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A Quietus Interview

An Endlessly Evolving Parable: Daevid Allen Of Gong Interviewed
Emily Bick , October 30th, 2014 10:03

Emily Bick talks to counter-cultural hero Daevid Allen of Gong about parables of inner and outer space, Australia and keeping it in the family

So in the beginning, there were a bunch of green pot-head pixies in propeller hats bopping around through the galaxies in flying teapots, and they dragged this guy Zero off to Planet Gong after plying him with drugs, space radio and Foster's lager. Along the way, he was helped by sexy witches, sneaky but friendly cats, and wise space prostitutes on a mission to gather all the world's freaks, cleanse everyone's third eyes, and prepare the world for a golden age of silliness, harmony, understanding, drinking tea, smoking pot and grooving on, with more truth to be revealed in the year 2032.

Or: In the beginning - sometime in the mid sixties - there was Daevid Allen, the psychedelic pied piper from Australia and early member of Soft Machine at their trippy peak. In 1967, stuck in France thanks to visa problems, he joined forces with space-whispering Sorbonne professor Gilli Smyth to form the first incarnation of Gong. They fled to Mallorca to avoid the chaos of the 1968 student riots, where they met flautist and saxophonist Didier Malherbe, who was living in a cave on Robert Graves' estate. (Graves, the master mythkeeper, would have been hard pressed to create a more symbolically resonant origin story for anyone's press kit.) From there, Gong signed to Virgin, Pierre Moerlen and Steve Hillage joined, and the group produced a run of albums building the Planet Gong mythology and images. Meantime, and for the next several decades, solo projects and offshoots flourished, from Mother Gong, Planet Gong, Pierre Moerlen's Gong (without Allen), Acid Mothers Gong (with Acid Mothers Temple) to involvement with countless jazzy spacerock supergroups, all surfing the weirder shores of the hippy cosmos.

Which story is more true? The history and music of Gong are like world mythology textbooks: sprawling, nomadic, full of people who come and go and come back again; stories that change with each telling while still holding on to some essential spirit. If you try to map all of the connections and offshoots and collaborations of the group's past 45-plus years, you get something that looks less like a rock family tree and more like some complex digital visualisation of a tangled neural network. But hey: these are the kinds of structures that anchor down roots for the long haul.

Daevid Allen, now 76 and living in Australia, is working on a new Gong album with a lineup including Kavus Torabi from Knifeworld, the Cardiacs and Guapo, and will be touring the UK later this year. We caught up with him over email.

How did you start working with Kavus Torabi and the rest of Gong 2014? Did this start with your appearance on Kavus' Phoenix FM radio show, or before that; how did you get to know each other?

Daevid Allen: Kavus and I were introduced by Steve Davis who is a long term Gong fan. I had an instant flash of recognition on that deeper level which tunes in when I meet a future member of Gong. For example, I hired long-time bassist Mike Howlett in 1973 without hearing him play. Don't ask me to explain how this works but it does. Kavus and I were immediately intimate good friends as far as I was concerned and long may it continue.   Your lineup also includes Brazilian guitarist Fabio Golfetti; you've recently toured Brazil and Gong has always had strong links to France, as well as collaborations with musicians from Japan and most of Europe. You yourself have spent much of your life travelling. Is there something about mythic space psychedelia that lends itself to greater international collaboration?

DA: Fabio has been the leader of a very popular Brazilian psychedelic band: Violeta de Outono since the early eighties. When I discovered that he was also a genius of the glissando guitar we became friends and started an international collective together called The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet in the early nineties. His all-round psychedelic credentials and devotion to the glissando technique meant it was only natural that he would join Gong.

I am officially an Australian because three previous generations of my family were born here. But I cannot relate to the way we Anglo-Irish terrorists have destroyed the ancient culture of this beautiful land. Although I have spent half my life in Australia, I don't feel deeply connected to it. I see myself as a man of no country, a world citizen, and this has led to my enthusiasm for multicultural art collectives.

Of course I was 16 years a resident in the beautiful artist village of Deia de Mallorca, Spain and also called Paris my home for many years. Psychedelia for me is a code for that profound spiritual experience where there is a direct link to the gods.

This experience obviously is very personal insight for each of us. It knows no boundaries or benefits from any interference or help from others. It is a direct verification of your own individual divinity and it can be beautifully expressed through music. When I was an art student in the late fifties we used to call it: finding yourself.

From some of the earliest album sleeves, children have made appearances in the artwork--and these children have grown into the fans and band members of today – would you say that Gong has always been an intentionally intergenerational project as well as an international one?

DA: There has always been a kind of whimsical innocence that has pervaded my life and the art I most enjoy which can be seen as child-like. But also, all my families are very important to me whether physical, artistic and spiritual. I now have fourteen grandchildren as well as an uncountable tribe of artistic and spiritual intimates.

