By Beppe Colli
Feb. 3, 2007
Originally released in 1977, Hopper Tunity
Box can be regarded in many ways as a crowning achievement for both its
composer/main instrumentalist, and for the (ahem) "genre" of
music it kinda fits in (I know, "Canterbury style" is a meaningless
tag, but I'd say it's miles better than "Prog", "Jazz-Rock",
"Rock-Jazz", right?). Featuring excellent compositions, creative
arrangements, and with stellar performances by Hugh Hopper and players such
as Elton Dean, Gary Windo, Dave Stewart and Mike Travis, Hopper Tunity Box
has been just re-released on CD in a version that's been remastered from
the original master tapes (the first CD version having been remastered off
the vinyl album, with fairly mediocre results).
I thought to ask Hugh Hopper for an interview,
about the album and also the circumstances that had preceded it. He kindly
agreed. The interview, conducted by e-mail, took place last week.
Released in 1973,
1984 was your first solo album after quitting Soft Machine. Four years
later, Hopper Tunity Box was your second solo release: Were you satisfied
with the way it came out, and with the amount of feedback in commercial
terms, both by the press and by fans of Soft Machine?
for a long time it was my favourite album that I played on (after Rock
Bottom). I did a lot of preparation – composing, arranging, practicing
the parts I was going to double on bass, guitar and wind instruments. As
for commercial feedback, Soft Machine was by the time of Hopper Tunity
Box almost a forgotten band – just a few fans (mostly in Europe)
had any interest in following what the ex-members were doing. I was lucky
in that journalists like Steve Lake on the Melody Maker were still interested,
so I had some good reviews. But unfortunately Compendium, the Norwegian
label that first released the record, was an amateur outfit and they soon
went bankrupt, so there was no serious promotion or commercial follow-up.
After 1984, you
started collaborating with Stomu Yamash'ta, who at the time was some
kind of a minor celebrity, though on a lower level than at the time of
his next project, Go. You played on the album Freedom Is Frightening,
and also toured with his group, East Wind. Would you mind talking about
I admired Stomu's energy when I saw his first theatre pieces in London
with Red Buddha etc., but to be honest working with him was slightly disappointing
– after those projects what he really wanted was to be a rock star
(and he could probably have succeeded with the right musical framework).
The music I found not creative enough for my taste. It sounded to me like
a funk backing band, especially with the later records. That's what he wanted,
but it didn't satisfy me, so I left. I did get to meet Gary Boyle and Nigel
Morris, however through playing with Stomu, so that was a bonus.
Your next collaboration
was with the group Isotope. You toured with them, and also recorded an
album, Illusion. Please, talk about this.
Gary Boyle already
had his band Isotope alongside working with Stomu. Gary decided to leave
to work more with Isotope, and when he had a shuffle of personnel, he invited
me to join his band. I did because I was already bored with Stomu's band
and I was good friends with Gary and also Nigel Morris, the drummer of
Isotope. We played a lot of gigs with Isotope, touring all the time in
UK and Europe and once in the States. The band had good sponsorship and
backing from Gull Records and the music publishing company, British Lion,
so for a couple of years we were busy and reasonably well paid. We were
also a band of gourmets – we would detour to favourite restaurants
on the way to gigs! But eventually I became less interested in the direction
the music was taking, so yet again I decided to leave.
Monster Band is
a not so well-known chapter of your story. I'm quite uncertain about
the tracks that appear both on the Monster Band album, and also on Illusion:
what came first?
was composing those tunes at the time I was leaving Soft Machine in 1973.
I recorded demo versions at home on very simple equipment. Some of these
recordings were used on Monster Band, and later on when I joined Isotope,
we played some of them live and recorded them on Illusion.
Hopper Tunity Box:
Would you please explain the title?
