By Scott Heller
From Aural Innovations #7 (July 1999)
Mandragora is a band that hail from Brighton in England and have been performing on the UK psychedelic rock scene since the early 1980's. The band really got going towards the end of the free festival era, playing their first gig in 1983. The band were very Hawkwind influenced in the early days and Simon told me he saw Hawkwind around 100 times in the 80's and the Levitation Tour in 1980, was what really put him over the top. While the bands material in the 80's due to it's guitar and synth driven nature was always compared favorably to Hawkwind, the band always experimented with different musical styles. It is this interest and experimentation that has lead to the band's current style and integration of many different musical styles to come up with a cocktail of it's own! I had the pleasure recently of hanging out with Simon Williams and Simon Cowburn (called Si) and Al Jenkins in Brighton in February and then again when I was able to arrange for them to perform at Stengade 30 in Kobenhavn, Denmark on May 23rd, 1999. We had a chat before the show and here is what the band had to say! SH: I was reading an article about you guys in Freakbeat magazine and they were talking about the band's first gig in 1983, first cassette 1985, Over the Moon and then Head First. This seem to be the most active period for the band through 1991 up until now. 1989-1991.
SW: Yeah. For sure.
SH: Is this when you guys opened for Hawkwind.
SW: Yeah... we did some dates with them. We started going abroad at this time as well. That was the first time we started going out to Italy, Belgium, and Holland.
SH: There have been some articles delving into the bands past but not...
Si: But not a lot of people know what we have been doing for the last three or four years.
SW: Our disappearing period.
SH: The time between Temple Ball and Pollen was a long time. Like 4 years..
Si: There was a lot of traveling to strange places and gigs in weird places. Reworking out the sound and getting a band that was good, getting a good line up on things.
SW: Also, why it took a real long time to get it out was we decided to do the first album that was all recorded on our own studio. It was a conscience effort to stop recording in other people's studios and actually get our own together. And to get there it was a lot of hard work, recording a lot of other bands, putting all the money from gigs, just to get the financial backing to open the studio was a bit time consuming.
Si: We just wanted to have a means of production instead of having to pay somebody else and have only 7 days to do an album. We didn't want that. We wanted a year or two years to spend our own time on it.
SW: We also wanted to involve a whole lot more people as well. Set up a place where people could get together and have a jam and we would have lots of musicians flowing through that we were recording or they were recording with us. That is how we got our guests in really, creating that environment.
Si: It was a long process producing Pollen.
SH: There were hints of the more ethnic, more rhythmic, not as Hawkwind, spacerock sort of stuff on Temple Ball, leading up to Pollen.
Si: It was a natural step.
SW: Actually, I was listening to Head First the other day and I think we could have jumped from that album straight to Pollen. It's got Grooving in the Doghouse, which is like a techno track and that is ten years ago now. It's also got the Raga, which has the Indian feel on it. And it's got another one that has all these Arabic chants on it. So I don't feel that it is that different, it's just... The actual way we want it to be perceived has changed..
Si: Also, things have changed.
SW: Your taste changes as well.
Si: People got into dance music in a big way and so did we.
SW: We thought we had gone as far as we could with the "Let's get bombed out of our heads man and have a jam". We thought it was time that we started to construct pieces of music that were more accessible and have a longer life span than just the people who are into the space cadet music.
Si: There's always a limit to the audience in psychedelic rock and to survive for us, that is why we have gone the way we have gone. Trying to keep it all alive.
SH: What is the next material going to be like compared to Pollen?
SW: Well, that remains to be seen. With some of our pieces of our music, like Talking To God, which is on the 2nd album. That piece of music has always been a live improvisation around a theme, and so from that it has remix possibilities, and every time that has been played it has been done differently. The elements behind that, like Jazz Message, that in itself is a concept for a whole album if it wants to be. The fact that the tune has a life of it's own now. We always have different musicians playing on it.
SH: Do you see yourself playing Talking To God again with the current line up?
SW: Well. I can see a load of remixing of the old material. We have been talking about that recently. `Cause we're going to do a gig for a Tibetan benefit gig. The Earthdance, it's called. It's the return of the source. So we are going to remix the title track from that album and rework it.
