by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1993 Anil Prasad.
Allan Holdsworth's name needs no introduction to progressive and jazz-rock aficionados. His musical resume features some of the most distinguished genre-blurring groups and musicians to emerge from the '70s, including Bruford, Gong, Jean-Luc Ponty, Soft Machine, Tempest, and The Tony Williams Lifetime.
As a solo artist, Holdsworth's career is one of expanding ambition. Albums such as Metal Fatigue, Atavachron, Sand, and Secrets pushed the boundaries of jazz-fusion both in terms of compositional constructs and the infusion of his entirely-unique, liquid guitar work throughout.
Technological exploration is another of Holdsworth’s hallmarks. During the latter half of the '80s, Holdsworth focused on performing on the SynthAxe MIDI guitar controller. Looking like it came out of a sci-fi film, the instrument enabled Holdsworth to connect to a variety of synthesizers to explore an entirely new set of musical possibilities through his fretboard.
Recently, Holdsworth began shifting away from the SynthAxe and exploring another evolutionary step for the instrument: a new generation of baritone guitars. The instruments have longer strings that conventional guitars and can be tuned to play in lower-sounding registers with proper intonation.
Listeners can hear Holdsworth performing on the instruments across his new release Wardenclyffe Tower. The album is an all-star affair, featuring Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Hunt, Gary Husband, and Chad Wackerman. Its title originates from a device created by Nikola Tesla, the inventor of alternating current. The tower was designed to distribute electricity through the surface of the earth and provide free, wireless power for all. The visionary was never able to see his idea materialize because of a lack of support and finances.
Innerviews discussed the making of Wardenclyffe Tower, his shift away from the SynthAxe, and many of his past projects and associations in this candid conversation.
You're known for being highly critical of your own playing. What's your perspective on what you achieved on Wardenclyffe Tower?
The problem I have with Wardenclyffe Tower is that the album was recorded a long time before it was mixed. It was recorded over a year prior to releasing it and the reason is that we recorded it and the scheduling was such that I could never get to mix it. I started to mix it one time and I wasn't happy with the mixes so I stopped and we went out on the road. I came back and tried it again. I usually go to Front Page studios in Costa Mesa and I mixed it there pretty quick. I thought it was going okay, and then when I listened to the mixes I wasn't happy with them, so I didn't release it. I was gonna do it again, but because of the amount of time that had gone by, I started to get really fed up. I was getting very tired of it. So, I thought, having played the mixes to my friends and the guys in the band, to release the mixes that I had done at Front Page, which is how the album is now. But I'm not completely happy with the way the mixes are now. With Secrets, I mixed that album at home and I spent a lot of time on the mixing. It's different when you do it at home—you don't have to watch the clock. So, obviously I can take longer to make decisions.
Why didn't you mix the new album at home?
I decided to go to the studio at that time with Wardenclyffe Tower because I didn't have my home studio set-up working because we had just moved. So, otherwise I would have tried to do it at home again. We moved everything and I lost the set-up I had, so I had to start again. I think the album is what it is. I think it's pretty good. The thing that lets it down for me is just that I would have liked to mix a couple of tracks again—not everything. I like some of the music on it. I thought all the guys played really great on it. As I said, the only thing that let it down for me is the mix.
Describe the creative process that informs the album.
Whenever I'm working on a piece of music, I'll just be working on that. I'm never thinking about a concept for an album. I just think about writing tunes and trying to find a balance between the tunes to make up an album. Usually, when I come up with an album title—and this has been true with every album I've ever done—I don't think of it is as a whole. Sonically, and making sure the balance between types of tracks, and the running order—that's important. The titles of the albums have always been related to one piece or one song. I take one piece of music and say "That's a good title, so I'll use that." And then the album ends up being called that. Secrets was the same—just that one track, I liked the title, so I used that. So, it wasn't a concept for the whole record. I balance the pieces of music in a record to make it a whole. I never have an album title based on a concept.
