Saturday 17 May 2008

Caravan-Richard Sinclair

Caravan have always held a special place in the hearts and minds of the great listening public. They epitomised all that is great about British music of the period and produced a debut album that must be considered as one of the great albums of all time, as well as another four classics - 'If I Could Do It Again, I'd Do It All Over You', 'In The Land Of Grey And Pink', 'Waterloo Lily' and 'For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night', two excellent albums in 'Blind Dog At St. Dunstans' and 'Cunning Stunts', a couple of potboilers ('Better By Far' and 'The Album') and in 1982 a very pleasant but largely unrewarding reform album 'Back To Front'. Along the way they spawned a couple of live albums, both from the 'Plump' line up, one with added orchestra. The original line up of the Wilde Flowers, that legendary spawning ground of all things Canterbury, produced a trio of definitive 'English' vocalists: the laconic velvet of Kevin Ayers, the fragile Cockney sadness of Robert Wyatt and the amused, gentle purity of Richard Sinclair. In the following interview, Richard talks about, around and beyond the Wilde Flowers and the early days of Caravan.

Did you come from a musical background?
RS: I'm the son of a Canterbury-born carpenter - actually he was quite well known around here, because he was always involved in the local scene. He had his own big band and played at Windsor Castle once for the Queen Mother with Archie Andrews and Peter Brough! So my early years were surrounded by all this stuff, I remember my old man sawing up bits of wood and then playing a tune on the saw; he used to watch 'Top Of The Pops' and record the best bits even during the 60s.
So what age were you when you first picked up a guitar?
RS: One Christmas, I got this plastic ukulele from my dad and he taught me how to play things like 'Freight Train' and 'She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain'. Then I had this Spanish guitar, which was so big I couldn't really play it, I could just about hold the thing. By the time I was nine I had grown enough to be able to sort that out, and in the meantime I'd been playing the banjo - still doing 'She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain"! The first instrument you were allowed to play at school was the violin, and so I brought that home for about a year and drove the whole house nuts with it, scraping away on this sodding violin and getting absolutely nowhere. My sister, who is nine years older than me, was forever entering local talent contests in Margate, and was always winning them too. She's got a great voice. My dad was playing in local bands on the coast - my early recollections of music was going down to Herne Bay or Margate to watch my dad play and sing.

So it was very much a musical atmosphere to be in?
RS: It was similar to what I'm doing now, I've got my own business where I go into people's homes and build what they want - he worked in a machine shop in Canterbury and did other work on the side, like repairing the Archbishop's antique furniture. Then three or four nights a week my dad would go out playing in local bands, being the bass player, drummer, and singing George Formby tunes, or Nat King Cole or Sinatra; all the standards from the Thirties right through to the end of the fifties. He was known as the 'Cab Kid' to his audience, who knew about his craftsmanship and loved his singing. My own favourites were things like Lonnie Donegan's 'Cumberland Gap'(laughs). I got the guitar more together as I started secondary school, I was hopeless at everything except technical drawing, woodwork, music and especially art - I passed 'A' level art early and drew my way into art college here in Canterbury, which is where I first met up with Hugh Hopper.

He was living in a place called 'Tanglewood' up along Giles Lane and had an older brother there, Brian, who played saxophone and guitar. Hugh played bass guitar and clarinet and in my first year, I was about 16, he called me up and asked whether I wanted to join this band he'd started. So I borrowed my dad's P.A., a very early Selma valve amp, and went up to Tanglewood and played my Hofner guitar through it. And that was the Wilde Flowers. We did a lot of rehearsing, went through various singers before Robert Wyatt came down and joined the band. His friend Kevin Ayers and Hugh had known each other in Spain a few years before. So in 1965 we formed the band with Hugh, Kevin, Robert, Brian and myself. We used to do a few cover versions, Mose Allison stuff, Beatles and Stones, but it was mainly our own music, or rather Hugh and Brian's music at the time. They were writing slightly Indian orientated things rather than what was going on elsewhere. Hugh's mum even made us all these silk shirts to wear, a stage costume of sorts. They were priceless, I had a really horrible green one although the rest had nice purple or yellow ones. The first gig we did was at The Bear And Key in Whitstable - I met Pye Hastings there for the first time, Kevin's girlfriend was Pye's sister, Jane. Pye was selling insurance at the time and was dressed in this very smart suit and shiny shoes. He saw the gig played entirely through one amp, our P.A.! Hugh Hopper on bass, Kevin Ayers on vocals, Brian Hopper on sax and guitar, Robert Wyatt on drums and cymbal and myself on guitar and roll-neck sweater, all put through this one amp. The band did some more local gigs, village halls and student parties. Our most notable one was at the Canterbury Football Ground at a weekend Rock and Blues festival to an audience of ten people and a dog.

