Feb. 10, 2003
sure that I had already listened to parts of Third, but Fourth ('71)
was the first Soft Machine album that I bought and listened to with
the proper degree of attention. I was immediately conquered by the sound
and the lines of the bass guitar. Then I noticed that the group's bass
player - Hugh Hopper - had composed most of the material on the album.
Of course, the real beginning had been Soft Machine's Volume Two (1969):
an album that - extremely influential in its time - still sounds fresh
today. Hopper remained with the group up to Six ('73) - not a fantastic
album, but one that features a not-to-be-missed track composed by him:
solo album by Hugh Hopper was 1984, on which he used tapes and loops
in a beautiful and highly personal way. Many classic albums followed,
and most were discussed in the following interview (one could add to
the list some live albums by Soft Machine - for in., Virtually - the
two volumes featuring Elton Dean, Keith Tippet and Joe Gallivan and
the Two Rainbows Daily album that he recorded with the late Alan Gowen).
The interview originally appeared in Italian language in the Italian
magazine Blow Up in two parts, on issues # 17 (October '99) and # 18
(November '99). The interview was conducted by e-mail. And since Delta
Flora, the new CD by Hughscore, had been recently released I decided
it was a logical starting point for our conversation.
As a first question I'd like to ask you about your most recent project,
Delta Flora. I'd like to start from its literal starting point, Was
A Friend. This song was also featured, of course, on Robert Wyatt's
Shleep. I recently read (see Wyatt interview with Barney Hoskins, Mojo
magazine issue # 64, March '99) that the song is about Soft Machine.
Is it true - and were there any extra-musical reasons for your including
it on the album, besides the obvious fact that it's a very fine song?
Was A Friend
is actually quite old as a piece of music - I wrote it around 1982-3.
It's had several different lyrics - the first one was by me and was
about an imaginary friend who became more and more mad and lost. I sent
it to Robert to see if he wanted to be a guest singer on the song project
I was recording with Richard Sinclair at that time (Somewhere In France
Voiceprint Recs 1996). He changed the lyrics a little but then decided
he didn't want to be involved with the record. The song appeared occasionally
here and there in different forms (we did it a few times live with the
French group Anaid in '87-'88 with a completely different lyric called
Children Of The Night). Robert and I also talked a bit about writing
a lyric to the same music for a song for Nelson Mandela who was still
around 1993, since Robert seemed not to be interested, I used the same
music for a song with John Atkinson who wrote a lyric called C'est Grace
(Hooligan Romantics PONK Records Usa 1994). And then of course, Robert
suddenly came up with the new Was A Friend words,
a sort of ghost story about someone or something from the past that
appears at night. Robert was having a lot of trouble with insomnia a
couple of years ago, I think. That's why his record is called Shleep.
has also become more and more bitter at being pushed out of Soft Machine,
so I can imagine that the song also means for him a story about past
resentments coming back to haunt him, along with questions of "burying
the hatchet" (forgiving past wrongs, but also the suggestion of
all that, Was A Friend happens to be one of the melodic songs I've written
that everybody seems to like (like Memories). There's also a version
of it on Different with Lisa S. Klossner (Voiceprint/Blueprint 1999),
and a version with Robert singing and playing piano over the original
keyboard backing track I recorded in 1983, which will be on a song compilation
CD coming out soon (Parabolic Versions Voiceprint 1999).
the fact that the three albums you've done with Fred Chalenor and Elaine
DiFalco have all been pretty diverse, I was surprised by how much Delta
Flora differs from the previous album, Highspotparadox. While Wayne
Horvitz's production was "dry" the new one has a sound that's
very "wet" - and the drums' musical function is very different,
I think. What were the group's goals in implementing those changes in
style and recorded sound?
Yes, the overall sound and feel of Delta Flora is very much a result
of the input of Tucker Martine. He played drums and samples and was
the overall producer of the sound at his own studio, although we recorded
my bass parts in England. The three Hughscore CDs have evolved quite
radically - the first was almost totally based on quite complicated
compositions of mine which I had developed with Cubase and synthesiser.
I went to Oregon and we all played the parts I had written. The second
started out the same way but was more of a collaboration with Fred and
Elaine providing more ideas and writing. Finally Delta Flora is truly
a group project - we all contributed themes, structures, ideas, which
we improvised and rewrote. Then Tucker cooked it all up in his wonderfully
grungy studio! I didn't have much to do with the record after I had
recorded my parts - Fred and Tucker spent several months finishing it
in Seattle. In fact for most of that time I was working on Different
with Lisa, which was a much more personal, hands-on record for me. I
love Delta Flora and I played things on it that nobody else would have
played, but it is a group record, not a Hugh Hopper solo record.
back to Soft Machine's Vol. Two. Your bass style was already incredibly
original; here are a lot of qualities that are obviously yours: your
melodic voice, the fuzz, lotsa different "accompanying" styles... how
long did it take for you to arrive at these mature achievements?
bass lines I think were originally influenced by funk bass players like
Larry Graham, combined with jazz bass lines. But it's very hard for
me now to say exactly what influences me - there's over fifty years
of music and sounds whizzing around inside my head! I first used fuzz
at the suggestion of Mike Ratledge because the pieces he had written
for Soft Machine Vol. Two needed the contrapuntal bass parts to sound as strong as the keyboard and not just a background accompaniment.
