We talk to the band about their half-century of orgiastic trancepunk
Discovering Hawkwind – and re-discovering this ecstatic neurosonic mesmerific rock’n’roll machine, every time we listen to them – is like finding a band built entirely out of the best parts of your favorite songs.
There’s the dot-dash of the opening of “Highway Star” mixed with the repetition and roar of “Sister Ray”; the slow star-spray drone-climb that opens Wagner’s Das Rheingold combined with the tick-tick of “Astronomy Domine”; the power-thwong of Townshend inserted into the endless hypno-thump of Berlin’s Berghain at 5:48 on a Sunday morning; the wet, puffed air of Dark Side of the Moon morphed with the DNA of Vaughan William, Neu!, Blue Cheer and the really frantic bits of Lonnie Donegan. Yeh. Hawkwind have been doing all that and more for over half a century, and remarkably, they are till virtually at the top of their game after 54 (!) years, still making Large Collider-meets-English Pastoral joyous noise under the guidance of 82-year-old bandleader Dave Brock.
There’s a lot going on in Hawk-World in the Autumn of 2023. This past May, Hawkwind released The Future Never Waits, inarguably their best album in a generation, and arguably their best since 1976. As I wrote (here in the Rock & Roll Globe when I reviewed Hawkwind’s 35th studio album), The Future Never Waits is “…full of depth, dynamite, rocket full, absinthe, moon dust and mystery. Underneath it all is Hawkwind’s penchant for hypnoptic repetition, but within a framework that could seduce the fan of Radiohead or Fu Manchu, Black Sabbath or Black Flag, Can or Moby…The Future Never Waits is utterly, hypnotically insistent yet full of rich, delicate, unexpected subtleties.”
In addition, on September 29th Cherry Red Records will release a massive package to mark the 50th anniversary of Hawkwind’s Space Ritual, their landmark live album from 1973. Inarguably – I said infuckingarguably – one of the greatest live albums ever recorded, Space Ritual documents the churning, mesmeric rock’n’roll dynamo that was and is Hawkwind, the sound of a satanic mill repurposed to build space lasers and bullet trains to mars and beyond.
In Space Ritual’s roar and glide, we have the roots of pretty much everything orgiastic and hypnotic in rock’n’pop for the past fifty years, including real, direct, and acknowledged influences on punk, trance, stoner metal, speed metal, and pretty much all Sufi-whirling rock. Seriously, take anything that fills a ballroom with happy-hysteric re-re-rep-rep-repeating throb, and you can draw a line back to Hawkwind and Space Ritual. The new Space Ritual package includes the “classic” album re-mastered; a re-mixed/surround version of the original album; plus – and this is the huge one – full concerts from the Space Ritual tour from Liverpool Stadium, Sunderland Locarno and Brixton Sundown, newly mixed from the original 16-track master tapes. The full 50th anniversary package also features a Blu-Ray disc of new 5.1 surround sound mix of the original album, including the complete versions of songs that had been edited down on the 1973 double album release. Oh, and also on September 29, Hawkwind are playing the Royal Albert Hall in London, supported by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. So there’s lot’s to celebrate and a lot of ground to cover here.
It was my great and good fortune to interview 4/5th of Hawkwind 2023 – vocalist / guitarist / sonic architect Dave Brock (guiding the Hawk since 1969), Magnus Martin (guitars / vocals / keyboards-ish / viola, since 2016), and relatively new recruits bassist Doug MacKinnon and keyboards/synth-master Tim “Thigpaulsandra” Lewis. I also spoke, separately, with Stephen W. Tayler, who did all the new mixes for the massive Space Ritual re-release. Speaking to Brock, Lewis, Martin and MacKinnon via Zoom, it’s a terrific surprise to find that they sound like a young, combative, excited and engaged band. They all join happily and vigorously in the conversation, making jokes, cutting each other off, and sounding, generally, like a group that’s terribly excited to both make new Hawkwind and honor Hawkwind’s 54-year history.
Your last two albums – The Future Never Waits and last year’s live album, We Are Looking in on You – have seen an extraordinary revitalization of the band. I would hold either up to pretty much anything you’ve ever done, and that’s a pretty stunning thing to say about a group that’s been going since 1969. How does Hawkwind stay so fresh, creative and engaged?
Brock: Well, depending on the people in the band, it goes up and down like a ship in the waves, rising and falling. At the moment, it’s on a rise, because we’ve got a lot of good musicians in the band.
