The Strange World Of… Charles Hayward

Cologne had Can and Jaki Liebezeit, South London had This Heat and Charles Hayward. Sean Kitching talks to the THINTH, Camberwell Now, Massacre and Monkey Puzzle Trio, drummer, singer and songwriter ahead of his performance at this weekend's Supersonic Festival in Birmingham

Portrait by Lewis Hayward

Charles Hayward improvised to a thunderstorm when he was an eight year old. This was before he had any notion about musique concréte, he was driven instead by a sense of imaginative childhood play that he still hasn’t lost after decades of creativity. “I wasn’t aware that this stuff was the fantastic thing that it was,” he says. “Later on when I was 12 or 13, I heard ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’ by The Who, and the middle bit when it goes sort of auto-destructive sound art, was what really interested me. The song, either side, I disregarded.”

An independent council grant to Dulwich College placed Hayward in the company of Phil Manzanera and Bill MacCormick, who noticed Hayward when a play he wrote at 14 was performed at the Royal Court. The three of them went on to form the progressive rock band Quiet Sun, before Manzanera joined Roxy Music, and MacCormick, Matching Mole with Robert Wyatt. Although Quiet Sun disbanded in 71, the band reconvened in 75 to record Mainstream, the first of many albums to feature Hayward’s unmistakeable playing. A seven week stretch as Gong’s drummer in the intervening years came to an end when Hayward realised that his songwriting talents would not find expression within that band. Hayward met his future This Heat colleague, Charles Bullen, weeks after leaving Gong and embarked upon a project they called Dolphin Logic. “We described ourselves as a living-room duet, and we played a sort of chamber music, with prepared and extended guitar and drums and small instruments,” Hayward recalls.

When the pair met Gareth Williams, at the end of 75, they began playing together in the band that would become arguably the most important post-punk group to originate in the UK – This Heat. Designing their demo cover in striking blue and yellow (used later on their debut LP), so it could be seen “without reading it, even in a pile” specifically for the benefit of John Peel and his producer John Waters, the band “phoned him every two days” until they gave in and allocated the band two sessions, which later saw release as the Made Available album. A 12”, Health and Efficiency, and a second LP, Deceit, followed before the band folded in 82.

Although all their releases sold in relatively small quantities at the time, This Heat’s influence on other musicians meant that legend grew exponentially. Their potent admixture of tribal and industrial rhythms, free improvisation, tape manipulation and often cutting, sometimes surreal, lyricism, ensured that the band remained a unique prospect decades after their dissolution. In terms of their creative process, utilising cut and paste from many hours of recorded improvisations, their success in blending different styles of music and sound textures into something wholly their own, as well as the exceptional skills of the drummers they both deployed, This Heat were one of the very few bands who could be said to have operated in a similar league to the Cologne-based experimentalists, Can. Their reactivation as This Is Not This Heat [TINTH], with a large group of collaborators standing in for Williams, who sadly died of cancer in December 2001, was greeted with immense excitement by critics and fans alike, when they played their first show at Cafe Oto in February 2016. Camberwell Now, the band Hayward formed out of the remnants of This Heat in 82, were, at their best, no less intriguing a prospect than the band that preceded them. When they disbanded in 87, Hayward began a solo career that continues to this day, which has produced a number of idiosyncratic, high quality releases, each one further consolidating the case for his status as national treasure.

This Heat in Cold Storage

Portrait by Lesley Evans

Initially, we were rehearsing at my parents’ place. Then we met David Cunningham [of Flying Lizards], and he knew of this studio in a visual arts space that none of the artists wanted, because it was completely dark. It was an old meat fridge. We went and had a look and came to an agreement and moved in. It was unbelievably cheap, something like £10 week. It was lined with this sort of blood encrusted dust and we spent about two weeks cleaning it up. We needed to drill a hole to put an extractor fan in, but all we ever did was drill the hole. We had the drum kit set up in one corner of an oblong, but instead of being straight, it was at a diagonal and that meant that the bass drum sound was just incredible. It was great playing in there, and we were in amongst all these visual artists who were all inspiring in their own ways. The thing about it not just being about making the sound, but you go back and you change what you’ve done – that whole painterly process. You could also say that we were doing some similar things in parallel to Can. We knew how they operated – that sense of self determination. For us it was similar to the way Sun Ra was working. Ra would record everything, controlling the technology himself, doing it within the means that he had available to him, and so did the whole European free jazz thing. Dada was the same. Self publishing. Making small runs of magazines and things like that. So we just took that on board as being like a non-centralised European process.

