Blow Up Italian magazine (June 13 1999)

Interview by Giuseppe Colli

Please, tell me about the start of Recommended as a record company and Distribution organisation; it was at the end of Henry Cow as a group and after the so-called 'punk explosion'...

By the end of 1977, Henry Cow had decided to break up and we decided to make one last 6-month tour of all the countries that had supported us for the last 6 years. Maybe because of this ending I started to think about our work in a broader way and wanted to try and help other people who were working in the same field as us to find their public, and to recommend to our public the many other interesting groups who, because of the dominance of British and American record companies, had no distribution and therefore no visibility outside their immediate geographical circles. Also, this was the time when punk had blown fresh air into the stale pool of mainstream rock and had laid the foundation for a great explosion of autonomy, musical experiment and the foundation of independent and self produced records - yet, for the music in our field, there was no distribution network for such productions. When I set up my own label - Re - to release the first ART BEARS LP, the need for distribution fitted perfectly with the need for some central collection and distribution point for this music in general. And Henry Cow had been in a specially good position to find out what was happening, since we had travelled widely through Europe and had met many interesting and serious groups who were unknown even to one another. That's why we founded RIO too, to bring these people together, to create a presence, a visibility, a community so that we would not all be working in isolation. So Recommended not only discovered, but also in a way created a genre - of 'recommended' music.

Factually, Recommended was set up in the spring of 1978 alongside the RIO festival in London. At the start the DISTRIBUTION arm was called Recommended - because I personally 'recommended' all the titles we distributed. At the same time I set up a LABEL - for my own projects. This was 'Re'. Soon after (1979) I set up the RECOMMENDED LABEL for releases other than my own. In 1987 the distribution side became a worker's co-operative and I stepped out, concentrating on running the labels (re, recommended and points east) and writing the mail-order catalogue. That is also when I united Re and Recommended into ReR. Things ran smoothly for a while until, at the end of 1989, owing to enormous unpaid debts from the now independent distribution to the label I was forced to start my own distribution system again, at which time the old 'recommended' DISTRIBUTION became THESE Records. And I became ReR/Recommended.

1999 sees the 21st birthday of Recommended Records; I understand there's something in the works, in the form of a double CD. Would you mind talking about this?

Yes, a lot happened in 21 years. Right now I am in the middle of making a double CD of re-workings, re-mixes and new material based directly on Art Bears recordings, with a lot of invited composers who have been associated with the label over the years. {do you want a list} And as you say I was also thinking about an anniversary collection of rare, unreleased and related materials. Though I am still not sure about this. 21 years is a long time in this business to exist as a small uncommercial and unfunded label and I have seen many of my contemporaries disappear, one by one. Furthermore, we are not a niche label; that is we don't cater for a simple genre (like prog rock or death metal) which means our musical profile is always changing. Which makes survival harder, believe me, so I feel it would be apposite to make a mark here, and look back and recapitulate. But I just don't know that I have the time to do it. And looking ahead is more interesting.

I'd like to ask you about a musician you've worked with on quite a few>projects - Henry Cow, Art Bears, News from Babel, David Thomas' albums, the Oh Moscow tour... : Lindsay Cooper. Could you talk about this project you're going to participate to at the Angelica Festival in May?

I met Lindsay when she was working with Comus, and then again in Ritual Theatre before she joined Henry Cow. She was and is a remarkable person and a fine musician, one of the few who are equally at home improvising and composing (though this seems to be the hallmark of all the ex Henry Cow alumni). So, in the last period of Henry Cow while being one of our main composers Lindsay was also organising FIG (the Feminist Improvising Group). In the immediate Post-Cow period she and I made two major song projects together with harpist Zeena Parkins - the 2 News From Babel CD's - and later I was in her Film Music Group (with Sally Potter, Phil Minton, Georgie Born and Vicky Aspinall) and on several of her recordings. We continued to work together, on and off, especially over about 5 years in different projects organised by David Thomas, and I later became one of the drummers in her and Sally's 'Oh Moscow' project. It is an extract from this, rearranged for full orchestra by Veryan Weston, that I will participate in at this year's AngelicA festival. Lindsay is suffering from multiple Sclerosis now, and is unable to play publicly now,, but Veryan works with an ensemble who perform her compositions. And she will be at AngelicA.

