This interview was published in Facelift Issue 15. It appeared for a while on Phil Miller’s website but is no longer visible – hence it’s posting here.
By Nick Loebner
Last summer I had the very great pleasure of meeting Phil Miller in his North London home. Now located in Dalston a mere stone’s throw from Stoke Newington and Elton Dean‘s own Vortex Jazz club and also Homerton immortalised in the track title of Hatfield and the North’s first album. Inevitably, Elton’s club has seen many appearances from the Canterbury Scene luminaries, including a wonderful Sunday slot featuring the two duets of Hopper Hewins (thankfully captured and released on CD, “Adreamor”) and Miller/Baker who delivered a remarkably powerful set that day (which I covered in a past issue of the “Canterbury Newsletter).
At Phil’s home he afforded me plenty of time to cover his whole career from his first group to the many present day projects. ‘The first band I was in that recorded with was Delivery. That was with my brother Steve, Pip Pyle on drums, Carol Grimes singing, Lol Coxhill playing saxophone, and Roy Babbington [who later succeeded Hugh Hopper in The Soft Machine] on bass, that was the first proper band really. There were various stages.’ They recorded an album, Fools’ Meeting, about which Phil is somewhat lukewarm.. ‘It wasn’t a particularly good record but I think it represented what we did. It was pretty simple, pretty good bass playing, which was the best thing about it.. it was just a small label called B&C, Beat and Commercial Just a label that was interested.’
His next project was DC and the MBs. For the uninitiated, the acronym refers to the somewhat bizarre ‘combo’,- Dyble, Coxhill and the Miller Brothers (Phil and Steve): ‘That was just a band that got together for a few gigs and a short tour of Holland. It was good fun. It was excellent working with Lol it was really his band and he was dragging us along for the fun as it were.’
I ventured to suggest that this was a very strange lineup: ‘Well that’s it with Lol.. there’s a lot of theatre involved, and odd pairings… I did a very nice gig with Lol at the Purcell Rooms only a couple months ago (presumably early 1995) with my brother Steve, lots of other people, Mark Saunders on drums, Pat Thomas on keyboards… it was quite a good band.. Lol’s a very nice person to work with, but you always get asked to do … improvise and things. He’s not a band leader he doesn’t like to crack the whip, although at the Purcell Rooms he did get everyone there to rehearse in the afternoon and carefully went through a few details… chord sequences and things and then [he] abandons them and does things entirely differently!… it is perverse but there is a logic to it, it throws you from a fixed idea of what should happen and it frees things up a bit to have things abandoned and something better takes its place.’
‘Lol said to me after that gig that he had just done one of the best gigs in his life with a ska band in Brentford, after hours blues, drinking, and he really enjoyed it.’Sadly unrecorded, DC and the MBs passed into history and we can only wonder what on earth they sounded like. ‘I was friendly with Robert (Wyatt) and had done some playing with him and he was forming a band and kindly asked me to join.’ This was, of courseRobert’s Matching Mole. There were two albums recorded, the second of which with the illustrious Robert Fripp at the production helm. Although involved at the start (together with Phil, Robert and Bill MacCormick), Dave Sinclair had left the fold when they commenced recording ‘Matching Mole’s Little Red Record’; ‘We were fortunate to have Dave MacRae on keyboards which was an excellent choice. He was very experienced and liked all forms of music. He wasn’t just a jazz keyboard player which was what he could do but he fitted in well and enjoyed playing with other musicians and playing what we did. I learnt a lot from him.’
Of his predecessor’s motives for quitting Phil remains sympathetic., ‘Dave Sinclair is an excellent keyboard player but he had a much more fixed idea of what he wanted out of music and it wasn’t that, we tried a few ideas of doing material of his, and play over it in an expanded way, easier said than done really. Dave liked doing the songs but it didn’t make absolute sense to him so he decided not to do it. He wasn’t asked to leave or anything, it just seemed a natural thing, enough is enough…’ I suggested that Dave’s muse drives him in more conventional or accessible directions in comparison with the path the rest of the band were following: ‘He was always going that way, an excellent keyboard player but a pop musician and one that had the ears to go beyond that, I don’t mean that in a snobbish way but he had a tot of natural talent and he didn’t choose to use it in a diverse way.’
