Those whose musical tastes revolve more around the singles charts, and Radio 1 playlists here in the UK, could be forgiven for not having heard of Steve Hillage. In fact, they very probably may not have heard of System 7 or the ‘Man-Drive Trance’ of Japanese Instrumental band Rovo either for that matter. However, for those with a selective taste in eclectic electronica; System 7 should be well known as a long standing and pre-eminent outfit. For those of us of even rarer vintage; System 7’s co-founder Steve Hillage, was a bonafide virtuoso electric guitar hero; releasing many successful solo albums in the mid to late 1970s, before turning his skills to producing the likes of It Bites, Simple Minds and many others throughout the 80s, before launching System 7.
Steve kindly took the time out of rehearsals for the upcoming UK tour of the System 7/Rovo collaborative project ‘Phoenix Rising’ to talk to Glasswerk about the album, the tour, and a few other fascinating things that cropped up in conversation:
Glasswerk: For anyone who remembers ‘Steve Hillage’ the Guitar Hero, and who may have moved with you into the more subtly guitar laden electronica of System 7; the Phoenix Rising project with Rovo must represent an exciting and eclectic blend of elements. March 7th sees the start of the UK tour in support of the project, so for anyone unfamiliar with it, can you tell us a bit about the concept and how it came about?
Steve Hillage: Firstly, we work a lot in Japan, It’s a very good territory for System 7. We go there quite regularly, and have built contacts with quite a few very interesting Japanese musicians. We first met the group Rovo in 2002 at a festival, and we got closer to them particularly because their VJ was part of our video team, and we made some very interesting videos with these guys. The main guy in Rovo is Yuji Katsui, an electric violinist. I actually got him to play on the Gong 2032 album, and also a couple of tracks on the System 7 album ‘Up’ which we did in 2011. I was thinking what to do as an exchange, and thought Rovo would request some remixes, which is what people normally do. But no, they had this idea to do a tour and combine System 7 and Rovo together and try doing some tracks like that. This is back in 2011, and we thought, what a great idea, and we put the tour together with some initial material, and it worked fantastically well. Not long after that we decided to make an album together. So it was actually Rovo’s idea, but Miquette (Giraudy, Steve’s long time partner, collaborator and co-founder of System 7), and I jumped at it ‘cos we thought it was a very interesting collaboration. We called it ‘Post-Electronic’. Y’know the classic thing is for Dance music people to remix Rock and Pop tracks for playing in the clubs. Well, we’re doing the reverse, we’re taking System 7 type tracks and actually sort of re-creating them with a little bit of live rock band. It’s quite interesting, ‘cos then we combine that with Electronic based tracks; we kind of morph between fully live playing, and half electronic, half live playing. I think the way we do it is pretty original actually.
GW: Yeah, listening to the album, I immediately thought the blend of those elements was very finely judged. It’s very much recognisably System 7, and electronic, but with the extra human dimension of soaring guitars, violin and of course real drums featuring heavily; it’s a very enjoyable listen.
SH: Good! I’m glad you said that. I think the reason why it works (at the risk of blowing our own trumpets), is because we’re all pretty skilled musicians, we’re players. I mean, we have all the various skills required to make dance based productions, but we’re still players. Rovo are very interesting players, and they play in a very dancey, trancey way even though they’re live. So the two worlds are uniquely qualified to blend here.
GW: Did you feel there was a limit to how far you could go with the live elements (extended guitar soloing for example), on what is ostensibly perhaps still seen as an electronic album?
SH: Not really, we just put together a load of ideas, and made them work together as a whole. We just had our eye on the ball really. I bet if we do another album at some stage, we might try and go a bit further out.
GW: I was going to mention that…
GW: I think its really difficult to shoehorn full on rock guitar sounds into dance music isn’t it? I think the balance on the album is excellent, and walks that line very successfully.
SH: Long hot rock guitar solos on dance tracks doesn’t work. Little bursts, little hooks, samples and repeated little snatches works fine. But in this particular project it’s great for me because I’ve got a chance to stretch out on the guitar, which I haven’t done for many years to this extent. But at the same time it bridges with my work as a dance music producer, so it’s very satisfying for me.
GW: So tell us a little about the live show, are you doing the entire album for example?
SH: Basically it’s a whole evening, and we start with a forty minute Rovo solo set, so people can get to know how they sound playing their own material. Then we do a forty minute System 7 solo set with some familiar stuff, as well as some new stuff we’re working on. Then after a short break, we all come out together and do Phoenix Rising. We’re not doing the whole album, as one or two tracks are a little too ambient for the live show. Some of them are extended a bit into sort of jams, and we launch off and pop out the other end, a bit like going through the Stargate actually!
GW: Indeed! So, I have to ask; How did you end up doing the cover of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ‘Meeting of the Spirits’ on the album, was it part of Rovo’s repertoire?
SH: Well, I’d wanted to do a version of that song for many years, and I recognised that with an excellent electric violin player; I had an opportunity, so I actually persuaded Rovo to do it. I suggested we do it in a slightly simplified, less manic way than the Mahavishnu original, and I think we succeeded really well, I love it. But it was the presence of Yuji that makes that possible. Of course I have to mention Rovo’s guitarist Seiitchi Yamamoto, who’s very gifted and eccentric, and a big lover of Canterbury style music, believe it or not. So there’s actually three lead players involved, and we swap around lead duties, which works really nicely.
