The MettleShop Interview: Richard Thompson, Dream Weaver

So we’re here to dissect the Dream Attic, as it were…

Dissect the Attic? Okay, sounds dangerous.

I really like the decision you made to cut this album live while you were on tour earlier this year in the western US. Was that always the intent? How long ago had you decided that route when you were working on this material?

A couple of months before recording, we thought it would be more interesting to cut this one live. It was quite brave of us, I think — kind of foolhardy, actually. We felt we’d get more spark, I suppose. I think music changes when you take it in front of an audience. There’s more “something,” though I don’t know what it is.

Extra energy, maybe…

Extra energy for sure, yeah. Playing in front of an audience is real. The studio is something slightly artificial.

When you’re in the studio, you do full live-in-the-room recording with everybody together, right?

That’s the way we usually record, yes. Everything is live with as minimal overdubs as possible — live guitar solos, live vocals. Obviously, in the studio, you think, “Oh, I can fix that bass note, I can fix that vocal.” In the studio, you have more options than you really do live. It can be very anal, where you can take stuff back in the studio and fix it, which we really haven’t done at all here. As it turned out, we didn’t fix anything.

I’ve spent a good bit of time in headphones mode listening to Dream Attic (Shout! Factory). I like the band interplay that I’m able to discern on it; it makes me feel like I’m actually at a show. Sometimes I’d hear chatter during quieter passages or catch somebody exclaim “yeah” — but not always. At the end of “Burning Man,” for example, you let us hear the applause where there was a bit of a natural break. How did you decide where to leave it in and where to take it out?

For sonic reasons, we decided to be fairly close-miked and not use too much ambience. So you hear a bit of audience interjection — a bit of chatter, as you say — but I suppose the casual listener might think it’s a studio recording. One of the decisions that we made, which you might disagree with, was to rejuice the room sound a bit so that you’re not hearing the big room or the audience all of time. This was a sonic decision we made, rightly or wrongly. Some people might think it should sound more live, but that’s what we chose to do.

Well, the sound is so rich on Attic, like the drama that occurs on “Among the Gorse, Among the Gray.” It sounds like the band is very intuitive.

We really weren’t that familiar with the material. We had 3 days of rehearsals. It’s a tribute to the musicians that they were actually able to learn anything! It was an 8-day tour, and we recoded all 8 shows. We chose most of the performances from the end of the tour — really just from the last 3 dates. By then, we were starting to nail the songs a bit better.

You hit a nice high point in the middle of the set when you get to “Crimescene.” It’s a great “record” moment — and I have to keep calling it a record, since you want to listen to it from beginning to end and follow it like a story that’s being told.

Although the songs aren’t thematically linked, I do feel that they belong together. When you have songs written in the same time period, there’s a sort of brotherhood among those songs. They kind of overlap into each other.

I have LPs of recent releases of yours like Front Parlour Ballads [Cooking Vinyl, 2005] and Sweet Warrior [Proper Records, 2007], and it’s good to see that Dream Attic is on vinyl too [also on Proper Records]. I now have it in hand after ordering it from your web site []. Do you still listen to vinyl?

I love listening to vinyl, though I can’t say I’m a vinyl collector. I’m usually listening in the car — not the most hi-fi place a onetime Stereo Review subscriber can listen in, I know. But I’ll listen to things in the studio on my Mackie 854 hard-disk recorder, so I can get an idea of what things really sound like. But I also want to know what it sounds like on someone’s iPod, too. I need to hear the general balance of things, how they fit and what stands out, and whether what I want holds up on the lower-fi systems.

People come at music in such different ways. Depends on where you’re at in life sometimes, you know?

Yeah — where you are, and what you like to do. I think a lot of people kind of cherry-pick tracks these days off an album and then choose their three favorites. Everyone’s different.

In the Sixties, you dealt mainly with the John Wood and Joe Boyd schools of recording — that is, very clear stagelike presentation.

