Former Caravan, Camel and Matching Mole man Dave Sinclair is back with a new album that embraces modern technology yet has direct links back to his Canterbury scene heyday. From his home in Japan, he gives Prog the low-down on Out Of Sinc…
The former Caravan founder talks about his latest solo album.
Even in the eccentric world of progressive music, it’s unusual for anyone to claim to have been inspired by a 17th-century choirmaster at St. Paul’s Cathedral. But that’s exactly what Dave Sinclair does. “John Blow, my ancestor, was organist and composer to five kings and queens of England, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. My mother’s maiden name is Blow, and although she has no particular musical talent, her brother had an excellent tenor voice and sang in various choirs. His son, Nigel Blow, my cousin, also had a talent for music and composed tunes with fluent melodies. It was one of those tunes that inspired me to start writing what became the consistently top-voted Caravan track of all time, Nine Feet Underground.”
When he was young, Sinclair joined a Canterbury choir and enjoyed singing hymns, playing the piano and composing: “But I only remembered the compositions I really liked as there was no way of recording available to me then. At that time, composers using orchestras with lots of percussion along with choral backing held a big attraction for me.
“It wasn’t until I was much older that I found out about John Blow, hearing that he had been the first composer of operatic pieces in England. And the Home Again track on my new album was expanded into a lengthy piece partly due to his musical influence.”
Sinclair is unquestionably one of the most important musicians to be associated with the renowned Canterbury Scene. A founder member of Caravan in 1968, he has also been a member of Matching Mole, Camel, Hatfield And The North and Polite Force.
Sinclair last left Caravan in October 2002, and left these shores for Japan in 2005, where he has continued pursuing a fascinating solo career. And with Out Of Sinc, the sixth album he’s released in the last 15 years, he has shown a capacity for adapting to modern circumstances by raising the finances required through PledgeMusic. However, he admits that it was necessity that drove him in this direction.
“Although I had prepared most of the material and ideas for the album by 2014, it proved to be an uphill struggle getting underway, with so little finance available. Things moved along very slowly on borrowed money until I met [Caravan frontman] Pye Hastings in 2016 and he suggested I run a PledgeMusic campaign as he thought it would be very successful. I eventually started this in late 2017.
“You have to be pretty dedicated to work through a campaign like this, but I was lucky to have amazing support from my wife and Kyoto Mothership Studio [where Out Of
Sinc was recorded], along with all the great musicians who played on the album – and, of course, those fans who supported me by pledging. It was this support that made it possible for me to complete the album in a much shorter time than expected.”
Through his extensive contacts, Sinclair was able to call on the services of such guitar masters as the aforementioned Hastings, Andy Latimer of Camel, and Doug Boyle (associated with Caravan, as well as Robert Plant) to play on the album, all of them recording their parts remotely.
“That’s a good thing,” he says of this modern way of working, “because it’s reasonably easy and cheap for anyone to have some kind of recording gear at home. Doing it this way also gives you more of a chance to practise and hone the part in order to get the right feel, sound and rhythm. It works well for some people, but obviously not for everyone. When Doug Boyle played guitar parts on my Full Circle album , he did it in the studio without previously listening to the tracks, but on that occasion his approach worked extremely well.”
However, there were also downsides to creating an album with the musicians spread across the globe. Sinclair says, “Working from a distance can be negative in the sense that some recordings can sound a bit mechanical, due to the technical way of recording using computers and click tracks. But I also appreciate that in the studio you’re sometimes limited by time and can feel pressurised to perform well. I was very careful in my choice of guitarists for each track, depending on their style of playing and the sort of track they might prefer playing on.”
Sinclair was, however, determined to collaborate with a rhythm section who were on the spot with him in Japan.
“I was adamant that I needed to work more closely with a drummer and to that purpose I brought [rock and jazz percussionist] Jim Bashford over to Japan. We’d already played a small gig together in the UK and he was a keen fan of my kind of music, apart from being an extraordinarily talented musician playing many different styles. He already had a sponsorship with Canopus drums in Tokyo, and they very quickly shipped a full kit down to Kyoto from Tokyo.
“After rehearsals at my friend’s lakeside house in Makino with Jim and Larry Fujimoto – the bass player and owner of the Mothership studio in Kyoto where I was recording – the three of us went into the studio. Later, other musicians sent in their recorded parts and we added those into the mix.”
Sinclair sings on the tracks himself, along with Yammy, a Japanese vocalist. “I recorded all my backing, harmony and lead vocals at my home,” he says. “Yammy recorded in the studio. I first met Yammy at Mothership Studio, but it was two years later that I went along to one of her gigs. I was so knocked out with the live performances, her charisma and vocals that I asked Yammy straight after the gig if she would sing on my album. And because of her participation, I was able to record some tracks which until then I hadn’t been able to find a singer for.”
