Interview: The Utopia Strong
It’s a record that music heads will love and I suppose they are the people who’s judgement we are most interested in.
The Utopia Strong have just released their brilliant debut album. The self-titled record combines sublime electronica with krautrock and prog rock to create an all consuming listening experience. The band, which consists of Steve Davis, Kavus Torabi and Michael J York, had a chat with Gavin Brown about the album and an insight into how The Utopia Strong make the music they do, how they started making music together and their future plans as well as talking with each individual member to discuss all things music and highlights from their careers in an informative and interesting chat.
E&D: How did The Utopia Strong start and how did you all get together to make music in the first place?
Steve: Mike and Kavus knew each other from playing together in Guapo. When Kavus and I were DJing at Glastonbury in 2017 Mike kindly offered to accommodate us at his house not two miles from the festival. As a result we hung out together more often and by the end of the year I’d started to get my head around playing a modular synth. As an excuse to hang out even more Kavus suggested we have a day of improvising together. The 2nd January 2018 turned out to be a quite amazing day.
E&D: Did you always want the music of Utopia Strong to be a mixture of prog, krautrock and electronic music or was it a natural progression when’d you started making music?
Mike: We really had no intention to follow any path or genre, though its inevitable that the atmosphere of the music that we all like would creep into our own music.
Steve: While we have all listened to and enjoyed those genres there wasn’t really any conscious intention to replicate any particular style when we started improvising. It basically just happened on the day and we all went with the flow.
E&D: Your self-titled debut album is out very soon. How did the recording and the creation of the album go?
Mike: Well, we didn’t initially intend to make an album… as we all had similar outlooks on music we thought it might be fun to get together and jam for a couple of days. At the initial session we had two modular synths, a harmonium and an electric guitar between us, luckily we decided to record it and on listening back the first evening we all agreed that we were definitely onto something. The rest of the year was spent listening obsessively to the material, editing and overdubbing.
Steve: The recording was originally Mike’s idea. Thankfully he recorded the day’s session right for the start. When we listened back that evening we could quite believe how good they sounded. We knew we were having fun during it but when we listened back we all decided that with some further studio work we could turn these improvisations into album tracks.
E&D: What do each of the members bring to the sound of The Utopia Strong?
Mike: As far as the album goes we all played, composed and edited each others parts utilising a wide array of instruments both acoustic and electric, so I’d say we operate very much as a combined unit where everybody shares duties.
Steve: In a live environment, without any discussion in the matter, I think we have assumed roles that are specific but with some slight cross over. The studio stuff that we added later was more a joint meeting of like minded minds.When we are playing live I’m purely playing modular, Mike is playing modular, duduk and pipes and Kavus is on guitar and harmonium.
E&D: What was your musical vision with The Utopia Strong and do you think you have achieved that?
Steve: There was no vision. Everything has happened in reverse. I’m sure we are not the first band to evolve in this way but we had completed an album before we ever played a gig together and we didn’t even know we wanted to make an album until we’d recorded the guts of it!
E&D: Katharine Blake from Mediæval Bæbes does vocals on the album closer ‘Moonchild’, what did she bring to the song and it’s ambience?
Kavus: Katharine and I have been friends for years, she was on the periphery of the Cardiacs scene when such a thing existed. I was already a fan of Miranda Sex Garden when we met. We started playing together about ten years ago, I played guitar in her solo band and shortly afterwards I joined Mediæval Bæbes for a few years playing a number of instruments live and on the recordings. I had to leave when things became too busy with Gong although I still play on the albums. She is a remarkable talent and very easy to work with because we both share a very similar working method and are both perfectionists, although I hate that word. When The Utopia Strong recorded ‘Moonchild’ all three of us immediately felt it would benefit from singing and I think Steve and I both thought of Katharine straight away.
E&D: The sound of the bagpipes feature on the album, did you think it was important for that sound to feature on the album?
Mike: No more or less so than any other instrument that was played on the record, its just another part of our collective musical vocabulary.
E&D: Do you have a favourite song from the album yet or do you think they are all as important as each other in the context of the whole listening experience?
Kavus: Whichever one is playing is my favourite.
Steve: At various times throughout the creation of the album tracks during the rest of 2018, every one of them has been my favourite. There are no fillers. Even the two small “interludes” have been lovingly crafted.
E&D: What has the reaction been to the album and the music of The Utopia Strong so far?
Steve: I suppose it’s hard to truly gauge but currently everything has been wonderfully positive. On social media there has obviously been a bit of novelty value that I’m involved, but when Rocket pre released the banger ‘Brainsurgeons 3’ it caused such a shock wave that any novelty dissipated. It’s a record that music heads will love and I suppose they are the people who’s judgement we are most interested in.
E&D: The album will be released on Rocket Recordings. How did you hook up with those guys?
