Innerviews, music without borders

Steve Hillage
Organic Continuum
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2010 Anil Prasad.

Steve Hillage’s musical vision knows no boundaries. The British guitarist and composer's influence spans decades, generations and genres from psychedelic rock, prog-rock and fusion with Gong and the Steve Hillage Band to ambient, techno and house with System 7 and Mirror System.

Hillage is renowned for his contributions to Gong’s heyday from 1972-1975 in which he recorded the band’s seminal Radio Gnome Trilogy which included the albums Flying Teapot, Angel's Egg and You. His next project, the Steve Hillage Band, extended Gong’s prog- and space-rock explorations on classic mid- to late-‘70s albums including Fish Rising, L and Green. The ‘80s and ‘90s also found him in high demand as a top-tier record producer for the likes of Robyn Hitchcock, Simple Minds, The Charlatans, and Rachid Taha.

The early ‘90s also saw Hillage and fellow ex-Gong bandmate, keyboardist and life partner Miquette Giraudy, launch System 7. The act has established itself as a leading light of the electronica movement for nearly 20 years, with more than a dozen releases, including its recent Phoenix record. System 7 discs mesh adventurous, upbeat dance music with unique guitar treatments. Hillage and Giraudy also explore ambient downtempo sounds in a sister project called Mirror System, which just released Reflector, a DJ mix CD.

After a 30-year absence, Hillage reunited with Gong in 2005 and went on to release 2009’s 2032, a startlingly fresh and inventive disc, that infuses Gong’s sound with modern funk, electronica, hip-hop, and dance grooves. In tandem, he reactivated the Steve Hillage Band, which revisited its classic works on CD and DVD releases both titled Live at the Gong Unconvention 2006. System 7, Gong and the Steve Hillage Band all remain ongoing projects for Hillage.

Describe the journey towards reuniting with Gong for the 2032 album and subsequent touring.

It all came about as a result of an annual event put together by Gong fans called the Unconvention. I didn’t go to the first couple of them, but I attended in 2005 when Daevid Allen wasn’t there, but most of the original members of Gong were. We did a System 7 show and afterwards, had a jam session with the other guys. It felt good, so we thought “Let’s do it again.” In 2006, the biggest Unconvention was held at the Melkweg club in Amsterdam. All of the surviving original Gong members came along and performed their individual projects and then we played a Gong set at the end. It was fantastic. So, we said “Let’s do it again.” [laughs] We did two large gigs in London in 2008 and we thought “Let’s do an album.” It all happened in an organic way.

You’ve successfully reinvented yourself to the point where a lot of people no longer associate you with progressive rock. Was there any trepidation as you plunged back into the Gong universe?

No, because we enjoyed it. We always maintained our friendships with everyone in Gong, particularly with Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth. My partner Miquette and I have a long-term bond with them that’s remained intact through the years. There was a move to get Miquette and I to participate in the 25th anniversary Gong event in 1994, and at that time I didn’t feel like I wanted to do it. It didn’t feel like the time was right.  But this time, it felt perfect and we continue working together.

What was it like to rekindle the musical relationships and chemistry of the band for you?

My three years in Gong in the ‘70s had a seminal effect on my musical universe. So, there wasn’t a feeling of revisiting. It was a “here and now” thing that felt good. I didn’t feel a need to put myself in a particular frame of mind, because Gong was still part of my musical DNA.

The 2032 album caught a lot of people by surprise because it’s so fresh, inventive and contemporary. Tell me about the creative process behind it.