Nan True’s Hole, a number still performed today by Short Wave dates from Phil’s days in Matching Mole. Yet in common with many others who have been continually active musically he seems more willing to promote his current efforts that re-tread successes of the past ‘Yes that’s the way things go. If one gets asked to play things from another band I’m only happy to oblige within reason, especially if it’s something easy or basic or something I still know I don’t want to do too much of that but its ok. ‘ Of this number Phil continues. ‘… its a heavy riff that you can do anything over. It still demands a lot of ingenuity to find ways around it in a sense – although it has been around far too long it should be replaced by something better – as you get more fluent at writing you no longer necessary write simple and effective things, and it’s quite nice to have a few of those in the bank as it were to pull out… the tunes you tend to go back to ~ a certain musical framework which you can change and alter. Certain tunes don’t do that, you have to play them as they are. Although that is a simple riff it’s what you can do within that, how you can change that, substitute it. Some bits of music lend themselves to exploration on stage and others don’t and you just have to do those the best way.’
When I asked him if he had ever written anything in similar vein he replied.. ‘Not as Nan True’s Hole no, but you know one might be on the cards, there are similar things of that ilk that I really like, more complicated than that, but the basic idea, riff or line, can be used again.’
Moving on to discuss Phil’s own band, which he’s been leading since the early eighties: I mentioned the marvellous ‘Your Root 2’ featured on the second album, ‘Split Seconds’ released in 1988 which saw the inclusion of Peter Lemer and featured a virtuoso contribution from then new-boy Fred Thelonious Baker Of Pete Lemer and this track Phil comments: ‘he was the only one who could make that arpeggio swing, although it’s not that hard to play in itself it’s hard to play for five minutes without faltering, which is what has to be done. Pete’s amazing at doing those motor rhythms so it’s just ideal for him to do, and I wrote it on guitar and I can play guitar but he can play it so much better and faster’
Of Fred’s introduction Phil comments: “That was another fortunate move, Elton recommended him, Hugh left and it went from there really. A good choice. He’s the first person I call as far as bass is concerned and it was an excellent surprise to find that he is an equally good guitarist, it was really nice meeting him… He’s a tremendous player. He can do anything Fred. He’s one of those musicians that you can count on, he can play anything within reason… it’s very seldom that you find him defeated…’
I then dragged the conversation back to the ‘Mole and specifically Fripp’s strong involvement.. ‘he is a man with opinions and he puts them forward. ‘Unfortunately Phil feels that Fripp was perhaps suffering from over commitment at this stage and the band were also somewhat to blame for resting too much responsibility for the album’s production at his feet,’I think his problem was that he was very busy at the time, he was rehearsing King Crimson or something, getting Bruford rehearsed, and flitting from the studio, he was a good producer but I think he could have spent a bit more time mixing it.. He mixed the album on his own, he didn’t do such a bad job of it except it was a very small sound.. like it was done on a cassette, shouldn’t’ve been like that…’ Nevertheless Phl] continues, ‘ he was very on the ball, listening a lot and trying to enjoy the music and he was very positive. I was sad in the way the mix came out but that wasn’t anything to do with his vibe in the studio… I think that was just because he was rushed off his feet, and I think mixing is a hard thing to do… I’m sure I’d have done a lot worse. It did sound small and rather compressed and didn’t have much dynamic to it. But he was very hip about hearing what was going on in the music: which was a good performance, which wasn’t and when to call it a day. He was a good choice.”
I suggested that this band’s best legacy may in fact be the BBC session recently released by Windsong ‘Yes, I think both of the albums were… a bit stiff and intimidated by the studio, there were other things which were also intimidating, tricky parts to play and not quite making this, that, or the other and certain things like that ‘. Of Robert’s contribution’s Phil is very complimentary.. ‘He’s superb, absolutely brilliant, very inventive and very inspiring. it was a joy he was very loud and positive, brilliant.’
