TEN QUESTIONS WITH GARETH DICKSON
Gareth Dickson's Collected Recordings caught our ear in a major way upon its release earlier this year, so much so that it's remained pretty much a listening fixture ever since. The disc deftly merges Dickson's varied musical interests—ambient electronic treatments (by way of Eno and Aphex Twin) and classic acousic folk (of the Nick Drake kind)—into an oft-beautiful set of entrancing songs and instrumentals. Having worked with Vashti Bunyan and Max Richter, Dickson's got many a story to tell, and we were lucky to be apprised of a generous number of them during a recent interview with the Glasgow-based musician. Based on his comments regarding his most recent musical output, it should be fascinating to monitor the paths his future music follows.
1. One of the most distinctive characteristics of your music is how languorous and unhurried it is and how time-suspending an effect it can have on the listener (“If I” and “Trip in a Blanik” spring to mind as two beautiful examples). This makes your music all the more refreshing when heard in the context of a musical era where such restraint is in short supply. Did that part of your music develop of its own accord as a natural outgrowth of your own sensibility? Was it to some degree a purposeful reaction against the style of the music you were hearing around you?
I'll say first of all thanks for the compliment; it's great to hear that you like what I do. I think that this is a difficult question to answer because it's probably a combination of both things to some degree. Also, “Trip in a Blanik” was written around 1997 (even though the version on Collected Recordings was recorded far more recently than that), so my memories of what exactly was going on around then are probably a little hazy. Mainly, though, I think that I veered towards this style probably because of the emotion or state of mind that I wanted to express at that time. I think both of these tracks were for me a response to stress of one kind or another, and that I tried to invent some kind of calm in my music to compensate for the fact that whatever was going on around me was causing me to be stressed. I also think, rightly or wrongly, that if you are trying to express the core of something then that something when boiled down should be very simple. Another thing which no doubt shaped my music around then was the use of whatever drugs were on hand. This can give the user a real sense of timelessness, I suppose, which then inevitably comes out in the music. Once you've arrived at this way of seeing music, though, there can also be an element of feeling like whatever you hear around you, which doesn't fit with that way of seeing things, is to be reacted against. This can maybe push you further down the line that you naturally came to in the first place.
2. Another of your music's distinctive qualities is how admirably sparse it is with respect to arrangement, an approach that also helps bolster the timeless quality of your material; the beautiful “As You Lie,” for instance, sounds like it could have been recorded in your bedroom in 1979 as easily as 2009. Did you ever feel tempted to add more instruments to the recording's songs, or was it always clear to you that vocals and guitar were all that they needed?
Initially I was afraid to add anything to my recordings because I felt like it would be an afterthought and somehow not part of the initial idea for the song and therefore could only make the overall effect less pure. Also most of the music which affects me the most is solo performance of some kind. I love a lot of old Delta Blues music, which is just one man and a guitar usually, and Nick Drake, and the pianist Glenn Gould, and many others who were essentially soloists or at least at their best when solo. It's now just become what I do and I like the limitation of it. It forces me to think more about what I play and the way I play it because that is all there is; I know there will be no extra instrumentation to make things interesting so I have to try to do that with the guitar and voice.
3. Could you take us through your songwriting process by using one song as a representative example (“Two Trains” or “As You Lie,” maybe)? Does a song, for example, just “appear” or do you work towards its completion incrementally?
Both songs were written completely in a night, probably within an hour or so from start to finish if not less. But the idea comes much quicker than that, almost instantaneously I think, and then has to be shaped a little and built on. Having said that, both songs are the conclusion of months of thinking about something important to me which then finds an outlet in a song written very quickly. In a sense they do just appear in a very short space of time but at the same time I can see how they are shaped lyrically by what I have read, or by other song lyrics, and musically by whatever I have heard. I will have been thinking about the concept which eventually comes out in the song but not have had the exact words until the song comes along.
