Peter Knight has been playing music for around sixty years, ever since he learned the mandolin as a boy. He progressed to the Royal Academy of Music in London as a teenager where his musical career could easily have gone in a completely different direction.
|Peter Knight who is about to tour with his band Gigspanner|
"I learned to play the mandolin first when I was about seven or eight and when I was 13 I won a scholarship to go to the Royal Academy in London which I attended for three years.
"I was offered an extension when I was 16 to study under one of the top professors but I declined that invitation, for all sorts of reasons. I think at 16 there are so many other things going on in your life, music was just one of the things I enjoyed. I left home at 18 and it was then that I heard an album by an Irish fiddler called Michael Coleman and I just couldn't believe it. So I started going around Irish pubs in London and that set me on the course for traditional music which started off with Irish not English music. Then I got involved in folk music in general."
When listening to Knight's story it's easy to think he was very focused and clear about his life's path but he is the first one to admit that's not the case.
"I don't think I have ever had a clear vision of anything to be honest."
Although Knight is, by his own admission, a folk musician he has been involved in myriad projects which cover the wide spectrum of music from Steeleye Span through his compositions inspired by the wood around Anne Hathaway's cottage and to his latest incarnation with Gigspanner. As you delve into his career you realise he has a passion for music in all its forms and approaches them all with a personal philosophy.
"The basis of my relationship with music is free improvisation and I still work with one man, Trevor Watts, who is an incredible saxophonist and a fantastic improviser. That is always at the centre of my playing. So although in certain situations I do learn tunes and I do stick to arrangements or rough areas of playing within a framework, I love to make it up as I go along. I sincerely express myself through music. If you take a track on the album Layers of Ages, She Moved Through the Fair, although I am playing it as a tune here and there and although I do play an Irish reel, everything else is improvised around open chords that Roger plays. That's what I love to do. I stay open and that's the lovely thing about Gigspanner is that we all stay open within the arrangements of the songs. We do have areas where we really don't know what we are going to be doing. We only know the starting and finishing points.That particular track is well loved and means a lot of things to a lot of people so were you aware of its history and its place in many people's emotions when you are improvising?
|Knight with Maddy Prior in Steeleye Span|
"I have great faith in people's ability to sense whether someone is trying to make beautiful music or not and whether someone is playing not just from the heart but with that balance between head and heart. I know that when I am playing She Moved... I love that tune and I have heard it sung by lots of musicians and all sorts of different people, and I would like to think if someone loves the tune and they heard me playing there would be very few people who would think, 'Oh he's ruined it'. I can't see that. I have great faith in people's ability to say 'OK it's not how I have heard it before and it certainly does move through different areas that I wouldn't go to,' but they would still love it. I love it, that has to be the starting point for me that what I play I know I am giving it my best shot, I am giving it all that I am. I like to intrigue people through music, I don't want to alienate them, but if you try to be too safe with music making then music stays where it is. I think there are plenty of people that are leaving it where it is and keeping it like that. I don't have a problem with that, I think it's absolutely fine there are people who are playing folk music in a way THEY think is should be played. I haven't been blessed with playing things as simply as that, I am intrigued by music, I love all sorts of music and I am not intimidated by any music.
Does this constant striving for perfection mean you have the musical equivalent of itchy feet, are you always looking for something new to do?
Absolutely! But it's not that I particularly want to do anything new it's just that I want to get better with what I do. Some people don't practise and just go out and play gigs and it's their job or whatever, but it's not like that for me. If I feel I haven't done a particularly good gig, then that's a terrible waste for me. In order to play your best you have to be on top of it all the time, you have to practise and you have to think about music and where you want to be going with it. I am very pleased I have a good relationship with music, and I love music the way that I do; that I am open to all sorts of music. I am quite happy with my music making and my only endeavour is to try and get better whatever I do. If you don't get better the perception is that you go backwards.
|Gigspanner with Knight, Vincent Salfaaz |
and Roger Flack
Yes I am, I am also tough on people I work with too. I have conversations with people I work with which are the same conversations I have with myself," he laughs heartily. "The lovely thing about Gigspanner is we are all up for it, it is a lovely trio because all of us have the opportunity to play the best we can because there is so much room to do so.
What brought Gigspanner into being then?
It set itself up really. I was guesting with Watts in Hastings and Vincent was in the audience with his partner and I did a 10-15 minute solo spot and then played a duet with Trevor which was all improvised, and then I did a couple of things with his band at the end of the evening and Vincent's partner said 'that's the man you should be playing music with'. So he called me up a couple of days later and we ended up playing a few gigs together with just drums and fiddle. We enjoyed it but the pressure for me was a solo violin and drums trying to sustain melodic interest for myself and the listeners, I found it very very hard and a challenge. After a few gigs I knew we had to have someone else, either a keyboard player or guitarist and I knew Roger's playing. I asked him around and we sat in the kitchen, had a few beers and played a bit and that was that, that was the trio.
There was around a five year gap between Layers and your last album, why did it take so long?
"I can't really answer that, I honestly don't know. But now we can't wait to do the next one so I guarantee it won't be five years this time," again he laughs heartily.
Is Gigspanner now the focus of your attention and where all your energies will be channelled?
