I spoke to Pip Pyle prior to his performance with Gong at the Great America Music Hall on the last part of their first US tour (March 1996). We talked inside a small deli across the street from the infamous Mitchell Brothers (which Pip seemed slightly amused about). I was accompanied by Malcolm Humes during the fifty minute conversation who helped to clarify a few key points. I picked up a spot of espresso for Pip before we started since he appeared in need of caffeine. I’d like to thank Sean Ahern of Pangea Music and Michael Clare for helping to set up the interview.
by Jeff Melton, Published 1996-08-01
I remember talking to you in Kansas City (by phone) people have been coming to see you and it’s been kind of a weird scene. I mean, Gong has had a cult following and although the band they never really toured here, there’s been support for say New York Gong with the Material people.
Yeah, I thought that was a good band.
Coming from your perspective, you did the TV show thing (Gong on TV 1991) and then the Birthday Party gig (1995) which turned out pretty good as far as the live gig was concerned, I was really surprised.
Yeah it turned out pretty well really.
You’ve had a chance to be on tour with these guys for the first time in a while now.
Well, we actually did a six week tour with the Shapeshifter Gong which with Steffi, me, and Daevid in the band.
So you’ve got a better objective viewpoint of what it’s like to play with the band. Kind of distant but, not caught up in the mysticism of the band?
I find I’ve never really been caught up in that. I’ve always enjoyed Daevid’s Billybong songs, you can take seriously or not if you like. It’s fine by me. It just sort of made me laugh.
But so far as a challenge for you as a player, Pierre (Moerlen) has been one of the stronger drummers (parts for you to play).
Yeah, he’s a good drummer.
I mean it’s not like you’re adapting your style to fit the song s. You find you your own way through the songs.
I find myself to be the opposite of Pierre in a way. You know he’s got very good chops, Strasbourg school of percussion. I’ve never been taught anything, more or less by choice. So I’m more or less winging it. I throw myself into the deep end, but I hate formalizing music. There’s a side of Gong that kind of frightens me. Gong is kind of like a necrophiliac pantomime. When it’s like that I don’t like it. I try to make it as different as I can every night. So that’s okay. I think Daevid likes that.
Particularly the interaction you have with Mike Howlett. Somebody comes back onto the road after seventeen/eighteen years. It’s kind of like a major effort. Have you been able to hit it off with Mike?
Yeah, you know for me, I suppose he’s the nicest bass player I have played with in Gong. He’s a very steady, strong player. And there’s Keith Bailey who’s strong. If I want to play a tune kind of an uptempo twist, cha-cha-cha kind of thing, Mike will actually play something different and keep up with me.
He’s listening to what you’re doing...
Yeah, right. He was going stone down the freeway and in no way could I throw him off his track. We worked through the tunes whatever happens. It can become a really stupid exercise so you might as well find the most sufficient sort of groove with a backbeat you can drive a high Mack truck through just to make it happen. And there you are in showband land, after a few gigs and that doesn’t interest me.
Well, that’s just your style in general, I mean, in particular if you go back to the Hatfield material it’s pretty dear to a lot of people in America, myself included. I think it really charted a lot of territory. I know it’s over twenty years ago, but you and Phil (Miller) have been able to keep close musical ties.
I’ve never been out of a band with him. We’ve always got some sort of band going.
Do you guys actually go back to childhood?
Yeah really. We were playing guitar and drums together when we were six years old.
Even though you remain modest by saying you’re self taught not an educated player, although you don’t have schooling...
A lot of my education was sort of like getting very stoned, lying on the floor by the bed headphones on doing a lot of listening and then not being able to move. Therefore I listened to it for a long time.
You pick out certain styles, that you like and gravitate to? I’ve never heard you say what specific jazz drummers you listened to.
Well, I can tell you who I like. I don’t think there are any who have directly influenced me maybe. There are a lot of drummers including Aynsley Dunbar: he was a very good drummer who played for John Mayall.
