Interview with JACK LANCASTER
When it comes to blues-wailing, there's no better instrument than a saxophone, but not too many sax players, having explored rock idiom, take it further into the realm of classical music and on to the experimental. Jack Lancaster did exactly that.
Coming to prominence with BLODWYN PIG, he proceeded to produce the best non-symphonic version of Sergey Prokofiev's "Peter And The Wolf" and then came up with a masterpiece which has been re-issued many times - more often then not without the author's name on the cover. Never the one to stop, now Jack is working on something new, and that's quite a time to catch on with Lancaster's glorious past..
- Jack, mostly known as a saxophonist, you also play guitars. How many instruments have you mastered?
I don't really play the guitar, I strum it as a writing tool. My main instruments are all the saxes, WX 5, flutes, clarinet, violin, keyboards and percussion. I also have an interest in ethnic instruments from all over the world. Electronic music is another fascination so I have a collection of analog and digital synthesizers.
- How did the music life start for you?
Violin lessons as a child which led to an interest in the classics jazz, and rock. I joined a local youth orchestra and we toured and played in competitions all over the UK. However, I don't remember us winning anything but the experience was good. During this period I managed to learn to improvise in a strange way. My parents would confine me to a room were I was supposed to practice. As long as I made a noise resembling music I was ignored, so I would prop a book, or comic, on the music stand and read while scraping away at the fiddle.
- You first recorded as part of PACIFIC DRIFT. But were they your first band?
I did record with PACIFIC DRIFT but was not a member of the band. I think the confusion arose because I wrote a couple of tunes for them. My early pro music days were spent in Manchester where I backed up Wayne Fontana, Dave Berry and others, I played in Hong Kong with Filippino bands, raved in Southern Africa and did the "Star Club" and "Top Ten" scene in Hamburg.
- Was there a band you were in called SPONGE?
Yes! I'm surprised you even heard this. I think I was with this band for a couple of months - we played Hamburg and a couple of other places in Germany. Then we were offered a gig in the Bahamas. I was packing my suitcase when I received a call from Mick Abrahams so I repacked with more wintery clothes and left for London. As far as I remember, there are no recordings of this band, although some of the members became PACIFIC DRIFT.
- So you were with them right before joining the PIG?
I was in Dave Berry's back up band and doing sessions at Strawberry Studios. Then there was the "spongy" thing.
- Was BLODWYN PIG the first band you joined on a permanent basis?
I have never joined any band on a permanent basis. Permanence is an illusion.
- As early as in BLODWYN PIG you used to play two saxes simultaneously. Roland Kirk was an obvious influence. So when and why did you move on from jazz to blues and rock?
The first person I saw playing two instruments at once was Charley Cairoli a clown at the Blackpool Tower Circus. I think I was eight years old. He played clarinet and soprano sax and I was hypnotized, even though I hated clowns. Much later I saw Roland Kirk at Ronny Scott's jazz club in Soho. His playing was tremendous and I always thought that he was a vastly underrated musician. The pity was, the night I saw him much of the set was taken up by a verbal black power rant. He then yelled that "the Beatles stole black music and turned it into commercial wallpaper". He must have known that George Harrison had a table to his left.
- What was the BLODWYN's initial agenda? Did Mick Abrahams try to pick up where he left off from JETHRO TULL?
The only agenda I can remember was to play and have fun - and we did! Mick was very relieved to be able to play and record his own brand of stuff without hindrance. To my knowledge, he never regretted leaving JETHRO TULL.
- Was there a shift in the leadership that made Abrahams leave what was percieved as his group?
Not really. Mick wanted to move in a different musical direction. If my memory serves correct, at the time he was thinking of going melodic-acoustic. However, he changed his mind and formed quite a loud band. After all, he is more than slightly mad. Hmm...
- You called Barry Reynolds from PACIFIC DRIFT to fill the gap, but why Peter Banks who didn't seem to be a blues guitarist?
Actually, Peter played bluesy stuff quite well. That's not to say the band worked well... It didn't.
