Prog Rocks: The Roundtable 2014

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Collaborations: that’s the theme for this year’s round table discussion. It brings together Steve Hackett, Peter Hammill, Kavus Torabi, Arjen Lucassen and Thomas Weber, head of InsideOut Music. The location? The HMV store in London’s Oxford Street, where we’ll get a fascinating insight into the crucial area of progressive musical alliances, chaired by Prog editor Jerry Ewing.

JERRY EWING: “This is the fourth annual Prog Rocks round table, and we’re talking about collaborations. What leads people who play music across the progressive spectrum into working with so many different musicians outside of what would be seen as their parent group?”

STEVE HACKETT: “Maybe a certain aspect of progressive music is that it’s a spin-off from jazz, where the travelling saxophone player would often get up and blow with the local band. That idea of loose collaborations also comes with the blues, where any musician can sit in with any other. But it’s really a jazz tradition.”

PETER HAMMILL: “I think you have to go back to before underground music, which became prog, existed. This movement was formed by a disparate group of people who wanted to do something different, with a degree of seriousness. They still wanted to be mega stars, naturally, but these people usually came together with wildly different influences. So, in one band you’d normally have one person into jazz, one into blues, plus there would also be a classical musician involved. And everyone’s style would rub off on everyone else, so any band would be a great melting pot.”

SH: “I remember with Genesis, you had one guy into big band stuff, another more into church music. What was wonderful was that you could have European church harmonies with American syncopation. So it had to be collaborative. And this led to what we now call progressive music.”

ARJEN LUCASSEN: “The key word in prog is ‘adventure’. For me, it’s great to put together all these different singers with different moods. They make my job easier. I’ve got this heavy vibe on a song? I can put Bruce Dickinson on it. And I can get Fish for a proggier mood…”

KAVUS TORABI: “When I was younger and just in one band, I felt I had to be intensely loyal to that band. I remember our drummer joined this successful other band for a while and I was very annoyed, because we were a little gang. When the band broke up, things started to happen for me through working with other people. But what has made collaborating so much easier now is that everyone has access to making good recordings in home studios. The results aren’t always as good as if we’re sitting opposite each other and firing off ideas, but it’s not like you have to take days out of your life, pack your car full of equipment and drive out to some remote spot to work with someone.”

AL: “But I want to have all the singers I work with in the studio with me. That’s so important. To tell them the overall story of the album. Tell them when something’s not working. To try different things. I can always make it work better face to face.”

SH: “There have to be clear roles in collaborations and somebody has to be in charge. That means the person who’s not in charge brings whatever skills, styles and sound they have to the project, and they’re free to try different things. When you’re coming into someone else’s project, the responsibility isn’t yours. You give it 100 per cent but if it doesn’t work then it’s no skin off your nose. I’m not in charge so I’m free to do it another way. That’s the way collaborations work best. And you can learn something from doing an outside project that you’ll then take on to your own album. It’s cross-fertilisation.”

JE: “From a record company viewpoint, do you think that collaborations are more accepted in prog than in other types of music?”

THOMAS WEBER: “I’m in two minds about collaborations in today’s progressive scene. It seems to be a fashion that artists have other people playing on their albums to tick boxes. I think that’s terrible. Luckily everyone here has a different attitude, but what Kavus said about it being so easy for musicians to send files to each other makes it tempting for record companies or managers, or even fans, to go to a musician and say, ‘How about you work with this guy and this guy?’ If they never meet, to me it’s purposeless.

“The whole collaboration thing can be dangerous. Somewhere down the line in the last 10 or 15 years it got perverted. The music should always come first, and then you think about who can fit in, because they play in a certain style. But thinking it would be great to have David Gilmour playing on an album because it’s a marketing thing… that’s wrong.”

AL: “People feel it when they’ve been in my studio. If I think back to Led Zeppelin or any band like that, what they did would never have been possible if they’d have been in separate studios and sending files. The mistakes they made together are part of the magic.”

PH: “You can still send a digital file with mistakes on it. You can say, ‘Actually I could play this bang on the nose, but it sounds boring. This other way has more character.’ Ultimately, the end result is gonna come out of a couple of speakers, and you don’t know this will work at the time you’re playing it. But I definitely prefer playing together in Van der Graaf Generator. We like to feel we’ll fall off the cliff at any moment. Occasionally we do.”

SH: “Sometimes you make a record almost by yourself. But I’ve had the privilege of working with a decent orchestra from time to time. The difference is extraordinary. You can sit down at a computer and build a track, but when you get into the studio with the orchestra, suddenly the music comes to life under the baton of the conductor.”

