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Peter Knight & John Spiers standing before a beautiful sunset. Photo by Elly Lucas.
Photo credit: Elly Lucas.

Peter Knight & John Spiers: The Interview

Peter Knight and John Spiers discuss their new album, Both In a Tune, the high-wire stakes of free improvisation, and life working with Wombles.

When Peter Knight arrives on Zoom, he’s leaning against the distinctive purple wall of a particular travel tavern. “Ah, the Premier Inn colours”, murmers his musical partner, John Spiers, knowingly. “Welcome back.”

It’s a fitting reminder of how these two road veterans have honed their style. As Knight explains during the course of the following interview, touring is what he’s good at, and Spiers seems to be on the road more often than not this year. While the duo was put together for a one-off performance at Folkeast, 2016, it’s largely through touring that they’ve been able to explore what has become an extraordinary partnership, giving them the confidence to record the heavily free-form album, Both in a Tune. It’s an exquisite collection that makes use of well-known traditional pieces, repurposing them as jumping-off points into fairly avant-garde experimentation.

For Knight, free improvisation on stage or in the studio is where he’s most comfortable. For Spiers, it’s a relatively new and exhilarating experience, and that tension is what forms the backbone of our conversation today, not to mention one of the most exciting tours you will attend this year.

It doesn’t surprise me that we’ve made this album, but it might surprise people that like to put things in pigeonholes.

John Spiers

Obviously, both of you are serial collaborators. Spiers & Boden, Jackie Oates, Gigspanner, Steeleye Span – what are you looking for in a collaborator?

Peter Knight: Just someone that is like-minded and looking for the same sort of music that I’m looking for, really – music that isn’t predictable. There are some beautiful tunes out there, there are some beautiful songs out there, and that’s absolutely lovely. But with mainly instrumental music, unfortunately, I think it’s a mixed blessing. I get bored quite easily. Just playing a tune really nicely, three or four times through with a nice sound and a nice melody, sadly isn’t good enough for me. I love music so much that the worst feeling for me is actually being a bit bored playing something, especially when you’re touring. So, in order to keep it fresh, it’s important for me to have the balance between just making something up on the spur of the moment, thinking about the tune, and playing the tune without messing up the source.

Let’s take ‘Rosebud in June‘, for instance. A beautiful melody, and John’s left hand… the way that he accompanied tunes is absolutely astonishing, really, with the harmonies that he provides for those melodies. I think that’s a strength that John has that I haven’t actually seen a lot with other players, other good players, and that’s very exciting. We took that tune and we played it probably three or four times on tour. And then, after that amount of time, we said, “Well, you know, all we’re doing now is just playing the tune.”

So then we said, “Let’s just start somewhere on our instruments. It doesn’t matter where it is – up the dusty end – so that we don’t really know what we’re doing.” And then what you find yourself in is a very exciting, creative area where you’re producing a certain sound. You’re thinking about the beautiful melody of ‘Rosebud in June’, and you want what you’re creating, even if it sounds dissonant, to be as beautiful as that tune. And we’ve arrived at an extraordinary minute or two of something absolutely fantastic where you think, “I never want to leave this texture that I’m in musically.” It’s very exciting.

What happens then is that you really are creating as musicians and listening to each other. So to get back to your question, it’s important that I play with musicians that are open to those possibilities when making music. That’s very important to me.

John Spiers: I think it’s probably a different answer for me. I’m looking for something that is going to further me as a musician, because every new person you play with, you learn something different from – you’re making a connection. Obviously, when you first start playing in a duo, having not done that before, you have to learn the skill of listening and predicting, and getting to know someone musically. But I haven’t found anyone that I’ve ever played with for any length of time where there isn’t something new to be learned. So, to take the ‘Rosebud in June’ example, it’s an area of music I’ve always done, but only since playing with Peter have I done it in public and done it with someone else. Just playing with sound, using your knowledge of your instrument, and sometimes your lack of knowledge of your instrument because you’re looking for places that are new all the time.

Is free improvisation of that nature something that is new to you, John?

