There was a fairly determinate point in the British folk rock movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s where a second string, following on the heels of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, made a bid for eternity. Trees, Mellow Candle, Mr. Fox, and the chamber folk musicians, like Nick Drake or John Martyn or Roy Harper or Michael Chapman, bent their axes in a more idyllic, often trippily electric, singer-songwriter direction, creating everything from full-out jazz improv to fairly quaint hippy platitudes. The rarity of some of the LPs these artists produced is legend — it took the internet to demystify them, and reconnect listeners to a wellspring of achieving, often remarkable, sometimes dated, music.
As a touchstone for inspiration these records are nearly without peer, independent and uncompromising. But having a Vashti Bunyan album in your collection and making music that you make your own is another thing. Chris Wade, who leads the project Dodson and Fogg — as well as being a rock writer in his own right — has done that with Derring Do, the group’s second album. Derring Do elaborates on the first, self-titled Dodson and Fogg record, while taking a leap forward lyrically and musically — the limitations of a home studio have become strengths, the writing delivering songs that fit together. Wade has achieved this by understanding the tools he’s working with, and by having a deep respect for his inspirations while retaining his artist’s eye and ear for what does justice to his songs. So he’s able to coax graceful backing from two of British folk rock’s great singers — Celia Humphris (Trees), and Alison O’Donnell (Mellow Candle) — while maintaining a focus and direction of his own device.
There are traces on Derring Do that listeners might find familiar, the floating-down-a-river sound of Nick Drake or James Yorkston, the pop folk of Iron and Wine, the simple melodic invention of Syd Barrett, and the more pastoral forays of T. Rex and the Kinks. The lyrics are simple and unfussy, straightforward, working with the melodies rather than overly concerned with poetics or narrative. Unexpected touches appear, such as really tasteful, brief guitar solos that work — there’s an ebb and flow that occasionally needs breaking, and Wade has the feel and chops to put some crunch in the right places. There are trumpets, spare percussion, flutes, and Wade’s voice, dwelling at times in the lower registers, can range from a kind of glam-punk bite to the breathy approach that’s come to be so associated with Nick Drake. The remarkable thing about this album, though, is that no voice dominates within each composition. The impulse to go long, as his folk and prog rock predecessors might have done, is also resisted — there are few wasted notes or words. Less is more sometimes, and service here is done to Song.
“The Leaves They Fall” is a video Wade put together for Derring Do, which gives a good general idea of the album’s direction
but I think most representative (and beautiful) is “To the Sea,” with its on-fire electric outro:
I caught up with Chris Wade the other day — after hearing the record, I wanted to ask him some questions, which he graciously consented to answer. I think he tells Dodson and Fogg’s story best, plus he reminded me I need to read more Dickens.
I’ve read you spent a lot of time in your teens with a guitar and a 4-track. That kind of intimate warmth is present on Derring Do. It’s loose, not precise, something so tempting in our digital world. Describe your recording process — are these home studio recordings?
Yeah, these are done in my home studio. I knew that with a simple set up, a microphone miking it all up like in the old days, it would make the record sound like it was perhaps from my favourite era of music, late 60s, early 70s. I basically start with an acoustic track, which I might double up, then do a bass track, then start on the vocals, then anything else comes in after that. On Derring Do I definitely got this down to a proper functioning way of doing it. You do need to have a plan when you’re recording and producing yourself. The great part is when other people send their things for the mix, that’s when it comes to life, especially when Celia [Humphris] sends some of her vocals over.
What’s the inspiration for the name Dodson and Fogg? (I can’t get out my head Lindisfarne’s Fog on the Tyne.)
Dodson and Fogg were two lawyers in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. I thought it had a cool ring to it and I like the fact the name has caused a bit of confusion. Some people have gone in assuming it was a duo, but it’s me really with guest musicians. I love Lindisfarne as well, funny you should mention them. I just did a piece on them for my magazine Hound Dawg and all surviving members contributed text for it. Great band.
Anyone familiar with the history of the British folk revival will recognize some of Derring Do’s contributors. How did you come to work with Judy Dyble, Celia Humphris and Alison O’Donnell? How about Nik Turner of Hawkwind? Is that his flute I hear?
Yeah, Nik is great on the flute, he did some amazing stuff on the first album. It was a matter of emailing them to ask if they’d be interested. I’ve always thought ‘you never know until you try’ and I have been a bit of a cheeky git in the past. But Nik and Judy did their bits and emailed them across to me. But Celia is very much more involved in the whole thing. She contributes a lot of vocals and puts in a lot of time to this, so I am really grateful of that. She’s done loads of good stuff on Derring Do, given the album a real nice touch. I still can’t believe they took the time out do it and as a big fan of trees and Celia’s voice, it’s amazing to have her on the songs. her voice is stronger than ever too, she really is very very talented.
I love how you use horns (thinking here of What Goes Around and Too Bright). Can you talk about your approach to arranging your songs?
