photo by Harry Collison
No Good No Evil
interview by Jack Gold-Molina
Steve Bemand, guitarist, synth player, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist, has been a figurehead in the UK since the 1970's. His musical inspiration "comes straight from the heart of Free Festival culture," a culture that thrived in the UK during the 1970's and '80's. Clear as a bell in the tribal psych-punk and heavy space rock of his bands including Smartpils and The Timelords, "expect trancing power chords, searing solos, twinkly floaty blits, and all manner of sounds to bend the mind the bend the mind."
(Sources: steve-bemand.soundawesome.com; swampnet.demon.co.uk)
Perfect Sound Forever: How did you get started playing music?
Steve Bemand: I remember really liking it from an early age. My mum had a lovely singing voice. I was blown away by Elvis, Beatles, Tornados, and many others when I was five in 1963. I was lucky enough that my parents got me lessons age six in piano and singing. My dad had sung in choirs, played piano.
My first performance was age seven. I sang a song and played a short piano piece to a full hall. From then, I was singing at least two days a week in church choir and more, and went for a cathedral school scholarship which I didn't get, but did a fair amount of rehearsal with the cathedral choir as a probationer.
In secondary school, took up the trombone, which I played in orchestras till age 17. Got to the regional level and took grade seven on that and piano. When I got a guitar for Christmas age 12, my dad taught the basics to me in what was basically an R&B skiffle style, with which I was invited to play with my mum's group of ladies, The Mojos, who played guitar and sung at various events. That was my first actual guitar gigging experience playing things like "Sloop John B" and "Michael Row The Boat Ashore."
I had a year's guitar lessons learning classical style, but after a while my teacher played me some Hank Marvin and said, "This is what you want to do really isn't it?" I said, "Erm, yes sort of?," as I was already playing along at home with The Who, The Move, Beatles, etc., and my guitar was steel strung so changed over to the "Mel Bay Method."
Then saved up pocket money and got an Egmond semi-acoustic, a proper guitar, then a Watkins Rapier 44 solid body. I always used to play along with the radio as a discipline, got into Status Quo, T.Rex, Slade, Sweet, and by the time I got Argus by Wishbone Ash age 14, I could play along with it, solos and all. Still can!
PSF: Who are some of your musical influences, and how have they influenced you over the years?
SB: Influenced by everything I've ever heard, but in terms of guitar style, I started out in folk but moved over to blues/rock as a very solid foundation. Status Quo firstly, then Wishbone Ash, but then got seriously into Hawkwind. I certainly developed my style with assistance from Dave Brock, Huw Lloyd-Langton, Paul Rudolph, Steve Hillage, Daevid Allen, Jimi Hendrix, Dave Gilmour, Andy Powell, Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Page, Mick Ronson, Geordie from Killing Joke, Steve Ignorant from Crass. I've been playing guitar for 47 years, and I've been in many bands moving through folk, glam, rock, punk, drum 'n bass, metal, dance, and space-rock styles over the years.
PSF: How would you describe your approach to composing and performing music, and how has it developed since you started playing?
SB: From age five to 17, I never wrote any music, always played covers. I wanted to write in teen years but nothing came of it until Demented Stoats in 1978 when we learned to jam up riffs and work on them live ‘til they became songs. I was in the past always a batter rather than a bowler, needing only the simplest seeds of a song to springboard off and discovered I was good at arranging music.
By the time of Smartpils, I started writing lyrics and songs but few of my songs made it into Smartpils' repertoire. The best ones always seemed to be group efforts. By the end of Smartpils in 1988, I had a songbook full of lyrics and found it easy to whip songs together. Usually though, still, all the best ones were jammed up, and each musician would contribute their bit.
Also by then, Richard Chadwick (Smartpils' drummer) and I could churn out songs. This songwriting partnership continued with the Ancient Ones until Richard left, but was occasionally picked up in the Little Big Men with Richard whilst simultaneously learning to write tunes in a techno fashion, that is, sequencing sounds on a computer, and I started writing more songs on my own using sequencing to play the backing. 10 years later, with VST's on a laptop, it was possible to record everything to hard disk and 10 years after that, on an iPhone.
