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Interviewing Steeleye Span’s guitarist, Julian Littman was, for me, an opportunity to reacquaint myself with a band that had introduced me to progressive folk in the 1970s. It also afforded me the excuse to listen to their 2013 Album Wintersmith which until now I hadn’t quite gotten around to. Suffice to say, this timeless band continue to progress.
Julian, you are a relative newcomer to Steeleye Span…
Yes, I joined in 2011.
…was that daunting, joining a British folk institution?
Well it was, yeah. Not only was I joining a British Folk institution, I was taking over from a couple of amazing guitar players, the first one was Bob Johnson who was the original guitar player and then Ken Nicol who is a huge force when it comes to guitar playing. So they were big shoes to fill. My only way was to do what I do and not copy them. It was daunting but they, Steeleye, are so good at getting new people in, they’ve had quite a lot of people in, as Maddy says, its a bus that people get on and off.
I’ve known Liam, the drummer, for many, many years we were in Gerry Rafferty’s band together and we’ve worked together with lots of other people; Melanie Harrold and all sorts of people. And when I do solo gigs he, if he’s available, will play so I’ve known him for ages and he’s the one that recommended me for the job! But it is such a great band to be in because it never stands still.
Although I’ve know Steeleye Span from the 70s, I had lost track of them of late until I puchased Wintersmith – an album you had some influence in?
Yeah. Basically we collaborated with Terry Pratchett, he has long been a fan of the band – they played at his 60th birthday a while ago. He and Steeleye have always said, way before I joined, we should do something togtether and it never quite materialised. Then, not long after I joined the idea was raised again, meetings were had and he said: “Here’s a book I think you could do something with and its called Wintersmith, its part of a trilogy about the young witch Tiffany Achen”. So we all went away and read the book. Then those of us that write, wrote three songs each, taking various subjects and inspirations from it. Some of them telling the story, some of them representative of the imagery and so on. We all had a hand in a lot of them but I brought one called You, The Summer Lady and the Dark Morris Song.
And it was Dark Morris which I was blasting out in the car on the way to the office this morning.
Yeah – we like that one! And of course there is another deluxe version of Wintersmith out where we have another four tracks on there to flesh out the story and make it something, hopefully, for the fans to enjoy. Wintersmith has been a great thing and put a slightly more progy vibe to what we do, which is good.
You are not just a guitarist. You are a producer, you are an actor – you are a bit of a techie. Do you ever find that the producer gets in the way of the artist?
No, not really. I’m quite good at being objective. I’m quite good at seeing the big picture and not getting too stuck into the minutia of things so I don’t find that that gets in my way particularly. I did say at one of our meetings: “Yes, I think its very good but there again I’ve got very low standards!” Atctually I haven’t got low standards but there comes a time when you have to sign off on things and go “Look that’s good” You can carry on until you die and it will still not be perfect. There comes a time when you say, this is good, the vibe is good, the feeling’s good.
Despite the comings and goings in the band, your collective body language off stage is that of a very relaxed band.
Well it is! It has its own identity, we are never really searching for a thing, we often strive but that is a slightly different thing. We like to push the envelope a bit and we all get on really well – well, as well as any band can, you know! We have our ups and downs, that’s all part of it. But one thing is common to us all, we just want to do the music, and we enjoy doing it. We are not out there putting out our old songs we are doing new stuff all the time – that’s what makes it special. Of course we are happy to do All Around my Hat and Gaudete, we love doing them, no problem.
The tour comprises a silly number of dates in a short period.
Well, they are broken up, we have a week off at the beginning of March because Maddy goes to these incredible, not that I know what goes on, but these amazing singing courses in Denmark, so she will be in Denmark for a week. We set off today to go up to Maddy’s place in Cumbria, to do rehearsals for three days. The we start on Sunday in Barrow-in-Furness, we are out for about two weeks, we get a week off and then we do another two weeks during which we go to Holland and Belgium and we also do the “Costa Del Folk” in Spain – apparently it is a fantastic festival, I’ve never been there before but I’ve never heard anyone say anything against it.
Then to cap it all off in March we are at HRH Prog Rock Festival in Pwllheli in Wales. Us and Rick Wakeman, we are headlining! Its going to be great, we are looking forward to it – all srts of people wandering around dressed as cybermen and God knows what!
Going back to the Wintersmith album, were you a Terry Pratchett fan before all of that happened?
No, I hadn’t read any Terry Pratchett funnily enough. Not through not wanting to or anything like that, just sometimes things pass you by. Initially it was aimed at young people and not being a particularly young person – although funnily enough I did read all the Harry Potters!
