Dan Campbell very kindly sends BtP the full script of his 'phone interview (late April 2003) with The Commander, which was used for his preview in the Washington Times)
So you are on tour in Europe right now are you?
Actually, just having a few days off. I’m actually in France at the moment.
A little rest and relaxation, eh?
Meant to be – doing a bit of this and painting or something.
I thought we would start by talking about your new album, The Well’s on Fire. Starting with the cover – it looks like Armageddon, with Mother Earth engulfed in thermonuclear fireballs. Made me wonder if the original title might have been The World’s on Fire?
I can’t see any mushroom clouds. Well, we had the title The Well’s on Fire, which actually comes from another song, which isn’t on the album. But that’s beside the point. We just thought it fitted what we’d done – the atmosphere and everything. Actually, Keith Reid who does all the lyrics, he went and had a look at the artwork, and that’s what they came up with. Yes, it is fiery. We haven’t had an orange cover before, nothing that color – sometimes it’s that simple.
It reminds me a little bit of the album cover of The Long Goodbye, which looks almost like a Turner landscape painting with those orange swirls – although I never quite understood what that cover was.
I know, it’s very hard to tell. I didn’t have much to do with that one [The Long Goodbye] – the symphonic music one. Very hard to figure out what that [the cover] was – looks like some sort of strange picture of Tom Jones in the nude. [Jones provides guest lead vocal on a remake of Simple Sister on that album.] I forgot all about those colors.
There are globes showing the different aspects of the five continents on the cover of the new album, which is appropriate, as we don’t usually play music that comes from one particular place. It’s not all English (although it is, of course – if you know what I mean). We sometimes mix it up and have a bit of African, and we lean towards American styles in some ways, Eastern European, or whatever it may be.
The cover also makes me think of the track The Blink of an Eye, which seems to be an observation on the attacks on the Twin Towers.
It could be. It also could be the moment when the V-2s first landed on London [during World War II]. It could be.
Were you a baby or very little boy when that happened?
I wouldn’t come out until it was all over. No, I was stuck inside the womb, and I wasn’t coming out until the last bang had gone off. Once it all went quiet for three weeks, I emerged. In other words, three weeks after the end of the war.
The war must still have affected your life.
I think it depends what period you grow up in – there was still a certain atmosphere in those days as a child when I was growing up. We used to play in a German bomber that had crashed at the top of our road in a field. That’s what we used to play in – they had obviously taken the pilot and crews out. But everything else was still there. It hadn’t really smashed up. We used to have a marvellous time in that.
When you see something like what happened on 9/11, with the hijacked flights, and you must travel a lot, does that affect you and the band? Does it give you pause for thought when you board a plane?
Well, we’re not about to stop what we do because of any sort of problem like that. I mean the other week we were travelling to Norway, and Heathrow Airport was surrounded by tanks. They had a warning that some terrorists were going to shoot down a commercial airliner with missiles. They seem to have had fairly firm intelligence on that. But we didn’t not go to Norway. No, there were people out there waiting to see us. They had paid their money. No, it doesn’t really stop us. It would have to be pretty dire circumstances, touch wood you know, and hope all goes well.
What happened on 9/11 is – well it’s another world. Everything changed on that day. The goal posts moved. Up until then, one assumed, apart from a couple of maniacs now and again, they might kill themselves on the way to doing something else. But that all changed. Total disregard for anything human, really. The words to Blink of an Eye are quite direct, and you are absolutely right. Keith lives in lower Manhattan there.
So he probably saw the smoke and ashes.
He couldn’t get into his place for a long time. Strange smell there now. Just as an interesting point, when he was allowed back in, there was a strange smell in the air, which he actually recognised in some way. After a few weeks, he suddenly realised what it was: it was from the place when he was a boy, in London’s East End, it was the smell of the bombsites. You could also play around bombsites – that’s what kids used to do.
Another track, VIP Room is a terrific rocker, with real, acid-drenched humor – and a point to it. Sounds like you had a lot of fun with it and it would be good concert. Are you playing it live?
Yes, we’ve been playing that one. Oh no, we’ve written some rockers in the past, but the ones we’ve written on this album – that one, Wall Street Blues, and a couple of others – are really great to play. The advantage we’ve got with this album is that this band has been together for about ten years, so we’re really very much a live band. I don’t think there are all that many bands in history that have played for ten years without making a record.
