When everything around you is going horribly wrong, it’s always best to keep busy. Many professional musicians have made valiant attempts to keep the creative ball rolling during lockdown, with often highly questionable results.
Camel bassist Colin Bass, on the other hand, has been helping to run the health food store that he and his wife, a nutritionist, bought four years ago, “basically on a whim”.
“It’s turned into quite a business!” says Bass. “We’re the only shop like this for 25 miles or something, and somehow we’ve made a success of it. It’s been an incredible learning curve for me, but it’s been incredibly enjoyable. My wife is the boss and she’s the brains of the outfit, and that’s fine by me.”
Of course, Bass is not just here for shop talk: there’s a new record to talk about, too. Still, a collaboration with prolific London-based producer and composer Daniel Biro, is a collection of beautiful, atmospheric songs, pieced together over the last few years and featuring Bass as lead vocalist throughout.
Entirely drum-free, it’s also a pointedly soothing and tranquil record, which may be exactly what Bass Player needs amid the current chaos. That and some expert dietary knowledge, of course.
“The thing is, much to our surprise, my wife and I have discovered ourselves to be key workers,” he notes, “because we’re providing food. I’ve been driving around delivering to some of our elderly customers... I say elderly but some of them are the same age as me, ha ha! I never think of myself like that, because I’m pretty fit.
“I’ll proselytize about nutrition and the advantages of food for your general state of health at some length, but I guess this interview is supposed to be about music. Maybe I’ll save it until Nutrition Magazine phones me up!”
He may be considering trying to sell us some vitamins, but Bass is more than happy to move on to the subject of Still. An album full of beautiful melodies, immersive ambience, misty-eyed nostalgia and lyrical elegance, it speaks of great chemistry, inspired by a friendship that stretches back to the late 70s.
“Daniel and I first met way back in 1978, when I was between Steve Hillage and Camel, and I was playing with this guy called Jim Cuomo, a real eccentric and a brilliant sax player,” the veteran bassist recalls. “I was playing in a group called the Casual Band, which was put together because Jim wrote music for a musical, Woe Babylon, that we did at the Edinburgh Festival in ’78.
“Every year, Jim used to go to a summer camp in Les Arcs, which is a ski resort near Mont Blanc, and young people would pay to attend classical concerts, classes and workshops, and then Jim did the jazz department. One summer we all went and spent five weeks up in the Alps. We did impromptu concerts and things like that. It was a wonderful summer camp vibe, and Daniel was one of the young students.”
As luck would have it, teacher and student kept in touch. Biro would eventually move to the UK in the mid-80s, initially hoping to launch his own band but eventually settling into a widely respected career as a composer.
“I said, ‘I really love these songs! I wish I could sing them, because you can’t!’ [Laughs] So we started to exchange ideas and pieces, and after a couple of years we had this little chest of songs and just thought, ‘Okay, let’s put an album together.’ It’s been done in the modern way, remotely.”
With both men contributing their own songs and embellishing each other’s, Still is a true collaboration and an extremely honest one, too. With songs like Daniel Biro’s darkly wistful Old Europe, a sombre tribute to the life and times of our continent, and Bass’ Once Was A Time, a gentle but emotionally weighty hymn to childhood, it’s a record that oozes melancholy and quiet wishes for better times.
“Old Europe is one of the first songs Daniel sent and it predates the EU referendum or anything like that, so it’s not any kind of political thing,” Bass explains. “It’s a paean to the turbulent but wonderful history of Europe, as a place and a conglomeration of peoples, for better or worse. Daniel grew up in Italy and France, and his family roots are in Eastern Europe, part of the Jewish diaspora. There’s this sense of gravity to that European history.”
It does seem especially poignant in these (sort of) post-Brexit times, though, whether it’s meant to be or not. “Well, yeah. Because now we’re all having to look at this new situation with our neighbours, when we should be thinking about how things are connected, instead of the opposite.”
Meanwhile, the new album’s most touching moment by far, Once Was A Time, takes Bass back to his earliest years. He was born in London but grew up in the small ‘new town’ of Bracknell in Berkshire in the 1950s, and remembers those years as “pretty idyllic, really.”
“I really loved that place,” Bass recalls with a sigh. “But when I was eight years old, my father died and that changed everything, because my mother took me and my brother and moved back to her parents in London, basically not knowing what to do.
“My father was never spoken much about after that, and I resented that for a long time. I eventually went through a process with my mother about restoring the memory of my father. I don’t expect anyone else to get it, but for me it’s all encapsulated in that song. I’m just saying ‘This is what those days were like…”
Given the madness of 2020, there’s never been a better time to lose oneself in nostalgia for simpler, happier times. Once Was A Time is particularly meaningful for Colin Bass because it covers the period in his life when music suddenly became the most important and inspiring thing of all.
“These are vivid memories, of teenage cousins who were older than me. They had the bouffant hair and the pointy shoes and the tight summer dresses, and that was an erotic epiphany for me! [Laughs] I was five or six years old.
“I’d just put my head into the Dansette record player and listen to Gamblin’ Man by Lonnie Donegan. That was my all-time favourite. I played it over and over again because it was so wild. It opened the door to another world. And I distinctly remember my teenage cousins jiving.”
With Still released into the wild and, at the time of writing, no tangible end to the current lockdown situation, Colin Bass will be focusing on his key worker duties for the foreseeable future.
He states that there will almost definitely be further collaborations with Daniel Biro, and that even though there are no firm plans for his more high-profile day job alongside Andrew Latimer, Camel fans may rest assured that communications are ongoing and new music is still a possibility..”
“Of course, I would never report on anything officially from the Camel world,” he chuckles. “It’s not my place. It’s Andy’s job! [Laughs] Of course, there has been talk about doing something, and I’m always talking with Andy. Of course we’d like to do something on the recording front, but we’ll see! There has been talk about the possibility of playing live again, but this is all completely up in the air at the moment.”
It really has been quite the year, hasn’t it? “Yes, it’s bloody madness! It’s an unknown future for musicians and crew and everybody, and it’s quite concerning,” Bass concludes. “But hopefully we will all rise like phoenixes from the ashes and manage to put together something so we can go out and enjoy ourselves and have a great time again, and continue the communication that comes both ways through music. That’s what I like.”
- Still is out now. See Colin Bass for more.