I think each piece of music turned out the way I wanted it to, except with the way they were mixed, which is very important to me. They weren't so bad that they weren't recognizable. I carried a tape of mixes around that I had, even though I started out saying "Geez, I shouldn't have done that, I should have done this." After I spent time listening to the tape, I got used to it and made the decision not to go back to do it again. I got so used to hearing it as it actually was that I didn't know if it was gonna be worth doing it again. I like to work constantly on something until it's the way I want it and release it and never worry about it again. I'm not very good at working to a deadline, in fact I'm horrible at it—that's what's going on right now, I've got this stuff I'm supposed to do by a certain date. To me, that whole concept doesn't work. They're gonna take as long as they're gonna take. I can't guarantee it. You might just get one thing that sounds really good right away and it's done and you get to another track and you just can't get what you want out it.
What evolution do you see from Secrets to Wardenclyffe Tower?
I think every album has been an extension of the previous one, or has grown out of the previous one. But I think it's quite different. I think it's a little less aggressive in a way. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not—it's just the way it turned out you know. I'm already working on stuff for the next album. Obviously, the problem with Wardenclyffe Tower is the amount of time between recording it and releasing it. I like to get it so they're fairly quick. Usually, when we start recording it, I work on it until it's mixed and it's out, so there's not a huge difference between when it's recorded and when it comes out. Now that I think about it, that happened on Secrets as well. I got involved in a tour and other projects at the same time, and I wasn't able to finish it when I wanted to. I don't know, it's hard for me to say, it's hard to compare them. They sound different—the music is different. Hopefully, they have something that's the same about them, the thread of evidence of one mind or something, but I don't know.
To me, Wardenclyffe Tower has more of a live feel than Secrets. Do you agree?
If you perceive that, then that's a good thing. Even when we end up overdubbing things, I try to make it sound live. Sometimes you can overdub something and it might be correct, but it just might not feel right since it didn't happen at the same time. So, sometimes I'll make it sound like it really belongs there even if it's not exactly what I wanted.
Discuss the origin of the album's title.
It's about this particular tower and Nikola Tesla. I was intrigued when I read the big book with his patents and everything. He seemed to be a guy who was doing things, being really creative and it seemed he wasn't in the right time to be doing what he was doing. Although what he did contributed to everyone and everyone benefited, not many people actually know he was responsible for all the things he did. When I started working on that track Wardenclyffe Tower, I had this idea of Tesla in his workshop. So, when I finished that piece, I thought well, that would be a good title for the whole record.
Are you often inspired to write music that way?
I quite often start out with an idea I have and work with that. With Wardenclyffe Tower, that was definitely a concept I had—creating an imaginary backdrop for this guy. It's only perceived obviously from my own eyes and ears, really. I just have to hope that whatever I visualize is somehow transferred to someone else's mind. That's why I've always wanted to be involved in film music. When I see something, I often hear something at the same time. So, it's just a matter of putting it together. It's almost as if I'm doing an imaginary film. I think all of my music is kind of like that. They're almost like imaginary film things. Not so much the soloing aspect of it—that goes into another thing, trying to be creative in an improvising way—but the composition aspect comes from the pictures in my head. So, I was thinking about what I know about Tesla—which isn't that much—and just visualizing something and then just putting the music to the pictures of what I see, and that's what I do usually.
As you said, Tesla contributed to the world as a whole, sold the rights to his inventions for a meager sum and received little recognition. Do you see any parallels between that and your own career?
It's possible, but I wasn't thinking about it like that. I wasn't using it as something where I could say "I'm doing something and no-one is taking any notice." It wasn't like that at all. If it was, it was some sort of a coincidence. I wasn't concerned with myself. I was just trying to write some music around what my imagination was doing with regards to Tesla.
Steve Hunt plays a much larger role on keyboards on Wardenclyffe Tower than on Secrets. I presume that's related to you shifting away from the SynthAxe.