It's a pun, a play
on words. Hopper Tunity = opportunity. There was a terrible TV show in
UK in the 60's called Opportunity Knocks, a talent show where amateur performers
got a chance to be seen on national TV and win prizes, so Hopper Tunity
Box sounds like this phrase (the phrase was a common saying before the
TV show, meaning a chance has appeared, has knocked on the door). Hopper
Tunity Box also can mean a box full of Hopper tunes, which is why I asked
Dave Ace the original cover designer to make the front cover look like
In the liner notes
to the new edition of Hopper Tunity Box you talk about each player's
contribution, with one exception: Richard Brunton. Any particular reasons
No, I apologise to
Richard! He was a very tasty rhythm guitarist. He was playing with Gary
Windo and I asked him to play on a couple of tracks of the album after
I saw him with Gary's band.
At the time the
album came out, I seemed to detect some fairly overt classical music
climates both in the theme of the title-track (the part played on the
descants) and in the second part of Gnat Prong (the long coda). I'd like
to know more about those.
All part of my influences.
I didn't deliberately plan to have "classical" or
"jazz" or "rock" sections in the music – I just
composed as I felt the music needed.
I'd like to ask
you about some of the players who so brilliantly contributed to the album.
Let's start with Gary Windo, who of course had already played on 1984.
Ah, Gary! He was a
total lunatic. Full of energy, that could be wonderful and at other times
annoying. He was like a kid – he would come into my house, pick up
a guitar, twang a note, put the guitar down anywhere, move on to some other
object, meanwhile talking away at top speed all the time. The first time
I saw him play was with Keith Tippett's Centipede in London. It was already
a great gig, but when Gary stepped up to take a tenor solo, it lifted the
roof off the place. Wonderful.
Dave Stewart I knew
back from his days with Egg, and then, of course, with Hatfield And The
North. I'd like to know about his contributions, especially those oscillator
parts on the title-track (whose idea was it?).
Dave's idea. He came
along with his Hammond organ, Pianet and the little oscillator, a very
simple wooden box with a round knob to turn to produce those old wailing
analogue radio sounds. Dave was very conscientious on this record – I
had sent him the written parts for the music and he had really worked on
them. He produced exactly what I had hoped for when I asked him to play
on the record –
solos, comping, written arrangements. The last part of Gnat Prong, for example,
would not be the powerful sound it is without Dave's Hammond organ.
Of course, Elton
Dean plays two fantastic saxello solos: on The Lonely Sea And
The Sky, and on Spanish Knee. Talk about him.
Well, Elton was really
the only sax player I wanted for the album, apart from Gary Windo. He was
then at the height of his lyrical, melodical playing (although personally
he loved to play free). There was a period of a couple of years after he
left Soft Machine that we were not in contact, but he joined me for the
few gigs I did with Monster Band in France in 1974 and happily that led
to us working together on many different projects until his death in 2006.
His playing on Hopper Tunity Box is as good as it gets in a melodic/harmonic
Hopper Tunity Box
was released on Compendium, a Norwegian label. Just personal curiosity:
It was a case of no UK labels expressing any interest in the project,
I offered it first
to Gull, the record label that had Isotope. They took a long time to decide
and meanwhile while playing and recording in Norway with Hopper, Dean,
Tippett and Gallivan, the Compendium label said they really wanted to release
the record, so I went ahead with them. Then, of course, Gull came back
and said yes, they would like it! Too late - unfortunately I had already
signed the Compendium contract.
I'd really like
you to compare the (musical) climate at the time the album came out (meaning:
the audience and the press) and the present situation.
It's not so different
at the commercial level. It's still the more approachable product which
sells, that big audiences want to go and see. But I do think it was easier
to find live gigs in the sixties and seventies for alternative music – there
were more small clubs and there were university gigs for jazz-rock bands
like Isotope and for straight jazz. All over Europe most of those opportunities
no longer exist. Of course now I appear mostly as "ex-Soft Machine",
so it's not exactly the same for me. For young musicians trying to get
started nowadays, it must be very hard. But I am always pleased to see
young bands getting together with the same sensual pleasure of hitting
drums, twanging strings, blowing saxes. Despite all the technological possibilities
these days, they still have the urge to do that, to play live, directly
© Beppe Colli 2007
| Feb. 3, 2007