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A conversation with...

interview by: Derk & Jan-Jaap - pictures by: Jan-Jaap

On June 13th 1999 we did an interview with Nick Barrett, vocalist, guitarist and main composer of British prog rockers Pendragon, just a few hours before going on stage to do their first Dutch gig in almost two and a half years.

Hi Nick, welcome back to Holland for this mini-tour. It's been a long time ago. What have you been doing over the last two and a half years?

Well, mainly things to do with my personal life. I was getting divorced and this has taken up most of my time. Since I came back from the last tour at the end of December [1996] things sort of started to go wrong in my marriage and for the last two and a half years I've just been sorting that out and that's why we haven't done an album sooner or anything else. I have done a little bit of writing for the new album but not nearly enough.

You have recently released two rarity CDs, called Once Upon A Time In England, volume 1 and 2 respectively. Why did you decide to release these albums at this time?

We really had to do something to bridge the gap between the last album and the next album. It was really getting too long before there was any kind of release and about two years ago we thought about putting out some archive stuff. Originally these two archive CDs were available as cassettes just through the fanclub and we asked the fanclub what they thought about the idea of putting them out on CD and the reaction was very good. So we found the original tape plus a lot of other stuff as well which wasn't on the original tapes to make up an hour's worth on each album.

Why didn't you release the two single CDs as one double CD?

Because what we did is we gave one CD away with the fanclub. When people join the fanclub they get the first volume for free. The fanclub is very cheap to join and we like to make a good deal when people join the fanclub but we couldn't afford to give away a double CD so we had to make it two volumes. Also this gives people a chance to buy one volume cheaply and see whether they thought it was any good before buying the other one. I was pretty unsure about this stuff. I didn't really want to release it but in the end the reaction from the fanclub persuaded me to do it.

When can we expect the new studio album?

When it's ready! Probably next year, I hope. As soon as these dates are over, I'm really going to be cracking on some new material now that the technicalities of the divorce are out of the way. The stress of that just stops you doing anything creative. You just can't focus properly on the music. At the end I thought we'll do these three shows, it'll be something to look forward to and when we get back from these shows we'll really get cracking on writing the new album. I hope for a release somewhere around September next year. We'll have to see. The one thing is I just don't want to release an album that's daft. I don't want to rush it. I don't want to put something out just for the sake of putting something out. It's got to be good.

And we can also expect a full tour then?

What we do nowadays is tour six months after the album has been released. I do a lot of the organization and it's very difficult to cope with the organization of an album release and a tour very close together because they're two completely different areas. One minute you're speaking to someone on the phone about details for a concert and tickets and the next minute you're talking about putting adverts in for promotion for the album. Therefore we felt that putting the album out and giving it six months to be out there worked really very well because it gives people a chance to get to know the new music and really get to understand the concept. And then when you come to do the shows, people are familiar with what it's all about. It works very well like that. We like to do it that way.

In the mean time during this two and a half years you have contributed guitar solos to two albums, Martin Darvill's The Greatest Show On Earth and Cyan's The Creeping Vine. Can you tell us something about those?

Well, originally there were two things I did. There's a guy called Martin Darvill, who is a bit of a millionaire, who has always had a dream to put out an album. He knew loads of well-known musicians and with them he put together this album. I already knew him and he just contacted me and asked me to do a solo. So I said yes, and he sent down a tape and I learnt the solo on it and just recorded that. Don Airey did the keyboard solo in the track and then after that is my guitar solo. It was great to be involved in something with so many well known musicians.
On the other hand it was very difficult to write a solo over somebody else's chord progressions because I'm very used to the way I write. With my own chord progressions I usually do them in such a way that the guitar builds up and hits an emotional peak at certain points. I find that very difficult to do with other people's music because their arrangements and chords are slightly different.
The other one I did was the Cyan album, The Creeping Vine. I know Rob fairly well and he just asked if I could do a solo and he sent down a tape with some ideas for a solo already on it and I just recorded that at home as well. He's got a very melodic approach that fits closer to my way of working so that one was a lot easier to do.

Cyan's albums are often compared to your albums. Does you think that's an honour?

Well, if people say Cyan is like Pendragon then I think that's a great honour. If people say Pendragon is ripping off Cyan then it's not such an honour is it?

Why is it that we rarely hear any songs from any of the EPs played live? Like Fallen Dreams And Angels and the bonus disc to The Masquerade Overture?

