I want to reach people with my music – common people. (Sym Info 1987)
Summary: Allan Holdsworth, the acclaimed guitarist, reflects on his desire to reach a wider, non-specialized audience with his music. He shares his satisfaction with the SynthAxe, an instrument he's come to master, and how it complements his guitar playing. Despite facing frustration in the music industry, Holdsworth's commitment to his unique sound remains strong. He discusses the inspiration behind his album "Atavachron," referencing an episode of Star Trek, and his creative process for composing music. [This summary was written by ChatGPT in 2023 based on the article text below.]
Interview of Allan Holdsworth by Sym Info (October 1987)
Sym Info was a Dutch progressive rock magazine
Interview by WILLEBRORD ELSING
Translation from Dutch by René Yedema
“I want to reach people with my music – common people.”
Holdsworth isn’t very happy with himself tonight. After a show in Paradiso (Amsterdam) on June 15th 1987, a kind of double-concert with Stanley Clarke, he walks in the catacombs with a face that is even larger than it’s already from nature. He isn’t satisfied with his play. Undeserved, but as we will discover in the interview, the real reason lies much deeper.
Together with drummer Chad – and bassist Bob Wackerman Holdsworth gave a performance from one hour which was creditable. Very varied, and with a lot of space for soloing by the diverse musicians, without ever threatening to become freaky. On guitar Holdsworth was in a better shape than ever and played a couple of solo’s that are amongst the fastest I’ve ever heard, in which he didn’t lose his sense of melody not even for a moment. The man stays a phenomenon. The other instrument handled by Holdsworth was the SynthAxe.
For those who are still unfamiliar with this instrument: the SynthAxe is a just a couple of years old string-instrument, which looks somehow like a guitar with a neck in a somewhat strange hook on the body, and which is being used to control a synthesizer. The last time the SynthAxe was for Holdsworth clearly an instrument for some variation of his guitar-play, now the proportions were almost even.
Holdsworth: “I think that at this moment I’m capable to play the SynthAxe a whole lot better. On the last LP, “Atavachron”, I just got it before we started recording and I had to play and try to fathom the instrument at the same moment, which didn’t make things easier. On my new LP, “Sand”, I almost play just SynthAxe.”
Aren’t you afraid that the Synthaxe is, commercially seen, doomed to die; you’re the only one who’s positive about the instrument?
“Maybe that’s because I never wanted to play guitar. I just see it as an instrument, for me it’s something great; I can’t say enough positive things about it. I can understand why people aren’t so satisfied with it generally; guitarist simply have the tendency to be rather ‘close-minded’ on that point. They want to do everything with it which they also can do on a guitar and don’t think about the possibilities this instrument offers which aren’t possible on a guitar. It works to two sides. I’m very enthusiastic about what they did with the instrument, the shape, the angle of the neck, that sort of things. The only critic which I would have on the instrument is the neck; to my opinion it should be smaller. But that’s the only thing I would want to chance. It’s quite good possible that the instrument is doomed to die, just like all the things that are ahead of its time. On the other hand you could get a whole new generation of SynthAxe-players who never had a guitar in their hands. It’s just an incredible invention.”
The story goes that you had to sell your house so you could buy the SynthAxe.
“That’s not quite true. Some eight years ago I had bought a house, or actually a flat, in England. At one moment we moved to the States, where I rented a house, because I didn’t know if I would like it there. Meanwhile we leased out the flat in England. What happened was that the guy who moved into our flat didn’t pay the rent. With the music I make I may be happy if I can be able to support myself, so two houses at the same moment I couldn’t pay. So I sold the house in England, which I thought was terrible, because I wanted to have something to return to if I wouldn’t like it in the States. I’d rather not see my wife and children on the street. But anyway, I got more for that flat than I paid for it when I bought it, and the difference I used to be able to buy the SynthAxe.”
You’re a shining example for a lot of famous guitarists. Bill Bruford told me a month or so ago that if he would play the guitar, he would have wanted to play like you, which is somehow the most beautiful compliment one can get. Aren’t you afraid that you’re investing 10.000’s of dollars in an instrument which will in the end alienate you from your own audience?
“Yes, but I don’t care for it. I’m not interested in guitar-players, I don’t want to play for guitar-players, I don’t like it to play for guitar-players. I want to make music, become a better musician. The instrument isn’t important. I listen to music, to tones. When I hear Michael Brecker play the saxophone, I’m not only hearing the saxophone, but also the music, the ideas, ‘the mind in the man’. The same when I hear Keath Jarrett play the piano. I’ve never wanted to play piano, it’s in some way a percussive instrument, and I don’t like percussive instruments. I love wind-instruments, like an oboe, or English horn, which is about my favourite sound. I want to reach people with my music, common people. And when I don’t play guitar anymore in the future, maybe I get a bigger audience, or not any at all, but that doesn’t interest me.”
But there’s also a practical argument like to be able to make ends meet.
“That’s for me the only criterion, to earn at least that much money so my wife and children have something to eat. I would want do some other work, and than make music in my free time. Rather maybe, because guitarists want to hear me play the guitar, and I don’t care about that. I play guitar when I want to. I would rather work for SynthAxe, or Oberheim, or whoever and then make the music I want to make myself.
Everything is beginning to frustrate me bit by bit. It seems as if it isn’t going to work. The last year I’ve been thinking to go and do something else, another way of earning my bread; ‘it’s just not happening’. It takes too long, and I don’t see it happening ever.”
What would you want to see happening than?
“Well, the usual thing, that more people hear my music and can say yes, I like it or no, I don’t like it at all. I don’t expect that much people will like it, because it’s no easy music to listen to. On the other hand I think there are enough people who would love my music if they got the chance to hear it, but they will never be able to hear it because of the media, because of the record-companies, because of the radio. They control the situation, and that isn’t just harmful for me, but for so much other music. Radio-stations are the worst, they seem to assume that people are stupid, and they aren’t. People would love to hear different kinds of music, if only they would get the chance. Of course there would be enough music which they wouldn’t like, but than they would at least have the chance to decide themselves. If I would have never have eaten an orange I couldn’t have known if I would like it either. I wouldn’t know what I could do about it to chance it, at least that aspect. I think about it to stop with it completely.”
Are you serious?
“Yes; because I can’t keep doing what I do now. I’m forty now and I can’t keep running against the wall for ever; it’s just not worth it. I don’t like this life, to be away from my family for ages, the trouble my fellow musicians have to go through to be able to play the music they like. It’s not worth it.”
Lets talk about something more pleasant and go back to your last LP but one, “Atavachron”. Recently I saw a replay of one of the episodes of Star Trek in which on a certain moment some kind of alien says to Spock, pointing to a machine: 'This, mr. Spock, is the Atavachron'
"I love that episode, the idea of a machine with which the population of that planet goes back to its own history to escape the destruction of that planet. In any case I'm a Star Trek-fan. I also love that word: 'Atava' from "Atavistic' and 'Chron' form 'Chronological'. 'All Our Yesterdays' was the title of that episode, and I've used it for one of the tracks, a reflective piece of music. I try to visualize music; mostly it's a word or a happening and that gives me inspiration for a piece of music. On my new LP there's a song '4:15 Bradford Exect'. I was born in Bradford an often took the train from London to visit my family. In this song I've tried to play a guitarsolo from seven minutes without one repetition, just like the constant changing landscape out of a driving train. With "Atavachron" it was something familiar. In the late evening I often sit in the studio. And than, with all the lights out, the only thing that gives some light are the little lamps of the mixing consule. Than it's not hard at all to imagine you're in a spaceship."