To those critics who demand pigeon-holes, John Martyn is a 'folk guitarist'. He plays mostly acoustic guitars and sings songs. And makes remarkable records, using jazz musicians, African drummers and anyone else he thinks appropriate. His latest (and seventh) album, Inside Out, has just been released by Island. Before that was Solid Air, which is one of Dave Dyke's favourite records. So we asked Dave to talk to John for Guitar.
Dave Dyke: What sort of reactions have you had to Solid Air?
John Martyn: All my friends tell me I'm wonderful. But that's what friends are for.
But what sort of feedback have you had that you can rely on as objective?
I don't know anything that I can rely on as objective, except my own ears. I like it. I don't release anything I don't like... you can't trust other people's judgment. I know it's sold vast numbers in America; but then, so does Elton John.
Solid Air and Inside Out seem to go together as being a break from your previous albums, which could have been done on a Revox in the sitting-room. There seems to be more production: did you go into the studio armed with a load of ideas, or just let things happen?
I never preconceive anything. I just go in and blow, and ask the musicians to play.
Wasn't there even any idea that, say, Solid Air had to have something?
It had to be gentle, that's all. I wanted vibes, horn and double bass on it, that was all. There's no point in asking anyone to play on your record unless you want them to express themselves on your record. So it's their ideas, it's the way they feel.
It still sounds to me that a great deal of work went into Solid Air…
It depends on how heavy your personality is, or how strongly you believe in the music. If you're prepared to sit down and blow, you inspire other people around you, like I'm inspired by Danny Thompson - he really helps me to play, because he's so sympathetic, so empathetic. If you listen to other people before you play, you think 'I respect that man's playing', you know before you go in that man is going to inspire you: your ears don't lie to you.
I had a little bit of trouble with the rhythm section, actually, on Solid Air, which I didn't have on the new album. I'm a rhythmic player, and they were... being slightly obstructive. I found I couldn't communicate the song in its totality; I had to do a bit too much talking. Even so, there were only two tracks we had to record more than twice. I like to record something just once, and keep it. Or throw it away.
The people I've watched at work seem to spend a lot of time bickering about what to do...
That's questions of production. Which almost invariably has to do with making money, making a Product. I really reckon that 98 per cent of the people playing music today, especially in Britain, are doing it purely for money. They have a sound in their head which they think will be 'successful' and that's what they want to come out. They have no respect for freedom. I can't get on with that.
I thought you have to have a producer simply so that you are free to get on with playing...1
Producers for the most part are there for money. I find them parasitic. If a musician doesn't know what he wants to come out on a record, then he's really in trouble. I've always known what I wanted. I've just made sure I don't surround myself with people I dislike any more. I've now got a manager who handles my money, pays me a certain amount...
But if you're going to carry on working at what you're doing, it must be difficult to avoid people who tell you what to do. Like, somebody must have insisted that you come along here for three days of interviews?2
That was my manager's idea. He said it was very good for me. I trust him, you see. I don't mind interviews if I can actually tell people what's going on. But I really look upon my albums as my statements. I consider verbalisation about the album is superfluous.
Verbalise a bit about live gigs. I remember you used to be down at Cousins about once a month: is there anywhere now where you actually like playing?
I used to enjoy gigs at Cousins. I'd still be doing them if it was still there. I like playing at Dundee University, almost anywhere in Edinburgh, some of the places in America are very good. There was a strange thing in the West country a few years ago - they tried to manufacture Bristol as the Centre of something or other. In fact, it was just a load of pretentious young people who caught on to the tail-end of the Davy Graham, Renbourn syndrome and never really got off the train.
There were a number of people, Roy Harper, Al Stewart, yourself, who seemed to spring up at the same time. Is that true?
No, Al and Roy were going well before I was. Some people who were around then, playing in Cousins and so on, just haven't progressed, haven't changed in six years. It's their fault entirely: if you don't change, there's no one to blame but yourself. I find it unnatural not to change. If you don't, it's because of an acute desire for too much safety. If you find something that's making you 50 quid a night, then you tend to hold on to it, in case that 50 quid ever vanishes. I don't think anyone got anywhere by thinking like that.
Do you have any interest at all in the sort of people you used to come across in folk clubs, and presumably listened to - Renbourn, Jansch, Graham?
None of those people impress me at all now. I always thought Davy Graham started the whole thing: without him I wouldn't be playing. When I look at him now, I find it very sad that he's not a happier and more vibrant person. I also find it sad that his music has stopped happening at all. But that first record of his, Folk Blues And Beyond, is still remarkably good. It puts to shame almost any acoustic record by a British guitarist since.
