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 days?
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 your projects?
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 delay.
How do you create your classic glissando sound today?
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 milliseconds.
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.