Never again a serial-production-group (Sym Info 1986)

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Interview of Allan Holdsworth by Sym Info (May 1986)

Sym Info was a Dutch progressive rock magazine Interview by WILLEBRORD ELSING Translation from Dutch by René Yedema

ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: Never again a serial-production-group.

An interview about little accidents, electronics and the art of baking chips.

The name Allan Holdsworth won’t mean anything to much people, but he is considered as one of the most leading guitarists. People like Gary Moore and Eddy Van Halen called him a shining example, and his frightening fast play yield him superlatives like “God’s greatest gift to the guitar since Jimi Hendrix”. Different from many of his racing colleagues though Holdsworth makes compositions that do have head and tail.

On February 19th 1986 he performed in Paradiso (Amsterdam), at which he showed during a soberly decorated concert that he can fulfil his virtuosity on stage. An unexpected big amount of people - about 600 – were present at the concert. Probably this anyhow is due to an impressive career; he played with amongst others Soft Machine, Gong, Jean-Luc Ponty, Bill Bruford and UK. On his own he made with his group IOU under his own supervision an eponymous LP (1982, in 1985 re-released by the Enigma label), and under his own name “Metal Fatigue” (1985, Enigma) and recently for the same label “Atavachron”, on which he uses for the first time the SynthAxe, a revolutionary, new instrument, about which later more.

So, quite a lot of different groups, and his own accompanying band changes constantly from cast too. Is Holdsworth so difficult to work with?

“When it comes to my own band, that’s how it has been from the beginning. Because we don’t earn that much money it’s hard to keep the same band together. And sometimes some thing goes wrong, and then we say “We won’t be on tour now, but only after 10 months.”

Other musicians have to provide in their living. Than they get offered something, and they take it, logical, they have to. Then you come into a situation in which you have to search for someone else, although that hasn’t been necessary until now. I’ve been lucky, all musicians just came to me like that.

And when it comes to all those bands I’ve been playing in, those were all just accidents. I never did that on purpose, I never began to play in a band with the idea to search for something else as soon as possible, I always thought I would stay in that band for ever. Soft Machine was the only band I left on my own accord, because I wanted to play with Tony Williams. Not that I didn’t love Soft Machine, for me it was an interesting band to play in. At that moment I got the chance to play with Tony and I thought that I would continue doing that for the time being. But the reason I left him was because the management was so bad. At a certain moment it was even that bad that during a tour pianist Alan Pasqua and myself were stranded in San Francisco and there was nobody, no hotel, no airline tickets, nothing! But I loved it to play in that band, it was fantastic.

So that was an accident, and after that Gong; that stopped existing as the band fell apart, so that wasn’t my fault. And than Jean-Luc Ponty; even before I started playing with him I had agreed with Bill (Bruford) that I would co-operate on his solo-project, so after I had finished with Jean-Luc I had to go again to work with Bill.

Then came U.K., which came about because some girl had recommended me to the other boys from U.K. Bill and I got fired from U.K., so that was it. Why? I have no idea, really not… why do you dismiss somebody? After that Bill started his own band. The record-company probably found it safer to go further with the other two guys in the band, who were adjusted quite commercially, than with two typical jazz-people like Bill and me.”

Still UK seemed to me the band with the status that fitted with your talent, like Gong was the band with the talent that fitted with your talent. They both seemed to fit with you very much.

“I don’t believe UK fitted with me totally. I didn’t like it to play the music live; they played every night the same thing, and I didn’t like that. I became very depressed, was already drunk before I had to come on the stage, no, I didn’t have much fun with that. Gong had a whole lot of potential, especially the two vibes-players, Benoit and Pierre (Moerlen). A very interesting group, and it was sad that they didn’t stay with each other. It was politics, and also the fact that they came from different countries (England and France).”

Still there were people like Mike Oldfield and Nick Mason involved with the band.

