Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Friday, May 28, 2004


On the road again

Gary Steel chronicles the NZ tour of legendary space rockers Hawkwind.

TWENTY four hours has drifted by since the godlike spectre of space-rock warhorse Hawkwind arrived, jet-weary at Auckland airport, into the unseasonably monsoon-like Auckland Summer.
Most of the group are slumbering fitfully after their nightmare air fear: on their way from old Blighty, the good ship Hawkwind had been diverted to an unscheduled LA stopover, where violinist Simon House and his 14-year-old daughter, Holly, were incarcerated with hardened criminals because of a 1969 drug conviction.
Pacing the room is a spindly, mustachioed 59-year-old, ranting like something out of an x-rated Charles Dickens.
‘Oh god it’s the same fucking shit that always fucking happens. why is this shit always happening?’ whines Hawkwind founder and leader Dave Brock, as band members and entourage scuttle out of his way.
Grumpy that the promised Pacific idyll is just like a London Winter, just warmer, Brock is starting to realise that a few things are amiss about this 6-week New Zealand tour, Hawkwind’s first downunder. Like a publicity budget about as big as a Ponsonby Rd designer burger. And the rather pressing need for every single gig to make a profit to prevent the members from having to apply for refugee status to ensure their tickets home.
The sky is dull and broody in a uniquely Auckland manner as the wizened wizard of space rock surveys Witchwood, the configuration of house trucks that makes up this suburban hippy haven in Henderson.
It must get better than this.

INTERNATIONALLY, the UK group are getting more attention than at any time since their debut (and only) 1971 smash hit, the gonzoid genius of ‘Silver Machine’. Celebrating thirty years of on-the-road anarchy as England’s closest equivalent to the Grateful Dead, Hawkwind members past and present observe benignly as previously neglected albums and live documents are reissued and canonised by a newly respectful press; and it gawks back in wonderment as everyone from the Clash to the Chemical Brothers cite them as a huge influence.
Having endured decades of neglect and caricature, highlighted by their resemblance to the rock spoof portrayal of Spinal Tap, it must seem almost incomprehensible that serious kudos is finally coming their way. To longtime fans, it just seems inevitable: in the 70s, when their contemporaries were more interested in clever appeggiated regurgitations, Hawkwind found much more gratification in grunged-up guitar riffs and synthesiser oscillation frenzies. And their gargantuan bulldozer approach to riffology and improvised skronk provided a dark side to the hippy idealisation of their peers that suddenly sounds bang up-to-date in year nought.

THE Waihi Beach Hotel is a low-slung 70s structure of obsolescent architecture and premature decay, set precisely in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred freaks have come down off the mountains to witness this warmup date, but many locals stay away, apparently convinced that these guys are imposters: that the real Hawkwind would not condescend to playing down the boondoks.
It’s an ignoble start to the tour, but even at this outpost of civilisation, where Hawkwind’s attack is lessened to pub-rock status, the heavens collide. On stage, the Hawkwind myth takes shape. These epic seismic shifts of songs sound like they forged themselves out of primeval goo and molten earthcore.
The ridiculous and the sublime run in parallel dimensions simultaneously as silly Dr Who-like Dalek incantations meet the kind of malevolent stoner riffs that played only once sound truly moronic, but run to epic repetition bring out the tantric genius of Hawkwind.
Completing the early 70s glitter and Styrofoam vibes are keyboardist/vocalist Harvey Bainbridge and violinist Simon House, who both look like silver-haired replicas of Dr Who actor John Pertwee. Concurrently owing much to Hawkwind’s vision is the X-Files; the group have been talking conspiracy theory and alien invasion paranoia throughout its history, including a stint in the 70s when sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock flew with the Hawk crew.
Long cyborg orations by Bainbridge include recitations on the healing power of New Zealand dak, and delightfully vaudevilian between-song repartee includes House burning it down with macro-classical violin renditions.
Night two at Auckland’s Powerstation suffers through sound gremlins. Lacking the happy chatter and energy of Waihi, they appeared tired and the performance was perfunctory. An audience of 450 watched support get their sets curtailed, and there were rumours that Brock had insisted on being in bed with a cup of tea by 11.45pm.

