Nine Feet Underground With Dave Sinclair: An Interview
November 4, 2021
In July 2021, I was invited to collaborate with Jon Kirkman and participate in two Caravan interviews: one with Pye Hastings and the other Dave Sinclair. The interviews were to promote the highly anticipated 37 disc Caravan boxset Who Do You Think We Are? The impressive boxset comes from Madfish Records, the same masterminds behind the Gentle Giant boxset Unburied Treasure from 2019. These beautifully made boxsets can be found and purchased HERE. Thank you, Jon, for allowing me to post this interview here on Rambling On Music.
THE DAVE SINCLAIR INTERVIEW
In this interview, Dave takes us through the various albums featured in this boxset with a particular focus on favourite tracks, tours, reflecting on a 50+ year career in music, and paying homage to his father.
Rambling On Music (ROM): Both Caravan and Soft Machine grew out of what is now a legendary Canterbury band, Wilde Flowers. How much time was there between the end of the Wilde Flowers ending and Caravan forming? Dave Sinclair (DS): Well in my mind, as far as I can remember – and Pye’s got a much better memory for this sort of thing – I think it was September or October 1967. We Wilde Flowers had been playing Tamla and soul all around East Kent in various clubs and places and we’d started writing little bits of music ourselves and we felt confident enough to get a new band together trying to play original music. We called it a day, basically. Brian Hopper went off, he had another job. Dave Lawrence, although a very good soul and Tamla singer and bass player, really wouldn’t have fitted in with the type of music we intended on playing in the new band. Richard Sinclair, at that time, was at art college and we eventually persuaded him to join us. We rented a house in Whitstable, Westgate Terrace, and moved in there right at the very beginning of January 1968 and we started a bit of soundproofing in the room we were going to rehearse in, which was my bedroom. Pye eventually turned up. He was stuck in a snowdrift in Scotland in his hometown. We got on. I think it was Pye, actually, who came up with the name Caravan. But from then on we started rehearsing and that was the beginning of Caravan – January 1968. ROM: The first three Caravan albums (Caravan, If I Could Do It All Over Again, In The Land Of Grey And Pink) all contained music that is still performed by Caravan to this day. How much of this material was written at the time of the album recordings, and how much of it was previously stockpiled material? DS: Well, we’d already spent six months in our rented accommodation in Whitstable. During that time, we rehearsed through basically a set. In fact, the set we played at the Middle Earth Club in London. So, the first album was more or less sorted out. A similar sort of thing for the second album after moving to our house on the outskirts of Canterbury opposite the golf course. The third album by then I’d moved to my nine feet underground flat in the centre of Canterbury. A lot of that had been written beforehand, but obviously, it needed a lot of work to sort stuff out in the studio. We spent quite a long time in Decca studios and in London before we finished recording. Again, Pye would probably have a better knowledge about all that than I would. ROM: The second album (If I Could Do It All Over Again) gained a foothold in Europe, which they still maintain today. How important was this for the band to achieve at the time? DS: Well, I don’t really remember so much of that. Obviously, it must have been very good for the band, and I certainly remember touring a lot abroad at that time. And of course, we went over a number of times to Bremen to record TV for the Beat Club, which went out to I think about 50 million people around Europe. So it must have been very helpful, yes. We seemed to be doing quite well at that time. ROM: The third album In The Land Of Grey And Pink saw a change of labels from Decca to Deram. I believe this change of labels had something to do with long-time producer David Hitchcock. How important was David to Caravan? DS: Well, I’d say that he was a very important person for Caravan. He made a big difference. He was a great person to work with. He had great empathy and patience too. I remember Richard Coughlan getting a drum sound. It seemed to go on the whole day before it was completely satisfied; the drum was sounding correct. Anyway, yes, we spent quite a while in Decca studio and I have very fond memories of the time we spent there. It was good fun, and of course, the music was great too. Everyone was playing really well at that time. David did some tremendous work. Editing in those days was quite a feat, really. Compared to today it’s nothing. Yes, he did us proud, really. Thanks, David! ROM: “Nine Feet Underground” is a wonderfully long song made up of different parts. What was the concept? Was it merely unfinished songs you had written individually and strung together, or was this always a one-piece suite in your mind? DS: No, I think it was basically I was well ensconced in my nine feet underground flat. And it was a perfect place, really, to hide away and to write music without being disturbed. So it suited me down to the ground. I kept coming up with pieces of music that I liked, and my cousin Nigel Blow used to visit a lot. And he’d come up with amazing chord changes sometimes. Of course, he was related to the famous John Blow, who was the composer of “Five Kings And Queens Of England”. In fact, I’m related to him too because my mother’s maiden name is Blow.
