Interview with Legendary Space Rock and Ex-Hawkwind Saxophonist/Flautist NIK TURNER
“I think people give me the power of healing and I do believe everybody’s got it,” says Nik Turner about the energy shared between both him and the audience, “I’d like to feel that every performance is a healing experience for me, the audience and of course the band. It’s a wonderful thing to raise people’s consciousness, spirits and their sense of enjoyment to give them a really great multimedia experience of love and healing.”
And there has been no shortage of that energy from the legendary saxophonist/flautist who came to fame with space/psych rock pioneers Hawkwind. With a career that has spanned a multitude of music styles, journeys and exploration of different cultures across the world, plus having the passion of sharing his talents with others, Turner has always possessed an intriguing array of musical might.
It’s Saturday in Cardiff’s England’s City Center, a saxophone echoes through St. Mary Street, the Duke Street Arcade, Queen Street, and Womanby Street as the sound bounces of the many blocks of both traditional English architecture and modern contemporary buildings where citygoers are hanging out at area faves including the Bistro One Cafe, The Copa, The Borough, & Clwb Ifor Bach, and even window shoppers at Hobbs, GM Music, & Diesel catch the sound while going out on the town on the weekend. Is that a Bossa Nova, a Mariachi Tune, an improvisation that is influenced Coltrane or Davis, a hard rock tune transcribed for sax, or something revisited Hawkwind, Whatever tune it is it’s not sound being blasted out of speakers from one of these shops or restaurants, it’s Nik Turner himself sharing his music, busking for the people in that popular area in Welsh City.
For years Turner has been not only inspiring, but has been inspired from many things including journeys to Egypt and Mexico, where he has taken a deep interest into both Ancient Egyptian and Mayan culture; no surprise as his music has taken a personal edge towards those themes, particularly through solo releases including his Sphynx project.
Yet looking back through his lengthy career, it was with Hawkwind that he gained big notoriety, playing his sax and flute through effects, adding some completely different flair than what a guitarist would. A band that was ahead of their time, they are known as the band that bridged the gap between, if not glued together the cultures of the Hippie Movement and Punk Rock, two polar opposites that could have been impossible to find relation to eachother, but this band did it; and still to this day the band releases new music (although Turner left in 1984, after a second stint with them).
For the saxophonist/flautist, an abundance of new music persists, appearing on so many different projects and albums, collaborating with all types of bands from across the globe; from his recent work with Billy Sherwood, Mr. H, and the Outriders of the Apocalypse, featuring members of The Cesarians, to simply hooking up with bands at the spur of the moment. Having just played South by Southwest in Austin, his journey also takes us from there to the Egyptian Pyramids, through Mexico and the Mayan Ruins, to Los Angeles, and to Berlin amongst other places that has shaped the musical portrait that he paints. He strikes up a great conversation, reflecting on his influences, from musicians to mythology, and how he has built his own concepts from all of this.
Tommy Hash: Where does one start with you, all the work you have done, your repertoire, I guess let’s start with recent collaboration with Mr. H.
Nik Turner: I was playing, busking outside this art gallery and he was doing a gig there and asked me to play, so I played with him for half an hour. He was playing his songs on acoustic guitar, and then he said to me “well, would you like to go into the studio and do some recording with me,” and I said “anytime you like.” He later contacted me and I went down to his studio where he was recording, spent the morning there, recorded about ten tracks, which were all first takes; we all were really pleased about it. I just like to play with anybody; I get bands that send me their CDs or a even wave file with all of their tracks that are on a particular CD of theirs, and I record for them; I don’t charge them anything, I think ‘well, I really like to help people;’ plus it’s not costing me anything – so I spread a little wealth.
TH: You also have a unique way of playing sax and it added something so different to the world of rock other than guitars and keyboards that were shaping the music at the time, how is it that your playing was influenced?
NT: Initially I was influenced by musicians I met in Berlin, Germany; all of these guys were playing free jazz and they mentioned that you don’t have to be technical to express yourself. These musicians were forming bands and that really made me want to play free jazz in a rock band. At that point, I had been played the saxophone for several years very consistently. All these people I met playing music in Berlin were at a venue called The Blue Note, and they had played with other great musicians such as Eric Dolphy and people like that. I was just inspired by them and the fact that you didn’t have to be technical; they gave me a lot of confidence, really. Of course, I didn’t have the confidence to take my saxophone wherever I went. During this time, by way of some people that I met while spending time in Amsterdam, I was also turned on to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jimi Hendrix.
TH: Like Eddie Harris and Chris Wood did with their horns, you also used a lot of electronics to enhance your sound, how is it that your approached your playing in that perspective?