MY ears are still painfully screaming when I rendezvous with the band the next day at their Henderson hideaway.
When I confront Dave Brock about the tortuous decibels, he admits that over the years he’s lost the top range of his hearing. “I’m deaf, I can’t hear the telephone ring. You lose frequencies,” he smiles.
After two gigs with lower than expected attendances, Brock is already resigned to making a loss on the tour.
“ We’re going to lose money. We exist on a very low, meagre budget. But it’s quite cheap in New Zealand. Staying out here (Henderson) keeps costs down a lot. If we’d been staying in a hotel, we’d just have to pack up and clear off. “
Harvey Bainbridge, who has been with Hawkwind since the 70s, blames the costs of having 13 people on the road. “Doing it this way the aim was to cover costs and not make much out of it but have a holiday; we’re here to play and see the country.”
Brock, however, admits that the constant financial worries do get to him. “It’s stressful. seriously stressful. “
Bainbridge: “It stops you from concentrating on what you’re here to do, playing the music, going places you’ve never been with the music before, which is the whole point of the band. It’s like a big machine, reckless and wild. You don’t have a lot of control over what’s going on, but sometimes the shows are really interesting, because it’s so anarchic. You’re being bombarded with sound, it really is sonic bombardment, because it’s wildly out of control. So you wait for the magic moment. and when it comes along you get on board and go as far as you can with it. Changing people’s perceptions and consciousness, is what we’re trying to do.”
Brock’s no idiot, and he knows that the Hawkwind formula of endless repetition can be potent: just ask today’s electronic trance musicians, who have created a whole new genre out of something that Hawkwind kicked off.
“It’s taking the intensity of playing maybe two notes. You can play two notes for a long period of time and make those two notes different in terms of the intensity,” says Brock. “Trance has the same sort of principles. Back then it was just doing the same thing on the guitar. but we used to get slagged off for playing three chords and being boring. There’s a fundamental beauty in playing one chord. Even one chord. A lot of different African musicians do some wonderful stuff on one note.”
While the current crop of trance musicians tends to play it safe with reproduction of the sounds the makers of their gadgets envisioned, Hawkwind have a different take:
“Machines are here to make life easier, not to be dictated by machines, and a lot of the time is spent trying to corrupt the machine so you get some weird noise out of them: abuse the machine, says Bainbridge. “But at the heart of it is real musicians who can play their chosen instruments. and it’s that combination of technology and traditional instruments that makes the sound you get.
“Genius is the moment of creation, everything else is replication. If Simon’s playing some incredible spacey thing, everybody will catch hold of that, and go with the flow. He might go off into a space you didn’t know you were going to, which is what you’re striving for when you’re writing music. We’re so conditioned not to notice syncronicities by our authorities, but they’re going on all the time. Try to remember to notice them, keep your eyes and ears open, so when you stumble across something interesting, a fantastic noise...”
And his voice trails off while the eyes settle into an acid burnout stare.
As various members turn up with tea and toast, talk turns to the police crackdown on hippy culture in the UK, where the roving anarchy of house-truck havens and free festivals at Stonehenge has been firmly quashed. They warn us to keep hold of our freedom, and commend us for the way “alternative culture here is part of the mainstream”.
Proceedings come to a resounding halt when a spouting falls off the roof and whacks Simon House on the head.

