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.

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