Five years have passed since the previous album “Conspiracy Theories” and finally comes a new album by guitarist Phil Miller and his band In Cahoots! Phil is a meticulous composer and it takes time to achieve the level found on this new album. We notice at first that a new horn section appears for the first time here, with saxophonist Paul Booth and trumpetist Mark Armstrong replacing respectively Picard and Finch. Then after listening to the album two three times, one general impression that struck me is the care taken to complex melodic voicings! Sometimes unisson lines form the theme, other times the melodic rose opens up in a harmonic contrapuntic motion, the chordal being the melody. A labour of love, impressive and emotionally working on the listener’s fibers. The album starts with a gigant 18-minutes long medley of epic proportions. From the very beginning, some of Hatfield & the North’s spirit caress your ear, the *theme* being here a long and complex chord progression opening the way to multiple harmonic modulations and a strong half-diminished feel. This is maybe the tune that is closer to progressive rock, with a massive heavy sounding guitar solo from Miller and a superb synth solo from Lemer; there are several sections where blow instruments take it away from prog and move it towards jazzier roads but we always come back to this massive harmonic sequence, the leit motiv of the piece. “Contrary Motion” offers what the title says: harmonized horn voicings against guitar movements and melodic bass walking, all in a kind of contrapuntal progression. After a guitar solo, the trumpet takes over at double time, followed by a bass solo, where we again can’t but appreciate the phenomenal fretless work of Fred Baker. Follows “Pent Up”, a piece in two parts, both in a 5/4 signature. Part 1 is marked by a rather slow tempo and some kind of bass ostinato while part 2 speeds it up in a Latin inflected style (the piano comping and piano/bass rhythmic line close to salsa / Latin jazz). The piece returns to the slow tempo at the end, ending with a great ethereal guitar solo. “Focus Pocus” is the only piece not composed by Phil, but instead by keyboardist Pete Lemer; based on a solid eighth note pulse, the tune has a middle section presenting you with a tough evil crossed rhyhtm of 24 eighth notes, divided by 6 by some players, by eight by other! And they keep it for the solos, not an easy task to accomplish! “E.D. or Ian” may be dedications to persons but who? This is anyway a charming ballad, at times sounding strangely like Oregon, maybe because of the meditative soprano sax and the wonderful horn voicings. Miller delivers here a superb plaintive guitar solo. The ending is wonderful, combining sustained guitar tones and a myriad of bass harmonics. “Call Sign” closes the album, starting with a rock-solid rhythm but moving in a boppish vein during both sax and trumpet solos. The bottom line: the writing of this album is superb, the music stunning! But – yes, there is a relatively important *but* – my biggest concern is about the production side of the album! There is nearly throughout a nasty disturbing use of reverberation that imo partly kills the music or at least amputates the pleasure! Too much of the music is drowning in this reverberation; the price? it takes some of the drums attack, the instruments when soloing seem at time to shift from a wet to a dry sound within no time, like if the engineer was randomly turning the knobs, every instrument seems placed dead center in the stereo field, bumping on each other, muffling the sound, masking small details. The most hearable place of this weird balance is attained during the piano solo in the ballad number; it seems like the keyboard’s aftertouch function triggers both the extra sound but also this damned reverb, suddenly invading everything. Honestly, I think this is a pity and could have easily been avoided. If you want to minimize this aspect, you’ll have to listen at lower volumes; if you like it loud, you can’t avoid being badly wet! Another production aspect is that Baker’s bass at times jumps way too much upfront in the mix, becoming too dominating and again altering the placing of the other instruments in the stereo field! I’d like to know what the conditions were when they tackled the production; I don’t remember having faced this kind of problem in previous releases!
Beneath is an attempt at translation:
In the first fifteen years of his career, Phil Miller wrote history, as one of the architects of the Canterbury scene, within the relatively short lifespan of bands such as Delivery, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, National Health and Gilgamesh. With his own band In Cahoots, the overlaps with the Canterbury sound, can be clearly heard, and particularly in Mind Over Matter which appeared at the end of 2011.
The long-held, symphonic sounding keyboard chords of Peter Lemer are reminicent of the jazzy horns of National Health’s D. S. Al coda. The first part of the more than eighteen-minute Medley is exemplary in this regard. The second part contains a wonderful swinging, moog-like solo, along with the brilliant, often fretless bass work of Fred Baker, the broad drumming of Mark Fletcher and, obviously, Miller’s own inimitable guitar solos and should have the hearts of many Hatfield fan beating faster. Saxophonist-flutist Paul Booth and trumpeter Mark Armstrong are two fresh recruits to the band, of which the former has the thankless task of following in the footsteps of the late Elton Dean.
Nearly five years since Conspiracy Theories Phil Miller brings us another great chapter in the jazz side of the rocking Canterbury scene.
Listen to samples of each track on Mind over Matter HERE
We now have over an hour of music samples, covering four albums:
Click on any of these links to listen now.
You will now find samples of every track on Conspiracy Theories.
Whatever you might make of the Canterbury scene these days, it’s not the same anymore, there’s not much progressiveness in it now, which is not to say it’s worse than it was before – but Phil Miller‘s band were latecomers anyway. With a new album to mark the group’s 25th year in the business, they bring on the top-notch fusion, the title track wrapping round the listener’s ears like a cosy pillow to lay a head on and rest yet not sleep, only drift away. Save for brooding “Crackpot”, the main man tends to keep behind his reeds-blowing cohorts – veterans such as Didier Malherbe and Annie Whitehead as well as Simons Finch and Picard – for most of the time, and when he sends a tune to wallow amidst the waves of Fred Baker’s bass he also sends the shivers down the spine. Thus, the elegy that’s “End Of The Line” descends as a delicately electrifying sensation where Pete Lemer‘s piano sings so poignant. It’s clearly the effortless endeavour for the players, and all the better for it, so it’s tempting to rush headlong into the breezy romp of “5s & 7s” and do the groovy African walk in “Orinaca”. So whatever the conspiracy is the secret is not advised to be kept.
Miller first came to note in Robert Wyatt‘s post Soft-Machine band, Matching Mole. Since then he’s built a great catalogue of tunes, particularly with his “In Cahoots” band, which has released eight albums since 1985. “Conspiracy Theories” is extremely melodic, gentle music without being muzak-y in the slightest way. The Canterbury sound always embraced melody, and this album is the result of decades of playing, listening and composing. No doubt this is a fusion release, but in the best sense, and if all fusion had followed such magnificent form the genre would be less panned by many a listener an critic. The pieces on this CD show some incredibly tasteful, lovely playing over thoughtful and unhurried music from musicians who know how to lay back and say what’s on their mind at their own pace.