IT’S Thursday evening, and people are filing into New Plymouth’s the Fitzroy Hotel. What they don’t know is that Hawkwind are still on the road: a three hour drive from Taupo has taken two dodgy vans eight hours on the gravel roads of a scenic route, and the group arrive just in the nick of time.
Unfortunately, the group’s American lighting person is onboard (having just joined the tour) and when he is faced with working locally hired gear (his own had been smashed to smithereens on the flight over) and the lack of American transformers, he snaps. Half an hour before the group are due to take the stage, the American lighting person spazzes out at the sound technician, who promptly takes off, insisting that he’s going to hitch back to Auckland and get the next plane out of the country.
A dismal situation - no sound technician, no lights - is remedied when someone finds the American transformer and someone else convinces the technician to return. Around 250 punters, many of them the biker contingent that traditionally makes up a percentage of the Hawkwind fanbase, turn up for a great gig. But the crowd are lame, and don’t respond to a fiery set.
The group arrive in Wellington for two dates to find that student station Radioactive, which constituted the their main radio ad spend in the city, had run an orchestrated campaign taking the piss out of the group. Uncharacteristically, they are an hour late taking the stage. Eventually, they play a rousing set to 300 people, but Dave Brock stands onstage, refusing to play. “I’m on strike”, he tells the other band members, who manfully jam on without their leader.
Eventually, he capitulates; it seems his gesture was a protest at an earlier standoff, in which the rest of the group had refused to go on at all unless they were guaranteed some cash in hand.
Forcing the issue, the group finally got a little cash for coffees, cigarettes and food. Yes, folks, things had got that desperate.
The second Wellington date was the tour highlight, despite a miserable attendance of 150 paying punters. When one of the crew remarked to the sound technician about the high standard of the set, his response was: “Yeah, it’s amazing what a little bit of comfort money will do for a band.”
The next day, Hawkwind headed up country for a night off enjoying the sight delights and smells of Rotorua, but even this moment of bliss was denied them. Simon House - who was recovering from a recent operation - took ill and needed a visit to hospital. Ditto guitarist Jerry, who had a back spasm and needed laying flat on the side of the road before treatment at Taupo hospital.
They didn’t arrive in Rotorua until after 10pm, and had time only for a brief dip in a hotpool, before bed and a rush to Auckland airport the next morning.
Australia. Where New Zealand couldn’t even offer Hawkwind enough paying customers to make ends meet, Australia was a huge success, and the group were feted wherever they went. Rumour has it that this group with the most male of audience profiles even got groupies there.
It must have been with sinking spirits that the group returned to New Zealand for their final date, a second try at the Powerstation. Where the first had been promoted through alternative means, like student station Bfm, this time they chose a more conventional medium, like radio Hauraki. It flopped. Bigtime. The show drew around 100 paying customers, who, over the course of the performance, drifted away. With a few lurkers and what seemed like acres of empty floor in front of the stage, Hawkwind gave up.
And the road goes on.

This is an un-subbed edition of the piece which appeared in the NZ Listener, April 1, 2000.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Tony Conrad

The following appeared in the Sunday Star Times, Aug 3, 1997

Rage Against The Machine

Who is Tony Conrad and why isn't he in the rock history tomes? After years of obsession, GARY STEEL unravels the mystery of the man who was a founding father of minimalism and who applies ancient Greek theories to modern music.

