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Progressive Rock Interviews

Mooch

Interviewed by Gary Hill

Interview with Stephen Palmer of Mooch from 2010

MSJ:

Can you give our readers a look at the history of your group and your involvement in music?

I first took up the guitar when I was a student at the University Of London, which was during 1980-1983. I played with a couple of local progressive rock bands at the time, and helped do sound and artwork for them, before moving away to Bedfordshire (forty miles north of London) when I got married, and my wife and I bought our first house. In April 1992, inspired by the music of Ozric Tentacles and The Orb, I decided to start my own band. My first idea was that it would be a recording project with guest artists, and that has mostly been the way of it ever since - although there have been periods of live work too. During 1992 I recorded a few albums using a four-track Fostex machine, which used chrome cassette tapes running at double speed. I sent the fourth of these albums to a guy called Andy Garibaldi - one of the stalwarts of the electronic music scene in Britain - and he really liked it. Andy then got in touch with Bill Wood of Taste Records. Bill had started his record label to release solo material from Hawkwind's Harvey Bainbridge, and after some negotiating it was agreed that he would release on CD the album Postvorta, which was a space-electronic-rock concept work recorded in 1993. Over the next couple of years three albums were released on CD, the latter two being 3001 and Starhenge. By the time of Starhenge I'd linked up with local musicians Cal and Garry Lewin, Phil Watson and Terry Bartlett, and this was the line-up of the band for a while. We recorded a lot of music and did gigs locally. It was a very happy time in my life, and we had great fun. A lot of the material from that era has been released as remastered back-catalogue by Ambientlive Records over the last three years.



In 1998 my wife and I moved away from the London area to the Westcountry (the south-western part of England), where I worked with local musicians for many years. Andy Garibaldi released the fourth Mooch album In Search Of The Acid Metal Grille in 1999 on his Dead Earnest record label, and the album was well received. By then I was also working with a friend of mine from university days, Pete Wyer, who is an amazing guitarist, and now has a reputation as a modern classical composer. Pete and I keep in touch, and he still contributes to the band's albums. During those early years of the new millennium Andy was unable to release music on CD, but as it happened I was taking time out to work on my "other career" as a science-fiction author.

 

By 2005 I had moved to Shropshire - where I was brought up, and where my parents and sister live - and Andy Garibaldi was keen to release the sixth album Gaiaspace; the year previously I had self-released on CDR the album Flight Of The Dub Voyager. Alas, 2006 marked the end of the road for Dead Earnest Records, so I linked up with John Sherwood of Ambientlive Records, and in 2007 we agreed to release the double CD space-rock concept album Dr Silbury's Liquid Brainstem Band. The album got some fantastic reviews, so I was really pleased, but at this time my personal life was extremely difficult because of a serious illness suffered by my wife; recording and preparing the album got me through that nightmarish period. At this time I was getting into 'sixties music and becoming curious about the songwriting process, so I changed tack radically and began writing and recording a trio of 'sixties-influenced song based albums: 1967½, "1966" and 1968a. These were released on Ambientlive Records, to mostly positive response. I can't sing, so I worked with local singers, including Chris Gill of the gothic progressive Band Of Rain. That turned out to be a good move, and Chris and I have collaborated on various projects ever since. Some of my fans, inevitably, were confused by the change in direction, but I reassured them that the space-rock heart of Mooch was still beating!

During 2008 and 2009 I began writing and recording the new band album, The Pagan Year, and this was released on February 15 by Ambientlive Records.

MSJ:

Where does the name "Mooch" come from? Is there some special significance to it?

When, in April 1992, I was thinking of a name for the band, I settled on the word "mooch" as a quirky, not-very-serious name. Had I known how the band would progress I would have chosen something more sensible! But I do like the word. In the US "mooch" means to steal or take, but in Britain it means to lounge around not doing very much. I thought this was an appropriately relaxed word to choose for what at the time looked like being an ambient/space project.

MSJ:

 The Pagan Year is a concept album. Do you care to elaborate on the theme?

In the mid 1990's I became interested in paganism. I'm an atheist and also involved with environment issues, so it had a certain attraction. As a non-spiritual person however I came to paganism from a skewed angle. My motivation was to experience the environment from an Earth-centred perspective, and paganism was one way of doing it. Because of my non-spiritual stance I sometimes describe myself as a part-time pagan, but my interest in what it has to offer is sincere.

I'm particularly interested in the "wheel of the year," which is the annual cycle of eight festivals - two solstices, two equinoxes, and the four Celtic cross-festivals Imbolc, Beltane (May Day), Lughnasadh and Samhain - that modern pagans observe. The album journeys through a pagan year via eight tracks, each 15-20 minutes long, contained in two CDs. “Imbolc” is minimal, as befits this cold, gloomy time of year, whereas the “Vernal Equinox” is a little more lush. “Beltane” is warmer and a bit more bouncy, while the “Summer Solstice” is vigorous and exuberant. “Lughnasadh” is hot and heavy, while the “Autumnal Equinox” is complex and stormy. “Samhain” is stately and elegiac, and then “Yule” returns the listener to a cold, electronic sound for the winter solstice.