Eminent British Canterbury progressive-rock guitarist Phil Miller always plays the right notes. He doesn’t dazzle you with supersonic and heavily distorted riffs. On the contrary Miller sports a markedly distinctive style amidst his all-encompassing jazz, rock and jazz-rock vernaculars. Revered for his participation in seminal prog bands such as National Health, Matching Mole and other projects too numerous to cite here, Miller is a consummate director of musical affairs. His discriminating integrations of whimsical, Canterbury rock era-like thematic forays bestow one of many compelling attributes. The chemistry behind this band’s presence on Conspiracy Theories is firmly rooted within sinuously enacted unison lines, featuring horns, keys and Miller’s resonating single note licks. Longtime band-mates Pete Lemer and Fred Baker, on keyboard and bass respectively, help provide a fertile undercurrent for the addition of several highly respected British hornists, who expand the group’s overall design. Yet the gist behind this outing resides within the layered horns and off-kilter shifts in strategy, where dynamics and heated improvisational exercises project a cohesive maxim. Lyrically rich solos by trombonist Annie Whitehead and tenor saxophonist Simon Picard often complement the band’s surging opuses as melody plays an important role in Miller’s compositional guiding principles. Baker’s “End Of The Line” merges a dream-laden soundscape with Didier Malherbe’s (of Gong) ethereal lines, zealously counterbalanced by Lemer’s fuzz-toned electric piano phrasings and Miller’s gliding, sustain-drenched notes. It’s a ballad augmented by an ominous disposition and lucid imagery—perhaps a dad teaching his sibling about the rigors of youth and learning comes to mind. On “Orinaca (anagram for Ocarina),” Malherbe renders a poignant ocarina motif, contrasted by Miller’s low-key and bluesy progressions, which segue into a catchy, world-music vibe. Ultimately, Miller’s notable sense of diversity is uncannily cycled into a singular group sound that melds the fabled hierarchy of 1970s Canterbury stylizations with a modernist groove. And that alone speaks massive volumes. With his latest incarnation of In Cahoots, Miller furthers the scope and sound of the preexisting factors that have placed this unit at the pinnacle of the jazz-rock realm. No doubt, this album should find its way onto upcoming top ten lists for 2007. Miller glowingly separates the listless wannabes and copycats from the proven warriors, largely transmitted with fluid power and a thrusting impetus.
Phil Miller takes a moment out from reinventing progressive music to chat with Ken Egbert. Mind those sharp ninths, Ken. He doesn’t win jazz guitarist polls, but you rather get the feeling he could do without it. He swims against the dumbing down of music in the 1990s (as well as all the other decades in which he’s recorded) with humour and a pointillist’s tonic brush. The rest of the musical world doesn’t appear to influence him overmuch Phil Miller is progressive music’s Georges Seurat, a man of details who puts a record out in his own good time; that is, when it’s done! A concept some other fellows could learn from. And with his new release PARALLEL ensconced at #1 on the Tone Clusters 1996 Top 40 Best Records, it seemed only proper to look the man up and see what he had in mind to discuss. Thanks to Dave Stewart for passing on to Phil our TC 58 overview of his work since 1981 (see the Music Appreciation Dept. for a review of PARALLEL), and, of course, Izzy our intrepid Transcriber for many nights we dare not replace. In front of the word Processor transcribing.
TONE CLUSTERS: We got several confused letters from confused readers when we did our overview of your work between ’81 and ’95 (TC 58)–no one got the reference in the title of the article (“Lever Neally Reft”); they didn’t realise it was a Spoonerism for “Never Really Left.” Guess few of us Americans recall the Reverend Spooner [ an English cleric of the 18th century, if memory serves,] who used to mistake his lead-off consonants, eg. “May I sew you to a sheet?” instead of “show you to a seat.” [Ken, really, get on with it!--Ed.]
PHIL MILLER [politely]: Yes, I enjoy that sort of thing. Thanks for having a good listen all these years, that’s jolly decent of you.
TC: Not at all! Now, this is an anecdote I told Dave Stewart when we chatted in February, I don’t know if you’ve heard it but in the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan there are these ticket machines for a local commuter railway called the PATH system. They’re located on the lower concourse and they make occasional odd noises to remind you that they exist. One of these is the exact same tonic swoop you do in the opening of the recorded version of National Health’s “The Collapso.” So whenever I go to the lower level to take a PATH train I often find myself whistling that tune.
PM [mischievously]: Be quite dangerous after a while, latching onto any sound that you hear. [Laughter] Might go into a reverie and miss trains, you know. Well, travelling is tedious, isn’t it, you have to find anything to give it sense and meaning. For me it is, anyway, I hate being on public transport, you know. It’s slow! I like travelling, but not internally, in cities I know very well. I rather like having people busking, that’s quite nice, I like having music being played, that’s quite good. They do that in France, baroque music sometimes. Quite pleasant.
TC: Such as on the Paris Metro.
PM: Yeah. I also like the buskers one gets in London, say, such as Lol Coxhill. There’s a free concert for you! Not that he does it any more, he didn’t really like it. Played the best he could, though, turned it on.
TC: But there aren’t buskers on, say, the London Underground?
PM: There are, but they’re not really supposed to be there, you know. They’re there, but they’re moved on [by the local constabulary]. Some get taken to court. In the subways it’s different, that’s not London Underground property. But once you’re by the escalator you could be a distraction with people stopping to listen. But a lot of people do that, it’s better than practicing really, sitting somewhere and playing your tunes, people might like to hear it. I don’t do it myself..
TC: I think you might have outgrown that a bit.
PM: You never know.
TC: Just as an example of cross-purposes within the idea of music proper, I recall walking through the New York City version of the tube trains a few days ago and there was this fellow just off the platform in a Scottish kilt playing “Good King Wenceslaus” on the bagpipes! I’m sure he gave it his best reflective reading, but unfortunately anything played on the Scottish pipes sounds like music to go invade the Home Counties by. [Laughter]
PM: Oh, yes, very aggressive statement, isn’t it? Bagpipes, particularly, they put the fear of God into you, but that’s why they were invented, after all.
TC: A thousand years ago and change.
PM: Indeed, and there are other pipes that are much different, the uilean pipes, the Northumbrian, they’re really rather sweet, aren’t they? And quiet. I think it’s just the sheer volume and stridency of tone I think, that makes the Scottish pipes such mad music.
TC: Now as to muse made on instruments invented in this millennium… One thing we like about PARALLEL is, as with Zappa’s 1972 release THE GRAND WAZOO, it seems tailormade to the talents of the people in your group.
PM: That’s very nice of you to say so, and I do try to make the pieces so that they are within the emotional and stylistic range of the people in the group. You get used to working with people, and gradually it dawns on you what it is, the combination of one’s own writing and someone else’s playing. You learn what you need to write in order for them to do it for you, rhythmically and harmonically, melodically. Yes, I’m pleased, well, reasonably pleased with that. And people like playing the tunes, that’s very gratifying for me, when your fellow musicians say, “That’s pretty good!” That’s why I do it, largely, in a sense, that’s the most selfish part of it for me. The musicians have to enjoy playing it; without that you’re absolutely snookered. There’s nothing you can do unless you have musicians who like the challenge. As to fitting into the parts like a hand in glove, I think the musicians are very good, all of them. I daresay they could play anything I put before them. But it’s nice to tailor it as well.
TC: Also wanted to mention the title piece, a sort of Bartok funk, and “ED or Ian?” which again put me in mind of Zappa’ s more sedate tracks like “Waka Jawaka” or “It Must Be A Camel” [from HOT RATS]. With that lengthy modulated melody line it comes across as almost a bit of a fond farewell. I miss him, but I suppose we all do.
PM: Yes! He was an absolute genius, Zappa, superb. It was just one of those pieces one writes and which I thought would contrast well with everything else on the album. Didn’t want everything like the “Parallel” track before that, it’s very sort of dense, and harmonically wrung out, though it opens out nicely later on; I thought those two tracks worked well in their relative keys. That’s another thing I tried to do, to try to contrast the pieces’ tempers and keys, moods and all that sort of thought.
TC: When “Half Life” came up I thought, “Well, fancy that; In Cahoots doing reggae!” But then the pattern keeps changing in little ways and somebody wigs out nicely in the middle, perhaps (trumpeter) Jim Dvorak, and of course at some points the rhythm phrase disappears altogether as if to say, “Haha, snuck that one past you…”
PM: Yeah, on that one I was trying to, sort of, write something very open to play with very broad harmonic areas to fool around in. I hit that objective! It’s ostensibly very simple, you can be engaged in it for quite a long time and not find it terribly challenging. Of course the challenge is to make it interesting, and rhythmically develop the “reggae” feeling into a jazz feel and perhaps show the link between them somehow. That was in the back of my mind, I’m always thinking about hopefully what the drummer might be getting up to if not what they’re playing. What the actual piece demands is of course what they have to bear in mind. I’m quite interested in shifting the rhythmic feels around. That always appeals to me, and I quite enjoy it.
