An interview with
Hugh Hopper (1999)

By Beppe Colli
Feb. 10, 2003

I'm pretty sure that I had already listened to parts of Third, but Fourth ('71) was the first Soft Machine album that I bought and listened to with the proper degree of attention. I was immediately conquered by the sound and the lines of the bass guitar. Then I noticed that the group's bass player - Hugh Hopper - had composed most of the material on the album. Of course, the real beginning had been Soft Machine's Volume Two (1969): an album that - extremely influential in its time - still sounds fresh today. Hopper remained with the group up to Six ('73) - not a fantastic album, but one that features a not-to-be-missed track composed by him: 1983.

The first solo album by Hugh Hopper was 1984, on which he used tapes and loops in a beautiful and highly personal way. Many classic albums followed, and most were discussed in the following interview (one could add to the list some live albums by Soft Machine - for in., Virtually - the two volumes featuring Elton Dean, Keith Tippet and Joe Gallivan and the Two Rainbows Daily album that he recorded with the late Alan Gowen). The interview originally appeared in Italian language in the Italian magazine Blow Up in two parts, on issues # 17 (October '99) and # 18 (November '99). The interview was conducted by e-mail. And since Delta Flora, the new CD by Hughscore, had been recently released I decided it was a logical starting point for our conversation.

As a first question I'd like to ask you about your most recent project, Delta Flora. I'd like to start from its literal starting point, Was A Friend. This song was also featured, of course, on Robert Wyatt's Shleep. I recently read (see Wyatt interview with Barney Hoskins, Mojo magazine issue # 64, March '99) that the song is about Soft Machine. Is it true - and were there any extra-musical reasons for your including it on the album, besides the obvious fact that it's a very fine song?

Was A Friend is actually quite old as a piece of music - I wrote it around 1982-3. It's had several different lyrics - the first one was by me and was about an imaginary friend who became more and more mad and lost. I sent it to Robert to see if he wanted to be a guest singer on the song project I was recording with Richard Sinclair at that time (Somewhere In France Voiceprint Recs 1996). He changed the lyrics a little but then decided he didn't want to be involved with the record. The song appeared occasionally here and there in different forms (we did it a few times live with the French group Anaid in '87-'88 with a completely different lyric called Children Of The Night). Robert and I also talked a bit about writing a lyric to the same music for a song for Nelson Mandela who was still in prison.

Meanwhile, around 1993, since Robert seemed not to be interested, I used the same music for a song with John Atkinson who wrote a lyric called C'est Grace (Hooligan Romantics PONK Records Usa 1994). And then of course, Robert suddenly came up with the new Was A Friend words, a sort of ghost story about someone or something from the past that appears at night. Robert was having a lot of trouble with insomnia a couple of years ago, I think. That's why his record is called Shleep.

Robert has also become more and more bitter at being pushed out of Soft Machine, so I can imagine that the song also means for him a story about past resentments coming back to haunt him, along with questions of "burying the hatchet" (forgiving past wrongs, but also the suggestion of threatened violence...).

Apart from all that, Was A Friend happens to be one of the melodic songs I've written that everybody seems to like (like Memories). There's also a version of it on Different with Lisa S. Klossner (Voiceprint/Blueprint 1999), and a version with Robert singing and playing piano over the original keyboard backing track I recorded in 1983, which will be on a song compilation CD coming out soon (Parabolic Versions Voiceprint 1999).

Given the fact that the three albums you've done with Fred Chalenor and Elaine DiFalco have all been pretty diverse, I was surprised by how much Delta Flora differs from the previous album, Highspotparadox. While Wayne Horvitz's production was "dry" the new one has a sound that's very "wet" - and the drums' musical function is very different, I think. What were the group's goals in implementing those changes in style and recorded sound?

Yes, the overall sound and feel of Delta Flora is very much a result of the input of Tucker Martine. He played drums and samples and was the overall producer of the sound at his own studio, although we recorded my bass parts in England. The three Hughscore CDs have evolved quite radically - the first was almost totally based on quite complicated compositions of mine which I had developed with Cubase and synthesiser. I went to Oregon and we all played the parts I had written. The second started out the same way but was more of a collaboration with Fred and Elaine providing more ideas and writing. Finally Delta Flora is truly a group project - we all contributed themes, structures, ideas, which we improvised and rewrote. Then Tucker cooked it all up in his wonderfully grungy studio! I didn't have much to do with the record after I had recorded my parts - Fred and Tucker spent several months finishing it in Seattle. In fact for most of that time I was working on Different with Lisa, which was a much more personal, hands-on record for me. I love Delta Flora and I played things on it that nobody else would have played, but it is a group record, not a Hugh Hopper solo record.

Going back to Soft Machine's Vol. Two. Your bass style was already incredibly original; here are a lot of qualities that are obviously yours: your melodic voice, the fuzz, lotsa different "accompanying" styles... how long did it take for you to arrive at these mature achievements?

