A CHAT WITH GREG CARMICHAEL of ACOUSTIC ALCHEMY
aaamusic | On 12, Feb 2012
Acoustic Alchemy has shown great persistence and an extraordinary energy over a 25 year period. Despite serious tragedy, the success of the group is reflected through the many songs which have become contemporary classics.
In 1987 Nick Webb and Greg Carmichael literally played their way to America. They worked as an in-flight band on Virgin Atlantic flights between the UK and the United States. Six weeks after sending material to Nashville based label MCA, the band was called to record their debut album, Red Dust and Spanish Lace.
Ahead of their spring 2012 tour to the Far East, Access All Areas Music interviewer Anthony Weightman chatted with Greg Carmichael in a Notting Hill café.
AAAmusic: It’s very good to meet you.
G.C: Very nice to meet you too.
AAAmusic: You once mentioned Elgar’s quote that music is all around us, you just take as much or as little as you please. Perhaps you have to be absolutely brilliant to think that creating good music is as easy as taking apples from a tree. Looking back at those Acoustic Alchemy contemporary classics, how difficult were they to create?
G.C: The first thing we had to do was to put ourselves in an environment which was away from the home. If you’re talking about the very early propositions, Nick and I would rent somewhere or go down to the New Forest. My mother in law had a cottage there and it was beautiful. Just quiet and very inspirational and she didn’t live there, so we were able to have the run of the place. We’d just take out two guitars and a very simple tape recorder. We thought that, if it didn’t work on two guitars, simply, then it would not work at all. The initial idea had to be strong and then we would add to it. So, that was the thing. We would isolate ourselves.
AAAmusic: Is that the footage we saw on the DVD Best Kept Secret?
G.C: This was slightly earlier. We would isolate ourselves. The premise was we would go somewhere quiet and on our own. It’s just the two of you and you’re there for a week. You have to be very disciplined and it worked very well. In fact, one of our compositions Natural Elements that became the theme tune to Gardeners World was actually written in the cottage garden there. It was just perfect. It was a beautiful spring day and we just sat there inspired.
AAAmusic: Unfortunately I wasn’t at the St Lucia Jazz Festival the year of your performance. I went in 2007 and there was a great deal beauty but also poverty as one passed across the island. For example there were people scraping a living through selling soft drinks from metal shacks at the sides of the roads. I wondered how you felt about this.
G.C: Quite strongly, actually. I feel that’s the thing I find about any touring we’ve ever done in the Far East.
AAAmusic: An awareness of poverty?
G.C: An awareness of extremes. Extremely rich people and extremely poor people. It’s quite disturbing, especially in places like Bangkok where you’ve got street children knocking on the windows of your vehicle asking for money. Places like that are almost chaotic. The sorts of people who invite you to play are at the wealthy end. So, I do find it a bit uncomfortable.
AAAmusic: As you’ve pointed out, Acoustic Alchemy was created before the sub genre of smooth jazz was. It could be argued that it’s the abrupt changes and rough edges of jazz that help to make it interesting. How important do you feel the concept of smoothness is in music?
G.C: I’ve never really thought of us as smooth. I understand that to an outsider they probably think it’s….
AAAmusic:I’m really just playing with semantics here.
G.C: Anyone who’s not particularly into jazz or instrumental music… when they hear it, not to be patronising, they tend to associate it with background music because that’s where you tend to hear it. It’s just playing in the lift or lobby.
AAAmusic: I think that Acoustic Alchemy, at its best, is far from background music.
G.C: That’s what we’d like to think. We saw ourselves as writing instrumental songs and we’d like to think they had a little bit of an edge. I understand that when things are produced they have a kind of sheen to them, but the initial idea and energy was quite raw. We were trying to write the song without words. It’s very hard to do. Most people, when they listen to acoustic music, expect to hear words. So, the ‘smooth’ thing was something that just came about. Nothing really to do with us. It’s what the marketing record companies said: “This is what you are now.”
AAAmusic: I’m curious because in Best Kept Secret Nick Web referred to what he called a British bitterness towards success. What exactly was his view on this? Did he feel that the British disliked success which appeared not to have been earned or was he instead making a broader point that there was some underlying irrational British attitude which was a problem?
