It’s nigh on impossible to be an underrated front-end player in a worldwide-known ensemble, yet those who heard STRAWBS – in their ’70s heyday or renaissance of the last decade – should know that Dave Lambert is a master of impossible. Be it the streamlined optimism of “Just Love” or breathtaking lace of “Tears And Pavan” – to name but two of the pieces the guitarist left his indelible print on – there’s something simple and at the same time mesmerizing about his delivery: his playing and singing. Still, when out of spotlight, Lambert prefers to keep his profile low, which makes it all the more interesting talking to Dave. So, shortly before one of the band’s shows, in the year marking the 45th anniversary of their first album with him, we sat in my car to avoid the venue’s noise and engaged in a conversation.
– There are three namesakes in the band now. Who’s responding first when somebody shouts out, “Dave”?
Anybody who’s the closest! (Laughing.) It is very confusing sometimes: you’re trying to get somebody’s attention and you keep yelling, “Dave!” and the wrong Daves keep saying, “What?” But we get by.
– We’re approaching the band’s 50th anniversary. What do STRAWBS mean to you?
It’s a major part of my life. I’ve been involved with the band since 1972 and I had a layoff from 1979 until 1998 but, apart from that, it’s just been continuous STRAWBS, so it’s really very difficult to think of not having STRAWBS in your life. I know it’s an old way of putting it, but it is a bit like a child that you invested energy, and time, and love into, and watched it grow and develop, with the high points and the low points. It just becomes your life.
– How would you define your contribution to the band?
Well, it varies… Obviously, lead guitar has always been that for me, and rhythm as well: I very much enjoy messing about with guitar rhythms – probably, more than I do with lead parts. Writing, of course – both on my own and contributing with other people, with Chas [Cronk] and Dave [Cousins], through the years. Sometimes trying to take another perspective on things, so if a song is developing in its own way, trying to step outside it and look at it as objectively as you possibly can, when you’re involved with that, to see if there’s maybe some other way you could do it, and at the same time trying to maintain the consistency of STRAWBS music and sound, which is something I think we achieved on this last album that we’ve just put out, "The Ferryman's Curse". A lot of people have remarked how “Strawbs” it is, and I agree; a lot of that was down to the producer, Chris Tsangarides. He, sadly, passed away in January, so that won’t happen again, but I’m sure we would have go on to make other albums with him, because he understood the STRAWBS’ approach and the STRAWBS sound. But day-to-day, you can’t really say what your contribution is, because it changes every day. Hopefully, you’ve got something new to bring into every project; otherwise, there’s no point in doing it if something’s not coming in fresh for you each time. It’s not like turning up to a job in the morning and getting on with what you’re doing – the same thing every day: you try, if you possibly can, to expand everything you do.
– Before STRAWBS, there was FIRE, a project of your own. What was so special about STRAWBS, then, that made you want to join some other guy’s band?
FIRE had already finished – it was finished in 1970 – and I wasn’t really interested in continuing with that afterwards; what I wanted to do – and I set up to do it – was to write a batch of songs that I could perform as a solo artist. I wanted to get into the just-guitar-and-voice side of things, playing folk clubs and the like to try and develop that, and I realized that my scope was quite narrow, because I’d come from rock ‘n’ roll and blues bands. As much as tried to expand it with FIRE – and, to some extent, we did push the band just a little bit in that field, especially with "The Magic Shoemaker" – but then I realized that I wasn’t spreading wide enough, that the breadth of what I wanted to do wasn’t artistically satisfying, and that it was my fault that I didn’t have the skills for the solo aspect of things to happen. I knew that I could only learn it by doing it, specifically writing songs, so I got myself an amp together and went on the road just with it and the guitar. But I’d already met Dave [Cousins] – I met him while still in FIRE – we did some writing together, because he lived very close to me – it was only round the corner from where I lived – and then I worked on his solo album, “Two Weeks Last Summer”; and I’d always been keen on STRAWBS approach to music anyway. And in 1972, they asked me to join the band.
– What do you think they saw in you to invite you in?
I don’t know. I think what they wanted from me was that aspect that I saw as a narrow thing, the very thing I was just talking about, which was a completely different world to what STRAWBS were doing: essentially, they wanted that kind of hard edge to come in – mainly to open up the U.S. and North American market.
– How did that hard edge originally come about?