GW: I noticed, the promo materials have you featured by name in addition to the System 7 and Rovo band names. Was this a conscious decision?
SH: Well, we wanted to open this up to Rock fans. And despite the fact that we’ve been doing System 7 for nearly 25 years now in fact (believe it or not), we thought there may be a fair number of people that this project would appeal to, who might not realise that the guitarist ’Steve Hillage’ was involved. So yeah it was a conscious decision, I mean we put a sticker of that nature on the LP.
GW: Having been a big fan of your solo albums; I found the transition from that period to the System 7 project surprisingly easy, especially in terms of the guitar still being a primary tool for sonic experimentation.
SH: Yeah, we always say that System 7 is not a typical dance music project. It’s Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy using some of the sounds we used in Gong and the Steve Hillage band in the 70s, but putting them firmly in the electronic, dance context. In fact I would add that Rovo, are not a typical rock band either. They’re quite unique, I mean they have two drummers for a start. They’re more like what they call in America a ‘Jam Band’, which is a phenomenon that hasn’t really occurred in the UK. It’s something that developed in America after the Grateful Dead. The closest thing I think we’ve had to the Jam Band scene in the UK was the Ozric Tentacles, but they in fact then moved to America..
GW: Yeah, I recall some interviews with them back in the early 90s, name dropping your good self.
SH: Yeah, they sited me as an influence, and have become good friends as well. Of course two of their original members split off to form their own dance music project called Eat Static, who we’ve done numerous gigs with.
GW: Yeah, I was at one many years ago, was it the Secret Policeman’s Ball?
SH: Ah, the Pongmaster’s Ball
GW: That’s the one! Yes, It was an all nighter at the Brixton Academy I seem to remember.
SH: Yeah, that was an Ozrics thing. Well Rovo are a little bit in that area, they’re very unique except they don’t have the dreadlocks….ha ha, and they’re Japanese!
GW: That’s right. So do you think there will ever be a right time to come full circle (so to speak), and produce a Steve Hillage solo album?
SH: Well, I don’t know. I’ve got some good ideas for material. I think one of the problems is; since I’ve been doing dance music now with great engagement since the late 80s/early 90s, it’s a bit like I took the red pill in the Matrix. I just hear everything differently Y’know? I think a lot of the traditional Gong and Steve Hillage crowd who still like that stuff, don’t hear music the same way I do. I might end up doing a rock album that I feel really happy with, but they would find too electronic or too techno or something. Because they want me to sound like I did in the 1970s, and I can’t do that. I’ve tried actually, but i just can’t do it. It just doesn’t sound the same, ‘cos my musical DNA has evolved, and that’s just the way I am.
GW: I can appreciate that
SH: That being said, I’ve got some good ideas. Two things I would say about doing another Steve Hillage album, one is that a year ago, my dear friend and mentor Kevin Ayers (formerly of Soft Machine), left us, he died. And about that time Miquette and I went on a kind of Canterbury nostalgia thing, and we started listening to a lot of the old stuff like Robert Wyatt, Hatfield and the North, and Matching Mole. There’s definitely something about that style of music that still appeals to me, so if I was to do a rock album, I’d like a it to have a heavy Canterbury feel about it. The second thing is that I have a bit of musical nostalgia about some stuff from the early 80s that I liked, like the Psychedelic Furs, which I was influenced by when I did the last Steve Hillage album (For To Next), which was done with electronic beats. I’d be into doing stuff like that with live rock beats. So they’re two things that might appear if I did another Steve Hillage album…obviously there’d be lots of guitar!
GW: Of course!
GW: So back to the live show, will the Japanese animations you alluded to earlier be part of the experience?
SH: Well, what we decided to do is to not have any real visuals for the solo sets, and then switch them on for the Phoenix Rising set, so the whole thing goes up a level, and it works really well.
GW: Do you find that with big visuals you run the risk of taking the focus off you, or is it a way of blending all the elements that works for the live shows.
SH: Well, we certainly don’t hide behind the visuals, we want people to see us, and experience what we’re doing as human beings playing live. I don’t think there’s risk of it becoming anonymously cinematic!
GW: So what’s next?
SH: Well, the Phoenix Rising project will be going to the Fuji Rock Festival in July, which is Japan’s equivalent of Glastonbury, so that will definitely take the project up a notch and then we’ll see. Who knows? We’re also working on new System 7 material, so Onwards and Upwards!
So there we have it, Steve wanted us to stress that he, Miquette, and the Rovo boys are really pulling out all the stops on these 4 UK dates, and for everyone to make sure they arriver early, as it really is a whole evening’s entertainment.
Steve Hillage remains a fascinating personality, a formidable guitar virtuoso, and a complete gent. It was an honour speaking to him, and I’ll leave you all with my favourite and well used Hillage quote:
“Let’s go there!”
System 7/Rovo are playing the following dates:
Manchester Ritz – March 7th
London Islington Academy – March 8th
Brighton Concorde 2 – March 9th
Leamington Assembly – March 10th
For tickets and info please visit: www.musicglue.com/rovoandsystem7