THE PURRING OF THE LANDSCAPE…In which Mr. Drake finds a new life beyond the Cardiacs
Keyboard maestro and ex-Cardiacs tunesmith WILLIAM D. DRAKE writes songs that are timeless, bold and beautiful. MR SPENCER admires the musical scenery”Â¦
Imagine, if you will, a world in which arguably the most creative songwriting team of a generation remains on friendly terms after calling time on a radical and revered musical partnership.
In this ideal world, the brilliant, mould-breaking band they had created would still exist, with its visionary founder at the helm. Meanwhile his former songwriting partner, having left to follow fresh musical pursuits, would go on to produce increasingly free-spirited and spicey sounds, and their creative collaborations would continue.
And imagine this. What if the music produced by both artists, post-separation, remained remarkable?
In the case of Cardiacs’ Tim Smith and William D Drake – whose kaleidoscopic legacy has been compared to that of Lennon and McCartney’s extraordinary but sadly fragmented Beatles partnership – the above scenario is real.
“I’ve always felt free musically,”Â says softly-spoken keyboard maestro Drake, currently the subject of glowing reviews with his new album, The Rising Of The Lights, “so it was a relief to meet such a kindred spirit in Tim.”Â
Mr Drake, as his admirers tend to refer to him, was born to rock. Or more correctly, he was born to play stately, self-penned music on a variety of keyboard instruments including Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonium, Mellotron, synthesizer and, most magically of all, the ”Ëtelevision organ’.
The latter device he accidentally invented himself, according to legend, while attempting to repair a faulty television set owned by Cardiacs. The story goes that after he’d finished tinkering with the set it produced a sound so beautiful that it made the band’s kind-hearted and possibly mythical corporate consultant Miss Swift cry. The television organ’s fragile melodic quiver remains an instantly recognisable element in Drake’s warmly creaky, folk-tinged music to this day.
During the eight years Drake spent in Cardiacs – nowadays increasingly acknowledged as an important and influential band – his onstage ”Ëcharacter’ often seemed happy but also bewildered to find himself playing in such off-beat circumstances. Did he ever feel like an innocent abroad during this period?
“I’ve spent all my life feeling like an innocent abroad,”Â he says. “Even when I go to the greengrocers. That’s why I never go on holiday ”â it’s far too traumatic.”Â
MUSIC WAS central to life in the young Drake’s family home. Born in Stock, Essex, he was barely toddling when he developed a close relationship with a handy child-sized harmonium, and later began to learn his trade on a neighbour’s loaned piano. His mother and grandmother encouraged him to develop his formative talents by teaching him to play the popular waltz Chopsticks, and sustained this support throughout his classical piano training, which continued until he was 18.
“It was just right – ideal,”Â he remembers, “because it shaped my life. I became so addicted to harmoniums and pianos that nothing has been able to drag me away from them ever since.”Â
Were you immersed in music from the word go?
“I had piano lessons quite early on, when I was about five, with my teacher Hilary Tudor. My grandmother and mother both taught me duets.”Â
Did they have classical backgrounds?
“My grandmother was a student for a year at the Royal Academy of Music, before my grandfather whisked her off to get married at the tender age of 18.”Â
Later on, when you were being trained to play classical piano, where did this happen?
“I had piano lessons at school, first with Elsie Pearce and later with Rhona Parkinson. I went to a boarding-school in Broadstairs when I was just seven, where I was subjected to solitary confinement in various poky rooms with pianos and told: PRACTISE OR ELSE! I thanked them for it in the end.”Â
As he entered his teenage years, Drake’s formally shaped musical musings were bumped into less conventional territory when he developed a passion for the pioneering pop of the Beatles and David Bowie. Eventually, when he was 21, he played a gig with his first band Honour Our Trumpet at the Grey Horse in Kingston, Surrey.
The sound engineer that night was Tim Smith, leader of Cardiacs, a local band with a liking for punky but intricately detailed compositions. Smith was so impressed by Drake’s keyboard skills that he immediately wrote out a complicated musical score and challenged him to play it. The tune – which would later form part of the song Hope Day – was fiendishly tricky, but Drake performed it with ease. After this his fate was sealed, and in 1983, the nimble-fingered pianist teamed up with Smith’s fast-evolving twisty-pop outfit.
Was Drake surprised, following his traditional musical education, to find himself plastered in make up, playing swirly, spectacular music with Cardiacs?
