– It was only right before we started talking that I realized that your drummer, Manfred Plotz, is your record label boss.
Right! And he’s been my friend for some twelve years. About six years ago we were on tour in Germany, and our drummer – it was [original member] Mike Safron again – passed out before a soundcheck for the very first concert and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. He had an emergency operation for strangulated hernia and wasn’t able to play for two weeks, but Manfred was there for the show and he proceeded to put the headphones on and learn the entire set in three hours! (Laughs.) Then he did the whole tour as our drummer. So when Mike was getting ill again, two or three years ago, we didn’t even want to look for another drummer – I just called Manfred and he said, “Yeah.”
– How did your association with his Rockville Music come about?
I guess he was a fan of my music. We did a tour in Italy, just Sara and I, and we were on some television programmes, and I kind of enjoyed that. (Laughs.) I hadn’t played live for about ten years at that point and didn’t have any expectations – I’m happy sitting here by myself, to be honest – but anyway, some promoters wanted us to do that. I was working on “Teacup” then. We got good offers to play some big festivals like “Arrow Rock” or “Loreley,” so I put together PAVLOV’S DOG Mk 4 or 5 and we went out there and did three or four weeks of concert dates in Europe, where Manfred saw us at one of the shows and approached us about releasing the material. He asked me to hear what was the stuff on “Teacup” which hadn’t been put out yet; he loved it, and the rest is history. It works for a little community; it works for us. What did Robert Fripp say: small, independent, intelligent, mobile unit? That’s what we are!
– But how much did you tour back in the day?
A lot for “Pampered Menial”! We were on the road too much. For “At The Sound Of The Bell”: less so but still a lot. And I wasn’t in that good a physical condition at that point – I’ve always had bad lungs: that’s something I have to deal with my whole life.
– So how do you handle your voice in such condition?
It doesn’t affect my voice. As long as my lungs are clear, I can hold a note for pretty much as long as I need to. I learned how to do circular breathing – when I was in high school, I was playing flute for a year or so, even though with my lungs I probably shouldn’t have played a woodwind instrument – and I was really intrigued by that. I had this wonderful teacher; he was playing in St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and he taught me that breathing technique on a flute, and I carried it over to my singing. So as long as I have oxygen, I’m good! (Laughs.)
Sure. Yeah, Ronnie was a great singer. And I knew Tommy Bolin who was in DEEP PURPLE at the same time as Glenn Hughes, so I was very familiar with his singing. Great singer.
– Your third album that remained unreleased for years: everybody refers to it as “Third” and it was released as “Has Anyone Here Seen Sigfried?” later on. But what was the record’s intended title?
It was always going to be called “Has Anyone Here Seen Sigfried?”! I quit the band, and Steve Scorfina had a tape of the mix – it wasn’t a master tape; it was a 1-inch copy of it – and he made a hundred copies on vinyl, and those hundred copies got bootlegged all over the world. (Laughs.) I never meant to put them out so I wasn’t really happy about it, but finally,I decided they’d been bootlegged enough; that we should release it on Rockville, and master it properly so it sounds great. At some point I did it to stop all those bootlegs.
– But why did it reference Carver?
Oh, because Sigfried had quit the band two years earlier, so I said, “Has anyone here seen Sigfried?” and everybody shook their head: no. But Sigfried was my friend till the day he died: we were close, and he was like a big brother to me. He turned me on to some great literature and great music.
– As you mentioned earlier, you had some guests on the third album: Skunk Baxter and Elliott Randall.
I don’t know Jeff very well; he was a friend of Elliott’s – and Elliott was my friend. He grew up with Jeff, and he asked, “Would you mind if I bring him along?” And I said, “Of course, bring him along!” I mean who doesn’t like Jeff’s guitar playing, right? But I haven’t seen Elliott in a long time: he’s living in London, and always sends me messages and good wishes and what’s going on, but every time I’m in London, I’m not there long enough to get to see any of my friends. But the most exciting things there was that Keith Reid, one of my seriously favorite lyricists of all time, came to the show in London, and that was the highlight of the whole tour.
