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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Peter Knight on wombles, jazz and Terry Pratchett

"It's a bit embarrassing... but all my Wombles are in America," was how Mike Batt had raised the issue. "He was producing one of Steeleye Span's albums," said Peter Knight. "And he was looking for someone to be the Wombles on Top of the Pops. We all jumped at the opportunity: Nigel (Pegrum), Rick (Kemp). I can't remember whether Bob (Johnson) was involved. I think I was Great Uncle Bulgaria."

Interviewing Peter Knight was a big deal for me. Poring over the cover of All Around My Hat at the wibbly wobbly pictures of Steeleye Span while listening to Black Jack Davy, Cadgwith Anthem and The Wife of Ushers Well is one of my very earliest memories (although the Wombles are in there too somewhere). I think I used to think that if I stared at it hard enough I might discover a hidden message on that gold-disc of an album, just for me. And there I was, sitting overlooking the canal at the Electric theatre in Guildford last Thursday, having a coffee with the original fiddle player in my life.

In the intervening years I've met several people who might qualify as my heroes: curiosity about them was one of the motivations for choosing journalism if I'm honest. Joan Collins and Peter Mandelson turned out to be almost unbelievably rude; Ted Kennedy had surprisingly ill-cared-for shoes giving him a leathery spin on Achilles heels or feet of clay; Michael Praed was just as pretty 20 years later as when he played Robin Hood to a soundtrack of Clannad; and Germaine Greer I still feel quite starry about even after spending a drunken evening with her at a tiny poetry festival. Since I'm now technically a grown-up, I know these experiences were mainly unrelated to the original reasons why I admired these people. But somehow the germ of hero-dom never goes away. And it can be knicker-twistingly, lump-inducingly potent.

Which is why, when I got a message from Debbie Walker, Peter Knight's partner, asking whether I'd like to talk to him about the new album I said something exactly like "YES PLEASE!" and immediately felt very uncool.

Peter and Debbie are getting married this week, at a small gathering at Kingsand in Cornwall. "A couple of pints with some family," is how he describes their plans. It's his third time around and her second, so they have a wealth of experience to bring to the project. There is a kind of serendipity that travels with them, though, which I started to feel when I was listening to the new Gigspanner album, Doors at Eight, and which has continued throughout my dealings with the couple. They just seem very happy in themselves and even the sad tunes on the record have a kind of sweetness to them.

"The ageing process has something to do with my calmness these days," said Knight. "I don't have anything to prove to anyone. When I was younger I was a bit cocky. But there was a turning point in the 1980s when I played with a sax player called Trevor Watts and we started to improvise. I've not always been into jazz - but you can't help what turns you on in life (across the board) and I now find jazz very intriguing. The music just led us to this shimmering high note after a complicated, interweaving, dissonant piece of material and I just got so excited I wanted to stay there forever.

"I know that sort of music will never be on Top of the Pops. But it's good for my soul and good for my relationship with music. And it's a reminder that we've got to follow our own muse, be honest about what we like and what we don't like: not to try and please the audience. You can't please everyone so you have to try and please yourself.

"I love improvising from nothing. I love taking my violin out of the case and letting the music unfold from the first sound that you make: developing it into something valuable but of no value. What you're doing is something that children do. If you sit a child in front of a piano, they'll bang out a few notes and smile.

"The three of us," himself, Roger Flack on guitar and Vincent Salzfaas on percussion, aka Gigspanner, "are very pleased to be playing music together. We look forward to the gigs. Recently I did an American tour that went straight into an Australian tour, and the day after we flew back there was a Gigspanner gig in West Sussex. Driving to the gig I thought I must be mad. But as soon as I heard Roger's first chord I remembered why I had suggested it." A gigspanner, in case you were wondering, is a bottle opener.

I'm glad he said all that because trying to describe their music is hard: there's a folky, jazzy, worldy, improvisational expressionism there and I particularly like the songs, which have a folkier feel than many of the tunes. The lingering impression, though, is that Knight has evolved into something akin to folk's Stefan Grapelli - and when I say that I saw Grapelli play with Yehudi Menuhin once at the Brecon Jazz Festival you may get a sense of what I'm implying. Moreover, the modesty that goes with it was a relief because asking around before the interview, one of the words used by a colleague to describe Knight - with affection - was "lunatic".