Si: Give it a bit more of the 1999, year 2000 sound. We are trying to be looking a lot more forward instead of looking backwards to the 60's and 70's. Trying to take influence from that but be more forward thinking.
SW: It's not like we are just jumping on the bandwagon. "Oh. Everyone likes the sound of the 303 and the 4-4 kicking drum." So let's do loads of that. No. Its more. The whole dance music element is just one. And the world music element as well, and all is equally important. The only way to truly make something new is to bring in lots of different elements. I am really into the idea of the fact that we can stop becoming a 4 or 5 piece band, a traditional band structure, that it can become more fluid, so that we have sort of core members with studios in different places. Then we link up with other musicians and bands and get remix work done. Get lots of crossover stuff going on. I would like to think that the next album, every tune is going to have a life of it's own. They won't all just be... that is album filler or a repeat of something that we have done.
Si: And that is what we have done with Pollen as well. That is why it took so long. We wanted to make it an album that would stand the test of time. Something that people can really get deep into.
SH: When did you start experimenting with this more Pollen style and seeing how the audience were accepting it? Around the Temple Ball period?
SW: Some of it has always been there and it has just started to come out now. I think the sequencer, in a way, has replaced the stoned drummer and bass player. It is just a different sound really. There is only so far you can take that genre really.
SH: You guys have played a lot of different places. What was it like going to the Ukraine?
Si: Mental... absolutely mental! Mad place... very bizarre, and mad and strange. Something I will remember for a long time.
SW: I will never forget that. I am always going to have a link to that country.
Si: It was a crazy place, totally lawless and corrupt. It was sort of like going to either another planet or like going back in time to sort of 30's Chicago. Gangsters in big black suits and cars, with guns and whores and things like this. It was just bizarre. It was Al Copone.
SW: What was also nice was that the culture was so different. In the west, everyone has grown up on the same stuff... the Beatles, Rolling Stones. But they don't have that over there.
Si: They perceive music differently, in a way. Very classically based and avant garde based music. More so than pop music.
SW: Another thing that made me think that it was weird. It was only like 50 years ago and we were British people we would have been heading over there with our guns over our shoulders and we just had our guitars and synths and stuff.
SH: In the early days you guys would do some GONG covers. What was it like to get together with Daevid Allen?
Si: It was excellent!
SW: A lot of people that were our influences we have had a chance to meet and have a jam with. It's really cool to sort of learn from them. See what they are up to now and how they have survived. Try to learn from their experience.
Si: Like after we met Arthur Brown... because we had Arthur Brown on the album it's gone both ways. Because we influenced him a hell of a lot. He has gone on to do a album of some worldly dancey music stuff. It has really inspired him. Same with Daevid Allen... taking the modern approach on the psychedelic thing. Not just doing it the way it has always been done.
SW: I think that there is a kind of close link to the dancey culture and the old experimental thing. The two things are quite interlinked. If you listen to what Steve Hillage has been up to and listen to what he is doing now you can hear all the elements of what he did in the 70's.
Si: But the links in dance music, our experience is that anything psychedelic goes down a storm. It is really turning a lot of young people back into the psychedelic scene.
SW: We are entering into a new phase since we have the ADAT machines, and more recently, the G3 computer. We are able to link up with other sort of studios and musicians and remixes and music producers all over the world.
Si: When we were out in the Ukraine we met this old guy who was our interpreter for a radio interview, and they got this old guy in off the train cause we met him and he said that he spoke English. Being our interpreter and hearing all about what we are about, this like 80 year old man said he wanted to give something back and sing you a song. A traditional Armenian folk-love song. And the only quiet place in this club was the toilet. This tiny little stinking toilet. We all piled into this cubicle, like 4 of us with this 80 year old Armenian bloke and we had the tape recorder and we recorded the song and that is what we used on the track Click onThis. So it is all connected.
SW: The future of the next albums is moving. Rather than sort of finding a nice sample on a CD somewhere or on the TV, we would actually go out and get the samples and interact with the people creating it.
