An interview with Theo Travis

Photo: Dianna Bonner

Although the revitalised Soft Machine consists of 3 instantly recognisable names from the 1970s’ band in Roy Babbington, John Marshall and John Etheridge, it’s Theo Travis I’ve ended up speaking to primarily at the end of recent gigs at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club and Manchester’s Band on the Wall. A performer of relative youth, he’s nonetheless racked up an impressive palmares that encompasses a decade in Gong, even longer in Soft Machine/Soft Machine Legacy as well as a long association with Robert Fripp. That’s not even to mention a long-established solo career stretching out to almost 30 years.

It seems like every surface I’ve scratched recently has revealed a Theo Travis imprint underneath. These range from a cameo role on the impressive Zopp debut CD; to a superb lost album with Mark Hewins called ‘Guerilla Music’, just re-released on bandcamp; to conversations with Leonardo Pavkovic and Richard Sinclair about gigs which eventually led to the reformation of Hatfield and the North in 2005; and most unexpectedly this week stumbling across his contributions on saxophone on the first House of Thandoy album above Mike Howlett’s marvellous funk bass. His renowned unassuming nature and modesty masks an impressive body of work, and he was an obvious initial point of contact when carrying out initial research for the Hugh Hopper biography.

Whilst familiar with Theo’s involvement with Soft Machine Legacy, a collaboration which dated back to Hugh’s involvement in the band in the Noughties (in fact the last time I ever saw Hugh was with Theo at Marsden Jazz festival in October 2006), in fact their paths had already crossed on several occasions in the preceding few years.

“The first time I met and did anything with Hugh, I think it was at the King of Hearts in Norwich (in 2002). It was a Burning Shed night of improvs andexperimental music and I did a set with Hugh. I think Christine, Hugh’s wife played trumpet on a couple of tunes, and then there was another Burning Shed night (in 2004), and again he was involved. Tim Bowness put them together. He’s a creative chap. The first one (predating Hugh’s involvement) was a kind of looping relay race. I don’t think that was with Hugh. That’s the first time I met Steve Lawson (the bass player with whom Theo collaborated and recorded a duo album ‘For The Love of Open Spaces’ together) –  that would have been 2002, I think. That was various people playing solo sets.  People would start and then hand over to someone else. Tim Bowness is always creative and has an interesting approach to music events, and so I played there. I remember that’s where I first met Markus Reuter too.”

Theo recalls that both of the concerts involving Hugh had also involved Roger Eno, brother of Brian, and based locally, as well as Reuter, Bernhard Wöstheinrich, and Peter Chilvers (the piano player, composer who developed the music Apps with Brian Eno such as ‘Bloom’). In between times, however, Hugh had also been involved in helping to contribute to a re-release of Travis’s award-winning 1994 album ‘View From The Edge’, which incorporated a bonus CD containing re-workings of all of the original tracks, in Hugh’s case an almost unrecognisable revamp of ‘The Purple Sky’. “For the re-release I thought it would be nice to have an extra CD of interesting additional tracks whether outtakes or remixes. So Dave Sturt (with whom Theo has collaborated extensively since 1996 on Cipher projects) did the one of ‘Psychogroove’ and then there was a live recording of ‘The Ghosts of Witley Court’. Hugh had expressed interest in doing remixes and I knew he was interested in creating a looping / psychedelic remix  so I said, do you fancy it, and he said yeah!”.

When Elton Dean was ill in early 2006, Theo Travis was approached to step in initially for Soft Machine Legacy to deputise, but this quickly became a permanent arrangement after Elton’s untimely death. Given Theo’s collaborations with Hugh over the previous 3 years one might have assumed that that was the primary connection. But there had been liaisons with other members of the band going back much further: “John Marshall I met just before the ‘View From The Edge’ album. That was ’94 when I first met him, because I knew Jeff Clyne, who was on the same tracks with John.  John Etheridge I’d done some jazz gigs around London, some sort of pub jazz things, middle of 94ish and then I’d done some gigs in his band. Then I’d asked him to guest on the ‘Secret Island’ album which was in ’96.”

