The erstwhile leader of the British prog-folk band Strawbs looks back on their lengthy legacy and offers insights into their daring new album
Although they’re not especially well known to the wider world, Strawbs earned special distinction by becoming a forerunner in a very specific niche known as prog folk.
Unlike Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, bands that drew on a traditional tapestry and integrated those ingredients into a rock and roll template, Strawbs went several steps further, adding mellotrons, relentless rhythms and themes that were both ominous and suspicious. After transitioning out of their early bluegrass origins, when they called themselves the Strawberry Hill Boys (“We were pretending to be hillbillies,” leader Dave Cousins says in retrospect. “Nowadays they call it Americana”), they made some early forays into folk before setting their sites on a more ambitious agenda.
AUDIO: Strawbs Grave New World (full album)
Iconic albums like Grave New World, Hero and Heroine and Bursting at the Seams helped define the tenuous transition from the ‘60s to the ‘70s, with helmsman Dave Cousins’ arched, anguished vocals setting a tone that gave an equal balance to turmoil and triumph.
Some 50 years on, Cousins is still at the fore, accompanied by key band members Dave Lambert on guitar, Chas Cronk on bass, Tony Fernandez on drums and Dave Bainbridge in the critical keyboard role. So too, Strawbs’ new album, Settlement, marks a return to their roots in a way, given that arrangements and production were overseen by Blue Weaver, a mainstay of one of the group’s earlier incarnations. Sadly, Cousins’ early collaborator Tony Hooper, a cofounder of the Strawberry Hill Boys and an occasional returnee to the fold, died last November. Fittingly then, Settlement is dedicated to his memory.
Rock and Roll Globe recently had the opportunity to talk to the indefatigable Mr. Cousins and hear his thoughts not only on the new album, but Strawbs’ entire history in general.
The new album seems to bring the band’s entire history back to its beginnings. It boasts the same urgency and intensity as the band’s earlier albums by reconnecting the dire warnings of the ‘70s with the discourse and despair faced in the wake of double troubles forced on us by politics and the pandemic. Moreover, bringing back Blue Weaver seemed a fitting way to connect past to present.
Sadly, our previous producer, George Tsangarides passed away in January 2018. So we needed to have a new producer, and I had the bright idea of using Blue Weaver. He had been a previous member of the band, and he played with us on our 50th anniversary in Lakewood, New Jersey, in two years ago. I suddenly thought that this is the guy we need to do it. And he’s got the experience of having played with the Bee Gees for all those years in the 1970s, when they had seven consecutive number one singles. If he doesn’t know what makes a hit record, nobody does.
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It does seem like it’s all come around again in many ways with this album. What was the reaction of the other members of the band?
I had emailed everybody when we’ve started this project in March of last year, and asked them to let me know what what songs they may have got up their sleeves. Dave Lambert came back and said, “I’m not very inspired at the moment, but do you fancy this one?” It was a song called “The Visit.” I already knew it, because he played it at our 50th anniversary. I thought it had a very strong focus because it took us back to where we actually came from. We came out of the folk clubs, and there’s still that element of folk music within it. It told a story and folk music tells stories. And Strawbs music tells stories. So I thought if we’d do it properly, it’ll work beautifully.
In many ways, Settlement recalls Grave New World, given that it boasts that same anthemic kind of feel. It has that same sort of urgency to it. That’s what makes this album seem so timely. And g even that it was recorded during pandemic, were you writing with that in mind, attempting to address the challenge of the times were are facing?
