All Systems Go
If you can't imagine how Steve Hillage, Derrick May and The Orb would sound making music together, you can buy their forthcoming LP and find out. Simon Trask talks to the man behind the guitar and the project.
Guitarist Steve Hillage's first album in eight years sees him combining his distinctive guitar playing with contemporary dance grooves.
"FOR MOST OF THE '80S, EVERYONE WAS rigidly divided into different musical styles, but since 1988 there's been a big change in musical climate, in that a lot of the barriers in music seem to have broken down. In the 70s each group had its own musical world, and to a large extent that's what's so exciting about what's happening now in the '90s. I find that stimulating artistically."
It's a warm, sunny afternoon in July and I'm sitting with guitarist and producer Steve Hillage in a private room above a restaurant in London's Ladbroke Grove. He's explaining what's prompted him to start making his own music again after a decade spent producing other peoples'. During the 70s, Hillage made his name as a guitarist with the archetypal spaced-out hippy band Gong, playing on Radio Gnome Invisible Part 1, Angel's Egg and Tou, the three albums which to this day offer the most enduring and most endearing testimony to the band's highly individual mix of madcap mythology, eccentric songs and spacey instrumentals.
After leaving Gong in '75, Hillage went on to front his own band and release a string of albums under his own name, including L, Motivation Radio and Green, and culminating in 1983's For To Next, which saw him working with a LinnDrum in place of a human drummer. By this time he had already started producing other musicians, fulfilling an ambition he'd had since the beginning of his musical career. Tired of fronting his own band and tired of touring, he slipped out of the public gaze to concentrate instead on production, furthering the artistic careers of other musicians - most notably, Simple Minds.
Speaking in an interview in the June '83 issue of E&MM, Hillage explained his change of role: "I got a little tired of always being in the role of getting somebody else to play my ideas. If I formed a group now I'd much prefer to be just one of the band, and as a producer I get a lot of artistic relish out of getting other people's ideas to come at me". Now, eight years later, Hillage the artist has resurfaced with a project called System 7 which allows him to be both the producer and one of the band. Rather than being a band in the traditional sense, though, System 7 is a loose-knit collection of musicians and DJs - Hillage describes it as a "collaborative venture".
"A couple of years ago I just thought 'Hell, I want to play some guitar again, but this time on some really good dance grooves'", he explains. "I've always had an awareness of the dance music scene. In the '70s I was a big fan of Funkadelic and Parliament. Also, when the Steve Hillage band toured in the latter part of the '70s we carried the prototype Turbosound rig, and we used to have a lot of parties playing funk records at very high volume. Then when I worked with Simple Minds in the early '80s, they were a very dub-orientated group. In fact, quite a few of the tracks that I did with them were club hits, like 'Love Song' and in particular 'Themes for Great Cities'. I went to clubs regularly throughout the '80s, because it's nice to go and check out the scene."
During the Summer and Autumn of 1989, Hillage regularly visited London's more happening clubs, a particular favourite being Land of Oz at Heaven on Monday nights, where Paul Oakenfold was playing club sounds in the main room downstairs while Orb DJ Alex Paterson was mixing ambient music and samples in the chill-out room upstairs.
One of Paterson's sound sources was Rainbow Dome Musick, an album of ambient music which Hillage and his long-time partner Miquette Giraudy had recorded in 1979 for the Rainbow Dome at the Festival of Mind, Body & Spirit using Fender Rhodes electric piano and ARP and Moog synthesisers as well as electric guitar. It turned out that the Orb DJ was a big fan of the album, and discussions led to Hillage and Giraudy collaborating with Paterson on two tracks on the double album The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (see interview in MT, June '91). Paterson and his Orb partner Thrash in turn became involved in Hillage's System 7 project.
Now System 7 the "collaborative venture" has spawned System 7 the album, due for release on September 16th. The LP sees Hillage working with musicians as diverse as Steve Waddington of The Beloved, ex-Simple Minds keyboard player Mick McNeil, techno maestro Derrick May (as revealed exclusively in MT's November 90 issue, incidentally) and, of course, The Orb. It's a successful marriage of Hillage's distinctive guitar playing with contemporary dance grooves and modern-day sampling and sequencing technology. Remarkably, it also appeals as a coherent work while offering a richly varied collection of songs and instrumentals. Individual tracks on the album bring together different collaborators drawn from the pool of System 7 musicians and DJs, which in addition to the artists mentioned above includes singers Olu Rowe and Zoe, rapper Aniff Cousins from Chapter & The Verse, and DJ Paul Oakenfold. As co-composer, co-producer and guitarist on all the tracks, Hillage is the single common element.