TC: Well, you certainly have the right percussionist in In Cahoots for that.
PM: Yes, Pip [Pyle] is very inventive, I hardly ever have to suggest anything for him to do, and he’s always got free rein to work in some of his stuff. Which is what musicians like to do, especially for drums, isn’t it? I couldn’t really work with any other drummer half as productively as Pip, you know. He doesn’t need any invitation to figure out his own sort of thing and try and push the material into useful and healthy directions. Rhythmically it wouldn’t be half as good without Pip doing his business on it. He’s well up in the mix on this one and he’s got a good sound so he comes off pretty well.
TC: On the two recent Gong tours of the U. S.I was floored to see how small a drum kit Pip was forced to use and how much he got out of it anyway. And it’s especially a fine achievement when you think how immense other percussionists’ drum kits are, like Bruford and Mastelotto in the recent King Crimson or Neil Peart of Rush or Billy Cobham and his three-bass-drum setup of a while back.
PM: Generally, yeah, Pip uses a conventional kit, If you play it all your life you really do know how to draw the most from it. And if you spend all your life tuning your drums you learn how to do that. Whereas another guy who’s been getting into electronic drums… well, the goalposts are shifting constantly with all that technology, so you might think you’re up to doing something happening and then it’s superseded so you’ve got to learn that one! And then you have to get equipped out for that. It’s never really a part of you, like, say, a horn or a kit or an ordinary electric guitar. You know its drawbacks and all the rest of it, its plus points, and you know how to deal with it instinctively. But electronic instruments, you have to be with them for decades, quite a few years to get the best out of it, I’m certain of that, with a degree of sensitivity. Certainly a guitar synth is useful for short musical chores, but anything that’s really expressive, you know, well, that’s why some people need the variety because the expression isn’t there! Certain drummers might like to have loads of gear on the face of it because maybe their ideas come up and get them to shift their kits around to get a different emphasis on it. Maybe that does push you into other areas, but maybe not quite as personal. You’re not necessarily as in touch with a larger instrument, I suppose.
TC: You still have only two hands and two feet to play the damn kit with.
PM: There’s an infinite variance of sound on a snare drum the way someone like Pip or Tony Williams plays it. You can do so much with that one very sensitive drum there are no triggering problems, you can tailor how you tune it in every place you play it differently… people aren’t able to do that with electronic drums, are they? I mean, who ever heard of an electric drummer altering his samples? I suppose he might do, but not as easily. Do you know? The way you play what you play, you can affect so much with acoustics. You can tune it differently each place to make it sound good. Although I think Pip was using a different kit on each date of that tour! So that’s even more the battle for him, you know, a bit of a nuisance for him, I think he didn’t like that.
TC: I believe so. Can you imagine walking in the door and saying, “Oh, I’m to play this artfully arranged mound of cardboard boxes, am I?,,
PM: I wouldn’t like it; having to play a different guitar every night? All the tuning’s got to be put right and all that, it’s not going to be set, up how you like it, and all the angles are going to be different every night [chuckles]… yet to his credit he did well on that tour, he came back and played very well, I think it did him a world of good, actually. To be playing every night, I think it does help a musician, getting out in front of an audience and doing it! Really gives you a serious bump up in your playing levels after three weeks of that.
TC: Now, would you give us a bit of description about the rest of the fellows in the band?
PM: Well, let’s start with Freddy [Baker], who was introduced to me by Elton [Dean] when Hugh [Hopper] left for whatever reason, and it was an inspired choice. He’s a brilliant bass player and a superb guitarist He’s an asset to any musical event, he’s absolutely spot on. Perfect pitch, he hears all the chords. I never have to explain anything at all; quite the reverse. It’s all there with Fred. Obviously he takes time to learn stuff but there’s nothing he couldn’t cope with, there’s nothing he couldn’t play given enough time. It’s a nice feeling to have from the rhythm section. Elton is my favorite saxophone player, Jim likewise on the trumpet, he’s a fine musician and he and Elton get on well as a team, and that’s very important. They blend nicely; Elton’s soloing is extremely strong and inventive, powerful, a very good listener. He always picks up on things. You play something good and he’s on it like a shot, do you know what I mean? You do something and think, “Oh, that’s quite nice,” and suddenly you find he’s there with you. Not ignoring what everyone else is doing, but he’s suddenly latched onto you! That’s very much the strong point for a musician who’s an improviser like him. And Jim likewise, they like to play openly and that’s nice, create quite a bit of solo space. They’ve got a beautiful sound and they’re quite diligent, they get into the writing. They come around here with their horns and go at it, pick apart pieces and go through how they’re going to be phrased, it’s nice. They pay a lot of attention and do a lot of work. And Pete [Lemer] is a favorite musician of mine, like Fred there’s nothing he can’t play, it just doesn’t exist. And that’s a nice feeling. You know, if you’ve got a good idea that’s difficult, Pete’s the man who can sort it out and realize it onstage for you. And of course he’s got brilliant ears, he’s always been very supportive of my writing and he likes getting involved in that. He likes playing the pieces. I like playing with a keyboard player, obviously I like to keep the band adaptable, not bound to have full membership; I don’t have to have a sextet, I’d like to add a few to that. The more the merrier, as far as writing is concerned. I’d happily add another three players, but for a normal working band it’s quite large enough. As a composer I think having keyboards just makes sense, you know. To my mind there are so many more options of how you can do things.
TC: Where Elton and Jim are concerned, they open your LIVE IN JAPAN CD with a marvellously ‘off’ reading of the head to “No Holds Barred”
PM: Yeah, they did a nice job on that one.
TC: Their playing had a cockeyed kind of grace, if that makes sense.
PM: Yeah, between Elton and Jim things are quite open, really, it’s pretty simple once you’ve got the basis of it really. That worked quite well for Jim, he and Elton were always vying for which one should do the which, you know; now and then Jim hadn’t been able to make gigs and Elton had to leap in there and we’d have to change the arrangement ’round. But that’s quite nice. It’s one of the things I like about having a band of such strong individuals. When someone can’t make the odd gig that comes up you’ve got to do it anyway for whatever reason, there’s always more than enough people to take their place, give everybody a bit more space and a bit more time on, actually playing. Because in the thick of it, very often it’s quite creative not to be playing! Arrangements can get overcrowded and overfussy and it’s nice to break it up anyway. So in other words, it’s good to change things around a bit.
TC: Speaking of solo space, I’ve noticed that you very often parcel out the solo space to the other players and don’t bother to give yourself any. PARALLEL for example features fewer guitar solos than I have fingers on my right hand [Never bothered to say how many, eh? -Ed.].
PM: Well, the way I look at it is, there are certain points where you “hear” certain people playing, and obviously you could do something, and obviously I’ve instigated this, people are playing my tunes, and I think it’s a matter of form to let someone else have a go. You’ve made the first statement, you’ve pushed it off and it’s quite nice to let someone else have a say or it becomes really too much of one person, you know. I like plenty of times to play on Hugh’s compositions in Short Wave, in any way I choose, and it works other ways as well. I’d like to do a bit more soloing, but you know, certain things work well for me to solo on, and I’ll do those. Some others, not. I know what I can do best, in a sense, and who can do the best job elsewhere, so it’s nice to let people get on with it. For instance, when it gets to bebop-like areas, Fred and Pete are just so good at it, they can eat those up. You need some ferocious chops, right, to play some of my stuff, you know.
PM: And that’s why I’ve got them there, because my chops are not up to that, not quite, I wish they were. I’m working on it still, I might get there in another decade or so, but more seriously that’s their personality. Fred’s musical personality is one of sheer bravura or the elements of it, and it’s nice to hear him do it! There’s always got to be something in the set like that or I think it would be incomplete. They’re the guys that can do it.
