Come All Ye: Chris Leslie
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2002 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
This interview is part of the "Fairport Convention: Come All Ye" story. Please refer to the main article for related biographical and historical information.
What does Fairport's 35th anniversary mean to you?
I think the 35th year is definitely seen as a marked point. It's something Peggy [Dave Pegg] and Simon [Nicol] are quite rightly very proud of achieving. Simon has been there since the beginning and Peggy since '69. The XXXV album title is a very felt, very "pleased to be" title. For me, it was the realization of a little kind of dream to be part of Fairport. I've followed the band since I was in school. They were my favorite band. I look back at Liege and Lief in '69 as an album where things revolved around it. It actually did point in a new direction for a particular kind of music. Whether people knew that was happening or they were just doing an album with new ideas, I don't know. But it is a pivotal point that launched a whole other genre.
I've known all the members as friends for about 20 years before joining. So, I've kind of gone alongside Fairport for a long time. I also stepped in for Ric [Sanders] in '92 when he had his unfortunate accident. I did a short tour and the Cropredy Festival of that year. Six years since joining, I have to say it's a fantastic experience being in this band that works so incredibly hard.
How does the new album reflect the band's anniversary?
With the title XXXV, it seemed quite okay to have a slightly retrospective look and go back to pick out some numbers we thought the current line-up could do. Happily, my vocal range fits very well with things that Dave Swarbrick has done. My particular way of singing seems to work with them as well. So, I'm more than happy to revisit some of those wonderful songs. I was asked a few years ago in an interview what would be the one song I would pick as a Fairport song and "Now Be Thankful" was it. It's great to sing it and bring it back into the public eye again, whereas it might have stayed as part of the History of Fairport Convention double album when it came out. Also, it was only released as a single when it came out. Hopefully, when we redo songs, we give them life. It's not about bringing out a reproduction or trying to relive the time it was done. It's about trying to make it relevant now.
How did the group go about revitalizing the re-recorded pieces?
For "Now Be Thankful," we were on the road in Germany and thinking about stuff to perform. I said "I would really love to do 'Now be Thankful' and I'd love to sing." I also always wanted to sing "Hexhamshire Lass," which isn't on the album but is in the live set. As is the Fairport way, because someone expresses an interest in something that seems possible, everyone says "Okay, let's give it a go and learn the words." I sing in the same key as the original numbers. On "Now Be Thankful," the instrumental section is different. The way Ric and I play it has the mandolin weaving around the fiddle, with the fiddle playing the tune. On "Banks of the Sweet Primroses," the instrumental section was written by Ric. He came up that line, so it's almost like new.
What I like about Fairport particularly is it has a fantastic back catalog, but it isn't seen as something that has to come back out. Fairport has always had a current album and repertoire. Obviously, people love to hear what's gone before, as I do. All those years of material is like a fantastic box of jewels you can pick things out of. When we do, it's done because we want it to be part of a current set, rather than make it part of a repertoire focusing on what happened 20 to 30 years ago.
Some have criticized the group because they feel the re-recordings are less definitive than the originals.
What can I say? If people think that, you can't argue with it. You just have to say "Well, that's what they think." But, let's take "Portmeirion" as an example. We had Ian Anderson come in on flute to have a go at it. It was fantastic. So, it's different. You have to look at people in the band to see the whole picture and understand why something is done. Decisions are not made in isolation. They're made because of a general feeling of wanting to do it. Imagine what people would think if we never revisited our older stuff in our live show. The fact that we're recording these things is a result of our particular wish to put down some favorites that we really like. It's a nod to the past. 35 years is another threshold. Why not bring things in and do it now? If people prefer the older version, that's fine. I know people have equally come up and said "We really like the new version." We don't try to please everyone. We do it to be creative.
Tell me about your role in creating the new album.
I see myself in terms of my place in the band. I play quite a supportive role. My instrumental playing is always mainly supporting what's going on around me. I tend to use the mandolin and bouzouki to fit in spaces that complement other things, rather than being a lead player. I feel like I put a layer down for a fiddle or vocal to go over. I have contributed a few songs to the album, which is my main contribution, as well as my vocals and harmonies.