So did they enjoy the chance to put their stamp on some new material?
It was a great change. Now I’m not talking about myself and Matthew Fisher, but about Mark on drums, Matt on bass and Geoff on guitar. They’ve always been playing Salty Dog or Simple Sister that somebody else originally played on. You have to give that a lot of respect in some ways. You can’t play a totally different thing that would make it sound like it came from another planet. But with this album, they were able to have free rein. I did say to them before we started, ‘Up until now you’ve done a great job playing the Procol repertoire for last ten years. But forget about that; forget about BJ Wilson – although it sounds cruel – forget about Trower or Mick Grabham. Just be yourself and put what you’ve got into it. And they nailed it. I think it benefited a lot from that sort of feeling.
Well, it really is a superb album – are you getting mostly favorable reviews so far?
I haven’t heard anybody say a bad thing yet. Mind you, perhaps you get shielded from that. Or if they don’t like it, they don’t review it. Very good reviews, though. People say it’s as good as any Procol album.
There have only been three Procol Harum albums since you folded the band initially. But those three albums have been up to the lofty standards of the old records. I compare that to some other bands – the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney spring to mind – that continue to pump out mediocre or weak album after album. Seems they really water-down their legacy. I really respect that Procol Harum has not watered down its legacy.
I appreciate what you are saying there. Thank you very much. That is actually the way we look at it – not totally consciously, but that is the way it is. When you make an album, it’s meant to be new, important – you are putting a lot of thought and creativity into it. Even when we were making an album a year, we still tried to do it to the high standards. I think the difficulty one is up against these days is that, possibly, people might think, ‘Procol Harum, yea, well, they’ve made lot of albums, what’s so different about the new one?’ I mean, the thing that’s different is that we don’t make that many, and we always, as you say, take a lot of care about it to make sure it’s worth listening to, at the least.
Do you find it more difficult as you get older to find time to compose? I assume you have more family and business concerns all the time. Is it more difficult to just sit down at the piano and work?
Yea, actually it is. It is very hard. I mean the whole world is a busier place. The paperwork that comes through! I try to get people to help with things. Still, half your day is sorting through mail or answering phone calls. I don’t really want to do that. So now and again I try to get away. With this album, we didn’t really start on it until about a month before we booked the studio – booked for the first week in October. I went away to France and thought, ‘Right, I’ve got to get some peace and quiet.’ Not a dog to bark every time somebody walks past. I don’t want the phone to ring, don’t want to be having to answer mail or phone calls. So I shut myself away, and would just think about music and songs. It went fairly well – there wasn’t as many dogs barking (laughs). I found the new house I bought in France needed a bit of work. I did get quite a lot of ideas on the keyboard there, and worked as hard as I possibly could, which is about two hours a day. But then I went and erased all the ideas by mistake. So in fact, I had to start from scratch, or from memory. So basically all of those songs on the new album were actually done in just the week before we went in or while we were in there.
Do you find that the muse is with you as much as when you were younger? Is it harder to find her?
No, the muse is there. I’m very encouraged by that. If I am still able to personally write something like the Emperor’s New Clothes or This World is Rich [from the new album] or a good rock song that has a different angle to it – like VIP Room or something – I’m greatly encouraged. The muse hasn’t really departed me at all.
I try to encourage the band to play or anybody else who is writing. I like to do something that has not been done. You are not after following a fashion. In fact, usually the contrary. We try to get away from something somebody else has done. That’s always been Procol Harum’s approach. Always been my approach to music from Whiter Shade of Pale on. Try to do something that not everyone expects – something that will wake them up a little bit.
I’ve long thought it would be fascinating for you, on a solo album perhaps, to set excerpts from TS Eliot’s poetry to music; poems such as The Wasteland, The Hollow Men or The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock There is something very Procol Harum-like about those poems at times. Has anyone ever suggested that before?
Some poetry has been suggested – there is an English poet, probably from 250 years ago, John – I just can’t recall his second name.
