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Friars Interviews

steve hillage
Gong  Steve Hillage Band

friars appearances 01/12/73  16/10/76  15/10/76  03/05/78

 

Steve Hillage is one of those very very few artists to be awarded both the Friars Aylesbury Cup (1977) and a Friars Heroes Award (2012) for his positive effects on Friars Aylesbury and mesmerising performances. We caught up with Steve in London in March 2012 to discuss Gong, his solo work and life before and after in the music business. Today Steve plays (still with Miquette Giraudy who played on all Steve's solo work and tours) as System 7 and is still producing and working with a variety of acts.

    Steve at Friars 1976 (photo Geoff Tyrell)

Hello Steve and thank you for talking to the Friars website. Thank you for accepting the Friars Heroes Award, very well deserved.

It's wonderful and beautiful.

As we'll see, you're linked in with a lot of Friars history. Although you achieved legend status in Aylesbury as a solo artist, your first appearance was with Gong at Friars Phase 2 in 1973. That must have been an interesting time, especially with you becoming de facto leader following Daevid Allen's departure from the band?

I never liked the idea of being de facto leader. I always thought of Gong as more of a collective. Obviously Daevid had an pre-eminent role as the band's founder. After he left, we tried to make a go of it but it never felt quite right without Daevid and we left ourselves after six months.

Did you feel it was a creativity issue?

It never really felt like Gong. There were all these music press articles about me being the new 'leader' of Gong and it made me feel rather awkward.

You'd done your first solo album, Fish Rising, by the time Gong finished?

Fish Rising was coming out and the music press were proclaiming me as the new leader of Gong and it looked as if I had done a coup d'etat. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The actual ructions which had led to Daevid and Tim Blake leaving the band, I wasn't even around, I was in the studio finishing Fish Rising and it all went pear shaped in my absence. I was trying to hold it all together. It was a long time ago but Gong was, of course, a pretty chaotic project. It was always a turbulent and chaotic project and it still is. That's one of its charms I think.

In terms of your solo career, it really did get your name out there and Fish Rising is a fantastic album. Presumably you were happier being under your own name rather than that of a band?

Well I started off with a band name before I joined Gong, my first record was under the moniker of Khan. By the time I left Gong and returned to my solo career which is effectively what I did, I think I had enough name recognition for people to identify me.

That's fair enough, I recently saw the Tubular Bells live performance by Mike Oldfield from 1973 which you played on. Presumably Oldfield asked you personally to play that?

He selected a large posse of people including Pierre Moerlen who was also in Gong. I had contacts with Mike as I had effectively replaced him in Kevin Ayers' group.

That was Decadence?

Yes. After I stopped Khan, I worked with Kevin Ayers whose guitarist went off to make a solo record.....that was Mike Oldfield and Tubular Bells. When I started full time with Gong doing the Flying Teapot album at Manor Studios, Mike Oldfield was there finishing off Tubular Bells in our studio down time so we were aware of it as a project and ongoing thing and I'd already met him a few times. So playing guitar for him felt quite natural when he did it live.

We caught you at such the right time in 1976 when you brought out the L album and made such a huge impression on the place. How did you get to be working with Todd Rundgren producing? Obviously this led to Utopia playing on the album. (for my money your version of It's All Too Much is the greatest Beatles cover I have heard)

I heard through the grapevine after I'd left Gong when I wasn't sure what my next move might be, that he'd heard of me and was interested in producing a record. I thought "wow!" The deal was I would go to his studio in New York and use his musicians. I thought 'fantastic, let's do it!'

I don't blame you one bit!

Well I was a bit of a fan of Todd Rundgren, I had been aware of him since 1972 and the Something/Anything? album. I saw him and Utopia play in 1975 on their UK tour, so I thought it was a great idea! I didn't necessarily see it as a long term relationship.

It was a great idea, with Rundgren and Utopia on board this can only have helped raise your profile. Whilst we caught you at the right time so to speak, you played Friars on the 1977 Motivation Radio tour, you were huge and sold out instantly with tickets changing hands for 20 outside the venue which in context, the tickets were 1.99!

