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Journeyman's Grace 

Richard Thompson sings the storm

Wednesday, Aug 11 1999
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Photo by Peter Sanders
"WHAT'S IT LIKE," I ASK RICHARD THOMPSON, "TO write a song?"

"It's hell," he says. "No, it's great, just great. I mean, no -- it's hell."

"It doesn't just pop into your head?"

"Oh, sure, yeah. It pops right into your head. And I find it pops into your head a lot easier if you spend about 16 hours drinking cups of black coffee and staring out the window."

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He has forgone his trademark Balmoral today for a Malibu Sports baseball cap, which, with the Ace bandage around the hand that works the frets, gives him the incongruous air of a sparkly-eyed, outdoorsy Westside dad -- one who just happens to be a virtuoso guitarist, heading out on what might possibly be a pivotal tour with a sprained hand, an injury he sustained when a big wave slammed him into the beach. He is friendlier than I expect him to be, kinder, too -- he even bows slightly when he shakes my hand -- and I am grateful to learn that Thompson in person is just as flippant as he is on stage. In all the talk about his dark lyrics and cynical worldview, hardly anyone notices that Thompson is relentlessly, brutally funny; even on solemn subjects he seems always on the verge of a joke.

"I'm a fairly lighthearted person, believe it or not," he insists. "The British are just like that, you know -- the weather and various world wars have driven us to find everything hilarious." He excuses himself and comes back with a slice of pie and more coffee. "I need the caffeine and sugar," he informs me with a firm stare and a shake of his head, "to make it through this grueling interview."

I have met Thompson for afternoon coffee in an airy little Pacific Palisades café, on a sunny and very suburban-feeling California-dreamin' kind of day. Which is appropriate, since Thompson's new record, Mock Tudor, is all about the suburbs, though you might not know that if he or the liner notes didn't tell you. "I think the suburbs are very important in the creative history of the 20th century," he opines. "The Beatles are from the suburbs, and the Stones and the Yardbirds and all those blues bands. They're really kind of suburban sounding. Because basically, the suburbs are a wasteland, and you have to create your own entertainment. You have to find people of like minds somewhere, and it's a long bus ride into town to get some nutrition."

On the face of things, however, Mock Tudor has less to do with the suburbs than with another significant moment in Thompson's storied career. After four inventive and quirky albums with producer Mitchell Froom, Thompson hired Beck producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf to collaborate on the most rigorously commercial record in his history. Mock Tudor contains none of the nerve-grating dissonance that punctuated Mirror Blue and You? Me? Us?, none of the hissing social commentary on postindustrial Britain that defined his 1994 collaboration with bassist Danny Thompson, Industry, and only one dark folk song, "The Sights and Sounds of London Town," which he wrote in the "fine tradition of upbeat tunes about mining disasters." The rest of the record is one well-wrought lyrical tune after the next, each with the makings of a single.

"I suppose we shared a philosophy of trying to record something straight-ahead," Thompson says of his work with Rothrock and Schnapf. "We tried a few loopy things and novelty things, but they just seemed irrelevant. It's pretty much a live recording, in a good studio, with musicians who played really well." The effort has seen rewards already: A couple of Mock Tudor's singles, "Crawl Back Under My Stone" and "Sibella," have been picked up by progressive DJs; "Hard on Me," an unembellished rock ballad, and "Bathsheba Smiles," are likely to follow.

Oddly -- and defiantly, perhaps -- Thompson is not particularly concerned whether they do. He may not have made a bundle for Capitol Records in the decade since the label signed him, but his was never a career designed to crank out hits; from the beginning, Thompson set out to create his own genre, and pushed its every edge. "I wanted to write music that would satisfy my soul," says the British-born Thompson, who grew up listening to his Scottish father's music but veered toward Charlie Parker as an adult. "I wanted to create this funny hybrid between Scottish music, rock music and a bit of Django Reinhardt on the side. That's the music I've always wanted to write, because it didn't exist." I resist the urge to applaud his success; this is, after all, the same Richard Thompson who humiliated a local radio show host for fawning. "Don't you know I'm a hack?" he retorted after one too many compliments. It is also the same man who publicly excoriates the critics who fail to appreciate his work. "Praise is worthless," Thompson declares. "And the people who praise you this year will curse you in the next."

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