Talking about the festival: you've just finished an Italian tour with Fred Frith, and you're gonna participate in his next project there...

Well Fred and I have worked together in an enormous number of contexts over the last 28 years - after Henry Cow and Art Bears we continued to converse through an intermittent but steady programme of duos. And of course I have played in various projects of his (the Graphic Scores Orchestra, Tense Serenity) and he of mine (Domestic Stories, The Science Group, Timescales) as well as projects in which we were both involved (Aqsak Maboul, Duck and Cover, Heiner Goebbels' 'Man in the Elevator and innumerable improvising contexts). I have an immense respect for Fred - who has a truly original musical voice, both as a composer and a performer.

About the Angelica group, Tense Serenity: this is one of the only projects I've been involved in that has found a successful way to bring composition and improvisation together. Improvisation is something, as I approach it, which calls for maximum open-ness. That means an empty mind before playing anything, and no plan, no trajectory, no teleology. Composition requires precision and following a fixed track. Obviously, if you switch between the two disciplines, apart from requiring a certain schizophrenia (which is not so hard to manage) there is immediately the problem that every improvisation is severely limited by the fact that it has to start from a determined place - namely the end of a composition, and that (worse still) it is already on it's way somewhere definite - a fixed destination (the next composed piece). So it is hardly free to follow it's own logic. And of course the compositions in such confections are not properly prepared but 'fallen into' and don't properly end (thereby containing themselves) but are lost in the beginning of something else. So, trying to mix the two forms involves serious compromises all round. Usually I find the mixture unsatisfying I have to say. But Fred has a well thought out solution: his composed parts are highly modular, and have been written to emerge and sink into different musical landscapes. And there is no order of pieces (Fred will call what he feels like, whenever he feels like it), so one is never on the way somewhere. And, finally, since Fred improvises his calls in response to what he hears, and since musicians can respond or not respond to his call, or start later, or treat the composed part as an element of the improvised 'outside' and react to it rather than join in with it, the unfolding of the concert becomes extremely organic, and each time different.

Since we just mentioned David Thomas, I'd like to know more about a recent project of his you took part in - a festival in London - or something - I really know nothing about (with Peter Hammill and quite a few other people...).

This was a 3-day festival, which David programmed at the Southbank Centre in London. The centrepiece was a project called 'Mirror Man' (which has been released on CD now). The idea is ambitious. There is a 'band' - Keith Moline and Andy Diagram (the Pale Boys) Peter Hammil, Jack Kidney and myself - with David sometimes. Then there are 5 singers and speakers, sitting in a row of chairs on the stage, who stand up and come forward one after another to 'testify' and tell their stories. The singers are Linda Thompson, Bob Kidney, Jackie Leven, David Hild and Jane Bom-Bane. And throughout we hear the comments, scene-setting and Greek-chorus work of New York poet Bob Holman, who works offstage. David is the Master of ceremonies. The stories they tell are all of a lost America, of desolate small-town places where lives are ground out or wasted unremarked; where people disappear and hopes are dashed, and about the geography of a kind of twilight zone that may, or may not, exist somewhere between the present and the past. It's hard to describe it. But I think these are some of the best texts David has written for a long time, and he has found a unique form in which to present them; not a concert, not quite theatre but in some ambiguous zone between poetry, storytelling revival tent and song.

Pere Ubu were/are quite popular in Italy; some people back then were a bit surprised about your collaboration with them, since the idea they had of you made the project 'strange'; would you mind saying something about the two records you did with them?

My connection with Ubu goes a long way back. The first thing I heard was the single ' 30 seconds over Tokyo', which The Residents played me. A week or so later I happened to be in Washington where Ubu were playing. I went to see them, got to know them, reviewed the concert for SOUNDS (it was the first Ubu review in England) and then kept in touch. Some years later, when Ubu split up and David was working alone, I joined his duo with Lindsay and we worked as trio for several years, slowly adding other musicians. One by one all the old Ubu's joined, and Lindsay left. By then we were called 'The Wooden Birds' and this group was, effectively Pere Ubu under another name. We invited Scott Krause (the old Ubu drummer) to play with us when we were in Cleveland and he stayed on. It was at this point that Ubu's manager said 'If you call yourselves Pere Ubu, I can get more money, a serious record contract and a lot more gigs, because Ubu is a famous band, and it's the name that I can sell, not the people'. So we agreed. No reason to be surprised. I started in Rock bands and have always been interested in Rock and the song form. Ubu is a good rock band and writes good songs. I have always been involved in such projects: Art Bears, Hail, Kalahari Surfers, The (ec) Nudes, The Blegvad trio and, I would say, Cassiber - all song groups, all based in rock. I am not sure what 'idea...some people...had of me' - maybe it's like the story of the 7 blind Brahmins and the elephant: you touch the trunk and think the animal is like a snake, you touch the leg and think it is like a tree, you touch a tusk and it isn't even an animal anymore. But it's an elephant anyway and all the parts of it's body belong to it.

