Steve Hillage - Biography
By J Poet
Steve Hillage would be a legendary guitarist if the only credit he ever had was his free flowing psychedelic solos on the Gong Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy The Flying Teapot (1973 Virgin UK), Angel’s Egg (1973 Virgin UK), and You (1974 Virgin UK). Hillage, however, has a long and varied career playing with some of Britain’s best prog rock musicians, both before and after Gong. Since the late 70s he’s been an ambient/techno pioneer, blending live electric guitar and studio effects in his band System 7 (known briefly in the US as 777) and as a solo artist. He’s also a first rate producer and lover of world music. His work on the albums of French/Algerian rocker Rachid Taha helped make Taha’s international reputation.
Hillage was born in London in 1951 and bought his first guitar when he was nine. He taught himself to play by copying what he heard on albums of blues guitarists, moving on to figuring out John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix solos. At the City of London School he met guitarist Dave Stewart, the future prog rock keyboard player of Egg and Hatfield and the North, not the Eurythmics guitar player. In the late 60s, Hillage and Stewart started an early prog-rock outfit called Uriel, but they only played covers and soon broke up. Hillage went back to school in 1968, studying philosophy and history at Canterbury College. He hung out with Barbara Gaskin, later one of Hatfield and the North’s Northettes, and David and Richard Sinclair who went on to form Caravan. Caravan’s manager Terry King helped Hillage get his first recording contract.
Meanwhile, Dave Stewart and Uriel had morphed into Arzachel/Egg. Hillage joined them to record Arzachel (1969 Roulette UK, 2002 Akarma UK) and early prog-rock masterpiece marked by the free flowing instrumental work of Hillage and Stewart, who was now playing keyboards. In 1971 Hillage dropped out, moved to London and started Khan with Dick Henningham, organ; Nick Greenwood, bass and vocals, and drummer Eric Peachey. Their first album was Space Shanty (1972 Deram) an album that pushed compositional boundaries to the limit, even for a prog-rock band. Hillage fired Henningham and brought in Stewart whose keyboards took the album to a whole other level. The album failed to sell and Hillage left to join Kevin Ayers’ Decadence for a European tour. In Paris, Didier Malherbe, Gong’s sax player, jammed with the band and told Daevid Allen about Hillage. Hillage joined Gong for the band’s three greatest albums The Flying Teapot (1973 Virgin UK), Angel’s Egg (1973 Virgin UK), and You (1974 Virgin UK). The relentless touring of Gong led to Hillage’s exit on 1975.
Just before leaving Gong, Hillage made Fish Rising (1975 Caroline UK, 2007 Virgin UK) with Gong mate Malherbe, Henry Cow bassoonist Lindsay Cooper and old pal Stewart on keyboards. They performed the album live with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Scottish National Orchestra to great acclaim. In 1976 he cut L (1976 Atlantic, 2007 Virgin UK) with Todd Rundgren producing and his band Utopia adding their muscle. Avant-garde jazzman Don Cherry contributed trumpet, trombone and Tibetan bowls to the session, another outside the box masterpiece. L was a Top 10 album in the UK and led to an opening slot on an Electric Light Orchestra American tour, which helped send the album up the American charts as well.
In 1977 he moved to LA and made Motivation Radio (1977 Atlantic, 2007 Virgin UK) with Malcolm Cecil of Tonto’s Expanding Headband on synthesizer. He toured America to support it returning to England to make Green (1978 Virgin UK) with Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason producing. Rainbow Dome Musick (1978 Virgin UK, 2007 Virgin UK) found Hillage moving away from rock and towards the ambient electronica that he pioneer in the 80s, although there was no name for what he was doing at the time. With his girlfriend Miquette Giraudy on keyboards and synthesizers, Hillage explored the darker side of electronica on For To Next/And Not Or (1983 Virgin UK, 1990 Caroline UK). With his growing studio expertise, Hillage became a producer in the 80s, making albums for It Bites, Simple Minds, Cock Robin and Robyn Hitchcock.
In the 90s, after hearing that The Orb was initially inspired by Rainbow Dome Musick, Hillage created System 7 with his partner Miquette Giraudy on synthesizers and a free floating guest list including DJ Paul Oakenfold, Alex Paterson of the Orb and Mick MacNeil of Simple Minds. System 7 (1991 Virgin/Ten UK) was a blend of ambient dance music and house beats with Hillage’s guitar floating freely through the mix. ]The album was released in the US in 1993 as 777 on Astralwerks (with additional tracks) due to the existence of a US band with the same name.] In 1993 the British only singles “Freedom Fighters” and “Altitude” made them prime movers in the British club scene. The deep house album Point 3 - Fire Album (1994 Butterfly UK, 2003 AWave UK) was complimented by a mellow re-mix album Point 3 - Water Album (1994 Butterfly UK, 2003 AWave UK) the same tracks remixed with an ambient feel. They were released in the US as System 7.3: Fire + Water on Hypnotic in 1995.
Power of Seven (1996 Butterfly UK, 2000 AWave UK) blended a bit of Hillage’s old prog-rock tricks with modern dance grooves for a winning combination, while Golden Section (1997 Butterfly UK, 2000 AWave UK) was a more mellow, trancy psychedelic outing. The millennium saw Seventh Wave (2001 AWave UK, 2002 Hypnotic US ) a blend of house, trace, breakbeat, Encantado (2004 AWave UK) with Hillage’s guitar loops and extended solos exploring Indian classical music, house, Arab, trance and 60s TV theme music, and Phoenix (2008 AWave UK) inspired by the manga Phoenix novels by Osamu Tezuka, and includes collaborations with Daevid Allen, Japanese bass player Mito from Clammbon, Son Kite, Jam El Mar, Eat Static, and Slack Baba. Mirror System (2006 AWave UK) is the name the duo gave to their more chilled out, ambient side. It’s a relaxed, dreamy electronic excursion and more Mirror System projects are in the works.
In the 90s Hillage also teamed up with Rachid Taha and produced his albums Barbés (1991 Barclay France) named after an Arab ghetto in Paris, Rachid Taha (1995 Barclay) which included the hit “Voila, Voila,” a dance track with an anti-racist message aimed at the French public, Ole Ole (1996 Barclay France, 1996 Mango US) a blend of electrionica and Algerian traditional music, Diwan (1998 Island) which took the hits and classic songs of Arab singers and writers, Made in Medina (2000 Arc 21 US, 2000 Barclay France.) with included punk, salsa, techno, rock and Afropop all with a strong Arab flavor, Tékitoi (2004 Wrasse) with the international hit “Rock el Casbah” an Arabic rewrite of The Clash song, and Diwan 2 (2006 Wrasse) a return to the acoustic roots of the Arab music Taha heard as a boy.