“Strings Of Delight” - Anthony Phillips chats to TWR about his new album, Strings Of Light. Interview conducted at Ant’s home on Sunday 8th September 2019. Photographs by Alan Hewitt.
TWR: This leads pretty much on from our last conversation which covered all of the reissues apart from Tarka which I assume is still under negotiation. You did mention that you were working on a new guitar album and so all of a sudden out of the blue I see an announcement on Facebook that it is done, dusted and ready to be released in September I believe…
AP: Late October actually..
TWR: I gather that it is a showcase specifically for the guitar so run me through some of them..
AP: Well, it really is I suppose, I got presented with a bit of library free time or the library projects were done and other people were doing the finishing touches to them and specifically James Collins who I work with as my engineer/Producer/Co-composer who ale so engineered Strings Of Light in fact the first time I have used an engineer right eh the way through an album since right back in the seventies when I could afford it and it didn’t half make a difference! So there was time where there didn’t seem much point in doing more library because there was so much to sell effectively and too much in the pipeline
So, I arrived at another of those junctures where I did, as I had done with Field Day; I haven’t done too much guitar playing recently and it would be a nice idea to try and get the old technique going again but also because I think I was keyboard heavy and although there was a bit of electric guitar on the library stuff it was rebalance to get back to acoustic guitar where everything is out of tune, your nails are busted (laughs) and your shoulder goes out, your left wrist hurts and so I spent lots of time with a physic and that was all great… I am joking! No actually all of those things are true but you have lots of things that are keyboards and computers and stuff and I know this happened to Trevor Rabin, he spent so much time doing stuff on computers and keyboards that when he tried to get back to the virtuosic stuff of course, he wasn’t up to speed and out of practice and you can’t do both. Well, you can but you have no life. So, it’s the old thing, I won’t say it was easy, because it was chipping away at the old sculpture thingie and that was the case on some of the pieces and I would say it was absorbing but not exhausting doing the writing.
TWR: So this is all new material…?
AP: All new material. I didn’t set out with any blueprint like I had done with Field day where I had done thinking I must use all of these instruments and luckily now, I have such a large collection of chaps courtesy of my library work that I couldn’t use them all and so I think, to be honest, I just did the old thing of pretty much going through embryonic ideas which I hadput down over the last five to ten years and then mostly building on them because I had stockpiled a lot of fragmentary ideas as composers do, bits, whatever you want to call them; fragments and then just sort of embroidered those really. The old adage of five per cent inspiration and ninety five per cent perspiration was never more true this time! (laughs).
Also being the best part of being maybe fifteen years on from Field Day I found my energy levels were opt as good as they were because I am getting an old man (in best cod cockney accent) and actually the reiteration of the practice I did find very tiring. When it got to the sharp end of it an I practiced for half an hour or three quarters of an hour I had a twenty minute kip half the time! (laughs). I think it was quite physically tiring and it was..(sotto voce) quite boring and creativity is dead exciting but for me just going over the same old thing and the difference between the two and because my technique wasn’t up to scratch, the difference between writing it in rough bits and it all sounding quite promising and actually arriving at a definitive concert like performance is so much time particularly if you have let your technique lapse. I wasn’t deliberately trying to write in a way that was clever or technical or showing off or anything I was just doing stuff that came naturally to me but I wasn’t able to do it fluently and once you start analysing your sound as well, that’s the other thing. And unlike Steve Hackett, my friend Steve Hackett, who has got very strong nails and also keeps on guitar, guitar, guitar whereas I am more keyboards and Steve keeps up a much higher standard of technique than I do. So both from the point of view of technique but also my nails have always been dreadful I have always battled and with all the finger style stuff, and it is one thing just rough ideas, getting it out and then you listen back to it and you think my god, that sounds scratchy and horrible, so how are we going to make that sound better? So, I actually did bit of research this time and lo and behold, I went to a shop called the London Guitar Studio to whom I shall forever be indebted and a young man called Ollie Barwell Aufray but he told me and I asked…young Ollie, what do you do to strengthen your nails? And he said well I have heard that all the Spanish Flamenco guitarists use olive oil… Every day you dip your hands in olive oil and I thought, OK that’s not difficult, I will give that a go and a very nice lady called Sophie there gave me some special stuff. The other thing was some Perfectil tablets which Steve uses, and I think all those other things helped. But I am absolutely convinced that it was the olive oil that did the job. Every day dip them in olive oil and dip them in. Someone asked does uit have to be very good standard olive oil? And I said, I don’t know, I am using bog standard from the supermarket! (laughs) so hat made quite a lot of difference to my sound which has been a bit edgy and a bit scratchy in the past and is a bit less so now.
