Tim Blake interview
With both Gong and Hawkwind celebrating 40 years this year, it is most timely that Terrascope should catch up with the person perhaps best qualified to give the lowdown on both acts. Keyboard/synth wizard Tim Blake was part of the classic Gong line-up which spawned the “Radio Gnome Trilogy” and has also played extensively with Hawkwind, with whom he is about to mark 40 years association with two special gigs at the Porchester Hall, London over the 2009 August Bank Holiday weekend. He is also an impressive artiste in his own right, having recorded and performed as “Crystal Machine” and under his own name.
Here, Tim speaks candidly of his career, including his thoughts on both Gong and Hawkwind, his relationship with the main protagonists in each band and of his own solo work.
Tim, you seemed to appear on the scene at a precociously young age. How did you manage to fall into such company?
Yes, well, It's 40 years ago, isn't it? First I was a choirboy, and did RSCM courses, I actually made my first record at about 8!
I left school (Cranleigh) in 1968 - Revolts in France, Russians in Prague, and some of the most incredibly inspiring music all over the place. I was sixteen. On leaving school, I did a couple of things straight away...
I went to my first Rock Festival, I think it was Plumpton, (and saw someone I'm proud to call my friend, Arthur Brown, among others). I also signed on for more education at Arts Educational Trust. And I started an "apprenticeship" in a small recording studio, where I learned the basis of my engineering and editing knowledge in both music & cinema - making me a post-prod engineer.
Time at Arts Ed wasn't really productive, as they seemed to insist on me separating my musical & theatrical activities, not, in my opinion, good advice at all.
Despite a very good musical education received at school, under the direction of Jared Armstrong ( who then went on to spread the good news to Charterhouse, a school that produced some mighty musicians ) and learning practical music ( trumpet , harmony) with Derek Bourgeois, it was my engineering skills that got me my first jobs.
Soon I found myself doubling my Performing Arts education, with roadie-ing and sound engineering for several groups, as well as trying to make an impression on people as a rather "spacey" guitarist!
The activities were not really approved of by my family, so I found myself frequently homeless, and sleeping rough with another fantastic young guitarist, Paul Kossoff, who finally landed the job with Free.
It was at this time that I first met the guys from Clearwater Productions, and their groups, High Tide, Skin Alley & Trees (whose signer Celia had introduced me to them).
What, then, were your early musical influences?
Well, I was rejecting a lot of my classical sources at this time.
Obviously I was enjoying most of the psychedelia & rock music, but I was also very interested in contemporary electronic music - Berio, Pierre Henri, etc. Then of course, came 'Switched on Bach' this was a very major work indeed, in fact as all [Wendy] Carlos's work has been.
What attracted you to the synthesizer, which after all at the turn of the 70s was considered by many to be a bit of a gimmick and in the wrong hands (think “Who’s Next”) a somewhat primitive tool?
Well, after the Bach, in came Hawkwind, and with such a rapid ascension as they had, Dik-Mik came in possession of a vcs3 [and] I was going to get one!
Now this is two or so years before Who's Next, but I think that is a really great use of EMS in rock.
Presumably the technology has made great strides in the meantime. What did the kit consist of then, and what equipment do you use currently?
Then, well it was still developing. My first synth kit [was] a sythi A and a Revox to make echo, and then from then it just built up. Of course it was horribly hard to keep in tune!
These days, I'm on the brink of going completely micro-digital. Hopefully before the Summer, I'll be performing with just my “Ax” and a sit down keyboard fitted to my laptop, with the Theremin, (and perhaps the synthi). I am currently using the MiniMonstah from G-force, among my sound modules, and as we have a pretty special clocking system with Hawkwind, I have given up years of fidelity to other systems to try out Abelton in live use and I have just connected the Ax to the rest of my system using a Kenton Midi-Stream... wireless midi, at last!
Many readers of the Terrascope will associate you straight away with Gong, who you joined in 1972. How did your association with Daevid Allen and co. come about?
