John Etheridge: More Than a Legacy
The only part of Soft Machine's history that's missing from Soft Machine Legacy's program is the earliest period, which produced the first two albums. "Yes, I know very little about that period. When I joined Soft Machine in 1975, I knew Third (Columbia, 1970) onwards, although I hadn't really listened to them much. I had no particular brief for that original period. At the time, all the changes caused a lot of trouble. New members would come in and start criticizing the last lot. Looking back, you can see that every period was interesting, but they were all completely different. Also, in a way, the development of Soft Machine Legacy parallels what's gone before. Hugh and Elton were keen on free improvisation. When Theo joined we started to move unconsciously in more of a jazz-rock direction. Hugh was less comfortable with that: it seems to have paralleled what went on in the '70s."
Hopper died in 2008, to be replaced by another ex-Soft Machine musician, bassist Roy Babbington. "When Roy came in, we became more like the '70s band. Actually, I think we're much better than the '70s band in the sense that this is a more mature group. We don't have those adolescent values: super chops, lots of displays of technique. We got over that."
Etheridge is clearly proud of Burden of Proof. "I think it's a sophisticated and mature album. It includes elements of all the Soft Machine periods except the first two records. I think we're faithful to the spirit of those Soft Machine lineups. Not to the letterno one wants to be faithful to the letter." That precise attention to detail is the key aim of the tribute band. "It is. Not that I have anything against it: I always wanted to have my own Steely Dan tribute band. I admire those groups; there's a lot of work involved in reproducing something faithfully."
There's another reason Soft Machine Legacy could never be a tribute band, says Etheridge. "If you've been members of a group then you don't have to pay tribute to it." Was Burden of Proof chosen as the album title to reflect this maturity and confidence, to show that Soft Machine Legacy has nothing to prove? "I called my tune 'Burden of Proof'I don't know why. The more we thought about it, the more we liked it as an album title. Maybe there's a legal link between legacy and proof. I wouldn't take it any further than that, but if you want to read more into it then maybe that could work."
It's almost 50 years since Soft Machine started, so what does Etheridge think is the band's legacy? "People say that the early lineups had quite a wide influence. They speak of early Pink Floyd and early Soft Machine in the same breath. One thing was singing in a very English accent. Syd Barrett probably did it first, but Robert Wyatt wasn't far behind. ... In a sense, Soft Machine was part of a scene with its own quirksyou could call it the jazz-rock-fusion scene that was part of its charm."
Etheridge expands on this idea of quirkiness with enthusiasm. "Mike Ratledge [Soft Machine's original keyboard player], Hopper and Wyatt weren't trained musicians; they hadn't studied formally. Their impression of things came out in quite a quirky way. I'm not formally trained, nor is John Marshall, so that element of left-field approaches is carried on. Once you've been to school and learned bebop, you're stuffed, basically. That's why so much American jazz is so predictable. They go to school, learn Charlie Parker solos by rote. Once you've done that, it's difficult to move too far away from it. For Soft Machine, that was a strength but also a weakness. When you listen to those early albums now, you think, 'Oh, that sounds interesting. That's a strange way to play that. Are they really in 5/4 there?' Even the Mahavishnu Orchestra had that approach at times. Billy Cobham said that everybody had a different idea about where the one was; no one was quite sure what time signature they were playing in. If Soft Machine's members had all studied music, it probably wouldn't have sounded so quirky. It would have sounded like absolutely correct American jazzand it would've been really boring."