouncy and bluesy take on sexual frustration.

Thompson’s songwriting has long combined tenderness and darkness, humor and anger. It all began with finding a unique voice for Fairport Convention, endeavoring to both meet the music world’s expectations and move against the grain, adopting a distinctly English style of folk-rock.

“In Fairport Convention in early 1967, we were playing around the London scene, what was fastly becoming a psychedelic scene,” he says. “It became kind of obvious that since the Beatles changed the paradigm, that if you were going to be a band that was taken seriously, you had to be writing your own material. That hadn’t really happened up until then. But once the Beatles did it, the Stones had to do it and everybody had to do it. Otherwise you were thought of as just a cover band. You had to have a voice. We looked at each other in Fairport and thought, ‘Well shit, we best start writing some songs.’ It really starts there, out of necessity. The audience expects it. But at some point I had to say for us to be exceptional as a band, we really have play in a more indigenous way. We took deliberate steps to change our style a little bit.”

From those early days until now, song inspiration and creation has always maintained a bit of a magical edge for Thompson.

“All songs are miraculous in a sense,” he says. “When you first hear a song, you have this vague idea of what the song is and it can sound almost ethereal, like it’s up there and you have to pull it down to Earth. In the process of pulling it down to Earth, sometimes you have to make a mundane rhyme or something and you’ve killed a little bit of it. Or you have to do something predictable with the melody that maybe that wasn’t there in the thing that you could hear vaguely.

“You have to make it Earth-bound so that it’s something you can sing to people. You lose a little bit, a little of the shine comes off it. But all songs start off as this miraculous thing.”

Thompson says these days, he’s reaching beyond the guitar for his musical inspiration.

“Mostly I listen to other instruments,” he says. “I’m more influenced by piano players and saxophone players and things like pipes. I use a lot of drone in my playing, so I think that comes from fiddle and pipes, the traditional instruments. Because you want to expand the vocabulary of the guitar and if you listen to other instruments, you can pull those sounds into the guitar, so you’re not playing the same Jeff Beck riff or the same Les Paul riff.”

The following night at Town Hall in New York, Thompson is at his versatile best, first playing a 45-minute set as the unbilled solo acoustic opening act (joking that it’s great exposure) and then leading bassist Prodaniuk and drummer Jerome through a heavily rocking, double-encore set. Thompson’s twisting guitar leads are emotive and intense passages, stretched to hypnotic lengths.

That he’s writing, recording and performing at 66 is reflected in the ambiguous title Still, but whether listeners interpret the length of Thompson’s career as a surprise or demonstration of resilience, he has no intention of slowing any facet of it.

“If you’re playing live every night, it’s a good opportunity to try out different things,” he says. “Inevitably you have your own clichés and you can get very bored with your own clichés unless you’re careful. It’s good to explore and try new stuff.”

Comparatively, Thompson sells a lot of records these days (“We’re getting on the charts, which is bizarre,” he says) but the albums are still mainly in service to the live performances.

“Go back to the pre-recorded era. If you wanted to hear Caruso, you went to go see Caruso and it’s coming back to that. The t-shirt and the album are peripherals of the actual performance. Everything revolves around the gig,” he says. “When you draw a line on the album, you don’t necessarily draw a line on the songs. They get tweaked as you continue performing them. You can do that forever.”