The process for both, and actually most of my songs, is the same. I tend not to sit down with the intention of writing a song or know that I am about to write one. If I am playing a lot, though, the laws of averages mean it is much more likely I'll find something I like. Also it means I am in good shape musically if I do happen upon an idea, whereas if I haven't played for a couple of weeks it is very unlikely that I will pick up the guitar and write something I will use. I can't force a song into being, but I can create the conditions by playing a lot. I never have an idea for a melody or lyrics in my head beforehand; I just play around with the guitar until I hear something that I like and then try to build on it. Once I have a melody written on guitar it will often suggest a vocal melody and lyrics. Usually both the guitar part and the lyrics are the result of whatever I'm thinking about at the time so hopefully for that reason they are related. The advantage of this approach is that when something does come along it feels like it has come from somewhere other than your own boring conscious mind, but the drawback is that you can go for a long time and not be able to write something, which can be frustrating. There are odd occasions though where I will have a guitar part for a long time and then lyrics will come along much later for it. And one or two of the more recent songs have been written over a period of weeks or months.
4. Let's deal with the Nick Drake issue right away. As someone with a long-standing affection for Drake's albums, I find it next to impossible to hear your music and not hear hints of Drake's laconic delivery in your vocal style (in a song like “Song, Woman and Wine,” for example). How do you feel about the connection? Is it something you're flattered or annoyed by?
I wouldn't say I'm flattered or annoyed by it; it's a fact and it's there. I absolutely love Nick Drake but I don't think that the vocal similarity is something I should be flattered by because he did it first. At the same time I didn't ever set out to consciously emulate his style of singing; it developed because I listened endlessly to his work when I first heard it, and would often sing along. To me to sing in any other way would seem unnatural and forced. This only applies to half of what I do anyway as at least half has no singing at all. I don't get annoyed by the suggestion that there are definite vocal similarities but neither do I think that this necessarily devalues what I do.
I think that this is actually a pretty common and normal occurrence in music. I don't think for example that my voice sounds more like Nick Drake's than Captain Beefheart's voice sounds like Howling Wolf's, or Robert Johnson's music sounds like Charlie Patton's or a Schubert Sonata sounds like one by Beethoven, or Beethoven in turn sounded like Mozart, especially at the beginning. I am not comparing respective talents obviously, just making the point that this happens. When a major artist comes along, like any of the ones just mentioned, they have to be dealt with in some way by anyone that follows them. Having said all that I do think that originality is essential in any art and if a piece of work doesn't have some element of originality there is a serious problem.
5. While it's not hard to hear traces of Bert Jansch and Drake in your music, the influence of Aphex Twin and Brian Eno is less immediately obvious (of all the “electronic” artists one might cite as a reference, Labradford would seem a more natural choice). Could you clarify in what way specifically your music contains echoes of those artists, if at all?
For me it's about having been influenced by the sound-world of these artists. I think it's probably more obvious with Brian Eno, especially in an album of his like Music For Airports, but also I think to a degree in Aphex Twin's more ambient works, like Selected Ambient Works II. Not so much by the more rhythm-driven stuff, although I also love that. They use different instruments (synths rather than a guitar, although Eno occasionally uses guitar too), but I process my guitar in a very similar way (using analogue delay and reverb). I think this is most obvious in tracks like “If I” and “Climbing” where the echo effect can be heard on the guitar more clearly. It's really just about striving to make a more abstract sound the way these artists do, to try to escape the conventional earthy sound of an acoustic guitar.
6. Collected Recordings features songs recorded over a five-year span at your home in Glasgow. Have you created new songs since those released on the album, and if so how does the new material differ if at all from Collected Recordings? Are you focusing more on the “ambient instrumental” style of “Fifth (The Impossibility of Death)” or on vocal songs, or is your composing direction something that you simply allow to develop of its own accord?