Yeah, I was using the SynthAxe a lot more back on Secrets, which almost negated the role the keyboard player had. After all, he's gonna be doing something similar with textures. Back then with the SynthAxe, I was able to do that on my own, and that's basically what happened. And this last album, I only used the SynthAxe on two tracks. I didn't use it much.
Why did you decide to largely abandon the SynthAxe?
There are a number of reasons, but the most important one is that I was getting to a point where I was going to abandon playing the guitar altogether and only play the SynthAxe. I thought it was closer to what I wanted to do musically, in my head—sonically, the whole thing. With the SynthAxe, I could use it as a wind instrument. I used to use it with a breath controller. I could use it as the wind instrument I had always wanted to play since I was a kid. I didn't have to deal with distortion and shaping a distorted guitar sound into something musical, which is a real challenge. It's been one of the problems I have all of the time with the guitar—I want to make it sound more like a horn. But at the same time, the fact that you have to use any sort of distortion to get sustain is a kind of a catch-22. You have to use something you don't want to use to get something that you want to use. I didn't have any of those problems with the SynthAxe. It was really clear and really easy.
The fact that is has the keys as well as the strings—that was a stroke of genius for me. What I got afraid of is that I tried to keep in contact with the SynthAxe company about any future things that they wanted to implement and ideas I had about modifications and improvements. The barrier broke down. As it is at this moment, they don't exist at all. There are maybe two or three guys on the whole planet that could probably fix a SynthAxe now. That got to be a really dangerous position to be in. If I quit guitar and got rid of them all and played only SynthAxe right now, then I'd be in real bad shape. And my worst fear came true, because a couple of months ago I sold both of my SynthAxes and thought "Well geez, I just have to get rid of them." And now over the last few weeks I've realized that I really miss them. I hooked up with this guy that bought one he never uses. He inherited some money and spent it on a SynthAxe and he decided he didn't want to use it, so he knew that I played it and he tracked me down and offered to sell it to me. I borrowed it from him to try it and there were two bad frets on the neck and I called some of the people that used to work at SynthAxe and try to find out what the possibilities of getting this malfunction fixed were. I'm still waiting to hear from one of the tech guys. So, you can see, that's a scary situation to be in if that was the only instrument I played.
The lack of support simply boils down to the fact that there were so few people playing it that it was a complete disaster for the company. There was no way they could continue to make it. I still believe and I know it to be true in my heart that it was the only guitar synthesizer that was ever built that really works for me. It's just that unfortunately it behaves so unlike guitar that guitarists in general don't want to deal with it. They don't want to get past that little threshold you have to jump over to get into it. Most guitarists when they get a synth—this is a generalization, of course—they pick one up immediately and they try to get a synthesizer trying to play a guitar sound which is completely insane to me. I mean, I can't think of anything more ridiculous. The whole idea for me was to get outside the realm of guitar and start doing other stuff. Guitar players in general are narrow-minded as far as looking at an instrument. A lot of players don't even listen to other instruments—they get so wrapped up in the guitar. I know that to be true, because of the amount of guitar players I know that are like that. Sometimes, they don't hear the music, they only hear the sounds. Anyway, so that's where it is with the SynthAxe at the moment, and that's why I stopped using it.
Are there any alternatives you can consider?
Well, I started working with a new guitar synthesizer controller made by a guy down here named Harvey Starr, and the potential of this one is huge as well. It's a really strange thing. It's a cross between a keyboard and a guitar. You lay it flat like a pedal steel, and it has 12 strings, but they're not really strings at all, they're keys. They're groups of 24 keys multiplied by 12, so it looks like a typewriter, but the problem for me is that obviously playing that way is upside down for me. I've never been able to use my right hand. It's like learning to play a whole new instrument. Whereas with the SynthAxe, I fell right into it right away. So, I don't think Harvey's instrument is going to be a substitution for me—not that it can't be for someone else.
How limiting is it for you to go back to playing conventional guitars?
