Allan Holdsworth: The final interview (Team Rock 2017)
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Allan Holdsworth was a towering figure in the world of progressive music. With his trademark legato style, he influenced a generation of musicians who would follow in his wake. And like many innovators, he watched as many of his admirers achieved greater commercial success than he would find. But those kinds of considerations were never central to Holdsworth’s approach to music.
The early days of the Bradford, England-born guitarist’s career saw him working in the Canterbury scene, as well as taking part in some work (sadly undocumented) with percussionist Jamie Muir, later a key member of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic-era King Crimson.
Holdsworth stayed busy and honed his craft playing guitar for Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Soft Machine, Jean-Luc Ponty and others who explored the previously uncharted spaces in which jazz and rock intersected. Once his solo career got underway, he left England and settled in California. There he spent less time lending his talents to outside projects, though he found time to play on albums by Stanley Clarke, Chad Wackerman, and take part in nearly a half dozen collaborative album projects. He also wrote three books on guitar technique.
The notoriously fastidious Holdsworth didn’t consider the unauthorised 1976 LP Velvet Darkness part of his catalogue, and preferred not to discuss it with us. But between 1982 and 2002, Holdsworth did record and release 12 solo albums (though 1983’s Road Games is technically an EP) for nearly as many labels. Though he continued to tour, 2001’s Flat Tire: Music For A Non-Existent Movie was his most recent collection of material intended as an album. But now in 2017, Los Angeles-based independent label Manifesto Records collected Holdsworth’s entire body of solo work into a box set with the rather presumptuous title, The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
As one might expect, Holdsworth hated that title.
Your early influences were the ambitious end of classical music: Stravinsky, Bartok and the like. When you were young, did pop music filter its way into your musical sensibility?
My dad was a piano player, a really good pianist, in fact. He had lots of records around: they were mostly jazz records. But you don’t wake up one day and sound like Django Reinhardt, so I decided to learn to play some of the pop music that I could play. And once I could, my interest in that music faded away. So pop music was just a starting point, although I still listen to all kinds of music.
Throughout the 1970s, you played with an impressive list of artists, each of whom was quite unique. Did you feel empowered to express your own musical ideas within the context of others’ work?
When I played with Tony Williams, he would never direct as to which way he wanted the music to go; he would kind of leave it up to me. Tony’d just say, “Okay, there’s the music; do your thing.” So it was relatively easy for me to find a way to inject my own personality into some of the music, even though it was composed by someone else. And I found that almost everybody treated me the same way.
Was it your time with Jean-Luc Ponty that sparked your interest in playing the violin?
Oh no, no, it was just curiosity. I messed around with a lot of instruments; I played clarinet for a while. I had borrowed saxophones from bandmates in the past, just to get a feeling of how they work and the challenges of each; and it was like that with the violin. I got a violin, and then after that I did buy a viola. But the viola got lost in the shuffle when I moved; I don’t really know what happened to it.
It’s hard to lose a viola!
I did, though.
In the years that you worked with Ponty – because he was essentially the lead instrumentalist – did you have to ease back on some of what you were doing to leave space for him?
Jean-Luc was great to work for: he left me alone pretty much as well. He didn’t give me any instructions. I liked the music, and I totally enjoyed playing with him.
But that wasn’t the case when you played with UK…
Not as much. There was less improvisation than I would have liked. It was more structured, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It was just that Bill [Bruford] and I were on one side of the fence, and Eddie [Jobson] and John [Wetton] were on the other. It wasn’t a personality thing, at least not for me. I liked all those guys. I just found UK a little bit too restrictive; I wasn’t making enough progress. It wasn’t assisting me to make progress in my own playing.
You didn’t make your solo debut I.O.U. until you were in your mid-30s. What spurred you to finally do it?
UK disbanded at that time, and I was still playing in Bill’s band. I’d just met drummer Gary Husband; we played together a little bit, and then I just kind of decided – the switch went on in my mind – “You know what? I’m just going to try this!” I wanted to make the jump to play my own music. I had a reasonable amount of music written.
One of the unifying qualities of this new box set collection of 12 albums is the timeless nature of the music. For the most part, there’s nothing about, say I.O.U. that suggests that it was made nearly 20 years before Flat Tire. When you’re making an album, do you seek to to avoid sonic textures or production techniques that might make the record sound dated down the line?
