Interviews That Inspire!
Interviews, New Age, Progressive Rock, Rock

Steve Hillage Interview: From Planet Gong To System 7

We spoke with producer/guitarist Steve Hillage from England by telephone to discuss his past and  latest musical adventures.  Currently touring  with the (very cool), System 7 ensemble,  which features Steve Hillage and electronic sound designer  Miquette Giraudy.  For over 30 years this remarkable artist has been at the forefront of musical revolutions spanning from the psychedelic  Canterbury scene of the 70’s to the electronic rock of the 80’s and 90’s.  Working freely across multiple genres of music including, psychedelic rockelectronica, jazz fusion and Progressive rock, Steve has left an indelible mark with his soaring guitar solos and creative production techniques.  Steve is a true creative spirit at large in the world and a huge inspiration to artists who strive to remain true to the self.  We hope you draw great inspiration from this interview and wish you much happiness in your pursuits!

LBFH:  Hi Steve, thanks so much for interviewing with us today.

SH: Hello!

LBFH: So what is this rumor about a new Steve Hillage band?

SH: Well, I’ve written some new material and while I never say “never”, I don’t see the likely hood of it happening in the near future.  Clearly, because I’ve has a surprisingly successful collaboration with System 7 and the Japanese band, Rovo, do you know that one?  Phoenix Rising? It’s a collaboration we did and is actually released in America on Cleopatra records.  I do a lot of Guitar soloing on that and it’s a very interesting project.

LBFH:  So a lot of your new material you would liken it to the older system 7 music?

SH: No, if I do another Steve Hillage band album, it would be a rock album.  It might have some electronic elements but it would basically be a rock album.  I don’t see it happening at the moment.  But I do recommend this album that we did with the Japanese band Rovo, I do think you’d like it.

LBFH: Looking back, and being a fan for so many years I had the opportunity to learn about your projects.  You’ve had quite diverse career in music, including producing.

SH: Well it was something I planned on doing from very early on.  I always was very keen to go into record production.  I had a great advantage when I did my solo records in the seventies.  I was actually produced as an artist by some very great producers like Todd Rundgren and Malcolm Cecil, also was coproduced by Nick Mason of Pink Floyd and I really learned a lot with those guys.  So when it came to the 80’s I started to put it into practice. Most of the stuff I’ve done, people have contacted me and hired me.  There have been quite a few artists and quite a few records.

LBFH: Your sound is very unique, from the treatments on your guitar to the way you place your solos into music.  I would imagine that would be very attractive to artists looking for a producer.

SH:  One thing about producing and in particular, my style, is that ‘m not intending to superimpose my sound on to the artist or the record.  Actually, I’m looking for bands to develop their own sound and their own personality.  I have a great deal of experience and expertise in arranging track and taking raw ideas from someone and turning them into something.   That’s my main skills.  I’m pretty good at mixing as well.

LBFH: Did you have a lot of hands on involvement in the mixing of the earlier Gong albums like the Radio Gnome trilogy?

SH: Yes, very much so.  I’m pretty hands on

LBFH: How did you come to join Gong, as the story goes, you saw them in France and were attracted by the music, but how did you hook up with that crew?

SH: It’s a long story, basically when I was young I was attracted by Caravan and that Canterbury sound, then I ended up going to university in Canterbury, but I didn’t end up staying very long and I decided to leave and become a musician.  But I got very caught up in the whole Canterbury Scene and I met a lot of people and jamming.  Then I ended up getting my first record deal with a band called Khan to my astonishment.  Obviously I was aware of Daevid Allen and the reasons he had left the Soft machine and I had become very attracted to Daevid and Gong because they had become like the bad boys of the Canterbury scene and that had great appeal to me.  I love that extreme psychedelic sound.  When it came to 1071, Gong had picked up the torch and led into the whole second wave of psychedelia and I found it very interesting.  I was only 21 when I did my first work with Gong and I thought I was pretty young to be working on my own and wanted to work with other people.  I wound up getting a gig with Kevin Ayeres  of soft machine and Gong collaborator. In fact I replaced his guitarist Mike Oldfield, who left to do his own solo album which later became Tubular Bells.  It was during this period that I met Daevid and we got on very well, and then we went on a big tour with soft machine and Gong and had a big Jam session that went so well, I just sort of jumped ship and joined Gong.  That’s how it happened really.

LBFH: Do you miss that sense of community creation in music; has modern music writing become more clinical?

SH: Well. I don’t work too much in the rock genre now; I’m more in the electronic genre now.  I find in the electronic genre there are a lot of really good collaborators and maybe that’s why I like it.

LBFH: What are some of the electronic artists that you like to keep up on?

SH: I like the Orb and Alex Patterson; in fact I’m planning on doing some new stuff with him and I do a lot of collaboration with the mix guys like Doug Spire and the song kites you know a lot of the trance guys.  With System 7 we just came out with a double CD, “Cool Out” which has a lot of collaboration tracks.

LBFH: Have you branched into more treatments with your guitar and keyboards?

SH: Well. I’ve always played keyboards.  I leaned piano at the age of 4, then I switched to guitar.  My partner, Miquette Giraudy  is a very accomplished synthesizer and sound designer and so I work with a lot of keyboards.  The thing about Guitar is I’ve never really gone as far as midi guitar; I like it to be a sole sound source without too much mangling of the guitar sound.