’24 Track Loop’ and ‘Fall of Saigon’ (from This Heat)

One of the things that we used as our process was just circumstance. Instead of waiting until you get the new bit of gear, you work with what you’ve got. This was a bizarre version of that. Charles had had his guitar stolen from the studio. He was upstairs in the control room, Gareth and I were sound checking and hit this groove. The engineer hadn’t got the reel-to-reel set up and only had a little bit left on the spool. He goes in to record and we stopped playing because we don’t know what’s going on in the other room. So all we get of this really good groove is about nine bars. Instead of mixing it down and making a loop and then adding overdubs ontop of it, we decided that we’d use what we’ve got, raw, and then we recorded other things ontop of that. We chose the best two bars, and then the engineer, Rick, edited those two bars. I was so nervous about the edit, because the faster the speed, the more room you have for a mistake. So it was 30 IPS and it was 24 track. It felt really quite dangerous, but we did it. We mixed the day we made it and other days we’d find a couple of hours and mix some more. Basically we mixed like 16 hours of stuff and then reduced that to what you hear on the tape. Some of the additional material came out later on Repeat.

For ‘Fall of Saigon,’ I was at a friend’s place and we were watching the news about the fall of Saigon on the television. There were guys hanging off the helicopter, trying to fly away with the US staff. They left a lot of the Vietnamese US collaborators. They were given no protection, just abandoned. There was that story and then afterwards there used to be regional news and there was this ridiculous bit about a cat called Soda, who drank whiskey. So, in my head, these two stories sort of fused and I went home and wrote the ‘Fall of Saigon.’

‘Dedicated To The Sunshine’ (from Health And Efficiency)

Initially it was a jam. I’d been reading a lot of Futurist manifestos and it was like a breath of fresh air, because instead of about being down, it was about colour and how to invigorate the everyday, so that it became beautiful, and it was about strength. Of course, it later turned into a fascist thing, but when you look at it, what’s wrong with being strong? You’re putting yourself at the service of everybody else by being strong and by being healthy. We’d been on tour a lot and there was this revelling in nihilistic, downward, cluttered for the sheer hell of it, sort of vibe. I once cleaned up somebody else’s kitchen in Nijmegen, and the collective had a meeting the next morning while I was still asleep, asking “who cleaned up our kitchen?” The dirty kitchen defined them. It was that whole sheep mind of everybody going to this place that they thought was ‘cool’, so we decided we needed an antidote to that. If you were going to play ‘Health And Efficiency’ to someone as their first This Heat track, that would be a great idea, it’s got different elements of what we did. It’s got some abstraction on top of it. It’s got the thing we did in the large gallery space next door. We superimposed those improvisations over it. And it’s got a children’s playground that was next door to our studio – a recording of that at playtime.

‘Sleep’ from Deceit

For me there’s this duality to what we were doing. Like we were singing about opposing nuclear power, but the recording machines, the spools are going round and the valves are lighting up were all powered by nuclear energy. So there’s an ambiguity to what we’re singing. In a way, every art object is an invitation to sleep. It pulls you into its world and says everything’s OK. For me, Deceit is like a dream within a dream. The song ‘Sleep’ invites you into a dream, and 95% of its lyrics are made up of advert slogans. Then the album begins properly with ‘Paper Hats’ – “Well, so you came here. What did you expect?” The album ends in a sense with ‘New Kind Of Water’ and then suddenly you’re out in the real world, because that last piece is recorded with the sound of the town hall church clock, basically recorded in the open air with the real world happening around it. So it’s sort of like, you come out and you’re outside. There’s these two dream sequences, the song ‘Sleep’ and the instrumental ‘Hi Baku Shyo’ at the end – they’re like invocations in and out of the record and the record itself is the bits in between. That’s how I hear it. Even though we’re singing against sleep, for 45 minutes, you’re sitting down listening to this record. In a weird sort of way, you’re out of the game during that time. It’s not a very easy reality to deal with, but its the one that I have come to.

Camberwell Now – The Ghost Trade

Portrait by Lesley Evans

Trefor Goronwy, was an amazing bass player who came and joined This Heat when Gareth left, with Ian Hill on keyboards. Nobody’s fault but it was a mistake that group. We did one tour of about five weeks but that was it. Steve Rickard joined on this machine, which was I suppose a variant on a mellotron. We had four stereo cassette machines and a series of sort of morse code type keys, and when you pressed down the key, it would let you hear what was on one of the eight tracks, and then we’d build up loops. Steve Rickard was quite militant about how he wasn’t a musician. He was basically a radio recording engineer. He’d worked for the BBC and his whole approach really fed into the atmosphere. We used to have these loops of our voices. The audience would identify with these sounds because they were of the human voice, but instead of having any intake, it was all out breath. We did the same with the bass guitar. We’d play the bass with metal and make loops out of notes of that and it was almost like these people trapped inside a computer program or aspic. I used to be, and still am, very influenced by superhero comics and there was a place they used to send the villains in Superman, the Phantom Zone – which also had an influence on ‘Twilight Furniture’ and also on the sounds in Camberwell Now. Then there’s the track ‘Green Lantern’ – the lyrics of which are from his oath.

