Rhyth­mic melodies

Can­ter­bury prog le­gends Soft Ma­chine may be cel­e­brat­ing their 50th an­niver­sary this year, but with a new al­bum and tour in tow, they cer­tainly aren’t slow­ing down. John Etheridge and Theo Travis dis­cuss the band’s le­gacy, and fu­ture…

Prog - - Intro - Hid­den De­tails is out now via MoonJune Records. See www.john-etheridge.com and www.theo­travis.com for more in­for­ma­tion.

The Man Who Waved At Trains: Sid Smith Por­trait: Ge­off Den­ni­son

When Prog catches up with Soft Ma­chine gui­tarist John Etheridge, he’s only just re­turned from the band’s tour in Ja­pan. You might ex­pect him to be rest­ing up and feel­ing the ef­fects of jet lag, but in fact the 70-year-old player is in the pink af­ter his early morn­ing dip at an out­door swim­ming pool in Lon­don.

“I go for a swim most morn­ings at the out­side men’s pond in Hamp­stead Heath which is rather spe­cial. I al­ways try to swim ev­ery morn­ing even in the win­ter when it’s mi­nus two de­grees,” he laughs.

Div­ing in head first is some­thing Etheridge has been do­ing for most of his pro­fes­sional ca­reer. When Al­lan Holdsworth quit the group in 1975, Etheridge had no prob­lem au­di­tion­ing. “I thought of all the peo­ple who were known on the scene at the time and I felt em­i­nently suit­able for the job. It was chal­leng­ing but I was keen: Soft Ma­chine was the band for me.”

Plung­ing into Soft Ma­chine has never been for the faint-hearted. Wil­liam Bur­roughs’ 1961 novel from which Dae­vid Allen, Kevin Ay­ers, Robert Wy­att and Mike Ra­tledge took their col­lec­tive name in 1966, was famed for its ‘cut-up tech­nique’ whereby sen­tences and para­graphs were shred­ded and then re­assem­bled to pro­duce star­tling jux­ta­po­si­tions and un­set­tling lit­er­ary im­ages. Were you to con­struct a mix­tape taken from the band’s recorded out­put, you’d have a sim­i­larly con­trast­ing and di­ver­gent col­lec­tion on your hands.

By the time Soft Ma­chine’s 1968 de­but al­bum was re­leased, Dae­vid Allen was long gone. Yet the record re­sulted in the es­tab­lish­ment of a labyrinthine mu­si­cal in­sti­tu­tion that formed the cor­ner­stone of the Can­ter­bury Scene. With each sub­se­quent al­bum all the way through to 1981’s Land Of Cock­ayne, which was in ef­fect a Karl Jenk­ins solo al­bum in all but name, a dif­fer­ent core line-up was often aug­mented by heavy­weight guests. The ‘cut-up tech­nique’ adopted from this ap­proach to per­son­nel cre­ates some se­vere and some­times schiz­o­phrenic dif­fer­ences in sound and style, their mu­si­cal ad­ven­tures var­i­ously en­com­pass­ing quirky psych pop, ex­per­i­men­tally in­clined elec­tro-acous­tic ex­plo­rations and som­bre-faced ex­cur­sions into fu­sion, while carv­ing them­selves a dis­tinc­tive pro­file on the elec­tric in­ter­sec­tion be­tween rock and jazz.

When Etheridge joined he recorded two al­bums: 1976’s Softs, the last to fea­ture founder Mike Ra­tledge, and Alive & Well: Recorded In Paris, re­leased in 1978. Al­though there was a fleet­ing re­union in the 1980s, Soft Ma­chine were seem­ingly dead. Yet when the op­por­tu­nity came to join forces with ex-Softs Hugh Hop­per, El­ton Dean and John Mar­shall as Soft Ma­chine Le­gacy in 2004, such was his en­thu­si­asm for the mu­sic that Etheridge had no hes­i­ta­tion in div­ing in once again.

“WHEN I FIRST JOINED IT WAS A FEU­DAL DEMOC­RACY OF THE WORST KIND.”

John Etheridge

“I re­mem­ber one of the first gigs I ever did with Soft Ma­chine Le­gacy,” says Etheridge. I didn’t know Hugh or El­ton that well, or the eti­quette in­volved. I was solo­ing and El­ton moved over to the key­boards as he used to when he was in Softs but I didn’t want any ac­com­pa­ni­ment so I shouted, ‘No!’ across the stage. When we came off Hugh said, ‘Well you’ve done it now. You are re­ally in the bad books.’ Of course in free jazz, you don’t shout no at some­one, ever.

“I went to El­ton and said, ‘I’m re­ally sorry, mate. I’ve been lead­ing bands so long I just for­got that this isn’t my band and I can’t shout no at you.’ He said, ‘No you can’t!’ I apol­o­gised pro­fusely and told him, ‘You play the piano when­ever you want to play.’ And he said, ‘It doesn’t mat­ter, John. It’s still done! You can apol­o­gise all you want but you’re still in the book,’” Etheridge con­tin­ues, roar­ing with laugh­ter at the mem­ory.

