Interview: Chris Leslie on how a schoolboy fan eventually joined Fairport Convention

Achieving longevity through continually moving forward and not getting stuck in the past.

It is that time of the year and Fairport Convention have started their 2023 Autumn Tour in what is their 56th year. This tour is by the four-piece Fairport, all the usual suspects but without drummer Dave Mattacks, so the listening experience will be different to an extent from the normal five-piece. Americana UK chatted with bass player Dave Pegg in 2022 so this time we felt it only right that we get the views of newbie Chris Leslie who has only been a band member for over 26 years. Martin Johnson caught up with Chris Leslie at home in his kitchen to talk about the four-piece Fairport and get his views on why he thinks the band has achieved such longevity. He also shares his memories of working with the late great Dave Swarbrick in Whippersnapper and having members of the David Grismen Quintet watching Whippersnapper at the Cambridge Folk Festival. He also explains how he and Ric Saunders managed the fact that Fairport became a band with two fiddle players when he joined. He also gives the lowdown on the live performance of ‘Full House’ by the original ‘Full House’ line-up, and what he thought about standing in for the late great Swarb, and explains that this performance is now available as a live recording, ‘Full House For Sale’. Finally, Chris Leslie also lets slip that he is taking up the Irish flute to add to his arsenal of instruments.

How are you, and where are you?

I’m fine, and I’m in my kitchen which is the best place in the house to play my fiddle because of the hard floor.

That was going to be one of my questions, do you play violin or fiddle?

It is interesting because fiddlers call their instruments violins sometimes, and violinists call their instruments fiddles and it is pretty much the same instrument. There is a little bit of setup differences, fiddlers tend to want to get a flatter bridge to get quicker string changing, and classical players go right up the neck so they need that bigger curve for clearance. But basically it’s the same instrument, just different ways of doing it.

Fairport is in its 56th year. What’s it like being the newbie for over 26 years?

I know. Simon Nichol sometimes says when he is introducing me after I’ve done a song will say “That’s Chris, and he wrote that song and joined us in 1996, and that is nearly four times the length of the Beatles’ career”. It is amazing joining a band that already had such a back-catalogue and history and then being a small part of that ongoing history is amazing, and 56 years is really something for a band. We are having a really great time on this tour, we are really having a great time on stage and enjoying the music, and thankfully we’ve been getting good audiences.  That says something after that length of time.

You have started your Autumn tour, how did you prep for it and who makes the song selections?

There are a few considerations for us, there are certain songs that probably only work with a five-piece approach because this tour is with the acoustic four-piece. As you know, we had Dave Mattacks join us on our last Winter tour, and also for the Cropredy Festival which was brilliant. This being a four-piece tour it tends to be a more intimate vibe at the gig so we choose material that lends itself to the four-piece. We can do most numbers, it is amazing how it actually works out, it has a different drive, a different feel. We usually just look at what album we’ve just had out and of course, our last studio album was ‘Shuffle And Go’ which came out just before that terrible COVID pandemic was about to loom on us and we didn’t know. So that was almost in many ways an unrelease because when the album came out we did one five-piece tour, and then everything stopped, and of course, when you get back on the road again, and thankfully things are getting back to some form of normality, the album sort of got lost in terms of a release. Normally you bring it out and do several tours to push it and get it out there but that didn’t happen, it got one tour.

We looked at that album to see what we wanted to bring into the set first because that is the current album, and then there are certain things that need to be in the set anyway because it is expected otherwise there would be complaints. Things like ‘Matty’ and ‘Meet On The Ledge’ are the two absolute definites that are always in, and we usually go to ‘Who Knows’ and ‘Hiring Fair’. So, we have those situated around and then we infill with stuff from the most recent album, and we have whatever we feel like doing from the other periods of Fairport. So it kind of forms itself sometimes, and other times we really have to think what fits in the spot, but it comes together quite quickly and quite naturally and we send it around to check everyone is happy about it and to see if there are any more suggestions or changes in the order. I’m kind of most affected by that because I bring several instruments out, and so if you can make it run smoothly with a few songs on the same instrument and then change, rather than playing one song and then putting an instrument down and picking another one up. There are all those kinds of considerations. We have a nice set this time, but there again, I always think that. A good test on the road is if the set goes really quickly, and it does, for me, we start off and then click it is the interval.

Have any songs surprised you when they are played by the four-piece?

