Interview by Jeff Melton
The following interview with Andy Latimer, lead guitarist with Camel was conducted on Exposure Radio, KSJS, on March 2, 1997. Camel was in the San Francisco area preparing to play three local shows. Andy took a short break between tight rehearsals to phone in from home while Jeff Melton conducted the interview from the San Jose State campus. Special thanks to John Szpara for providing the forum, and to Carol Hammett for her diligent work on the transcription
Exposé: Thanks for taking a break from rehearsals to talk to us.
Latimer: Oh, that’s all right, it’s a pleasure.
Why don’t you give us a little bit of a background about what’s going on (with the band)? Where’s Camel been since the 1992 tour?
Since 1992? Oh, all sorts of things have been happening. We’ve done two bootleg albums, and one studio album, in which you’ve just heard one track from, Harbour of Tears. My father passed away, so that’s taken some adjusting and some time out for myself. We were going to do a tour last year that was postponed..
Several of us do get the Camel newsletter, which comes out on a semi-regular basis. But, specifically why didn’t you tour last year? Was it a personnel problem?
Yeah. Our keyboard player, Mickey Simmonds, left without telling us. Sort of being we didn’t find out until too late that he wasn’t going to do the tour and that basically lead to postponing it because we couldn’t arrange a replacement in time.
How long did it take for you to recover and try to set up your current line-up? As a matter-of-fact, your current-line up is pretty much unknown to me and several of the listeners out there. Could you give us a break-down about who you’ve got in the band now?
Oh, yeah, well we’ve got Colin Bass still, who plays bass. He’s been with us for probably 18-19 years and we have a new young drummer, Dave Stewart, formerly with Fish. We have a guest keyboard player, Foss Patterson who also has played with Fish, John Martin and various other people. Both are Scottish lads and very good and highly amusing! (laughs)
So the band chemistry is going pretty well with this new line- up, I suppose?
Oh, absolutely. It’s an on-going thing. It’s one of those things that changes at times but the direction of the band is still staying quite true to it’s former self.
Trying to get the pieces of Camel together has obviously been some work for you. I know from talking to Susan Hoover that you’ve been in some pretty tight rehearsals up until the current time trying to get ready.
Yeah, it’s hell week at the moment…
Are you willing to talk about the current set list? How are you are trying to determine what you’re going to play? Or would you like to keep that a secret?
Well, I could tell you a little bit. We’ll be doing most of Harbour, in fact, I think we’ll be doing all of Harbour.
That seems to be traditional with the Camel from the past. Whenever you have a new album, it’s time to come out and play the whole thing in it’s entirety
Well, that is usually the policy. You try to publicize your latest recording; that seems the most sensible thing. Then, you have the mammoth task to try to decide what you’re going to do from your older material. We have quite a few albums to choose from and it’s always really difficult. It’s like, “Do we do this?” and whatever you choose, there is always someone who comes up and says, “Well, you didn’t play this, now did you? It’s my favorite!” So, it’s always very difficult. I think this time around we are doing a bigger chunk of The Snow Goose.
We’re also doing a bigger chunk of Nude and then we’re going to do a couple of older things, such as Lunar Sea and a few other older items. It’s a kind of two-set program.
I just wanted to mention something about that the last live album, Never Let Go, which was a chronicle of the last tour. I think the set list was put together very well and spotlighted several tracks that hadn’t been played in quite a long time, such as Earthrise. It also spotlighted what I would call the classic Camel tracks, like “Ice”, which I think really shows the last line-up very well, particularly because that piece builds up to a very strong theme towards the end and has a really nice build down.
Yeah, it was a successful tour from that point of view, you know. We did this sort of chronological thing where we chose quite a few different tracks. It was tricky and we did sort of jiggle around a few pieces, but we didn’t include anything from Stationary Traveler, I think, last time around. It was a very successful tour, and we hadn’t been out for some seven years or so.
How would you compare the current line-up to the last live touring incarnation as far as chemistry?
It’s very similar. The chemistry is a lot stronger; I mean, it’s so much fun to work with everybody. They all have their own identities and it’s a wonderful line up, you know. They’re so much fun and it’s interesting working with new people all the time and regarding the young drummer we’ve got: he’s excellent. He’s got loads of energy and he’s a great player.
How does he compare to say, like, Andy Ward?