Doing sound for Simon House’s group, High Tide. I had done several gigs with the Soft Machine, and had developed a nice rapport with Robert Wyatt.
When Gong were looking for a sound man, at the end of '70, I was called up. I met Daevid in London, and returned with him to France.
My life in France started then. I ended up in Paris in 1971, forming the notion of the ‘Crystal Machine’, and by 1972 Daevid invited me to join the band.
There were many creative individuals in Gong, which must have leant the group very interesting musical and personal dynamic during what was a short but eventful “classic line-up” that recorded the Radio Gnome Trilogy. How would you sum up this period in terms of your own personal and musical experiences?
Well what a creative time! And such a great journey, living, playing and writing with people of the musical stature as Didier (Malherbe), Steve (Hillage) or Pierre (Moerlen).
All those utopian vibes, of course, it seems were balanced by something more sinister...
One of your on-line biographies hints that your departure from Gong just a few months shortly before Daevid Allen’s own exit in 1975 was not an entirely happy experience. Are you able to elaborate on that?
No break up is entirely a happy affair is it? So be it with Gong. But frankly what really lets Gong and its philosophy down is best seen over the years. Not a single Gong recording has been safe from total piracy and endless fraudulent sub dealings on the part of one person ...... the entire patrimony of this "family band" has been spoiled in the interest of a very small inner circle.
After leaving Gong in you recorded a couple of minor classic synth/proto-ambient albums (Crystal Machine/New Jerusalem). How do you explain the fact that these fine efforts failed to reach a bigger audience in the same way as someone like Jean Michelle Jarre was able to during the same period?
From the very beginning Jarre's music was clearly "popular" music. J-MJ came from a stable of writers for Artistes like Patrice Jouvet, and I'm sure he was familiar with accordion music. There is a sound of a French Populaire to Oxygene. Of course it makes for popular records.
After your appearance at Glastonbury ’79 your solo career seemed to stall throughout the following decade. Why was that and what did you get up to during this time?
Yes, after Glastonbury it was getting harder and harder to run the Crystal Machine on my own, and it was then Doug Smith phoned me to say that Dave Brock was very interested to having me in Hawkwind, so off I went ...
That initial Hawkwind stint was quite short-lived however - it’s fair to say that in the ensuing years you’ve been more a Hawk than Gongster. What is it about that band that keeps drawing you back?
Well ... there I was, at 17, and the way of destiny made for it to be me to say 'Yes' and allow Hawkwind to form.
Diverse members of Hawkwind have been a very great influence on me from '69 onwards in my own progression. The '79/'81 period was more than enjoyable, but finished badly, because of clashes with my personal life. In fact it was to become a disaster for me financially over the years as, once again, all my recording royalties were usurped, but at the same time, playing with the band at that period made a permanent bond. I mean Hawkwind playing “Lighthouse” [from Blake’s “New Jerusalem” album] for instance, that made it apparent to me, and probably to Dave [Brock] too, that we have and will always be compatible in our music making.
Hawkwind mainstay, Dave Brock, often gets a pretty rough ride particularly from ex-members and from fans who like to portray him as a hard-nosed operator who has usurped the “people’s band” for his own ends. Does the fact that your association with Hawkwind stretch back 30 years indicate that you have a different take on matters?
Well it's true, as we said before, bands split-up. So many members of the band have left, or been fired or whatever, to discover that, outside of their collaboration with Dave and Hawkwind, well, there was little else happening for them.
There has recently been an abominable campaign of slander and abuse directed at him and other musicians in the band. But looked at closely, you see that all that was really hoped for was to try and use the Hawkwind reputation to sell a hoped-for concert. After two aborted attempts at a Roundhouse gig this year, both cancelled for lack of ticket sales, hopefully this tactic will be dropped.
The truth of the matter is, that concentrated "trolling" by 3-4 persons can really give the impression that there is an issue, when there is not.
Dave can be a very Hard Man, so can we all, and some of his decisions can be observed as terrifying, but that can't be read as a criticism. The truth is, his attitude to life and Hawkwind, have allowed him to keep the band alive over 40 years - through thick, that's easy; and through thin, and that's tough.
