Traffic: The Rolling Stone Interview

British band talks, jams — then breaks up

Traffic in circa 1970. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

The interview took place at Traffic's Berkshire cottage three weeks before the break-up. Everyone was waking up when we arrived one early golden-leaved afternoon, and we all listened to tapes of Hugh Masekela, Steve Stills, and the second Supersession playing "Mr. Fantasy," followed by a selection of beautiful Swan Silvertones performances.

Everyone sat around the living and listening room —— quiet and high-day vibrations. The interview was interrupted by interruptions — —but then the interview itself was an interruption— — and by a mad, cold, sliding in the mud drive (Stevie Winwood and Chris Wood sort of in control of the wheel) in a jeep up to Roman Fields, where you find not only pure uncomplicated air but also a 360 degree view of what seems like the world.

After the interview, we jammed in the instrument room— — Stevie on drums, Jim Capaldi on one organ, and your interviewer on another. (Everyone's a musician in the Traffic cottage). Then Jim, Chris, and Stevie took over and went on with their fantastic music until dawn, as they did most days and nights they were together.

Could we talk about some of your musical beginnings. Were the three of you in the group Deep Feeling back in Birmingham?
Jim:
Just me. And Dave [Mason] was for awhile. Actually, he left before we changed the name of the group to Deep Feeling. It was group in Evesham, which is near Birmingham. We were doing most of our own things. We did a Davy Graham number which was actually a Leadbelly piece called "Leavin' Blues." Davy had come back from Tangiers and made this folk blues LP and did this version which was influenced by the music he heard in Tangiers. We did the same kind of set that we did in Birmingham in British Railway Workmen's Clubs. It was totally out of place.

Chris: I was in a group called Locomotive, on and off while I was at college, and then I left college. There were four of us in the group, and we were playing what I then thought was jazz but now know was 12 bar sequences on piano, bass, and drum. We'd do the occasional wedding reception, Club Social, British Legion meeting on Saturdays. You'd have to play standard waltzes and foxtrots, but we tried to do as much jazz as we could get away with.

Stevie: I was in college, but I got kicked out. It was a very free school, but I created a "bad impression." Like I was a bit more fiery in those days. At the time I got kicked out, I knew exactly what I was going to do and didn't even bother to go back for a leaving certificate. Then I was singing in folk clubs around Birmingham and playing jazz in clubs on Sundays.

Chris: Saturdays, dinnertime, musicians used to get together and jam at a pub called the Chapel. There was a great scene, some great blowing things going on in Birmingham. You could go to a pub at dinner time and then go to an afternoon club and someplace else in the evening. Kids would mass up to Manchester and then down to the clubs in Birmingham.

What's Birmingham like?
Stevie: It's called the Black Country. The West Midland people are the people Tolkien was supposed to have based his Hobbits on. It's really heavy industrial.

Jim: The people are definitely character types, like Liverpool people—the accent, attitudes. Birmingham's very much like Chicago. Maybe more like Detroit, and it's got a heavy genuine musical scene.

How did you all finally get together? 
Stevie: It was at the end of my Spencer Davis Group days, and we all used to go to this drinking-gambling club where Jim used to play, and like we used to get up and play with him and jam. And we just got together.

When did the Spencer Davis Group happen? 
Stevie: Well it didn't exactly happen. It happened but on a sort of false level. It was almost like a joke gone too far — that's what it seemed to me. It wasn't serious. In a way it was good just picking up an instrument and playing it and singing, but it wasn't thought about as it is now. It's just a matter of wanting to do something else.

Like I was pretty ignorant. With a song like "Somebody Help Me," for instance, like suddenly this guy came around and said, "Here's a song for you to sing," he just arrived in the studio like that. I just wasn't into it. "Gimme Some Lovin' " and "I'm a Man" were more personal, but I sort of did them, I didn't think about it much.

Chris: When you consider American jazz, groups have stuck together, but individually there's never been any restrictiveness because each member of a group has made an album on his own. Art Blakey used to keep a group together for three or four years, but at the same time the individual members were doing other things. And it's good that this is now happening in pop, as long as you try to keep the group together. We played on a Joe Cocker session. And Stevie and I played on the Hendrix LP.

