S A M P L E S

Exclusive Interview with
Francis  Monkman
conducted by David Eric Shur and Eduardo Mota

When you did start to play rock music? Which group or musician was your biggest influence during your formative years?

Francis Monkman - I suppose I was 'primed' by the summer of 66. 'Revolver' had just shown that the Beatles had re-invented themselves, successfully, as 'progressive', and the scene was set with people like Spencer Davis, the Stones of course, Dylan, Yardbirds, rumours of strange and wonderful doings in San Francisco. Then Cream, and of course Hendrix, whose playing (and writing, in however 'prototype' a form) it was that tipped the balance, made me think yeah, gotta play that thing -- however much I'd dug riffs like 'Satisfaction' and "The Last Time', nothing had made me think of playing guitar, till that point.

We read that you auditioned for Genesis in 1970. Can you tell what you remember of this audition?

F.M. - Don't know what paper you read, but it seems to have a lively line in invention. The only time I met Genesis, before we were both established'acts', was at an appalling socialite haven in London. I was togged out in evening wear, and they were all togged out similarly, the hired band for the night's doings. I remember I had a few words with Gabriel, think I was pretty pissed by then, so fail to remember much of it. I do remember though, that I thought their material 'over-arranged' (though impressively so), didn't seem to me to have the freedom I was looking for in the sound.

Please describe the origin of Curved Air. Is it true that you and Darryl were first known as Sisyphus and changed the band's name into Curved Air when Sonja joined in?

F.M. - When I first met Darryl he'd teamed up with a pianist-keyboardist called Nick Simon, they were into Spirit and Spooky Tooth, I remember. So we joined the threesome that was Rob, Flo and me, with this duo, and called it 'Sisyphus', which as you know, sounds like uphill work. By the time we were engaged for a 'play with music' (that latter part by the songwriter of 'Hair', Galt McDermott) Nick had left, we'd already mooted the name 'Curved Air' (I think I'd already written 'Propositions', that had the idea of a sort of Terry Riley soundscape, with repeat echoes, in the middle of a rock number. So, pushed into action, we jumped. It was a guy who came to that show, he became our first manager, who introduced us to Sonja.

You seemed to like using the VCS3 synthesiser. Why were you particular to this type of keyboard, as opposed to the ARP or Moogs which were more popular at the time?

F.M. - I was always impressed by the fact that the VCS3 was conceived as a portable electronic music studio, not a keyboard instrument. It's true that the Arp 2600, when it emerged, was a highly desirable piece of gear, but by then I'd established a 'working relationship' (which I still enjoy). Prior to that the fact that my flatmate in 1969, Robin Thompson, was a member of 'Intermodulation', the Stockhausen-supported band, so he'd got hold of one of the very first.

Why didn't you continue with the band after the Live album? It was obvious that your fans appreciated the re-union!

F.M. - I really wasn't into going on the road at the time. You probably know that we had to do the Live album, and the tour accompanying it, because we were being sued. After that, what next? Personally, I couldn't see a future for rock right then, certainly not the kind of AOR re-invention that was going on. It was just on the edge of punk, I suppose, but that has always singularly failed to impress me, either with its quality, or its authenticity.

Most of the songwriting was split between Darryl Way and yourself. Did either of you have any control over which songs ended up on the albums? And on a related note, why was the songwriting on the first album mostly contributed by Way? Did the producer have the final decision?

F.M. - More or less everything we wrote ended up on the albums, that's just the way it worked out. People have said there was an increasing split in the writing, but a lot of that was the pressure of time (something we were totally unprepared for). Sonja put it very well once, when she said "you have the whole of your life to write the first album, and six months for the second".

Do you have any opinion about Eddie Jobson, who replaced both you and Darryl Way in the group for that one year period of time?

F.M. - Can't say I know enough of his work to have formed an opinion, not one I remember anyhow. I remember him coming up to Darryl, bold as brass, at a soundcheck saying, "I can do that" (we'd just run through 'Vivaldi'). So of course, Darryl handed him his violin, he did it, seemed an obvious candidate 'should the job ever come up'.

Which is your favourite Curved Air album and why?

F.M. - I think the first (Air Conditioning), partly because it just makes it, it seems to me, to being a 'sixties album', and that's a kind of 'personal pride'. I think it's a more coherent entity, and I look for that in an album. There are things I like on the others, of course, but they seem to be honest reflections of what we experienced as our disintegrating situation, along with the disintegrations of what had seemed like a genuine chance for global change.

Did the band exert any control over the album covers? And on a related note, was there any particular reason your first album was released as a limited picture vinyl record, one of the first of it's kind?

F.M. - That was Mark Hanau's idea (our first manager). We got accused of hype etc, but I think the music won through. No, we chose the best ideas that were presented to us, but the first was a much-vaunted 'fait accompli'. Would have been churlish not to like it, what?

Phantasmagoria's album cover features a Hobbit-like creature smoking a Hookah. Did any of the band members indulge in hallucinogenic drugs?

F.M. - What and all these holes in my shirt? Well, of course, can't say too much, but in them days it's fair to say we was too freaked out to risk fallin' apart any further. Fallin' apart and staying together at the same time, that came later...

Curved Air played concerts and shows with many groups and musicians. Which particular groups or musicians impressed you the most and which ones least impressed you, and why?

