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Dave Cousins on the Making of the New Strawbs Album, "Settlement"
A global pandemic forced the band into a new way of writing and recording and it worked wonderfully.
The Strawbs have been around a long time by any measure, having formed way back in 1964 as the Strawberry Hill Boys (shortening their name a few years later). For anything to still be around 57 years — let alone a rock band — is impressive. For a band to still be churning out great songs at the end of that span is downright unthinkable. And yet, the Strawbs have done just that with their 25th (!) studio album, Settlement, which was released just last week, on Feb. 26. It’s an album that longtime Strawbs fans should enjoy, but I’ll get to the songs a bit later on.
Released with vinyl in mind, the album “proper” consists of nine songs clocking in at a total of just under 40 minutes. This is also the version currently on Spotify. There are an additional three tracks on the CD version of the album. Rather than bonus tracks, Strawbs’ leader and primary songwriter Dave Cousins calls them “off the beaten tracks.”
Whichever version of Settlement you end up hearing, you’re going to hear plenty of vintage Strawbs sounds. While those sounds may be familiar, the songs aren’t rehashes of the past. The Strawbs simply create new music that stays true to who they are, and they did that on Settlement, an album completely of its time but with a sound like it belongs to an earlier one.
“The album started (with) the pandemic,” Cousins said. It was a situation that caught everyone completely by surprise, but perhaps no one more than the Strawbs’ leader, who wasn’t even living in his own home at the time when the U.K. went into lockdown. The basement of his house had flooded, and he’s still not able to move back into his own place. With nothing much to do during the lockdown, Cousins said the new album pretty much just wrote itself.
“I thought, ‘I wonder how long I'm going to be here,’ but I’d brought a guitar over,” he said. “It was a new guitar that I bought — a Dowina, which is a Slovakian guitar — a beautiful thing. I hadn’t even played it. I picked it up, put it in an open D tuning, and thought, ‘well I'll just strum around’ and put my fingers down in an unusual position on the neck of the guitar. And I thought ‘that was a nice chord, I wonder where I can go with that.’ Went on to the next chord, and thought, ‘I wonder where I go from there.’ And within about an hour or so I had the whole basis of a whole chord sequence that I'd never come up with before in my life. I'd never used any of these chords before. And suddenly I thought, ‘That's strange.’ And then lyrics began to write themselves.”
Cousins reached out to Cherry Red Records, the band’s record distributor, and they agreed to finance a new album. He emailed his bandmates — Dave Lambert (guitars & vocals), Chas Cronk (bass, acoustic guitars & vocals), Tony Fernandez (drums), and Dave Bainbridge (keyboards & guitars) to suggest they do an album, the band’s first in four years since releasing 2017’s The Ferryman’s Curse. And the whole thing was done remotely.
“I haven’t been in the flesh with or even spoken in a visual meeting like (Zoom) with a member of the band in a year,” Cousins said. “I haven’t seen them. I hardly ever speak to them on the phone. We only ever communicate by email, and even that’s rare now.”
Having no equipment, Cousins first had to set up a home studio. He consulted with former Strawbs member and Settlement producer Blue Weaver, who suggested he purchase a four-track Zoom hand recorder. He found one on eBay, bought it, then spent a week learning how to use it via the manual before realizing he still needed more equipment to get started. He purchased a microphone and a mic stand.
“I didn’t have anything,” he said.
He added a Stedman pop shield for his microphone, put a click track on his computer, and was suddenly ready to record. He started with his guitar and then added a separate vocal file.
“I just sang it at random, and then sent the two independent tracks of my guitar and my voice, with no link to them, to Chas Cronk, who said ‘Where am I supposed to put this?’ So I had to describe to him, ‘now move it forward a bit, move it back. That's where it fits there.’ And it was all done like that,” Cousins said. “And it started up entirely quite by accident. And the whole album was made like that.”
Cousins sent his files out to the band but got back “the most unimaginable cacophony because nobody knew where they were supposed to play. They all played at the same time, all the way through. And it sounded chaotic.”
He eventually wrote out every chord of all of the songs bar by bar and color coded it to indicate where things like guitar solos should go.
“So every song was then done like that. I wrote every bar of every song with the lyrics on it — the whole arrangement on it,” he said. “And the band was sent that with my original voice and guitar, and they played their bits. By then, I'd arranged for Blue Weaver in Germany to be the producer, and all of the parts then went to Chas Cronk for him to do the template of me singing and my guitar part and vocal part to a click track. And then it went to Blue Weaver and everybody sent their bits to him, and he put it all together.”
The entire process took six months and in the end, Settlement was complete. There were a couple of leftover tracks, one that Cousins chose not to include and another that he felt was too political and would become dated. In the end, the nine tracks made the album, with three additional tracks for the CD.
Cousins said he didn’t set out to write about the pandemic or things that were going on in the world. Those things just seeped into ideas he was having and so it was on the title track, which opens the record. “Settlement” kicks off the album with a kind of dark, menacing mood, with minor chords on acoustic guitar.