I remember the Green gig more as it had been a blur up to then with making the L album with Todd Rundgren, to going to America, to forming the band, doing the tour, supporting Queen at Hyde Park. It was very intense. That 1977 tour, I used a guitar synthesiser which was complicated to set up.

Having seen footage from the time, I think you are the only guitarist I have seen with not only foot pedals but equipment and pedals at waist height....

I had a whole table of kit.

At that 1977 gig, you became part of a very select group of people when David Stopps presented you with the Friars Aylesbury Cup..

Yes the FA Cup...I gave it to my late mother and it's still with her belongings. She was very proud to have it.

As I mentioned, you made a huge impression on the Aylesbury audience and came back in 1978 on the Green album. You then brought out Rainbow Dome Musick in 1979 which has directly or indirectly led you to where you are today, but I'll come back to that in a minute.

You then became a record producer in the 1980s with various bands, how did that come around, you worked with a wide range of interesting artists.

I'd always wanted to do it and in the 70s I was working as an artist with some fantastic producers which was a great experience and it gave you a training in the reverse role. I'd watched great producers on my stuff so I knew what it was like to be an artist being produced. It gave me an empathy when I produced the artist.

You worked with Simple Minds...

That was my first major project. I went to see their Roundhouse show a couple of weeks back where they did stuff from their early albums including stuff I worked on, it was great.

As an aside one of my favourite Simple Minds songs is still Love Song which was your production.

Yes and they are gravitating towards their earlier sound at the moment. They are really proud of their early stuff.

You also worked with the likes of It Bites.

That was later on, I did their second album, Once Around The World. Francis Dunnery was really good when he was in the band.

Having seen them live, I know they were a fantastic band. Thought it strange they reformed and "forgot" to ask Francis Dunnery along....

(laughs) Bands, bands, bands!

As you well know!

(laughs)

So where you are now in the underground/techno scene as System 7 with Miquette, I can connect the dots with the music through your career, but it was hearing The Orb doing Rainbow Dome Musick that influenced you more in this direction?

Well, we always had an interest in electronics in the 1970s, with what Tim Blake was doing and the stuff we did later in The Steve Hillage Band...and listening to the likes of Kraftwerk, Neu and other German groups like Can. That was also a connection with Simple Minds who were also very interested in that German sound. They were intrigued by the dark sounds. As the 1980s developed there was a whole new dance scene springing up around us and we realised we'd found a new musical home. I still play guitar, do some production and also work with Arab musicians. We also toured again with Gong and made the new 2032 album.

Yes, you did the Gong 40th anniversary shows not so long back didn't you?

We didn't call it a 40th anniversary tour but we did tour in 2009 and a smaller tour in 2010. We did some shows under The Steve Hillage Band name as well.

You were effectively supporting yourselves at those shows!

It wasn't a standalone band, it was Miquette and myself and the drummer and bass player of Gong and did some Steve Hilage Band tracks. It was useful supporting Gong as we had the same technical set up.

What about the future aside from System 7?

We might get a standalone Steve Hillage Band out after 2013. There's one other project we are also doing which is interesting called Phoenix Rising which is a collaboration between System 7 and a Japanese rock band called Rovo. That's interesting as they do live versions of System 7 tunes and we do versions of their tunes back to back. It's quite original and we toured Japan with them last autumn which was a massive success. We're looking at doing a Phoenix Rising album and hopefully we'll tour the UK in 2013. We're off to Japan next week to do a festival show as System 7. We'll be working on a new System 7 album before too long as well

That's going to be interesting to say the least! You're very busy! You've had a long and distinguished career and you are still enjoying it which is great to say.

If we didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't be talking to you now. You have to that hunger and pleasure.

Steve, it's been a pleasure to talk to you and thanks also to Miquette for the chat we had last week. It's been great to capture some of your history for the Friars site.

Thanks

This interview and its content are 2012 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.

 
 
 

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