An interview with
Hugh Hopper (2007)

By Beppe Colli
Feb. 3, 2007

Originally released in 1977, Hopper Tunity Box can be regarded in many ways as a crowning achievement for both its composer/main instrumentalist, and for the (ahem) "genre" of music it kinda fits in (I know, "Canterbury style" is a meaningless tag, but I'd say it's miles better than "Prog", "Jazz-Rock", or "Rock-Jazz", right?). Featuring excellent compositions, creative arrangements, and with stellar performances by Hugh Hopper and players such as Elton Dean, Gary Windo, Dave Stewart and Mike Travis, Hopper Tunity Box has been just re-released on CD in a version that's been remastered from the original master tapes (the first CD version having been remastered off the vinyl album, with fairly mediocre results).

I thought to ask Hugh Hopper for an interview, about the album and also the circumstances that had preceded it. He kindly agreed. The interview, conducted by e-mail, took place last week.

Released in 1973, 1984 was your first solo album after quitting Soft Machine. Four years later, Hopper Tunity Box was your second solo release: Were you satisfied with the way it came out, and with the amount of feedback in commercial terms, both by the press and by fans of Soft Machine?

Yes, for a long time it was my favourite album that I played on (after Rock Bottom). I did a lot of preparation – composing, arranging, practicing the parts I was going to double on bass, guitar and wind instruments. As for commercial feedback, Soft Machine was by the time of Hopper Tunity Box almost a forgotten band – just a few fans (mostly in Europe) had any interest in following what the ex-members were doing. I was lucky in that journalists like Steve Lake on the Melody Maker were still interested, so I had some good reviews. But unfortunately Compendium, the Norwegian label that first released the record, was an amateur outfit and they soon went bankrupt, so there was no serious promotion or commercial follow-up.

After 1984, you started collaborating with Stomu Yamash'ta, who at the time was some kind of a minor celebrity, though on a lower level than at the time of his next project, Go. You played on the album Freedom Is Frightening, and also toured with his group, East Wind. Would you mind talking about that experience?

Well, I admired Stomu's energy when I saw his first theatre pieces in London with Red Buddha etc., but to be honest working with him was slightly disappointing – after those projects what he really wanted was to be a rock star (and he could probably have succeeded with the right musical framework). The music I found not creative enough for my taste. It sounded to me like a funk backing band, especially with the later records. That's what he wanted, but it didn't satisfy me, so I left. I did get to meet Gary Boyle and Nigel Morris, however through playing with Stomu, so that was a bonus.

Your next collaboration was with the group Isotope. You toured with them, and also recorded an album, Illusion. Please, talk about this.

Gary Boyle already had his band Isotope alongside working with Stomu. Gary decided to leave to work more with Isotope, and when he had a shuffle of personnel, he invited me to join his band. I did because I was already bored with Stomu's band and I was good friends with Gary and also Nigel Morris, the drummer of Isotope. We played a lot of gigs with Isotope, touring all the time in UK and Europe and once in the States. The band had good sponsorship and backing from Gull Records and the music publishing company, British Lion, so for a couple of years we were busy and reasonably well paid. We were also a band of gourmets – we would detour to favourite restaurants on the way to gigs! But eventually I became less interested in the direction the music was taking, so yet again I decided to leave.

Monster Band is a not so well-known chapter of your story. I'm quite uncertain about the tracks that appear both on the Monster Band album, and also on Illusion: what came first?

I was composing those tunes at the time I was leaving Soft Machine in 1973. I recorded demo versions at home on very simple equipment. Some of these recordings were used on Monster Band, and later on when I joined Isotope, we played some of them live and recorded them on Illusion.

Hopper Tunity Box: Would you please explain the title?

