The name Hawkwind should be whispered with awe. This masterful prog/psych band started back in the 60’s and are still going strong today. They can name Lemmy and Ginger Baker as past members, have released 30 albums through the years and you probably know their most famous track, Silver Machine, right? Their new album, The Machine Stops is a trippy, far out collection inspired by an EM Forster short story, and they’re bringing the whole shebang to Norwich complete with dancers and a cray light show. I spoke to the last remaining original member Dave Brock about getting a lifetime achievement award, their annual Hawkfest and Hawkeaster festivals and how he survived those heady LSD years.
You got into music pretty early, learning the banjo at 12. Did you realise at that point that music was going to be your life’s work?
No not at all! I had no idea. I was a busker for years with a friend in France, and cinema queues in Leicester Square. It’s like you have to wait in line and after you’ve been doing it for a couple of years you’re then first to do the queue. Then when I got Hawkwind together and we got a manager, Doug Smith, I didn’t used to turn up to some of the gigs and he gave me a talking to about it. He said “Look, either you play in the band or you carry on busking; you’ve got to make a decision”. So I actually thought right, I’ll do the band and it’s lucky I did!
As a young man you took yourself off and toured around Europe; this was right when psychedelia was starting to become a thing. The psychedelic scene in the 70’s was pretty drug-ridden and many musicians have fallen by the wayside because of it. How have you managed to stay on the straight and narrow?
Yeah we toured with a circus tent in Holland, playing long numbers in one key, ha ha! I survived by not taking too many drugs! You just have to be careful really; when you’re young you can accommodate these thing s a lot easier but when you’re older it can catch up with you. The thing was with LSD was that it had to be used sensibly. You had a guru who wouldn’t take any so that you’d always have someone there when you took your trip just in case of a bad freakout.
John Peel was one of the first to pick up on your music. What did his support mean to the burgeoning Hawkwind?
Well it was really good. I was playing with a boogie piano player about three years before Hawkwind and we did three concerts on John’s show and so when Hawkwind got together he asked us to do some live stuff on his show. He helped loads of bands; he was a great character.
You’re the only member to have been in Hawkwind through thick and thin from the beginning. How has being in the band changed from those early day til now?
Well it’s pretty similar actually..a band of eccentric characters. It was a different era then. The current line up has been quite similar for a few years now, I mean Richard has been in the band for 26 years and the rest of them for 10 years now. It’s the longest running line up we’ve ever had.
Yeah, you’ve had a high turnover of band members through the years – has it been difficult at times to hold fast to Hawkwind’s original unique vision?
On and off. With music you’re supposed to be painting pictures with sound and I mean that’s what we’re still trying to do, with electronics and heavy riffs. We’ve got a couple of dancers, Eloise and Leo as well.
Some massive names have played with Hawkwind in the past like Lemmy and Ginger Baker. What were they like to work with?
Lemmy and I were in constant touch with each other right up until he died and if we were ever both playing the same festival Lemmy used to come and do Silver Machine with us. Ginger was really interesting to work with as his drumming was absolutely spectacular but he was renowned for being really grumpy. We got on alright actually, you know, that’s just the way he is. He’s like a rock in the river and you just have to smoothly go past the rock!
Speaking of Silver Machine, it’s probably Hawkwind’s biggest song, reaching #3 in the charts; what do you think it was about that song that people really picked up on back in ‘72?
It’s funny really, we’ve done such a lot of singles; I mean we did one with Sam Fox! It’s just luck really, and to what degree people pick up on it and play it on the radio and whether the public like it. It was successful for us.
Do you have an all time favourite Hawkwind song?
Not really, there are so many! I forget how some of them go sometimes. We’ve got a young bass player who we’ve known since he was 13. He used to hang around and get his records signed by us. He knows all the tunes and the other day I couldn’t remember how a tune went and he said “This is how it goes Dave” and played it, ha ha!
Your new album is called The Machine Stops, inspired by an EM Forster short story. What happens in the book?