Ultimately of course, as Phil put it.. ‘bands have a natural life as such and that one had a fairly short one. Robert got tired of it, didn’t want to do it any more, which is fair enough. I guess Robert had something else in mind that he wanted to do and a band’s a big responsibility it’s something you need to hold together but you can’t do it at that intensity for that long. You have to either spread it out gradually and slot in other projects but in a sense I don’t think he felt like that, he just held it together for a couple of years and then decided that enough was enough for him. He wanted to do something else. Because it is very time consuming. At the end you think well you do all this work – organising, meeting people – you’re not actually involved in making the music, you’re further removed from that…’
And this band had been VERY active: ‘Lots and lots of gigs. Too many to remember. Lots of tours – with Soft Machine and John Mayall, tours of Europe, several tours on our own, and festivals and things like that.. The Roundhouse opposite people like Mike Gibson, Maxwell Davis, some really tough opposition, not that I was up to it then [modest, eh?]’.
The Genesis of Hatfield
When Phil next surfaced it was in the awesome Hatfield and the North: ‘As Matching Mole came to [an end], I was playing with Richard Sinclair and Pip, and my brother Steve, we’d jam and that sort of thing, it was only natural to go on from there to get a band together and gradually.. and after a while my brother’s sort of way of playing keyboards – he didn’t suit the way Richard and I wanted to work, which is much more formalised funnily enough. I suppose when you re working with someone like Richard Sinclair who’s got millions of chords and there are all sorts of things done on guitar, you either need to write them down on paper or learn them by heart or by rote… it didn’t really suit my brother’s more open style of playing, learning all the tunes by heart it didn’t seem to be what he wanted to do.
So we parted company and tried a few keyboard players, Dave Sinclair and the same problems with Matching Mole surfaced there… we tried Alan Gowen, who at that time was a very decent, good keyboard player but he didn’t have such good gear. Then Dave Stewart came along and he had all the sounds so that’s what we went with in the end, and later on obviously we played gigs with Alan and his quartet anyway, so it all worked out. Alan got equipped properly and sounded what he was, ie. an excellent keyboard player and a bloody good writer too, but that all came later.. Dave had his gear and his sound together…’ And so Hatfield and the North came into being! ‘it started off Richard and I and whatever keyboard player, doing quite a lot of playing everyday together putting into practise what we had learned the night before, doing a lot of working out together.. we did a lot of things by working out, just playing. Later on we started using charts, but Richard didn’t read music and still doesn’t so you know it was quite a strain to do music like that.. Yes that was a good period, having a band that rehearses at least once a week for whatever reason, just for the hell of it, is a real luxury. Its not something I can myself afford, so in a sense that’s why working with Fred is so pleasant, because he comes down to London to do other things and we can fit a rehearsal in at short notice, so in a sense we do a lot of working out of material in that way because, using two guitars especially with all the techniques Fred brings to bear on it.’
it may surprise those devotees of their eponymous first album to learn that its recording at the Manor was sadly not an entirely successful venture according to members of the band (in fact it saddled the band with a substantial debt to Virgin Records). By the time they came to record the second they were perhaps a little more streetwise.. ‘Yes I think we were that much more experienced about how we wanted things to sound, and very much more capable, especially in Dave’s case – you know Dave was very much more in doing a bit of knob twirling himself and quite often the engineer would go out for lunch, or whatever it was, and we were capable of carrying on without him… We had a better idea of how to do things in a studio, and maybe the Manor wasn’t a good place to do it, I mean it was an excellent place to have a holiday but as far as getting any work done, there were too many distractions, playing tennis and things.
Of ‘The Rotters’ Club’ Phil agrees: ‘everything sounds better because we were more in charge. [The studio itself] wasn’t any better but – it was a more purpose-built room, the Manor had a nice stable, they turned it into a studio, but I think it could have done with a lot more development, also the longer we spent there,– not wishing to go into any figures, it was very expensive… a waste of time and money basically.