JS: I’ve always done that in the privacy of my own practice room. I always really enjoyed it for the process and for the potential sounds it could make. And that’s how I’ve brought my style forward, by practicing that way at home and then bringing things into performance. The process of actually finding it is so satisfying, and only really since playing with Peter have I realized that it’s something you can do on stage, and that audiences really get something from it as well. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that, Peter, but I think people know what we’re doing. Even if they don’t know what we’re doing, they can feel what we’re doing.

PK: Yeah, absolutely.

JS: It seems to take people to a different place. So that has been a real eye-opener.

Peter Knight & John Spiers standing in front of a green wall, smiling. Photo by Elly Lucas.
Photo credit: Elly Lucas.

Is it a comfortable thing to do? As a musician myself, I came from playing fairly standards Blues stuff which was always improvisational – it was always about trying to do something different each time. But with this album, you’re moving into something that’s perhaps beyond improvisation and more to do with pure experimentation. it’s quite revealing, isn’t it? Do you find that it’s like you’re opening up quite a personal part of yourself?

PK: Absolutely. And I think it’s all about finding a vocabulary on your instrument where you can express whatever it is you want to express through music. It’s the same as a language: you need to have a vocabulary in order to explain, like me talking to you now. Sometimes it’s not how the music sounds when I’m playing it, it’s what the feeling is within me when I’m playing it. Whether I’m playing something sensible that’s harmonious or something that’s deliberately dissonant, it’s that connection between me and what I’m trying to say that is the all-important thing. It’s probably the most comfortable way that I play, actually. It’s all about commitment: playing in that way and having faith in playing in that way. And not just on a personal level either. I think it’s also a very important thing for the continuation of the world of music to keep developing.

You didn’t start off in folk music, did you, Peter?

PK: I’m sort of known as a folk musician, but my life started really with a dad that played fiddle and a mum that sang. Then I went to the Royal Academy of Music as a junior exhibitioner. I had a great professor.

Now, within the classical world, for instance, there was a cadenza in concertos where the soloists could play whatever they wanted. And some of the early descriptions of some of these cadenzas were extraordinary. The Beethoven violin concerto, for instance, where the soloist had his dog on the stage, and the dog is making noises and he’s playing to it. And then what happened was that the industry – promoters, publishers – they closed that freedom down because it wasn’t good for bums on seats. But that was a big part of open improvising.

You mentioned Blues. Of course, to take 12-bar Blues, and to play something different within that structure is improvising, but it’s not the same as actually going out in front of an audience and having no idea what you’re going to be playing until you commit to that first note that you make, which is the springboard for you composing something in the spur of the moment with a feeling inside you. On a personal level, it’s the most comfortable way that I can play.

I think people will listen to our album and they’ll hear that there are areas where we really don’t know where we are. But that’s the door that needs to be open. I think that’s very important. For me, that’s part of being a responsible musician.

I don’t know if either of you have ever seen the skit by the comedian Stewart Lee, where he talks about the difference between jazz and traditional folk, and he ends up going off on this funny riff about how you can compare them to sex.

PK: Yeah, I think I have.

JS: He’s the one we watch in the hotel rooms after gigs a lot.

Well, in this particular skit he’s playing with the idea that traditional folk music is about being very faithful to the original point – quite a strict format – whereas jazz is freeform and experimental. I was watching it last night and I was thinking about your album. It really challenges that idea, doesn’t it?

JS: I think what I got out of that particular sketch is that he doesn’t really get music [laughs]. He’s clearly someone that likes to put things in pigeonholes. And of course, with all areas of life, there aren’t really any. It’s just where we choose to put them. That’s true in terms of traditions as they migrate from Scotland down through Northern England down into France. And there’s no one place where you flick a switch and it’s different on the other side. It’s the same with approaches to music. It’s not that folk is always like this and has always been like this. I mean, the word “folk” puts it in a pigeonhole already, and we need that to obviously talk about it. But I don’t think the fact that our album bucks the trend is that much of a surprise because it’s just two people approaching music in the way we want to. And I’ve approached music in different ways with other people I’ve played with. I’m happy doing that as well, because it’s like having two different friends that you behave differently with because you know there are different ways of being and different ways of saying the right thing. So, yeah, it doesn’t surprise me that we’ve made this album, but it might surprise people that like to put things in pigeonholes.