Yes John Donne! Thank you. Douglas Adams, the English writer who passed away a couple of years ago, gave me a book of John Donne’s work and said, ‘Read this and think about what songs may be there.’ It’s always an idea, it’s just a matter of getting that sort of window in life where you can actually sit down and think, ‘I’m ready to improvise some music, let’s see what’s around.’ Or just look at words, be it TS Eliot or John Donne, and see if it wakes something up.
Matthew wrote a couple tracks on the new album, including the superb finale, The Signature, which closes the album very much in a similar fashion to the way Repent Walpurgis closed the very first Procol album. Did Matthew say anything about what that title refers to or the inspiration for the song?
He might have collaborated with Keith Reid on that title.
Actually, the main title is something in German, right?
Weisselklenzenacht. That was a bit off the wall, that. That was our working title, and it kind of stuck. Everything else we tried didn’t sound the same because we had come to live with it, that German title. Matthew also wanted a subtitle in case someone doesn’t speak German, what are they going to call it? (Laughter) He was very worried about it. If somebody wants to request it on the radio, what are they going to ask for?
That would definitely limit the odds of that happening!
Quite honestly, The Signature is just the first note – the signature note.
Was there a feeling that the band wanted to do another Repent Walpurgis-type tune?
You would have to ask Matthew that, but he says a friend of ours, a girl [Diane Rolph] that helps us out sometimes, had said to him, ‘Why don’t you write another Repent Walpurgis, it’s about time. 'Or at least another instrumental.’ So he thought, ‘Yes, it’s been rather a long time,’ thirty-five years before he has followed it up. It’s very popular. On stage it’s absolutely unbelievable. I sort of have trouble following it. It’s like a standing ovation for Matthew’s effort wherever we play. And I’m going, Lord, what the hell can I sing now? (laughs).
That was my feeling when I saw you with the Ringo Starr All-Star Band a few years ago and you did a moving, solo version of A Salty Dog. Everything else seemed a little ridiculous after that.
Well, that was a pretty frightening moment as well, coming after Yellow Submarine. Everybody is up, and then they all sit down. And then everybody walks offstage, and now I have to fill the spot on my own. You just have to take a very deep breath and look toward the sky.
Well, I think you got a standing ovation when I saw it (at Wolf Trap, Virginia).
Well, I enjoyed it, and it was one of those great moments, to sit down and play a song all on your own and it suddenly goes quiet – it was a great experience.
Was it fun playing with Ringo?
Oh yeah, very good conditions. Nice fans, we were well looked after. We’re all pals and friends.
Speaking of Ringo, I’d love to see you or somebody like Dave Edmunds produce an album for Ringo, where he would get back to doing more stuff like old Buck Owens and rockabilly.
Of course, Dave plays with him sometimes.
Back on Matthew, he left the original band around 1969, and didn’t rejoin until the reformation for The Prodigal Stranger. What was that like after so long a split? Did you pick up where you had left off pretty easily, or was it a bit of a struggle to mesh again?
No, we seemed to fall back into it. Matthew has very strong ideas, but at the same time, he is very open to what I am feeling or wanting to do and the direction that the band might take. He’s a great musician. You know when he plays the Hammond, it’s going to sound like him – not just like a Hammond, but him. And he is THE Hammond sound of Procol. Everyone else is an imitator. I mean, Chris Copping played organ in the band for years, but he was only playing it like Matthew would have played it.
You give a tip of the hat to Chris in the liner notes of the new album. Is he still around or performing at all?
He lives in Australia. He’s a working musician there. He does a lot of writing and producing and stuff like that. He was mentioned on there because he reminded us of a song that we had tried out in the late 70s. I went to Australia in 2000, and he kind of resurrected this song. ‘Do you remember this one?’ [he asked]. And when he found out we were going into the studio, he sent an e-mail or something saying, ‘Make sure you do that one.’ And I had forgotten yet again about it. It’s called So Far Behind. So it was a thanks to Chris for reminding us for trying it, and it was worth it.
I would assume that Robin Trower is still too busy doing his Hendrix-inspired music to want to consider re-enlistment in Procol Harum?
Especially in America, I think they will always think of Robin Trower as part of the quintessential Procol Harum. But as I said earlier, we’ve been playing ten years as band that gels well together. We’ve played live for the past ten years. I wouldn’t kick Geoff Whitehorn in the face, and say, ‘Sorry Geoff, got something else here.’ Although it’s all business at the end of the day I suppose. It’s not always like that. And it was a chance for – mind you, if Geoff had messed up on the first day (laughs), then there might have been a 'phone call made in Trower’s direction. But Geoff did not mess up on the first day. In fact, he was an absolute tower of strength. He reminds me of the chords of my own songs a lot of the time.
