This article first appeared in Facelift issue 7 in February 1992. Interview by Phil Howitt
GONG, MOTHER GONG, PARAGONG, PIERRE MOERLEN’S GONG, NEW YORK GONG, PLANET GONG, GONG MAISON … the Gong family has extended in countless directions over the years, each using the Gong monicker to maintain the link with its network of fans and its past. Most have been an outlet for DAEVID ALLEN to distort contemporary sounds with his own distinctive slant, yet of all the Gong bands, MOTHER GONG can probably claim the greatest longevity and stability. Formed in 1979 by GILLI SMYTH, Allen’s erstwhile companion and one half of the musical force which instigated the earliest Gong sounds in the late Sixties, and multi-instrumentalist HARRY WILIAMSON, the band released the Robot Woman trilogy of albums in the Eighties, as well as an earlier album ‘Fairy Tales’.
September 1991 saw Mother Gong return to Britain for a 3-week tour before heading off to the States. The last couple of years seems to have given Mother Gong a new creative lease of life. Readers of the last issue will have noted my excitement about the new ‘all-Australian’ Mother Gong, and the album ‘The Owl And The Tree’, on which Daevid Allen had collaborated. By an extremely happy accident, 3 of the Gaia tour dates were in the North West, whilst a fourth was within trekking distance over in Leeds, where I was able to chat briefly to the band.
Whilst it’s impossible to begrudge Gong Maison their well-deserved success in packing out sizeable venues time and time again, the appeal of the Mother Gong tour was their patronage of low-key provincial venues, ideally suited both to the theatrical side of their performances and their interplay with the audience. The recording of ‘The Owl And The Tree’ had showcased the talents of a slick 5-piece Mother Gong featuring sax player Robert Calvert, bassist Conrad Henderson and drummer Rob George alongside Gilli Harry . This band it was which visited Britain in 1989. For the 1991 tour, however, the practicality of transplanting a band several thousand miles away, allied to Harry Williamson’s command of studio techniques had meant that the group travelled light of a bassist or drummer, with the rhythm section being provided through comprehensive pre-programming of sound laid down by missing members of the band.
I asked Harry Williamson what the genesis of the current band was: ‘Well, we’ve had endless numbers of people in Mother Gong – Mo (Vicarage), Didier Malherbe , Chris Cutler, Fred Frlth, John Greaves.’ (Earlier line-ups also included Hugh Hopper and Guy Evans). We had a line-up two years ago with 5 Australian musicians, and we came over here. and did an album, which has yet to be released: ‘WildChild’ on Demi Monde, and that was an interesting band – and we also did some work with Daevid whilst I was producing his album, ‘Australia Aquaria’. We’d been in the studio for a year or eighteen months once or twice a week, blowing, blowing, blowing and recording it and making pieces out of these long improvisations. The crucial thing was, this listening space where the overall sound is more important than the individual part, so that you’re listening to the whole arrangement rather than your part in it. You’re also aware of your part, but the main thing is the whole. This means you get instant arrangements which sound wonderful, without any mixing. We applied this technique to help various other people to achieve their goals.
‘So it was quite an exciting band. What’s happened is that since we’ve financed the tour ourselves, those members of the band who were not able to find the finance to come over this time, – I mean basically the bass player couldn’t come, and then we were stuck with the idea of possibly being able to afford the drummer. But then the drummer would have to play in time with the sequenced bass line, which seems crazy, really difficult. …
In fact, the line-up settled on four members: Gilli Smyth, Harry Williamson, Robert Calvert and Tom the Poet. Tom was already in England – readers may recognise him as the compere at numerous gigs at the Fridge (including the recent Tim Blake concert, and the Going Going/ Gong Maison showcase last year). Live, the band’s integration was quite extraordinary – testament to that year of regular interaction in a Melbourne studio. This possibly only really became apparent to me having seen them the second or third time – at all times the band were slick, but the sets varied greatly from night to night. If the performance in Bolton was anything to go by, the band can effortlessly maintain 3 hours of entertainment: Tom the Poet has a regular solo spot where he purveys his own form of ranting poetry – relying heavily on interplay with the audience, he stands behind an assortment of placards and urges the crowd to heckle him with the text written there-on. I warmed to him instantly: in his material social comment is liberally decorated with moments of self–parody and tongue-in-cheek observations on alternative lifestyles.
Robert Calvert and Harry Williamson also performed a short set of improvised material at some of the gigs from which a tape has already been culled, and even the main set itself didn’t maintain a constant line-up. Most exciting was the scope for improvisation, although again this might not have been apparent to the audience, so assured were the performances. Musically the majority of the pieces were based around very strong funk or reggae riffs, eminently danceable (as the crowds recognised to differing degrees), but with a lineup that could fully exploit the space left above them, ‘We’ve gone the whole way’ says Harry, ‘and programmed all the effects, and the mixer and all the cues for the microphone, and actually this has made it into a very interesting, technologically advanced show that you would have to have a dedicated sound team that really knew what they were doing. But between those programs we also have areas which are free, random events and interaction with the audience. I’ve tried to meld the two together, so we get the best of both worlds but it’s early days;…’
Gilli Smyth remains a unique vocal talent – it is her patent ‘space whisper’ that provides the most tangible link with the old Gong, a textural, wordless delivery which is allied to dream-like spoken material using the sensual side of the female voice in a range of dynamics and echoed effect. The success of current material for me is the sensitive arrangement of the material, using the lyrical saxophones of Robert Calvert or the glissando guitar and keyboard to create an ambience ideally suited to Gilli Smyth’s voice, evident in early Gong line-ups, but not always apparent in Mother Gong’s material. There is also a more consistent, style of composition which allows the, band to stretch out further. This is not confined merely to the instrumental side of things, since Tom the Poet showed himself to he a rousing influence on proceedings, adding a powerful and ever-changing voice to some of the more masculine tracks (such as the high-energy ecological rant ‘Union Carbide’) or imploring the audience to rise and dance on the uplifting ‘Spiral Dance’.