G.C: I guess he said that because, when we first went to America, that’s the sort of feeling you got. If someone owns a wealthy Rolls Royce in England they’re ‘a wealthy so and so’. If they own it in America their attitude is ‘well done’. It was a great eye opener going to America…that cliché about it being a land of opportunity. That’s what it felt like and it was, for us, the land of opportunity. Sure, if we’d just stayed in England none of this would have happened. I wouldn’t be talking to you now.
AAAmusic: In Best Kept Secret Stuart Coxhead said about yourself and Nick “They’re like chalk and cheese until they pick up a guitar.” Were you really very different in personality and, if so, did you feel you complemented each other well?
G.C: I think so. People will always say to me: “you were the quiet one, the shy one.” Nick was pretty gregarious. He went to drama school before he became a musician. He wanted to be an actor. His Aunt was Sylvia Syms. He came from that family and tradition, but the music took over. He was always a lot more flamboyant, but we got on really well together. I think we had similar ideas about what we wanted to achieve. We were quite different personalities, but that didn’t matter because he’d play the steel string guitar and I’d play the nylon and they just complemented each other. That’s what really attracted me to him when I first met him. It was his concept and I thought that was an intriguing idea. Very few duos were that combination and it worked very well. We used to fight a lot…all sorts of things, but we respected each other and we were able to work together.
AAAmusic: Approaching the end of Nick Webb’s life things must have been very difficult for you. Someone close to my personal family passed away because of pancreatic cancer, so I know some of the problems involved. With very little time left and statistically the odds stacked against him, presumably it was exceedingly difficult to maintain any sort of positive thinking. Would I be right?
G.C: You always hoped for the best, especially with Nick’s character being so strong. I always thought that he was going to pull through. I always thought he was going to beat it and so did a lot of people. It wasn’t until the latter stages…the weight loss…but he was still fiery. I was working on some ideas and he was in the London Hospital. I took them in to him and he looked pretty bad. But when I played the ideas he’d still say ‘that’s terrible’ or ‘why don’t you do this or do that.’ He was still enthusiastic and he found the energy. I thought he was going to beat it. It was quite protracted. It was actually a whole year: the whole of 97 where he slowly got worse and worse. We tried to cater for him by hiring a place which had a recording studio. It was set up near where he lived so he didn’t have to make such a long journey so, when he felt well, he could perhaps play again. But, sadly he died before he was able to record anything. It was pretty scary as well. I really didn’t know quite what to do after that. I felt ‘hey, I can’t get up on stage on my own’, because I didn’t feel I could do it.
AAAmusic: I know you’ve said in the past that you didn’t feel you had the personality to be a solo artist.
G.C: I’ve never thought of myself as a solo artist. I’d hate it. I never wanted to be a solo classical guitarist, which I could have done. I like a band. Within a band everyone’s got some routine…a role to play…something to offer…to be part of the whole.
AAAmusic: I noticed the influence of Pentangle is mentioned in your sleeve notes. Last year many paid tribute to Bert Jansch when he sadly passed away. Is there anything you’d like to say yourself about him?
G.C: Well, that was really Nick’s thing. He came from the folk tradition. He wasn’t really jazz. He went to Leeds College of Music to do a jazz course but the essence was he loved Pentangle, Bert Jansch and the whole picking thing. You can hear it in some of those early ballads…Girl with the Red Carnation, if you listen to his style. Also he loved John Martyn. He was very much in that style. So, although I liked Pentangle, I was more into rock at that time.
AAAmusic:Little Laughter from Radio Contact, your first ever vocal track, I heard at the Jazz Café, Camden for the first time. Are there likely to be any more off these?
G.C: Funny you should say that! No. Not from us. Highly unlikely. Jo Harrop…we really liked her voice and she’s a very nice girl. Very nice lyrics. People have always said ‘why don’t you try a vocal?’ I was bought up listening to songs, so it wasn’t I wasn’t interested in vocals. Acoustic Alchemy was very much its own thing and we supplemented the vocal line with one of the guitars playing. But we thought we’d try it and it was very nice. It’s not something I’d want to do again. However, a guy called Jim Peterik who wrote Eye of the Tiger has a project called Lisa McClowry Sings Acoustic Alchemy. He’s taken a lot of our back catalogue and added lyrics to the melody. The American singer Lisa McClowry is about to bring out the CD. He’s passionate about her and he has always loved Acoustic Alchemy. You can’t say ‘no’. Some of it I like. I think it works. Some of it, I don’t think so. Some fans might hate it. Some might think it quite interesting. It’s a delicate line to tread, but it’s his thing. Some of them work very well. She has a fantastic voice. It’s nothing to do with me, but I find it interesting.
