PHOTOS: Carl Glover
Scottish-born but forever to be associated with Canterbury and the ‘Canterbury Scene’, Julian ‘Pye’ Hastings is guitarist, vocalist and main songwriter with legendary prog band Caravan, a band which grew out of the remnants of seminal Canterbury band The Wilde Flowers in 1968. He’s now the only ever-present member on Caravan’s long strange trip from helping evolve the Canterbury Scene to their current status as 2018 recipients of Prog Magazine’s ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award, with the resulting kudos accompanying it. Caravan are now the second main reason why tourists visit Canterbury, with only the world-famous cathedral taking top spot from them, and relegating the venerable Geoffrey Chaucer down to third place!
2021 has seen a raising of Caravan’s profile with the release of their 37-disc box set, Who Do You Think We Are, which featured every official studio and ‘live’ album, all remastered and rejigged by Steven Wilson, plus eleven never previously released ‘live’ sets. Also, on October 6th, the band set out on the road, beginning in Basingstoke, for a fourteen date UK tour, which concludes on October 29th in Dover, to promote their latest album, It’s None Of Your Business. The band have also replaced departing bassist Jim Leverton with Lee Pomeroy, who’ll also be touring with them, so this is currently a fertile time for Caravan, but Pye took time out to talk to Velvet Thunder about things in Caravan world, and we began with my asking how surprised was he when he first learned a huge 37-disc box set of his band’s complete work was on the horizon ?
“Very surprised,” he exclaimed. “Our previous shorter ones had been thrown together by children and I thought, ‘oh, not another one’, but then Madfish came to me and showed me something similar they’d done for Steve Hillage, (the 22-disc Searching For The Spark) and I thought, ‘blimey, this is amazing’, so I agreed to do it there and then. This was four years ago, before they’d got all the actual albums together. They ended up getting all the albums and they did an amazing job putting everything together. It’s wonderful, really is good.”
Many of the unofficial ‘live’ CD’s came from recordings which’d been made by fans at gigs down the years. How surprised had he been by their quality, and had any of them made him sit up and say bloody hell, we were good that night? “One or two of them did, but the choice and selection of them was down to Madfish, they’re the ones who chose them. There were mistakes on some of them, and I said I wasn’t sure about mistakes, but they said, ‘it’s a fan based thing, for the fans and collectors, and they’d like that’, so the mistakes stayed in. Mistakes can be good, so I was led by Madfish on this aspect.” And mistakes show you’re playing ‘live’… “ Yes, and we’re still alive, just,” he laughed.
Ultimately, though, while all three surviving members of the original line-up, David Sinclair, Richard Sinclair and Pye Hastings, had a say in the compiling of the box set, it was Pye who had the final say on most matters, leading to David Sinclair stating he wasn’t involved as much, feeling ‘a bit left out’, so I wondered if the set might have been different in some ways had David been more involved? “David was involved quite a bit,” Pye explained, “but he lives in Japan and Richard lives in Italy, so this was a problem. But Ian Crocker, who was the brains behind it all, only wanted to deal with one person. He’s done this before with Wishbone Ash, and they couldn’t agree on things, and there were half a dozen people arguing all the time, so it was much easier just dealing with one person. He said, ‘I’ll deal with you, and I’ll speak to the others about it’, and this is how it evolved. David wasn’t excluded,” (Pye emphasised this point), “he was called up lots of times by Ian. David was one of the founder members of the band, and he’s a great writer, so of course he’d want to be included.” David Sinclair had been present at the New Day festival in 2019 when Caravan performed and fans were hoping he’d come onstage when their magnum opus Nine Feet Underground was performed but he didn’t. “No, he didn’t, but that’s because he was unwell at the time, and had lost an awful lot of weight, but he’s much better now.”
Steven Wilson’s currently the ‘go to’ guy for every prog band who wants an album remixed or whatever, so how significant was his contribution to the box set? “Isn’t he just ? The connection there, again, is Madfish records. He’s done a fair bit with them, and he did a remix of Land Of Grey And Pink for Universal quite a few years ago, but when they put it out, he was unhappy about it, so he spoke to Ian Crocker about it, said he still had the original masters, and would you like them for the box set? Steven’s a top class producer. He can fill the Albert Hall with his own band, I doubt we could do that,” – he sounded amused.
