Gerry Conway in conversation with Andy Farquarson

Music surrounded me at home as a child. My father enjoyed big band music like Count Basie, Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and that was always on the gramophone. So that sort of music was my introduction. I obviously wasn't aware at the time that it would have such an influence on me but, all these years later, I see it was my grounding, where I started.

As big band music was what was playing at home, when I got my first drumkit. I was eleven and it was nearly a full kit - rack tom, bass drum, cymbal, snare and that was later augmented with a floor tom. I would sit up in my room and play along with the Ted Heath radio concerts on Saturday afternoons while my parents were out shopping. I'd have the radio next to me and I'd zero in the drummer.

It was drums for me from an early age, it was just there in me. When I was very young, I'd go around banging biscuit tins, anything I could make a rhythm with. I've had aspirations to play guitar or piano but never had the time nor the wherewithal to learn properly, to see it through. Mind you, I'll play around on the piano - I've got an instinctive sense of harmony so I can rattle out a tune.

My parents were very supportive because they loved the band music of the era, loved playing records, and they went out dancing quite a bit. I remember tea dances in the afternoon in Tottenham and we used to go hear live music quite frequently too; concerts, ballrooms, weddings

I became a professional musician almost straight away after leaving school. I couldn't wait to leave, by the way - for me school was a horrific experience. You took your life in your hands going through the gate. Throughout my schooldays I'd been in local amateur bands, playing youth clubs and functions and I'd known for years that was what I wanted to do; it was that clear-cut.

Of course, as a 16-year-old, I knew no-one in the music business. Someone told me EMI records were taking on school-leavers so I applied for a job there but found there was a waiting list. As an interim measure, I took a job in a photo lab developing family snaps. Eventually - well after six months or so - I got a letter from EMI offering me an opening in their post room. Not very musical, I admit, but my aim was to get in there and pick up as much as I could. I hoped maybe there might be an opportunity for an audition at some stage, leading to a drumming job. And that's exactly what happened.

During 1966 I heard a group called the Jet Set (which was contracted to Parlophone) was looking for someone so I went off to a front room somewhere, did the audition and landed the gig. They were fantastic: it was a West Indian band and, as I was much younger than the rest, they took me under their wing. They were really tolerant. I was very green, of course, but I learnt a great deal. They had a great repertoire and I found myself playing reggae, limbo, and a lot of the Atlantic soul stuff, a real mix. So ska, rock steady and soul all became influences too.

After a while the Jet Set thing folded and I remember feeling empty, at a loose end. The scene I was in was based around a venue called the Witch's Cauldron in Hampstead. I was in there one day and a friend came up and said 'I've been searching for you everywhere; Alexis Korner is looking for a drummer'. So I auditioned with Alexis and I got the gig. I spent a year with him. That's where the blues became an influence - I loved the blues and the British artists I saw at that time really could capture the essence of the music - Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Dick Heckstal Smith, and many others.

The great thing about working with Alexis was that if he saw anything in you, he would nurture it, draw you out and encourage you to play out, to go for it and take chances. He was inspirational, I learned a lot.

I can't remember exactly how Eclection came about - it was a word-of-mouth thing - but I remember being invited to a flat near Edgware Road to meet Trevor Lucas and some people. The result was Eclection. Our manager, Don, got us a deal with Elektra. The rehearsals were in a warehouse and, when I looked around it I found it was stuffed with racks of Blue Note records which were looking for a good home - I got a real prize collection.

Eclection got off to a very good start; a record deal, plenty of work. Somewhere along the road Trevor had met Sandy Denny and, through her, he'd got to know Fairport. Once we started gigging, we found we were on the same circuit as them: in fact, Eclection was regularly on the same bill as Fairport at college and club gigs and the bands became friends. This was very early on, when Martin Lamble was still with Fairport, and Simon and Ashley of course.