Most of the stuff I've written since those recordings has been far more upbeat, and again influenced by some of the electronic music I listen to. Tracks like “Get Together” and “The Dance” are examples of this, which are both on my MySpace page but haven't been released on a proper album yet. Again some are instrumentals and some have vocals. I'm moving away now from slower, more “romantic”-sounding stuff in favour of a more rhythmic, almost dance inspired sound. Dance as in dance in general, rather than the specific type of electronic music. That's what interests me and affects me more in music now. More and more I love music which isn't blinkered to the fact that there is always some pretty horrific stuff going on in the world but tries to go beyond being overtly emotional or just melancholic as a response. Certain African music, or a Beethoven symphony being two pretty different examples of this. Also the first track on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works I sounds like it could be played either at a wedding or a funeral, which is a great quality.
7. How did your association as the guitarist for Vashti Bunyan come about, and what was the experience like of touring with her for two-and-a-half years and in performing at places like The Barbican in London and Carnegie Hall in New York?
I sent a demo of my music to Vashti's record label FatCat in 2005 in the hope of them releasing something, and they put a couple of tracks on the demo archive on their website for people to download and listen to. Not long after this Vashti was just starting to think about playing live again and touring after not having been involved in music for around forty years, I think. She was looking for a guitarist to tour with and asked FatCat if they knew of anyone, and they told her to have a listen to my tracks on their website. I was pretty lucky to be living relatively near to Vashti (about an hour away by car) and to have sent the demo at the right time.
The two or three years of touring and playing together that followed were absolutely amazing. She has a real, natural, in-built sense of music, and a great ear (as well as great songs, obviously) so playing together is something I absolutely love to do. She hears everything, unfortunately, so you have to be on your toes! And travelling together is always a huge amount of fun; it's been one big adventure. She's absolutely in her element to be doing this, which makes it great fun for everyone around her also, because it's something which was denied to her when she first started writing because people around her didn't get it.
As luck would have it she's linked to many of my favourite artists too which has meant I've had the chance to meet them and occasionally work together. She knows and works with the older generation, people like Joe Boyd (Nick Drake's producer as well as her own) and Mike Heron (Incredible String Band) and also some of my favourites of today like Coco Rosie, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom. The big gigs have been a lot of fun but they can be scary too. I don't think either of us slept for about a week before the first gig together which was at the Barbican in London. It really is an unknown; you don't know how you will react to sitting down in front of so many people and trying to play until you get out there and do it. Before this I'd only ever really played in small pub/club type places. Carnegie Hall was a great experience too, especially the rehearsals which were just completely chaotic.
8. Could you name a few “desert island” discs that have had a huge impact on your life and artistic persona and comment on why they made such an impact?
I'll start with the obvious one. Pink Moon is one of my favourites of all time. It's impossible to describe why I think it's so good; you just have to listen to it, I suppose. The more I play guitar and record the more I realize just what an achievement this album is even in terms of execution, to say nothing of the writing. To have all those songs prepared so that they all still sound fresh, and none of them sound over-practiced. To have all the tracks at such a seemingly perfect state of readiness so that he could go in to the studio over just two nights and produce that is incredible. It affected me not only musically but also in terms of setting a standard of playing and writing that everyone who follows has to try to live up to.
I also love Syd Barrett's solo work. No one particular album, nearly all of his tracks to me sound like they could have been on the one album anyway. There are aspects of his music that I value above everyone else's. His sheer inventiveness and boldness and the completely human and exposed quality he has. The impression you get when you listen is that this really is him. It doesn't appear to be a self-consciously constructed world but just what happens when he sits down to create something. I'm not sure how much what he did influenced me; it definitely inspired me but I think he's such an individual that it is really difficult to borrow from him and have it make sense, at least in my mind.
Another of my favourites that the above also applies to is Captain Beefheart. Again nearly all of it but especially Trout Mask Replica. On some days I would say that this was my favourite album ever. I don't think that much trace of his music ever really appears in mine style-wise (although the first line of “Two Trains” is “borrowed” from Beefheart, who in turn borrowed it from delta blues singers), but it had a huge effect on me as a listener and definitely inspired me. The reason it made such a huge impact is just the depth of it, I suppose. It's one of the most unique works of art you are likely to encounter, a very profound anti-war statement at times but much more than this, and from a far more enlightened standpoint than that of say Bob Dylan. Lyrically and musically imaginative to the nth degree, psychedelic and fantastic and at the same time completely primal like an old blues record. And for all those reasons still not really part of popular culture or as well-known and respected as it should be, outside of relatively limited circles. Everyone's heard of Miles Davis or Robert Johnson, for example, but that's not really the case with Captain Beefheart, who's to me at least in the same league.