"That was certainly the case back in the early days of Steeleye, when we were touring America with Warners," he said after a short attempt to guess who'd said that about him. "It was really good fun, being in a band, touring the world. But the American trips cost us £40,000 a tour. We thought all the meals and the cars were being paid for by the record company but all the bills went against our tab. We'd often meet other musicians on the road in America: you'd find them at the hotel, sitting by the swimming pool. And we'd tell each other stories about different degrees of getting ripped off.

"Park Records, who we're with these days, might be a bit scrappy with no proper website but at least you can call human beings up who work there and have a laugh." Paging all folky website developers...

I suppose that Steeleye Span must be one of only a handful of folk bands to have experienced the whole major-label, rock-star thing. "I guess so. It was always a bit of a mystery why Steeleye was so successful though. We were a novelty but we were never sure what the scale of the success was down to. I thought perhaps it was timing, because so little success seems to be down to whether the music's any good. We still get royalties: they're dwindling, but that's to be expected. It's enough to buy a couple of bottles of wine when the cheques come in."

So what's next for Steeleye Span? "We're talking about recording an album based on three books by Terry Pratchett called Wintersmith. He's a fan of the band and we played at his 60th birthday a couple of years ago, somewhere around Salisbury. It would be a way of saying thank you to him for being a fantasy writer, from a band that does a lot of fantasy itself. You know: elves and goblins, that kind of thing."

Perhaps since Pratchett is not a well man - he makes no secret about his Alzheimer's - they should crack on with it? "You can't even think that," said Knight, looking slightly shocked. "Though his illness wouldn't necessarily make a difference to the project..."

Would you describe him as a friend? "I don't know whether that would be accurate. I've had a few conversations with him: he presented us with an award once at the folk awards and sat at our table. We talked about the specifics of the written word and playing music, and which could provoke the more precise feelings. My thoughts on the subject are that I want to be in the right frame of mind when I'm playing, so that the frame of mind comes across. I believe that if I'm in the right space to play the music it transfers to people, but not in a specific way."

So has anyone ever written a book about Steeleye Span that you liked? He laughed warily. "Books about bands are a dodgy old business. People who write history, rewrite history. I mean, I've heard Rick telling stories in the dressing room about events I was present for and he was vastly out, in terms of getting it right. We could each write a book about the band and would have different accounts of the same stuff. Ashley Hutchings wrote a book about Steeleye, didn't he? But I don't need to read it because I was there."

An inquiry about whether he misses Tim Hart, the fellow founder-member of the band who succumbed to lung cancer on Christmas Eve 2009 made me wonder whether from time to time his honesty might get him into trouble? "No, I don't miss him," he said simply. "I was sad that he died and I missed his voice when he left Steeleye. I don't not miss him for any particular reason. But as you get older it's part of the process: people start dying whom you've known for a large part of your life. I think 'That's Tim. He's a goner' and that's it. We conflicted a bit in the early days of Steeleye. But we made our peace with each other, went out for a few meals and talked about the old days. We parted on good terms."

He's just agreed to be the patron of  the Fiddle Festival of Great Britain. "The first one is on the last weekend in June next year. It's the first time I've been asked to do something like that and accepted - before I've always had enough to do and didn't want to take on some responsibility that I wouldn't be able to fulfil. But," and he had to consult Debbie about the details, "it's somewhere in Oxfordshire and it's run by someone we like called Sian Phillips. There'll be teaching and concerts." You can follow the organiser on Twitter at @sianfiddle.

Then he had to go and try out a new fiddle for the gig that evening because his old one, distressingly, has begun to fall apart. "We've moved to France and it was in a barn I was working in. I was leaving it in there and it's started coming unglued. I didn't notice until I went to change the strings last night and found the neck is coming away from the body. Resetting the neck is such an expensive repair it's not even worth fixing. But it makes a beautiful sound, which is why it's heart-breaking."

And my original fiddle-player went off to prepare for the gig. Original and best.

* Gigspanner album-buying and gig-listing here.

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