Legendary singer Graham Parker talks to Dave Woodhall about dead toads, sunglasses and an awesome back catalogue.
Graham Parker is one of the greatest songwriters Britain has produced. After reforming his band the Rumour to widespread acclaim in 2013, Graham has linked up with long-time associate Brinsley Schwarz on a double-handed tour that comes to the Artrix Arts Centre in Bromsgrove on 20th September.
To start with the obvious, how have the shows been so far?
“Really good. Packed out and jumping, playing some places I haven’t been to for a long time. Liverpool for example, I’ve not played since 1979. I don’t know why it’s never come up but we played the Epstein Theatre. It’s a beautiful place, fabulous sound and it was packed, then the next night we were playing in what was like a hole in the ground in Newcastle. Most of the venues are theatre type places.
“I’m on acoustic, Brinsley’s on electric and because Universal are putting out this box set on the 29th of this month (These Dreams Never Sleep) we’re leaning on a lot of old stuff with some mid-period things thrown in but I’m not ignoring the fact that it’s been forty years last April since Howling Wind came out so I guess that’s something worth respecting. When I started I thought I might get three years of this.”
You’d gone for so long without playing the UK, yet now you’re a regular over here again. What caused the change of heart?
“I was settled into the America thing. I didn’t know what the market would be in the UK but I had it down to a fine art in the States, where I could drive from my place in upstate New York and do three or four gigs over a weekend, all in good places and for good money and I could do all that myself.
It was reforming the Rumour when I knew we had to come over to England and once we did that promoters starting asking me to perform. The chance for the duo came up, we could do gigs all over the world and it all opened up again. America’s a big country and it’s built for touring, you drive the freeway and you drop right into the town, check into the hotel and the gig’s just up the road. In England you’re looking for the dead toad on the A4347 to Kendal, turn left there and there might be a roadsign. But it’s better now in the UK than in America. You’re only as good as your last ticket sales.”
When the Rumour first reformed audiences seemed more rapt than rapturous, as though they were still astonished that the band were finally back in front of them.
“I felt a bit the same way. We stepped on stage at the first gig, it had been sold out for months and 2,000 people staring at you like you’re some sort of museum relic. There was some kind of reverence. All the orginal band members, playing after a gap of thirty-odd years and there we all were again. It seemed really weird but once we played it was all about music. I’d said we were never going to reform the Rumour again, not because of any angst between me and the other members but just because it never seemed right until I did it. It wouldn’t have been right at any time until then, and then it was a no-brainer – we had to do it before someone snuffed it in the night, for one thing. Everyone had matured enough to say, ‘This is what we should do.’ As soon as we started playing we locked right in together.”
You thought it was the right time to re-form, and on the last tour it certainly felt like the right time to stop. Two albums, three tours, nobody had left and the band were still on top form.
“Thanks for saying that because it’s exactly what I felt. I’m a creative songwriter and I like to keep moving on. I keep trying to write different types of songs now, some are like the Rumour and others weren’t. They never go very far from the blueprint, which is still Howling Wind, but I didn’t want to end up with the Rumour in the wrong place. We did it right, we were packing out the right places and if you look at ticket sales dropping off only slightly or band members who are getting tired of being on the road, I’m sure I did the right thing.”
The glories of the internet mean that we can see the setlist for the tour so far and there are some surprising inclusions. New York Shuffle for example, that you kept out of the Rumour reunion.
“We did that once and it didn’t really click but now it’s totally different. You can’t do it on acoustic as a two piece, the speed would just be absurd so it’s a blues shuffle now. There’s a lot of real re-inventions. Watch the Moon Come Down, sometimes people don’t recognise it until the chorus. It’s opened up into a big acoustic number with Brinsley doing some beautiful glissando guitar playing. Stick to Me, I do the chorus slow then speed up on the verses. All these things I’ve learned over the years just by treading the boards.”
You’ve always had a vitriolic edge to your writing. That must be easy given the way of the world now.
“It’s like falling off a log, so I don’t try to do too many of them. Anyone can be cynical but I try to add meaning to songs now rather than just ranting at the world. There’s a place for that and it’s fine but I like to have other layers of things going on. I try to stop myself if I think I’m just being obnoxious.”
You can’t help but fear for the future though.
“Well, people have different opinions and in parts they’re valid but some I know in England who liked the Brexit thing… ‘I wanted to get out. I want to get rid of the bad Muslims.’ I don’t think there are any Arab countries in the EU. You weren’t voting for that, people. Then they talk about Trump and ask what’s that about and I say you got conned by a man named Farage, with all that racism and hatred and he campaigns for Trump. There’s a lot of material in the world but a good journalist can say it better than a songwriter. I try to stay away from ranting too much.”
You’ve done about fifty albums, plus books and films. If you had to keep one of your pieces of work, and not listen to any of the others, which would it be?
“That’s not an easy question, because the quality has been high throughout my career but there’s nothing that beats the fact that I was ready for it when I made my first album. I didn’t waste peoples’ time with albums that looked like they showed potential, I came smack into it with Howling Wind. It’s got the magic that I didn’t really know what I was doing. Nick Lowe hadn’t really produced an album like that before, with an artist who’d come from nowhere. There was a bit of innocence there and it was marvellous to tell the petrol station where I worked that I was quitting because I had a record deal and I was touring.
“Every one of the songs on the album is strong, I don’t love all of them but there’s a package, that awful cover with me looking like a corpse, all of that stuff doesn’t matter. There was a sense on it that was natural and I’m still playing White Honey and Between You and Me. If I could only listen to one thing that’d be the one.”
Do you listen to your back catalogue?
“I try not to. If I’m doing a song on a tour I poked around and do slightly different things but neither of us want to listen too much because I’m still going to cringe a bit. I’d rather remember the song without listening to it and re-invent it rather than adhere to it slavishly.”
And if you want an even harder one – how any pairs of sunglasses have you gone through in your career?
“Let’s see…forty years. I usually pick them up cheaply at petrol stations but these days I’ve been buying some from the sort of shops that sell Halloween items. Some from a a place in New York with a red stripe across the top, blue bits, yellow bits. At the moment I’m wearing some pretty good standbys that were on the Mystery Glue cover, those clay pigeon shooting ones. I went through a period of buying vintage shades on ebay, and I had some made by a German manufacturer with my signature on them. I’d say it’s got to be about sixty pairs.
“There was a time when a guy stepped on stage in Norway and very neatly and quickly grabbed them off my head. One of the band told me that I went down into the audience, got hold of the guy and told him to give me my shades back. Then I was playing a show in Norway, this guy comes up and says ‘I was the one who took your sunglasses’. He was there at a gig forty years later. He was a big fella too.”
Graham Parker & Brinsley Schwartz play the Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove on Friday 30th September. Tickets £20 from www.artrix.co.uk/
These Dreams Never Sleep, the best of Graham Parker 1976-2015 is available to order www.grahamparker.net/