There’s a contradiction in a harmony. The question “Do you understand what I mean?” was a refrain of this conversation, as Jon Hiseman has to be sure his listener gets to the point. And that’s a man whose music is always open for interpretation! Well, he’s an acute businessman as well as brilliant musician, one of the most respected in showbiz, and has to be protective of what he’s been doing for the last 40 years. While many of his peers had been ripped of their rights, Jon owns the COLOSSEUM legacy, and his mindchild still stands as magnificent as its Roman namesake, though it’s not destined to come down in ruins. Jon’s drumming is a carcass for many a classic record, but it was some other drummer who, filling the Royal Festival Hall foyer with a delicate thunder, provided a perfect rhythm to Hiseman’s musing.
– Everybody says you’re a very strong-minded person…
– …the one who always looks at the little details to get to the bottom of the things. At the same time the music you play is often improvisational. So how do these two things combine in one person?
I’m a schizophrenic! When I play the music I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’ve always been able to work like that. It was never any kind of a problem: I’ve always had a clear vision of what I wanted to do in terms of knowing what was right. But for the last twenty years it’s been a case of what I do being inevitable – as if I don’t have a choice. But I don’t think about the music as much as I do about the details. So for me, life’s problem is more about getting a band and crew onto a stage in, say, Vienna in a year’s time. Actually, what you do when you get on the stage always seems to work somehow, and that’s the least problem for me, it’s always been the least problem.
– But to be improvising you have to think a bit ahead of what you’re doing at the moment.
No. I… I just could always do it. I started off playing completely improvising in a free jazz context and came all the way back to rock ‘n’ roll from there, so actually I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how the music works, but I know how to get a band on to a stage, looking good and playing great. I know how to do that but I don’t know how the music really works, that’s the truth – and I don’t want to know either.
– What music is for you, a thought or a feeling?
It’s a feeling. Music is a feeling. The most important thing to me was discovering that when playing music I could only be me, I couldn’t sound like anybody else. I found that out very early on, by the time I was twenty-one, and I knew then that there was no point in trying to be something I wasn’t. I had to simply do what I could. I couldn’t be happy trying to be something else, and back in the early COLOSSEUM days, when people were asking me to go do session things, I used to say, “Look, you’d either say, ‘I need a drummer, and the only drummer who can do this is Jon Hiseman’, or ‘I need a drummer, but don’t call Jon Hiseman because he can’t do that’. That’s very important”.
– A challenge?
Uh, to me it’s… I found out very early on that I just do what I do, I’m happy doing what I do, I don’t want to be a different kind of drummer or play a different kind of music, or anything. So the music I played with the UNITED JAZZ + ROCK ENSEMBLE is only an extension of the music I played earlier with COLOSSEUM.
– And how do you do it within COLOSSEUM framework, where everybody’s almost as strong-minded as you are?
The trick is to use people for what they’re good at and don’t take any notice of the things they’re not good at. So if I want to get a band on a stage in Budapest in a year’s time, I’ll never listen to anybody about how to do that, ’cause they don’t know. But if we’re mixing something, and Clem Clempson says, “Well, I’m not sure, this doesn’t sound right”, he knows: he’s got good ears, I listen to him. You know what I mean? That’s the way I work with everybody.
– Is using people a good thing?
Yeah, you have to get the best out of people and you use the best parts of them. You’ve got to remember that a band is like any collection of people together: if you put the right strengths together, you have a very strong whole, but you have to use the strength in each person. If you try to make people play what they can’t do you get nowhere. It’s no good me saying to [the still alive at the interview time – DME] Dick Heckstall-Smith, “I’ve got an idea for solo, Dick. It’s not the sort of thing you normally play but…”. He would smile and nod but he wouldn’t do it, because he can only do Dick. Dave Greenslade can only do Dave Greenslade. The most versatile person in the band is Clem because he’s been a successful session musician, but I would never ask him to do what doesn’t come naturally to him as an artist. It’s very important to understand what people’s strengths are and to play to the strengths, not get involved with the things they can’t do. So COLOSSEUM is a collection of strengths – it doesn’t matter what we play, we just sound like that because we’re not ever asking each other to be anything different. And if you take the “Tomorrow’s Blues” album, three or four tracks [on it] are first takes, we just played them once. Fine! That’s it! Everybody did what they did naturally and that’s what it sounds like.
– That’s when you’re the leader, but what about situations where you play for other people, like on Jack Bruce’s “Things We Like”?
Well, I don’t do that very often but in that situation I’m happy to take direction and try to get into their world. But I can’t help if in the end it just sounds like me.
– But how does it work when you do a session?
