Interview by Rusty Pipes
Some of the finest jazz in this new century is being done by four Englishmen. That's right, Englishmen, but don't even think the four are stuffy powdered wig types; these guys have been practicing their craft for decades.
The four are Elton Dean, Allan Holdsworth, Hugh Hopper and John Marshall, jazz masters all. Dean is a saxophonist who has long been one of the finest improvisational players on that instrument. Holdsworth is a guitarist who's mentioned in the same breath with legends like Larry Coryell, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin. Hopper's bass work helped forge the Canterbury music scene in the heady days of the 60s and 70s. Marshall is one of the most sought after session drummers in Europe. The common thread that binds them together is that they all were members of the legendary psychedelic-rock-cum-jazz group, The Soft Machine.
Rewind to September of 1999. Hopper, Dean, and Marshall are performing in Germany with another Brit jazzman, Keith Tippet, as "Software." A longtime friend of Elton's, Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records loves the music and asks if Elton would like to record with this band. The answer was yes. Hopper and Marshall also said yes but unfortunately Tippet wasn't interested. Almost a year and a half later Pavkovic was introduced to the perfect fourth member for the band, Holdsworth, while on a trip to Southern California. Having worked together in various combinations over the last three decades but never before as a quartet, all four decided this lineup would be a worthy endeavor.
Soft Works officially came together in April of 2002. There was a tour of Japan in 2002 and now their first album, Abracadabra, is finally due for US release this June. The band will tour this summer.
The roots of Soft Works go very deep and Hugh Hopper is the perfect guy to talk about them. He's a founding member of The Wilde Flowers, the 60s group in Canterbury, England that was the seed bed for members of art-rock groups like Caravan, Gong and of course, The Soft Machine. We were able to catch up with Hugh at his home in England, where his contribution to Soft Works is making sure the grand tradition of English jazz continues to flower. Wildly.
Cosmik: You were a founder of that earliest of the Canterbury groups, the Wilde Flowers. Was there some pivotal event that made you decide to start performing?
Hopper: Not really one event. Since the age of about 13 I had always been attracted by the sound of electric music.
Cosmik: 13 that's pretty early! Were you ever formally trained in any instrument as a kid?
Hopper: No, totally self-taught.
Cosmik: Did you go to college?
Hopper: No, dropped out of school around 17.
Cosmik: How did your folks feel about the Wilde Flowers?
Hopper: They were very tolerant and supportive after they realized I was never going to work in a bank or study to be a doctor. We used to rehearse in the family home, the drums and amps stacked up in the entrance hall, and it wasn't a big house.
Cosmik: I've heard it said that you all started meeting at Mike Ratledge's house in Canterbury. Is that correct?
[Pictured: Brian Hopper, Robert Wyatt, Rich Sinclair, Hugh Hopper]
Hopper: No, we were all at school together. My brother Brian was the same age as Ratledge and Wyatt and I were the same age but a couple of years younger. Brian and MR used to play classical pieces on clarinet and piano long before we got involved in jazz or rock. Check out Mike King's biography of Robert Wyatt ("Wrong Movements") for all the details.
Cosmik: Sometimes I hear Daevid Allen, who eventually went on to form Gong, was there at the beginning of the Wilde Flowers. Was he? Or was it Mike, your brother and you?
Hopper: Daevid appeared before Wilde Flowers. Wyatt and I played with him couple of years before Wilde Flowers in the Daevid Allen Trio (see the Voiceprint CD).
Cosmik: When did Robert and Kevin show up in the Flowers?
Hopper: Late 1964. They were the founder members with me, Brian and Richard Sinclair.
Cosmik: You played on a lot of Syd Barrett's solo work, how did that come about? Did you know him when he was still with Pink Floyd?
Hopper: The others knew him better than me. Kevin Ayers was friendly with him. Soft Machine played a lot at the same gigs as Floyd in the early days. In fact we only did one short session for Syd in 1969 which resulted in three songs.
Cosmik: You didn't get into the Soft Machine at first, why not? Were the Wilde Flowers still a going concern at that point?
Hopper: Yes, although I was by then losing interest in playing live for a while - it came back a couple of years later when Kevin Ayers left Soft Machine and I was asked to replace him.
Cosmik: And by the third album Elton Dean had joined Soft Machine. By the way I've heard it said that our old friend Reg Dwight took his stage name partly from Mr. Dean. Is that true?
Hopper: Certainly is. They were playing together in a blues band in the 60's and Reg took Elton's first name and the bandleader's first name, Long John Baldry.
Cosmik: I recently reviewed that terrific album of Soft Machine tracks recorded for the BBC show Top Gear that was released this spring. I had a reader ask me a question about the first extended jazz pieces you guys did that I thought I'd pass along. Parts of what you guys were doing sounded a bit like some of the things in Frank Zappa's Uncle Meat, which came out in June of 1969, right around the time some of those BBC sessions. Were you guys listening to Frank at all at the time or were you more into the works of Miles and Coltrane?