What’s really interesting as I see it, is the difference in the swing of some songs. When you are with the five-piece and the kit everything has obviously got more potential power in its delivery, everything goes up a level on stage in terms of what’s being pushed out to the audience. You also tend to be always listening to what DM, Dave Mattacks, is doing, his timekeeping, his fills because his general approach tends to influence how the whole band is moving and interacting with each other. Peggy on the bass and DM on the drums tend to mould that feel for certain songs, whereas when there’s the four of you there’s more space, and the thing kind of swings in a different way, which is very nice because people might be thinking that they saw the five-piece whenever but if you come and see the four-piece you get a different experience again. I really love both, and by the nature of it being a four-piece, you can get into slightly smaller venues, which is nice because it can be more intimate and there’s probably a bit more chat around the songs. It is more like a conversation with the audience which is really kind of nice. There’s still lots of music, but there is a bit more of that feel, whereas when we are out with the five-piece on the Winter tour there is just a different swing.

There have only been three Fairport drummers, four if you count Bruce Rowland’s short stint in the ‘70s.

I think it is an interesting thing with Fairport if you think of it as the “office”. It has been an interesting “office” down the years because a band of such longevity has to be looked at as a working space, despite us loving what we do and it is great people like what we do, it is a working space. So, over those 56 years, you are going to get people coming in and people leaving, and when people go they take all those things that were their speciality, their feelings, their writings, all that goes with them. When Martin Allcock left, and I came in to replace him, Martin took with him his wonderful musicianship, he took his wonderful rockier side of things, and I came in as a much more acoustic musician. The thing I had that maybe meant I had something to offer was that I was a vocalist and when I joined I was just putting my first feet into songwriting. So everybody leaves with what they had, and hopefully, the next person coming in brings something new to add.

Fairport has never tried to replace like with like, because when Mart left they didn’t think we needed to get somebody else who plays keyboards and electric guitar, as well as the more acoustic elements, and Mart had all of that, I just got the call. I think the most important thing is that someone is going to fit in as a person, I think that the biggest call of getting anybody in a band is that they are going to fit in with the general feel of whatever is going on. I was never asked to do anything that wasn’t me when I joined, and I’m sure it was the same for every musician who’s been in Fairport and come out, they just bring in what they bring and everything moves around to accommodate that facility. So with drummers, Fairport has been very lucky not to have to adapt so much. Gerry Conway, a fantastic drummer, and when he joined a year after I joined, he brought something very different than DM. They are very different drummers in many ways, but in another way very similar because they are really experienced people and great to play with and they hold the band together. They are the glue of the band in many ways, and when Gerry left being able to get DM back was a real blessing as well, because had we to go to a new quantity that was “unknown” in terms of sitting in with a band of longevity, it would have been a harder decision to make to get the right person in. That’s my feeling anyway, and DM was available and up for doing a tour. He’s always been back and guested at Cropredy, he has always been part of it and they say you never leave Fairport.  It was just nice to intensify that relationship again, and it is working really well.

You play many string instruments with Fairport, including fiddle, and Ric Saunders is a fiddle player. How do you decide who plays what because you are effectively Fairport’s front line?

Yeah, Fairport has kind of always had that format of the rhythm section and Simon on vocals and rhythm guitar, though he plays fab electric guitar these days, he’s stepped into that mantle brilliantly. When I joined and got that phone call from Peggy I was in this kitchen washing up with the marigolds on, and it was literally my fortieth birthday, and the phone rang and my wife Linda said it’s Peggy, and he asked me whether I fancied joining.  It was a good job I wasn’t holding any plates because I would have dropped them, and it took me a nanosecond to say yes, but then I asked what I was going to do, because up to that point in my musical career, I’d mainly been a fiddle player, that’s what I’d been in every band I’d played in, singer and fiddle player, and just getting into songwriting. Peggy said, “Well, you play a bit of mando, don’t you?”, and funnily enough I’d been working with Martin Allcock in Simon Mayor’s Mandolin Quartet.

So my learning curve sat between Martin Allcock and Simon Mayor, who is amazing. I went over to see Ric when I said I’d join and he was great, he said just come and play fiddle on everything, he was completely unterritorial and anybody who knows Ric knows that is how he is. I can’t imagine many instances where somebody is coming in playing the same instrument you do when you had free reign and he was very happy for me to come in and do everything with two fiddles. I thought that wasn’t going to work for me or Ric, so I just took the mandolin in, and funnily I’d just bought a bouzouki literally six months before getting that phone call, and over the years I’ve picked up other instruments whistles, banjo, mouth organ, all kinds of stuff because I love it, and integrated them into the band. So now when we do anything with two fiddles we have that lucky thing of never getting in each other’s way, we just don’t, we are very different players. I’m a fiddle player really, and Ric is a fiddle player but he is also a jazz musician and he can extemporise and play around, he has got all that stuff. So, when we play together we never get in each other’s way, it is just one of those happy, happy things. If there is ever an arranged thing, like the string arrangement for ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ for instance, which is a beautiful arrangement, Ric arranged that and he wrote the parts out because he knows my playing so well he can write me parts that fall into exactly where I’m at. We just love playing together, and before I joined when we used to meet up on the scene we always said we must do something, little dreaming we would end up working alongside each other. So, it happens very easily

You worked with Dave Swarbrick, what’s it like playing some of his tunes?

