This interview with Mike Howlett was conducted by e-mail in June 1997.
Can you tell us about your beginnings in music
My first instrument was the xylophone at 9 years, then the ukelele at 10, but only because I knew my parents couldn't afford to buy me a guitar and the ukelele is tuned the same as the top four strings of a guitar. I was 11 years old when I borrowed a guitar from a school friend - I kept it for six months, by which time I had saved enough for a guitar of my own. I came to the UK in 1970 with a group from Australia called The Affair - we won a free trip to England in a national band competition - all the professional groups went in this competition because the fares to England were huge at this time. This group played a mixture of soul and Aretha Franklin songs plus some jazz covers like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross songs and "jazz-rock" adaptations of Mel Tormé stuff - quite advanced really.
How did you end up joining
An ex-girlfriend called Maggie Thomas was staying with Gong in the hunting lodge near Sens, when the line-up which recorded Flying Teapot dissolved. She was very knowledgeable in astrology, and noticed that the new line-up of Pierre Moerlen, Steve Hillage, Didier Malherbe and Tim Blake comprised the signs of Scorpio, Leo and Aquarius (twice) respectively - these are the "fixed" signs of Water, Fire and Air. Knowing me to be a Taurus, and also a bass player, she suggested that I join as that would complete the four elements and create the Fixed Cross - reputed to have significance. When she called me in London and said to come out immediately, I thought that perhaps they might like to hear me to see if I could play. Daevid Allen was coming to London en route to Majorca where he and Gilli were taking a break, and I invited him to hear me jamming at a club in the King's Road. Maggie Thomas later became Mike Oldfield's girlfriend for a short time - she is a remarkable woman who also knows more about the true history of alchemy than most living souls - Maggie also tried to help Stevie Winwood at a later date.
In Gong, you were nicknamed "Mister T. Being",
and the name was created especially for you. What is this supposed to
mean, and did you have any part in creating it?
I wish only to say that to be is to be subject to the laws that define the nature of life in a multi-dimensional universe - the alternative is to not be.
While in Gong, you worked with a succession of
drummers, mainly Pierre Moerlen but also Bill Bruford, Laurie Allan,
Brian Davison and maybe others (Chris Cutler?). Could you say a few
words about working with each of them, especially since apart from
Moerlen their stint is not documented on record?
My first jam with Pierre was frustrating - I came from a background of funk, soul and rock, whereas Pierre's schooling was still heavily influenced by his classical education. I remember playing The Band to him and telling him I thought Levon Helm was one of the greatest drummers ever. Pierre definitely thought I was a bit crazy, but I think we grew to respect each other's position and moved towards a mutually satisfying balance of heart and mind - emotion and technique.
Laurie Allan replaced Pierre when he left after Angel's Egg, grumbling about "silly lyrics" and sloppy musicianship. I found Laurie too light and jazzy for me to really get off playing with - he got on much better musically with Didier, and played more top kit than bass drum - a great drummer, but not really compatible. Laurie had a hard time getting back into France for a long time after his trouble with customs, which of course affected the range of musicians he could work with - I don't know what he is doing now.
Bill Bruford stepped in the middle of a long European tour after Laurie was unable to return to France, and did a fantastic job of getting up to speed with our rather intricate and convoluted arrangements. He was very solid and reliable, if a little earthbound.
Brian Davison was more of a 'top kit' player - Didier's choice again, but on a good night could inject a lot of energy into the music - I feel he had seen his demon though, and lost the innocence you need to believe in the worth of your music.
Chris Cutler I think of as a friend and with great kindness - he was a totally insane drummer who defies description. I think someone once described his drumming as "like someone walking through a pile of dustbins". Truly a 'deconstructionist' of drumming! I'm afraid I am really just a sensualist, and ultimately like my rhythm physical and fleshy, but I always enjoyed Chris' excursions into anarchy.
What was your part in the evolution process
that led Gong from Angel's
Egg to You, then Shamal? Were you, if you'll
excuse the pun, instrumental in the move to a more instrumental music
? I have always assumed you were behind most of the great bass riffs
on You - is this
The evolution from Angel's Egg to Shamal was the result of our internal spiritual odyssey - this is, of course, my subjective interpretation, others may have their own view. For me, the trilogy (including Flying Teapot) is a profound work, inspired by Daevid, and given power by the musicians involved. It is really a re-statement, in modern terms, of the ancient mystery school lesson - a journey of self-discovery which, like all good fairy stories, goes as far as the reader is capable of following. Nevertheless, I am guilty of conspiring to minimise the amount of vocal on it, if only by not resisting those pressures more. In retrospect I believe that You got it right in the balance of vocal versus non-vocal sections. But that balance was achievable only in the context of the preceding two albums. Certainly, it was an album for unspoken communications. As regards compositional credits, I was initially responsible for the bass riffs on "Isle of Everywhere" and "A Sprinkling of Clouds", but I would credit Steve for the "Master Builder" riff in its essence. However, the writing situation for this album was unique, and once an idea surfaced, it would be swept around in the collective mind-pool and evolve into the more fixed shape that ended up on the recordings.