I also pointed out the remarkable trio album with John Marshall and ex-Nucleus guitarist Mark Wood which would have been the first I had heard of Theo’s work. “Yeah, great album, great project – though I think we had more reviews than gigs or sales! It was a wonderful group.  The backstory was that I fixed up a rehearsal to go through somenew music with a bass player who never turned up! So we had a bit of a play, the three of us, and I recorded it and I thought, wow, this is amazing! When it came to the album recording , the only brief was that the tracks were to be completely improvised, and to keep pieces quite short!

“I was a bit gobsmacked at how good it all sounded, and 33 Records agreed to put it out. I applied for an improvised touring scheme bursary and in ‘98 we did an 8-10 date tour largely round the improv scene, just the three of us.

“We were a free improvising group that did not only play atonally or on drones. We would often improvise as a group moving freely harmonically and melodically around as a cohesive unit. That requires intense listening and responding musically and following the harmony which is not that common in free improvised groups. It was special!”

“(But) it’s a hard scene if you want to make something out of it. And some improv people thought we were too musical! I remember we sent a demo recording to Elton Dean at the improv club at the Vortex and he said, ‘is this free improv, I don’t think this is free improv’. Well it certainly was and I told him so. There was just more melody and harmony than often appears on that scene.

Soft Machine Legacy in Japan 2007 – Photo: Naouju Makamura

Theo’s involvement with Hugh in Soft Machine Legacy would last for a couple of years, until Hugh fell ill, and result in the 2006/7 Soft Machine Legacy album ‘Steam’, including heavy Travis compositional involvement, including the wonderful closer ‘Anything to Anywhere’ which featured beautiful interweaving layers of soprano saxophone. “I remember something that Hugh particularly liked when I joined was the fact that I did looping on soprano and flute, and I don’t think it was a secret that Hugh wasn’t so keen on the jazz rocky end of things”. And when I put it to Theo that it must have been intimidating stepping into the shoes of such an iconic figure as Elton Dean, he had this to say: “it was always made clear to me, the way Soft Machine always worked, (at least that’s what John Marshall and John Etheridge always said) is that when someone joins the band that’s where the music starts, it’s not a question of recreating…

“No-one ever asked me to play alto, no-one ever asked me to play more like Elton … it just wasn’t the way they looked at things. Elton did many great things but it wasn’t a case of you need to do it like Elton”. Later of course (Theo reckons from 2012) he was able to add keyboards which have provided the band with even more subtlety and variation.

I asked Theo about the airing of Hugh’s compositions within the band – it’s gone on record that the band try and reinterpret a Mike Ratledge composition with each incarnation of the band, be that a line up change or new album – latest evidence being a joyous rendition of the first half of ‘Out-bloody-rageous’ on ‘Hidden Details’, complete with Theo’s recreation of the introductory Mike Ratledge loopscape on keyboards. But Hugh’s compositions have also featured: “we played those ever since I joined. Right from the beginning. We played ‘Kings and Queens’, ‘Facelift’, there were a few Hugh things. One interesting thing about a year ago, we played the Conservative club in Lewes in Sussex and Brian Hopper lives near there and he came along and he played on the gig. He brought along Hugh’s original charts. Which was lovely, a lovely touch to play with Brian, he was very involved in the early stuff and was Hugh’s brother and had the chart which Hugh had used. He did tenor and I did flute. We’ve always liked playing Hugh’s tunes…”

Soft Machine Legacy, Japan 2006: Hugh Hopper, John Etheridge, Theo Travis, John Marshall

I’ve commented before that I’ve found the resistance amongst followers to the band’s more recent use of the name Soft Machine perplexing, particularly given the strength of the music. “There was this whole strange identity crisis about being called Soft Machine Legacy which I don’t think Elton was that bothered about. It was Hugh who didn’t want it to be called Soft Machine. But I just found it weird, because it does sound like a tribute band name. It’s got more members of Soft Machine, especially when Elton and Hugh were in it, than most so called authentic bands with the original name. I mean it had Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper, John Marshall and John Etheridge. Of course it was Soft Machine!

“So what is Soft Machine Legacy? Is it not Soft Machine? I mean it’s not a tribute band. No-one’s got any sort of emotional attachment to Soft Machine Legacy, so what is it?  For me it definitely meant (that) when we dropped the name it was certainly clearer on the gigs, and when we did the album ‘Hidden Details’, the first album that was under the name Soft Machine, that meant something more important  to me. I coined the phrase ‘the first Soft Machine album for 37 years!’. As someone who’s into the whole rock history thing I think it means something.”