With a deep-seated mistrust of the ‘business’ side of the ‘music business’, I couldn’t help but ask, given the sales of the Hatfield albums: ‘Have you got much money out of Virgin Records over the years?’. Phil replied coolly,. ‘Well no but that’s par for the course really.’
I would like to hear some more from this band in particular Phil commented ‘There must be a few pieces that never saw the light of day. I can’t think what – I know Dave wrote a couple of pieces that were quite decent although he’d probably poo-poo them now. I remember a couple of things that were quite nice, I don’t think they ever found a proper version on tape or were ever done for an album. I think everything we intended to do for those albums was used, you won’t find any out takes… I don’t think that there’s anything that’s studio quality, in fact I don’t have any gigs of Hatfield, I know there’s acres and acres of it but don’t know where you’d find it.’ This sounds like a challenge for the determined reissue labels
Hatfield folded when Richard decided to split. Dave Stewart was forming National Health with Alan Gowen, and asked Phil to join: ‘Yes… Dave and Alan had met while Alan was recording his album [with Gilgameshl at the Manor and formed a friendship. I’d known Alan for a long time before that anyway he came from Harlow, and lived in a nearby village, and he was a jazz musician that played with Roger O’Dell, Shakatak’s drummer and he and Roger had a band that played the local pub, played jazz, bebop, that sort of thing, anyway I knew Alan from those days. ‘
‘They had an idea of a very big band, two guitars, singer two keyboards, bass and drums, percussion. They’d started writing for it, so after they’d had time to amass their material Phil Lee and I were asked to do some rehearsing for it, Phil Lee demolished the pad as it were, played through it all perfectly so was exempted by Dave, so he never turned up again [!]. We never really did any gigs with Phil, we only ever reached recording, we did some demos and things… [soon to see the light of day on National Health Missing Pieces courtesy of Minneapolis label East Side Digital]. Phil left, got bored of it, it wasn’t going anywhere quick enough… One guitar two keyboards and so on… that line-up, stuck for a bit, that’s the first album, with additions…Contributor John Mitchell also appears on In Cahoots’ ‘Split seconds’ as well.. ‘Yes he did a lot of drum programming for me.’
And of Final Call which incorporates the Felafel Shuffle (check the Caravan of Dreams discography),.. ‘I nicked the front part and developed into something else’ and of Richard Sinclair himself.. ‘he’s a great friend of mine and a fellow musician and we work together from time to time. ‘
‘Yes Richard would play it in a jamming way but then I only use the riff.. when Richard was in Cahoots I decided to use some of his material.. so I wrote that – used the riff and wrote a melody that worked on top of his riff bass line… messed around with that… and from that I developed through into something else…’
I dragged Phil back once more, this time inquiring of Steve Hillage involvement in National Health: ‘Yes that’s right, Harking back to this album that Dave’s putting together of long lost pieces, we were looking for this particular piece of Alan’s that’s rather boringly called Al’s Boogie Piece, it’s a very nice piece of music that started off as a riff again. Anyway the only version that was worth listening to, and worth releasing was an Imperial College gig that we did with Steve Hillage, we were doing two guitar material stuff and Phil Lee wasn’t around to do it, so it was very sensible to call upon Steve’s skills and talents. Consequently he sat in on one gig and that was the time period that we were doing Al’s Boogie Piece.’