“I wouldn’t really say that my ”Ëeducation’ was conventional,”Â he gently contends. “And I could not have found a band to suit me better in a billion billion billion years of searching this big ol’ universe!”Â
What did your mother and grandmother make of you hooking up with Cardiacs? Were they alarmed by the onstage oddness?
“My grandmother died when I was seven. My mother and father used to come to many of the gigs, they seemed to fit in rather well with the rest of the audience.”Â
Did their classically-attuned ears help them to appreciate the music?
“Well, my mother doesn’t just like classical music. She used to listen to Trini Lopez and The Tijuana Brass when I was growing up. I think too much is made of classical musicianship in the rock or pop world. Many people are taught in a classical way – it’s the standard way to teach – nothing particularly unusual or amazing about that.
“My parents came to lots of gigs. My mother would bring a shooting stick and sit by the sound engineer, which was often where the onslaught of sonic debris was paramount.”
Having received a formal musical education, when you joined Cardiacs were you forced to unlearn much of what you’d been taught?
“No, because I didn’t play just classical music. There was soft pop, country dance, polka, rock, light opera, curly wurly, jazz, and everything in between.”Â
WHEN DRAKE joined Cardiacs he was a godsend for the creatively fizzing Tim Smith, who was now able to write devilishly complex parts for keyboards as well as for guitars, allowing his already wide musical horizons to expand further as the band’s songs were increasingly adorned by Drake’s dazzling classical flourishes.
Drake’s first gig as a Cardiac was at London’s Marquee Club supporting Seventies festival circuit survivors Here & Now, but Smith’s opinion-dividing troupe toured solidly and soon began to attract a loyal following hooked by their legendarily spectacular gigs and the epic tunes being penned by what was developing into a remarkable songwriting partnership.
Many of Cardiacs’ most lovingly layered, emotionally potent and poetic songs emerged during Drake’s time in the band. Among these were I Hold My Love In My Arms (which featured music he’d written when he was 15), The Duck And Roger The Horse and Blind In Safety And Leafy In Love.
One of the songs he co-wrote, The Everso Closely Guarded Line, begins with a ripple of warm piano that evokes, within a few seconds, the polished-wood atmosphere of school assemblies, a heady mixture of fear and limitless possibilities – was there a kind of nostalgia in Drake’s musical mix even then?
“I wrote the opening bars of Everso Closely Guarded Line fresh from having spent eleven years of my life at boarding-school,”Â he recalls. “So if ”Ënostalgia’ means homesick – yes, there was a bit of that, and it would perhaps be reflected in my composition.”Â
Did you and Tim cross-pollinate musically – to the benefit of you both?
“Yes, like a couple of busy bees. In the songs that we co-wrote we brought in both complementary and complimentary sound odour.”Â
How much lyrical input did you have?
“Tim wrote all Cardiacs lyrics whilst I was in the band, I think. But I did come up with the word ”Ëbrown’ for the song title Burn Your House Brown.”Â
In addition to playing and recording with Cardiacs, Drake also worked with Smith and his then-wife Sarah Smith on the Mr and Mrs Smith and Mr Drake side-project. Using this name and later as Sea Nymphs, the trio released two albums containing many of Drake’s most endearingly odd and sepia-tinted songs, including The Collar, Dog Eat Spine, Summer Is A Coming In and the glorious From My Piano To Mr Drake, which he performs live to this day.
IN 1991 Drake was consumed by a hunger for fresh challenges and decided to leave Cardiacs, but he continued to work with Tim Smith as part of Sea Nymphs as well as releasing his debut solo album William D. Drake – produced by Smith – on his former bandmate’s label, while also forming his own bands Nervous and Lake Of Puppies and touring with country-rockers Wood.
Sea Nymphs were reactivated at the end of the Nineties and even recorded a session for John Peel, although this had to be achieved using semi-covert techniques, due to Peel’s producer John Walters’ intense dislike of Cardiacs. Fortunately, Walters was unaware of his guests’ individual identities at the time and the session was completed successfully.
“We were hastened in through the tradesman’s entrance,”Â Drake recalls. “We did our bit then scurried off like Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail!”Â
Talking of Sea Nymphs, I’ve heard that unreleased recordings exist – is this true?