Some might argue your singing and songwriting contributions make you one of the band's key drivers.
Perspective is a funny thing. If I'm seen as a key driver or instigator of something, it's from someone else's perspective. My biggest joy is combining what I do with other things. I really enjoy adding a mandolin, violin, bouzouki or vocal line to something, rather than forging ahead with an idea that requires other people to pool around me. I rather like combining as part of something. When that doesn't happen is if I offer a song I've written. I offer a fairly finished product in terms of song structure, but then it's always handed to the band to do what they will. For instance, on some of the demos, I do fiddle lines which are just for me—to get a mood. If the group says "Yeah, we like that—we'll go ahead and work on it," it's always with the proviso that the fiddle line is completely up to what Ric [Sanders] wants to do. There are some link lines I may put in that are very specific because it's almost a part of the vocal line—the melody of the song. Apart from that, I like to leave people to bring what they have to the thing. It's how you get the best results.
When you write material for Fairport, do you do so specifically with the band in mind or does the material come out of a larger, more general pool of pieces you work on?
It's pretty much with the band in mind. This is my sixth year with the band. Since joining, I don't have much time to do other projects. There are a couple of things going on outside of Fairport, but 90 percent of my time is spent with the band on the road or recording.
It's an interesting thing. I've always shied away from the label of being a songwriter. I feel I'm a person who has ideas and comes up with songs, but a songwriter to me is someone who continually observes and writes a whole load of stuff all the time. I'd call myself a fiddle and mandolin player, and singer. I spend most of my time on those. It's those activities that are in my thoughts a lot of the time. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I approach and do those things. Songwriters spend the same amount of time writing songs. They always have a notebook and are constantly jotting down ideas. In contrast, when I have an idea, I hone in on it—the story line or the plot. Then, I go for it. It does occupy my time quite a lot, but only during the length of producing that particular song.
I would point to Ralph McTell as a songwriter, not only because of the fantastic quality of his songs, but also as somebody who has continually, over the years, produced so many songs. Songwriters like him are amazing. They have so many songs that will never see the light of day. Their quality control will put many songs in the bin before they have one that gets used.
Most of the stuff I work on comes out in some way. My throughput of material isn't huge, but I certainly enjoy producing songs and having a vehicle like Fairport to take them up and get them out into the world. I've very pleased with that. Songwriting is something I've always dabbled in since the first album I did with my brother back in '76. I wrote the title track of that very first album called "The Ship of Time" So, songwriting is something that's always been alongside me, but I've never done it full-time. I've always been a musician first—one who has ideas and happens to produce songs. I think there's a big difference, but I'm very glad to have my songs in a band that's had such great writers as Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick. It's quite a thing.
Where do you feel the new album falls into the band's pantheon of releases?
That's a difficult question. I'd say that XXXV is a very consistent album. I listen it from start to finish and think there's an overall sound and there's an identity as a band again. When people come in and move out of the band, the band changes. Replacing Martin Allcock was a hugely difficult thing to do. You never really replace anyone in a band like Fairport. Martin is irreplaceable. He' a fantastic musician. So, I had to come in and slowly, but surely do what I do best with my strengths and hope it got assimilated into the line-up. I feel the album probably has a more gentle approach to the music. I've definitely come from a folk music background—that's my CV if you like. However, I do listen to all kinds of music, but my heart's in acoustic-y folk music, whereas Martin definitely has an electric rock element about him, as well as being a fantastic musician within folk music. Now, I feel this line-up is very settled. It's musically consistent. It's the same band on every track.
There are fans who believe the band is veering too far from its folk-rock reputation. What's your take?
I feel that within a band, you have to look to what's there. You have to see how people are feeling. If I was personally trying to produce or be creative and constantly thinking "folk-rock, electric guitar, folk-rock, electric guitar," it would be very limiting. I think I would be doing something untruthful to my musical creativity. You're never going to please all the people all the time. There will always be people who look back and have their favorite period of the band, and favorite band members who may no longer be there. That's really as it should be. It's human nature. I would never argue with anyone who said "I wish it was like this," because that's how they feel. The fact that it isn't like this now is how it is though. It's what's kept Fairport a moving, viable band.