One feature I wanted for The Pagan Year was a special guest on each track, again to emphasise the character of each time of year. “Imbolc” features the British electronic musician Jez Creek, who is one of the most energetic and noteworthy supporters of the British EM scene. I've known Jez for a while - he played alongside me at the launch gig for Gaiaspace in 2006, and he was one of the guests on Dr Silbury's Liquid Brainstem Band. The two equinox pieces feature sung chants, and these were done by Chris Gill and Linda Harlow. Chris is a brilliant guitarist, and has sung my songs since 2007, while Linda was one of the trio who sang the "1966" songs.


The track “Beltane” is made complete by Bridget Wishart, who not only sang but also played saxophone and EWI (electronic wind instrument).

On “Lughnasadh” I wanted to work with Alex Pym, who has for a long time been part of the Ozric Tentacles extended family, and now plays guitar in that amazing space-rock band Dream Machine. Alex came up two two smoking electric guitar solos.

As for “Samhain,” the central portion of that track is enriched by my long-time collaborator Cyndee Lee Rule, the American electric violinist. Cyndee has been one of my most enthusiastic and important collaborators for some time now.

Finally, on “Yule,” I asked John Sherwood to play synthesizers, and this he did to great effect.


I'm really pleased with the album. I does everything I wanted it to!

MSJ:

If you weren't involved in music, what do you think you'd be doing?

I dread to think. Music keeps me sane. Though I've made virtually no money from it compared to writing novels (and, of course, my day job), I can't imagine life without it. Music for me is emotional self-expression, and integral to my way of life.

MSJ: How would you describe the sound of Mooch?

The sound of my mind, as interpreted by me and whoever I'm working with at the time.

MSJ:

What's ahead for you?

At the moment I've got a couple of projects at an early stage. I have an album of short songs written and prepared, but at the moment I'm uncertain who will sing them, and what form the music will take. I'm thinking of calling the album Britannia Street - it's about various characters who live in an imaginary British village street. Like much of my song-based work, it is quirky, melodic, and very "English." As for solo work, following last year's six-disc electronic release I Dream Of Urs Amann I'm working on another large-scale project, but this has a long, long way yet to go before anything appears - years, most likely.

Incidentally, I recently got in touch with Urs Amann himself, and it may be that something emerges from us both. As for my ethnic-dance project Blue Lily Commission, that is asleep at the moment, but I don't doubt it will reappear at some point in the future. Ambientlive Records will later this year be releasing two volumes of back-catalogue music, comprising the first four albums; the first volume is due out on May 1st.

There's also a heavy space-rock project that Chris Gill, myself and the Welsh drummer Andy Hole have recorded. We're called “The Nonexistent,” and the music is based on live jams which we later augment (if necessary) with a few synths and suchlike. The debut album Space Roc is due out via the new space-rock imprint of Ambientlive Records on the summer solstice. If at all possible, I only release music on dates corresponding to the eight spokes of the pagan year!
MSJ:

Each disc seems to include some interesting guest performers. Are they any of these collaborations that really stand out in your mind for one reason or another?

I'm a lucky man when it comes to collaborations. I suppose the case of Bridget stands out for me. I loved her voice from the Hawkwind album Space Bandits, and wondered for years what she was doing and whether she would agree to collaborate. Thanks to my Californian friend Don Falcone I got in touch with her in 2006, and she agreed to sing on three tracks from Dr Silbury's Liquid Brainstem Band. I was delighted! The collaboration that stands out from those early days is “Silver Violet Flame,” which Bridget played clarinet and sang on; I think that track is one of the highlights of the album. She's a multi-talented musician, and it makes me happy to think she has been part of Mooch - not least because she "rescued" “Beltane,” a track I was struggling with when I recorded it.
MSJ:

Are there musicians you'd like to play with in the future?

I got in touch with John Hackett last year through a mutual friend, and it would be great if he played flute on some of the Britannia Street songs. He has told me he's interested, so we'll have to see how that progresses.

MSJ:

 Do you think that downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians? It's been said by the major labels that it's essentially the heart of all the problems they are having in terms of lower sales - would you agree?

 I think the Internet has devastated music over the last decade. The problem is that music - and other content, such as video, or even text - can be shared instantaneously across the world, which inevitably creates a culture of acquiring content for free. The Internet has released this genie and it is never again going back into the bottle. I think there is a positive side to the Internet for bands, and that is the freedom it brings in terms of self-expression, presentation and fanbase, but I would say the down side is far more significant. It is impossible now to make a significant income unless you are already part of a huge band, have a phenomenal stroke of luck, or know Simon Cowell.

