Hi Pye. Thanks for having time to answer some questions for Prog Sphere. So, what’s the latest news with Caravan? I had an opportunity to ask Roye Albrighton recently about Caravan’s status and he thinks that you’ve disbanded. What’s happening?
Hi Nikola. Roye Albrighton is somewhat misinformed, Caravan have not disbanded, we have taken some time off because Richard Couhglan is unwell and needs some time to get better. I recently met with the other guys in the band who are all anxious to get back on stage and take up where we left off. Unfortunately Doug Boyle will not be joining us this time as he is committed elsewhere.
I would like to discuss bits of your whole career in this interview, so let’s start from the very beginning of Caravan, back in 1968, when you helped found it. As far as I know, before Caravan you were in band called Wilde Flowers together with David Sinclair, Richard Sinclair and Richard Coughlan. I’m sure a lot of fans of “Canterbury” have heard of The Wilde Flowers. Can you tell us more about this band?
The Wilde Flowers band was formed by brothers Brian and Hugh Hopper with Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers. Richard Sinclair joined on guitar and Kevin left to travel abroad. Richard Coughlan was the next to join so Robert could concentrate more on vocals. Shortly after Richard left to complete his course at art school and I joined taking his place. While Richard Coughlan was on holiday, Brian, Hugh, Robert and myself entered a "Battle of the Bands" contest at Dreamland Ballroom in Margate which we duly won coming joint first. The grand prize was a test recording in a really dodgy home recording studio. This was my first experience of what I perceived to be the “Big Time”. Richard Coughlan returned from holiday and Robert left to join Kevin in Ibiza to form the Soft Machine. Brian informed me that I had to take over the singing duties from that point on. Very nervously I agreed. Dave Sinclair then joined on keyboards. We were playing more Soul Music than anything else at this stage but this would very shortly be replaced by progressive rock which was becoming the new trend. Hugh decided to go and work in London for the now formed Soft Machine and quit the band. I was devastated as this appeared to be the end of my musical journey but I was absolutely clear that I wanted to carry on and form a new group with Richard Coughlan and Dave Sinclair, playing original songs we had written ourselves. We needed a bass player and Richard Sinclair who had just finished his art school course joined to complete the line up. Richard and I were purely guitarists and we both had a go at playing Bass, but he was so much better than me so he got the job and Caravan was formed.
There was album of Wilde Flowers material released in the 90’s. What can you tell us about it for those who haven’t listened to it? Was it authorized by any former members?
The Wilde Flowers were primarily an RB band playing blues based numbers mixed with original Brian and Hugh compositions, most of which feature on the album of the Wilde Flowers that you mention. This album was entirely co-ordinated by Brian who owned all the original recordings which had been done on domestic tape recorders at gigs etc which explains the quality of the sound.
From its beginnings Caravan has been considered one of the founders of the Canterbury Scene, along with fellow bands such as Soft Machine, Egg, and Matching Mole, to name a few. The elements which adorn Canterbury the sound are odd time signatures, abstract lyrics, and improvisatory passages taken from jazz with psychedelic elements thrown in. How would you describe the music? Also, were you aware that you had helped to start something new.
Firstly, my brother Jimmy's influence, then listening to Brian, Hugh and Robert's collections of jazz records clearly had a profound effect on the songwriting direction we took when starting Caravan. This was not to the exclusion of Rock/Pop but the change in the trend of music which was taking over at that time gave us an opportunity to experiment which was not to be missed so we set about writing what ever came into our heads and hoped it would sound different enough to stand out from the others. So our music can be described as Rock/Pop songs with improvisational passages giving the musicians the space to play something different via solos. Sounds a bit precious now but at the time we were just four guys in a band with no sense of musical direction but just playing off each other.
Speaking of Canterbury as a label, in recent interview with Andy Tillison of The Tangent, who’s been a Caravan fan for ages now, I asked him if he sees the Canterbury Scene as something of a cult phenomenon. What’s your opinion on that?
Cult phenomenon is probably accurate because none of the supposed Canterbury Scene bands have yet made it into the A List of recording artists. The music is greatly appreciated by a discerning few but there it remains.
Caravan has been reputed to be the first British band that signed a contract with an American record label. How did this come about?
We were offered a contract by Ian Ralfini to record our first LP while he was working for Robbins Music which was linked to MGM records in London who were looking for a British band who they thought might do well in USA.
On Caravan’s first album, which was selftitled, the band introduced its sound, which would be fully refined by the time the second album came out. What was the recording process like for both, and how did they come about differently?
Ian appointed Tony Cox as our producer and the album was recorded at Advision Studios in London. To save time and money Tony mixed the album alone. The second album was recorded and mixed by ourselves which gave us a sound more representative of our live performances.
Out of morbid curiosity, what would you be doing all over the person you are referring to, if you had the chance to “do it all over again”?
One of the joys of English language when writing is that it is full of words which can have different meanings in different circumstances. For instance "over" can mean "over the top of" or "starting again” but it can also mean "because" which is the real meaning I used in the context of "all over you". Misunderstandings can be fun.