F.M. - What an interesting question, not one I've been asked before. First and foremost the most important thing, and this applies to rock and to classical music-making, is that the musicians are prepared to risk enough that something genuinely new can happen. Well, I think the most tactful thing is to allow you to apply that to the acts you've seen, heard, so on.
          I'll give you a couple of instances though, I remember when we toured with Tull in the States, and second gig I realized all those crazy gestures were exactly programmed, that sort of thing. And one night we totally blew 'Yes' off stage, someone ought to know I guess, fifteen minutes into their set the audience was leaving (I know there's some real diehard 'Yes' fans gonna get real pissed off, but, they weren't there). Next night, some kind of festival, they made sure we played right at the beginning of the evening, they went on at the end.
          Yeah, I think I'll take Sabbath shitting out the limo window, rather than that. Soft Machine (supporting Hendrix at the Albert Hall), they impressed me. Mike Gibbs orchestra, too, though a bit more jazz than rock for my tastes. Purple were good too, live, 'Smoke on the Water' just released, hard to resist that one. They get my admiration for the orchestra thing too -- wasn't that great, but by hell, man, they tried, and that counts for a lot. Must have been worth it too, otherwise it wouldn't get so heavily rubbished these days, either.

You were involved with Andy Latimer of Camel, and appear on 'The Single Factor' on just one song. Please explain why you didn't work any further with him or join the group.

F.M. - No particular reason, I don't think it was discussed. Sorry not to be more help, but I was most grateful for his assistance on 'Dweller', and pleased the way it turned out. I hope he was.

How did you become involved in a project like Sky?

F.M. - Well, you know, I just follow my nose, intuition, whatever, and I sensed the possibility of something really new, while I suppose seeming to be as innocuous as 'JW and friends' had been. When you take into account what I said earlier about staying together and falling apart at the same time, the Sky gigs were pretty awesome.

Classical music has been always present in your work as a harpsichord player. Vivaldi, Rameau, Chambonnières... Which baroque and contemporary composers do you prefer?

F.M. - Well, Bach's a long-term favourite, Beethoven more recently, but also the music of the 17th century, that I feel I've come to understand in the last few years. Its language of hidden intention and sudden change can be hard to penetrate for one brought up on the 'directionality' of Western music since about 1710, but those qualities plus the fact that it's modally, not tonally based, make it all the more relevant to the present day.

Can you describe how your solo music has evolved since the release of "Dweller on the Threshold"?

F.M. - I've been full circle since then! In fact, it wasn't until around the time I came to write 21st CB that I noticed that I'd retraced the path of my musical education, same instruments, same order, that kind of thing.

A very prominent blues influence can be noted in "21st Century Blues". Is there any particularly reason for that influence?

F.M. - Well, that's back to 66-67, Cream, Hendrix, spoke to me back then. The way I justify it, should I need to, is to say that the blues represents the 'language of dispossession'. Of what should I feel dispossessed? (Let's leave the usual rip-offs and other vulgar materialism.) Well, for sure, of the future that was looking brighter, of a good deal less unnecessary suffering for the world at large, of a voice for my generation that believed in change. If there's anyone out there like that, maybe this album's for them.

Who are the members of The Virtuous-Realiti Band that play in that album?

F.M. - Fraid there's no info to be given about the band at this time. I'm not trying to claim credit for anything I didn't do, but for the moment, that's how it's gotta be.

You are selling "21st Century Blues" directly by the Internet. How important do you find Internet for spreading progressive music, since it is almost out of main commercial circuits?

F.M. - Well, at this point I'm almost totally reliant on it, certainly it's a great outlet for someone without the conventional 'record deal'. I'm hoping for 'word of mouth', I've always believed that if music's good, people will tell their friends and so on. If I'm wrong, on either of those counts, then so be it.

What is your opinion of modern progressive rock music from the 90's? Are you aware of bands from the continent like Anglagard, After Crying, Deus ex Machina, White Willow?

F.M. - Please forgive my ignorance, I would be delighted if you'd care to put a few tracks onto tape for me (for demo purposes this bothers me not at all, them too I hope).

Although you are an excellent keyboard player, you have kept a low profile since the 70's. Why?

F.M. - If I were to list individual performances, in various fields, it would take enough to show I had not been entirely silent. I often feel like a 'well-kept secret'! How often do you hear Curved Air or Sky mentioned? And yet we all know how good they were.

What's in the future for you in terms of solo music?

F.M. - Hard to say, but obviously the guitar's a precious rediscovery. Then there's 'urdance', a piece primarily for synth, but it had an incarnation in a synth-and-orchestra version. Even got performed at the QEH, to some acclaim. I plan to rework that, maybe put 'Dweller' on CD, a whole range of possibilities has opened up.

It seems you still keep in contact with other ex-Curved Air members. Have you considered to reform the band again?

Well, you know, there was a reunion in 1990, with a couple of gigs, there's a tape of one of them somewhere. It's fair to say though, that since Flo and I (and Rob on a couple of occasions) 're-discovered' jamming, along with Mike Gore, it's fair to say we're agreed that it changed our lives sufficiently that it would be very difficult to go back to such a constrained environment, in terms of 'working practices'.

December 28, 1998