INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Prog FEBRUARY 2014 - by Mike Barnes
Q&A: BJ COLE
Forty years of pushing the boundaries of what his instrument can do means the pedal steel guitar maestro is now one of the most creative and in-demand players in the world. Progressive in the truest sense of the word, he tells us that it's all about blowing people's assumptions...
For four decades, BJ Cole has been the most sought-after pedal steel guitarist in the UK. He's played in every conceivable musical genre, from pop to prog and ambient to free improvisation, including sessions with Bjork, Scott Walker, Kevin Ayers, David Gilmour, REM, Mike Oldfield and The Orb. He was in the UK postpsychedelic country band Cochise from 1970 to 1972 and has made a number of solo albums, including The Hovering Dog (1973), which was reissued with extra tracks late last year.
Cole delights in taking the pedal steel way beyond the repertoire of country and Hawaiian music, with which it's most readily associated. "If people have an assumption about the instrument, I want to blow it," he says. "I want them to hear the instrument in a pure way and to hear what it is in a pedal steel that excites me."
What initially drew you to the pedal steel?
I played guitar for two or three years, inspired by Hank Marvin. Then I heard Santo & Johnny. They'd had an instrumental hit in 1959 in the US called Sleepwalk. And when I heard it in 1962-63, I thought, 'Oh, that's where Hank Marvin got it from.' It's played on a lap steel and it's got a lyrical quality that he had copped for his instrumentals. I thought, 'I'm going to go learn this thing.' I see pedal steel as being an improvement on electric guitar!
Like many groups of the early '70s, Cochise were difficult to categorise in that they weren't really prog but fitted into that milieu.
Only the first Cochise album is country rock. The stuff that works is more heavy rock. Mick Grabham was in love with country guitar but didn't really know how to write country songs. Mick went on to Procol Harum and Rick Wills on to Foreigner. It was only Willie Wilson who worked with Quiver, who were soft rock. But nobody really thought in terms of genres, and it was a badge of pride then that it didn't fit. We did loads of gigs with Hawkwind as we were both on United Artists.
Your debut solo album, reissued as The New Hovering Dog, is imbued with the 'anything's possible' feel of the early '70s.
I was deeply into poetry and mysticism and that led to me building up a lot of material that wouldn't work with Cochise. I had a slightly cavalier attitude - how do we mess with people's minds and their expectations? You get these lovely baroque pieces, which I'm really happy with, followed by a country number by John Hartford, who had written Gentle On My Mind, done in a completely off-the-wall way, followed by a steel guitar piece with percussion, and a piece of deep electronica. Everyone said it was 'eclectic', but that can be dismissive if it doesn't work. Rhythmically, Captain Beefheart was in there and I was influenced by Love - Forever Changes is my favourite album of the '60s.
Then session work largely took over. Any regrets about that?
If there's anything that gives me regret about not pursuing more of an artistic career, it's looking at Brian Eno's career. Not that I would compare myself with him, but when I look at The Hovering Dog, it's not a million miles away from the early stuff of Brian Eno. And in the '80s he made all those fantastic ambient albums, which inspired my next solo effort, Transparent Music, in 1989.
I'd heard that record pretty much after it came out and the inclusion of Daniel Lanois' pedal steel made it more resonant for me. They gave me a chart with his part written out - you put chords underneath and a top line and leave it to the player, largely. It's a very touching and meaningful thing to be asked to do.
What about your playing on David Gilmour's On An Island?
That wasn't really a session. I went down to his house and we did loads of playing together. That was years before the album even came out. He'd asked me to go and play at the funeral service for Rick Wright. I'd known him since the early '70s, with Willie Wilson and Rick Wills. I've got a whole bunch of stuff that we did together.
And into electronica with The Orb?
Alex Paterson rang me up and pretty much asked me to supply him with licks, which he would then take away and make into a track. I really enjoyed working with them - they made it into something quite over the top. The track was Montagne d'Or on Orbus Terrarum. It was also a great experience to work with [techno/drum and bass experimenter] Luke Vibert. He's one of the greatest musicians I've ever worked with. That record we made, Stop The Panic, I'm totally happy with because he made me play out of my skin.
Are there any sessions that particularly stick in the mind?
The session for Harold Budd's album By The Dawn's Early Light. They flew me to New Orleans and put me in Daniel Lanois' studio. We were there for a week working with Harold and Bill Nelson, and a harp player and a viola player. He was fantastic to work with; magical. Working with Scott Walker was always a joy. He's the man with the voice that inspired everybody else. "Can you play Hawaiian but not like Hawaiian the cliche?" was about the best instruction that I can remember from him.
How about current projects?
I've recorded with the Norwegian trio 1982 and will be doing some more gigs with them. I'm also doing gigs with Emily Burridge, the cellist. We perform French Impressionist music, among other things, like Debussy, Satie and Ravel.
Musically, you occupy a unique position.
Yes, pedal steel is an instrument that only has a narrow band of musical styles in which it's acceptable and once you're beyond that, you're in experimental land. So I've been very lucky in making a living out of being an experimental musician. I've managed to get away with it.