An interview with Harry Williamson

Harry Williamson with Gilli Smyth, Robot Woman Box Set

Harry Williamson is actually the first person I’ve interviewed twice. When I first met him, almost thirty years ago, in a tiny changing room above the Duchess of York pub in Leeds, I was primarily there to talk to his then partner, Gilli Smyth, at the end of a 4 day stint following their band Mother Gong around the North West. Interviewing a band on tour is probably not the most ideal way of going about factfinding – you either catch them prior to a gig, when nerves are aplenty and musicians are beholden to soundchecks and waiting for their food to arrive; or else in this case, it’s post-gig, with adrenaline pumping and clearly the last time would want to answer questions on the minutae of something that might have happened 20 years before!.

And so take two is very much a different experience. Over a video link to Melbourne, Australia, Harry Williamson is relaxed, charming and open-minded about our chat to delve into his memories of working with Hugh Hopper, a lesser-known but rather interesting chapter from Hugh’s life from as far back as 1981 when he popped by for a few days to Devon and ended up contributing to no less than 4 albums! Some of the finer details of Harry’s experiences of working with Hugh will appear in the forthcoming Hugh Hopper biography ‘Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening’, but we covered other ground too, which is what you’ll mainly find below. A useful starting point is reading the extensive liner notes in the 64 page album which accompanies the Mother Gong ‘Robot Woman’ boxset, which paints a picture of an idyllic setup in Ox’s Cross, Devon where Harry and Gilli accommodated many musicians whilst self-sustaining and producing copious amounts of music, some released officially, some on the GAS tape network, and some seemingly lost forever.

Harry takes up the story about the home studio and the community which revolved around it. “There’s a black and white photograph (in the box set) where it says Home for Owls and Home for Musicians – it was an A shaped building, an A frame studio. I don’t have any photographs of it from inside, unfortunately, but it had beautiful acoustics because it was all wood at angles, and books.

Ox’s Cross Studio, published Robot Woman Box Set

“We were super creative – we were doing 5 albums or so at the same time. Didier and Yan (Emeric) had come over to do Glastonbury in 1981 (with Mother Gong), essentially and part of the deal was ‘if we come over, can we do an album?’

“’Yes we can do an album. How long have we got?’

“‘Three weeks, oh that should be plenty!’ Forgetting of course that they had to learn the main album (‘Robot Woman 1’) and perform it in front of 70000 people! And then another album – Guy’s album (‘The Long Hello Volume 4’).

“‘Can we do some of that at the same time?’ ‘Sure, why not? And actually, how many albums are we doing?’

“I wouldn’t do that now – it’s too many. But, carpe diem, I was seizing the moment, because here everyone was, they were into it, it was fun and why wouldn’t you? But now I would be a bit more circumspect and have more discussions.”

The Guy in question was of course Guy Evans, drummer with Van der Graaf Generator, although by that time VdGG had disbanded, seemingly for good. The Long Hello project was a set of 4 albums based around the music of the constituent members of Van der Graaf Generator (excluding Peter Hammill) and had run since the band’s fallow period in the early Seventies. “Guy lived with us in Devon for a few years and he was on everything. We were just a musical community really. The saxophone player, David Jackson, he had this triple octave box and when he played a low saxophone you could hear the individual beats, a really huge sound. I liked him, they were a funny lot, really nice.”

The album that Didier and Yan Emeric had suggested, did come about, although it was never released other than as a GAS tape. This was ‘Melodic Destiny’ the lost Didier album. “One of the tracks we did on Melodic Destiny was ‘Bloomdido’, (Charlie Parker’s standard) which is quite ironic really. It’s a very funny track, it’s a scat track, it’s very well done actually, which makes it disappointing really (that the album never came out).

“I had no idea that (Melodic Destiny) had sunk without a trace and was one of those missing albums, and was missing at sea. I just gave them the masters and said goodbye to it. I just kept a seven and a half inch copy. I loved that album. I was very fond of it. I thought it was very cheeky, there were so many jazz references in an ‘out there’ way, but simple. Not overdone but well played. I was disappointed that the record company at the time thought it was a ‘good demo’. Yes, sure, but I think it was more than a demo. But that was their choice but our loss.

