Invisible Opera Company of Tibet: Jewel in the Lotus 25th Anniversary issue – interview with Brian Abbott

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When the Gong Appreciation Society branched out in the early Nineties to provide an excellent record label covering Gong and related acts, one of the first releases to appear was a short CD of studio pieces credited to the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet entitled ‘Jewel in the Lotus’, alongside a lengthy live track featuring Daevid Allen as a ‘guest’. The band also took their place at Gong 25 in London during 1994 in that 2 day celebration of Gong and its wider family. 25 years on and the album has been re-mastered and re-released with several key differences – in fact almost half of the material here is new. Its curator and ever present band member, Brian Abbott is justifiably proud of a release which brings together the entire original recording session. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions relating to this release and the band in general.

As we mentioned  in our review of their live CD ‘Surfing The Wave of the Mystery’ earlier this year, the term Invisible Opera Company of Tibet has special significance for Gong fans: references to it occur as far back as the early Seventies. I asked Brian as to his understanding of the term. “I believe it’s always been a part of Daevid’s mythology and the whole Gong story. According to Daevid’s  ‘Gong Dreaming 2’  book The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet are a group of ethereal lamas through which the Octave Doctors broadcast their music. They are said to reside in a cave high in the Himalayas.  They are a conduit through which the Gong vibrations issue forth.”

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Invisibles flyer of unknown vintage from the Facelift archives

The first time I came across the term in a gigging context (or something approximating it) was also the first time I saw Daevid Allen perform – live in April 1988, soon after his return from a long exile in Australia. In an extraordinarily transformative gig, set somewhat anachronistically against the backdrop of the Afro-Caribbean ‘Hummingbird’ club in central Birmingham, with hefty bouncers everywhere and the constant clank of beer glasses, this was far removed from not just any preconceptions one might have had that Daevid might be about to launch a new Gong, but also from practically anything we’d heard from the Daevid Allen repertoire, although it gave some indication of what he might have been up to during his ‘exile’. I can remember the gig vividly over 30 years on, with Elliett Mackrell (later of Kangaroo Moon) on violin and Wandana Bruce on harmonium and voice whilst Daevid predominantly sang simple ballads and devotional chants, interspersed with the odd rather more humorous sample-based material. I can still remember the audience, many sitting cross-legged, listening to this very gentle music, whilst incense chugged out from stage. There was a fourth member too sat in the gloom to the right of stage: I vaguely remember him being introduced as Brian Abbott, a name which did mean something to me at the time (for reasons which will become clear), but as he was playing tablas, (and as we all know Brian is a guitarist), it was only a recent email exchange which confirmed that it was indeed Mr Abbott on percussion.

A series of gigs in 1988 and a number which followed were billed as the Invisible Co-opera. Brian’s name was already familiar to me as the custodian of GAS from what I had also mis-remembered as Ottery St Mary in the West Country (something I’ve just realised I’ve convoluted that from the fact that Harry Williamson recorded a musical interpretation of his father Henry’s ‘Tarka the Otter’ book in Devon). Brian takes up the story: “I started running GAS in 1981.  Everything then was with Gilli and Harry in North Devon.  Initially I just made contact on a friendly basis, (and) went up to stay a few times.  They were putting together Robot Woman 1 (LINK) at the time.  They had a few cassettes that they did via mail order.  Ark Redman was doing that from Ox’s Cross where they all lived.  So in 1982 they were leaving for Oz and the cassette side of things would stop.  I said I would carry it on and we then between us came up with a whole load more GAS tapes for the catalogue.  I ran it as a mail order business from 1981-1988.  I didn’t make any personal money from it but just ploughed back what little money there was into it to keep it going.  In 1988 I just felt I had done my time with it and it was time to pass it on.  I was not sure who was going to be my successor but I had a lot of communications with Rob Ayling and he seemed very keen to do it, the rest is history.” In fact my own first contact with GAS would have indeed been with Brian as, somewhat wowed by Didier Malherbe’s ‘Bloom’, I began a lifelong quest to get his entire discography, starting with the GAS cassette release ‘Melodic Destiny’. But back to 1988…

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Letter from Rob Ayling (GAS) re: Daevid Allen's workshops, 1988 or 89