I’m a chameleon. You know what a chameleon is? It’s a small animal, and wherever you put it it changes its color to blend with its surroundings This is how it’s with me. I played with Andrew Lloyd-Webber for ten years – I was his drummer, working with big symphony orchestras, Placido Domingo, [Jose] Carreras, Sarah Brightman – and you have to be completely different with all those symphony orchestras. You play the drums somewhere else from in a rock band because the orchestra is so slow that you have to work inside it, you know? Then, the next minute, I play with the UNITED JAZZ + ROCK ENSEMBLE, which is ten different bands, actually, and each band leader brings a completely different kind of piece and, as a drummer, you have to get into each head. But I’m a chameleon, and I change the color.
– Well, chameleon may change its color, but it never changes its shape.
That’s true. That’s true and that’s what you do: you change the color, you get inside, you become a part of their head, the way they are thinking about the music. But remember something – if you work for somebody else, you have to be prepared to go into their channel, and if somebody works for me, they have to go into my channel: that’s the way it works, the way musicians have always worked.
– What about THE WES MINSTER FIVE?
I don’t remember much about this, it was a long time ago. I was an amateur, I was doing a day job every day and working with THE WES MINSTER FIVE only in the evenings. I was not a professional.
– Do you remember how you met Dave Greenslade and Tony Reeves?
This was when I was thirteen years old, and I made an album with them when I was fourteen, maybe a little bit later. Yeah, fourteen, in 1958. I will transfer that onto a CD, I must do this. I probably have the only copy of that!
– How does it feel working with Dave for so many years?
We’re a family. We can say anything to each other, just like families do. I don’t talk so much to Tony Reeves but send him royalties twice a year, and then one day I pick up the phone, “Hi, Tony!” He says, “Hi, Jon!” Maybe I didn’t speak to him for five years but we talk as if we spoke yesterday, because we are family.
– Don’t you think that if you weren’t so close you could press on people a little bit harder – in terms of work?
I never wanted to do this. I came to the conclusion that you couldn’t change people. You could stand in a dressing room before a gig – one gig – and say, “I don’t want you to do this, I want you to do that. I don’t want you to do this, I want you to do that. I don’t want you to do this, I want you to do that”. Before half the gig is gone, they’ve forgotten it, they’re doing what they do. So I never had any pressure with these guys to do something different – I chose them because I knew what they could do!
You know, one of the great albums ever made is Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, this is truly one of the greatest albums. If you put in a studio, on studio monitors and just listen to the sound, it’s incredible! Forget the actual singing and the playing – it’s incredible. And Quincy Jones who produced it started off as a twenty-two year old boy writing arrangements for THE COUNT BASEY ORCHESTRA, he came all the way through with every style of music, and people say, “If you go into the studio when Michael Jackson and him, you don’t see anything happen at all, they just sit there. ‘This is okay, we’ll do it again. That’s fine, thank you!’ And you think, ‘What they’re doing?'” The point is that he would take a drummer in New York and fly him all the way to Los Angeles, put him in a Beverley Hills hotel for a week, then place him in the studio, and this guy only plays the hi-hat – because Quincy knows that he could play the hi-hat the way Jones wants. Then he flies all horn players in, from Memphis all the way to New York, and they play on one number, because he knows they can do exactly that. And when he mixes it, he mixes them so far back in the track, you’d hardly hear them anyway.
In other words, you don’t do anything in the studio if the people you pick don’t play naturally what you hear in your head – that’s the secret if you’re a producer, that’s the secret if you’re a band leader: pick people who do naturally what you want and get them to do it. It works fine! All the problems with bands are when you get one guy leading the band who picks a team of players and tries to make them to be something else, something they’re not. The same with marriages: you fall in love with a girl not because you like her, but because you’re going to make great babies together – you usually know the difference. You then spend the rest of your life trying to make her into something that will be comfortable to live with, but you have no chance, you’re due to fail. That’s the way it is – strong babies come from opposites. People who know it marry people that are always opposite and then they fight the rest of their lives; if you understand that they’re opposite, and you enjoy the opposite and you can live with your opposite, then you can have a very good long marriage. So actually, a band is a mirror for a country, it’s a mirror for a town, it’s a mirror for the world.
– Was it like that with John Mayall?
John was a brilliant leader. So many bands came out of John Mayall because he made it look easy, but he was a clever guy when it came to leading a band. He knew, instinctively, how to manage people, how to handle people, how to get the best out of people – a very good guy!
– About understanding people… Do you really play piano and violin?
I did, but I haven’t played it for years. I learned both when I was a kid.
So does it help you to understand, say, Dave Greenslade?
