Allan finally steps out as a leader on his official solo debut, and emerges with a fully formed style. From the first five seconds of “The Things You See”, with its ear-bending legato runs and shimmering chords, and to the last note of “White Line”, this is a classic. Paul Williams, Gary Husband and Paul Carmichael and Allan were a BAND.
What is the current state of play?
ALAN: Now things are starting to look good. I’ve spent a lot of time hearing people with people hearing me, on opposite sides of the wall. Can I get through that bloody wall? Right now I’m just about to record an album with my new band, my first album in two years. The band could be very loosely described as a modern power trio, but not quite like anything you’d expect.
Given the freedom to pursue his chordal, melodic, and soloing abilities with the new band, Holdsworth developed material he had written over the previous few years, and with I.O.U. began performing in England. According to Allan, though, the climate wasn’t quite right for the type of music the band was performing. Punk and new wave were the rage, making I.O.U.’s music less desirable to the general public. Holdsworth and company recorded in early 1981, and found their music met with less than enthusiastic response by record companies.
By 1982, the band decided to try their luck in the United States, and released their LP, I.O.U., independently. It showcased for the first time the side of Allan Holdsworth’s guitar playing that had only been hinted at on previous works: complex, densely voiced chord melodies including unusual harmonic arrangements that sounded as if they came from neither guitar nor keyboard. Ambient, shimmering, and at times ghostly chordal swells, rather than harsh rhythm chopping guided the songs. Solos were sharply focused, the rhythm section of Husband and Carmichael pumped like a powerful machine, and Paul Williams’ vocals provided a familiar reference point for the songs. Accentuated by the band’s aggressive, jazz-influenced-but-rock-rooted arrangements, the music indeed captured a different side of the guitarist.
For several months Allan and I.O.U. played gigs mostly on the West Coast, and in August a dramatic upheaval in the band found Gary Husband and Paul Carmichael out, and bassist Jeff Berlin and drummer Chad Wackerman (who accompanied Frank Zappa on a few tours) in. After a few weeks of working together, the new lineup went out on the road, hitting major cities on the West Coast -- mostly in California. New material by Jeff Berlin and Holdsworth combined with new approaches to the older songs yields a hard-charging, spellbinding concert for guitarists as well bassists. Currently, I.O.U. plans to record a new album this month for Warner Bros.
Why did you choose to record an independent album?
I didn’t choose. We just couldn’t get anybody interested in our music. In fact, we tried for about three years to get a record deal -- with no luck. We had to borrow the money to do the album because we couldn’t get anybody interested. And rather than disappear -- just wilt away -- I figured it might be worth a shot to do it on our own. The album’s almost two years old now, and it’s taken more than that amount of time to get anybody interested.
How long did it take to record the album?
I think we took about five days to record it, and it was mixed in two evenings. Rather quick. It was recorded on The Barge, a studio in England, which is actually a real boat. It floats, but it doesn’t move much because it’s very heavy. And luckily, the water where it’s docked is usually very still.
What kind of guitars did you use?
I just used my old faithful Strat that I had back then. It had two humbuckers on it: one by the bridge and one by the neck. I changed them a lot. For a long time I had a couple of old Gibson Patent Applied Fors that I took off of some old ‘60s SG Customs that I owned previously. I didn’t like the middle pickups on the SGs -- they always got in the way -- so I took them out and saved them. I used them for a long time, and then I changed to the old DiMarzio PAFs, and then I finally changed to a pair of Seymour Duncan 59s. I found that there was a little bit of difference between the Seymour Duncans and the PAFs. So I sold all the PAFs from the SGs and just bought Seymour Duncans.
How was your guitar recorded? Did you mike it or go direct into the board?
I just miked it, out in the room where the whole band was. It was actually a tiny place, so we couldn’t get much isolation. The drums were in the middle of the room, the guitar amp was tucked away in one corner, and the bass was practically in the toilet at the other end of the boat. It probably would have sounded better if we had recorded it in a bigger place, but we didn’t have the money to do it anywhere else.
Did you use your usual stage setup to record I.O.U.?
Actually, since then I’ve gotten different equipment, because I had to sell the guitar and amps I used on the album in order to pay for it. I used two Hartley Thompson amplifiers and two Lab series L-5 amps. With the Hartley Thompsons I used two cabinets, each with two Goodman GP-12 speakers. They’re the best speakers, but they’re hard to get in America.