In the Land of Grey and Pink is generally considered your most successful achievement with Caravan and the album has even reached platinum status. How do you see this album now, after almost forty years?
I was not aware that Grey and Pink had achieved Platinum status. We were awarded a Gold disc for it a few years back but that’s it to date. You don’t often play your own records except to jog the memory about chord changes and to remember lyrics etc but I recently played Grey and Pink and was genuinely impressed how it sounded. And proud to have been a part of that particular line up.
Nine Feet Underground from the aforementioned album is one of the greatest progressive classics ever written, which is fitting because it’s the backbone of that album. Do you agree? David Hitchcock who has been worked on this album as a producer did great work, as this album sounds fresh even after 40 years. Are you satisfied how it turned out?
David Hitchcock who produced Grey and Pink really, really did us proud on that album. We thought we knew what we wanted sound wise, but none of us were capable of achieving anything like the clarity of sound and general magic he put into that recording. Without him at the helm it would not have turned out the way it did.
“Love to Love You” is, I suppose, a pretty “strange” song for “In the Land”, as I find it different in comparison with other tracks, though this doesn’t hurt, as it forms a good “bridge”, of sorts. Why did you choose to put this “unconventional” song in the middle?
In those days every album was expected to have a track which could be put out as a single in order to gain airtime on the radio. This track was the one that was chosen and was incorporated into the album for that purpose.
David Sinclair left the band after “In the Land of Grey and Pink” and the next year you released “Waterloo Lilly” which shifted toward an even jazzier approach, which facilitated even more lineup changes. What was happening around now? Why all the lineup changes?
Looking back Caravan had reached a peak and Dave saw it coming. He wanted to move on to do his own thing. We needed a replacement keyboard player and Richard Sinclair proposed his friend Steve Miller. Filling the void that Dave left proved practically impossible because in my opinion Dave was by far the most talented keyboard player around at the time so the option was to embrace a change of direction. This we attempted with Steve. Some fans liked it others didn't.
New members have brought different approaches and influences to Caravan’s music, as shown by “Waterloo Lilly”, an album which is the most unique Caravan had made up to that point. Was that natural growth or was the shift produced intentionally?
It is very important that when a new member comes into the band he is given the freedom to express himself and not just copy what has gone before. This creates a far more healthy team spirit which I think is essential.
Was it difficult to be faced with constant line-up changes and was it hard to find adequate replacements? Richard Sinclair and Steve Miller having gone on to form Hatfield and the North, leaving the rest of you to look for replacements.
Line-up changes can be a nightmare and a blessing. Firstly it clears out all the dis-satisfied members who traditionally go on to slag off their time in Caravan; but more importantly this process opens things up for a fresh start with new, enthusiastic replacements. So in one sense it’s sad to see some people go, but on the other hand it re kindles the faith. Don’t burden yourself with other peoples misery. Stick to your guns and push on to achieve your own goals.
Dave Sinclair was asked to participate on “For Girls Who Grow Plump in The Night” and he agreed, so this album marked a return to Caravan’s original sound. What can you say about this release? You wrote all of the material, with exception of “A Hunting We Shall Go”, which is a cover of Soft Machine’s “Backwards”.
Dave agreed to record "Plump in the Night" as a session player for a fee because he didn’t want to re-join the band at the time and needed some quick cash. We had previously recorded the album without keyboards with the intention of adding them later. Dave obliged but the recording lacked feeling and commitment. In the meantime we had a tour to do which again Dave agreed to do for a fee. Upon return we recorded the same numbers immediately, having ironed out all the bits that weren’t working, and got the backing tracks done in one take. Clearly this was the way forward. Great fun. I have never stopped writing and had this batch of songs ready as soon as Richard and Steve left the band. Something positive usually comes from a disruption, like line up change.
Why haven’t you been satisfied with “Caravan and the New Symphonia”?
Caravan and the New Symphonia album could in my opinion have been so much more powerful. We were given four weeks notice that the gig had been arranged and I was informed that Decca needed at least four new numbers to suit. Not an easy task. We were given two rehearsals with the orchestra of four hours each, one on the day before and the other on the day of the gig. This included rehearsing the backing singers who we met for the first time on the day of the gig. There was a volume issue with the orchestra so it was arranged that they should play on front of the stage and we were to play behind with our amplifiers pointing up so as not to interfere. The Theatre Royal has probably the largest stage in London and it felt as if the audience was a million miles away. Still we got through it and had to face a delegation from the orchestra backstage who wouldn’t go back on for an encore without an extra fee. They didn’t but we did. It could have been better.
So, Caravan wouldn’t be Caravan if there wasn’t another line-up change. John G. Perry left band in 1974 and was replaced by Mike Wedgwood (ex-Curved Air), who turned to have one of the major roles on 1975 release “Cunning Stunts”. This album brought you credits in two songs, “Stuck in a Hole” and “No Backstage Pass”. Most critics consider this album “Americanized” and the fact is that it has a different approach from previous releases, but what’s your opinion? Personally, this album is one of my favorites of yours.
