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Gong gave me jazz ears - an investigation into the recent evolution of Gong

Anthony Shaw By

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Whatever Gong means to you, it's sure to mean something completely different to someone else. —Daevid Allen
Introducing the band Gong, or as they are frequently known on the internet the Gong-band, is somewhat similar to introducing a primary color to a blind person. The more words used, the less clear the idea. Suffice it to say that a band which has existed for over 50 years, has included well over 50 musicians from 15 or so different countries, and been classified under almost as many genres, is tricky to pin down. In fact to quote their most prominent co-founder, the Australian Daevid Allen, 'whatever Gong means to you, it's sure to mean something completely different to someone else.'

Over the years and in its various guises, the band has released a steady stream of CDs, moved from top billing on 1970s tours of 'progressive rock,' though diverse spin-offs involving its members, seen periods of total dormancy up to a major resurrection in 1994, and gradual establishment of global recognition. They have played festivals from the iconic Amougies in Belgium 1969, where Frank Zappa jammed with Pink Floyd, via the original U.K. Glastonbury Fayre in 1971 to Canterbury's Lounge on the Farm in 2009 (and intriguingly captured on video at the very low key Canterbury Sound Festival in 2000). The band also coordinated its own 'Unconventions' in Amsterdam, in 2006, involving all the spin-offs and somewhat distantly related acts, such as Kangaroo Moon and Japanese Acid Mothers Temple.

Soon after these gatherings, that were based around founders Allen and former partner Gilly Smyth, original reed maestro Frenchman Didier Malherbe and included  English bassist Mike Howlett, the latest incarnation of the band started to evolve with the replacement of Howlett by fellow-Brit Dave Sturt, the new bedrock of the current line-up. The tour of Brazil in 2007 under the name Gong Global Family had seen a funkier, brasher band on stage, and also had led to the recruitment of Ian East on reeds and established Brazilian psychedelic guitarist Fabio Golfetti, in this line-up playing alongside San Francisco's own musical prankster, Josh Pollock on guitar and megaphone! The interview below tells of the final passing of the baton from Allen to the current leading presence, former Cardiacs' guitarist Kavus Torabi, and the emergence of a highly polished psycho-funk unit that in 2018 at Shenzhen's Tomorrow Festival in China can be said to have played in front of 1/2 million people, at a live-streamed concert.

The purpose of this piece is to see how the current musicians themselves, at least the two guitarists, experience their roles as carriers of a very variated cannon. As musicians they could hardly come from more diverse backgrounds. Kavus Torabi was raised in an Iranian immigrant family, brought up in the tough, navy town of Plymouth in south-west England, but recreated himself as a radical left-field musician in London. Fabio Golfetti from the churning heart of modern Brazil, Sao Paolo, was involved in music making in his teens, founding the well respected Brazilian psychedelic jam band Violeta De Outono in 1986. Two males from opposite sides of the world, with roots in cultures as diverse as can be, but who had both been listening to Gong music since the 1970s.

This was the era when the band's reputation was established, in particular with the release of three early albums on the just-established independent record company, Virgin Records. With the introduction of the character Zero, tales of his struggles with the material and spiritual issues of modern life, its rich variety of musical styles, from trippy outer-space ragas to chanted childish nursery rhymes, these were products of their time. But with inspirational collective input from all the members, this 'Trilogy' has stood the test of time, and is still performed by the current line-up with as much verve as that original long-haired, pan-European collective. After a recording hiatus of nearly 20 years, Allen renewed the story-line of the Trilogy and its hero Zero on the Shapeshifter (Celluloid, 1992) album, with a softer, more acoustic base, but by the turn of the millennium the reconstituted band was again reaching to a funkier sound.

Recalling his introduction to Gong, Golfetti fills in details of his background in Brazilian psychedelia, and, after 2012, his increasing commitment to Allen's reconstructed Gong, while Torabi explicitly describes the process of handover from Allen to the current line-up a few years later, as well as his involvement in London's alternative music scene both before and after his involvement with Gong. Both musicians are keen to stress that this is not the history of a tribute band, but the evolution of yet a further stage in the process of metamorphosis which any long-standing art form has to go through. In a live setting, the musical heritage of Allen, Smyth and other members of the Gong entourage, is very obvious. On disc the similarities are not always so immediate, except for the soaring glissando guitar that frequently features also in the new material. But a gleaning of the lyrics shows that Torabi endorses the original message that Allen espoused that music can be affirming and transformative. He even uses the word 'magical' to describe the zen that the current musicians are capable of entering together, and which they invite their listeners to join. Jumping into the Gong world is not always simple act of listening, and as one prominent fan is proud to tell, 'good music takes some working on -then the rewards become more apparent.'

