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E-mail interview with Harry Williamson 12/1997

For an article on Anthony Phillips published in Big Bang Magazine

When and where were you born? I understand your father Henry was a famous writer in England. How famous? Apart from "Tarka The Otter", what are his most famous works?
I was born on 12 May 1950. At Ilfracombe, in North Devon. As well as Tarka the Otter, Salar the Salmon and many other nature stories, my father also wrote a 13 part series of novels called "A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight". They deal with the life of a fictitious character, Phillip Madison, who is based on my father. The books follow my father's own experiences from the 1890s to the 1950s. The series includes some of the best descriptions of life in the trenches in WW1 (which he experienced first hand), the postwar reconstruction, the great depression and WW2, when my father was farming in Norfolk. During his writing career he regularly contributed to the British Press, the Express and Mail newspapers and BBC Radio and TV. He is best described as a nature mystic, much influenced by Thomas Hardy and Richard Jeffries, and he sought to find ways of educating the public in regard to the proper management of our heritage, urging people to truly value the land. He was an active environmentalist before the word was invented.
How did you become interested in music? How did you end up choosing the guitar as instrument? Did you already play piano as well, or did that come later?
My mother started a junior PNEU school in which everyone had to play in the band, as well as dance and sing. I played bass drum at 5. At 6 I learned how to break into the local disused Methodist Chapel and play the harmonium, furiously pedaling and making up my own impressionist fugues. At 9 I was sent to Exeter Cathedral School where I learned to sight sing and to play the piano and the Cathedral Organ, which was a buzz. I wanted to play Jazz, and later, at Millfield School, I had the chance to jam occasionally with other emerging musicians. I used to carry a double bass around to classes and busk at break time. When I was 14 I travelled to Brittany as an exchange student, discovered that French girls loved guitarists, and therefore took up playing guitar. Also I was lucky enough to spend a few holidays at Julian Bream's house, as he was married to my sister at the time. Sitting watching the Master working his way around a new concert piece, or just limbering up on set of lightning fast arpeggios was a huge learning experience for me. He kindly gave me a few pointers and tips, but I realised that I would never have anything like the range of technique required to master the classical repertoire, and so I embarked on a path of experimentation into modal tunings, altered scales etc, which was later to become a cornerstone of my work with Anthony Phillips. The other reason I chose guitar was because it is portable and easy to tune, compared to a piano or organ.
I understand you met Anthony Phillips through a mutual friend, Richard MacPhail, who was studying in the same school as you. Apparently, this was a special school with a special atmosphere, with lots of interesting pupils. What memories do you keep of this period?
Millfield was a "Robin Hood" public school, charging the wealthy huge fees to subsidise gifted but less well-off pupils. In my house rugby team were JPR Williams and Gareth Edwards, and we tended to win everything. The Founder of the school, "Boss", had had a special initiation in Tibet in the 30's and I remember that he seldom slept. Class sizes ranged from 8 to 3 per teacher in the final year. You could study any subject from Chinese Pottery to Skydiving. The school is near Glastonbury, and one poignant memory is seeing a line of Arab and Israeli Officers sons arguing the philosophical points of both sides as they queued up to get permission to leave the school to join their respective units for the Six Days War. Richard McPhail and I were in a band together called the Austin Hippie Blues Band which was heavily influenced by John Mayall and won a competition . We did many songs whose lyrics we didn't fully understand. At one point I was hauled up for singing "Cocaine" too regularly during recess.
In the early 70's, and again several times during the 70's, you worked with Anthony Phillips on what became "Tarka" and "Gypsy Suite". Were you involved in other musical activities during that period (1970-76)? What were they?
In 70 in London I played with Trevor Bilmuss, doing UK gigs and recording a bit for the Charisma label. I also tried to rehearse a concert with Syd Barrett that was scheduled for a billing with Muddy Waters, with sadly no success. Perhaps it was the blue and orange striped decor that distracted us…

In 72 I played in a country rock band called the Windf***ers with various wild and wonderful people from the Glastonbury Festival scene. Later I had another band called ARK in Devon with Harvey Bainbridge, and Andy Anderson among others. In fact I introduced Andy to Steve Hillage, which is another story… we recorded a demo of "Descent into Atlantis" which in my mind was to go with a film script I was writing. I still have the (unreleased) tapes.