NT: Once I started playing in a band, I started using a wah wah pedal, a fuzzbox and all of these other electronic gadgets, even using overdrive on the amplifier. I made it sound interesting by using the instrument as an electronic instrument rather than a melodic instrument. All of this was very exciting for me, however, the only disappointment came when I started playing without these effects, playing acoustically and realizing what a crappy sound I had without all of the boxes (laughing). So then, I actually had to learn how to play properly, but I did start off by using the sax in an electronic way, as an exciting and novel way to do it. Miles Davis was also using a wah wah pedal, plus when I saw what Jimi Hendrix was doing, that’s what really inspired me to use electronic effects. Nowadays, I really don’t use anything, I just play it straight; I’m always trying to learn to play better.
TH: Hawkwind has great visibility almost more than ever now, the whole catalog is back in print through various labels including EMI (or whoever owns it now), Cherry Red, & Cleopatra; there is even a deluxe reissue in the pipeline of “Warrior on the Edge of Time” featuring remixes by Steven Wilson. The experience of The Space Ritual must have been something else at the time of it’s conception.
NT: Oh yes, I was in Hawkwind from 1969, and my friend Robert Calvert was a great science fiction writer who put together this ‘Space Ritual’ show and he got in contact with a graphic designer (Barney Bubbles) who did all the Hawkwind albums artwork and we all saw this as some big space rock opera. It was fantastic when we saw the draft of the band with a spaceship conceived. The idea is that it is the audience is what that powers the spaceship – the presentation of the stage show included astrological signs of all the band members with the corresponding colors, using those colors in the lights while the band played. So we would end up improvising this whole stage plan incorporating the Music of the Spheres, devising this western scale feeling that the solar system and the planets were suspended on a chord that went from the Sun to the spirit world with all the planets revolving at different speeds and frequencies playing different notes. Robert made this magical music trying to incorporate all this into the Space Ritual. So we’re trying to incorporate that into the essence of this show the performance of the Space Ritual I find all this tremendously exciting putting all this together very enjoyable very wild.
TH: I have to ask, what was it like being in the band with Lemmy?
NT: Well, unfortunately, I was the one who was selected to for the responsibility to fire him, asking him to leave the band because of the circumstances of which he had been quite difficult to work with; mainly because the drugs he was taking. I always thought of myself as a friend of his and I always felt very positive towards him. Lemmy went on to do his own thing really very well, he was quite wild in those days in many respects, most notably he used to stay up for a week and sleep for a week making it a little bit difficult to work with him in some respects. But regardless, it was very exciting we had a really good time together, all of us.
TH: With all of your side projects, solo albums, and post-Hawkwind endeavors including Sphynx, Anubian Lights, & his Fantastic All Stars, your music tends to have this spiritual connection with Egyptian Mythology.
NT: The journey there started off when I was going on holiday and a friend of mine who is living in Egypt invited me there. Unfortunately, as I was heading out to Egypt he was flying back to England. Other than my friend, I didn’t know anybody there, but I met a few people while I was there. When I got off the airplane, I immediately took a taxi to the pyramids because I was fascinated by Egyptology. I had learned quite a lot about it, and when I say I went there, and I mean I really went there – I climbed up on top of the pyramid and started to play my flute and it started raining and I thought, “wow that’s fantastic,” there was some sort of chemical & elemental connection between playing and the pyramids, and that it starts to rain at Christmas time.
TH: You also made a musical souvenir from your time spent there.
NT: The next day I was in a very bizarre rooming house with the plaster was falling off the walls and the electric lights were dangling with dangerous wiring complete with a sagging mattress to sleep on. The next morning, I went to the Great Pyramid again, went inside and just tapped my foot; there was this really fantastic reverb going on inside and I had my flute with me, played it and I thought, “wow this is absolutely awesome.” After I came out the pyramids I was within all the shops there and I played my flute everywhere I went. With that I attracted children and a lot of people were very excited by my playing. I started talking to some people and located someone who had a tape player because I really wanted record some flute music for to myself for enjoyment. When I was recording, I thought about the Egyptian Book of the Dead trying to trying to envision or personify all of the Egyptian gods in musical form on my flute. I was in the Kings Chamber’s of Sarcophagus, there was also this great chamber next to Kings Chamber which is called the Hall of Truth and Lights and there is also another smaller chamber between that The Hall of Truth and Lights and the King’s Chamber which is called the Hall of Truth and Darkness. So it was me sitting in the Kings Chamber on the Sarcophagus, we had a microphone at the entrance of the Hall of Truth and Light which is a very steep, hall, vaulted hall where you have to climb up it with big steps. I just got this fantastic sound.
TH: Was it easy to get your record company to back you up with doing something with these recordings?