Yes, yeah, sure! I know exactly what’s going on. Look, the only thing I’m not interested in is the drums. I was never interested in the drums. I fell in to the drums by accident because I played with a little band when I was twelve, and they didn’t have a drummer. So I played the drums. The drums are for me only a way to be a catalyst, to mix things up and make things work. And I could have been a manager and just sit in the audience and watch – actually, this might have easier – but in the end I’m just glad to be inside, to be a drummer, because a drummer has a fantastic amount of control. There is so much control in the drums – doesn’t matter it’s a rock group or a jazz group – that you can lead from the drums very easily; that’s why a lot of drummers have been good band leaders. It’s a very powerful position when it comes to making the difference the audience can hear. The trick to a band is only making the differences; the music’s played – you like it or you don’t like it, it’s a good or it’s great – doesn’t matter, but the thing that makes audiences come back is how you can actually shape the music in way that’s bigger than the music. In other words, the detail in a music is not so important as the way the show grows in a live performance, and each individual number is only a small part of that. Where I come from the drums are very powerful, so I was never interested in the drums – I was always interested in leading the bands.
I learned very early on, again, that you have a responsibility and must develop a real understanding of the audience, of what the audience comes to, and why they come, if you want to earn a living. I played with a lot of groups that never played to any people: music was wonderful, but it’s gone; they never made records and they never played to people, so that music actually did not exist. The only music that exists is the music that people hear, in vast numbers. A painting is no good in an artist’s studio, it only works when you hang it on the wall in a public place. So to me the drums was the way to sit in the center of that and control the proceedings. When people come up to me at the end of the gig and say, “Hey, there was a thing you did on the drums in that number…”, I say, “I don’t know what that was but I tell you what – the bass player was out of tune:. This is what I tell to all the young drummers that come to me and say, “How do you do this?” I say, “Listen, don’t play the drums, play the band. If you play the band, the drums will play themselves”. Too many drummers play the drums in a band with a vocalist but they don’t play to the vocals – If it’s the organ solo, you play the organ solo – the drums will play themselves.
– You, though, can play even without a band, because you play very melodically.
Yeah, they say I’m the only drummer that can do this. I never heard another drummer that could do it. And that’s, basically, because I, again, don’t play the drums: I play shapes, I play links and I take audiences with me. That’s music – I don’t know what I’m doing. I know drummers who do drum solos and they can tell you what the technical names are for the games they play, whereas I don’t think like that and I’m not interested in that.
– At what age you started to understand that the drums are not only for a rhythm but for a tune too?
I can’t think of drums… I can’t think of drums… (Contemplating the answer for a while.) I’ll never forget going to see my first professional drummer. I had started to play the drums by accident, but I’d never heard or seen a professional drummer. He played for a dance or something – I can’t remember – in some college in London, and I stood all night watching him because it sounded fantastic! It sounded fantastic, and I wanted to be a part of this. I said to him, “I’d like to play the drums”, and he said, “Oh, sit at the drum kit”. So I picked up the sticks, and he said, “Hit this!” I hit the drum, and it went, “Ummm!” Terrible! But I played a cymbal: “Tshhhhh!” It sounded absolutely awful. I hadn’t a drum kit at the time, I was playing brushes on a washboard, and I thought, “How does he make it sound so good?” because, when I tried it, it sounded terrible. The drums are a terrible sounding instrument: I’ve got great snare drums and I’ve played three thousands drum kits, but if you do a mistake it sounds terrible. You somehow have to make this work, you have to make magic from this terrible collection of rubbish – and the only thing you can make is a feeling, there’s nothing else there. You have to make feelings take on the people, and you can’t do that by playing exercises.
Manfred Mann wanted me to do something – I’ve known Manfred all my life, but I only played with him a few times on TV shows when he was doing his jazz thing – he rang about a year ago, after I sent him two or three PARAPHERNALIA records, and said, “Whenever a drum solo starts, whether it’s in my band or any other band, or on CD, I always look out for the kettle to make a cup of tea or go to the bar. But there’s a drum solo on one of these records, and I’ve never heard anything like this in my life! This is just music, the pattern of the drums! How do you do this? Did you learn that?” I said, “No, I made it up that night, and it might never come again. We were lucky to record it”. He was astonished. That’s very interesting to me. Then he said, “Look, I’ve got this idea and I want you to come”, but this hasn’t happened yet and may never happen.
– You’re talking about Manfred’s album that’s just out, with Barbara on?
Is this out? We’ve never seen this. But it’s not this album at all. The Barbara Thompson story is I got a call from Manfred about four months ago, and he said, “I need to put Barbara on a track. If I send you a stereo mix of the track, can you record Barbara in your studio and then send the recording back to me on a disc?” I said, “Yeah!” So this track arrived, we set it up in the studio, Barbara went down and played two or three solos, we sent it back to him on a CD and forgot all about it. Then, a month ago I got an e-mail saying, “The album is coming out, it was a great solo, and thank you ever so much!” So I’d love to find it, she’d love to hear that. We’ll get a copy, it must be a nice record.
– What could you say about your contribution to THE BLUESBREAKERS and GRAHAM BOND ORGANIZATION?
