Interview: Soft Machine

It’s the sound of the grammar school! We were trying to play jazz things and getting them wrong, and it was the fact we got them wrong that gave rise to something very special.

Soft Machine was formed in Canterbury by Robert Wyatt, Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayres and Mike Ratledge in 1966. Casting off their early psychedelic leanings and moving towards an innovative, jazzier, fusion sound, the ensuing 50 years have seen stylistic overhauls and personnel changes that would have killed off most bands. With a current line-up that boasts three members from the 70s and two members in their 70s, their credentials as past masters is firmly established.

Soft Machine continue to write, record and improvise, ensuring their headline set at KozFest this weekend will be far more than a nostalgia trip. Gaz Cloud and Charlie Gardener caught up with the core trio of John Etheridge (guitar), Roy Babbington (bass) and Theo Travis (wind) after their set at last year’s HRH Prog to discuss the band’s rich history, solo projects and what the future holds in store.

(((O))): John Marshall is still officially your drummer, but of late you’ve been performing with Nic France standing in, due to illness. How is John Marshall’s health?

John: He’s got a problem with his back – a chipped vertebrae. They’re working on it and we hope he’ll be back. He’s a very important part of it. We’re happy to have Nic France, but John Marshall’s the dude. (John has returned to the line-up since this interview was conducted.)

(((O))): Tell us a bit about Nic France.

Theo: Nic’s played for so many great people: David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, Bill Withers, Tanita Tikaram and a lot of the jazz scene, people like Loose Tubes, Allan Holdsworth. He’s a very versatile, very strong drummer. We’ve all played with him in different contexts and he’s great to have on board while John can’t do it.

John: I’ve played with Nic for 35 years!

Roy: I’d never played with Nic till he came in with us. But I first met him in Cambridge in 1978 when he was playing with Chucho Merchán.

John: In the early 1980s he actually deputised for John Marshall in Nucleus when they were touring in South America and John had to leave. So they’ve got a connection and know each other.

(((O))): You mentioned Nic’s played with David Gilmour. Theo, you’ve recently been on tour with David. 50 years ago The Soft Machine appeared alongside The Pink Floyd at the UFO Club, a gig that would cement their place as one of the happening bands of the era. How did it feel to bring this connection full circle?

Theo: It was very good. I like the music, I like the band. Gilmour is Gilmour and it was a thrill to play those iconic songs. He’s a proper gentleman, so it was great.

(((O))): Theo in particular was pretty vocal in the past about not wanting to use the Soft Machine name, and going out as Soft Machine Legacy. I know there’s been outside pressure on you to revert to the old name, and now you have. What’s the story?

John: We were the “legacy”. It started in 2004, 2005 with Elton Dean, Hugh (Hopper), myself and John Marshall and even then there was talk of “should it be Soft Machine or Soft Machine Legacy?” It was a kind of diffidence, really, you know? We didn’t want to be like The Drifters, where nobody in it was anything to do with The Drifters, so we called it Soft Machine Legacy. Trouble is, for years people would think it was a tribute band. It’s very confusing in the small theatre world particularly in England. You find these venues where sometimes they have the real person, and sometimes they have a tribute person, so you’re never quite sure who it is! I remember we played the Robin 2 and they had Midge Ure one night and a tribute to Ultravox also billed, and that got more people. When we did the prog cruise (Cruise To The Edge, 2014) and they said “why don’t you call it Soft Machine?” and we thought “finally, why not?!” I mean we were all in the band, apart from Theo. Roy, myself and John Marshall were all in it for a good period in the 70s. Nobody was right from the beginning, of course.

Theo: It has been a slightly confusing situation. Hugh Hopper was quite keen not to call it Soft Machine, cos he was good friends with Robert Wyatt, although Robert Wyatt hasn’t been anything to do with Soft Machine since 1971. So he didn’t have any right to do that, but at the same time it was a kind of courtesy in keeping it one step removed and in a way, we wanted to follow on in the tradition of having free spirited, ambitious music without having to play a lot of the old things.

(((O))): The band has had such longevity, it’s had so many members come and go, it’s suffered injuries and death, there’s been recriminations and fall outs. There’s quite a “legacy” there! Like Gong and Daevid Allen, do you think this is something that could still go on after you guys have gone? Do you think the name Soft Machine will endure?

Theo: Obviously I’ve been in Gong and I’m still good friends Kavus and Dave, some of the current Gong, that’s been going on since before Daevid died and is now continuing since he died. It’s an interesting one because none of them were in the band in the 70s – none of them have been involved for longer than a decade.

(((O))): Is the similarity not just about shared members, but that in both cases you have an ethos that’s more than just the individual members of a band?

John: That’s right – definitely.

Theo: There’s no reason that this band couldn’t continue with other members, like Gong have done. It’s interesting that Gong are at this stage where Daevid has passed away and the response I’ve been aware of has been very strong; people think they’re really good. I know Daevid would have liked them to carry on and I’m waiting for people to go “that’s not Gong, it’s a tribute band”, much like this band. Obviously we’re not a tribute band, we’ve 3 members from the 70s but it has been an issue and it’s interesting to compare the two situations.