Somewhat contentiously I asked, if I were a fan buying the box set, given I’d be paying over three hundred pounds, would I be getting value for what is a lot of money? Pye agreed I would be. “Well, there are thirty seven albums, so it works out at roughly seven pounds a CD. There’s also a very detailed book with all kinds of memorabilia, the family tree plus the Canterbury map of Caravan, the posters, the fanzine … and a very nice box to keep them all in! It’s the band’s life in a box.. and we all end up in a box anyway, don’t we?” he laughed. Will this box set be the last word on all things Caravan then? There isn’t much more you could include, is there? “Maybe, but we do have a new album coming out on October 8th, called It’s None Of Your Business. That was the good thing about the pandemic,” he mused. “I’m sitting at home thinking, this isn’t too bad, I’ll pop a cork, pour a glass of wine, sit in the sunshine. I thought, this is great, I’ll pick up my guitar and start writing, and nine new songs came out of it. I spoke to Ian about doing a new album, I told him I’ve got the songs ready to go, let’s go do it, so we did. We used Rimshot studios in Bredgar, which is isolated and very hard to find. We got to the gates and wondered ‘is this a studio?’ but we found the entrance round the back, and it’s a bloody good studio.”
Caravan have a dedicated fanbase so, having heard the new album, I wondered whether the new album was targeted mainly at their fans or at the record buying public? “It’s for anyone who wants to listen,” he declared adamantly. “I don’t write with anything in mind, all tunes just come out of the air, and what’s in there at the time is what’s on the album. We all play our little bits on it, and it becomes a collaborative effort in the end. I create a platform for the band to solo off, and it’s very important they do have their own bits on it, rather than me saying, I want it to sound exactly like this. I don’t like working that way at all.” Bass duties on the new album were performed by Lee Pomeroy, who possesses a very impressive pedigree, having played with some stellar names, including Headspace and Steve Hackett. How much of a creative boost did Lee’s addition give the band? “On day one of the recording, our bassist Jim Leverton decided to quit the band. He said he didn’t want to play prog any more and wanted to go back to playing R&B, which left us with one hell of a dilemma. But Mark Drummer’s a pal of Lee’s, and he said Lee’s available and he’ll come in and play, so we recorded all the tracks without the bass on them, sent Lee the tracks, all ten of them, and he put his bass parts on all of them in two days. I thought when I heard them, ‘Jesus Christ, what a phenomenal player.’ He’s going to be joining us on the tour as well, and I’m gonna try keep him if I can, but he’s a popular guy and he’s played with some big names, so it’s a case of catching him if we can. But I love his playing, it really is good.”
The new album, It’s None Of Your Business, contains a few songs with deep strains of sentimentality, such as Spare A Thought, a song about those who didn’t make it through the pandemic, and the achingly lovely There Is You. Given the emotion contained in each song, I wondered if these had been written with anyone in particular in mind? “Spare A Thought is my nod towards the pandemic and the NHS and all the things which went on. The pandemic killed thousands and I thought I’d try and write a song about it. It’s a love song and not aimed at any one particular person. All the guys I spoke to said they like a love song, so why not do one of those instead of another long proggy song, so I come up with There Is You. I had my wife in mind when I wrote it but not one specific person when I was first writing it. I don’t know anybody who succumbed to the pandemic, thank God, so Spare A Thought wasn’t written with any specific person in mind. It’s just a general sentiment I think should be expressed.”
There Is You is a song which could almost be a solo acoustic track. Had he thought about doing it like this? “I wouldn’t mind doing that, actually. The jazzy approach we used, I’m playing guitar in the background and it doesn’t quite fit in with what everyone else is playing, it’s mixed right at the back. So I could do it on my own with a couple of acoustic guitars and some harmony.” If you play it on stage, will it be just you playing it ? “It’s not really a ‘live’ number, is it? But we’ll be playing several tracks from the new album on the tour, including It’s None Of Your Business and Every Precious Little Thing as well.”