Although very much Dave and Alan’s band at its inception, ‘well, Alan left and we went through various transformations and came out the other end then, Alan returned and Dave decided that enough was enough for. him. Then we did a mega tour of Europe, Finland, Sweden, Spain, France, and God knows where else, for about two months. That was really upon the strength of what Dave and I had built up, it was a bit unfortunate really that he didn’t want to do it. Alan decided that he did. So we had an album there that was going to be recorded, we used a lot of that material learned with Alan for D.S. AI Coda, which is really what D.S. AI Coda is, what we should have recorded – some of it not all of it, some of it was for a big band.. part of it, stuff we were doing on stage with Alan worked out pretty well. ‘
Sadly again there were no recordings by this lineup: ‘No that’s really why [D.S. AI Coda was recorded] – no we didn’t do any on that tour we did a lot of gigs with it, that’s all, and there’s obviously tapes around knocking around…’
By the time of the second album National Health was very much a four piece band, rather than the orchestra its creators had intended.. ‘Yes that was rather strange really, but in a sense it didn’t really matter because it only highlighted to show that Dave could do it all on his own anyway. He’s such a good keyboard player he sort of found the orchestrations anyway. I think that’s right, the second album’s an excellent album but you couldn’t really recreate that on stage exactly. Obviously we did the tunes like the Collapso, you could do those but that was written for a quartet and obviously in areas you could legitimately expand, but where things – we did everything on stage, it’s wrong to say that really but you couldn’t obviously flesh out arrangements with lush trombones sections and cellos and stuff. I don’t think you’d ever make it sound as exotic as that with all the attention to detail, there was a lot of work put into that. ”
On the second album Phil himself contributed a composition – the wonderful Dreams Wide Awake – complete with wild organ solo (and the accompanying apology on the sleeve!) the introduction demanded a particular feel to the bass line. This was contributed by Rick Biddulph: ‘it was deemed that the bass part wasn’t in with the guitar John [Greaves] was for some reason having difficulties playing that line, we got fed up and asked Rick to do it, he did that line. it’s not denigrating John’s skills as a musician he’s great, he’s a fantastic musician John, but just had – not a mental blind – but, just a dexterity thing that was just not happening, and the way his guitar was set up he couldn’t do this particular hammer that the whole thing was built around that, if you couldn’t do that trill, pull off or whatever then doing this riff was really hard otherwise you had to pick it, although he could do that it never really worked out, so in the end we took some pragmatic thing, you know just used Rick.’ Over the top of this line sits, of course what is possibly Dave Stewart’s most extravagant solo and what follows is possibly Phil Miller’s first recorded compositional masterpiece.
John Greaves nevertheless, whilst a member of National Health contributed more than just his own exquisite compositions. As their bass player.. “Yeah, he invented lots of really interesting lines and really contributed, he understood what themusic was about. He was also responsible for the cutlery (or silverware for our US readers) “solo” he contributed to the BBC Whistle Test performance of the Collapso!
Indeed such a musical blind spot as Phil calls it.. ‘It’s happened to me, a Richard Sinclair song [Didn’t Matter Anyway?]. [Richard said] give me your guitar you’re not playing these chords how I envisaged them, and he can play them better than I can, he wrote them and he knows – the nuance you add to the basic formula that maybe you don’t supply, so fair enough, you know he’s said let me have a go… I think that’s the way things are, you don’t do it because your names so-and-so and you play guitar you do it because you can do it well, if you’re not doing it well enough let someone else have a go, especially if they’re there. ”
We meandered back into Hatfield territory from time to time. I suggested that the ending of their only single A-side (sadly not a hit) Let’s Eat (Real Soon) was somewhat perverse – a fadeout which includes the coda: ‘I think it is. I was listening to a ‘Brecker Brothers’ tune the other day and it did the same thing, and I was thinking how pointless it was.’ Bizarre indeed! “it seemed like a good idea at the time. No it’s stupid isn’t it? In a sense I can see what it is, what you’re trying to do, but you can’t do that with a fader you can only play that. it would sound a lot better because it would have a rise and a fall before it finally falls back, which you wouldn’t want to do that together..’
And of Pip’s lyrical contributions to Hatfield, Phil commented.. “Yes he’s a good lyricist Pip, he likes turning his hand to lyric writing, he’s really good at it, he’d got excellent ideas.’
