interview with Harry Williamson was conducted by e-mail in December
1997 for an article on Anthony Phillips published in Big Bang Magazine.
When and where were you born ? I understand your father Henry was
a famous writer in England. How famous? Apart from "Tarka The
Otter", what are his most famous works?
I was born on 12 May 1950. At Ilfracombe, in North Devon. As well
as Tarka the Otter, Salar the Salmon and many other nature stories,
my father also wrote a 13 part series of novels called "A Chronicle
of Ancient Sunlight". They deal with the life of a ficticious
character, Phillip Maddison, who is based on my father. The books
follow my father's own experiences from the 1890s to the 1950s.
The series includes some of the best desciptions of life in the
trenches in WW1 (which he experienced first hand), the postwar reconstruction,
the great depression and WW2, when my father was farming in Norfolk.
During his writing career he regularly contributed to the British
Press, the Express & Mail newspapers and BBC Radio and TV. He
is best described as a nature mystic, much influenced by Thomas
Hardy and Richard Jeffries, and he sought to find ways of educating
the public in regard to the proper management of our heritage, urging
people to truly value the land. He was an active environmentalist
before the word was invented.
How did you become interested in music? How
did you end up choosing the guitar as instrument? Did you already
play piano as well, or did that come later?
My mother started a junior PNEU school in which everyone had to
play in the band, as well as dance and sing. I played bass drum
at 5. At 6 I learned how to break into the local disused Methodist
Chapel and play the harmonium, furiously pedalling and making up
my own impressionist fuges.
At 9 I was sent to Exeter Cathedral Shool where I learned to sight
sing and to play the piano and the Cathedral Organ, which was a
buzz. I wanted to play Jazz, and later, at Millfield School, I had
the chance to jam occasionally with other emerging musicians. I
used to carry a double bass around to classes and busk at break
time. When I was 14, I travelled to Brittany as an exchange student,
discovered that French girls loved guitarists, and therefore took
up playing guitar. Also I was lucky enough to spend a few hoildays
at Julian Bream's house, as he was married to my sister at the time.
Sitting watching the Master working his way around a new concert
piece, or just limbering up on set of lightning fast arpeggios was
a huge learning experience for me. He kindly gave me a few pointers
and tips, but I realised that I would never have anything like the
range of technique required to master the classical repertoire,
and so I embarked on a path of experimentation into modal tunings,
altered scales etc, which was later to become a cornerstone of my
work with Anthony Phillips. The other reason I chose guitar was
because it is portable and easy to tune, compared to a piano or
I understand you met Anthony Phillips through a mutual friend, Richard
MacPhail, who was studying in the same school as you. Apparently,
this was a special school with a special atmosphere, with lots of
interesting pupils. What memories do you keep of this period ?
Millfield was a "Robin Hood" public school, charging the
wealthy huge fees to subsidise gifted but less well-off pupils.
In my house rugby team were JPR Williams and Gareth Edwards, and
we tended to win everything. The Founder of the school, "Boss",
had had a special initiation in Tibet in the 30's and I remember
that he seldom slept. Class sizes ranged from 8 to 3 per teacher
in the final year. You could study any subject from Chinese Pottery
to Skydiving. The school is near Glastonbury, and one poignant memory
is seeing a line of Arab and Israeli Officers sons arguing the philosopical
points of both sides as they queued up to get permission to leave
the school to join their respective units for the Six Days War.
Richard McPhail and I were in a band together called the Austin
Hippie Blues Band which was heavily influenced by John Mayall and
won a competition . We did many songs whose lyrics we didn't fully
understand. At one point I was hauled up for singing "Cocaine"
too regularly duing recess.
In the early 70's, and again several times during the 70's, you
worked with Anthony Phillips on what became "Tarka" and
"Gypsy Suite". Were you involved in other musical activities
during that period (1970-76)? What were they ?
In 1970 in London I played with Trevor Bilmuss, doing UK gigs and
recording a bit for the Charisma label. I also tried to rehearse
a concert with Syd Barrett that was scheduled for a billing with
Muddy Waters, with sadly no sucess. Perhaps it was the blue and
orange striped decor that distracted us...
In 1972 I played in a country rock band called the Windf***ers with
various wild and wonderful people from the Glastonbury Festival
scene. Later I had another band called ARK in Devon with Harvey
Bainbridge, and Andy Anderson among others. In fact I introducd
Andy to Steve Hillage, which is another story... we recorded a demo
of "Descent into Atlantis" which in my mind was to go
with a film script I was writing. I still have the (unreleased)
In 1977-78, you recorded with the Radio Actors, a one-time band
which included various members of Gong and Sting, and Nik Turner's
Sphynx. This was apparently your first connection to the Gong family.
I'm especially intrigued by Sphynx. Did you tour with that band
? Who was in the line-up ? The same all-star band that was on the
LP, with Hillage, Blake, Howlett, etc. ?
I played in Sphynx with Nik Turner, and a huge sucession of drummers,
bass players and percussionists that included Mike Howlett, Steve
Broughton, Ermano Ghizio Herba and Andy Anderson. Neither Hillage
nor Blake were involved in the live thing. For Sphynx I built a
green mobile pyramid stage in which we performed at some unlikely
places, from the Edinburgh Festival to Findhorn. We were struck
by lightening twice in that pyramid, with no casualties. The show
was a dramatisation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and it went
down well at Stonehenge, as you may well imagine. We did about 30
gigs together in that time.
