Guitarist Allan Holdsworth, bassist Hugh Hopper, drummer John Marshall, and sax/keyboard player Elton Dean. All legends of the progressive rock and jazz scene, and all at one time members of the influential band Soft Machine. Now, over 20 years after that bands demise, these musicians have come together to form a new band called Soft Works. John Marshall and Hugh Hopper spent some time with Pete Pardo recently to discuss all things Soft.
With the release of a brand new CD called Abracadabra, this monumental gathering of heavyweight musicians is set to once again bring their brand of jazz-tinged progressive rock to the masses.
Sea of Tranquility: First off, the most obvious question-what prompted the formation of Soft Works?
Hugh Hopper: Leonardo Pavkovic (MoonJune Records), fan of all things Soft, really wanted to see some of his old heroes back together. Elton, John and I occasionally play together in other projects anyway, so we made it happen.
SoT: While it is being billed in some circles as sort of a reformation of Soft Machine, this line-up never truly were in S.M. all at the same time, correct?
John Marshall: That's true. In the 10+ years I was with Softs I played with the other three but not at the same time. I don't think any of us are interested in reforming Soft Machine (which particular Soft Machine, by the way? There were umpteem line-ups) and recreating past experiences. We all have moved on and a rerun would be of interest only if we hadn't developed musically. The current project is valid only if it has the potential of producing some creative music. The links with the past exist because we are who we are.
HH:Jon put it perfectly. As for my history with SM, I was in the band with John and Elton, John was in SM later with Allan.
SoT: The music on Abracadabra has a very dark and loose jazzy feel, as opposed to the more frantic and avant-garde sounds of the old Soft Machine. Was the idea behind Soft Works to go with that style (perhaps an ode to the classic Miles Davis/John Coltrane years)on this CD?
HH: We didn't sit down and have a Concept Meeting before we recorded - so what you hear is the music that we all play naturally at this stage of our musical lives
JM: I approached this in the same way I always do, which is I suppose a jazz
approach: interaction, improvisation. In a sense it's always work in progress and I value looseness more than tightness. There was very little discussion about what approach to take. It's a question of experience and trust.
SoT: Allan, and especially Elton, are the lead soloists on the CD, yet the concept seems more about atmosphere and mood than constant blowing. Take a song like "Elsewhere" for instance, which has plenty of great sax and guitar solos, yet they are played so melodically that they come across more as accentuating the songs main theme than an excuse to drop in a solo. Would you both agree?
HH: Both Elton and Allan are naturally great mood creators. They can blow your ass off as well, however...
JM: Always interesting to hear how things sound to other ears. We just played
what seemed right. What you are picking up on might be the fact that we play as a group rather than soloists backed by a rhythm section. This approach is shared by all the musicians I currently play with.
SoT: How was the songwriting handled for the CD?
HH: Elton and I chipped in three or four tunes each and we kept things open - none of us wanted to rehearse for weeks on intricate compositions. John had a lot of input on these, too. Allan contributed one piece that in fact didn't make it to the CD because of technical problems in his own studio, but the track is in the can somewhere, waiting to be finished.
SoT: What are some of your favorite songs on Abracadabra and why?
JM: I can't listen to anything I'm on for quite a long time and so at the moment I don't really know but all the tracks have something going for them.
HH: Personally, I love Elton's tune "Baker's Treat" (dedicated to great bassist Freddy Baker) ... and it's a pleasure to hear the other guys playing my tunes like "First Trane."
SoT: What type of instruments and equipment are you using these days, and how has it helped you evolve the sounds you can create as opposed to what was available in the 70's?
HH: Onstage I'm still mainly using analog equipment - Peavey Foundation bass and various stompboxes - my old Shaftesbury DuoFuzz, a Boss Flanger ... although in fact for Abracadabra I mostly used a straight sound. I do work in my own studio with digital stuff on other projects, loop things.
JM: The drums I use are Sonor Designer (although I used my old Sonor HiLite on
the recording) I use small sizes 14"x5" Snare,18" Bass Drum, 10",12",14" Toms.
Cymbals are all Paiste Traditionals, except the 20" China which is Paiste Sound Creation.
No real change there although I used to use more gongs and things. If the music required it I'd probably do so again.
SoT:Here's the touchy question-some progressive rock purists have stated that the new CD is much more jazzy than what they expected. Does the band have plans to continue recording, and if so might there be a possibility of incorporating some symphonic or avant-garde sounds next time around to fit in with the progressive rock crowd, or is jazz-fusion more of where the band fits?
HH: Yes, we're thinking now about laying down some new tracks in England for Allan to work on in LA. We're certainly not Prog purists (Soft Machine was never a truly Prog band anyway, but always got dumped into that so called category). I personally am more involved in loops and psychedelia than the others, so maybe some of that will sneak in next time. Well see what comes out of the cauldron.
JM: I'm not too up on progressive rock and I'm sorry if the purists are offended; but "jazzy" is what I do (and always have done).
SoT: Does the band have any plans for a tour to support the CD?
HH: Oh, yes. Leonardo is burning up the phone as we speak, setting up tours in Japan, USA, Mexico and Europe. We're doing a promo tour of Japan in August (the CD came out there first), then USA in September. Europe after that. I think we're doing Baja next year.
SoT: What record label (s) is the CD going to ultimately be on?
HH: Universal in Japan, maybe Shrapnel/Ryko in the USA .
SoT: Thanks again to the both of you. I really enjoyed the CD, and look forward to hearing more from you in the future.
HH/JM: Take care!