Well, he’s very similar in a way. He’s going to be a monster player when he gets older (laughs), I mean, he’s a monster player now; he’s very good. It’s very encouraging because he can play all of Andy’s parts easily, so it’s just fun. I love it.
It does keep it really fresh, which I could definitely tell from the last tour, that the band chemistry was really very high.
Well I think that changed considerably when Mickey came in because Mickey was the one who actually kind of convinced us to do it as a four piece. I think that in turn was very instrumental in actually getting the spirit back of the original Camel. We were always a four-piece, and then we digressed a bit and went up to six or seven piece at one stage, so getting back to being a four-piece was extremely rewarding and challenging as well, especially this time around. I mean, we’re doing Harbor of Tears, which is very heavily orchestrated, so to create a ninety piece orchestra with four people was kind of difficult, you know (laughs). It’s a lot of brain work and very challenging.
Was Harbor of Tears conceived primarily as a band project or was it an intimate, personal statement from you about your family history?
Well, interesting question. I think that nearly everything I write is a personal statement. It’s kind of a personal album mainly because of the passing of my father. He, in turn, kind of led me to this place in Ireland; I discovered after he died that I really didn’t know much about his background and his family. He never talked too much about it and after he died I thought, “Well, I’ll do some investigation.” I went to see his brother in the North of England and he told me quite a bit about some family history, that their mother was Irish and I never knew. I then found out that a lot of her family left from a place in Ireland called Queenstown, which was called Cove Harbor at the time. I started to do some research on it, ’cause I didn’t know too much about where they all went to, the family. They all sort of emigrated; some went to America, some of them went to Canada, Australia and all this and nobody knows where or what happened to them. The story sort of stopped there. As I read about the Harbor, I discovered that this place was dubbed, “The Harbour of Tears” by a lot of people because it was the last sight of Ireland, their homeland, that they saw. A lot of families were broken up. The whole thing started to interest me and I started to do a lot of research and I found out that the Lusitannia was sunk just outside the harbor.
And the more stories I read about the more I was drawn into this place called Cove Harbor, “The Harbour of Tears”. So my father kind of led me to this place. A lot of the feelings I got from my father, I suppose, came out musically and so there is a strong, personal side to it. It’s an incredible place. The album is about different stories that involve different people going through that harbor. I always wanted to do a Celtic album. It really all fell into place for me.
So, trying to make an album like Harbour of Tears into a live state seems to me the same kind of challenge as taking Dust and Dreams from the studio to live.
Hmmm…, yeah, it is a challenge, I must say, and Foss, our keyboard player, is rising to the challenge. It’s very difficult to create these huge, orchestral things that I’ve written as a four piece, you know. We don’t use any sequencers, we don’t use any backing tracks or anything like that. We just use the four of us and it’s a challenge, so whether we call it…
What you see is what you get?
Yeah. Whether we pull it off or not remains to be seen! (laughs)
Oh, I don’t know. I’d be very surprised if you couldn’t pull it off.
(laughs) Oh, we try our best, you know. It’s all we can do. It has been fun but it has been a lot of work.
I’m also interested in trying to understand how difficult it was to be able to try set up some gigs in the local (San Francisco) Bay Area. Does anyone actually remember Camel from the last time they played here in town ..?
Who knows! (laughter)
It’s a challenge! Progressive rock, in general, is looked at as something that people don’t want to attend on a regular basis.
Progressive rock is a kind of strange term, in a way. It’s a sort of music that is not instantaneous and therefore doesn’t get any exposure, usually that one would get on radio and TV. I think you have to put a little bit of yourself into it to get something out. As far as getting gigs in this country, it’s been kind of difficult, compared to places like Japan and Europe where the rest of the tour has been very easy to set up. We’re very popular everywhere else, so America is kind of difficult. You do sort of find that the agents phone up and say, “Are you interested in booking Camel?” and they say “Who???” (laughs), so a lot of that goes on. The concerts always do very well because the fans are extremely loyal and nice people. They tend to come and make the whole evening a nice event.
It seems like the tour is biased toward the bay area and the US west coast again. The east coast doesn’t have any tour dates.
We rehearse here and so we’re all here and it makes sense to do a few shows in California and we’re doing a few more than we did last time. We only did about three dates before we went to Japan last time and now we’re doing a few more in Los Angeles as well before we trundle off to Japan. It’s nice to play in this area because I’m from this area at the moment. It’s nice to play here and have your friends come.
