Interview with MO FOSTER

mofoster1January 2004

Sometimes lurking in the back of the stage is a sign of a real master who makes an artist he accompanies feel safe. Yet Mo Foster’s name is a sign in itself: a sign of the music’s quality – and if there’s his name on a record, you can’t go wrong with it. It’s fundamental, and can’t be other way as Mo’s was supposed to be a scientist, a physicist, but the music led him astray – fortunately for the London Philarmonic Orchestra and Jeff Beck, Charles Aznavour and Gil Evans, Ringo Starr and Serge Gainsbourg and many others, or fortunately for Mr. Foster. So let the Four Strings do the talking.

– Was there ever a moment you regretted giving up science in favour of music?

Are you kidding? It was one of the great reliefs of my life when I finally owned up that music – and not the laboratory – was my true calling. And it was so exciting to make a modest living just from playing. I still read the “New Scientist” magazine though.

– What initially drew you to music?

The magic of it – here is something intangible that can affect your emotions just by the sound. I was nine when a teacher brought a descant recorder into class and asked if anyone would like to play one – I was first in the queue. I also played violin for a bit, but then there was a long gap until I was fourteen when I heard a low twangy guitar for the first time – a visceral moment. The next significant event occurred I when went to study physics at the University of Sussex and I stumbled upon the student jazz trio. I was transfixed by the harmonies and the rhythms of this music and within the year I had joined them on drums.

– What it was like, playing with AFFINITY where everyone was a kind of scholar?

Occasionally it was a drag because we tended to intellectualise too much. At other times it could be intensely funny – a bit like Monty Python. Conversation on long journeys was never dull – remember this was before the Walkman, videos, games, etcetera. You either read, or talked – or slept!

– How come you didn’t write any song for the AFFINITY only album, but there’s a song by LINDISFARNE’s Alan Hull? Or it was other Hull?

Composing is a discipline that takes time to learn. I wasn’t ready at the time of the first AFFINITY album as I was still struggling to learn to play. And yes, it was the Alan Hull – his songs were brought to us on 45 rpm acetates by his publisher.

– Was it difficult to get John Paul Jones, who having joined LED ZEPPELIN quit session work, arrange two pieces on that record?

Although John Paul may have stopped doing sessions by that time, he was still arranging. I think he was contacted by our manager, Ronnie Scott. While we were routining the songs – upstairs at Ronnie’s club – I remember chatting to him about influences on bass. He came to my book launch in 1997. He’s a good man.

– Did you hook up with Mike d’Abo while still in AFFINITY who recorded his “Poor Man’s Son”?

By the end of January 1971 AFFINITY had ceased to be a working band, and I put an advert in the trade-paper “Melody Maker” to promote my services. By sheer luck Mike d’Abo was looking for a bass player that week and spotted my advert. We met and immediately began working on demos for his next album – some of which appear on d’Abo’s new album, out in January. It was some time later that AFFINITY reformed with a new singer, Vivienne McCauliffe, and I suggested to her that she should try this song – now a favourite of mine. She sang it beautifully.

– You and Mike Jopp recorded two new numbers for AFFINITY’s “1971-1972”. Is there a chance for a band to be revitalised in a foreseeable future?

We’ve often talked about it – especially since we’re all much better players now. But the problems are enormous – we’d need a manager, an agent, and financial support. Is there someone out there who would like to help?

– You love playing fretless bass. What do you think, then, of Jack Bruce who’s for some years been playing fretless as well?

I have mixed feelings about Jack’s fretless playing. He clearly loves it, but I still remember the visceral excitement of the sound he made on his fretted EB3. Fretless is very hard to pitch accurately and I think Jack drifts a bit occasionally – especially when he’s singing, which must be so hard. I still adore his playing, and the way he takes risks with time.

– Didn’t you feel a bit like filling his shoes whilst touring with Tony Hymas and Simon Phillips who previously were in Jack’s band?

Not really because I had already been playing with these great guys on sessions for some years – Angel Air are soon releasing “Ready Or Not”, a 1976-77 album of Ray Russell’s that we all played on. When I joined the Jeff Beck band in 1980 – with Simon and Tony – I had to fill Stanley Clarke’s shoes!

– And there’s another guy who played with Bruce… In one of the interviews, some ten years ago, you said about a possibility to record some material with Clem Clempson. Did anything materialize?

Yes, it certainly did. Clem is a great pal. The band – called SURVIVORS – included ex-SHADOWS drummer Brian Bennett and ex-SKY keyboard player Steve Gray. We all got together at Brian’s studio for a couple of weeks and wrote and recorded an album, which was finally released last year.