In its melding of rock, dance, techno and ambience, System 7 exemplifies the dismantling of musical barriers which Hillage advocates; the flexible collaborative process from which the album's diversity has sprung has allowed Hillage to avoid the musical straitjacket of the traditional band structure and embrace the more fluid working methods which technology has given rise to during the past ten years. The result is a benchmark album for the '90s.
Two of the tracks, 'Sunburst' and 'Miracle', have already appeared as singles, while another, 'Habibi', is scheduled for release in single form at the same time as the album. Hillage sees singles as an opportunity to expand the concept of System 7 into remixing.
"The whole principle of DJs remixing records is something I've taken fully onboard", he states. "I find it very creative. I always had this feeling that it would be nice to have a more flexible and more permutatable approach, though I didn't quite formularise it in my mind, so now this transformability of mixes is something I find quite stimulating.
"Some of the System 7 remixes I've been doing myself, but I'm quite happy to get other people to do them as well. I think that's real fun. Alex and Thrash went off and did a completely different mix of 'Miracle' for the last single, and Paul Oakenfold, who co-wrote the track with us, is planning to do his own mix of it. I'm sure he'll use a lot of different loops as well, so there'll probably just be a few little bits of guitar that are the same. I really like that - a nouveau approach.
"At the same time, we've got a certain loose team, and it's nice to let people who've worked on one track remix a track that I've worked on with someone else. I think that's really interesting chemistry."
HILLAGE'S VERSATILE GUITAR SOUND AND playing style are well suited to the diverse rhythms and textures of System 7's music, not least because his use of echo repeats - a feature of his guitar playing from the outset - has always made him conscious of rhythmic precision and timing in his playing.
"I've always been very, very hot on timing", he says. "Even when I'm trying to play something that's a very obscure triplet-y overlaying rhythm, it's got to groove. You're not playing chord pads when you're playing guitar, you're playing something that's got to interact really sweetly with the rhythm."
At the other extreme there's the famous glissando guitar technique, which also relies on echo - but this time using it to create a spacey, ambient, non-rhythmic effect. The technique was invented by Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd fame, who taught it to Gong founder Daevid Allen, who in turn passed it on to Hillage. Once very much a part of the Gong sound, according to Hillage the technique is now undergoing a renaissance.
"Glissando guitar is definitely happening in the '90s", he says. "It's become quite a big part of the Orb sound, although we didn't use it on the album. Charlie Birch of Simple Minds has done it a bit, too. Right now I use a Steinberger guitar, a little black one, which is absolutely brilliant for glissando guitar as well as for all other things. It really is the ultimate glissando guitar weapon, because the neck's very true and therefore it's in tune and resonant."
The glissando guitar effect is created by routing the guitar through echo processing for the required smooth, spacey sound and then moving a smooth metal object (Hillage has always used the handle of a surgical instrument) rapidly to and fro across the guitar strings at the relevant neck position for the required pitches in order to set up continuous oscillations in the strings. Try doing that with your SY77/JD800/Wavestation. The opening section of Listen, one of three Hillage/May tracks on the System 7 album, provides a good example of glissando guitar in use.
The association of rhythmic echo repeats with the technology of drum machines and sequencers is not as far-fetched as it might seem, once you know the history.
"I got into drum machines originally through playing with echo", Hillage reveals. "I first got an Echoplex in 1974, and I got a very early digital stopwatch and calibrated my Echoplex in milliseconds so I could quickly change the timing for different tempos. I had the figures written in big letters onstage so I could see them.
"Some of the tracks I was doing with the Steve Hillage band were based on guitar echo loops, and I wanted to have the echoes in time with the tempo. I'd read that Parliament and Funkadelic recorded to a click track on an early Roland drum machine. Their grooves were actually based on the drum machine, and they overdubbed the bass and drums to it. I think from about '76 onwards they worked like that. I picked up on that, and quite a lot of the Steve Hillage albums, such as L, were done in that way. Not on all the tracks, but on quite a few of them we wanted a really consistent groove so we recorded to a drum-machine click, but we didn't use it in the mix. Then the LinnDrum came along, and I started using it on record because it was using samples and it sounded, at the time, more like a real drummer - although now if you listen to a LinnDrum it sounds really bizarre!"
Hillage is fully conversant with both the modern technology of synths, samplers, sequencers and digital audio recording and the impact that this technology has had on the roles of musician and producer, a consequence of his years spent working in studios as a producer. Today, a hi-tech gear setup which includes a Korg Wavestation, two Akai S1000s, an E-Mu Proteus and C-Lab's Creator sequencing software running on an Atari 1040ST allows him to work on ideas and put tracks together at home.
