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10 Questions for Musician Will Gregory | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Musician Will Gregory

10 Questions for Musician Will Gregory

The Goldfrapp mainstay talks physics, Moogs, Morricone and his work with the British Paraorchestra

Will Gregory (right) working with conductor Charles Hazlewood on The Nature of Why© Paul Blakemore

Will Gregory (b.1959) is best known as one half of the alt-pop duo Goldfrapp but has a long career in music that dips into many areas. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s he was a working musician who toured with multiple bands, notably, Tears for Fears, as well as playing on sessions for albums by artists ranging from The Cure to Portishead.

He is a multi-instrumentalist valued for his saxophone and woodwind playing (from Moondog and Michael Nyman to Peter Gabriel and it’s him on Spiritualized’s Lazer Guided Melodies), but as much for his general studio and arrangement abilities.

Since 1999 Goldfrapp’s acclaimed career has produced seven albums, all of them successful (2017’s Silver Eye was their fifth to go Top 10 in the UK), and ten hit singles, including the deathless glam electro-pop stomper “Ooh La La”. Gregory, however, is a restless spirit and musical polymath and has also composed operas, film music and much more. He discusses this below as well as the appearance at the Brighton Festival on Monday 6th May of The Nature of Way, a performance piece he put together with the British Paraorchestra, conductor Charles Hazlewood and choreographer Caroline Bowditch. He gave theartsdesk an interview which, to be perfectly honest, is not so much 10 Questions With… as a fascinating chat.

THOMAS H GREEN: What are you up to?

WILL GREGORY: Just having a bit of a potter round today. I’ve just finished working on an natural history programme that took a long time so I’m feeling a bit like I’ve been demobbed.

What is The Nature of Why?

Charles [Hazlewood] has this vision both of the Paraorchestra and for the idea of including the audience in the performance space in a more interactive way. Quite a lot of his projects have this in common. They have the audience dotted around the space where the performance is happening then they can perambulate around. He did a version of a Steve Reich composition [The Four Sections] where it was spread over three floors in Colston Hall in Bristol. The audience walked up and down the stairs while the whole thing was on a click track. It all came together, a very different way of experiencing music. When we came to work on The Nature of Why it became clear that was how we were going to do it. It’s a revolutionary way of seeing music and dance because you’re almost part of the performance. Some of the musicians are not sighted, some are in wheelchairs, so to be in that space with them, having them move around, it includes you in a feeling that, well, I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s inclusive.

So it’s breaking down the walls of theatre?

Yes, it all sounds jolly good in theory but some people may think, “We don’t want to join in, we’re the audience, we’ve paid to sit here and be entertained.” But it really does something quite special. Being able to move means you hear the music differently because you can almost select how you mix it by who you stand next. Then, of course, performers stand next to you and that decision is made for you. If something is going on that you’re interested in, you can walk over and check it out, or you might also be moved by one of the dancers. It’s also great the performers are not behind music stands; that’s another barrier that goes down when you’re doing something everyone learns by heart. There are four dancers moving round; Caroline [Bowditch] choreographed it so the musicians are moving as well, so it has a much more dynamic feel. Some audience members want to stand on the sidelines but we found, generally, by the end, everyone is dancing.

I’m an old raver and that’s a very rave idea. Unlike punk which, at least eventually, created a new set of rock stars, rave had faceless musicians and DJs with the audience being the experience.

Yes, you’re right, it feels modern in that way. There’s definitely something about the stuffiness of conventional performance that’s been superseded.

It’s sort of the antithesis of the usual classical concert hall performance, isn’t it?

It makes me not want to perform in any other way, actually. It feels like anything else I’m thinking of working on, the first thing I want to sort out is where we put the audience in relation to the performance, so we don’t have this barrier anymore.

But with a rock or pop concert, such as you might do with Goldfrapp, it wouldn’t really work, would it?

Pop music and rock isn’t really set up for this. There’s always this icon side to it in rock where the musicians are on a pedestal. Much as they might want to mingle it wouldn’t necessarily work.

The Nature of Why is inspired by the US physicist Richard Feynman; how does that work?

It’s a bit spurious, really, but I’ve been a fan of Feynman since reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman [by Feynman & Ralph Leighton] about his life. He was this eccentric oddball genius physicist who was such a character. He broke into the safe that held the nuclear codes and plopped it on their desk because he thought they should know they hadn’t set their safe properly. I found a lovely interview he’d done for the BBC where they asked him off-the-cuff questions. I feel a bit sorry for the interviewer. He asks, “What is magnetism?” and suddenly the full force of Feynman’s intellect is brought to bear on him at high velocity. There’s just a wonderful series of expostulations and I thought it would be nice to intersperse the music with these Feynman interludes. He’s speaking in his Bronx brogue, exploring why it is he can’t properly explain magnetism to this man in a couple of sentences as it’s a lifetime’s study. I like that idea. There’s so much of what people regard as learned, informed scientific enquiry that’s not available to people because it’s too difficult or complicated. Some people then think it doesn’t matter or we should just ignore it. I suppose the extreme case is Trump who won’t listen to scientists because he’s fed up with experts. Feynman really makes the effort to explain what magnetism is but also presents the problem of not being able to understand something because you’re not versed in the question you’re asking. That exploration is a deep one. Part of the human condition is about what you can understand and what the limits are of understanding. I thought it was a nice foil to try to explore that idea in music.