I did. I, along with countless hundreds, if not thousands, of other fiddle players, were influenced in some way by Dave Swarbrick, he was a musical giant. When I first heard Swarb play there was just something about his playing and I will use the word infectious, he had a lilt and a swing to his playing that I just fell in love with. There were other fantastic players around at the time I was just getting into fiddle and I was just looking around thanks to my older brother John. He was bringing back all these albums, and I was listening to Dave Swarbrick, Barry Dransfield, Peter Knight, Aly Bain, all those what I would call landmark musicians on the fiddle. My approach and I think it is the same with everybody if you want to get on with something, you pick someone you really like and you emulate initially, and that is how you learn some of the stuff, you learn some of the techniques, and then you find your own voice. Eventually, your own voice will come through, but where you choose to be influenced from tends to leave a mark. That’s what I think, and all the creative artists have done that, painters for sure have done that, you can see other artists’ influences in painters’ work. That’s how creativity runs, I think, and to be completely unique and not to be influenced by other creativity is very difficult. There may be a few individuals who come out with enormous newness, but not many.

So I know I still have an influence of Swarb in my playing, I have an attack, I have a swing that comes from all those years of listening to him, and as you say, being in a band with him. He was in Whippersnapper for five years, and the band were together for ten years, and playing with him was an amazing experience, as was being in that band with Kevin Dempsey and Martin Jenkins. We did the ‘Full House’ album at the Cropredy before last, because they got the whole line-up back together, minus old Swarb, and I was asked to step in. It was a difficult call for me because there were two ways I could look at it, I could either go in and be like I am now, which would have had hints of Swarb because as I say I have hints of Swarb in my playing, or I thought there are the other four members of the original band and what they are going to play certainly isn’t going to be a carbon copy of what they did on the album, but it will be that sound, that classic sound that anybody who know ‘Full House’ will know.

So I made the decision myself to just learn Swarb’s lines and to try and be as much like his spirit as I could within that sound, for right or wrong. I wasn’t trying to be a Karaoke Swarb but just trying to bring his spirit, and there are some beautiful fiddle lines he did on that album, on every album, that for me made it a classic thing. You don’t want to hear that when we do it because it is Fairport now. I made the choice and I did it as closely as I could to his spirit. I hope it was received in that way and not thought of as me trying to be like him because that was the point for me. The point was for me to get that sound of that album live in that field, and it was recorded a nd released as ‘Full House For Sale’ as well, so hopefully I did the right thing. The other person who had the same decision to make was Chris While when they did ‘Liege And Lief’ at Cropredy because she can sing very close to Sandy, so she had to tread that path. I really enjoyed it, and I looked across the stage and saw the line-up, Richard, Simon, DM, and Peggy, and I thought, well, I never dreamt this would happen.

How old were you when ‘Full House’ came out, were you about 15?

Yeah, very young. When we were at school it was a time when vinyl was the champion, I know it is coming back again, and the thing at my school was to carry your favourite album around with you so that all the people who didn’t know you could see it, and those who knew you were like, that’s Chris. My school was full of Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and all that stuff, Black Sabbath, and I was carrying ‘Full House’ around.

What is your personal favourite Fairport album you didn’t play on?

That is such a difficult question to answer. Like all these things it changes depending on where you’re at with your listening because your listening is kind of a musical feast, but if I have to pick one I would say ‘Full House’ is definitely up there with ‘Liege And Lief’ and those are two obvious answers. If I’m allowed to squeeze a third one in there, it is interesting and I remember first getting it because you couldn’t wait to get your hands on new vinyl, and it was ‘Rising for the Moon’. What I loved about that was the whole texture and production of the album and Sandy’s songs. There wasn’t much fiddle on that album but I loved it. Looking back in retrospect, I didn’t necessarily think this at the time, I think what hit me was that one of my favourite bands could do something so different that still sounded like Fairport, and I loved it. They were never predictable, and hopefully, in our small way we are not predictable now, but back in the day they weren’t predictable because people would bring their talents. I’ve cheated there, I’ve had three.

