When Prog rings at the allotted time for a chat with Dave Brock, the Hawkwind overlord has to be fetched from his home studio where he’s in the middle of recording a backing track. The scene at Hawkwind HQ is a little more hectic than usual because the next day the band are setting off on a short warm-up tour ahead of the May release of their new album, Into The Woods. But once he gets to the phone, Brock is in an upbeat mood and clearly still enthused by Hawkwind’s decades-long mission to expand the boundaries of progressive space rock.
It would be easy to assume that a band approaching their 50th anniversary might have run out of creative steam by now, but that assumption would be sorely misplaced. Following on from last year’s The Machine Stops – an ambitious concept album based on EM Forster’s frighteningly prescient novella, and for many fans, the band’s best record in years – Hawkwind have struck new ground both musically and thematically on Into The Woods. From the title and cover art onwards, the band have stepped away from the science fiction imagery they’re more usually associated with and have instead come up with a pagan vision of malevolent forces lurking in eerily illuminated forest glades.
This embrace of more earthbound ideas isn’t completely without precedent, as Brock is quick to point out. “Delving back years ago, we were going to do The Earth Ritual, but we never got ’round to it!”
Alongside that abandoned project from the mid-80s, Hawkwind have previously written about the mystical powers of the Earth on songs such as Lord Of Light. But what’s different this time is the portrayal of a dark, elemental world full of beings who are unknown – and often unfriendly – to man.
In many ways, Into The Woods taps into the resurgent interest in what’s become known as ‘folk horror’, an occult interpretation of the forces of nature found in the works of writers such as MR James and Alan Garner, and exemplified on film by cult classic The Wicker Man.
Brock explains the thinking behind the new album: “It’s a bit of an extension from the last album. When the machine goes bananas and everything falls apart, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to continue [the storyline]?’ He goes up through all the tunnels and into a little cavern where he escapes out into the open. So he’s got into the woods, but there are goblins and things lurking around there. He keeps seeing things out of the corner of his eye and he’s not sure what they are.”
Brock draws inspiration from some of his own experiences of the uncanny: “Living in the country like I do, sometimes you think, ‘Oh, what was that? I’m sure I saw something there.’ I’ve had some strange things occur – when the sun hits a dewdrop early in the morning, it’s like a sparkling diamond, and if you look out of the corner of your eye, it’s like a sparkle and then it’s gone. It’s just a refraction of the light, but that’s how people come to believe in fairies.”
But it certainly isn’t Tinkerbell that our hero encounters on Into The Woods. On the crunchingly intense title track, the lyrics run: ‘We’ll tear your flesh and eat your bones,’ a visceral manifestation of nature red in tooth and claw. The psychedelic prog pop of Have You Seen Them? conjures up the fear of being alone in the forest, where ‘the branches creak’ and ‘shadows in the corner speak,’ while The Wind is a spoken-word piece that bears comparison to The Black Corridor in depicting the universe’s ultimate dominion over man: ‘You cannot escape from the listening wind in this world.’
Prog wonders if the album’s central theme is perhaps a metaphor for a natural world that’s poised to take revenge against mankind’s destruction of the environment. “Yeah, I think that’s what will happen, what with all the weather conditions we’re getting now,” says Brock.
Nevertheless, as the leader of Britain’s longest-serving anti-establishment band, he still has hope for future generations.
“I think there’s a bit more awareness – young kids in primary schools are taught a lot more about the environment now than we were at school. You’re hoping that when they grow up, there’ll be more and more of them fighting against the big companies.”
However, Brock is under no illusions about the sheer scale of the environmental challenges that lie ahead.
“We were in Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia a while ago, and you wonder, ‘Why haven’t they got solar panels everywhere?’ which would be the logical thing for energy. But there’s very few of them around because everything’s all geared up to oil. It seems to be an incredibly slow process to convince people.”
The other big story around Into The Woods is just how quickly it’s been written and released, following only a year on from The Machine Stops. Are Hawkwind going through a resurgence?
“I think so, probably. Erm, yes!” laughs Brock. “It’s to do with the musicians really, working together and so on. We have our young bass player Haz [Wheaton], who’s been a Hawkwind fan since he was 12, and having him play bass with us has revitalised Richard [Chadwick, drums] and me: we have to keep up with him. It’s great fun to play with someone like that. He’s very much like Lemmy, playing a bit of lead, then swapping backwards and forwards between us.”
This is an assessment that anybody who caught the tour of The Machine Stops would be happy to endorse. Wheaton has injected both youthful energy and a swaggering low-end groove into the band’s performances, no more so than on The Watcher, resurrected live last year in tribute to Lemmy. Indeed, Wheaton seems to share a similar musical telepathy on stage with Brock as the sadly departed bass god, and his muscular but melodic bass playing is all over Into The Woods.