It’s a fact that de­spite the often in­spired na­ture of the mu­sic pro­duced by the dif­fer­ent line-ups through­out the band’s his­tory, the per­sonal in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the play­ers was often trou­bled by seething re­sent­ment, grudges and bad blood. Robert Wy­att was kicked out of the band he founded by Mike Ra­tledge and Hugh Hop­per. El­ton Dean quit when drum­mer Phil Howard was sacked. Yet when Soft Ma­chine Le­gacy formed, peo­ple like John Mar­shall and Hugh Hop­per, pre­vi­ously not the eas­i­est of friends first time around in the 1970s, some­how found them­selves get­ting on fa­mously. “It’s about testos­terone and hor­mones and male com­pe­ti­tion when you’re a young man but then you get past that. The band be­came a heal­ing process if you like,” ob­serves Etheridge.

Af­ter El­ton Dean’s death in 2006,

Theo Travis was re­cruited. A world-class sax­o­phon­ist and flautist, in ad­di­tion to run­ning his own band, he has worked ex­ten­sively with King Crim­son’s Robert

Fripp, and is a mem­ber of Steven Wil­son’s live and stu­dio group, not to men­tion his stints in Gong and work­ing with Hat­field & The North’s Richard Sin­clair. This all made him a nat­u­ral choice. An­other long-stand­ing ad­mirer of the group in all its in­car­na­tions, Travis was keen to add his tal­ents to the over­all sound.

“Soft Ma­chine has al­ways been a forwardlooking band and when peo­ple join, they bring what they bring and the mu­sic changes. That’s why they’ve been re­cruited in the first place. They aren’t there to copy what some­one’s done in the past. They want peo­ple to come and add and con­tribute in or­der to take it for­ward and that’s how it has al­ways been.”

How­ever, Travis, who dou­bles on Fender Rhodes piano in the group, does ad­mit to want­ing to re­visit some older ma­te­rial on the new al­bum. Given his work with loop­ing tech­nol­ogy, it’s per­haps no sur­prise that it was at his urg­ing that Out-Bloody-Ra­geous from 1970’s Third and 1975’s The Man Who Waved At Trains, which orig­i­nally ap­peared on Bun­dles, both Ra­tledge-com­posed tunes, were in­cluded in the run­ning or­der.

“When we were record­ing as Soft Ma­chine Le­gacy we al­ways had a link to the past reper­toire and even though this is a Soft Ma­chine al­bum, we thought, ‘Why not re­visit that ma­te­rial?’” he says. “Al­though I’m not of a gen­er­a­tion that was in­volved in that first time around, I liked the whole slightly ethe­real, less jazz/rock el­e­ments that some­times ap­peared, whether it be the tape loops or the cos­mic de­lays on the Fender Rhodes. I’ve been do­ing those kinds of things live and I was keen to in­cor­po­rate that.”

Does he ever feel bur­dened by the weight of fan ex­pec­ta­tion? “With any band that’s got a his­tory like this, there will be peo­ple who maybe aren’t aware of what’s been go­ing on for the last 40 years. So there’ll al­ways be ques­tions like, ‘What’s go­ing on with Mike Ra­tledge?’ Or a ques­tion about Robert Wy­att here and there. But it was like that in 1972 when John Mar­shall first joined. Some fans would al­ways be talk­ing about the ear­lier pe­riod. We just tend to get on with it. This is the set and this is what we’re do­ing.”

The ‘Le­gacy’ part of the name was for­mally dropped in 2015, but in prac­tice, pro­mot­ers in Europe had been call­ing them plain old Soft Ma­chine for some time, ex­plains Travis. “El­ton Dean wanted to call the group Soft Ma­chine any­way, al­though Hugh Hop­per was less keen. For us it was less of a big deal than you think it would be, but when you do gigs as Soft Ma­chine, peo­ple are very ex­cited that they are see­ing the band. Go­ing out as Le­gacy, al­though the play­ers might be the same, there’s no affin­ity with the name. Peo­ple feel emo­tion­ally af­fected by the fact that it’s Soft Ma­chine.”

Record­ing the new al­bum Hid­den De­tails in De­cem­ber 2017 was an in­cred­i­bly re­laxed af­fair at Jon Hise­man’s Tem­ple Stu­dios, says Travis, al­though Hise­man’s sub­se­quent and un­ex­pected death in June this year lends a cer­tain poignancy to the ses­sions. Travis, Etheridge and Mar­shall had last worked with Hise­man in 2006, record­ing Steam, and like every­one who knew him, they were shocked

at his pass­ing. “I was shat­tered when I heard he’d died,” ad­mits Etheridge.