The way I could make a note loud and then soft and then loud and then soft with a SynthAxe is completely impossible with a regular guitar. Sure, you could use a volume pedal, but it's not the sound I want to hear it. If you play a violin and you pull a note, you can make it soft and add vibrato, take some off and then make it bright again and hard—just within one note. It's just the way you can shape notes. You can shape notes on guitar—I've worked really hard at doing that—but it's really limited compared to what I could do on a SynthAxe. The perception from someone else's point of view is probably different, but being the guy that's trying to create the music, I know that instrument works. It really worked for me, so it's kind of sad that it's ended. I'm gonna try all I can to get this one particular SynthAxe going and over he next few years. I might also try to see if I can round up a few more used ones. I should never have sold the ones I had. That was a big mistake. I had two and I bought the second one quite a number of years after the first one, just so I would have a spare. Each one had a spare console, because the console had a lot of the memory stuff in there and they failed from time to time, so it was good to have a spare one for each.
How many SynthAxes are out there?
A hundred maybe. A lot of studios bought them in the beginning. I've seen them sitting around in places.
Let's explore your solo piece "Oneiric Moor" from Wardenclyffe Tower and its improvised origins.
That was a solo improvisation with two parts. I just recorded 15 minutes of improvisation. I listened to all of it and picked what I liked and then I played another part along with it spontaneously and that was that piece. I have an idea for a solo guitar album that's not about so much about spontaneity, but compositions, and also to use all these big guitars I've got at the moment. I've been experimenting with extending the range of the guitar. I have a little piccolo one and three baritone guitars.
What attracts you to baritone guitars?
The difference between a bass guitar and a guitar is that a bass guitar is much smaller for the notes it produces than a guitar for the notes it produces physically. The baritone guitars for me, have an extremely long scale. They're two-to-four inches longer than the biggest bass guitar. One is a 36-inch scale, the other is a 38-inch scale. It's like if you can imagine a normal guitar and you extend the neck downwards from that note—E, the lowest note. In other words, when you play an E on the baritone guitar, the string will be the same length as it is as on E on a regular guitar. I didn't want it to sound like a bass guitar. I wanted it to sound like guitar, but extend the range and that's exactly what it sounds like. Having a really long string like that adds all these overtones and harmonics and obviously I use the same gauge strings, because you're just taking that scale and making it longer. It's not like you're trying to take a short scale and tuning the note down low by putting on a thick string or something. This is using the same concept as the 25.5-inch scale guitar—just extended downward.
The baritone guitar gives me more range. They extend the range outside normal for the guitar. That's all I can get from it really. They're very difficult to play. The first fret is almost two inches wide. [laughs] It's not the easiest thing to get around, but it sounds so good it's worth it. They really have a good sound. I used the B-flat one on "Sphere of Innocence." It goes down low—that whole solo is the baritone guitar. I used the short baritone guitar that only goes down to C on "Zarabeth." That one is actually quite playable because it's only a few more inches longer than a regular guitar, so you can hear a difference in sound in the bottom of the instrument. But it hasn't reached the point of being uncomfortable to play, so it's a usable instrument.
What do you make of the gulf between your extreme critical acclaim and relatively modest record sales?
I really don't give it too much thought. If someone comes up to me after a bad gig and says "I thought you were great," I really think it's wonderful that people liked it. But it doesn't change anything for me. It doesn't make me feel any differently about what I'm doing, because I know what it is I'm trying to do. So, I don't really worry about it too much. But on the other side of it, it can be frustrating sometimes. However, it's not more frustrating for me than it is for a lot of people when you're trying to do something that doesn't have an outlet. I don't see it as being anybody's fault but the media really. Most people suffer from that. Unless you're involved in something really mainstream and something that gets played on the radio, you're going to run into that problem. The media is really the controlling factor. If no-one can ever hear anything, there's no way you convince someone. If you've never tasted an orange, you'd never know if you liked one. I see it like that. The radio stations and record companies aren't really interested in something for musical reasons—they just want something popular they can sell a lot of. It's the same across the world. How far do you go to find a really cool, little French restaurant? But you can find a McDonald's on every street corner. It's the same thing.