‘Hidden Details’, that first Soft Machine album for 37 years is a superb, multi-faceted album well worthy of the band name, and has been followed by a live release ‘Live at the Baked Potato’, which, as Theo eloquently puts it, “It’s a good version of what we do on a good night. It’s had a really positive response. I’m delighted. The CD, the vinyl, people like the recording. Yesterday I (even) saw several posts on Facebook and people were raving about the cover, which was nice too! Originally it was going to be a vinyl-only release, last October or November for the British tour for something to tie us over to the studio album which hopefully we were going to record this spring or summer. The vinyl was delayed until March and then we said that with everything going on we’re not touring this spring and it will probably be next year before the new studio album is released, so we’ll do a proper release (of ‘Baked Potato’) through John Etheridge’s label and Moonjune and Japan and we may as well do the full thing. We weren’t anticipating it, but it’s received a fantastic response.

“I received the multitrack recordings of the Baked Potato gig from Leonardo (of Moonjune Records) last summer and I was pleasantly surprised how good it was, – there’s a great vibe in the room. Everybody played really well. There was very little editing of any.of the performance ”

So what are the plans moving forward for Soft Machine? “We were supposed to be in South America in May and June and then that was off. We had some other gigs. We’ve got the British tour in the autumn but I think that’s going to be postponed. I’ve been busy writing new tunes for the next studio album which we’ll do whenever we can so I’ve been writing and demoing things for that. When we can, we’ll record, when we can, we’ll go on tour. Everything seems to be on hold for the moment so we’ll have to wait and see.”

Theo’s initial involvement with Soft Machine Legacy in fact dates back to a time when he was still involved with Gong, a collaboration which lasted over a decade through the Noughties.

“It was amazing. It was lots of things to be honest. It was my kind of taking a step out of the British jazz world into a more kind of progressive rocky kind of Canterbury world. Because as a teenager I was into, not Gong, but I was very much into Traffic and Pink Floyd and King Crimson and that kind of progressive world. I’d toured in 1997 with Jansen, Barbieri and Kahn with Steve Wilson, but Gong was the first proper crazy rock band touring I did. We sure had some fun. The States trip of 2000 was nuts!

Gong at Nearfest 2009 – Photo: Joe del Tufo

“Daevid Allen was wild and he was many things but he was definitely the real thing. He would infuriate people but at the same time he could be childlike. He was never malicious and it was hard to hold grudges against him even when he was out of order because he had a childlike glint in his eye even as an old man. He was very creative and he was a very good artistic catalyst. He wasn’t an ego man and was lovely.

I’ve talked to Theo before about his huge contributions to the album ‘Zero To Infinity’, for me probably the best Gong album aside from the Trilogy albums and ‘Camembert Electrique’, and Theo told me, “he’d been a catalyst – he’d want to encourage people to do things, he’d want them to write.  It wasn’t like he would say ‘oh, (only) my thing goes..’ He was a very communally creative spirit which was very nice and quite unusual for even, for want of a better word, hippieish band worlds. Daevid wasn’t like that at all. In fact he was the opposite – he was much more comfortable as an anarchist underground/grass roots person than someone in a commercially successful band. That’s exactly what happened in the Seventies, as I understand it, and that’s exactly what happened to the Zero to Infinity band.

Although he loved his time in Gong, Theo did admit that ‘Soft Machine is a much better musical home for me and what I do”. And in terms of the future, “I’m actually writing and recording a solo duduk album! So a mixture of originals, some with electronica, some with strings, and then a couple of traditional pieces and two  or three covers including Gong’s ‘Magdalene’, but my interpretation. It’s quite different from the original version.  I was obviously there at the original session (playing sax) , so I’m just taking it from a different musical angle. I’ve got a home recording setup here so it’s very much something I can work on  whilst I’m at home.