Anyway, he came up with some interesting chord changes. Just one time he was playing my piano down there and something struck me, and I said, “Nig, can I just check that out?” And he said, “Yeah.” “Just show me that chord. Ah, that’s very nice.” Anyway, after he’d gone, I sat down and the first part of “Nine Feet Underground” suddenly came into view. The other tracks were just pieces of music that I enjoyed soloing over. That was the crux of it, really. But there was some kind of mystical thing going on down there. I don’t know what it was, but a number of people who came down there experienced very strange things. I seem to feel that the whole of the piece centred around the Gm9 chord, which I used a lot in that whole suite. There’s a certain feeling that sort of went right through the whole piece, really. So when I did get a new section or a piece of music I thought, Oh, that seems to have fit very nicely onto the end of that. It did evolve to some extent like that.
But in the end, eventually, after I’d finished it, I used to go down to the blues club down the road from me. I had quite a few friends down there, and I said, “Would you mind coming back to my house and checking out this piece of music that I’ve written?” And people did! They came back and sat down and I played the whole piece through on piano. It was incredible, the reaction I got from various people. For some people, it was very scary, actually. I must have been pretty demon on the piano back then! But one thing that really struck me in later days was the fact that I’d written these individual pieces of music that I really enjoyed soloing over and I put them all together, so it was a mass of solos. And then I presented it to the band and we worked on it together, it came together, and we went on stage and played it. But I felt it’s just a platform for me to solo over. But I guess up to that point anywhere I’d been taking most of the solos in everyone’s tracks, although Pye could do a pretty mean solo himself and he should have done more. So, yeah, it’s a little bit strange thinking back about that, but it worked really well. People have really enjoyed it so that’s good. ROM: Caravan had a unique sound at the time, which was mainly down to the sound of your keyboards. What was your setup at the time, as no one else sounded like you? DS: The Hammond organ is an amazing instrument and I realised that in the Wilde Flowers when I was playing a Vox Continental. It sufficed for that sort of thing, but what happened in 1967 was a track called “Whiter Shade Of Pale” by Procol Harum, and I just loved the sound of the organ on that. Then I hitched up to London to see The Nice. I saw Keith Emerson attacking his Hammond organ, which was, of course, the Spinet, the smaller one. Then I spent one of those nights at a Love Inn that they used to have. It was a very big place. I can’t remember where it was in London, but Brian Auger was there with his Trinity with Julie Driscoll. And again, that sound of the organ was just mesmerising for me. So I worked for months and months labouring on building Sevenoaks bypass with a construction company to try and get the money to get a Hammond organ, which I eventually did get in September 1967. It cost a fortune! The equivalent price now is £16,000. Anyway, I got the organ but I couldn’t afford a Leslie cabinet, which gave it that extra beautiful choral sound. I didn’t have money for that, so all I had was just the organ. So I started experimenting a bit with that. The trouble is, with a Hammond organ it’s not like a guitar. You can’t just play a note and it will continue playing. Well, you can just keep your finger on the key, but it doesn’t do very much. It’s the same volume and everything. You can’t do very much with the notes. It’s a very staccato instrument, and I really wanted to get more emotion from the organ. I started fiddling around with the back inside the back with the wires for the presets, and I changed the presets to sounds I liked. Then I manipulated the presets – which was like an octave at the bottom in black notes – manipulated those in a sequence while playing solo with the right hand. That gave quite a nice effect. I think you can hear quite a lot of that as a good example on the first album in “Magic Man”. After that, because I had a lead to the amplifier from the back of the organ – not a cable to the Leslie cabinet – I stuck various fuzzboxes between the organ and the amp. And I found out that I could sustain a note much better. I could use vibrato on the organ and it gave a smoother note. Eventually, after trying quite a few fuzzboxes, I found one that just really matched my