TC: Fred has a nice rubber-band sound to him, which I’ve always enjoyed.
PM: He likes that because he does a lot of gigs where he uses the stringy sound, woody, the funky sound to his bass. And he likes to play it in a fairly different kind of way, but he also plays a lot of jazz stuff since that’s his bread and butter. Not to demean it in any way but he does a lot of that, and lots of people who would normally play with a double bass, including drummers who like that kind of feel, Fred can do that for them, set his bass guitar up like that. He can use a right-hand technique to bring that out, but I think the instrument naturally has that percussive, woody, thwacky kind of feel to it. I like it, it’s quite nice.
TC: Where Elton is concerned, I’ve noticed a certain acknowledgement to John Coltrane from time to time.
PM: Oh, yes, and Elton would agree. There can’t be a saxophonist who doesn’t sort of acknowledge the greatness of John Coltrane, and I know Elton listens quite a bit to him. He’s often telling me about this album he’s got or some other, that it’s beautiful or whatever. He’s an inspiration and there’s no finer inspiration. Not to my way of hearing, anyway. There’s an element in Elton’s sound as well, piercing, haunting; Coltrane’s in there somewhere.
TC: In fact, on Elton’s latest release SILENT KNOWLEDGE [on Cuneform] there are a few bits in there where the band is playing as ‘out’ as they are playing ‘in.’ One hell of a balancing act, I have no idea how they did it.
PM: That’s the one with Paul Rogers and Sophia Domancich? [former members o I'Equip Out]
PM: Good, that, I’ve heard it, I’m not that conversant with it having only listened to it once. It’s another thing I’ll have to hear again!
TC: You’ve recently been on the road and back at the end of October you played a gig at the London Astoria…
PM: Oh, yes, with Caravan, that was really good fun. I had to play in front of a big audience that were really enjoying themselves, so that was quite a turn-on. It was nice of Caravan to insist to have us there, that was good. Very pleasant. And it was nice to meet the old Caravan crew again doing their thing. They’ve got a nice melodic guitarist, Doug Boyle.
TC: Doug Boyle?
PM: Yes, he’s quite a good player, very good touch, I mean it’s nothing extraordinary in terms of breaking new territory but he’s a good player. It’s funny; when I was in Matching Mole, Robert [Wyatt] thought that Dave Sinclair’s material, you know, “Nine Feet Underground” and all that, might be good stuff to play on, stretch it out. The tune is pretty broad, you know, and it was Robert’s idea to do something with it more, do it like that, but somehow that never came to fruition; new material got written or whatever it was. Anyway, it was quite interesting to hear this guy playing guitar on this stuff and he was able to bring it forward quite a bit. Good to hear a guitarist doing what maybe I should have been doing 20 years ago! [chuckles] [Ed. note: as we all recall, class, Dave Sinclair was in Matching Mole early on and is featured on their first album.]
TC: Would it be rude to ask why In Cahoots didn’t headline the bill?
PM: Well, I wouldn’t think it would be rude at all, I can tell you why: because Caravan draw, the last time they played in London they’d drawn one and a half thousand people, you know. I don’t draw that many, I wish I did. So it’s a simple economic fact, they can fill that hall out, there were a thousand people there. I daresay a couple hundred came to see us or whatever, that was nice. But that’s why, really, I mean they’re a very good pop rock group and they do that well. It’s ‘popular’ music, I think my music’s a bit more difficult than that. Anyway, they’ve built on that gradually through the years, haven’t they? Caravan is very much a known thing, it has its own momentum that’s built up from quite prestigious times and I think they can still tap that. I would have loved to have played for as long as they did, they played for an hour and a half and we were on for 45 minutes. Nice to play to a big audience, though, it reminded me of something I needed to be reminded of. the scale at which you can operate, and it’s nice to make the sale of a few CDs afterwards. Helps oil the wheels of commercial concerns.
TC: Could you give us a typical set list from your most recent set of gigs?
PM: On the last tour , actually the Caravan support was a one-off, we were preparing for the album [PARALLEL] at the time– we would do “No Holds Barred” and sections of “Digging In,” the last two sections although we have done the whole piece, but we were doing the last two sections because of lack of rehearsal time; you tend to do things you know thoroughly well when you’re short that. And we’d do parts of “Green and Purple,” we’ve been doing that as an open bit, and we’d do a couple of my ballads, you know. Typically we might do part of the medley on CUTTING BOTH WAYS, “A Simple Man” it’s called; we did that one as a sort of guitar feature. And obviously we’d have areas of open bits where we’d start something openly and build it into something else. And we might on occasion, Fred and I, do some things before everybody, build it up gradually, as it were. We might do “Arriving Twice” by Alan Gowen–
TC: So glad you guys still do that one!
PM: –and then we’d do a piece of Fred’s and then Pete would join us and we’d do a trio thing, and then a few pieces with the band. We’d break it up a little bit occasionally like that when we felt like it, especially when we were doing things as a quintet without Jim for a few gigs because he had to go back to America. So it’s nice, Fred knows a lot of my material, although it’s a bit unfair to ask him to play guitar, classical guitar and bass guitar, you know it’s too much. You might not know which string you’re supposed to be playing after a while! But it’s quite gratifying to have a fair amount of material that’s available on tap. We can go back and do “Second Sight,” tunes like that, old Hatfield things such as “Calyx,” “God Song”; Fred and I can do those things at the drop of a hat. So we fit one or two things like that into the set just as a dip in the dynamic level, we like to swap it around.
TC: Another thing I enjoyed about PARALLEL was the density of the writing, the secondary, tertiary and, er, quartemary? themes and their variations, unison bits and other sections swapped back and forth between instruments; as before, the pieces seem very through-composed.
PM: Composition is what I do when I’m at home, it’s what I do for pleasure, all right. I do a lot of it and I do a lot of thinking about it, it’s a massive subject. There’s a lot of work to be done on it and it’s pleasant work when one can get the time aside to devote to that. I’m lately enjoying composing more, it’s come more fluidly of late. I can get stuck occasionally but sometimes I get a flow on and I can get things out quickly. I enjoy that. Not haphazardly, but things that you can do with a bit of flow, that’s quite nice. Obviously there’s kinds of music that don’t require performance: you can construct it, it’s beautiful and everything else, but it’s got nothing to do with performance. The music I like best does have people performing it, I think that’s something I have to bear in mind while writing. And I probably spend time composing to the detriment of the amount of time I spend practising my guitar! They aren’t the same thing by any means. It’s a lot to do to try and run a band and compose and be a reasonable guitarist. I work quite hard on that.
TC: As to your playing I think your solos often sound as if you wrote a guitar break out for yourself and then transposed the entire solo backwards! (Laughter) As we said in the article in Issue 58, you seem to spike outward at odd angles from the tonal center while soloing. Hopefully I’m making some vague sense here…
PM: No, no, I like to, I’d often like to be further outside it to be honest with you. I like it when people can hold the paradox of music for all to hear. Bartok was for me an absolute master at being outside the harmony, you know, while making it all very simple to hear. [You won't find that in your average musical theory book!] and it all works and it all sounds natural, it doesn’t sound forced. And I’d like to be more on the outside of it, oscillating between. I don’t want to be intellectual about it, in the end you’ve got to sing with it as well. But the guitar allows you to pick some odd intervals, the pitching of it is not a problem. It’s fairly mechanical. But obviously the ideas have to sing out. At the same time you want to keep the melodic and harmonic bits in opposition to each other, at least temporarily. It’s an area I like to be in more and more, outside the harmony but logically there.
TC: Well, I’ve never heard you play illogically, although the logic may be your own given the circumstances.
