System 7’s Steve Hillage- Touring with Japan’s Rovo (interview)
40 years after he joined seminal ambient/ rock pioneers Gong, Steve Hillage remains at the cutting edge of alternative, experimental music, both through his System 7 band (with long term partner Miquette Giraudy) and frequent solo or collaborative projects with like-minded musicians from all over the world.
Though best known in recent years for the festival friendly ambient-tech electronica of System 7, he remains rightly revered for being one of rock’s great guitarists, playing on the likes of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and even popping up playing with hooligan punk warriors Sham 69 at Reading Festival in 1977.
In March, he’s back on the road again, though this time with Japanese progressive space rockers Rovo, performing tracks from their recent collaborative album Phoenix Rising Live!, so how much does he still practise his chords?
“In general I don’t practice guitar every day, but I have been playing quite a lot more in the last few years,” says Steve.
“One of the beauties of the project with Rovo is that it allows me to really stretch out on guitar while at the same bridging with my work as a techno producer – I haven’t played so many long solos on a live show for a very long time.”
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): How did the hook up with ROVO come about? How does it work in practical terms with you living so far apart?
Steve Hillage (System 7): “We play a lot in Japan and we first saw Rovo play at a festival in 2002. We were very impressed both with the music and their visuals. A few years later, when we made our animation video in Japan for the System 7 track Hinotori, one of the video team was a lady who was also Rovo’s VJ for live shows. As our connection grew we had Yuji Katsui, Rovo’s main man, guest on electric violin on the Gong 2032 album and then on the System 7 album UP.
We were planning an exchange for Yuji’s recording work and were thinking of doing some remixes for Rovo, but they said they had an idea to do a collaborative live tour with System 7, which we did in 2012. It worked great and we found it artistically really stimulating, and so we decided to make an album.
The main recording was made in Tokyo with us all playing live together, and then Miquette and I did some additional overdubbing in London in our studio, and later I went back to Tokyo for the mixing. We did the rehearsing in Tokyo as well and we’ve done another Asian tour in November 2013 and it was fantastic. We can’t wait to bring this project, which has grown out of live performance, over to the UK and The Netherlands in March.”
Skrufff: The tour involves a very large band in terms of personnel: how does that work practically; how are you all travelling round (tour bus/ private jet? white van? And how do you manage logistics?
Steve Hillage (System 7): “In Europe we’re all going to travel together in a tour bus. In Japan some went in a minibus and others, including myself and Miquette, went by shinkansen (bullet train) which is a fantastic way to travel. Regarding logistics, everything has been worked out pretty efficiently as you would expect with the Japanese, and with the crew we are 14 people on the road, which is pretty well manageable.”
Skrufff: How much has your business been changed by downloads spotify etc in recent years?
Steve Hillage (System 7): “Obviously CD and vinyl sales have sharply declined, but as far as the CD is concerned, for us there is still some life in the old beast, with a nicely packaged physical product. Download sales are important for us, in particular iTunes and Beatport, with Amazon digital getting more important. As far as Spotify is concerned, yes our releases are all up there for people to stream, but I think you could say that I’m a Spotify sceptic – the numbers just don’t add up.
Live performance is becoming increasingly important which I think is a healthy thing, and we’re really proud of they way we’ve managed to create our System 7 live show to work in a pure dance music context. And the way we’ve managed to integrate that with Rovo’s exciting spacey rock music is pretty extraordinary.”
Skrufff: Anything else to add?
Steve Hillage (System 7): “System 7 on its own is still going strong and we are entering the 20th anniversary year of our Fire and Water dual album with an aim to make a new dual simultaneous release of a new downtempo Mirror System album and a new full power System 7 album. This will be preceded by a retrospective compilation on CD of our top 12” club singles, featuring a lot of tracks that have never been released on CD – we’re thinking of calling it “System 7 – Out”.
Rovo & System 7- Phoenix Rising Live Rovo and System 7 (featuring Steve Hillage) play four UK dates in March: Friday 7 March Ritz, Manchester: Saturday 8 March: 02 Academy Islington, London: Sunday 9 March: Concorde 2, Brighton and Monday 10 March at The Assembly, Leamington Spa. On March 11th they play at Verviers in Belgium followed by The Melkweg in Amsterdam on March 13.
Sham 69 @ Reading Festival in 1978- scroll to the 10 minute mark)