You’re currently on tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of your debut release, and you began the run with your first live performance together in 8 years. Has the dynamic of the group changed, or has it been like slipping back into a comfortable pair of shoes?
Mostly the latter, but the band is slightly different. We’re going out without [Crowded House frontman] Mark Hart singing for the first time in a while, and we have also expanded the band to a nine-piece. We had some rehearsals in June at Rick Davies’ house in Long Island, and again in Paris before we started the tour, and it’s working really well. We’ve played 20 dates so far and have another 17 to go, including one in the UK. It’s getting better and better as we go.
Are you looking forward to playing in the UK again?
Yeah, it’ll be nice to be back in London. The only problem with playing in places like London and Paris is that there are so many guests, everyone’s hounding you for tickets. It’s not like going to Stuttgart and playing where we don’t know anyone; then we can just enjoy the gig and not worry about guests! It’s nice when you can just get in a plane or a car, go to the gig, and just get on with it without all that bother. But it’s just a part of what we do; we’ve got to live with it.
It’s interesting that you say the greatest amount of guests appear in London, as arguably you found greater success throughout your career in America than you did here in the UK.
Now, that’s interesting because if you were talking to me 30 years ago I would have said we’re enormously big in the States. But it seems like our popularity is now concentrated in Europe, especially in Germany, France and Spain. It’s much more difficult in the States now, but we’re still played on the classic rock stations. We’re popular enough in the UK to fill the O2 though. In fact, I’m not sure why we’re not doing more dates in the UK - we normally do Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool… Maybe the promoters thought one was enough! It’s not really my concern; I concentrate on the music and let other people sort out the logistics of it all.
What was it that inspired you to move to the US in the 70s?
We moved to California in 1975, before we were popular in America, because we felt that we’d done as much as we could in the UK after touring with Crime of the Century. We thought the next place to try and gain success was the USA and Canada, so we moved over and worked hard at it over the next few years. By 1979 we had released Breakfast in America and toured it round the country, and we really got quite big.
Would you say, then, that Breakfast in America is perhaps the most important album in Supertramp’s history?
[Laughs] Well, it was the biggest seller and yes it was very important. But in terms of musical importance I would put it on a level with Crime of the Century, which is where we made our mark. If you just wanted to judge it on numbers sold, I think Breakfast in America has sold the most. In fact, it was the biggest selling album in the world in 1979, and we’ve got a new deluxe edition coming out soon.
It’s an interesting move to re-release Breakfast in America on the 40th anniversary of your debut album rather than it’s own anniversary.
I don’t know whether the debut would every be re-released, but it’s still out there. There was some talk of doing a complete retrospective, but the record company wanted to concentrate on Breakfast in America and Crime of the Century. Hopefully there should be a deluxe edition of Crime of the Century coming out soon too.
This one is interesting, though, because it’s been re-mastered by the same guy that recorded and engineered it, Pete Henderson. We’ve also included an extra CD of live performances that have never been released before. It’s definitely one for the fans, and we’re proud of it.
Do you feel that the move to America affected the music being produced by the band in any way?
Well, we each kept our influences which between the band range from jazzy stuff through to the Beatles and California surf music. So we all had those influences that came together to produce Crime of the Century. Then we moved to the States, and we continued to be influenced by those bands. It’s ironic really that the song Breakfast in America was written years before we went to America by Roger Hodgson: it was just like a dream of what the USA could be. I think we all enjoyed ourselves out there though… well all the rest of them are still there!
When Roger Hodgson left in 1983, did you find that the atmosphere within the band changed at all?
When he decided to go off and do his own thing, Bob, Dougie and myself decided that we wanted to carry on making music with Rick as Supertramp. Our next album after that was called Brother Where You Bound, which showed a more serious side to Supertramp. Roger had always been the slightly more poppy songwriter of the two - more of his songs became singles - but this allowed us to show a different side of the band, which was nice. That said, we did have a couple of hits off it. When we first went out touring live again, we only played Rick’s songs but because of the demand from fans we’ve added one or two of Roger’s into the set over the years.
Throughout your music, there are a few unusual instruments including balalaikas and harmoniums, which seem to lend themselves to the unique Supertramp sound. Were the songs written with those sorts of instruments in mind, or did the songs naturally lead to them?
The main instrumentation of the group is not too unusual, although it is slightly strange for a rock group to have saxophones and clarinets. The harmonium is interesting because Roger would just sit and write songs at it. I think he had one in his house while he was growing up; that was why it was included.
Other instruments we got simply because they made the sound that we wanted to produce: we used a musical saw one time, someone played an accordion and we even used a tuba player on Breakfast in America . Mostly we played everything ourselves, but we also liked the idea of string arrangements. We never wanted to go overboard though; we liked to keep things reasonably short and to the point… unless you count Fool’s Overture which was long and complex!
Our music became very complicated to record, but when you listen to it, it sounds simple. You can keep listening to it though, and you can hear little subtleties because it’s well-crafted. That’s how we meant it to be. A lot of music which is made has quite a nice tune and then you get fed up of it quickly because that’s all it is. I even coined a word back then which I thought described our music: sophisto-rock! In the end of the 70s, our style of music was what all the punks were rebelling against. Someone once asked me why our music continued to be as successful as it did and I think that’s why.
Today, Supertramp are best known to the general public for songs like Dreamer, Bloody Well Right and The Logical Song. But if you could choose three songs for the band to be remembered for, what would you pick?
From Now On, because it’s one of the first numbers I heard when I went to listen to the band rehearsing in 1973 before I joined; Crime of the Century, because it’s quite emotional for me: it’s usually the number with which we end our shows and it’s important for me to get the saxophone solo right; and It’s Raining Again, which I think is our best single.
But I prefer Dancing in the Street by Martha and the Vandellas! That’s my favourite single of all time. [Laughs]
And now for the obvious question: what are the band’s plans once the tour is finished?
Very ephemeral! At the moment there are no plans for anything, except that there might be some more touring in late spring, and maybe some more gigs next summer.
And finally, you have a lot of supportive fans around the world. Have you got a message for them?
If they come and see us play, we’ve never been as good as we are now. In the 70s, we had that youthful enthusiasm and we were good then, but now we’ve matured a bit and we’re able to play the songs quite well. So come and see us play, and I think that you won’t be disappointed.
For more information, check out www.supertramp.com