Do you find it difficult to explain your music? Almost every musician I’ve interviewed dislikes their music being defined, categorized, put into words…

Yes, that famous Frank Zappa quote about dancing about architecture is always in one’s mind. In this case, we’ve got dance and music and speech. In a way, the three things are not parallel but at right angles to each other, yet between the three of them they build expression and emotion that’s not capable of being articulated by any of them on their own. I’m a great fan of juxtaposition. The brain creates links because that’s what brains like to do; part of the mind wants to make a connection and that’s what we’re exploring.

Your career is a case of massive juxtaposition. You seem to have fingers in many, many pies.

I’ve been lucky, given opportunities to explore things. Everyone is more like this than we think. We’re all asked to specialise in ways that are possibly a bit unnatural to us. The whole thing of marketing is it wants everybody to be defined. Actually, if they went through people’s record collections the marketeers would probably have a heart attack when they saw how diverse people’s taste is. I think that’s true of me but also true of many other people, particularly now we can access all these different musics at the touch of a button. Do you agree?

Speaking as a journalist who also promotes events, unfortunately it’s hard to draw people to an idea if it can’t be summed up in a very few words; in a headline.

That’s true. It can definitely turn an audience off if you put on outfit they weren’t expecting, if they come to see one thing and get another.

And yet with you it’s almost as if people expect the unexpected.

Yes, I think hopefully you earn a bit of trust, that what you do is going to be at least interesting even if it is unexpected. Those are the people I want to talk to, the ones who want something unexpected, out of their comfort zone, something that’s going to surprise them into liking something they didn’t know that they did.

But there must be part of you that also likes to have set tasks, a set agenda, like when you toured playing with bands such as Tears For Fears, then the weight of expectation is off you and you can relax and just get on with doing a job.

That’s true, the grey areas when trying to create, the doubt and head scratching, putting a blindfold on and taking steps into the unknown: it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted and not for people who want that discipline. Touring with other people like Tears For Fears you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to do every day because you’re told. I remember coming back off tour and feeling years younger, all the lines under my eyes had disappeared with that sense of responsibility taken away. At the same time, that’s not what life should be for me. I don’t want to be a foot soldier in someone else’s army all the time. It’s useful to do a bit of it because you learn some things you otherwise wouldn’t ever be exposed to.

What are the Army of Generals who feature in The Nature of Why?

Another of Charles’s exploits is trying to get young musicians together to do projects that are a bit more interesting and outside the mainstream. He collected a bunch of really talented young people, in some ways not in the system in the same way that maybe their older contemporaries are, maybe more attuned to the idea of trying anything. Charles is always looking. So they’re a group of string players that he assembles for various occasions when he thinks he needs something young and vibrant

Is Charles Hazlewood a mate of yours, then?

We seem to be doing things together. I first came across him as a conductor of the BBC concert orchestra. He seemed to have a lot of choice in artistic direction and got me in. First we did an old silent film together, He Who Gets Slapped with Lon Chaney, a bit of a masterpiece but not so well known. We accompanied that with an orchestra, then later on he got me to come in and write an opera score, Piccard in Space, then various versions of Terry Riley with Adrian Utley as well as a reimagining of Tubular Bells and various other minimalist things. Over the years we’ve done quite a lot of things together so when Charles got the Paraorchestra together and was looking to commission I was on his radar. They’re all beautiful players, amazing musicians who have struggled because of disability to become the mainstream performers they would otherwise have been.

What else have you got on?

The Moogs [The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble] are really going this year. There’s the first album with Mercury, part of Decca, just signed a deal with them. I’m really excited to focus all my energy into making a Moog record that we can then perform live as well. Then there’s a bit of theatre music at the RSC and the Moogs have got a Prom with the BBC Concert Orchestra, for a segment on the 26th July.

What was the last album you listened to all the way through?

I listen to film scores quite a lot, always listening to Morricone. There’s a wonderful score he did for Fear Over the City. The film isn’t familiar but the score is one those that’s became more important than the film. There’s a brilliant bit of harmonica in it. I’m always going back to my favourites and recharging my batteries. I like Nino Rota too.

Did you ever see Morricone play live?

I saw him about seven years ago at the Hammersmith Odeon with an orchestra. It was absolutely amazing, firstly to amp the orchestra and it sound so good; I was very skeptical but it sounded great. And, of course, he’s got all the guys who played originally, the cor anglais player from The Mission, the  trumpet player from Once Upon a Time in America… incredible.

When was the last time you had a really good dance?

[laughs] Oh, I don’t know. I’ve got to be careful, I’ve got a son now and can’t let him know that’s going on! Probably about 10 years ago in a club in Chicago. I seemed to get in the right mood. It was house music, very good. It was a famous club but I can’t recall the name, one of those things where you follow someone else there then, before you know it, they’re saying, “Time to go,” but I’m going, ‘Just one more! Just one more!”

Below: Watch a trailer for the British Paraorchestra's The Nature of Why

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