The people down in Southern California are quite happy.
Yeah, because I can see a lot of my friends come, it’s fun.
Do you have any plans for a rarities box set?
A rarities box set? Not really. I mean, we don’t really have that many rarities. We do have several more tapes and things that I may release.
Well, I do have a few personal tapes which I think would be great to find a way to get them released. Well, yeah, we tend to try and release the bootleg what we call our official bootleg albums, just to combat the other bootleggers. We found they’re releasing poor quality tapes for high prices and we thought that was terribly unfair for the fans. So we try to release good quality tapes that are reasonably priced and its been fairly successful. In the future we’ll probably release more, but there’s not a lot of what I’d call archive stuff. There’s a few things I’ve got up my sleeve still but not a lot.
I think there’s a few tracks I’ve heard on some of the tapes I have that would be great to hear.
Oh, you’ve probably got more than I have. People send me tapes all the time. I have ones from Germany, from Offenbach , you know, I’ve never heard before. Where these people get these tapes, I have no idea.
Just well connected.
Yeah, maybe so, maybe so.
Camel productions is a home-based business, right? You and Susan pretty much do everything? Is that how it works?
No, absolutely not, we can’t do everything (laughs). We have lots of people to help. We have Neil Paton, Mary Reese, and Bill Richardson and, gawd, loads…Sarah, Roger and there’s Paris, Laurie and Harriet Stroud. I mean, there’s loads of people we use because there’s no way we could do it all ourselves. I mean, the business is just overwhelming. Susan basically does most of the business stuff and I try to do most of the creative stuff and we have lots of people to help us. We just couldn’t function, otherwise.
How difficult is it to maintain a presence in the music business with a band like Camel?
Maybe, not so much. A lot of things have happened to me in my life that have put things back, if you like. My father died and I had to go to England. That took quite a considerable amount of time away from creating and I’m a slow writer anyway – I tend to take my time about what I do and fuss over things until I get them how I like and so maybe I’m not as productive as I should be. As I get older, I want to sort of change that and be more productive.
It may take longer, but I’d say it’s been worth the wait.
Hmm, well, thanks, you know, we try and that’s as much as you can do. And, in turn, it takes time. Like Dust and Dreams, I finished writing it and then I wasn’t happy with it and then I tried to get a deal with it in England. Nobody was really that interested so then I decided the only way I could do it was to set up my own company. I had to sell my house and I moved to America because it was more economical to do the album here. I invested all my money into it; it was a bit of a gamble, but it worked. People started buying the record and we were on the right road and it was a fabulous decision, in a way. At the time, it was a decision I was sort of forced into but upon reflection, it was a fabulous thing that happened to me because it made me responsible for my own career. I couldn’t blame the record company every time I had a flop; it was me who was responsible now and it became a very personal thing. I receive letters from the fans now and I never did when I was with Decca, so now I have direct contact with people who buy our albums and I love it. I love the fact that I go out on the road now and I can go to Japan and I can meet people that are in our fan base and I can speak to them on a first name basis. It’s lovely and a rewarding experience. They write to me and tell me what they think of what I’m doing; sometimes it’s very positive and sometimes it’s not so flattering. (Overall) I think it’s fabulous. I don’t have to worry about the pressures that the record industry brings to their artists. They all try to change you and make it easy for them to make a million. I’ve never been somebody who writes a hit single, so it’s nice for me to go into a studio and write something from my heart and not worry whether it’s commercial or not.
Are you going to be writing new material during the course of touring? I don’t know how much time you have for it but, what kind of plans do you have in this area?
I probably won’t be writing anything while I’m on tour. I usually try and absorb as much of the tour as I can do; certainly the new places that I’m going to this time. I’m going to Poland; I haven’t been there before, and Slavakia, so I’ll be absorbing a lot of that. Who knows, I may use some of that when I write the next project. But as soon as I come back, I’ll start writing some more material for another project because I do want to do a live-type album for the next album and may turn out some orchestrations but a much more simpler thing.
With a real band in the studio?
Yes! A real band with real people! (laughs)….
Well, I mean, the last two albums, they’re good. They are definitely a product of the studio and the people you are assembling at the time you are able to put it together.
Like I was mentioning before…
Done on more of an individual basis, you mean?