After doing his own thing for all these years, I suppose it would be hard [for Trower] to join a ship where he isn’t going to be the captain.
Actually, Robin has not been one to live in the past in any way. I mean, I don’t either. But I still respect and enjoy previous things, as do audiences. It’s not to be kicked out the door and never played. I wouldn’t enjoy Procol if we said F*ck all this old sh*t, let’s just go out and do our new thing. Unless you had an audience that would follow that, there would be a lot disappointed people out there. So we’ve never done that. We’ve had a lot of reunions, either Procol or the band we had before that [The Paramounts] which Robin was also in and which we had had since we were schoolboys. He never even wanted to come along even to those sorts of things.
So he’s never been a great one to have any sort of commitment to the old – you know, he’s done it, it’s over, he’s somewhere else.
Last time I saw Trower in a club here, five years or so ago, I was yelling out for Whisky Train" and Juicy John Pink, but he didn’t play them, or any Procol numbers.
I’ll do Whisky Train. I played it with Ringo, actually.
Oh, you didn’t do it the night I saw you. But that is one of your great rock vocals.
I sang it and Pete Frampton did a really good job on guitar.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – I kind of look at it and the Grammy Awards as a bit of a joke. But some people take it seriously. How do you feel about so many vastly lesser talents being in there when Procol Harum isn’t? Is that even something that is on your radar screen as an interest?
I think, of course, that if you are going to make an album like The Well’s on Fire thirty-five years after you made your first Procol Harum album, it ought to get a nod in some direction. It’s like all these thing – like getting a knighthood from the Queen. You say it doesn’t matter, and you can belittle the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but if they inducted us or invited us, we’d go, ‘Well, thanks very much.’ We’d be pleased.
I think England should have its own rock and roll hall of fame. It’s where 90 percent of the best rock music was made from 1963 to 1973 – the golden age of rock’n’roll. That era was dominated by British bands.
It absolutely was. But those days have certainly gone.
Well, it’s almost all bad now. There sure isn’t a lot of contemporary rock music that interests me.
No, so we’re really looking at what’s been done. I think that at some point along the line, it would be good to give – I mean, I’ve played rock’n’roll all my life; still doing it now, and doing it better – hopefully – than I did thirty years ago. And that’s a lot more than some other rock’n’roll people have done. I don’t have much respect for people who make themselves ill and die, and they seem to be the most respected ones. No, I think the thing is to be there, make the effort and carry it all through.
Switching gears here a bit. A few years ago there was a great movie about the relationship of Gilbert and Sullivan called Topsy Turvy – they had a bit of a topsy-turvy relationship it seems. If they ever made a movie about the relationship of Brooker and Reid, what might they call it?
That’s one of the musics that I actually don’t like, Gilbert and Sullivan. I don’t know, I should think, Who is He? – it would be a question we would both ask each other. (Laughter)
Has it been a pretty smooth working relationship all these years?
Yea, but I don’t know him from Adam. He’s a very deep person and a very private person. Although we work together, and we sometimes communicate in a very intimate way. Sometimes baring our souls. But at the end of the day, I don’t know who he is.
Hmmmm, interesting. I tore out an article from People magazine, of all places, in 1991, in which you or Keith are saying that you thought most Procol Harum songs have a movie-like quality to them that would lend themselves well to videos. Ever thought of doing a video for something like A Salty Dog? I always see this vision of a ballet of ghost ships swirling about in a misty, Sargasso Sea kind of environment. Any talk about doing something like that?
I think probably, that if someone within our band or outfit – probably me, Reid, Fisher or somebody else – had any sort of bent toward making videos – like who was the guy, Mickey Dolenz?
Oh, Michael Nesmith? [of the Monkees, who went into avant-garde video production].
Yea, they kind of went that way – a creative way of making videos. Bands like Pink Floyd are very visual and creative in their stage production. I suppose even a band like Queen, almost half of their action was also in video. Yes, you are right, Procol Harum songs are absolutely tailor-made for visual effects. But I’m not the one to do it. Martin Scorsese could do it!