In 1977-78, you recorded with the Radio Actors, a one-time band which included various members of Gong, and Sting, and Nik Turner's Sphynx. This was apparently your first connection to the Gong family. I'm especially intrigued by Sphynx. Did you tour with that band? Who was in the line-up? The same all-star band that was on the LP, with Hillage, Blake, Howlett, etc.?
I played in Sphynx with Nik Turner, and a huge succession of drummers, bass players and percussionists that included Mike Howlett, Steve Broughton, Ermano Ghizio Herba and Andy Anderson. Neither Hillage nor Blake were involved in the live thing. For Sphynx I built a green mobile pyramid stage in which we performed at some unlikely places, from the Edinburgh Festival to Findhorn. We were struck by lightning twice in that pyramid, with no casualties. The show was a dramatisation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and it went down well at Stonehenge, as you may well imagine. We did about 30 gigs together in that time.
In 1978, you started Mother Gong with Gilli Smyth. This is a "band", or rather a musical partnership, that evolved quite a lot over the years. How would you sum up the overall musical "concept"? What Mother Gong albums are you the most proud of?
In fact Gilli started Mother Gong to promote her first solo album at Windsor science fiction festival, a year before we met. The band concepts continuously evolved through the next fifteen years. 'Fairytales' was intended to be an album that parents could enjoy with their kids. The 'Robot Woman' series was a science-fictional look at current mindsets and pointed out the difficulties faced in breaking the paternalistic mould, which is necessary for our survival… The last albums were quite different; rather than being simply my musical compositions they were pieces improvised around the sound poems of Gilli's spooky, seductive and sometimes confronting voice. I am happy with parts of all of the albums, but the most satisfying were the last few releases with the improvising Australian line-up, particularly the new compilation CD (Best of Mother Gong - available through Outer Music/Cleopatra in the USA and Blueprint/Voiceprint in the UK) which has just been released, and "Magenta/ She Made the World", which is probably the best individual Mother Gong release.
In 1988, you finally recorded "Tarka" with Anthony Phillips and various others including Didier Malherbe and Lindsay Cooper. How did it feel to finally be able to do it properly, even with a string orchestra and all these wonderful players (Didier Malherbe, Lindsay Cooper etc.)?
Actually, the orchestra was recorded in '78 and the project shelved 10 years. Finishing it in '88 was difficult because Ant and I had grown in different directions, and the enthusiasm that produced the initial inspiration had to be rekindled. Once the project gelled however, it was pure happiness to work with all my old friends, my only regret being that doing it in London made everything a rush and there is never enough time for a project of that size, having as it did about 100 players on it. Tarka was written to go with the film of the book, and in it we tried to capture the 'spirit of place'. Much of it just came to us, evolving from improvisations after visiting sites from the story in Devon. I remember being in the control room at Wembley doing the third movement, and after the "Pool of the Six Herons" segment, everyone was visibly moved. Since the release and various limited successes of the CD have never been noticed in Australia (there are no Otters here) I had no idea until recently that the work had had the impact it apparently has had. Since I've been on e-mail, however, I've had messages from people all over the world who have been touched by the music, and who have also glimpsed the landscapes we attempted to evoke.
In the late 80's, you were involved with daevid allen's Gong Maison. What memories do you keep of this band?
I have done many projects with daevid over the years. In 89 I produced three CDs - daevid's "Australia Aquaria", the Gongmaison release, and Mother Gong's "Wild Child" at Foel Studios in Wales for the Demi-Monde label, the studio where the first MG album "Fairytales" had been recorded 11 years before. The recordings were dogged by continuous technical problems, and subsequently I have had no accounting or payment from sales, despite recent re-licensing. Gongmaison was a lot of fun, and Shyamal, Didier and Graham Clark were three of the best instrumentalists one could wish to work with. I could write a book about our exploits together; it was tight, light and always had moments when no-one knew what to expect. It was a pity it was so short lived.

The Gongmaison gig at Glastonbury was one I shall always remember - in fact that gig is now available on CD, via Jonny Greene's label GAS. I still collaborate from time to time with daevid - he was here in my studio last week re-mastering his latest offering.

Since you stopped working together with Gilli and daevid, not much has been heard (at least by me) of you. I understand you've been working on new instruments that you designed yourself, and that would form the basis of a solo album. Has it come out yet? Would this be your first proper solo release? What are your other projects?
I am working on two major projects about which I am very excited. I have been recording for the past four years with my partner Liz Van Dort, a classically trained singer who is interested in continually expanding the possibilities of the voice. This release is called "Far from the Madding Crowd" and it is already attracting a great deal of interest. It should be available during the first half of 1998, at this stage on the Resurgence label which should be available next year via Night & Day Distribution in France. We like to think of it as music for the new millenium. Fitting into a similar musical genre to that occupied by bands such as Enigma, Dead Can Dance and Deep Forest, we however refuse to sample ethnic voices, preferring to create our own unique sounds! The CD contains haiku, medieval and new lyrics married to musical styles from around the world. In the arrangements I often cross-reference idioms from differing cultures where I see a connection - I suppose it is the exploration of music as a global language.

The other project will be my first-ever solo release, featuring guest appearances from many of the people I have worked with in the past twenty years, but also including several solo guitar and piano pieces and a work for jazz orchestra. It is tentatively titled "Life in the unseen world" and the Angel Guitar and Penta-drums are among the instruments I have invented which feature on the album. There is an illustration of my Angel Guitar on my web site, which is located at :
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