David Cousins of the Strawbs: At His Artistic Peak
Legendary British band the Strawbs, long admired as much for their pensive folk-rock as well as their more ornate, artsy rock anthems and incisive social commentary, play B.B. King’s on Tuesday, September 11 at around 9. David Cousins, the band’s engaging, articulate main songwriter and frontman, generously took some time in between concerts on this year’s East Coast tour to shed some light on what he and the band have been up to lately:
New York Music Daily: For a band that’s been around over 40 years and through all sorts of lineups, who’s playing this time out?
David Cousins: This is the three-piece acoustic band, part of the lineup from 1974! Myself, David Lambert on guitar and Chaz Cronk on bass and foot pedals.
NYMD: You’ve been through all sorts of stylistic changes as well as band members. First you were the Strawberry Hill Gang, playing American bluegrass and folk music, then you backed Sandy Denny on her first album. You did the Britfolk thing on From the Witchwood, went into psychedelic art-rock for a few albums, then got louder and more electric later in the 70s before revisiting the acoustic stuff in the 80s. Could you say that there a “classic Strawbs” era, or a favorite period in the band for you?
DC: It’s right now. We’ve come round to it now after all we’ve learned, with all the changes in the band, all the different lineups. Now we’re down to an acoustic version again. We’ve amalgamated all those various inspirations, so I have to say this is my favorite time in the band. After all, the songs tell stories – and people love the lyrics, and people actually hear the lyrics for a change rather than being overpowered by the band…
NYMD: Then would you say, after playing big stadiums back in the 70s, making a live album at the Royal Albert Hall, that you’ve finally now just reached the peak of your career?
DC: In terms of audience size, no, but in terms of music, it’s quite unusual – we get standing ovations, halfway through the show! And some of these songs we play are very delicate. But the subject matter seems to get people excited.
NYMD: You have David Lambert on lead guitar – he’s a loud, fiery, intense player, it must be quite a change to have him on acoustic instead of electric…
DC: He’s still like that now! He was a very powerful guitarist, still is. But we do it on acoustic guitars and it’s no less forceful.
NYMD: And you have Chaz Cronk, the band’s longtime bassist…
DC: Chaz is using foot pedals. The way the pedals are configured, they’re attached to a synthesizer, so for example, on New World [the classic centerpiece of what might be the band's greatest album, 1972's ornate, grimly apocalyptic Grave New World], he can play the original mellotron figure. It adds a new dimension to the band. It’s the same principle as a concert organ. While he’s playing bass, or 12-string guitar, he’s also playing with his feet at the same time…a huge noise coming out, and there’s no trickery in it, no tapes in the back!
NYMD: You don’t miss having a drummer?
DC: Drummers are too bloody loud! They’re the curse of mankind [grins].
NYMD: So what does the crowd this Tuesday at B.B. King’s have to look forward to? Old stuff? New stuff?
DC: Don’t worry, you’ll get the “classics” – New World, the full version of the Autumn Suite that by the way we don’t miss the strings or the drums on…very obscure material from early on to start the show as well…
NYMD: You’ve earned a reputation for all kinds of surprises in concert: you never play a song remotely the same way two nights in a row…
DC: I’d get bored sick if I did that!
NYMD: Did you ever have any idea that in 2012 you’d still be doing this, or be so well-received after all these years?
DC: I never expected it in a million years! Some of the songs we’re playing now are 40 years old. We’re developing a new audience as we go – we find them coming to the next show, and the one after that…
NYMD: Speaking of crowds, what are the crowds like these days? Older folks, hobbits, or are the kids making you their latest rediscovery?
DC: By and large, it is an older crowd, sometimes parents brings in their kids – generations following it through. But we played in Vienna, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC on the first night of the tour and a young couple wandered in; the young girl was no older than 22. After the show, I went to the bar and got a glass of wine to wind down and her boyfriend came up and he said, “Do you mind if I say hello?
And I said fine, and we got to chatting, and he said, “My girlfriend and I had no idea of who you were, and what you do, but we were completely mesmerized by it.” And later his girlfriend came over and she said, “My boyfriend and I had no idea of who you were, but I found that the most interesting thing I’ve seen in years.” And then there was an older couple that had gotten married to the Autumn Suite. The woman came over and gave me a peck on the cheek, and I gave her a peck on the cheek, and I found out they’d been married for 22 years. So I guess I must have done something right. It makes all this worthwhile for me.
NYMD: How has the recent shakeup in the music business affected you? You remember, a concert would be like an advertisement for an album: you’d go to the show, and then you’d want to pick up the album afterward. Now it’s just the opposite: the album is an ad for the live show, which is where musicians make their money now. How have things worked out for you?
DC: Obviously, I don’t do it for the money, but I still get an enormous amount of pleasure out of it. I think our music comes from the heart and soul. The lyrics are written very personally, played on proper instruments, piano and guitar, and the words are at the center – the melody line is extended to accommodate the words. Nowadays, songs are written on computers. They do one word, one verse, one chorus, they cut and paste it, it’s so mechanical and formulaic! There’s no heart and soul in it. You listen to these dance records, I can’t imagine these bands out there in 40 years communicating anything….
NYMD: I don’t either. But you’re living proof that there’s an audience for intelligent music – if anybody’s alive 40 years from now, I can tell you that some people will be listening to the Strawbs!
DC: [laughs] I hope so!
NYMD: Even though anyone can go online and get a free download of any album you’ve ever released, you’re still moving merch, keeping your heads above water and so forth?
DC: We’re still selling records. We’ve sold a hundred thousand records over the last ten years. That’s ten thousand records a year. We have a new album coming out at the end of October – a reissue of Deadlines [an artsy pop effort from 1978 which was a big British hit] with all kinds of alternate versions and new essays, liner notes that I’ve written. We’ll have a new one out in February with totally different songs from what we play onstage now. Put it this way, we’re selling sufficient quantities to keep a business going.
The Strawbs hit the stage at B.B. King’s at around 9 PM on September 11 at B.B. King’s; $25 advance tickets are still available as of today.