Steve: We bumped into them at a Teeth of The Sea gig at the Moth Club, where Kavus and I were DJing. We knew we had made something special, but as we gave them the demo CD away that night it wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to know that, with one third of the band having been involved in the world of snooker for most of his life, they weren’t intending to sign us to the label! We’re very proud of the fact that the album is so unique and strong we got the thumbs up from such a cool label as Rocket.
E&D: How did the recent gig with Teeth Of The Sea go?
Steve: We had a really great night. It was heartwarming to see so many of our friends turning up to support us. Considering it was only our 4th gig it couldn’t have gone much better.
E&D: Did you play a lot of material from the new album?
Steve: No, our philosophy is to improvise every night. We could replicate the album tracks but that would get pretty involved and ultimately less fun. Our plan is to try and take the audience on a unique journey every time we play live.
E&D: You played at the Glastonbury and Supernormal festivals over the Summer. How did those shows go?
Steve: Both these show we memorable, especially the Supernormal Festival. So many like minded people were there that it felt like we were just part of a larger community and while we were still trying to find our feet playing live they gave us such wonderful encouragement.
E&D: What has been the best gig that The Utopia Strong have ever played?
Mike: Without a doubt our recent gig supporting Teeth of the Sea. It felt like everything conspired in our favour that night, great venue, superb engineers, wonderful promoter and of course a fantastic headline act. We were presented with some talismanic origami before the show, played a blinder, were blown away by Teeth of the Sea and then both bands, our label and friends spent the rest of the night dancing and discussing the minutiae of various sub genres of 80s thrash…what more could you ask for on a Thursday night?
E&D: You’re playing more dates in December. What can fans expect from the live shows?
Kavus: Total transformation.
E&D: Steve, How did you get into electronic music in the first place?
Steve: Obviously I was listening to Tangerine Dream back in the 70’s, but I’ve only really started to immerse myself into electronic music after doing radio shows and having guests that would choose all the content for the evening. The band Sanguine Hum came on the show and played a load of electronic stuff. I really enjoyed it and Matt Baber then gave me a heads up on some artists to check out. It’s all spiralled out of control ever since!
E&D: How has the experience of being in The Utopia Strong been like so far?
Steve: The whole thing is probably the most surreal experience of my life. Suggesting to me, two years ago even, that I would have been on a stage playing at Glastonbury in a band would have been met with a glazed expression and a quick exit from the conversation.
The fun we have had making the record has been immense and the excitement playing live, albeit filled with a certain amount of trepidation has been exhilarating.
E&D: What requires a higher level of concentration, playing snooker or beat matching when you’re DJing?
Steve: We never beat match. The music we DJ doesn’t really require it. You need to concentrate playing live gigs but it taps into a different part of the brain than what is required for competition.
E&D: What has been the best set that you’ve ever played?
Steve: DJing? I think I will always remember the early ones. The first ever experience at Bloc Weekend and the on the back of the publicity we got from that, DJing at Glastonbury in 2016 to a packed Stonebridge Bar will forever stay with me. Supernormal this year was amazing to DJ at. We had a brilliant stage invasion and the place went mental when we stuck a Fugazi track on! Generally we have had so many fun nights and made music friends all over the country as a result. My lasting memories will always be the times when people come up and thank you for putting them onto tracks they didn’t know existed.
E&D: What tracks do you always fall back on, ones that would never let you down in a set?
Steve: Its impossible to say as every night is different. Maybe ‘Speculative Fiction’ by Camberwell Now has never failed, but the great fun is when a track kicks off that was unexpected or hadn’t really gone down so well the time before.
E&D: What music are you listening to and feeling at the moment?
Steve: Since I’ve been involved in making the record and rehearsing with the band I’ve been listening back to our live recording of gigs and rehearsals. We’ve created so many amazing tracks since making the album. We are currently deciding how best to get them out there.
E&D: Steve, what are your albums of the year so far?
Steve: Maybe Tim Hecker’s Anoyo? Obviously Magma have a new album out. I’m really enjoying the Vanishing Twin album and I’m loving Kavus’s solo album …. but it’s not out yet!!
E&D: What are your favourite albums of all time?
Steve: How long have you got? Magma’s MDK (Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh) will always have a special place in my heart as will Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, but if I had to choose 10 albums to take to my desert island I would implode trying to whittle them down!
E&D: Michael, How did you get into music in the first place?
Mike: Being played the Bonzo Dog Band when I was extremely young.
E&D: You have played in Coil, how was that experience and what were some of the highlights in your time with them?
Mike: It was totally life changing, up to that point despite listening to a lot of pretty far out music I’d had a fairly traditional musical education. Meeting Coil allowed me to discover there was another approach to making music (and life in general), a much more intuitive and magical approach and one that I think ultimately suits my temperament better. I feel deeply honoured and blessed to have had that incredibly transformative opportunity so early on in my life.