Meridian, we recorded before we were even a group. That was a bunch of songs that I orginally was going to offer for the third This Heat album. I wanted to look at was colonialism and exploitation and senses of national identity and history and how that all related backwards and forwards. Also the logic systems imposed upon us, around things like navigation. So somewhere has to be the Meridian. All these things are useful, but they’re also agencies of power. Then there was this next bunch of songs, The Ghost Trade, which was much more about urban, contemporary life and some sort of dislocation from each other, and that was when we started working on the tape switchboard idea, and that meant that there was a huge space between the two records.

Survive The Gesture

Becoming a father meant that I had to find another way of working. From 87 until 95, I hardly played live at all. I just made maybe one record every 18 months, spent a lot of time after everyone had gone to bed, writing the songs, and then I’d record them pretty quickly. With Survive The Gesture, I was very aware of our lives being about to change, the responsibility of a new life to look after. The whole idea of how our lives can be devoured by the system – into just school, work, grave. So that was what the album dealt with, finding humanity inside that. All the other songs are connected too. I try and make all the albums connect, at least inside themselves, and often I also try and make them cross pollinate with other stuff I’ve already made, so you can travel, like on the Underground. You can sort of jump off one record onto another. There’s one song on there, ‘You And Me’, which was a song that Camberwell Now did, but we never recorded. There’s another song that was recorded earlier than the rest of the album, that was recorded in Cold Storage by Steve Rickard, and that was before we even went 24-track, in the very early days of Camberwell Now. That was when my partner Lesley’s father, Lew Evans, was alive and he wrote one song in his whole life. He wrote that in 82 – ‘This Misunderstanding’ it’s called. We recorded it about two years before he died.

Switch On War

They started this thing on ITV – all night TV. It had been going for about three months, and then one Friday night, a bloke said: “You won’t be hearing back from us for a while due to events that will become clear the other side of the week.” And I wondered, "What does that mean?" Basically the media already knew that the war was going to happen and that they’d be handing over their midnight roulette and their sex counselling programmes and they were going to hand it all over to night time footage from Iraq. So, suddenly the act of witnessing, of being a spectator, was part of it. The democracy of being able to see it, only reinforced your helplessness inside of it. Then you’d watch it and at the same time it was all about bullseyes, and all this technology and how wonderful it was. Concepts like ‘shock and awe’ and all this. I just let myself take that in, for however many weeks it was, and then I was writing words and thinking about Fortinbras, out of Hamlet. I don’t think he even appears much in the play, but he’s always referred to as something that’s going on offstage, fighting a war over occupying a small piece of land. The whole idea of Fortinbras – strong in arm in French – and somehow or other that became part of it too. I was thinking of those records that occasionally get made, that are in very quick response to a news story. Usually I make things for forty years down the road, but I was thinking this time of making something that was only going to last 18 months, but it seems to have lasted longer than that.

Abracadabra Information And One Big Atom

I had got to the point where I realised that singing my own truth, without compromise, was something that had made me freer. So I started to wonder how I could play drums and sing, and not do it with other musicians. So, I devised this system, where there are no click-tracks and in fact nothing is in time with anything else. I came up with a system where I had a collection of foot pedals, which controlled volume and then I had these taped signals which could be up to nine minutes long, which were built and tailored specifically to the song I was making, and as the song changed I’d take some sounds out and bring other sounds in, related to the harmonic shifts and I would bring them in and out in relation to the drum beat and the vocal line and people would think that everything was to a click-track. If I was playing a bass part, when I recorded the bass part, I would be thinking along the lines of a constantly shifting pulse, so there is no pulse. It becomes almost like an extreme funk, the bass doing these amazing syncopations against the drums, but it’s completely random. I think some people think I’m playing to a backing track, and I’m not. I’m playing to some sounds that I have made, that are assembled in front of your ears, differently each time I play. The audience makes sense of it and 90% of the work is going on in their heads. It means I can be wild. If I’m playing to a click-track, I’m being a good boy and the last thing I want to be when I’m making music is a good boy. Having to justify your time keeping against some bit of machinery is dehumanising. The heartbeat is at the centre, not the clock.