My big worry is that the destruction of music by the Internet also hits writing, but I think authors have little to worry about at the moment. Part of the technological advance of music has been the progression from tape to vinyl to CD to pure data. It is a progression of format. This however should not affect the book, as it is already a perfect design that can't be improved upon technically in the way, say, vinyl records were. For the moment, authors are safe. However, as soon as an author has a book available in electronic form they are in danger. Google books is already chewing up authors and spitting them out. I fear for the future of human creativity.

MSJ:

In a related question how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?

Ha ha! I'd be amazed if any such tapes exist! Mooch now play live so infrequently that a show tape would be a rarity indeed. But if we did play live more, and if fans taped the shows, to be honest I wouldn't mind. There's never been a live Mooch album, except for a few live tracks that I put on Bottom Of The Barrel (remastered back-catalogue volume 7), cuts I'd kept in some cases for up to fifteen years. They were good cuts, but Mooch at heart has always been a studio band.
MSJ:

If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch-nemesis and why?

This is an interesting question, and I've put my mind to it for a while, to come up with one name: Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim. For me he epitomises an attitude that infuriates me, which is that a disc jockey is somehow a musician. While I don't deny that there is some skill to being a disc jockey, it certainly isn't a form of music creation. Sampling and remaking - and Moby is another example of this - is a form of theft. Music comes from the emotional heart of a person, or people in the case of a band. Being a disc jockey is a form of self-expression, but no DJ counts in my book as a musician. We have unfortunately got into a phase of music where the music isn't as important as the image and the underlying culture - very sad. This explains too why I simply don't "get" tribute bands - what's the point of being someone else when you can be yourself?
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band, who would be in it?
It would be great to put together a band to play, say, the progressive whirlwind that is “Autumnal Equinox” from the new album. Singing and playing bass I'd have Geddy Lee, who has been a hero of mine for decades. I don't really "do" heroes, in the sense of copying or worshipping them, but Geddy is as close as it gets for me - I've been a fan of Rush since the late seventies. To sing the female vocals on the song at the end of the track I'd have Emiliana Torrini, whose voice, I think, would go well with Geddy's. On guitar I'd have Steve Hackett, an exceptional musician, and one I've again followed for decades. He'd be perfect for “Autumnal Equinox”. On the drums I'd have Paul Humphrey, who was one of the drummers on Frank Zappa's Hot Rats - I love his restrained-flamboyant style of drumming. Finally, playing the synthesizers I'd have Joie Hinton of Ozric Tentacles. Very few synthesists have his gift for playing analogue keyboards.
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view, who would be playing?
In order of playing I'd have The Byrds, The Mamas & The Papas, and then The Fifth Dimension performing Jimmy Webb's masterpiece The Magic Garden. Then I'd go on to a bit of Gong - with Steve Hillage of course! - and then Rush, who would do a set covering their entire career. At end the festival I'd have Ozric Tentacles topping the bill. Wow, that would be some festival...
MSJ:

What was the last CD you bought, or what have you been listening to lately?

Just lately I've been playing music by Bernard Xolotl (Californian globe-trotter who records cosmic electronic music), Bo Hansson (of Lord Of The Rings fame), Midlake, very early Tangerine Dream, Toumani Diabate (Malian master of the kora), Konono No. 1 (Congolese street musicians), Emiliana Torrini, The Future Kings Of England and The Byrds. The last CD I bought was a greatest hits compilation by The Peanut Butter Conspiracy. I'm about to buy the new Midlake album!

MSJ:

What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?

I attend a local electronic music event called “Awakenings” that showcases British, and occasionally European, EM talent. I've played at the event a couple of times. The last big bands I saw live were Space Ritual and Amon Düül 2, who did an amazing night in my local home town of Shrewsbury. Nik Turner wandered around the venue before going on stage like he couldn't sit still even for a moment.

MSJ:

What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

 Great film, that! Well, there haven't been many because Mooch don't play live much, but I suppose Cal Lewin destroying the bass speakers at a Cambridge venue in 1995 would be one. Cal had a particularly good sub-bass sound that he'd programmed, and it trashed the venue's cabs. That was not one of our best gigs - it poured with rain, hardly anybody came, and we got paid almost nothing. Gigs, eh...?

MSJ:

Finally, are there any closing thoughts you'd like to get out there?

As I mentioned above, the other half of my career is science-fiction author. After a few years delay owing to my chaotic home life, and also because of the illness of my editor, I'm delighted to say my new SF novel Urbis Morpheos is going to be published soon by PS Publishing.


The novel is set millions of years in the future and has a strong environmental theme, as does most of my work. My style of writing is what you might call "elliptical" - I don't give much away, and a lot of the substance of the novel is beneath the narrative's surface. The plot follows two women, both of whom seek wisdom in the wrecked environment that is the planet-wide city of Urbis Morpheos. A mysterious man assists them. One woman hopes to bring the return of nature by denying all artifice and manufacturing, while the other seeks to overturn the artificial environment on its own terms. How they fare is the tale I tell.

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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