I was 15 when I stumbled across one of the strangest records in the universe. The cover was unforgettable; a deadly grey and silver sleeve and this solarised face staring right out at you with an ambiguity that held terrific promise.
Tony Conrad's one and only vinyl venture, Outside The Dream Syndicate, changed my life and the nature of my relationship with music. Just two long pieces - From The Side Of Man And Womankind and From The Side Of The Machine - and the music was like nothing on earth. Monstrous, heaving drones and textures weaved an astonishing, disturbing alien landscape built on electrified violin tones and textures, pushed along by a relentless, superhuman percussive plod.
As the album attached itself to different functions in my life - moments of rumination and meditation through to its use as the perfect party clearer - the enigma of Tony Conrad grew. Who was this guy, why wasn't he in the rock history tomes, and why weren't there more records to be found?
These mysteries were addressed in 1994 when the ultra-hip independent record company Table Of The Elements reissued Outside The Dream Syndicate - which had become a long out-of-print collectors' item - on compact disc.
The label had prodded the 'Kraut rock' revival by releasing albums by German proto-industrial legends Faust, and now it turned its attention to Conrad, whose album was recorded in Germany with Faust's rhythm section and producer.
Suddenly, all was revealed. Outside The Dream Syndicate had simply been a three-day session in 1972 for a man who by that date should have already secured his place in the history of 20th Century music.
In the early 1960s, Conrad was a founding father of what later became the most commercially successful form of modern classical music: Minimalism. But by the late 60s, he had turned his back on music and become one of the most acclaimed experimental film-makers; The Flicker is an acknowledged classic.
And while I stewed in my teenage bedroom over the mystery of Conrad, he was making a substantial career for himself as a lecturer and professor of media studies at Buffalo State University, New York.
His initial qualifications in mathematics, Conrad fell in with La Monte Young, John Cale and others in the early 60s to explore what they called 'dream music'... music using repetition, strange pitches and tonalities, with influences drawn from Eastern scales.
Eventually, Conrad fell out with Young, but he was around at the formation of the band and scene that was the Velvet Underground.
"One of the players we worked with who was articulate musically was John Cale", says Conrad. "What he did was carry this directly over into pop without excuses, but set it in that context and allowed it to happen."
Cale and Conrad were flatmates and both ended up being picked up by an exploitative record company for a pop group called The Primitives; a folk singer by the name of Lou Reed was pulled into the picture, and the rest is history.
Conrad's interest in music, art and culture has always been serious, however, and he was more interested in following his dream music ideas. "I was interested in abandoning the Western egocentric idea of being a composer, and moving away from the Western tradition into something else, not something that emphasised the performer as a surrogate emotional figure; this music ain't the blues, you don't destroy Western culture by feeling 'blue'; you break it up with rage, power and good aim!" he says.
"That's what I was up to. I felt that it was important to get into the sound, to convey the energy directly into the sound, and let that have agency as a cultural phenomenon in itself, directly."
Subsequent disputes with La Monte Young over the ownership of recorded material from those legendary early 60s experiments in minimalism (both Conrad and Cale have made representations and protestations to Young, to no avail) helped to obscure Conrad's importance. Young, to this day, refuses to release any of this material.
However, it played its part in developing Conrad's ideas, and led circuitously to both of his recent projects, Slapping Pythagorus and Early Minimalism.
"The music was consciously repressed by Young, who retains the particular recordings that we made at the time, vaulted in some industrial safe, so most of the music that was made at the time can't be heard... The aristocratic sensibility of emphasising ownership and domination is something I've fought against."
His 1994 album, Slapping Pythagorus, is a diatribe against accepted notions of music form, having far-reaching ramifications to the fabric of society, while the show he's touring New Zealand (and the four-CD box set due later this year) is a kind of veiled recreation of those suppressed early works.
Conrad will perform with his partner, cellist Alexandria Gelenscer. They will present "a composition occasioned by an interest that I had in exploring the relationship between cultural history and personal history, so I went back and started working again with the style of music that I had been performing in the early 60s.
"A lot of the cultural impact of the music from that time has already been felt; people know something about what minimalism is, and yet not in this form... I was looking for a way to incorporate history into music through reasserting the values of history into an environment which is more contemporary."
Slapping Pythagoras explored issues that invade all of Conrad's work.
"The Western tradition was founded on the power of music to represent the orderliness of the social space... I was taught that there were absolute values that were profoundly unalterable and permanent, and it's easy to see how people buy into this.
"What we're dealing with her is usage of theory as an instrument of authority. The way it functioned for Pythagoras was to establish a model for a universe which he called the 'harmonious cosmos' which was supposed to be a system.
"You could tell that this system existed because when you sing a tune, you don't even know it, but you're participating in the harmonious cosmos, which not only includes the song that you sing, but includes your place in the world - and you'd better stay in your place!
"This was the reason why his work was so impactful at a time when the Greeks were being threatened by democracy."
As a continuation of this remarkable theory, Conrad has made it his duty to deconstruct this musical harmonious cosmos. "There can be different sounds from the ones you've heard already. There can be sounds which have different relationships within the texture of the sound. You know how they say that a minor scale is 'sad', and a major scale is 'happy'? Well, why is that? If there's just two, you can't learn anything. It's like if you only have two sexes you can't learn much about gender, but if you have gay and transsexual and problems like impotency... then you learn a lot about sexuality."
Conrad says the problems of tone, pitch and scale (which he investigates through his music) are compounded by musical instruments which are built to be played the Pythagorean way, although he delights in the pitch-bending and blending potential of modern electronic instruments.
This unassuming but endlessly provocative legend - at the ripe old age of 57 - feels turned on to the current alternative music scene, which has embraced him in a way that the 60s and 70s failed to. Slapping Pythagoras was produced by Steve Albini (of Nirvana fame), and featured cutting-edge avant-rockers like Jim O'Rourke. There's already a Kiwi connection. Conrad has toured and worked with New Zealander Michael Morley of the Dead C, a group which - while barely known at home - has an avid following in America and rabid press notices.
"Music has in the past few years, with the possibility that people have to make their own cds, created a completely different environment, where there are plentiful releases, and a viable decentralised culture. So this is quite a different environment. I've been astonished to find that there's a ready audience out there for music that's not being presented as some culturally necessary object, or the product of a dominant culture, or some advertising gimmick. It's really something that people are willing to listen to and are interested in because it's different and unexpected.
"When you go and look at a category of music in a record store, it's very difficult to identify because there's such diversity. It's not classical or pop or experimental any more... things have sort of melted."
*Tony Conrad and Alexandria Gelenscer: Hopetoun Alpha, Auckland, August 9; Wellington City Art Gallery, August 11; Dunedin Public Art Gallery, August 14; Lumiere, Christchurch, August 16; Hopetoun Alpha, August 20.