Theo buying his first duduk from Didier Malherbe, July 2017

Before then, as mentioned previously on these pages, in the absence of the prospect of imminent gigs, and hot on the heels of streamed performances by current Gong members Kavus Torabi and Ian East, Theo is gearing up for a solo extravaganza for his own, which he was just off to work out the logistics for after our conversation. On July 30 at 8.15pm he will be performing live: “I’m doing a one-off gig stream, it’s basically going to be solo, flute loops and soprano.”

Thanks to Theo for such an illuminating conversation, more of which will be available to read in the forthcoming Hugh Hopper biography ‘Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening’ to be published by Jazz in Britain.

An interview with Didier Malherbe

As part of my research for the forthcoming Hugh Hopper biography it was a great privilege to speak again to Didier Malherbe. If it was Gong which introduced me to Didier’s charms initially back in the late Eighties, this was very soon matched by exposure to his brilliant debut solo album ‘Bloom’ and as his solo career has blossomed, at one point in parallel to his gigging with Gong in the Nineties, but later primarily through his outstanding Hadouk project, I have made it my mission to collect every album, every collaboration, every connection of his. A bit like that of the man whose connection I was talking to him about.

I interviewed Didier back in 1998 when he was touring with Pierre Bensusan. I also helped to bring the Hadouk trio over to Hebden Bridge in 2011 and Didier solved a puzzle for me during our chat by revealing that the astonishing tabla player who accompanied him and Loy Ehrlich on that UK tour was in fact Prabhu Edouard. “Steve couldn’t do the tour so we played with him – he’s very good”. More recently I also wrote a feature about my quest to find his elusive album with Khampha Inthisane.

Hadouk Trio – Photo: Philippe Glorioso

Although Didier and Hugh’s paths certainly crossed  in the Seventies (“Soft Machine played as part of the Fete D’Humanite (Paris, 1971) – we were introduced after the concerts and we shook hands. They had piles of Marshall amps and were playing very loud”) and again during the autumn of 1974 when Gong’s ‘You’ tour was supported by Isotope, the first time they appeared together on record, as a result of the flurry of activity described in my interview with Harry Williamson, their paths didn’t directly cross “I came to Devon but not at the time Hugh was there, as far as I remember”. A number of projects which came out of the melting pot of Oxes Cross in 1981, one of which was the album ‘Melodic Destiny’, whose release has only ever happened on the GAS/Ottersongs tape label.  “We recorded with Yan Emeric, his real name is Yan Vagh, I still see him from time to time. We had a duo together so when we were there, Harry had this idea of printing some cassettes of Melodic Destiny.” This gentle but intricate folky project was somewhat pared down from the funky jazz fusion of ‘Bloom’ and I wondered why it had never been released, since, after all, many albums of worse quality, both musically and sonically, have been plundered from the vaults over the years. “Well, I don’t know either!  I think we didn’t stay very long together as a duet. That might be the reason. I don’t know if the format was commercial enough, the sound is OK.”

Didier’s unreleased album ‘Melodic Destiny’ (1981)

I asked if there had ever been any possibility to release the album on the coat tails of the brilliant ‘Bloom’ album.

“For Bloom, my first record I had the group, I gathered some people, Yan Vagh the guitar player (and Jano Padovani, Winston Berkeley, Mico Nissim) and then we went to a beautiful studio down south with Jacques Loussier and we did the record.  Then the guy who was supposed to produce and pay for the studio  went bankrupt. Karakos – you know the story, a long story. And so he got bankrupt, so I had to wait a year before I could find proper distribution.  It was difficult to find distribution.

“I finally found Sonopresse which was (part of the) Pathe Marconi division but they didn’t do anything. They did the cover, they used a very famous photographer to do the sleeve and then they kind of imposed this photograph idea, I didn’t especially like it, I kind of like the other side, with the spring shoes,  but not the one on the front….” When the album was issued on CD by Voiceprint in the early 2000s, it appeared with a new cover from Christine Malherbe.

Original back cover of Bloom
Original front cover of Bloom
New Bloom cover: Christine Malherbe

“We were supposed to do another EP but they were bought out by an English company, so they didn’t have enough money, so they preferred me to do a single. So I did a funny single (‘Danskorla’), which is kind of a song which is interesting, but the B side is fantastic. ‘The Bong’ Is much better with great musicians, African musicians. Really very good. And I still like it, although the first side is fun.”