– I recognized Reid’s signature on your guitar on the DVD. But whose is the second autograph on it?
Steve Cropper’s. He was my first electric guitar hero, and he was part of the reason why I tend to play Fender Telecaster; that’s what he used with Booker T. & THE M.G.’s. I guess pretty much everybody I liked played a Telecaster. I heard it in that heavy rave on THE YARDBIRDS’ records, I heard it on the Buck Owens records, on Roy Buchanan records. But it all began with Steve Cropper.
– When I spoke to Jerry Donahue, who had a band, THE HELLECASTERS, with other Telecaster players, he joked that the most prominent Telecaster player is Bruce Springsteen.
(Laughs.) That’s good! Bruce is an amazing guitar player, and nobody gives him credit for it. He had a band before he became a solo act, called STEEL MILL, which was big in New Jersey, and he was known as a lead guitar player. But, of course, the cover of “Born To Run” is iconic. As for Jerry, I know him – he was in FAIRPORT CONVENTION – and I heard one of the HELLECASTERS CDs: it’s brilliant stuff.
– In your stuff, though, there’s an interesting pattern: “Julia,” “Mersey,” “Jenny,” “Angeline”… Why did you break the line of female-name songs on "Lost In America"?
Once again, it’s not something that’s premeditated. Songs usually come to me as a whole thought, and if it has a woman’s name attached to it, that’s okay. (Laughs.)
– No jealousy from Sara?
No, not at all. Sara and I met in high school. The first time I saw her, I was just stunned: she was so beautiful, so smart, so talented. We were friends since we were teenagers – I would come to her house with my guitar and tried to impress her with my songs. (Laughs.) But she got married and was married for nearly twenty years before she got divorced and we started dating. We’ve been married for a long time now, and she’s my best friend, my reason for being here, the best partner I’ve ever had.
– So her singing on your kind-of-solo record was a sign of your dedication?
Either that or she just sings better than me! (Laughs.) That’s my truthful answer.
– Another of your singing partners was Iain Matthews. Was HI-FI your attempt to create a quintessential pop band for the ’80s?
No, he’s just come off of a hit record called “Shake It” that was nothing like his earlier work, nothing like FAIRPORTS, nothing like SOUTHERN COMFORT – he was trying to play a pop song, and it was a pretty big song in this country. And I was doing session work because I was still trying to get out of Columbia Records deal. We just started playing together – originally Douglas Rayburn was playing with us, too; he was playing bass and the keyboards – and we were really excited about just having a guitar band like FLEETWOOD MAC and BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD or MOBY GRAPE where everybody sang and everybody played. [There’s] a lot of interaction in a rock band, a straight-ahead rock band: no ballads to speak of. (Laughs.) We just had the best time; it was a hundred per cent different than anything he’d ever done, or anything that I’d ever done. It was a couple of the best years of my life.
– Had you known Iain from FAIRPORTS and SOUTHERN COMFORT or his solo records like "Tigers Will Survive"?
FAIRPORTS were one of my favorite bands, always – I liked almost all of their records – and I opened a couple of shows for FAIRPORTS on Sandy [Denny]’s last tour with them. Not as PAVLOV’S DOG but as David Surkamp, just me and my acoustic guitar; I think I also had a grand piano up there that Sandy played. I remember she had a sprained ankle and had to play the whole show sitting on a piano bench. It was a highlight of my life to share the stage with them and listen to her sing. As for Iain, when I lived in Seattle, he had moved there and we had the same management and agency. The funniest part of it was that nobody believed he and I would sing together because our voices are so different, but we were really good friends: we’d go out to have breakfast every morning and we just hung out together, but we didn’t even like the same kind of music most of the time… like I’d never heard Roy Orbison for some reason so Iain went out and bought me a Roy Orbison double album which became my favorite record ever. So HI-FI came about strictly because he and I were friends.