I don’t know… Other people have to talk about contributions, but I can’t. I just did what I do.
– Did Mayall and Bond try to take the best of you?..
They never asked, they never asked. The both of them asked me to play because they wanted what I did. Graham Bond heard me in a rehearsal in 1964 – I was rehearsing with a big band called THE NEW JAZZ ORCHESTRA – he turned to Dick [Heckstall-Smith] or whoever was with him and said, “Ginger Baker leaves, and he’s got to be a new drummer. That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard”. When Ginger Baker left, Graham rang me up and asked, “Want to do it?” I was semi-professional and had to quit my day job to join Graham – and I left Graham Bond after a year and went to work with Georgie Fame. About four months after I’d left Graham Bond, I got a phone call at six o’clock one night, from Graham, saying, “My drummer’s let me down, I’ve got a gig tonight at ‘Klook’s Cleek’, can you come and do the gig? – you know all the numbers”. So I threw my kit into a car, went up to ‘Klook’s Cleek’ and set the kit up. We went on stage, and Graham started to play a number which I knew, but instead of stopping between numbers we just slipped from number to number, going back to a number two or three times sometimes. To the audience it must have seemed like a miracle, but because we’d worked every day for a year, we could change tempos, we could read each other, and we just played for two-and-a-half hours straight. There was never a stop, and we just played all these numbers, improvising. I wished somebody had recorded this, as we played absolutely perfectly.
John Mayall was in the audience that night. Three days later, I got home from a gig at about two o’clock in the morning, and John had been sitting for three hours outside my house in a car waiting for me to come home to say, “Right, you’re going to join THE BLUESBREAKERS”. So I joined THE BLUESBREAKERS after leaving Georgie Fame, did six months with them and then formed COLOSSEUM. In fact, I formed COLOSSEUM before I left THE BLUESBREAKERS. We took three-weeks holiday, John went to America and I went on holiday, too; when I came back, I rang Dave and Tony and Dick and asked, “Do you want to join the band?” And the word went around London so fast that John Mayall, who arrived back a week later, rang me up and said, “I hear you’re leaving us”.
– Was it in Graham Bond’s band that you met Dick for the first time?
No, I had met Dick, briefly, a couple of years before, but it was the first time I really played with him, yeah.
– What did you find in Dick that made you realise you could make a band of your own?
Oh, he’s a very sane guy, very down-to-earth, very intelligent and interesting man with a completely unique saxophone style that I thought would work very well in a rock band with vocals.
– According to Dick, you planned to make a band together, but then somehow you did it alone and just invited him on-board. How did it happen?
Well, when we said we’d make a band together, I’m not sure really what we meant by that. I don’t think once I’d worked with the guys I worked with that I would have gone into a partnership with Dick. But remember, financially, COLOSSEUM was always a partnership, we always shared whatever profit there was, and all the record royalties were evenly distributed. Still, as I said, people do what they’re good at: Dick’s good at standing on a stage and playing to audiences, but he’s not good at organizing bands – I’m good at that. Dick’s written some interesting numbers, he’s good at that – fantastic! In the end, in a band, you take the bits of what you can and make it work, like I said before.
– When Clem left in 1971, you decided to disband COLOSSEUM, but did the group fulfill its mission?
We couldn’t have done any more. I think with the “Live” album we were finished, we could only repeat after that, which is why I stopped it.
– Gerry Bron says the only mistake he regrets he made is not convincing you to replace Clem and carry on.
I know. I’m sorry, but I think it would’ve been too difficult. Too difficult – personally. I mean, yes, he didn’t try to convince me: at the time URIAH HEEP was just beginning in a big way, and he said, “Okay, if that’s what you want to do – fine!” And I think he was right, at the time. I smelt a change. If you care about how many people are coming [to the shows], if you’re working along on percentages where you get a low fee but a high percentage of the number of people that come – which is why I’ve always worked – you know, very quickly, whether the audiences are going up or down. We started off with five people in the audience, we built it through to the Royal Albert Hall, but I saw that, out in the country, it was going down. There was a change in the air. The kind of music we were playing, which is not easy music, was disappearing, and it was going back to a much more manufactured, much less jazz-based thing. It was going basically to the pop that came in the Seventies and then to those terrible ten years, the Eighties, when it was really rubbish. The only time in the history of pop in the music, when the music actually had been poor, was in the Eighties, with one or two exceptions. And it was going that way – I could smell it, and I was right, because TEMPEST had a very hard time, and so did COLOSSEUM II. Musically, they were very satisfying times, but commercially very difficult – there were very difficult seven odd years with those two bands because the world had moved on. They didn’t want that anymore.
