Dave Cousins is the glue behind the British band The Strawbs, he recently released a solo album The Boy In The Sailor Suit. I have enjoyed his music since the early 1970’s and had the great pleasure of asking him some questions about his long and illustrious career.
You are very, very well known in England, but may not so well known in North America, can you give our readers a brief ‘who is Dave Cousins’?

I would be inclined to disagree. The band is known in England primarily for ‘Part of the Union’, and this has been an albatross round our necks all this time.

We had two careers as The Strawbs. The first was up to 1973 when the band evolved from the folk clubs to becoming a rock band. We had several hit albums and singles.

As a result of the split, because of ‘Part of the Union’, we formed a new line up that toured incessantly in the USA and Canada from 1974-1976. We hardly did any shows in the UK. We had a succession of six hit albums on the Billboard chart, the last five of which failed to chart in the UK. As a result the band became far better known in the USA and Canada than in the UK.

I am the continuity of the band and if you want to know who I am it is all these in my songs. Sometimes you may have to read between the lines, but nonetheless it’s all there.

Your new album is slightly divergent from your Strawbs material, there are hints of Rock and Roll, and even some blues, is Dave Cousins heading in a new direction, or is this just a way to have some fun and let off some steam?

I am continually looking for new ways of expressing myself. The  Acoustic Strawbs has been wonderful for this as we have re-interpreted and updated many of the songs and, in my opinion, improved on the original versions.

I write all the time, but neither the Electric or Acoustic versions of the band have a space for a new album as we have albums recently released that still have to be discovered by our audience.

I wanted to get the songs heard and decided that it was time to make a new solo album; after all it is 35 years since the previous one!

The Boy In The Sailor Suit is an album that on the first listen I have to admit I was not sure what to make of. I think that I was expecting another “Two Weeks Last Summer”, which was very Strawb like. A second and third listen had me hooked tho, it is an album that grows on you. What has been the reaction from your fans of this release?

It is still very new but I have not found anyone who dislikes it. Some may not like certain songs but by and large they like the whole thing.

What is surprising is that people who have never heard a Strawbs album before really enjoy it. These are not necessarily music fans – these are people who live in my home town who read about it in the local paper, or who I have a drink with in one of the many local pubs.

Do you have a favourite track on this album?

Probably ‘Calling out my name’. It was written while we were rehearsing and is therefore the freshest. The lyrics started out without a theme but then I began to realize that they could reflect a recent trip to Cadaques in Northern Spain where Salvador Dali grew up. I stayed in a hotel overlooking the bay – Dali’s house is just a couple of miles away around the bay. I visited his museum in Figueres where his tomb is in the vault and I imagined him calling out to Gala, his wife.

I met Dali twice, once in Paris when he came on stage while we were playing at The Rock And Roll Circus in a big top with Rick Wakeman, who was on his honeymoon. The second time, Dali tapped me on the shoulder in the reception of the St Regis hotel in New York and told me he liked my boots! (They were hand made from Japanese silk-screen printed leather). He gave me a bottle of wine!

I am ‘long in the tooth’ and I grew up in the age of The Strawbs, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, ELP, etc. I left England in 1980, and somehow lost touch with the music, I have only recently restarted that quest. I have to admit that I am impressed that so many of these great musicians are still active. The one thing that I noticed in England prior to my departure was the apparent drop in popularity of many bands particularly in the Prog Rock arena, and although you had a very folk feel there was also quite a bit of Prog rock. I ascribed the problem to Punk Rock, which the kids flocked to in droves, therefore weakening the available audience. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Al Stewart (Year of the cat), and he has a different theory, Radio! Suddenly radio wanted 3 minute songs, out were the singer songwriters and anything vaguely creative, and in was Loverboy, and the whole ‘power pop’ phenon. In the space of a blink of an eye the world changed. I thought about this a lot, and yes I think he may be right. What was your recollection of this period (76-79)?

It was disappointing as we became known as ‘dinosaurs’ almost overnight (A punk rock period description). It’s a phrase that still sticks with cynical know-all reviewers in the UK, by the way. In America and Canada there’s no “ageism” and that’s why it is so enjoyable to play there.

However we had moved from A&M records at the time, our sales were slowing down, John Hawken, then Rod Coomes, then Dave Lambert left and I knew it was time to call it a day.

Curiously we were offered a new contract with Elton John’s label on the day before I was offered the job as Program Controller of Radio Tees, one of the first 19 commercial stations in Britain. I took the job and the band members were dismayed. Isn’t it nice though that we can now happily play together without any grudges and, in my opinion, play better than ever.

In a recent  interview with your ex band member Rick Wakeman, he says that your favourite composition is ‘Canon Dale’ from what I consider my favourite Strawbs album ‘From The Witchwood’, is he right?

No, my favourite song from that album is ‘Glimpse of Heaven’ and Rick plays it, so he should know!

Oops my apologies Dave, Glimpse of Heaven was what I meant to say. And indeed he is still playing it, It is on his new DVD ‘The Other Side’.

If you look at the history of Dave Cousins we find a really interesting dichotomy, Folk music meets Moog Synth. How ever did you come up with this combo?

We were recording ‘From the Witchwood’ in Air Studios overlooking the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street with Tony Visconti producing. There was the first Moog Synthesizer in the country installed there – it was huge! Rick got the sound of a Piccolo Trumpet from it and we used it on ‘The Shepherd’s Song’ playing over Mellotron strings.

Off  went Rick to Yes who bought him any keyboard he wanted including a Moog. Blue Weaver came in and we had to use one to recreate the songs from the album. In the end it became a signature sound for us because of the opening to ‘Autumn’, primarily over Mellotron.

Why have you opted to stay in England rather than try for the riches of North America?

I filled out immigration papers for Canada in 1978 but my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t go through with it, as she thought she would miss her mum.

I toyed with the idea about six years ago but after touring so much with the acoustics I find the shopping malls distressingly samey.

John Hawken lives in new Jersey and  John Ford on Long Island. You would have to ask them but I am sure they would both like to come home, but the price of property in the UK is prohibitive.

What is next for Dave Cousins, more ‘solo’ stuff or more Strawbs?

A bit of everything. I would like to do some solo shows but I feel very exposed. I also have the opportunity to do some shows with The Blue Angel Orchestra. There are however two problems, one, getting all the members with the same availability, and second, it’s a new name and nobody knows who we are.
You are well known, but bands that are not, find themselves with a big problem. How do you get exposure? One solution is the internet. Of course the internet is best well known in the Main Stream Media as the “well of darkness”. It is where you can get free copies of music (bootleg), I have always been a fan of ‘try before you buy’, I am interested in your thoughts. Has the internet made an impact on you and the Strwabs?

It’s a way of getting exposure for new bands. I have only just had a MySpace site set up and have not yet explored how to use it. A friend tells me I should get one of the eBay manuals as it really can work if exploited to its full. The trouble is that I don’t have any time as Strawbs and Witchwood Media (our record company) take an extraordinary amount of time to administer. 

Dave, I really appreciate you taking time out to talk to me. 

No problem.

Footnote – If you are not familiar with this fine musician Take an album out for a spin, you will not be disapointed.

Simon Barrett


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