The following two interviews are not totally complementary, but illustrate the guitarists' approach to their joint project. Also it's the story of the writer's own journey to embracing the new iteration of the band, understanding its convoluted heritage, and pondering the prospective spin-offs to come. Also included in Torabi's interview are plans for tours on different continents in 2020.

Interview 1: Fabio Golfetti, guitarist

AAJ: How did you come to get linked with Daevid and Gong -was it through your contacts via Violeta De Outono, or a more 'cosmic link up'?

FG: It's a long beautiful story... Since I was a teenager, I "decided" to be an "artist" after discovery the existence of a band called Gong. My father brought me a copy of Camembert Electrique (BYG Actuel, 1971) from France, and soon after his boss brought over the LP Angels Egg (Virgin, 1973). Since then, that music opened my spirit and my way to reflect about life, maybe too serious to be serious! But in fact I wrote many letters to GAS (Gong Appreciation Society) in the early eighties, and finally around late 1987 I received an invitation for a workshop that Daevid would perform in Dover, and at the same time, one of my best friends, May East, who was living in the small community of Findhorn, Scotland, narrowed the contact with Daevid, as she's also a musician and was releasing an album through the same label as him. Then surprisingly I received a letter from Daevid, in an orange paper and a purple envelope with plenty of drawings saying that he already knew me from my letters! (he said he'd read them all....)

Later I had an opportunity to invite him to perform solo in Brazil at a festival during an Ecological Summit in 1992. We performed together and since then we became in touch and friends. When he reformed Gong in 1998 I offered my services as guitarist, but there was a schedule already on for those gigs, so he said that he will invite me to a future project called Glissando Orchestra. And this happened in 2006, from then we became more close, we toured in Brazil in 2007, and in 2011 he finally invited me to join the band for the UK and Europe 2012 tour.

AAJ: Could you recommend 3 discs from your pre-Gong bands that you are proud of? Not necessarily Gong style, but to add to Europeans knowledge of Brazilian Psych rock in addition to Os Mutantes

FG: In fact my main Brazilian band is Violeta De Outono, that appeared in the 80's Brazilian scene and it's still on. At that time we blend psychedelic music with the grey atmospheres of the 80's post-punk era.

Can I recommend more than one? 1. Violeta De Outono -Violeta De Outono (1987) 2. Violeta De Outono— Em Toda Parte (1988) Both were released on BMG, the first was more into post-punk/rock Brazilian scene and it was very successful in Brazil, and the second a bit more experimental, one of the first albums using samples in these lands. 3. Fabio Golfetti & Invisible Opera -Glissando Spirit (1993) (my passport to the UK music market) 4. Gong Global Family— Live in Sao Paulo 2007 5. Fabio Golfetti & Invisible Opera -UFO Planante (2010). 

AAJ: Did you work with Josh Pollock? If so, how was it? I did quite a long interview with him for AllAboutJazz, More Than Just The Notes. He was very impressed by Daevid's guitar work.

FG: Yes of course I know Josh's work! In 2007 a friend of mine had the idea to bringing Daevid to perform in Brazil, not as solo but performing with local artists, and we formed a Brazilian Gong. Daevid was working a lot with Josh at University of Errors and suggested that he come to complete the band. We played the old Trilogy / Camembert material but with an approach a bit more wild with fire, and Josh was the key factor with his atonal/ weird interferences. I think Daevid liked that performance a lot, because he asked me to mix and produce the CD and DVD and also he was more free to play gliss & sing having Josh and myself creating all guitar background. I also was very, very impressed with Daevid's guitar work. Later during the recordings of I See You (Snapper Records, 2014) I remember when Daevid created a complete astonishing composition just over a single drum track! Fascinating!

AAJ: How was playing with Daevid? I guess this could be a whole interview by itself!

FG: Ah yes, we could talk the whole day... All those years playing with Daevid was a blessing, I think in some aspects, Daevid formed a new Gong in 2012 with the intention of bringing a new energy to refresh and continue the legacy, when he brought his son Orlando and myself, respectively from Australia and South America, far away from the main axis UK/Europe. Daevid was far out, much more than a guitarist; he was a complete visionary, and knew exactly how to put things together, even if his intention was to confuse! I learned a lot just by listening to Gong and his solo albums, and also tried to grab Steve Hillage's guitar tricks. For me, Daevid's musical concept was in two worlds, the live performance of pure energy and the recordings as a mind exploration in deep details.

AAJ: How different is playing with Kavus compared to Daevid?

