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21st Century Gong: An Interview with Theo Travis of Gong

By Brian L. Knight

Gong may be one the best-kept secrets in rock and roll. For the last 30 years, the English/French band has been spearheading through the European underground with their psychedelic/space rock/avant-garde jazz/progressive music. Since the band’s inception in the 1960s, Gong has experienced many different lineup changes but with composer/bandleader Daevid Allen always at the helm of Starship Gong. During the early 1970s, the band released a series of albums known as the Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy. Through the albums Flying Teapot, You, and Angel’s Egg, Allen and company sang of mythical lands and creatures and instructed new words such as "Pothead Pixies" and "Flying Teapots". The fantasy lyricism was supported by fantastic window the possessed psychedelic groves with complex avant-garde compositions.

Years later, the band has been joined by saxophonist Theo Travis, a respected London jazz saxophone player. Travis was asked to fill in for a sick Didier Malherbe during a Gong tour and his playing was an immediate hit with the band. The band has now released Zero to Infinity in which Travis contributes a healthy amount of songs to the effort. Travis is a perfect match for the band. He is a fan of progressive rock but his professional training and experience is deep in the jazz tradition. Gong is primarily a progressive band with a jazz kneeling. Travis is able to provide his extensive improvisational experience while still realizing the idiosyncrasies of the Gong sound. The Vermont Review spoke to Theo Travis over the cyber waves and here is what he had to say.

Vermont Review: When did you first pick up a saxophone? Who prompted you to do

so? Did any musicians have any influence on you?

Theo Travis: When I was 17. I started on flute when I was 7. Mel Collins was an early hero, then Coltrane, Brecker, Tubby Hayes and Dexter Gordon and the rest. I was originally a flautist who liked improvising, and was told jazz flute players played sax too.....I was a huge fan of rock bands Yes, King Crimson, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd before getting into Jazz. I still like them a lot. Also Brian Eno's ambient series.

VR: Have you had proper musical schooling?

TT: Flute lessons and grades, University classical music degree (specializing in Shostakovich). Sax lessons and summer jazz camps got me learning about jazz theory and how to play jazz.

VR: How did you get involved with Gong?

TT: I was brought in at the last minute when Didier Malherbe couldn't do the European tour in May 1999. I knew the guitarist on that tour and had met the agent, who recommended me. I got on well with everyone in all ways and I was asked to continue with the band with Didier. I do most of the playing now, but he guests on certain occasions

VR: Did you listen to Gong much before joining the band?

TT: No. I liked a lot of psychedelic music - early Floyd, Traffic, a lot of 60s and early 70s bands, but I didn't know Gong's music. Steven Wilson by chance lent me " You" about 6 months before I joined the band!

VR: You have much of the writing credits to the new Gong album. Have you introduced a new element to the Gong sound ?

TT: Quite possibly. I have written a lot of music and I write differently from the rest of the band but in a sound that I think fits and complements the Gong sound. It's not really for me to say though..

VR: Is there any part of the Gong mythology that you can relate to more than the other?

TT: I enjoy the experimentation, the free spirit, the improvisation, and the progressive sound in the music. I'm less hot on the mythology, but much of the flying teapots and pixie business amuses me. Daevid writes some great lyrics.

VR: Could you describe a Gong concert? The vibe? The fans? The energy?

TT: Depends which night, but on a good night, there is a magic, a warmth, a family vibe, a power, much energy and much beauty.

VR: You seem to be practioneer of improvised jazz music. Does your background mesh well with Gong?

TT: I think so. My Marshall Travis Wood trio is full on freeform cutting edge stuff . An amazing band and John Marshall and Mark Wood are incredible musicians. They don't get better than that. Gong is very open to my improvisations, ideas, and willingness in jumping off the deep end!.

VR: Daevid Allen has his roots in jazz. Does his jazz influences come to surface today?

TT: His love of jazz, improvisation, Charlie Parker, saxophones, freedom in music, experimentation are all important in making Gong what it is.

VR: You played on, by far, the best album I have heard in years Porcupine

Tree’s Stupid Dream. How did you get involved with Steve Wilson?

TT: I first met Steve in 1997 when we were both working with Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri on a tour of Japan, and a couple of dates in London and Holland. We got on very well and are both into much of the same music. We have done various things together since, including an ambient project Bass Communion, I gusted on Porcupine Tree tracks ( apart from Stupid Dream - there's the Ambulance chasing single and Even Less pt 2) and live. Also No Man tracks. Steve W mixed my Cipher album and guests on it. He's great.

VR: Was there any inkling that such a superb album was being made when you were in the studio?