Hopper: I was heavily into Uncle Meat. Tunes like "Kong Kong" and "Uncle Meat" influenced me when writing my things like "Facelift." Ratledge was more into Coltrane and Cecil Taylor.
Cosmik: By the third Soft Machine album you were all dedicated to experimental music and jazz, didn't that cost you a lot of fans? Was it hard to keep going?
Hopper: Not at the time of Third - that's still the best-selling Soft album ever. It was later, after Wyatt left, that things became hairier and less accessible to rock audiences. But yes, the band started to lose support around 73, which is about the time I left to do other things.
Cosmik: For Soft Works, were the four of you simply all available at the same time or was this something you all have been wanting or planning to do for awhile?
Hopper: It was all instigated by Leonardo Pavkovic, rabid Soft Machine fan and excellent manager. Elton and I played together in several projects but we hadn't planned to do this line-up until Leonardo came up with the idea.
Cosmik: Obviously you've known Elton for ages, how did the rest of Soft Works's members come together?
Hopper: Well, Elton, John Marshall and I all played together in Soft Machine in 1972. Allan Holdsworth played with John in Soft Machine after Elton and I had left.
Cosmik: Alan's playing is awesome as always. I think I first heard him with UK back in the late 70's, but I'm not that familiar with John Marshall, what's his background outside of Soft Machine?
Hopper: He has played in many, many rock, jazz and jazzrock projects. He was with Ian Carr's Nucleus, Keith Tippett's Centipede and is still a regular for the ECM label in Germany.
Cosmik: Moving on to the first Soft Works album, Abracadabra, where did the recording take place?
Hopper: We recorded the basic tracks in London in June 2002. It was very quick - a couple of days' rehearsal and then about two and a half days in the studio. Then Allan took the tapes to his place in LA and worked on the guitar parts and mixing.
Cosmik: I'm always interested in the creative process. You being a bassist, when composing a melody do you build from the bottom up so to speak?
Hopper: I'm not just a bassist! It can be any of several ways, depending on the music. Sometimes I write a melody and then fill in the harmony and other parts; sometimes I start with a bass riff; sometimes with a chord sequence; sometimes even with a loop which I then add to.
Cosmik: What other instruments do you play?
Hopper: Keyboards (minimal), guitar (medium), very occasionally wind instruments like recorders. I use to play sax many years ago. Rather badly ... although I did play on the Soft Machine Volume 2 record.
Cosmik: I believe you use a Fender bass guitar most for recording and performance. Anything special you do to it?
Hopper: In fact I mostly use a Peavey Foundation bass - it's easier to play than my old Fender Jazz bass. Apart from straight sound I use fuzz, flanger, octave pedal, occasionally wah pedal. Depends on the piece of music.
Cosmik: Abracadabra is all electric bass, do you ever play acoustic?
Hopper: No. I love acoustic bass, in fact most of my bass influences are acoustic jazz players, but I have never played it.
Cosmik: Do you ever work with keyboard/synth bass?
Hopper: For some records, but not live.
Cosmik: All you guys are composers but the album has a very consistent feel. I like Soft Works' lyrical approach to the melodies, especially Elton's sax work. He really makes a pleasing sound that's easy to have around, like on the first track, "Seven Formerly." There's a just bit of dissonance but a very digestible dissonance. Did you all agree to this style or do you just have similar tastes?
Hopper: Well, Elton's natural approach is more towards free/improv, and mine is more towards tunes. We meet in the middle.
Cosmik: Usually the Soft Machine got called jazz-rock, but except for Allan's guitar on tracks like "Madam Vintage," your rock roots seem to be submerged here. It's certainly not the frantic showmanship of fusion either, it's all pretty downbeat in comparison, especially on pieces like "First Trane." Maybe we should call it a kind of 21st Century Be-Bop. How would you describe it? Have you got a name for your approach this time out?
Hopper: That's a pretty good label, 21st Century Be-Bop...
Cosmik: There aren't any keyboards credited on the album but it sounds like there are some on several tracks, including the title cut "Abracadabra." I noticed Allan is credited with playing a "synthaxe," what is that?
Hopper: Synthesizer guitar. Zappa also used one a bit, I think. You play it like a guitar but it connects to all the synthesizer possibilities.
Cosmik: You guys have a legitimate claim to be called Soft Machine, is the name owned by someone else? Are you comfortable as Soft Works?
Hopper: It's not Soft Machine! That was thirty years ago.
Cosmik: If the tour is successful can we expect to see more Soft Works albums?
Hopper: Hope so.
Cosmik: And now the Great Cosmik Question -- Where would you be without jazz music?
Hopper: Richer but probably bored!
Cosmik: I guess that's enough for this time around. Any words of wisdom for the young musicians out there?
Hopper: Do it!