For 50, Chapman collaborated with a fresh crew of musicians, including (from left to right) producer and guitarist Steve Gunn, multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles, and keyboardist-bassist Jimy SeiTang. Photo by Constance Mensh
Did you play those songs at your nightly gig to try them out in front of an audience?
Yes. I was working in folk clubs because I wanted to play acoustic. I played a lot of electric in jazz and rock ’n’ roll bands, and I wanted to play acoustic. Folk clubs were the only place you could do that because the audience would be silent. There were still no PAs. In those days, folk clubs were a very, very broad church. I mean, that first night in the folk club that I went into, I played three things: “’Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk, “The Train and the River” by Jimmy Giuffre, and Jimmie Rodgers’ hobo song [“Hobo Bill’s Last Ride”]. You couldn’t do that now. They stopped listening to such a breadth of music.
In the late ’60s, when you put out your first albums, you played the acoustic parts and had someone else play the lead parts on electric. Why didn’t you play those yourself?
Because Gus Dudgeon, the producer, didn’t like my electric playing. It was still too jazzy for him and he didn’t want that.
Mick Ronson plays the lead parts on Fully Qualified Survivor. How did you get him?
He lived around the corner. He was in a band called the Rats. I took him down to London to do the Survivor album and the record company said, “No, we’ve got all these London guys lined up.” I said, “I’ve got a gardener from Hull who will play their asses off.” They finally relented and, of course, he just blew everybody away.
And those were his first recordings?
Yeah. I introduced him to Gus, who introduced him to David [Bowie]. When I did the Survivor album, I wanted Mick to be in the band that I was going to take out on the road to promote it. But he wouldn’t leave the Rats. He was a very genuine and honorable bloke. So when David turned up and took all of them, then he went. He turned them into the Spiders from Mars, so Mick didn’t have to split up with his mates.
Let’s talk about some of the guitars you’ve owned over the years. Start with the black Fylde guitar with the vine inlay.
That was the only black one they ever made. I ordered that custom-built and I said I wanted it made with no natural bass response in the guitar. Roger Bucknall said, “What the hell for?” I said, “Because I want to play it loud.” The more bass response a guitar naturally has, the more problems you have putting it through PAs and monitors at rock ’n’ roll volume. It was built to do a specific job. And it did it very successfully for a few years.
You use amplifiers as well.
No. I used to. I used to carry around that big Fender Bandmaster. We had big PAs, but we didn’t have proper monitor systems for quite a long time. It’s only recently that monitors have caught up with what you can put out front. I wanted to hear myself onstage. Now, I just plug the guitar straight into the DI and turn it up.
What do you use for a direct box?
Whatever they have. I’ve got it down: It’s me, a guitar, a lead, and a packet of sandwiches. That’s my on-the-road kit.
Do you still use your Martin D-18?
No. That was on the road with me for a long, long time. But it got damaged twice, both times by Air France, so now it’s just in the front room. Hendrix actually played that guitar.
How did you meet Hendrix?
I didn’t. There was a club in London that we used to do all-nighters on Friday and Saturday nights, from one until 7 in the morning. That was usually the eighth gig of the week so you were tired when you got there. On that particular night, I was asleep in the car when Hendrix walked in, picked up my guitar, played three songs, and walked out. I missed it, but I’ve still got the guitar.
What are you using now?
My main working guitar is a 1951 [Martin] 000-17, which is a fabulous little thing. It’s all mahogany, obviously, like the 17s were. If you think about it, in 1951, there was no wood around. It was just after World War II, the Korean War was about to kick in, so it was probably made out of old furniture. Some of the wood in that guitar could be 200 years old. In 1951, that guitar was $27, but it sounds fantastic. The definition is just stunning. And it’s small and it goes in the overheads on airplanes.
When did you start using different tunings?
That was, like, ’66 or early ’67. Ralph McTell … I don’t know whether you are aware of Ralph. I don’t think he’s ever really come over to America, but he’s one of the best ragtime players I’ve ever heard. He played me some [Bahamian guitarist] Joseph Spence records and showed me how to drop the bottom string to D. Joseph Spence always played in dropped D—or he did when he was alive. That started me off. I tuned the whole thing to a chord—a chord of D, I think—and started messing about trying to find chords. I tried G. I tried C. Then I tried G-minor and all kinds of weird things just to see what happened.
I just did an album for Steve Lowenthal, for VDSQ Records in New York. Basically, I tuned the guitar to anything. I would have to listen to the record to know what the guitar was tuned to. The album is called Homage and is an homage to various guitar people. The first track is a homage to Orville Gibson. I wanted it to sound like the Gibson harp guitars, so the bottom string was down to A-flat, which was almost dropping off.
You use both traditional tunings and tunings you’ve invented?
Yeah. If I’m gigging I like to know what the tunings are. I only use about four or five now. It used to be silly, the different tunings for every song. People don’t want to spend half the evening listening to you tuning up.
When did you first start playing slide?
I was gigging quite a lot early on with a guy called Mike Cooper. He played a couple of Nationals: one in normal tuning and one in G. He had a Blind Boy Fuller fixation and he played slide. I figured, “I think I can do that.” I’ve always been meaning to teach myself to play slide in normal tuning. One of these days.
When did you start playing slide with your wedding ring?
Very early on. It’s a bit of a gimmick really, isn’t it? It’s nice to slip one in there and people go, “What the hell was that?” It’s never in tune—it is kind of ragged but right—it’s five strings in tune and one out. It’s interesting.
You’ve done a lot of experimental work over the years as well. A few examples are the early synths on “Lescudjack,” or Heartbeat, which has been labeled New Age…
Then I did that stuff for Thurston [Moore], the stuff with the No-Neck Blues Band, and the feedback albums.
You’ve always been adventurous.
For me, that works. I’ve got a very low boredom threshold. As far as the public is concerned, it’s confusing, because, “What the hell is he going to do now?” It’s not as though I worry very much about the public.
What are some new things you’re experimenting with?
I came across a lap steel a while back with only five strings on it that isn’t tuned to anything. I’ve been messing about with that. There are quite a lot of people that I do gigs with … they play acoustic, but they’ve got a pedalboard the size of a kitchen table. They are doing interesting things with pedals. I went to see Bill Frisell and that was just astonishing. I did a gig with Fred Frith as well and he had 27 pedals. I counted them.
Just for himself?
Yeah. And the stuff that he was coming out with, because he knew what they did and he knew when to use them. I had quite a few at one point, but I thought, “This is getting more like tap dancing than playing the fucking guitar.” So I put them in the bin.
You’ve done a lot of stuff with feedback, too. Do you find the acoustics feed back differently than the electrics do?
As long as the monitors are loud enough, at the end of the gig I like to finish up with some feedback out of the acoustics. They say, “It can’t be done.” Well, don’t tell me it can’t be done. For the feedback stuff I did with Thurston, I was using my Gibson ES-175, because they feed back quite early. I used to have a beautiful ES-330 and that fed back really early, but in those days, that was the last thing I wanted to do.
What capos do you use?
I don’t use them. I think they destroy the intonation of the guitar.I see old photographs of myself and I used to always have a capo on the second fret. I have no idea why. From the nut to the bridge on the guitar is that distance for a reason. And it’s one less thing for me to leave behind.
More room for sandwiches?