"Down Home with Mr Fantasy":
Sounds, August 4, 1973
By Steve Peacock
It started out as a pretty down-home enterprise.
Since he moved from the now-famous country cottage in Berkshire where Traffic got to together, to his home in Gloucestershire, Steve Winwood has been quietly organizing what is most musicians' ideal situation - a place at home where they can not only rough out their projects, but actually record the finished article.
It's together now, as is his company Fantasy Songs, and the first album to come out of that is due in a couple of weeks on Island's HELP label. "Aiye-Keta - The Third World" is basically Remi Kabaka's album - he wrote the songs and came to Steve with a fairly definite idea of what he wanted.
"The forms were basically Remi's songs. Remi used to come down to the cottage in Berkshire about 4 or 5 years ago and just play - we met him at the university in Reading, where he was doing a gig. We used to play a lot and enjoy playing a lot. Then I think he got into some legal trouble, immigration or something, and he had to split back to Nigeria, but since he came back I've got this production company and studio equipment and stuff, so he showed me what he's got and I said "let's do it"."
"He'd written a lot of songs, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do - of course there's an element of freedom within the songs so my interpretation came into it in that way, but basically it was Remi's stuff."
The original idea was for Steve just to engineer the album but as things turned out, he became a lot more involved than that. It finished up with him not only engineering and producing, but playing keyboards, lead guitar, bass guitar, percussion, and moog and singing. Remi played piano, guitar, and various drums and did the lead vocals, and Abdal Lasisi Amao better known as Lofty - played saxes, flute, congas and other percussion, and sang.
"Remi wanted to get a lot more people down at first, but my studio just isn't equipped in that way, it's not a good sound at all. Of course, Remi, like a lot of musicians, was finding it difficult to get the chance to make a record the way he wanted to without signing the lot away ... just getting somebody to put the money up front. That's one of the things I hope to relieve in a small way with Fantasy Songs, by recording people who are finding it difficult for some reason - financially or whatever."
Thank God for Fantasy Songs then - because "Aiye-Keta" is an exceptionally nice album. It's hard to describe, really, except to say that it sounds to me the way I always thought bands like Osibisa should have been and never were - rhythmically it's intricate, but retains a [word unclear in bad xerox copy] almost [words unclear] some really inspired playing from everyone. Though in form it isn't anything like the kind of music you'd expect Steve Winwood to be involved in, in spirit it certainly is.
"It's hard for me to actually explain what the thing represents - I have never been to Africa, although I'd like to go. But the thing to understand is that music is the universal language, you know, that's the understanding I did the album on. I can't possibly have the same knowledge that Remi and Lofty have, they try to explain that when this happens the women dance with their handkerchiefs in a certain way, and those things, so I just had to try and visualize it."
Did he find it easy music to get into? "I wouldn't say it was easy to get into, but it was enjoyable to learn to get into. There were riffs and things that I had difficulty at first feeling, but it settled down all right. When it's someone else's song you may be able to get the feel of it naturally but you still have to get into it, learn the intricacies of it. That's one of the reasons I like to do sessions - to be faced with other people's material. It's total education to me."
The importance of the Third World album to him though, isn't so much that it represents a particular form of music as that it is a kind of universal music. "There's something interesting about music that is sort of central to music, in a way, that blends in that sort of way .... I suppose I became interested at an early age in sort of blending things. I did some poetry and jazz things, although nothing ever really came of them, just local art college things, on a very small scale - playing piano in pub rooms. I suppose that was blending in a way - unconsciously."
"But I think now rock and roll achieves that. What happens nowadays seems to be that rock and roll engulfs everything. Poetry's no longer poetry, fashion's no longer fashion, music's no longer music - it's all rock and roll. It seems to swallow up everything, just one big melting pot. Distances don't seem to make that much difference any more, although I'm sure Africa has so much happening that people don't know about ... Remi and Lofty talk a lot about people who play, what they play and why they play."
Meanwhile, back at the Fantasy factory, there's a solo album going on. He hasn't finished writing all the songs for it yet, but he's well into the project. Would it be a solo album in the sense that he's be doing everything himself, over-dubbing? "I don't think so, but I haven't planned as far as asking musicians to come down. If I did do it all myself, it wouldn't be for effect, it would be because I could do something that way that I couldn't do any other way."
The album was something he wanted to do, but not just as an artistic venture. You may remember that United Artists in America put out an album called Winwood - an album of old tracks he'd done with other bands. Steve was less than pleased: "I even went to all the hassle of issuing affidavits and all that crap, which did no good at all - they just went on selling it. So I just want to do a couple of albums that'll replace it."
And what of the future? Now he has his studio together does he feel that side of it will become increasingly important - Traffic tours becoming less frequent. Would he be happier just making records, or does he still enjoy touring?
"I think they're equally important to me - I just have phases where I prefer to do one and not the other, but it always balances out in the end. I enjoy playing on stage, but actually touring is a bit hard to take sometimes. I've told the office I'm not flying any more, so I'll have plenty of time on boats and driving. In Europe on the last tour I drove everywhere and it was great - everyone says they don't know how I do it - but I don't know how they can go on those planes."
-- Steve Peacock