The Wilde Flowers carried on and did several gigs at The Beehive in Canterbury over the next year, by which time Pye and I had become friends. We spent many evenings playing music together at my parents' house, Pye had a guitar Kevin had given him and my cousin Dave Sinclair would pop in for a play on his bass guitar and small keyboard. Pye stayed at our house during the summer of '66 whilst we spent the time hop picking. In the following autumn I got pissed off with the Wilde Flowers thing and left to concentrate on college work. Pye replaced me in the band. Soon after, Kevin went off to Majorca with his mate Daevid Allen, and Robert gave up drumming to concentrate on singing.

Richard Coughlan, a dental technician who had played in another local band called 'The Earl Gutheridge Explosion', joined. Robert left soon after and Dave Lawrence, from another local combo called 'Chaos' came in on bass, leaving Hugh and Brian to concentrate on playing double sax's. Cousin Dave completed the line up. By this time the band had changed into a soul and Motown covers band, and lasted only into early '67 before splitting. Pye went to London and stayed at his sisters' flat at the end of the Kings' Road. Richard Coughlan and Dave would meet up there and play music together. Pye told me that the three of them were forming a band and were looking for a bass player really, but would I like to give it a go? After playing with them a couple of times I decided to leave college early, and Pye, Dave and myself worked for six weeks building -a motorway so we could get enough money together to rent this house in Whitstable, in Westgate Terrace, for six months so we could rehearse. Our gear wasn't a problem because The Soft Machine had started to tour with Jimi Hendrix in America and when they came back, they dumped all the gear off at our place. I borrowed Hugh Hopper's bass, he'd been roadying for the Softs. So we set up all this nice equipment in a room we had decked out with about 10 carpets to deaden the sound, matresses over the windows and that sort of thing. We spent the next six months getting Caravan together. Girlfriends used to bring us food and stuff like that. We got all these songs together, and did about eight concerts - one from the back of a farm wagon - travelling around in the back of Maurice Haylett's van. He later became our road manager.
Our first gig was at The Beehive. We got friendly with the people at International Times - they gave us some coverage and organised a gig at the Middle Earth.

The gig went down a storm, and as a result about three companies got in contact, one of which was Witchseason and another Robbins Music who were a publishing company. They got us a deal with Verve/MGM which we went with because they offered to pay the rent. ByThat August we had left Westgate Terrace and we ended up in Graveney Village Hall.

We slept in tents on the green outside the hall and used their kitchen to prepare food, though there wasn’t much food or money floating around. We rehearsed in the hall most days, knocking ourselves into shape in preparation for the album. By October it got so cold that we took to setting the tents up inside the hall up against the radiators. We had to move on eventually. We went into Advision studios to do the first album with Tony Cox as producer. Because he was way more experienced with recording studios we were happy to let Tony guide us through the experience and it all turned out very well we thought.

Did you record any extra tracks that didn't make it onto the album?
RS: A couple of my tunes that I hadn't quite finished. There's one called 'Frozen Rose' I think, I was still frozen from Graveney - starting to thaw out a bit! So anyway, after the album Robbins gave us a small amount of money to live on, about twenty quid a week for the band. Fifteen quid paid the rent and we had about a fiver left so we rented a bungalow in Canterbury where we rehearsed. We started doing a lot of gigs, went abroad and toured France as well. We did a TV show called 'Colour Me Pop' that was good fun, we had the whole 45 minutes and did most of the music in our crushed velvet trousers and long scarves while the director cut in artistic scenes of castles to 'compliment' the music. It was all great fun.

