By Ray Shasho
British prog-rock guitarist and songwriter Steve Hillage has been perpetually exploring, inventing, and recording intricate musical composition since the late 60s. Hillage navigated his ingenuity across a spectrum of musical genres including blues, rock, prog-rock, psychedelic-rock, space-rock, ambient, electronica and techno.
Steve Hillage joined his first band called Uriel in 1968; he left the group shortly afterwards to attend University of Kent in Canterbury. Meanwhile, the band renamed themselves Egg after signing with Decca Records. The following year, Hillage reunited with his bandmates under assumed names to record their lone album entitled, Arzachel. The recording featured a seventeen minute psychedelic jam session called, “Metempsychosis.”
In 1971, Hillage formed the progressive/space rock group Khan, which was part of the Canterbury scene. Khan released their only album Space Shanty in’72. The group also toured around the UK supporting their label partner Caravan. A second album was planned but the band split-up. Material for the planned second album was used on Hillage’s first solo-effort called Fish Rising.
In 1973, Steve Hillage joined prog-rock pioneer Kevin Ayers new band Decadence. He played on the bands fourth studio album Bananamour (recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London) and toured throughout Europe for several months. Hillage become a fan of the experimental rock group Gong and eventually joined them in France to participate on their album Flying Teapot (The first installment of The ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ Trilogy).
Steve Hillage became a full-time member of Gong and the classic line-up evolved into … Daevid Allen –guitarist/vocals, Steve Hillage- guitars, Gilli Smyth -vocals, Didier Malherbe -saxophonist/flautist, Tim Blake –keyboards/synthesizers, Mike Howlett -bass guitar and Pierre Moerlen -drums and percussions.
Hillage became notably influential during the most successful period in the bands history. The recordings of The ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ Trilogy” featured Gong’s best known works, Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg and You.
Steve Hillage, who became the undisputed leader of Gong, left the group in 1975. While still in the band, Hillage launched his critically-acclaimed debut album, Fish Rising. The recording would prove to be pivotal in establishing a successful and long-standing solo career for the progressive rock trailblazer.
Next, Steve Hillage would record a string of musically profound albums. The first entitled simply, L (1976) produced by the genius of Todd Rundgren. The recording also featured many members from Rundgren’s progressive rock group Utopia. The album spotlighted several cover tunes … “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan and, “It’s All Too Much” penned by George Harrison from The Beatles, Yellow Submarine album of 1969.
Motivation Radio (1977) was Hillage’s third solo release followed by Green (1978) co-produced and engineered by Pink Floyd’s acclaimed drummer Nick Mason.
Subsequent releases by Steve Hillage were Live Herald, Rainbow Dome Musick, For To Next, and For To Next/And Not Or.
Throughout the 80s, Steve Hillage worked as a record producer with such artist as Robyn Hitchcock, Simple Minds, It Bites and Murray Head. Hillage also produced the Up To Our Hips album by British alternative rock band The Charlatans in 1994.
In 1991, former Gong members Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy formed the ambient-techno dance band System 7. The band became part of an underground dance movement around London. They released the self-titled, System 7 album followed with their second release, 777 in 1993 which reached the UK Top 40 album charts.
System 7 also launched spin-off projects called Mirror System and Groovy Intent. System 7 released (10) studio albums, and Mirror System released (2) studio albums. Steve Hillage became an ambient-techno cult hero.
Hillage and Giraudy performed at the ‘Gong Family Unconvention 2006’ at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. The three day event featured the original members of Gong and a setlist consisting of material from The ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ Trilogy. The duo also performed music by The Steve Hillage Band and System 7.
In 2008, the successful ‘Gong Family Unconvention’ was resurrected in London for several shows. The line-up also included original members Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, and Mike Howlett.
In 2009, Gong released 2032, billed as a further installment to the Gong mythology (the central part being The ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ Trilogy). The album was produced and mixed by Steve Hillage.
Steve Hillage will be re-releasing, The Steve Hillage Band Live -The 2006 concert at the ‘Gong Family Unconvention’ in Amsterdam and will be available on DVD and CD on September 12th. It’s the first live performance by The Steve Hillage Band in 25 years!
Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy will be releasing a brand new System 7 EP very soon, and watch out for a new collaboration with Japan’s Rovo.
I had the rare and pleasant opportunity to chat with Steve Hillage by Skype from his home in England. Here’s my interview with guitar virtuoso, songwriter, singer, techno and progressive cult hero, and experimental music trailblazer, STEVE HILLAGE.
Ray Shasho: Steve, how are you?
Steve Hillage: “Pretty good, not amazing, I’ve had problems with my mobile phone company and have been on the phone a lot to change my tariff and it’s been really-really boring, but apart from that everything is fine. The weather is getting better here.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve always appreciated progressive rock music and grew up mesmerized by bands like … Camel, Triumvirat, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Mahavishnu Orchestra, the rock orchestra Synergy, and of course Gong. What artists inspired you into creating your own style of music?
Steve Hillage: “I’ve always said that my number one inspiration has got to be Jimi Hendrix …absolutely by a long way. I was in school in the 60s, so I liked … The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Cream, and all that sort of stuff. When I started to get involved with more complex music, it was what we started doing in school. I roomed with a very interesting keyboard player named Dave Stewart who later had a group called ‘Egg’ and later ‘Hatfield and the North.’ We started working on music at school and getting into things with odd time signatures and things like that, and then we discovered other people were doing it. This was before the term “progressive rock” actually arose. But we discovered that there was sort of a hotbed of musicians doing it in Canterbury. By kind of a coincidence, I went to University in Canterbury and became friendly with bands like Caravan and Soft Machine.”
“I didn’t stay that long at University actually because I felt that music was a far more exciting thing to do, and that’s what ultimately led me into joining Gong, because Daevid Allen was Soft Machine’s original lead guitarist. He had already left before I met the guys, but he was still involved behind the scenes and I got involved in that scene. I introduced Daevid to the people in Canterbury, that’s how he ended up in ‘Hatfield and the North’, and …voila, the rest his history!”
Ray Shasho: Gong has had incredible longevity and developed a cult following, is that because they’re a band of virtuoso musicians?
Steve Hillage: “There have been a lot of different styles in Gong. In its classic period, you had a really amazing collection of strong individuals who had their own style and managed to come up with something that was both musically sophisticated and extremely psychedelic. There haven’t been many psychedelic projects that have had that level of musical technique, so it was pretty special in that respect. So in various later splitting up versions of Gong … you’ve had some aspects that have gone more for the musical techniques like Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, and others … obviously Daevid has stayed more with his own mythology, sort of quirkiness, and his humor. I went more into widescreen, psychedelic, guitar-based stuff. But they’ve all got elements of Gong in them. There are certainly elements of Gong in our dance music project System 7, and there a lot of people in the dance music scene that use to be Gong fans. It’s all one big family in a way … so we call it the “Gong Family.”
Ray Shasho: Wasn’t Bill Bruford in the band for awhile too?
Steve Hillage: “He didn’t last very long. We had a problem about a border crossing between Germany and France where are drummer had something in his pocket that he shouldn’t have. Customs banned him … which was bad for him but even worse for us because we had some gigs and didn’t have a drummer. We were on Virgin Records at the time and Richard Branson said, “I’ve got a great idea, I met Bill Bruford the other day and he’s looking for something to do ...he’d love to do it.”
“So he was on the next plane over. It was amazing working with him, but I think we were a little bit too wacky for his tastes on a personal level. He found us all a bit hard to handle. We did some really good recordings at some of the Buford gigs, around bootlegs, and pretty amazing stuff.”
Ray Shasho: Gong has certainly had an influence on electronica/dance music.
Steve Hillage: “We’ve certainly had an influence on things, but other bands in that era have also had an influence, particularly German groups like ‘Can’ and ‘Kraftwerk’ have had a big influence on modern electronic music as well. When we first heard Kraftwerk, it was still before they got involved with synths (synthesizers & keyboards) so they were still an acoustic band with flute. They developed into using synths after a few years but were originally a live band in the early 70s.”