– But didn’t you try to improve the band while it existed? I mean, by changing Tony Reeves for Mark Clarke, and then adding Chris Farlowe…
Well, there’s a whole world went on in the band about the personnel changes, which are the private family matters of the group of people which have never been discussed by anybody – and they won’t be discussed. On that basis, we’re all fantastic friends. James Litherland, Tony Reeves, we’re all fantastic friends, and everybody know what happened, though nobody’s ever written about it and never talked about it, which is absolutely correct because it’s private family business. We were living the life that families live.
– Why, then, if you changed Tony for Mark…
We got a fantastic singer!
– …and he’s a very good singer, why did you add Chris?
Oh, because at that time Mark wasn’t singing much. Mark didn’t know he was a good singer. (Listening to the music playing right beside, the preparations for the London Jazz Festival.) This is bloody jazz! This is neoclassical music because jazz belongs to the last century! (Laughs.) And Chris was great and he was free, he was doing nothing. Don’t forget the band was very heavy in those days, it was loud and it was heavy, and the kind of light singing that came in later with THE POLICE would not have suited us. Actually, James Litherland had a very good voice, too, but at that time he didn’t know it, he was a guitarist.
– Didn’t you feel you were risking something by inviting a star, which Farlowe was?
I don’t think the English took to him or accepted COLOSSEUM with him in the Seventies because they knew the band from 1968, but the Germans and the Italians loved him because they discovered the band through the live album. You can’t win this game! In those days the English audiences saw Chris as a pop singer because of his hits, but nowadays he is seen as essential to the sound of band. Only he has the power to fly above it.
– Did you plan it all along that TEMPEST would be your venture with Mark Clarke?
Yeah, I always said to Mark, “If I form another band, I’ll give you a ring”, and I did, when I thought of the idea of TEMPEST. I thought that Mark Clarke is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met: he’s a wonderful bass player – natural, no taught skill at all, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, basically – and a fantastic singer, with wonderful time. And I always thought he was so lazy, just very happy to just work for other people, and hoped that he’d get by. That’s a tragedy – if he’d had a business head and if he’d tried, he could have actually been a star.
– But you had Paul Williams in TEMPEST, in the beginning.
Yes, Paul was another very good singer who had a lot of problems because he couldn’t fly. We were taking two or three planes a day across America, with TEMPEST, and he was getting drunk all the time. He was so scared of flying, he would just sit on a plane shaking. It became a serious problem, so we just couldn’t continue with that.
– What was the main difference between TEMPEST and COLOSSEUM?
TEMPEST was more of a straightforward rock band, it was less jazzy. Allan Holdsworth played some great solos on the first TEMPEST album – fantastic solos, some of the best solos he’s ever played, actually, mainly because they were short.
– What was the difference between Allan Holdsworth and Ollie Halsall?
Allan was very meticulous, very clear. He had a vision about what he was trying to do. Ollie was a lunatic, a chameleon, again: in any circumstance he’d find a way to make it work. Interesting guy! I liked Ollie a lot.
– Did you hear him in PATTO?
I never heard him in PATTO, no. He just came recommended to me, and when we played we hit it off, I thought he was great. When we were a trio, we did some fantastic gigs – Mark Clarke, Ollie and me.
– Where did you find Allan?
The jazz musicians recommended him to me and said, “This is really fantastic guitarist. He’s living in the North of England and coming down to London”. But Allan was never happy with TEMPEST, he was never happy… He wanted to play much more jazz, that’s why he left.
– Why did you finish TEMPEST after only two albums?
Only because commercially it was very difficult. I enjoyed it musically.
– On the second album, “Living In Fear”, you co-wrote only one piece, though.
I can’t write things unless I’m feeling that the band can do it justice, I even didn’t write anything for “Tomorrow’s Blues” – or did I? – because I just didn’t feel that I could add to it. The kind of lyrics I write Chris finds very difficult to sing, so we decided to make a very simple album, based on the blues, and I couldn’t write anything for that. I’m writing more and more into poetry now, which is much harder to sing: I’m not so interested in lyrics anymore as I’m into poetry and prose.
– Yet was recording a BEATLES’ track with TEMPEST due to the shortage of original material?
No, I wanted to do a BEATLES’ track – I love THE BEATLES. I thought “Paperback Writer” was a great song, and it wasn’t one that other people did much, it wasn’t a popular song for THE BEATLES.
– On the “Tempest” album, there’s a cut called “Upon Tomorrow”, written by Clarke and Clempson. Was it some COLOSSEUM out-take?
This was a COLOSSEUM leftover, yeah, definitely a COLOSSEUM leftover. It was something we were working on before we split up.
– How did COLOSSEUM II come about?