PH: “I’ve been lucky enough to sing with a couple of orchestras and it’s a different world.”

KT: “We’d all prefer to work directly with other musicians, but the days when the budget allowed you to rent somewhere and say, ‘Guys, this is our home for the next two months so let’s see what happens,’ that’s long gone. You have to make records using modern technology. If you’re playing with lots of different musicians in a studio, it adds a big pressure. Presumably you’re playing music you’re not particularly familiar with so there’s an incredible tension because you’re trying to play it correctly, yet with feel.”

SH: “Different musicians warm up on different takes as well. Really it’s a constant compromise when you’re all in the studio together. I’ve listened to records I did when I was younger and I hear the compromise. But talking about collaborations, there was the one I had with Steve Howe in GTR. It was at its best when on the first day we got together, he played me a whole bunch of things. I thought, ‘He’s got a great guitar bit there and I’ve got this song. But is he gonna wear it if on day two I suggest fusing the two?’ Luckily he agreed, so the collaboration was born. But then we spent another two years going through all the funding and corporate stuff we had to deal with through major labels.”

TW: “Labels can be very negative when it comes to collaborations, and not just the major ones. There was one independent American label at the start of the 90s who triggered a lot of collaborative stuff on the prog scene. The fact there are a lot of collaborations was seeded by this label, who put together musicians, gave them a big budget and made them record an album. The label were thinking only of making big money through the reputations of those involved. I’ve always tried to pick supergroups which have musical merit.”

KT: “But sometimes it’s the reputations of those in a collaboration that really gets people excited. I’m thinking of the recent announcement that Scott Walker will be working with Sunn O))). Everyone’s going bananas.”

PH: “The aim is always to try and do something different. Whether it’s more or less creative, I don’t know. I actively try not to know what I’m doing, particularly for solo records. My guitar chops are hopeless, but if I don’t know what I’m doing, I might come up with something…”

SH: “You don’t want to just rely on technique…”

PH: “Because I haven’t got any!”

KT: “You can easily fall into the trap of doing what comes naturally when you write on your usual instrument. Sometimes the best tunes I come up with are on keyboards, rather than my usual guitar.”

PH: “That’s a collaboration with yourself. Everyone wants to find something fresh, so you have to go somewhere else musically. The best way can be to try to write on an instrument you’re not so familiar with.”

SH: “It’s good to challenge yourself. I’ve just got this Arabian lute and I couldn’t even tune it. But having gotten the thing roughly in tune, I’ve got one decent phrase out of it. But that makes it more creative. You’re subscribing to a new language. A long time ago, I sat down and attempted to play one tiny little phrase from Bach’s Toccata And Fugue on guitar, and tried it on one string, which is how tapping was born. First of all, I couldn’t do it in time at all. But all these years later, it’s become second nature and is part of the guitar glossary, and the mainstay of heavy metal playing.”

AL: “If you’re good at playing something, then the trap is that you become good at copying others. If you’re not good at it then you might create something new.”

KT: “These days, the boundaries between musical styles are crumbling and I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing. It’s led to so much coming out that it’s very hard for a good band to get heard, because there are loads of releases every day.”

TW: “To get back to collaborations, really good music is always collaborative. No one’s an island. It would be like me saying I do things without listening to anyone who works with me. It doesn’t work like that…”

AL: “From the 70s onwards, I was in bands and always compromising, trying to guess what trends people wanted, but we were always too late. In 1994 I decided to go it alone and do what I wanted. It was stupid to do it in the 90s because it was the days of grunge and record companies laughed at my rock opera ideas – 13 turned down my first album. But at least I was doing things on my own terms.”

SH: “I can sympathise. I’ve been written off so many times. I remember Harvey Goldsmith once told me what I did was old hat. But I thought, ‘I’m being eclectic and doing what I want to do.’ Sometimes you have to stand firm and wait for fashion to prove you were right. So why do you collaborate with other people? Because they can do something you can’t do yourself.”

JE: “Finally, who would you love to work with that you haven’t as yet? Alive or dead.”

SH: “On the one hand I might think about Hendrix. But on the other hand, I can think of Handel or Grieg. My ideal would be to combine all their musical styles into one.”

KT: “I’m gonna sit on the fence and say that whoever I work with, if there’s a vibe going, then something will happen.”

PH: “Olivier Messiaen. Because of his voice and organ playing.”

AL: “It’s obvious, but I’d go with John Lennon.”

TW: “There are people I’d love to see work together, but I’ll keep these thoughts to myself for now.”

Prog Rocks 4 is available now. For more information or to order a copy of the album, see www.progrocks.co.uk.