As much as I love doing progressive stuff, it’s marked by taking these sideways steps into different rooms, going left, right, down and back on yourself. We felt like we wanted this piece to sound like it was really going upwards constantly.
Gong‘s new album has achieved a rare double feat. The Universe Also Collapses has been critically well received, whilst also storming the UK Rock Chart at Number 3. With the band in the middle of a UK tour, we caught up with Kavus Torabi, the quintet’s guitarist and vocalist. Something of Renaissance man, Torabi sheds light on the creative process behind the new record, his other projects and more in a candid conversation.
(((o))): You stated the new album, lyrically, is a statement about the present, and the working title for the album was ‘Remember There is Only Now’.
KT: It’s this idea that I had started to realise over the years: that everything is happening in a single moment, and there is nothing outside of this single moment. Once I heard about this and started really thinking about it, more and more it seemed to be true. Certainly whenever I’ve been in psychedelic states I very much feel untethered from the concept of time moving forward, only aware that there is this single moment.
This was corroborated by reading brainy people. I don’t really understand brainy people – I can get a small fraction of what they’re talking about, but they seem to be saying the same thing, and there seems to increasingly be this evidence, that was probably there all the time, that time doesn’t exist. It’s like a book – it has a beginning, middle and end, you can read any part and go forward and backward in the story; you can hold the book in your hand and just have the entire thing, or you can read it very slowly. It feels this is what existence is about.
This informed the whole album, so you end up with lots of the lyrics referencing each other throughout the record. I know it’s clichéd, but I wanted the whole thing to have the qualities of a psychedelic trip, as well. There are recurring themes in the music; lyrics that keep going back to recurring themes that you heard earlier on in the piece. Another cliché is that you want a record to sound like a journey; we wanted it to have this narrative thrust to it, a feeling of closure and a feeling of ending.
(((o))): How did this approach inform the writing?
KT: It’s been two years since Rejoice I’m Dead, which was us finding out if we could do this – make a whole album, go out and tour it, play the music alongside the older Gong stuff that people will want to hear and also that we wanted to play, and see if the whole thing hangs together cohesively, which it did. For the last two years we’ve been going out and playing a 1-hour-45-minute set, and it’s generally split fifty percent new material and fifty percent old material. Because of the way Gong is, a great deal of what happens in the middle bits of some songs, and the intros to some songs, is improvised.
After two years on the road we started to get a whole new perspective of what this band is capable of; because each night you go out, especially when you’re playing multiple nights in a row, and, for example, the middle section of ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ will end one bit, and then we’ve got x amount of time to get back to the ending, and in that time, we can do anything. At first we might have been doing some quite conservative psychedelic explorations. By the time we’d been away for a while, it would go into something quite atonal, very polyrhythmic, and have a more abstract flow to it. Places where we had never gone as a five-piece before, with funny clusters of notes.
All of this informed the writing – we thought, “wouldn’t it be good if we could create this kind of flavour on the new record?” On top of the influence of improvising live, we talked a lot over the course of the last two years about the kind of record we wanted to make, even before we started writing it – what we did and what we didn’t want it to be.
As for the form of it, the way it took shape, something like ‘Forever Reoccuring’, the twenty-minute song, was born purely out of one riff that I came up with in rehearsal; and it kept expanding and somebody wrote that sax melody that comes over the top of it, and it just kept growing. It wasn’t really until it puffed up to about 13 minutes we started to think “this might take up the whole of side one”. I’m no stranger to long songs; I mean in Guapo there are songs that fill up an entire record; but to do that as Gong was quite exciting. We wanted it to be propulsive and linear, this piece, so it doesn’t take all these sideways steps. That’s why I’d call this record psychedelic, not progressive. As much as I love doing progressive stuff, it’s marked by taking these sideways steps into different rooms, going left, right, down and back on yourself. We felt like we wanted this piece to sound like it was really going upwards constantly. So we talked about things like that before we even started recording.
With ‘Forever Reoccuring’, Ian realised it was doing this thing where it would go around in cycles of fifteen beats, or thirty beats, and got quite fastidious that whatever we did had to fit in with this cycle of fifteen or thirty. My attitude was “fuck that”: it’s fine if it works but I don’t want to shoehorn a bit in, arbitrarily, or lop something off so it feels awkward, just to make this thing work. But as it happened, everything we would be writing, Ian would be there doing the maths and it all fits. So it was a very happy accident.
The lyrical themes didn’t come until about two weeks before the vocals went down. It was like being in the 70s – I was in the studio writing the lyrics as we went along. I had lots of melodies sorted beforehand and I had the way I wanted the phrasing to sound, but I’d written stupid, anything words just so I had something to sing. Then the lyrics came together in one period, which is why they all sound interconnected, something I quite like.
(((o))): Cary Grace described her affinity for Gong, talking about “the sound of live musicians playing together in a room”.
KT: Absolutely. We felt we really liked the last album, but the mix and production was maybe a little conservative, too cautious. So we wanted to go wilder with the sound of it, but also really have the sound of us all together.