Gary Moore said, “I’d like to form a band. Could we do it together?” I said, “That’s a good idea”. We tried for a year to get a record deal and we couldn’t, [as] the band was called GHOSTS. And finally, I went to Gerry Bron and said, “I’ve got this band called GHOSTS. Are you interested?” He said, “Bring it into the studio”. We went into the studio and played for one afternoon before him, and he said, “Great, I love it, but you’ve got to call it COLOSSEUM-something. I can sell that, but I can’t sell a band called GHOSTS”. So I rang all the guys in COLOSSEUM, “Look, I can’t get a deal unless I call it COLOSSEUM-something. Do you mind?” They said, “No, get on with it!” And I called it COLOSEEUM II, though I never wanted to – it was just business.
– Was hard rock that Gary was drawn to interesting to you?
Not at the time, no.
– Well, COLOSSEUM II could be considered a hard rock band, with Moore and Neil Murray.
Neil Murray was playing jazz rock in those days, he went over to hard rock when he joined DEEP PURPLE – or did he?
– No, that was WHITESNAKE. But what about you joining GREENSLADE?
No, no, no, I played two or three gigs with them, I think, because their drummer was sick or couldn’t make it or something. I did two or three gigs with them but no, I was never going to join. It was Dave’s thing, he had to do that alone, you know.
– Still, he brought Clem for some tracks – was he trying to recreate COLOSSEUM?
No, no, it’s totally different music, totally. I think it sounds so different from anything we do. And I don’t like all those synth things, I can’t stand that, I don’t like that at all.
– There are two great musicians who you played for, on their albums: Keef Hartley and Dave Cousins.
I don’t remember anything about the Keef Hartley record and I don’t think I ever heard it, so I don’t know about that. People have asked me about this before, but I can’t remember at all. [“Overdog” by THE KEEF HARTLEY BAND credits Jon Hiseman for playing there. – DME] As for Dave Cousins, he asked me to go to a studio – the Manor Studio – I turned up with a big drum kit, and there was just him with an acoustic guitar. I started to play with sticks, and it sounded silly, with an acoustic guitar. I said, “What’s going to go on this track?” He said, “I don’t know”. I finished up playing with brushes, because the brushes and an acoustic guitar sounded great. When he sent me a copy of the record, six months later, he had bloody Rick Wakeman on it playing like a lunatic! It had all sorts of other stuff on it and it wasn’t anything to do with what I played on at all. I never did that again!
– By the way, you have a very large drum kit, but how many drums do you actually need to make music?
You can’t hit more than four things at once because you’ve only got four limbs – so, effectively, four. All that big drum kit does is give you variety, and it enables me to play melodies, which I couldn’t play on a small drum kit. The tuning of the drums is very important to me and it’s very precise. It’s a technique, again, I developed in the late Sixties, for tuning big drum kits; it’s probably unique to me, as the drums have a cadence which makes a lot of sense to me, very simple musical cadence, and I always tune it very precisely to that cadence.
– What’s the current situation with COLOSSEUM?
We’re going to do some touring next year  – that’s it really. We’ve got a live album which I’m going to release.
– What’s next for Jon Hiseman, then?
Barbara’s writing classical music, and she’s done three concertos: one for saxophone quartet and orchestra, one for cello and orchestra, one for piano and orchestra, and now I’m working on getting the money to record these and get them issued.
– How do you feel in this classical music situation?
Very happy. I like it very much. I work a lot with Barbara, recording, and it’s very nice.
– But how did you begin to work with Webber?
We’ve done the “Electric Savage” album, I think, with COLOSSEUM II, and Andrew Lloyd Webber was with the same record company, MCA. He was in the offices one day, heard this music and said, “Oh, that’s wonderful! Who’s that?” They said, “It’s a drummer called Jon Hiseman, he’s got a band, COLOSSEUM II”, so he rang me up and said, “You don’t know me, dear boy, but I’ve written this work for my brother Julian, on cello, and I need exactly that combination to do it, which would be interesting”. So I went to his home, and he played the music for me on the piano, for an hour, explaining what would happen. I didn’t remember much of it, but I went back to Gary and said, “This guy really know what he’s doing, and I think we should get involved”. Gary thought it was a bit weird, but he agreed because the guy was going to pay us well. We went in the studio for two weeks and made this album, called “Variations”. After then, Gary went off and did his own thing, of course, because COLOSSEUM II broke up, but I stayed with Andrew all the way through to “Requiem”. We – Rod Argent, myself, Barbara, John Mole – only ever did three weeks in the shows in London, the first three weeks, and then handed it over to people who did that for a living.
– Did you play at that time with Mo Foster?
I did, yeah. Mo Foster’s been to the studio and played for me a lot.
– Who’s you favorite bass player to make a rhythm section with?