Jim: Big Pink has been together nine years, and they're not like anything less or more than they are because they've been together nine years. It's the fact that they've been together — —they have a nice thing together.

Stevie: And the Stax people have been together something like 15 years.

What was the first song you recorded as Traffic?
Jim:
"Mulberry Bush." The original version was beautiful. It was an instrumental-type sounding thing and we just blew it. We put words in, recorded in one studio, then another studio.

Chris: There was "Mulberry Bush," "Giving To You," and "Paper Sun." The last two came out first, and then four months later "Mulberry Bush" came out, when in fact it was the first thing we did.

Your words and your music often strangely go in different directions. The words for "Dealer," for example, are morally strong, yet the music is light Mexican style.
Jim:
I know exactly what you mean. The song was actually about a gambler type and it was painting a picture. I wrote the theme to the words using three chords — C, F, and G — —which gave us that Spanish effect, and Steve did the arranging. We decided to treat it for what it was and compliment it with the natural Mexican feel.

Chris: Some lyrics are philosophical in the way we put them across, and with others we're just concerned with the sound of the lyrics — —the meaning doesn't count so much. Like with "Medicated Goo," where the words are quite light but they way they're written makes them come out rhythmically strong.

Jim: Like the Beatles in "Revolution." It has an obvious blues theme — —they put their own thing to it, and that's why it sounds so nice.

Stevie: Most of the sort of changes that have ever been done have been done because in the western scale — there are only 12 notes so there are only 12 changes, and it's almost impossible for anybody to put changes together to create a new mood because all the moods that can be created by putting different changes together have already been created. Now there seems to be more emphasis on like actually putting them together, like using old themes, old moods, and old changes, and it's the way they're put together —which makes them strong as songs. Dylan's "John Wesley Harding" is very old music. Like the Beatles' "Your Mother Should Know" — it's the way they take the old moods, 'cause it's difficult to create new moods without it sounding freaky.

Chris: But the sort of change that's coming is the sound, the overall sound itself and the way you play it. It's going to be new anyway because A, it's going to be played by you in 1968 and B, if you're aware of yourself as a human being, it's going to tie up with basic human experience, we hope. Think of the Beatles' rock music, which is really like collages of old rock stuff, but the sound they get on it is 1968. You don't hear them as a rock revival. If you're a very technical musician, and some people are, you just give a very beautiful technical reading — —that's often what happens, you're just a person who plays tricks: even if you're in time, you're not getting anything across.

Jim: It's like Dylan's timing — —perfect timing, yet very personal, and it gives the character to his voice. If you take the time away, you take the character away.

Chris: You could take one of the Booker T. and the MG's records. You can see how they keep to the metronome, but there's a great deal besides that there. It's the personal thing which comes across strongly. That's why I say so many technical musicians are just technique and no creativity and it's boring.

"Means to an End" seems to play with timing beautifully.
Jim:
That just happened because of the way we laid the track down. I laid drums down first, then Stevie laid bass, guitar, then vocals on top. And it goes double time at the end, and it's strong because it goes that way in relation to something.

Stevie: Music is a science, in many ways it's mathematical. For instance a lot of Bach's things were just mathematical exercises, patterns, but in doing that he turned out beautiful pieces of music, like the Two Part Inventions.

If you think of the recording studio, like they use that technical knowledge and yet things come out beautifully. If there's a new map, you use it, but like you never really do it unless these things are there in the first place. So like you work with the media which you come into contact with, which you develop like scientists. But then there's John Wesley Harding. It's a very minstrel scene. It's the oldest way and that's usually the best.

In "Dealer," the guy you're singing about is dead — his feelings are dead. In "Means to an End," you seem to be singing about a friend whose feelings are also dead — "Like Peter you disowned me / with a voice as cold as ice." And in Dave's "Feelin' Alright," you get that opening nightmare vision and then the feeling of betrayed friendship. What is this about?
Stevie: It seems about us.

Chris: Afterwards some of the songs seem to have been prophetic. "Feelin' Alright" was just written about a chick, as far as I know, but it means more than that.

Jim: Some of the words come because I happen to like their sound. It's nice to say "Shanghai Noodle Factory," but it doesn't mean anything.