One track that will catch the attention of those with an in-depth knowledge of Sinclair’s history will be If I Run. It dates back to 1971 and his days with Matching Mole, but remained unrecorded until now.
“In 1971, after the release of In The Land Of Grey And Pink, I left the band and spent some time in Portugal working with guitarist John Murphy. I returned to the UK after receiving a telegram from Robert Wyatt, saying, ‘Come back, your country needs you!’ I moved to London to join Matching Mole. The band rehearsed and played If I Run live with Robert’s vocals and lyrics, although at the time I believe it was called Run And Hide. I wrote the music for it.”
The song was never recorded, and was eventually forgotten – in a similar way, Sinclair says, to another track he wrote in Matching Mole called Amewsing, the title alluding to Robert Wyatt’s house where the band stayed and rehearsed in London. (This track has also been rejuvenated, with Sinclair recording it for his 2004 Full Circle album, renaming it Peace In Time.)
“Both these tracks came back to life when Richard Sinclair, my old Caravan bandmate, dug out and played some old tapes to me during rehearsals with his band in the 1990s. It wasn’t until much later that I added the extra solo section at the end of If I Run.
“After moving to Japan in 2005 I made some demo recordings with Hideyuki Shima, a composer, bass player and Berkeley student from the Japanese band Six-North. We recorded If I Run with Hide’s arrangement and Percy Jones on bass, and later Phil Miller, who had played guitar in Matching Mole, played a solo. When I returned to the UK to record Robert for my Stream album , I asked if he could also sing on our If I Run demo, but he was unable to find his original lyrics for the track and the demo was never completed.
“Thankfully, around the same time I was recording with Robert, I was able to record Tony Coe’s brilliant clarinet solo on If I Run in a Canterbury studio. Finally I rewrote Robert’s original lyrics
in the first section with an interesting story on similar lines to his but with a different subject matter, bearing in mind the whisky bottles and the aroma in my old Canterbury flat, and the significant transition from alcohol to marijuana… from an alcoholic haze to a soporific daze if you like!”
Some veteran musicians these days feel that recording new music is a waste of time, because there’s no call for this from fans. Sinclair accepts this restriction, even if he doesn’t entirely agree with the sentiment.
“Yes, to a certain extent I think that’s probably so. But for some musicians, as they grow older they gain knowledge, experience and insight into life in an interesting way and continue to be progressive in their outlook. This, reflected in their compositions, can sometimes be understood and appreciated by the fans or other people of a similar age.”
Indeed, Sinclair’s 2005 move to Japan had a significant influence on his musical approach.
“Interestingly, soon after arriving in Japan, I was told by many fans that some of my more folky songs had a sort of Japanese feel to them, and that if the lyrics were in Japanese, this would be even more appreciated. Maybe it’s because there’s a rich tradition of Japanese folk-type songs here called Enka, and in a strange way some of my songs are leaning slightly in that direction, the folky influence probably due to my Irish ancestry.
“I’m now working on a Japanese version of Island Of Dreams, the English version of which is on my new album. The Mayor of Kamijima, where I live, has asked if they can use the song as a theme tune for the town, which is wonderful. I’ll be recording that with some other new tracks soon and we’ll release this as a single. Yammy will be the vocalist.”
Sinclair will always be closely linked to Caravan, even though he left the group 16 years ago. And in the year when that band reach the landmark of their 50th anniversary, the keyboard player is very proud of his input and impact.
“In the early days of Caravan I don’t think we gave much thought to the future, except that sooner or later we’d have to give up our wonderful and exciting lifestyle and get a proper job. I never even dreamed that after turning 30 years old I would still be going on stage to play to people… it seemed we’d be far too old!”
Sinclair feels it’s quite an achievement that Caravan are still up and running after all these years. “I feel proud to have had such a big input into Caravan’s first three albums,” he says. “But also looking back now to that time 50 years ago, I realise that Nine Feet Underground was merely a series of riffs and chordal sequences I liked soloing over all slung together into one track. Although it worked as a band project and has been much appreciated over the years, it can’t be compared to my new 18-minute Home Again composition, which I feel helps to show my maturity as a musician in a completely new light.”
Dave Sinclair still believes he has much to offer musically, and he hopes to be able to tour his new material soon. “It’s a bit tough organising anything on a grand scale without an agent, booker, manager or record company. I am hoping to get a more permanent band together in the future for touring purposes – it’s something I miss a lot.”
So, after such a lengthy career, is Sinclair surprised that there’s still interest in what he has to say musically? “In a word,” he says, “yes. In two words: yes, very!”
“I’m hoping to get a more permanent band together in the future for touring purposes – it’s something I miss a lot.”
CARAVAN IN 1969, AND THEY’RE STILL MOTORING TODAY.
DAVE SINCLAIR: IN SYNC AND ON A CREATIVE ROLL.