Travis agrees, cit­ing the ex-Colos­seum drum­mer’s pres­ence as a de­ci­sive fac­tor in how well Hid­den De­tails has turned out. “Jon was to­tally on it dur­ing those ses­sions with ev­ery­thing un­der con­trol. The fact that we recorded an en­tire dou­ble al­bum’s worth of mu­sic this time with a cou­ple of ex­tra tracks is a tes­ta­ment to his skills,” he sighs.

Lay­ing down a mix of com­posed pieces and im­pro­vi­sa­tions, the band recorded live in the stu­dio. With only a cou­ple of mi­nor over­dubs and fixes added af­ter­ward, there’s a tan­gi­ble fresh­ness in the sound and per­for­mances.

While Travis and Etheridge carry the prin­ci­pal solo­ing, the in­ter­ac­tions from bas­sist Roy Bab­bing­ton and drum­mer John Mar­shall through­out add to the dis­cur­sive na­ture of the band’s mu­sic. Bab­bing­ton joined Soft Ma­chine in 1973 but first ap­peared on 1971’s Fourth, guest­ing on dou­ble bass, a role he was asked to reprise on 1972’s Fifth, which co­in­ci­dently was Mar­shall’s first out­ing as a mem­ber. The em­pa­thy be­tween their play­ing adds to the depth and rich­ness within the group.

Of Mar­shall’s play­ing, Etheridge ob­serves, “He has that move­ment within the time that makes him John Mar­shall and not just ‘a drum­mer’ who nails it, bang-bang-bang. He’s look­ing for give and take, al­ways look­ing for re­la­tion­ships within the mu­sic.”

In re­spect of Bab­bing­ton, Etheridge buzzes with ex­cite­ment re­count­ing the time he saw Soft Ma­chine as a mem­ber of the au­di­ence at Lon­don’s Rain­bow in Fe­bru­ary 1975, when they were sup­port­ing Larry Co­ryell’s Eleventh House. “Roy’s solo was ab­so­lutely stun­ning – the best solo of the night. Com­pletely im­pro­vised, it was so well con­structed and put to­gether. When Roy joined the Le­gacy I was very keen on him to use the Fender six-string bass he’d been us­ing back then but it had no bot­tom end. So now he plays such a deep bass, such a deep sound that’s so fun­da­men­tal.”

Etheridge points out that the cur­rent band has never been hap­pier or more com­fort­able in their own skin. A key in­gre­di­ent to that all-im­por­tant recipe for hap­pi­ness is every­one hav­ing an equal say in what goes on.

“When I first joined, it was a feu­dal democ­racy of the worst kind. Mike Ra­tledge was on his way out I quickly dis­cov­ered, and os­ten­si­bly ev­ery­thing was group de­ci­sions but they weren’t re­ally. Karl had taken over and he’d be­come the band leader but not of­fi­cially. So there were al­ways these stir­rings and mut­ter­ings and re­sent­ments be­cause noth­ing was clear. But with us, it is a democ­racy, a proper democ­racy. It’s never hap­pened be­fore in Soft Ma­chine.”

For both Etheridge and Travis, the ti­tle track Hid­den De­tails is per­haps the high­light of the new al­bum. “When we did it, it was clear to every­one that it was re­ally strong and it had to be the one that opened the al­bum. It rep­re­sents what we do. It’s edgy, it’s big, it’s a lit­tle bit an­gu­lar. It con­nects to the Bun­dles-era stuff but there are also some other shades on it as well. That track feels very rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what this band is. We’ll often start gigs with it now,” says Travis, who at 54 is the youngest in the cur­rent line-up.

De­spite the fact that his col­leagues are all in their 70s now, thanks to the in­de­fati­ga­ble ef­forts of their man­ager and Moonjune Records boss, Leonardo Pavkovic, Soft Ma­chine have a full itin­er­ary for their 50th an­niver­sary, with ex­ten­sive dates in the UK and Amer­ica, and are look­ing for­ward to more work and record­ing again.

For John Etheridge, be­ing in this group with this line-up throws up some deeply per­sonal emo­tions that con­nect him to the young man he was then and the ma­ture mu­si­cian he is to­day. “Per­haps it’s to do with the magic of the name or the feel­ing or at­mos­phere that comes with the name? I don’t know, but I can play in a way that I don’t play with any­body else and I en­joy it very much. With this band, there’s a li­cence to play, and peo­ple want you to play the very best you can.”

“SOFT MA­CHINE HAS AL­WAYS BEEN A FORWARDLOOKING BAND AND WHEN PEO­PLE JOIN, THEY BRING WHAT THEY BRING AND THE MU­SIC CHANGES. THAT’S WHY THEY’VE BEEN RE­CRUITED IN THE FIRST PLACE.”

Theo Travis

SOFT MA­CHINE: “A PROPER DEMOC­RACY.”

COGS IN THE MA­CHINE: RECORD­ING THE NEW AL­BUM AT JON HISE­MAN’S STU­DIO.

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