Letís think about it: in the 80ís, twenty years after the burst of their success, we used to regard The Beatles as an ancient and distant entity, both in terms of time and fashion. So itís a bit striking to realize that the very same lapse of time has passed since the glory days of Englandís second batch of new-progressive rock bands. Beyond personal taste and preferences, one can only praise and respect a band like Pendragon at least for its ability to find its way through the passing of time and fashions, personal and financial troubles and difficulties; all these things would have probably won over everyone lacking the genuine passion and tenacity of captain Nick Barrett. We have asked him some questions to coincide with the release of a new DVD recorded in their new-found home turf, Poland (ďŚląski im Stanisława WyspiańskiegoĒTheatre in Katowice) starring Nick and his trusty bandmate Clive Nolan in a pleasant unplugged format.
Watching your performance on the "A Rush of Adrenaline"DVD I was stunned by the accuracy in the reproduction of every single detail of the original pieces. The same thing happened when I first listened to the "Acoustically Challenged" CD. Was it a difficult task to re-arrange such intricately woven songs for just guitar and piano? Did you work together for this?
Well, yes we worked together on the arrangements, but it was extremely easy, I mean that when you have been doing music for so long, somethings come very naturally. I don't want to sound arrogant about this, but you know it's like putting on a pair of socks, after a while it becomes second nature, for example, when we played "Paintbox" it was obvious that the end section would lend itself to something more of a latin feel, I have always loved latin music so we bought that in. Yes, it was actually very easy to do!
The selection of tracks chosen for the set list makes me think about the Barrett/Nolan twosome as a quite democratic entity. Is my feeling correct or was some blood shed on the rehearsal room's floor? Did you try any more pieces but decide to leave them out?
Well it is very democratic, Clive and I have known each other for absolutely ages, years and years, so we kind of know what is going to piss each other off!!! It's very easy for us to agree on a set list for these things. He suggested doing "Shadows of Fate" which is a Nolan/Wakeman song from "The Jabberwocky" he also suggested doing "Don't forget to Breathe", these two songs were quite challenging because Clive wrote them and they don't lend themselves to what I would naturally do, but it's like anything else in life you could say well, I am not going to do them because they are difficult, but on the other hand by doing them you are pushing your own personal boundaries by learning how to do them, and of course because they are slightly more difficult in doing something that you would not normally do, it makes them more interesting as well. It's true of life as well, when you have difficult things it throws up something else, you learn something else, you push the boundaries of your soul out. So yes it was very easy to rehearse.
Your relationship with the Polish audience is unquestionably strong and long lasting... Pendragon even dedicated the song "Edge of the World" to its loyal fan-base in Poland. A similar thing has happened to Arena and some other English bands, Landmarq for example. How did it happen? What was the spark that started this liaison?
Well we came over there in 1994 I think, after Piotr Katlowsky from "Warsaw 3" got some of our records in 1984 and was playing them on "Warsaw 3" and this built up an audience and then 10 years later we come over and played. People heard us on "Warsaw 3" and then they came to see us live, they already knew our music and it was just like seeing old friends, it was incredible. Obviously after the iron curtain came down as well there was a lot more freedom for people, so bands could come over to play in Poland and the bond was created.
Does the present wilderness of file-download affect the life of such labels as Toff Records or Verglas? Did they suffer from it all or did their status of niche market subjects protect them from a sensible economic damage? How do you think the situation will evolve for independent labels?
Well it is really difficult, financially it has really badly affected out album sales, and it has made life a lot more difficult than it would have been. We have to look at trying to release more different products to make even a fraction of the living that we used to make. It is extremely difficult. But, like all creatures of survival we will find someway through it, it may mean that we play live more or that we try to achieve more merchandise sales, but yes it has definitely made a massive impact on our record sales. In many ways though we are quite lucky because the type of music we play means that people generally want to have the booklet and the original cd so they are quite keen to buy the CD as well so we are lucky. I pop music that way of thinking does not exist so much. For the future I think, well once there is the culture of people having music, of downloading it for free they are going to find it very very hard to go back and start paying for music, well they wont. So I don't think it's a very good picture for a lot of musicians and a lot of bands, for the bands that play live, well it might be ok, because maybe they can try to make an income out of that, but you know touring is extremely expensive so it's going be down to some very careful accounting.
I think the longevity of such bands as Pendragon, IQ, Pallas is nearly unbelievable, since they can rely on the loyalty of a worldwide fan-base, but they are virtually ignored when you cross the boundaries of a genre that doesn't have any great commercial appeal in the present day. How important is the enthusiasm in making music when economic factor isn't anymore prominent? Did you have the feeling in the '80's that you could pursue the same successful path of Marillion towards the charts?
