Tim Blake Interview

This piece appeared in Facelift issue 8 in February 1992

issue 8 cover copy

In FACELIFT 4 we hinted that after an absence of almost 10 years, TIM BLAKE was in the process of re-surfacing from his exile in a French windmill to once more appear in front of audiences both on stage and on record. 1991 saw the re-emergence of Tim Blake as a musical force, with a new CD on the Voiceprint label and a handful of gigs both in Britain and the States. Since this interview took place, Tim has appeared at the Electronica 1991 ‘Future Age Music Festival’, an event with which Tim has been associated In the past. I was able to chat at length to Tim about what he’s been up to in recent years – for a fuller consideration of his previous work the Tim Blake feature in issue 4 is recommended reading.

Tim’s new project, ‘Magick’ (Voiceprint) is probably closer to his second solo album ‘New Jerusalem’ than any of his other releases – in fact, apart from the obvious technological advances being utilised, there seems to be remarkably little change in musical format from what might be regarded as his finest moment. In between then and now, Tim Blake had been a member of Hawkwind, before seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth in the Eighties. So what had become of him in the meantime?

“Yell, I’ve actually been living in Brittany since 1979, and there came a point where it was such an interesting thing to live in Brittany that it, wasn’t really necessary to be in England playing gigs! Music was definitely taking second place – well, in fact, playing with my modular systems started to take second place: I was still doing a lot of music but for pure home pleasure.

“I was also quite interested in giving lessons. One thing that’s been interesting is that the whole synthesiser music scene has been changing in the last 10 years, and the ‘shape’ of the instrument is completely different. Through an arrangement I had a kind of school which I put together with equipment salesmen and I was able to have whatever was going in my hands and mess around with it! It involved looking at new types of equipment and the advent of the computer, and I watched that getting itself together by using the equipment and giving lessons to people.

“But at the same time I wasn’t having the same kind of relationship with the instrument as if it had been mine. So there came a point where I stopped doing lessons and started saying to myself, well, I know how to use this stuff. Great – so I’m going to buy myself an instrument. I bought myself a cheap one and instead of sitting down and sussing it out I just got down to playing music again.”

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In fact the music on ‘Magick’ seems to reflect this: it’s a selection of songs and pieces which Tim wrote in the Eighties, and by all accounts represents just the tip of the iceberg as far as his repertoire of songs is concerned. Whereas his first solo album, ‘Crystal Machine’ recorded in 1977, appeared as a logical instrumental succession from his role in Gong, which was predominantly to create the textural backdrops to the vocals, the soloing of Didier Malherbe and Steve Hillage and the general mayhem, ‘New Jerusalem’ and now ‘Magick’ are more tightly scored around a more traditional song format, without completely losing sight of experimentation. “In a way, it’s a shame that the two things aren’t allowed to have a separate identity, one being Tim Blake and the other being Crystal Machine”, says Tim. “I like mixing songs and instrumental music anyway, that’s something that wasn’t possible for me to do on the ‘Crystal Machine’ album, but it was possible on ‘New Jerusalem’ and now I’m doing it live.”

Live dates so far have been limited. Prior to Electronica 1991, Tim had played just a couple of dates in Britain, at Margate and the Brixton Fridge in July of this year, the latter of which I saw, although Tim reckoned that the Margate gig had been a better performance. He’s also been over to the States:

“I’ve been pretty closed to offers of playing for quite some years, and I started to turn not such a deaf ear in about 1988. I hadn’t been hearing the right noises and was ignoring it. Recently someone contacted me saying, ‘hello, I’m from America – do you want to come over!’ And I said, what a good idea, and it was as simple as that. As it happens, I’d never been to America and it was a very strange experience. I suddenly realised that it was the first time I’d ever been anywhere by myself since about 1979, when I first came to France. Every time, be it a Tim Blake/Crystal Machine gig or a Hawkwind gig or a Gong gig, there were always a lot of people when you moved about. All of a sudden there was I, this guy with two cardboard boxes with his instruments in them, moving about America on aeroplanes, meeting all sorts of marvellous people and being looked after oh so well. It really was nice.”

There exists in America an underground network which Mother Gong are also utilising for their tour, and which Daevid Allen has also been involved with – it’s by all accounts a loose association of fans across the States, tying in with Rick Chafen of Voiceprint USA and Martha Chafen, who as Timara Management is Tim’s agent over there. The same network have also been linked with possible tours by Richard Sinclair, David Jackson and Nic Potter. “At the beginning you wonder whether it’s not some sort of sect! And you get passed down the line – we played about 10 gigs in all, very varied. In Los Angeles it was like a rock club, definitely a Hawkwind vibe behind the promoter and that concert. In New York it was like an ecological space called ‘Wetlands’ – an ecologists’ dive! In Kansas it was quite a good music venue. In Boston we even played someone’s apartment – this is marvellous! They’re very good people over there and are having a very active participation in releases which are coming up.”

There will also soon be a video available of Tim’s performance in Kansas through the Voiceprint label, complete with fractals and all, so I’m told. But what of gigs over here? Most of the dates on the scheduled British tour were pulled, with the exception of Margate and the showcase gig at Brixton Fridge with Noden’s Ictus. I’ve read countless times in old Gong interviews about Tim Blake’s flamboyant stage persona and tireless talking away from gigs (!) and was intrigued to see how he might shape up in 1991. He certainly hasn’t lost any on-stage charisma, and strikes me as well-suited to solo performances: brandishing a smallish synthesiser, harnessed around his neck with a supporting strap, he played his synth solos with all the trappings of guitar heroics.