I didn’t set out specifically to reference the times that we’re in, but it does reflect that regardless, and the first song that I wrote was “Strange Times” seems to tie in, although I was really referring to the fact that I had to move out of my house. I haven’t been in my own house for a year. The reason is that my house had a flood in the cellar and there was a problem with fungus growing there. So I had to move out while experts came in. And then the insurance claim experts came in and we had to find a way to kill all the fungus. So I found myself moving into a different environment. Naturally, I brought my guitar with me, and I started to play it, which I don’t normally do at home. But because I was in a strange environment, I had to keep myself occupied. So I played my guitar and I found myself using a different tuning because I was putting my hand on a different position to what I would normally do. I thought, well that sounds nice, and I played another chord. I thought, I wonder where that goes. Let me carry go on. So “ Strange Times” came out very quickly. And then I thought, well we are in strange times! There was no traffic going by. There was nobody in the street. The only time you saw anybody was when we went out and clapped hands with the National Health Service. And that was literally the only time he saw people. Sometimes people rang bells when they went out or we waved at people across the street. So the words for “Strange Times” wrote themselves and they were reflecting the times that we are living in. I didn’t set out and sit down and say “Right, I’m gonna write a song about the pandemic.” The words are organic, and to my mind, that is what folk music is. It is organic, it’s music telling music and stories, traveling from town to town as people used to in days gone by to sing songs about what was happening. These songs are songs of what has happened to me and thousands of other people around the country.
Other songs on the album to kind of hold to that same theme — “We Are Everyone,”“Champion Jack” and “Judgment Day” being among the more obvious. Did they naturally evolve the same way?
“We Are Everyone” evolved out of me sitting and watching a news clip of the death of George Floyd. I was staggered by it and moved by it. I went straight upstairs, picked up the guitar, put it in an open E tuning, modal tuning rather, and started to play. And within half an hour that song was written. And it was a reflection of that occurrence totally and absolutely. It was emotionally driven by the death of George Floyd. And I heard it as I was singing it as being an anthem, like “We Shall Overcome,” with the insistent drone going on all the time, and the insistent repetitive chorus. “We are everyone, come together, join together, we are everyone.” It doesn’t matter what color of skin you are. I know it sounds corny and hackneyed, but it just reflects that we should actually look to get together with one another and not be as divisive as we have been.
Yes, well, it’s an excellent sentiment. At the same time, the last song on the album, “Better Days,” is so uplifting. It’s got this Calypso flavor to it and it really adds an element of hope. After all the darkness, it shares some optimism. It’s a perfect fit.
That happened very early on in the making of the album, where it was very dark and dull when the first lockdown came. And then suddenly, we had a glorious spring in April, with sunshine. And I sat outside in the front garden with a glass of wine with me and I started playing the guitar in an open E tuning. And I thought “That sounds very nice.” And I put down a little demo of the idea and turned it over to Blue Weaver. He came back and said “That sounds like mariachi trumpets.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s a good idea.” Then I took the guitar, sat down again, it was still sunny and bright, and I thought “Better days, better days will surely come again.” I started to make it light hearted, but when we put it down to record and I thought we’d sort of finished it, Blue Weaver said, “The words that you’re singing in that last verse before the final chorus comes in aren’t as happy and uplifting as the rest of it. He said it needs to be in a minor key and not the major key. And so it was Blue’s idea to put those last verse in the minor key.
Well, again, the album takes this very interesting trajectory from that sort of ominous point of view in the beginning to this uplifting finale. You are such a prolific individual overall — you have your work with Strawbs, you have your own solo material, you work with other people. There’s certainly something to be said for going so strong after 50 years. So in general, what is it that inspires you? Is it current events like you talked about before? What keeps you going? What’s the impetus?
I tend to write about what is happening to me, and once I’ve got a bunch of songs together then I think it’s time to make a record. I never sit down and say to write a new record. It used to b e that we would make a record every nine months, a new album. I’m writing all the time. I jot notes down all the time in notebooks. I have huge piles of notebooks. Then I enter them in the computer and in bits and places. I might be sitting in the waiting room, and the last train just went by while I was sitting there. Why did the train go by, I don’t know, but it gradually forms itself into a song. I’m jotting down things all the all the time and making notes. And that’s how it happens. It’s an organic thing. The songs essentially write themselves and when I start to write, they come incredibly quickly. With “Better Days,” the words were written in about an hour or so.
Given that this was recorded during pandemic, did all the members of the band end up sending their parts in separately?