TT: Not by me! I didn't spend that much time doing my bits. I don't know what the others were thinking....

VR: Any chances for future collaborations?

TT: I hope so.

VR: Name association. I am going to name some names. I would love

to hear what you think of them. Ornette Coleman?

TT: influential guy. Loved by many great jazzers. I have much respect for his work, though don't listen to it much. Does anyone really know what harmalodics means?

VR: Sonny Rollins.

TT: I particularly like his fat swinging sound, especially in his earlier years in the 50s - around Saxophone Colossus time.

VR: The Art Ensemble of Chicago?

TT: I don't know their music but hear great reports. Great face paint!

VR: Guitarist Steve Hillage?

TT: I knew his Fish Rising album, which I always liked. Very good guitarist. I met him recently and he was really nice. He is very involved in N African and Arabic crossover music these days and doing very well. He's still in touch with the rest of Gong.

VR: Anthony Braxton?

TT: Much respect , but again I don't listen to him much at all.

VR: Yusef Lateef ?

TT: I always liked his flute playing.

VR: Hugh Hopper ?

TT: I heard him recently on a recording with Daevid Allen. Huge bass sound. I like that distorted bass sound you don't hear much these days.

VR: Robert Fripp?

TT: I am a big King Crimson fan and know most of their albums. Favorites are Discipline, Red and Larks Tongues in Aspic. I've seen them twice and I know Bill Bruford a little as we did

a jazz gig together a couple of years ago. I also love Fripp's solo album Exposure which directly influenced some compositions of mine. A unique musician in the rock world and a big influence on me.

VR: Pharoah Sanders?

TT: Cool dude. I like the way he's hip to modern music and grooves and yet still plays old ballads sometimes, straight ahead sometimes and dance records other times. I feel I want to hear much more of his recordings. I was recently recommended his album Karma, which I must get hold of.

VR: Dick Heckstall-Smith?

TT: I know Dick well and saw him a few weeks ago at the Canterbury music festival. He was with Colosseum and me with Gong. He's got the enthusiasm of someone a quarter of his

age. I just read his great book "Safest Place in the World" which is most illuminating . I probably like him more for who he is as a person and a musical spirit than for his actual playing. I heard him on an old Graham Bond record with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and he played great. on it

VR: Elton Dean?

TT: I know Elton. He does some great stuff. I enjoy his playing on the Soft Machine albums ( especially 5 ) and also his free playing. An important figure I think. If I can throw some names back at you, how about- Rick Margitza, Stan Getz, McCoy Tyner, Sinatra, Milt Jackson, Eno, Miles, Mark Isham, Chopin, Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Talk Talk.....

VR: Could you tell us a little about the band Berlin Vibe?

 

TT: It' s a jazz quartet with a rhythm section from Germany and a vibes player from London. We play a mixture of our own music and jazz covers. The feel of that band is amazing - so swinging, together, sonically rich and intense yet cool. We hope to record soon. It is quite different from my regular quartet in the way it plays and that is refreshing.

VR: There is term known as "European Jazz". What is your take on

that term? What is your definition of European Jazz?

TT: I don't know about this one. Categories are for record shops , not creative musicians. European jazz usually refers to ECM music. There are some great ECM jazz records which sound very un-American - even though they have Americans on, eg, Keith Jarrett European

band, Ralph Towner with Jan Garbarek ( Solstice is a favorite album). Is John Taylor with Peter Erskine and Palle Danielson European or American? Good music is good music. Good musicians are good musicians.

VR: The club Ronnie Scott's club is a legendary venue. Do you feel the tradition when you are inside the place?

TT Yes, certainly. It's a great place, an amazing atmosphere and I am very aware of playing on the same stage as Miles, Stan Getz, Joe Zawinul, George Coleman, Roland Kirk, Ben Webster, Chick Corea, Mcoy Tyner, etc etc. It is very humbling.

VR: Where are some of your favorite places to perform in Europe?

TT: Scottish Islands like Orkney, Mull, Iona,- London - Hamburg- Berlin-

Paris. I recently enjoyed going to Norway a lot and hope to return.

VR: You are coming to the United States with Gong this Fall. Have you been to the US with a band before?

TT: No, but my wife is from New York so I have been to the US many times. I sat in at the Blue Note New York a few years ago too which was cool..

VR: What should we expect?

TT: A great night!

VR: Anything else we should know?

TT: My website has several extracts of my albums and gigs. People may want to check it out to hear what I do. It's at www.travis33.demon.co.uk. If anyone wants to get in touch, feel free.

If you want to learn more about Theo, head to website above. As for Gong, they are coming to America – find out more about them at http://www.planetgong.co.uk/