John: Certainly it’s the same spirit of Soft Machine from Third onwards. Because that was the first conflict: Robert Wyatt wanted to keep it song based and the others wanted to go instrumental, jazz-ish. So there’s always been that jazz leaning since the 1970s.

(((O))): Why do you think the Soft Machine name and sound has endured?

John: Well the name endured because everybody knows the name. There’s something about that name – it’s extraordinary, people always go “Soft Machine, I’ve heard of that. I don’t know the music but I’ve heard the name”.

(((O))): But it’s more than the name, it’s the sound.

Theo: Of course, I’m not being down on it, but the name is always potent and has to remain potent. It represents different things to different people, so this is obviously largely based on the 70s version, with Mike Ratledge and Karl Jenkins, but some people will be very fond of the crazy, very first bit with Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen and the kind of psychedelic pop thing. Some are very interested in the so-called classic period with Volume Two, Third and Fourth, so people have affections with different areas. It was a very musically ambitious time, it was the time when everyone was mixing everything up, the jazz and the rock, a lot of improvisation and there are not really many bands that do it (now), certainly not the way that Soft Machine do it.

John: The problem with Soft Machine in the 70s at the time was that it was like various Soviet regimes. In other words the new regime disses the old regime massively, and there was a lack of continuity, that’s what jarred, I think. There were radical changes that were so radical the previous band would go (shrugs his shoulders). Someone the other day said something I thought was brilliant. They said “each period of the Soft Machine had great music”. It doesn’t matter now, but at the time, of course, if you were a fan of Robert Wyatt singing ‘Moon In June’, or something, and then you’re getting these almost free jazz improvisations, you’re going “what’s happening?” That caused a lot of issue and conflict in the 70s. And now people can look back on each of those periods and go “Softs was great – it’s nothing to do with the first album, but they’re both great in their own way.”

Theo: That’s one of the nice things. We will play ‘Facelift’ and we will play something like ‘Tale of Taliesin’.

(((O))): ‘Facelift’ sounds great. It’s such an audacious tune to play live.

Theo: We’re like that – we write stuff, and we do completely freeform stuff, and then some of the classics from the different eras.

(((O))): You’ve just played at a prog festival, yet you can play the jazz café and are headlining at KozFest, known for psychedelic music. How would you pigeonhole yourselves, if you had to?

John: It’s to the jazz end of prog. Caravan were on before us (last night), I was listening to it and enjoying it, but it’s song based prog. When Theo does Steven Wilson it’s still song based, even though you do a lot of soloing and there’s an instrumental aspect to it.

Roy: As far as my position in the band as the bass player, I’m the one that starts at the beginning and goes all the way through. These guys chip in! Throughout my history in the band it’s been written stuff. Some of the stuff Ratledge wrote for Fourth I’ve got at home and I still can’t play, it was that difficult! It’s always been, for me, a challenge. And the challenge is to have enough at my disposal not only to play the parts and keep them in line, as some of them have really cock-eyed time signatures and spacings, where you stop and start; where you play with them and where you play against them.

Then you come to the improvisation and then it’s invariably just three of us – drums, bass and the soloist. So I had to keep the style of the piece that we’re playing as well as go with the soloist. In other words I have to have more freedom than anybody else, and more adjustments to do to give the band an underpinning with these stops and these starts, as something else happens. What I’m trying to say is I don’t think I fit a pigeonhole. I have to be a floating element but nevertheless an underpinning element.

Just to compare us with other bands – time signatures are one thing, tonality is something else. A lot of bands play monotonically. We can do that but we can also use chromaticism above it, and still carefully underpin it, and it takes a little bit of technical knowledge.

Theo: I think if you’re talking about categories, in progressive music there’s everything from super tight, arranged and fixed things, right through to completely freeform. I think Soft Machine is about as far on the jazzy end of progressive music as any band really, and we include a lot of freeform stuff because we’ve all got that listening and playing experience.

(((O))): Talk to me about Moon June records. There are a lot of other bands out there now ploughing the same furrow. Is that something you consider to be an honour? In many ways it feels like the natural roster for you to appear amongst.

John: Leonardo (Pavkovic) put it together. There were attempts to reform Soft Machine all the way through the 80s and 90s.

Roy: He was ringing me all through the 90s but I wouldn’t take the bait.

John: I remember having a meeting in about 1994 to try and reform Soft Machine, and nobody would take the lead. He said “I’m going to put all you guys together, I’ve got this work, and I’m going to get us some gigs and do it”. It started off with Soft Works, and it became Soft Machine Legacy. So Leonardo was really the band leader and the great thing about it when it reformed was that all the bad vibes seemed to have faded away with age. The combination of those four people: Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper, John Marshall and myself, you would never have believed that they’d be in one room together, playing music. And yet because of Leonardo taking the initiative and running the show. We don’t need it in that way now; we obviously need him as a manager, but he was an inspiration, saying “come on, guys, now you’ve all refused to have anything to do with each other for 20 years, why not do it?” Everybody went “oh yeah”.