Since you do a lot of things it could seem a bit impolite to ask you about something you are not doing: I'm referring to the Quarterly, a project that I really liked: it made one know about the existence of artists one had otherwise not known, plus it presented a perspective about 'making music' that was informative and clear. Is the Q. in 'suspended animation' at the moment, or what?

I started the Quarterly back in 1984 because there seemed to be a need for something like it. I mean firstly a sound magazine - not a sampler or a compilation, but a window on what was happening, essays in the possibilities of sound, introduction to new people. And secondly a printed magazine without the usual interviews and reviews, avoiding the language and outlook of the vapid music press which substitutes for thought and content strings of adjectives, comparisons and subjective word association with a bit of promo material thrown in. It was always hard to get sufficient material of quality for the Quarterly, and so it always took a long time to prepare each issue. Also, I am not a full time editor and the magazine hardly pays anything to its contributors and has a very small circulation; so the ratio of effort to return is small. Plus, I get no subsidy, no support and each issue makes a loss, or just about pays for itself. On top of all that, I almost never get anything sent in without it being commissioned, so each issue represents a disproportionate amount of work. And I do it when I can. So long as this is the situation, there will only be an issue every couple of years. The answer I suppose is, after 15 years, the Quarterly exists if I make it exist and the response has been so small (I can't recall ever having so much as one letter in the whole time, and no serious reviews) that it is not a priority any more. I gave it fair chance. So now they are 'Sourcebooks' and they will, or will not, appear when I have gathered sufficient materials or when I feel encouraged to press a little harder, or in response to some greater enthusiasm. But no, it is not in suspended animation. I still think they are a valuable resource and I will continue to produce them. But in their own time.

Since we're talking about the Q.: you've always been interested in the theoretical side of music (by the way: is your book File Under Popular still in print?); I remember that about twelve years ago you gave an interview to Sound Choice where, talking about 'informed, engaged listening' you talked about a Hitchcock movie, Rope, and how knowing 'how it was done' made one change the way one looked at it. How do you see the current situation with regards to the press, when considering the way they look at records (yours or otherwise) and the approach they 'suggest' to the listeners?

Yes, my book is still in print (here, in the USA and in Japanese German and Polish). I am thinking about publishing another. You ask about my take on the current situation with regards to the music press? If I cared enough I would be depressed that, after 35 years there is still no serious critical discourse about the kinds of music in which I am involved that compares with the discourses around 'serious' music, film, theatre or literature. I am not against enthusiasm but I would hope for more than that, in one journal at least. So I feel that my interests are not yet catered for. It's why I started the Quarterly. The general level of all the English music press I know is trivial and shallow. There are no exceptions. Then you jump immediately to 'Popular Music', a journal written in hard-core academic language and not intended for the general interested reader. And so long as there is no serious critical and theoretical discourse, the field will remain in shadow. Perhaps we have to wait another 10 or 15 years. But it will happen.

If you don't mind, I'd like to go back to the "song" topic, since I know there is an album about to come out (The Science Group?) that, from the names I've seen, sounds very promising.

I've been working on texts about theoretical physics, cosmology and other hard science subjects for some years. I eventually gave them to Stevan Tickmayer, with whom I was working on music for Hungarian choreographer Josef Nadj. I've known Stevan for years since we first met in Novi Sad in the early 80's. Then he moved to Holland and studied with Louis Andreissen. The songs are extremely complex, and densely composed, but at the same time direct and could even be called rock - of a sort. But equally they could be called something else - in fact I hope they begin to approach a new form... Amy Denio and Bob Drake sing, Fred plays most of the guitar parts, Claudio Puntin plays Clarinet and Bassclarinet, Stevan Keyboards, Samples and Electroacoustic manipulations. Apart from singing, Bob plays the Bass, some Guitar and some Drums. He also engineered and mixed. It's not like anything else I've done, or heard. And I think maybe it that will take some getting used to. There's a lot of information and it comes at you like a flood.

