An interview with Fred Thelonious Baker for the launch of Phil Miller/Fred Baker: Double Up 2

As part of the series of interviews for the Hugh Hopper biography I had the very great pleasure of having a Zoom conversation last month with Hugh’s fellow bass player Fred Baker. Fred, like me, is a Derbyshire lad and I’ve been a fan ever since I took my Dad to see him play alongside John Etheridge and Elton Dean in Fred’s native Chesterfield in the late Eighties. Fred, of course, replaced Hugh in In Cahoots and I saw him numerous times with the latter band, as well as a couple of duo gigs with Phil Miller, one of which, in Manchester, I helped promote.

Fred has just become the permanent bassist with Soft Machine, a band with whom he has played many times over the years, sitting in for extended periods for, firstly, Hugh Hopper, and latterly Roy Babbington. It was the perfect time to speak to him for not only are Soft Machine already a few dates into their latest tour (with John Etheridge, Theo Travis and a revolving drum seat incorporating John Marshall and Nic France), but also due to the appearance of the long awaited ‘Double Up 2’, a follow up to Phil and Fred’s fantastic first duo album almost three decades ago. This has been released thanks to the enduring generosity of Phil’s widow Herm, and the hard endeavours of her son Kyle, engineer Benj Lefevre, and of course Fred himself.

First we talked about how Fred has kept himself busy through lockdown

“I’m just catching up on things here. I spent time practicing the acoustic guitar and the acoustic bass when we had that first lockdown and even the second. I kept writing. I have to because I can’t play otherwise. Just got to keep the old fingers happening. My 60th birthday fell in the first lockdown, and I had planned to have a celebratory concert in Chesterfield’s iconic church ‘The Crooked Spire’. Originally were going to try and release the duo album and get John Etheridge and maybe Doug (Boyle) to come and play on some tracks to launch it, but we’re not doing that now. We’re going do some gigs though for it at some point. The Crooked Spire is magnificent. I mean, I’ve seen everything there, bell tours, some really nice organ recitals in there and I played percussion with the Youth Orchestra there in 76/77.

The Crooked Spire, Chesterfield

“I wanted to try and do a solo bass performance there with surround bass. The music is stuck in the vaults with Mark Randell, the chief engineer at Derby University. We’ve been recording it with surround sound so you get one string coming out of 5.1, all around you. This takes a lot of mixing just for one track!”

Double Up, a duo album from Fred and Phil Miller, for me is one of the crowning jewels of latter day Canterbury scene music, a relatively undiscovered and beautifully serene series f pieces which Phil and Fred replicated so beautifully live as a duo act. So what about Double Up 2 and what is its history?

“It was always on the backburner a bit. We did various work towards it over the years. We’d got some stuff already put on to ADATs.  Luckily Herm managed to find these master tapes. We had to rescue them because we tried to play one back on Phil’s old ADAT machine and it started chewing it up! So me and Benj said, right, let’s get this done, so we got it all transferred professionally into WAV files and revived a lot of the stuff I knew was there. It was going back over about 25-30 years of stuff that had been transferred in various ways with bits missing, and we had to edit a few things together to make sense of it. Benj worked like a trojan on it, he was incredible.”

So was this always intended to be an immediate follow up to ‘Double Up’?

“The trouble was that we got so busy with the band (In Cahoots) it was really hard to fit things in. We did more work on it in the late Nineties and Noughties as Phil got more equipment, and invested in all that stuff to do the sound processing. But we had problems with that. As Phil got a bit ill, actually he was doing more bits and pieces for the duo than I was. We’d play bits in the garden. We always liked each other’s company, playing music and seeing what each other was up to, so we kept working.

Recording Double Up 2 in Phil’s studio

“Some of those pieces that he’s played with other bands – I remember I finished one off in John Etheridge’s flat years and years ago as kind of a replacement for Underdub, quite an up-tempo thing. I remember doing some of the summer schools working with John (Etheridge) and I stayed at his flat for a couple of days in the early to mid 90s and finished this all off, this and came up with ‘Upside’

“Phil wanted to use it with the band but really I composed that as a duo piece. Some things have had a different life. Other things that were performed with an ensemble we’ve gone back to a duo version.

Phil and Fred, Russia

“Some things won’t appear on Double Up 2 that we tried live, like that amazing piece called ‘Flashpoint’ which was very intricate. But I’m going to do a demo for that for the (Phil Miller Legacy) site at some point. It’s a real finger-buster. When we recorded that for the album Conspiracy Theories I borrowed Richard Sinclair’s bass because mine was too hard to play, I had got the action too high!

Fans of Alan Gowen and Gilgamesh will also recognize the first piece

“When we came and played in Manchester (the duo gig at the Star and Garter) we played Alan Gowen’s piece ‘Arriving Twice’ going into the song I wrote for my dad ‘Big Fred’– it was a lovely blend,  reminiscent of Bach’s music. Benj managed to do a really good mix of those tracks so that all the parts come out well, it is played very straight, as it is written, so that ‘Arriving Twice’ and ‘Big Fred’ are almost what you would have heard live.