This is a really strange argument because, yes it's true in the early 80's we thought we could become rich and famous and peruse that path possibly, but you don't know. But as time went on it obviously unfolded to reveal something different, and that was that we would start our own record label and run our own career under our own terms. The way it has evolved now is that obviously it is quite difficult to make a living with all the downloading but we are committed to doing this. The "Fame and Fortune" thing is quite a big illusion, it's like Sting once said, many musicians don't realise it, but the reward of being in a band is the music. That is the great thing about it, the music and the people involved. You have to kind of get the ego to become less important and the music, the band and playing live, and making music to become more important because that is where the real pleasure in this lies. After 21 years since The Jewel was first released we have just done these concerts with the old band members and it has been absolutely pure magic and great fun and everyone really loved doing it and it's moments like that that you cherish. If we had been very famous I think the egos would have got in the way, you would get some people saying they wouldn't turn up, some would say they wouldn't do this unless they were payed tens of thousands of pounds and this stuff would completely mar the occaision, sometimes it's just nice to do music for musics sake and not be a great big band but be a band that even on a small level has an amazingly big impact on our lives and on other peoples lives.
Your acoustical performance of Katowice radiates serenity and seems immersed in the pleasure of playing together. It's nice and funny to watch Nick perform and sing Clive's songs with genuine enthusiasm. What is the role of friendship in the balance of a rock band?
It's very important, it's very much like a marriage! Sometimes there are moments when you get really fed up with your partner or your band members, and there are equally times when you love them to death! But when there is a period of time when you have a problem with each other and maybe you are angry or pissed off with them , well that's a time for learning something new about them. You are trying to change yourself to understand how it is that they feel, and hopefully the other way around as well. It really is the case that being in a band is like being married four times over, it's a very intense relationship, but like a marriage it can have some very difficult times and it can have some fantastically positive times that you just can't get from anything else I don't think.
Talking of personal relationships, you have announced months ago the departure of Fudge Smith from the Pendragon ranks after twenty years of service. Can you introduce us to the new drummer Joe Crabtree? What about his musical background?
When Fudge looked like he was going we looked around and at different drummers, I am very much a believer in fate, the drummers that we tried to get were not available for various reasons and then we came across Joe who had done some work with one of the guys from King Crimson and who also had a personal interest in progressive rock music, but as soon as we got him into the rehearsal room we just knew he was the right guy! He was fantastic, he had learnt a lot of the set very quickly he remembers what he has to do, he has a great feel and he is just getting better and better all the time!
How is progressing your collaboration project with John "Barney" Barnfield, the original keyboard player with Pendragon? Which musical direction are you determined to follow? Given your common obsession, can we expect some surf music in pure Beach Boys style?
Well, you never really decide how a direction is going to go with the music it just falls that way, and that is what is so great about it, the not knowing, it's like cooking a meal, you don't know always what the meal is going to turn out like, if it is a success it is a brilliant feeling, but having that edge of not knowing is what makes it so intriguing, but generally speaking, the music that Barney writes is very very melodic, and we have a brilliant working relationship when it comes to writing. I think that out of all the people I have ever known I think the easiest to collaborate with, to write music with is Barney. The project itself is going very slowly because there is so much Pendragon work to do at the moment, but I certainly don't think we are going to be writing any Beach Boys type music even though they are one of my favourite bands and I think Brian Wilson is incredible and some of those songs are some of my favourite songs.
What is your relationship with acoustic instruments compared to the sound palette of electric guitar, synth and organ in the full band context? I personally think of that as a sort of real test, since you peel away every embellishment and in the end you're left with the bare composition. You can pass the test only if there's some substance in the song writing. Which are the main differences when performing on stage? Do you feel more exposed in a way or free from the constraints of synchronization and timing instead?
It's an interesting argument because all music is valid I suppose, they often say when you strip down a song of everything, take away the production, can you still play the song on the piano or guitar and it still sounds good? that's the test of a good song, quite often I think that's true, but you know something like The PetShop Boys played on acoustic guitar may not sound the same as a Trevor Horn production, but either is valid. I like the way that Ennio Morricone always uses real instruments, it makes the music have a spirit about it which comes alive, which is always amazing, with electric instruments you get a lot of energy and power behind the band, the band synchronizes itself anyway, so it's not like you have to really do to much to keep in time, obviously sometimes you do go out of time, but I don't know, it's such a totally different thing, and both are valid. With acoustic instruments you do feel more exposed, but there are other advantages too, like "King of the Castle" easier on my own because I can feel my way through the song. yes, each one is valid.