This article was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here
Interview by Darren Johnson
Next year iconic folk rockers Steeleye Span celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. 2019 will see a brand new album and associated tours as the ever-evolving band mark their half century. More immediately, however, there is the matter of an autumn tour. Lead guitarist, Julian Littman, takes time out of the band’s rehearsals to have a chat with me ahead of the first live dates next week.
“The band is in a really good place,” he enthuses. “It’s sounding great. And when it’s heavy it’s really heavy and when it’s light it’s nice and light, which is great. Because we do wander into prog a little bit as well so it’s a really good combination. The whole idea of the band is that we unite folk with rock. That’s what we try and do but never losing the folk tradition and all that stuff. So it’s in a really good place and we quite often do very old stuff from Steeleye and then, of course, brand new stuff. We do a couple from the Wintersmith project we did with Terry Pratchett so we go right across the board with it. And of course we’ve still got Maddy – thank god. And our latest addition is Benji Kirkpatrick who is a fantastic player – bouzouki, acoustic guitar and mandolin. And he’s the son of (former member) John Kirkpatrick. The tradition is going well. We’re now having people’s sons in the band you know. And it sounds fantastic because Benji keeps that acoustic thing going because we’ve got Spud Sinclair on electric guitar so it’s really good.”
Littman has now been with the band eight years and his creative input on recent albums ‘Wintersmith’ and ‘Dodgy Bastards’ has been widely praised. I ask him what it was like, not just being a newbie in a very established band, but a newbie who has actually gone on to put their own indelible stamp on the band, someone who has really made their mark on the sound and feel of Steeleye Span.
“Well, I like to think I have but at first it was really daunting. Really daunting – because I was following in the footsteps of Ken Nicol who is an amazing guitar player. But everyone’s different so the philosophy is like – you are different so therefore you are ok. But at first it was really difficult. Everyone was very welcoming but I used to get quite nervous really and think ‘oh god I hope I can do this’. And then gradually as I found my place you kind of find your feet. And then I started writing and now I sing a couple of lead vocals. And gradually the anxiety left and I could start to enjoy it and start to be relaxed – in that I wasn’t going to get fired and stuff like that. And it was a process. It probably took a couple of years to settle in and to find where I could contribute. So yes it was daunting to say the least when I first joined, but you do settle into these things and if people like you and they like what you do then gradually you get your confidence.”
The wonderfully prog-folky ‘Wintersmith’, the band’s acclaimed 2013 collaboration with the late author Terry Pratchett, deservedly received very positive reviews. For me, it stands up as not only one of the best Steeleye Span albums of recent years, but one of their best throughout their long career. I ask Littman if we are likely to see any similar literary collaborations in the future.
“Well obviously poor Terry – we have no more Terry. He loved the band, of course. I’m sure we will but not at the moment.”
Rather than seeing ‘Wintersmith’ as an entirely new way of working, however, Littman sees similarities with the way the band has always approached its material.
“In a way every song that Steeleye does is a literary collaboration because basically we take a lot of old ballads – as in tales of sorcery and witchcraft and incest and death and murder and all that – and we take them and it’s almost like collaborating with someone else anyway. Most of the songs are stories. Every song is a collaboration really because we rarely write things that are absolutely, completely original. For instance, in the new album we’re doing a John Masefield poem which is called Roadways. Because John Masefield was very fond of the sea and wrote a lot about the sea. So it’s about longing for sea. He’s saying my road, the right road for me, is the ocean. So that’s a collaboration.”
Littman clearly has a deep attachment to Steeleye Span and what it represents. I ask if he was always a fan of the band, prior to joining.
“Well I’ve sort of been by default almost. I’ve always listened to Steeleye over the years. I don’t think I bought an album, as such, but I was so aware of them. I hadn’t seen them live I have to say but friends had records and I used to hear them and so they are almost part of the DNA. If you like the folk rock thing Steeleye and Fairport are the two aren’t they.”
Of the Steeleye Span albums he doesn’t play on he singles out one from the mid 70s Mike Batt-produced era as his favourite.
“I would say I think it’s Rocket Cottage. They’ve done god knows how many albums and there’s something on every album that you go – ah I really like that one.”
Finally, before he gets back to rehearsals, I ask him what fans can expect from this latest tour.
“Well basically we’re not going to do any of our albums in their entirety because we did that last year. But we’re going to do three songs from the new album so there’ll be three completely new pieces that no-one’s ever heard. And then we delve back a bit. We’re going to do a couple of the epic ballads. We’re going to do some from the album Dodgy Bastards. And we’re going to do one we’ve never done before called Gulliver Gentle – verging on pop, probably the poppiest one. And we’re doing an a cappella piece written by Rose Kemp, Maddy’s daughter, and that’s called Reclaiming and it’s about reclaiming things for the future and ecology.”
As our chat draws to a close I tell him that one of the things I really like about Steeleye Span is that although they have a huge back catalogue every tour has a different theme and a different feel to it, whereas there are some bands of a similar vintage whose set-list changes very little from one tour to the next.
“We try and do that,” Littman agrees. “We always do try and keep it new and exciting and fresh or – play things that people haven’t heard for a long time. We always try and keep it going – keep it fresh, keep it exciting, keep it surprising sometimes.”
Steeleye Span’s Autumn 2018 tour kicks off at the Lyric Theatre in Carmarthen on 1st October. Full tour dates here: http://steeleyespan.org.uk/sample-page/tour-dates-2018/
Steeleye Span at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 2017
Steeleye Span at Cadogan Hall, London 2015
Steeleye Span at New Forest Folk Festival 2014