Meet musician Dave Cousins
PUBLISHED: 07:35 23 October 2014 | UPDATED: 07:35 23 October 2014
Frontman and founder of seminal British folk-rock band The Strawbs, Dave Cousins, on his new autobiography, his 50-year music career and why he loves Deal
Dave Cousins and I are sunning ourselves on the bench outside his house on a quiet square in Deal. The tiny rear garden is always in shade so this is a favourite spot to catch some rays and greet neighbours.
The unassuming-looking 69-year-old is actually rather well connected, with tales of David Bowie, Rick Wakeman, ‘Dickie’ Attenborough, Spencer Davies and the late Sandy Denny peppering our conversation.
And the music career of this enigmatic frontman and founder of folk-rock band The Strawbs, which began in Twickenham in 1964 with Dave as lead singer, banjo and guitar-playing songwriter-in-chief, not only stretches back half a century but also shows no sign of slowing down.
The Strawberry Hill Boys, as they were first called, originally playing acoustic music – principally bluegrass - and evolved into a mainstream pop/folk-rock band producing hits such as Lay Down and the iconic Part of the Union. In their 1970’s heyday they clocked seven consecutive releases on the Billboard album chart, selling more than three million worldwide.
Dave has performed as an acoustic duo with Strawbs guitarist Brian Willoughby and as Acoustic Strawbs with Willoughby, Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk.
He still tours North America and Europe with Acoustic Strawbs several months every year and was indeed preparing for a tour of Canada shortly after our meeting.
The Strawbs’ biggest and arguably most famous hit, however, proved something of an albatross. “Part of the Union destroyed the band in this country – although it was a monster hit and went to number two in the charts, it had nothing whatsoever to do with what the band was all about and it split us in two and became a novelty song. It was the most stupid thing we ever did,” Dave says, shaking his head.
I’m curious to know what brought him to the Kent coastal town 11 years ago? The answer was simple geography at first – Dave and his third wife Geraldine were living in Teddington but often travelling to his house in France; a move to Kent would knock a couple of hours off the journey.
The band had played at the local theatre in the past and Deal seemed a “pretty place,” so the couple came to have a look.
“We started at the top end of town and ended up in this square at 5pm outside the pub. We could see there were three houses for sale, so we rang up the estate agent, asked the prices and if we could visit the one we were sitting opposite.
“He made the call, then we watched the owner going around fluffing up cushions and we went in. I took one look at it and said this will do, didn’t even go upstairs!”
However, with two pubs on the square the couple thought they’d better make one more visit to check what it was like on a Saturday night. “We had the quietest night’s sleep ever, woke up to seagulls and said that’s it, we confirmed and moved in,” says Dave, who found himself getting to know his neighbours rather quickly.
“The first night here we went out for a drink and found we’d locked ourselves out. Luckily we’d left the bedroom window slightly open so I went back to the pub and asked to borrow a ladder and sent Geraldine up. Half the pub came down to have a laugh. We got to know more people in the first six weeks than we did in six years living in Teddington.”
Dave is a big fan of his new home town, choosing Deal’s Astor Theatre for the book launch of his latest book Exorcising Ghosts, which follows Secrets, Stories & Songs, an anthology of lyrics released in 2010.
Did writing his autobiography, which published this September, come as easily as song writing? He laughs. “I write some songs in 10 minutes but I took 18 months off to write the book, so my next priority is putting out a compilation prog-rock album.
“I keep a lot of memorabilia and I had all of my diaries from the 1960s (1975, the year I got divorced, is the only missing year) all through my radio years as well, so the first thing I did was create a timeline of every move I’d made.”
Dave adds: “I’ve started writing a lot about this area – the local pubs and the people who go in them – and they will go into my songs. I wrote one in 2007 called The Boy in the Sailor Suit about my dad (who died before Dave was born) and the pubs in Deal and when I visited the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, that inspired songs. Bringing in the Harvest has a line about cornfields gently waving in a wartime aerodrome.”
He adds: “What I like about Deal is that it’s what I call a flat society. There’s no yachting club, no us and them, in the pub you’ll get a barrister talking to a plumber and it’s absolutely wonderful.
“I’ve got to know the captain of a tugboat that sails out of Sheerness and it turned out he was a fan from donkey’s years ago and wanted me to sign an album. We’ve become great mates and every now and again he comes round with a huge sea bass or a fresh lobster - it’s that sort of society.
“The curiosity is that if I’m here for too long without going on tour I get restless, thinking I’m getting set in my ways, but the minute I get away I wish I was home!”
This is no ordinary rock star, that’s certain. The working-class boy from West London has a degree in statistics and pure maths from the University of Leicester and has also had a distinguished career in radio.
During a 20-year break away from music, he was a producer for Denmark Radio from 1969 to 1979, Programme Controller for Radio Tees (1980–1982) and Managing Director of Devon Air from 1982 to 1990.
Dave has been instrumental in many business ventures involving local radio stations in the UK and also runs Witchwood Records, an independent record label. That business degree certainly came in handy.
However, Dave explains: “I decided I didn’t like the way radio was going with the consolidation of the industry, so I got out completely and started playing music again and I haven’t stopped! We started back in pubs, then got three nights at the Edinburgh Festival, then I said we’d better make an album, so we did, and now we’ve got a company that’s sold 110,000 records in the last 10 years, all from our little place in Deal.”
Does he never consider taking it a bit easier? Dave, who has five children and two grandchildren, laughs: “Geraldine said it’s time you started thinking about slowing down and I said, fine, I’ll go the pub at lunch and again in the evening, and she said hmm, I think you’d better go out and play!”
Has the band retained the same fan base? “Astonishingly, I have young kids who come along to concerts because we are quite rated as guitar players. The three of us can sound like 12 guitars.
“We get older people too, and couples who come up to me and say that The Winter Long was their wedding song; it’s incredibly flattering that they have chosen my song for one of their most important days.”
With such an extraordinary range of musicians in his life, I am interested to hear about Dave’s own influences and he is quick to name Lonny Donegan, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springstein, but few current bands apart from some Coldplay tracks.
“I don’t like how music today is too manufactured, we play mostly live so it’s a very true sound. I prefer singer songwriters. Lyrics are hugely important to me” n