In a recent New Yorker article, film critic Anthony Lane claimed that Alfred Hitchcock’s films are so distinctive it takes only 12 seconds of footage to recognize his hand. It takes only a fraction of that to identify Richard Thompson’s guitar playing, lilting notes that are neither brittle like
Hendrix’s nor laden with acid-rock feedback, but melodic low-sounding twangs. When Thompson plays an acoustic guitar, his hands display a dexterity matched only by Leo Kottke (perhaps). Give him one of those other guitars — the noisy kind that must be plugged in, and no one, living or dead, sounds like Richard Thompson. His playing is as identifiable as a human voice.
The British guitarist was recently in New York to promote his new album, the superb “Mock Tudor.” It’s a concept album, like those that dominated the 1970s. In it Thompson documents growing up and living in the London suburbs, a dour Twilight Zone populated by gangsters redeemed by LSD, housewife-whores, failed French rap DJs, a con man or two and regular citizens with horrible, horrible love lives — the men evoking troublesome female icons such as Marie Antoinette and Bathsheba, while women just stay quiet lest they be beaten.
Uplifting stuff, eh? Of course, you don’t listen to Richard Thompson to be inspired by his lyrics. It’s his guitar playing that’s transcendental. Most of “Mock Tudor” is electric with catchy rhythms, plenty of hooks and half a dozen great guitar solos. Of course, half a dozen’s not enough — but then Richard Thompson records never have enough solos on them. It’s a condition guys like me and Brit author Nick Hornby (who raves about Thompson in his novel “High Fidelity”) will have to live with. As for the signature sound of Thompson’s guitar itself, would I persuade the man to explain just what makes his playing so unique? Or would he be secretive like Robert Johnson? (Legend has it that the bluesman would turn away from other guitarists in the audience so they couldn’t see his hands and learn any secrets.)
Was Fairport Convention your first band?
I was in bands since I was 12 or 11. During my big exam year — I was 17, 18 — I was on the road with Fairport. It was fairly difficult to juggle school and being on the road. I assumed that I was going to art school or university someday, but I stuck it on the back burner. “This is much more fun. Look! Wages! This is fantastic. We can get paid for doing this. We’re having a great time. We’ll just do this for a year and then see what happens.” And that’s really what we did. I sort of looked around about seven years later and said, “Whoops! I still haven’t gone to university. Well, never mind …”
Did the Velvet Underground show up on your radar?
I thought they were interesting. They were the first band that wasn’t swinging. It was sort of robotic. Very interesting. They were a kind of precursor to a lot of things. All those German bands.
Can you tell a layman why your sound is so distinct — or is that a trade secret?
My actual sound or style?
The sound I don’t know. It seems to me if you play an electric guitar there’s only five conceivable settings. You can spend a lot of anal research time getting the guitar exactly right and the amp exactly right, but I think it has to do with touch. There’s a certain way you attack it that gives it tonality.
In terms of style, I come from a different tradition. I grew up listening to Scottish music and Django Reinhardt and Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The family record collection. And Jerry Lee Lewis and Everly Brothers. Gene Vincent.
So when we hear you scatter notes up and down, are you using jazz intervals?
To some extent. It’s more [that] the root of what I do and the modes that I’m singing in come from more traditional British folk than the blues. There are overlaps, however. Country music is basically Scotch-Irish anyway. It’s not that different, but there is a difference. [He pauses, then goes ... ] Um, um, um, um. I also grew up listening to Ravel, Debussy, that kind of stuff. And Charlie Parker. Ornette Coleman.
You know, I don’t listen to guitar players much, because I don’t think there is much to learn at this point. I’d rather listen to other instruments. You know, “This is impossible on the guitar — how can I get the tonality of a saxophone?” I think if you listen to other guitar players it gets a bit incestuous. I don’t think guitar playing has really gone anywhere since Hendrix, really.
Did you ever start playing and 40 minutes later go, “Wow!”