I’m influenced by all those people who used that approach, like [Pete] Towshend, who are very forthright and very gutsy. I’m not saying they don’t have subtlety, but that’s not the thing that grabbed me; it was the upfrontness of it all. And STRAWBS thought they could use that, and it worked: the first album we made [1973’s “Bursting At The Seams”] went to Number 2.
– Let’s backtrack to FIRE, though. What was so special about “Shoemaker” that made it a cult album. Everybody seems to be praising it now.
Yes, I know, and it’s very flattering, but I can’t answer that question, to be honest, because I don’t know. All I do know is that we were trying to push the boundaries. I mean the producer of the album [Ray Hammond], whom I’ve seen from time to time over the years, is convinced it was because it had a punk element to it, that some of the songs on there were approached in a punk way. I can kind of see what he means, though I’m not convinced that’s the reason, but I’ve got no explanation for that.
– Maybe that was the album’s storyline? Strange, then, that you didn’t apply your storytelling talent to prog pieces later on…
I’ve always got annoyed when – and, thankfully, you haven’t said it – people describe that as a concept album, because it’s not: it’s a fairy tale, that’s all that is, and “concept” has become a generic term for something quite different. I had various ideas before that as a way of linking tracks for an album, trying to think of something that was new and original. I think the original NIRVANA did a similar thing, with “Simon something”…
– “The Story Of Simon Simopath”?
Yeah. I can’t remember if that came before “Shoemaker” or not; I think that came just after. But that was the same approach, trying to do that fantasy stuff.
– I’ve always thought of the album as not an English sort of fairy tale but European one, something like The Brothers Grimm.
Well, that was the idea. I was trying to get that in and not make it too intense, for the story not to be too important, and it doesn’t mean anything except what it says. Mostly, it was a way of being able to sit down and enjoy it – it was a very enjoyable thing to sit down with a theme and write different songs and ideas day after day.
– You had that discipline at quite a young age?
Oh yeah. I’ve always had that.
– What about that wildness and hard age?
(Laughs.) I think I have a bit of OCD, to be honest, I like routines. In those days, I used to work through the night, mostly – from 10 o’clock in the night to 2 or 3 in the morning just seemed to be [the time] when I could get most concentrated in that period – but it’s different now when I can do that the other times. It was a good period, though, and I enjoyed the whole thing, the whole process.
– “The Magic Shoemaker” also features Paul Brett. So you, being a guitarist, used another guitarist on the album?
Yeah. That didn’t bother me at all. Paul is a wonderful electric guitarist, but for some reason he stopped doing it, and I don’t know why. I mean he’s not stopped playing but he stopped playing electric. Paul Brett’s certainly one of the best electric players – ever. He and I were able to start things off each other: I’d play him something and he’d come up with an idea for the guitar par – obviously completely different to the idea that I would have had, and I liked that – and maybe I played the part then, and he might’ve not even played it. It was good fun!
– Fast forward to STRAWBS’ glam period. Were you, a rocker, OK with that?
Well, I’ve always loved theater anyway, so I do believe in giving people a show in all ways.
– So why did you decide to record a solo album a few years later? To give them a different kind of show?
I didn’t really have an aim for achieving anything – I just wanted to continue progressing. I actually left the band with music and projecting what I wanted to be doing on-stage, which is something I’ve always written for: whenever I’ve written a song, I’ve always, in my head, been performing it on-stage – and if it doesn’t work like that, then I don’t like the song too much. It’s the performance power that I try and get into a song, so I was doing that on the solo album. I left the band when I was already working on it, and I recorded “Framed” in 1978, in Los Angeles. It didn’t have a lot to do with me leaving; I just left because I wanted to leave. By the way, “Framed” is going to be available on CD, if things work out, for the first time soon. I’ve just found, in the last two weeks, ten songs which weren’t used on the album and which I’d completely forgotten about.
– You kind of challenged yourself on the album playing with John Entwistle and Leland Sklar, two rather busy players in terms of performance, even though Lee can also be very relaxed.
Oh yeah, yeah. And the guitarist I had with me, Richard Bennett, played with Mark Knopfler for years – he’s from Nashville, a very, very fine player who works regularly with Neil Diamond and who co-wrote a few of his hits. We also had Denny Seiwell on drums, from WINGS, Tom Hensley on keyboards, from Neil Diamond’s band. So yeah, it was challenging; it was quite awe-inspiring walking into the studio with those guys. But Lee was very relaxed, I must say (laughs), one of the most relaxed people I’ve met. And I’d known John Entwistle since I was about 11 years old, so that was not a problem.
– And you managed to convince the label to record the album in the States?