In 1978, you started Mother Gong with Gilli
Smyth. This is a "band", or rather a musical partnership,
that evolved quite a lot over the years. How would you sum up the
overall musical "concept" ? What Mother Gong albums are
you the most proud of ?
In fact Gilli started Mother Gong to promote her first solo album
at Windsor science fiction festival, a year before we met. The band
concepts continuously evolved through the next 15 years. 'Fairytales'
was intended to be an album that parents could enjoy with their
kids. The 'Robot Woman' series was a science-fictional look at current
mindsets and pointed out the difficulties faced in breaking the
paternalistic mould, which is necessary for our survival... The
last albums were quite different; rather than being simply my musical
compositions they were pieces improvised aroung the sound poems
of Gilli's spooky, seductive and sometimes confronting voice.
I am happy with parts of all of the albums, but the most satisfying
were the last few releases with the improvising Australian line-up,
particularly the new compilation CD (Best of Mother Gong - available
through Outer Music/Cleopatra in the USA and Blueprint/Voiceprint
in the UK) which has just been released, and Magenta/ She Made the
World, which is probably the best individual Mother Gong release
In 1988, you finally recorded "Tarka" with Anthony Phillips
and various others including Didier Malherbe and Lindsay Cooper.
How did it feel to finally be able to do it properly, even with
a string orchestra and all these wonderful players (Didier Malherbe,
Lindsay Cooper etc.) ?
Actually, the orchestra was recorded in '78 and the project shelved
10 years. Finishing it in '88 was difficult because Ant & I
had grown in different directions, and the enthusiasm that produced
the initial inspiration had to be rekindled. Once the project gelled
however, it was pure happiness to work with all my old friends,
my only regret being that doing it in London made everything a rush
and there is never enough time for a project of that size, having
as it did about 100 players on it. Tarka was written to go with
the film of the book, and in it we tried to capture the 'spirit
of place'. Much of it just came to us, evolving from improvisations
after visiting sites from the story in Devon. I remember being in
the control room at Wembley doing the third movement, and after
the "Pool of the Six Herons" segment, everyone was visibly
Since the release and various limited successes of the CD have never
been noticed in Australia (there are no Otters here) I had no idea
until recently that the work had had the impact it apparently has
had. Since I've been on e-mail, however, I've had messages from
people all over the world who have been touched by the music, and
who have also glimpsed the landscapes we attempted to evoke.
In the late 80's, you were involved with Daevid
Allen's Gong Maison. What memories do you keep of this band ?
I have done many projects with Daevid over the years. In 89 I produced
three CDs - Daevid's "Australia Aquaria", the Gongmaison
release, and Mother Gong's "Wild Child" at Foel Studios
in Wales for the Demi-Monde label, the studio where the first MG
album "Fairytales" had been recorded 11 years before.
The recordings were dogged by continuous technical problems, and
subsequently I have had no accounting or payment from sales, despite
recent re-licensing. Gongmaison was a lot of fun, and Shyamal, Didier
and Graham Clarke were three of the best instrumentalists one could
wish to work with. I could write a book about our exploits together;
it was tight, light and always had moments when no-one knew what
to expect. It was a pity it was so short lived.
The Gongmaison gig at Glastonbury was one I shall always remember
- in fact that gig is now available on CD, via Jonny Greene's label
I still collaborate from time to time with Daevid - he was here
in my studio last week remastering his latest offering.
Since you stopped working together with Gilli and Daevid, not much
has been heard (at least by me) of you. I understand you've been
working on new instruments that you designed yourself, and that
would form the basis of a solo album. Has it come out yet ? Would
this be your first proper solo release ? What are your other projects
I am working on two major projects about which I am very excited.
I have been recording for the past four years with my partner Liz
Van Dort, a classically trained singer who is interested in
continually expanding the possibilities of the voice. This release
is called Far From The Madding Crowd and it is already attracting
a great deal of interest. It should be available during the first
half of 1998, at this stage on the Resurgence label which should
be available next year via Night & Day distribution in France.
We like to think of it as music for the new millenium. Fitting into
a similar musical genre to that occupied by bands such as Enigma,
Dead Can Dance and Deep Forest, we however refuse to sample ethnic
voices, preferring to create our own unique sounds! The CD contains
haikku, medieval and new lyrics married to musical styles from around
the world. In the arrangements I often cross-reference idioms from
differing cultures where I see a connection - I suppose it is the
exploration of music as a global language.
The other project will be my first-ever solo release, featuring
guest appearances from many of the people I have worked with in
the past twenty years, but also including several solo guitar and
piano pieces and a work for jazz orchestra. It is tentatively titled
Life In The Unseen World and the Angel Guitar and Pentadrums are
among the instruments I have invented which feature on the album.
There is an illustration of my Angel Guitar on my web site, which
is located at : ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/evolving/harrywil.htm
(c) 1998 Calyx - The Canterbury Website