Stevie: No, man. "Shanghai Noodle Factory" has got a strong meaning, it's just that it's a ridiculous meaning.

A lot of your songs are message songs: "Don't Be Sad," "Heaven Is in Your Mind."
Stevie:
Some people know and some people don't know. It's just a case of telling the people who don't know.

Jim: It's a sort of philosophy you cook up for yourself. You probably write things the same as everybody else, but it's your own personal way of saying things.

In "No Name, No Face" you sing "Trying to find myself must be the only way to be free," as if you were searching for part of yourself and not someone else. "Hey Jude" is about someone, but "Colored Rain" seems more about the feeling of colored rain — —what it feels like to be colored rain — —than about the song's person. And then there's "Mr. Fantasy." There don't seem to be too many persons in your songs.
Stevie:
Yeh. But don't these feelings relate to people as well? In life you can get a feeling which is part of a person, the same as in the songs. Music is almost our representation of our fantasies and so our songs are representations of our fantasies.

Jim: We all get a feeling of something. I can't explain that feeling in words, it would be a color, like in painting. With some moods you have to hear the mood. In "Colored Rain," I wrote the words and then Stevie did something to them. Without saying or doing anything, without any sort of usual communication, we found just the sound that it should have had. I mean if you have words and want to write music for them, the words hit you with a feeling which you can't really describe in words, and so what you do is to put music to them and in this way you make contact with the words, through the musical thing. It happens when two feelings come together and they do something together and they compliment each other.

What about the line in "Vagabond Virgin" which goes "Your twisted mind has no escape." 
Jim: A guy heard the song in the studio when we recorded it and said that it sounded like an Oscar Brown lyric, but that line about "your twisted mind," he said, that's a bit heavy. You see people pick up on the same things. I like to hear songs which can lay it all on, songs which can look at the dark side as well as the bright side, sometimes they can be as strong as each other. Love and hatred are close. I wrote this short poem once:

Love and Hatred were walking down a heavy road
Love was sweetly singing but she did not mind the load
Hatred looked across and said "You make me sick to death."
But Love just kept on walking while the wind stole Hatred's breath.

The original title for "Means to an End" was "Death," incidentally.

Oscar Brown has a song about a young girl whose parents are filthy rich and this chick winds up on the road with a stocking around her neck. He gets on to things like carving the flesh, a "you really fucked me up and now you're going to fuck somebody else up" feeling. It was heavy on me at the time, but I could still dig what he was saying.

It's really almost like some of the things are put together at different times and in different places and they have so many different meanings. About the words to "Vagabond Virgin": Dave rejoined us in New York during our first tour. He dug the words and fit the melody to it. What you were saying about the words being heavy and the music sweeter: you hear two different entities going together. It's like the words — —a young girl from the villages —suddenly meeting the music. Sometimes they crash and sometimes they combine beautifully and other places they contrast, and it's nice to hear.

"You Can All Join In" begins as a happy party song, but you hear words like "Help me, set me free," as if a demon were inside of you, and so in order to get rid of him you jump back in with a "join in...just be what you want to be." It's like exorcising the demons.
Stevie:
Yeah. That in a way is the role of music and has been for a long time. Like sometimes you have a music which tells of a spirit which is inside of you and you sing about banishing it or tearing it out of you.

To go from demons to the idea of a musical community: in the States, a lot of bands live together, but this doesn't occur frequently in England. The only other group I can think of that lives and works together is the Small Faces, who have a kind of Traffic quality in songs like "Itchycoo Park" and "Rene."
Jim:
The Faces have a very strong family feel, which is beautiful because everybody digs that feeling. They came to some of our recording sessions and they did the shouting on "Berkshire Poppies," in fact.

Stevie: The living together is very important in a way. It's important for writing. It wouldn't be important if we were like just getting other people's numbers together, we'd just have to meet at rehearsals, but writing is something almost completely different. A song, no matter who writes it, really has to come to all of us, and writing with us is really a slow process. And during the time we're writing, it's important for us to be together. If each of us wrote individually and each lived in different places, then I don't think that the songs that were written would be common to all three of us.

Chris: Even setting up a place to live is part of expressing yourself because it's part of setting yourself in the right environment to get together what you want to get together. Even if you give up writing for three months you're obviously doing something that's going to come out later.