particular organ. Whether it‘ll match another A100, I don’t know, but it was called a Burns Buzzaround and it just worked really well. But I still wanted more. I thought, Well, I can solo now with long notes. So I put a wah-wah pedal after the fuzzbox. I tried various wah-wah pedals. A Cry Baby didn’t work at all because it’s more for a guitar and it’s got a very small aperture on it. I eventually found the Colorsound. It had a very wide aperture and it gave me the opportunity to open and close like a mouth, almost. I could feel as if I was singing. So I got the vibrato going and the fuzzbox going, but then I still wanted more! I thought it’s just not carrying. So then I put a Copycat echo chamber on the end of that, and that sort of helped as well. Then I changed that and I went through various echo machines like Echoplex. But during that time I then had a good choice between just playing a straight organ or the fuzz organ, or the fuzz and wah, or with reverb or echo delay. So I had quite a lot of choices, and of course, then I had the percussion as well on the organ. Smaller organs didn’t have so many stops like Spinet organs like Mike Rutledge, Dave Stewart, and Keith Emerson had. But the bigger full console organs like the C3 and the A100, which I had, had a much deeper sound. It had a sixteen-foot stop, so I could get a really big round sound using this setup. I think that just worked so well for me, and that’s basically what I did to get the sound. Eventually, when I went into the studio I had a Leslie cabinet in there and I connected up to the Leslie and I could use that for the chords in the various pieces of music we were recording. So, that was great because I really enjoyed that. A long time later I managed to get the money together for a proper Leslie cabinet. It was basically not having the Leslie cabinet in the first place that made me persevere to try and get a different sound. Obviously, I couldn’t play like Jimmy Smith or Brian Auger or Keith Emerson with classical and Jimmy Smith with jazz. I couldn’t play that sort of thing. So I wanted to get a type of sound that suited my particular style of playing, and I think I got it, basically, at that point. ROM: In The Land Of Grey And Pink is the band’s biggest-selling album, and therefore the most obvious choice to be remixed in 5.1 by Steven Wilson. What are your thoughts on Wilson’s remixing of the album? DS: To be honest, I haven’t heard it. If you need special gear to listen to it I haven’t got that. Although I’d be very interested just to see how different it is, I really don’t know. I very rarely listen to anything that I did with Caravan years and years ago. It’s just so long ago. I guess it would be interesting to do that. The only thing I think is if you do too much and make the individual tracks so individual, for my mind, maybe it wouldn’t blend in so much. I think the very early days with Caravan were some of the best when we played very small clubs. We didn’t have any monitors. We were playing so close to each other we could touch each other. It was just wonderful. The audience was right on top of us too. It was so tight and really enjoyable too. I remember the first gig we did at a very big venue, which was the Lyceum in London, the Strand, I think. The stage was enormous. The stage was about 60ft across and I could hardly see Pye right at the other end. I was on the opposite end, and there were no monitors. I couldn’t hear a thing he was playing. So for me, I suddenly thought, Oh God, what’s happening? So yeah, the early days were good; very close-knit sound. But I don’t know about the recordings in 5.1 – 6.1, 7.1, where does it end? ROM: Following the release of In The Land Of Grey And Pink, you left Caravan to join Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole. What were your reasons for leaving Caravan at this time, given the fact that In The Land Of Grey And Pink was one of your best albums with Caravan, and you had a lot of input on that album? DS: Yes, I did have a lot of input, apart from writing the whole of the second side. I also did a lot of the arranging on the other tracks. I spent a lot of time working through that. I also did the solo work on the other tracks as well. So yes, it does seem very strange that I should get up and leave. In fact, I had no idea at the time that Robert had actually left Soft Machine. People tend to think I left Caravan to join Matching Mole, but I had no idea about that at all. In fact, when I left the band I met John Murphy and started working with him. He’s a guitarist and songwriter and I really liked his songs, his singing, and his playing. And we got on really well.