Fairport has never tried to constrain itself by bringing things in just because it wants to make things sounds like what went before. It's the band's strength. We're not a '60s band that had chart success. When you see those bands go out—and I'm not knocking them at all—they're trying to recreate their heyday. Fairport is a "now" band.
People who want more electric guitar—which is obviously what they're talking about—have to understand it's not how it is, but there are moments on XXXV that are quite rocky I think. "Light of Day" and "Madeleine" have moments where things are quite up and punchy. And for my money, Simon plays a great Stratocaster. I know his playing as soon as I hear a few notes.
Fairport could have easily got in somebody who played guitar. When I was about to join, they could have easily replaced Martin with an electric guitarist. That person wouldn't have been like Martin, because he has his own sound. However, Fairport never goes that way. It goes for what it considers the best ingredient, rather than taking a formulaic approach. It's a bit like cooking. If you use the same ingredients day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out, you're going to get pretty uninspired by the end of the day. So, what you do is look around for different ingredients, spices and ways of doing things. Also, Fairport's always been bigger than the sum of its parts. The sum of its parts always produce something that has a Fairport flavor to it, however much someone thinks the approach moves around.
What were your expectations going into Fairport versus what you've experienced to date?
When Peggy asked me to join, I said "I'd love to, but what am I going to do? You've already got Ric, who's a fantastic fiddle player." Until joining Fairport, my main contribution to anything was fiddle. However, two years before Fairport, I had been in a mandolin quartet with Martin Allcock and Simon Mayor. During that period, my mandolin playing curve took a direction upwards. I’d always dabbled with mandolin but never seriously took to it prior to that. So, I thought I could add some mandolin to Fairport. Also, I was with the Albion Band at a festival and saw a bouzouki instrument and thought I'd get one of those.
My expectations going in were just to try and settle in as quickly as I could. I did feel going in that I was a much quieter animal, so I had some solid instruments made—a solid bouzouki made with a Fender body and five-string Telecaster bouzouki. I used those for a couple of years to get some electric sound in—to get that rocky thing. At one point, our soundman Rob Braviner said he liked the sound of the acoustic as much as the electric one. He gets a fantastic sound out of it. So, I said to myself "I have to go where my heart is" and I put the electric solid body ones, lovely as they are, back under my stairs. Occasionally, I still get them out and play them at home. I now play mandolin and bouzouki—and fiddle when it counts—on the albums and in the live show. I do instrumental medleys with Ric, which is great fun. We're both in the front of the house playing away. Ric and I had wanted to do that for years, but never had the time. Now, we get the time every night.
I was allowed complete freedom to do whatever I wanted when I joined. Simon, Peggy, Ric and Dave Mattacks, the drummer at the time, let me find my way. It was brilliant and that's probably always been the Fairport way. They want to get the best out of people, rather than slot people into something that isn't them. I suppose they choose people because they see something in that person that will fit in. Six years on, the biggest bonus has been the songwriting. I never dreamt I'd be writing material for the albums.
"John Gaudie," which I'd written during my Whippersnapper days was something Martin Allcock liked and suggested that for the Fairport album that was going to be made before he left. So, when I came in, one of my songs was already on the list of things for people to take a look at. It was a fantastic bonus.
When I joined, it was Peggy who suggested I get together with Nigel Stonier. I'd been writing a couple of songs on my own. When I got together with Nigel, who had been writing for Lindisfarne, we really hit it off. We became good friends. He's a fantastic catalyst. We just sat down at my house and produced all those songs that ended up on The Wood and the Wire, including the title track. We haven't worked as much since then. There's one of our joint songs on XXXV and the others are solo efforts.
How did you and Ric come to terms musically and personally with having two fiddlers in the same band?
