AL: Your music seems to contain so many disparate elements, but brought together you hear Mahavishnu, Hendrix and even Holdsworth? This is especially so on “Adrenalin”. Is this intentional- a confluence of influences?
ST: I love music so much. It is my life. I’m an electric guitar player but I have always been close to Western art music. It contains so many great gifts to the world. Having said that- there’s a lot of long-windedness in there too. You see I grew up in Liverpool during Beatlemania. I always have an ideal of pop music in the back of my mind. I want to say things quick and with impact- even abstract things. The way “Adrenalin” came about was that I needed an up track. I’d written most of the “Time & Distance” album but I didn’t have that opener. I’m very old fashioned about it. You start off with a bang – you go out big too – and you leave ’em wanting! I often tend to write melancholy music but I think anyone who knows me would say I’m quite forceful & intense. In a blow or jam I naturally play very rhythmic & attacking. “Adrenalin” is a dedication to John McLaughlin who in the ’70’s was my hero, but no matter how the old saying goes, for me the sincerest form of flattery is not imitation. This is why I kept silent for such a long time. So the emotional influence on “Adrenalin” was the force of nature that is John McLaughlin but the cerebral influence was a cubist idea of harmonic arrangement. Not formulae or dogma, the method is my own, and 100% organic. There are no chord progressions in “Adrenalin”. Some things you know when you’re writing, other things reveal themselves afterwards. Like the underscore of a pulsing bass and hi hat for the “Adrenalin” guitar solo was texturally influenced by stuff from Miles’ In a Silent Way, and was done consciously, but I didn’t realize at the time that the B section of “Adrenalin” shares a related tempo morphing effect with the B section of “Extrapolation”. (Editor’s note: “Extrapolation” is McLaughlin’s late 1960’s tour-de-force recording.) So the music relates emotionally to my influences. Emotion is forever renewable, but its interior life must be its own. Sorry, there’s no snappy way to say that.
AL: “Late Flower” is going to be your second solo record. Your first recording was five years ago. Just wondering why it took such a long time?
ST: A long story, but in a sentence, my perfectionism meets music industry chickens coming home to roost!
AL: “Time and Distance” is a spectacular record. It is fresh, unique, and very melodic. Compare it to your new record.
ST: Much richer- a more lyrical side. This is a studio layered album, not all played live as in “Time And Distance”, up to 75 tracks on some pieces. It is very tightly written, but more full-textured. Melody is very important on this record. With tuneful music I needed someone playing fretless and fretted bass who would meet the good taste challenge, and just be so right – that’s Jimmy Johnson for you! The drums had to be very aware compositionally, knowing how to pace things, and how to develop, and how to support. Gary loves to craft his drum parts just for the piece at hand, and he used all of his vast intuition and knowledge to serve the music on “Late Flower”. So, of course, they are a joy and privilege to play with. Thank you Jimmy. Thank you Gary!
AL: How did you approach writing and recording the tunes on “Late Flower”?
ST: A few years back I developed some virtual tunings and ways of changing between them. So I play virtual guitars with virtual tunings that are changing even as I play. This is only to achieve a certain musical effect. It’s not done in a show-off way so I hope you would never be aware when listening that I’m doing this. In fact the only time you should find out is if you try to play it, when you realize it ain’t possible! I wouldn’t go and patent something like that of course. The actual recording as I just said was done in a few locations. I’m making samples of some of my guitar sounds because there is no way to recreate it all live without having at least two keyboards play some of it. One track, Aigburth, can not be played live in the form it is recorded … cello and classical guitar, string orchestra, tabla & ghatam & percussion, lots of synthesizers, and Jimmy and Gary too! That was an ambitious track and a lot of work.
AL: Is this band a trio to let you have more open spaces and room for each contribution?
ST: Yea a trio is challenging in every way. It can get boring texturally though. The writing and playing have to be hip. Also the tunes have got to be in the right order on the CD – and not too many of them! I really tried for that with “Time and Distance”. I want to listen like a when I was a kid – put an album on, and if it’s been done right then take the whole ride and let it play through. But this new album doesn’t sound anything like a trio even though there are only 3 players plus a cello on some tracks. Like I just said that isn’t the idea this time.
AL: Do you believe is such things as a musical vision?
ST: “Vision!” It makes me think of an artist as Hollywood would show it: striding into a glorious future with divine inspiration on tap. You might laugh, but when I write I do try to write scripture. Set in stone, like it was discovered that way, not composed.
AL: How have folks like Gary Husband, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin and others contributed to your own voice, phrasings or ideas?
