Pye Hastings - CARAVAN

One of the major players of the Canterbury Scene, Caravan have left an indelible stamp on the face of Progressive Rock. With their debut released as far back as 1968, they are also one of the oldest bands of the genre. Their line-up, which has endured many changes, has always included guitarist, lead singer and general frontman Pye Hastings. Last year, their classic third album In the Land of Grey and Pink had its 40th birthday, an event that was marked by a fresh new triple-disc reissue, with remixing done by progmeister extroadinaire Steven Wilson. The band are still going strong and have recently announced a new UK tour beginning January 2013.

Hi there Mr. Hastings, it’s wonderful to have you on our website, and a great honour for me personally. You may like to know that I’m a mere 21 years of age, but am very fond of 70s progressive rock, including Caravan.
I see De Boerderij are putting on a special Caravan Convention in October. Are you looking forward to reconnecting with your Dutch fans?

Yes, very much. It has been too long since we last played in Holland. Our fans in Holland are without doubt the most loyal and enthusiastic that we have and we are all looking forward to returning. The man responsible for this gig is my dear friend Jasper Smit who has single handedly kept the Caravan torch burning throughout Holland and Germany over all the years and the changes of personnel. Jasper, we owe you “Big Time” Since our very first trip in 1970 to play at the Holland Festival in Kralingsbos, Rotterdam, when we were treated like royalty, to the last time we played at the Arrow Festival in 2004, we have always looked forward to playing in Holland. Of course back in the 1970’s we were all very young and had no real idea about what we were doing; now we are just older and still don’t know what we are doing except that we enjoy playing music more than ever.The pressures to succeed are no longer there, but the fun has increased.

Alongside your upcoming UK tour in January (which I will hopefully attend), what else are you planning for Caravan?
Nothing much. We are doing a few festival gigs in France and England (weather permitting) and we have to record a new CD soon because it has been a couple of years since the last one. This I am really looking forward to because I have a batch of new songs that are virtually complete and I need to get them out of my system in order to get on to the next batch. We don’t have a contract with any record company so the pressure to record nowadays is not so important. We do however have an amazing new drummer, Mark Walker, who has replaced Richard Coughlan (who sadly is still too unwell to play), and who brings a sense of urgency and power to the line up that i think was perhaps missing in the recent past. One of the really good things about Caravan is that we have embraced change readily throughout the years, and will continue to do so. Isn’t that what being “Progressive” is really all about?

We here at DPRP hope that Richard Coughlan recovers soon. On the other hand, I’m excited to hear about this new album. What can you tell us about it? Any longer, more Progressive tracks? A new For Richard perhaps?
Thank you for your kind wishes about Richard Coughlan, we too wish him a speedy recovery. At this stage I am working on nine or ten new songs for inclusion on the proposed next Caravan CD and as it stands they are just in song format, i.e. three to five minute pieces. Generally when the band start rehearsing we get a better idea of which songs will go well together and we can then start arranging them into more of a Caravan format. Although I love the numbers like For Richard my writing recently has taken me in the direction of shorter and “more to the point” material. This does not mean that I am not going to write something along the lines of For Richard, The love in Your Eye etc., but as it stands they are shorter songs at this time.

It’s great that so many progressive bands from the 70s have carried on into the 21st Century. Which groups have you seen recently?
None. I live in a small village in the north of Scotland (the land of my birth) and only get to see bands at the concerts that we do.

The term ‘Progressive Rock’ is a vast, all-encompassing term that has an almost mythical quality. As an artist who has dabbled in the genre since its dawn, I’d love to know when you first heard the term, and when you first heard it used to describe your music. What does this term mean to you?
I think it was first applied to bands like Pink Floyd who were breaking new ground on the London club scene in the late 1960’s. The term Progressive Rock is a good one because to me it means that it has a basis in rock music but that it moves on and changes with influence and time. Some bands are guilty of not changing at all throughout the years and are still playing in the same style they started out with. Nothing too bad about that of course and I feel the audience are equally responsible in that they encourage the bands to play just the old material over and over again. There will of course be some numbers that you will always be expected to play, because it defines the character and history of the band, but I always try to find space to introduce a couple of new songs and generally I find that these are greeted with a certain amount of hesitancy from the audience to begin with. Of course in time if the numbers are any good they too will become the favoured “Old Ones” and they will take their place on the request list. Progression?

Also, what does the term ‘Canterbury Scene’ mean to you, and when did you first hear that? I like to think it implies more than just the origin of the band, since the legendary Dutch outfit Supersister are often donned that term as well.
The Canterbury Scene was a term that was invented by the Press to initially describe bands like Soft Machine and Caravan. Both bands were founded in Canterbury and both had strong Jazz influences, which was probably the one thing that made them stand out against their contemporaries. The acceptance of pop music as a valid form coupled with a jazz structure i.e.solo passages, created a variance that was now able to stand up on it’s own. A well written pop song can be a thing of beauty and when you couple that with an inspired instrumental solo, you will have created something quite different and in “press” terms requires a “heading” to describe it. So any bands playing in that style are perfectly entitled to be classified under the same “heading”