We didn’t want to go down that route of recording the drums, everyone recording their own bits at home, and then putting it all together. Plenty of musicians do this, we’ve done it in the past. It’s not a bad thing, I’m not anti that. That process works fine if there is a benign or non-benign dictator in charge of everything. I’ve done Knifeworld records like that and it’s fine, as I know how I want everything to sound. What made it very difficult with the last record is that someone would upload their parts at home, then someone would come back and say “I think you could play that better”, and you don’t get a chance for a couple of days. The whole thing feels arduous.
For this one, there was always the other musicians around when someone was recording, so we were encouraging each other. Sometimes I’d do something and someone would say “you should sing it like this”: it was an open discussion and it came together a lot quicker; and as everything went down, everyone was happy with what had gone down. So it felt like a complete process and what making records used to feel like.
(((o))): The new album is coming out on Kscope who seem to be hoovering up 70s icons of late. They have a reputation for being very meticulous in the way they go about doing things. What’s the working relationship like and are you being put under any additional pressure?
KT: No, in fact we haven’t actually changed labels. The label we are with, Madfish, they are all part of a company called Snapper. It’s a big place in West London with loads of people working there. They’ve got loads of labels and the same people working on them. So we’ve worked with the same people on this that we really like, and all that’s changed is the label on the back. But it still feels like we’ve been given a promotion as Kscope is a more well-known label, although the plumbing is the same. They’re great to work with, and creatively the guy who oversees the art, Richard Beeching, really gives a fuck. They really care about making these things look good: you don’t get a record that comes out on that label that looks or feels cheap. They like to have a nice product, which is lovely. This album we wanted actual foil stars on the cover. The money people look at the cost but generally say “OK, let’s do it”.
(((o))): Most people seem on board with the new line-up, but there are a small and vocal minority who complain that it’s not the same without Daevid Allen. Do you have a message for these fans?
KT: No, not really. Of course it’s not the same without Daevid. What it comes down to is do you get on board with what Daevid’s idea was? Daevid’s vision was never for the band to end with him, it was to be an ongoing idea. If you do get on board with this idea, you just have to decide if you like this version of Gong, or not. Some people arbitrarily won’t like it, as for them there’s no Gong without Daevid. I completely understand that. If that’s the way they want to see Gong like a Yes- or Black Sabbath-style band, that’s perfectly fine. I would probably not go and see a Black Sabbath that had no original members, but I don’t think that’s what Gong is about. Gong is an idea; it’s a beautiful creation of Daevid’s and it’s got previous form in not having any original members – by the mid-seventies, in fact. We feel privileged to have been a part of this band with Daevid and I can’t overthink it. We are a vehicle for light and love and psychedelic music: mystical, propulsive, expansive, ecstatic rock music. We’re doing everything we can to keep that going. If people don’t think it’s that and want it to be something else, there’s nothing we can do: we’re not a Gong tribute act. We’re not going to draft in a fake Tim Blake, and have someone to space whisper, that’s not going happen.
(((o))): On recent tours you’ve surprised the audience by dusting off different classics from the Gong archive. Can fans expect to hear any new revivals of older material, this time around?
KT: We’re doing one that we’ve never done and that no line-up of Gong has done for a while. You’ll have to come along to hear which song!
(((o))): You’re touring with Ed Wynne.
KT: I’m really excited about having Ed Wynne supporting. I saw Ozric Tentacles supporting Hawkwind when I was sixteen years old, in Plymouth, where I grew up. I think the following day everyone who was at that gig went out and bought Pungent Effulgent. We were all instantly converted. I’m a massive fan of that guy’s guitar playing – he’s one of the very few lead guitarists whose playing I just absolutely love. To have him supporting us, and to get to watch him play guitar every night for 10 days in a row – I can’t wait.
(((o))): Moving away from Gong, what else are you working on?
KT: I have another project I’ve been doing called The Utopia Strong. That will be coming out in September, and I’m very excited about that. I’m also 80-percent of the way through mixing a solo album, which I’m very pleased with. That will come out when I can find a suitable window – I’ll want to play some gigs around its release. Then all of Gong are playing with Steve Hillage – as soon as we finish the Gong tour, we’ve got 10 day rehearsals playing Steve Hillage-Band stuff, then we’ve three dates in June and a festival in July. We’re hopefully looking at more dates later in the year, as well.
(((o))): The Interesting Alternative Show you’ve presented with Steve Davis for many years recently came to an end.
KT: We’re still doing an NTS show called Fire Shuffle, once a month on Wednesdays, 3–5 pm. I’m doing it on my own tomorrow as Steve’s doing the snooker. We’ve been doing it for about two years – it’s basically the same thing we were doing with Interesting Alternative but on digital radio now. All the old shows are archived as well.
(((o))): Finally, where do you get your hair done?
KT: My wife cuts it about once a year. The rest is just good vibes in the atmosphere.
Main Photo: Clarissa Lambert (2014)