Martin: We bicker quite a lot –
Brock: No, we don’t!
Martin: Yes, we do! [laughs] There was a lot of artistic input, shall we say, towards the end of the last album, and I kind of think that made a difference. We changed the order of the tracks at the last minute, and that made a massive difference. For months and months, the record sounded, to me, like a badly packed van, but by the end it sounded really cohesive. It took a lot to get there.
How important is the process of bickering to making a Hawkwind record?
Brock: I’d call it tinkering, more than bickering. It’s just the process of trying to get things right. You record a track, and then leave it for a month or so and get back to it, listen to it and change little bits and pieces, add things, and take things away. Often these things start by yourself on your computer, and you’re recording the bass and drum tracks yourself, and when you do it yourself you usually overdo it; then you have to take things out.
Martin: Sometimes we’ll play something during the week and record it, and then Dave will play with it over the weekend, and then we’ll come back and it’s totally different. Dave will have flipped the whole thing around or added a new part or taken away a lot of it. Then we’ll re-learn that, and the process starts from scratch again.
Brock: That’s the art of music! Really, music is an artform, a canvas, and you’ve got to change things and make them interesting. And you listen. And change, re-shape, add, take away. We’ve already done our next album, which is going to be released next April. We’ve already finished it…but we will be tinkering with it. It will be worked on, and changed, until the day it’s mastered.
This extraordinary sound of Hawkwind, this interstellar generator kicking into life, there’s so little apparent precedent. Where did that originate?
Brock: It’s our style! It might be predictable, but it’s our style. When we first started up, we had an idea that we wanted to do sort of really good rhythmic playing, with electronics. That was the gist of it all. Take a really good rhythm section and make some weird sounds to go along with it.
MacKinnon: What bands were you listening to?
Brock: Well, I suppose the Steve Miller Band. Along with all this psychedelia — Sopwith Camel were one — and all these obscure bands from San Francisco. And Silver Apples!
Was it a coincidence that musicians in West Germany were working with similar ideas?
Brock: I think so, yes. Obviously, we would talk with Can, and Neu! as well, and of course Dave Anderson [bassist on Hawkwind’s second album, In Search of Space, just prior to Lemmy Kilmister joining the band] was in Amon Duul, it was a similar idea of using electronics with rhythmic passages, basically. Ash Ra Tempel were another one. It’s quite interesting that we were all going for the big, long jams. It’s quite similar to jazz in that way. That’s a good thing we are able to do: We can play a song, but it’s different every night. And that’s really what you want to do.
Martin: I’ve always thought it was because you were brought up on jazz, and that why that really comes through, that’s where that sense of structure comes from, and why it works.
MacKinnon: Yes, you start with the familiar, and then you go off, and come back to the familiar to finish.
Personally, I think a significant element in the sonic revitalization of the group has been the work of Tim “Thighspaulsandra” Lewis on the The Future Never Waits and We Are Looking in on You. The roll of keyboards…you can’t really say there’s a keyboard person in Hawkwind, it’s more of a painter, a framer, or an atmosphere creator…
Lewis: It’s very much more a textural thing, that’s the job that’s required. That’s an element that glues the Hawkwind sound together, in a way, this smearing of stuff over the solid rhythm.
Martin: You don’t want or need a keyboard player in the old-fashioned sense, like you have in Rainbow, or Rick Wakeman.
Hawkwind’s never ever had that.
Lewis: No, and it doesn’t need it. You don’t need to be flash to be in Hawkwind. [everyone laughs]
Now let’s hear from Stephen W. Tayler, who did the remixes on the massive and very impressive new Space Ritual 50th anniversary package. In addition to having nearly half a century of profound experience as a musician, recording, engineer, producer, and remixer (working with artists like Tina Turner, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Nicks, Rush, Howard Jones, Sting, and Kate Bush), in the last decade Tayler has found a niche doing high-end surround and Blu-Ray remixes for progressive artists like Be Bop Deluxe, Marillion, Renaissance, the Moody Blues, Barclay James Harvest, Van Der Graaf Generator, and now, Hawkwind.