Ric was fantastic from the moment I joined. I went 'round to his house and he was incredibly welcoming. Not for one second did he show or feel any sort of territoriality, because he isn't at all like that. He was completely open with me playing as much fiddle as I wanted. It was actually me who put the reigns on that and said "No, if there's going to be two fiddles on everything, it's not going to work." I respect what Ric does and it felt wrong to me. So, I went for the option of mandolin and bouzouki with a bit of fiddle and some vocals.
When we do play together, it's interesting in that our styles are very different, yet work together very well. Ric comes from a jazz background, it's his big love in life. I come from the folk direction. But we've had parallel lives in that we've been listening to the same music. I've listened to jazz for years and loved it. He's been listening to folk stuff and loved it. We never have to get out of each other's way when we play. We've never had to sit down and say "Look, we need to do this and that because I need to do that." The two fiddles seem to fit side-by-side and combine nicely. I play exactly how I play and so does Ric.
With things like our version of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" Ric writes the arrangements and that's great, because he knows how I play and what I can and can't do. Things are just never a problem, which is fantastic, because two fiddle players can really get in the way of each other if they're incompatible in terms of style or approach.
You're performing with Ric in his jazz-oriented band. Describe that experience.
It's been a lot of fun. I mostly play mandolin in the group. It's a great experience because it's improvisational. I've always enjoyed improvising within my own approach to music. I'm quite modal—I improvise around modes. I think of modes rather than key signatures, so I would never call myself a jazz musician. But I can improvise in my own way through jazz numbers in that modal way. It's how I relate to improvising, whereas Ric will know exactly what key he's in and where all the flats and sharps are. He can play across keys and chords, whereas I hear things in a spatial way. The group also features a great friend and schoolmate of Ric's named Vo Fletcher, as well as Michael Gregory. I hope to do more with the group as time allows.
Contrast your experience of joining Whippersnapper versus Fairport.
When I was with Swarb in Whippersnapper, I was a lot younger. I was still finding my voice—who I was. That's never stopped actually. Music is an ongoing thing in that way. I hope it's always like that. But during the early '80s with that group, I was still figuring out what I really wanted to be within music. Whippersnapper was fantastic in terms of giving me time to play a lot alongside Dave Swarbrick who was and still is one of my mentors. He's a wonderful musician, not only because of his fiddle playing, but because of his musical heart and the things that come out when he plays. To work alongside him to see how instinctive he is and how he gives to the moment was wonderful. He has a great feel, technique and musicality on the fiddle that's all his own. It all just pours out of him and still does.
I learned so much from Swarb and also from Kevin Dempsey, the guitarist in the group. Kevin has a fantastically funky approach to music—really groovy. I loved his feel. I learned a lot about rhythmic things. Martin Jenkins, the mandocellist, mandolinist and songwriter in the band also taught me a lot. I just sat in that atmosphere and soaked it up. My learning curve was steep. I learned who I was completely through that period. It was great to have those three musical characters to reflect off of.
I was always aware of Ric during those early days. I knew the Fairport catalog and repertoire pretty well, so it was a great thrill to be amongst them. I came into the situation knowing who I was. I was very pleased with that situation because I wasn't in the band long before I was out on tour with them. I had a couple weeks rehearsal for the first winter tour—30 dates back-to-back. I think had I not known a little bit of who I was, going into that situation would have been pretty difficult because I had to get quite a few things together quite quickly. Although I found my way in the band as the years have gone on, during that initial step, I had to know what I was capable of—what I had to offer. During the Whippersnapper days, I was just keen to get in there and be there. The pressure wasn't quite so great. I had time. We had lots of rehearsals—maybe over 12 months—before we went out on the road. I had lots of time to feel more comfortable. With Fairport, there was hardly any time. I had to be ready to go. So, the two occurred at the right time, in the right order.
Swarb's known as a demanding bandleader. What was day-to-day life like in Whippersnapper?