Well, there’ve been three bass players I’ve enjoyed enormously: Mark Clarke, Dave Ball and Paul Westwood. Paul Westwood is a wonderful bass player who played in PARAPHERNALIA for two years. Fantastic player! Technically, this guy’s the best bass player I’ve ever seen or heard anywhere in the world – ever. This guy is the most brilliant rhythmical bass player, he’s the only guy I know that can play “The Genuine Bubble” where every bar is different, and it goes like a rocket: (sings scat) “Bap-bap-bap-bam-bam ta-da-ta-da-ta-da”. He can do all that, and you just think, “How does he do this?” And it’s just wonderful!
– When did you start doing all these stage introductions, telling stories on-stage?
From the first day of COLOSSEUM. I’ve been doing that all the time.
– Don’t you think you should try to write a book?
Nah! After I’m dead! (Laughs.) After all the other people are dead too – then I could tell some real stories.
– How does your sense of humor project in your music? I mean, most people think COLOSSEUM are serious, but the music is always somehow funny.
We do a lot of laughing. When COLOSSEUM are together, we do a lot of laughing and we’ve been laughing at the same jokes for thirty years. We have a lot of fun.
– The first impression of the band is of a group of intellectuals anyway.
Anybody who was educated in the Fifties and the Sixties have a good education, now nobody’s educated anymore. England is now a nation of twits, idiots, they’re all around you. Nobody’s been educated for the last twenty years, and the young people are real crass here. You don’t see this in Central London, but out in the countryside it’s murder – literally – because the government starves the schools of money for twenty-five years to keep taxes low, and the problem is that you can’t do that. So education was handed over to a bunch of leftish ideologues who began to teach children – or not teach children, basically. But we – just normal people, from the education of Fifties and Sixties – are cultured people, we had a good education in culture. And because we’re all of the same age, we understand that, we’ve always read serious books, all of us.
– So, when writing, you try to make it a bit sophisticated or it just runs naturally?
No, no, no, when I write, I only write what I can, and if it doesn’t work… I’ve got folders of stuff that I never showed the guys because I knew it wouldn’t be right – but I still wrote it.
– Then, how did you feel about releasing “The Collector’s Colosseum”?
But they’re not out-takes, no! There was a very interesting situation between the English record company and the American record company at one point: we didn’t sign a deal in America until after we’d made "The Valentyne Suite", and because “The Valentyne Suite” had been such a success in Europe it was decided that the first album in America would be half of “Those About To Die” and half of “The Valentyne Suite”. It was called, I think, “Those About To Die” but it was not the European “Those About To Die”. And we got into a situation where we needed two or three extra tracks for the next American album, “The Grass Is Greener” – but these never came out in Europe. This was a complete mess! Typical, you know. So they had been released in Europe on “The Collector’s Colosseum”, and I don’t think “The Collector’s Colosseum” ever was issued in America.
– And what you think was the best COLOSSEUM album? “Live”?
We recorded six shows. There was no mobile van, so you had to take a studio part, put it in a vehicle, take it out to wherever you played and then reassemble it in a room somewhere close to the stage. We recorded six concerts, and at the end of the Manchester concert there was a terrible row in the dressing room afterwards, because we’d all played so badly. We never had bothered to listen to the tape and then did five more recordings – we hated all of them! Finally, somebody said, “We’ve never listened to the one from Manchester”. Gerry Bron said, “Oh, I think we may have rubbed it out, I’m not sure”, but he went back and they found it. We listened to it and said, “That’s the one!” It just shows you the big lesson I learned from that: groups never know what they’re doing on the stage when they’re doing it. Most of the time if I do a gig and I think, “Ah, Jesus! That was a great gig, I really played good!” – somebody would come up and say, “Thanks for the gig! I enjoyed it, but I heard you two weeks ago and it was much better”. Then, another time I think that it was absolutely terrible and I couldn’t get back to the dressing room because of people telling me what a wonderful gig it was. So what I learned was, this is all bullshit: the musicians never know what they’re doing and they shouldn’t judge – the audience judge.
– What’s so special about “Theme From An Imaginary Western”? You played on Jack Bruce’s original, then COLOSSEUM recorded a version of it and then GREENSLADE did it, too…
It’s a lovely song, a wonderful song, don’t you think? Fantastic song. The lyrics by Pete Brown are the most fantastic. You know what it’s about, don’t you? It’s an allegory. It’s an allegory for all the groups that tried to make it and fell by the wayside. (Loosely recites) Sometimes they made it, sometimes they found it, sometimes they lost it, sometimes they died in sight of day. They’re fantastic lyrics. “When the wagons leave the city for whatever it is further on” – that’s the bands going out on the motorways in search of fame and fortune. It’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful song, and Jack wrote probably his best melody lines to it. On his version of it, on “Songs For A Tailor”, there’s an organ line that we never used and nobody’s ever used on a cover version, but it’s very important to the song. It makes his the best version. But MOUNTAIN’s version’s very good as well.