Those running bass lines I think were originally influenced by funk bass players like Larry Graham, combined with jazz bass lines. But it's very hard for me now to say exactly what influences me - there's over fifty years of music and sounds whizzing around inside my head! I first used fuzz at the suggestion of Mike Ratledge because the pieces he had written for Soft Machine Vol. Two needed the contrapuntal bass parts to sound as strong as the keyboard and not just a background accompaniment.

In those days there was an explosion of different "experimental" approaches to the bass guitar, in the context of an "experimental" attitude in music in general. In England, I'd like to mention Paul McCartney, in the more "mainstream" field, Jack Bruce and his "transferring" of the double bass language to the bass guitar with Cream, John Entwistle and his more "guitar-like" approach with the Who... and you. Your bass style was vastly influential. What was your opinion of those bass players?

Yes, Paul McCartney was one of the most "improved" bass players - the first Beatles records had very simple plonky bass parts but after Revolver he started doing some very tasty stuff. Jack Bruce was (and is) a great musician, a natural player with excellent technique, both on bass and voice. I actually didn't like his short-scale sound on bass with Cream. It's funny - I've never played acoustic bass but nearly all my influences on bass come from acoustic jazz players - Charlie Haden, Mingus, Ron Carter, Scott La Faro, Coltrane's bassists and I try usually to make the electric bass sound like an upright. Whereas Jack Bruce started as an acoustic jazzer but made no attempt to sound like that when he took up the electric bass...

Well, yes, like a lot of young bassists in the 60's, I did copy John Entwistle when I was playing in Wilde Flowers, the rock group in Canterbury. We were doing covers of stuff like the Who and Stones and I was playing with a pick in those days. I gave up the pick for fingers around the time of Soft Machine Third...

You've played in a lot of different situations, but it's always impossible not to guess it's you. If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you about specific projects you've participated in - for instance, the Carla Bley Band European Tour 1977 album (when Wrong Key Donkey starts I always get a smile on my face - yeah, it's him.). Another large band project was Lindsay Cooper's Oh Moscow. On the recorded version Marilyn Mazur is on drums, but Chris Cutler once told me he played with you in a different tour...

Carla of course writes some great stuff and that summer tour was a nice three-week holiday in Europe, but we didn't play enough to take the music off the paper and onto a further plane. Oh Moscow was a friendly group most of the time and I think there was more space in Lindsay's music for self-expression. The personnel changed over the three or four years we played - Veryan Weston instead of Elvira Plenar on piano; Marilyn Mazur, Chris Cutler, Charles Hayward, Peter Fairclough on drums at different times, and Maggie Nichols replaced Sally Potter once...

It's nice to do occasional projects with big bands like Carla or Lindsay, but I think for me the real creative part of playing and improvising comes with smaller groups. A big band is always more to do with their composer's ideas. I love it in a trio or quartet how everyone can swing away from the centre at the slightest suggestion of the soloist or one just musician in the rhythm section, if everyone is aware and creative.

To close this chapter: two albums on which you played in the '60s were Joy Of A Toy, by Kevin Ayers, and The Madcap Laughs, by Syd Barrett. On which tracks? Soft Machine are featured, as a group, on Ayer's Song For Insane Times; any other? And: on Barrett's album I thinks it's you on bass on No Good Trying (where I think I hear Robert Wyatt's drums and Mike Ratledge's organ). What are your recollections (if any) of these sessions?

Kevin Ayers Joy Of A Toy 1969 Song For Insane Times
  Singing The Bruise 1996 Why Are We Sleeping?

Kevin had already recorded a demo of Joy Of A Toy at home on a simple sound-on-sound recorder and it sounded great! Kevin playing all the parts.

Syd Barrett The Madcap Laughs 1969 No Good Trying
      Love You
  Opel 1993 Clowns And Jugglers

The Syd tracks were all recorded at the same session at Abbey Road but Clowns And Jugglers wasn't released till later. Syd came to a Soft Machine gig in London and invited us to play on his record. When we got to Abbey Road we just played along with his voice/guitar tracks - no instructions or suggestions from him - and then he muttered "That's fine. Thanks..."

After the so-called "punk period" a lot of music of earlier times was deemed passČ. Besides, the so-called "Canterbury style" was considered to be on the "mellow" side. But I remember, for in., Soft Machine as a group that could be ferocious in the intensity of its performances, as last year's live CD Virtually demonstrates...

That's right - Soft Machine could be very hard on the audience! Don't forget that when I joined the group we played through big Marshall amps. Fuzz bass and fuzz organ. Robert could be a hooligan on drums, too! We wore earplugs. It became a bit more mellow when the horns joined later in '69.

But of course Punk was about rebellion, rejection of the older generation of musicians. And quite right, too. I wish more young musicians were rebellious today, instead of copying the past.

Delta Flora is an album that, in my opinion, brings a "studio approach" to the material. But, in a way, you've always done this. Soft Machine's Fifth used the studio wisely, and later you made 1984. Would you mind saying something about that album? (By the way: who plays on 1983? On the cover of Six you were credited with "sound effects", but it was the only track being recorded in a different studio - the same as 1984...)