PK: But it’s also good that everything is out there. I can listen to what I would consider to be straight ahead folk music – there are some fantastic players and singers around that I really love listening to. And it’s good that it is there. It’s not like it’s a competition about who’s making the best music. The lovely thing is that there’s all that music out there. We can hear music now worldwide, and we make our choices of what we like to listen to, and some maybe we don’t like to listen to.

I’m glad everything’s out there. Straight ahead, wobbly, dodgy, all of it. Lovely.

Peter Knight

I remember when I was playing with Trevor Watts years ago in East Germany, and we went to do an interview at a radio station. They had loads and loads of albums, from floor to ceiling. There was a category and it was marked, “shit” [laughs]. It was all the Radio One stuff – Abba, The Beatles – all the pop music was there, and all the interesting stuff was what they were interested in. That’s great that we’ve got the choice. And of course, as a musician, you know that you can’t please everyone, so you have to please yourself. There’s no alternative to that, is there? That’s the music you’re going to play the best. That’s what you’re going to deliver. I’m glad everything’s out there. Straight ahead, wobbly, dodgy, all of it. Lovely.

John Spiers and Peter Knight standing against a white wall that is covered in green vine. Photo credit, Elly Lucas.
Photo credit: Elly Lucas.

On the album, you’ve used some very well-known traditional pieces as your jumping-off point – ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘Yellow Haired Boy’, ‘Abbots Bromley Horn Dance’. Why did you choose those, and how did the improvisations develop?

JS: Well, I think you have ideas in your head about tunes that you think might work. Peter and I have been doing stuff since 2018, as far as recording goes anyway, so I’ve had enough time to know from trial and error what type of tunes we really get our teeth into. So, when bringing stuff to the table, I will already have thought, “Is this going to be a good one or isn’t it?” And we might have to play it through a few times.

In the case of ‘Scarborough Fair’, we didn’t even do that. It ended up as the first track on the album, but actually, it was, I think, the last one that we recorded because there was something else we’d done that we didn’t think was good enough and we needed to record another track to replace it. And I think it was Peter that just said, “Why don’t we try ‘Scarborough Fair’?” And I’d already been thinking that might be a good one because we tend to find that melodies of folk songs often provide a nice palette for us to work with. And that song is the biggy, isn’t it, really, in terms of folk song melodies? I think the recording that you hear is the first one that we did without really having played it through before at all.

PK: Yes, it was the first take.

JS: I think we made sure that we were playing exactly the same version in terms of the melody before we got into it, but we didn’t play it at all before that. We just both knew the tune, chose D-minor, the mics were open and we started playing. That was it.

That’s extraordinary.

PK: Yeah, it’s lovely, isn’t it? That doesn’t happen with all of them.

JS: No, definitely not [laughs].

PK: Sometimes, when we’ve recorded the tune, we’ve had three or four takes and you pick the best one. I think we did try another take of ‘Scarborough Fair’, but, you know, when you’ve done it…

The stories of first takes across the industry are extraordinary. People have tried to get the best, and then you go back to the first take, and that’s the one. That’s often the case. And that’s why another advantage of this sort of spontaneous creativity, musically, is that the first time that you actually play something, whether you’re writing a tune or writing a song, that moment where you hit that place that you’ve been working towards, it doesn’t get any better than that. And because of knowing that, I know that when John and I go out on our tour in a few weeks, a mistake when playing ‘Scarborough Fair’ would be to take the same starting point as we have on the album. That would be a mistake because what happens is that as soon as something starts becoming an arrangement, it becomes the same as any arrangement.

John and I haven’t talked about this, but I would suggest that when we go out to play ‘Scarborough Fair’, we go out as though we’ve never played it before.

JS: Yes, and that’s how we’ve generally approached other pieces. We might have a way of approaching something, but it can go in a different direction every time we play it. But I think the more you play it on the tour, the easier it is to fall into the trap of doing that. We’re always working towards not doing that as much as possible. We’ve done three or four tours already, and I don’t imagine doing it with this material will be any different to that approach.

As an audience member, it’s quite an amazing thing, isn’t it, to know that a musician is determined not to play the same thing twice. It’s a bit like going to see a high wire act. It brings with it a wonderful thrill.

PK: Yes!