Yeah a lot of that’s coming out again on re-issue! from One-Way Records out of Albany, New York.
I thought he was great. Anyone who could play Frank Zappa’s charts.. Chappa’s zarts... you know is cool rhythmically. I liked Atlantic Records with Chuck Rainey in Aretha’s and James Brown’s rhythm sections. I’ve never really been very good at it myself but I found that very exciting. And then I suppose I got into people like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. I think Elvin Jones is the sort of person you can write books about.
Very high energy?
Well, no one else has been able to translate African polyrhythms onto a conventional drum kit, he sort makes it all happen at once. Yeah: Tony Williams too: especially when he was very young with Miles, and Eric Dolphy. He was seventeen and out to lunch. It frightens me now to listen to that.
Yeah, it’s still pretty much way up there as far as improvisation level. One thing I definitely wanted to remember to ask you about was your French band that you put together. I can’t even pronounce the name.
Yeah, No distribution for the disc in America whatsoever.
Well only through small channels, Wayside, or Cuneiform.
They seem to be doing a lot of the re-issue type stuff.
I mean that album has never... there are two albums actually. Most of them have not even been well distributed in France. I’m very pissed off about that, but there you go. I thought we had that sorted out with Gimini music coming on strong. I do have quite a good distribution going in Europe, through a grass roots, underground circuit.
I know that Short Wave project I had to dig up.
That’s been distributed badly as well, right?
Right. I’ve been talking to a few people about it. It’s such an incredible project. Richard (Sinclair) came by and we talked about him seeing you at a European festival and that you were much better live than on the live album itself!
That’s how we did that album more or less. We’ve gone on from there.
So you do keep your musical ties kind of open.
I’ve worked with lots of people. Yeah, when I was back in Hatfield and National Health that’s about all I did, it’s a bit like being promiscuous.
It’s okay as long as it’s musical!
I definitely get fed up playing with the same band for a period of time. I mean if I now had to play a year with Gong...
Yeah it could be pretty intense.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting Gong down ‘cos I’m really enjoying it. To be completely frank, if I had a chance to do it, if I had a chance to tour America now, I’d put Gong on my list as about fourth of who I’d really want to do it with. I mean if it really was my baby.
Oh yeah. It’s really been 26 years since you played with Gong.
There are some other projects which are like burning issues for me at the moment. You know they won’t be in a couple of years. You know I’ve got to get with those. Most of the bands have limited lifespans. Gong has been recycled and resurrected so many times. I suppose after 27 years you get the idea of a band. I think Gong could be quite successful if they wanted it to be. I think people get the idea that they don’t want it to be. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I mean they say yeah, yeah... you go on tour, gimme some money, but then there’s the follow up aspect of the band, to try to keep a band going once you’ve established a niche. To keep it going forward in people’s interests. That drops off so fast. I mean a good comparison is Ozric Tentacles who came by two years ago. (When) they were trying to plan a third tour, interest level was just minimal. They did very well on their first tour.
I don’t think Gong could manage that amount of interest. I’m quite surprised we’ve actually played to about 20,000 people. I didn’t know that there was that level of interest in Gong. I don’t suppose there are another 20,000 people who are interested though.
I want to make sure you know, there are places on the internet to check out too. There’s stuff like this (hands Pip printouts from web pages). Big Bang has got this website that goes through bands. Anyone can access it. It’s a well managed web site which lists band bio’s, trying to give info about your projects.
I got a solo album coming out perhaps that will come out next year, I’ve been working on it for five years... most of the musicians won’t play on it. Maybe you’ll hate that?
Let’s talk about your writing: That’s something I’ve never heard anyone ask you about: "Phlakaton" on Of Queues and Cures is one of the most hilarious drum/percussion solos I’ve ever heard in my life. Were you just sitting down trying to come up with something of a vocal rhythm?
I was just bored in the studio.
I really doubt that. I don’t know what your writing process is or how long it takes you to be able to come up with ideas, but Phil’s talked about it.