Yeah, a lot of the better Camel albums are definitely a result of the band chemistry of the people that were there, all at the same time, in a studio, all playing together. And there is really great synergy that seems to happen, whether it’s the Nude lineup or definitely the older period albums up through Moonmadness which are very much characterized in this way. It seems that’s how that was working for a long time and just the possibility of having a group of people all together at the same time playing your stuff creates a lot of energy and people can get a good reaction to it real fast.
What is it that distinguished Camel from other 1970’s progressive bands, do you think?
Good question! (laughs) The name! (laughs). I don’t really know actually, Jeff. That’s a kind of hard question. I don’t really know what distinguishes us from other progressive bands.
You do have a definite identity, if nothing else, based on your solo lead guitar work, which is the consistent thread through all the projects.
Yes. I don’t really know that much about the progressive scene, as such. I go into record stores; (for instance), I was in CD Warehouse down in Sunnyvale-which is a wonderful place-I love all the people in there-it’s a great place and they’ve got this huge progressive section in there and I look at them and think, “I don’t know any of these bands!”(laughs) So, it’s very difficult for me to make a comment on the progressive scene, if you like.
Well, it seems to me that the identifiable trait of what makes it Camel is the song writing and I’d say, more often than not, virtuoso players.
Well, the band, yes, has always had some interesting players, very good players They’ve interpreted the music in whatever way and some have been successful and others not. They’ve had their input and it’s been very good at times.
And you’ve managed to keep the link going with quality level still high. I also think the identity of who and what is Camel is still going forward without the sort of “splinter” thing that happens when people leave the band.
Well, I think we re-found ourselves in the 90’s in a way, if that makes sense. We did rediscover the spirit of Camel and I think because the spirit of Camel…after Doug Ferguson left, which was nearly 20 years ago now, (he was the original bass player) the spirit went…as soon as Richard Sinclair came into the band, it sort of departed. All of our roles in the band sort of changed as soon as Doug left and it was more of an “individuals” kind of band, although we still tried to retain some sort of direction as far as the music was concerned. But it wasn’t always easy because people pulled you one way and then another, you know. In the 90’s, we sort of rediscovered the spirit of Camel, what Camel is all about. Also, I think Susan is very instrumental in pulling the band in a good direction, too. She was always a very strong force as far as Camel is concerned. She is really the one who kept us going, in a way.
Interesting…so, why is it that you still like doing Camel because I hear some rumors that people say you are a very good blues player..
(laughing)…yeah, well, I’d like to do that too, actually, Jeff. The thing is about Camel is that I’ve always loved the direction of the band in a way sometimes it gets lost but most of the time it’s a kind of spirit and direction but I can’t really put my finger on it. I’m not very clear about it, I don’t really know why, what it is I like about Camel. I don`t know. It’s fun still, which is my main criteria for going forward. When it ceases to be fun then I don’t think I’ll do it any more. It’s always been a fun thing. It’s nice to be able to be creative without restrictions from the record industry.
I actually just bought that, Jeff. I didn’t know about it. Somebody told me about it and said, “There’s going to be a tribute”, and I thought, “Oh?!” (laughs). One side of me says, “Wow”. You’re very flattered that any of these people would want to go in and record some of your material. It’s very flattering and I’m, you know, delighted with a lot of them. It’s very interesting. On the other hand, it’s a kind of strange tribute where the record company who’s doing the album, doesn’t actually tell the person that they’re giving the tribute to, you know what I mean? They probably didn’t pay any of the bands that did it and they’re certainly not paying us anything, so you know, it’s kind of an interesting thing that this whole thing came about. But the album itself is, uh, entertaining. Some of it is very good and some of it is, uh, is..(laughs)..
Not quite you’d expect?
No, but it’s interesting to hear other people play your music. Some Italian bands, some of them are very interesting, you know. I can’t say I’d approach some of things as they do. There’s a track called, “Tell me”, that Peter and I did and from how it’s done on the tribute album, it could be a single, it sounded very commercial. It’s sung in an Italian voice and it’s just a different way of looking at your material. Still, I’m very flattered that they’ve done it.
Was Camel invited to have a track on the Supernatural Fairytales box set? There seems to be some question about why Camel’s not represented in the context of all the other progressive bands on that set. Are you familiar with the box set?