"I will probably do some solo albums still, I quite enjoy that. I enjoy the recording process and enjoy playing and I do bits and pieces for other people here and there, but Yes, would be the short answer. Gigspanner is my interest now as far as working with other people goes.
Does being part of Gigspanner give you the opportunity to do things you wouldn't necessarily be able to?
"The reason I love Gigspanner is we are all very sensitive to each other's playing and Roger, who is an incredible lead guitarist accompanies me beautifully and doesn't get in the way, I have played with lots of very good guitarists, and the tendency is they are often too busy when they accompanying a tune and roger isn't, he doesn't need to be.
" He just gets in a beautiful groove and he is just lovely to play with. He said after one gig, Peter you played beautifully tonight and I said that's fantastic Roger but that's down to you and how you play, that's how it works.
Where did you draw the tracks from for the album?
"There were some songs such as Tom of Bedlam which we had played quite a bit at gigs and She Moved... . The newest ones were Bows of London and Death of the Lady, my wife spotted those and said these are two really good songs Gigspanner could do. Certainly with Death... it's quite a bluesy tune which would be lovely for Roger to play.
|The new album|
Was it easy to bring the album together and get everything done?
"We don't have any of the egos, we are not that sort of people and we are all there all the time to make the decisions on what we want and each other's playing. There was no one saying don't talk to me like that or whatever.
"It's the music that's the star of the show we are just the vehicles. We all want to sit there at the end of the day and say that's great, so whoever is doing what doesn't matter. We made a list of the material we wanted to do and I worked here in France, we set the up backtracks so we had the tempos and the key and the arrangement of it. It's so easy these days with the programs that you can change everything at the last minute and move things around. We pulled it all together with Ed Blakeley in Hastings and did a bit more recording all together and we mixed it so yes it was fairly easy.
"We didn't let go of it until we all felt it was done; until we all sat down said OK are we happy with all the tracks; is there anything we want to lose; anything we want to add to it and we listened to it in our cars and all the different systems before we let it go."
What' s your favourite track from the album?
That's a tough one, I really like hard times of old England. It's lovely to play on gigs. We've begun starting the second half with it and it sits so beautifully. The pizzicato I play on the fiddle the pattern I hit on one night in the studio, I had had something to eat and few drinks and the fiddle was plugged in so I just picked it up and that happened, and I thought hang on this a real nice pattern for hard times, that's how that happened. I have heard hard times sung and Steeleye had done it but everyone seemed to jolly it up a bit, but it wasn't ever that sort of song for me really. It was quite a sad song and I like that track a lot."
Most people who are into folk know you for your time with Steeleye Span but is your association with the band now finished or is it still in the background?
"I haven't really spoken publicly about leaving Steeleye. I'd sort of had enough, it had become a difficult place for me to make the sort of music that I liked. I had a great time with Span. I enjoyed it more in the early rather than the later years and I think one of the main reasons is I am very nearly 68. Who knows how long I have got on the planet and can carry on making music? It was time to prioritise. I thought I am going to get rid of all the things I am not enjoying any more and work harder on the things I do enjoy. That was what Steeleye was for me. I don't hate anyone in Span or anything like that. If you asked me what would I do if I was asked to go back and do a couple of gigs, I have no idea what my answer would be. I don't look back in anger, we've had some great fun in that band.
So the door is probably ajar rather than shut but it's highly unlikely I would ever go back and play with Steeleye."
|Just in case you were wondering what a gig spanner was|
You mentioned you were almost 68 and yet you will be heading out on a 14 gig tour do you still look forward to it or is it now more of a trial?
"It doesn't get any easier the older you get but I am pretty good at doing it and that's all I know. Touring for me is what I know, I am good it, I am good at living in hotels and living out of suitcases. I'm good at staying in the right frame of mind during the day so I am in the right state to do the gig in the evening regardless of what you have to go through during the day which sometimes is a real load of crap. I still enjoy touring but I am becoming aware it ain't getting any easier. You have to stop when you feel you are no longer playing very well. We record every gig just as a matter of course. When I start listening to my playing and it doesn't sound good that's when I will stop."
Do you ever still get nervous before a gig?
"No I don't get nervous I get prepared is what I do. I never get into some weird state, because it can stop you playing at your best. I do prepare and remind myself why I play and what my music means to me. I connect with that bit in me that makes the music."
You have been a part of and seen the folk realm progress over more than five decades how do you see the state of folk in this country?
"I think it's fantastic, I love the fact there's a lot of young people out there doing what they do and how they do it. They have the benefit of not just hearing bands such as Steeleye and Fairport all of those early folk and folk/rock bands they have also the benefit of a lot of pop songs so everything is more in time for them. It's gone to another level I think, it's fantastic and I think generally speaking folk music is having a great time."
The impending tour will take most of your immediate attention but what about future work?
"I've written good songs, and I don't mean that in an egotistical way, but recently I feel I have written a couple of songs which are better than any I have ever written.
"I am thinking now that maybe I need to get better at that. I have worked out a way of not stopping short, because it's very easy to stop short when you're creating, you can blag over little bits. I am not prepared to say that'll do any more with anything, especially with music, so I am just trying to give everything my best shot before I kick the bucket."
Gigspanner's new album Layers of Ages is out now and the album tour begins in June.