The human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the earth so they all live underground in cells. His vision is like the Internet, where everybody orders their food, stay in their room and only conduct conversations with each other through a network. They don’t like to touch each other either cos they’ve forgotten how to do that so they all wear gloves. How he visualised all this in 1909 I don’t know! The people have died who used to look after the operating machine and no one knows how to operate it anymore and it’s gradually malfunctioning. The narrator’s dream is to get up to surface which is what he does and it’s beautiful and green, whereas he’d always been told it was charred and black. It’s only 100 pages long. I read it and thought wow, what an interesting story this is, and pretty much what’s going on now in 2016. We all read the book and it’s inspired our new album and show that we’re bringing to the LCR this month.
That’s mad that he was imagining all that so long ago. When I think of EM Forster I think of classic period drama!
I know. He was quite an interesting character, he went off to Egypt and India and with the Bloomsbury Set who were a bunch of weird individuals, so it must have rubbed off on him.
So the tour is based on the book, and involves a light show, dancers, and all sorts of things. It must be an incredible amount of work to put it together?
Yeah it has been actually. We still have to do our dress rehearsals yet! Everyone knows what they’re doing but we haven’t really pulled it together yet. First off, everything’s going to be in black and white, and then when the chap goes up onto the surface of the earth everything will become full colour. Unfortunately some of the venues we’re taking the show to won’t be able to accommodate our dancers Eloise and Leo who climb up silks and perform high in the air. They’re so talented.
You’ve been running your annual festival Hawkfest for many years now, and also your spring festival Hawkeaster in Devon which has a great line up this year including Jane Weaver. What do you think of the psych scene these days, are there any bands you rate that you’d heard?
Jane phoned us up and asked to use the backing track from our song Star Cannibal and I said yeah, sure. She put it out as a single, called Electric Mountain. That song was the first time we used a Fairlight Computer, this was back in the 80’s, and I did the bassline, put it into the computer and made it incredibly fast. Jane Weaver’s bass player couldn’t work out how I’d created such a fast bass line so I had to explain it had been through a computer! She’s playing on Saturday, and it should be quite interesting. Jupiter’s Carnival are also great. We always try to get some young psychedelic bands to play.
I’ve read that musically speaking you’re not much into lyrics and I know you’ve worked with some lyricists like Michael Moorcock and Bob Calvert. How does that work, planning a track between you and a separate lyricist?
Well Bob was a really good poet, and a lot of songs are like poems. I’m pretty good at writing music and Bob or Michael would just come up with the words. I find it quite easy. I listen to a lot of jazz and rock, and it goes in your head sometimes and catchy melodies and runs gets stuck in your head, so if you’ve got someone like Michael or Bob it’s quite easy. What we do now is I play stuff on the keyboard, play a bass line and stick it on a Mac and keep all the parts and then come up with some lyrics. Or sometimes it works vice versa.
You’ve recorded quite a bit as a solo artist, including Brockworld last year. What are you able to do on your solo projects that you can’t with Hawkwind?
Usually I use those tunes that Hawkwind don’t use! There are a couple on Brockworld which are actually from The Machine Stops. Sometimes it takes so long to do things that I was like, oh, I’ll just stick them on my solo album.
You’re not a natural attention-seeker, and don’t seem to crave that sort of attention on stage. How have you managed that through the years?
I’d rather keep a low profile. It was probably a bit different in the early 70’s as we were getting quite a bit of publicity with Silver Machine doing so well and we were constantly doing interviews and publicity. It’s quite a weird old thing. I was verging on a nervous breakdown at some points so I just decided to take more of a backseat. We’re like a football team and I’m a midfielder.
I know that with Hawkestra back in 2000 you staged a big reunion but it sounds like it didn’t go so well in the end. Is there any chance of something similar happening in the future?
Nah, they’re all dying off now unfortunately, we’re getting old. It was a nightmare of organisation and I wouldn’t want to do it again anyway. Some of them have got grudges and squabble between each other as well so I don’t think it would ever happen.
I feel that Hawkwind have never really got the respect or attention they deserved. Why do think that is?
I dunno really, perhaps it’s our low profile! I’ve been given a couple of awards, a Prog Rock award and a Lifetime Achievement award, so that’s not too bad. You never know, I might get another one before it’s too late!
Hawkwind bring their epic The Machine Stops show to the LCR on 23rd April. Tickets are available from ueaticketbookings.co.uk.