Now, I will go out into a sunny meadow with iPhone and headphones and play and record riffs, then put them into the laptop and record demos including MIDI programmed drums, synth and bass guitar. Sometimes the lyrics come first, and I'll write the music after. Once the demos are down, the individual instrument and vocal tracks can be replaced in a "cloaking" style and eventually wiped. So it's a work in progress until the final mix.
PSF: Can you talk about some of your early musical projects?
SB: I joined The 1B Boogie Band in first year secondary school, our class number, and we used to bunk off sports and go and play music — folky acoustic. I had a friend, Clive, whose parents had a large house where we played, listened to, and generally discussed music. I first heard Hawkwind there which blew my classically trained mind and set me on a different path from then on.
We moved from the countryside to Hereford city. I joined Whisky Mac with Clive on bass, playing folk rock, got a residency at a hotel and played at ceilidhs and barn dances. Age 17, I got a band together, T.Pot, playing various covers including Hawkwind songs with some of the cathedral school pupils. We only did three gigs, one on the bandstand at a festival in Hereford. I then met local musos Jimmy, Pete, and Martin, who were to become The Pretenders, and spent time at the local studio and went to local gigs and parties put on by them.
The Demented Stoats were four of us who were already friends in Hereford, who migrated to Bath with the intention of getting a band together. I had left Hereford to travel with the convoy living in benders and tipis, and met up with Rob, Richard, and Will at Stonehenge Festival 1978. They suggested we get a band together and put forward Bath as a place where things could be made to happen. I went to Bath and found a very dingy squat with a couple of rooms for us to live in. When the others arrived not long after, we found a whole house, Stoat Hall in Cleveland Row, with space for a practice room, which was crucial as we commenced rehearsing six nights a week.
Initially, we invited Dave Eatwell who brought a drum kit as Richard was our bongo and conch player, but before long he went back to Hereford and left the kit which Richard started playing, and he was obviously gifted in the rhythm department. He started playing tribal style on the toms, and the music that resulted was punky, psychedelic, trancy, and just a bit different. None of us had ever written a set of music but by the end of the year 1979, Bridget Wishart had joined and we had written enough material. We played our first gig at the tiny Walcot Village Hall, a very special night. The Bath Arts Workshop had decorated it inside for the fringe festival, complete with balconies so increased the floor space. We made 50 spliffs of homegrown grass to throw out to the audience during the first song and there was magic mushroom punch for everybody.
We only played a few gigs but each one was exponentially better than the last. By the last gig at the People's Free Festival at Bath Rugby Training Ground, we were really tight and original. Somehow though, a month later at the Mushroom Fayre, Rob and Bridget quit, leaving Richard and myself to contemplate our future. We two decided to get a new band together, and within a few weeks found George Fletcher to play bass, Jenny to chant her poetry, and formed Smartpils. Jenny was augmented by Claire, and when Jenny had left after a catastrophic psychotropic drug experience, Nyx Darke joined, and she and Claire developed the dual vocals found in a lot of the songs.
We played lots of gigs, many squalid squat punk gigs, but gradually honed our sound which was quite distinctive, but could be described as a mix of punk, Hawkwind, Killing Joke, mid-period Pink Floyd and Crass. We gigged around UK and Europe, played at free festivals, released tape albums, and recorded a mini album at SAM studios on Bluurg Records. George left in 1988. We recruited Tim Shapland in bass, played two gigs and recorded three tracks then split up, all my fault really. I had been taking a lot of LSD was quite confused and had split with my girlfriend and wanted to move closer to where she had gone with a view to rekindling the relationship... and of course to try and make my fortune in London! So I moved there with George with a view to getting a new band together. George eventually moved back to Bath, and I hooked up with Nyx who was already there. She had a job in a top studio. I ended up becoming a laserist at The London Planetarium.