In those days there was an explosion of different "experimental"
approaches to the bass guitar, in the context of an "experimental"
attitude in music in general. In England, I'd like to mention Paul McCartney,
in the more "mainstream" field, Jack Bruce and his "transferring"
of the double bass language to the bass guitar with Cream, John Entwistle
and his more "guitar-like" approach with the Who... and you.
Your bass style was vastly influential. What was your opinion of those
Yes, Paul McCartney was one of the most "improved" bass players
- the first Beatles records had very simple plonky bass parts but after
Revolver he started doing some very tasty stuff. Jack Bruce was (and
is) a great musician, a natural player with excellent technique, both
on bass and voice. I actually didn't like his short-scale sound on bass
with Cream. It's funny - I've never played acoustic bass but nearly
all my influences on bass come from acoustic jazz players - Charlie
Haden, Mingus, Ron Carter, Scott La Faro, Coltrane's bassists and I
try usually to make the electric bass sound like an upright. Whereas
Jack Bruce started as an acoustic jazzer but made no attempt to sound
like that when he took up the electric bass...
like a lot of young bassists in the 60's, I did copy John Entwistle
when I was playing in Wilde Flowers, the rock group in Canterbury. We
were doing covers of stuff like the Who and Stones and I was playing
with a pick in those days. I gave up the pick for fingers around the
time of Soft Machine Third...
You've played in a lot of different situations, but it's always impossible
not to guess it's you. If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you about
specific projects you've participated in - for instance, the Carla Bley
Band European Tour 1977 album (when Wrong Key Donkey starts I always
get a smile on my face - yeah, it's him.). Another large band project
was Lindsay Cooper's Oh Moscow. On the recorded version Marilyn Mazur
is on drums, but Chris Cutler once told me he played with you in a different
course writes some great stuff and that summer tour was a nice three-week
holiday in Europe, but we didn't play enough to take the music off the
paper and onto a further plane. Oh
Moscow was a friendly group most of the time and
I think there was more space in Lindsay's music for self-expression.
The personnel changed over the three or four years we played - Veryan
Weston instead of Elvira Plenar on piano; Marilyn Mazur, Chris Cutler,
Charles Hayward, Peter Fairclough on drums at different times, and Maggie
Nichols replaced Sally Potter once...
It's nice to do occasional projects with big bands like Carla or Lindsay,
but I think for me the real creative part of playing and improvising
comes with smaller groups. A big band is always more to do with their
composer's ideas. I love it in a trio or quartet how everyone can swing
away from the centre at the slightest suggestion of the soloist or one
just musician in the rhythm section, if everyone is aware and creative.
To close this chapter: two albums on which you played in the '60s
were Joy Of A Toy, by Kevin Ayers, and The Madcap Laughs, by Syd Barrett.
On which tracks? Soft Machine are featured, as a group, on Ayer's Song
For Insane Times; any other? And: on Barrett's album I thinks it's you
on bass on No Good Trying (where I think I hear Robert Wyatt's drums
and Mike Ratledge's organ). What are your recollections (if any) of
Kevin had already recorded
a demo of Joy Of A Toy at home on a simple sound-on-sound recorder and
it sounded great! Kevin playing all the parts.
||Joy Of A Toy
||Song For Insane Times
||Singing The Bruise
||Why Are We Sleeping?
The Syd tracks were all recorded
at the same session at Abbey Road but Clowns And Jugglers wasn't released
till later. Syd came to a Soft Machine gig in London and invited us to
play on his record. When we got to Abbey Road we just played along with
his voice/guitar tracks - no instructions or suggestions from him - and
then he muttered "That's fine. Thanks..."
||The Madcap Laughs
||No Good Trying
the so-called "punk period" a lot of music of earlier times
was deemed passČ. Besides, the so-called "Canterbury style"
was considered to be on the "mellow" side. But I remember,
for in., Soft Machine as a group that could be ferocious in the intensity
of its performances, as last year's live CD Virtually demonstrates...
right - Soft Machine could be very hard on the audience! Don't forget
that when I joined the group we played through big Marshall amps. Fuzz
bass and fuzz organ. Robert could be a hooligan on drums, too! We wore
earplugs. It became a bit more mellow when the horns joined later in
course Punk was about rebellion, rejection of the older generation of
musicians. And quite right, too. I wish more young musicians were rebellious
today, instead of copying the past.