This is the absolute truth. I’ve not seen any of them face-to-face or on zoom or whatever for over a year. I’ve not seen any of them. I haven’t seen Dave Lambert since February last year, when we did a couple of gigs. Haven’t seen Chas since then either. Dave Bainbridge I haven’t seen for a since we did our 50th anniversary in Lakewood in 2019. Tony is is now living partly in the U.K. and party in the USA. Tony Fernandez, our drummer, lives in Portugal. So I haven’t seen any of them. I don’t know whether they others talk to one another on the zoom or anything, but the only way I’ve communicated with them is by email.
So did Blue assemble it all? It really sounds cohesive.
He was definitely a musical mastermind. I just I think it was just so awesome that he took on that role. He was such an integral part of the band early on, and, and then it all came round like this. I’ll tell you another thing that made it more difficult is the fact that Blue Weaver is living in Germany. So he was organizing everything there. Dave Lambert, myself, and Chas Kronk live in the U.K. Dave Bainbridge was sending his parts in partially from Mexico, partially from the USA. Tony was contributing from Portugal with a drum machine. It wasn’t even a proper kit.
And then we had our guests with Cathryn Craig who’s living in Northern Ireland. And we have Schalk Joubert from South Africa, who I met in January last year, and who is the most astonishing bass player I’ve ever worked with. There’s not denigrating any of the other bass. But he’s astonishing. And John Ford, who used to be with the band, loves in the United States. So it’s a global album. It really is. It’s amazing. And again, the themes speak in a global manner. I mean, it really is a global album in that regard as well.
You have always seemed to be on the cusp of experimentation. Strawbs created this genre of music, this so-called progressive folk sound that really hadn’t been done before. Was that a deliberate effort on your part to allow the music to morph in that way?
We never intended to do anything like that. Every album we’ve ever made has been a natural evolution or progression. And we’ve never said “Oh, well, now we’re going to be a prog rock group. Now let’s be a pop band. Now let’s do this.” Everything naturally evolved. And it all comes out of that tradition that came out of those folk clubs where I used to perform. I didn’t sing many English folk songs. I wasn’t like Fairport or Steeleye, recreating old folk songs and putting them to a rock beat. I didn’t do that. When I started to write my own songs, yes, I used the folk harmonies, and put my guitar in different traditional tunings. I took the banjo and then wrote songs, and then tested them. They showed up in early songs like “Where Is This Dream of Your Youth” and “Oh, How Se Changed.” They’ve got those modal harmonies which came out of the folk tradition.
Your sound still stands apart…
Well, I was very flattered to hear that the Fleet Foxes listened to what we did. I’ve been told that Styx listened to us at one time.
It must be very gratifying to have that legacy behind you. These days, do you look back on it at all? Are you a sentimental type? There’s a high bar there. How do you do stay faithful to that high bar. Obviously you did that with this new album.
I’m very proud of what we’ve done. But I don’t listen that often to the old albums. And when I do, I’m thinking, “I wish I’d done that a bit differently with that song.” But it’s a body of work that I’m very proud of. At the same time, every album I make, I try and make it the best album we’ve ever done. And it’s a hard thing to do. I’m always perfectionist. I’m not a great guitar player, but I play my guitar is in certain tunings, which gives me an individual sound. These are dark songs. but again, it reflects the times that we are in. They’re not written as folky songs, but they they are songs that come out of the tradition. And there are people who do that Bob Dylan write songs that come out of the out of the folk tradition.
Your vocal is so descriptive and so dramatic. How you came up with that vocal style, which, in fact, really helps to define Strawbs and their music.
Again, it’s about standing up on stage in folk clubs, telling stories and telling people what the song is about and then singing it. I’ve always acted the song, if you like, going back to Brave New World, where there are elements of drama, and that’s exactly as it was sung. You have to act the song, and you have to put it over. It’s like I almost go into a trance when I’m singing the songs. I’m not seeing lyrics. Rather I’m actually singing the story that this song is telling you. When I’m singing about homelessness in a song like “Judgment Day,” I’m imagining myself in that situation. (Sings) “Walk down the street, people I meet step away as I pass by.” I’m that person walking down the street. That’s when you really can realize what the songs are about.
AUDIO: Strawbs Settlement (full album)