Post-National Health – and the start of In Cahoots
After National Health Phil was involved with Alan Gowen again, Richard Sinclair and drummer Trevor Tomkins in the recording of Before a Word is Said – fortunately reissued on CD via Durham’s finest,. Voiceprint By this time Phil Miller the composer was beginning to emerge: ‘Yeah, there were things bubbling away before that I got back in[tol writing tunes again then, yeah. it’s just one of those periods were you don’t do much writing, since then I’ve done more and more, probably less guitar playing or whatever … It was Alan’s project.. some of the things with the heavier back beats weren’t so successful, but [Trevorl’s a very nice drummer to play with, very sensitive, and he plays incredibly quietly if you want him to, so it saves you earholes… I think there’s some good stuff on there, there’s about three or four three pieces that are really good: one of mine and a couple by Alan that are really nice… I think those piecesstand up – we did that in Alan’s front room! ……. a bit distorted.
Phil’s next venture was to be In Cahoots – an outfit which he still fronts today.. ‘[I] didn’t form the band straight away [ I decided to do a gig and it developed from one gig to another to do a few more tunes, and I’d written quite a lot of material I didn’t present straight away. It became more of a fixed band, and the first version of In Cahoots, with Richard, Elton and Pip was the first one. We did quite a lot of work with that band, we did a couple of broadcasts, one here and one in Holland, a long tour of Holland with Richard, a few gigs around London… Yes that was a good period for the band and I enjoyed working, sad that it didn’t all hold together but these things happen. Eventually Richard left and Hugh joined and we did more tours, more broadcasts, and we recorded Cutting Both Ways at that time, fortunate that a friend of mine had some dead time at a studio he ran.’
For various reasons, Phil’s first album with In Cahoots also saw him reunited with Dave Stewart ‘At that point that there was certain material I couldn’t even do with that band, considering people’s skills – [ I decided not to do various things because they weren’t suitable for Hugh as the bass player at the time, so I decided to pull things back, I probably would have done too with Richard in the band.. With that, and other things I’d decided weren’t quite right for the band, I decided to do with Dave Stewart.. because that material was awkward, sort of thing you could have a band in the studio for a couple of days just getting one right, putting it together putting section after section. instead of that I decided to spend the time working with Dave Stewart, having the first glimpses of what machines could do to facilitate your playing certain sorts of music. I had certain pieces that although I could play them on guitar more or less, if I practised very hard, by the sheer ‘statistical density’, to borrow a quote from Zappa, there were so many notes on one piece you couldn’t ask somebody to do it live unless you paid them a lot of money. I couldn’t afford that so I got a machine to do it. That’s why the Figures of Speech track with Dave, something you could only do properly with a machine, not that I wrote it for a machine, it just happened that I had all these chiming polyrhythm things going on that you need dead steady. A beat out of place and you end up – it’s good for machines. ”
The album was carefully titled Cutting Both Ways acknowledging this dual approach: ‘I often think – that was my first so-called solo album, well that I was in charge of.. although it does cohere, it would have been nicer to have done a whole album without a band and then a whole album with a band.’
Nevertheless, the results are remarkably coherent, though Phil is more critical. ‘I think chopping and changing can be too much sometimes. You’re just in the mood for one type of thing and it alters, it’s rather better to string the ideas out more gradually, work to something – although I like abrupt changes. Sometimes one thing doesn’t show the other off enough, sometimes you think the fantastic precision you get with machines makes humans seem fallible and wonky. On the other hand humans make machines look, sound spiritless. So putting them in close proximity can get you into that trouble at least.. Obviously you’ve got styles that clash or contrast. ”
Nevertheless Phil employed the same approach on its follow-up, Split Seconds. ‘Yes that’s right, largely that’s the material I had there, the material I wanted to use. I didn’t have time to really to say I’m going to write fresh and anew for that particular project. I said I’ve got this material I haven’t used yet, these are pieces that are up for contention, and I’m going to do them. Yet again I found certain pieces that were more suitable to doing with machines.’
Despite the all-star cast Phil was able to assemble, as a band In Cahoots was very much his from its inception: ‘it was my band. Such was the strength of the characters within the band it wouldn’t seem like that, but it was certainly me that got the gigs and wrote the material, that’s quite a large contribution. Although I wouldn’t claim to be in charge of it when it played; it’s every man for himself -that’s the law of the jungle, the person with the best idea, and can be heard is in charge, but as far as organising it that was down to me, fool that I am.’