We decided to do a lot of shows in 2009 and wanted new material for them. The concerts and the album are part of the same project. We went out to Australia, where Daevid and Gilli live, in November of 2008. We wrote most of the stuff there at Daevid’s house. Then Miquette and I came back to London and we put together the basic music tracks with Mike Howlett on bass and Chris Taylor on drums. We were communicating a lot with Daevid and Gilli over the Internet and sending them rough tracks that way. A lot of the record was done via cyberspace. That might have given it a contemporary feeling too. We finished building the tracks, and then Miquette and I went to Australia in April 2009 after some System 7 shows in Tokyo. Daevid had recorded a lot of his vocals by then and we worked together to finish off the record. We then went back to London in May 2009 to mix the record. Daevid came over to participate in that too. The album’s direction was very much Daevid’s idea. We all wanted to capture the feeling of “this is where Gong is here and now.”

From a technical perspective, the recording was done on Pro Tools HD, with some programming in Logic. I’ve done a lot of record production, starting in the late ‘70s, for a lot of other artists. I’ve developed a whole technique of producing. That was another thing that Daevid liked. He liked what I did with the Algerian artist Rachid Taha. It’s quite a fresh, modern approach that blends programming and live instruments. Daevid said he wanted that sound on the new Gong album. That’s why it has that contemporary element you remarked on. At no stage did we want to make a record that sounded like what we did in the ‘70s. We’ve done that. That was then. This is now. The idea of us coming together in the present day and making a record that sounds like what we were doing in the ‘70s would be completely creatively bankrupt and dishonest. I wouldn’t be interested in that.

At the 2006 Unconvention, you also re-formed the Steve Hillage Band and performed your own ‘70s solo material. What made you want to revisit that material in tandem with the Gong reunion?

After the 2005 Gong jam, I felt very good playing with Mike Howlett and Chris Taylor of Gong. Chris is an important member of the current Gong formation. Pierre Moerlen, who was a very important member of Gong in the ‘70s, passed away. Chris became Gong’s drummer in the ‘90s with various Gong formations that didn’t involve me. I have a really good relationship with him and Mike. I simply thought it would be cool to play some of the old Steve Hillage songs with them as well at the Amsterdam Unconvention.

Reflect on Pierre Moerlen’s passing and what he meant to you.

It’s a pity that Pierre isn’t part of the current resurgence of Gong. He’s a key element of the Gong sound in the ‘70s. He was a very tortured guy. It wasn’t an easy musical relationship with him, but he was brilliant because of his uniqueness. He was a classically-trained percussionist from a family of classical percussionists, who were involved in the famous ensemble Les Percussions de Strasbourg. Pierre was the rebel of that crew. He wanted to play rock drums as well, but he was always a bit schizoid about it. He never quite decided if he wanted to be a classical percussionist or a rock drummer. He was yo-yoing between the two quite a lot. It is a shame he isn’t here for the recent activity, but it has been great working with Chris, who is a different style of drummer that comes from a funk background. I think Chris has also contributed to the so-called modernity of the sound Gong has at the moment.

Most of your ‘70s releases have been reissued in recent years. What’s it been like for you to look back and reassess this material?

I resisted them being reissued for quite awhile, for the same reasons I didn’t want to participate in the 25th anniversary of Gong in 1994. We had just launched System 7 and I wanted to put all my energies into that. After the 2005 Gong Unconvention, I thought, “Hey, why not? Let’s do it.” The reissuing of the ‘70s Steve Hillage albums, and the 2006 Unconvention with the Gong and Steve Hillage Band reunions were all part of the same process. I felt it was right to revisit all of that. I’m very proud of the stuff we did in the ‘70s. It still stands up well.

How involved were you in the reissues?

Very involved. I located all of the bonus tracks from my personal collection, and worked on the sleeve notes. I also found most of the pictures for the booklets, as well as approved the mastering.

What’s your perspective on modern-day mastering techniques for reissues and current music?

Horses for courses. With the Steve Hillage Band albums, we didn’t go for full 21st Century super high-level mastering. We went for a more subtle approach. But modern mastering techniques are very important for today’s sound. A lot of it evolved from rap music. I first became somewhat obsessed with CD mastering in 1993 when I was producing the Charlatans. We were keen on a Beastie Boys album at the time. I was making cassette copies of it I and noticed how much higher the levels were versus other stuff I was putting on cassette. I wondered “How do they do that?” I wanted to work out how they made the CDs sound so loud. I became a bit of a tweakhead about it.