I was playing duets with Davy about three years ago. It was a drag, because at that time he was very ill. He wasn't enjoying his playing, he wasn't giving through his playing. That's what it's all about. You're given a certain talent for music, by circumstance, or God, or whatever it is that puts us here, and I believe you owe it to yourself and to everybody else to use it in the most positive fashion possible. And that does not mean exploiting yourself; it means literally giving your music and mastering the art. And mastering the music industry. The music art and the music industry are two different things: the industry is a ghastly, filthy, foul blot, the music art is a beautiful and creative force, which should be kept and respected as such.
I've seen the industry destroy friends of mine; I've seen people who are musically talented prostitute themselves and decide, consciously or subconsciously, just not to progress. I'm a very fortunate man: I've got a very beautiful wife and two children that I adore. I've got a very happy home life and some very solid rocks on which to build. Other people aren't so lucky. Music tends to attract people who are emotionally insecure.
What is your wife doing now?
Beverley is going to make a solo record very soon. She's writing and singing very well and playing the piano very nicely, playing the guitar very simply.
Do you feel happy about her sharing your lines of working, or would you be happier if she was just the little woman at home?
If she was just the little woman at home she would drive me round the bend. I need someone who knows what's going on; I need someone who knows me very, very well, and to know me very well they have to be musically oriented. If you're going to share your life with someone, you must share your interests as well.
Do you organise your home life to have practice time?
Oh no. I can't discipline myself chronologically, never have been able to.
So you make an album when you're good and ready?
Yes, when possible. Well, Solid Air was forced upon me, and I wrote most of the stuff in the studio. Bless The Weather was written entirely in the studio. That was the most spontaneous album I've ever done. I had all the tunes and all the first verses in my head, but all the rest of it was totally done in the studio.
So you can write a song in half-an-hour?
I can write a song in ten minutes. I can't think of any other way to do it. How can't you write a song in half-an-hour? If it's a straight thing, it just comes out of you. You can't write a song over a long period, saying 'I must change that word because it's not quite right'. That's not my way.
When you're writing words and music, do you deliberately set yourself to create a change from what you've done before?
No, I just find I get bored by things very quickly. Like, my tastes have changed completely in the last two years. Now I listen to about five people - Joe Zawinul, Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea. That's about it. And Danny Thompson of course. A bit of Carlos Santana, a bit of John McLaughlin. I listen to almost nothing but jazz. As a singer Leon Thomas is par excellence, he is The Man.
There are some beautiful jazz musicians on the British scene. Chris Spedding is a beautiful guitar player, but he's never managed to liberate himself - or has never been in a liberated enough context. Derek Bailey's a lovely guitar player. McLaughlin is undoubtedly the Governor: I find his electric playing lacking in soul - there's a great deal of technique and a great deal of cerebral stimulation, but he's lost something of the 'heart' approach... but his acoustic playing to me is exceptional. I love it.
What instruments do you play?
I used to play a Yamaha all the time, until I broke it in the States. I've got a Rolif and a Martin... but I really have no interest at all in makes of guitar. If it's got strings and frets, you play it. The curiosity that people have about strings and wah-wah pedals and everything else is merely an extended sycophancy. It makes no difference: whatever comes along at the time is what you should use. Music's an emotional communication, and if you have to clap your hands and stamp your feet and sing, if you have to play the table or the dustbin to make a musical sound, then do. It just doesn't matter what strings you use. I find that enquiries as to what instrument you use are totally irrelevant: invariably the sort of people who come up and ask you that, are young people who don't really understand the fact that it is totally superfluous and irrelevant what equipment you use. The equipment you use is your soul and your heart and your experience.
When you play to a live audience, are you aware of whether people are taking it in?
No. I like to totally relax and be myself. Albums are progress reports: they give you a rough latitude and longitude of my approximate position in space and time. And you might occasionally get the odd suggestion of my positive course. But that's all you're going to get from me. I'm not any kind of leader. I'm just playing. I like to be lazy, I like to be laid back. I'm a person of extremes - I'm either screaming with rage and jumping up and down, or completely relaxed. I'm a mood person. Can't help it, it's just the way I was born. I do try to maintain some control over it, and to be pleasant at most times. I'm invariably pleasant to people until I find some reason to be unpleasant to them: and the reasons for that are invariably that they are either being fools to themselves or being fools in general. By fools I mean, influencing people around them to do nasty things.
To be truthful, three days of interviews is not doing me any good. They've asked me absolutely everything. Now I'm looking for the right questions to ask myself - know what I mean? It's not my thing to talk to people. It's my thing to play.
1 Inside Out credits John Martyn for production, implying there was no producer (hence the question). On Solid Air, he and John Wood signed for the production.
2 Indeed there are several interviews from the period with John wearing a white three piece suit.
This interview was published in Guitar | the magazine for all guitarists, vol 2 #4 (November 1973), page 24 and 25. The issue had Stephane Grappelli on the cover and originally cost 25p. The monthly magazine (editor George Clinton) was published by Musical New Services Ltd, London.