Did you use mikes to capture all of the guitar parts on the I.O.U. album?
Well, actually I went DI direct input into the mixing console on one song, "Temporary Fault." I did that one DI just to see how it would come out, and I was quite pleased with the results. I could have probably gone DI on more. The Hartley Thompson works well for miking and DI. It does everything. The reason I didn’t use DI more in the studio was that chords and the solos would have been coming down on the same track. At that time I didn’t own enough Hartley Thompsons to set them up like one for the solo and one for the chords.
But when you mixed the album, didn’t you have to add reverb to give everything more space?
I guess so, but I always had good results with one mike before. The way my amp setup is now, I can make the mike hear something that it thinks sounds ambient.
How much guitar overdubbing did you do?
Not much at all. There were a couple of tracks where I added some extra guitar parts, but most of it was done as live basic tracks. For instance, on "Checking Out" I added an extra solo.
Why did you switch from Stratocasters to Charvel guitars?
I was really lucky, because just before I sold my Stratocaster, I met [Charvel Luthier/designer] Grover Jackson in London. We went out for a few beers and he was willing to listen to ideas I had about certain woods, whereas a lot of other people wouldn’t. They’d say "you can’t make a guitar from this wood or that wood." But Grover listened to everything, and made three Strat-style guitars from various woods. Also I had the necks made wider at the fingerboard end. I hate the Fender string spacing.
Fender’s overall string spacing is wider than Gibson’s, but at the same time Gibson’s necks are wider than Fender’s. It’s absolute madness. I had Grover make the necks wide at the top [near the headstock] like Gibsons, and about 2 1/4" wide at the body end of the neck. So that means there’s a good 1/8" on either side of the outer strings, which is really nice. The strings used to really fly off the edges of the Stratocasters. I’m really happy with the guitars Grover made. They’re the best guitars I’ve ever owned.
What kinds of woods were employed in their construction?
All three are different. The red one has a maple neck with an ebony fingerboard and a basswood body. The white one has a maple neck, ebony fingerboard, and a body made of jelutong [a Malaysian and Indonesian softwood]. Then there’s the one that I was most interested in: a maple neck and fingerboard -- one piece -- and a spruce body with a clear finish. They all sound different from each other, which is really great, because I’ve learned so much about what to do about two more guitars that Grover’s going to make. He’s going to use a combination of all the best ideas in these three.
Is the spruce a lot lighter than the others?
No, actually the basswood’s the lightest. The Jelutong and the spruce are about the same, which is probably about the same as alder or something like that. The spruce one sounds stiffer, or harder. Very quick. I wanted to find a real resonant wood, and spruce is often used for the tops of acoustic guitars. I didn’t believe the normal stories that said, "the heavier the better for a solid guitar." And I’ve never believed that. Most of the old guitars I’ve ever played -- the good ones -- have been at least half the weight of their modern equivalents. If you feel the weight of an old Strat or an old Les Paul, it seems to weigh much less than a new one. The wood gives so much to the sound, just like in an acoustic guitar, whereas if the body is really heavy, it just sort of soaks the sound up, and you’re left with a string talking down to the pickup. Then you’d might as well have a concrete body or build it into the ground. I really like when a guitar feels as if it’s got some sort of acoustic thing going for it.
Were any solos spliced on I.O.U.?
We didn’t do any splicing. In fact, most of the album was done straight in one take. I don’t like cutting. I’d rather do it again from the top then cut it. I just don’t like editing.
Did you release the I.O.U. album in England?
No. They probably don’t know about it -- two years later laughs. England is definitely on its knees as far as music and almost everything else, it seems.
When did you compose the material for the I.O.U. album?
Originally, I had a backlog of material from when I left Bill Bruford, and I knew what direction I wanted to go in. So, that’s why it turned out that most of the tunes were mine. It wasn’t that we didn’t particularly want to play anybody else’s. It’s just that those tunes were there from the beginning, and those were the things that I wanted to try to do. So we did them at the gigs and recorded them in England. When Chad and Jeff joined, I just gave them copies of the album, and they listened to it and worked out the parts for themselves. And now I’ve got some songs and Jeff’s got some songs. So we’re on the way.