You are also an actor – which came first, acting or music?
Music was always there but professionally I trained as an actor. I was at Arts Educational Trust which is a drama school. I went there and I did all the things that actors do, I did rep and children’s theatre and schools theatre and children’s television and all sorts of things. I did lots of television in the late to mid 70s – ‘plays for today’ and stuff like that. I was in Evita, I played Madonna’s brother in the movie which was pretty exciting. I went out to Argentina to film it with Alan Parker. Then we did Budapest then London. As we got nearer London my trailer got smaller! In Argentina I had a full sized Winnebego, in Budapest I had a caravan a bit like your uncle Norman’s caravan that he goes on holiday with, by the time we got to Shepperton I had a sort of cupboard!
Between all the action and musicianship, do you ever get time to relax?
Well, you see, as my brother always says to me, you are lucky because your job is your hobby. If I’m at home not doing a lot I tend to record or write songs so that is my relaxation. I’ve got a studio at home so I can potter about and do a bit of writing. Yes I do relax, I love watching movies, I am a big movie fan.
What can the audiences expect on the tour, is it going to be a mix of old and new?
Yes, it is going to be a mix of very old, there will be some ballads from King Henry and possibly Long Lankin, some of the really old epic ballads that Steeleye are famous for, probably Thomas the Rhymer I should think. Then we’ll be doing some from Wintersmith, I think five or six because we are still excited by it. Then we may even pop…. well, a very very new on in. We have just started on the new album last week, just doing rhythm tracks so we may cherry pick from something that we feel we can play because its so new – something brand new perhaps, just to whet people’s appetite.
Good news then that there is a new album on the way.
Oh yes and it is going to be an absolute corker as well. We are really excited by it, inspired at the moment by crime! Medieval crime, crime of the heart, crime of betrayal from ancient Kings and stuff like that.
Thank you very much for your time Julian. You can see Steeleye Span in our region on Saturday 28th February at the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft – click here for details and tickets.
The full tour is as follows:
|Sun 15 Feb||The Forum||Barrow-In-Furness||(01229) 820000||Buy Tickets|
|Mon 16 Feb||The Atkinson||Southport||(01704) 533333||Buy Tickets|
|Tue 17 Feb||The Beck||Hayes||(020) 8561 8371||Buy Tickets|
|Wed 18 Feb||Haymarket Theatre||Basingstoke||(01256) 844244||Buy Tickets|
|Fri 20 Feb||De Roma||zittend Belgium||(+32)(0)3 292 97 40||Buy Tickets|
|Sat 21 Feb||Celtic & Balfolk Night||Rotterdam Holland||(+31)(0)10 2171717||Buy Tickets|
|Tue 24 Feb||Theatre Royal||Margate||(01843) 292795||Buy Tickets|
|Wed 25 Feb||Tivoli Theatre||Wimborne||(01202) 885566||Buy Tickets|
|Thu 26 Feb||Octagon Theatre||Yeovil||(01935) 422884||Buy Tickets|
|Fri 27 Feb||Wycombe Swan Theatre||High Wycombe||(01494) 512 000||Buy Tickets|
|Sat 28 Feb||The Marina Theatre||Lowestoft||(01502) 533200||Buy Tickets|
|Sun 8 March||Harlequin Theatre||Redhill||(01737) 276500||Buy Tickets|
|Tue 10 March||Wyvern Theatre||Swindon||(01793) 524 481||Buy Tickets|
|Wed 11 March||The Playhouse||Harlow||(01279) 431945||Buy Tickets|
|Thu 12 March||Pavilion Theatre||Worthing||(01903) 206206||Buy Tickets|
|Sat 14 March||The Gatehouse||Stafford||(01785) 619080||Buy Tickets|
|Sun 15 March||Nottingham Playhouse||Nottingham||(0115)919419||Buy Tickets|
|Mon 16 March||Stratford Arts House||Stratford-upon-Avon||(01789) 207100||Buy Tickets|
|17–19 March||Costa Del Folk Festival||Benalmadena Spain||(01254) 504970||Buy Tickets|
|Fri 20 March||Pyramid & Parr Hall||Warrington||(01925) 442345||Buy Tickets|
|Sat 21 March||HRH Prog 3||Pwllheli Wales||(0207)097 8872||Buy Tickets|
|Fri 15 May||Shepley Spring Festival||Shepley||(02380) 711818||Buy Tickets|