E&D: What about your music in Guapo, how is that going?
Mike: There’s another album on the way that both me and Kavus we’re a part of. Its currently being twisted, sculpted, smashed to pieces and then lovingly caressed by the bandleader and genius that is David J Smith.
E&D: What inspires you as a musician?
Mike: The desire to make sounds that are as pretty as they are perplexing.
E&D: What are your albums of the year so far?
Mike: Magma – Zëss and Gong – The Universe Also Collapses.
E&D: What are your favourite albums of all time?
Mike: Magma – MDK. Talking Heads – Remain in Light. Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians. John Coltrane – A Love Supreme. Fields of the Nephilim – The Nephilim. Iron Maiden – Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.
E&D: What have been some of the most memorable moments in your career so far?
Mike: I suppose I’ll be unlikely to forget making an album with the front man of Gong and 6 times snooker world champion in a hurry!
E&D: Kavus, What was your musical upbringing like and how did you get into music initially?
Kavus: As far as I can remember, I spent all my time thinking about and inventing music. My parents didn’t really have records or listen to music, so it’s presence in my life only came from TV themes and hymns, which might explain a lot. It wasn’t until seeing Top Of The Pops at the age of eight in 1980 that I had the epiphany that you could be someone who did this stuff and from that point onward I did everything I could to be one of those people.
E&D: How did you come to join Gong and how is the experience of being in the band?
Kavus: I joined Gong because Daevid Allen asked me to. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse, although a little surprising because at that point he’d never heard me play. He was adamant we continue the band after his death, with me fronting it, a role that has taken both me and the Gong audience a little while to adjust to. Some of them still haven’t.
E&D: What is the state of your band Knifeworld at the moment, will you be releasing any new material at all?
Kavus: Frustratingly, because of my schedule with Gong and The Utopia Strong, Knifeworld has had to take a bit of a back seat. Being an eight piece band it requires a lot of time and organisation, everyone in the band is very busy with other projects too and I love that band too much to do anything half-assed with it. Once we have the time, there’ll be more Knifeworld music, that’s as much as I can say at the moment. I’ve been having to scratch the ‘writing all the parts’ itch with a solo album which should be out in the first half of next year. If you like the sound of my songs and voice, you’ll love it.
E&D: You played guitar for Cardiacs, how did your time in the band go and what were the highlights?
Kavus: Far too many highlights to mention. Cardiacs were and probably still are my favourite band. Tim is one of my best friends and to have played a part in the final act of that extraordinary story, this incredible thing that he created and shared with the world has been one of the defining features of my life. Whenever I see my name with Cardiacs in brackets after it, I go all funny. Those are the only letters I’ve ever wanted after my name.
E&D: You’ve also worked with many other artists and bands, what have been some of the highlights?
Kavus: Again, too many to mention. I don’t know whether it’s been fortune or magic – I prefer magic – but I’ve played with the likes of Steve Hillage, Rob Crow, Craig Fortnam, Bob Drake, Katharine Blake, really some of my favourite composers, not to mention joining and writing for Guapo and so many further collaborations and projects. I feel blessed and never take any of it for granted. I put music at the centre of my life, set sail on the sea of consequence and am currently here. It hasn’t always been easy but it has been exhilarating.
E&D: Do you find it difficult balancing many music projects at the same time?
Kavus: Yes, increasingly very difficult. The busier each thing gets the harder it is to juggle. I’ve been somehow managing it for about ten years, that’s when everything started to pick up, but it’s been snowballing somewhat over the last three years or so. Like I said, I’ve had to regrettably put Knifeworld on hold for the moment which is a drag but was inevitable.
E&D: What are your albums of the year so far?
Kavus: Without a doubt: Lost Crowns – Every Night Something Happens.
E&D: What are your favourite albums of all time?
Kavus: God, whenever I write these, the list just grows and grows. One downside to being so busy with music that I’m doing is that I rarely have time to listen to anything else. I don’t tend to put music on in the background because if I’m listening to music I can’t really do anything else and most of the time I like to have whatever it is I’m working on occupying all the space in my internal jukebox. Most of the arrangement ideas happen when I’m away from my studio or instruments. It’s not like me, but I’m going to take a pass on this one, otherwise I’ll just keep remembering albums I’d forgotten to include. They change all the time, anyway.
E&D: What have been some of the most memorable moments in your music career so far?
Kavus: From the moment I saw The Stray Cats performing ‘Runaway Boys’ on Top Of The Pops in 1980, the world changed for me. Everything that has happened since has seemed inevitable. The whole trip has been joyously ludicrous but I can’t really divide it into memorable moments, not anecdotally anyway. That said, Gong played in Shenzhen in China last year. We headlined a wonderful festival called Tomorrow. We knew the gig was being filmed and streamed live but as we walked off stage, one of the organisers told us “Over half a million people just watched that”. That was pretty mindblowing.