– When Clem toured with Jack Bruce, he played bass while Jack sat at the piano.
Clem’s a wonderful player! We did a gig in Oxford, I think, and I heard this young guitarist and thought, “He’s great! If James Litherland ever leaves, I’ll give him a ring”. So when James Litherland left, I gave him a ring.
– What about his singing?
I don’t like him singing.
– Neither does he!
He never like it, it sounded sped up. He’s a good back up, he and Mark make a good back up vocal sound, but I don’t like his lead singing. It wasn’t powerful enough for COLOSSEUM, it always sounded slightly strained.
– Were you surprised when he started playing heavier music with HUMBLE PIE?
Nah. He’s a rock ‘n’ roller at heart but he’s talented at many things. Actually, he’s a good jazz player, but he says he can’t play jazz.
– And what’s your relation to rock ‘n’ roll?
I love it all! Anything that’s good I like. I was brought up on classical music, I got into free jazz, I got into blues, I got into rock ‘n’ roll… Elvis Presley was fantastic, Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane – that”s my record collection. QUEEN and Freddie Mercury were fantastic, I love it all. And the most creative work that’s going on anywhere in the world now is in pop music: it’s more creative than modern classical music, it’s more creative than jazz. Jazz is finished, there’s no creativity at all anymore. All that jazzers are doing now is going back to the Fifties and trying to sound like that. That’s up.
– No new Elvin Jones or Tony Williams?
No, only copies. Real creativity is going on in modern pop music. Some of it is very interesting. They are pushing the boundaries. People like COLDPLAY are pushing forward the boundaries of artistic expression in a way like nobody else; it’s not happening in painting, it’s not happening anywhere else. Pop music has become the directors’, the producers’ medium just like film has. It’s not about performance, you see: I’m a performance artist and earlier, in the Sixties, art was about performance, but it’s not about performance anymore. When you go to see the film, the scene lasts forty seconds, and what you don’t realise is that it took a week to shoot, it’s forty different camera angles and set-ups and in the end the director makes the film by throwing pieces together on the floor on the studio. But when you’re watching, it never occurs to you that it’s not performance art. All that’s really happening in pop music has become a directors’ media, it is pieced together under a vision just like a film is. I don’t see film as performance art now – well, it probably was in the Thirties when they had long shots, and Fred Astaire actually had to dance. So there’s a big difference now, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not art – just different art.
– So who would you like to produce?
Nobody. I retired. I’ve had enough. I just do my thing I’m happy with now. I produced an album for my daughter [Ana Gracey] who’s a fantastic singer – but nobody wants to know, they can’t understand this at all. And she is great!
– Will there ever be a Jon Hiseman solo album?
No. Nobody wants to listen to this. My album is very good for parties when you want people to go. (Laughs.) Several famous people wash up to that album.
– And what if you bring together some old friends and some not-so-old friends and make a party album for people not to go but to come?
I’m not interested. I’ve done it before. Do you know how many concerts I’ve done and how many albums I’ve played on? I don’t have to do this at all, I’m having a good time at the moment just doing the things I like. I’m writing a serious computer program – an accounting program – using the biggest relational database in the world to make it go real smooth. I’ll use it myself and I’ll probably never sell it, never bother. I’m interested in this, it’s a very interesting set of problems, and I do it for a hobby. It’s not profession, this is just hobby and I love it. [Jon had an accounting training and, before he became a professional musician, worked as an accountant. – DME]
– What you regular day is like, then?
Fourteen hours a day every day I’m working. At the moment I’m working on getting all the original masters for all the records I’ve ever made. It’s all now deteriorating and has to be baked in the ovens and then transcribed into Pro-Tools. So I’m doing this slowly in my studio; this is a long job. Then all the tapes will go to the National Archive for storage. Also I’m writing this computer program and creating very life-like orchestral demos of all Barbara’s music in the computer using very big sample sets: forty gigabytes’ pianos, forty-five gigabytes’ orchestra sets – it’s a long slow work but it’s interesting. I’ve got two PARAPHERNALIA live albums to mix and a COLOSSEUM live album. I’ve got an Evelyn Glennie album to finish and get released. I’ve just done a location recording of Barbara’s saxophone quartets album, all her compositions, which we hope to get released next year. So much stuff! I can’t move, I still have to do ten days a month in the office administering all the royalties, as I’ve got a publishing company, Temple Music, which I run with more than five thousand titles! This is a big work. All the royalties for the boys have to be processed twice a year – I mean, I don’t have a moment: this is really hard work, I tell you.
– Why “Temple”?
Oh, because Barbara wrote a song called “Temple Song”, which was a very successful track on one of the early PARAPHERNALIA albums. We were looking for a name, and I thought, “Temple Music is nice”.
– You’re talking about all this with a great passion. Are you a happy person?
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely – all the time.
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