- Did BLODWYN do any recordings with Banks?
We did some live work together but there are no studio recordings. However, I do believe that a live recording exists of a John Peel BBC show, although I've never heard it.
- Then there was Larry Wallis. Where did you find him?
I think it was on a street in Peckham. Funny thing is, I bumped into him on a L.A. street about six years ago.
- When you renamed the band into LANCASTER'S BOMBERS and then LANCASTER, was it to underline your leadership? And why did the group break up?
Oh dear! This was a dark place in my life. I believe we all have them. I know it rained every day for months and I think I have purposefully blocked most of it out. I certainly don't remember sticking a band with such a warlike reference as LANCASTER'S BOMBERS. I think it sounds more like a certain guitarist thought of it. Terrible name. Fortunately, there are no recording of that period.
- What was your reason for joining MICK ABRAHAMS BAND if you'd parted ways with Mick a couple of years before? And why it didn't become the PIG's second coming until 1974?
Mick's band was fun and it rocked. Apart from that, all the members were friends of mine. We made an album titled "At Last", I liked that too. I also enjoyed the PIG's second coming in '74. It was only one tour, with Clive Bunker on drums. Someone made a live recording and two of the tracks are on the "Pigthology" CD.
- When and where did you team up with Robin Lumley? In THE SOUL SEARCHERS?
THE SOUL SEARCHERS was strictly a studio band with Percy Jones on bass and Bill Bruford on drums. I knew Robin years before this; in fact, we had already worked together on a couple of short movie scores for The Rank Organization and then there was KARASS, followed by lots of other stuff including "Marscape" and "Peter And The Wolf".
- I heard this name, KARASS. Was there ever such a band?
Yes! KARASS was a reality and things got brighter. The name was lifted from a Kurt Vonnegut novel and was his name for a club of people whosemembers constantly recycled and widened in scope. Good name for a jam band, if a bit obscure. The basic unit was Chick Web on drums, Percy Jones on bass, John Goodsall on guitar, Robin Lumley on keyboards and myself. We played "The Marquee" and other clubs around London. Lots of wonderful players and singers would join us as the set progressed. Some nights it would rock, on other occasions it sounded like the avant-garde madhouse. The band made some demos in a studio but to me they sounded mechanical and over-arranged. I've no idea what happened to the tapes. It should have been recorded live that's the only way it would have worked.
- And then they were PHIZZ: was that a studio-only project assembled for just one single?
Yes, and the single sold quite well. The BBC played it constantly until they found out that there were obscene lyrics in-amongst the backing vocals. In those days that was unacceptable.
- Was your association with Phil Collins a result of Anthony Phillips' "The Geese And The Ghost" sessions?
No, I first met Phil at BRAND X jams. Then there were "Peter And The Wolf" and "Marscape" and lots of other stuff.
- "Peter And The Wolf": of all the things you could have worked on - why classical? why Prokofiev? Because each character there has a distinct instrument and that way you could rope in an all-star ensemble?
Why Prokofiev? He wrote great tunes. The original idea was do do a rock version as a film with director Hugh Raggert but the financial backing didn't materialize. Guess we were asking for the moon. Anyway, we didn't get it, so we made an album and it was great fun working with all of those splendid musicians. Each one carefully picked to suit the role they had to play. The "distinct instruments" for the characters did play a very important part as we had to change the instrumentation to suit the rock medium. We also had to change much of the original chord structure for the same reason. We did give up on a few and wrote our own pieces. One great pleasure I had during the recording was working and socializing with one of my personal childhood heros Stephane Grappelli who played the Cat with great panache.
- Wasn't it intimidating to add your own pieces to Prokofiev's classic?
Not really, after the Prokofiev pieces had altered chords to fit them into the rock format. I'm doing something along those lines right now, but this time it's French not Russian. I can't reveal the title yet but I'm hoping to have it completed early next year.
- How did you pick the players for "Peter And The Wolf"? What criteria were there?