“When Daevid first arrived in the UK in 1988 he stayed with us in a large communal farmhouse we were all living in (in) Devon.  There was then the first self initiation workshop at Monkton Wylde Cour in Dorset.  Also the first gig at Exeter Arts centre which I organised.  It was billed then as Daevid Allen and friends and it was mostly acoustic.  I played tablas and acoustic guitar.  (We played) songs that morphed into Gongmaison, old Gong songs and sacred chants.  It was sold out. Then Didier came on board when they were in the South of France.  I could no longer continue as I had work commitments at that time.  So very quickly The Invisibles became Gongmaison.” I can remember the bafflement I felt when the original workshop fliers were posted out to GAS followers, both in terms of the content and the prices, but also the excitement as the project progressed to an intensely claustrophobic but exhilarating gig in an upstairs room at the Swinging Sporran in Manchester in 1989 involving Daevid, Graham Clark and Didier Malherbe, and then on to Gong Maison in Manchester and London and onwards – by the time they played at the Going Going/Gong Maison gig Sonic Relief in October 1990 (where I interviewed Hugh Hopper) I’d seen the band a numerous times.

In 1992 Brian resurrected the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet band, but even prior to this there had been other developments involving the project name in other parts of the world. An album simply entitled ‘Invisible Opera Company of Tibet’, and actually dating back to 1987 had appeared from Australia as one of the first releases on Voiceprint Records (the label formed by aforementioned GAS successor to Brian, Rob Ayling) in a collaboration involving predominantly Daevid and Russell Hibbs, but also Gilli Smyth and Harry Williamson. Meanwhile, from Brazil, Brian had been in contact with Fabio Golfetti, these days, of course, Gong’s guitarist. “During the time I was running GAS Fabio was in communication a lot and he sent me cassettes and flexis and albums and this was by The Invisible Opera company of Tibet (Tropical version).  I remember thinking then this really has the Gong vibe, I was very impressed.  When the Australian version released their album I was also made aware of an American version.  I know they did one cassette album. It was 1992 when I had the calling to create a UK version of the Invisibles. Daevid loved it and gave it his blessing.  He loved the idea of all these different bands existing all over the world working under the same banner. It’s an interesting concept.”

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Tim Hawthorn at Kozfest, 2018

On ‘Jewel in the Lotus’, Brian is joined by Jim Peters (keyboards, flute and vocals), Steve Hickeson (drums)  and Tim Hall (bass/vocals), and this is the band I would have seen at Gong 25 alongside other notable performers. “For the most part it was the ‘Jewel’ line up.  Ali Young used to be the dancer with the band but went on to pastures new.  At that gig it was Jackie Juno who debuted with us as dancer, then became (our)  backing singer.  She became the main singer in 2008 when we relaunched the band”. Whilst I would obviously have seen Tim Hall alongside the others at Gong 25, it has taken me a while to piece together his pedigree: at the first Kozfest I went to in 2016, I was aware of a rather wizardly figure appearing on stage as guest vocalist for a band called Shom (he rather stole the show), then as a solo artist Tim Hawthorn at a later festival for a performance I missed. Things only fell into place for me when he sprang on to stage with the Invisibles in 2018 for a manic rendition of ‘Bad Self’, which of course he wrote and sang on ‘Jewel’. I could be forgiven for the confusion given the fact that he goes under several names and even more styles – another early GAS CD release is the beautiful acapella ensemble ‘Silver On The Tree’ alongside other Glastonbury luminaries; he also performs with The Archetypes and has some lovely samples, most notably a cover of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’ plus a number of traditional tunes including ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest , which counts amongst the most beautifully sung music I have ever heard.

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Brian Abbott

Whilst I enjoyed ‘Jewel In The Lotus’ in its original format, the remastered and elongated version for me, (shorn of the bonus live version of ‘We Circle Around’ featuring Daevid Allen which didn’t entirely sit comfortably with the separate studio material), turns it into a significant coherent project in its own right. The strength of the opener ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, is such that it took me several listens to get beyond it – it is a Buddhist chant which I’d seen Daevid (and Brian) perform in 1988, here turned into a blisteringly rocky number, inspirationally seguing into a version of ‘Master Builder’ which is amongst the very best versions of this track heard performed. This is quite brilliant. ‘All Coming True’, with vocals by Peters, and Tim Hall’s ‘Mysteries’, new for this edition but familiar from somewhere are good rousing knockabout stuff perhaps in the vein of some of Keith Bailey’s stuff with Here and Now (the sleevenotes make a reference to Britpop, which probably does it a disservice). ‘Bad Self’ is a vehicle for Hall’s latent punk sensibilities – a daft OTT performance which is wonderful fun.