“Then there’s other tracks like ‘Upside’ and there are some great pieces on there like ‘Adagio for Fretless Bass’ which Phil was going to use as a string ensemble at some point in the future, like a solo bass with strings. A fantastic bass piece. There are also some experimental things at the end with loops and bits of crazy improv: ‘Looped Out.’. Another track is ‘Out There’ from one of the later In Cahoots albums ‘All That’. Then there’s a lovely piece ‘Folk Dance’ that Patrice and Eth did it at the memorial concert. It’s like a Spanish dance.  Previously Phil changed the melody when he did it with Jack (Monck) and The Relatives but on Double Up 2 it’s really more like a lively Spanish piece with an outside section.  We used my Spanish guitar. Phil had thought about that. In fact Phil had got this lovely 12 string which I now own, a Fender Acoustic.  I’ve got an old 12 string but this is even nicer. Phil was going to play some tracks on the 12 string and then I would have played the other one but we never got round to it unfortunately.

“The challenges with the sound were to keep it interesting for people listening to the music. I think having different textures for guitars is always the thing, trying to get that acoustic thing to happen – to get the sound off the body rather than it being just a plug in PA sound. It has always been the thing for me, the most natural I can get. For me, in the duo format, the hardest thing is trying to incorporate all the parts that a bigger ensemble would normally play. It really makes you think in a different way, with an extra effort sometimes to make these parts work.

“The whole project is, thanks to Benj and to Herm for finding it. Dave Stewart has been very helpful in getting all the links with Burning Shed and technical help from Barbara Gaskin. That’s nice because it’s everybody doing a bit for Phil.”

Phil and Fred, Belgium

We moved on to talk about the legacy of scores, music and performance which Herm, via Fred, has bequeathed to the Birmingham Conservatoire, where Fred has taught guitar and bass for a number of years.

“Jeremy Price, Head of Jazz suggested a Phil Miller Prize – having a competition for a solo guitar. At first it was very open, the idea was in its infancy. Then Herm said she wanted the students to learn to play a piece of Phil’music, so this is now what the competition is.  One of the good things about lockdown is that I actually sat down and worked out how to arrange some of Phil’s pieces for solo guitar which we have filmed as masterclasses for the students. Pieces like  ‘Phyrgian Blues’- because it works fantastically on the guitar as a solo piece if you work it all out correctly, and ‘Early Days’ which is a great bluesy thing with a lot of extra bits to it, with all those incredible changes. It proves how a lot of  Phil’s music can be adapted for solo guitar. Since I’ve done the odd solo concert, or with my trio, I have got a much better hook on all this music, so I sat down to work on it, getting my hands into all sorts of knots!

“Lockdown has prevented the Phil Miller Prize event for the last 2 years since when it has developed to include a solo and a duo prize. The duo prize means that bass players can have a go at this as well. It means that bass players and guitars can get a set together. So hopefully this year this will happen.

“Herm really wanted to make it a night of Phil’s music and we thought it was a nice challenge and maybe other people would get interested in it. We have also decided to have a band, a legacy band playing Phil’s music, to include sax, trumpet trombone and keyboards as well, drummers, whatever. Maybe we could have different guests that could come and play, it could be John (Etheridge), it could be Fletch (Mark Fletcher) on kit, or Alex (Maguire) on keyboards. Every year I could get a guest to come and play. And the great thing about Birmingham is that it has got two proper Hammonds down there, so my intention is to use some Hammonds on tracks rather than synth or Rhodes.

Performing at the Adrian Boult Hall at the Conservatoire (now demolished)

“So the idea is that in addition to getting everything assessed we will get a night of Phil’s music. So: solo, duos and a band, which I will be directing and playing in. It should be the middle of June. It should be a great celebration!”

In terms of the Conservatoire, the ‘legacy’ is more than just a series of planned concerts and prizes, with the Keeper of the Archives: Dr Pedro Cravinho taking possession for the institution of a whole host of material, as he told me via email last year “Over the past year and a half, I have been involved in the process of transferring the Phil Miller collection from London to Birmingham. Now the collection is at the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media (ADM) Archive and soon I will resume the process of cataloguing it”.

Fred continues: “It’s all of Phil’s scores going back over time. It’s important we’ve got access to all this material so that if any student wants to study it, it is all going to be available in the vaults. They are going to get all the original scores – it’s all going to be computerized so everyone has got access to it. Also included are the huge amount of Phil’s Sebelius scores. Hopefully they can get into them all to see what is on there – preserved for infinity.

“In Cahoots did some lovely workshops in the old Conservatoire and I remember getting Elton up there and Jim and we did some specials with Doug Boyle as well. Whenever we had a tour I would try and get a slot so we could do something there. That’s where the connection started”.

Fred also talked about Phil’s music which he has already performed with his trio (containing Nick Twyman and Mickey O’Brien) (video) link, which he hopes to continue to perform. All in all a true legacy!

https://philmillerthelegacy.com/videos/fred-baker-trio-truly-yours/

Double Up 2 is available at https://burningshed.com/phil-miller_fred-baker_double-up-2_cd

Catch Fred on tour with Soft Machine at the following gigs:

Phil Miller Legacy website is at https://philmillerthelegacy.com/

Fred’s master classes are at https://philmillerthelegacy.com/fred-t-baker-master-class/

Many thanks to Herm for the pictures used here

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