Traffic regroup and make tracks for the road again: David Lister meets a revived Sixties psychedelic band unrepentant about its drug-inspired past

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The Independent Online
SOONER or later they all come back; but rarely as defiantly unreconstructed and unfashionable as this. Traffic, one of the most influential bands of the Sixties psychedelic era, has re-formed, recorded an album to be released in May and will tour this summer.

And in their first newspaper interview yesterday, the re-formed Traffic praised the drug culture that helped give them their original identity, and the New Age travellers who had inspired some of their new songs. They will not, one senses, be appearing on too many chat shows.

The group, which split up in the mid-70s, now consists of its founders, Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. Winwood, whose career began at the age of 15 with the Spencer Davis group, formed Traffic, then the first 'super group', Blind Faith, before finding a successful solo career in the Eighties. He looks the gentleman farmer he now is. One of the greatest unsung influences on the development of rock music, he lives with his wife, Eugenia, and their three children at a Gloucestershire farmhouse.

Capaldi, on the other hand, looks like a farmhand down on his luck, but also lives in some style in Buckinghamshire with his Brazilian wife, Aninha. They have two grown-up daughters.

Dave Mason, who wrote Traffic's best-remembered song 'Hole in my Shoe' (a paean to psychedelic meaninglessness, it let in water while an elephant's eye winked), is now with Fleetwood Mac. And Chris Wood died in 1983 of, according to Capaldi, 'alcohol abuse and disillusion with the music scene'.

Capaldi and Winwood now regret the success of 'Hole in my Shoe' as it was 'too poppy, and not representative of the band'.

The new album, like those from Traffic's heyday, is an eclectic hybrid of jazz, rock and rhythm and blues: what Winwood calls, opaquely, 'headless horsemen music'. It was written at an Irish farmhouse to try to recreate the Berkshire gamekeeper's cottage where Traffic lived in the Sixties in a hippy idyll.

Capaldi recalls: 'In Berkshire we made an area outside, like a stage and we just played to the hills. Bob Dylan, Steven Stills, Leon Russell were all visitors. Joe Cocker had the cottage nearby. Linda McCartney took our first pictures. She somehow found out where we were and arrived at the cottage clutching the new Doors album, so we let her in.'

Traffic was always associated with the psychedelic drugs era. In the United States it was assumed, wrongly, that the name itself came from drug trafficking. Though Capaldi says drugs were 'always there, like muesli', he is angrily anxious to correct misconceptions about the drug culture. 'Stimulants helped with the composing. The thing about the Sixties and drugs, which I would like to put straight, is that there was a more creative angle to it then, the sense of the spiritual. Now it's just chemical abuse. Then it was there to expand you. Life in that cottage was the Elysian fields.'

Winwood adds more prosaically: 'We would play, walk on the downs and have tea. We were just as interested in birdwatching and tracing ancient sites.'

They do admit though, that in the early Seventies, when their friends Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died, the drug culture went sour, and the band attracted 'dark people, dealers and so on', and they were even thrown out of their cottage. They did manage, though, to give the first free concert to a mass audience in Hyde Park, something that nearly every pop history attributes wrongly to The Rolling Stones.

But now, in their late forties, they remain attracted to the hippy culture, even the ageing and less affluent variety. Their new album, Far From Home, has a track 'Nowhere is their Freedom' inspired by New Age travellers they met.

According to Capaldi: 'We saw them by the river with a campfire burning and the horses grazing . . . a lot of people get uptight in seeing this type of freedom, there's always been a battle between organised society and someone who is totally free.'

(Photograph omitted)