Regarding the band, there are those who want to hang on to me as the band's founder-father claiming that Gong cannot continue without my presence. But I will die soon enough and then if Gong dies too, I would consider that this project will have fallen short.

So yes, I see Gong as a tradition, a way of living music not just a band.

Continues below...

What's it like having your son, Orlando Allen, in the touring lineup? You've recorded albums with him as drummer before (from 2003's Acid Mothers Gong), but how did you decide, in 2012, that the time was right for him to take more of an official role in Gong on tour? (And on the subject of the Gong family, why isn't Gilli Smyth involved this time around?)

DA: Firstly, we are all sad to say that Gilli has been forced to retire through ill health. She has always been a legendary road warrior, but her legs are now failing her and even she cannot physically make it any more, in spite of her extraordinary willpower. Currently, Orlando is her main carer because he has always shared a very deep understanding with Gilli. So now she is replaced in Gong by our son Orlando whose powerhouse drumming, joyous adaption of modern dance feels to all he has learned from Pierre Moerlen's approach to Gong gives the band a new vivacity and fire.

It was Orlando who has been hesitant to join Gong in spite of being a professional drummer of high reputation here in Australia since his mid teens. I guess he wanted to make it as himself and not ride on the parental coat tails. One night we were talking about roots music and I pointed out that Gong was his own family musical roots. Maybe then he began to consider it as a possibility. I find it enormously exhilarating gigging with Orlando. We have a telepathic link and of course a huge respect for each other which is a huge advantage.

There have been a few losses to the Gong family, too, specifically Dashiell Hedyat and early member Kevin Ayers last year - since Gong has such a long and rich history, how do you balance the weight of the past with the idea of the future?

DA: Drummers Pierre Moerlen and Pip Pyle were also a huge loss but then the entity that Gong has become seems to increasingly possess its own independent reality.

It is a spiritual force and possesses an intelligence unto itself. Those who are sensitive to its inner voice realise it clearly knows what it needs to continue as a creative hub for futurist art and music.

One could imagine that those who have contributed and then died have become the traditional ancestors in some part and as such, are subtly still available as guides. I prefer to see our past less as a weight and more of an uplifting influence.

Can you tell me how the mythology of Gong and all of its characters (flying teapots and their pot head pixies) will be involved in the new tour (and will more be revealed about what will happen in 2032)?

DA: The mythology of Gong is an endlessly evolving parable for both outer:inner space and multi-dimensional existence. A fabulous fable to feathertickle the fantasies of fans of future shock. But like all parallels there is an inkling of a deeper hidden truth behind the veils that could shatter all our comfortable illusions and bring us abruptly face to face with our real self. At this point, for better or for worse, we are confronted by who we really are.

You've been recording a new album, I See You with the current group in Australia; can you tell us about what it's sounding like so far, and what to expect when it comes out in September?

DA: What do we say when we finally see our true selves?

I See You!

To me this music sounds very fresh. Different yet the same.

Exciting, wry and politically acute.

But then I always think the album I am working on is the best album I have ever been involved in. It has been slow to make because we are a democratic collective who all have equal share in decisions. Given that three of us are in the UK, two of us are in Australia and one of us in Brazil all shooting overdubs at each other and Skypeing regularly, it has proved a complicated process that has just climaxed with the tracks being mixed/produced by Orlando here in his studio near Byron Bay as I speak.

I expect a very positive reaction to this album when it comes out in September through Snapper/Madfish in London. This is an exciting new generation of Gong. I am really looking forward to the reaction to this album!

Last time I saw you play was on your 2011 tour; I remember you performed a new song railing against the 'banker wankers' and the financial crisis, with typical humour. You've also posted a manifesto on the news section of the Planet Gong website against last year's lurch to the right in Australia's elections. What issues are you concerned about now?

DA: It would appear that, worldwide, there is a general move to the right being driven by big business/corporate management lobbies.

Given that I am traditionally from a socialist background,  this does not sit well with me at all. Essentially, I have a great sympathy with the evolved form of Anarchism which of course depends on everybody in society thinking globally and acting locally by taking full responsibility for everything.

Even an approximation towards this reality would be encouraging but there is scant evidence. We all need a great deal of patience and no little help. Let's see what happens in 2032.

The latest Gong album I See You is released on November 10 via Madfish records. A spokesman for the label sent us the following statement about Daevid: "Although Daevid Allen is currently undergoing medical treatment, Gong intend to take I See You out on tour in the coming months when Allen’s health will allow. In the meantime, I See You offers up yet more proof that Daevid Allen’s creative wellspring shows no sign of running dry, and that the latest Gong line-up has the kind of musical acumen that matches any of their classic line-ups of yore."

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