Eclection began to fragment, to lose ground. As other people came in, the direction of the band changed drastically and the last line-up was a very different thing. I was getting less comfortable there. One day I went to see Sandy and Trevor - they were an item by then and I used to see a lot of them - and we talked at length about it all. Out of that and other conversations Fotheringhay was born. I wasn't that au fait with what was happening within FC at the time Sandy left - I saw them a lot at gigs but I didn't know them that well.

So Fotheringhay started as Sandy, Trevor, me, Pat Donaldson and Albert Lee. Albert didn't seem too into it in rehearsals, admitted it wasn't really his thing. so we got Jerry. The band didn't last that long, only one year I think. Sandy had just been voted best female singer in the melody maker poll for the second year in a row, and her career looked set to fly off: she wanted to do her material, pursue her own career, and also she was under pressure from management who weren't keen on our group. Though we were signed to Island and started on a second album, the pressure of people wanting her to go solo won the day.

During the year with Eclection, Pat, Jerry and I had gained a nice little reputation as a rhythm section. Although we weren't particularly aware of it at the time, it coincided with the whole folk-rock thing being invented. But it meant we were getting plenty of session work as a section, playing behind various singer-songwriters and folk-oriented artists generally. So when Eclection finished, we just went on working and recording with other people.

While we were working with Iain Mathews, the producer asked me if I'd pop in to the next door studio to do some tracks with Cat Stevens. I did that album and that led to an invitation to work with Cat. So it was me who folded our little rhythm section.

I spent the next six years with Cat, right through until he quit the business. I did a few other things in that time but it was really a full-time gig. The bass player he originally took on the road, incidentally, was the guy I'd worked with in the Jet Set.

My first tour with Cat was also my first trip to the USA and the second night we played Carnegie Hall - I thought "Wow! All right!"

Cat became mega, of course, and the six-week tours grew into six month monsters. It just got bigger and bigger. Cat decided it was time to move into stadiums and we ended up freighting around the world a stage, a huge PA, a grand piano and a full entourage, picking up orchestras in each country. I was still living in London - when I was there, that is, because we were away more than we were home. It needed total commitment but I got a lot of musical satisfaction from working with Cat. He really knew what he wanted and he could be very demanding - but rightly so.

Then Cat packed it in - everyone could feel that he was looking for something else, something more. It was a real watershed for me. Six years. It had been an incredible time, great shows, travelling the world, having a fantastic time and getting paid for it.

So I found myself back in London thinking 'what now?' I wasn't sure. I wondered if it was time to quit. I was ambitious but I suspected I'd not have anything that big again. But I realised that no matter what the future held, making music was what I loved to do. It took a while to get myself back together, then the calls began to come again and I became very busy as a session player. I was working on albums, doing jingles and Smarties adverts, going out on tours with people, getting a lot of work.

I hadn't lost contact with all my old friends, I'd still see Sandy, Trevor, the Fairports. Looking back, I'd known everyone for a while by then, both professionally and socially as well as having done solo stuff with Simon and things with Peggy. We'd all been friends for a long time, it was family thing.

Jerry Donahue had gone back to LA and he invited me to go over and join his group. That was in 1978 and I spent three years living over there. It was good even though the group spent more time sitting around or having poker nights than it did playing. They were a really nice bunch, good friends, and we had a great time. Then one night Jerry and I went to see Tull playing a convention centre: we'd gone mainly to catch up with Peggy and the drummer, Gary Barlow, who was a mate of mine. When we got there, no Gary. We asked what had happened and were told he'd left. That evening I spent a long time talking with Ian Anderson, who I'd never met before, and shortly afterwards I was asked to join the band. It all coincided with Jerry's band chucking it in.

So I found myself back in England again, a weird experience. After three years in the USA, I'd started to regard it as home.

I only did one tour - of the UK and Europe - with Tull and I suppose I was with them about a year. I seem to be answering every 'how long' question with 'one year'. But, for reasons I'm still not sure of, I wasn't asked to do any more tours. Mind you, I have been recording with the band on and off ever since - Ian calls me up from time to time to go into the studio. The most recent time was for a couple of tracks his solo album which was a very pleasant session.