He amazes me.
Do you intend to refine an idea over time? Do you sit down at the piano?
Sometime I do that, sometimes I just grab a guitar, it might be a tune I have stuck in my head and when I get home I put my hands on the first guitar I can. Sometimes I just sing it, sometimes it might come from a drum fill. There’s always a springboard idea, sometimes it might be a chord sequence I found diddling around on the piano. There’s a tune called the ... Fandango which comes from a drum rhythm with a part in 9/8. You start hearing the harmonies and then you sit down, play it and start imagining the music. Sometimes I feel like I ought to write something so I lock myself away for a month somewhere and try and do something. Sometimes that can work very well, you know? If you’ve got a project coming out like an album I can try and write something for it. Well, sometimes it's just so frustrating using some sort of keyboard, sometimes I get pissed off and leave it out. I haven’t written very much this year though, I’ve been playing more drums. So many things to do and never enough time in the great words of Peter Sellers. The last couple of years I’ve been trying to practice my drums more ‘cos I’ve neglected that doing the solo album by writing brass arrangements.
Oh, so your album is going to be a jazz project?
No, it’s not. Actually quite a lot of it is pop songs because I couldn’t play them with these jazz bands. I know nothing really about jazz harmonies, except I like it but I don’t know what it is. I come up with some monster bass part for Paul Rogers and he says I’m not playing this fucking riff for half an hour! And I said that’s what required to make these chords work. So I try to find another band to do that tune with. Some of it I wrote ten years ago. For example One of the tunes is Seven Sisters which we did with National Health in '79 I remember. I’ve changed the arrangement. None of it was written less than 5 years old. I was mostly arranging it. There isn’t much jazz on it except for the jazz ballad version of "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Is Gimini going to carry this for you?
No, Gimini and I have sort of fell out. Voiceprint is interested in releasing it.
You’re going to see some revenue from it at least.
Well, yeah, he’s a good hard worker (Voiceprint’s manager, Rob Ayling), I think he’ll get there in the end.. He’s a dire Northerner and he’ll bloody well get there in the end. He’s generous too and gives you half the royalties. I don’t know anyone else who does that.
The label has been known for trying to eliminate the middle man.
Well, I’ve never been paid by any record company for anything ever! I’ve had some publishing money. I got my first royalty check from Gong for the Birthday album. That’s the first time I received a penny from a record company.
Richard has said the same thing. Deram did the same thing with Caravan. You’d think Virgin would have their act together too. The reunion disk is pretty much available though I don’t want to belabor the point.
The music business is almost an exclusive list of criminals and cowboys. They’re more interested in fashion than really care about the music. So it’s not very surprising we’ve been ignored by them.
The fact is that you’re still playing and the music level is quite good. The sensitivity is high. The In Cahoots stuff has a very good jazz sensitivity.
That’s ‘cos it’s Phil’s label, he makes the records from his own house. There really aren’t any major jazz labels in England: they don‘t exist. You know it’s all grass roots things which is okay. At least people are putting out their own product and they’re not going to get fucked over. For me, I got just fucked over again when I was 45 years old. It’s different when you’re a spotty teenager and an idiot. It’s happened to me again and to one of best friends. You think, I don’t want to work with anyone again I don’t really know. Rob does come highly recommended.
So much of it has to do with funding.
It would be nice to find some way to get some kind of regular distribution in the US and Japan. Where all these Canterbury groups could be regular, be available. I hear this all the time. It would be nice to have that.
We’re hoping the whole Gong tour may set a precedent for bringing more groups over to the US.
It’s looking very good. It’s one of the positive thing about the tour. It’s going to help me out with my solo album and other projects too. I think. We definitely need that.
Now you know a little bit more of what it’s like to come over here and see this big giant spread.
It’s the result of this momentum that built up over a couple years of Daevid and touring.
Everyone’s always really wanted a real band that could do justice to the music to come over and play. There is also an interest for the Hatfield and National Health stuff.