The Wavestation came into his setup via his recording sessions with Derrick May. The pair hired one in to try it out, and liked it so much that they used it prominently on the tracks they recorded for the album. Hillage liked it so much that he bought one.
"I was playing with it and I thought 'This is the one for me'", he recalls. "It's the first time with a digital synth that I've got the same feeling I used to have with analogue synths, where it makes you want to program and work on sounds. So I sat down and said 'I'm going to make the effort with this one'. It took me a while, but I've pretty completely mastered it now. In fact, you can transform sounds quite easily on it once you get fluent with it. But a lot of people, particularly people in bands, they want to go out clubbing, they don't want to sit at home in their bedroom slaving over a manual. For them it's like being at school. That's the big problem, that's why people go for preset sounds very often."
A combination of DAT machine and rented-in StudioVision digital audio package has become an important part of Hillage's working process, having a role to play at various stages in the development of System 7's material.
"Quite a lot of the guitar playing for the album I actually did at home", he reveals. "I'd have the tracks running on the C-Lab and play live without any synchronisation onto the DAT - just jam. Then when I got something good I'd transfer it across to StudioVision, synchronise it up with the C-Lab, take little bits and make an edit.
"As an artist I'm interested in starting with spontaneity and improvisation and then going on to structure what has been created out of that."
"Also, some of the music for the record I received on DAT from one of my collaborators, so I was able to transfer that across to StudioVision and sync it up to Creator, which I prefer to Vision. I particularly like the real-time track parameter editing on C-Lab; being able to change things like delay, velocity and transposition in real time is, I think, the main reason why C-Lab gets used so much for dance music.
"After we'd mixed all the tracks for the album I edited everything with Sound Tools. In fact, I spent quite a lot of time editing, trying to make it a cohesive result. Part of the original premise was to make an album that worked as an album. Some of the tracks were restructured quite radically. Obviously we had the verse bits and the chorus bits, but exactly which verse bit and which chorus bit, for how long and how they were to go from one to another, that was finally defined in the editing process."
It's clear, then, that Hillage is far from being just the guitarist of System 7. Through taking advantage of today's technology he's able to involve himself in many stages of the compositional process, and no longer has to rely on other people to play his ideas. Ironically, the one area of musical technology he hasn't embraced is that of guitar synthesis. He dabbled with the early guitar synths in the 70s but was never greatly impressed by them, preferring instead to concentrate on treating the natural guitar sound using effects processors. When I ask him what he thinks about MIDI guitars, his reply is dismissive and, for him, unusually terse: "MIDI guitar, forget it. Delay, useless, no way. Delays, gimme a break!"
Today the guitarist is just as involved in creating rhythm tracks for System 7 as he is in playing guitar for it. Hillage's S1000 sample library includes not only drum and percussion sounds but a sizeable collection of performance loops, too.
"I think Alex really stimulated me in the direction of using loops", he says. "The first track that we worked on, 'Sunburst', he came in with his pile of records and started playing them, and we recorded onto DAT all the bits that we thought we might want to use. Then we transferred them digitally into the S1000. Now I've got hundreds of loops, all kinds of things.
"Something I want to do in the future System 7 stuff is go into a studio with a good drummer and bass player and percussionist and spend a day or two jamming, specifically for the idea of making custom loops. No illusions, everyone knowing that's what we're doing. I think custom loops are a good thing. Obviously the payment situation on something like that wouldn't be the same as a straight session. I think it would have to be more of a per-track fee, and there might be some publishing involved as well. It would have to be all above board and worked out beforehand."
FAR FROM HAVING TO CATCH UP WITH THE latest technology, Hillage is ahead of it - in his mind, anyway. It seems there are certain technological developments he would like to see happen.
"I've had a whole complex track coming out of my S1000s and it sounds really good. Then when you go to the studio and separate it all out onto multitrack, for a start it's quite taxing because you have to do all that separate output business, which is one of the least user-friendly aspects of the S1000, and then sometimes you just can't get the groove quite the same way. So it led me to think that eventually you'll be able to stay inside the sampler, you won't need the mixing desk or the tape.
"In fact, I see the ultimate digital mixing desk as being just a giant sampler. What I'd like to see next is a 64-voice sampler that has a separate EQ for each keygroup and separate reverb for each Program. If you've got that, it's bye bye mixing desk, particularly if you've got, say, eight channels for external inputs so you could mix in vocals and guitar coming from Sound Tools, and have everything coming out of the sampler's stereo outs direct to DAT. You could use a MIDI sequencer for mix automation, but there needs to be a MIDI control language for audio muting within the sampler. If you had that it would be bloody magic. I wouldn't like to be a studio owner in the '90s, though."