I found Swarb lovely to work with. He was difficult at times, but maybe I was as well. Swarb was very kind to me. He knew I was completely in love with the fiddle. He was very welcoming and inspiring. It was quite something as I was in my mid-to-late 20s when I joined the group. Prior to that, I had been on tour with Steve Ashley in the late '70s as a duo, which was great. That experience introduced me to traveling around and playing on the road, but my experience of being in a band was very limited.
With Whippersnapper, my eyes were opened to how strong-willed people can be. When you're in a band, it can be quite an unnatural thing, really. Not only are you traveling together as people, but you have to get up onstage, open yourself up a bit, and play for people. Then you get back to your room and then, the next morning, you're all back together again. I suppose it shows up—the sides of people that aren't so easy to deal with. You're asking so much of people's sense of acceptance. Every band has those problems I'm sure. I suppose I'm a fairly placid person. The difficulties with people with strong ways are essentially the same as when lions meet. Two people with strong ways tend to create disruptions.
What I've learned on the road is tolerance. You learn to put yourself in other people's shoes sometimes. When someone wants their way on a particular thing, you have two choices. You say "Actually, I disagree and I want this" or you say "Okay, I can see that. Let's go down that road and see what happens." I've learned that the first choice has to be based on something that's really true. You also have to know when it doesn't matter, as in "I don't really mind which way it goes." Within that, you build up a more tolerant atmosphere.
If people are being difficult—and we all are sometimes—that's being human, isn't it? I think creativity brings those things out as well. People trying to create something tend to be more fragile. It's that fragility that sometimes brings out idiosyncrasies or dominance. It's kind of a reaction to the creative process, but sometimes they are just being difficult. [laughs]
What Swarb is fantastic at is providing strong musical direction. In Whippersnapper, I always more or less was following his lead on what we did with fiddles. I had no qualms about doing that because I was learning so much and his ideas were fantastic. Musically, my ideas at the time were very limited. I could play, but I learned so much. So, the single-mindedness Swarb is known for sometimes brought me is a fantastic experience. I was delighted to soak things up.
I had some great times with Swarb. I owe a lot to him, as countless hundreds or thousands of musicians do. I got to know him and play alongside him. It had its down times, but that's life. You only know good times if you have some down times.
You were asked to overdub parts onto the Sandy Denny Gold Dust release. What’s your take on the controversy over modifying the original tapes?
Simon asked me to do it. He thought my vocal range would fit in well with his for harmonies. The fact is, the recording was all being reworked. It's difficult to judge because I didn't know what went before. I didn't hear the original guitar parts. I can only presume the reason they were being replaced is because they were poorly recorded or there was some wrong things on them.
You can look at it in two ways: You want to get the best musical result out of some great singing, songs and performances, or you want a historical document with warts and all. I guess the people producing it were more interested in getting a really good musical result by sensitively using people who were involved with Sandy anyway. For instance, Jerry Donahue went in and did loads of guitar work. Historic documents are great on one level, but sometimes a good, sensitive musical result is a great idea too. That's how I see it. My involvement was very tiny and I had no discussions with anyone about musical policies.
This is me looking at it from the outside, but I did meet Sandy a few times because she and Trevor Lucas lived locally to the area here in Byfield. I went back to their house a few times. I remember those moments well. She's someone you hear stories about, but she was a very creative person and was lovely to me. She was very interesting to be around.
What did you make of the end result?
I like it very much. I almost can't listen to it because I know I'm on the album. It's very strange. It's the closest thing I'll ever get to time travel. However small my part is, my vocals are actually there. It's difficult to look at something you're involved with sometimes. The perspectives with which the people involved see it may be very different from those who weren't. That may be a good thing because you can't detach yourself completely and look at it that way.
You played on the ColdCut CD Let Us Replay. Tell me about that collaboration.
Yeah, I did. They never sent me one. [laughs] I'm told it did very well. It was an interesting experience. It happened through a musician called Paul Brook who is a fantastic drummer and percussionist. He's been working with ColdCut for awhile. I met him through working with Kevin Dempsey. Kevin and I did a duo album back in '89 called Always With You and Paul did the programming and percussion for it.