|It’s not entirely so this time though, there is this one track which has an electric guitar on the coda and there are a couple of others which have cross faded bits and links with more guitars so it is not quite as Spartan as it was with Field Day. Its not as long as Field day and although it is two CD's they are quite short CD's and each is about forty five minutes and it was just a little bit too much for one CD and some people said why don’t you… And I put it to James and he said none of these tracks are weak and it all worksd out and so I have actually called it Side One and Side Two and it just happens to be spread out on two discs. And it is in surround which we can do here now as well and although people say surround for a guitar? Actually yes, because if you are doing nice cross faded bits with other guitars flying in over the op and end sections going into reverb and stuff you can get it floating (in best cod Geordie accent) not the whole way through but it is like sitting inside a big guitar and then you have a little bit of space and we were careful not to be too poncey with effects and making the guitar go spinning round the universe we were careful with that and it just gives it a bit more light and shade.|
I started the album in 2017 so I was going to record it in 2018 but then I got that chest infection which grounded me for a couple of months so I picked it up again at the end of last summer and we came up to crunch time which was going to be December and I just got to the point where I was trying to practice twenty four pieces a day or spread ‘em out over two or three days and I just was getting so tired and also my left shoulder and wrist, remember twelve string requires a lot more pressure and maybe guys can fly around for hours and hours on electric but you try sustaining five or six hours when you are pressing down hard on twelve string when you are fifty seven, which I am now… or maybe I am … we won’t go into that now, shall we? (laughs) Advancing age means more creaky bones like every other point, you can’t run as fast, you can’t have the strength to lift and so your wrist is not going to be as strong. It is remarkable to think that the twelve string I played, my dear friend Rivers Job’s twelve string back in the Seventies the action was up here and I remember playing Tregenna Afternoons with all those Barre Shapes and I don’t know how I did that, well I was a younger man and my wrist was fitter so I got to a point where I hit a wall in late November and I just thought, I can’t do this and I was feeling so tired and I was beached. I remember sitting on the floor in the kitchen and I was gaga. I sat there gaga with about twenty four cups of tea and I gave up and a number of people including my Italian girlfriend and everyone was saying I completely understand, you are absolutely right… Of course, as soon as they said that, I thought, right, I’m gonna show you! But then I thought, OK be sensible, what doesn’t make sense here is to carry on the way you are when it isn’t working and you are just going to do the same thing but what would be awful would be to leave all this stuff because I had to do this twice with Field Day and you have to start re practising from scratch again. So, I thought, OK, take x amount and do them from now so I took the easier ones and I took about two weeks to practice the easier ones. I jettisoned four brutes, the brutes as I called them, and I managed to record twenty of them before Christmas and then gave myself three months, ten weeks, earlier this year, to do the brutes and even then I was thinking if I can do two out of the four of these, it will be good. If I did three, it would be amazing and if I were to be able to get all four done then it really would have been quite superb and actually I did but I think I would not have been able to do it without James because the last piece which is to me a very fragmentary Classical piece it was right on the edge of my technique and I thought I am never going to be able to nail this bloody thing but actually he really helped me to get through it because it is funny how you can be a mixture of both too self critical and at other times a bit slap dash and don’t ask me to explain that but I know in the past I would have got hung up on details with this piece and I would have kept on re taking these early bits and would have completely lost the flow because it is a long pieces with lots of different sections it needed to keep going and maybe go back and do some replacements. What you didn’t want to do was stop, get hung up and lose the flow and get frustrated and blow the whole thing apart. James kept me going and we would go back and do bits and it made so much more sense and he was very encouraging and he would do quick edits as well rather than in the old days where I was Take 743 ! (laughs) and I would be weeks going through all these tapes trying to work it all out and getting confused, no wonder it all took so long!
TWR: Sometimes it does help to have an independent pair of eyes and ears on these things…
AP: Oh god, it does and the other thing I used to be was.. I could be a bit slap dash, not that I didn’t care but I could convince myself that that will be alright and there were one or two times where James said, well actually I don’t think we can get away with that.
|There are some quite funny stories. I have got a sixteen string which was made for me and it was a very, very difficult thing to do and encompass. You have an extra string at the top and en extra string at the bottom and that was very difficult and the chap that made it, it was a tough assignment for him but through all of that I have to say it is quite imperfect and the tuning on it is all over the place, so what I was doing to start with was I was trying to compromise and get a tuning which was a compromise between all the different sections so something would be slightly flat on that section and slightly sharp on another and you wouldn’t notice. But in the end there were too many bits where I was trying to do a compromise and my brain was going completely. So, what we decided was, right, we will take this in sections and we will tune it for each section OK, and then what was funny was that because you had to do a lead in to each section what was funny was, leading in to each new section just how awful the tuning sounded (laughs) from the previous section and we swore we were going to put together an edit of this gruesome fairground sort of thing and we suddenly thought no wonder we were going bonkers all these months, it was because we were trying to tune this thing and I was going up and down and it is a brute to be honest and its inaccurate but James… there were a number of times when there was talk of marching this chap straight down the garden and giving him to Tescos the long way - over the wall ! (Laughs) If James hadn’t been here, I think he might have ended up on someone’s trolley actually.|
TWR: You have mentioned one of the guitars, so we might as well talk about some of the instruments that have been used on this one…
AP: There is a lot of twelve string, in fact you asked about new material, I did actually go back to one really ancient piece actually which was from the early Seventies believe it or not, when I was first mucking about with tunings and it will be interesting to see if people can spot it because I have done no dates this time. Admittedly I have updated it a bit but I would like ththink without being conceited that maybe in the area of twelve string I was a little bit ahead of my time in some respects. After I had left the group, and I was pushing the Stagnation envelope if you like, not consciously trying to be clever but these weirder tunings, more interesting chords that you get and I had never done anything with this particular piece and again the interesting thing was how difficult I found it all these years on, and you could play this better forty years ago! (laughs) or maybe it was shite forty hears ago and I just didn’t remember. So, a number of twelve strings some of them in quite bizarre tunings actually and one very bizarre tuning, which confused Dale (Newman - more about him next issue folks) my guitar guy no end poor man.