No, it’s not a conscious effort. Some of it comes from the musicians who I played with, and their translation – or their interpretation – of my music. Some of those guys just had that quality; they didn’t necessarily have a sound [associated with] a specific point in time.
But at the same time, generally speaking, the newer the album the more I like it. For me, the box set is just a look back over time. There were bootlegs, and some albums had been discontinued for years, so we decided we wanted to put out my whole back catalogue.
In the past, you’ve made a list of a half dozen or so albums called: “Stuff I recorded but wish I did not.” Why did you choose to characterise them that way?
It would depend on the particular instance, but I remember a couple of them that involved other guitar players. It was just a mixing thing: the other guitars would be three times the volume of mine! Stuff like that.
Early on in your solo career, you became very closely associated with the SynthAxe. What piqued your initial interest in that instrument?
It went back really far into my childhood, actually. Because I always wanted to play a horn or a violin or something where you could shape a note, as opposed to the guitar which is basically a percussion instrument. And I always tried to get the guitar to sound like it wasn’t a percussion instrument.
When the SynthAxe came along, it opened the door to not only different textures and sounds that were unavailable on the guitar, but with the use of the breath control, I could do all the things that I wanted to do if I had been a horn player of some sort. I learned a lot from just playing that instrument. I still use it a lot in the studio; for the stuff I’m working on now, it has probably ended up on every track.
You’ve explored other technological innovations, and you’re involved with some development yourself. Have you played any newer things, like the Moog guitar?
Briefly, but it was a few years ago. But it was like a step backwards for me; if I have to go from the SynthAxe, the thing is going to have to be absolutely, incredibly remarkable for me to want to make a jump.
In recent years you’ve also been performing and recording with a baritone guitar. From your point of view, what is its appeal?
When I was playing violin, I used to love the sound of the viola. There was just something about that, just having a little bit lower range. That different sound appealed to me. It’s the same as the difference between an oboe and English horn, or an alto clarinet to a regular clarinet; it’s in a different register.
After a period of real innovation in jazz and progressive music, especially fusion, those genres went into commercial decline in the 1980s. “Smooth jazz” became popular. And with a few notable exceptions, progressive music receded from the mainstream view. Why do you think that happened?
I don’t know why it happened, actually. I really don’t. I suppose it had to do with record companies and radio stations… specifically radio stations. I could never get a radio station to play my music; it was extremely rare to find or to hear anything that I’d done on the radio. Whereas you could turn on a jazz station and listen to music that’s not really jazz. To me it’s muzak.
When you were making solo albums, did you find yourself being subject to lots of commercial pressures?
Sometimes, but that was mainly due to the labels. For example, Warner Brothers [who released Road Games] was a nightmare, and I was glad when that was over. But Bill Hein was the guy who ran the company when I was working with Enigma; he was a very, very clever guy, and he was also very open-minded. He would never say, “We want you to do this,” or “Can’t you do this?” He’d just leave me alone.
I think that the people who were in charge of the label were a key factor, because I didn’t get pressure about anything. Bill would never pressure me because I was late with a record, which I always was. I never did a record on time. But it didn’t worry me if it didn’t worry them, because for me, it’s done when it’s done. If I don’t like it, it doesn’t appear.
To what degree is the music on your studio albums the product of careful composition and arrangement, and to what extent is it the product of improvisation giving way to creation?
When I write a piece of music, I start with just the composition itself. And I don’t worry about how difficult it might be to play solos over, or anything like that. I just let the composition go where I think it should go. And then I leave sections open for the soloist or whomever, to give them some space to play. I never wrote a composition that was just specifically for improvisation alone. Or if I did, I don’t remember what it was! I like the music to be dense harmony-wise, and then transformed. It works for me, anyway.
Some artists will put out an album that’s simply the latest issue of what they’re doing, as opposed to a cohesive work. Generally speaking, when you’re making an album, is there a kind of unifying concept at work?
The way it’s worked out for me is that I tend to write tunes around the personality of the band that I’m working with currently. For example, when I was playing with Dave Carpenter and Gary Novak, that band was considerably softer than, say, Hard Hat Area, which was more aggressive.