I’m glad you like the horns. Arranging a track, I like to record what I think is a decent simple acoustic and vocal track, and then think of an instrument or a sound that may make it a little bit different, unusual, but it has to fit just right. Colin Jones, the trumpet player, did some brilliant things on the Derring Do album. He’s a nice bloke as well. I see mixing a track like doing a painting, without sounding pretentious (which i probably just have sounded) because you lay sounds on, mix them around, put them in one speaker to balance it out, turn them up, turn them down, and sometimes delete them from the mix. I love that process, I could do it all day (sometimes I have been doing that actually).
Nice lead guitar and solos – is that you, or who’s responsible? Can you tell us something about choosing your tones?
Thanks, yeah that’s me on electric guitar. I love playing the guitar, it’s always my favourite part of doing a track, writing and playing the solo. I just play naturally really, whatever I feel should come out. I use a Tanglewood SG on the albums. I mike the amp up, make sure there’s a lot of treble on the guitar and that’s basically it. A reviewer said it was shredding and a sharp sound. I like to use the electric every now and then, and not necessarily on every track, because it has more power when it comes up then. I’ve been playing since I was a kid, but I don’t think i really started understanding that sometimes less is more and that a solo should be a properly structured piece of music in itself rather than a random improvised noodle, although i do like them, just not in my own songs because I’m crap at them.
Can you describe your vocal approach (I notice on the first record you double your vocal a lot, less so on Derring Do — which I like).
I like to sing within a range that is comfortable. One thing I don’t really like is loud, high singing, because I have a low voice and if I try and go higher i sound like my balls are in a vice or being chewed by a rabid hound. So I like to keep it comfortable and also easier to listen to. No one wants to hear someone struggling with high notes, not much of a pleasant experience really. But I like the voice to sound strong and loud in the mix, so you can hopefully hear all the lyrics. The cool thing is having proper singers with you on the songs who really can use their voices, when Celia’s voice comes into the mix I sometimes have to pinch myself. It’s brilliant.
I hear a musical leap between the debut and Derring Do, which seems, musically and lyrically, far more focused. Am I hearing right, and would you elaborate if I am?
Yeah i think there is a leap. I’m not a seasoned pro with proper writing and recording so I guess i am still learning and developing a style, which is really exciting and I’m really glad you recognised the shift in styles. I started recording Derring Do before the first one was out and knew I felt like expanding the sound a bit. When I recorded the first one I was kind of testing what I could do on this set up and a lot of it is safer in a way. With Derring Do I wanted it to sound fuller, more elaborate at points and also more varied, like an album with lots of moods, styles and shades, which is quite a progressive approach. But a lot of the time anyone recording music is just doing what they feel like doing that day and going where the song is taking them.
There’s a lot going on in these songs, threads of past and present. Who are some of your influences, and who of your contemporaries do you follow?
I mostly love music from the 60s and 70s, but wasn’t born until 1985. I always love listening to Donovan, Jethro Tull, The Kinks, Cat Stevens, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Trees… I am not sure how they influence the music but some reviewers have heard bits of Trees, Tull, Barrett and Crimson in the music, but you never really know yourself do you? I don’t really follow modern music really, only bits and pieces, although I know I should.
How would you describe (I hate to say it, but “categorize”) your own music?
For the first album I just thought of it as a folk rock album, but found that a lot of folk sites and shows didn’t think it was pure folk enough, and then people started calling it ‘acid folk’ which was a term I didn’t know until then. I thought they were accusing me of being a spaced out acid head or something. The only thing I have in excess is malt loaf (mmm… malt loaf). But people have also called it ‘progressive folk’ which I like. it seems to work under that category i think.
You’re a busy man, a writer, musician, visual artist — what excites you most about what you do?
I’m most excited by the music now, it’s really took hold of me and I love putting the work into it. I love the fact I get to do the mix, sort out the artwork, royalties, promo, everything. If it’s your job then why not make it your proper job and put full time work into it. That’s what excites me, and also the thrill of creating something you’re really enjoying. I’ve done a mix of things, like the audiobook with the comedian Rik Mayall but it doesn’t come near the enjoyment of making music. I don’t like having to deal with egos and awkward people who are more interested in their images than the work you’re creating. It isn’t the best way of spending your time. I have a working class ethic to it, it’s a job and you fund it and do it yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you.
On the pages of Progarchy we regularly (short-lived as we are) hear from artists who struggle to find reward for what they do. What’s your perspective on this? Can a musician be just a musician anymore? What’s the easiest way for someone not familiar with Dodson and Fogg access your music?
Luckily for me I have quite a lot of projects that are out there, so the music is just one of my things available, if you like. I think it might be hard to survive on royalties alone these days, but then again I am really new to the “music biz” (business I mean, not poo) so I don’t really know too much about it. I’m still learning. The CDs are available from my website, where all my stuff is available, but you can also download from bandcamp and also Itunes, Amazon and all the digital stores. But the easiest way is to type in Dodson and Fogg to the Google search and the top result is my website. All the info is there.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got some promotion to do and sorting things out for the album, and also doing some articles for the next Hound Dawg magazine. After that i think I’ll start on album number three, which will be really fun!
Thanks to Chris Wade for such generous responses. Check out Dodson and Fogg’s website here:
and online back issues of Chris’s Hound Dawg: http://wisdomtwinsbooks.weebly.com/hound-dawg-magazine-online.html
Craig Breaden, February 2013