For many of us of a certain age and musical persuasion, the name Steve Hillage will be forever synonymous with those playful Pot Head Pixies and woolly-hat fashionistas (and let’s face it, big favourites) Gong. Following, his departure from their ranks in 1975 he enjoyed a very successful career as leader of the Steve Hillage Band before becoming a sought-after producer (Simple Minds, Robyn Hitchcock, Rachid Taha) and tapping into the ambient/dance zeitgeist to such stunning effect with System 7/Mirror System.
40 or so years after the classic Gong line-up first convened and, together with his life/musical partner Miquette Giraudy, Steve Hillage continues to innovate, his music continually evolving. In recent years he also re-established himself with Gong, most notably at a magical weekend reunion of the class of ‘73 at the Gong Unconvention held at the Melkweg, Amsterdam in 2006, and by helping to redefine their sound on the acclaimed Gong 2032 album a couple of years later. Terrascope’s Ian Fraser was fortunate to catch up with Steve at the Sonic Rock Solstice festival recently, where System 7 was due to close the festival.
Terrascope – You’re back concentrating on System 7/Mirror System after a period in which you divided your time between them and a stint with Gong. Firstly, can you clear something up for me, what’s the difference between System 7 and Mirror System?
SH – Mirror System is a sort of outgrowth of System 7 because we wanted a project that was more specifically a vehicle for our chilled-out side. System 7 is very much a dance groove and is increasingly so. Mirror System itself has evolved because we’ve become quite big on the chill-out scene and they put us on headline slots by which time the crowd want to move a bit. On the second Mirror System release called “Reflector”, which we brought out a couple of years ago we evolved a thing where we managed to keep our chill-out feeling with softer beats that roll with it rather than go hammer and tongs – that’s Mirror System. At the Glade Festival which we’ve just come from, we played two really nice sets, one as Mirror System in the Chill-Out tent and we did a System 7 set yesterday on the Main Stage which went down really great, every one really buoyant. We’re hoping for the hat-trick today!
You’re not with Gong at the moment. They seem to be touring with a different line-up
Yeah, well basically, Daevid (Allen, founder and bandleader) has moved in a different direction. He’s very like that, a restless creative spirit. That’s how he is and that’s what we love about him, but where he’s gone is not where I could follow.
Did you part consensually and amicably?
Well yeah we didn’t have a big flare-up, yes we had a disagreement but we’re still friends, sure.
I ask because I know Tim Blake (Gong’s synth/keys wizard) had a major and quite public falling-out with Daevid a few years back when Daevid took Gong in a direction that didn’t include Tim
Tim’s story is very different from ours, and is unique to Tim, really. All I can say is that although Tim has some legitimate grievances he doesn’t really have much support from the other Gong members, for various reasons which I can’t go into. He’s out there and he’s on his own and good luck to him. I love the guy.
How then did you come to return to the Gong fold after such a long time working on your own projects?
Well the “Unconvention” thing evolved quite nicely for us. For the first really small one in 2004, we actually had the old wooden Gong mandala in our flat, we were looking after it. Mike Howlett (bass) came to pick it up. We’d been invited to come and play but were otherwise engaged, but that was our first connection and quite a symbolic one when you think about it. We heard it went well and they asked us to play next time, when we did a System 7 set and a short Mirror System one. Then because there were quite a lot of original Gong members there – not Daevid, but Didier (Malherbe, sax/flute) and Tim, Gilli (Smyth, poetry/space whisper), Miquette, myself and Mike we said let’s have a jam and it was great, we really enjoyed it. After that we thought, fuck, we’re going to do the Full Monty, and that’s what led to the Amsterdam one, the big one. It would be hard to do that again. I mean the culmination of the moment and then what we’ve been doing with Gong in the intervening years until this year was basically a follow-through from that. Now of course Daevid has started a new cycle.
That Uncon in Amsterdam was a phenomenal event which everybody threw body and soul into. What is your abiding memory of that amazing weekend?
I think the biggest deal for me was doing the Steve Hillage Band set. I really pushed the boat out on that, having not played that stuff for the better part of thirty years and it’s really difficult to play I had to re-learn how to play it. It was a big moment for me. We also had the sound system from Funktion-One which is a very highly-rated PA company and the sound mixer John Newsham was there working the Funktion-One rig. John used to be our sound engineer back in the 1970s with the Steve Hillage Band. It was we who introduced him originally to Tony Andrews and together they formed Turbosound and then later Funktion-One, so there was another historic, symbolic link. Now if I might digress, they’ve been up at The Glade this weekend doing our sound for the System 7 set so it’s an ongoing thing. Anyway, at the Uncon, John was there, Basil (Brookes, synths) was there so we had a sort of SHB quorum so that was the big thing for me. We’re re-releasing the DVD and CD of that gig, which had something of a limited release at the time, and we’re putting it out on our own label G-wave on which we put out the Gong 2032 album a few years back. It’s coming out in September so hopefully it will make a bigger impact. Maybe a launch pad for more Steve Hillage Band stuff, we’ll see! Never say never, I say!