It came out, I believe, on Rhino Records. They’re doing a lot of the re-issue stuff and they’re gobbling up some progressive rock icons, such as ELP, from the 70’s. They re-released their whole catalog, don’t know if that was absolutely necessary to do, but they put together a pretty good box set. It has an interesting overview of a lot of different kinds of 70’s bands, ranging all the way from Yes, then getting into a lot of other bands, like Quiet Sun and a lot of the more obscure Italian bands. So, it seems to me that Camel would have been a very logical choice to have included in this overall packaging.
Yes, especially since they’ve got two of our Janus albums.
I didn’t even know about it until they obviously thought better of putting us on there! (laughs) It’s something I didn’t know about and it was obviously one of their executive decisions. Maybe we’ll be on the next one.
If there is a next one! (laughs)
..yeah! (laughs hard) If this one doesn’t do too well, then probably no.
What would you say some of your favorite Camel songs are and why?
Hmmmm, well there are all sorts of tracks. That’s a difficult question because I do like things like Ice, and I like that because it was a live thing and it was actually the only live track that we did on that album.
It is my personal favorite (laughs)…
Oh, that’s funny. It is the only thing that we did live; the rest was done sort of individually.
It’s a very powerful piece. It’s a slow building piece. And the resolution at the end is quite good. You feel like you’ve been through a major ordeal..
(laughs hard) We did ! But there are some faves. I like bits of The Goose. I like Nude quite a bit still. It was quite a nice album for me. Of course, I like the ones since we’ve gone independent. I enjoy listening to Dust and Dreams and Harbour, which is quite different for me. I don’t usually listen to much to my material. I don’t listen to much of the older stuff. But on the tracks that I like sort of things like Elke I think that was kind of a successful track that we did with Brian Eno.
A very pretty piece.
It was a nice experience to work with Brian Eno. He was an extremely nicer person, great fun to work with. But there are several tracks that I like on the first album for strange reasons, I suppose.
You know, it’s actually really good. The first album is something that is pretty elusive; a lot of people never really heard of the band…
.No. We were only signed to MCA and then we got dropped from MCA after that first album, well they dropped a lot of artists at that time but it was a great experience and it was a great time for the band. When we just started out. It was a very exciting time. We were all young and very enthusiastic bags of energy and worked well together as a four piece. It was a very magical time for us, but things like Lady Fantasy, we still play it. It’s a sort of golden oldie. In certain periods of each album, there is a certain naivet‚ about pieces that I like, that are fun. They bring a smile to me when Andy was, you know, blowing in a bucket of water, bits of lunacy….
That’s really funny (laughs)…
Just nice periods, because Andy was always into that sort of thing; I mean, on one track or two he decided he’d use hair spray or deodorant spray, and to use it’s sound. By the end of the session, the actual studio stunk to high heaven. (laughter). But you listen to a track and you conjure up these images and it brings a smile to your face.
One of the first tours that you did on the west coast, was that supporting Wishbone Ash?
You went all the way up and down the west coast, is that correct?
Well, we went all over America. I mean, it was unbelievable tour for us. We started out thinking it was going to be a month’s tour, but the manager came to us in New York and said, “How do you fancy spending Christmas here?” We said “Where?” and they said, “Florida” and we said, “well, all right.” and we did and it went on for three months, this tour. We supported Wishbone Ash and we supported Kiss and Steppenwolf. It was funny because when we came over to America thinking, “We’ll show the Americans some English-type material” and we started playing all this stuff and the second gig in, somebody shouted out, “ROCK AND ROLL!!”, you know, started jeering at us, so we thought, “We better play all our fast stuff”. We only did a half hour or 45 minutes and we were doing all these fast numbers. It was kind of funny! (laughs)
Is this the Mirage period?
Actually, it probably was from the Mirage period. It was..well, maybe it was later than that, Jeff. I’m sorry my memory is sort of a bit hazy. I’m a bit rehearsed-out, I think! It was an enjoyable tour because it was our first experience in going to America and we were playing to large audiences, but I don’t know how much good it did the band because we didn’t really have time to play anything of substance. We were playing all this rock and roll.
Yes actually benefited from odd billings, too, opening for Black Sabbath around the time that Fragile was released. I can tell you that there is probably the same association with Camel. People come and see some band they don’t even know and they walk away with that in their heads for awhile..
Yes, possibly so. It was a very interesting experience and my first experience in America and I kind of really enjoyed it. It was a very nice experience.