PM: Very kind of you to say that, but yeah, I know I’ve got a long way to go on the guitar, it’s one of those things that you think you’re not giving it the full amount of time that you should. One gets involved in composition, blah blah blah, this, that and the other, the guitar is a time-consuming instrument even if you’re only playing it plectrum style. It’s a lifetime’s work and I really still enjoy working at it — it’s my yoga! Gets me really feeling good; I really like having the guitar in my hands, you know, get to grip with some really difficult stuff. I loved doing all that for Dave [Stewart], playing all his stuff even though it wasn’t monstrously hard all of the time. There were some times it was a nice challenge, I’d really get stuck into it and figure out different ways of doing it and working hard on it; very gratifying! That for me was a good grounding in things you might be asked to play and music to understand and hear. I wasn’t writing much in those days anyway, and it was nice to be devoting time to the instrument, just as it is when you’re on tour, and you’re then the guitarist and nothing more. It’s simplified, and you don’t need to do any producing of parts, you just have to concentrate on the playing of the instrument. And that’s something I love to do. Or if Fred comes to town we can fit in quite a lot of playing together, so that’s good, you know. It’s nice to have someone to ‘kick my lazy butt,’ [Laughter] and make me say, “My God, help!!” [Same again]. So it’s nice, I like working with younger people who are so dedicated. Fred pushes me a lot, and even though I’m not quite capable of getting into the areas I should be, he’s pushed me into some areas I didn’t necessarily think I might find myself. But having got thereI sense a bit more achievement and I found myself developing because of that. That’s been good for me.
TC: A paradox I’ve found interesting in 20th century music is how relative logic has become: I get a big kick out of how for example Schoenberg wrote his THEORY OF HARMON’Y [or HARMONELEHRE] and then kicked the whole thing out the window! But then you have to know the rules in order to discard them.
PM: Oh, fantastic, yeah, what an absolute genius. There’s no doubt about how his way of thinking brought forth some incredible music. It showed merely one of the many varied ways of hearing and composing music. For me it’s not quite how I hear it, I’m more of a Hindemith man myself
TC: Not sure why, but I wouldn’t have guessed that.
PM: I strongly believe in the harmonic theories of music but I love what you can do with the postulates Schoenberg put down. What it sounds like is what matters. How it’s arrived at is also interesting but how it sounds is what really counts, and much of his music is of the highest order as are Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, whoever you want, Messiaen, they all had their own theories, right, about how music works or how it should be pursued and what are the newer avenues. And it’s all had a great influence on what people are listening to today and where it’s gone. In my humble opinion! Now, you were saying you wouldn’t have thought I’d liked Hindemith or thought about music along his lines: it’s just that he’s quite a theorist. I’ve read books by him and heard his reasoning and thought about it. And there is a lot of sense there, you know, the ear does search out tonal centers. However you might construct music, it’ll find one. It balances; you can fight against it, and Schoenberg did, but in the end he came ’round to tonal writing. In the end he and Stravinsky swapped places! Stravinsky was writing serial music and Schoenberg was back writing fairly diatonic stuff. Not that I particularly liked it, but it just shows that principles don’t really count for anything in music, it’s what you want to hear, isn’t it? But it is quite interesting to see how people view things intellectually and what they can derive from it. You can derive very interesting music from thinking about it, but in a sense you’re not really hearing it; you’re just thinking on a logical plane. But that can produce some interesting results that you can use in a more pleasing way.
TC: Now, tell me what you feel music is, and what it’s supposed to do; and sorry if this is beginning to sound like an exam! [Laughter]
PM: No, I don’t mind, it’ll probably be nonsense what I’m saying, but– [Same again]
TC: Not at all.
PM: For me, when I play well it’s because I’ve got something inside of me to say. So it is a kind of saying something to you even if it is raw emotion at a basic level. It should have that. When Roland Kirk was paralyzed and could only play the ‘black notes’ on the saxophone, he could still do it and it was even more powerful in its simplicity. The first thing it’s got to have is raw emotion, and after that all the other criteria fall in place. But what one musician says to any two different listeners is anybody’s guess. A performance has to have commitment, and emotion. Obviously you’ve got to control it but it’s got to be there! And the more control you’ve got over the instrument of emotion the more refined and sophisticated the music can be, but you’ve still got to have that penetrating passion to it. There are different ways to achieve the same effect, that’s the interest and variety that is infinite in music. There are many different forms and types and substratas of music that can give you a similar feeling, I suppose. It’s a universal language but there are many messages. The humor of Zappa, the sheer exuberance of his work, it’s phenomenal. That stays with you as much as the grandeur of some of his melodic statements. I don’t know which of these emotions is more important, but there’s enough music out there to satisfy one’s curiosity or desire for a particular brand. Beauty, humor, sheer brute force or sheer delicacy, in the end there’s music that appeals to you and music that doesn’t. Generally people of my ilk tend to gravitate around the same things and say, “Yeah, this is what we agree is a pretty good standard. All of the emotions have to be there, but preferably not all at the same time!” With Zappa there is so much there but there will be elements that won’t be there that you can only get somewhere else. I think he had a very big palette from which he drew, a large view that he had there. He’s a favorite of mine, along with John McLaughlin, Mike Gibbs.
TC: I find a lot of humor in your 1992 release DIGGING IN, examples of which are the secondary theme on the title piece, the opening of “Louder than Words,” or the entirety of “No Holds Barred,” all of which had much of the devil-may-care silliness of a Hatfield album. And isn’t it interesting that you can synthesize a smile on a person’s face with a series of chords?
PM: Yeah, it is interesting. For me I think it’s a bit more unconscious really, at the time of doing it. You do it, and it makes sense. You can justify it afterwards but I don’t think you do at the time. It’s just there! You aim for it instinctively. I think that in working with Dave Stewart and the Hatfields, Dave in particular, some of it rubbed off on me. Given the amount of his music I’ve played I’d be surprised if it hadn’t! [Chuckles] Definitely! And Alan Gowen as well, Alan being a particular favourite of mine. I worked a while with Alan, played a lot of his tunes, and something rubbed off. Whatever influences he had, I’ve now got them by proxy.
TC: I was wondering if you would remember Alan Gowen for us, given that we’ve dedicated our Canterbury Decameron series of articles to his memory, and also given that in the opening track of PARALLEL I noted Pete Lemer making a keyboard statement that made me think, “Oh! Nice solo,” but then three minutes later that exact same statement pops up again and I suddenly realized, “Oh, Phil’s having me on there.” It had been a written section of the tune’s chart, and it made me think of something Gowen says on the liner notes of the 1980 Gilgamesh album ANOTHER FINE TUNE YOU’VE GOT ME INTO–
PM: Merge the composing and the playing, you mean.
TC: Yes, exactly.
PM: Well I think that’s right, you want the freshness of playing to the writing, I mean very often the first time you play a tune it’s not necessarily the best played, obviously. But it has that freshness, doesn’t it, it’s a bit like painting. There’s something nice about making a line on a piece of paper and it’s done. And in a sense it’s nice to have a piece played as if it were the first time you were doing it; the excitement of hearing how it’s all turning out. It’s quite a turn-on, it’s nice to have that first-time feeling of a real person playing it. And I think Alan’s writing, however intricate it might have been, still sounded natural and imbued with that freshness. I think he’d definitely got that, yeah, and I hope to achieve the same myself at some point. The players do that as well in my group, instinctively they get their stuff in there, coming backwards and forwards from the tune. Pete quite often likes quoting stuff, humorous chap that he is. When he gets a bit bored with something you’ll hear television jingles coming up and then you know its time to move on to the next composition! [Laughter]
TC: Quoting the theme from “Eastenders,” perhaps? [Same again]
PM: Yes, then you know it’s time to give that one a bit of a rest.
TC: Or throw the television out the window, at any rate. [More]
PM: Indeed. I think it’s natural to use a quote from a piece and integrate it; well, not always but it’s nice if you can weave some stuff in.’