Not quite that long. Certainly 15 minutes later. If the band is with you and people are picking up rhythmic accents, five minutes seems like no time at all. Ten minutes sometimes seems like no time at all. I’m always afraid of being over-indulgent. A bit too San Francisco.
What’s the most indulgent you’ve ever been?
I think I’ve played for at least a half an hour. Somewhere. If you make this vast instrumental statement, you forget what the song is about. Only a few songs lend themselves to more instrumental excursions. [Pause.] He took a “long instrumental excursion.”
How deliberate is your playing when you’re on — “excursion.” Do you ever resort to tricks or repertoire?
To some extent, yeah. I think everyone has reference points. Everyone has their own clichis. It’s not like Charlie Parker never repeated himself. [Laughs.] He juxtaposed his clichis into new ways. In popular music you have your clichis and you juxtapose them against each other, and then you build bridges between them.
I wondered what you’d be like in person. You’re much more serious than your show biz shtick.
There’s a part of me that wishes I never said anything onstage.
Could you get away with that?
Oh yeah. There’s 10 times the mileage of being the silent tortured poet. If I thought of that early enough, I could have done that — just shuffle out moody and silent. They think that you must be a genius if you never say anything.
If I crack jokes between the gloom it can soften the audience up. Then they don’t know the intent of a song. They think, “Is this a joke?” And they might chuckle at the first couple of lines. And then they realize that it’s not a joke. But then they’re involved in it. And then you can muck them over their heads. You’ve already sucked them in somehow.
Most of your songs have fictional personas — a dying bandit, a jealous lover prowling through his girlfriend’s drawers — as opposed to being autobiographical —
I don’t know. Some. Some, but not all. Do I have to say which ones are which?
No. [He then regrets this answer.]
Good. I hope it’s like a well-manufactured toupee — you can’t see the joint between the real and the nylon.
Are you still a practicing Sufi?
I was. I’m a Muslim basically. Probably in the 1970s I was more involved in that than I am now. I’m a Muslim and I’m a spiritual person. That’s enough to say.
Do you pray to … [forgets the word "Mecca"] Saudi Arabia?
That’s the direction. [Pause.] I’m certainly not praying to Saudi Arabia.
I do that every day.
That didn’t come from your tradition?
No. It came from being dissatisfied from a Christian upbringing. I’ve always been the way I am. I didn’t know how to codify it, put a name to it. In Islam I recognized something of myself, and who I was. When I met the Muslims, I thought, “This is absolutely who I am. These are my people.”
How welcome are newcomers to the Muslim faith?
I think to shut the door is unforgivable, really. Or to assume everyone else is cursed and damned unless they believe what you believe. Moses is my brother. Jesus, he’s one of my lot as far as I’m concerned. Saddam Hussein — well, he’s nothing to do with me.
Aren’t the most powerful Muslims in the world dictators?
They’re a bunch of despots. It would be great if what happened to Eastern Europe could happen in the Islamic world. If all those walls could get knocked down. Because they’re a bunch of despots basically. They’ve bred these ultra-radical extremists at the other end. [Pause.] But there are millions of people out there with great hearts.
Do you have a sense that there is a global Richard Thompson cult?
I think so. I think with the Internet it’s become much easier to cultify anyone. I don’t pay attention to it. It’s not of interest, you know what I mean? I like the dollar, you know. [Laughs.] That’s sounds very mercenary. It’s nice when people like you — if people want to know what you’ve had for breakfast, that’s not too interesting. If it reflects on the music, that’s great.
Speaking of the music scene, is there anything worth following nowadays — besides you?
[Sly laugh.] It’s a funny time.
It seems fallow.
Popular music seems totally empty. I hate rap music. I hate hip-hop. [Pause.] Music has become very unskilled. It’s too easy to sit at home with machines and make fairly interesting music. I don’t think music is taught in schools anymore. It seems to me that people are just musically ignorant. People in the music business are ignorant. Perhaps it’s time to return to real instruments and horns. And arrangements and orchestrations. People once had skill at those things.
Like playing guitar?
Like playing guitar.