JS: You mentioned improvising in Blues and, of course, there’s improvising in bluegrass, and there’s improvising in jazz sets – situations where a soloist is expected to improvise. I think what we do differently is that we’re trying to do soloist improvising and arrangement improvising at the same time. So there are times when we can completely lose the tune for a lot of it. The tune is going through our heads and we’ve got an idea rhythmically where it is, even if neither of us is playing it. We reach places in some gigs where it just dissolves and it’s not there anymore, and it is kind of beholden to one of us to maybe bring the tune back, if we want to, at some point that feels right.

When Peter was talking about my left hand, one thing I really enjoy is reharmonizing the tune, or whatever is emerging from the tune. So the chord sequence doesn’t stay solid throughout either. It’s kind of pulling in different directions. I find it really interesting to see where that ends up.

Peter Knight & John Spiers standing between old porta-cabins. Peter Knight is slightly out of focus. Photograph by Elly Lucas.
Photo credit: Elly Lucas.

You said earlier that when you play with different musicians, you’re hoping to learn something new and pick up something new from them. Do you then take that forward? For example, when you’ve played with Peter and then you go back to playing with Jon Boden or Jackie Oates, are you taking something that you’ve learned from Peter into those other partnerships?

JS: I don’t think you can fail to do that because you’re a different person at every stage in your life. It’s always a delight working on arrangements for Jon because, again, we have quite like-minded heads when we are looking to do something. That’s the opposite of what I do with Peter, which is looking for an intricate bit of arrangement that can support the song. The way we work that out is very much trial and error, but it’s also quite fast because Jon and I have worked together for so many years, and I’ve always been the one in that duo that kind of pulls things in different directions a little bit. At Spiers & Boden gigs, I think I do muck about with it a little bit more than I did before, but it’s not really conscious. It’s just about where you are in your playing at the time.

On this album, you’ve also recorded things that are considerably more free-form and experimental than things we’ve heard you do before – things like ‘Drone in D’ and ‘Improv 3’ that don’t appear to be based on a well-known motif. How do those pieces come about? Do you have an idea of what you’re about to do beforehand, or are they pure experimentation?

JS: It’s called ‘Improv 3’, isn’t it? So that tells you we’ve recorded ‘Improv 1’ and ‘Improv 2’ as well [laughs].

I think Peter said, “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to take this further than what we’re doing already.” And I agreed that, given what we’re doing is on that side of things, it would make sense to just try something without one of those [more formal] tunes.

You asked earlier if it was uncomfortable, and for me, I think recording those pieces really was. I don’t think I’ve ever really done that in a public way before. There’s no tune to hang a hook on and go back to. It’s like the safety net is completely taken away. You make some noise and hope it’s something that bears listening to. But it’s a good kind of uncomfortable, like when you do exercise after having hibernated throughout Christmas. All your muscles ache again and you know it’s good for you because they’re breaking down to grow again. It’s the same with the sort of discomfort in your head when your neurons are breaking and relearning things.

With improvised music, it’s like when you’re really nervous about something – that kind of pang in your chest and your sweat glands firing up. I think that was me learning properly how to do something I hadn’t done before, so I saw that as a kind of good discomfort to be got through and to come out the other side somewhat stronger for it. It’s definitely a departure from what we did on Well Met.

It’s only music – it’s not going to kill anyone.

Peter Knight

PK: With ‘Improv 3’, I’m totally guilty of forcing the issue. I remember when we did that improv, it starts quite aggressively and John jumped out of his skin [laughs]. But it’s only music – it’s not going to kill anyone. People get very excited about the effects of music, and that’s lovely in one way, but it is only music.

I said to John right at the beginning of the album, “We have to up the ante here a bit and have a couple of tracks on there juxtaposed with some of the beauty of the playing.” ‘Scarborough Fair’, for instance, it’s not dissonant at all. It’s all very harmonious. It’s turned out very interesting and lovely as a piece of music from my point of view. Not in some weird ego way where I’m going, “Oh, that’s great.” Not like that at all. It’s just a thank you. That bit of music unfolded between us on that day, and it’s a really nice bit of music, and a conscious decision to put some music on there that is a little bit out there, just to keep that door open. I think that’s so important.