TC: A friend of mine has a private collection of Hatfield and other similar groups’ live gigs from various times when he was travelling in Europe and was luckily enough to attend these shows, and he has one he’s let me hear from Hatfield’s February 1975 tour of France. You fellows were Performing Dave Stewart’s “Mumps,” and there was an electric piano bit just before going into the “Prenut” section in which Dave just blithely tosses in a few bars from “Arriving Twice.” And whenever I’ve heard that, it never fails to move me.
PM: Yes, good piece, that, a lot of people like that piece. Good bit of writing Alan did there. It’s a beautiful melody and there it is, the chords work well with it. They don’t need to do any more than that. I still enjoy playing it and there’ll probably be a solo guitar version of it eventually. Fred’s working on it, because funnily enough it’s something that you could just about do on one guitar, you know. To get all the chords in, perhaps you should get someone with supersonic technique like John Williams to play it. Not that Fred couldn’t. But it’s a beautiful piece and it could work well for classical guitar. I can’t personally play it; there’s the matter of the odd bar here and there that’s a bit awkward. Quite a technical feat, but it works well for the piece. We did a good version of it as well with Jimmy playing it up in Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh with Dave.
TC: Jimmy Hastings?
PM: Yes, and the tune works well in so many different ways, you know, with two guitars or played fast on the piano as Alan did it [on the first Gilgamesh album], or regally with Jimmy and Dave playing it as a slower piece; it’s very adaptable, yeah.
TC: I always wanted to express my appreciation to you fellows, yourself, John Greaves, Dave and Pip, for getting back together in 1981 to record an album of Gowen’s tunes [D. S. AL CODA].
PM: Should really have done it with AI, it’s sad he wasn’t there to put his print on it. But yeah, it seemed quite the logical thing to do because when Alan died we did go on and do a benefit for him, Dave was instrumental in getting that done. Having worked out quite a lot of the material with Dave for that one gig, it seemed a shame to let that sort of slip. And we’d been offered a chance to do it; there was a lot there, the pieces showed the strength of his writing. They were very fully scored, almost 95% complete. So it was good to finish that up. there was a lot of Alan’s material that he would shudder at the thought that anyone else might poke their nose into it and resurrect one or two pieces that he might rightly or wrongly put aside. He wrote a lot, Alan, there’s a lot of material there, what you’ve heard is the tip of the iceberg really. All you’ve heard was the most finished stuff.
TC: Had a feeling to that extent.
PM: There’s a lot there, I just don’t know how quite finished the rest of it is. I know his friend Geoff has stored Alan’s scores and stuff. He’s a lifelong friend of Alan’s, a librarian. One of these days I must go down there and have a look at them, see what else is there. Must remind myself to do that. ‘Cause we did a piece with Gilgamesh and Hatfield, the double quartet things, and some of them were really nice, I enjoyed it. There are probably some ideas in there that emerged in better form later, as the starting point for other compositions in later years, but there were one or two things. There was one on that London Roundhouse gig you spoke of [during an earlier conversation, the Hatfield 4-13-74 gig reviewed in Issue 59], one piece of Alan’s we’d done that hasn’t appeared on anything else. Be nice to do a decent version of that at some point!
TC: Wow! Do you remember anything about it?
PM: I don’t remember what it was called; I haven’t even got the score, unfortunately. But that is an example of the stuff lurking around. Actually that particular piece was more successful in double quartet form and not quite so much in quartet form. Alan had originally written them for the two groups to play at Notre Dame Hall in Leicester Square, and up in Leeds. The pieces themselves were perhaps more than the arrangements as it’s always difficult to get two drummers to work together. If you were going to have two drummers chundering along, bashing and crashing about, their parts would have to be a bit more worked out.
TC: Absolutely, or you’re going to forget which drummer to follow.
PM: Yeah, I mean it does get to be a bit too much, you should try to split things up a bit more if you’re going to have everybody playing at once, things must be better defined. I think the dots, the bass lines and the chords, those were pretty well worked out but what the drummers were doing was less developed. Might have been better with one drummer! There were also a couple of pieces we wanted to get on for the MISSING PIECES [National Health's archive release, 1996, ESD Records].
TC: You mean “The Towplane and the Glider.”
PM: Yeah that’s right, there’s a whole front bit to that as you may know, that we tried to get on but it was deemed that the quality of the performance or the quality of the tape wasn’t quite right. But, yes. There were a couple of compositions it would have been nice to include but we needed better versions and didn’t have them. That piece you mentioned, there was some ten minutes missing, perhaps more. Shame, that. We performed it quite a bit but we never really recorded it. Maybe someone will get around to doing it.
TC: That friend of mine who saw a lot of your gigs in those days has several recorded versions in his private collection of the full-length “Trident Asleep,” which I think was the name of the entire thing. It usually ran 15 to 18 minutes when performed.
PM: Yeah, it’s a shame, but there again people have heard it, various recorded versions are about and if you really want it you can find it. But there are certain things that I would have liked to see on MISSING PIECES, we spent quite a while rehearsing tat piece you mentioned and it would have been nice to see it on the record to bump up against Mont [Campbell]‘s and Dave’s stuff . Fair enough, they should be there too but that piece was a major part of Alan’s input in the band, the first version. God knows how many times we rehearsed that one. Anyway, it was one that escaped, so far.
TC: Well, if you’re going to put it on CD, and somehow I am certain that Dave Stewart would agree with me here, the version you put on has to be as close to perfect as possible. And first, these tracks are not dashed off on the back of an envelope. They’re difficult. They have a few more chords in them than, say, “Walking the Dog.” Second, in a live situation something always goes wrong. Tell me I’m full of it.
PM: Not at all., especially when you want to record it. If you know you’re recording it and you definitely want something from that recording it definitely tends to impinge on your gig relaxation, and sound balances tend to get fractured and you get more and more wound up. And it registers as the old recording light syndrome there’s more pressure and consequently leads will break, notes get missed and the MIDI patches get stuck, or whatever. [Laughter] Monitors will feed back, and all this will occur because you’re recording. Unfortunate, but it’s just a fact of life, you know.
TC: Yes, there’s proof of Jungian synchronicity : A. Turn on the mikes. B. Someone’s beer explodes, and never, never, on the beat [Laughter]
PM: Oh, yes, self-fulfilling prophecy. You really, shouldn’t even talk about it, it only makes the situation worse. You introduce these things into your subconscious and you’re better off just saying, “Oh, I’m just a musician, I play at the same level now I did minutes ago. I’ve got a good sound anyway, that’s it. Just get on with it, don’t interest me in it, I’m just playing and I don’t want to know about it. If you haven’t got it switched on in the beginning I don’t care!” [Laughter] Do you know what I mean, you do have to divorce yourself from it, otherwise you can’t perform. You have to clear your mind of that and it’s difficult, you often don’t have enough people to take your mind off it completely. There’s always sound balances being off or cut by half, it’s pouring down with rain outside and people are desperate to get in, the promoter’s going berserk, the audience is in a filthy mood… all of that stuff impinges on a live gig. Not so much in the studio, of course, but generally I do quite a bit of recording live, in terms of “live in the studio.” You’ve really only got two or three goes at it, that’s the maximum. And it takes a lot of concentration not to be conscious of time ticking by, you want a breath of fresh air after 40 minutes of high concentration. You can’t really keep it up all day. There is that expectancy of nowness, which of course is what a performance is, but at the same time you do have to settle for something, say, “We’ll do it later.” I’ve noticed that, having my own studio; it’s nice being able to spend as much time as you want but there’s a limited amount of times you can play something. Even over a fairly long time span such as a month, you can’t keep going and visiting it day in and day out like some sort of obsession. You have to choose a day that you’re going to do it and work to that so that you’ll have the best conditions for all of the performance for that particular tune, that you haven’t overstudied and that you’ve done enough and swapped it about and left it for a bit and come back to it. Do you know what I mean? You’ve got to do it then. You can’t do it five times, it just won’t be any good. You have to seize the opportunity. But working live the pressures make you play safe a bit. That’s what happens, and then a bit of the power and joy goes out of it when that starts. It helps to be able to take some risks and get away with it. Which is nice on stage, one does take risks and it’s an enjoyable thing since it doesn’t matter quite so much; the benefits outweigh the possible failures. It’s a different psychology.