That's a very good question. I don't really know. When we do a tour we sort of go through the albums and do the main tracks. This time we have quite a lot of stuff we haven't played for a very long time and something from the archives CD as well. The tracks from the EPs are not always the most popular live tracks. We asked people before what tracks they would like to hear and it's usually classic tracks that we haven't played for ten years. Often stuff like Alaska is asked for.
A lot of the songs on the EPs will get wheeled out at some stage. For instance, there's quite a lot of interest in a track called Midnight Running. We thought that one would be a good one to do live. We did do Fallen Dreams And Angels a few times. We played Sister Bluebird once and on the last tour we played Schizo in Spain. We usually play them at odd times.

Is that to see how the song works out live? Or is it just the spur of the moment?

We worked on Schizo during the rehearsals with the idea of playing it in the set and then see how it went. Just to throw it in as a kind of odd track. It's nice to vary the set that you're going to play.
Some of the tracks from the EPs might get wheeled back in later on, maybe on the next tour. It's very difficult because there's key tracks that people want to hear. The key tracks that we play well as a band. It's nice occasionally to take a few gambles and do something totally of the wall but we like working with a very solid set usually.

You mentioned that a song would be played from the rarities disc. I heard rumours that this was in fact Stan and Ollie. Is this true?

It's true. Every time we go out we'd like to focus the show on something and this time round we've tried to recapture what we used to do when we used to play at the Marquee in London during the early eighties. During those years we used to play Stan and Ollie all the time, and also stuff like Alaska, Circus, tracks like that. And this time we're of looking back at that period. Playing stuff from Masquerade but going right back as well. Yes, we're doing Stan and Ollie!

Is the show going to be recorded?

We're not going do any recordings during these shows. We wanted these shows to very very relaxed. The more people you have milling around plugging things in just causes more tension. It's nice to have a more relaxed approach to it, so we said no recordings.
For live albums, we want to have tracks that aren't available on other live albums and most of the stuff we'll be doing tonight is already on live albums.

Can you tell us something about the process of writing a song, or an album? How do you go about it?

Every time I start writing it's like I'm at square one. If for example you're a computer technician you learn things and then you learn better things and you go on to learn a lot of knowledge. But with writing, much the same as painting I guess, you go back to square one each time. You're still looking for the basic ingredient, which is inspiration. Without that you just don't have any starting point whatsoever. I always find it amazingly difficult. I can just write stuff but I can't just write stuff that I feel is the best it can be. I've been talking to a few people about this who write with the same speed as I do, once every three or four years. And it tends to be the case that we feel the same about this. When you write a song you don't want it just to be a song or just a slab of music. You want it to mean something to people. You look at all these criteria in the songs that you're looking to get, like do the lyrics really say what you want them to say, does the atmosphere of the song carry you somewhere else. You've got to tick all these things of a list to make sure that you've covered everything you're trying to achieve in a song. And that's a slow process because it just doesn't always pop in there. Sometimes it takes ages.
At the moment I've got about seven songs, all on the go, that could be new tracks for the new album. Some could just get ditched, some will turn into something. But I'm looking for something special in each song. The influences of music that I've listened to over the last four years start to come out in music that is being written now.
It's a weird thing because you write and you think well I don't really know whether it's any good. It's a constant fight.

Is everything finished when the other guys come into the studio?

No, not really, no. What I like to do is get a framework of the music and try it out with all the vocal harmonies and guitar harmonies. I've got a vision of the song of what it's trying to achieve. When everybody else comes along it tends to change and they do things to it and steer it in a direction. Sometimes Fudge will come in and just play over the top of it and you think well I wasn't expecting that fast speed and this kind of rhythm and you think I'm not sure about that but then you listen to it a few times and you think yeah that's great! He's really injected something new into the track. Clive will come in and write keyboard lines, and little bits. Everyone has pretty much a free hand, these days we don't act like Mein Fuhrer. I like people to contribute their own ideas and their own theories about what's good. That makes up the band Pendragon, really. A lot of the backbone stuff is done, but it's kind of redone and added to by all musicians.

Who do you consider to be your main influences on the guitar?

Well, there are hundreds. Initially there were people like Jimi Hendrix, then it moved on to people like Carlos Santana, Dave Gilmour, Andy Latimer, Jeff Beck, Michael Schenker, Al DiMeola. Mostly the ones that are very melodic, well all of them actually. Mike Oldfield, Steve Hackett. It's bits they do. I hear a bit that Hackett does and I think that is absolutely fantastic.

And in your singing?

Nobody. I don't really consider myself as a singer. I did the vocals because I sort of had to. I was at the front of the band and by default I ended up doing the vocals. Initially it was something that I didn't really enjoy that much. But as times have gone on I've enjoyed it more and more. And I really like doing the vocals now. As for influences, the people I like as singers are probably not progressive people. I like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, but I also like Michael Jackson as a great singer. I like a lot of soul singers, like Marvin Gaye, Harold Melvin.