As an ensemble, different H-W members have been my close friends, on and off, for such a long time. The great thing for me, with Dave, is to discover that, whether we agree or not about some things, we have never allowed the difficulties of business to ruin our friendship. We have enjoyed each other's company on a regular basis for 40 years now. Dave and I know each other better than anyone else, I should say!
I must also take this opportunity to thank Dave & Kris [Brock’s wife, and Hawkwind’s manager] personally for all the help and support they have offered me since my terrible car crash 5 years ago, and the shocking judicial results it had for me.
The fact of playing in Hawkwind, standing up most of the time, after having been declared dead, and thinking I'd never walk or play again, just about says it all. Had I not been serving a penal sentence at the time, I would have been proud to be their "Best Man" at their wedding, and there's place for them at my dinner table for ever.
You also played with Mr Brock’s sometime band mate and sparring partner, Nik Turner, on the very singular Sphynx album “Xitintoday” in 1978. Did you get to play the Bohemian Love-In at London’s Roundhouse which launched the album?
Yes, as a kid I really enjoyed Nik's company, and I was the person Nik came to cry to when his Hawk days finished, and was happy to help out with recordings.
But no, I didn't take part in anything else, probably, due to the fact that I lived in France, and the Nik Turner thing, it appeared, just didn't have the selling power hoped for, so that must have made even me too expensive.
But whatever my relations with Nik, they probably won't be musical. In working with and enjoying the company of Didier Malherbe for so long, I have developed a different point of view about sax and flute playing.
You were back with Gong for the 25th Birthday Party at the London Forum in 1994, which at the time was the nearest thing we’d seen to the classic line-up since 1977’s reunion. However you took no part in further reunions, except for occasional guest appearances, until the “Unconventions” of 2005 and 2006. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Conscious? Perhaps not! The 25 gig was ruined for me without Steve.
But whatever, I have issues with Gong that will never go away. I have paid off the huge amount of debt, left by Gong, with all the monies my music has earned since. I'd have much preferred to buy somewhere to live.
Every recording of me and Gong has been fraudulently released time and time again. That's actually the difference between Dave Brock and Daevid Allen, really. Whilst Dave gets stick for being tough, he can also be fair. In fact his toughness is often in order to be so. Daevid is a seductive, lovable person on the outside, but his life is just a non stop story of fraud, copyright fraud and theft, on the inside.
Obviously, going to Glastonbury in 2005, was a personal, definitive moment. I had just come out of a wheel chair!
2006 was an occasion I'd have hated to miss. But, when it comes down to it, Gong, who broke up in 1975, have been abusing both the audience and certain members non stop ever since. Fraudulent releases, fraudulent changing of publishing details, repeatedly bringing out old recordings, often with me, in order to promote something else ... one just gets fed up with it!
You returned with your third solo album, “Magick”, in the 90s, and have followed this with “Tide of the Century” and “Caldea Music II”. Musically and creatively how do these compare with your earlier efforts and indeed with each other?
In the same way that “Crystal Machine”, was a collection of recordings never intended for release, “Magick” was my first tentative attempt at minimalising equipment, a small sound module, a computer, and a 'strap on ' keyboard. It was Rob Ayling of Voiceprint who came out to my windmill abode, and recorded it live in one evening.
“Tide of the Century”, I feel, was a massive project that took me many years of thinking, writing, and recording. It seems to me that it is a continuation of what I was doing with “Jerusalem”. “Caldea Music” was a very interesting project, asked by a luxury Andorran Spa to write music, specifically in my electro-ambient way, for their Spa
Tim, you were involved in a serious road accident in 2004, which resulted in a lengthy hospitalisation and subsequent court case. If it isn’t too painful a subject are you able to shed some light on the events of what must have been a pretty bleak year or so for you?
Bleak 5 Years!
Judging from the way you were thrashing about on stage with Hawkwind during the winter tour of 2008 you seem to have made a good recovery.