Flora is an album that, in my opinion, brings a "studio approach"
to the material. But, in a way, you've always done this. Soft Machine's
Fifth used the studio wisely, and later you made 1984. Would you mind
saying something about that album? (By the way: who plays on 1983? On
the cover of Six you were credited with "sound effects", but
it was the only track being recorded in a different studio - the same
an attempt to use a big studio to revisit some of the experimental things
I had done in the early sixties in Paris with Daevid Allen and then
on my own back in Canterbury - loops, soundscapes etc. After Soft Machine
I had the opportunity to make a solo record and that was what I chose
to record. It worried CBS, the Softs' record company, and they refused
to pay the studio costs, so I borrowed money from the bank. It's been
re-released several times, most recently with Cuneiform, using the original
masters and with a bonus track from the original sessions. People are
still saying it's ahead of its time, twenty-five years later! I like
parts of it, but I wouldn't make a record like that today...
played piano and John Marshall played percussion on 1983. I played bass,
speeded-up bass and lots of loops and effects. On my last ever gig with
Softs, in Hamburg 1973, we did a live version of 1983 with tape recorders
and long loops hanging down from tall towers on stage. I played fuzz
bass over the strange sounds.
complete piece of work Hoppertunity Box is maybe my favourite solo album
of yours. Again, a wise use of the studio, fine players - Gary Windo...
On that album you played some fine solos on guitar, too - Gnat Prong,
Mobile Mobile, The Lonely Sea And The Sky, with its backwards parts...
But you had already played guitar on the second Soft Machine album,
and on the first side of Monster Band- the solo tracks... What's your
opinion, today, of these albums? And of the electric guitar?
Box was my favourite record for a long time - I took a long time planning,
composing and working on it. It was all built up from bass which I played
to a click, then Dave Stewart's keyboards, then drums and finally the
saxes and other colours. Some of the tracks sound really live, but the
only time I played with anyone else in the studio was on Crumble - Mike
Travis and I laid down the drums and bass tracks together. Otherwise,
it was all a montage.
almost no guitar on the record! What you hear as guitar solos and themes
was done on bass and then speeded up to double speed. I played a bit
of low grade rhythm guitar on the first part of Gnat
Prong (behind Dave Stewart's organ solo) but the rest is all bass. Same
with Monster Band.
translating the interview text I made a phone call to Hugh Hopper, expressing
my deep shame for making this very embarassing mistake. A true gentleman,
he tried to cheer me up: "It's not so important. Even Elton Dean,
when he listened to the tapes, asked me who was the guitar player".)
I started on guitar before taking up bass, but I haven't played guitar
really since Soft Machine Vol. Two
and that was only because I wrote Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening on guitar and Robert wanted to record it.
I did buy a cheap Chinese Stratocaster last year and I've been using it
on the new songs with Lisa Klossner for our next CD, but I'm really not
a guitarist anymore. I prefer to ask real guitarists like Phil Miller
and Patrice Meyer to play.
I think that your work as a composer is pretty underrated. I find your
compositions very distinctive - both those that have a more "serene"
quality (I hope you'll forgive me for over-simplifying this topic) such
as Kings And Queens and The Lonely Sea And The Sky and those that have
a kind of "solemn/sinister" atmosphere like 1983 or the coda
to Gnat Prong, to name but a few among my favourites. (Here's the question)
Who were your influences in this respect? And how do you regard the compositional
process? And the studio as a compositional tool?
As I said, I have too many influences to be able to clearly narrow them
down. Everything I've listened to (and some things I didn't want to listen
to!) - it's all still there somewhere inside my brain and in my fingers.
Composition is partly mystery and partly built-up experience. (Well, no
- I suppose it's all really a result of experience. But there are parts
of the process that are hidden from view.) (And I like it like that!)
I don't know why I can produce songs like Memories or Was A Friend. I
don't find it difficult. Of course it becomes easier with experience -
even if I'm stuck for a while with no ideas I know that something will
eventually appear and so I don't need to panic. I enjoy writing music
for other people's words, like Lisa. I also enjoy composing just for the
sake of producing the instrumental sounds.
The studio is an expensive tool for composing, but it can produce interesting
shifts. You can work away at home for weeks on a piece and not really
hear it until you come to the studio and hear other musicians playing
it. And the opinion of studio engineers or visitors can make a difference,
too - positively or negatively. There can be something about the music
that you really want to keep because you've spent a lot of time on it,
and then someone will say "Well, that part is a bit naff..."
or something that annoys you everytime you listen will be the best thing
for someone else.
You've played with a lot of fine drummers - Robert Wyatt, Chris Cutler,
John Marshall, Pip Pyle, Andrew Cyrille, Dave Sheen, Mike Travis, Joe
Gallivan, Nigel Morris... In the current stylistic climate, which sees
the widest possible use of machines and sequencers, how do you see the
future of the "rhythm section"? And what do you think of genres
like drum'n'bass and techno?
I use drum machines and sequencers myself sometimes. It's not the same
as playing with real hooligans - sometimes it's better, sometimes worse.
You can be creative in any genre if you're a creative person. It's the
same in jazz, rock, folk, classical. It's the ten percent of creative
people who interest me.
© Beppe Colli 1999 - 2003
CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 10, 2003
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