I ventured that there must be some historical recordings languishing in some tape archives, notably the first line-up sessions for BBC’s Radio 3 in the early 80’s, ‘Well I haven’t got a tape of it anymore. I think I’ve got some that have decayed. There’s the first session that we did for Radio 3 with Richard and Pete, that’s got some nice bits on it… I’ve got quite a lot of archive stuff but it’s a lot of work putting that together you do have to bear in mind I have done that material and I’ve got yards of stuff I want to get out.. I’m resisting this, although it would be tempting to dig up a few nice pieces, I probably will do eventually but I want to get stuck into organising all the next lot of material that I’ve got. I’ve got a project half finished with Fred which needs to be finished off.’
Phil’s more recent work includes the Short Wave album and the most recent In Cahoots release, Recent Discoveries. Curiously both exude the same relaxed atmosphere. ‘I was pleased with… Recent Discoveries. it was done quite hurriedly,. there again it was one of those things I only have the band together for a short period so it’s nice to do something with it other than a few concerts here and there. It was done in a bit of a hurry because I’d sort of messed up on some schedules… I didn’t have enough time to rewrite certain bits so I was a bit sad about that, I like to present a piece and then rewrite it, bits that you hear that are not quite right you can fiddle with them and polish them up a bit. I find it’s quite useful to do that. With this one literally the moment I’d stopped writing it I was dishing out the parts, the material. Everyone did really well and it was properly done, but I can still hear things that I could have made so much better if I’d had a little bit more time. So it was quite a rush for me, to get all that, it was a big project for the little time it took to actually do it, I mean we only had about three days rehearsal in which we rehearsed all the new material It’s like having a new band when you’ve got new material, the old friendly tunes you know, your hand writes down on the set list and there not there, it’s quite weird that.’ The results certainly reveal this approach, yet strangely it lends a distinctive character to this work. The band are caught in the act of discovery. All Phil’s parts sound fresh and fluid – and the slight raggedness, where evident, only serves to give the music a further dimension of charm, often lacking in progressive music.
It sounds like a live record. ‘Yes it was, it was all played pretty as much like that in the studio. That’s the way I intended it to be… most of it went down as it did, that was it. I suppose we did a day of over-dubbing, and bits we didn’t quite get right, brightening up some of the horn parts here and there…’
This latest recording captured the band for the first time without keyboards. Using the wonders of MIDI (the Musical Instrument Digital Interface) Phil was able to contribute all the necessary atmospherics and background washes using his guitar I asked him if he missed the keyboards at all, ‘I do actually as a matter of fact.. I’d like to have another brass player and a keyboard player of course. That’s luxury, that’s two more mouths to feed, it’s just not feasible really unless someone’s going to put on a special concert then of course we’d expand it with keyboards… it would be nice to have another horn… then I’d be able to have more elaborate backings.’
Is he then tempted to augment the band in the studio? ‘Well no… It’s very unfair if you suddenly think, I’ve got for the studio I’ve got this other lot can you learn it now… – it’s not on.’ It’s clearly not according to Phil the way to treat your fellow musicians ‘it’s quite difficult to take a particular orchestration that you’ve done and then add to it without perhaps taking the wind from the sails of the rest.’
Gong’s 25th Anniversary Weekend Festival
Phil also found himself involved in the Gong 25th Birthday Party in 1994, as part of Short Wave and was also found, alongside Hugh, Pip and Didier grooving along with Kevin Ayers and the headline act (billed as Classic) Gong. None of these recordings is yet to see the light of day despite promises of a second CD release of the event covering all the acts involved: “I don’t think Kevin’s ones going to come out.. it would be nice if it were to… hopefully it might come out. I think they are going to do a compilation. I’ve got to have a little listen. ”
Phil concurs with my view that Didier’s band were a highlight of the first night.. ‘Fluvius were really good. A good band that.’ Another memorable set being Short wave’s who, like Fluvius must have been used to performing to very different audiences. ‘I really like to play to a Gong audience. I think they’re
rather – they’re open minded about everything. I felt just as much at home there as I would at the Bracknell Arts Festival. The audience seemed to like it and the point was proved. I think that’s really nice, I mean Gong is a particular thing that doesn’t exclude what Didier’s doing, which couldn’t really be further from Gong, it’s really intricate, light and I think the audience were really good on that occasion, taking everything in their stride.’