“Yes,”Â Drake confirms in positive news for fans starved of new material since Tim Smith was tragically felled by two strokes and a heart attack in 2008. “There’s enough stuff for at least one, if not two, albums.”Â
EXPLORING WILLIAM D. Drake’s repertoire sometimes feels like browsing the dusty, well-worn but much-loved offerings in a tucked away book shop; a treasure trove of little-known delights waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.
Is the charming and modest Mr Drake content with his current low-key-but-critically-acclaimed level of success.
“I will be happy when I can make a living from my music,”Â he says, “as I’d prefer not to live in a garret forever.”Â
Fortunately, in recent years, Drake has increasingly attracted positive attention as a solo artist, releasing two acclaimed albums in 2007, Briny Hooves – featuring the exquisite The Fountains Smoke and Serendipity Doodah – and its instrumental companion album Yew’s Paw, while also working with North Sea Radio Orchestra, a similarly admired chamber music ensemble whose line-up features two of Drake’s former colleagues from Lake Of Puppies.
However, 2011 looks set to be his most successful year so far. In addition to contributing a beautiful version of Tim Smith’s song Savour to the album Leader Of The Starry Skies – a compilation released to raise funds for Smith’s continuing treatment and recovery – Drake’s enthusiastically received fourth solo album, The Rising Of The Lights, is introducing Drake’s virtuoso talents to an increasingly receptive world as well as reviving the contemporary medical term for a long-forgotten illness which plagued London in the 18th and 19th centuries. “The record was named after an ailment of the lungs,”Â confirms Drake, “which ironically I have been suffering from ever since.”Â
Despite its surreptitiously sinister title, The Rising Of The Lights is a gorgeous, uplifting album with a rich, live-sounding sonic landscape providing a perfect backdrop to songs which pay homage to fields, rivers, breezy valleys and bleating lambs, all sprouting forth from Drake’s piano, mellotron and harmonium along with Nicola Baigent’s clarinet and James Larcombe’s wheezy hurdy gurdy. Additional acoustic and slide guitar heroics are provided by Richard Larcombe and ex-Cardiac Mark Cawthra. Oh, and ”Ëcatsong’ is supplied by two actual purring pets.
Lovingly gift-wrapped in a sleeve adorned with artwork from a leatherbound 19th century “book with magic leaves”Â inherited by Drake’s mum, the record both looks and sounds like a treat. It brims with brilliant tunes and mad-but-it-works ideas, from galloping opener Super Altar, originally written for Sea Nymphs, to Wholly Holey – which your milkman would whistle if he was lucky enough to hear it – and Ant Trees, which starts at a jaunty pace but climbs to a gasping television organ climax.
It is elsewhere though, during the album’s more pastoral moments, that Drake knocks us for six. In An Ideal World and Me Fish Bring drift like boats at sea on a warm night, Drake’s slightly cracked, brink-of-tears vocals at their loveliest on the latter as he sings his prayer to nature’s wonders (“The sun it shine on everyone, be happy, be happy”Â¦”Â) accompanied by Dug Parker, her voice floating over some of the sweetest piano Drake has ever played.
Ornamental Hermit – “overflowing with joy and with pain”Â – nails the sublime sadness present in so much of Drake’s work as our hero’s fingers glide across his keyboard to produce notes that splash like summer rain. Pop piano hasn’t sounded this good since Mike Garson tinkled the ivories on Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, and that’s saying something.
The album closes with Homesweet Homestead Hideaway”Â¦, an elongated number that celebrates “the purring of the landscape, so bold and calm and true,”Â unfurling over several sections culminating in a dizzying, drawn-out swirl of shimmering flutes – a breathtaking achievement that stirs memories of a certain similarly majestic Cardiacs song.
“It is definitely a relative of Everso Closely Guarded Line,”Â says Drake. “Perhaps a much younger sibling that arrives somewhat unexpectedly to all concerned. It’s one of the more recent songs written for this album – The Mastodon, for instance, is at least 20 years old.
“Some pieces can take so long to see the light of day that by the time they are released it’s like children growing up and leaving home.”Â
Early in 2007, when Briny Hooves and Yew’s Paw were simultaneously released, Drake expressed a wish to renew his working relationship with Tim Smith (“he’s just finished building a huge studio,”Â he said at the time, “so I’d like to record there at some point”Â). Heartbreakingly, while Smith remains ill, this ambition seems unlikely to be fulfilled in the immediate future.
Is Drake still striving, in Smith’s enforced absence, for the ”Ëpungency of sound’ they created together in Cardiacs?
