Andy Roberts Tells Jeffery Pike...
‘I’m a guitar junkie…’
Andy Roberts gets around. You may have seem him looning about with GRIMMs, the poetry/songs/sketches/rock/pantomine ensemble, or accompanying poets like Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten on acoustic guitar; or earlier work with Scaffold and the Liverpool Scene’ orco-leading that interesting but short-lived band Plainsong. He’s also made four albums under his own name, the first three featuring lots of acoustic guitar picking, the latest (Andy Roberts and the Great Stampede, just released) a bit heavier and more electric. I asked Andy if he set out deliberately to make a heavy record.
‘It’s not really heavy … it’s soft rock by any standards. But I know what you mean. It’s a solid-sounding band, there’s lots of instrumentation on it. That was just the result of the people I chose to play on the session really. The same six people did most of it: Gerry Conway on drums, Pat Donaldson on bass, Zoot Money on piano, BJ Cole on steel guitar and Dobro, Mik Kaminski on electric fiddle and myself on electric guitar. I play acoustic on a couple of tracks, but just strum through the number. There’s virtually on acoustic guitar picking as such.
‘On my previous albums, because I was known mainly as a guitarist, there was always a feeling that there had to be fancy guitar picking in the middle of it all. When there was a band on it, it all fitted round the central guitar part. But this time I wanted to move on to al slightly different sound. Also, I knew I’d be working up until Christmas with GRIMMS, which includes, amongst other things, a rock band. So I knew this was how I was going to promote the album, and you can’t promote a folk album with a rock band.’
The current GRIMMS tour contains the mixture much as before – poems, sketches, funny songs, straight rock and roll. Was Andy happier working in that context than being on the road with a simple rock band? “That band, on the record, I would never be able to put on the road: the economics of working a band are really silly. The economics of GRIMMS are even sillier, but we only do it now and then. It takes an awful lot of planning beforehand, it’s a big team: there‘s about 15 on the road, so we have to get as much work as possible in a short time to make it work. I don’t really want to front an Andy Roberts band. But it’s lovely working with the GRIMMS band, juts being a rhythm guitarist for one of Zoot’s sub-soul songs, or being silly on one of Neil’s (Innes) funny numbers. There’s an enormous amount of scope.
With so much scope in his music-making, it’s not surprising that And has a large collection of guitars. “Yeah. Lots and lots. I’m a guitar junkie. On the road I just take whatever guitar I feel like at the time. My electric guitar is usually a Fender Telecaster or a Gretsch County Club. They’re two very different things. The Gretsch is sort of half-way between a Fender and a Gibby: you can get a very fat heavy sustain like a Gibson, but you can also get a very hard clipped treble like a Fender. The acoustics that I use are a Giuld D50, seven or eight years old, which is very loud, it’s a very big sound, and a Gibson Dove which I’ve had for some time. Doves aren’t always very good, but I took the top down on this one, took all the original finish off and French polished it, and now its got a very good sound, with lots of harmonics. I’ve got a 12-string made by John Le Voi. It’s very funny looking, but it’s a great guitar. It’s small-bodied but deep, and not very waisted; and the head is raked back quite sharply, it has a sort of lute angle to it.
I’ve also got an instrument called a Kriwaczek string organ, made by a friend of mine Paul Kriwaczek, who’s a television producer, amongst other things. It looks like a steel guitar, and has six strings tuned a whole tome apart. They’re raised across the neck and the frets are raised to just below where the strings are. You play it with both hands, pushing the strings down to the frets. It has a pick-up, like a guitar pick-up and the actual vibration for the strings is generated by an eletro-magnet. The lovely thing about it is that it’s touch-sensative. If you just press the string down ever so gently, it will start from nothing ans as the magnet gets a grip on the string it will roar up to a certain volume and sustain there until you release the string. But if you hammer the string onto the fret you get a very heavy percussive attack, then it will settle down to that constant. It’s a lovely instrument. I’ve used it on a number of things, with Scaffold, on Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat album, and so on. But I can’t really play it, I’ve never fully developed it in the way I’d like to. The trouble is, when you’re a guitarist, with a living to earn, you don’t really have a lot of time to devote to other things. Whish is very hard on Paul. There’s this beautiful instrument and no one to use it properly. It’s an instrument without a player, rather like the gob_iron before Larry Adler came along.