Interview with Steve Harley (Graham Emondson Jan 2004)

Steve, looking forward to the forthcoming tour-might we be in for any major surprises with the set list?

Well, we are rehearsing now- and there's always a few new tracks that we haven't done before. But no, I'm not going to tell you what they are because it wouldn't be a surprise would it?

For many of us you are a "rock and roll" act, but you clearly love the acoustic shows. What do you get from those that you don't from the full band tours?

They are two parallel careers really, the acoustic and the band shows.-and they never meet. There's an element of schizophrenia about it. The only thing in common is that they are both about standing up there with a guitar. It's given me a chance to find new things, nuances and inflections in the songs. It's given me space to explore the melodies and the lyrics. With a band there's a lot going on and there's a limit to how much a singer can muck about. But I love acoustic music and the guitar. It's a guitar, just wood with strings.

A lot of people actually think your guitar playing has improved dramatically over the years. Do you still "practice" as such?

I'm flattered to hear it! I don't often hear that, except from Jim (Cregan). In the 70s I hardly ever played. I don't practice per se but there are guitars everywhere in the house. There's two in my study, there's one in the kitchen-an old Gibson. There's one in the bedroom, one in my son's bedroom. There's music everywhere. I have 17,18, 19- I don't know for sure.
I bought myself a new Martin a few weeks ago and I played it on the Richard Allison show live on the radio. It was funny, off the air he asked me if it was new and I told him it was and then back on air he said "Steve is that a new guitar?" and I said "no, I've had it years". He didn't know what to say.

Steve we have heard your thoughts on playing "Death Trip" live on stage, but are there songs that you might like to have done, perhaps you have even rehearsed them but which for some reason just don't work live?

Yeah, we don't do "Death Trip" because I don't change outfits anymore! I used to go off and get changed - you can't do that. And you can't strum along for five minutes. It's funny, I get asked that a lot and Death Trip isn't really a song I love. Its funny, I don't really love "Understand" either. James plays it beautifully but I have to stand 3 minutes for a jazz solo. It's OK but its not me. What you get in me is the archetypal wandering minstrel. I have to play, and a four minute jazz piano solo isn't touching me.
I would love to do "Rain In Venice" live actually. It's a great song. Robin LeMesurier wrote some of it with me and he keeps asking me about it and I say "Yeah, I've rehearsed it" but it never really seems to work. Others we have tried and we have to dump them. I can't spend time re-correcting a rhythm, I can't spend days looking at just one particular track.

What songs DO you love to play then?

Well, we played "Cavaliers" a few times last year and it was MIGHTY - and Ritz. Barry and that huge rock band sound-they're great to play. It's not the Eagles with us though, we don't have to make it sound like a live studio, I don't really care if we come in "off time"- so long as we all finish together! It's emotion, its passion and it's wonderful playing. It's fantastic. I play with guys from the highest echelons. I let them go- let them have the rope and then rope them back in again. It's fantastic, massive and exciting. There might be the odd green note- but I don't give a damn. I'm not worried about it not being perfect.

If you were really pushed- which of your albums are you most proud of? Why?

Well, years ago I would have said Timeless Flight because it got the worst reviews. It's my precious boy, my favourite child. It was such a change for me and the critics weren't ready. It's like I heard Mick Jagger say about one of the Stones albums, it was his favourite because it was nobody else's! I never realised it was the favorite album of so many people. "Nothing is Sacred" is on there and when I started to play that live I sensed it was something they really wanted to hear. Now it's a real blinder and it meant a lot to a lot of people to hear it. And "Red is a Mean Mean Colour" is a really personal song for me. There's a lot of personal stuff in there. "All Men Are Hungry" is another I like to sing. It's a song people can relate to. Not everybody was in Belgrade and not everybody can see exactly what I saw that morning but everyone can reflect on the idea that everyone has a need and not everybody is fulfilled. Everybody needs space and time and that's what it's about.

I remember you voting in Ray's favorite songs poll a little while back- what are your three favorites (of your own) right now?

Well it was "Riding The Waves" then wasn't it? But who am I to say really? That's a song that comes from the heart, it's a song of great celebration. It builds up. I remember reading "To The Lighthouse" and being so touched by some of the images. There's lines like "she shook her head and I saw jewels, I saw golden trinkets hanging there and quivering" great images.. And "Then she whispered, look the honey- coloured ball is melting it's way into another morning", I can remember reading that image so clearly. I didn't steal the images- I owned up to it you know. But some of the images in the song are so exhilarating. It's like that Guinness ad from a few years ago- you know the horses in the surf, and the rollers. It's very powerful. It's like when I'm sailing when I can feel the spray on my face it's just pure exhilaration.
We are doing Riding The Waves now and I'm singing it now at the end. I'm allowing myself to improvise and it's a solo on the voice not the guitar and I'm so proud of that singing.

There has been much talk of late among the fans of the song "Black or White" and whether you have ever played it live. Some claim to have heard the song on tour in '75. Was it ever a regular part of set and is what do you feel about that song?

I doubt it- we did a great video of it at Abbey Road though with Mick Rock. That surprises me, I'll get the song out again and listen to it.

As you know, there is small hard core of fans who manage to get to so many shows- do you tend to actually recognize faces in the crowd these days?

I do- but you really can't see much from up there. There's a hard core who get to a lot of shows but what people have to realize is that they come to 10 shows, please don't tell people the set list-. Don't tell them the punch lines of my stories. If I'm in a new town I'm not really playing for the people who were there last night I'm playing for those who weren't there. I'm reaching a lot of people when I go out and play. When I go out te time I'm going to many towns that I didn't go to last year, different places. I'll play to maybe 15,000 on those dates. That's a lot of people who might be seeing the band for the first time.

In addition to The Last Feast we hear that there are some other songs "almost laid down". What can you tell us about them and what is the status of a new album?

There are some new tracks. I recorded onto a portable studio thing in Spain a few weeks back and did some more overdubs. Yeah, there are about 7 songs part finished. But I'm not in a hurry. I'm really busy just being busy and unless somebody puts a lot of money in front of me... I know there's a hard core of fans waiting for it but what everybody has to realise is that if I have say 10/11/12 songs that I've put my life into writing then I really don't want it to be heard by just a few.

What are you listening to at present? The last CD you bought?

I listen to the modern stuff. My son is at University and when he comes home he brings it all. Coldplay, Ash and the guy, Richard Hawley from the Verve. I listen to it all. But then I'll go and buy the new Joni Mitchell or Neil Young.

There was some talk about you returning to the stage (i.e. theatre) a little while ago? Is that something you still would like to do?

No- I don't like that at all. I didn't get along with all the "luvvy" stuff. It's the same dressing room every night for six nights a week but I like to get to a new place every day

We know you like to write. Do you think you will ever publish a book or an autobiography perhaps?

Well I've dozens of short stories back to when I was 21 or so. They are lying around. I don't really feel the need to collate them-I have no yearning. There are in a place where the kids could find them- and they belong to them. I sing and I play and I don't need to be criticised. It would be like the lions den and I don't need the "lit crits" on my back. An autobiography? Well I have diaries back to 74. That's the autobiography in there. It might only be the appointment for say April 14th 1977 but it brings the memories flowing back. That would be a biography one day. In fact I've had two literary agents on at me recently about it.

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