Dave Bainbridge: The Progarchy Interview

Chances are that if you’ve seen Dave Bainbridge’s name on this website, it’s due to his role as the current guitarist in Lifesigns (both live and on their fine Altitude album). If you’re deeper into modern progressive rock, you may have heard his guitar on Downes Braide Association’s Halcyon Hymns. Or maybe even his keyboards on the last two Strawbs albums, The Ferryman’s Curse and Settlement. (That’s right – Bainbridge is a world-class player on both instruments!)

But Dave Bainbridge’s track record goes a lot deeper than his recent credits; from the 1990s through 2015, he was a major creative force in Iona. Fusing rock with progressive, jazz and folk elements and steeping it all in the spirituality of early Celtic Christianity, this British band captured an international audience while collaborating with prog luminaries like Nick Beggs (the band’s first bassist) and Robert Fripp (who provided ambient sounds for two of their finest albums).

After Iona wound down, Bainbridge continued making music; his solo albums feature both a sweeping range of styles and an impressive array of collaborators. His new album, To the Far Away (exclusively available in multiple formats from Gonzo Multimedia) is a genuine tour de force, based on deeply personal subject matter; it simultaneously evokes the sound of Iona and hones the power of Bainbridge’s solo work into a dramatic swirl of thrilling acoustic and electric guitar work, pounding rhythms and lush orchestral soundscapes. I haven’t heard anything quite like this in a long time; it’s gripping, heart-on-sleeve romantic stuff. But don’t worry — on epics like “Ghost Light,” (extensively featured starting at 1:50 in the promo video below) the guitars and synths still go all the way to 11!

Which meant I was delighted when Dave Bainbridge agreed to talk about To The Far Away, his recent revamp of the Iona catalog, his other band projects and much more with me; he was genial and generous with his time, willing to dive deep into every question, and obviously grateful for what he’s been able to accomplish in his career. You can hear our conversation just below; selected excerpts, as well as a link to a complete transcript, follow the jump.

Dave’s Inspiration for To The Far Away (starting at 0:00:01):

“Well, I suppose it’s in a way the most personal solo album I’ve done, because right back in March 2020 . . . I was due to fly to Miami and to go on Cruise to the Edge – on which I was gonna be married to my fiancée Sharon.  It was actually quite a prog wedding, really, because Neal Morse was going to be officiating; our friend Percy Jones’ wife Joyce Francis was gonna be the head bridesmaid; and John Young from Lifesigns was gonna be the best man.  We figured since we had so many friends on Cruise to the Edge, it would be the perfect place to get married.”

“But sadly, literally one day after the last Lifesigns gig we did . . . the US closed its borders.  So I ended up being apart from Sharon for 8 ½ months.”

“Eventually we found a Facebook page called ‘Love Is Not Tourism’ – cause Sharon’s from Baltimore and I’m from the UK – where couples from a mix of the UK and the US were in exactly the same position as us and had been separated by the pandemic.  We found eventually that a lot of couples – one half of the couple had gotten into America by a third country that wasn’t on the US’ exclusion list as the UK was.  Which was really helpful.  So eventually, towards the end of October 2020, I flew via Frankfurt to Mexico City, and then Mexico City to Cancun, and spent 15 nights in Cancun.  And then I was able to get to the US legitimately.  So we were eventually reunited in November 2020, and then got married in December of that year. Basically, the album is really – a lot of it is to do with that journey: separation and longing, and then eventual reunion.”

Dave’s Collaborators (starting at 0:06:11):

“With To The Far Away, I really wanted to capture some of the excitement and some of the sound that we had in the band Iona that I used to play with.  In particular we kind of discovered this sound around about 1990, the sound of Irish pipes or uilleann pipes and unison electric guitar; melodies played between those two, and also with the addition of Irish low whistle creates this glorious sound!  And it was myself and Troy Donockley, who’s been my friend for years, who kind of accidentally discovered this sound, and then it became a feature of Iona’s music . . .  So Troy was the obvious person to ask to play those parts.”