When I saw Allan Holdsworth on a very grey day in Kingston Surrey in the middle of 1981 he was feeling well shall we say not at his best? He’d grown tired of the fight and intimated that it wouldn’t take an awful lot more before he threw in the towel. He’d become disillusioned with the business to the point of thinking about taking a job in a factory, leaving free his evenings to play what he liked. Allan refuses point blank to play music he doesn’t feel, hence his dilemma. The last straw was an album he recorded in England called IOU, which featured singer Paul Williams who is now the only person from that band that’s currently playing with Allan. Allan Holdsworth’s troubles were not yet over, and he ended up having to press the album himself, and sell it on the door at his own gigs and by mail order. So far he’s sold an astonishing 14,000! None of the major UK record companies were interested enough to pick up the album, although that situation is about to change.
What would you like the future to hold for Allan Holdsworth?
I’d just like to make a record that I was really happy with. So far I haven’t been able to achieve that. The I.O.U. record was a good record, but it had problems in as much as it was recorded cheap, and it was done very fast. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would have liked to have spent more time mixing.
Thus did America beckon to one Allan Holdsworth, legendary electro-jazz guitar stylist who, by 1980, was unable to find gainful employment in his U.K. homeland, either as a guitarist or leader/composer of his own appropriately named trio, I.O.U. Holdsworth was even preparing to hang up his guitar strap forever: "I was broke, couldn’t make any living at all in music. I would’ve had to retire; in fact, I was just about to take a job in a music store. I had accumulated a lot of equipment over the years, and I basically paid the rent by selling a few things each month. Eventually, when we came to mix the I.O.U. album, I sold the last guitar I had. Then I came over to America on vacation and met someone who said she could get us gigs, so we all came over."
That first I.O.U. album was done mostly in one take, but Holdsworth maintains, "I came out smiling. It was the only real time I had control over the music." Rather than a self-indulgent display of his coveted technique, Holdsworth used a bank of digital delays to create glistening chordal swirls, then darting into concise lead passages which at times barely resembled guitar.
The Holdsworth brand of music -uncompromising and enigmatic - has never really found favour with the record companies. He shrugs: "They say to my manager ‘Let us know when he does something that we can sell’. And, you know, that IOU album we made... we couldn’t even give it away; we actually tried to give it to record companies and they wouldn’t accept it!"
I.O.U. was a five-thousand-dollar record; we recorded it pretty rapidly and mixed in two evenings. It was recorded over a span of time because we couldn’t get the studio time all at once. But since then I’ve tried to be more careful in the recording, pushed myself a little bit harder, and just tried to spend more time mixing. And that all costs money.
GW: Did that record do anything for you?
HOLDSWORTH:: Well, it’s the same prob1em. I have great difficulty listening to it now because I sound so bad on it. But it was obviously representative of what we were doing, and that’s the way I played then, because I didn’t know any better. But it’s a good record in terms of having captured something; it captured the essence of what we were doing. And Gary I thought, played just great on it. Paul Williams sang great, too.
GW: Do you think the vocal concept prevented you from getting over with the jazz constituency?
HOLDSWORTH:: It was just something that I grew out of, or that I thought I should change. The original vocal concept stemmed from the trio concept; I wanted to be able to play things as a trio with a melody and chords, set up in a situation where I could perform them with just a guitar. So I used the voice like an instrument, and Paul was the perfect person for that. But I just wanted to do something different. I mean, I never know what I’m going to feel like or what I’m going to want to do, because it changes, and I can’t help it. When I got the SynthAxe, a whole other thing suddenly opened up to me and I didn’t see what I was doing as a musician, or the band itself, in the same way anymore. And I also saw the vocal thing sitting me on the fence really hard, and that people who like instrumental or "jazz" music were kind of perturbed by the vocal aspect of my music. I never was, but I thought that they were, and I also felt that there were people who liked the vocal aspect of t he songs but didn’t like the rest of it. It was like stretching both sides, and, like I said, when I got the SynthAxe I decided that that was what I wanted to do, so I just continued to sit on the fence in a different way.
MP: In 1980 you started a trio called False Alarm, with Gary Husband and Paul Carmichael – was it time for you to become a leader?