Within Our House [Brooker solo effort from 1999] is really an extraordinary album too. Almost unique in the annals of rock history. Did you have any idea that church fundraiser concert would turn out as well as it did?
I was happy with the programme. If I go out to play, I do as best I possibly can. I hadn’t done this before, and we might not ever do it again. Then rushing around and trying to find a recording truck – very much like with the Edmonton Symphony album – it was a last-minute thought. So much effort going into the orchestration and thoughts about the evening, that you kind of forget about it. But we managed to get a [recording] truck in, and, as you said, it was a unique evening. It’s always been a problem about where to market that kind of thing. With a bit more advanced thought and a bit more budget, it would have been a very good DVD project. The music would have been there, but you also would have had the spectacle. You’re in a 12th-century English church, stained-glass windows, choir, string quartet, church organ. Put five cameras around that, it would have been absolutely stunning. But we didn’t. You had to be there. Don’t ever miss anything, if you can help it (laughing) because you’ll miss a good evening.
What effect do you hope Procol Harum’s music has on a listener?
I would expect a lift. Some sort of lift.
It seems to be one of the few rock bands where the music can elicit a catharsis – not a word that normally springs to mind with rock bands. But when you listen to something like In Held 'Twas in I, it really can have that sort of an effect on you.
I can only speak about it in retrospect, but people come up to me – including quite a lot of alcoholics – and say back in the early 70s, In Held 'Twas in I helped them get off the booze. I mean, I couldn’t see how, you know what I mean? But it had, so that was all right.
I suppose it was a time to listen to music and not to go out and get smashed. Life is like a beanstalk.
Isn’t it! (Laughter)
I’ve almost forgot the question.
Well, there is an emotion to much of your music that can affect a lot of people in a lot of different ways.
Well, they aren’t going to dance to us. We’re not a dance band. Never have been. We’re a band that tries to create music that will prick your ears up and do something to your soul deeper down. Because it’s something you haven’t heard before, but you always felt like you should have heard it. You should have listened to this before, even if it’s a brand new song. You think, I know this – this means something to me. You feel something in common with it. A fan would feel like that. We also have to affect a few hundred thousand other people as well. Whether today’s thirty-year-olds are going to be needing to think a bit more about a lyric; or think ‘this person is singing something, and I can feel what’s going on here.’ The people who like our music are very, very nice people too.
A lot of the Procol Harum lyrics are not real concrete. They are evocative though, and can be interpreted in a lot of ways, which is one thing that makes the music fun. I would think for you as a composer, it gives you a pretty broad canvas as to how you will interpret these words and set them to music and how you are going to perform them. Has that made the relationship working with Keith a good one for you? Or would you even agree with that?
Yes…It gives me really free rein, the less explicit it is. I mean, many of the lyrics on this new album are actually quite explicit. There is no doubt whatsoever in what one is talking about. Blink of an Eye is like that, VIP Room, Wall Street Blues. There is absolutely no question as to what it’s about. So you don’t have a lot of room in there for movement, musically speaking. You come to the Emperor’s New Clothes, it gets a bit more ambiguous.
Yes, the surrealism isn’t really here with us that much anymore.
We have enough in there. It’s not total fantasy like we had on certain occasions.
Robe of Silk is one of the more tender love songs on the new one – almost sentimental.
I love the words to that. It’s a little bit of a nod to a past kind of way of playing as well. It reminds me of our first album, in a way.
Yes, it has that Hammond sound.
Yes, it has the Hammond, almost a nod to She Wandered Through the Garden Fence [from the band’s first LP in 1967] at the start, with the drums starting up with the rhythm.
Emperor’s New Clothes has a real classic Procol Harum sound.
I think it is one of those that will grow a little bit over the next thirty years, if I’m still able to sing it.
Seems like you are maybe going after somebody on that one a bit. Did you have anybody in mind when you were singing it?
I just see some politician trying to pull the wool over our eyes for the umpteenth time. We’ve seen it all before, and here he is again. Just that general kind of theme.
Are people talking a lot about the war in Iraq where you are touring?