Brixton Fridge is a venue with a large enough on-stage area to support a 20-piece jazz orchestra, but the effect of the stage set-up here was to focus all attention in on the one performer, flanked on either side by small screens which deflected the twin lasers on their course from the rear of the old cinema, and backed by a miniscule brightly-screened computer, which blinked intermittently and provided the space station effect obviously intended. Tim saw the Brixton gig as more of a Crystal Machine project; certainly there are songs such as ‘A Magick Circle’ and ‘More Magic’ which are wholly instrumental, and extended versions of ‘The Strange Secret of Ohm-Gliding’, ‘Lighthouse’ and ‘New Jerusalem’ (the encore at the Fridge) give only a minimal role to vocals, but there were many shorter, commercially-oriented songs too. These were for me the least successful of his set: lyrically bland and somewhat out of place with the other-worldly ambience created by rest of his set, not to mention the lighting effects. He’s still at his best when delving deep into the possibilities of a piece, although even this doesn’t necessarily preclude the use of vocals. Tim pointed out in the course of the interview that for a while he was actually the lead singer in Gong, during a period in which Daevid Allen had temporarily left the hand, and his vocals, whilst probably not as strong live as in the studio, can be very effective.

The overall similarities between the versions of the tracks on ‘Magick’ and their live incarnations were understandably apparent: whilst Tim was eager to point out that he doesn’t use backing tapes, he does control a good deal of pre-programmed material through a computer, whilst the visual impact of his playing is mainly as a beautifully poised soloist.

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The parallels between the takes on ‘Magick’ and current live work are further emphasised by Tim’s approach to studio work: “What I’m into right now is the live element – I’m no longer looking towards the studio situation. I’m working on direct stereo takes of me singing and playing, because such a lot of the hazard is taken out by using the computer. I’m completely off overdubbing and studio technique right now. It’s been a dream in the past but right now my trip is that I’ve got this rather good sequencer on a on a rather good computer playing a pretty good, really cheap synthesiser. I’m very happy with what’s coming out. So what’s really important right now is the instant where you play it – be it using a computer or not. When you play a song twice, it’s never the same. I’m just looking for good instant music. That’s why we called the album ‘Magick’ – it’s not anything pretentious on my part, it’s just that I think that music is a magic instance, so I’ve tried to capture it and put it on tape for people. There has been a definite movement on my part to stop beating around the bush and actually get down to playing some songs and writing some music, rather than being intellectual about it all!” Tim Blake has always been lauded as an innovator within the synthesiser world: he bought one of the earliest EMS synths in 1971, was quick to see the scope for combining a laser show with synth-based music, and even now is seen as a major enough draw to headline the Electronica festival, essentially a celebration of synthesiser music. It’s understandable that for his new project there should have been some stylistic progressions from the days of ‘New Jerusalem’, and one of the elements of this I noticed live was that many tracks had taken on a dancier feel, particularly an extended version of the superb ‘Ohm-Gliding’. How did Tim see this aspect of his music progressing?

“Well, I didn’t see anyone dancing at the Fridge, but I’m hip to that! People have always danced to Tim Blake – when I went to America we played The Last Ride Of The Boogie Child and there has always been an element of the flirty dance stuff. Now we’re getting to have some pretty good drum sounds available, so there we go, but it doesn’t mean that Tim Blake’s going to become a house artist!

“I spoke to this 18 year old guy who came up to us with both Gong albums: the Gong Live At Sheffield 1974 and Bataclan 1973 compact discs and I said, ‘what the hell is a guy of 18 doing collecting these records, and he said -‘when we go out and have a drink and see if we can pick up girls, we listen to ‘Pump Up The Jam’ or whatever, but I’m not going to buy that record and take it home!’ What people are discovering is that with the compact disc, a lot of people who are buying them want to redo their record collection with the CD. What they discover is that all the best music in their collection is quite old and it hasn’t aged, and it gives them even more pleasure now than it did then. I’ve got a Robert Wyatt ‘Rock Bottom’ here – I had a marvellous time listening to the record, and it’s great to listen to it now, just as it was when it came out.”

As far as future developments go, Tim sees a continuing involvement in both recording and playing live: “From now until next Easter is the time for gigs: there have been a lot of gigs this year, and I have other interests apart from music, and other obligations too. There are plans to record more … ‘Magick’ is not in the hands of a major record company – it’s just in the hands of people who love it and won’t exploit it. I’m sure that as much as I continue to make at the moment we will find people who love it.”

Any future involvement with Gong seems unlikely – Tim was approached about a possible re-union concert, but declined any offer. “What’s sad about Gong is that so many members of Gong are not actually playing music. I know that I’m one of the guilty people here, but it’s very strange. I’m looking at a photo of Gong right now and apart from myself there are 2 other people who aren’t actually playing music any more and out of 6 of us that’s weird. There must be some reason for this – it’s something people should be told! Perhaps I would be thinking that the way Gong are progressing right now is not the natural way.”

Another way of looking at it, I suppose, is that 3 years ago, none of the members of the classic Gong line-up were playing, and that now, in their very diverse ways, many of them are playing live again. Whatever readers may think about the directions other ex-members of Gong are now taking, any fans of Tim Blake’s work in the Seventies will not be disappointed with ‘Magick’.

Many thanks for Tim Blake for his time, and to Rob Ayling for pulling the strings. Hello to Andy Garibaldi. Respect due to whoever drew the Blake Electrique logo! Tim Blake fans are directed towards the Voiceprint merchandise advertised with this feature. ‘Magick’ is reviewed in issue 7.