“The other obvious contributor was my good friend Frank van Essen, who I’ve played with for like 30 years.  He was the drummer and violinist in Iona and is just an incredible musician.  And he really excelled himself, I think, on his drum parts on this album. . . . And then there’s one piece that started out as an improvisation with me on keyboards and Frank on violin that we’d recorded before the pandemic.  The track that became “Infinitude (Reaching for the Stars)”.  We have this really intuitive thing when we’re playing together, and I’ll just improvise chords, quite obscure chord sequences, but he’ll always manage to follow what I’m playing on violin!”

“I collaborated with a lady called Lynn Caldwell, who’s actually originally from Canada, but she lives in Dublin. . . .   I’m good at coming up with concepts for lyrics and the occasional quite good line, but I’m not really a full-on lyricist as such.  So I’ve always collaborated with people on lyrics. I’d read a few of Lynn’s poems; she has this blog.  And I’d just loved the descriptive language she used; it wasn’t kind of sentimental, but it was just very descriptive.  So I approached her and said ‘Would you be interested in collaborating on the album?’  And I explained some of the concepts.  And it worked great!  Obviously, we were working in isolation because of the pandemic, so we never actually got to be in the same room together.  But we spent a lot of time exchanging emails.  I think there were very few lines that she wrote that I changed – hardly anything, really!  She just totally understood the whole concept behind the songs and came up with some beautiful lines.  I was thrilled with that; it was a lot of fun to collaborate.”

“There are two main lead vocalists.  One is my good friend Sally Minnear, whom I’ve known for years.  She’s the daughter of Kerry Minnear, who was the keyboard player in the 70s prog band Gentle Giant . . . Kerry mentioned that she’d got a part singing the lead vocals in Michael Flatley’s dance extravaganza Lord of the Dance, which was the followup to Riverdance.  I remember Kerry playing the video from a live recording, and I was captivated by Sally’s voice, this beautiful, pure voice. . . . Like Kerry, Sally is a fantastic multi-instrumentalist, basically really good on any instrument you can throw at her.  She was the obvious choice to get to sing the lead female vocals on this.” 

“But because the concept was kind of a sort of love story, I wanted to have a good male vocalist on some tracks as well.   And Sally actually suggested Iain Hornal; they were at music college together, in a music production course.  And she spoke really highly of him as a singer.  After he’d left college, he did actually sing with Three Friends for a while, which was the Gentle Giant offshoot band that Kerry, [guitarist] Gary Green and [drummer] Malcolm Mortimer put together.  But then after that, he was playing the gig as lead vocalist for 10CC and also singing with Jeff Lynne’s ELO.  So he’s done some really big stuff.”

Dave’s Classical Heroes (starting at 0:11:57):

“I’ve always loved English string composers like Vaughan Williams, E.J. Moeran, Gerald Finzi, [George] Butterworth – lots of people from the early 20th century.  That music just connects with my heart; I’m very influenced by the harmonic progressions of some of that music.  And I think that shows through on this piece [‘Infinitude”]. . . . I think [Vaughan Williams is] very underrated!  I think when he was composing, a lot of people thought it was too melodic, because we had people like Schoenberg and the more avant-garde composers come out.  But I think now his music is being really celebrated, just for the beauty of it.”

Dave’s Rock Heroes (starting at 0:21:17):

“I was pretty fortunate to have an older sister, who was 9 years older than me.  She was a rock singer; she died suddenly in 1999, but she was a singer in various rock and pop and blues bands locally in Darlington, where we lived.  But she had this huge collection of records!  So from a really young age, I was listening to her Beatles records, Jimi Hendrix albums, Jethro Tull albums and all kinds of stuff! . . . Then when I was 12, Maureen my sister took me to see Santana.  And that was the first big gig I’d ever been to.  And it was just incredible!  And I was basically hooked on live music then.  So whenever I got the opportunity, I’d go with my friends to gigs.  We went to see all kinds of bands, like Yes, Focus, Deep Purple were a massive influence.   Black Sabbath and all the rock bands and prog bands of the day.”