Yeah. That was Polydor: they believed in its commercial potential but seemed to change their mind afterward. (Laughs.)
– Is that why you have only one solo album under your belt?
I wouldn’t have wanted to go through the same company process again anyway, so I didn’t record another solo album.
– So you left the business altogether?
Essentially, yes. I kept playing but I didn’t get involved with the business at all. I did ski instructing in Austria and kept playing solo shows but I stayed away from the business as such.
– But you had this band called ZEUS?
That’s an ongoing project, with all of us playing in other bands – Graeme [Taylor] plays with GRYPHON and HOME SERVICE, and unfortunately, the bass player [Jon Davie] is basically unavailable now, because he permanently lives in Thailand – so it’s taken a back seat. It never ended, though, and there’s an album which is still sitting in the box, all recorded and ready to go.
– By the way, how did your album with Chas Cronk come about?
In the early ’80s Chas and I got together with Tony Fernandez and Andy Richards. We recorded two tracks: “Touch The Earth” and “The Night.” Chas worked hard to secure a major record deal and came within a whisker of pulling it off. It was simply bad timing: punk rock was still dominant and material like ours was not in demand by then. Over the following couple of years I wrote a lot of stuff with Chas, and we recorded the tracks with Nick Magnus on keyboards and Ian Mosley on percussion. Once again, there was no deal forthcoming, so the recordings were left to gather dust. In 2007 Chas set about remixing our ’80s recordings and, together with two new tracks, they were released as the album “Touch The Earth.”
– What made you come out of retirement and get back into the STRAWBS fold?
There was the band’s reunion, so Dave phoned me up and asked me if I was interested. I wasn’t, immediately that interested, and I told him so, but I spoke to my wife and she said, “You’ll see all your friends again, and I’m sure you’ll love it.” So I called him back, and I did enjoy it from then on – it’s been non-stop.
– Why, when there was a split in Strawbs, you chose to stay with Cousins and not join “mutineers”?
The split in 1973 came after a long period of disagreements and tensions. During the final US tour, I spent a lot of time trying to bring the two sides together and stop the break-up happening. We’d had so much success during the previous year, and it struck me as madness to bring to an end a band which had so much talent and potential. Sadly, it was all in vain. When the break-up became a reality, I was offered the opportunity to join HUDSON-FORD or to remain with Dave and help build a new STRAWBS band. I got on with all the guys very well, so it was an unpleasant decision to be faced with. I decided to stay with Dave and help to form new STRAWBS because I felt we’d already started to move in a very interesting direction. I was keen to explore the longer pieces of music that we knew we were capable of; as a player, that approach gave me a greater scope and freedom.
– Why did you object to the TEN YEARS AFTER guys joining the band?
When Dave and I started to put the new line-up together, there were a number of people we had in mind. In the case of Ric Lee and Leo Lyons… I think they are excellent players and lovely people, one of the best rhythm sections around. But I simply knew, instinctively, they were not the right guys for us at that time.
– I saw you in both acoustic and electric environments. Do they bring out different aspects in you or it’s the same but plugged and unplugged?
It’s the same approach, but the electric stuff is not quite as intense for me as a player, while the acoustic is very intense because you’re working so hard – because it’s only you and the guitar making the effects and the sound, whereas when there’s an electric guitar and a pedalboard, I’ve got a bit of assistance. Still, acoustic and electric are totally different, even though the songs are sometimes the same.
– Would you call yourself a technical guitarist?
Ah, no, I don’t think I am one, no. I’m a “feel” guitarist; I do it all by feel. I try and hear a melody when I play a solo. On a good night, when I start hearing it, I follow it, so it’s not technical. In fact, I try to avoid the technical side if I can, because in the past I’ve found if I started on that track, it narrows you down a little bit, so I try to keep away from that and stay with a good feel.
– Could you pick a single song that’s special for you as a player or as a composer?
(Thinks for a few second.) It’s really difficult. If I sat for an hour and thought about it… I don’t know. I wouldn’t say it’s a song, but what I recorded on “Hero And Heroine” and “Ghosts” are more important for me than a single song.
– If you look back at your career, what would you call its brightest moments?
Um, the high spots are, obviously, when you get hit records – hit singles, hit albums: they stand out. They’re not as special as you think they’re going to be, but they are, at least, high spots. But there were so many great concerts, and as far as great concerts are concerned, you’re always looking to the one tonight, which might be the best you’ve ever had – you’re always looking forward in that respect.