I don’t get involved in social media but I know that people put up controversial things. John gets involved with the Twitter thing and, whatever, I don’t get involved. But I do know that there are quite a lot of closed, opinionated minds out there with ideas about what music shouldn’t be. And I don’t really feel like that. I think music is whatever it is, and I make my choice of what I want to listen to. But as I say, I’m glad it’s all out there. We’ve got a couple of those tracks that don’t really fit in, and if we were with a record company, I’m sure that they would sit there and say, “Are you sure about those tracks?” And my answer would be, “Yes, absolutely.”

Someone will be listening to the beauty of ‘Scarborough Fair’, for instance, and then listening to ‘Improv 3’ or ‘Drone in D’, and they’ll ask, “Why would a musician play something like ‘Scarborough Fair’ and then play that?” I have the answer to that question. It’s an important question, and it’s an important answer. It’s to make sure that the door is open. That’s why those tracks are on the album.

You’ve got gigs coming up for this album, haven’t you?

PK: I don’t know how many gigs we’ve got, but it’s certainly the best part of the month, I think. I love it. By the time you get to gigs eight, nine or 10, you’re in this other sort of place where the music starts getting even more interesting because you’re ironing it all out and it’s just very exciting. I’m actually more excited about this tour than the last tour we did, actually, and I think it’s because of this album.

Would I be right in thinking that you are somebody that prefers live performance to the studio experience?

PK: I like touring, and it’s probably because I’ve done so much of it in my life. I’m sort of quite good at it. I’m sort of good at the hotels and the suitcases and all of that.

JS: Microwaves [laughs].

PK: Yes, the microwaves [laughs]. No, it’s all good. And yes, you do things in performance that you don’t necessarily do when you’re at home. If the vibe is right in the studio, then I think you can replicate that live performance feeling. I felt more like that at Woodworm Studios. When we went down to play ‘Scarborough Fair’, for instance, that felt like a performance to me. We were looking at each other and getting involved.

JS: They’re quite different things. I’m getting better at being in the studio, but I think doing it in front of an audience is where it’s most comfortable for me. Studios can bring with them a lot of memories – they’re not always successful, trips to the studio, are they?

PK: No, they’re not.

JS: The red light can go on for days and you’re not getting anything. And then you can have days like the ‘Scarborough Fair’ one where you go, “Is that it?” “Yeah, I think so.” The stage, for me, I think is most comfortable.

Before you head off, may I ask Peter one really out-of-the-blue question? When I was doing the research for this interview, I was really surprised to find that you once played Great Uncle Bulgaria in The Wombles. Is that true?

PK: [Laughs] Yes, it is. Mike Batt produced a couple of Steeleye Span albums. One day we were in the studio and he said, “Look, I’m a bit embarrassed. All my Wombles are in America on tour. We’ve got a Top of the Pops slot and we haven’t got any Wombles. Does anyone want to be a Womble?” We were like, “Yeah!” We got into these really smelly suits. When they’re on tour, the suits have to have a room on their own. You’re stripped down to your underwear and getting into this really hot, stifling suit… So, yeah, it’s absolutely true.

I’m very proud to play with a Womble.

John Spiers

Funnily enough, I had reason to talk to Mike Batt recently and he asked me, “Do you mind that people ask you about being a Womble on Top of the Pops?” I said, “Well, I minded it when it first happened because I was there to talk about music. Music is a serious sort of thing,” I said, “and they just wanted to know about being a Womble on Top of the Pops. But I really love it now. It was a great thing to do. It was really good fun.” And Mike was talking about these frowning people that think that if you’re a serious musician you can’t have fun with it. Of course you can. It can be both. So I’m proud to have been a Womble on Top of the Pops and very happy to talk about it.

JS: I’m very proud to play with a Womble. I never thought when I was starting out that I’d end up playing with Great Uncle Bulgaria and Rag Doll from Bagpus.

They must be your starstruck moments.

PK: My wife is sitting here. When you said, “I’m playing with a Womble,” she said, “I’m married to one.”

Head to Peter Knight’s homepage or John Spiers shop to order Both in a Tune, or to see the gig dates for the upcoming tour. Oh, and if you’re looking for Peter Knight in the Wombles video above, he’s the one in the glasses.