““Settlement” came out, because the government weren't giving out sufficient information about what was going on,” Cousins explains.
“There comes a time when every settlement is due,” sings Cousins to start the album. It’s an angry lyric and the song does give off an unsettling mood, thanks to its instrumentation.
“When it came to “Settlement” itself, I knew that it had to have that old brass sound that we use from the very first Mellotron that we ever used, which is this curious mixture of trumpet, trombone, and saxophone — three instruments that made up that sound, but on a Mellotron,” Cousins said. “ If you double track it as we always do, it sounds strange, eerie. And it sounds like no other instrument there is in the world.”
“Strange Times,” the song Cousins referenced above as practically writing itself right off the bat from his initial chord strumming, takes the listener to a gentler, more uplifting place musically, with an acoustic and pastoral sound with a nice piano accompaniment. “Judgement Day” follows, with an interesting 5/4 beat punctuated by hand claps and a sparse arrangement with some delicate guitar. It’s one of the longer tracks at just over seven minutes and features South African Schalk Joubert as a guest on bass.
““Judgement Day” was written about being homeless, looking and seeing articles in the paper, especially in the pandemic, of the homeless people being moved into hotels, because they're sleeping out on the streets and there's nobody there to give them any money or to help them at all,” Cousins said. “All of these songs came about because of this eerie strange environment that we were in.”
After “Judgement Day” comes “Each Manner of Man,” a folky number co-written (and sung) by former Strawb John Ford that has a pristine acoustic guitar and just the right amount of organ from Bainbridge. A beautiful doubled guitar solo is a highlight of the track, which is held together with Cronk’s bass and the drumming of Fernandez.
“The Visit” brings some of Cousins’ banjo to the party, and if it segues perfectly into the instrumental “Flying Free,” that’s only because they started out as one piece, with Lambert adding a guitar part at the end. Cousins suggested they let the instrumental section stand on its own, and “Flying Free” does that nicely. It’s a short, folky track with layered acoustic guitar and banjo.
“Quicksilver Days” is a soft lament with Cousins’ voice and acoustic guitar that starts with haunting notes. There’s some lovely piano in it from Bainbridge. “We are Everyone” features backing vocals by Cathryn Craig and acoustic guitar with some electric slicing through, over some background Hammond organ.
The nine-song version of Settlement closes with “Chorale,” an instrumental with a keyboard and acoustic guitar opening. Synth runs from Bainbridge inject some whimsy over a driving drumbeat from Fernandez. More organ enters the picture and gives the whole thing the feel of being in a gothic cathedral.
Of the three tracks from the CD-only version of the album, the first is the longest piece from the Settlement sessions. “Champion Jack” is an extremely personal story about Cousins’ dad, who was captured and held by the Japanese in World War II. It tells of his capture, eventual release, and final battle with leukemia. As one might expect from the longest track, “Champion Jack” is the most overtly progressive song on the album.
“Better Days (Life is Not a Game)” is a Latin shuffle that startles the listener with its brassy and brash horn-fueled intro, which is a keyboard patch Bainbridge uses. The opening part was originally played by Cousins but Weaver called and told him it sounded like Mariachi trumpets. Cousins liked that idea and Bainbridge made it happen. The song holds a simple message that we have all experienced far more enjoyable times in our lives and that the current situation is temporary, regardless of how interminable it feels.
We have all seen better days, better days will surely come again.
“Liberty” is one of the more “electric” songs on the record, with a cool vintage guitar sound and Hammond organ, with a driving, pounding drum beat.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the recording of Settlement is Cousins’ story about his singing. At age 76, he obviously doesn’t sound precisely the same as he did when he was just starting out. But, thanks to a bit of a happy accident, he can hit higher notes now than he could through much of his career.
Cousins sustained a severe hernia before recording The Ferryman’s Curse and suffered agonizing pain while singing his parts for that album, even having to go back and use the demo vocal for “The Nails from the Hands of Christ.” After recording that record, he sought medical help.
“I went to hospital, and had a hernia operation, and the surgeon said that hernia started when you were 12 years old,” Cousins said, as the seeds of the injury apparently dated back to an operation he’d had back then. “And he said that has been waiting to burst all these years. He said, ‘that's affected you all your life.’ And it's affected the sound of my voice all these years. And I find now I can hit higher notes than I've ever hit before.”
Cousins is clearly proud of this record, and he should be. The songs on Settlement compare to some of the band’s most beloved albums of the early 1970s. Strawbs fans should find plenty to like on this record and the band will likely still find ways to surprise people 50+ years and 25 albums into an incredible career.
“This is the only album that I've ever made that I can continuously listen to over and over again,” he said.
To hear my entire conversation with Dave Cousins, including great insight into his songwriting process, how he added Bainbridge to the band’s lineup, the story of the album artwork, and other great anecdotes, watch the YouTube video here.