By Sanford Allen
WITH: Samothrace (Seattle) 11pm, Old & Ill (Austin) 10pm, Hedersleben (Germany) 9pm
Nik Turner's Hawkwind (UK) Midnight
All Ages Show, $10
When it comes to the space rock genre, few musicians have traveled the cosmos as widely as Nik Turner.
The 73-year-old former frontman/saxophonist/flautist of groundbreaking British psychedelic tribe Hawkwind has remained active at the most adventurous fringes of music since his 1976 departure from the group he co-founded. He’s dabbled in prog, psychedelia, punk, jazz, industrial and experimental music, collaborating along the way with artists such as Pressurehed, Helios Creed, the Moor and Inner City Unit.
Now, after the release of “Space Gypsy,” his first solo album in a decade, Turner is touring the United States with an ensemble billed as Nik Turner’s Hawkwind. The band plays San Antonio on Monday, Nov. 11, at the Ten Eleven (1011 Ave. B) with Samothrace, Old & Ill and Hedersleben. The show starts at 7 p.m.
Nik Turner’s Hawkwind, of course, is a different Hawkwind from the version of the band now helmed by guitarist and co-founder Dave Brock, with whom Turner has a long-running feud. Brock’s Hawkwind recently announced the postponement of a U.S. tour that would have been the band’s first in almost 20 years citing a “stress-induced illness” brought on by Turner’s decision to tour at the same time.
Even so, Nik Turner’s Hawkwind — stocked with veteran players including members of the U.K. Subs — appears to be warping space and time in a way that pleases the faithful. According to reports, the band is delivering stellar 90-minute sets that span strong new material plus longtime Hawkwind favorites like “Brainstorm,” “Silver Machine” and “D-Rider.”
We caught up with Nik by phone to ask about the new album, his strained relations with Brock and his ongoing musical journeys through the space-time continuum.
Q: Tell me about the new band. How did it come together?
A: I did some work with Cleopatra Records in the ‘90s. They did about four or five albums of mine, and then much later they contacted me to play on some tracks on an album being released by Billy Sherwood, who was involved in Yes, who was putting together an album called… What was it called? Ah, “Fusion Syndicate,” I believe he called it. He had people who were like a who’s who of prog rock and jazz, really — Billy Cobham, Jerry Goodman of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Rick Wakeman, people from King Crimson. All sorts of people, really. So, I played saxophone on a track, “Random Acts of Science,” on the first Fusion Syndicate album. From there, Cleopatra Records invited me to come to America to make an album and possibly do a tour. The owner told me he thought I was the best thing to come out Hawkwind, and he wanted to raise my profile. That was really nice of him. (Laughs.) He got a band together for me and invited me to go into the recording studio with the band he’d presented, which were all sort of people he’d worked with before. It was such people as Nicky Garratt, who plays with the U.K. Subs, and Jason Willer, who also plays with the U.K. Subs. The bass player was, um, a chap named Jeff Piccinini, who plays with a punk band in England called Chelsea, and Jurgen Engler, who was with a band called Die Krupps — along with producing stuff by Die Krupps, which I believe was just him, really. So, Jurgen was invited to produce the album. He also played synthesizer and he played some guitar. And before we recorded, we rehearsed a week, worked out the material. The band had songs already written, and I was invited to write some lyrics. It was all done to Cleopatra Records’ order, really. They wanted it to have a particular sound, and they wanted me to perform that sound, so we put the album together.
Q: So are the same people on the album the ones touring as your band?
A: That was in back in February or March, and I was over here and I did a couple of concerts. We thought it would be a good idea to be presenting publicly a version of Hawkwind’s “Space Ritual,” since it was the 40th anniversary of the release of that album. It was actually released in 1973. So we put together this band, which was performing that and also recorded a new album with them, which was called “Space Gypsy.” We did a couple concerts — one in L.A. at the Echoplex and another at the SXSW festival. We’re now doing a tour with that band promoting the “Space Gypsy” album. Another thing about the record company, they want to raise my profile, so they’re making a film about me right now. I also did some recording at the time with other people for a solo album I’m putting together with Billy Cobham and Chris Poland from Megadeth — and Robbie Krieger is on it, from the Doors, Simon House from Hawkwind and Steve Hillage from Gong and loads of other people. I’m actually not sure of everyone who’s on it, but I know I’m on it! (Laughs.) It’s a prog-jazz fusion album, really, and I find that really exciting. But, right now, we’re promoting the “Space Gypsy” album, and I’ve been really surprised about the reaction we’ve had from the press. We’ve gotten all sorts of good reviews, and people love it. The audiences are loving the shows. We’re going all over the United States — 30 dates or something like that. And, um, we’re getting great reactions. I’m trying to make the gigs healing experiences, so people feel good and we raise their spirits and consciousnesses and their health level. (Laughs.) Just having a good time, really.