But that was intended by the players. On one of the new albums I’m working on now, I recorded the same song twice, just so people could hear how much the music changed being played by different people. I did a tune with Gary Husband and Jimmy Johnson, and then I did the same exact piece of music with Ernest Tibbs and Joel Taylor. And aside from the melody, you wouldn’t even know it was the same tune! It’s quite remarkable how it changes.
They’re free to interpret it in their own way, and that’s always worked for me. Each member of the band can enjoy himself a little bit more, and get a little bit more of what it is that they do into the project. That’s what I learned from Tony Williams: leave people alone, unless it’s something specific in a certain section that you really want to hear.
What’s the status of the crowdfunding project for Tales From The Vault?
Tales From The Vault turned into a bit of a disaster, actually. There were some older tracks that I’d done before with Ernest and Joel but I never finished; I was going to finish them for the pledge campaign, but basically the money ran out. Compared to other people I don’t produce albums very quickly. So I ended up not using some of those tunes; it wasn’t financially possible for me to do it.
Tell us about the new album you have in the works.
For the very newest album with Virgil Donati, Jimmy Haslip and Jimmy Johnson, I basically did it on the computer. And I had a hard time with that, because I’m not very savvy with computers. I use the computer in a very limited manner. I use it like an old fashioned tape machine: play, forward, fast-forward and rewind. That’s about as much as I know!
The record is for Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label. It’s been very energetic, and I’ve been inspired to write tunes for the band. It will get finished before the end of this year, because I’ve decided I wasn’t going to be doing any touring – or very limited touring – because I’m too old. I don’t enjoy it anymore. I like playing, but I don’t like the travelling part; I don’t like airplanes, and I don’t like going through security.
Part of the reason it was so long between records is that I’ve moved three or four times in that period. And each time we had to pull the studio apart and rebuild it somewhere else. So I didn’t have anywhere to work, really. Combine that with being on the road, and I never seemed to have the time to do it. That’s why I decided to take some time off to work on these recordings. The downside of that is trying to survive: when I’m working on a record, I’m not making any money.
Other than using computers, how would you say that your approach to making albums has changed over the years?
It’s basically changed by default, just by the way people do things. Before – in the old days – people would rent a really nice studio for a few days, and we could play everything more or less together. If we had to overdub something, that was fine. Then we’d spend a few days or a week or so mixing it, and then Bob’s your uncle. But now people just send files over the internet, and more often than not, you’re not in the same room, or at least not at the same time. The technology forced a change; that’s why so many studios went out of business.
Do you think something’s been lost with the demise of the old way of doing things?
Yeah, you always lose something. But you gain things, too. It’s possible to make very high quality digital recordings if you use very high sample frequencies like 96kHz or above.
Still, anybody who’s worked on a really great analogue two-inch tape machine in a studio knows that you can’t do that on a little digital recorder. It’s blatantly obvious, but nobody cares. They’re all playing it over their iPhone!
We have to ask about the box set’s title. It doesn’t sound like something that you would call it.
I was absolutely horrified when I saw the box set. I never saw the actual cover until it was already in production. I went ballistic: “You can’t say that on the front, ‘The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!’” I was like, “Explain to your readers that I didn’t know about that.”
The guys know me; they know my personality. You know, it’s not something I’d say: “Here I come, king of men.” I heard it was just going to be called The Allan Holdsworth Album Collection. It was too late to shake the tree. Some of the material suffered from the amount of time since the masters were made, and I know that the record company had spent a lot of money on remastering. In the end, I just said, “Well, it’s my own fault; I should have asked them to show me exactly what they were doing.” It was just unexpected.
They did a great job on everything else. It’s a limited edition: the box will go away, and eventually there will just be individual albums.
You’ve been a musician most of your life, and a recording artist for nearly 50 years. Was there a point in your career when you thought: “I’ve made it”?
No, I never thought of it like that. Like a lot of musicians, I was just trying to survive, but survive doing something that I enjoyed as opposed to it turning into a day job. I got the pleasure from that, and I could continue to learn.
And that never stops. I’ll never really know very much about music, no matter how long I live. That’s just how it is: when you get over one milestone, there’s another, bigger one.