Well! As we said, "Peter" is a character-driven work, so each player had to have an individual style. That's why [Brian] Eno made a wonderful Wolf, Stephane Grappellii was a Cat of the old school, and Gary [Moore] was a superb wah-wah Duck. In fact, getting the right people was the easy part: everyone wanted to do it.
- Did Jon Hiseman meet Moore during the recording of "Peter" or did you invite both when COLOSSEUM II had already been formed?
I think COLOSSEUM II had already been formed, and I don't think they were in the studio at the same time [recording "Peter"].
- To what extent were all these artists given freedom? I can't believe everyone was playing to the charts?
There were charts but with lots of improvised sections. It gets back to your criteria question: every player had to have great jamming capabilities and had to be able to do it in character. Also they had to be sympathetic to the charts.
- Was it through this project and Manfred Mann that you met Mick Rogers with whom you went on to form AVIATOR?
No! I met Mick Rogers at a drunken musical jam in Harwich. I think we fancied the same girl, can't remember who won that one.
- Did you know Clive Bunker, who was in AVIATOR with you, through Mick Abrahams's band?
I knew Clive from the olden days in Manchester, he was playing in a band called THE TOGGERY FIVE with Mick Abrahams and Paul Young. I joined later and made it six but they didn't change the name, so I became the invisible one. Clive was also in BLODWYN PIG, He took Ron Berg's chair when Ron became sick and was unable to play. Clive and I are still firm friends and I played with him at Mick's birthday bash last summer. We reformed the original BLODWYN with Andy Pyle on bass for the night.
- John G. Perry once said about AVIATOR, "We sometimes overcomplicated ourselves, in our songwriting". Would you agree?
Basically, I'm a great believer in simplicity, I guess I'm an admirer of minimalism. John's statement is honest but understated. It was so convoluted I can't bear to listen to it.
- With all the AVIATOR's potential, why did you jump ship?
Because I hate sailing.
- Did AVIATOR come from recording your solo album, "Skinningrove Bay", with those guys?
AVIATOR was formed before I started recording the "Skinningrove" album, although they were both recorded in the same studio, Tittenhurst Park.
- What's the story of "Skinningrove Bay" and the whaling communities you come from?
This could turn into a long and boring geographical lecture. Let me just say... It's damned cold up there and that's why I live in LA.
- How come that some versions of "Bay" don't have your name on the cover? More so, there's a version of it called "Wild Connections" that has nothing to do with the album you did with Rick Van Der Linden. Isn't it all confusing and abusive?
I would say, Damned Abusive! The record company, Acrobat Records, went bankrupt before the album was completed, and the tapes ended up in the hands of a company who just flat out exploited every aspect of it. They own it, so there is nothing I can do about it. As a footnote, I haven't received any payment during its release in all those dreadful forms... as far as I'm concerned, they are all bootlegs.
- The problems of "Bay" aside, does it give you artistic pleasure to know the album's so popular?
I was not aware that it was popular. Who with? I only like one song on the whole work.
- Was coming up with a musical autobiography, which this album is, a cathartic experience?
No, I hate it. It's not autobiographical. it's supposed to be a story of the unfortunate village. The last time I saw Mick Abrahams, he told me with great delight that Skinnngrove Village won a TV award for being the worst kept village in the whole of England!
- In L.A. now, are you living out your Hollywood dreams as was intended on the "Bay"?
"Hollywood dreams" was supposed to be a cynical statement. I now live in my studio up on the high desert 4,000 feet above tinsel town. It looks better in the distance on non-smoggy days. Otherwise, I cant see it through the fog. The chemical content makes for nice sunsets though.
- Rick Van Der Linden was a prominent player on the European scene. How did your collaboration happen?
