It takes awhile to earn status as a Grand Old Man of, well, of anything. It seems to take even longer if the thing in question is rock music. But Nik Turner has earned the crown. As an early member of innovative British-based band Hawkwind, he added a jazzy dimension to their hard rocking, Pink Floyd-meets-Steppenwolf sound. Mostly self-taught (he did have a bit of formal training in his early 20s), Turner plays saxophone and flute in a style that focuses more on texture and feel than any sort of “schooled” approach.
Though his tenure with Hawkwind (his second, actually) ended in the mid 1980s, he has gone on to do a great deal of work in a similar space-rock vein. There are nearly two dozen Hawkwind albums (new and archival material) featuring Turner, and he has nearly as many solo/collaborative album releases. Moreover, his guest appearances on the albums of other like-minded acts are too numerous to mention. In short, this 73-year-old from Oxford remains quite busy.
Turner’s latest studio release is 2013′s Space Gypsy. And while the album’s foundational concept is largely the work of guitarist Nicky Garratt (formerly of UK Subs) and producer/keyboardist Jürgen Engler, Space Ritual keeps its marquee artist’s personality and musicianship right out front where it belongs.
I saw Nik Turner live onstage in November 2013 at Asheville NC’s Mothlight, a club that had just opened on the west side of town. For the American tour in support of Space Ritual, Turner was backed by krautrock band Hedersleben; they also did a wonderfully atmospheric opening set, followed by a dreadful and loud regional metal act, before Turner’s headlining set. In addition to Garratt’s deft yet distinctively punky guitar work, the band featured manic drummer Jason Willer, bassist Bryce Shelton, and Kephera Moon on keyboards (and dancing…lots of dancing). Before the evening’s music began, I enjoyed some time with Turner in the green room; in a relatively brief period, we covered a lot of territory. A simple question set Turner on his way; all I had to do, really, was sit there with him and happily take it in. He held forth on a potted history of his old band Hawkwind; multimedia and naked women onstage; his myriad musical projects; his mystical adventures in Egypt; and his healing powers.
Bill Kopp: I hear strong echoes of your music, your style – both now and back in the Hawkwind days — in the work of both Julian Cope and The Psychedelic Furs, both respected and influential-themselves artists who came up in the late 70s and early 80s. What do you think it is about your music that appealed, resonated with them?
Nik Turner: Well, I think what we were doing was very original. The music was very diverse because there were a lot of diverse influences in the band. I was into jazz. I liked Jimi Hendrix, but I liked Miles Davis, too. And I met musicians in Berlin who believed that you didn’t need to be technical to express yourself, so I saw the idea of free jazz in a rock band!
BK: It was sort of a punk aesthetic, a decade and a half ahead of its time…
NT: That was my sort of point of view. Dave [Brock, guitar] and Mick Slattery [guitar] were into blues, really. Terry Ollis was a primitive drummer who taught himself to play. His parents ran a scrap metal yard. And John Harrison, the bass player, had actually been playing in big bands; he played in a band with Joe Loss. And Dik Mik [Michael Davies] was a guy I met who had never been in a band, and he didn’t play anything. But he was given this audio generator that produced all these different waveforms — sine wave, square wave, sawtooth wave – and an echo unit. And [laughs] to me, that became the sound of the band. That is what the band was about; it gave us that sort of “space” ethic.
It was later that Robert Calvert became involved with the band. He was an old friend of mine, and I spent a lot of time with him. He turned me onto a lot of science fiction and other stuff; Samuel Beckett and people like that, too. So I invited him to join the band at one point, and he did. This was after he had been involved in the production of the X In Search of Space (1971) album cover and artwork. He and Barney Bubbles put together the log book of the space ship. It was about a spaceship that had come to Earth and become two-dimensional. The record was the story, and the adventures were all recorded in the space log.
So once Robert joined, he said he had a work in progress, this rock opera called Space Ritual. So we put that together [as an album]. But the band itself – because we had so many diverse influences – weren’t just trying to play rock. I feel that we were breaking new ground. There wasn’t a genre that we were trying to fit into. We were just trying to produce music that came naturally to everybody. And everybody was being creative in his own way. I think that’s what created the individuality of the band.
We had influences such as Michael Moorcock, the science fiction writer. He became involved with the band as well. He had been doing a number of community projects around Notting Hill; he got the band playing a concert underneath a flyover, on Portobello Road. He organized that because he had a stall in the market at that time. He sold bits of clothing; I remember, I bought a hat from him that looked like a pirate’s hat. So he got involved as well.
Part of Robert Calvert’s role was his poetry, and he also used some of Michael Moorcock’s poetry, including “In Case of Sonic Attack, Follow These Rules.” Robert did that stuff as well as singing his own songs from Space Ritual. And one of the songs he had written was “Silver Machine,” which was originally supposed to have been for Space Ritual.