NT: Yes, in fact an event happened while I was there that really interested the head of my record company. During my time in Egypt, I also met a family invited me to an engagement party which was at an upscale Hacienda, There were all of these horses there, fabulous horses. They had this band playing there who were always playing different instruments with about 20 different drums; being this exciting, droning sort of music. Within all of this music, these horses were dancing in time to the music and it was obvious that they have been taught and trained very well. One guy fired off a shotgun as a special effect and the horses just kept carrying on without flinching. When I got back to England, the guy at Charisma Records was a real horse enthusiast because he had race horses. I showed him all my photographs and at the same time, I’m playing the tapes of my recording tin he pyramids and he was completely sold on it, which was fantastic. That guy from the record company was Tony Stratton Smith, who was a very nice man; the girl who was head of A&R at the record company was Gale Colson and she was actually right behind me. I had a lot of support from these people and went into the recording studio with Steve Hillage producing and several members from Gong and Brand X among others playing on it. Making this album was just fun and we produced this album because around how I personified all of the Egyptian gods within my music. I devised lyrics behind what I had read in the Egyptian Book of the Dead to try to present it as the saying The Book is a manual of science fiction. So I had this idea that there was this character that got into this pyramid on Venus and he’d met the crew of the pyramid who happened to be Egyptian gods. Everyone had to know the right password and all the magic spells and in order to pass through all of the forty-two gods of truth, the negative to confession, and Anubus; you also have the Laying of the Hearts against the Defender of Truth and then he had met the god Isis and Niphi, then later meeting Osiris. This was all personified musically when I was in the pyramid lyrically being about someone who had passed all the tests and came out of the pyramids in Egypt in 1997. I tried to put all of my experiences into all of these little stories rather than making it humorous.”
Turner in his Hawkwind days
TH: They say that a positive attitude on life really can promote healing, and there has been mention of you speaking about how people have the healing power of music, did a lot of the experiences in Egypt influence that positive outlook?
NT: When I came back to England from my travels in Egypt, I went to this Festival of The Mind and Body and some people asked if they could get photograph of my hands and I said “okay, yeah.” They took a picture and said ‘oh you got great healing in your hands, thinking to myself “oh that’s nice to know.” Later on, they asked me if I could join their group, but I just said I really don’t do that sort of thing, but I’ll carry on. Some time after that, I went to see a friend of mine friend of mine who was in bed from an illness, he had caught some amoeba which caused a bad stomach infection. He said he was in a while lot of pain and asked that I could help him, so I put my hands on him on his stomach and thought about the Egyptian gods of healing and tried to infuse him with positive thoughts, energy, and sunshine; trying to take away the pain and renew him with positive thoughts – then all the sudden he said “Wow, the pain is gone” and I was like “wow, that’s fantastic.” After that, another friend of mine wanted to be taken to the hospital who was also in terrible pain and told him that I might be able to help and said let me put my hands on you. I put my hands on him and in about five minutes he said the pain was gone and so suddenly I felt that I had this healing power. I even had a roadie of mine who told me he had a horrible migraine and I just put my hands on his head he said my fingers like ice; and of course, I visualized healing energy and positive vibrations, then he said the pain was gone. I suddenly felt that I had his healing power and if people want me to help them, I’ll do my best. I think people give me this power of healing and I do believe everybody’s got it.
I was doing a gig a while back, and at the gig they were showing a film of Hawkwind called This is Hawkwind, Do Not Panic. While doing a Q & A session with people who had just watched this film, I explained to them about my experiences in Egypt and being able to heal people. There was this woman in the audience who said “Oh I’ve got this awful pain in my back do you think you can heal me?” I said, “well, I’ll have a go” and I put my hands on her and again I thought about those positive things and about taking the negative things away and then she said “Wow the pain is gone!” That sort of made me realize the power of music, and how music has this great healing power. I try to view the gigs I play having this sort of powerful healing energy. John Coltrane was a heroin addict while he playing music with Miles Davis; when he left, he stoped taking heroin when he started to use his music as a spiritual thing. I firmly believe that music is a spiritual thing, it’s a magical thing, its a healing thing; music harmonizes peoples’ bodies. I’m certainly privileged and I’m really happy to share all of this with everybody because we all need help each other – music is a wonderful way of spreading the power of love.
TH: Going Back to your travels, you have also spent a lot of time in Mexico.