– By the way, Clem played on the second version of “Evita” and you took part in the first one. Was it your involvement with Mike D’Abo that led up to that session?

No, this was another word-of-mouth session connection. The basic rhythm tracks were started at Olympic Studios with Simon Phillips on drums, Ray Russell and Joe Moretti on guitars, and Brian Odgers on bass. For some reason Andrew and Tim [Rice, the librettist, – DME] wanted to experiment with the bass-lines – which is where I came in and played on about half of the album. For the single “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” the rhythm section was assembled – along with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – in Henry Wood Hall in south London. The line that I played was mostly improvised and, to my great surprise, I noticed that this line has since been transcribed and used for all later versions.

– What do you think of the new “Evita”? To me, having Gary Moore instead of Hank Marvin is OK, but Banderas is terrible!

I’m sorry, I haven’t heard it or seen it.

Mo the drummer

Mo the drummer

– How do you remember another, can we say, musical, “Butterfly Ball”?

I have very fond memories of working on this project because all of the musicians involved – especially the composer Roger Glover – were such sweet people. And they were great players, too! It was such a joy to turn up at Kingsway Studios each day to hear the music slowly unfold. A while later – along with various members of DEEP PURPLE – we re-assembled at the Albert Hall to play the music live to a rapturous audience. The concert was filmed. Unfortunately – and sadly – the director was a complete idiot who interspersed the fine concert footage with shots of bad actors – dressed in even worse animal costumes – stumbling around London. Roger was furious and walked out of the premiere. He was right.

– Among your influences you count Ronnie Lane. What was so special in Plonk’s playing?

Ronnie was wonderful – he never let his lack of musical education ruin a good line! It didn’t matter that he played that odd bum note – his playing just exuded pure enjoyment. His lines were perfect for the songs. When he was ill with MS I was asked to play at the ARMS concert alongside Jeff Beck. Sadly, I was committed elsewhere and had to turn it down. We miss his impish grin.

– Which drummer you found the most satisfying to play in a rhythm section with?

The impossible question! I have had the luxury of playing with drummers of the calibre of Simon Phillips, Chester Thompson, Jason Bonham, Peter Van Hooke, John Marshall, Phil Collins, Ian Paice, Ringo Starr, Gary Husband, Ralph Salmins and many, many more. Each player has their own idiosyncrasies – and I love them all!

– You seemed to have the complete freedom during your stint with Maggie Bell, sometimes playing a co-lead to her voice, like in “As The Years Go Passing By”. Did you have many experiences like this in your career, to be so free and enjoying the proceedings?

Prior to our tour of the UK with Maggie the band had minimal rehearsal. So the gigs had almost a ‘jazz’ feel to them in the sense that they could go in any direction. This was entertaining for both the band and the audience. In general I try to be as creative as possible with my playing – but always within the confines of the ‘song’: the ‘song’ is everything, and every musical idea has to support and be subservient to it. The musicians who gave me the most freedom were Jeff Beck and later Gil Evans.

– Was Maggie, with all her temper, easy to work with?

What temper? She is a sweetie – seriously. Although – like most of us – she cannot tolerate bullshit from anyone. That live concert at The Rainbow nearly didn’t happen: in the afternoon Maggie had an attack of nerves and lost her voice. She got it back with the aid of two large brandies and a chicken vindaloo!

– Was it you who brought “As The Years Go Passing By” to Gary Moore’s attention?

I didn’t know that Gary had recorded it.

– You played with both Peter Green and Gary Moore who was influenced by Green. Could you, please, compare working with them?

This is probably an unfair question. When I worked with Peter in 1980, he was still quite ill and wasn’t quite aware what was going on. Thankfully, he’s made a huge recovery since. Working with Gary was fascinating, especially on “Empty Rooms”. He could sustain his energy for hours. I was thrilled that he agreed to play on my solo albums, “Bel Assis”, and “Southern Reunion”. His playing was powerful, lyrical, and very inventive. Several friends have commented that he plays better on my albums than he does on his own!

– Did you ever get to play with Ringo Starr – or you just co-wrote a song “In My Car” with him?

I think I was recommended to him by percussionist Ray Cooper. It was 1982. I spent a couple of weeks at Ringo’s studio, Startling, in his house near Ascot – this used to be John Lennon’s house. Joe Walsh was playing guitar and producing, and we had Gary Brooker and Chris Stainton on keyboards. It was a fun time – except when Barbara Bach’s Alsatian got confused and bit me on the bum. The album was called “Old Wave”.

With Gil Evans

With Gil Evans

– Of all the musicians you’ve ever worked with Gil Evans’ name does stand out as a pure jazz man. How did you hook up with Gil and what did you learn from that experience?

