Steve Hillage is currently making his mark as one of Britain's top guitar players, with several years tenure in Gong and a few stints with other major British musicians. Here he talked with us about Gong, his solo LP Fish Rising, and his musical influences.
The group does a lot of work in France, doesn't it?
Yes. In fact, we just started a new tour there at the Olympia in Paris.
Does anybody in the group still live in Paris?
We've moved to England. We used to have a house in the country, in the middle of a forest, in France. Originally, the group started in Paris in 1968 after Daevid Allen left the Soft Machine. The ideas involved with planning Gong began to take shape in Paris, and then the band moved out into the mountains. In the end, the house was sold by its owner and we moved to England. At the moment we're living in a house in Oxford.
Is it true that for a while you didn't go to England because Daevid Allen couldn't get a visa?
That happened back in '67, just after he left the Soft Machine. He went to the customs at Dover and they wouldn't let him through. The group couldn't tour there until finally they bribed the customs official with whisky. That was when they played at the Glastonbury Festival. When I heard the record they made there, I decided I wanted to join the group.
You've been doing a lot of work with, for instance, Kevin Ayers and a group called Khan; is your stay with Gong the longest you've ever been with one unit?
To start from the beginning, I went to school in London, and there were several other musicians there, including Dave Stewart of Hatfield And The North. I formed a band with him there, but then left to attend the University of Canterbury, not realising that a musical fraternity had developed there which included bands like the Soft Machine and Caravan. Then after a bit at the University, I changed my mind, and decided I wanted to make music. When I left the University, all the people I knew had already established themselves in groups, so I tried forming a group from scratch — that was called Khan.
I made one record with Khan, which was sort of a "first-step" record. I reformed the group after making the record and, in fact, did quite a bit of work with Dave Stewart before he joined Hatfield And The North. It was then that I wrote most of the material on the Fish album. But at the same time that I was writing that music, I got very interested in Gong. Also, living was getting very difficult with Khan on a purely economic basis. After Khan broke up, I played about forty dates as a member of Kevin Ayers' band. In the course of that tour, I met Gong.
Since then, it's been good because in Gong I'd been able to develop a lot of my ideas. Gong is a symbolic unit, really. Also, on my record the fish is an archetypal symbol... even as a young lad I was quite interested in ichthyological life. I put all my humorous ideas and my serious ideas together into a big cauldron, and out came Fish Rising.
Now that Daevid Allen has left Gong, is it true that you've become more or less the leader of the band?
I suppose because I'm the guitarist and lead singer I've sort of succeeded, as it were, into that place in the group, although I wouldn't really say I've taken the reins. We're very much into a communal expression. If one person's getting off but the others aren't, then what you're doing is not a success. The whole Gong thing is about everyone getting off together, including the audience. We mean to link things together in a higher aspect. That may be a very high-falutin idea, but if I really think about why I'm doing what I'm doing, in fact, that is what I'm trying to do. And that's what we're trying to do as a group.
It seems that your album is much more commercially accessible than the latest Gong album, which has less mass appeal. Do you think this is so?
Well, I really haven't had any evidence of that yet. The record You sold a good number. I was working on my record and You at the same time, so in some respects they have a lot of similarities. Obviously, mine has a few more guitar solos.
Gong's got its own style, in a way. On my record, I was trying to synthesize many different musical strains into a whole. The danger in this, though, is in not pleasing anyone.
How stable is the personnel of Gong at this point? I heard Dave Stewart is playing with you a bit.
Yeah, that's something he's going to be doing for a couple of gigs that are coming up.
Do you think he'll be touring with the band?
I can't really say about that. As of now, I think that Hatfield And The North are sort of grinding to a halt. I don't think that's generally known. He'll probably want to take a rest before deciding what he wants to do. It's certainly very enjoyable to play with him — we all cook.
How's Brian Davison working out as your drummer?
It's very good. Brian's got just the spirit we're looking for in a drummer. Brian plays straight from the heart. It's very easy to play from your mind, but playing from the heart is something one aspires to.
Which guitarists do you listen to most often?
I am a very great fan of Hendrix. I have great respect for John McLaughlin, not just for his soloing ability, but also for his compositions and the way he uses the guitar as a group instrument. I like Jeff Beck, Peter Green, B.B. King, and Oly Halsall.
What kind of guitar are you playing nowadays?
I have a Fender Stratocaster, a Les Paul Custom and an SG Junior. Between the three of them, I can get all sorts of different sounds.
Which one did you primarily use on your album?
The one I used most was the Fender.
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