“But I would say the biggest influence as far as me wanting to be a keyboard player and a guitar player was probably Deep Purple.  I just absolutely loved Jon Lord’s playing, and the way he combined classical influences with rock organ; I really related to that.  Cause at the time I was learning to play Bach pieces on the piano.  And then Ritchie Blackmore’s sound and emotion in his playing; I just absolutely loved that!”

“So that led me to starting to play the guitar when I was 13 or 14.  I joined my first band when I was 14, from looking at adverts in the paper.  And we ended up playing Deep Purple covers; we did ‘Roundabout’ by Yes and various others. That was playing keyboard.  My friends in that band introduced me to Yes’ Close to the Edge, [Genesis’] Selling England by the Pound.  The bass player had all these great albums!  We’d do a bit of rehearsing and then spend hours just listening to music. . . . Close to the Edge I was just blown away by, because I’d never heard all these different keyboard sounds before!  I was playing this little cheap organ which sounded horrible; and here on this album, there were church organ, Hammond organ, amazing synthesized sounds.  So I think, when I heard that album, that kind of convinced me that I wanted to be a multi-keyboard player.”

“And I’d say that the other album, which I think you can probably hear some on the influence on To The Far Away, was Tubular Bells.  ,. . . just the idea of one person multi-layering and playing all the instruments, multi-layering this amazing music, that really struck a chord with me.  . . . So that album was a huge influence, and I loved Mike Oldfield’s guitar sound.  And those melodies as well which he came up with; they’re just very memorable.” 

Iona and Spirituality (starting at 0:28:32):

“[Bainbridge and multi-instrumentalist David Fitzgerald] realized that we didn’t know anything about how Christianity had arrived in the British Isles.  So that led to a discovery of some of the early Celtic Christian monks, and people like St. Brendan and St. Patrick and then St. Columba, who was an Irish monk to sailed to Iona.  It’s quite an interesting story; this is back in the 6th century.  He was of a kingly descent, and there was a big dispute about copying the Scriptures at the time, which resulted somehow in this battle in which about 3,000 people were killed.  And he felt at least partially responsible for that.”

“So as kind of a penance, he felt that he should be exiled.  Exile himself from Ireland and find somewhere to base himself that was out of the sight of Ireland, so it was far enough away from Ireland that he couldn’t see the coastline.  And he ended up finding a small Scottish island, Iona, and setting up a monastery/mission base there.” 

“And from there – his idea was to be able to save as many souls as had been lost in this battle.  So him and about 12 or so monks went on this small boat and found Iona and set up this monastery, from which Scotland and northern Britain was evangelized. And just reading about this, we were just struck by the sense of the miraculous stories in these early accounts of his mission trips.  This very kind of connected, earthy Christianity which seemed to really see God in creation, much more than the materialistic version of Christianity that we saw in the 1980s in England. . . . It’s those kinds of humble stories and really earthy stories that really spoke to us a lot.  And also the landscapes of those islands in particular.  So that was the basis that gave us the inspiration for the music and the songs for Iona.”

“So particularly, I’d say over the first four Iona albums [Iona, The Book Of Kells, Beyond These Shores, Journey Into The Morn], which were very much based on the ideas and stories of those early Celtic Christian saints, as well as translated into our own contemporary lives — I think that was an amazing journey that was much bigger than we could have imagined.”

Dave and Gonzo Multimedia (starting at 0:40:08):

“Iona decided at that point [2000] to become independent and form our own label, which is called Open Sky Records.  And then, just to find people to work with to distribute.  So basically since 2000, that’s been what first of all Iona did, and now what I’m doing.”

