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A meeting with Fury

I met guitar player and artist John Ellis last May after Judge Smith Cobden Club gig. We talked about Peter Hammill, of course, but also about Judge Smith's The Full English, The Stranglers, Peter Gabriel, new projects and life.

Q: The last Peter Hammill album you played on was The Noise, back in 1993. What have you been doing since then?
A: Well, at that time I was working with the Stranglers, so I’ve been playing with them until the year 2000, and then I had to stop because I think my body was telling me that I had to stop travelling and making loud music for a little while. Somebody phoned me up and offered me a very nice job, so I thought it would be a nice opportunity to have a holyday from music for a little while and do an interesting job. So I started working for a company, a typical internet company, ‘till it broke in the year 2001, and then I didn’t have any musical projects so I’ve just been working just like everyone else… but I’m still making music and I’ve done a lot of very interesting music with Michael Ward-Bergeman, the keyboard player. We have a lot of very interesting projects but we’re still looking for a record label… maybe they will happen, maybe not. Then Judge phoned me and asked me if I could play on Curly’s Airship and after that on The Full English…

Q: If I’m correct you also had some cds out on the Voiceprint label…
A: Yes, five albums of music written for arts exhibitions a long time ago… ambient stuff.

Q: And you are also into photography and painting…
A: Yes, sometimes I do… I used to be an illustrator, that was my training. Sometimes I do websites design, I design websites for people.

Q: What kind of stuff are you trying to release?
A: Well, I have a lot of different things. I have a lot of songs, I have a lot of instrumental music, and I have all the work I’ve been doing with Michael, so it’s three different kinds of music. But everything I’ll do from now on I think it’ll be very towards blues based music. We have a project because Michael plays gipsy music, and we’re trying to mix gipsy music with blues, which it’s very interesting, but like everything else we need money from a record label to go ahead with it.

Q: Do you have your own recording studio?
A: I used to but I had to shut that down lately. Michael has a recording equipment so we do a little bit of recording with Michael’s. You can check it out on my website, I use to update it regularly with new samples.

Q: I suppose you enjoyed playing on the The Full English…
A: Yeah, what was nice was that I had to play acoustic guitar, except for one track where I played the electric and a bit of bass. It’s always a pleasure to work with Judge as well, because, once again, he allows me to be creative: he gives me the bare bones of what to do and I can interpret myself, so he gives me a chance to express myself through someone else songs, I have a creative input as well.

Q: So you did work also on the arrangements of the songs?
A: No, not really on the arrangements but for example how to play a part. Judge might suggest an easy chords arrangement, and I’d say maybe I can give a rock ‘n roll feel here, or make it sound more folk here, and you know, some of the solos obviously I arranged them by myself… so I have an input, I have a creative input.

Q: The Full English is a very concrete album, quite like a concept. Very coherent from start to end…
A: It’s one whole thing. That was very much Judge vision, to have a very specific sound, recorded in a very specific way, and I think it works. I think it all works very well between me, Michael and Judge, it’s a very unique sound. What’s unique about it is it’s kind of old-fashioned in a way, so it touches people who like tradition, but in a very new kind of way. So I think it has a possibility of doing something in a different world music market and folk market.

Q: How did you get in touch with Peter Hammill?
A: Oh, very interesting, it was when I was working with Peter Gabriel, because they had the same management, and I was also, strangely, a big Peter Hammill fan. So I met Peter at a Peter Gabriel concert and I told him that if ever he needed a guitarist I’d be very interested in playing and then I got the call. I really enjoyed playing with Peter, same as I’ve enjoyed playing with Judge, they’re very similar. It is not the ordinary rock and roll thing.

Q: A friend of mine that was lucky enough to attend one K Group show back in 1981 told me that after the show he had a chance to speak with you and asked you what was the difference between playing with Peter Gabriel and playing with Peter Hammill. Your reply was “Playing with Peter Hammill is much more fun”. Is it correct?
A: Yes, it’s kind of more fun but it’s also more difficult in a way, because as much as I’ve enjoyed playing with Peter Gabriel, which wasn’t very long, PG show is much more a rock show, where nothing can very much go wrong. Working with someone like Peter Hammill… anything can go wrong, especially if you play as a duo and it’s really down to the spirit of the evening. So it’s very very exciting because you don’t really know what’s gonna happen next, unlike in a rock show where you know what’s gonna happen next. It’s much more challenging, and I had more fun with it… it’s very exciting, very scary, but I think it also brings out the best as a musician because you always have to respond much more to the moment, while if you just know your part and you just play the same thing every night it’s always going to work.