AAAmusic: Some band members don’t see too much of each other during their leisure time when they’re not rehearsing or on the road. Some feel that this is really vital to a band’s professional success. How do you feel about this?
G.C: Miles and I get on very well. I don’t see the band an awful lot. Miles is up in York. Fred is up in Leeds. The Graingers are in America. So, we don’t really have a chance to socialise. I can socialise with Miles. There are lots of things we’re interested in outside music and we have a common interest. I speak to him a lot. That was the same with Nick. We were friends. In any kind of business relationship it’s the business that holds it together. If you were to take away the music, would we still see each other after 2 or 3 years? Possibly not. Who knows?
AAAmusic: Presumably there are times when some domestic crisis blows up at home and you’d like to be there but you’re on the road. You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Over the years, has this been too much of a problem?
G.C: Touch wood, no. My wife and I have three children. I’ve just about made the births. Although the middle one…we were playing a wine bar in London. I got the phone call at the break half way through the set: ‘just about going into labour, can you come?’ The owner wasn’t very happy about it. I said: ‘come on, this is the birth of my child. I’m going to go.’ He docked half my wages. But, the older you get…Stuart’s father died when we were out in the Far East, so he had to fly back and fly back again. I don’t know what would happen if one of us was suddenly needed half way through a tour. Touch wood, that hasn’t happened.
AAAmusic: Some time ago you said the Far East had really opened up for you. Next month you’re off on a tour of China, the Philippines and Taiwan. How do you feel about your visit?
G.C: Very excited. Really, China is the new carrot. We’re not quite sure. I don’t know quite what it’s going to be like. All I know is they’re doing very well in every aspect of modern life. So, we’ll see. I don’t know how many people are going to turn up. I don’t know the size of the venues. I don’t think they’re huge. But it’s going to be fascinating.
AAAmusic: You’ve always had a following out there.
G.C: Yes, generally we do. Some of the reasons we don’t go out there all the time is expense. A lot of people do it. In America we’ve established venues we go back to time and time again. Usually on a tour, we’d include a few new ones. One of the awkward things about the touring is that everyone wants you Thursday to Sunday, not necessarily Monday to Wednesday. That creates problems. You still have to pay everyone. You still have hotels and all the overheads.
AAAmusic: When I saw you at The Pizza Express in Soho last Christmas you seemed to be keeping your material very fresh. You’ve now decided to create your own label, Onside Records. These are potentially very exciting times for you but also presumably quite complex and demanding great commitment. How do you see the future unfolding?
G.C: When we finished This Way we were on Blue Note and they terminated the contract. We thought ‘what do we do?’ Try another deal? But things are getting tough. Record companies are not selling so much these days. They’re struggling themselves. Miles had converted a garage into a studio in York. He’s done a really impressive job. So, we would get together in York and start knocking together our ideas before Onside Records or any thoughts of what we were going to do with it. Suddenly we found we had an albums worth of material. Some we recorded in the studio. Others we took to Germany to finish off. It’s a lot easier to sit with a finished product in America and say ‘would you license this?’ It would be horrible to sit at home on the phone all day dealing with this, that and the other. We license to Concord Heads Up who are just brilliant. They’ve done a fantastic job and have the expertise and connections.
AAAmusic: I know that Miles is extremely fond of his pizza jokes. I notice that when you perform at The Stables, Milton Keynes this April, it’s on the menu again. Do you ever get sick of the stuff?
G.C: No, not really. I’m incredibly boring. There are 2 or 3 I always have because you know it works.
AAAmusic: You’re not more adventurous?
G.C: No. When you’re performing, you have that two hour slot. If you eat too close to the performance, it takes the edge off. If you’re too hungry, you’re too edgy. There’s a balance. The same when you’re on tour. I sometimes have quite an easy day. You’re focusing on what you have to do in the evening. Don’t do anything too energetic. It has to be that way. I wouldn’t behave that way in England. I’d think of myself as too lazy.
AAAmusic: It’s been very good to meet you. Thank you very much for your time.
G.C: Thank you. Some very interesting questions, actually. Questions that are not the normal sort of questions.