2004 NOTES:
The piece above was originally published in a weekly newspaper in NZ. The Sunday Star Times is a rather trashy, populist publication with an uneasy combination of tabloid sensationalism, more considered news backgrounders, and arts coverage. I've always liked the challenge of writing a story about artists or subject matters which would seem to be outside the remit or tone of the the publication in question. I guess it's that old fashioned belief (or hope) that maybe you can prick the brains of those who would not normally know or care about someone like Conrad, or his ideas.
In this case, of course, the story had a personal spin. Those early 70s Faust albums are still amongst the best 'rock' albums ever made, and 'Outside The Dream Syndicate' still does it for me. By the same token, I have a hard time with Conrad's Table Of The Elements output. 'Outside The Dream Syndicate' had a 'sound' which was pure Ewe Nettelbeck, Faust's producer/engineer. 'Slapping Pythagoras' had, to these ears, a rather dull monochromatic sound that I found unappealing.
The interview sourced in this feature I conducted with Conrad by telephone shortly before his NZ tour in 1997. He talked in length, and was a gracious interviewee. When I get time, I will pick out some of the best unpublished (or edited) excerpts of the transcript.
At the time of his NZ tour, I was running an experimental record shop right next to the art gallery which brought Conrad to this side of the world, and got to get to know him a little, through informal meetings in my shop, and a memorable dinner in the home of arts patron William Somerville.
Conrad and Alexandria are both visually odd: tiny, bird-like creatures who have the demeanours of folks who rarely see the sun, they were often to be found in close conference. On the other hand, when Conrad speaks, its with the booming voice of a lecturer, and he's a spellbinding orator. Maybe I've just hung out with too many pop musicians, but in all my years of meeting and interviewing musicians, there are only four or five who stand out as superb communicators who ALSO have something of real merit to express. Robert Fripp, Frank Zappa, Tony Conrad... Gee, I'm sure there are more I just can't think of right now!
Anyway, sometime during a long meal, I did the very thing I've resisted doing all these years, and asked Tony Conrad to sign my copy of 'Outside The Dream Syndicate'. So... he made a great song and dance about finding a BLACK pen, and signed his name on the BLACKEST part of the cover he could find!
I've got copious diary notes about the Conrad show I attended. Somewhere. I know I went along with a crashing headache wondering whether the shrieking catgut would bring up my last meal. The duo performed behind a curtain, so only their outlines were visible. The drones were immense, and at times the acoustical phenomena were such that... well, it was the kind of gig that makes records redundant. Almost. So intense was the sound that it felt like some kind of exorcism, and by the end of the evening I was drained, and had not a trace of that migraine.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

I think I exist, therefore I am. Vanity, vanity...