FG: There's no comparison between Daevid and Kavus, and there's no replacement for Daevid. Kavus, like me, is a Gong fan and he brought his distinctive style to Gong with more ideas about angular riffs, complex time signatures, that also matches the eastern influences of Gong legacy. Kavus lead singing doesn't make the band sound like a tribute, it's a real continuation with musicians that Daevid "chose" over  the past 10 years.

While Daevid puts a trip vibe with energetic passages, the current line up is more an energetic vibe with trip passages. As Kavus is also a great guitarist, our interaction is different from when I played with Daevid which I was much more in the role of a guitarist filling all, and with Kavus we are complementary playing, each one in his style. Even though Daevid had an inventive and innovative guitar approach, playing live he was more focused as a singer, his characters and his lovely invention of the glissando guitar. [See Kavus's comments on  Fabius's and Daevid's skills with the 'gliss guitar.']

AAJ: Has the composition process changed much over your time in Gong?

FG: When at Daevid's time, during the 2012 tour we start thinking of a new album, we played a new song named "Occupy," which was a Daevid's idea with contributions from the band. We didn't go much further because for that tour the repertoire was mostly the trilogy. But with the band established we had an opportunity to record some ideas at my friend's studio, Mosh in São Paulo, and those later formed the majority of I See You. Basically at that time we worked with some individual ideas and with that jam we did in the studio with contributions by everybody. Lately on the album Rejoice! I'm Dead! (Madfish Music, 2017) we also collected individual ideas but we rehearsed before we went to studio, which made the compositions more consistent. And finally the last album The Universe Also Collapses (Kscope, 2019) was composed during rehearsals -we all together as a band, creating, weaving, arranging every detail in the album. We knew exactly what to record, what would be the visuals, and we knew that the album will sound good live because it was all composed live.

AAJ: You mentioned how playing with Kavus is different from Daevid. Does it still stretch you? He says wonderful things about your glass guitar -what about 'ordinary lead' work?

FG: The synergy in this band is great, after being together all those years we know the skills and potential of each other, the contributions and interactions are very spontaneous. Kavus and me we discover naturally our space in the band, I became the glissando guitar master and space floating guitar and he, the main spine motor and riff man. While Kavus' lead guitar explores the unusual eastern flavors, my lead work tends to bring back the classic space rock vibe maybe a link to the old classic Gong. On the other hand, I'm an absolutely unconditional fan of Syd Barrett, so every unconscious bit I play, comes imprinted with the freedom of psychedelic inspiration.

AAJ: Kavus told that you have some tours lined up for this year -do you expect there to be any new material, and if so what do you hope it will include/which direction will it go?

FG: At the moment we are finalizing the tour schedule for the band Gong and also The Steve Hillage Band. We will pass through many countries and surely in between, we will work on new material. The next album will be different from the previous, we were in the "red" level maximum power making The Universe Also Collapses, the new directions should be a new cycle, who knows?

Interview 2: Kavus Torabi, guitarist

AAJ: How was it, playing with Daevid, and how long did you actually play together?

KT: Well, this is going to be a long answer. Some people will already know that I met Daevid through hosting a radio show where he was guesting. [The Interesting Alternative Show, is something of an icon in the British fringe music-radio scene, hosted by former snooker world champion Steve Davis, Torabi's new band mate in the recently established psyche-groove trio The Utopia Strong]. We made a strong bond immediately, and without ever having heard me play he asked me to join Gong. So just a few weeks later he was there in the audience of a concert I was doing with another band I've been involved in, Guapo, bouncing around just in front of me with his eye very fixed on me. An unofficial audition!

I should say here that although I had been a fan of Gong since my very formative teen years, it had never developed into that kind of obsessive fandom that can take over listeners' being [though maybe the author has to admit symptoms of this]. And more particularly, through my friendship with Tim Smith of the British band Cardiacs [where Torabi was first a technician, and then in the early 2000s a fully accredited guitarist], I had learnt to deal with highly visionary and somewhat manipulative band leaders. In fact Tim was also a huge Gong fan, and Daevid a Cardiacs fan, so the symmetry of my involvement with Gong seems almost fated!

But to answer your second question, I actually only had a handful of live gigs with Daevid, four I think, because the major tour that we had planned to support the I See You album was cancelled when first he broke his arm, and quite soon after was diagnosed with cancer. These took place in Brazil, and we should have gone on to Chile, but there was as well as some rehearsal time in London before we left actually -we actually had quite a lot of down time together waiting for things to get sorted out there, and during that time we really clicked musically, we had a real language between us. I was also really enjoying the opportunity to concentrate on my guitar playing, after focusing for most of my professional life on using the guitar as more of a compositional tool, as well as the whole leading the band role. But linking up with Daevid helped me loosen up in my own approach to the guitar, becoming less strict with my attitude to soloing, and helping develop these skills too.