“Each song has its own individual smell. That’s why recording is such fun, to strive to create that particular smell.”Â
Does the drama of crashing waves appeal to you, all that briney sound odour?
“I do have a romantic notion of the sea, and I like to spend as much time by it as possible, which is not nearly enough.”Â
Your songs are often melancholy and yet so many of them also make the heart soar. Do you agree with the theory that sad chords are often the most uplifting?
“A sad chord all on his tod can sound dull and unilluminative. However place him between two happies and suddenly there’s all sorts of cats being let out of bags.
“I’m very fond of Robert Wyatt and his music,”Â he adds. “I like to water some of my songs with tears, it helps them to grow.”Â
DRAKE’S FONDNESS for discovering faded but exquisite musical artefacts extends to his passion for rummaging through junk shops for vases of all shapes and sizes. As he points out, taste is a very personal thing.
“Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder,”Â he says. “I collect vases that lots of people might say are ugly, but I think are damned fine.”Â
Does he like the idea of a musical continuity passing down the centuries?
“I do, and the history of music should be taught to everybody in their formative years.”Â
As a piano teacher himself during daylight hours – working “all over the place, and from home too”Â – Drake knows his stuff.
“There can be appetising music in most forms – a bit like food,”Â he says wisely. “It all depends on the restaurant.”Â
Are your students aware of your own musical accomplishments, both solo and with Cardiacs, Sea Nymphs and all the rest?
Do you strive to stay within a standard musical framework in your lessons?
“When you’re teaching anything you have to keep within fairly conventional parameters, but I encourage everyone to make up their own music.
“Any sort of snobbery is a turn-off,”Â he continues. “But musical taste is an important thing to cultivate, there’s no use pretending you like something when you don’t.
“Personally I love Cuban music. I enjoy its sweet and grand sadness, and its elegant dance rhythms. Plus it reminds me of tequila slammers, my favourite tipple.”Â
Is there a perfectionism in the music you make, or is it more a quest for a kind of flawless imperfection?
“I do like to get the sound as gorgeous and beautiful as possible. And I am constantly making last-minute amendments, luckily my band are long-suffering. And what a fabulous bunch they are.”Â
WORDS HAVE always played a key role in Drake’s compositions, adding an additional layer of mystery to his sometimes graceful, often stirring, always absorbing melodies. In the case of Laburnum, from his new album, the lyrics are affectionately swiped from James Joyce. Does he delight in placing unlikely texts alongside terrific tunes?
“Lyrics will always be important to me, as I will always write songs,”Â he says. “I enjoy setting a good poem, particularly an old-fashioned one. I remember coming across the poem Sweet Peace by Samuel Speed, and feeling I just had to set it [this became the song Sweet Peace on Briny Hooves]. I couldn’t find any information about him anywhere, all I knew was that it came from a collection called Prison Piety.
“I buy books regularly. I can often be spied in one of the secondhand emporiums in Charing Cross Road. Unread books burst my shelves, but they’ll be read one day. I have a bookworm gene, it just hasn’t manifested yet.”Â
Drake tells me he often plays musical “tricks”Â on himself to keep his work fresh. Would he worry if his melodic creations lost what his biography describes as his ”Ëflagrant disregard for the division of modern and ancient’? I’m thinking of the way the televison organ drifts in and out during otherwise relatively conventional songs, or the audibly clattering keyboard on Poor John from the album William D. Drake; or the gloriously catchy Summer Is A Coming In, which compels the listener to attempt to sing along to its baffling, apparently olde English lyrics”Â¦
“I don’t think of my music as being odd,”Â Drake points out. “I just write what I feel like writing. The television organ and harmonium always add heart and warmth, like old friends.”Â
So, where did those Summer Is A Coming In lyrics come from?
“I found them in an old book, they were written in the thirteenth century. I knew nothing of the film The Wicker Man, which I since discovered has its own setting of the song. We altered the words ”Ëcuckoo, cuckoo’ because we looked like twats when we sang them. ”ËDodo, dodo’ seemed more fitting.”Â
Finally, can you explain to me – how the hell do you play the television organ?
“If you’d like some lessons, then you would be most welcome. But you’ll have to come to mine, as she’s not an easy old girl to carry around.”Â
* William D. Drake’s new album The Rising Of The Lights is out now on Onomatopoeia Records. Leader Of The Starry Skies is available now from all good record shops and online (in all formats) from the Genepool All money raised will go to Tim Smith to support his continuing care.