Mike Atkinson

Interview: Steve Hillage (System 7)

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 8, 2008

System 7’s latest album Phoenix, which was released at the beginning of last week, sounds like something of a concept album. Can you explain something about the concept?

It’s a special project for us. A few years ago, we met the daughter of one of the founding fathers of Japanese manga, which is a style of cartoon drawing that is related to the Japanese style of animated films. This gentleman who’s now deceased, was called Tezuka Osamu. He wrote many popular mangas, which have been very big hits in Japan and elsewhere. He also wrote some quite serious stuff, including a whole series of books called Phoenix, which is basically about the myth of the phoenix, but done in a sort of Asiatic way.

Rumiko Tezuka, his daughter, is a fan of System 7. She came to see us, and said that she thought our music was perfect to go with these phoenix stories. So we were interested in checking them out. She lent us some translations, and we were just blown away by these stories, and the designs, and the pictures, and all the various concepts involved. So we decided we’d like to base a whole System 7 album around it.

Does that mean that there’s quite a lot of vocal work on the album? I think of you more as an instrumental act.

There are a few little snatches of vocals, but it’s mostly instrumental. The CD comes with a 12-page booklet, which gives a lot of background information on how the music fits with the visuals.

Looking at your list of collaborators, there are some familiar names. There’s Jam El Mar from Jam & Spoon…

Yeah, Jam’s become a really good friend of ours. We’re doing more things with him.

I linked him to a much more commercial version of techno and trance than the stuff that you do, but maybe that’s going back a few years. I remember Jam & Spoon having some quite Euro-y hits.

No, Jam & Spoon are above all that. They were like founding fathers. They were doing trance before the term was even coined. They’ve done some absolute classic records that everybody loves, including one particular track called Stella. We actually did a kind of chilled out, flamenco-influenced cover of it on our Mirror System album, a few years ago. Jam really liked what we did on that, and said that he wanted to work with us.

 

We’ve had a big coming together with Daevid recently, particularly because we did a whole three-day Gong event in November 2006 in Amsterdam. We played various different sets together, including some of the older stuff, and we also played some System 7. We had one track that we were playing around with for the Phoenix album, which had a vocal line from an old Gong track, and we asked Daevid what he thought about it. He thought it was great, so he came down and added extra bits. He did some wild guitar, added extra vocals, and it was great.

What was the specific Gong track?

It’s a riff called “I am, you are, we are CRAZY…

Oh, from Flying Teapot, yes. Wonderful!

We’ve basically done a techno version of that.

have to hear this.

It’s great! Daevid came down the studio, and sang it again, and then he played his special glissando guitar. We’re big mates with Daevid at the moment, and there’ll be more things.

That’s good to hear. I’ve been going through a kind of Gong revival phase. I bought You on CD a couple of months ago, and I’ve been playing it a lot. There are tracks like A Sprinkling of Clouds, which does seem to hint at things to come, and the work that you’re doing now; it’s quite an electronic, trancey track.

Absolutely. For us, it’s all been one big progression, you know?

Well, some people might find it strange that you’ve journeyed from progressive rock to ambient techno, but it seems to me that there are a lot of common elements.

I sometimes question the use of the word “progressive”. (Laughs)

Why?

For me, “progressive”, if it means anything at all, it means the inclination to innovate and experiment. But for many people, it’s a very conservative concept. It means a specific style of music that happened at a specific time in the 1970s, and they’ve become very conservative. So I question the use of the word “progressive” in that sense.

I suppose that it all began to sour when people started codifying it, and saying: this is progressive, this is not. It got kind of fossilised.

Absolutely. I mean, we never considered what we were doing as “progressive rock”. We didn’t mind the use of the term “psychedelic”. That’s OK, and that applies to a lot of dance music as well.

Was there a moment of epiphany, where you suddenly got the point of dance music from the starting point of not getting it at all?

No, we were involved with dance music in the Seventies. We watched the whole thing grow. It grew up around us, and there was a point where the urge to actually make a dance-based project was irresistible. But this was in 1989, so it was quite a long while ago.

Your other main area of musical activity has been with Rachid Taha. I saw you perform with him in Leicester, three years ago, on the African Soul Rebels tour; Tinariwen and Daara J were on the same bill. Is that an ongoing partnership at the moment?

Yeah, I first worked with Rachid in 1983, and I’ve done nine albums with him. I’m not doing much with him at the moment, but I’m sure there’ll be more things to come in the future.

Does that involve adopting a very different approach to when you’re working on System 7 material? Do you have to change into a different headspace?

Not really. I mean, Rachid’s quite into System 7, you know? He’s been down to quite a lot of System 7 gigs over the years. I think that Rachid and I get on well because we’re very cross-genre sort of people. We like all different types of music.

The last few years have been amazing for African music, and for Northern and Western African music in particular. But I think that some Western audiences get a bit hung up on purity, whereas there should be a lot of scope for European and American acts to collaborate with African acts, or to learn from them. Would you agree?

(Laughs) It’s another variety of this musical conservatism which I mentioned in connection with progressive rock. Another variety of this conservatism inhabits the world of so-called “world music”. But Rachid hates the term “world music”.