AH: Well I – during the time that I – most of my life worked – well after I moved to London I been just another guy in someone else’s band, I just decided myself – I had a backlog of material I’d been working on and I wanted to try and play with different people and I met Gary Husband, cause I met all these musicians who had been saying Hey you should listen to this drummer friend I mean it he’s like unbelievable and I had an opportunity to play with Gary and it was like really special, the guys really an unbelievable musician. And I really liked working with him, he really understood – probably understood more where I wanted than I could understand what he was really wanted but it was the beginning of a really great kind of relationship and we just tried to get this band off to the road and we couldn’t – we had a friend worked for Virgin Records and he gave us some free studio time – a guy called Nicholas Powell, and we did some tracks -in fact we finished doing the whole album on this little boat on a canal in London.
MP: What’s it called, the Barge?
AH: Yeah the Barge (laughs)
MP: Was it really a barge?
AH: Yeah! It was just a little floating barge and when the boats would go by the whole studio would go like (waves hands up and down) – it was great! Then we tried to give the album away and we couldn’t – we sent tapes to like 5 major labels in England and – nobody was interested in it free – we didn’t want anything, we just said could you just put this album out and they said No, so that’s essentially why I tried to get over to the States.
MP: So IOU was released independently then by yourself?
AH: Well I had the tape, since we recorded the album in a couple of days on this boat and then I paid for the mixing by selling like the last two guitars that I had and we mixed Side 1 in one evening from 8 o’clock till 6 in the morning and then Side2 the same, you know, 8 till 6 the following day (shrugs) and then at the end of it all I had the album but nobody interested in it so it was just a tape…but when we came to the States the people seemed to be much more receptive, then we decided to try and press ‘em up on our own – and we did, and we just started selling them at the gigs. That’s kind of how it all started – it hasn’t gone very far from then but...(smirks)
You had Velvet Darkness pulled?
It was no good. It was never any good. The way it was recorded, what happened to the musicians, the whole thing. It was a complete disaster. It was terrible at that time and that makes it terrible today. That album was never any good. And it’s one thing to say I’ll look back to that old I.O.U. album and go "Well, it sounds pretty old, and maybe I don’t like it as much as the other stuff." But, the fact was that it was what it is then and it was okay then and everybody accepted that to be the fact at that time. That was not true of Velvet Darkness. That album was never fit to be released. Nobody got to hear anything they did. I never got a tape of anything that was recorded. And we were actually rehearsing in the studio and they were rolling the tape while we were rehearsing on the premise that we’d be able to keep recording and also check things out, but that never happened. At the end of that day, the guy said "Thanks, see ya!" That’s why a lot of those tunes don’t have any endings—they were rehearsals! That was a complete rip-off.
Musically, what did you try differently on Hard Hat Area than on previous albums?
One of the things I like personally about this album is that this is the only record we’ve done since the original IOU album  where we played all the music live before we recorded it. Up till now, because of schedules and such, I would write some new music and we’d go and record it. But because the band toured a lot the last year and a half, we played most of the music live before we recorded. Because of that, it has more of a live feel to it than the previous albums. I like that and I must insure that that’s the way we do things from now on.
There is a certain well-oiled sound to the groove.
Yes, I think so. You can hear people stretching, working the groove. It just sounds more organic, less sterile somehow than some of the other records.
So, how did the Gong projects come about?
Well, it’s funny because it kind of intertwined. I then went to do the thing with Tony Williams and stayed there in New York and then we had some real problems. Not with Tony or the band, because that was the other thing - I loved that band - enjoyed every minute of it - but it was really rough financially. I stayed at Tony’s house which was fine. I didn’t need any money and he took really good care of me. But when we were on tour, we had got back to New York and I’d scraped together enough money to get a plane ticket back to see my girlfriend. So I was there, hanging out, and then I phoned back to see what was happening, and then I found out that the tour manager didn’t get paid and he was in charge of my guitar and he sold it!