Danskorla/The Bong – ‘lost’ Didier Malherbe single

And so the first genuine collaboration with Hugh was firstly Pip Pyle’s Equipe Out, then with Short Wave, which originally started as Hugh Hopper’s ‘Special Friends’ project. More of that in the biography, but we also had chance to talk about a range of other things.

Pip Pyle’s Equipe Out

I asked Didier about whether he had been experimenting with the doudouk as far back as Short Wave. “No,  I was playing the tenor saxophone. And flute, which were the instruments I was playing with Gong. And soprano. (Earlier) I played  Yamaha wind synthesizer. I played this instrument thoroughly for maybe 3 years and then I was really fed up with electronics and I came across the Zeff, which is just a harmonic flute, very simple, and as a matter of fact the Zeff, I worked a lot with it, it was very successful, I played it on TV, day to day music and also for Vangelis, it was very acoustic so it turned me on to the acoustic thing more.

Short Wave Live

“I played that with Shapeshifter. And I played it in Japan with Brigitte Fontaine. We went to a tour in Japan. Although it was a Japanese instrument the way I was playing it they were quite impressed! Then I got fed up with with electronics and cables so I came across the doudouk! And I carried on with it.

“I changed a lot you know. I stopped playing lots of saxophones. I stopped playing with drummers. I was always very much into playing acoustic things – I had a big turning.

“That’s also why I didn’t stay very long in jazz rock outfits. With bass and drums, it doesn’t fit the doudouk much. So I had a big turning at that time. That’s why I didn’t really persist with Short Wave, which is a shame because they were really nice musicians. “

I mentioned that probably my favourite document of Didier performing live is an extraordinary video with a master of the doudouk, Djivan Gasparian alongside Patrice Meyer “we went to Russia. That’s my composition (‘Serpent D’Etoiles’), it’s on Fluvius. It’s a nice one.” So was this during the early stages of learning the doudouk? “yes, I wouldn’t have played the doudouk on TV!. And he played along and improvised a bit, which was amazing.” I put it to Didier that he seemed to have a habit of going back to the source of an instrument’s origins to learn it, and compared his love affair with the doudouk to that of the khaen, the extraordinary instrument from Laos.

“Yes, we went 4 times to Laos. I’ve played the khaen for a long time because when we moved in with Gong in the last house that Virgin had rented for us near Chessington Zoo, I remember there was an old khaen on the wall, abandoned, and I became interested in the khaen. And then the poor khaen, it fell into pieces!” But Didier discovered the instrument again later “I was invited by the Laos French cultural centre, so of course I went there and I met some very good khaen players and I played some nice instruments although it’s difficult to get them tuned in. But anyway I went with Hadouk the second time and I went with my wife the third time, so 3 times.

“I am interested in playing very aged instruments with a long tradition – I bring what I have in me to mix up with the technique of doudouk or khaen, which aren’t very easy. With doudouk there are not so many notes, it is always fingers. It is difficult to master to have a good sound, it takes a lot of breath and it is not very noisy. The khaen is even more difficult because it (has a) keyboard – it is all very illogical. But I play a lot of khaen at the moment. I have some really nice pieces, I’m not sure what to do with, maybe a record.

Which brings us to the present. Most of you reading this will know that Didier suffered an accident around 18 months ago which has limited his ability to play “Something made me faint and my jaw was broken in two places. It’s a handicap – all this time I couldn’t play flute, I had to play straight flute. Fortunately there are lots of instruments I can play like the Ukranian recorder or the Chinese hulusi. But I can’t play saxophone. I’ve managed to play some flute since one week. So I play lots of flute. We try to keep our personal motivations but there are no gigs! No gigs until next year.

Before Covid, Didier had played a little in the last year or so: he appeared at the Hugh Hopper tribute gig in Paris back in May 2019, and also popped up at the festival in October at Gasny, “I do a solo act where I recite some poetry and then I play instruments – I was invited to a place where MASHU were playing”. This completes another neat Hugh link as MASHU (Mark Hewins, Shyamal Maitra, Hugh Hopper – Jack Monck performed at the Gasny gig) were another band Didier guested with back in the Nineties. Let’s hope that Didier’s health continues to improve and that circumstances allow him to continue to perform in the near future. Merci Didier!

For all things Didier, visit