I also got into acid house there at the birth of it and whilst perfectly placed to get a new band together, I was introduced to and was most impressed by Alan Davey -- since I left Bath, Richard had joined Hawkwind. I heard that Huw Lloyd-Langton had left and got the idea that I would be the ideal replacement, moved back to Bath to be closer to where they lived and operated. When back there, the three of us -- me, Alan, and Richard -- ended up jamming at Cleveland Row and played local gigs, mixing Smartpils and Hawkwind material as Pilwind and later as Star Nation. We were joined by Bridget, who had also joined Hawkwind. Then I was asked to dep for Dave Brock on the 25-date 1991 Hawkwind European tour promoting Space Bandits. I had thought after the success of that that they would ask me to join the band. This didn't happen, so I moved in a totally different direction joining Klive Farhead in Technopagan along with Bridget.
Previously, in 1987, Richard and I had formed The Ancient Ones as a psychedelic covers band so we could play festivals and parties. We wrote quite a few songs in the early '90's with Karen Sawyer on vocals and Rob Grainger on bass, then Richard found he had too much on and left to keep up with a busy Hawkwind. We recruited Silas Ibin on drums and eventually Bill Radford on bass, and started to tour UK. The band didn't endure; we couldn't match the songwriting flair that Richard and I had.
I took on Technopagan when Klive quit, and carried on with the UV Dance Troupe taking the sound a lot harder than it had started. We did plenty of events, including Glastonbury '98 Greenfields Solar Stage. Meanwhile, Richard and I had formed Little Big Men and wrote lots of material as a duo, meaning to add session players for any live work. Actually, we only played one gig at Hawkfest 2003 with Keith Kniveton on synth.
I moved away from Cleveland Row in 2000. The Technopagan dance troupe had dissipated and I carried on producing hard trance music with added guitar and doing occasional live PA's at various raves and clubs. In 2008, Richard and I recorded a number of songs with Klive Farhead producing, many of these still on the shelf but a couple have been produced and finished. I was asked to augment Technicians Of Spaceship Hawkwind (TOSH) at Hawkfest 2010 on The Isle Of Wight, and every year since at Hawkeaster, and also usually play with The Elves Of Silbury Hill (EOSH), another Hawkwind spin-off.
PSF: How did you start playing in the UK festival scene?
SB: I was traveling about from festival to festival with a troupe of musicians in 1977 and '78 and had lots of sessions on the Red Ice Stage run by Belfast Brian. Then with Demented Stoats it seemed obvious we would play at the festivals, which was our favorite thing to do. The Smartpils played the main stage at Stonehenge and The Ancient Ones played at many festivals too.
PSF: How would you say that the festival scene in the UK has changed over the years?
SB: I haven't been to any big festivals for about 10 years. The really big ones are run more like "Mean Fiddler Outdoor Events with Camping," not the same thing at all as the free festies we loved in the '70's and '80's. But the wonderful thing is there are many small and brilliant festivals now which are much like the old free festivals and these are the ones I have participated in.
PSF: Can you talk about some of the bands and musicians that you have worked with since you became a part of that scene?
SB: In the last 5 years as well as The Timelords, TOSH and EOSH, I have played with the Glissando Guitar Orchestra, Daevid Allen's creation, to be joined by him at a gig in Birmingham in 2013. Dave Brock often, but not always, performs with TOSH and EOSH. I have frequently recorded with Spirits Burning, Don Falcone's pan Atlantic cyber-band which includes many ex- members of Hawkwind and Gong. Also, I have recorded a number of tracks with Secret Saucer from Ohio.
PSF: What are some of your favorite memories of performing and working with those artists?
SB: Endless rock and roll stories... Richard so drunk at a punk squat gig with Smartpils that he got up in the middle of a number and had a pee against a wall, then carried on playing the song... touring with Smartpils raiding supermarket rubbish skips for leftover food and cooking up a huge curry on the wood burning stove on the M6 at 60 mph, smoke billowing out of the roof chimney... turning up at a coffee shop in Amsterdam at the end of a Dutch tour and crashing the gig, and playing a good end of tour set we were out of our minds on Dutch speed... Rich Isaacs so out of it at Glasto '87 that he couldn't play with his band The Ergot Babies so I stepped in and I think I may have played with the Hippy Slags that night too, not sure (laughs).