– HI-FI debuted with “Demonstration Record” which had a strange selection of tracks. I mean SNIPS – La Rocca! by Snips? I didn’t think he was known in America.
Yeah, I had a lot of British friends so I had this single! I liked the song and we did it. Snips was in a band with Chris Spedding called SHARKS, so I knew him from that. But I’d never done any covers – ever – in my life, and Iain loved doing covers! So he probably pushed me to do it.
– I knew the man who started SHARKS with Chris: Andy Fraser.
Yes, a great bass player – and a great songwriter. All that stuff he did with FREE – “Fire And Water” and so on – was really great. He died not so long ago, didn’t he? It’s sad. The older I get the more friends I lose. I lost Sandy Pearlman, and a day or two after Sandy my friend Roye Albrighton from NEKTAR passed away. It was a really lousy week.
– I would say, it’s been a lousy year. But back to “Demonstration Record”: there was “The Man In The Station” by John Martyn on it. Whose idea it was to add a riff from HUMBLE PIE’s take on “I Don’t Need No Doctor” to that song?
Well, that’s my riff, and I didn’t know it was a HUMBLE PIE riff! I was a big fan of John’s songwriting, and I were jammed on it with one of Matthews’ neighbors, and Iain – I think he’d covered it already on one of his albums [1978’s “Stealin’ Home”] – wanted to record it. Our drummer and I started making it rock more, and then I came up with that guitar riff that just stuck. Then John told Iain, before he passed away, that it was his favorite version of “The Man In The Station” so I guess it was our lucky day. (Laughs.) But I’ll look up the HUMBLE PIE track. I met Steve Marriott a couple of times, but blues-rock wasn’t my cup of tea; that’s not what I enjoy the most.
– “Demonstration Record” was a live recording. Were there studio versions of those songs?
No, no. It was a live one-off thing. It was a film for the National Public Television in America, so we just started playing… The footage is available on HI-FI’s “The Complete Collection” on Rockville, there’s a whole DVD out there.
– As you mentioned, Doug Rayburn was initially a part of HI-FI. You remained friends with him and collaborated through the years, right?
Off and on, yes. Douglas and I always had a difficult relationship. He was an only child, and some of those children need to be pampered. But we wrote a lot of great songs together, and we tried to be friends but it wasn’t always that way. I never really was happy with “Lost In America” [record masterminded by Surkamp and Rayburn. – DME]: it was a little too sleek for me, and the reason it was too sleek was because Douglas had his way with its production. But I miss him. He had such bad last two years – cancer is just insidious decease – while Sigfried just fell asleep at his desk and never woke up. If you’re going to go, that’s probably the best way. (Laughs sadly.)
– Then you wrote “A Hardly Innocent Mind” and “Indiscreet” that appeared on Matthews’ solo records. Were you writing especially for him or were it leftovers from HI-FI?
No, I wasn’t writing especially for him, but I wrote “Indiscreet” with Iain around the same time I wrote “A Hardly Innocent Mind” with Douglas, within a month from each other.
– The next album you released was “Dancing On The Edge Of A Teacup” which had both your name and “The PAVLOV’S DOG Trinity Sessions” on the cover. Was there a dual personality to that album?
Yeah, it was because Sara and I and Bongo Billy [Costello] just wanted to do something together. I think it was PAVLOV’S DOG at one point but then we basically started turning it into my solo record, so it was a kind of mixture of things coming together at the same time. And I Billy often played drums and keyboards on PAVLOV’S DOG stuff; I think he plays more drums on "Echo & Boo" than Mike Safron.
– Its full title is “The Adventures Of Echo & Boo And Assorted Small Tails”: is there a concept behind that album?