In part, I have liked every album we have done. Some more than others. There is not one we couldn’t improve on, but you have to call it a day at some time and move on to the next. As far as Cunning Stunts was concerned, there was no definite intention to change the sound of the band but in 1974/75 we had just completed two tours of the USA and had probably fallen for the romantic image of the American lifestyle which I guess got reflected in the playing. When you are young it can be very seductive. However as you get older the blinkers come off and you see things from a different perspective.
With “Blind Dog at St. Dunstans” you made a turn to more pop-oriented sound, but there are still those recognizable Caravan moments. Do you think that constant line-up changes had left a “scar” on Caravan’s music?
I think "Scar" is too strong a word in this context. "Mark" would be more suitable. I believe it is every musicians duty to leave their mark or identity so they can be distinguished from others. Caravan has always accommodated and encouraged this ethic.
The pop approach on “Blind Dog at St. Dunstans” continued to develop on the next albums and started to go further and further from what Caravan used to be. I’m just curious as to what made Caravan go in that particular direction.
The pop approach you refer to was purely an attempt to reach a larger audience. Written music is very often a reflection of what you are listening to at the time of writing. Anyway, I like all types of music so this would naturally come out in the writing. Why would you want to limit yourself to one style of music?
After “Back to Front” there was a 13 years long hiatus. What was happening in this period? Were you involved in some other projects? The songs that later became part of “The Battle of Hastings”, initially were written for your solo album, why did you change your mind and use them for Caravan instead?
There had been some rumblings from the fans about making a comeback with the original line up, so, full of enthusiasm, we got together to make the Back to Front album. Unfortunately all those years away from each other, and music, had only served to increase the differences between some of us. It became clear that we were still pulling in completely different directions and it was not going to work for any length of time. So yet again we put it down to experience and had a little lie down. The songs used on the Battle of Hastings album were demo/tracks recorded for the AR dept at Arista Records in London to assess if they wanted to continue with us as a recording act. They didn’t and we left having been given the recordings back and wished good luck. The music fashion had changed to a much younger "Punk" style and we were no longer part of it. At the time it was a bitter pill to swallow but upon reflection it was necessary. We had no doubt become stale and needed a boot up the arse. This was it. We felt that we'd had our day and blown it. The next few years were spent doing everything but music, until I was approached by HTD Records to see if I had any unused Caravan tracks lying around which they would like to put out. I tried to negotiate a solo recording deal as these were all my songs but got persuaded that people wanted Caravan songs and not Pye Hastings. It made no difference to me as the only important thing was to remain in print, I agreed, and the album was entitled The Battle of Hastings.
I am not sure, but I think that the song “Liar” was made after your participation on the Mirage tour, together with Dave Sinclair and Jimmy Hastings. What’s the story behind it?
The lyrics to Liar were written after the short Mirage tour that I was invited to join. I was genuinely flattered to be invited to play after such a long lay off but this soon turned to bitterness when I was knocked for the money after many, many failed promises. Not being paid for the gigs didn’t bother me because I had enjoyed every moment of playing but to be promised time and again that the "Oversight" would be rectified soon made it quite clear that I had been taken for a mug. It became compounded when I found out that the Promoter of the tour had released a video recording plus an album of the gigs and was earning more money. To this date I have never received a penny. So I felt entitled to have a "Pop" at the guy via a song. It used to go down very well at gigs.
For the 2003 release “The Unauthorised Breakfast Item”, Dave Sinclair was at first listed in the line-up, but then he left. What happened there?
Dave was a full time member of the band once again although there appeared to be a huge conflict of interest building up around tour dates. He made it clear that he no longer enjoyed playing gigs. He was somewhat unsettled in his life at the time and wanted to branch out yet again in another direction. This came to a head while we were recording the Breakfast Item album. There were strong undercurrents at work and Dave left. Jan Schelhaas rejoined the band and recording resumed. Jan has the ability to lift a mood and fit in seamlessly. He brought with him the enthusiasm and the spark that was needed to kick the project back into line. Life felt good once again.
The band hasn’t been touring since 2005, are there any possibilities for some small tour at some point in the future?
Caravan have been asked to do a TV video recording in November this year. All the band except Doug are available and up for it so I hope to get rehearsals underway in July. 60 to75 minutes are required so I will be working on some Caravan favourites plus I hope to incorporate some new songs as well. If Richard is not well enough to complete the whole gig then it may be necessary to enlist the help of another drummer. So this will leave us in the position of having a fully rehearsed band after the TV recording with an appetite to tour once again.
It’s known that you’ve always seen yourself as a singer (songwriter), rather than a guitarist. Why is that?
I see myself firstly as a songwriter who sings, certainly not a singer. I am not a good or natural "Lead" player so I am a guitarist/chord thumper, but whichever I love every minute of it. Music is like Drink. Once you have got it inside you there is no way you can get it out.
Thank you very much for your time, Pye. All the best.
Interview for PROGSPHERE by Nikola Savic (15.07.2010).