It's a pun, a play on words. Hopper Tunity = opportunity. There was a terrible TV show in UK in the 60's called Opportunity Knocks, a talent show where amateur performers got a chance to be seen on national TV and win prizes, so Hopper Tunity Box sounds like this phrase (the phrase was a common saying before the TV show, meaning a chance has appeared, has knocked on the door). Hopper Tunity Box also can mean a box full of Hopper tunes, which is why I asked Dave Ace the original cover designer to make the front cover look like a box.

In the liner notes to the new edition of Hopper Tunity Box you talk about each player's contribution, with one exception: Richard Brunton. Any particular reasons for this?

No, I apologise to Richard! He was a very tasty rhythm guitarist. He was playing with Gary Windo and I asked him to play on a couple of tracks of the album after I saw him with Gary's band.

At the time the album came out, I seemed to detect some fairly overt classical music climates both in the theme of the title-track (the part played on the descants) and in the second part of Gnat Prong (the long coda). I'd like to know more about those.

All part of my influences. I didn't deliberately plan to have "classical" or "jazz" or "rock" sections in the music – I just composed as I felt the music needed.

I'd like to ask you about some of the players who so brilliantly contributed to the album. Let's start with Gary Windo, who of course had already played on 1984.

Ah, Gary! He was a total lunatic. Full of energy, that could be wonderful and at other times annoying. He was like a kid – he would come into my house, pick up a guitar, twang a note, put the guitar down anywhere, move on to some other object, meanwhile talking away at top speed all the time. The first time I saw him play was with Keith Tippett's Centipede in London. It was already a great gig, but when Gary stepped up to take a tenor solo, it lifted the roof off the place. Wonderful.

Dave Stewart I knew back from his days with Egg, and then, of course, with Hatfield And The North. I'd like to know about his contributions, especially those oscillator parts on the title-track (whose idea was it?).

Dave's idea. He came along with his Hammond organ, Pianet and the little oscillator, a very simple wooden box with a round knob to turn to produce those old wailing analogue radio sounds. Dave was very conscientious on this record – I had sent him the written parts for the music and he had really worked on them. He produced exactly what I had hoped for when I asked him to play on the record – solos, comping, written arrangements. The last part of Gnat Prong, for example, would not be the powerful sound it is without Dave's Hammond organ.

Of course, Elton Dean plays two fantastic saxello solos: on The Lonely Sea And The Sky, and on Spanish Knee. Talk about him.

Well, Elton was really the only sax player I wanted for the album, apart from Gary Windo. He was then at the height of his lyrical, melodical playing (although personally he loved to play free). There was a period of a couple of years after he left Soft Machine that we were not in contact, but he joined me for the few gigs I did with Monster Band in France in 1974 and happily that led to us working together on many different projects until his death in 2006. His playing on Hopper Tunity Box is as good as it gets in a melodic/harmonic setting.

Hopper Tunity Box was released on Compendium, a Norwegian label. Just personal curiosity: It was a case of no UK labels expressing any interest in the project, or...

I offered it first to Gull, the record label that had Isotope. They took a long time to decide and meanwhile while playing and recording in Norway with Hopper, Dean, Tippett and Gallivan, the Compendium label said they really wanted to release the record, so I went ahead with them. Then, of course, Gull came back and said yes, they would like it! Too late - unfortunately I had already signed the Compendium contract.

I'd really like you to compare the (musical) climate at the time the album came out (meaning: the audience and the press) and the present situation.

It's not so different at the commercial level. It's still the more approachable product which sells, that big audiences want to go and see. But I do think it was easier to find live gigs in the sixties and seventies for alternative music – there were more small clubs and there were university gigs for jazz-rock bands like Isotope and for straight jazz. All over Europe most of those opportunities no longer exist. Of course now I appear mostly as "ex-Soft Machine", so it's not exactly the same for me. For young musicians trying to get started nowadays, it must be very hard. But I am always pleased to see young bands getting together with the same sensual pleasure of hitting drums, twanging strings, blowing saxes. Despite all the technological possibilities these days, they still have the urge to do that, to play live, directly to people.

Beppe Colli 2007 | Feb. 3, 2007