It's becoming more and more difficult for the little guys to keep going, but I think it's worth it—as long as you do what you believe in. I just couldn't see any other way to do it. I mean it wouldn't feel right to do something else. It's because I started out in music as an accident and a lot of people come into music deliberately, hoping to become a professional musician to make money. I came into it as a hobby—to do something for myself. The fact that I ended up becoming a professional musician was an accident—it wasn't a deliberate attempt. It just happened. All I was doing was the same thing. I never did anything except for a selfish reason to make me happy. It gave me something to do with my life. And that's why I'd rather get a job outside—maybe still involved in music in one way or another, rather than play the kind of music I don't have any interest in. That would be completely pointless.
Does music pay still pay all the bills for you?
It does, but it's really difficult and it seems to keep getting harder and harder. And with a family it becomes more and more difficult.
Restless, your current label, has done very little to create awareness for Wardenclyffe Tower.
I don't think they're financially able or capable of doing anything beyond a certain level. I know what it's like trying to get them to just come up with the budgets for the albums. It's really, really tough to get anything out of them at all. In fact, the way it is—I dare say it's like this for a lot of people—it's almost impossible for me to make an album for the amount of money they want to pay. I am going to move on and try to get out of Restless and find some other label. Even if they're unable to spend the money on promotion, hopefully they could at least pay for the production of a record. I don't earn enough money from other sources with which to make a record on my own, otherwise I would because that would be the ultimate—to finance my own recording and sell it, but I've never achieved that position. So, I'm at the mercy of people like Restless. They've left me alone like the Enigma labell did, so I don't have any creative restrictions. But as far I'm concerned, the budget for this next album is so low that once you've paid the people to play on it, there's no money left. I don't know how they expect me to afford to go to a studio with it. I don't really want to do the things I've done before when I started out which was going into a studio after midnight and working until 3am and ask all the other guys to do the same thing. Sure, I'll do it, but I can't ask other people to do that, and I don't think they should have to do that. We work ridiculous hours anyway.
Your next album completes your Restless contract, right?
Yes. I'm going to deliver it as soon as I can, but as to when they put it out, it's up to them. But once I deliver it, that's it for me with Restless. So, that's another reason I was thinking about doing the solo album—something like the Music For Imaginary Films record. A compositional type of record. At the same time, I don't want to just do that if it's not the right time. I've been working on music for a new band album, and I want to do that with the existing band, which is Gary Husband, Steve Hunt and Skuli Sverrison. So, unfortunately, the money they're paying me isn't enough for me to pay all of these guys to do it even though I know they'll work for nothing, because they've done it before. It's just really hard for me to ask them to do that. So, it's a tough one. Shall I do the band album even though the guys have offered to do it free? Or shall I do the solo album because that's basically all they're paying for? Either way I'm going to do the best job I can. That's the other thing. It might be great to hold back on the band album and give it to another label.
There's another album concept as well. It's one I had started working on with Gordon Beck—an English jazz piano player. It's an album of old standards. But I was going to hold back on that because it seems, by coincidence, everybody in the whole world is doing an album of standards. [laughs] So, we decided to hold off on that one. And it might be something that might help Restless more than they've been helping me. I thought it might be better for me and the musicians involved to not give that one to them and give it to a Japanese company instead—someone that's more interested in a specialized product.
Many artists wrap up contractual obligations with throwaway recordings and save the next great album for a new label.
I won't do that because I don't want to end up doing something I don't want to do. Whatever it is that I do for Restless has to be something I want to do, so I have to make sure of that fact. Like I said, the only option I really have is to do a solo record which is something I've wanted to do for a long time. It's something I was supposed to do for someone else a long time ago, but it never materialized. It was essentially an album of imaginary film music. No real band effort—just basically solo music. At the same time, I don't want to let the band thing slide and just put out solo records. I really like working with the group, too.