ColdCut were looking for a mandolin player and fiddler for a track they were doing. Paul said "Why don't you get Chris in?" The way they recorded the track was very interesting. It was so different from anything I'd ever done. They played me parts of the track and it was pretty out there, atmospheric, ambient groovy stuff. They got me to play along with little bits of it. Then they'd lift out everything I'd done and rearrange it. They'd conduct massive surgery on what I'd done and place it how they wanted it within the track. It was fine by me. It's another way of working. They weren't actually interested in what lines I had to play. They were interested in my sound. They'd take it and sculpt it in a completely different way. They weren't after my melodic input, just my playing. It's probably the same way they'd worked on everything else within the track.
You're a teetotal vegetarian. How does your approach mesh with Peggy and Simon's entertainment philosophies?
[laughs] It meshes very well. It goes back to your question about Swarb. You have to be tolerant in a band. You also have to be able to have your own space and let others have theirs as well. Peggy and Simon don't expect me to drink. That could be considered a tolerance from their point of view. It's all down to labels and it's a difficult thing. Musicians on the whole generally are expected to drink and be party animals and that's fine. Why not be a party animal? There's no reason not to. But within that, I'm just as happy not having a drink. I'm not saying anybody shouldn't have a drink or eat meat. It's just my way of life. It's something I've come to at age 45. In my 45th year, I'm really happy to not have a drink or eat meat. And I'm really happy for anybody else to live their life in a way that makes them feel happy within themselves.
What was your previous lifestyle like?
I used to drink, smoke and eat meat. I can still have a good time. I can be at a party and have at least as good a time as anyone else. I remember having a pint in my hand one night and thinking "God, I'm not enjoying this anymore. This is an awful lot of liquid to get down my neck. Why do it? Why am I drinking? Actually, I can be in this scene and not have a drink. So, why not do that?" So, I stopped. I finished one night and never looked back. It's just latching on to how I’m happiest within myself—what makes me tick best and feel more centered. For me, it’s not drinking or eating meat. The trouble with this is saying to someone "I don't drink" can be construed as saying "and I don't think you should either." But this is exactly how it isn't. It's not that at all. I think people shouldn't kill themselves with alcohol, but that's common sense. It's like saying "Don't walk under a bus." [laughs] I'm not telling anybody how to lead their life, as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else's. My not eating meat or drinking doesn't affect anyone else.
Do these decisions have a basis in a spiritual perspective?
I am a Buddhist practitioner. It's by being happy inside instead of living by labels that's brought me to live the way I do. So, I'm not saying alcohol is bad because it's alcohol or meat is bad because it's meat. If I was living in certain parts of the world, I wouldn't have the luxury of not eating meat. I'm totally happy with that. It's a good way of life. But I'm lucky to live in a society where there are other things available. If I lived in Siberia, it would be a very different kind of thing. I do have that outlook on life now. I don't call it "giving up" something. I've come to the point in my life where I simply don't want these things. I think the two ideas are very different.
What non-Fairport activities are you up to at the moment?
I'm about to make another fiddle. Fiddle-making is something I was trained to do in the early '80s here in England. I went to a violin-making school. Doing that is a great balance with being on the road. It's just me in my little workshop with my tools, carving away. Musically, I'll hopefully be doing some work with Ric's trio as a guest on upcoming gigs. I'm also part of a group called St. Agnes Fountain. We went out for the first time last Christmas. We did 18 shows back-to-back, which is really great fun. The other people in the group are Chris While, Julie Matthews and David Hughes—a fantastic singer and songwriter who supported Fairport on a tour. The four of us did a Christmas album which I don't think is like most. We took Christmas material we liked and played it as we'd play anything else. We didn't try to make it Christmas-y. We just took the material we loved because some of the melodies are fantastic. The tour and album were very well received. We're hoping to do the same this coming December.
It's good to do outside projects. Whenever you do something outside the main thing you do, you come back to the main thing you do with a bit of freshness. It's like the old food analogy. It's like sampling a bit of another taste. You bring your tongue back to the other food you're eating with a different receptivity.
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