Mark Jenkins interviews one of the world’s finest musicians and producers
Steve Hillage is one of the world’s finest musicians and producers, and in the next few months he’s touring some of his classic albums from the 1970s. He’s starting with 12 shows in 13 days around the UK.
Steve started playing guitar young with a group of school friends, and went professional with the bands Uriel and then Khan, with an album “Space Shanty” (1972, CD versions from 1990) still available. Other members went on to join Egg, Hatfield & The North, National Health and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – all staples of the UK’s “Canterbury Scene” of arty progressive rock.
But Steve met up with Daevid [sic] Allen of Soft Machine, who was exiled in France thanks to his Australian passport. Allen had founded Gong with an Anglo/French lineup quickly signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin after the success of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.”
“What we did with Gong worked very well. Daevid invented all this mythology for the band, and he played some guitar but not really lead, which left me plenty of space to do what I wanted. What we both used was the ‘gliss guitar’ sound that we’d seen Syd Barrett doing with Pink Floyd – you just stroke a piece of metal along the strings to get this high, singing effect.”
Steve appeared on Gong’s innovative trilogy “Flying Teapot”/“Angel’s Egg”/“You.” But not long after, Daevid Allen wanted to leave the lineup.
“Then the band started to take a very jazzy direction which I wasn’t into, so effectively I just went back to a solo career, there was no big bust-up.” In fact some of the tracks on Steve’s solo debut for Virgin titled “Fish Rising” had already been tried out live by Gong.
Another big part of the Gong sound came from the synthesizers of Tim Blake. Steve incorporated the same type of sounds, including high abstract twitters from the EMS Synthi and echoed solos from a MiniMoog. On stage these parts were taken by Basil Brooks and others, while Steve’s partner Miquette Giraudy created distinctive bubbling synth harmonies and sequences using an ARP2600.
The albums “Fish Rising,” “L,” and “Motivation Radio” formed a powerful, fluent and expressive trilogy of complex multi-part compositions with fluid lead guitar. Steve had also become known for playing with fellow Virgin artist Mike Oldfield, taking the lead guitar parts on televised and orchestral versions of “Tubular Bells.”
But by the time of the albums “Green” (1978) and “Open” (1979) there was a problem: Virgin Records had discovered punk, and complex music was no longer in fashion. “I wanted to at least modernize the approach, and it seemed possible to make a record without a band. So by the time of “For To Next” (1982 – the title is a reference to computer coding) I was working mainly by myself with a LinnDrum and guitar synthesizers.”
An excellent double live album “Live Herald” is also still available, but Steve was being called in other directions. “I started to do some production work for other bands, just small jobs at first, but then I got more major work with Simple Minds, for example. So as far as some people were concerned I disappeared for a few years.”
But another line of work altogether was soon to develop.
Under the Rainbow Dome. In 1979 Steve had been asked to create a more chilled-out piece of music for The Festival Of Mind, Body and Spirit in London.
“Rainbow Dome Musick” [sic] could be considered an extension of the intro or linking pieces between other songs – all floaty sequencers, sustained chords, and glissando guitar extended to a whole side of an album.
Steve had also been getting into computer programming. “I got the computer bug really early, someone lent me a Commodore PET. Then I got an Apple II and I’ve never looked back. Now I’m a big Pro Tools fan, it’s great for effects and mixing. Though Miquette [whom we’ll introduce below] uses Logic Pro, which also has some effects plug-ins she really likes.”
The idea came about of creating music using synth and guitar sounds but with no band, and so System 7 (another computing reference) was born. Launching with a self-titled album in 1991, the duo of Steve and Miquette broke into the dance music and festival market in a big way, combining dance beats with synthesizers and – yes – still some guitar.
“It’s unusual to be able to offer guitar in that sort of dance music scene, but it’s there a lot of the time, though you can’t always identify it as guitar.” Now there’s around a dozen System 7 albums plus several from a spinoff under the name Mirror System, offering more chillout ambient music.
In parallel Steve had been re-establishing his roots with Gong. “Over the years I played a lot of band get-togethers under the title Gong Unconvention, and those were really popular. In the end Jonny Green, who runs the Gong Appreciation Society, asked if I couldn’t play some of my solo music, but I wondered who could be in the band. In the end all the Gong guys wanted to do it, and that went really well. I played about 40 minutes of my solo tracks before going into the Gong set.”
Back to Planet Gong and Beyond. By the time Daevid Allen passed away in 2015, the Gong lineup was mostly of newcomers. “Daevid left this wonderful legacy to Jonny Green of archive tapes along with his wishes that the mythology and the style of Gong would be able to carry on. So now I’ll be working on re-mastering some of that music, and eventually the idea came about of touring my earliest solo music with the Gong guys as the band. First we had plans for Japan – but then Covid came up.”
In 2016 Steve had released a massive retrospective boxed set of 22 CDs called “Searching For The Spark,” including Uriel, Khan, and solo material, huge numbers of concert tracks and outtakes, work with Malcom Cecil of the synth band T.O.N.T.O., and much more.
“So I had nothing to do, really, we couldn’t gig and that boxed set was really comprehensive, it wiped me out of material and there’s definitely nothing remaining for another boxed set! But I could see it was going to be a problem getting stuck in London. We had been invited for a couple weeks to stay at a meditation centre in Somerset and really loved it there, so right at the start of lockdown we escaped from London in the middle of the night with all my studio equipment and found a place down there.”
Steve lost no time in getting his studio equipment set up. “I can mix here, the Pro Tools system is really powerful, and possibly I could do 5.1 or Dolby Atmos mixing too. But it’s a bit like going to a gig where no audience shows up – you’ve gone to a lot of effort, but in the end how many people are able to listen to it?”
Certainly the studio and stage setup is now simplified. “I don’t have the old bulky equipment like Echoplex units. For years I relied on a Line 6 Pod Pro, which gave me all the effects I wanted. And then it started to die a bit, and I bought several as spares. Then they all started to die too, each in a different way, and nobody could service them.
“So I went for the latest Line 6 system, the Helix. I didn’t even need the top of the line model, I have the LT version. So I carefully programmed all my original settings, and… it sounded completely different! But in the end I was able to program everything I needed. I think once you’ve developed a style of playing, it’s going to sound like you, whatever you do with effects.”
On tour we’ll see Steve’s favorite guitar, the Steinberger headless, which he has now been playing for many years.
The Steve Hillage Band’s “Golden Vibes” tour runs from March 21st to April 2nd, taking in UK dates, including Cambridge, Nottingham, Birmingham, and London.
Support is The Utopia Strong, a fascinating trio of DJ loops, bagpipe, and other acoustic instruments; and modular synthesizers by legendary snooker champion Steve Davis. And hopefully (“post-Brexit regulations which are a pain permitting”) some dates outside the UK will be announced before too long. “These are quite difficult pieces to play, so there’s a lot of re-learning going on right now, and I’ll also be playing some tracks that have very rarely been heard.”
Meanwhile you’re encouraged to look on YouTube, which has some classic 1970s Steve Hillage performances from Germany and the UK. You’ll see incredible interactions of guitar, effects, synthesizers, and voice, great band lineups including Clive Bunker from Jethro Tull on drums, and stellar cover versions of tracks like Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “It’s All Too Much” from The Beatles.
And quite possibly you’ll conclude that they don’t make musicians like Steve Hillage any more.