❉ James R Turner reviews the stalwarts’ latest album and chats with founder member David Cousins.
“A seamless collection of tracks that fit perfectly into the band’s lengthy back catalogue, it’s wonderful that the Strawbs, who have an impressive 50-year history, can work apart across several continents and pull together an album as powerful as this one.”
In these strange times that we are currently living in, one of the things that have been consistent and kept a lot of us going has been music, and whilst sadly our favourite bands have been unable to tour or even work together in studios, they have found new and innovative ways of making music.
Like their peers Hawkwind, Strawbs’ latest album was recorded entirely remotely, and produced by former Strawb (and Bee Gees musician) Blue Weaver, who put together the musical pieces together in his studio in Germany.
A seamless collection of tracks that fit perfectly into the band’s lengthy back catalogue, it’s wonderful that the Strawbs, who have an impressive 50-year history, can work apart across several continents and pull together an album as powerful as this one.
David Cousins has never shied away from commentating on contemporary matters and the opening trio of the title track, Strange Times and Judgement Day are as strong an opening trilogy of Strawbs tracks as I can remember, and he doesn’t let up as his scorn for the lack of organisation and the epic failure of the Government to handle it properly.
Set to some barnstorming music from the band this opening salvo sets the tone for the album, which is a fantastic follow up to The Ferryman’s Curse, musically and lyrically the band are as powerful as they’ve ever been, and with the sympathetic production of Blue Weaver, who gets the feel of what a Strawbs album should sound like, this is fantastic album from start to finish.
Dave Lambert’s ghost story The Visit harks back to the folk roots of the Strawbs, whilst Cathryn Craig (wife of former Strawbs member Brian Willoughby) adds her beautiful vocals to We Are Everyone, a song of hope for these dark times and brining to mind the era when Sandy Denny was Strawbs’ vocalist.
The CD is split into two sections – because the instrumental track Chorale ends what is the vinyl version of Settlement, and the addition ‘off the beaten tracks’ are a closing trio including the autobiographical Champion Jack, a song about Cousins’ stepfather, the anthemic Better Days (Life is not a Game) and the closing powerful Liberty. With South African bassist Schalk Joubert laying down a distinctive bass sound on Judgement Day, which is a radically different Strawbs sound, but one that fits in completely with the feel of the album, this really is a global album, and with David’s enigmatic lyrics on Quicksilver Days is a reminder, if one were necessary that David Cousins is one of the country’s finest songwriters.
In over 50 years since their debut album, The Strawbs have seamlessly moved from folk rock to progressive rock with the odd hit single in between, and despite the recent lockdowns the band are continuing their unique musical journey on latest album Settlement. I spoke to band founder and songwriter David Cousins about the new album, the challenges of writing remotely amongst other topics…
Can you tell us a little about how Settlement came about…
I haven’t seen any of the band members in over a year, our last gigs were a few acoustic shows back in January 2020. When it came to record Settlement, it was put together in our various home studios across the world.
I had previously got rid of my old home studio, so I needed to get myself a new mic and a Zoom hand recorder, I already had a desk, and everything was recorded and operated on that.
Everything was recorded in my spare room with the bed upended against the wall acting as a sound board.
The album was produced by Blue Weaver in his home studio in Germany – Blue was in the Strawbs before he joined the Bee Gees during their disco period and had six consecutive number 1’s with them.
The rest of the band were scattered all over the world. Dave Lambert is in the Isle of Sheppey, Tony Fernandez lives in Portugal, Chas Cronk lives in Hampton and Dave Bainbridge was in Lincoln but is now in Mexico, so it really is a global affair.
Added to that we have South Africa’s finest bass player Schalk Joubert who I met when I did four shows over in South Africa, I really got into the rhythm and sound of the music and wanted him on the album. Of course, a lot of people have no idea who he is, and the track that he guests on Judgement Day is in 5/4 which is not immediately obvious. I sent him the track to play on and he asked what I wanted, I told him to groove, and he did, his work on there is absolutely brilliant and the finished track is most satisfying and exciting.
There are also other guests on the album.
John Ford is on here as well, again another former Strawbs member, we hooked up with John in New York when we did our 50th anniversary shows, and chatted about working together again, and I had the words for Each Manner of Man, sent them off to John and he had the tune, again sending his part for the album from New York, where he’s been based for years.
We also had Cathryn Craig guesting with us at the 50th Anniversary, and she’s married to Brian Willoughby who also used to be in the band, and they now live in Northern Ireland. I decided we needed female vocals on We Are Everyone, so Cathryn sent her part over to Blue in Germany.
It really is a global record.