After 40 years, you must know most of your tracks back to front and inside out. Do you still get a kick out of performing the same old songs? Which songs do you find the most fun to play live and why?
I have found that not all tracks, that we have recorded over the years, are suitable for live performance as they are possibly too gentle to be included in a live set. When compiling a set you must always treat it like a story, which must have a strong beginning and a strong end. In the middle is the area where you can experiment with either new material or some more gentle tracks which as you can appreciate, must be limited or the audience can get bored. It is a process which when you get the balance right produces instant rewards but when you get it wrong, then look out, because live audiences can often be too readily unforgiving. My favourites of the “old songs” are probably Nightmare and Nine Feet Underground because they are both arranged for reasonably long solo sections which change nightly and thus remain different every time we play them. They also have a wide range of dynamics which is very much a Caravan feature. Too many bands blast out at full volume from start to finish. OK for them, not for me.

I have a rather specific question about your first album, which is arguably quite a psychedelic affair. The final track Where but for Caravan Would I? is clearly the most progressive on the record and, dating from 1968, is incredibly ahead of its time. How did this composition come about, and why in particular did you settle on an 11/8 time signature for it?
I had been listening to a Don Ellis album which belonged to my brother Jimmy and was totally blown away by his use of different timings. Not only were they difficult and complex to play initially, but he really made them swing. So now I had burning desire to try out some of these and found that I could fairly easily write songs, riffs and passages in some of the unusual timings. It helped that the other members of the band were completely into it as well and we all got our heads around experimenting with playing this way. 11/8 is just a 12 time with one beat dropped off so any thing in 3/4 would work as 11, if you just played three bars of 3 and one of 2. Of course all of these timings originated centuries ago in eastern music, mainly Indian. It just took a little longer for us to discover them and incorporate them into our own style.

Recently, Universal released a three-disc deluxe edition of your classic album In the Land of Grey and Pink remixed by the ubiquitous Steven Wilson. Were you involved with this reissue?
No, I was consulted about it by Mark Powell and asked if I would like to be involved and of course I said yes, but that was the last I heard of it until after it was finished…

How happy are you with the end result?
I think Mark Powell did a very good job on behalf of Universal records in the researching and putting together the whole project. The presentation and the artwork are great but the addition of the outtakes and different versions, for me, leave something to be desired. There are of course valid reasons for avid fans wanting to hear songs that may have been left off the original project and because of the limitations of time space on a Vinyl disc (22mins per side), executive decisions were made at the time to create what was perceived to be the best balance/combination of songs for the album. To add in different versions of songs that may well have musical errors or just inferior playing on them is not something I really welcome. Steve did a valiant job in re mixing the tracks. He used a firm hand with his ideas and a lot of restraint which clearly showed a lot of respect for the original production by David Hitchcock.

One of the highlights of the reissue is the full-length alternate version of Nine Feet Underground, with entirely different solo sections. It gives a new lease of life to an old classic. Where have the new solos come from? Are they old demos or newly recorded?
The solos were all recorded on different multi tracks and at the time of mixing, certain ones were deemed better than others and were selected, usually by the featured soloist, and used in the final mix. Solos are affected by a multitude of differing criteria, like what you have just eaten, what you have just drunk (too much or not enough), what someone is muttering about behind your back, someone else’s inside leg measurement or whether you even want to be there or not, and the results are invariably very different. They all have their own merits and must be kept for future reference. There is no such thing as the perfect solo because you can always go back and record a better one. That is a danger in itself because you might never finish a project if you don’t have constraints like limited finance, time scale or just boredom factor.

A clichéd question I know, but what is your favourite Caravan album and why?
I don’t have a favourite Caravan album. I like bits of every one…

On many of your albums, the style of music varies greatly from song to song, showing a non-uniform approach to writing music. When writing a longer track such as Nine Feet Underground or The Dabsong Conshirtoe, have you originally set out to write a longer tune?
Both these tracks were written by Dave Sinclair so really the question should really be addressed to him, but to answer in general, as long as you can retain an identity, something distinctive that tells you apart from the rest, then you are free to explore the great world of music in all it’s forms and styles and incorporate as much of that influence into your own writing as possible whether it be Rock, Jazz, Folk or Country or whatever. This has always been the appeal for me and to be confined to one style would just not do. Writing long tracks usually come from the base of working on a song first then adding a solo section over a sympathetic riff which can then be linked to another song or piece of music and so on till you have a completed piece. They come together as much by accident as they do by design and often the other members of the band will suggest a link between different songs so the finished piece will be a collective endeavour which of course makes for a more unified group (or at least it should).

This is a question I ask to any band who has written a song over 20 minutes long. How do you yourself listen to these longer tracks? When do you find the time?
By the time you have played back the finished track, just prior to the final cut, you will probably never want to hear the damn thing ever again, but pride in achievement takes over for a short while, when you begin developing the tracks live on stage, and you get the audience response first hand, then very soon, the time comes for you to move on to the next project so you forget about it.

One day you might come across something you did and you will probably think “That was really great” or “That was really embarrassing”.
We have got our fair share of both…

Interview for DPRP by Basil Francis.