This was during my continental production days. I was producing an album for a Dutch band named KAYAK and Rick came into the studio to do a session for the band. I quickly realized that he had phenomenal technique and flowing ideas. We went out for a booze-up in Amsterdam and he asked me to produce his next album. We became good friends and anytime I was working in Holland I stayed at his house with his family. He had a well stocked and weirdly decorated baroque music room in his house, Everything from Flying V guitars to genuine 18th century harpsichords. We had a great time and a fruitful musical relationship. I miss him.
- How did you get in touch with KAYAK?
They got in touch through a London agency.
- Was their "Starlight Dancer" your first work as an invited producer?
No, I produced lots of stuff before this. But working with KAYAK was a great experience and I loved my time in Amsterdam.
- Lumley and Van Der Linden: what do you find so special about working with keyboard players... and often taking a back seat on these records?
Robin and I were friends from way back and there was a musical sympathy between us. Prior to this, we worked together on a couple of Rank scores and documentaries and then there were all the live performances. With Rick it was a different thing as he asked me to produce some solo stuff he was doing at Phonogram studios in Holland. But I didn't take a back seat, as many of the analogue synth sections and solos were performed with the Lyricon triggering Moog modules. That was something I was into at the time.
- Having never been associated with punk or garage scene, how did you get involved with Mick Farren? Via Larry Wallis?
Mick Farren lives in a Hollywood apartment where he sits, in all his splendor, facing an array of black computers writing novel after novel. He must have at least forty works to his credit and his output is prolific. Occasionally, he makes a foray into bright light of LA. It was on one of these occasions that I met him in a Sunset bar. He asked me if I would write some suitable music for a series of poems he had written. The next and obvious move was, of course, to perform them so we formed a band and managed to get a once weekly residency at "The Alligator Lounge" in Santa Monica. Out of this came three CDs, the best of which was a live album called "The Deathray Tapes", on Alive Records, recorded at "The Pink", with Wayne Kramer, Andy Colquhoun, Brad Dourif and Doug Lunn. For energy, feel and spontaneity I consider it the best live performance I have ever recorded.
- Were you an official member of THE DEVIANTS in the Nineties?
Oh yes, I'm definitely a Deviant. I kind of prefer the original name THE SOCIAL DEVIANTS, but Mick Farren abbreviated the name. What a pity!
- About your other stints... Did you really play with Terry Reid as some sources have it?
Yes, we even formed a band that had a very brief lifespan - with Jackie Lomax, Mick Taylor, Brian Auger, Soco Richardson and others. It wasn't really working out as everyone had other commitments, so we broke up after a couple of L.A. gigs. As an addition to this, the band was named after a silly British statement FUCK THIS FOR A GAME OF COWBOYS. So, ironically, it was set up to fail. Good fun though!
- How did your association with BLACK SABBATH's Bill Ward come about?
He phoned me and asked if I would do a couple of sax sessions on his solo album. The greatest pleasure was playing with Jack Bruce, one of my favourite bass players.
- Your recent session with Wayne Kramer: what album is it for?
My new album, the aforementioned titleless French thing. One of the songs on it features Gary Brooker as a vocalist. Wayne played on this track and he is on a couple of the other tunes.
- You had cameos in quite a few movies, including one playing with the vampires' band, if I'm not mistaken. Where did this aspect of your career come from?
I have always been interested in writing music for movies and documentaries, so the natural evolution of this is for the director to say," Could you form a band and appear on stage in one scene?". In this particular case, it was one of director Ed Plumb's horror movies.
- Of all the sessions you did, which were the most interesting?
That is a difficult question to answer. I have done sessions all over the world and in many different ways they were all interesting. Some of them float along effortlessly and others are filled with tension. Personally I prefer the ones that are filled with good humor, fortunately they are not so rare. To pick out one or two would be a hopeless task. Hopefully the best is yet to come.
- Verdant Records. What's the purpose of the label, please?
I formed Verdant Records a few years ago as a buffer against the type of thing that happened with the aforementioned "Skinningrove" tapes. The CDs that are up on the site are owned by myself and it is a way to sell to anybody that is interested. Some of them are up on the CD Baby website and are available as downloads on iTunes and other download sites.
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