“Yes, but I had never heard of them before I started playing with them. There was someone from Virgin, their manager at that moment, who put me into contact with them because they were looking for a guitarist. And that was all, at that moment I didn’t know anything about those flying teapots (laughs sour).”

Are there still some groups in which you’d love to play?

“Like?”

Yes?

“No, thank you. I don’t want to come into that corner again by playing with that kind of serial-products-groups.”

Do I sense an UK-trauma?

“Yes… it’s always such a trouble with that kind of bands: they create an image that they can’t fulfil by sounding great on the album and never to able to put that onto the stage. I don’t know… oh yes, there is somebody with whom I would love to play! Sting, that seems fantastic to me! But otherwise, no.”

That music has, just like yours, quite some common ground with jazz.

“That’s true, although that doesn’t mean automatically that it’s good. A whole lot of people just love one kind of music – take for instance those people who only love jazz. I think that’s ridiculous, because a lot of jazz is awful, terrible and simply bad. The same way a whole lot of pop-music makes me mad, it’s disgusting! On the other hand, some pop-music is good, Sting for instance.”

An inevitable subject in the conversation is the SynthAxe. Without wanting to fall into a too technical story, here follows in short the working of this new music-instrument. One can image the SynthAxe as a kind of guitar. An essential outward difference is the neck which stands in an ergonomic sensible way in an angle on the so called body of the instrument. On this instruments there are two sets of strings: on set on the neck, to play with, or better: to indicate the pitch, and one set on the body, where the strings are being touched.

With a guitar the pitch of a produced sound is being determined by the place where the string is being pressed on the so called fret. With the SynthAxe this isn’t the case; the electronics that are present in the instrument registers the place where the string makes contact with the fret and deduces the pitch from that; the tone on which the string has been tuned has been programmed in advance. This produces a couple of advantages: the musician doesn’t have to put strength in order to play, never has to tune and change the strings until they fall apart from the instrument. Further on the SynthAxe offers a couple of possibilities to influence the sound, the pitch and the time to hold a certain tone (sustain). The SynthAxe differs essential from the guitar in working, because it doesn’t produce sound from itself; everything that being played, is being transformed in digital information which is being fed to a synthesizer which is being connected to the instrument. So, virtually this story amounts on the fact that you can play synthesizer on a guitar-like instrument in stead of on a keyboard, which has been customary since the introduction of the synthesizer. It all seems quite simple, but still, a collective of three wise guys have been busy for no less than eight years to develop the SyntAxe! To play on the SynthAxe asks a different attitude from the musician, because he thinks he has a guitar in his hands and hears the sound of a synthesizer, which still is again completely different than normally because on a guitar the arrangement of the tones that form together a chord just is different than on a keyboard. A guitar furthermore lets itself play essentially different, so the synthesizer producers quite different sounds and changes than you are used to hear.

Well, last year Holdsworth saw a prototype from the SynthAxe on a fair, nosed a bit on it and one hour after his introduction with the instrument showed a complete elaborated composition, which made even the developers of the machine fell backwards with astonishment. And Holdsworth went home with a SynthAxe, a firm pat on the back and the request to keep in touch soon. Was he the first one that was allowed to play on it?

“I think so, yes. I just didn’t master to play the instrument totally. The amount of possibilities is incredible. And furthermore they are still busy with changing and adding without chancing something on the outside. In fact it’s just a computer which transforms information to a synthesizer.”

Doesn’t this development hold a certain danger in itself? Take for instance the Fairlight; when that one came on the market everybody talked about a musical revolution, but now it proves that it is only being used to make weird sounds.

“Whatever new things come onto the market, on a certain moment you will see that they are being misused for one thing or another. I don’t believe that that is so important; at least someone will do something good with it, it doesn’t matter what, as long as the striving only is the making of music. It totally depends on the musician. The same thing with electronics. In fact it’s just like cooking. My mother could bake incredible chips, but at home I couldn’t get it done myself. Then she came to visit us once, and made them exactly the same way: in our kitchen, with our gear. That’s all I’m saying: it depends on the person, not on the machine.”