Speaking of Novi Sad, I would like to go on record that I consider every civilian killed in Yugoslavia murder and a war crime. That means NATO leaders as much as the government of Jugoslavia. Doesn't anyone remember why we set up the UN ? If this is the pattern for the millennium, i hope the cockroaches make a better job of it when we make ourselves extinct.

You just talked about the sad state of affairs in that part of Europe, and today is the 1st of May - a symbolic date for workers all over the world. You've always had clear political positions (I remember when you put out the record to help the miners in their confrontation with the Thatcher government) and the way you conduct your business (record co., tours etc.) has always been in accord with your beliefs...

It's pretty hard not to have some kind of political position - because we are human beings inevitably socialised in some kind of community with a language, values, a culture - and as such it is impossible not to have some sort of ethical position, which at a certain point will collapse into a political position. The question is how informed and thought out, how consistent and conscious that position is. People who claim to have no political position are either not conscious of the position they take or believe somehow that to conform uncritically with the status quo is to be in neutral, as if the prejudices of any given group are value free. So, yes, I suppose my position has always been fairly clear, that is to say conscious, stated and acted upon.

Iancu Dumitrescu was a name I got to know via your distribution organisation. Would you say something about him? Besides, you've >known him personally, haven't you?

Like Stevan, Iancu belongs to the world of contemporary music. And he stands out in high relief. He was the protégé of the legendary Celibidache and has been deeply engaged in a phenomenological and spectral approach to sound and it's organisation for the last 35 years. He really works with the inside of sounds, and demands - and gets - a great intensity and force from the musicians with whom he works. And there are some remarkable musicians in Romania, working in orchestras but ready to put in long hours for other music when inspired by someone like Iancu, who is very demanding, but for good reason and with great results. I have recently been working with him, Ana Maria Avram - his partner and another great composer - Tim Hodginson and the Hyperion ensemble. We gave concerts on Romanian Radio and in France. It was a strong experience. Plus, on a personal note, I get to play 'classical' percussion in this ensemble, which is a joy. And it is a great feeling to get be a soloist in such music with such a great ensemble behind. We plan to continue this association.

If you don't mind, I'd like to go back a bit; the first track on Henry Cow's second album, Unrest, "acknowledges its debt to O. Rasputin's "Got to Hurry" by the Yardbirds". This morning, for unrelated reasons, I was listening to Hendix (Electric Ladyland). Now, I don't know whether you witnessed the Yardbirds, Who, early Floyd etc. in person, but you talked about them in your book. What I find puzzling is that in that period good, creative music found its way into the charts and was released by the Majors (think Zappa or Velvet Underground on the other side of the Atlantic) and seen by multitudes (think Cream). Do you have any recollections of that period you'd like to share with our readers - and any hypothesis about why creative music is not welcomed by Majors anymore?

I used to see the Yardbirds almost every week, and I went to most of the early Who, Hendrix, Floyd, Soft Machine concerts - and others by extremely interesting groups who's names have not survived. It was a dynamic period in Rock History and I was lucky to have been implicated in it (the band I was then in was playing the same kind of music in the same venues). Back then, there were only the majors really, and major minors (Motown, Stax & so on; independent players but on the main stage). It was a monopoly. Only Sun Ra I can think of ran his own tiny artist label - and there was a handful of mavericks like ESP and Folkways, who offered specialised, minority catalogues. So, if you wanted to make a record, you automatically sent your demo to the majors, in the hope that one of them would agree to exploit you. There didn't seem to be any other option. And, having the whole field to themselves, the majors covered all the ground - classical, pop, spoken word, easy listening, folk, novelty, jazz.... A positive aspect of this was that, as with book publishing, there was room for imagination and integrity on the commissioning fringes. Especially in the late 50's, when the market began rapidly to expand, opening onto the age of creative A & R.