Ray Shasho: Gong back in its heyday must have been amazing?
Steve Hillage: “It was exhilarating … a bit of a rollercoaster ride and chaotic. It was quite a combustible relationship of strong-minded people. So it kind of fell apart after a few years during the so-called classic line-up … in 1975 actually. There has been all kinds of offshoots and continuation Gongs and different types of Gongs since the classic line-up split up in ’75.”
Ray Shasho: Gong has reformed several times over the past several years as well … how did that come about?
Steve Hillage: “What happened was a group of fans started an annual event called an “Unconvention” and gradually various original Gong members got sucked into this. In 2005, we came along and we did a System 7 set … Daevid wasn’t there but Miquette, Didier Malherbe, Mike Howlett, Gilli Smyth and Tim Blake were there, so we said, let’s have a jam. We hadn’t played together in thirty years or more and it was really fantastic.”
“Then somebody came up with an idea for doing a really big “Unconvention” in Amsterdam at the Melkweg, so we all went and did our individual sets, then did our Gong set at the end. That’s where I decided to do a short Steve Hillage Band set, which is the recording that we’re releasing on DVD and CD. It’s already been out for a couple of years on a short scale, but we’re doing it on a bigger scale now on our own label. And it was that event in Amsterdam in November of 2006 that was very important for us, it was massive and fantastic, because after that we decided to make another Gong album, 2032, and we did a large tour in 2009 spilling over into 2010.”
“Which brings us into present day, right now Daevid is experimenting with a new style of Gong and I’m no longer involved … but I wish him well. There is going to be a tour this autumn. I’m not sure if they’re coming to America … primarily Europe and the UK.”
Ray Shasho: Steve, I watched The Steve Hillage Band live DVD from the ‘Unconvention’ in Amsterdam, and it was an incredible compilation of music played to its perfection, I gave it 5 stars.
Steve Hillage: “Fantastic, thank you very much. We also did some sets like that on the Gong tour. Mike Howlett played on that and was also on Fish Rising and was Gong’s bassist, we also had Chris Taylor who was the drummer of Gong. So we were playing like a live Gong support act, which was like half of the band and then we’d do the main set when the rest of Gong would appear.”
“If we do it again … which we might consider in the next year or two, it would be a standalone Steve Hillage Band, and I think if we did that, we’d need to do some new material as well. I wouldn’t want to do a tour just of the old material. I’m not really one of those artists who does sort of a legacy tour and play a whole hour of one album or something.”
Ray Shasho: I’m going to mention a few albums that you recorded in the past as The Steve Hillage Band and you can jump in with any comments if you see fit. First of all … Fish Rising was one of your best albums; it sort of had a ‘Mahavishnu Orchestra’ /Birds of Fire feel to it.
Steve Hillage: “Fish Rising was a very special album, quite a lot of material was written before I joined Gong … from the aborted second album with my band ‘Khan.’ I’ve kept that material while I was in Gong and it had very unique material, but it’s got a very strong Gong influence. It was all my original material with Canterbury influence in there as well. Yea, it was a very special album for sure. The majority of the set we did in Amsterdam at the Melkweg was material from Fish Rising.”
Ray Shasho: Another inspiring recording was your 1978 album, Green when you worked with Pink Floyd’s legendary drummer Nick Mason.
Steve Hillage: “We met Nick Mason during the last Gong album that I was involved with called Shamal … in the 70s after Daevid left. It was when I was in the process of leaving Gong so I didn’t have a huge involvement in that, but Nick Mason was the co-producer of that album and I got to know him then. He was just fantastic to work with.”
Ray Shasho: Todd Rundgren produced your second studio album called, L.
Steve Hillage: “It was quite interesting because I had really gotten into his material starting with Something/Anything and I followed his developments with Utopia and A Wizard, a True Star. When he came out with that record “Initiation,” I thought wow … he’s really like vanilla soul. I left Gong and we didn’t know how we were going to proceed, then one of the guy’s with Virgin Records said, “Hey, we’ve been talking with Todd Rundgren and he’s heard of you and into working with you.” I said let’s do that one with Todd! It all came together really rapidly actually and another exhilarating rollercoaster ride.”