So it was a happy time during that period spanning the first three albums?
RS: Oh yeah. Terry King became our manager and got us a deal with Decca, and an advance to buy more
equipment, so we set off on a course of touring and recording.

But then after 'In The Land Of Grey And Pink' Dave left the band and later joined Matching Mole?
RS: Dave decided that he wanted to leave. There was still quite a lot of musical energy in the band, but because by then we'd all moved away and started families, money problems started to crop up so there were new pressures on the band. There were other things going on in our lives we spent less time hanging out together and playing music as we had done for so many years. We drifted apart and eventually stopped doing it altogether. One of the problems with Caravan at the moment is because we all have families and have to work for a living, we haven't had much of chance just to sit around all day a jam together, and until you have that sort of interaction going on it's hard to come up with new ideas and music for the band. It's all very well for us to turn up at a studio with a handful of songs each and thrash them out there and then, but unless the band have had a chance to really interact musically beforehand in an informal way then at points a certain band identity is missing from the proceedings.

I still fondly remember those early years. We had lots of good fun, we used to do nice things together as a bunch of lads like disappear off in Maurice's van and go up on the Downs and lark about. We'd always be playing guitars in the woods or by the sea or on park benches, it didn't just happen in a studio, it happened everywhere we went. But times changed and that was that. My memories of caravan are great, but dim. We had some lovely times, driving about in a Transit van full of gear, gigs in the open air, playing festivals where you'd turn up at a ploughed field with nothing but barbed wire sticking out of it. You'd set up and plug in and two or three thousand people would turn up - and that would be the concert. There'd be a few luxury gigs when we'd be flown to Austria and be at the local Olympia, and before we went on they'd have an avant-garde art performance - 20 people having their hair cut and then Caravan would come on and play, with all this hair all over the stage, to lots of people who liked our music and bought it. It was nice to be able to take your music to lots of different people.

You left the band after 'Waterloo Lily' - did you think the Caravan spirit had gone by then?
RS: I don't think the spirit had gone, I just didn't join in. We found other ways of going through life. It's like, I enjoy playing music non-stop, all day long wouldn't worry me at all - as long as I've got all the gadgets I'm entertaining myself, working out tunes. I just like doing it, and playing with other people as well. After a time, when we all moved into having our own families and with all the associated problems, then that fertile musical lifestyle of the early days ceased to happen so much. Then Dave left and quite honestly, Steve Miller didn't have the goods as far as covering all the instrumental end of Caravan. He was a pianist, he was blues orientated. The album involved musicians that were not particular to the band, in that they were jazz orientated. I tended to move away from it, still playing some of my songs that fitted in less and less with some of the weird time signatures being tossed around, so I decided to leave, because I was playing more of, my music with other people. I later had some lovely times playing live with Steve, but I missed playing with Dave. Which is why it's so nice having him around playing with Caravan now. When he's playing he really enjoys it, limited though he is like the rest of us by our conception of what we think other people want to hear. I think at the moment that Caravan suffers from that a bit. Even though it's a good thing to entertain the troops, organise the music for the people who would come to our gigs, all we had last year was the old material - even though it worked very well. To develop new tunes like that from our own individual songs that we play alone at home, we'll have to work together for quite long periods of time. The band sound is generated from people playing their simple music together and then lots of complex structures and ideas come out of it, you find different rhythms within yourself to work from.
Caravan have their own unique make up. There's definitely a certain mood that comes out of the four of us playing together. Dave will sit down at the piano and play little songs and things that are particular to him and Pye will play his tunes and if you get him away from his commercial stuff, because he went that way in the later Seventies... I like it, but it doesn't appeal to me as much as the type of song that he used to write before. It had a certain charm and magic, which was later lost somewhat.