The rise of Punk in the late '70's saw all that change. With Punk came the Do-It-Yourself ethic and dozens of independent or artist labels. It set the new pattern that has not since been overturned. But make no mistake, if any record from any independent source does seriously well in terms of sales, a major will swallow it, so a few interesting records do still get out that way (some people would give Tom Waits or Bjork as examples). However, now that the Independents are doing the groundwork, the majors no longer have to. Old policy was to throw a mass of material at the public and see what stuck - then follow up on the winners. New policy is to concentrate on massive sellers and make them more massive, or to create mass sellers from the outset - which means greater expenditure on hype and promotion and less on spraying the market with speculative material.

When the hegemony of the Majors cracked, the old idea of a Mainstream cracked too. While under central control it was still possible (this was the case throughout the sixties) to have some broad overview of the whole range of recorded music, since the big companies were able to ensure it's presence in most stores and on the radio. Plus, with a limited number of labels there was a limit to the amount of material in circulation. A selection, you could say. Following the rise of independent and artist labels, there was a massive proliferation of material - too much to keep track of - alongside which ran the rapid growth of all manner of specialised communities and networks of distribution and information, since very little of the new output ever found it's way to the radio, and minor label advertising budgets were non existent. Inevitably, a whole alternative infrastructure began to emerge: fanzines, mailorder companies, specialist shops and so on; it was simply a question of survival. Result: massive fragmentation; disappearance of whole genres of music from the public media. And this is not something peculiar to Music. Such fragmentation is deeply ingrained in modern societies a all levels, in fact you could say it is a condition of contemporary urban life.

For the most part, only the cream or the scum rises to the surface - what the majors want to sell or the mass media find sexy - and occasionally something else, that originates in the media wilderness but breaks through somehow directly to the public in such numbers that it can no longer be ignored. Otherwise, each subculture takes care of itself and time alone will sort out what is important from the rest. For an artist, to work in good faith is the only guide; popularity or acceptance by the industry has little necessary connection with artistic quality.

A simple answer may be that creative music would be - and now and then still is - welcomed by the majors, if it sells in huge quantities. At the end of the day it is accountants who run the companies - and they don't care if it's Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto so long as it shifts in quantity. Look at rap.

As we speak the "Beefheart" box set is about to come out. You got to know Drumbo (and Beefheart?), plus you've talked about Zoot Horn Rollo's book on your Web site. What do you think of the whole matter?

Don and the early Magic Bands were responsible for revolutionary developments in Rock and Blues; it is work that shines so brightly I think it has an assured place in musical history. They earned their immortality. The rest is gossip. I'm not against gossip, and in the long picture I think examination of the social dynamics of the development and production of such work is important and educational. But an interview question is not the place; it would take a book.

One field I'm very interested in is "organised sound"; here, you've done a lot to made this stuff available, from distributing records by Schaeffer and Dockstader to releasing music by people who are among my favourites ever: from ZGA (particularly 'The End of an Epoch') to Biota (everything, but I have a weakness for 'Tumble'), David Myers' 'Feedback music' (by the way, is his album available/re-released?) and Ossatura. If I'm not mistaken you once wrote that a lot of 'noise, electronic' releases demand one's attention but often one doesn't see one's effort repaid by the organisational qualities of the material. What is the situation at the moment, in your opinion, with regards to the use of electronic means in the 'post-industrial' styles?

While it is interesting to me the way that early experiments in the field of 'serious' music, notably Musique Concrete and Electronic Music, rapidly found their way into low cultural discourses (by way of The Who, Early Pink Floyd, Krautrock and so on), it probably wasn't until the rise of so-called Industrial music that 'pure noise' acquired an iconic meaning as a kind of musically neutral sonic statement of attitude (Who, Floyd, Faust were anything but musically neutral). This came along with the rejection of skill and musical literacy that characterised a faction of the Punk/New Wave that represented the post Who/Floyd/Faust generation. The main difference between the generations is aesthetic. An between identification with people or machines. It is, after all, easy to make 'sounds' - especially using new technology (samplers, computers) even if you have no musical training. I have no problem with that; it is liberating, it may help new musical forms to evolve, stripped of prejudice and habit. But that makes the question of quality more and not less critical. Ignorance may always be a handicap, but it is not automatically a virtue. Anyone can work with sound today, like the sound of what they hear and make a CD from it. The question for me is still, why? Why make a record? Why this kind of sound and not that kind of sound? Who and what is it for? Because I run a record label, I get a lot of CD's and cassettes sent to me. And more and more of them are drone-based, loop based and 'noise'-based. To my ears 90% of them sound boringly the same (surely America can only be discovered once). Boringly, because I can discern no organising structure, no content, no reason why they need to exist. I don't understand them (though obviously thousands do). For me there is sound that has meaning; that has some aesthetic value (and I would not therefore call it noise, Docksader, AMM, ZGA, Biota are good examples - this is rather music made with creatively stretched resources). Then there is sound that is irritating and formless (so that, to me, it continues to be no more than noise - unwanted sound). To my taste there is way too much of the second category and way too little of the first. After all, if you are going to make a new music with new sounds, that is a difficult and not an easy task. It requires a lot of problems to be solved and questions to be answered. It requires a kind of necessity: a reason to exist rather than not to exist. It is harder, not easier than most other musics because rules do not yet exist and have persuasively to be proposed. And. if in such music I don't sense innovation, a musical thread, a well-told story, critical appreciation, editing, intelligent decision making, a sense of colour, balance, structure, drama, development, tension, necessity - then I hear only noise. On the other hand, I have a particular admiration for works in which I do perceive those qualities.