From a guitarist playing in a band to a musician who can confidently manipulate the latest technology to effectively create his own band, Hillage has come a long way in the past 20 years. How would he say that technology has changed the music-making process during this time?
"I think the main difference between then and now is the change in the role of the live band", he replies. "Back in the 70s, the onstage situation was the main generator of writing, and because you've only got one pair of hands you can only play one instrument at once. And obviously if the bass player came over to me while I was playing and started touching my fretboard I'd probably want to punch him!
"Nowadays everyone's got their Portastudios and sequencers so they write at home, and they write complete tracks with drum beats and so on. Obviously you couldn't do that 20 years ago. Samplers, DAT, Sound Tools, that sort of stuff was undreamt of when I was in Gong. I'd say the drum machine has probably been the most significant of all these developments, because everybody's to a certain extent a drummer now - probably a bad drummer, from a drummer's point of view!"
Despite the many changes that have taken place over the years, Hillage sees underlying similarities in the working processes of Gong and System 7.
"In Gong we'd do a lot of jamming and make rough tapes, and if a bit sounded good we'd extract it and work on it. We also did a lot of improvising on stage. With System 7, virtually all of the music was improvised to begin with, the only difference being that we were improvising with samplers, keyboards and record decks. A lot of the mixes were improvisations, as well. So the improvisation element hasn't changed, but the forum for improvisation has. As an artist I'm interested in starting with spontaneity and improvisation and then going on to structure and order what has been created out of that. This is the approach we've used with System 7, and I think the balance between the two factors has been very well moulded."
Talking of the role of the live band, Hillage plans to take System 7 on the road - but not to play traditional gigs.
"One of the main reasons I gave up touring was because it had no more stimulation for me at all", he explains. "Not that I've got anything against live music and gigs, but I find the basic situation and the audience/performer relationship extremely tedious. I'm much more interested in new types of live event, which is something I've been talking about particularly with Alex. We want to do a type of live event which, rather than being like a concert with the stars on stage and their adoring fans in the audience, is more like a dance event but with me playing on top of what he's doing as a DJ. I find that very exciting.
"One of the great things about the dance movement is that in a good live event you've got a crowd of people who are really enjoying each other. The DJ is setting up an ambience or an atmosphere where people can interact and enjoy themselves, 'cos basically the audience are the show, it's not like a performance with a throng gasping in awe at what the DJ's doing. I think this is really, really important. A lot of the conservative faction, the muso faction that have the horrors about dance music and rap, they really have to think seriously about this. Do they really think that the ultimate creative situation is some iconic star onstage bathed in lights, with an inferior throng clapping and cheering like it was a kind of third-division football match? Because that's basically what rock gigs are like.
"Thankfully there's a new generation of bands coming up now that have been influenced by the indie dance thing. I hesitate to call them rock bands, because it's a hybrid style of live band and DJ-oriented event. It's just a new atmosphere. The Shamen have really pioneered the new type of live event. I wouldn't do exactly what they do, but I must say I've seen them several times and they're quite an influence on me."
So what sort of live setup does Hillage have in mind?
"I think the thing is to do mixes specifically for live use, taking some of the parts out so that we can play them live, and to record these mixes onto a timecode DAT machine complete with start times so that you can have the computer synced up to the tape. Then Alex, using his DJ skills, could sync up records by ear to the tape, and switch from one to the other and overlay stuff.
"So you've got the DJ playing tapes and records, and you've got someone with keyboards and a mixer - which is what Thrash does with The Orb - and maybe in our shows Miquette might be playing some keyboards as well. Then you've got me playing guitar live, completely spontaneously, not playing the same thing twice, which adds this factor X that gels the whole thing together. In the end it's sort of a gigantic jam. I find this whole concept really stimulating. Hopefully we're going to do quite a lot of live events in the Autumn. But I don't want to go and play in the Hammersmith Odeon; I'd rather play in a warehouse in south London."
Finally, what else is on the horizon for the guitarist and producer?
"Right now, quite a lot of people are approaching me from the dance niche because of the System 7 stuff. There seems to be quite a lot of interest in combining guitars and some of the sounds of 70s progressive rock with upfront club grooves. Also I've got several possible film soundtrack jobs, which is something I'm particularly keen to develop. And assuming System 7 does reasonably well, there'll be System 7.1, System 7.2..."
It seems that, after a decade of keeping a low profile, Steve Hillage is on the up and up.