I asked Gilli whether the move towards less abrasive, stark music had coincided with a lyrical shift. “Well, no, not. really, because Robot Woman had the same ideas. At that stage it was the development of women out of the robot stage’ (the Robot Woman albums featured heavily the examination of women as role models and stereotypes), ‘and now we’ve gone an further than that, looking at men, and how men have to change, and linking up to a whole series of ecological things … There is a whole philosophy behind what we say, mainly behind what I say and what Tom says. The message is still there, I guess. We don’t want to lose the message, but there are just different ways of presenting it”. Harry takes up the story, “Robot Woman is very much stylised, almost cartoon-like images: the sounds are quite bright, and the recording, I think, is less sophisticated, although it’s interesting for all that. It’s curious what you do when you don’t have the technology. Robot Woman I, II and III were all made under wildly different circumstances. The first one was made in quite a rush after having done an American tour and playing Glastonbury, and suddenly we had to get an album out quite quickly to basically catch up with the people who’d seen us at those events:. We’d just met and we were just exploring lots of ideas and hadn’thad much time to think about it, so it was very much intuitive what came out. So it’s a collage/ mish-mash of ideas really – I mean the kids are on it, the dog’s on it, the geese are on it!”
“It’s more of a story”, says Gilli.
“Robot Woman II”, continues Harry, “was made and mixed when we were leaving England and selling up and moving out and dealing with all that sort of stuff that you have to do when you’re moving across 5 continents with a family, and so there was always supposed to be a dream-like quality – it was all a figment, all a creation of one person in one split-second.”
“Robot Woman III was made in Australia mainly on 24-track, again with sequencers – we didn’t have a drummer at the time. We had different guests, and we had all sorts of different technologies that were coming along. The effect of the album is drawn by the technology and the people around. “
Which just about takes us back to the origins of this band. The member of Mother Gong you’ll be least familiar with is saxophonist Robert Calvert. For me, he’s the star of the show: I’d only heard him play on ‘The Owl And The Tree’ and the track ‘Slave Queen’ from ‘Australia Aquaria’ (on which he excels but that was enough to whet my appetite enormously. I wasn’t disappointed. If you can imagine a cross between Christopher Lambert and Steve Martin, you will be able to visualise him well: his on-stage presence is as a dapper, brooding player, stalking his audience with his eyes, soloing beautifully and wandering around the set,adding the odd searing break to procedures. Effortlessly in command as a performer, he never sacrifices his poise and feeling for the sake of technical wizardry. He’s an ideal live instrumental foil to both the rhythm tracks and the vocals.
Interestingly enough, his name crops up on the Mark Hewins’ family tree in the next issue, so I asked him about his musical background: ‘I played with John Stevens’ Away: I worked with John in his workshops that he had running in the early seventies. I was involved in the workshops for about 4 years;, and was a member of the Spontaneous Music Orchestra, and then went on to work with him in Away, which was the pinnacle of the group’s success, because we did the support slot for the Steve Hillage Band in late 1976/77 as well as television, the John Peel Show and the BBC jazz programme.. And that was John’s attempt at being a more commercially acceptable band that would appeal to more people.
“But my Mother Gong connection came from Australia. I was aware of the music when it was happening in the Sixties, but I’d been so pissed off with how the music scene operated that I’d pulled right out of the business. I’d been seriously ripped off. People were going on about. high ideals, and ‘this is the era of change and offering friendship and generosity, and let’s all pull together and be communities,’ whilst the business people were still out there ripping people off. We got so seriously burned that I decided not to have anything to do with that any more and went into the contemporary jazz scene.” Robert later returned to Australia, where he had spent time as a child, and met Harry and Gilli in ’87.
2 years on from the recording of ‘Wild Child’, the record remains unreleased, which must surely put a dampener on the possibility of more material becoming available. Luckily, the GAS network remains an alternative outlet for releases, and there are other things in the pipeline. Gilli: ‘The thing we’re negotiating at the moment is doing ‘Fairy Tales’ in French – we’re going to France before we go to America, because someone wants to put it out with French words, so that’s the next project. And then someone in Australia wants to make a film of the Robot Woman series, which will be fun. So we’d do that half live, and half do it with the animated cartoon that came out with Robot Woman II.” Harry adds, “I’m going to re-mix it and we’re going to release it on CD with a video.”
As for live work, well there is a possibility of the band moving over here on a more permanent basis. Immediately after the English leg of the tour, they were off to America via Paris to play a month of gigs, ‘We start in Houston – there are Mother Gong gigs, gigs for schoolchildren, gigs to feminist groups – it’s not just a regular thing’, explained Gilli, but gigs back in Australia are even harder to come by. “Some people only have to drive to the next town, It’s not fair! We have to come all the way from Australia! There are some people over there they’re starting a GAS centre over there, to do mail outs. and t-shirts, and things, but there just aren’t enough people in Australia. We do a few gigs for Friends of the Earth, but most of the time we just record and save it up.”
So maybe their future as musicians lies over here once more. Let’s hope so, for it wasn’t just my own imagination that was captured by this hugely entertaining and inventive hand. The Gong name is in safe hands once more!
Many thanks go to the band for sparing me some of their time after the Leeds gig, and to Heather for setting it up. Please use GAS!
All good things Gong can be found at www.planetgong.co.uk