Q: What do you remember of the 1981 K Group tour, playing Flight, doing the Rockpalast gig…
A: Oh, well, Flight was difficult, it was a difficult number to play… I loved all that stuff, fantastic, we had a good time.

Q: I think the k Group grew up a lot during its existence… the band on The Margin seems quite a different band: the sound is different, the musical approach is different…
A: Well, you really need to ask Peter about that, because he had a real, definite way that he wanted it to sound. So what I felt about The Margin at the time was that it didn’t really catch the excitement of a K Group gig… but often live albums don’t anyway. It’s very hard to make a live album sound very exciting.

Q: How was working in the studio with the K Group?
A: It was good. Very productive, very creative. I enjoyed it very much.

Q: Did you enjoy more Enter K or Patience?
A: I think I like Patience better. It was the second one, so we knew each other a bit better really.

Q: Did you enjoy playing on The Noise album?
A: Yeah, I think it’s a fantastic album… I really like my guitar work on that actually, I played very nice guitar. I don’t often like my guitar music, so it’s nice when you do something you really like.

Q: Why have you stopped playing with Peter? Was it because you were busy with some other projects?
A: No, it was because Peter didn’t ask me to do anymore with him, really. Probably because he was working with Stuart Gordon, the violinist… but that’s really a question you should ask Peter. You know, I would be happy to work with him if I’d ask me but I didn’t get asked.

Q: I have a very “fan” question… in 1985 you played the Lisbon show with the K Group. Someone reported that night A Louse is not a Home was played. Can you confirm that?
A: Oh, I remember it was very late at night, in a big square… but I’m not sure we played that song, I can’t remember, it was a long time ago…

Q: What about the 1983 Hammill/Ellis tour supporting Marillion?
A: Oh, that was quite difficult. And the reason it was difficult was that Marillion fans couldn’t take it, they didn’t understand. A lot of Peter’s music is too difficult for progressive rock fans. You want your dose of progressive rock that night and when someone as weird as Peter Hammill comes on, especially doing a duet, like two guys on guitar trying to play songs like Accidents or The Moebious Loop… well, you say “what’s the hell is going on!??!”. They really couldn’t take it. We had some good reaction but a lot of bad reaction.

Q: On the tapes I have it seems that the first two or three songs are ok, but then it starts to get worse…
A: Yeah, I think I also The comics character Sgt.Furyhad a fight with someone, maybe in Portsmouth or somewhere else, I got to get out of stage…

Q: What about the Fury nickname?
A: Peter came up saying that everyone should have a nickname. I think he gave me that nickname because we were at a club somewhere in Germany and someone was giving Peter a very bad bad time, he’s far too polite to throw somebody out, so I did it for him. The nickname is named after a character, a comics character, called Sgt. Fury… not Nick Fury from Marvel Comics, but Sgt. Fury, it’s slightly different. It was an old English war comics; there was a Sgt. Fury, so that’s where I suppose it comes from.

Q: I don’t know if you realize you are one of the few musicians who played with Peter who were allowed to do backing vocals…
A: … and not wery well (laughs). Probably it was part of the K Group project of being a rock band, but I didn’t do that much. I did quite a bit with Stranglers actually, but I don’t sing very well. I like doing backing vocals anyway.

Q: What are your favourite musicians?
A: Well, if you have a look at my website it’s all under the influences section. Anyway it’s people like Todd Rundgren: I’m a big fan of Todd Rundgren, and I’m a big blues music fan; I love Hammill as well… As a guitar player, people like Peter Green I guess… there’s also a fantastic Swedish band I really like now, so I listen to a lot of different kind of music and all influences me.

Q: You travelled a lot in your life, what are your memories of being in so many different countries, living many different situations…
A: Well, I like travelling. Strange enough my favourite place I ever went on tour was the Falkland islands… but I also love Japan. They are all lovely places but of course it’s down to what you need, so if you go to a country and everyone treats you badly you don’t really like the country.

Q: So you did like Italy as well…
A: Strange enough, I never toured enough to Italy… I never played in Rome. So I’d love to go back to Italy someday.

(thanks to Marco Olivotto - small Cobden picture by Emilio Maestri)

The Ellis interview (Photo by Carlo Carnelli)

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