You sound as if you plan to go back to where 'Grey And Pink' left off, which I think everyone would want you to do. Many people were a bit disappointed with the reform LP of 1982, Back To Front', which has all the pitfalls that you already seem to be aware of.
RS: It was a one-off, done very quickly and without a great deal of money forthcoming. There's still a lot about that album that I like.
Side One is quite excellent but it's a very insular affair, four individuals rather than a band.
RS: We simply didn't have the time to interact musically. It was nice four few weeks though, Herne Bay in the winter of 81/82. It was great being together again - we had fun. Running around a freezing beach with my tape recorder, taping all the seagulls and noises that are on the album. We did a couple of really good concerts at The Marquee - a nice time was had by all. This time around, Caravan are really reformed - we're all committed to making new music with the true Caravan spirit. Again though, it's going to be a question of time and money. All of us have commitments that have to be fulfilled, and the only way we can get the time necessary is to have enough money to enable us all to take the time off from our various jobs.

Does this new commitment include the dusting down of Dave's much missed Hammond organ?
RS: That point has already been raised and Dave finds it incredulous that anyone would want to hear the old Hammond again! He runs a keyboard shop in Herne Bay and so he's well up on all the latest technology. I think he thinks we're just winding him up, he can't believe it. It would be nice if the old Hammond could be brought into the proceedings at some point - we'll carry on working on him over that!
Returning to your original departure from Caravan, what happened next?
RS: I moved up to London with my wife and son, near to Steve Miller. We'd left Pye and Richard to get Caravan organised. This was when Hatfield And The North started.
Reuniting you and Dave Sinclair.
RS: Well, first of all it started with Pip Pyle, Phil Miller and I. We were living in East Cheam on the South Circular Road in this flat, and Pip was there with his family and Phil and this bloke Ben, who was a Soft Machine roadie, so lots of Soft Machine gear was once again around. An old P.A., that sort of thing. Robert Wyatt was around too -Phil and Dave had just been in Matching Mole with him. So, Steve, Phil, Pip and I did one gig under the flag 'Steve Miller's Delivery' and then changed the name to Hatfield And The North. But Phil couldn't get on with his brother Steve, who decided he wasn't going to be in the band, so I thought it would be a good idea to have Dave Sinclair in the band.

Dave didn't stay in long either?
RS: No, he can't handle Phil Miller's guitar playing, he just doesn't like the sounds Phil comes up with. This is why he wasn't considered when Dave Stewart didn't want to do the Hatfields' Bedrock' TV show last year. We did a few concerts and a radio session, and then Dave left and someone came up with Dave Stewart's name so we gave him a bell. He came along and auditioned, and he certainly had the goods.
You had presumably heard him with Egg?
Oh no, who were Egg at the time? Some support band... Relating back to what I was saying about Pye's songwriting in the early days being almost delicate and a little bit embarrassing for the performer, it had a certain charm to it which he tended to lose in the late Seventies and Hatfield and the North lose it in another way when it becomes too mechanically structured and loses its human element. It's the case of the odd note that crept in that was supported because the other musicians wanted it to go with their music, rather than the music rules all and every note has to be totally right. There are a lot of technically brilliant musicians that I've listened to recently like Pat Metheney and Gary Burton, and I much prefer their earlier works when they were actually achieving interesting noises rather than the same perfect note over and over again.

I think that the Hatfield thing was good in how we structured the songs, and we certainly got the music together. Dave was a fantastic writer. I like the way Dave structures tunes, but I prefer more playing to happen live, more outside in­fluences; other people's har­monic responses are interesting to me, changing the shape of the music and drifting into unpredi­catble areas where something beautiful can happen. With the Hatfields, the reverse be­came the norm. I found I had less and less say in the music and how it was performed. There's no doubt of the effect Dave Ste­wart had on Phil and Pip's musi­cal development. I watched them grow into their own strong individual styles. But the direc­tion of the band was not for me, and that and the money prob­lems
led me to leaving the band in the end.

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