Roy: We’ve got nothing better to do!

John: It became very equal and then gradually, instead of people leaving which is what would have happened in the old days, people passed away. We’re lucky enough to have had Theo, who was perfect for it (when Elton Dean died), and then of course when Hugh went, Roy, who’d left in 1976 in a bad mood.

Roy: A bankrupt mood!

John: Now it’s expanded and Leonardo’s got a huge repertoire of artists and a catalogue. It started because he was particularly fond of Elton and Allan (Holdsworth). Allan was one of the first people he was involved with and that’s why he initially put them together. Generally it’s all new music, and new bands. It’s only Soft Machine (that are the exception).

 (((O))): There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Canterbury scene with a documentary out recently. Is this a good thing, as far as you’re concerned?

John: I don’t know anything about Canterbury, mate! Nor does Roy!

Theo: I think it’s a good thing. It’s a series group of bands who came out around a certain time with a certain sound. There’s a lightness, a jazzy element to the bands’ sounds.

Roy: It needs a label.

John: It’s like Mersey Beat. It’s true that there were a group of bands who know each other, inspired each other and helped each other, who all have a similar angle.

Roy: The one place it never did was the North East, where you had Ronnie Aspbury, Back Door and then it had Sting. There was never a Newcastle sound.

John: With Canterbury there is a reality, especially with Hugh and Mike. The other day I was thinking it’s the sound of the grammar school! Mike said he and Hugh were trying to play jazz things and getting them wrong, and it was the fact they got them wrong that gave rise to something very special.

Theo: There’s a brilliant thing in Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, which was on tele, with a bunch of grammar school boys playing this very complex music, with different parts, and that’s largely what it was: kinda jazzy aspirations, complex slightly symphonic rocky aspirations.

John: One of the important things is that this was all pre-education – pre YouTube, pre books, so getting it wrong was part of the process. If you think of guitar players of my age – not Roy, because Roy was always rather special, but none of them had any lessons, nobody knew what they were doing, so everybody had an individual sound.

(((O))): Theo, tell us about Double Talk – the Transgression album is great.

Theo: We’re planning some more gigs. That’s the main focus of my band leading, writing etc. I’ve been very happy with how the Transgression album came out, so really, more of that!

John: I have to promote an album I’ve been doing with a great singer, called Vimala Rowe. We’ve done a duo album that’s got prog elements; it’s not a jazz album. It’s just the two of us – guitar and voice. She’s an amazing vocalist. We called it Out Of The Sky because she appeared from nowhere. Professor Laurie Taylor, of Thinking Allowed on Radio 4, he said where did she come from? She came from out of the sky.

(((O))): Talk to me about practice. You’re all very proficient on your instruments.

John: I’m a guitar player, I have to practice all the time! See, it’s a proper instrument!

(((O))): You’ve got classical guitar players nails.

John: They’re acrylic on the top, the real nails are underneath. I have to practice. I was saying at breakfast “all the guitarists that make loads of money don’t play many notes”. I seem to have become attached to this idea of playing loads of notes and on guitar, you have to practice to do that. Whereas someone like Dave Gilmour, he probably doesn’t have to practice! He does practice, though, you told me…

Theo: He just likes to play a lot.

John: Guitarists do like to play.

Roy: They like to talk almost as much as they play! I’ve given up practice and I’ll tell you why: my project for the future is growing petit pois. I’m to all intents and purposes retired and had been for 8 or 9 years, until I get a call.

Theo: We got him out of retirement!

Roy: At that point in time I had problems with my hands, which was one of the things that led me to retire, I guess. I’ve only got three quarters of what I used to have. It’s put pay to playing the double bass because it gets in the way. It caused me to change the way I play otherwise it doesn’t work at all. Bass guitar is a bit easier than double bass – it’s not quite as big an instrument and you’ve got frets to help your intonation. But practice? It’s not worth it.

John: It’s good for your hands, to do a bit every day.

Roy: All I do is to try to keep that finger tip hard, so when the Six Nations are on the television I’ll just do enough to toughen my fingers up. When England’s rushing towards the posts, it really hurts.

(((O))): What’s your favourite album from the Soft Machine back catalogue, including the Legacy?

Theo: I prefer the Legacy albums myself. There’s some tracks on Steam I really like; Burden Of Proof has got some great tracks.

John: A favourite album? I couldn’t do that. For various reasons I like all of them, you know? Burden Of Proof from us, I think.

Roy: As a bass player, I find Fourth has a touch of Mingus about it. I rather like that. One of the reasons, or the reason Mike Ratledge played like that, lots and lots, was that if he stopped, it would feed back. He had to keep going to keep the thing under control.

John: The problem with music now is that the younger generation of musician knows what they’re doing, all the time and everything is sorted out. So much innovation came from the fact that something had gone wrong, or you hadn’t heard it right.

Soft Machine play KozFest at 22:30, Sunday 30 July, 2017

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