I want to pause for a moment, as the album is dedicated to founder member Tony Hooper, who died in November last year.
It was only appropriate to dedicate it to Tony, as the Strawbs was us in the beginning, we learnt to play together and grew up together musically.
‘Settlement’ is a very political track.
It’s a savage song, quite a lot of the songs have been written reflecting what’s going on politically. This is something I’ve always written about, Grave New World for instance reflected what was going on in the early 70’s and again it’s a protest song about disenfranchised people.
With Settlement I was pretty angry about the response to COVID and still am. The first lockdown came as a shock, and the message (from the Government) kept changing, that the hope for a solution would be heaven sent, that it would be all over by Easter, then all over by Christmas, all we wanted from them was honesty.
David then started discussing the wider songwriting approach to the album…
The whole album pretty much reflects that six-month period from the first lockdown in March to September. As a songwriter I reflect on society around us, and every song is biographical and about what’s been happening to me.
That’s the reason for our longevity, people identify with the songs and the lyrics. I was watching the George Floyd events on the TV and then was inspired to write We Are Everyone as an anthem, thinking of things like We Shall Overcome, I changed a couple of words from the original and wrote it quite quickly. It’s got that repetition round a chord sequence, I see it as an uplifting rather than protest song, it’s socially relevant and it’s important to me that the songs are like that.
On Quicksilver Days, I had the line pop into my head, and all the current sorrow and tragedies are in here, every single line in the song has a specific meaning, a lot of the lines came out from songwriting in the sunshine in April/May last year.
The line ‘Towers that once sheltered us crumble in ruin’ show society as it was, there’s so much anger and angst in the world at the moment, and the lyrics reflect that anger in society, you can see it in America at the moment.
The songs have always been about my own personal life intertwined with historical events. The Hangman and the Papist was about my own childhood, my Dad died when I was six months old, and at that point I was baptised a Catholic, then my Mum remarried when I was six to a Protestant, and there was that division in my own family; I was a Catholic and my siblings were Protestant. I went to the Catholic church and they went to the Protestant one. I set the song back 200 years as it fitted the circumstances better.
How was it working remotely?
I had Settlement as an acoustic demo and sent it out to the band, and they came back with ideas that they’d been jamming, however I quickly realised there was no structure to the song, so I had to write it out chord by chord and with lyrics, stop breaks and numbered sections.
Blue sent out voice and guitar and the instructions for what went where, so there’s a solo between parts 55-69, and that was the way of structuring it. Because I played the riff acoustically the band then played the riff on bass and guitar and it had to be adjusted to fit. Chas simplified the bass line and there was a lot of going backwards and forwards between us all, it was incredibly difficult, yet the song has that sense of coherence even though we were all working remotely.
When Blue played the finished track there was an organ solo at the end, and of course I didn’t know what Dave Bainbridge was going to play, my first thoughts on hearing it was that it was Dave Lambert shredding, it was great how it was done, and we got Blue to move it up slightly in the mix.
Strange Time was written on an acoustic guitar on my own, I played it in a D but had to change it to an open E tuning with a capo so I could sing it, then Blue lifted it up half a tone, Chas put the bass on and Dave B the piano, and it was all performed in fragments.
Blue recorded with the Bee Gees and he’s aware of the old Capitol Studios feel to the recordings, so he has all the ambient studio sounds, so it’s produced through the Capitol sound chamber and sounds glorious.
How are the band using social media to promote the album?
I’m doing it a different way this time, instead of making music videos we’re putting behind the scenes snippets up, showing chord progressions, things like that and people are really interested in the making of aspect.
Promoting the album, the band have released a number of ‘behind the scenes’ YouTube videos, which for a music geek like me are great to watch as it breaks the fourth wall and shows how these fantastic tunes were crafted.
John Ford has just finished a video explaining Each Manner of Man. The biggest response so far has been me playing my dulcimer on the ironing board in my kitchen, as it’s not an instrument that can be played sitting down, and that one has had 4000 views so far. Using my laptop set up it shows how it was recorded, I had to stand up to record the piece and it shows how we recorded at home.
There’s another video from Schalk Joubert talking about how he recorded his piece for the album.
Over the last year Esoteric have reissued a number of older Strawbs albums…
I’m really pleased with the sound on the remasters, Heartbreak Hill for instance, an album that didn’t come out at the time sounds amazing, and it’s a shame it was never released when it was meant to be.
I packed up the songwriting for 20 years and worked in the radio industry, and hardly played at all between 1980-2000. Prior to that period, I’d written a couple of hundred songs, and during that period I wrote 13 songs, which we still perform regularly. Looking back, it’s unthinkable I could from everything to nothing. We started performing again heavily back in 2000, and I was surprised people could remember us.