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Invisibles in full flow, mid Nineties

The other track from the original ‘Jewel’ is the reggae piece ‘The Size of Minus One’, which is really where I started to sit up, for it is the first of three really excellent dub pieces, which get progressively better. ‘Minus One’ is a turbo -charged number, well paced  with crashing cymbals, echoey top end drumming and a slightly otherworldly soundscape powered by the unmistakeable sound of the glissando guitar, a lesser spotted beast in the world of reggae, but as Steffe Sharpstrings has proven with Here and Now and his various dub projects, a perfect accompaniment. Even more crystal clear are the two vocal dub tracks, both featuring sweet and beautifully harmonised vocals. Both are adapted in somewhat unlikely fashion from traditional tunes – the first a pagan chant entitled ‘Goddess Dub’, the second, the achingly delivered ‘Om Tara’ presumably from Buddhist origins. Both feature guitar chops and tasty licks, roaming bass and nice keyboard touches and effects. Beautifully manicured, these tracks are as slick and refined as one could hope. Perhaps it is because these tracks haven’t been heard before, but after ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, these are the two I’m continually returning to.

Of the revamp of ‘Jewel’, it felt to Brian like unfinished business – the original recordings had been laid down in only 2 days with many elements done in a single take on a very limited budget. “It had been in the pipeline for a very long time.  Dave Kendall the engineer was never happy with the mixes due to the constraints of time and money.  So it was something that both Dave and myself have kept simmering away, doing bits and pieces here and there.  Eventually realising this was the 25th year we decided to bring it out with all the tracks from the session.  I am very proud of it now as its been lovingly restored and polished !”

The CD comes with equally lovingly curated artwork, a trifold with photos and extensive written memories from three of the musicians plus the producer – a fitting
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Invisible Opera Company of Tibet 2019

At this point it seemed relevant to ask about the current state of IOCOT – 25 years on, how has the band evolved. Recent additions have been drummer Matt Jackson and also Viv Goodwin-Darke joining from Devonian neighbours Magic Bus, joining Brian, Jackie, bass player Phil Whitehouse and keyboard player Julian Veasy. “At this point it is fair to say – find me a band that hasn’t had its ups and downs.  There have been a lot of musicians over the years that have been within this collective, too many to list here. From its interception in 1992 to the present day we have been gigging and producing music.  There have been fallow periods and difficult times but there has always been a presence. At present there is whole load of new material being written by all members of the band (with) lots of different styles emerging, it’s very exciting.  (We are) just about to start editing the new studio album called ‘the Bardo of Becoming’ based on the Tibetan book of the dead and our journey from death to rebirth.  It will be something very different, exciting and challenging.  Hopefully lots of gigs.  We’ll also be doing the Bardo live. “

All of which could include future appearances at local festival Kozfest where Brian has had a presence one way or another in each of the first 10 years’ events. “Kozfest is a wonderful gathering of likeminded souls.  Initially there was this poster circulating on Facebook with Ken asleep in a chair at a festival dreaming of all these bands that were listed around him.  Lots of people commented saying the bands they would like to see.  This soon became a reality, Kozmik Kens Psychedelic dream festival.  I said we would love to play that.  Us and a whole roll call of bands.  Because I play guitar with another band (Global) we have alternated every year since and have played them all.  Feels like home!”

Thanks to Brian for answering my questions. Lots of information about Brian and the Invisibles and a link to purchase to purchase ‘Jewel in the Lotus’ can be found at www.brianabbott.info but the CD will also be available at www.planetgong.co.uk and  www.burningshed.com

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The Invisibles play a Winter Solstice gig on 21st December 2019 in Glastonbury.

Invisible Opera Company of Tibet Discography

1993 Live /studio cassette (“just found a box of new/old stock!)

1994 The Jewel in the Lotus CD (Gas records)

1994/5 Totally Bananas live cassette

2000 Open for Issness (Un released album)

2006 Totally Bananas CD

2011 Live at Sonic Rock CD

2013 Tried So Hard 7” single

2014 Songs from the Temple of Now CD

2019 Surfing The Wave of the Mystery – Live at Kozfest 2018 CD

2019 The Jewel in the Lotus (25th anniversary edition) CD

 

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