The Steve Hillage Band came to prominence in the late 1970s, ironically (given the style of music and your association with Gong), just as Punk was breaking with the supposed Year Zero attitude towards anything considered to be old guard. How did you manage to adapt and thrive in that climate?
Well we weren’t really so connected with fashion but we had a lot of problems with dodgy articles written in the music press and which were really ridiculous. I remember some magazine wanting to do a “Punks versus Hippies” feature – I can’t remember the publication. They got me as the hippie and Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69 as the punk and we met up at a rehearsal room. We were meant to disagree on everything and call each other cunts and everything but we ended up agreeing on a lot of things. He said one of his aunts was psychic and that he was into some of the spiritual stuff in our lyrics and I was really into his track “If The Kids Are United” because of the way in which the media was trying to tribalise everything and divide and rule. It’s a bit like what I put in my lyrics to “Unzipping The Zype”. We got on like a house on fire and the then the journalist, in desperation, said well let’s have a picture of you both squaring up to each other, and we said we can’t do that, we get on ok. Then Jimmy Pursey said “I’ve got a great idea, Steve pick up a guitar and let’s have a jam and you take a photo of us playing together”. So we did that and I just strummed along, and after that Jimmy Pursey said well that was great, why don’t you come and do a gig with us? I said yeah, cool, no problem, what gig? He said “Reading Festival”! It was very difficult for him, that gig because of all the fighting, skinheads and what have you. He was quite traumatised by it, but it went off you know. Incidentally I later discovered there was a person in the audience, a young punk who was quite impressed with that gig called Alex Paterson who later became a roadie for Killing Joke and formed The Orb. We were with him last night as well – small world (laughs).
So there you were in a way championing punk while at the same time your music was nodding in a dance direction even then.
Well yes going back to your original question I was just being me, just an individual and Miquette and I were just doing our thing and doing the music in the way we heard it. It had nothing to do with fashion, and once we came to the end of the 70s we thought we’d move on and do something else. However in the course of the evolution we went through in the 1970s, yeah we got more and more into funk and quite into disco and also electronics. In fact we were very much into German psychedelic music like Neu, Can and stuff like that and of course these are all constituent parts of what eventually produced the explosion of dance music and we were in there early. I remember we did a Steve Hillage Band gig in a club in Plymouth in 1978 around the time of the “Green” album and before we played there was a disco. The DJ was playing Kraftwerk, stuff from “The Man Machine”, like “Robots” and “Spacelab”, and all these young dolly birds were dancing. I’d never seen that kind of dance music in a commercial context before, and it was quite a good sound system, quite loud, and I was getting into how they got the electronic sounds so neat and tidy and the kick drums had this nice sonic edge coming through the speakers. I just had this vision, I thought fuck, electronic dance music, my God, it’s going to be massive and this was 1978! Then as it evolved during the years when I was a record producer I kept track of all this.
So what got you into producing music as opposed to making it back in the early 1980s?
When I first started considering doing music as a career, when I was at Kent University, that was something I always intended to do, although my main skill was as a guitarist. Then I noticed that with my solo albums I was very fortunate to have some very interesting and creative producers, and I was watching the way they were working and remember thinking “this is very interesting”. When I later got into production I had this sort of unique thing of being able to empathise with the artist, because I knew what it was like to be the other side of the glass. So I thought I had something to offer on the production side of things, and it was nice to learn the skills, which obviously all helped with what we are doing now.
You worked with Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), another artist-come-producer, on your album Green. What was it like working with him?
The three illustrious producers I really learnt from and who helped us to make really interesting albums were Todd Rundgren on “L”, Malcolm Cecil with “Motivation Radio” and Nick Mason on “Green”, They were all very different but all wonderful learning experiences and we made some great albums together. “Motivation Radio” was the moment where the dance/funk thing began to manifest itself and even then that came out of an unusual and interesting experience. After “L”, which did quite well in America and made us a bit of a name there, we got onto a big tour there supporting ELO, We were bracketed as “progressive rawk”. Well fair enough I suppose that’s what we were although we didn’t see ourselves like that – we thought of ourselves as psychedelic. At the time we were listening to a lot of funk, influenced by my friend Tony Andrews who was always into funk. We had all these fans coming to us and saying (affects American accent) “aw Steve, I really love your work, and I really love Van Der Graaf Generator and King Crimson and all your British rock, tell me what are you listening to at the moment”. I’d say “well I’m really into Bootsy’s Rubber Band and P.Funk, and they’d say “what, you like Disco?” It’s like I’d killed their pet cat. I got this feeling of musical apartheid over there, and I though sod all that, and this sort of propelled me further down that road. That’s what led to “Motivation Radio” really, although we already had some ideas in that direction but this gave me the stimulus.