The intention of this particular blog project is two-fold:
1) It's a way to archive the results of some of my journalistic activities over the past 26 years or so. I'm always meeting people who want to see some decaying old feature I wrote back in the days before the internet (and mostly written on crappy old typewriters); while it's going to be a 'long project with no prospect', I like the idea of some of these pieces having a life outside their intended consumption date.
2) It's also a way to REVIEW these pieces, add thoughts and ideas that the separation of time (and hopefully a little wisdom) has provided.
For those in a position to employ me and pay me vast sums of cash for my sterling abilities, I append a (loose) WORK HISTORY:

Grew up on the rough side of suburban Hamilton, a painfully boring riverside town smudged somewhere on the central geography of New Zealand's north island, and famous for its super green super phosphate grass and the fluffy white things that eat it, then get slaughtered for the privilege. Baa-aah.
Attended the Wellington Polytechnic year-long journalism course in 1978.
Began training as a sub-editor at Wellington's Evening Post in December of that year. Started free-lancing for NZs only rock music magazine, Rip It Up, and in 1979 somehow conned the Evening Post into hiring me as their music/entertainment writer/reviewer.
Started my own freebie music paper late 1979. Its unfortunate title was In Touch, but in its two-and-a-half years of sporadic publication, the mag ably catalogued the unique, arty post-punk music scene in Wellington, and provided a bit of spiked substance to a soft-cock publishing scene.
Left the Evening Post's full-time employment in 1981, but continued to besiege them with my putrid prose and pompous predications until 1988.
My magazine osmosed from In Touch to IT to TOM, a controversial 'arts and entertainment' listing that leeched into the city's fabric for a further two-and-a-half years.
These magazines - together with my writing experience for the 'dailies' - were my baptism by fire in publishing. At various times I was editor, publisher, sales rep, past-up flunkie, typesetter, proof-reader, photographer. Finally, the magazine's tart tongue finally proved its undoing, and I escaped for the first and only time to the land of publicity.
For the next 18 months, I served time at TVNZ as a Publicity Journalist, where I worked with a team who supplied 'ready-made' pieces to hundreds of newspapers around the country. Alarmingly, the newspapers dutifully printed these sly puff pieces as legitimate copy. One of my main jobs was generating publicity for music programmes like the oft-lamented RWP (Radio With Pictures).
Saved from a life of tv-land purgatory by Listener (NZ tv listing magazine) editor David Beatson in 1987, I was drafted in to launch NZs first power-packed teen read, RTR Countdown. Though it was a chart-based publication, I tried to combat the shallowness of 'teen' magazines by addressing controversial issues, bringing in loads of humour and some of the best, sharpest writers I could find. I remember the marketing department's distillation of audited figures: 'RTR Countdown penetrates 40 percent of the teen market.' Iffy.
RTR was a magazine phenomenon in NZ, and raised the stakes for this type of publication. But New Zealand, being hung up on the hip cachet of an imagined 'alternative' market, found it impossible to acknowledge this.
After seven years of fragmenting markets and genres, the magazine's owners decided to discontinue the title, rather than invest in a burgeoning youth market.
Having continued to freelance for various publications over the years (including a tenure as the Listener's music reviewer, the short-lived New Zealand Rolling Stone, and the Sunday Times) I headed off into the journalistic wilderness, sharpening my pen for the Sunday Star Times, the Shortland St magazine, the Sky channel publication, and many others.
I'd had a wee project in mind for some years: a record shop with a cafe-type ambience with a multi-media dimension, a library-type depth of information. Thus, the ironically-titled Beautiful Music, finally unleashed in 1996, which blessed me with a completely new dimension to my musical education.
Finally disentangling myself in 2004, I'm continuing my freelance music writing for NZ publications like Metro, Real Groove, and The Listener.
The word drives me, art inspires me. I'm still stuck twixt the two.
Gary Steel