NT: I played in a progressive rock festival in Mexico played with a band from Finland called Five-Fifteen. They told me that if I could give them a gig in LA, they would take me to Mexico; so I got the gig in LA and I went to Mexico as we got the other gig. I ended up busking in the lobby of the hotel with them. The next year, the promoter of the Baja-Prog Festival invited me to back to Mexico to busk in the lobby and while I was there, these Mexican musicians came up to me and we all ended up doing a gig in the lobby of the hotel doing Chick Corea type stuff. I told one of the guys that I was going to Mexico City and he said that I needed to hook up with some of his friends while I was there. One guy that I met was the owner of a restaurant who told me that he was going to have some live music at his place that day and spoke about this keyboard player that was coming in. As I talked to this guy, I found out that we had a lot of musical interests in common and he said that I should definitely jam with this guy today. We later went to this Mexican cantina, because he wanted me to continue playing with him. While we were playing, these beautiful Mexican women appeared and started singing with us then he asked me if I wanted to do another gig with him, so we went to a strip club and later a hotel in downtown Mexico City – we’re playing there till three or four in the morning and there were even more beautiful girls singing. These girls would say, “I love the saxophone, it makes me want to take my clothes off,” but they didn’t do it at the time, but they wanted to (laughing). The next year I was invited yet again to do the busking thing in the lobby of that hotel, but at that point they didn’t have any festivals going on, yet while I was there I went to the Mayan ruins, visiting places such as the Temple of Inscriptions and many other places, being really impressed with the whole Mayan mythology.
TH: I understand that the Mayan Mythology has really played another big influence on your latest work.
NTY: I hooked up with the Mayan band who were playing the town square; I asked if I could play with them and said they were actually playing the Simon and Garfunkel song. The band then sped up and we all went into this improvisation and it brought the house down. After that, they wanted to play another song which they played tremendously fast, thinking “wow, I think they were trying to trip me up” but I still managed to play along with them. Later on, I visited all the sites looking for place to play and wanted to find a place that had the same type of reverb as the Egyptian pyramids did. I was reading this book by Graham Hancock about mythology called Heaven’s Mirror where he was describing the people who had designed the great pyramids who were influenced by their intergalactic beliefs. The book also explained that travelers had made their way there through all these channels and how there is supposed to be this big hole underneath the Temple of the Pyramid. I had also been reading this other book called the Fingerprints of the Gods by Hancock, which describes Pyramid of the Sun – I was quite fascinated by all these descriptions in his books. My mind is bogged down so much this mythological information – so many people know so little about it. You can make up your own mythology, so I made my own story that came from the idea of Atlantis and how civilization popped up out of nowhere. Since so little is really known about so many of these things; you can only speculate and just sort of think about things to work out something into which is completely as valid as anything else going around. I just figured I could make up my own stories, and now I have this idea of putting together a band based around the Mayan prediction for the end of the fifth son and the beginning of the sixth on the winter solstice. I have come up with ideas are based upon 2012, which was the end of the Long Count Calendar, plus the I had ideas about the precession of the equinoxes, the lords of the underworld, and the halo twins defeating the world the lords of the underworld & the seven deaths. With all of this that influenced my ideas and concepts, there are so much different information and facts to my own intuition, I simply just made up stories as valid as anything else, because again, nobody can prove or disprove anything. In fact, I’m actually recording about a song about the Earth’s elliptical orbit and the Earth crossing the axis of the Milky Way. The Mayans said that all the planets, the Sun and the stars were created in the Milky Way. Their idea of The Dark Rift was the way to the underworld, so my stores are all of a hodgepodge of all these things.
TH: How has the experience bringing all of this to the live stage been for you lately?
NT: I do with this healing power and try to be positive and just turn people on to stuff that is interesting and unusual. All of this is experimental and I just was doing it for the love of it. Suddenly I found out that I had influenced people – it was very flattering, I felt that I wanted to influence people in a positive way. I kind of felt that it was also responsibility; it’s just amazing of how many people come up to me and say Hawkwind was first band they ever saw live and the Space Ritual album changed my life. I feel privileged that it has influenced and touched people in a positive way. It’s really flattering and I’m not egotistical person. I’m actually very humble person like I’m really lucky I like to share what I have.
TH: Besides your live shows is there anything else in the pipeline for studio work at this time?
NT: Recently I did a recording on William Shatner’s album and I did another recording at the same time with Billy Sherwood for this album he did the fusion project. All of that was really exciting I’m still finding myself playing in a whole different medium, especially coming to Los Angeles. I also recently did a track with big Jay McNeely, he was doing a song called ‘I’m Shaking,’ he came to the studio with Brian from Cleopatra Records. I’m doing an album with these guys who recorded a backing track with Big J, I didn’t expect to play on it – he’s just a great sax player and I thought he didn’t need me, but I got involved and it’s been fantastic; getting involved in all of these interesting projects, playing with Billy Cobham. I’m also looking into doing some solo material, I don’t know how it will turn out, but it’s just so stimulating for me and I’m very excited playing all these gigs in Los Angeles and South by Southwest; I’m just having the time of my life right now and I’m finding it very interesting approaching my new album because I like recording, but I’m very much a perfectionist as well and I’m working with guys who have been very helpful.