Yes well.... let's put this on a positive note. As you point out the part of my work with Hawkwind that I seem to enjoy most at the moment, is the soloing on my Ax, and playing the Theremin, also a physical thing. I have become quite a heavy smoker during these past 5 years, so after a show, I often nip off round the back for a “quickie” before it gets impossible. I was playing in Liverpool on the 30 May. A guy came up to me and says "Hey Man ... this is a rebirth of Hawkwind". I enjoyed a couple of drags, thought about and replied "of course it is, it's exactly 5 years to the day to me being declared dead!"
Turning to the Gong Unconvention at the Melkweg, Amsterdam in October 2006. Your “Crystal Machine” set with Jean-Philippe Rykiel was one of the highlights of an exceptional three-day celebration of everything Gong. In fact your musical association with Rykiel stretches back a long way, as does your relationship with light-wizard Patrice Warrener. How did your association with these guys’ come about and how would you evaluate their respective contributions to the “Crystal Machine” experience?
Patrice and I have enjoyed doing things together for almost 40 years, and I've known, and enjoyed playing with Jean-Phi since he was ten. They're both the best there is, so I'm a lucky guy. Whenever I am called upon to create something, I ask both of these two if I can count on their collaborating. It doesn't happen much, but it's always delicious when it does. Outside of my musical work, I am also proud to help Patrice out with his chromo lithe installations - it's fantastic work!
In the afterglow of the “Uncon”, however, you received word from Daevid Allen informing you that your services would not be required for forthcoming Gong projects. You were clearly and understandably upset at the time and made the matter public on the Gong website. Dare I ask, what is your current relationship with Mr Allen?
I don't have one. I wouldn't say [I was] upset, but I did reply tit for tat! Bored too!
You are due to play Hawkwind’s 40th anniversary concerts at the Porchester Hall, London over the August Bank Holiday. Also this year Gong is set to celebrate 40 years with as series of gigs and festivals across a number of continents. What if Daevid Allen was to suddenly extend a great big pixie hug and invite you onto the tour, and what if this cut across plans for Hawkwind’s celebrations? Your moral maze question, Mr Blake, is which way do you jump?
Well, I've jumped already. But be practical, they couldn't afford me (and I'm cheap!).
Is it inconceivable that Gong might be Hawkwind’s special guests at the Porchester?
Strange question, but yes! I would love to see Steve [Hillage] and Miquette [Giraudy, Hillage’s life and musical partner] there though.
There is a missed occasion though, the Beautiful Days Festival. We are headlining on the Friday, and it's really going to be a HW40 celebration. I notice Gong down there in the listed support acts. Hell, it’s the Sunday, and we have another major festival to do then - The Green Man (Sounds very Gongish, hey).
But if we don't meet up that way, I'm sure Dave, Kris 'n myself will manage to get to see them on their tour.
Musically, who or what inspires you these days?
I have a lot of problems with inspiration since my accident.
What are your future plans and do they include any solo or “Crystal Machine” projects or tours?
If the opportunity arises, certainly. I must release a new Tim Blake recording in 2010 too!
Finally, looking back over your career, what are you most proud of and what do you think stands out as your greatest achievement?
In 2001, I released the Tide of the Century..... Having played with Hawkwind on the 31-12- 2000, I then proceeded to impregnate my then girl-friend, and the most beautiful little girl you've ever seen was born of the 22-9-2001. It was the highest Tide of the Century! Something to be proud of, no?
For more information about Tim Blake and his music go to http://moonweed.free.fr/
Tim will be playing with Hawkwind at various festivals including Beautiful Days and Green Man, throughout the Summer and will be appearing at the 40th Anniversary celebrations at Porchester Hall, Notting Hill, London on 28th and 29th August. Hawkwind will also be touring in November/December, supported by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. For further details check out the official Hawkwind website at www.hawkwind.com
Tim Blake was interviewed for the Terrascope by Ian Fraser, June 2009
Artwork and direction: Phil McMullen
Photo credit: uncredited, found on Tim Blake's website (see link above)