Does the new album live up to the expectations Pye had when he began recording it in June 2021? Is he pleased with the result? “It’s near enough what we wanted,” he stated guardedly. “It’s all a bit frenetic for me, it’s a bit too fast in places because of Jim Leverton having left the band on day one.” He picks his moments, doesn’t he? “ Nerves were in there a bit as well. I mean, we hadn’t played together for about eighteen months, so it was a bit frenetic … but the album has an energy about it which I like.” So, how excited are Caravan at the thought of getting back on the road again? “It’s a mixture of nerves and excitement,” he stated. “I can’t wait to get back into it, and we start rehearsals very soon, for three days only, and then it’s out on the road, so the first gig will be a bit nerve racking, you know, things like ‘which pedal do I hit for this number?’ and so on, but once we get into our stride it’ll be great again, and playing with Lee Pomeroy will be a boost for all of us. There’s no likelihood of small warm up gigs as the bug is still around, isn’t it? We’ve still gotta be wary of this. Julian, my son, got the bug last week and he’s fully jabbed up. He’s up in the north of Scotland, thankfully, so he can’t infect any of us, but he feels like crap.”
Have Caravan ever considered touring, as many other bands have done, with the show being based around a complete performance of a successful album, like Grey And Pink or For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night? “Well, the last time we played in Japan, we had to do two sets, and the first had to be all of Grey And Pink, and it was good fun to do, actually, and it went down really well, with the second set just being a normal set. But you have to work hard at these kinds of gigs, especially in a place like Japan where they watch everything you do and, with their meticulous eye for detail, you have to get it right.” I suggested, isn’t the problem of performing a whole album, if you go off slightly off-beam, some fans go up in arms at a favourite song not being note-for-note like the album? “Oh, we always go off-beam,” he laughed, “but mistakes can be great and can lead to something else.”
Moving away from Caravan’s recorded output, I mentioned that recently, in an interview with an American music magazine, Robert Plant had come down heavily against what he referred to as ‘legacy acts,’ bands who’d been together twenty to thirty years or longer, stating in his view they’re just ‘clinging to a life raft’ rather than going out on their own and taking risks, as he’d done. Given Pye had been with the same band since 1968, I wondered what his view of this was? “Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, but I don’t agree with it. He’s done some great stuff but also some things which are questionable as well, where I’ve thought ‘what’s he doing that for?’ He’s taking risks, I agree, and that’s fair enough, but I’m quite happy doing what I’m doing. The band changes personnel and it brings in a new challenge every time it happens, and you may have to change certain things. Lee Pomeroy’s playing bass on this tour, and it keeps things fresh, and you keep going, and if you enjoy doing it, and people like what you’re doing, why give it up?”
Caravan and The Soft Machine are now the ‘last men standing’ from the Canterbury Scene of the late sixties-early seventies, with both now 53 years in existence. How much of an achievement did he regard this as being? “I’ve lost count, to be honest,” he laughed. “I try not to look back. It’s a long way back, I can tell you that. We started in 1968, when we were young, slim, long haired and wanted to be pop stars like The Stones and The Beatles. We found our own direction and then we all split up and went off in other directions. I kept going because I thought ‘I still want to do it’ and I’ve kept going all these years, and there’s no reason not to.” And the fans have stayed with you. “ Yes, they have!”
We were running out of time so I asked, given Caravan received the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ from Prog magazine in 2018 for fifty years’ service to music, how honoured did he feel about this recognition for what Caravan had contributed? “Very honoured indeed,” he admitted. “It’s about the only award we’ve ever had, apart from gold records for albums like Grey And Pink and Plump In The Night, and it was great to be recognised by your peers. We did a cruise in the North Sea, which was organised by Jerry Ewing, around the time of the Beast from the East, and we played a good set. The boat was going up and down like mad,” he sounded amused, “and a few months later, Jerry calls up and says, ‘you’re up for this award, mate,’ ‘What?’ I couldn’t believe it. I had to get up and make a speech in front of all those bands and the record company guys. It was terrifying and I hated every minute of it but I liked the award. So it’s thanks to Jerry Ewing and all the fans and readers of the magazine. We really appreciate it.”
After this, Pye went back to getting things ready for rehearsals for Caravan’s first tour in some while. Whatever happens, Caravan’s place in prog lore is assured…