Well, it was invented as a marketing term: as somewhere to put the stuff in record shops.

There’s a purpose to it in that sense, but it’s also a bit like a kind of ghetto, you know?

People can apply the wrong criteria, because they have this idealised version of, I dunno, “tribal” music, done in a very “authentic” way. But I think the reality is more complicated than that.

The thing is, people in all parts of the world have got the Internet; they listen to CDs; they go to discotheques. If we’re talking “world music”, that’s what world music is. Rap music and dance music are all over the world, and it’s what people growing up in Africa and Asia and South America listen to. Then they want to do stuff with those beats. But they also come from a certain culture, so they want to blend it with their own traditional things as well. It’s happening all over the world. It’s the way it is; it’s the 21st century thing. So for Westerners to make some kind of stipulation that so-called “pure” world music has to be acoustic and tribal and not using any kind of programming or anything, it’s a bit like colonialism, you know? Like apartheid: we can have all the technology in our society, but they’re not allowed to have it.

That’s right, it’s kind of patronising. Put on your robes, and sit outside your tent with your kora!

They might end up as rich as us, and we can’t have that, can we? It’s like bloody colonialism! Like the colonial wars we have, and our colonial invasion of Iraq. But it’s straight out of the 19th century. And that Tony Blair, he’ll walk around with a pith helmet with fins on it, and a big moustache, like Lord fucking Kitchener – beg your pardon, not for the radio…

(Laughs) It’s alright, it’s for the newspaper, you can swear as much as you like.

Well, I hope you understand my point.

I do take your point; I quite agree, actually.

But I do like really rootsy traditional stuff as well, and so does Rachid. We’ve got very wide taste.

Do you get similar notions of purism in the world of techno and dance music? Do you have to stand your ground against techno purists?

Yup! Less so these days. Just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve made a bit of a breakthrough, particularly in the download area. There’s a specialist dance music download site called Beatportthat dominates the scene, a bit like how iTunes dominates the mainstream scene, and we’ve had a lot of action there with our new tracks. We’re Number One in their main chart, with the Dubfire mix of our single Space Bird. And our album tracks are in the various genre charts, which is great, because we’ve got stuff in all different genres. We’ve got stuff in the techno chart, the progressive house chart, the psy-trance chart, the chillout chart – and that’s really System 7, you know? That’s where we always say we are in the dance music world. As we say on our Myspace page, our style hovers between techno, progressive house and psy-trance.

Did you say a Dubfire remix? Is that the guy from Deep Dish?

Yes. Oh, we love him. He told us that he’s been wanting to do a System 7 mix for a long time. We sent him this track, and he loved it.

Turning to the forthcoming tour, what sort of line-up will be appearing on stage?

Well, it’s basically me and Miquette, and on the gigs where Eat Static are there, they might join in for the track that we did with them on our album, which is called Wolf-Head. And also Slackbaba, another gentleman who’s on some of the gigs, might be collaborating on our set. It’s all fundamentally Miquette and myself, and a bunch of technology, and my guitar. But we’re using some new equipment on this tour; it’s going to be a bit different from our previous gigs. We’ve been trying it out, and it’s better.

What’s the balance between pre-recorded and live?

Well, obviously some stuff is pre-programmed. It has to be, because we’re not people with twenty arms. But I think that System 7 are about as live as it gets with techno music. A lot of what you hear is actually being played by us, with our fingers, on instruments. That’s one of the things that makes our live show quite special. We’ve been working on ways to fit electric guitar with techno music for getting on for twenty years now, and we’ve got pretty good at it.

I would imagine you get a very diverse audience at your gigs: everyone from young clubbers to old proggers. Do they find a common cause?

Yeah, if they like System 7, that’s their common cause! Jolly good, you know?

It seems to me that you’ve always been motivated by a certain strain of idealism, and it sounds like it hasn’t dimmed or altered much over the years. Do you still abide by the same sort of ideals and values that were motivating you thirty years ago?

Pretty much. I mean, I wouldn’t like to think I was fossilised; I like to keep an open mind. But my overall view of the world hasn’t shifted massively. The main thing is that our music has evolved. We don’t sing; we don’t do lyrics any more; we try and put it in the sound, and the music, and the beats. We still seek to elevate people. That’s what I think is one of the main functions of music, and we take that function on whole-heartedly. We enjoy it, and we think that if we’re enjoying it then everybody else will. If we get elevated by it, everyone else will.

Well, I’m gutted that I can’t come and see you on the 15th.

Oh, come!

I’m out of town. I’ve got to visit my aunty! It’s really bad timing.

Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!

Afraid so. Just one final question: like every hack in a hurry, I went to your Wikipedia page. I wasn’t sure whether it was someone on Wikipedia having a laugh, but did you really compose the theme tune to Channel 4’s Friday Night Project?

Channel 4’s Friday Night Project have used a fragment of one of our tracks. They’ve licensed it, and we’ve earned a considerable amount of money. So long may they continue to use it, because they keep paying!

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