Back in the very old days Pendragon was actually a five-piece, with two guitarists/vocalists. You said you became the default lead singer after the band had been reduced to a four piece. Have you ever thought of adding a fifth member to the group again?

A long time ago I wasn't to sure about doing the vocals myself and we got to a point where we thought perhaps we should get a singer in. We auditioned a singer and it was hopeless. It just wasn't working. It didn't feel right and we thought from then on we'll plough on the way we are. I don't consider myself to be the best singer in the world but after a while people instantly recognize your voice. Good or bad, they know who it is, it's a trademark. And that is a very valuable thing to have. I never thought Phil Collins was a particularly stunning singer but I liked his vocals. For Genesis he sounded right.

What are your favourite Pendragon tracks?

I really like the Shadow and probably most of the stuff of the last album, like Masters of Illusion. I've got no real favourite tracks, I don't really play a lot of it. We did a record shop signing yesterday in Paris and they were playing our stuff in the background and there was music I hadn't heard for a long time, like Breaking The Spell and it sounded great.

If you had to take five albums to a Deserted Island, which ones would they be?

Well, first of all I wouldn't go to a deserted island, but anyway I'd take A Trick Of The Tail, Dark Side of the Moon, Mental Notes by Split Enz. Err... this is difficult! In The Region of the Summer Stars, by The Enid, and Gaucho by Steely Dan.

I've had interviews where I had to stop the recorder at this point and come back in half an hour!

Well, I've got about two hundred favourite albums, so it's very difficult to pick!

What do you think of the contemporary prog scene? A lot has changed since the eighties, since the hey days of Genesis, Pink Floyd, Marillion. What do you think of the current state of it?

That's a difficult one. It's always the case in this sort of thing of the strongest will survive. The people that aren't dedicated to doing it will fall by the wayside. There have been some bands I know that have been very dedicated to it and they still haven't got the success that they were hoping for. I always think there's a way, no matter what kind of band you are. Pendragon, believe me, back in 1978 was a pretty hopeless case inasmuch that there was no record company and there was nothing happening. We were just a small band in a small town doing our thing. And there was very little hope but in the end it did come because we stuck to it. The same thing can be said for a lot of other bands.
The scene has changed a lot now. You've got the key bands I suppose, and a lot of also-rans packed in. It's a difficult area to get into, all music is. Anything creative, acting or being a painter or whatever, is extremely difficult to make it work. As far as we are concerned every day I feel extremely fortunate to be able to do this. It's a privilege. It's not often that dreams come true and remain good all the time.

Music is your day time job, so it is possible to make a living out of it?

Yes it is. Things have changed a lot. A lot of bands have had to become a lot more business minded, because there's no record company out there who's going to sweep them up and give them a million pounds to make them into international stars. Since Compact Disc has come out, a lot of bands said: "well we can do this, we can make our own albums, put them out on compact disc, and we can get the money back to make another album". They can make a living of this even though the sales might be a lot smaller than the record company could get, at least they're not getting ripped off of their small percentage. They're getting all the money from their sales, so they can manoeuvre in the market place. This exactly what Pendragon has done. Bands like IQ, ourselves and Arena have all learned to be a lot more in control of their careers and their business side. It's the best position to be in. You're not being told what to do, or when to do it, you're doing what you want, how you want in your market area and it's brilliant.

What can we expect from Pendragon in the next millennium?

An new album and a new tour. The new album is going to be the new focal point.

Continuing down the same road?

Well, it always deviates a little bit but the excitement never really wears of and you continue to make music. It's a strange thing. I few years ago I used to think what will you do after you've made five albums, do you carry on doing it? Off course you do. People like Bob Dylan, bands like Camel, they carry on because that's what they do. When you become sixty you don't say I'll stop now. You still have that creative flow going for you so you carry on making music as long as you're enjoying it. You have fun doing it and it pays the bills..
I feel now it's a very privileged thing to do. I feel very fortunate that we're able to do this.

About the album covers, they're done by Simon Williams. Wherever did you find this guy? He's great!

I was driving down the motorway and pulled into a service station. A lot of service stations nowadays have little shops where they sell CDs, drinks and sandwiches. I was just paying for some petrol when I looked at the CDs and I saw this album cover for some classical music. I thought that looks great and went over and had a look. It was on EMI. I phoned EMI when I got back, and they gave me the number of Simon's studio, and I phoned him up and told him I saw his album cover and it would be great if he could get involved in the Pendragon stuff. He said brilliant, ok let's do it. I went up and met him and he was a real nice guy. I thought he might be like well I've done these albums for EMI and I only do things I can really artistically believe in but he's not like that: real down to earth, great guy to work with. So easy, so professional, absolute pleasure.

Thanks Nick, for this interview.

 

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