"That was the first and only time that I ever got that attached to an instrument. I was mortified! I only had one - I carried it everywhere - I used to buy a ticket for it on the plane... I’d had a lot of SG’s - but instruments are like that - you can make 50 of them but there’ll only be one of them that’s any good - some of them might be OK, but only one of them will be magic and so it was sold and I was completely bombed out. So then I went back to New York and had to buy a new guitar and there in the window was hanging my guitar! But I couldn’t prove it was my guitar and it was more money than I could afford, so I had to buy something else! So I bought another one and then we did another tour and ended up on the West Coast, ended up in San Francisco. And then the band ran out of money. Tony went back to New York to find out why there was no more money and both me and Alan Pasqua had no hotel - we were absolutely out on the street with a suitcase and a guitar. So we went down to the club where we’d been playing and the waitresses there gave us free drinks. We found the guy who had put us up for the night and we get back to this guy’s house in the evening and he said, ‘yeah, you can stay in this bed and you stay in that bed’. And we get back after the club had closed and there were two other guys in those beds! So this went on for three nights, and after the third night I said, ‘Man, I can’t hack this anymore’, so I took my guitar to the pawn shop and sold it. Alan Pasqua lent me the money (he lived in New Jersey at the time) to get from San Francisco to New Jersey and bought the ticket with my guitar from New York to London. I didn’t have anything! Just a suitcase.
"Tony Newton was OK, because he lived in Los Angeles, so a ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles wasn’t really expensive. So that’s when this thing came about with Gong. I got this call from Nicholas Powell, who actually managed me for a while. He split from Virgin Records and wanted to get involved in the video stuff. He really helped me out. In fact, it was Nicholas Powell who gave me the free studio time on the barge to record the IOU album.
Allan Holdsworth is above all a perfectionist. The day we met he was half way through a two-day stop in Manchester. It was the morning after the first night’s gig, which Allan had not been happy with, although by all accounts his playing was as mind-boggling as ever. He frequently belittles some of his own work, notably Igginbottom and his first solo LP "Velvet Darkness" ("it was a real terrible disaster"). And it’s telling when he sums up his progress to date: "I really think that the only time I’ve been happy with something is when I’ve had some sort of control over it myself. So the only records apart from the real legitimate ones, like the ones with Bill Bruford, or UK... the only ones that are any good are since I started with the IOU album, forward..." So at this point it seems relevant to examine the start of his solo career. You can quite neatly divide Allan Holdsworth’s career into two parts: the itinerant band member, who wrote little, but established a reputation as a supreme soloist; and the bandleader and composer. Holdsworth’s solo career also encompasses his now permanent residence in the States. Were the two related, asked him:
- A friend gave us free studio time at The Barge, [literally] a barge in London. To be able to mix the album over two evenings in Trident Studios, I had to sell the guitars used for the recording. Sometimes I miss England, but that side of the country I don’t miss. For a musician like myself, it’s extremely inhibitive to live there.
During this time, he used Hartley/Thompson amplifiers.
- They were my favourites for a long time and I still have one of them. I don’t use it anymore, but keep it as a memory.
Q: And you devote yourself on solo project after 80ís.
A: Yes. I’ve played at someoneís bands during 70ís, and it was fun in a sence. Especially Soft machine was good. But I was tired of it and I became want to make my own. Till then, I composed many numbers but I had no chance to show them. At that time I met Gary Husband(d), Paul Carmicheal(b) then I recorded ìI.O.Uî with them, solo debut work. I began the band work but it was tough, it was difficult to find someone who were interested in our album release. So, I decided to make the album by ourselves. We recorded and mixed it in two days, from midnight to early mornning. My second album was the same. It took only 3~4days for recording, but the cost was at my own. Nicolas powell from Virgin records rent us a recording studio but I had to sell my two guitars for mixing. After that I had a chance to play at the U.S., it was succesful compared with U.K. activity, then I decided to emigrate to the U.S. and I havenít go back to the U.K.
Having said all of this, I would like to remix the I.O.U. album because the last time I played it off the original two-inch tapes, it sounded so much better than the album. The record was mixed in two evenings. I think everything, but especially the drum sound, can benefit from a remix. Also, the tapes were stolen during that session and two of the tracks were gone by the time we mixed the album. Later, the studio owner found the guy who stole the tape and got it back. So, there are two tracks that aren’t on the original I.O.U. album that I would include. I’ll have to bake the tapes in order to do it, but I think it would be worth it. The recorded sound was just so much better than the CD and I think I can do it a lot more justice.