So, the best I can do here is give reasons for my personal prejudices. I am glad everyone can release whatever CD's they want and win the opportunity to find some public. But that does not mean I think every offering is of equal value or is all equally value-free. But where is the critical discourse? In what language can it be conducted?

I really liked the Cutler/Greaves 'rhythm section' in the Henry Cow days - and I am a big fan of John Greaves' solo work; I have to say that sometimes I have the impression that, since his solo albums have mostly consisted of songs, his post-Cow work is maybe considered as somewhat 'less valid' than what has been released by the other former members of the group. You've played together again, on record and in concert, with Peter Blegvad...

John was, after Fred and Tim, a founder member of Henry Cow, and I was in the group with him for six years, so it's not only easy to picture but to say he was essential to the group and it's development. And we still share the language we all developed together in those shaping years. I suppose what you mean is that our Post-Cow trajectories have been quite different. And of course John left before the end when he felt that the music was becoming too complex and cerebral. I suppose I could make two observations. Firstly Tim , Fred, Lindsay and I not only continued - as John did - in fairly visible projects after the end of Henry Cow, but also increasingly in improvising contexts, slowly integrating into that mainstream world of festivals and ad hoc groupings - as well, of course, as continuing in rock and composed music contexts. John, as you recall, like Fred and I, first worked on an LP of songs (something Henry Cow had never tackled) and continued then in National Health, working mostly in band contexts thereafter and with his own song material. He didn't really enter the improvising community as such (though he continued to improvise and had a band with Elton Dean and Mark Hewins in the late 70's). I admit I am still guessing here what answer your question is seeking, since for me John and Henry Cow are inseparable. But I'll continue to think aloud; anyway to speak more about John.

John, I would say, like Fred, was someone whose musical centre was expressive and emotional and not in the first place intellectual. I am not making a value judgement here, and prizing one bias against another - both are essential and both produce great music - I am simply making a personal observation that tries to find the feeling behind your question. But this did mean that the rest of us became more visibly associated with the worlds of composed music, 'freely improvised musics', art music and noise experiments than John did - although- when you get close to it - he includes work with Peter Gordon and Michael Nyman and the large-scale projects of Mike Mantler in his Curriculum Vitae, as well as writing for theatre and stints with David Cunningham, The Penguin Café Orchestra and David Thomas' Pedestrians. Looking back, perhaps the localities of our various subsequent visibilities may, to an outsider, make it seem we would have been unlikely intimates. But then Henry Cow was an unlikely confection in the first place - which was probably the reason it was so interesting to be in and took such an individual path. Fred came out the Folk clubs, John from his father's Dance band in Wrexham, Tim was inspired by Coltrane, Lindsay came up through the National Youth Orchestra and I came to the group from a psychedelic rock band... who would put money on such a chimera?

As you say, John and I began working together again with Peter Blegvad six years ago, and I for one am very happy about that. First, it is a pleasure to play with him. Second - who else could do that job?

Finally, it is perhaps worth mentioning that when we (the Blegvad Trio) were in Japan recently, the three of us made three separate shows (very economical for the promoter - three evenings for three airfares) John played a solo programme (piano, singing), The Blegvad Trio played Peter's evening of songs, I played a solo programme, and the three of us also improvised a set together - Peter reading texts out of his book. A lot of very different ground covered under a single roof - quite like the old days in fact.