But it wasn’t used for that; I don’t know why, actually. We recorded “Silver Machine” at a live gig, the Greasy Truckers party, with Robert singing. I think we used that recording on the Glastonbury album. But when we decided to record and release it as a single, we decided to have Lemmy sing it. That gave it a different sort of emphasis.
ik Turner: And the success of the Hawkwind “Silver Machine” single enabled us to mount the Space Ritual, which was quite an expensive project. Jonathan Smeadon was quite a high profile lighting technician; he was quite creative. He had been working with people like Steve Winwood and doing stuff for Island Records. So he worked on Barney Bubbles‘ concept, which was that the band was the spaceship. And the audience were were what powered it [laughs] to other dimensions. So it was a sort of total event for everybody, really.
And then with regard to the stage lighting, Barney took all the astrological signs of all of the band, and the corresponding colors that go with them, and used those pointedly for the lighting of those people. He also devised an entire stage plan using the Pythagorean music of the spheres. All the planets were suspended on a cord, and they all vibrated at different frequencies. And out of that, you get the Western scale.
The Space Ritual show was a total concept. We had dancers, a very good mime artist who had studied with Marcel Marceau, and a couple other people. There was the lovely Stacia, who was a young lady I had met at the Isle of Wight Festival, and who I coerced into playing with the band. She’d take off her clothes, and Barney would paint her body with different colors. It was very arty; it wasn’t sensationally pornographic or anything. It was presented as, “You’ve seen a naked woman before; here’s another one.” She was about six foot tall and had a forty-two inch bust, so she was quite larger than life. Every schoolboy’s dream!
There was also another dancer, a young lady from San Francisco. She was a contortionist as well. Fun and games, that.
When we got the show together, Jonathan was using ten projectors onstage; each one had a slightly different image to give the appearance of movement. We had a dragon that flew across the screen, and a city that built up as we went along. Then it decayed, and out of that grew a tree. These were all moving sequences, not movies. All very clever stuff. Nothing else like it was happening at the time.
Bill Kopp: Multimedia before there was a name for it…
I was always into theatre. My family were all in theatre and cinema. I should have been an actor, really; that’s how I fondly imagined it. So I used to come out onstage dressed as an archbishop; I’d bless the audience, and then I’d turn to my equipment and mime taking it apart. And then I’d put on this other costume what looked like a frog’s head. The archbishop’s mitre was actually a frog’s head, with the mouth pointing up. So I’d pull it down over my head and turn into this frog. And then I’d, er, interact with the dancers. [laughs]
BK: Of course you would.
NT: It was all really very spontaneous…it was all very exciting. And we’re going to perform a version of that tonight. [Note: Indeed they would, and keyboardist Kephera Moon provided the requisite suggestive writhing on the stage floor that is so essential to the piece. – BK]
BK: Hmm…well, you just answered about six of my questions. Let’s see…I mean this in the best possible way. Through the production choices and instrumentation, plus of course the lyrics and song structure, Space Gypsy sounds as if it could have been released in 1970. Was the texture of the music consciously guided by a goal of achieving that, or is that simply how it comes out when you do it?
NT: There are certain characteristics about it, yes.
I didn’t write any of the music. I wrote lyrics. I came into the situation quite late, really. They had written songs. And I’m quite happy to perform them; it’s a collective work where people who had written stuff got paid for it. So I wasn’t planning to have written it all, anyway. I think it’s all very nice and I like it. It’s got a flavor of Hawkwind about it, but on the other hand it’s quite fresh. It’s all original material; there’s no covers.
BK: So in addition to doing music from way back when, are you doing any of the new material?
NT: We’re doing a couple of songs. We’ll do “Galaxy Rise” and the single, called “Fallen Angel STS-51-L.”
BK: That’s the one about the NASA Challenger, right?
NT: Right. The drummer [Jason Willer] wrote that song; I didn’t write it. He told me, “We can change the lyrics if you don’t like them.” I could have rewritten all the songs, but I thought, well, it all gets a bit contrived. And I’d rather do something creative with these guys and see it as a stepping stone toward the next project.
BK: You’ve got a lot going on. After this tour, what’s next for you?
NT: The weekend after the tour, I’m going to Germany, where I’m playing a psych fest. They’ve employed me as the spirit of the festival. They’ve bought me an air ticket to go over there; I’ll probably play with all the bands.
Then in December, one of the bands I’ve got called Inner City Unit has a couple of gigs. Then I’ve got gigs with another band of mine called Space Ritual, which plays some Hawkwind material, but only stuff that I wrote, or that Robert Calvert wrote.
I’ve got all these bands that I put together myself. I’ve got another band called Outriders of Apocalypse, which is based upon Mayan mythology. The music is influenced by Spanish classical music and some other classical music; I’ve got the theme tune to “Scheherazade” as one of the bass lines. I’ve got a girl playing trumpet, another girl playing trombone, and myself playing saxophone and flute. A guitarist, two bass players, a drummer. A clarinet player, two girl singers, and dancers. It’s on YouTube. The delivery is like Miles Davis‘Bitches Brew. Leaning that way.
I’ve got another band called Project Nine which plays all of my repertoire. I have another band called Nik Turner’s Fantastic Allstars, which plays Latin jazz, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis. And we play a lot of funk as well, Maceo Parker stuff.
To be continued…