I’m not one of those people who feel that records sounded better in the ‘70s. I like today’s sound the best. But I believe it’s silly if you take a record that was made in the ‘70s, with ‘70s recording techniques, and try and press a few magic buttons to transform it into something that sounds like it was recorded now.

What was it like for you to revisit your iconic ‘70s rock guitar approach with Gong and the Steve Hillage Band?

I employ the guitar differently in System 7, but I didn’t have to relearn how to play the old material. Some parts, like the middle section of “The Salmon Song” are quite difficult to play, so we had to do a lot of work to get that up to speed—all of us, including Mike Howlett, Chris Taylor and Miquette. We worked on the music together in our studio in London. It wasn’t like climbing a mountain. It took a couple of weeks. We did a lot of Steve Hillage Band concerts last year as a support act for Gong. By the time we got to the last 15 shows at the end of 2009, things were sounding really good. We’re not doing the Steve Hillage Band this year because we’re doing a lot more System 7 stuff. Having System 7, Gong and the Steve Hillage Band going simultaneously is too much at once.

Describe the role of guitar in System 7.

With System 7, it’s sometimes appropriate to play overt rock-style guitar over a dance groove, but it’s not the priority. I’m focusing more on a style I call “abstract guitar” which is about guitar sonorities and sonic shapes. We also play programmed sounds based on guitar waveforms and samples, and cut up, sample and repeat guitar phrases. In addition, I do some very tight rhythmic playing, as well as using dotted semiquaver and dotted-quaver echo live.

What are your typical signal chains these days?

With Gong and the Steve Hillage Band, I’m using a Steinberger GL2T guitar, Line 6 PODxt Pro rack unit with a Line 6 pedal board, and a Fender Twin FSR Amp. With System 7, I swap out the Line 6 PODxt Pro for a Zoom 9050 multi-effects processor and also use Crybaby wah and Boss compressor pedals. In addition, in System 7, I have a Behringer Xenyx 502 baby mixer that I use to pre-amp the sound before sending it to our Pioneer DJM-800 Pro DJ mixer with crossfader control.

Tell me more about how you employ the Pioneer DJM-800.

When we perform live in System 7, everything is run through the DJ mixer. It’s the final point of contact between us and the sound system. We’ve evolved a really neat little system using its four channels. Channel one is Miquette’s keyboards, channels two and three are the rhythm tracks, which we mix together live, like a DJ, and channel four is my guitar. I have channel four hooked up so it’s covered by the crossfader. It lets me create interesting tremolo effects by rapidly moving the crossfader controls, as well as integrating scratching effects on the guitar, which is quite entertaining to do. It took the better part of 20 years to evolve this system and it works really well.

Why is the Steinberger GL2T ideal for all your projects?

I first picked up a Steinberger in 1986 and realized it made an enjoyable sound, even without an amp, because it’s slightly hollow. It’s very musical and tuneful. It feels fantastic, particularly because it’s made of graphite and the neck is so true. I also love it because it’s so small that it feels invisible. I became so fond of it that I sold most of my old guitars and only keep a few others around.

What are your other guitars?

I have a Danelectro baritone guitar I use when I want something really deep-sounding and a bit Twin Peaks-y. I’ve also got a Takamine EAN10C dreadnought cutaway acoustic-electric. The other guitar I use is my Yamaha SLG100S Silent steel-string acoustic-electric. It’s a solid, wooden instrument that sounds like an acoustic but doesn’t feed back. I use it during Mirror System shows that feature a lot of acoustic guitar.

Discuss how you employ Pro Tools HD when recording.