What about the possibility of concluding the contract with a live album?
Well, we did a live album, but nobody liked it. We recorded it in Japan one year and the general consensus was that it wasn't happening. It'll never come out, but I would like it to, especially with all the bootlegs out there. In fact, we were thinking about releasing an official bootleg record. Since there are so many bootlegs out there, we figured we might as well give the guys in the band a choice of what nights were okay as opposed to the ones which weren't. So, Gary Husband recorded some gigs with his DAT player. Some are pretty good, too. I mean they're live—that's the thing I like about them. They're not like the "studio live" albums—in other words, you get a supposedly live album that sounds like the worst studio album you've heard in your life. That is definitely something I want to avoid. In fact, the microphone in the back of the room seems to be a good way to go for me. You always get that feeling of a live performance. From now on, I think we're going to carry DAT machines around and record gigs.
The single most frustrating thing for me is to be in a situation where you can't get a record deal because for whatever reason they won't sign you up, but the same people will take complete advantage of you by bootlegging things and putting out other albums. Sony just did that with that old Velvet Darkness album. They re-released it, but unfortunately, I wasn't able to stop them right away. But the lawyers stopped them eventually and they're not going to make that album anymore, because that whole project was a rip-off in the first place. Sony re-released it and packaged like a new album. So, those kind of things make me go crazy—they make me want to tear my hair out.
I didn't know you had Velvet Darkness pulled.
It was no good. It was never any good. The way it was recorded, what happened to the musicians, the whole thing. It was a complete disaster. It was terrible at that time and that makes it terrible today. It's one thing to say I'll look back to that old I.O.U. album and go "Well, it sounds pretty old, and maybe I don't like it as much as the other stuff." But, the fact was that it was what it is then and it was okay then and everybody accepted that to be the fact at that time. That was not true of Velvet Darkness. That album was never fit to be released. Nobody got to hear anything they did. I never got a tape of anything that was recorded. And we were actually rehearsing in the studio and they were rolling the tape while we were rehearsing on the premise that we'd be able to keep recording and also check things out, but that never happened. At the end of that day, the guy said "Thanks, see ya!" That's why a lot of those tunes don't have any endings—they were rehearsals. That was a complete rip-off. I never saw any royalties from the album. And that's the main reason it got it stopped. They didn't have a contract. They didn't have any publishing. They didn't have the rights to anything. This happens all the time. There are bootlegs all over the place—exactly the same thing.
Epic records bought the whole CTI catalog from someone and put out that 1990 CD. That album's been bootlegged three times. Each time I think, "Great, that's the end of that one." But it showed up again. It keeps showing up! But now that it's owned by a big label, they had to produce all the paperwork and they couldn't. So, that's how we got 'em. They had no paperwork for anything to say they could do any of that stuff. But there's no way you can stop these things, in general. There was a bootleg video of us out in Japan. I had a contract that said this could not be used. I actually have a contract and it just came out, anyway. It's called Tokyo Dreams. What it was is we knew the cameras were going to be there, but we were supposed to be able to view it first. It was supposed to be completely up to us whether we wanted it used it or not. But of course that was not the truth. They lied and they put it out and it was done in a really sneaky way.
There are tons of unauthorized releases out there. There was one that was a live radio broadcast and it wasn't supposed to be a record. They made that into a record. We did one album as a group with John Stevens, Ron Mathewson and Jeff Young and it wasn't very good. But everyone agreed and said "Okay, use those tracks." But what happened is that guy went back again and took everything else we had done that day, including everything nobody wanted, and released that as well. It's almost like you can't leave anything around for anyone man, or they'll use it. It was called Touching On and they released under my name.