Q: It seems like the “Space Gypsy” album has a vintage Hawkwind feel to it —
A: It does. I think that’s what Cleopatra was after, really.
Q: Was that intentional from the outset, or did it just sort of evolve that way as you were working in the studio?
A: They tended towards that, you know. Well, we put the tour together to promote the album, but we didn’t get the exact same personnel as the album. We’ve a different synthesizer player, a young lady named Lana Voronina and different bass player, Bryce Shelton. Doing this tour has been really exciting, although it’s been a bit of a tenuous thing, actually. Some of the gigs aren’t in very big venues, and some of them haven’t got very good guarantees. It’s rather a budget tour, so we’re making inquiries of people who come to the gigs if we can stay at their houses so we don’t have to spend money on hotels and can keep the price of the whole thing down. It’s actually nice and very sociable. I think it’s a very nice sort of communication, basically staying with people and having a lovely time with people. We’re all friends, and we’re all happy to be there, and we’re really respectful of them. We just a have a great time together.
Q: Is it exciting for you that 40 years on you’re getting to play in front of multiple generations of Hawkwind fans and people are willing to open their homes to you?
A: What I’ve found quite peculiar really is that I did tours in America in the ‘70s, and since then I’ve met about three people who came to those gigs, whilst the majority of people I meet came to the gigs I did in the ‘90s with a band called Pressurehed or as a band called Nik Turner’s Space Ritual around that time. I actually am quite intrigued and find it quite nice that some of the people who come to the gigs had their first experience with Hawkwind through seeing my band in 1994. (Laughs) So it’s quite bizarre, really. We’re spanning the generations as well. I’m 73, and we’re playing to kids obviously much younger than that.
Q: On the new album, the lyrics pick up some familiar themes from early Hawkwind — drifting in space and being lost in time. What do those themes represent to you, because I notice you go back to them again and again.
A: Yeah. I think that’s endemic with Hawkwind, really. It’s what Hawkwind is about. When I was in the band, we used to write songs about that sort of thing quite consistently. But, as well, people are saying the new album, “Space Gypsy,” sounds like what Hawkwind ought to have sounded like after the “Warrior on the Edge of Time” album, and think there’s something in it, really. By the same token, the songs I’ve written I’ve tried to include my own ideas in it, such as... (Pause) Excuse me; I’m putting some chicken curry on my plate. Um, I’ve always been interested in mythology — all sorts of mythologies — and I’m also very interested in the idea of gods doing intergalactic interventions and things like that. I think ancient cultures are quite fascinating, because they knew stuff we don’t know. We can learn from them, because they seem to have known far more than we know — how to build a pyramid, for example. Those blocks of stone were so accurately cut you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between them, and yet we can’t build something like that now with all our modern technology. So, they were really advanced on what we know about. Also the Mayans. I think Quetzalcoatl came from Atlantis when Atlantis sank. I mean, I make up my own mythology, really. I studied Mayan mythology, and I found it was quite fascinating so… I think a lot of people came from outer space — people that lived in Atlantis — and with Atlantis came people like Quetzalcoatl, who went to different parts of the world and brought knowledge of astronomy, astrology, science, mathematics, agriculture, divinity and imparted knowledge to people in all these different cultures: Egypt, Samaria, Peru, India, all these different places. I find all these religions very interesting, and surely there’s some foundation for all of them. So little evidence is available that I think I can make up my own ideas about mythology and they’re as valid as any other, really. (Laughs.)
Q: Where does your interest in science fiction come from?