|Quite a lot of Classical and the last piece which is the sort of grand finale well, not quite but the big beast and the one I was mentioning with the edits I was very fortunate to be able to buy a special guitar for that because I have got a number of Classical guitars and I was actually trying it on my old Yari which I did my guitar teacher’s exams on in 1973 and it has got a lovely sort of vibey feel to it and it feels great but actually when it came down to it the sound just wasn’t that great and so I nipped into the London Guitar Studio and I managed to pick up this Francisco Simplicio guitar from 1931 and it is absolutely beautiful and James couldn’t believe the sound and the sound on it is absolutely gorgeous. So, a number of Classicals, of the weird and wonderful ones, I have mentioned the sixteen string with the extra high string and low and for the connoisseurs, the low strings go down to A and the high strings go up to G, the idea was to have three octaves; A to A but getting the top one to go up to A was a bit tricky so G was a bit more… what you are doing is expanding the compass of the guitar. The problem with the guitar when compared to the piano is that it is relatively small and by doing that you have got extra depth and you have the shimmery top and that was that.|
I used the Dulcitern which I used on Field Day which is a lovely little ringy chap, and then there was a guitar called a Villette which is another mini twelve string and that is beautiful as well. I used a not very expensive guitar called a Blueridge in something called Nashville Tuning which I was, although I am a bit of a tuning man, I was very late to discover Nashville Tuning, it has been used… Pink Floyd used it and a number of people have used it and what it does is; this is interesting; you tune the guitar as normal, but you use only unwound strings, ie all high strings. What it means is, without being too technical, is that one, two and three are at normal pitch, then the next three are an octave above what they would be because they are higher, thinner strings and not the lower ones. So actually you have got a lot of notes which are much closer together, so you get this lovely sort of crystalline, shimmery close together but not as in a lot of unpleasant avant garde classical music and hopefully a nice confluent shimmery thing not blackboard screechy ones.
One thing is the Guitarina which is one of those little ethnic ones and that is about all of them actually. There are a couple of six string ones and a little bit of Stratocaster, electric guitar with a little bit of extemporisation at the end of one of the tracks. One of the tracks has an outro with about five or six twelve strings chasing each other around in a canon.
TWR: So, that takes care of the new album but are there any other projects you are working on right now?
AP: Tarka is very much in Simon Heyworth’s hands and it has always been Simon’s baby and since Simon is doing less mastering work he has embarked upon trying to turn it into a huge presentation, you know, photographs, going back very much authentically to what it was originally about. I have left it up to him really. He feels that he can get something special which will make people buy it. Obviously using the right kind of marketing and honing in on the Devon market. We have talked about maybe getting it used in an animation film which would be my preferable option if I were honest, because you have got bigger numbers there, but that would mean re-doing quite a lot of it but it has already been done in Surround and of course, orchestral music really does benefit from that and it is frustrating that it is not out. The Cherry Red deal, there are still a number of C Ds outstanding which weren’t done first time through but it will be very interesting what happens with the new one because many people have been saying aah, when you do a new one it will all change as in lots of more copies sold and I am going to remain cynical and I will be honest, it is a difficult situation because I put a fair bit of my own money into the re-releases in order to try and make them really pukka as in 1984 and Slow Dance particularly and the instrumental albums haven’t sold well at all, the Private Parts & Pieces ones sold better, even Invisible Men which has ended up being a bit of a conundrum so I have ended up staggeringly actually making a loss on these so if any fans say why isn’t he doing that or why isn’t he doing this? The simple answer is well, he is financing all of this with his library music, if he didn’t do that there wouldn’t be any albums unfortunately! It has not been a great time for CD sales as we know, and I have elected to back those albums and quite frankly, grateful as I am to Cherry Red, it is not lost on me that we would not have won that award and the artwork was great and Jon (Dann) was paid by me as well for the work he did, they didn’t pay for everything by along shot and so we have to be quite clear about this, I am not telling tales on them but we would not have won that award if I had not to some extent injected some of my own cash into it. Which is fine and I think it all deserved it but I will be interesting to see what happens with the new one and we could get it on Radio Six or… but instrumental music on radio is not easy, is it? I do hope that the fans who have been so loyal do enjoy this and find it a leaner version of Field Day and maybe a little more varied. It seems to have gone down very well with the few people who have heard it I must say and I am keeping my fingers crossed.
And there you have it, a look at the new album, which will is now available for your delectation and delight. My thanks once again to Ant for giving up some of his time to talk to us about it.