I’d found this cover picture – that’s a photo of my father and my uncle Harry as small children that probably dates from the ’20s – and written the song “Echo & Boo” and that kicked the whole thing off. Then Sara started coming up with these wonderful drawings which she did in watercolor, and it just went from there, took on a life of itself. There’s innocence in it: my love of the Grimms’ fairy tales and poetry and all those childhood things. It’s my favorite PAVLOV’S DOG record by mile: that’s for sure.
– With you writing songs all the time, how did “Love You Still” that was originally on the third album end up on “Echo & Boo” in new arrangement?
I didn’t get it right the first time! (Laughs.) I was never happy with the arrangement on the third record. I wrote the song on a mandolin, and the third album didn’t have a mandolin on it anywhere, so I just decided I’d do it right. The one on “Echo & Boo” is the way I originally wanted it – mandolin-driven: there are two or three mandolins on it. I’ve got a bunch of mandolins and I try to use them when I can. I’ve got a Gibson from 1914 and another one from 1915, a Kay from the ’50s that’s electric: it’s just a big mess.
– I felt there was something Appalachian in PAVLOV’S DOG music!
Well, yeah. All that Appalachian music comes from England originally; it all fits in together, doesn’t it?
– You said you used to play sessions. I know about the Michael Quatro one, but who else you worked with?
Oh, I did lots of jingles for the radio, like Brittania Jeans ad and things like that. I was still under contract to Columbia so I couldn’t really sing on a lot of things, but they didn’t have me tied up as a guitar player or bass player or piano player of whatever – I guess they never thought about that as they though I was only writing songs – so I got a work playing guitar for other people. As for Mike Quatro,I always liked him; we were friends, and I knew his sister Patti, who was the guitar player in FANNY.
– Talking about your collaborations: was “Crying Forever” written with SAVOY BROWN in mind?
Yeah, yeah. We were playing festivals, and I got to be friends with Kim [Simmonds] and Steve Hackett – you know I love great guitar players! – we got along well. He used to say to me, “Why don’t you have me to come up here and play harmonica?” (Laughs.) We never did that, but Kim was working on what became the “Steel” record, and I said, “Here, let me write you a song.” I kind of had the idea when we were on tour with SAVOY BROWN of a riff (sings): ta-da-da da-da da-da ta-da-da da, which sounded SAVOY BROWN-like to me, so I got home, wrote the song and recorded it with me playing all the instruments. I sent it to Kim, he liked it and put it on [the album].
– And you’re telling me that blues-rock is not your cup of tea!
You can’t come from St Louis and not know how to do it. All they’re playing around here is rhythm-and-blues and jazz, so I knew I could do it, but it’s not what I did. In fact, I enjoy playing that song live because Amanda and Abbie play wonderful soul and blues framework, and I don’t have to be interested in joining in as I don’t think I can bring much more to the table than they’re already producing. But this is okay, because I would rather listen to Robert Fripp or Richard Thompson, Eric Clapton or B.B. King. [I have] nothing against the other guys, but that’s not my cup of tea.
– Now tell me about Oscar, please.
Oscar, my bat? [On the DVD, David communicates with a toy bat on-stage. – DME] Yeah, Oscar is cool. We were playing a venue in Munich around Halloween, and there were a few stuffed bats up on a shelf, so I get to talking to Oscar and then I went to the club owner and said, “Could you let me borrow Oscar for the tour? I promise you’ll get him back.” And he goes, “Sure. Why not?” So Oscar did the tour with us, and I think he enjoyed himself. He’s back in Munich now. I guess you’d have to ask Oscar how he’s doing. (Laughs.)
– And yourself? Do you ever want to bring back the good old days, as “Valkerie” goes?
Um, no. I kind of like being an adult. (Laughs.) I’ve been really lucky, and I’m married to an incredible woman. We have a son and a daughter, and four grandchildren. I’ve got an incredible band that I enjoy playing with for maybe the first time in my life. Things are pretty great right now. Life is good!