LBFH:  You mentioned the element of sound design, as an electronic musician my desires vacillate between pure form keyboards, meaning engine driven and modeled synths such as are found in the workstation.  What is your take on that?

SH: Well we’ve been using sequencers since the 80’s and we use logic and protools for mixing, but we are very workstation driven and quite a lot of sounds we use are from plug-ins.

LBFH: I use the Korg Kronos work station.   Are you familiar with that?

SH: Miquette has a lot of Korg applications and she uses them on her iPad at the moment. We love that!

LBFH: Your ability to keep an open mind has no doubt contributed to a long and healthy career in music, but how did you make your way into dance music?

SH: Well it was a completely natural evolution.  In the 70’s we were interested in electronics. We were big fans of Kraftwerk.  We also got exposed to a sound designer called Tony Andrews and he was with Function 1 and he was a very good friend of ours and he used to have parties playing funk records really loud through large sound systems in the field.  I guess it has progressed from that.  Also when I got into producing band like Simple Minds, before they became a stadium rock group they had quite dance sound, it was in the early eighties – bands like cabaret Voltaire.  I don’t know it was sort of a natural movement.  So I would say as well, psychedelic music in general, from a rock point of view, it went out on the eighties and then it resurfaced as electronic music in the mid eighties.  The electronic music of the eighties is very much the bastion of psychedelic culture these days. I mean we just came back from this amazing festival boom in Portugal with 2000 people.  It was the most amazing psychedelic festival.  It was mostly dance music.

LBFH: People like to gravitate towards the groove, it’s almost tribal really.

SH: Yeah, well I feel this goes back to our tribal roots, thousands of years and the fact that were reestablishing contact with these roots is really significant, I think.

LBFH: The audience in Europe may have been a little quicker to embrace that idea.  The Canterbury movement was barely noticed here. We discovered Gong on a very unique late night college station called the Joe Meko show out of SHU.  He would read the liner notes to the trilogy and play it often and we just hooked right in.  But for the most part very few people in the states know about that movement.

SH: Well the U.S. kind of had its own psychedelic history with bands like the Grateful Dead and what they now call “jam bands”, it’s a kind of different story.  Gong and even my own solo albums were very big in the charts here.  We weren’t massive, but we were quite big.

LBFH: I think you (Steve Hillage Band) made a much bigger splash here than Gong.

SH: In America yeah, we had a lengthy run.

LBFH: Do you still keep in touch with some of your band mates from Gong?

SH: Oh yeah,  we made a record together in 2009 called 2032, we had 2 big tours.

LBFH: You have also re-released Rainbow 77?

SH: Yeah and that’s a really good sounding one!

LBFH: Was it a lot of work to re-work that release?

SH: No, to tell the truth most off it is from a bootleg that’s been out there for ages I just legitimized it.  Not all is from the bootleg, some is from a cassette I had of the show and I tweaked it .  it sounds pretty good actually.

LBFH: Can you describe your creative process, how does a song start for you?

SH: It can start from all kinds of things, a noise or a sound or guitar riff or a drum groove.  I’m quite good at finishing things.  That’s something that Miquette and I talk a lot about in our partnership.  She’s good at starting things and I’m good at finishing them.  That’s one of the things a producer has got to do, you have to be able to deliver a record.  That’s why people hire you.

LBFH: Have you found that along the way there have been sacrifices to maintain a career in music?

SH: Surprisingly enough, in my case there have been virtually none. I’m kind of lucky because I never really had a hit record or one particular track, so that whenever they hear my name they expect a certain thing.  So I’ve never had that monkey hanging on my back.  I’ve been pretty free to do whatever I want.  Now with System 7,  we have our own label and were completely free to do whatever we want.

LBFH: In our 2014 interview with Steve Hackett, he said almost the same thing, he said he was thankful that he never had that “monkey” on his back and so he was free to create what he wanted.

SH: Yeah!  I know Steve; he’s a really good guy!  What I’m doing with system seven and what Steve is doing is not quite the same but in attitude it is.  I meet him occasionally and we get on really well.

LBFH: How do you think people view you as an artist?

SH: Oh, I don’t really know, the mind boggles. I’d like to think they would see me as someone serious who uses music to generate positive spiritual energy.  I’ve never deviated from that.

LBFH: That really emanates from your music.  I’m not just saying that because I’m a huge fan..

SH: Thank you!

LBFH: I remember reading about Frank Zappa in concert and how his solos would also go way out transforming into something much larger than just a solo

SH: Yeah, Right on!  When I was doing Rainbow 77, I was quite surprised how good it sounded.  Really surprised at how far out some of the solos went.

 

LBFH: Your sustained career in music is very inspiring.  What advise could you give to musicians making their way?

SH: Well I’ve always been drawn to this comment by Daevid Allen, when he met Jimi Hendrix and jimi said to him, “Stay with your thing man”.  That’s the best advice, you have to develop your own sound and stay with it doggedly and good things will come.

LBFH: Are you a fan of social media?

SH: Yes Facebook and Twitter, I use it a lot to promote.

LBFH: Steve, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.  We wish you the best of luck!

Thank you, it has been a pleasure. Bye Bye!

*************End Interview*********************

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About Thomas Mangano

Musician, Composer, Columnist

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