Was it on Motivation Radio that Miquette started getting song-writing credits?
Actually it was “Fish Rising”, not so much on the music but she worked a lot on the lyrics of that album. We wrote “Afterglid” together in the Gong house in ‘73. After that when we left Gong we became a full musical partnership. Of course we were already life partners long before then.
So what did Miquette do during those years when you were producing and not putting out records?
Oh, she was writing a lot of stuff, she had another band and we were looking for another way of doing music together but we didn’t feel like doing a rock band. We just felt we’d done it so much, that it had been such an intense rollercoaster, for me it was from 1971 until the end of 1979 non-stop. Actually it was more the early 80s when the climate was changing and the psychedelic scene was changing a bit as well. A lot of the music, art, magazines and writing were moving in the direction of the electronic. Then when the big acid house parties started in the late 80s we thought, fuck, this is it, it’s happening, we’re home.
There’s this now famous story of you walking into a chill-out room some time in the late 80s where they’re playing “Rainbow Dome Music” (Hillage’s seminal ambient electronic album from 1979) and, as legend would have it, this prompted you to form System 7 and return to making music.
Well put it this way, it was like the icing on the cake. I’d met Alex, Alex Paterson from The Orb, and we’d chatted for a bit and he asked me to come down and try this new experimental chill-out room, the first of its kind in London, actually, this club called Land of Oz, with Paul Oakenfold which was in Heaven, which was owned at that time by Richard Branson. I went down there to see Alex and when I walked in he was playing “Rainbow Dome Music” and mixing some beats in with it, and I thought well that’s it, the final catalyst. We were more or less there already, but that put the seal on things.
You were also associated with Rai Music and the likes of Rachid Taha. How did your involvement with that scene come about?
I liked Arab music and North African music back in the 70s. That was something Miquette introduced me to. She first played me Oum Kalthoum records because she used to travel to Morocco quite a lot before I met her and she had all these cassettes. So that’s how my interest started initially and then more specifically I was producing this French band in Paris in ‘81 or ’82 and I heard this really interesting music coming from one of the offices of the record company, with this rather rough guttural wailing over a disco beat. I thought well that sounds amazing and so I rapped on the door and said “what’s that”? I knew one of the guys there but the other guy was manager of Rachid’s band, Carte de Sejour. It turned out it was Carte de Sejeur’s first demos that I’d heard. The manager asked me what I thought and I said, it’s fucking amazing, if you’d like me to work on this let me know. Around six months later I got the call and worked with Rachid on the first album in 1983. I didn’t do the second record but then in 1990 he got in touch with me again to say that he’d stopped the band and said he wanted to do solo stuff and that he wanted to do it with me. He sent me some more demos, which were brilliant, and it sort of mushroomed from there. Again I’m not doing that so much now, I think it is another thing that’s peaked, although there are some things in the offing that I might do but in general I’ve pretty much done that.
Is it true that it was you who persuaded Michael Eavis to start a dance stage at Glastonbury Festival?
Yes, although it wasn’t my idea, it was whole coalition of people who wanted dance music rightfully recognised as part of the spectrum of music at Glastonbury. By the early 1990s there were a lot of people at the festival setting up renegade parties that kept on getting closed down and the whole dance thing had a bit of a bad reputation with the festival organisers. I had a connection with Michael Eavis going back to the 1979 festival, where the 4 main organisers were Michael, myself, Tony Andrews, and Bill Harkin (Pyramid Bill). Various people got together in 1994 and they persuaded me to petition Michael, so I wrote him a letter, which I thought was very persuasive indeed and then he rang me up to say that he’d read my letter and that he found it very interesting. We had a good chat and one thing led to another and that’s how the Dance Tent came about. That’s an ongoing story as well. We didn’t envisage a tent so much as an open air stage. It was great to have dance music officially recognised and the first year was very exciting if somewhat stressful to organise, because Michael wanted me to organise it, which wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I bowed out of organising it after the first year, and then it started going a bit commercial really and then a new dance area called The Glade came into being which was in the open air and a bit smaller scale than we had in mind, but in terms of line up and selection of acts it was really pukka and we were very happy to be involved with that. That eventually spawned the Glade Festival, which we’ve just come from. I’m not involved in the organisation of that at all, I’m just one of their regulars, happily (laughs)
The stuff you play with System 7 is very different from conventional song structures. How do you go about writing that kind of music and what amount of improvisation is involved?