Touring with The Ancient Ones full band in Silas's Mini Cooper, drum kit on the roof, I have no idea how we got everybody in. Also, gigging with Smartpils three-piece in my MGB GT, Richard in the back with his drums, George -- 6' 3" tall -- concertina'd in the middle bit, guitars and amps in passenger seat, and me driving had the best deal. Hawkeaster 2014 Dave Brock was due to play with TOSH, but popped in on a friend who plied him with wine to the point he had to go home and sleep it off, missing the gig. We had a magical evening in Birmingham playing with the Gliss Orchestra with Daevid Allen in 2013.
PSF: Can you talk about your band the Timelords? How did it come together?
SB: Dani Speakman and myself were drafted into the Starfighters for Kozfest 2011 and hoped that would continue but it didn't, and we just decided to get a band together after a jam with Richard on drums and Sammy Percival on bass. Sam Hayter was recruited to play drums but only played the first gig with us. Haz Wheaton played bass for the first two gigs. After that we found it hard to find the right musicians for the band, leading to me playing bass and programming drums for the first album, Convergence, which has sold quite well through streaming sites and as physical CD's.
Martyn Wood joined on bass, an excellent musician and character, but left due to a lack of commitment on my part. Barry played drums at a couple of gigs, but I'm not sure where he is at the moment, possibly Portugal. We have only played small festival gigs so far, including Hawkeaster 2014, different line-ups each time but with Dani and I as the core. This year we got Basil Brooks on synth, Niall Hone on bass, and Richard on drums for Kozfest. There is a batch of songs I have recorded for a new album, I would say 70 percent is done, but have done little for a couple of months. I'm back on it now. I learned a lot of production techniques making the last one and I'm sure this one will be even better.
PSF: What other kinds of projects are you working on currently?
SB: I have turned down an opportunity to collaborate with members of Spaceseed, Secret Saucer and Bridget Wishart, and also a project with Spirits Burning, cutting outside projects for now to concentrate on getting the new album together, but life seems to throw up endless distractions, such as playing with elves, working a night job, and doing Internet interviews (laughs)!
PSF: What do you do to pursue your creativity as an artist and musician?
SB: I try to prioritize, and put time aside to make things happen with varying success. When I play I try to keep a recorder running to catch those magic moments and always try to walk away with something be it a riff or a mix or some artwork. I do find time to just play -- work out on the guitar, bass, and synth. I play synthesizer quite a lot. It's fun to get lost in a decent synth, then find your way back to a "zero" state. Then when you play it with other people it is easier to never "lose the sound."
I use my phone quite a lot. I have a guitar amp simulator app with an eight-track DAW included, also a vocal effects recorder also with an eight-track, and a few synths, samplers, and other audio tools. It makes the process very portable. I have a MIKI keyboard which I use with another phone strapped to it. I'm not a brilliant artist by hand but I have the ideas and since I've had a computer art program have been able to get my ideas into the real world. That's the aim always.
PSF: What are you listening to, and what do you recommend for listening?
SB: The Cosmic Dead -- experimental psychedelic band from Glasgow. I missed seeing them a few days ago, but they are brilliant. Bob Hedger (Jah Buddah) who does old school Germanic synthi solo jams. The Groundhogs are back on the road with original drummer Ken Pustelnik. Looking forward to catching them playing in Bath soon.
PSF: Do you have any recommendations for other musicians who are recording and performing?
SB: Don't think about it too much -- do it. Play every day. It's worth learning the rudiments of scales on any instrument to avoid getting tangled fingers when you play fast, when you get good at it, but don't be hung up on the form of music. Be daring and break the rules. It will liberate you and make you feel good.
Believe in your worth, and ignore any criticism unless it's constructive.
photo by Brian Tawn
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