The excitement of playing together and the rapport between the members of the band were key factors in the making of the album. After playing their last festival in July 2016, the band took a few months off to recharge their batteries, but it wasn’t long before the core unit of Brock, Chadwick and Wheaton were back together in the studio. With singer Mr Dibs unavailable for the sessions, they effectively operated as a power trio. Brock reveals, “Dibs was ill so we just got on with it and recorded loads of stuff. Dibs has done a few numbers as well, but this album was basically written by the three of us, really.
“When we did The Machine Stops, a lot of the stuff I did by myself,” he adds. “Niall [Hone] was doing the bass then, and because he lived in Brighton, he’d come up, do a bit, then go away again, and Richard would play some stuff and say, ‘We’ll leave it to you now.’ And I’d put guitar and some keyboards over it.
“It’s like painting, really – you just sort of dabble around with different colours and add what you want. Whereas this one is a lot freer because we actually played it as a unit, rather than just one man at a time. We’d finish a song and I’d quickly put some keyboards on the top and ad-lib a bit, and overdub it as we went along. That’s why it sounds quite live.”
This method of working has led to a richer, more organic-sounding album, but also one with a few surprises. That’s particularly true of the opening title track, which starts with a reprise of the tinkling piano from The Machine Stops’ final song Lost In Science before exploding into a massive, chugging riff that verges on death metal. Brock is clearly amused by the comparison. “Yeah, I know, though actually it’s an old blues riff really!”
And sure enough, on closer inspection, that’s exactly what it is, albeit slowed down to a stygian grind.
More obviously indebted to Hawkwind’s biker boogie heritage is Space Ship Blues, a turbocharged, cosmic bluegrass version of one of Brock’s old busking tunes.
“We did that with a friend of ours [Big Bill Barry], who’s a really good fiddle player. And that was great, he just flew away on it, and then I thought I could do the vocal like a good old boy country and western thing.”
Long-standing Hawkwind fans will recognise the lyrics, even if Brock himself didn’t at first. “Yes, I forgot all about that. It was Richard who said, ‘Here, did you know you’ve sung some of these words before?’ ‘No, I haven’t.’ He said, ‘Yes, you have!’ They’re from Nuclear Drive, but half the time I never listen to old stuff – I’m constantly working on new material.”
It’s easy to hear how the gutsy repetition and simplicity of the blues fed into Hawkwind’s early sound, and Brock has talked before about the impact players such as Big Bill Broonzy had on him. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s the old style of playing really. I’ve got a slide guitar I’ve had for ages that a guy called Bukka White used to play, one of the great legends of blues. It’s a beautiful sound you get on it. I can still play old blues stuff, and it does influence us in what we do now.”
With the band due to arrive soon for one last rehearsal before getting on the tour bus, there’s just time for a quick word about what fans can expect from the shows in May.
“Some of the ideas we’ve got are around using compressed air to make trees spring up from the ground. But nowadays, health and safety has got a bit silly. They come down and make sure the compressed air isn’t going to blow up your trousers instead of the tree!”
Will there be any old songs you haven’t played in a while? “We’ll probably do a few. We ask the fans sometimes, ‘What would you like?’ At HawkEaster, we’ll probably do a few acoustic numbers to make a change.”
Brock pauses, considering our earlier conversation. “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago – there we are!”
And with that, he’s back in the studio making final adjustments before Hawkwind blast off once again, their mission still very much ongoing.
Into The Woods is out on May 5 via Cherry Red. See www.hawkwind.com for more information.
Meat Is Murder
Dave Brock reveals the inspiration behind his Vegan Lunch.
With its punky riff recalling the Hawklords’ classic Flying Doctor, Vegan Lunch is one of the more playful moments on the new album. But while the song might be relatively light-hearted in tone, Brock is passionately serious about its message of cutting out meat and fish in our diet.
“There’s the ridiculous situation with animals on land – cutting the forests down, and the amount of water they need to rear the animals. But really, humans don’t need to eat animals. The whole structure of society needs to be changed. I guarantee you that in 80 years, people will be looking back, horrified, thinking, ‘What the fuck are they drinking cow’s milk for?’
“We do a lot for animal charities, but Christ, they’re all being killed off.”
Brock cites the recent upsurge in rhinos being killed for their horns as a particularly shocking example of human society’s brutal attitude to the planet’s other inhabitants. “It’s about time the fucking Chinese government drew attention [to the fact] you don’t get aphrodisiac from rhino horn and start educating the population not to eat dogs.”
One of the charities that Hawkwind supports is direct-action marine conservationists Sea Shepherd. “We went to Amsterdam to see the Ocean Warrior, the new ship they were sending off to fight the Japanese [whaling fleet] in Antarctica, and we met the cook on board. I had a piece of what looked like salami, and it was exactly the same texture and taste as salami, but of course it was vegan.”
It’s not all nut roasts these days then? “We live in an age now when you can get fish fingers that aren’t fish fingers – I can go into Tesco’s at last!”