A: I grew up on sort pulp science fiction and read Arthur C. Clarke and “Childhood’s End” and “I, Robot,” and lots of other books. I mean, I was turned on to them, really. As a teenager, I grew up in a town that was very close to an American air force base, and I palled up with a lot of Americans there. I sort ended up as a sports partner to all these fighter pilots. I’d play tennis with them, go cross-country running with them, went swimming in the sea — very cold swims — with them and stuff like that. And they gave me all this pulp fiction. (Laughs.) They gave me all their culture. I wore a leather jacket and Levis when nobody else had that sort of thing. I had a short, flat top haircut when I was 16. I wanted to join the American air force, which I thought was quite groovy. (Laughs.) Of course, I didn’t end up doing that. But I had been introduced to rock-n-roll and all the culture that was going down at the time, and I found it quite fascinating and learned a lot from it. I became involved in music through it, really. I was turned on to people like Earl Bostic. Do you remember him? (Laughs.) Perhaps you don’t. He had a record out called “Flamingo.” I became rather infatuated with it, and it inspired me to learn to play the saxophone, really. All that rock-n-roll that was going on, I found it quite exciting, and all the science fiction that I got into was sort of a spinoff of it. And when I met Bob Calvert, he turned me on to a lot more science fiction. I’ve always been sort of enthralled by it and ended up writing songs based around it — or from the angle of these mythologies. I’m really interested in Mayan mythology. I’ve spent time in Mexico and came up with all these ideas about how things worked — Quetzalcoatl gave his knowledge to the Toltecs, who were giants from Africa. I just sort of make things up, really. Anytime I come across an idea that intrigues me, I just write on it and turn it into a song.
Q: Speaking of science fiction, Michael Moorcock, the science fiction writer who was a frequent Hawkwind collaborator, lives close to Austin. Are you going to see him when you’re through Texas?
A: Oh, yeah, most certainly. When I was at the SXSW festival earlier in the year, I visited Michael while I was there, and I took the cameraman who was filming me. (Laughs.) He’d been filming me busking on the streets of Austin and playing with a thrash metal band who was also playing on the street and with a band who was playing Duke Ellington arrangements of “Caravan” and stuff like that. I was being filmed all the time, so we went to visit Michael Moorcock and had lunch with him, and they filmed me talking to him. He lives near Austin, only half an hour outside, actually.
Q: In Bastrop.
A: Oh, yeah, Bastrop. So hopefully, I’ll get him to come to the gig and do a bit of a rant, if I can. Although I’m not sure how he’s… Well, I mean, he’s healthy. He’s writing furiously, still churning a book out a day — well, not quite. (Laughs.) Something like that. No, but he’s had problems with his foot. I believe he’s diabetic and had to have a toe or two removed. He’s still quite able, though. I mean, we went to a restaurant and had lunch, and he was, you know, very sociable and very chatty, and we had a great time together because we were old friends. And hopefully I’ll get him to come down to the gig to perform with us. That would be very exciting.
Q: What should the audience in San Antonio expect from your gig.
A: Well, we’ve been attracting a lot of people who are really curious. There’s a whole thing going down on the Internet, and it seems there’s a lot of controversial misinformation and spurious rumors and so on. I don’t know who spreads it, but I see the results from it, and it makes me not want to go on the Internet. But, you know, I try to be as positive about it as possible. I’ve invited Dave Brock and Lemmy to get together onstage and possibly get a band together and perform the original “Space Ritual” on a world tour. Lemmy seems quite into it. I’ve spoken with him a few times about the idea. I’ve not spoken to Dave about it, but I suppose he’d let me know if he fancies the idea. Well, I don’t even think I have to make it that attractive. If he’s got any common sense, he’ll think a good idea, really, because it would do all of us a lot of good, and the fans would love it. I’d really like to do it for the fans.
Q: I may have seen the same spurious rumors you’re referring to, but my understanding is Dave cancelled his Hawkwind tour, claiming illness that he says stemmed from you touring as Nik Turner’s Hawkwind. Is that essentially what’s happened?