But as far as leaving the band goes, I can’t really remember much happening after we finished the album. We just carried on as a band playing gigs in England and abroad I think. There were no special reports or press stuff. I don’t think it went in the charts. There was nothing really from management. We didn’t get together and have a meeting about it. There had been the previous talk about a US tour, but nothing was happening there. The actual being on stage and playing was starting, for me, to get a bit uncomfortable because other band members had invested in bigger and better gear. So the actual volume on stage was getting incredible. I didn’t have any money at that time to increase anything of my setup because I had spent so much being a keyboard player – it’s a very expensive job! I actually couldn’t hear what I was playing on stage. I was just drowned out. And so the enjoyment had really gone out of it. It felt like we’d just reached a stage where they needed some kind of change. And stupidly I just decided I’d had enough and I went off. But eventually, John Murphy went off on his honeymoon to Portugal, and crazy as I was, I hitched my way all the way down to Portugal to find him because I was missing not playing with him! It was then that I got a telegram from Robert Wyatt saying, “Come back, your country needs you!” He wanted me to come back and join his outfit, Matching Mole. So that’s basically what happened. ROM: Have you ever listened to Waterloo Lily, the album where you were replaced by Steve Miller? If so, what were your thoughts? DS: Actually, I went along to a gig they played. It was at the Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone. I quite enjoyed it, actually. It was good, Richard’s voice and Steve’s playing. But obviously, it was very different from [HQ1] the setup we’d had with me in the band. A very different sound like an electric piano, mainly, and a little bit more jazzy sort of influence. But the band went through various changes and that was just one of them. I should liken it to a sort of recipe, I suppose. If you say, take a Greek salad and you’re used to feta cheese in there, if you make that Greek salad and you’ve run out of feta cheese and you put something like gorgonzola in there, it is going to be different. So that’s my take on it. ROM: You returned to Caravan in 1973 for the album Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night, which was seen as a return to form from the less well-received Waterloo Lily. What were your reasons for returning? DS: Up to then, I’d been stuck in a house helping to rebuild it on the north Kent coast overlooking the Thames Estuary and working for a demolition company, so it wasn’t too musical. I believe Pye had been in the studio and he’d got some new musicians in the band, John Perry on bass and vocals, and Geoff Richardson, multi-instrumentalist and playing the viola. I listened to a tape from the studio that he gave me, and it sounded very tight and quite dynamic. And I thought, Well I’d quite like to be a part of that! That was very fortunate to be asked by Pye to re-join the band then at that point. Also, it meant I could earn some proper money, at last! ROM: You stayed in Caravan for a number of albums including New Sinfonia, Cunning Stunts, The Album, and Back To Front. You seem to have been the most restless member in Caravan. Would I be right in thinking that? DS: I guess I am quite restless, really. I’m a Sagittarian so they love travelling and doing different things. Yes, I can get bored pretty easily but I’m not 100% a musician all the time. I love music and it’s a big part of my life but it’s not all my life. Some people I know actually take the guitar into the toilet with them. But, no. For instance, I spent 25 years in my piano shop restoring pianos. That was great for me because I could be part of music but also understand the piano more and more. And every piano is different. Each piano is a challenge, and that was great for me. Now I’m in Japan where I live right by the sea and I’m restoring the house, or rebuilding the house. I love doing things like that. ROM: The boxset covers more than 50 years of the band Caravan. You must be incredibly proud to have been a part of that and a founding member. What are your thoughts on the boxset?
DS: Up to this point now, I haven’t seen the boxset and I haven’t had a chance to listen to anything at all. But it seems like quite an amazing thing that’s taken a few years to put together. It’s wonderful that so many fans of the band and friends of the bands have contributed so much towards it. They probably feel that it partly belongs to them as well, although obviously, they gotta fork out the money to buy it. But I think it’ll be well worth it. There’s so much on there, and I myself am looking forward to getting a copy someday soon.
As an adjunct to this interview, I’d like to add one more point, which I think is quite relevant. In 1967 I was working a 16 hour day – including travel – constructing the Sevenoaks bypass, and then three months on a 12 hour night shift for the Christmas post at Canterbury West Railway Station. So then with a good part exchange on my Vox Continental and backline gear, I was still £500 short of the amount needed for the Hammond organ. And the high purchasing of bank loans in those days was out of the question. It was my father in the end who lent me the rest of the money, £500, which is equivalent to almost £8000 now. So I managed to eventually pay him back 11 years later. So I was wondering, can you imagine what all my chordal and solo work on In The Land Of Grey And Pink would have sounded like if I’d had to use my old Vox Continental instead of the Hammond A100? End of story… So I’m very grateful to my father for believing in me, all those years ago.