ST: In so many ways, but what we really hear is the humanity- the life force. That thing which makes you want to fall out of bed in the morning and do it all again! True musicians play like they are; the character comes through in the style. You can’t hide that or fake it. If you try to, you sound like a fake! About particular influences … John McLaughlin was very, very influential for me earlier on. Of course he’s got a prodigious talent. He has a fabulous vitality. Personally I love his rhythm playing. What he does on Jack Johnson is monumental. It’s at the very heart of that creation. Devotion by McLaughlin is a favorite too, and Birds of Fire. Turn It Over by Lifetime is so wonderful. Tony Williams was and is scripture! I went through a struggle to find my way in the shadow of Allan Holdsworth. Allan is a shining example of integrity, but guitarists praise him for that in one moment, then mimic him the next. It is self delusional to think you can plunder him, and then go out and play like that in public, and be taken seriously, but sadly so many do exactly that. Of course I’m not talking about young players – fledglings – we all start by placing our feet in the footfalls that echo down from our heroes. We grew up in a golden age, and it is hard, but you have to be vigilant about integrity. The struggle goes on. To me Allan is not just an external influence. Like the English landscape, he is inside me – he is of it – I could talk about notes and technicalities but that would be pretty meaningless. Only an Englishman could have played like Allan. He is a beautiful manifestation of our troubled psyche. Meeting Gary was a special day that I will always remember. I discovered a friend and a hero all at once. At first we used to just play together for hours, drums and electric guitar, wherever it took us, just to try and pile one high on top of another. We both loved elemental intensity. It was obvious we had much in common. Of course he’s such an unusual talent. The early classical training in a music loving house means he’s acutely harmonically aware too. I look forward to his blossoming as a composer, and that’s already started. He has so much natural playing and improvising talent and if he can join it all up with the assimilated European harmonic heritage then he could produce something truly organic and wonderful. If you have the right fuel inside you then you can be that rare artist where the older you get, the better, wiser and truer your art gets. Should be an interesting ride!
AL: Why did you decide to reissue “Time and Distance”?
ST: It’s never been deleted … it’s just that it makes sense to put it out on the new label Quartz at the same time as releasing the new CD “Late Flower”. You know it didn’t even get one advertisement upon its original release! But because the new label Quartz is doing a block release and launch I hope things will be very different this time. Of course my new website will also be up just before that in mid May.
AL: What is your gear setup?
ST: Very transitional … I’ll probably use 2 separate rigs into a mixer. I’ve got the complete Ground Control System which has good sonic integrity. Like many people I want the best of both worlds – sophistication, a hi-fi sound sometimes, but also that hands on guitar and amp setup. It’s a tough one. Just saw Jeff Beck on a fantastic blues documentary. Only his hands with a guitar and amp. What a master he is.
AL: Do you have any plans for touring?
ST: That is major priority and I’ll update the website with news. Realistically though it’s not going to happen till late year. I’m not really interested to waste time trying here in this philistine country of mine. It’ll be in Europe, Japan, America & Scandinavia when it does happen.
AL: What are you listening to nowadays?
ST: Miles’ favorite album Jack Johnson– the recent 5 cd box issue of that. A desert Island disc, along with Believe It. Allan’s live album “… Then”!. Great pieces. Great band. Bach, Webern, Barrtok, Faure as ever. John Dowland’s lute music played by Paul Odette is incomparable. I love early music of that period, and it describes poignantly just how different we are from those supposedly pre-enlightenment souls. There’s this measured and gentle utterance that’s on a human scale, long before the overblown bores such as Beethoven. Apparently that’s progress. Been listening back to some old Johnny Winter. Still sounds great. In fact lots of 70’s blues and rock related stuff Free, Peter Greens, Fleetwood Mac, George Harrison, Albert Lee, Jeff Beck of course. I really admire Joni Mitchell too. Maybe I don’t get out enough, but apart from Wayne Krantz a couple of years back, I haven’t heard a good new guitarist. They all sound like they’ve been to a school to learn it, but which school did the people they mimic go to?
AL: Steve, do you have any other projects in mind?
ST: I’m doing my third album – a quick one after the last epic. Then I’m going to make an album of mixed duets with cello, piano, some self duets, and also with another guitarist. Really would love to hear Allan on an acoustic again. Wouldn’t you? Can you hear us Allan … ha ha!
AL: Anything you would like to add ?
ST: Thanks Souvik … and thanks also for the many messages of support and are you still alive type enquiries. No more silly gaps in musical output from now on. There is so much I want to do!
AL: Thanks a lot for your time Steve. We are eagerly waiting to listen to ‘Late Flower’. You have always stood out as a strong voice in our world of too many great guitar players. All the best.