What’s it like writing for Fairport?

It has been a massive honour for me. I use the songwriter term very loosely with myself, I am a musician who writes songs, but it doesn’t occupy all my time and the songwriters I most admire, that is what they generally do, they may also be great musicians and great singers, but all the time they are chipping away at that songwriting thing. They’ll even do it day in and day out, 9 ‘til 5, I know songwriters who treat it like that when they are not on the road. I’ve never tried to work like that because I feared I would sit there for weeks on end and come out with complete nonsense. Ideas just fall into my head, it can be any time day or night, I’ll get a riff, or a word or a sentence, or I will hear something and think I like that. I’ve just finished a new song and I’ve done it out once on my own, one of my solo gigs, and I’m really happy with the song but I don’t always know, I hope I know if it is not good and everybody’s got that, you just get rid of it. Certain songs stick with me instantly, ‘Moondust & Solitude’ was one of those, I knew it had a life somewhere and to be able to put it to the band and ask them what they thought was great. For me, it is never an expectation if I write something that it will end up in the Fairport repertoire. I never want to squeeze anything in, it has to be acceptable to everybody before we start.

I’ve just finished one called ‘Moon Over Deadman’s Hill’, and it came about because I’m a big fan of audiobooks, other streaming services are available, and one download was the ‘60s Apollo Moon broadcasts, and I thought that is going to be interesting because it also had little snippets of programmes and people being interviewed and not just the big events. There was one guy, an Australian being interviewed, and he said “I couldn’t believe it mate, I couldn’t believe they were on the moon so I just went up to Deadman’s Hill and looked up at the moon.”, and I thought there’s a song, what an angle, so I’ve written ‘Moon Over Deadman’s Hill’. I’m quietly confident it may be in the band’s repertoire sometime next year.

I’ve been very lucky, and as I look back I’ve written more songs than have been recorded than I think because you tend to forget, and I don’t keep tabs in my mind on what I’ve done. There are quite a few songs, and some title track ones, and I just feel very lucky and grateful to have them and have that canvas. What happens is I’m always pretty confident about the structures, and always open to ideas because you can’t get any better than somebody’s ideas added to yours. So, the structures tend to stay the same but I don’t dictate any parts because people come up with great parts, and normally better parts than I could have come up with. There may be some linked lines I have in my head that are part of the composition, so I put them in there and everybody takes them on board. I’m very lucky because I end up with it being put through the Fairport Convention mill, and it always comes out brighter and better on the other side of those rollers.

Has the world of streaming impacted the Fairport business model?

Things are changing so quickly now with things that used to be a foregone conclusion, like that you would make a CD, and Fairport has always been a touring band, it’s never been a band that’s had “hits” and can rely on income from huge record sales. Fairport is a touring band if you look over the years, apart from when it went into semi-retirement for a few years when the punk thing came in, and Fairport continued in those years as a reunion-based band which was great because it kept everything ticking over. That’s my view of things, Peggy and Simon might have a different view.

Nowadays, everything is changing for a working musician, it’s no secret CD players are going out of fashion very quickly now, even among the more mature musical listeners. Streaming is what is happening, and streaming is a funny thing. There are aspects of it that I really like, I love the fact you can come across music you don’t know of that’s in the same ballpark or maybe even completely different, it will offer you things. That is a very good thing and it’s kind of like in the old days going down the record shop and thumbing through the A to Z of vinyl looking for a cover that takes your face, I don’t know who that is but it looks interesting. You take it to the booth and put it on and you either like it or you don’t, but at least you get exposure to new things, besides the word of mouth that your mates gave you. That is what I think streaming does very well, that opportunity to hear things.

What drives me mad is that sometimes the streaming platform has the audacity to change the running order of the album, it will just mix things up. Musicians generally do think a lot about order and how an album flows. I suppose it is the push button skip phrase we are at, maybe people don’t listen to albums like they used to do because of the attention span. I think that’s a shame because the tracks on an album that get me the least initially can be the ones that you really like in the end, they grow on you and they have more depth that you have to give more attention to. The other thing is you don’t know who’s done what, you don’t know who wrote it or in a rootsy way if it is traditional, you don’t know where it was recorded, you don’t know who is playing what, you don’t know who produced it and I used to love that but it is now anonymous. The other obvious thing is you don’t get very much for a stream as a musician.