When I made One Big Atom, I was sick of doing everything on a computer, so I had the idea of working with what I had. I would record the drums, multi microphones down into stereo on mini-disc, and then I’d transfer that onto a four-track machine, which I’d run at the fastest speed I could manage, and then I would add other things and put that back onto the mini-disc, then back onto the four-track. Endless jiggery-pokery and lots of editing. In the back of my head, I’m thinking that in the future – the future I was thinking about when we made ‘Twilight Furniture’ – is going to be campfires and making music out of elastic bands and old boxes and almost nothing. And at the same time, in our heads, we’d have a collective memory of CGI and multi-track and all these images of a technology that we now no longer can access, so our imaginations will be full of all these possibilities and the wherewithal to do that will be extremely limited. So I just used mini-discs and an old four-track cassette machine and tried to make a music that was almost parallel to computer made music. It took me three years to make. I’m very excited about One Big Atom, because it’s almost like very few people seem to know about it. I want to bring it out again. Sometimes I think, when I bring things out again, people get them more than when I first brought them out. It’s definitely true of This Heat, seems to be true of Camberwell Now.

Begin Anywhere

Should be released the other side of Summer hopefully. ‘Slow Train,’ the song I performed solo when TINTH played the Barbican, where I was pushing a pram across the stage, is from Begin Anywhere. It started as a conversation with a friend of mine who was writes a magazine for an Afro-Caribbean community. We were talking about the blues. I said that one thing I like about the blues is that there are these elemental words they use – home, baby and momma. Often the word home is on the tonic; baby is on the subdominant; and momma is on the dominant. The words are also the tonality, and this is fucking magic. So I had that idea since that interview, which was in 1995. I wanted to look at blues from that angle. Then I was taking a pram to gigs to take my drum gear, and I started thinking, “What would it be like to have an amplifier on here?” Meanwhile, I was thinking, “How do I express this idea of a train, more than just thinking about it?” and I was thinking about rolling tins. So it all came together like that. The song started as an idea in 95 and I wrote the last verses on a train journey back from Paris in 2004. Then I didn’t perform it until 2013/14, when I started using the pram. Sometimes there’s a very long arc. The new textures tell you the new set of lyrics and you have to go through a rewrite. Then a rewrite is overloaded with what you’ve already done, so you have to spend quite a lot of time, forgetting what you’ve already done, so that you can do the rewrite. This can take fucking years!

This Heat And This Is Not This Heat

Often we would play to audiences of 55 people. A big audience would be, like 300, and that was towards the end. Audiences now are much larger, mostly festivals. Charles and I both miss Gareth. The music has changed because Gareth’s not there but other people are. Working with the other musicians is absolutely fantastic. We’re going to the States in July and Japan in October. We’ve got a couple more gigs probably in London and then we’re going to wind the project up in its current form. We never played in the States back in the day, we were absolutely stupid. Roger Trilling, who was Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer’s manager, wanted to bring us over to New York and we said, “Yeah that’s fine but we will have to bring our keyboard and drum kit,” and he said, “no we’ll used some hired gear,” and we weren’t into that, so we didn’t go. Three months later, there’s a ferry strike getting to Finland and we had to use hired gear and it wasn’t a problem, and now I use hired gear all the time. There’s the Pitchfork music festival in Chicago in July and a gig in Philadelphia and there’s a gig in New York. It will be interesting playing the States, especially performing ‘Independence’. Trump had just done that thing about banning immigrants from certain countries. I searched out the Emma Lazarus poem, The New Colossus that adorns the Statue of Liberty, and put it up on Facebook. We were in conversation in rehearsal doing ‘Independence’ and Charles said: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” and I went, “Yeah, let’s do that, I’ve got it upstairs.” So I went up to the office in my rehearsal space, found the Facebook quote, lifted it off and brought it back downstairs. I said, “I’ve always thought Merlin [Charles’ daughter] looks like the statue in the Place de la Liberté, so let’s give it to her, it’s got to be the Statue of Liberty that says it.” So allowing for ten minutes to print it out, what was an idea became a reality, like that.

When I sang ‘Not Waving’ at the Barbican, I got chills doing it. I thought: “I’m going to be ill in this set, I’m not going to be able to finish, I’ve gone cold.” Then I spoke to people afterwards, and I didn’t tell them this, and they said they also got the chills during that too. I mean, it’s a very simple song, but its very atmospheric. For me is, the voice is the journey. That is the forward narrative. So to revisit songs from the past, you actually are singing the narrative distance between then and now. I’ve been through an incredible amount since then and I’ve grown. I really feel when I’m singing that song so much better. If I knew then what I know now…

Charles Hayward plays as part of Laura Cannell’s Modern Ritual event at Supersonic Festival on Sunday June 24

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