On "Shamal" you handled both bass and lead
vocals. I must admit the latter "dimension" of Shamal has always been my least
favourite, as I find that Gong was never better than when let free of
the constraints related to the song form. I tend to think that vocals
were included essentially to make the music more "accessible", rather
than for a purely artistic reason. Do you agree?
OK - I don't like my voice that much either! The vocal element on Shamal was largely the result of my efforts to keep some lyrical content in the plot. I also felt a responsibility to those listeners who had stayed with the story so far to leave them with a few clues as to where Zero had disappeared to. There was certainly no attempt to be more "accessible" - remember that my roots are firmly based in the songs of soul and rock/pop, and I am a believer in the power of words to communicate concepts and emotions, the more so when coupled well with music.
Do you have any striking memories of the
touring that followed Shamal, with Jorge Pinchevsky
"replacing" Steve Hillage? I guess this was a "hot" band... Yet
apparently, it wasn't satisfying for everyone, including yourself.
Under which circumstances did the split happen, with yourself,
Patrice Lemoine and Jorge Pinchevsky leaving?
The group which toured Shamal was always fairly tense in my memory, as the ancient Gong divide about lyrics versus instruments had never been resolved - as I said, I held the banner for lyrics after Steve fell in the line of duty - I hope you follow the metaphor. Perhaps inevitably, I was next to come under attack from the anti-lyrics camp. Jorge wasn't allowed back into Britain after the European gigs of Spring 76 - coincidentally, the same reason that Daevid left Soft Machine and subsequently formed Gong. The group was split between me and Patrice Lemoine on the lyric side, and Pierre and Mireille Bauer in the instrumental camp, with Didier as ever not really ready to decide either way. It was at this time that we tried out David Cross - ex-King Crimson - to replace Jorge. He must have found it very uncomfortable as the internal state of the band was tense. Before any further progress was made on the future line-up, things came to a head and Virgin was given the choice - my version or Pierre's. Simon Draper - the true creative head of Virgin from the beginning, and the man who found and signed Mike Oldfield - chose Pierre's way. I negotiated a few hundred pounds out of Richard Branson and left to set up a 4-track studio in my girlfriend's attic.
It is well-known that, after leaving Gong, you
formed Strontium 90 with the future members of the Police, yet apart
from the "rock trivia" aspect I never came upon any information as to
what that band sounded like, whether it was really *your* band,
playing *your* songs? Was it in any way the "shape of things to come"
for Police, musically speaking, or still in the vein of Gong
You will be pleased to hear that I have finally persuaded Miles Copeland - manager of The Police and now Sting - to let me release the recordings of Strontium 90! These consist of five songs recorded in an 8-track studio in London in 1977, of which four were written by me and one by Sting, as well as three songs recorded live at the Hippodrome gig in Paris in May 1977 - the first Gong reunion, plus one bonus track which, strictly speaking, is not a Strontium 90 track - this is a recording made in my 4-track attic studio of "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" - the first ever demo, which really is magic. The studio session was the first time that Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland ever played together, and the live gig was the first time they ever played together on stage. Apart from the 'historic' value, I am pleased to have these songs aired because it shows to some extent where I was hoping to lead the Gong story. Most of the material was mine, with one other Sting song and one Stewart Copeland song. We did two more gigs in London clubs - not recorded - but no-one wanted to sign us up. I know why - Punk was exploding all over the place at the time and we must have looked like a bunch of ex-hippy musos with an ex-nobody on vocals. I saw Simon Draper a couple of years ago and he said he still can't believe he passed on that band. But I know it was not right for me - the energy was very hard and uncomfortable, and producing was beckoning. I do remember a defining moment about a year later - I was sitting in Sting's apartment in Westbourne Grove one day, when Stewart arrived carrying a pile of Bob Marley records - "I'm going to turn you on to this guy", he said to Sting. You have to give him credit - he had a vision and that's how Regatta de Blanc was born... Anyway, the album is coming out on Sting's own label called Pangaea Records on July 21st . If you want, we could do a separate thing on that - I have told the full story in the sleeve notes which I wrote.
Between 1977-94, you never played on stage
again. Did you however keep playing a bit of bass? Just at home or
on records? Did you ever think of doing a solo album, which seemed
your intention around the time of Strontium 90?
I really was very slack with my bass-playing during those producer years. I rarely played at all, and only played bass on a couple of my productions, though I always had a strong voice in the bass parts going down. I am now practising every day again and enjoying it so much I just want to be able to play all the time. This Strontium 90 album was effectively my 'solo' album, but I have several other dimensions, and have co-written two albums of 'library' music and incidental sound-track music with Ben Hoffnung, a friend who plays timpani with the London Symphony Orchestra, and several quasi-classical pieces which we hope to have recorded someday.
Great though it's been to see Gong again
playing their best material from the past in concert since 1994, I
think a lot of people would expect that "rebirth" to go a bit
further, possibly with an album of new material. Is this something
that has been discussed?
The question of where Gong will go now is one that we are all curious about. Steffi and I are very excited to be working with Pierre - he has just been staying at my house in London during the Brand X tour and is in very good shape mentally, spiritually and musically - for now watch this space! The re-mixed You album has turned out extremely well - again, a whole other story which I will talk about in more detail at another time but this offers some possible directions too - we are open and eagerly awaiting instructions...
(c) 1997 Calyx - The Canterbury Website