Friday, 21 June 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Keith Christmas interview

Keith Christmas recorded his first album 'Stimulus' back in 1969 when he also played the acoustic guitar on David Bowie's first album 'Space Oddity' and appeared at the first Glastonbury Festival. Throughout the seventies he recorded four more albums 'Fable of the Wings', 'Pigmy', Brighter Day' and 'Stories From the Human Zoo' while touring with and supporting acts like The Who, King Crimson, Ten Years After, Frank Zappa and Roxy Music. He stopped playing through the 80's but formed the blues band 'Weatherman' in 1991 with some friends and an album of the same name was released in 1992. In 1996 he suddenly started to write a different kind of acoustic material which almost immediately led to the release of a new album 'Love Beyond Deals' on HTD records. He has continued writing since then and has been described by a major festival promoter as 'a songwriter at the peak of his powers'. The other day I rang him up.

JON: I think that your new live album is really good.

KEITH: Well I would like to be doing more live work, I have to admit.

JON: How often do you put out studio albums these days?

KEITH: KEITH:  Well the trouble is, I am a slow writer and since I’ve moved to Devon 18 months ago I haven’t written a single song because we’ve taken on this huge renovation project with this house. Well I like it here, and my wife likes it here, but I’m afraid I am a slow writer, and I’ve got diverted by the work I need to do on this house.

JON: The songs on the album, how far do they go back?

KEITH:  Some go right back to the 1970s.  “Travelling Down”, “Forest and the Shore”, “Poem”, and “Evensong”; those are all from 1969, ’70, ’71 era. I put a few in just for my old fans who like to hear some of the old stuff. And some of them are only 6 months old/a year old.

JON: That’s wonderful.  Have they been recorded, the more recent ones?

KEITH: Not really.  I did a bit of an EP but it wasn’t really a success and so the newer stuff  - the last solo album I made with quite a lot of tracks on was “Fable of the Wings” – that was 5/6 years ago now. And that did well.  That sold well. But mostly it’s at gigs, and concerts, and festivals. The trouble is you see, to make an album… solo CD …. you need 12/13 tracks really at least and the speed I write at that takes a long time, and especially at the moment I’m not even thinking about putting an album together because … the live one was a bit of a fluke the way it happened, but there you go.

JON: How did it happen?

KEITH: Well, I knew the club was a nice club; small but nice people.  And I’ve been working on a Mac and a MacBook Pro for about 2 years and I figured out a way to put everything … I only decided this two days before the gig … through the computer, then take it out the other side into an interface which then converted it into digital sound so then some of that digital sound (so it basically went from me into an interface, into the computer, then out into a mixing desk, and then out into powered monitors) so basically I mixed up a rough sound with re-verb and EQs and stuff for the two guitars and then I had this thing on a stand next to me and each time I wanted to play into one guitar I’d bring up the sliders on one guitar and when I wanted to play on the other guitar, I brought the sliders up on the other guitar.  I set a lot of memories onto it and then I just did my set.  Now I didn’t really  have any idea how – it meant of course that nobody could alter the sound at the mixing desk at the back, but once the sound is set, it’s only one man, one guitar, you know, it’s not like you need a lot of mixing, and I did the gig, the sound was alright, I had monitors and I had a mike on the voice, a mike on the guitar, a DI on the guitar and I had two more microphones (nice ones, AKGs) facing forwards sort of spread right across the room side to side and they were there to sort of point forward and to pick up ambient sound in the audience.  And I just gave it a crack and did the gig,  and I listened back the next day – you can imagine it was like one great big long recorded track then, lasting an hour and a half, which had to be chopped up into various songs and put in separate logic files – when I listened back to it the next day, I thought the sound was far better than I could have hoped for.  So that’s how it happened. I decided then to go ahead and mix it down to a live album.

JON: Do you find that your audience has changed since the beginning or is it the same people grown up?

KEITH: Well, it’s pretty much the same people grown up; I get some younger people with a certain curiosity for acoustic music because that’s all quite big now amongst the young again, but basically, no it’s hard to describe who my audience is.  It’s a lot of people from the old days grown up who remember me from then. I don’t put out enough records or do enough gigs to attract a huge crowd, but it’s quite varied.

JON:Because you were at the first Glastonbury weren’t you?

KEITH: I was, yes.

JON: Because that was one of those legendary events in the British counter-culture

KEITH: Well it is. I mean it’s legendary in that everybody knows it was the start of something big, but if you’d been there at the time you’d have had no idea that it would go on to become something big.

JON: That’s interesting.

KEITH: I mean there was no inkling there at that festival that year  that anything was going to come of this at all. I’m sure Michael had it in his mind that it was going to go on, but I don’t think he would have realized how big it would become. But I think the following year – if you turned up the following year, (I dropped in the following year just in passing) because I wasn’t booked to play there then and suddenly it was a different festival.  That was the start of what is Glastonbury now, but that first one wasn’t. 

JON: Who else was playing at the first one?

KEITH: Erm.. you’d have to look that up, I’m afraid.  Ian A Anderson and some folkies from Bristol, Al Stewart came along, and Marc Bolan was the main act and he came down from London in the evening because somebody else let Michael down, but you would have to look that all up.  I don’t really remember much about it to be honest. 

JON: I can imagine it was the sort of thing that – it was probably one of those things that ‘you had to be there’.

KEITH: Yeah, I mean I had another gig in the evening so I was only doing it I think in the afternoon,  so I only played in the afternoon.  There was only a handful of people there, like a hundred, something like that in a field.  It was just a scaffolding stage with some tarpaulins over it, that was it.

JON: So you did your gig and then went off to the next one.  You didn’t hang out there…

KEITH: No.  I didn’t see Marc Bolan.  Great shame.

JON: He is somebody I would like to have seen.

KEITH: Yeah, absolutely. 

JON: You also played on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” album didn’t you? 

KEITH:  I did, yes.  I just did some acoustic guitar on six of the tracks on that first album.

JON: Because all sorts of interesting people were on that, who turned up later on doing other things, weren’t there?

KEITH:  Yes… it was an album of one song and then a lot of other songs. He didn’t have his identity then. I mean he hadn’t formed his identity that people – or one of the many identities of Bowie.  There was  a very, very early hint of it in “Space Oddity” which of course was done completely separately and as a single with a lot of money spent on it.  That was a sort of hint, but the actual David Bowie that sings on all of the other tracks is just no different really to any other folky acoustic singer of the time.  You look back now, and think ‘oh that’s what he did then’.  He suddenly became Ziggy and it became glam and Mick Ronson and he had the band and that suddenly was when he became, who people know of him as. If that makes any sense….

JON: It’s a bit like what you said about the first Glastonbury

KEITH: Yes it is.  

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