It was, yeah. Classically trained, if you like. John Wood worked at Decca with the greats, recording “sound senses,” really. And Joe always liked to arrange the stereo as if people were standing on a stage — you’d have the drums and the vocal in the middle, and if the guitar player were singing, his amp would be where his vocal is, that kind of stuff. A real “visual” representation.

Any particular album of that era that you feel is the best sound you got on record?

I really like the sound of [Fairport Convention’s] Unhalfbricking [July 1969, on Island in the UK and on A&M in the US]. That record sounds really good. On Liege and Leaf [December 1969, Island UK; July 1970, A&M US], we were messing around with the sound so much that it didn’t sound quite as good.

Those albums have both been reissued recently on 180-gram LPs by the Four Men and a Beard label.

Hmm, did they? That’s a good name for a label! Vinyl has a certain something — a certain warmth to it, which is wonderful. When I have time, I like to sit down and play one track, like Maria Callas or something classical recorded by EMI in the 1950s, just to hear that real, wonderful richness. If you’re listening exclusively to an iPod, MP3 quality isn’t really the whole thing. I know some friends of my son’s are now holding listening parties where you go to the house, get some refreshments, and listen to some classic vinyl records.

Sequencing, which is something I guess you have to think about in this click-through culture, is almost a lost art. But you still have to make a conscious decision as an artist to say, “Yeah, I want you to go here next.”

A nice thing about the CD age is that you don’t have to stop in the middle to break for a side. That always would lead you to certain decisions: “We need to finish Side 1 strongly and put the weakest track of the record in the middle of Side 2.” The vinyl format would force you to do certain kinds of things.

I suppose you’d have to make treble and bass decisions too, because if you had 25 minutes on a side, you’d have to compromise the bottom end.

That’s very true. And in the days of 8-track cassettes, it was probably even worse. [both laugh] Clearly technology was going nowhere.

On the other end of the technology spectrum, The Old Kit Bag [2003, Cooking Vinyl UK; spinART US] has a surround-sound mix [done in 2005, on Silverline]. How did that come about — was that idea brought to you?

It came to me as a concept, yeah. There are people who do that kind of thing, where record companies say, “We think there’s a market for this,” and it’s not something the artist is often involved in. It was a different mix engineer [Gary Lux], and he tried to replicate the general sound of the record but make it sit 360 degrees.

I went to the studio for the surround sound of Rumor and Sigh that they [Capitol] did some years ago [in 2002], and I thought it was really interesting. I thought the engineer [Steve Genewick] did a really good job dealing with the options and possibilities. But it’s a bit like 3D movies, in a way. I’m not sure we really need it at the end of the day.

It depends on the material. We live in a 360-degree world, after all, but maybe for your songs and your style, surround sound works best in a live setting.

There’s something to putting you in a seat in the audience. That’s an interesting experience, yeah.

You’re getting back out on the road. How do you play Dream Attic material now?

We’re going to play the album as the first set all the way through, then do a second set of more familiar material, older stuff.

I vote for that. Some artists have started doing just that — playing their new record as the first set all the way through.

I didn’t know others were doing that! I thought it was all my own idea. [MM laughs] But anyway… As a concept, it works really well. If the audience is aware of that going in, then they’re prepared for the unfamiliarity of the new material. Although hopefully they’ll have the new record by now and be familiar with it.

In a way, you’ve done something similar in your “Thousand Years of Music” solo sets where people don’t necessarily know what you’re playing.

Solo shows are a much more random thing, where I can play almost anything. Any old setlist is workable. And I’ve found that I’ll start out with a setlist for a solo show and just tear it up for the second number, and that makes for a more organic show. Audiences can shout requests. It’s a loose thing, and that’s a nice feeling.

Will you break out a Lady Gaga track in your next new “Thousand Years of Music” section? Either “Bad Romance” or “Poker Face” would be perfect for you to cover.

[laughs heartily] I think we have to, yeah! We’re working on that now.