So, I'd have to say that is the most frustrating thing of all—to be in a position in which you're trying to survive and keep some quality and be true to what you believe is good and try to get record deals and then to have people do that kind of stuff is pretty low. Unfortunately, they take advantage of the fact that there are people out there that will buy it. They know we're so small we can't do anything about it to stop them. Nobody can do that to Madonna or Michael Jackson, because the record company would just crucify whoever it was. There would be no way they could ever do that. But when you're in a little Mickey Mouse situation like we are, you don't make enough money to stop people from stealing stuff from you. It's my biggest nightmare.
I’d like to name some groups you've been in and have you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Let's start with Soft Machine.
I liked that band. It was a good experience. I liked all of the musicians and I was free to do what I wanted to at that time within that framework. I enjoyed that band a great deal.
Not a nice experience. Nice chaps and everything. But a very miserable experience. It had a lot of potential. The band was originally Eddie Jobson, Bill Bruford and John Wetton. I wasn't in it at first. They were looking for a guitarist and I had just started playing with Bill to work on his album Feels Good to Me. And he said to Eddie and John, "There's this guitar player playing on my album, wanna check him out?" So, they had me come over and thought this might work and said "Let's give it a go." And we formed the band and came up with the name. I got on really good with all of them, but what went wrong is that everyone wanted to do something else. I think there were two factions in the band: Bill and myself and Eddie and John. And they were kind of at war, really. They wanted me to play the same solos every night and it was a completely alien thing for me. That made me miserable. I would have probably been able to adapt to that now, but what I wanted to do then was so opposite to that. Whereas now, I could have maybe said "Well I know what I want to do, but this is what this is." I enjoyed making the album, and that was great, but it got to be not too much fun on the road. It was purely a musical question. I don't know, maybe the other guys in the band hate me, but it wasn't that for me—it was just a musical thing. It was "Geez, what am I doing here?" It wasn't that I didn't like the people. I did. I really liked all of those guys, even though they probably don't realize that. [laughs] It was purely and simply a musical problem.
I enjoyed that. I liked working with Bill Bruford. It had some carry-overs from U.K., but if I hadn't had that bee in my bonnet about wanting to do my own thing, I would have probably stayed there.
The Tony Williams Lifetime.
That was great. We had some rough times making it work, but it was a great experience. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Gong was good fun. I didn't speak French and they were always arguing in French, so I never knew what the hell they were arguing about. But, I think the band had a lot of potential, it was just never reached. I recently listened to Gazeuse! recently, because it was re-released on CD. I thought I was terrible on it, but the band sounded good. It still sounded pretty fresh—especially the drums. Pierre Moerlen sounded great It sounded like it could have been done yesterday. That says a lot about his drumming.
It was good fun. Good guys. An enjoyable experience. That was pop music, but I enjoyed it because I knew what it was, and appreciated it for what it was. They're really good.
That's a band you were in with Jamie Muir, Alan Gowen and Laurie Baker, back in 1971.
Oh, is that what it was called? [laughs] That was good fun, too. It was really different than what I was wanting to do at the time. But as far as I remember, it was pretty open. It was very spontaneous music. It was a combination of those people improvising, really. It wasn't like anything else. We never recorded anything in a studio. We might have done a couple of gigs. Who knows? That might be the next album—the Sunship bootleg! [laughs] The most I remember about that band was just rehearsing. Even though I didn't stay in touch with him, I liked Alan Gowen a lot. He died from leukemia quite awhile ago. That was really sad. That's thing I remember most unfortunately—that's he's not around anymore.
Let's talk about Chad Wackerman's Forty Reasons album, which some people believe has some of your finest playing.
Really? I don't know about that. [laughs] It's pretty interesting. It's pretty different. You know, that whole album is live. I'm never happy with anything I do like that. It's a good album. I enjoy Chad a lot, and I think he did a great job with the ideas he had. But we didn't rehearse enough though. We got into the studio and recorded it live. I think it's a good album from Chad's point of view, but I'm not happy with what I did on it, no.