I often use my Line 6 PODxt Pro or Zoom 9050 to generate an interesting echo sound and then work with many Pro Tools plug-ins. I’m fond of the SoundToys plug-ins because one of the engineers that designed them used to work for Eventide. When I made my L album in 1976, Todd Rundgren, who produced it, brought in a prototype Eventide Harmonizer and used it a lot. It became a large part of my sound. SoundToys have some of the feeling of the Eventide about them—especially the Crystallizer plug-in. Other SoundToys plug-ins I like include Filter Freak, a powerful analog filter sound; Tremolator, which emulates old guitar tremolo sounds; SoundBlender for multi-effects; and EchoBoy for delay.

How do you create your classic glissando sound today?

Glissando involves stroking the strings with a metal rod. It’s different from using a bottleneck in that you put the metal rod on the strings and stroke the strings right there on the neck. It interacts with the harmonics of the guitar to produce a unique unearthly and angelic sound. Daevid Allen developed it after seeing Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd doing it with a Zippo lighter. In terms of effects, I use the Zoom 9050 with a modest amount of distortion, a lot of compression, subtle chorus, amp modeling, and a lot of delay set to mid-speed around 300 milliseconds.

What amp modeling settings are you using?

I went into the Zoom 9050 and programmed dozens of sounds. You’ll hear the Soldano, Vox and Mesa Boogie settings, among many others. All this modeling stuff is just about labels. What’s important to me is sound. The Zoom 9050 lets you program and change sounds quickly and easily. That’s the biggest benefit of digital processing. For sonic perfectionists, classic analog approaches are probably best. But if I have a guitar idea in the studio, I want to play it immediately. With analog, I’d have to stop, set up an amp and a bunch of other gear. By the time I’ve got the sound right, I might have forgotten what I wanted to play. If I have an idea I’m bursting to play, I’ll end up with a much better performance with more emotion if I can get the sound I want quickly. It’s the same reason writers use word processors and not quill pens.

What are the biggest challenges you face when creating System 7 music?

To make it work as credible dance music that DJs will play. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about using our unique palette of sounds that we’ve evolved in our pretty unique journey from the ‘70s to now to create dance music that will be appreciated by aficionados of the genre—people who’ve never heard of Steve Hillage and don’t know what I’m about.

Elaborate on what you mean by “credible.”

We want to make music that a top DJ would play that rocks the crowd and makes them go nuts, and not because they’re fans of Steve Hillage or Gong, but because they heard it in the moment and went “Wow, that’s great.” System 7 is a very, very rich and rewarding challenge to work within, because you’re only ever as good as the last track you performed. It really keeps you on your toes. It’s a fantastic and enriching experience that I love.

Mirror System, your other key project, offers a different tint on your electronica approach. Describe its origins and intent.

Mirror System is our ambient chill sister project. It links a lot with our past work with The Orb and Alex Paterson. We toyed with the idea for a long time and got a body of material together in 2003. The goal was to create a System 7 mirror project, as well as a mirror website, and the first album became a bit of a downtempo classic which we’re very happy with. We just released a new Mirror System album that’s different. It’s a DJ mix album called Reflector that moves the tempo up just a slight little bit. It takes our Mirror System chill feeling and combines it with soft, minimal techno. It reflects what we do live with Mirror System.

Why have there been no U.S. System 7 performances since 1997?

System 7 isn’t particularly appealing in America for some reason. I have no idea why. If we got offered some really good shows there, we’d jump on a plane and be right over. It was better in the early ‘90s when we had record distribution through Astralwerks and Caroline. It all sort of dropped off a bit in the U.S., which is a pity. Our situation in the U.K. and Europe is healthy, and terrific in Japan, so we’re okay.

What do you say to grizzled veteran fans who wish you would focus more on prog-rock than electronica?