TC: I recall seeing the supposedly infamous Hatfield video of the set played at the farewell show for the London Rainbow, and in Dave’s Hatfield memoirs he said he felt the performance wasn’t up to snuff at all. But as I was watching everyone seemed to be doing just fine. Or is what Dave was talking about only something that you would have had to have been onstage to catch?
PM: Yeah, it was our own fault really, we’d got a bit of a bad write-up for complaining about the sound balances and stuff. It’s the old thing, you get onstage and everything’s completely different from the way you had it. The tunes don’t sound quite right, you can’t hear what Dave’s doing because he’s not in the monitors, the time’s wobbling around and you’re struggling basically. We got it together in the end a bit more, had a good go at it, but I think it was a bit foolish of us to go on about it as if it were someone else’s fault. It’s your own fault, of course; you get out on stage and hope to do well, but if you don’t you’ve only got yourselves to blame.
TC: You were particularly good early in the video with this utterly seamless sequel out of the theme to “Halfway Between Heaven and Earth” and into “The Yes No Interlude.” I knew the tunes were there but I’ve never been able to figure out exactly at what point one leaves off and the other starts.
PM: We were rather good at that, I mean, Pip and I were reminiscing about it because Richard [Sinclair] has compiles a Hatfield radio tape we were thinking we might put out just out of interest, but Pip and I were listening to it and the best bits of it were all the little links we wrote to join one bit to another, and we were saying, “Oh, I haven’t heard that for ages!” or “I remember that…” [chuckles] so as per what you were saying, that’s quite true, we did find good ways to join things up, we spent quite a lot of time doing so. I can’t quite remember why, but for some reason or another we didn’t like stopping playing. We liked to get the momentum going and sort of get on with it.
TC: Well, Soft Machine began doing that early on and Robert Wyatt continued it when he left to assemble Matching Mole.
PM: True, yes.
TC: And the method of playing without a break between songs, I think, always assisted in the feel of a typical Hatfield gig: a balance. between studious involvement and utter chaos [Laughter]. To say nothing of a certain maniacal glee.
PM: Yes, persistence! Don’t give the audience a chance, you know, great masses of musical information at a sustained level. Quite nice. the idea of ‘no breaks for waffling.’ I don’t think we could do it now, there’d be too many parts flying around unplayed! That’s the trouble with guys that read music, you know, you have to be well organised on the stand in terms of picking this up and putting that down. But without the no-waits method I can do running repairs on my tuning between numbers, that sort of thing. Of course, we rehearsed day in and day out with Hatfield; it’s a different thing now. I love to rehearse, before a tour or otherwise. but being spread out all over Europe as we are, Pip living in Paris, Fred living in the north of England and some of the time in Germany, Jim living in Holland and sometimes in London, well, it’s difficult. Elton and I and Pete are in and about London. It’d be nice to be able to work together more but I don’t think it’s really as easy any more. In the Hatfield days Pip and Richard and I were living in the same flat! So we could rehearse any time we wanted to, providing.
TC: Go ’round the corner, collect Dave, and away you go!
PM: Yes, that’s it exactly, he lived about five minutes away. And there was a friendly landlord [pub owner] who had a room in the back where we could rehearse.
TC: As time goes on and I play the old albums and think of all the mad anecdotes I’ve heard it becomes more obvious to me that Hatfield and the North was one of those marvelous accidents, you know, a tightrope walk on a razor ribbon that, no matter what the circumstances, was simply a sum of diverse parts that by some happy coincidence fit together perfectly but only for a short period of time. I think that as in all great collaborations it was a process of growing together, holding together, growing apart and coming apart. Plus I think you can only do something that maniacally intense when you’re young!
PM: Yeah, it had its natural time span and it was those four people. They went into making that band, and when it split up it was good that it was over. There was a certain sort of honesty about that. The band wasn’t going anywhere towards the end, but up until the point where it started to go wrong, that was great, you know. And at that point at which it started to go haywire, we stopped it. It was a fairly short career, it wasn’t a great career move by any means. but on a musical level you’re left with what we did when we were enjoying ourselves’. and that was the two albums we made. Better to have been like that than there to have been a million versions of Hatfield and the North. It would have made it less unique, having to go out and find a new bass guitarist or whatever, do you know what I mean?
TC: Yes. Hatfield had a very inner-directed psyche; everyone had to be on proper terms. or perhaps the better word would be “certain” terms. As long as those terms were met the group mind was effective. Cops. I’m quoting Jung again. [Ed. note: Yes. and every time you do it our circulation plummets, so STOP IT!]
PM: Absolutely. it’s true, we did do that later gig in 1990 for the television, but that obviously wasn’t Hatfield [the TV show in which Sophia Domancich played keyboards with Richard. Pip and Phil as Dave had declined to participate]. Hatfield was Dave, Pip, Richard and myself, and that was it. Anything else was an aberration.
TC: We at TC tried to lay the whole matter to rest — of course, we failed– with a short series of articles in late ’95 and inid-’96. After we did interviews with Richard [TC54,551 and the overview of your post-National Health career [TC 58] we began getting deluged with demands for a Hatfield survey and as a result we did these articles in TC 59 and 62 called “A Treatise On The Concept Of Time Considered As A Helix of Smashed Gnomes.” [Laughter]
PM [chuckling): Ah, yes, that period of the band. I don't know why Pip liked doing that, suddenly he just got into breaking gnomes [trad English garden statuary, usually made of plaster or concrete, kayadoua --Ed.], I mean he got quite maniacal about it. I recall one such incident, Pip doing that at the start of a set in Holland, to the tune of a passage from “Son of ‘There’s No Place Like Homerton. ” That was the normal accompaniment, of course. [Chuckles] And along with that he liked breaking teapots, as you know! One other time we were doing a gig with Gong, as you may have heard, and we told him, “Don’t do that tonight”. We all told him that, mind you, it stands to reason you don’t smash gnomes and teapots before a Gong gig, but sure enough he went ahead and did it anyway and a great shard near took his eye out! [Gales of laughter, however sympathetic]. Might say the prophet of doom set things aright. [Laughter]
TC: I would say that this anecdote is evidence that there are such things as Octave Doctors.
PM: Gnomes got their revenge that night!
TC: Poor man! To David Allen’s credit he certainly is a forgiving fellow, given that Pip’s been drumming on the last two Gong tours of America.
PM: True, that; he might have sworn him off after that, altogether.
TC: Tell me about some of your other gigging relationships; for example you’ve done some duo gigs with Pete Lemer.
PM: Well, Pete as I said is a virtuoso. he’s a fan of my writing and he likes to play my tunes, and on that level we’re very close. He gives a lot of time to me, and I’ve always liked his playing. I first got to know him via John Mitchell, he was a contemporary.
TC: Mitchell was in National Health for about an hour and a half or so, if I recall.