I’d been a huge fan of Gil’s arranging since the late Fifties – early Sixties, and his collaborations with Miles Davis. Imagine my thrill when, in 1983, I got the call to be in his British touring band. The concerts were a mixture of fear and pure joy – you never knew what would happen next. I learnt to listen. In July that year Gil guested with RMS – Ray Russell, Mo Foster, Simon Phillips – at the Montreux Jazz Festival. A DVD of this amazing concert has just been released on Angel Air.

– How did you get to get involved into the French scene and play with Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg?

Where do you get these questions? As it happens I did play on a lot of French disco stuff in the Seventies, like “Supernature”, but I recorded with these two guys in studios in London. The French producers liked the British rhythm sections.

– Jazz, blues, hard rock – what style is most close to your heart?

It’s a bit of a cliche, but I like anything that is good – I don’t really have boundaries: I have played with Jeff Beck at The Greek Theatre in LA, I have played with Gil Evans at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and I have played with The London Symphony Orchestra – a Bernstein evening – at The Barbican, also in London. Each one of these gigs was joyous.

– Not especially being a hard rock player, how come you joined MICHAEL SCHENKER GROUP?

I didn’t join his group, but I did play on the album. Simon Phillips was on drums, but it was producer Roger Glover who invited me. 1980 was an incredible year for me and guitarists – I worked with Schenker, I recorded an album for Peter Green, I worked with Trevor Rabin of YES, I did some TV dates with Hank Marvin and THE SHADOWS, I played countless sessions with Ray Russell and Phil Palmer, and to round it off, I recorded “There And Back” with Jeff Beck, followed by an incredible tour that took in the USA, Japan, and the UK. He’s the man!

– There seems to be a special bond between you and guitarist Ray Russell. When was the first time you worked together?

We’re good pals. We met thirty years ago on a gig for soul singer Jimmy Helms. I’ve worked with Ray on so many projects – albums, films, TV dates, tours. We have a great respect for each other. He’s the other man!

– At which point of your career did you feel that you could be not only a player but a producer as well?

In a sense, I’ve always been a producer. I used to record my school band, THE TRADEWINDS, on a huge home-made tape-recorder, and then spend ages editing and compiling. In later years, the act of composing merged naturally into producing, as new technology became available. The whole recording process is a passion – and on sessions I love encouraging other players to surprise themselves.

– Does dusting off the recordings by AFFINITY, Maggie Bell and so on – and those of your own – for Angel Air now bring back many memories?

Absolutely. It has been a joy – and a hoot! And it has been a genuine surprise for me to discover how many fantastic recordings I have had tucked away in my cupboard, just waiting for Angel Air to come along. There were also awful moments such as when I was going through the tapes for the “Affinity 1971-1972” album, which featured singer Vivienne McCauliffe. About five years ago Vivienne tragically died from liver failure. It was hard listening to her bubbling conversations from thirty years ago.

– Where did the idea of writing a book came from?

You are referring to “17 Watts”? I have always adored stories – especially stories of musicians, whose sense of humour is unique – and also good storytellers. And maybe it’s a British thing, but stories of ‘attempt and failure’ are intensely funny to me. In a session coffee break various players would tell stories which would often be followed by shrieks of laughter. It was the kind of moment we all looked forward to. Occasionally someone would say, “We must write this down”. Nobody ever did. But one day I was on a TV date with guitarist Vic Flick, the man who had played on the original Bond theme, and we started chatting about our early days, and the difficulty of getting hold of guitars and amplifiers, which is so easy now. This conversation sparked an idea, and I began asking other players about their early days. The answers I got were very informative and very funny. I began to write them down.

With Ray Russell

With Ray Russell

– What could make you want to get back on the road, touring?

I have toured the world several times, and each occasion was an intensely rewarding experience. I’m now older and, I hope, wiser. I think I could only tour now if it was with: one, an artist I really respected, and whose music I would enjoy playing, or, two, my own band. Also I can only play gigs that are non-smoking – partly because I’m an asthmatic and partly because it stinks. Smoking is not cool.

– In your notes, you point out some of the mistakes you did during various sessions – and I guess, many of those flaws could go unnoticed by most of the listeners – but which of your recordings are you proud of the most?

I’m very proud of many recordings, but especially my own albums – “Bel Assis”, “Southern Reunion”, “Centennial Park”, the one with Ray Russell and Simon Phillips, and "Time To Think". I remember the enormous amount of work that went into them. And with the re-mastered versions coming out on Angel Air Records it’s refreshing to discover that the music still sound fresh.

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