AAJ: So, it means you have a different role in the band now Daevid is not around?

KT: Of course. But the point is that it was such a powerful experience working with Daevid, even for such a short time. He was really a creative guitarist, who approached his own role so creatively. On the one hand he was so unpredictable, but you always knew that he had confidence in where he was going. And that was the thing which didn't change when he was not there. Having to fulfill the contracted gigs without him when he fell ill -and he was very insistent that we did meet those obligations -was initially a chore for the whole band [by this time settled with the 5 current musicians]. None of us wanted to do it, really. But after those first gigs it was clear that this line up really had something special about it, we really gelled. You can feel it as a musician, and I think as a listener too—how can I describe it? Maybe it's like they find this gold bar, running through time and if people somehow get to hang on to it, when it happens you can feel the environment change. It's really transformational—I think you can even call it magic!

So, my role now is of course rather different from back then, when we were really all trying to find our feet together, but of course with this base of the three long-term musicians [Sturt on bass, Ian East on winds, and Brazilian glissando expert Fabio Golfetti] who were all so well versed in the latest Gong repertoire and style. Maybe the main issue for me has been differentiating myself from my other projects, Knifeworld in particular. Having spent almost all my professional life involved in the alternative scene around London, if one can still call Cardiacs such, I've been surrounded by such an inspiring, gifted bunch of musicians, it's obvious that I bring a lot of that into Gong. For example Richard Larcombe, with his brother James playing in Stars in Battledress, and now leading the Lost Crowns -we have been on the same page, musically and even mentally since we were teenagers in Plymouth. Then there's Craig Fortnam and the North Sea Radio Orchestra who I have guested with a bit. These are bands doing really interesting things compositionally and creatively, and I feel really inspired by them—as well as my own band Knifeworld of course, some of whose members are also involved in those other bands. And don't forget Guapo, the 'experimental/art rock' band are still around..

AAJ: How much do you bring from your other bands into Gong?

KT: That's for the listeners to say! Of course you will hear similarities when I'm singing, but the compositional process is so different that they are really totally separate entities.

AAJ: And how do you find playing with Fabio?

KT: Well, to start with I always loved the idea, and the sound, of two guitars working together. Look at the Cardiacs' line-up! As well as what I was doing with Daevid, it has been a natural progression since then. He is the most fabulous gliss(ando) guitarist in the world. Even Daevid worshipped Fabio's sound, and he created it!

AAJ: With a little help from Syd Barrett?

KT: OK, Syd pioneered the technique, but Daevid really made it a fully fledged musical tool in his work. [Hear the album he made titled The Seven Drones (GAS Records, 2008)] And Fabio has taken it a stage further with his polyphonic sound, and a stereo signal which can be bounced around a venue. He added a whole new level to the technique. [See Fabio's own comments on the way the two current guitarists work together.] The irony is that earlier I was also using the technique independently in my own bands, in Guapo for example, but using a drumstick as the slide. This gives a rougher sound, nothing as ethereal as the metal devices that Daevid used and developed the sound with.

We also have somewhat different rigs. Fabio uses more of a traditional mix—he has a Boss multi-effect unit and then a Roland stereo converter, which he gets that stereo signal. I have a couple of distortion units, a delay, a flanger, a looper and a type of sitar effect which I've had for years! I think I'm more interested in getting effects from the fretboard though. And as well I use tremolo quite a lot.

AAJ: How is the compositional process different now that Daevid isn't involved?

KT: The process hasn't changed, people bringing ideas, riffs, themes and bouncing them off each other, but the way I approach has a little. Particular tropes, scales, modes that previously I thought 'not right for me' have become acceptable now. Things that before I may not have allowed earlier, through playing with Gong, have become impregnated now in the musical language that I use. The surprise has been how much I've been able to assimilate them and make them my own, and how natural and honest they feel rather than bogus and insincere—which was previously my worry. As a result, after 5 years playing with these guys, I've been gifted a more extensive musical palette to use. Maybe I'm just less uptight about music than I used to be!

AAJ: So what about future plans for Gong?

KT: We'll be all over the place this year [2020], either as Gong, Gong featuring Steve Hillage, or as The Steve Hillage Band. First, it's Brazil and Chile in March, Then a tour with all 3 incarnations in Japan in late summer—and a bunch of festivals in Europe in the summer. It's already a busy year—but we're working on new music at the moment, and if any of it is gig-ready by our November UK tour we'll be trying to see if it fits with the set.

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