PM: That’s right, he and Pete were buddies, and I met him when I became friendly with John, which of course I still am. Pete had a band with Francis Moze and Laurie Allan at one point, at which time I had a listen and found him an excellent player. He also lives round where I was brought up when I was a child, so he’s melded into my background as it were, before I was doing anything in music, given that he lives in an area I know well. We have done a few duos from time to time and hope to do more. I’d like to hear Pete do more of his own stuff but he’s really such a perfectionist he never sort of gets round to doing it. He does other people’s work when they ask it of him rather than get up and do his own. He may have difficulty motivating himself, perhaps he needs someone pestering him, saying “Do it!” But he has been recording recently in Israel, he’s been out there doing some recording with his band, which is a trio, with an Israeli drummer whose name eludes me at the moment. So lately he has been productive but I’d like to see him do more because he is an excellent composer; it’s just that much of his music hasn’t yet seen the light of day. Apparently he’s going to be doing some arranging for [saxophonist] Barbara Thompson, that’ll keep him busy. And I think that her band could benefit from more of what he can do, because although she’s a good player in her own right her writing’s not as original. It could do with some of Pete’s tailoring. He’s done that for me a couple of times, brought things out for me using changes of emphasis. He works well with compositions. he focuses them quite well. Good man to have aboard the ship. I’d like to hear him on the acoustic piano more often, come to think of it, but it’s not easy to find good pianos about. It’s nice what he does on Elton’s tune ‘Jana’ on that older record of mine IN CAHOOTS LIVE 861891; it’s a very stylish approach and I don’t think you can do that with a sampling keyboard, not really. It doesn’t lend itself to that type of piano playing. Shame, really.
TC: Now, if you would, some thoughts about Short Wave. Playing with them must almost be like a vacation.
PM: A little, yes. I have a bit more time to just get my head together, think a bit more selfishly rather than be the bandleader doing his duties. And it’s nice playing with Didier, I haven’t done much of that. He’s very quick-witted, a lovely bloke to play with. We have a good empathy on stage, 1 like what he plays basically. And he’s into so very many different areas of music, he’s got a very broad view of music. He’s able to play anything, he’s not locked into any one style or approach. And it’s nice to play Hugh’s compositions, the way Hugh writes them he leaves lots of space for you to do your own thing. So I like reharmonizing them and annoying him– [Uncontrollable laughter from the interviewer, regrettably] –tinkering with them, you know. They’re very broad. It’s nice to have that freedom to do things differently, and his tunes tolerate that approach. Often you will find different ways to do a tune each night, and I enjoy that. I like playing a written part as well, if it’s a good part I love to play it. Nine times out of ten I’ll do exactly that, but where Hugh’s stuff is concerned they’re not written like that, there’s a lot more stuff that you have to put in to make it work. It’s rather a bit like what Pip has to do for me when I present him with a piece that has nothing more than the structure and the bar lines. You’ve really got to make your own niche in it and say that this is how you propose to do it. So I like Short Wave for that, it’s nice.
TC: Any plans for 1997 yet?
PM: Hopefully Pip and I will start working on some material for the next Short Wave album, we have some gigs coming up next year, so hopefully we’ll be doing some work on our various computers swapping stuff’round and trying to get some new material. Or perhaps we’ll do some stuff track by track; Didier has a pretty good home studio with an ADAT like I have, so we may do a few compositions at home and write a few things that we can do in the studio; it’s a matter of making time for it, as usual. I’m going to see Hugh over the holidays and present him with a couple of pieces to have a look at himself, looking forward to that. And Fred and I have various plans to be touring next year in Europe, and hopefully we’ll have a new album out. We’ve got four or five pieces we’re pretty pleased with, we’ll try to get three or four more and see what we’ve got. So those are the most immediate plans I have in mind. I’m looking to be touring and doing a few festivals in the summer, waiting to hear just now. But basically I’m now gearing myself up and writing, generally getting on with the chores of getting concerts together. I’d love to come to America and play, maybe that won’t be so much of a dream soon. I’d love to come over, maybe if only as part of a duo or trio.
TC: Well, obviously we’d love to have you.
PM: A friend of mine, Charlie Ringas, said he could probably put up some concerts for me in the U. S. so we’re gradually piecing a list of likely possible gigs together. So maybe I’ll be able shortly to summon up the energy to get on the phone and work out something for Fred and I, or Pip, Fred and I. I can’t imagine getting the whole band over there, I’m sorry to say.
TC: It’s disappointing, but I can well imagine it would be horrendously expensive.
PM: Perhaps three I could do; in fact, that’s why Fred and I do a lot of duo gigs, because it’s viable economically. And artistically it’s viable as well. It would be nice to have a larger palette but the economics of it dictate occasionally. So it’s possible that Fred and I could come over, we just have to decide that that’s what we’re going to do. Grab the phone and get on with it! Pip said he had a good time when he was over there, the audiences were fantastic; of course the Gong audience is larger than the one I could command, but it would still be a turn-on.
TC: I won’t insist, but.
PM: It’s been too long, really, I’ve got a lot of friends there. I’d like to see America and do a bit of playing, meet everyone face to face. And there are so many good musicians there as well; the last time I was very impressed by so many phenomenal musicians, really, beyond belief.
TC: That was when you were on tour with National Health in late 1979.
PM: Yes, exactly. Good fun, that tour.
TC: A question about other of your influences from one of our resident Grey Eminences, Michael Bloom. Are you a fan of the late Antonio Carlos Jobim?
PM: Oh, yes, I liked his songs. Beautiful melodies, absolutely.
TC: Michael once pointed out to me that he once noted an implied bossa nova feel in “Lounging There Trying.” [Laughter]
PM: Yes, I can see that, exactly.
TC: And now, from the sublime to the ridiculous. A jazz buff friend of mine and myself on our college radio station used to have lengthy pointless drunken arguments as to whether Hatfield and the North were a jazz or a rock band!
PM [amused]: Oh, I think we were a rock band, myself.
TC: No kidding!
PM: That’s the way I felt in those days, although, yes, there were a lot of jazz influences in the harmonies, while in Dave’s case Stravinsky was and is his biggest influence, and of course there were also the song structures from Richard. And if you listen to Jobim you know there were some beautiful songs as well! But I think really it was a rock group, although it doesn’t really matter what it’s called now; still, jazz is a different rhythmic and harmonic sensibility, even given that it’s not a million miles away.
TC: I mention this because he had a standard set he would occasionally resort to when creativity flagged, and this is the reason why the Jobim question Mike brought up had some resonance: this set consisted of the McCoy Tyner Trio doing “Wave,” then “Lounging There Trying” and finishing up with the Dexter Gordon Nonet playing “Insensatez.” [Ed. note: since Ken won't tell you, 1 will; "Wave" is to be found on Tyner's SUPERTRIOS Mlestone, U.S.] and “Insensatez” –listed on the label as “How Insensitive” — from Dexter Gordon’s SOPHISTICATED GIANT [Columbia/Sony, U. S. ]. Of course, I would then retaliate by sticking “Son Of ‘There’s No Place Like Homerton”‘ in between Yes’ “Roundabout” and King Crimson’s “Book Of Saturday.”
PM: I remember that Tyner album, I loved Tony Williams’ drumming on that one. Lost it a while ago, unfortunately, just one of those things.
TC: All right, last question about merchandising: tell me about some of the advantages or disadvantages of running your own record company. One of the pluses. I would assume, would be that you can do a record whenever you like.
PM: Yes! You’ve hit the nail on the head. That for me is the main advantage. I can do it when I want to do it, I don’t have to ask anybody else. If I’ve got the money to do it, the people are available and the conditions are as they should be, I can more or less do an album whenever I’ve got one together. Which won’t be too often, it’s too hard to do really! It’s a nice feeling not to have to go cap in hand and ask permission. I can start the ball rolling here at home, I’ve got a modest studio of my own, it’s enough to get things moving. Or I can use it to complement what I do elsewhere. I can bring it here and tinker with it, add parts or phrase things differently. And I can also put it out when I’m ready to do so. Not that I wouldn’t refuse if someone came to me and offered me a fair contract, of course!
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.