“There was one amazing thing I did with Shyamal and Didier which was where Shyamal does a 64 beat rhythm cycle – a long sentence of accents as you can imagine. It’s kind of like trying to recite an entire 8 verse poem as a rhythm exercise and trying to repeat that. So he did this amazing bit of tabla playing and Didier had a piece of music to go with it, and they said do you want to play along, and by the way can you engineer please? So I was doing all that and I was playing pads, but not much actually because I was quite blown away by what they were doing. We were very naughty and we started about 1 or 2am and right at the end of it at 4:30am Shyamal had just finished his final overdub and I was playing back the tracks, and he went out to get a cup of tea. Didier had gone to bed, and I was tidying up and doing a rough mix or something, and I heard this singing. And I was very sure there was no one else around.    I looked down through the double glass into the drum room, and couldn’t see anyone. But there was singing going on so I found a couple of tracks and recorded it and finished. What had happened was that a blackbird had woken up and heard this high frequency sound in the headphones and come into the booth and started singing back to the harmonics it was hearing in the music. And it was beautiful, it was amazing and so unlikely, I mean when does that happen? And I managed to record it! So I’ve got a blackbird finishing off the recording!”

The highlight of ‘Melodic Destiny’, was the track ‘Evidance’, which has recently resurfaced on the Robot Woman box set. “That strange track, Evidance, is also typically Bloom – ‘Heavy Dance’, like dancing in the mud. It’s also a reference to when we went to Norway to play at the midnight sun festival at Trondheim, with Jean Philippe Rykiel, Didier and Gilli and myself and the drummer from Henry Cow – Chris Cutler, and this was an unusual band, with Dayne playing bass. There was a hiliarious ‘petite histoire’ for this particular gig which, on second thoughts, I have decided not to include in this piece to protect the ‘innocent’. Chris Cutler has no memories of said incident although in a recent email he did concede ‘I remember I scratched my cornea and had to (be) an outpatient…’

I put it to Harry that the immense period of activity had its parallels to his work at the end of the Eighties, around the same time that Daevid Allen returned to the UK, resurrected the Gong project and was involved in other parallel solo projects which also involved Harry.

Harry Williamson, Gilli Smyth, Daevid Allen from Robot Woman Box Set

“You have me cornered sir! What was the common element of those two projects? Could it be me? You’re right about the Foel sessions – as you said we had Gong Maison, Wild Child, Australia Aquaria all at the same time and the tour – there were two tours actually, the Gong Maison tour and the Mother Gong tour. I suppose the thing was that we were there and we were only there for a short time and we had the opportunity to do these things.”

One highlight of the whole batch of recordings was the seminal Mother Gong album ‘Wild Child’. “So, Gilli had come back after her mother had died – she died when Gilli arrived in the UK from Australia, so Gilli went straight to the funeral. When she came to the studio she was obviously visibly moved and very emotionally overwrought, and she put that energy, sadness, anger, compassion and insight, all these mixtures of intense female energy into those tracks. And it was great she had somewhere to put it, it could be very destructive to try and keep that inside you if you don’t express it.  I think that’s one of the reasons that album is quite a powerful album – it says a lot of truth in all sorts of ways, and it is her story of who she is, the Wild Child. But that’s an aside for another day….”

And so finally a sneak preview of what we talked about in relation to Hugh Hopper.  That brief stay in Devon yielded contributions not just to ‘Robot Woman 1’ and ‘Melodic Destiny’ but also Harry’s ‘Battle of the Birds’ album with Anthony Phillips and a Mother Gong GAS tape ‘WFM’ (or ‘Words Fail Me’) with instrument inventor Dave Sawyer.

“Hugh’s manifestation of his intentions was powerful. When he played a note, he always seemed to me to be doing so with a lot of meaning. I think I probably felt a bit overawed by him actually! Even though he wasn’t necessarily doing that much. He certainly wasn’t taking control or being a prima donna or playing everywhere. He was very easy to work with and understood tuning very precisely. There were little conversations about how we were going to do this. And he was saying, shall I follow the voices because they are slightly out (of tune) and I was aware of that so we were able to make decisions on the spot that were very sophisticated, so, great ear…. So I had Didier who was the soloist and I had Gilli who was soloing in her own orb and in her own world of sound which is amazing, and you have to be careful with that voice so you don’t swamp it or else you lose the subtlety.

“And then I had Guy – great drummer and very creative percussionist, Dayne, great bass player, very melodic and very funky – they were a great rhythm section together and I was thinking how can I afford to have someone like Hugh, because he was like, too big! – there’s not enough space for him! He was a force of nature – such a presence and great sense of humour too. He didn’t have to prove anything, because when you’re younger you want to try and prove stuff. I think what happens is that when you get older you play fewer notes and hopefully they mean more!”

All of which I think is a lovely personal and musical commendation to start my exploration of Hugh’s interactions with others. Many many thanks to Harry for being such a willing interviewee and passing on so many lovely stories.

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