I’m actually in France at the moment, and they kind of let us down a bit…We – the Brits – have obviously given a tremendous amount of support to the Bush administration’s cause on this one. But once we go sailing, once our boys start marching down the road, then Britain is always totally and absolutely behind them and behind our Prime Minister. We don’t let our troops go – because they are good lads, professional army, young lads trained for the job and they are very, very good at it. And they don’t want to hear people out there saying – ‘You shouldn’t be out there!’ You have to give them total support.
The main thing is, we haven’t marched in and invaded somebody before, not since we last we did the French over in Napoleonic times or something. We go in and help people, going to the defence of Kuwait, or the Falklands, or other places. But we don’t actually go in with an unclear picture. So that was quite hard for people to take. But I think everyone is glad that it seems to be going well – although I don’t know, there may be more to this story than we know. I haven’t read a newspaper or seen TV in a week, so I have no idea what’s happening. Is it over?
Well, basically, yea. I don’t watch it much either.
TV is so in-your-face, constant media speculation on an hourly basis, it is actually sickening. I would rather have it once a week, or even once a day. I can’t stand watching it all the time.
I agree. Now they are sabre-rattling against Syria.
We’ll let the Americans figure out where Syria is for a start.
The World is Rich is subtitled "For Stephen Maboe". Who is he?
South African activist. Actually probably an anti-America song in that there was a meeting last year in South Africa, of the rich nations, to see how they could help the poor nations. And nothing happened. America has, on various occasions, through its own power and grandeur, said ‘No, we’re not doing this. We’re not going to back’ – what was the other one you pulled out of?
The Kyoto environmental pact?
Often these are very important to the smaller countries in the world and the poorer people that something be achieved, and it hasn’t. And the reason that it hasn’t has been mostly on the part of American Big Business, looking after its interests. ‘We’re not going to cut down this, just to stop a bit of pollution. Our oil producers are going to get upset.’ That has happened on several occasions. I think in the end it has weakened America’s moral position. "The world is rich, it is not mine." A very rare song for Procol Harum, because it’s sung from that point of view. I have to put myself in Steve Maboe’s shoes, and sing as if he was going to sing it.
A Salty Dog has always elicited thoughts of Coleridge and his Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, about the mystical old salt who is doomed to forever stop fat, happy revelers on the way to the wedding feast, and to warn them about fate. Do you ever see the role of Procol Harum as being somewhat similar to that of the Ancient Mariner, to cause people to stop and reflect on their lives, maybe even warning them a little bit to open their eyes?
Well, we don’t approach things with that sort of almighty mission. Much as Coleridge probably wrote that – I don’t think he thought that he was going to change the world, nor did he intend to. Probably just wrote something that he thought was good and filled the bill. We do the same. But I hope, and know, that on many occasions, having come into contact with Procol Harum music has stopped people in their tracks and made them think about things.
Bryan Ferry and Rod Stewart in the last few years have done albums of old standards from the 30s and 40s, and Harry Nilsson did one back in the 70s. You have the type of voice that could sing almost anything. Ever thought of a side project like that, or maybe even an album of R&B covers?
I actually play a lot of R&B covers apart from Procol Harum. I’m in a couple of other bands, so I get the opportunity to do that now and again. I was with [ex-Rolling Stone] Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, and that was a lot of 30s and 50s styles. My biggest contribution was probably on Double Bill, but I’ve played with them for about four years.
The Question on the new album has kind of a smokey, R&B feel.
That’s one of Matthew’s songs; it goes down very well.
Anything else you want our readers to know – those who might be coming out to see Procol Harum?
Come out and see us! I would like to play to as many people as possible when we come to Washington – where are we playing there?
The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., a Washington suburb.
The Birchmere what?
They just call it The Birchmere, a famous folk and country/bluegrass club here.
Oh, I went there will Bill Wyman. Oh that’s a great club! Your readers have got to be there – it’s probably sold out anyway. I was hoping we were going to play there, because they are very nice people. Great – one of those places that is obviously dedicated to music.
The night before Procol Harum they will have the Strawbs, with John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee from the Pentangle opening. Extraordinary back-to-back concerts for one venue in this day and age.
Thirty-five years ago you would have probably had all those acts on one bill in a bigger theater. (Laughs.) It will be old Brit week there.
I appreciate your time very much. Thanks for thirty-five years of setting the gold standard for rock music. Look forward to seeing you.