Ray Shasho: Steve, was there an album you were ‘especially’ proud of?
Steve Hillage: “To tell you the truth, one of the ones I’m most proud of is one that didn’t appeal so much in America called, Motivation Radio. I thought it was very original and laid the basis for our development into electronics and dance music. There was a track on the Green album called; “Ether Ships” and I sometimes say … that was the first System 7 track.”
Ray Shasho: Talk about how System 7 came into its fruition.
Steve Hillage: “Basically at the end of the 70s, we stopped The Steve Hillage Band; I got into a lot of record producing work, and we just found ourselves sucked into the whole development of electronic dance music in the 80s, and also through my connection with Simple Minds, who were sort of an underground club band. When the big acid house moment came in ’87, ’88, we felt …wow … this is it, we found our new musical home. So the idea was to make a dance music based project but still using some of the sounds of the guitar and synth that we’d feature on Gong and Steve Hillage Band records, and that’s basically what we’re still doing. We’ve been doing that for almost 23 years now. We do a lot of shows and travel around the world, but we’re not exclusively into doing that, we like to do all kinds of other things as well.”
“I like a lot of “world music” as well. I’ve got a lot of experience working with Arab artists, in France in particular, I love it. My specific interest in Arab music started with Miquette, my partner, who I met in 1972, and she played me Umm Kulthum. I started meeting up with French Algerian musicians and that’s how I got involved in producing Arab music. I produced a lot of records for Arab singers … Rachid Taha, Khaled, a Tunisian Egyptian singer Latifa, and another French Algerian singer called Faudel. My biggest Arab music project is called, 1, 2, 3, Soleils. It was a live concert with an orchestra in1998 featuring Rachid Taha, Khaled and Faudel. It was the biggest selling Rai (genre) record of all time.”
Ray Shasho: Steve, what are your very latest projects?
“We’ve got a new System 7 EP coming out, and of course we’re re-releasing, The Steve Hillage Band live from Amsterdam DVD and CD in September. Another project that I’d also like to mention and is really interesting is called, ‘Phoenix Rising.’ It’s collaboration between System 7 and a Japanese psychedelic progressive jam band called Rovo. We work a lot in Japan and are quite successful out there. We’ve been friendly with Rovo for about a decade, and we ended up doing this live tour where we ended up with more of Rovo doing live versions of System 7 tracks, and System 7 doing techno versions of Rovo tracks. So we decided to do an album together. So right now … I’m writing material along with the guys in Japan who are also writing material, and we’re going out to Japan for the whole month of September to make the album. We hope to have the album ready for release next year and ready for promotion in March. Then we want to do a ‘Phoenix Rising’ tour in Europe, and we’d love to be able to get it over to America. I don’t think there’s ever been a more integrated project between techno music and live rock.”
Ray Shasho: Steve, thank you so much for being on the Skype call today, and also for all the incredible music that you’ve given to us over the years. I hope to see you either with The Steve Hillage Band or System 7 one day soon here in Florida.
Steve Hillage: “It’s been nice talking with you and I’m so glad our Skype transmission worked out (all laughing). Jolly good … Take care Ray!”
Steve Hillage will be re-releasing The Steve Hillage Band Live -The 2006 concert at the ‘Gong Family Unconvention’ in Amsterdam available on DVD and CD -September 12th. It’s the first live performance by The Steve Hillage Band in 25 years! -Preorder now at amazon.com.
Steve Hillage Band ‘Gong Family Unconvention’ DVD excerpts at www.stevehillageuncondvd.com
Steve Hillage Band on Facebook www.facebook.com/stevehillageband
Steve Hillage on Myspace www.myspace.com/stevehillage
System 7 official website www.a-wave.com/system7/
Planet Gong www.planetgong.co.uk
Special thanks to ‘the great Billy James’ of Glass Onyon PR
Official website http://glassonyonpublicity.wordpress.com/
Contact classic rock music reporter Ray Shasho at email@example.com
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