Music interview – Dave Brock of Hawkwind: ‘We’re painting with sounds’

Hawkwind are playing at Leeds Town Hall.
Hawkwind are playing at Leeds Town Hall.
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Few English rock bands have endured like Hawkwind.

One of the giants and founders of 70s space rock, their sci-fi-themed lyrics and spacey, sonic sound has captivated generations ever since the group was first formed in 1969.

You’ve got to change, you’ve got to keep on doing different things or else it becomes rather boring.

Dave Brock

Famed for anthems like Silver Machine, their experimental and pioneering sound carved out a unique place in the British music scene.

In their 49-year long career, vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Dave Brock has always been the creative force behind the band. This is largely due to the fact that he has also been the only constant member. Since 1969, there has been 44 different line-ups of Hawkwind.

With the likes of Lemmy from Motorhead and Cream’s Ginger Baker passing through the band, Hawkwind has been home to more than 40 musicians, each bringing their own, unique musical chops to the band’s sound.

Their latest release is their 31st studio album, Road to Utopia. It is in many ways a collaboration with the revered composer, Mike Batt, famous for composing The Wombles theme song. Batt has recreated a selection of Hawkwind tracks, with an orchestra behind them, to give the band a fully stratospheric sound.

Speaking to Brock ahead of the band’s UK tour, during which they will play Leeds Town Hall, he says that the meeting with Batt was a fantastic coincidence: “It came about a few years ago when we were queuing up at the American Embassy for visas to do a tour. Behind us was Mike Batt and Katie Melua because he was working with her at that point. I didn’t know who they were but our manager at the time turned around and said ‘Oh! Mike, fancy seeing you here!’

“That was it, we went our separate ways and kept in touch; then, we had this idea about doing an orchestral tour. Of course, Mike had conducted a few orchestras and worked with lots of famous stars, so that’s how it came about that he did this.”

Despite Road to Utopia not including a full orchestra, the string sections do lend a great deal to Hawkwind’s signature sound. The pairing of a symphony and a space rock band may seem like a match made in heaven, but Brock confirms this is the first time audiences will ever see the group play with an orchestra, stating that their improvised style of performance doesn’t best fit a string section: “(This is) the first time ever. It wasn’t a full orchestra on this album, it was more quartets. It’s a new experience; when we play, we ad lib a lot and with an orchestra everything’s written out on sheets of music. We have to actually play everything exactly how it’s supposed to be without going off on tangents like we do. It’s quite a challenge for us to do. We view it with trepidation, we might add.”

While this will be a new experience for Hawkwind fans, Brock assures me that their core sound will not be changed. “I think there’s about nine numbers we’re going to do with an orchestra and about another six we’re going to do without. We’re still playing big, spacey rock numbers. Some nice acoustic pieces with orchestras should be quite a challenge.”

Brock has always enjoyed experimentation. This is not the first tour where Hawkwind has tried to shake it up a little; the last example being when they were their own support act. It was this tour, he says, which sparked the idea for Road to Utopia: “We did a tour and instead of having a support band, we thought we’d do an acoustic set. We actually did an acoustic set prior to our long set; we played a lot of these songs and somewhere along the line, somebody suggested we do an album. We actually recorded everything with just acoustic guitars and bass; Richard was playing brushes on the drums. Then, we got a bit more daring and started changing it around a bit.”

Since the band’s formation, Hawkwind have released a staggering 30 studio albums. That’s not including a further 11 live albums, four EPs and 15 compilation albums. However, determined not to be pigeon holed or to have their sound be described as “dated”, each line-up has made a conscious effort to keep up with the times.

Nonetheless, their signature, spacey sound has, amazingly, remained in tact all that time. Brock says that the evolution of their sound is more for the members of Hawkwind’s pleasure than anyone else’s: “It’s like doing paintings, we’re painting with sounds, really. You’ve got to change, you’ve got to keep on doing different things or else it becomes rather boring.”

Hawkwind play at Leeds Town Hall on October 19. www.hawkwind.com