A: Um, it’s possible that’s what happened. Yeah, I think there was a lot of spurious information on the Internet about Dave getting ill, but then it turned out that somebody from the American embassy — where you have to go to get a visa — issued information basically saying Dave couldn’t get a visa because he’s got firearms convictions, drug convictions and GBH (grievous bodily harm) convictions. He couldn’t get a visa or a work permit, and in fact, the American tour was never going to happen, so far as I can gather. That’s the impression I get from the fact that they couldn’t get visas. I don’t know whether the other members of the band had the same problem. I mean, it’s not that easy to get a visa to come to America now. You have to have, um, special qualifications, really, one of which is you don’t have any convictions or if you have convictions, you have to produce all the documentation that went with the conviction. I haven’t done much research on it, but it seems like it’s difficult to get a work permit unless you’re squeaky clean, and I guess I happen to be squeaky clean because I don’t have any drug convictions or any sort of other convictions. I was sort of recommended for a work permit because of my unique talent. (Laughs.)
Q: So, given Hawkwind’s orientation around peace, community and alternative culture, is it disappointing that you and Dave appear to have been on the outs for so many years?
A: I think it’s very sad, really, because the whole ethos of what (Dave’s) Hawkwind is about at the moment is a complete antithesis of everything Hawkwind purported to stand for. It was all about alternative culture, alternative attitudes, not being materialistic, peace and love, and all the things that people who put their creative efforts into the band — Barney Bubbles, Michael Moorcock, the people that did the lighting and others who contributed to the band — represented. And Hawkwind doesn’t stand for anything alternative now. To me, it stands for corporate greed, really, and I think that’s sad, because that’s not what Hawkwind was about. Now, I’m known as the conscience of Hawkwind and I’m known as the keeper of the flame. These are sort of titles I’m happy to acknowledge, but I think that, you know, I’m sort of out in the wilderness, sort of lost in the dark. Hawkwind now isn’t what it should have been, it isn’t what it purported to be and it isn’t what everybody believed it to be. It’s just another band that’s turned out a bit like Spinal Tap, really. I was watching the film of “Spinal Tap” the other day and it very much reminded me of Hawkwind.
Q: Given that you’re playing smaller venues for smaller guarantees, how do you keep your head up and continue soldiering on when the financial rewards aren’t necessarily there?
A: I tend to look at the big picture, really, that it’s just the means to an end, you know? You’re producing an album that was done quite democratically, really, and everyone was given a say. I didn’t say, “You’re all doing my songs.” I’d say, “Alright, you’ve got songs,” and they’d say, “You can change the words if you like.” So, these are the band’s songs, and I value the band and I tend to value people. I’m quite happy for other people to have tracks on the album that they wrote. The single we’ve got was written by the drummer. I didn’t go, “Oh, I want to change the lyrics so I can claim I wrote it.” (Laughs.) So, I try to value people and respect them and make them feel good, really.
Q: The last time I saw you tour, Helios Creed was playing guitar with you, and I must say it seemed like a band where everyone was contributing something to the mix. It wasn’t just you and a collection of anonymous sidemen.
A: Well, that’s all going with it. The fact that record company wants to raise my profile, I see that as a good thing. The film we’re making, I’m trying to turn it into a science fiction sort of epic — a sort of Mickey Mouse visual effects sort of thing, but very exciting. I’d like to sort of produce something unique and creative and interesting that’s not been done before. The same way with the band — they’re all really exciting players and I get on well with them and we have a good time together. So I think, well, we’re not getting much money, but we’re laying groundwork. It’s a sort of one-step-at-a-time thing, and I mean everybody that we’re working with isn’t getting much money either. We’re not on a big-budget tour or anything. We’re living on people’s floors and enjoying people’s hospitality. I think it’s great. I’m 73, and I don’t know how much vitality I’ve got left in me. I mean, I don’t drink or smoke, I just practice music a lot and I’m not worried about whether I’ll have a heart attack tomorrow — although I might. (Laughs.) But then if I do, I don’t care. I don’t do anything that will make me have a heart attack, but I’m quite happy to go with the flow and make something exciting out of what we’ve got and the materials we have. You know, I’m doing it.
Sanford Allen is a San Antonio-based author and musician. His band Hogbitch recently released its first album on Dogfingers Recordings. His first novel, Deadly Passage, is due out in December, packaged back-to-back with Stoker Award-winning author Joe McKinney’s Dog Days.