Me no comprende. [laughs] As soon as someone invented the microphone and put sound down a wire, music became electronic. End of story. I have a bit of a problem with what is now called progressive rock. A lot of people who say they like prog-rock mean what they like is the sound of music from the late ‘60s and ‘70s, and they feel music went bad after that. Fine. Maybe there’s a certain amount of truth in that. It was a wonderful time for music, but if you’re harking back 30-40 years in your musical universe, that’s not progressive. That’s regressive. The definition of the term is abused.

Describe how you came to work with Don Cherry on L and what it was like to collaborate with him.

Don was an old friend of Daevid Allen and Gong and he played at the Amogies Festival in 1969, which was the first proper Gong gig before I was in the band. We heard he was in New York while we were at Todd Rundgren's Mink Hollow studio, recording the L album, and thought it was a fantastic idea to ask Don to come up and play on some of the tracks. He graciously agreed and we had a great couple of days. He was a wonderful, kind and gentle man. We hung out with him on several occasions later on in the ‘70s.

How did you get tapped to produce Tony Banks’ Bankstatement project and how do you look back at the self-titled album you made together?

I think I got approached because both Tony and also Mike Rutherford liked my work producing It Bites. It was an enjoyable and educational experience for me working at the Genesis studio. I particularly enjoyed some of the vocal performances by Jayney Klimek, who I introduced to the project. But in retrospect I think Tony was aiming a bit too pop. I would have liked to have worked on some deeper, more complex instrumental stuff as well.

You were part of several Tubular Bells performances in the early- to mid-‘70s. Reflect on your involvement with Mike Oldfield’s work.

The main thing was the live show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in June 1973 which was the original launch of the Tubular Bells album. Subsequently, we re-played it for the BBC in their TV studio. Of course, when this was first put together, no-one really thought it would be such a massive success. But hats off to Mike—it's a super piece of music that's stood the test of time. My connection with Mike goes a bit further back as I replaced him in Kevin Ayers' band in 1972, after he left to pursue his "solo project," which became Tubular Bells. I also played some orchestral concerts as Mike's deputy on a few occasions a bit later in 1975, when it had all got a bit much for him and he couldn't make the shows.

The Arzachel Collectors Edition by Uriel, a CD featuring your earliest recordings, was recently reissued. How do you look back at it?

We’re still really good friends with Dave Stewart, Barbara Gaskin and Mont Campbell. We all got together not that long ago and it was really nice. The most recent reissue of Arzachel was done by Dave on his own label and we collaborated on that. Arzachel was the beginning for me. It’s all part of the story and fine. It was the band we had at school. It was my first recording and a good start. That’s what I hear when I listen to it. I’m not planning to do an Arzachel 2. [laughs] There are many plans and that’s not one of them.

What are some of the plans you refer to?

We’re working on a new System 7 album to be released next year. There is also a potential, upcoming, very interesting guitar project with the German guitarist Manuel Göttsching, who was in the group Ash Ra Temple. If that comes to fruition, it will be brilliant.

Your partnership with Miquette Giraudy, personally and as musicians, spans decades. What makes the chemistry work so well across all fronts?

It’s simply because we get on very well. We’re very different people. We’re very opposite in many ways. We entertain each other and we’re both similarly hungry to improve and progress in our musical lives. It’s a very nice combination. Miquette adds a very special female element to synthesizers when she plays them. We collaborate in all aspects of life and it’s great. It’s worked out really well and long may it continue.

You’ve said System 7 “opposes frontiers and rigid divisions, both within the music scene and in the world at large.” Expand on that.

If you listen to the Steve Hillage Band lyrics of the ‘70s, you can see where we’re coming from. We’ve always been attached to the element of music linked to spiritual uplift. One of the main functions of music is to carry positive energy. Also, System 7 is very much a hybrid, cross-genre musical animal. Our background is in ‘70s psychedelic music, yet we’re part of the dance music scene of today. We have elements of techno, progressive, house, and trance, but we’re not any one of those things. There’s a lot of blinkered genre fascism in the dance music business and elsewhere, and we’re against that. We don’t want any barriers affecting what we do.