I'd like to ask you about the current state of affairs with regards to drumming. I still like the fluid grooves of Stax/Motown I liked in my pre-teen days - they 'breathed' - as opposed to the layered drum machine tracks of today's hits; it could be I'm just old-fashioned. But what I don't see much today is an approach that's innovative with regards to a 'high level' of expertise in an 'innovative' music - like in the '60s (Moon, Baker, Mitchell, Wyatt) and '70s (you, Vander, Denis)... It's been a long time since I've seen a drummer that I thought was 'pretty good' - and I don't mean 'technically proficient'. Am I missing something?

Do the musicians make the music or does the music make the musicians? You could argue that Henry Cow made us all what we became. And of course it was we who made Henry Cow what it was. The fact is that collective enterprises like ours evolve through a dynamic and reciprocal process in which individual identities are continually adjusting, with individual skills developing in quite specific ways. One learns, one is inspired, one puts in and takes out - the result being in no one's hands. The Magic Band was not simply One Genius and a bunch of sidemen - which is why it was great whereas the Virgin era band was not; and why, I would say equally, The early Mothers were great and Zappa's later bands, when it was all him, were not. So, it seems to me the question is - what kind of bands do we have today, and what kind of musicians are they producing? Or alternatively - if you were an innovative musician under present circumstances, is rock the field you would choose to enter?

From the mid 60's to early 70's the general climate in Rock was one of experiment and innovation - both in the mainstream and on the fringes. I mentioned Beefheart and Zappa, I could add the (later) Beach Boys and Beatles, Hendrix, the Barrett era Pink Floyd - all had hit singles, all were pushing the limits of rock. Noel Redding was perfect with Hendrix and Mitchell, but would he have been in another group? Would Hendrix have been so great with another band ? I doubt both scenarios. Rock was young then, and finding its way. But those days are long passed. Punk ridiculed technique and insisted on sound, repetition, attitude and the character of the singer as the essential values, driving technique into that other massive subculture, Heavy Metal, where it ossified and dug itself in to a set of rules so oppressive it never escaped - supported, I have to say, by a vast public that also didn't want it to change. Punk quickly faded and the anodyne successors of the New Wave continued to heap the emphasis on singers and production. Performance values were not demanded and pop music quickly became MOR music, ceasing to be, so far as I could see, a vital field of growth. Which is not say there weren't good songs written and great records made, but they were no longer concerned with instrumental skills. The next generation began experimenting again, but not with the old instruments but samplers and sequencers and computers and readymade machines, to which again, performance skills and expressive technique were not significantly applicable.

It remains the case today that innovation and experiment are little valued and bands not much inspired to innovate and experiment. Innovators are less likely to join, they look for other outlets at present. And DJ's of course have to stay within the rules, because the music they make is not (concert) music for listening, but (functional) music for dancing. Nevertheless, It has to be said that, in the mass public arena, Dance music is where the experiments and innovations are happening, though these innovations have nothing to do with playing, as our generation understood it.

Back in Britpop-MOR world the individuality of musicians is not significant. As with Rap, although personal technique and skill does often distinguish hits from misses, this is only in respect of singers and producers. Players are invisible. Young people in general don't go to see bands, as we did in the 60's, because they have a great bass player, or a great guitarist or a great drummer (which was a lot of the attraction of The Yardbirds, The Who, Hendrix and so on). To see players now you go to Jazz or improvising concerts, or to see country music or Heavy Metal.

In the expanding days of rock, listeners recognised and valued technique, style, innovation and touch. Today in pop, it is mainly machines that make new sounds, keep time and provide the singer's carpet. The quality we called 'feel', so essential in Motown for instance, is now largely irrelevant. For the moment production values have triumphed in record making, and these are the values which the public now recognises. Human beings may be good at 'feel' but machines are more production friendly: they are perfect, don't have opinions and don't make mistakes. Moreover, they are character neutral - leaving that ground to be wholly occupied by the singer and the record's producer. Something similar is happening in the film industry. But I have to say that this is not a situation I expect will last much longer. Nature abhors a vacuum, and what is human will sooner or later reassert itself.

other interviews: Montari Furious Colli Sakamoto Varty
Symposium Máriás Fougere Fiori  

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