Stevie: It's like the story of someone asking some guy who was just sitting around if he was working, and he said, "Well, I'm just thinking of a sax riff." I don't think you have necessarily to be in any particular place to write. You can write things which are good songs or which are good to play or which are good for your playing. Although we like moving and progressing with things we're doing, I don't think we're leaving anything behind. Like "Pearly Queen" is an extension of blues. It's just getting broader. There isn't exactly any set pattern — we're not out to achieve anything except to turn people on to our music.

Why did Dave leave the group?
Stevie:
He just expresses himself in a different way than we do. It's really as simple as that. He expresses himself not altogether through "music" but through "songs." It's difficult to explain the difference, but like the fact is, there was a difference. Like "Feelin' Alright" was Dave's song, but he didn't create the mood.

I don't know how he returned the first time after he'd left. During the first tour of the States we were going through a bad state, mainly because we only had about a couple of weeks before we went to the States as a trio, and a lot of the numbers we were doing weren't actually written for a trio. We needed somebody else in the group and then Dave appears in New York.

How did you find your trips to the States?
Stevie:
The first trip was great. The second was a disaster, because of lots of things. There was something going on — the way we were feeling. I got laryngitis, and the places we were playing were worse than the places we'd played before. So we decided then that we would come back and we did.

I'd never like to stay in one place anyway. I don't think it would make any difference anyway. We'd probably like staying in the States for a bit, but after six months or so we'd want to come back again, and after six months here we'd want to go back to the States.

People were selling speed in Haight-Ashbury. But really as far as music goes, I couldn't get over it — —the light show — —I couldn't get over it.

Jim: The States are great. I'd like to go just to see life, see things and hear people talk. It's like a circus where different acts go on at the same time.

Stevie: The audiences there seem somehow to have the right idea. A lot of English audiences don't even know why they go to see a group. I don't think Hendrix and Cream tried very hard here. Hendrix found an audience here but he came from New York anyway, and you always end up where you started. And I don't think Cream gave it a chance. They gave just one tour here, and that was before they got into what they've been into.

You've done more jamming in the States than you've done here.
Stevie: That was because when we went there, like because of the state we were in, we hadn't gotten any numbers together for the trio.

Chris: It's a thing which I think we do well. If you've found you do that best and you're receptive to that sort of thing, you naturally get into it. There are stacks of tapes here which aren't completed things, but things we've never done on record. There are lots of sides to us which haven't come out.

How do you go about deciding on instrumentation? In "Heaven Is in Your Mind," for example.
Stevie:
It started with Jim, Chris, and me in this room. I was playing bass, Chris was playing sax, and Jim was playing drums, and I just got into that bass riff and then Jim got some words which we put to it one day. And then we just went to the studio and did it, and I put a piano on it.

Chris: Usually we start by making a sort of demo of the music and then in the studio it either keeps pretty well to the demo or it finally becomes something else. It's almost better to be more limited — some of the pieces are strong in character, and then when we go in the studio it changes.

How did "Mr. Fantasy" come about?
Stevie:
It was done on impulse with practically nothing worked out, because it was almost jammed. The initial spirit of the whole thing was captured on record — which is very rare. That was one of the things, because it's not specifically an outstanding melody or an outstanding chord sequence or anything. It's basically quite simple. They're very simple lyrics and they're repeated three times.

Actually how it started was that Jim did a drawing during a time when we were thinking about cover ideas for the first LP. And Jim drew a picture of this guy who was Mr. Fantasy with hair like the Statue of Liberty, he had on a long robe and he was playing a guitar with strings coming from his fingers, and by the side of it Jim had written: "Dear Mr. Fantasy, sing us a tune / Something to make us all happy / Do anything, take us out of this gloom / Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy." Just these four lines scribbled out at the side, just a single poem for the front cover. And then Jim flaked out and Chris and I stayed up all night and then got the thing together. And we set a live mike on a stage in the studio. We tried sitting in the little boxes and cans, but it just didn't work on this number. It wasn't half so strong after we'd done it. It was time that gave it a lot of meaning.

What about "No Time to Live" with that sax opening?
Jim:
It reminded me of an Inca feeling.