Well, they’ll have to look for that in Short Wave and In Cahoots ‘cos those other bands are over now. I don’t see this huge difference between those bands in a way.
Well, the compositional styles are direct links. People are somewhat unhappy that Dave Stewart isn’t interested in it anymore.
Well, I think people would be more unhappy if we got together as four honest musicians and did what we wanted to do now. It wouldn’t be the same. Dave has radically changed his musical philosophy and in some ways Richard has as well. I certainly have too. Phil writes tunes which are vastly more complicated than Hatfield. It could work for one tour, but not musically for a long time. I think Short Wave could do a few dates in New York, and in Canada on a slightly smaller scale. I think we could average 200 people a night.
I think trying to lock into the US jazz markets would really help.
I never think of it like that. I don’t know really. When people ask me what Short Wave plays, it’s hard to describe. It can be the kiss of death to call it jazz. Jazz does not make life easier. I was really impressed with what Elton (Dean) said in Paris. He told a fan that we played modern jazz and the guy went away really happy. For me that’s Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but that’s what the fan wanted to hear.
What keeps you going? Despite the fact the music you’ve done has a jazz sensibility and not much market appeal. You really honestly do enjoy what you’ve been doing, right?
Yeah! I really do.
I think it shows in your playing on the Short Wave disc. There’s a lot of good band interactivity. It seems a lot of the individual styles have been given up to be able to do the album. You can’t put your finger on what this sounds like at all. It doesn’t sound like Phil’s project...
Short Wave is kind of a band with a lot of pools in it, a lot of friction too, and fairly eclectic. We don’t automatically agree about what we’re going to do which is often a very good thing. Once you’ve got an individual with a strong idea in a band, sometimes everyone can just agree with it and go along with it. That doesn’t make for the most frightening music.
But some people could take it as a typical jazz workout or it gets kind of mellow a times. Phil always manages to throw something that goes way off on a tangent.
Phil Miller would prefer to play a wrong note than a note anyone’s every played before. That’s about it. I think I don’t I play particularly well on it (the Short Wave disc), it’s a subjective feeling, but I enjoyed making the record. I think Phil plays very well in Short Wave, ‘cos he’s played so long with In Cahoots where he writes all the material. He organizes the gigs, he organizes the hotels, he organizes everybody’s brains to get round his music. But at the end of the day, you may not have any brain cells left to play. Phil has a lot of things to do, with no keyboard player either. He stills come over 7 times out of 10.
I just did a review of A Veritable Centaur — that’s pretty free stuff!
Totally free, we never rehearsed with that band. Very few people like that band. I love it. I’m really proud of that record. As improvised music goes, it has a pretty high success rate. I don’t think anybody likes that record apart from me. It’s kind of like Apocalypse Now. The sound is terrible, recorded in a tiny 4 track studio. It was one moment of music and there you go.
Mark Hewins has gone through in Facelift and fleshed out some of the drinking stories you had on tour with Soft Heap.
Yeah, I’m going to have to re-write some of them. It was a stoned, drunk kind of band. I couldn’t do that again. It captured that sort of mayhem that was going on for a few years.
I wasn’t sure about your solo project is that all performed by you?
Oh no, there’s about 25 musicians on it. Including a Hatfield re- formation since they’re all there somewhere on it.
Is there anything we can do for you?
That’s a dangerous question!
We could try to associate you with say jazz bands to relate things as a springboard.
I don’t know what to say. Equip Out is a great band. It’s like a dream playing behind Paul Rogers and Elton Dean. There’s also a fantastic guitar player named Patrice Meyer (Hugh Hopper’s band) who may do one or two tunes. He’s very silly, very gone. As a drummer, I like playing what you call jazz. As a composer I prefer to call what I do pop music with funny harmonies. So it’s a bit schizophrenic really. I hated to play drums on my solo album. I would have loved to get someone like Terry Bozzio to do it. That would have been great.
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