Oh, it’s hard to explain really. In writing a dance track it has to start with an initial trigger, an initial concept, and that could be a sample, a guitar figure that I can copy and repeat or a drum sound or something. Then you work on the thing and grow it until it tells a story. It’s all about a journey. All dance music is about a journey. I’ve actually become quite good at DJ-ing. I’ve spent many hours watching some great DJs and the whole thing about when you move from track to track, it’s all part of a journey. It’s a funny kind of journey because part of it, you’re already there, but it’s still going through phases and opening new doors and discovering new realms. It’s not like I start off and I’m not there at all and then by the end of the set I’m there. From the moment you kick off and the big beat comes in, you’re there (laughs).
What kit do you use on stage, what makes the System 7 live experience?
Live, the beats are from Ableton on a Mac laptop. Miquette’s sound is mixed and sequenced through Logic on another Mac laptop, so that’s two laptops. Then I’ve got my guitar. I’ve got various guitar processors but I’m currently using a Line 6 XT Pro and I recently got a radio mic for the guitar and have gone wireless which means I can move about a bit more, not that I go mad or anything. It’s then all mixed through a DJ mixer. It’s dance music, innit? (laughs).
So all very portable, no Marshall stacks and what have you to be doing with?
Compared to most dance acts we’ve got quite a lot of gear but no, nothing like a rock band and certainly no drum kits (laughs).
You’ve been involved in a number of collaborations over the years with System 7. Which of these has been the most gratifying?
Well over the years Alex has been very important and we’ve had many wonderful moments with him and done a lot of wonderful tracks with him and The Orb. He’s just done a new record which sounds really interesting which is The Orb and Lee “Scratch” Perry. I reckon it’s going to be really big - the Orb have done it again. Watch this space! I don’t know when it’s coming out but it’s definitely in the can. Then another collaborator who has been very important for us is Derrick May, an original Detroit techno artist. We were very lucky to meet him almost at the beginning of System 7. At the time I was still under contract to Virgin records who were pestering me to make another Steve Hillage album. Finally I told them I had an idea for a new album and they said “really, what’s that” and I said a “dance album”. They thought about it and said yeah, that’s a good idea. So the first System 7 albums came out on Virgin’s dance label Ten Records, who were the first label to give a full release to Detroit techno. The guy at Ten Records said you’ve got to meet Derrick. Well we already knew who he was and we thought wow, what an honour. He’s a kind of maverick, I’m a kind of maverick and we got on really well and we went out to Detroit and worked with him. He doesn’t create much music himself now, he does mostly DJ work, so the stuff we did with him was quite an historical document.
Who releases your records now?
We’ve got our own label called A-Wave which is basically a dance label and then when we did the Gong 2032 album we released that on an extension of A-Wave called G-Wave. We’re re-releasing the Steve Hillage Band Uncon 2006 DVD and CD on G-Wave.
So what future projects do you have in mind either for System 7 or any of your other guises?
We’re doing a new System 7 EP at the moment for release in September. We also want to do another Mirror System album. We’re going away to Asia for a couple of months at the end of this year for a bit of a sabbatical and I going to take my guitar with me and I might write some songs, see how it goes.
And do you have any future collaborations in mind? Anyone you think “I’d like to work with so-and-so?
Oh yes I really should mention another really interesting collaboration and that’s something called Phoenix Rising with a Japanese rock band, a psychedelic jam band called Rovo. They’re a little bit like the Ozric Tentacles except they don’t have dreadlocks. We’ve been friendly for quite a while with their main guy who is an electric violin player called Yuji Katsui who played on the last Gong album and has played on some of the System 7 albums and he guests with us on gigs in Japan. His violin sound and my lead guitar sound beautiful together, a bit like the Mahavishnu Orchestra. We did this tour last year where they did live band versions of some of our System 7 stuff and we did remixes of some of their stuff and then we did this set where we morphed the System 7 original versions into their live versions and it was really great and really quite original. We’ve decided we’re going to do an album of that which will probably be in September. So that’s probably the next main release coming out and that’ll probably be for a Japanese label and we’ll release it over here on G-Wave.
My final question was going to be to ask whether there was any prospect of any future Gong collaboration to which I think the answer is “never say never”.
(Laughs) Absolutely! Who knows?
Steve Hillage was interviewed for the Terrascope by IAN FRASER © Terrascope Online 2012
For details of System 7, Mirror System and other Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy-related projects visit http://www.a-wave.com/system7/