“I’m not trying to replace the original,” Tayler says, via Zoom. “It gives you an alternative experience, and that’s the intention. What I want people to do is put on the Blu-Ray, particularly in surround if they’ve got it, with the graphics going on in the background, and just get lost in it for two hours, like it was an event, a real show. That’s what I love about being able to do these things, and these new formats. If you have a two-hour concert, you can create a two-hour version with no breaks, no need to turn over the disc or the CD, you can have the whole thing as it was intended, as it was performed.
Any particular or unique mixing philosophies when it came to the Space Ritual material?
Tayler: One of the things about the Hawkwind sound is that you don’t want to separate it too much. It’s the interaction between the sounds that creates the Hawkwind mood. I don’t want to feel like I’m in the middle of the band, like you might in a studio album, I want to feel like I’m part of the experience of the show. There seems to be a percentage of people who, when they get a remix of an album they’re familiar with, particularly in surround sound, they want what they call ‘discrete’ interpretation, which means they can identify all the individual parts in different places, and hear them uniquely and separated. Yes, I understand there’s some interest in that; but to me, a surround sound mix is more about a feeling, an atmosphere, being involved in the sound. It’s not about being able to separate things out, it’s about being able to enhance and enlarge the space.
Since I am not an audiophile, one of the amazing things about the Space Ritual project is the ability to hear these other complete shows, from Sunderland, Liverpool, and Brixton, and hear how consistent and powerful Hawkwind were, from night to night.
Tayler: I was actually astonished: For music that is, on one level, very improvisational and unique, I was surprised by the similarity night to night; it sounded like the band had really planned it and were extremely well rehearsed. The performances had a consistency I hadn’t expected.
There has been some speculation that these new Space Ritual mixes were going to turn down some of Nik Turner’s contributions.
Tayler: I wasn’t given any instruction whatsoever about how to approach that. Oddly, the week I got the tapes to start the project was the week Nik died. Which was really strange. Suddenly so many people were talking about him, and I began to read about the friction that had been going on. All I can say about how I approached it is that on my mix I tried to make the vocals a lot clearer than they were on the original album. I tried to give them a bit more focus and clarity. And per my general philosophy about mixing, I probably would have held back anything that would have interfered with them. That would have been my instinct. As I said, I had no dialogue with the band about this, so I have no idea what they’re going to think when they hear it.
Now back to Hawkwind. I asked them about the issue of Turner’s levels on Space Ritual.
Brock: Nik used to play saxophone through and over our vocals. Both Lemmy and I would tell him over and over, ‘Stop playing when we are doing vocals,’ but he would always play through them. If he (Tayler) has readdressed that, it would have been very much his decision, but I’ll get the blame for it, of course. [laughs]
Since you’ve mentioned Lemmy, let me ask Douglas. You are following in the footsteps of two amazing, very distinctive bassists: Lemmy and Alan Davey.
MacKinnon: This may sound really irreverent – I recognize what everyone has done before, but I’ll always do my own thing. There are certain bass lines that are right to reproduce, but I’ve never been any good at copying anybody, so I just do my own thing.
Brock: Doug is a good, solid bass player. The essence of Hawkwind’s sound is that wonderful anchor man on the bass. When we start playing, we know that the drummer and the bass player are going to keep it thundering away.
You mentioned that another album coming down the pike…there’s no end of this trip in sight, is there?
Brock: It just seems to go on! So strange that it constantly evolves.
Martin: What else can you do though but make music.
Brock: I suppose I could mow the lawn.
MacKinnon: We record constantly.
Brock: We could go into our rehearsal space now and come up with two or three weird numbers, we could play a riff and off we’d go into something else. It’s like jazz, it’s the essence of music.
MacKinnon: We rehearse a lot.
Brock: We do about two or three days a week.
MacKinnon: We jam and we record things constantly. New material flows all the time, doesn’t it?
With the current band being so strong, is it frustrating to compete with archival releases?
Brock: Yes and no. It’s difficult, isn’t it? Some compilations are alright, and others, not so much. This is the trouble. I appreciate that there are a lot of fans out there who want to hear all the music. But we are always looking forward rather than backwards.
“Take a really good rhythm section and make some weird sounds to go along with it.”
– Dave Brock
“Punk rock started because in every small town there was somebody who liked Hawkwind.”
– Stephen Morris, Joy Divison/New Order
- The Truth Behind Jann Wenner and Hootiegate - September 19, 2023
- Hawkwind Celebrates 50 Years of Space Ritual with Box Set - September 12, 2023
- ALBUMS: PiL Defy Time and Release Another Landmark LP - August 21, 2023