“So with To the Far Away, I funded the whole of the recording.  But I’m working with a label called Gonzo Multimedia, who paid for the manufacturing and the artwork, and they distribute the album.  There came a time when I just didn’t have time to run the Iona online store anymore, so they set up a new store for me.  So they do all the administration.”

Dave and Lifesigns (starting at 0:46:51):

“I’d kind of known of John Young, whose band it is, for a long time.  We met briefly around about 2000 . . . but then our paths didn’t cross again until 2016, I think.  By which time I was playing keyboard with the Strawbs.  We were on tour – it was one of the first tours we’d done in the UK.  And a few gigs in, one of my keyboards just stopped working!  And I had to spend about 2 hours before the gig that night – cause it just went off in the soundcheck – reprogramming everything so I could play everything on one keyboard rather than two.”

“So the next gig in the next night was in a place called Wavenden, in a venue called the Stables.  And [Strawbs founder/singer/guitarist] Dave Cousins said, ‘Oh, John Young lives near there.  We could ask him if he’s got a keyboard we could borrow!’  And it turned out that John had played with the Strawbs for a couple of years, previously to me being in the band.”

“And so Dave Cousins rang him up, and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure!’  And he brought a keyboard along to the soundcheck, which was fantastic and it really saved the day.  So he let me use that for the rest of the tour and then he took it back at the end. . . . So about a year later, John was putting together Cardington and asked if I’d like to be involved playing some guitar on a few tracks.  So they sent me some of the tracks and I played on those; I loved the music, and John really loved what I was doing.”

“Once it was time for playing that album live, Niko [Tsonev], the previous guitarist, decided to leave, so John asked if I’d like to join the band full time.  And I think that was partly down to Nick Beggs’ recommendation as well.  We just really get on very well just as friends; and I think musically we’re from the same era and love all the same kind of bands.  So I think I was able to contribute a lot to the band from a kind of classic prog rock perspective, which I think people have connected with.  So yeah, the latest album Altitude is the first one that I was the sole guitar player on.”

“And the other thing as well live – cause John writes some quite complex keyboard parts, which are very difficult to play when he’s singing lead vocals at the same time.  So live, quite often I’ll play the keyboard parts when he’s singing that he can’t cover himself.  So it works really well from that point of view.”

Dave and the Strawbs (starting at 0:52:21):

“That was down to my friend [guitarist] Paul Bielatowicz . . . Paul was on tour with Carl Palmer and the promoter had put together this Classic Legends of Rock tour, which featured the Acoustic Strawbs, just this 3-piece lineup they have, Carl Palmer’s band and Wishbone Ash.”

“During the tour, Dave Cousins had asked Paul if he knew any keyboard players, because they were supposed to be doing this full electric band Strawbs tour a few months later.  And Adam Wakeman, Rick Wakeman’s son, was the Strawbs’ keyboard player at the time; but he got this massive tour with Black Sabbath.  So they were looking for someone to replace him, and Paul recommended me.”

“So I went to one of the gigs on the tour and really hit it off with Dave Cousins; we got on really well.  And then the next thing I knew, Dave rang me up and said, ‘Oh, do you mind if I come up to your studio?  I’ve got some ideas for a new song.’  So he came up to my studio and we spent a couple of days working on this really long track which became ‘The Ferryman’s Curse’, which is the title track of the Strawbs album that came out in 2017 or so.”

“So even before we’d actually played live, we’d done some writing together.  And Dave was really pleased with my approach, because I was very familiar with all of the keyboard players who’d previously been in Strawbs, and about the whole genre of music.  . . . And then we toured pretty extensively from then up until 2019, and then obviously the pandemic shut everything down.  Although we did manage to produce the new album called Settlement during the pandemic, all done remotely.  But then, just a few weeks ago, Dave announced his retirement from playing live.  So it’s unlikely there’ll be any more Strawbs gigs. . . . But Dave certainly hopes to do more writing, so I’m expecting there’ll be another Strawbs album, hopefully that I’ll be involved with, at some point.”