1984 was an attempt to use a big studio to revisit some of the experimental things I had done in the early sixties in Paris with Daevid Allen and then on my own back in Canterbury - loops, soundscapes etc. After Soft Machine I had the opportunity to make a solo record and that was what I chose to record. It worried CBS, the Softs' record company, and they refused to pay the studio costs, so I borrowed money from the bank. It's been re-released several times, most recently with Cuneiform, using the original masters and with a bonus track from the original sessions. People are still saying it's ahead of its time, twenty-five years later! I like parts of it, but I wouldn't make a record like that today...

Karl Jenkins played piano and John Marshall played percussion on 1983. I played bass, speeded-up bass and lots of loops and effects. On my last ever gig with Softs, in Hamburg 1973, we did a live version of 1983 with tape recorders and long loops hanging down from tall towers on stage. I played fuzz bass over the strange sounds.

As a complete piece of work Hoppertunity Box is maybe my favourite solo album of yours. Again, a wise use of the studio, fine players - Gary Windo... On that album you played some fine solos on guitar, too - Gnat Prong, Mobile Mobile, The Lonely Sea And The Sky, with its backwards parts... But you had already played guitar on the second Soft Machine album, and on the first side of Monster Band- the solo tracks... What's your opinion, today, of these albums? And of the electric guitar?

Hoppertunity Box was my favourite record for a long time - I took a long time planning, composing and working on it. It was all built up from bass which I played to a click, then Dave Stewart's keyboards, then drums and finally the saxes and other colours. Some of the tracks sound really live, but the only time I played with anyone else in the studio was on Crumble - Mike Travis and I laid down the drums and bass tracks together. Otherwise, it was all a montage.

There is almost no guitar on the record! What you hear as guitar solos and themes was done on bass and then speeded up to double speed. I played a bit of low grade rhythm guitar on the first part of Gnat Prong (behind Dave Stewart's organ solo) but the rest is all bass. Same with Monster Band.

(After translating the interview text I made a phone call to Hugh Hopper, expressing my deep shame for making this very embarassing mistake. A true gentleman, he tried to cheer me up: "It's not so important. Even Elton Dean, when he listened to the tapes, asked me who was the guitar player".)

I started on guitar before taking up bass, but I haven't played guitar really since Soft Machine Vol. Two and that was only because I wrote Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening on guitar and Robert wanted to record it. I did buy a cheap Chinese Stratocaster last year and I've been using it on the new songs with Lisa Klossner for our next CD, but I'm really not a guitarist anymore. I prefer to ask real guitarists like Phil Miller and Patrice Meyer to play.

I think that your work as a composer is pretty underrated. I find your compositions very distinctive - both those that have a more "serene" quality (I hope you'll forgive me for over-simplifying this topic) such as Kings And Queens and The Lonely Sea And The Sky and those that have a kind of "solemn/sinister" atmosphere like 1983 or the coda to Gnat Prong, to name but a few among my favourites. (Here's the question) Who were your influences in this respect? And how do you regard the compositional process? And the studio as a compositional tool?

As I said, I have too many influences to be able to clearly narrow them down. Everything I've listened to (and some things I didn't want to listen to!) - it's all still there somewhere inside my brain and in my fingers.

Composition is partly mystery and partly built-up experience. (Well, no - I suppose it's all really a result of experience. But there are parts of the process that are hidden from view.) (And I like it like that!) I don't know why I can produce songs like Memories or Was A Friend. I don't find it difficult. Of course it becomes easier with experience - even if I'm stuck for a while with no ideas I know that something will eventually appear and so I don't need to panic. I enjoy writing music for other people's words, like Lisa. I also enjoy composing just for the sake of producing the instrumental sounds.

The studio is an expensive tool for composing, but it can produce interesting shifts. You can work away at home for weeks on a piece and not really hear it until you come to the studio and hear other musicians playing it. And the opinion of studio engineers or visitors can make a difference, too - positively or negatively. There can be something about the music that you really want to keep because you've spent a lot of time on it, and then someone will say "Well, that part is a bit naff..." or something that annoys you everytime you listen will be the best thing for someone else.

You've played with a lot of fine drummers - Robert Wyatt, Chris Cutler, John Marshall, Pip Pyle, Andrew Cyrille, Dave Sheen, Mike Travis, Joe Gallivan, Nigel Morris... In the current stylistic climate, which sees the widest possible use of machines and sequencers, how do you see the future of the "rhythm section"? And what do you think of genres like drum'n'bass and techno?

I use drum machines and sequencers myself sometimes. It's not the same as playing with real hooligans - sometimes it's better, sometimes worse. You can be creative in any genre if you're a creative person. It's the same in jazz, rock, folk, classical. It's the ten percent of creative people who interest me.

© Beppe Colli 1999 - 2003 | Feb. 10, 2003

Want to know more about Hugh Hopper?