And speaking of Robert Johnson... another musician that I could go on about. Eric Clapton said that he was the greatest of all guitarists and part of me definitely agrees. He certainly seems to me to be one of the most difficult to emulate. Nick Drake's guitar playing is incredible, but I think it can be approximated to a degree by someone with a good sound guitar technique. Robert Johnson's playing is so unique and stylized that it is very difficult to sound anything like him. But then maybe it's just a question of approach; there could well be a host of well-seasoned blues players out there who would disagree. I was hugely affected by the way blues singers can say so much with a single, simple line in ordinary, plain English, and it's something I have attempted to do often with my own lyrics.
More recently than all of the above I started listening to Glenn Gould and in particular a live recording of the Goldberg Variations by Bach. This is something which had a huge impact because he is a classical musician with all of the associated level of technique and learning but with a completely different ethic and approach to most of the classical musicians I had heard before him. He manages to transcend the instrument in a way that I don't think I have heard in any other musician, and this has had a big impact on the way I have attempted to play since I heard him. As well as this the way he manages to separate different melody lines within a piece is something which I have tried to learn from. There is a real perfection to the way he plays but never at the expense of the soul of the music. Another piano recording I love is Sviatoslav Richter playing the last Schubert Sonata.
The music of Aphex Twin is also up there for me. It's difficult to name an album because he has produced an amazing amount of great music. Possibly I Care Because You Do if I had to choose one album but the track “Windowlicker” is impossible not to mention. And as I mentioned earlier, some of my tracks aim to create something abstract sounding using effects in a broadly similar way to some of his work.
In the past few years I've been listening to more classical music, Beethoven, Wagner, and Schubert mainly but bits and pieces of a lot of stuff.
9. Which fellow artists (if any) are currently inspiring you with their work and output, and in what way?
I have a good friend called Andrew Keane who plays guitar but moved to China a few years back. He was maybe the first person I knew personally who inspired me. He has written some amazing stuff for the guitar, and we had some great nights sitting up drinking and talking about music. I have some of his recordings and am hoping to post them on a MySpace page for him soon. More recently I have been lucky enough to work with Vashti Bunyan and Juana Molina who are two of the best around for me. I don't know if I've managed to take anything from their style but have definitely been inspired.
10. Electronic music fans would also be curious to know more about the contribution you made to a recent film soundtrack by Max Richter. What's the film in question, what was your involvement, and what was that experience like? Finally, what else can we look forward to in the next year or so from you in terms of touring, recording, releases, etc.?
Erm... well, I did record some music for Max Richter for a film starring John Cusack but unfortunately the soundtrack wasn't used after Clint Eastwood came along and decided that he wanted to do it, apparently. Bastard! It was called Grace is Gone. Max produced Vashti's album Lookaftering and played piano on a couple of the first shows so I got to meet and work with him. He needed a guitarist to record some of the parts that he had written on the computer so we went in to a studio in Glasgow, and I recorded the parts he gave me. It was great fun but was over in just a couple of hours as there was another musician coming in to record after me. Great guy, though, and I really enjoyed doing it.
I have quite a few shows coming up before the end of the year. I'm playing in London in October, then Ireland in November at a festival curated by Adrian Crowley, and a couple of other solo gigs while I'm there, then Portugal in December and am trying to arrange something in Istanbul at the moment. Those dates will go up on my MySpace once they're set. As well as this there are a few Vashti shows coming up again which is great because she's been busy writing so we haven't played live together for quite a while. I have a lot more material recorded since Collected Recordings, some of it's a fair bit more experimental, and mainly instrumental. I'm hoping to release something early next year if I finally get round to mixing it properly and deciding which tracks to put where.