Dave and Downes Braide Association (starting at 0:57:18):

“I met Geoff Downes actually on Cruise to the Edge in 2018.  A friend introduced me to him and we really hit it off.  I always wanted to have a chat with him, because I knew that he went to the same music college that I did.  He was there a few years before I did, so we never met.  And we both had the same piano teacher, a fantastic jazz pianist called Bryan Layton.  So when we were on the boat, we just chatted about old times at Leeds Music College a lot.  And Geoff’s a really nice, down to earth guy.  He saw my first gig with Lifesigns, which was also on Cruise to the Edge, and Yes’ manager Martin Darvill was also there.  Martin’s been a good friend of John Young’s for a long time, so Martin came to a Lifesigns gig a year or so after that.”

“And I got this call early one morning; and it was Yes’ manager Martin Darvill asking if I was free to do a couple of gigs the following February with Downes Braide Association.  Cause they’d previously done a live album and some recording that had Dave Colquhoun playing guitar, Rick Wakeman’s guitarist; he’s been with Rick for years.  So it turned out that Rick was doing a new album, the one about Mars [The Red Planet] about the time that they had these two DBA gigs booked, and so Dave couldn’t do them.  So I think it was a combination of Geoff having seen me and Martin having seen me with Lifesigns, and they asked if I’d like to do the gigs.”

“And a month or two after that, Chris Braide from DBA was kind of twiddling his thumbs during the first bit of the lockdown wondering what to do.  And Geoff had sent him a whole folder of new instrumental ideas and suggested doing a new DBA album [Halcyon Hymns].  So Chris contacted me asking if I’d like to play on a track – and it ended up me playing on the whole album [laughs], not only playing guitar but contributing a lot on acoustic instruments.”

“So the last three months I’ve been working on a new DBA album; I’ve literally just finished the last few overdubs.  And that’s gonna be called Celestial Songs.  Roger Dean’s been working on the cover of that again, which is quite amazing.”

What’s Next for Dave (starting at 1:02:31):

“As far as live shows, we have got 5 UK dates booked with Lifesigns in April, and then Cruise to the Edge as well in May.  So, fingers crossed that’ll all happen!”

“Because of all the uncertainty, I’m actually thinking at the moment – my solo albums have come out with quite big gaps in between them up until this point.  Largely because I’ve been working with other people in between and having to find ways to make a living as a musician.”

“But at the moment I’m just looking at starting a Patreon page, which is a way for people to subscribe and have a closer relationship with musicians and composers.  And we can kind of take the journey together.  Because the problem is, being a musician, particularly when there’s no touring, is there’s no steady income.  But I’m really thrilled with how To the Far Away has been received, so I’m keen to do another solo album as soon as I can.  So I’m hoping that maybe through Patreon I can find a way to be able to fund that and actually sustain a living while I’m writing music and releasing it.”

Dave to the Readers of Progarchy (starting at 1:06:54):

“It was nice to discover the website!  And I think it’s through people like you that people can discover great new music.  I mean, there’s some fantastic albums coming out, and so many of them just go under the radar these days.  So I’d just encourage people to not just listen to all the classic prog bands, but really take the time to listen to all the new, upcoming bands.  And spend money on supporting them and buying their releases!  I just bought a great album the other day by a UK band called Lost Crowns.  You should definitely check those out; they’re quite experimental, but super-original music.  And there’s so much about, but it just needs people to be able to find it and discover it and support it.”

Click here to go to Dave Bainbridge’s website.

Click here to order all editions of To The Far Away (along with other Dave Bainbridge and Iona albums and merch) from Gonzo Multimedia.

— Rick Krueger

2 thoughts on “Dave Bainbridge: The Progarchy Interview

  1. Pingback: Rick’s Quick Takes for February – Progarchy

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