You mentioned earlier that you're thinking about looking for a job outside of music. What would you consider?
Well, I'm looking into the possibility of what I can do. It comes and goes in waves and it takes about six months for opportunities to go up and down. But I can go through a wave of at least six months in which I feel I don't want to deal with the music business anymore and then I'll come out of it and start to get enthused again. It's not so much about being enthused about what I want to do—I know what I want to do for myself. It just seems to be getting harder and harder to survive doing it. It makes you think about "What else can I do?" I have to think about it. I'm in the process of trying to filter it down in my head about what the possibilities might be. I don't know what I could do. I could get involved with a manufacturer perhaps. Or I could simply go get a job at McDonald's. I'd rather not. First, I'd try to get involved with a manufacturing or electronics company—something that did something I liked.
Have you thought about collaborating with other high-profile guitarists to help raise your profile?
The only ones I would consider doing something like that with would be people in a similar position to me and somehow when we combine, the record company would take notice. But as soon as the record company gets behind it, then they really want to know they can get some radio. That's a big reason they won't deal with music like mine. It doesn't fall into a category. Radio stations are so small-minded. The jazz stations will say it's rock and the rock stations will say it's jazz, instead of picking the track that falls more closely to what their program is. They won't do that and the record companies know that. And they say, "Well, we can't do anything with it because we'll never be able to sell it." They're only interested in money. The buck rules I'm afraid. It's the new elite—the new aristocracy. All you have to have is money.
You mentioned you're interested in doing film work. Have you ever been approached to do a soundtrack?
I've been approached by individuals who have been sort of connected to the film industry and a guy from an agency who's a fan and liked my music, who thought it would be acceptable for film music. It's the same thing—it's like when you go to the movies and see who does the music. Some guys do wonderful things and then there are guys who do everything and aren't so good. It's obviously about who you know. Miami Vice is a perfect example of that. Whoever it was that got Jan Hammer that gig—he's the guy that deserves the medal. What happened was that when Jan came into it, it was because of his talent. He was able to do all of that stuff and it was really different. The music he wrote for that program was really different from other programs. But then what happens of course is, you realize how fickle it is. Next thing you know, there's a Miami Vice clone program where there's someone trying to do the music like Jan did. What they should have realized was what made that program great was the music—someone gave that guy a chance to do something original. It was his own thing. Instead of turning to other guys and going "Can you do the same thing Jan did?" they should say "Let's give another guy the freedom to do his own thing." And that's what makes these things special. And if they do know that, they're too afraid of it to risk it, and it's laughable. I think it's hilarious that they're so afraid to take a chance. It's really funny.
What are your impressions of the current rock and pop scenes?
The only rock I really listen to is what I listen to on the radio. It seems to be getting more and more circus-oriented. It sounds like a three-headed snake or something. It's got too much hydra content. I can't hear the music in it somehow.
What about the latest jazz-fusion trends?
Fusion? Well, that's a perfectly good word, but when I think of fusion, I always think about the wrong thing. When someone says fusion, I think of what you hear in elevators now. [laughs] It used to be muzak, but now it's fuzak.
[Holdsworth's kids start yelling in the background]
They're driving me nuts! Even with my finger in my ear, the only thing I can hear are the screaming kids. [laughs]
Would you like to see your kids involved in music?
If they want to be. I'm not encouraging any of them, really. I'm not trying to keep them away from it either. I'm not going to push them one way or the other. Obviously, if I see a spark and it looks like they want to do something I'll help them. I'm not going to push them.
Do they like your music?
No, I don't think they like it very much. They're 13, 11 and seven. Every time I bring a mix home to listen to they go "Oh, turn that off, Dad!" [laughs] So, I don't think they do. The other day, a friend of mine came around with his son who plays guitar. He's 13 and it was quite fascinating for my kids because it turns out he's a real fan. So, when my son Sam asked him "Who do you like?" and he said "I like your dad!" that was really strange. That was a first. It was pretty wild.