Next I did a stint with Richard Thompson's band. I stayed quite a while and did several American tours. Then there was some recording work in Montreal, various things.
I first joined Pentangle in about 1985 or '86 so I've been with them a long time: in fact, it's been my longest full-time gig. On the few occasions I haven't been available - one time, for instance, I was away on a John Martin tour - they've had to get a dep in for the odd gig but I've been Pentangle's drummer all that time.

When I first joined, Pentangle didn't really have any jazz influences any more, it had become more R&B-ish. It was very little like the first band. We feel now we are nearer to the original band. What we do now, even though the instrumentation is radically different, is closer to the concept of the early days.
But though Pentangle has a jazz influence, I try not to define music in rigid boundaries. Whatever the musical situation, whatever the band, I will think to myself 'such and such a song needs such and such a treatment' rather than 'I can make this jazz or make it rock'. I try to simply go with whatever feels right for the song.

Of course, Pentangle is very different from Fairport: we don't play hard, it's a much more groove-based style with a different sensibility. Fairport, on the other hand, can really rock - when we want to, we've got a lot of muscle musically. But Fairport gigs cover a wide range of dynamics - there's a lot of sensitivity as well as the 'let's go for it' stuff. It's great that my two regular gigs give me a chance to express both those sides.

The invitation to join Fairport came as a total surprise. I had absolutely no idea DM was going to leave. The call, of course, came from Peggy: "Dave's leaving; fancy having a go?" I was stunned at first but I thought 'yeah, fantastic, I'll give it a go'. I suppose I'd been to so many Cropredies, seen the way the band worked, known them all so long, I'd always thought I'd love to work with them.

There's not been any clash of schedules: in fact, Fairport is extremely lucky in that we can plan in advance - that we will have the winter tour, the acoustic tour, Cropredy - and a lot of musicians don't have that luxury. With Pentangle, for example, it's harder: although it's musically great and audiences love it, we don't have that security. It's growing and we are building a loyal following but after Bert left, there was period when promoters weren't that interested and it's been slow to build again.

Being a member of Fairport is unlike anything else: it's like being in a family. I've been associated with the band for over thirty years, remember. Through all the bands I've been through, through all the musical changes, the Fairport thing is where it all started out from so being with the band now is really like completing the circle.

Initially, it was not easy to follow DM. He'd been there so long and I realised that with any personnel change, a band will never sound quite the same again. It just can't. So I had a great fear that I wouldn't be accepted. My first Cropredy with Fairport was the reassurance, the answer I needed: I felt accepted.

Obviously, much of our current repertoire is from the DM period and when we play those numbers I try to adhere to those arrangements but putting my own bits in. Obviously one can't overlook what has gone before and I think it would be unfair to our audiences to radically change things. As we play more, tour more, and with post-DM recordings like Wood and Wire and XXV, the overall sound is becoming more me.

I greatly enjoy the Fairport acoustic sets too. I've become very interested in varied forms of percussion over the past few years. I've started collecting various ethnic instruments, most recently a set of congas and bongos. I really enjoy using other percussion instruments as an extension to the drumkit. I love a challenge, I love to make things happen in different ways: for instance, how can I use these particular instruments to make this particular song work. It gives a different perspective, brings smiles.

Fairport is obviously about the people in it. I find it hard to imagine anything replacing the rapport Peggy and Simon have on stage - what they have is unique. They've been there so long and I think they're the heart of the band. It's not what you are, it's who you are with. Each line-up, though, has developed a quality of its own and our audience has stayed with the band. Whatever Fairport is, it seems to me, it will always all right. Fairport is about the songs too. So many songs have become the band, in a way, and as long as they are done well and done with respect the Fairport idea will continue to evolve.

I think our audiences are a big part of the band, an essential part of what Fairport is. They are very, very important to me, to us all. And at the end of the day, they are the bosses: if they like what we do, they let us know it: but if they don't, they tell us too. No audience - no band.