Selling merchandise on tour, particularly for a live band like Fairport, is part of the tour budget and income. So, part of that is being chiselled away and making albums is a very different prospect now, they are much more promotional, and it is a good thing to do because it gives a band new blood, you have to have that new input and go out in front of the audience with stuff you haven’t played. You don’t want to do the whole set like that because the audience wouldn’t get that, particularly with a band like Fairport, and quite rightly so, but you do want to bring in new stuff. For us, recording a new album is a focusing moment, however many it sells is changing all the time, but it does give you focus and a reason to work again with new stuff and see how you will bring it out with the other older stuff. So yeah, in the last five or ten years the scene has changed a lot. You have to go with it though.

I don’t want to tempt fate, but are there any plans for the 60th Anniversary?

We are just heading forward at the moment. I have to say during my tenure with the band I’m always amazed, and it is what I love about Fairport, that it is just how it is, I mean, Ric’s been in the band close to 40 years, but it is always about what is happening now that this important, the next tour. There is a great love of what’s gone before, and the repertoire we have is amazing, so just to be able to bring that stuff in is brilliant, and it is a very important part of the band. Some of those songs are better than anything that has come in since, and that’s great, but there has never been any resting on any laurels, and now is where it’s at. That is great, and I think it is the secret of Fairport’s longevity, and Simon and Peggy are the real soldiers who have trodden in the camp for all those years, and to some extent Ric, and they have that approach, they are excited about now and what’s happening now. They don’t look back to golden glory years, which there have been, and I admire their approach. I’ve heard nothing about the 60th but it is bound to happen because it should, and we are enjoying the tour now and it is a lovely family thing.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

The first record I’m enjoying now is a band called Shakti, it is a John McLaughlin band, an Indian jazz fusion band formed in ’76. I’ve always listened to John McLaughlin from the very early years because we had a visionary at school who was always ahead of us all musically, though he didn’t know Fairport and I introduced him to Fairport, and he was a huge John McLaughlin fan back then and I just loved it when I heard him. Shakti reformed to celebrate their 50th Anniversary, and they’ve been touring around and ‘The Moment’ is an absolutely lovely album, amazing music, just beautiful. Another album I’m listening to is a wonderful Irish flute player called Steph Geremia, and she is absolutely brilliant. One of the instruments I’m trying to pick up at the moment is a bit of Irish flute, a wooden flute, and I’ve played whistle for years.

But that is all about breathing isn’t it, a new technique?

It is. It is very interesting because when you pick up a new instrument when you’ve been playing other instruments for a long time there is a danger that you just want to do what you did on the others with the new instrument straight away. It is dangerous and everything else I’ve done in my life is self-taught, but this time with the Irish traditional flute I’m probably going down the route of learning it from somebody else, because, as you say, of the breathing and embouchure. There is this great thing called The Irish Online Academy Of Music and when I’m off the road for a bit I think I’m going to sign up for a few lessons and get the starting bit. Anyway, she is a great flute player and she is the teacher of the beginners’ class there, so I’m going to have a go, but her albums are wonderful and it is inspiring.

I always love a bit of Dave Grisman, the American mandolinist, the “Dawg”, and again, he is someone I admire so much and he’s been ploughing his own furrow for so long, but never standing still, his music is always moving. I think he is coming off the road a bit now, and I was lucky enough to see him back in Whippersnapper days we played the Cambridge Folk Festival, and we followed the Dave Grisman Quintet. Wow, it was something else, and it was wonderful because I sat beyond the barrier looking up watching them, and then they came and watched us. I know he has influences, but Dave Grisman dropped out of nowhere with that sound, Dawg music. So, yeah, always some Dave Grisman around.

That could have been stressful.

Maybe not for Swarb and the other guys, but I was just a youngster, flailing, but they seemed to like what we did. I had a natter afters, and for me, I was in seventh heaven

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

Just a big appreciation for our audience, really, anybody who’s ever been to see us, anybody who’s thinking of coming to see us, and anybody who’s coming to see us currently, we love you and we are very appreciative of everything our audience supports the band with because that’s what makes the music happen. The same with the Cropredy Festival, we are very blessed with a core audience and they usually bring friends along, and anybody who just takes a put and comes to see Fairport, thank you. Live music has never been harder to do in the current state of the world, but it brings something everybody needs. I would also say, pick a ticket for something you don’t know at some point because that is a good thing you can do, but big thanks to the audience.

Fairport Convention’s ‘Shuffle And Go’ and ‘Full House For Sale’ are out now on Matty Grooves.
Tour details can be found here.

About Martin Johnson 417 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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