Si: Becoming totally global! We have been hooking up with people. This one guy from Gambia.
SW: Yeah! We have hooked up with this guy named Mesima Mehbob who is this master drummer and it will most certainly be appearing on the next album. He did a gig with us doing Talking Drum. The rhythm that he put into the band was fucking amazing.
Si: We have also hooked up with a lot of Indian and Asian musicians as well.
SH: With the internet now, a lot of these musicians won't even have to leave their country.
SW: That is exactly where we're heading with our computers. But more than that, it is making communication with people on a musical level. If we can get to travel to the places and link up and do gigs with them and stuff, then that is what it is all about, rather than sticking to the format of being 4 geezers in a band. Definitely like to have an international flavor to it!
Si: And another new thing, for the future, we have been going out as just the two of us while the other band members are out doing other stuff as well. That is another avenue we are working at the moment.
SW: It's sort of a different scene. We can play the dance clubs that way as well.
SH: So why was the Mandala album not called a Mandragora album?
SW: Because it is a different concept really.
Si: Not a different band, but a tentacle of Mandragora. Not a tentacle, that sounds like the Ozrics. A different branch of Mandragora.
SW: It's got a life of it's own so it should have a name of it's own. It's definitely something different. Mandragora is more sort of a band based, organic thing, while the Mandala thing is a more club based, techno thing, where there is not so much live instrumentation on it.
Si: But very psychedelic as well! Mandala is mostly Simon and I. Al, from the band, he's not really into dance music. He's a musicians, musician. Steve, the new drummer, he does a lot of things with programming of drums and things.
Well, this is where we ended and I went up to the club to hang out with my friends and check out the show. They started at about 1am and played for 75 minutes. It was a pretty decent turn out and the crowd were mostly into it. I think they were too good for your average techno head who wants more beats and less complex stuff. That was the feeling I got. Simon played a lot of guitar as Si mixed in the spacey sounds using the KORG MS-20, as well as occasionally playing the conga drums. Most of the stuff was prerecorded but they were still great and did a mixture of Pollen and Mandala material. Too bad the whole band couldn't come out for the gig because the German tour was canceled, but they really wanted to play here in Denmark but could only afford to bring Simon and Si since they were flying in for a one off gig. Great time!
The set list from what I could piece together was:
?, Abu Zeluf, Grow it Everywhere, 3 Little men in a Flying Saucer, Gurning the Midnight Oil, Smart System, 35 White Mustang, Remind Everything's ok, ?, Rebuk, El Paso?, ?, Mess up me Life
1985 Something Missing Cassette
1989 Over the Moon LP/CD (Babbleon Records) (CD released on Delerium has extra tracks)
1990 Under the Sun Live Cassette
1991 Head First LP/CD (Resonance Records) (CD on Delerium has 3 extra tracks)
1992 Mandrake Madness Cassette (outtakes and Live)
1993 Earthdance LP/CD (Mystic Stones label)
1993 While the Green Man Sleeps (Mystic Stones) (Phil Thorton & Mandragora)
1994 Temple Ball LP/CD (Mystic Stones label)
1998 Pollen CD (Delerium Records)
Talking to God (Live) appears on A Cup of Libertea cassette (Belgium)
Radio Kamikaze on Radio Kamikaze cassette sampler (Brighton, UK)
Conspiracy on A Psychedelic Psauna- In Four Parts lp/CD (Delerium 1991)
An untitled track appears on Ptolemaic Terrascope #9 free 7" (1992)
Earthdance (Washouse Mix) appears on Ambient Senses Compilation (Jumping and Pumping TOT 12 1993)
Zarg appears on the Concoction Compilation (Jamboree 1993)
Coffee Shop Jig on Music for Coffee Shops (Dreamtime 1996)
Mess up me Life appears on the Continental Drifts- Sounds from the Acoustic Underground remixed
CD (UK 1999). Band remixes song by the Baghdaddies.
1993 Mandala- Mandala cassette (techno dance strangeness)
1998 Mandala- Gurning the Midnight Oil CD (Mandragora Music)