Sadly Short Wave is still to follow-up on their debut In the light of the Gongfest event this must be a missed opportunity. ‘Yeah well it’s true, because it doesn’t really have a central person pushing it forward as their foremost thing. It happened by fortune or accident, it was a fortuitous thing. Unless someone takes charge of it and says I’m going to book a tour then it won’t happen.
Of the weekend event Phil concludes ‘It was good fun. I thought it was very successful.
In Cahoots Parallel pre-release tape Crescent Discs 1996
This review reaches you thanks to a last minute mercy dash across London (on the national day of the traffic jam) to hand-over the pre-release tape of the forthcoming In Cahoots release completed just in time for inclusion in this issue. Slotting it into my cassette deck I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not these efforts would be rewarded.
Thankfully I was not to be disappointed. Initial impressions (scarcely enough to do the work justice) confirm that this is a worthy successor to the excellent ‘Recent Discoveries’. Featuring two of Phil’s all-time favourite Miller tunes (see his top ten elsewhere in this issue), ‘Parallel’ is both a case of ‘more of the same’ which is of course a good thing if you enjoy Phil’s formula, yet also ‘a little of something new’.
The band continues to deliver music showcasing Phil the composer as well as Phil the guitarist – indeed all writing credits are to Phil this time. The line-up is the now established sextet, featuring long-time (ex-Hatfield) collaborator Pip Pyle, with Elton Dean, Pete lemer, Fred Baker and Jim Dvorak. Consequently the sound they produce will be largely familiar to the initiated – the only significant addition to their sonic armoury is the outrageous fuzz box employed by Fred for treating his bass guitar, on the title track a la Hugh Hopper and Laurent Thibault of Magma and Wiedorje. Awesome sound! I suspect this is the result of some very sophisticated digital signal processing – not some old stomp box.
What In Cahoots has achieved here, perhaps more successfully than ever before, is blurring the distinction between the composed and the improvised – a stated objective of many composers in the past yet seldom achieved.
‘E.D. or lan’ is, on first listening the album’s highlight for me and represents the furthest progression for the band here. It’s a very relaxed piece, with some fine solo performances including a wonderful contribution from Phil himself. A very sensitive solo, showing a new side to Phil’s phrasing and textures, whilst remaining very much recognisable.
First up though, ‘Simmer”: after a short intro the listener is drawn into a darker heavily syncopated session decorated with Fred’s fluid fretless work. This is an excellent vehicle for soloing reminiscent of some of Alan Gowen’s tunes on D.S. AL Coda, and already illustrates the way the band manage to blend their improvs so effectively within Phil’s frameworks. The changes are navigated with much panache and the extended solos maintain the listeners attention throughout.
The aforementioned “Parallel’ then arrives and represents something new in Phil’s composition – In the introduction Phil moves into territory usually reserved for Brit-jazzers Keith Tippet, Nick Evans, Marc Charig et al, in his arrangement of the theme.
On ‘Sit Down’ I’m somehow reminded of ‘Hatfieid and the North’ during the lyrical theme used in the intro.
“Half Life’ is a further exploration of directions explored so successfully on ‘Recent Discoveries” again showcasing Phil’s guitar histrionics, wrenching more notes, some quite unexpected, from his guitar using his instantly recognisable distortion tones.I’m a tad guilty of overlooking the contributions from the other players. Peter Lemer contributes some excellent solos, particularly on piano, whilst Elton and Jim provide some exquisite moments and let’s not forget Pip who’s on fine form.