Stevie: It was like a hunting horn, very distant. It was like a mood that was created rather than a piece of music. It's what we've always been hung up doing.

Jim: Why hung up?

Stevie: What we've always been trying to do. Also, that was the difference with Dave, since he wasn't so much into moods as sounds.

Chris: Everything has a mood. A song has a mood, but it has to be strengthened by what goes on around it.

In songs like "Mr. Fantasy" and "Heaven Is in Your Mind," it's as if your hearts were on your sleeves. But in songs like your paranoia hymn "40,000 Headmen" or "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring" it's almost as if you're playing a joke on yourself.
Stevie:
I know what you mean. Just like we go through moods like that, music does it in the same way. Just like everybody goes through different moods, feelings, in different ways. I don't think that we're trying to create any sort of sound or mood.

Jim: It's strange the way people hear and see things. Like going to films — —violent films. To me, seeing violence in a film makes me hate the violence. But there's beauty in violence if it's put over the right way.

How much are you concerned with what's happening with the revolution outside?
Stevie: Like our music hasn't anything exactly to do with street fighting. But then again I don't think that the music leaves it out. I feel we're part of it without trying to force it on anybody.

Chris: I don't think it should become too political. I don't agree with putting across a strong political viewpoint. It's almost as bad as the society that people are fighting against.

While Aretha Franklin's "Think" is about love, it's also about being black.
Jim:
There's too much read into pop music, and it loses its natural beauty. But it can't help being pushed that way because the kids expect it.

In our fan mail the other day, there was a poem from this chick and it really sounded like she was praying. It wasn't a good healthy scream, which is quite natural. She was so deeply filled with double meanings. And it was about us and I suppose she looked to us because there's nowhere else to look. They turn to you as an outlet for something. I saw 2,000 kids gathered in a crowd in New York all hollering "Lead us to our origin" — that's a bit stupid. Personally I feel embarrassed. It's nice that they look to you for something, but to look at you as a sort of leader, some sort of spiritual guide: it's hard to explain that you're not. It's hard to break that sort of fantasy.

Chris: When you do something, even if it's the stupidest of lyrics, if you put it over as if you really meant it, that's when you get communication.

Dylan was doing a session and this chick who had come to his house to see him went down to the studio. She was 12 and there was this woman there who was 35, and it was pouring with rain. So he called the song "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35." We read things in the paper, like it was some sort of Mexican scene or about marijuana. That's what's so beautiful about him — his ridiculous sense of humor.

Chris: About Black Power, there are areas where blacks and whites have lived together, and then you get some newspaper coming along and talking about Black Power. Stokely Carmichael said "We're finishing off the work started by Malcolm X." When does it end? The whole problem just keeps getting handed down.

Stevie: White men have been using spades as fucking slaves in the States for ages now. They haven't been able to break out before. You know — I haven't been a slave. They've been repressed, really badly repressed, and they're rebelling against it, and I think that it's perfectly right that they should.

Jim: You treat spades just like anybody else and you aren't conscious of their color. Then you read the newspapers and watch TV and you hear about Black Power, and naturally people who aren't conscious about all of that suddenly become aware of it.

Stevie: But that's what they want to do — make people aware of what's happening to the black people.

Isn't your song "Pearly Queen" describing a stereotype?
Stevie:
Nice one.

You know what I mean?
Stevie:
No, I don't really. Races and different people are going to have their own images and their own background, their own beliefs and forms of magic. But "Pearly Queen" — have you ever seen a Pearly Queen? They're Cockneys, men and women, incredible people with pearl buttons and sequins all over their clothes — they're Kings and Queens.

I'm not sure I believe in integration unless it's pure. If you think about integration, it loses its point. It happens in some places, man, it really does.

For a long time the only serious music has been coming out of the States, and it's only recently that English people have been thinking about their music, thinking with a bit more conviction than they've had. Before, it's always come from America, and therefore that's where a lot of the influence has come from. When you're out of it, you can see where the good music is coming from.

Chris: Now there's too much going on, but if you're not serious with what you're doing, it shows up. I've been hearing about "manufactured" groups, and that's really true. I went to One Stop [a record store specializing in American rock] and there were 100 albums just from the West Coast.

Jim: If music be the food of love, play on!