STEVE HILLAGE’S MUSICAL VISION KNOWS FEW BORDERS.
The British guitarist and composer’s influence spans decades,
generations, and genres—from psychedelic rock, prog-rock,
and fusion with Gong and the Steve Hillage Band to ambient,
techno, and house with System 7 and Mirror System.
Hillage is renowned for his soaring,
searing guitar contributions during Gong’s
heyday from 1972-1975, in which the
band released the seminal Radio Gnome
Trilogy, comprising Flying Teapot, Angel’s
Egg, and You. His next project, the Steve
Hillage Band, extended Gong’s prog- and
space-rock explorations on classic midto-
late ’70s albums including Fish Rising,
L, and Green. The ’80s and ’90s also found
him in high demand as a top-tier record
producer for Robyn Hitchcock, Simple
Minds, the Charlatans, and Rachid Taha.
In the early ’90s Hillage and fellow
ex-Gong bandmate, keyboardist Miquette
Giraudy, launched System 7. The act has
remained a leading light of the electronica
movement for nearly 20 years, with
more than a dozen albums, including
its recent Phoenix [A-Wave] release.
Hillage and Giraudy also explore ambient
downtempo sounds in Mirror System,
which just-released Reflector [A-Wave],
a DJ mix disc.
After a 30-year absence, Hillage
reunited with Gong in 2005 and went on
to release 2009’s 2032 [G-Wave], a fresh
and inventive record that infuses Gong’s
sound with funk, electronica, and dance
grooves. In tandem, he reactivated the
Steve Hillage Band, which revisited history
on CD and DVD releases titled Live
at the Gong Unconvention 2006 [G-Wave].
His 2010 focus is System 7, along with
Gong shows scheduled for September.
What prompted you to rejoin Gong?
It was the result of a 2005 event put
together by Gong fans called Unconvention.
We did a System 7 show and then
jammed with other guys from Gong. It
felt good, so we did it again in 2006 at
the biggest Unconvention ever, which
concluded with every original surviving
Gong member playing a Gong set. Two
large London gigs followed and we
decided to make an album. It was an
organic progression. There wasn’t a feeling
of revisiting Gong for me. My years
with the group had a seminal effect on
my musical universe. It remains part of
my musical DNA.
Describe the role of guitar in System 7.
With System 7, it’s sometimes appropriate
to play overt rock-style guitar over
a dance groove, but it’s not the priority.
I’m focusing more on a style I call
“abstract guitar,” which is about guitar
sonorities and sonic shapes. We also play
programmed sounds based on guitar
waveforms and samples, and cut up, sample,
and repeat guitar phrases. In addition,
I do some very tight rhythmic playing, as
well as using dotted semiquaver and dotted-
quaver echo live.
What are your typical signal chains these
With Gong and the Steve Hillage
Band, I’m using a Steinberger GL2T guitar,
Line 6 PODxt Pro rack unit with a
Line 6 pedalboard, and a Fender Twin
FSR amp. With System 7, I swap out the
Line 6 PODxt Pro for a Zoom 9050
multi-effects processor and also use Cry
Baby wah and Boss Compressor pedals.
In addition, in System 7, I have a Behringer
Xenyx 502 baby mixer that I use
to preamp the sound before sending it
to our Pioneer DJM-800 Pro DJ mixer
with crossfader control.
Why is the Steinberger GL2T ideal for all
I first picked up a Steingberger in
1986 and realized it made an enjoyable
sound even without an amp because it’s
slightly hollow. It’s very musical and
tuneful and it feels fantastic, particularly
because it’s made of graphite and the
neck is so true. I became so fond of it
that I sold most of my old guitars and
only keep a few others around.
What are your other guitars?
I have a Danelectro baritone guitar I
use when I want something really deep
sounding and a bit Twin Peaks-y. I’ve also
got a Takamine EAN10C dreadnought
cutaway acoustic-electric and a Yamaha
SLG100S Silent steel-string acousticelectric.
The Yamaha is a solidwood
instrument that sounds like an acoustic
but doesn’t feed back. I use it during
Mirror System shows that feature a lot
of acoustic guitar.
You record to Pro Tools HD. Describe how
you get your sounds.
I’ll often use my Line 6 PODxt Pro
or Zoom 9050 to generate an interesting
echo sound, and then work with the
many Pro Tools plug-ins to take it from there. I’m also fond of the SoundToys plugins
because one of the engineers that
designed them used to work for Eventide.
When Todd Rundgren produced my L album
in 1976, he brought in a prototype Eventide
Harmonizer that we used a lot, and it
became a large part of my sound. The Sound-
Toys plug-ins have some of the same feel as
the Eventide—especially Crystallizer, which
combines delays with harmony effects.
Other SoundToys plugs I like are FilterFreak,
a powerful analog-like filter; Tremolator,
which emulates old tremolo sounds; Sound-
Blender for multieffects; and EchoBoy for
How do you create your classic glissando sound
Glissando involves stroking the strings
with a metal rod. It’s different from using a
bottleneck in that you put the metal rod on
the strings and stroke the strings right there
on the neck. It interacts with the harmonics
of the guitar to produce a unique
unearthly and angelic sound. Daevid Allen
of Gong developed it after seeing Syd Barrett
from Pink Floyd doing it with a Zippo
lighter. In terms of effects, I use the Zoom
9050 with a modest amount of distortion, a
lot of compression, subtle chorus, amp modeling,
and a lot of delay set to around 300
What amp modeling settings are you using?
I went into the Zoom 9050 and programmed
dozens of sounds. You’ll hear
the Soldano, Vox, and Mesa/Boogie settings,
among many others. All this
modeling stuff is just about labels. What’s
important to me is sound. The Zoom allows
you to program and change sounds quickly
and easily. That’s the biggest benefit of
digital processing. For sonic perfectionists,
classic analog approaches are probably
best. But if I have a guitar idea in the studio,
I want to play it immediately. With
analog, I’d have to stop, set up an amp and
a bunch of other gear. By the time I’ve got
the sound right, I might have forgotten
what I wanted to play. If I have an idea I’m
bursting to play, I’ll end up with a much
better performance with more emotion if
I can get the sound I want quickly. It’s the
same reason writers use word processors
and not quill pens.
You’ve said System 7 “opposes frontiers and
rigid divisions, both within the music scene and
in the world at large.” Elaborate on that.
If you listen to the Steve Hillage Band
lyrics of the ’70s, you can see where we’re
coming from. We’ve always been attached
to the element of music linked to spiritual
uplift. One of the main functions of music
is to carry positive energy. Also, System 7 is
very much a hybrid, cross-genre musical animal.
Our background is in ’70s psychedelic
music, yet we’re part of the dance music
scene of today. We have elements of techno,
progressive, house, and trance—but we’re
not any one of those things. There’s a lot of
blinkered genre fascism in the dance music
business and elsewhere, and we’re against
that. We don’t want any barriers affecting
what we do.