Looking back, we’ve released 25 studio albums, plus all the compilation albums and I’m pleased with most of what we’ve done over that time.
I am enjoying working with Esoteric as I’ve known Mark (Powell – label head) for about 15 years, he was starting Esoteric around the same time I started Wychwood, he was based in Canterbury at the time and we had lunch in Deal, I always hoped we could work together with the labels and now we are.
Cherry Red/Esoteric have taken over our back catalogue and that came about with (last Strawbs album) The Ferryman’s Curse, the deal was done on the basis we got our costs back and then they distributed the album. This time they’ve funded our recording costs.
The Ferryman’s Curse has been in high demand on vinyl!
It’s easy to sell 1000 CDs in one country, whereas vinyl sales are a more global prospect, it’s a worldwide market and also much slower. The last vinyl we did, a reissue of Sandy Denny and the Strawbs is now selling around 60 each month and we’ve sold about 1860 copies, which is really good considering it’s a double album. Part of the new album, Settlement, was designed around the vinyl release; it’s separated out to 20 minutes each side for the best sound possible.
On the CD there’s bonus tracks.
These aren’t really bonus tracks, they’re part of the album but we decided to call them Off the Beaten tracks.
There’s Champion Jack, which is about my second Dad, his identity is tied up with the atmosphere and it’s got an innate Englishness with the brass band.
Better Days was written in May or June in about half an hour, the lyrics just poured out and Blue said it sounded like a Mariachi song, so of course we had to put some trumpet on.
Judgement Day is a different type of song, and it’s about homelessness in difficult times like this, I was really unsure as to what the reaction would be, but it’s been really well received.
I guess that Blue as a previous member of the band knows how to make a Strawbs album?
Blue knows the essence of the band, for instance this album has a lot of Mellotron throughout the album, people love the noise, and it fits with the strings coming in. There’s Mellotron flutes on the album, and on Settlement the old brass sound, which we had to double track and it sounds eerie and spooky.
Blue understands the lyrical side of the band, and he was meticulous in ensuring that every lyric is audible throughout the record. Lyrics are utterly important; a strong part of the music and people identify with the song.
The last time I saw the band live was at HRH Prog in November 2018.
That was when the keyboards stopped working on stage! The band is an incredibly powerful band on stage, and even though we are a rock band there’s still an element of the folk roots of the group, the folk side comes from the events and people that I write about in the ballads, and then live our rock element comes out.
There are very few bands who can play both a rock festival and a folk festival.
The first Strawbs album I’d ever heard was Hero & Heroine…
If that were released now it would have a warning on the cover about some of the lyrics! That came out in 1974 and was huge for us in the USA, every college dorm was playing, it was very much a student album. It’s our biggest selling album in North America.
Our career took off in the UK from Grave New World and then Part of the Union changed our audience, we went from the university circuit to Top of the Pops. Then Hero and Heroine became our first big album in the US and Canada.
I’d always considered the Strawbs an album band, but we needed the hit singles to keep making the albums, Lay Down (from Bursting at the Seams) was a big hit, and I wanted Stormy Down to be the next single, but because of the unrest in the UK at the time the record label put out Part of the Union, and it went top three in the UK and suddenly our audience shifted away from the college audience who didn’t like Part of the Union.
Then we released Hero & Heroine and Ghosts, and had a second successful career touring the states.
I remember when I was working with Radio Tees I got involved with a dispute with a journalist and I was on the negotiating team for the Radio station at the time and dealing with the journalists Union. I remember as we were walking down the corridor to one of the meetings, the Union negotiator said to me, ‘We used to march to your song!’
With Settlement the band are following up a highly received album with another really strong record.
The Ferryman’s Curse was well received, and when we collated this album, I was aware the songs are just as strong, but they are also quite different, and I hope that the response to Settlement is just as strong.
When I heard The Ferryman’s Curse, I knew that the Strawbs had hit a real late career peak, and listening to Settlement, they show no signs of slowing down, not only does it continue their musical renaissance, but Settlement is the sound of a band who are comfortable with their past, keen to develop and build on these sounds, whilst still having their finger on the pulse of what is happening around them in the current world.
That is what makes them stand out from their peers, and what makes this album something altogether magical, and one which I keep returning to, and getting something different from every time.
Thanks to Matt Ingham at Cherry Red for arranging the interview and David Cousins for being so generous with his time.
❉ Strawbs: ‘Settlement’ (Esoteric/Antenna EANTCD1087) released February 26, 2021. RRP £10.95. Pre-order Vinyl or CD through Cherry Red
❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.