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Friday, Sept. 21, 2007
Still rising like a phoenix
Special to The Japan Times
S teve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy, former old-school hippies turned cybertechno pioneers with their band System 7, have a career that puts most of their contemporaries to shame. And, unlike Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, after three decades of making music, they still love each other, still challenge themselves, and still have an audience whose median age is about half theirs.
Hillage made a name for himself with the cult U.K. space-rock band Gong in the 1970s, while Giraudy had a stint as an actress — appearing in the hippie flick "The Valley" (1972), which Pink Floyd-scored — before turning to keyboards and synths. The two hooked up in the mid-'70s when Hillage was making a number of trippy progressive-rock albums, of which his floating, beatless "Rainbow Dome Musick" from 1979 is considered a classic, must-have ambient album.
Encouraged by The Orb's Alex Patterson — who often spun "Rainbow Dome" in his DJ sets — Hillage and Giraudy re-invented themselves in the early '90s as System 7, a modern electronic act that moved seamlessly through genres, touching upon ambient house, techno, trance, drum 'n' bass, and more. Though they moved into the realm of programmed beats and sequenced synths, System 7 never lost the human touch, with Giraudy's glissando keyboards and Hillage's percussive, echoing guitar phrases remaining a constant in the mix.
"We are probably the 'live-est' live act on the whole techno circuit at the moment," Hillage tells the Japan Times over cappuccino at a noisy Shinagawa cafe. "A lot of what you hear is coming from our fingers."
He and Giraudy are worried, because their gig at the outdoor Mother festival in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, is slated for midafternoon on a 36 C day in August. Still, it will be better than their gig at Glastonbury a few years back when rain flooded the dance tent; a septic tanker truck, used to suck up the porta-potty contents, was brought to vacuum up the water. Unfortunately, the driver pressed the "blow" switch. "We were about a mile away," says Giraudy, "but we got woken up by the smell of it!"
Such is life when you are a constantly touring band, and that's certainly what System 7 is, albeit with some time set aside for recording. Hillage also works as a producer for Rai (North-African pop) artists such as Khaled and Rachid Taha — check out his influence on the stripped-down, punk-blues feel of Taha and Hillage's track "Mon Amour." System 7 are set to come to Japan in October for the third time this year — and their 15th since a 1994 gig at Tokyo's now defunct On Air East with Orbital — on a tour to promote a new album, "Phoenix," based on the "Hinotori" manga by Astro Boy creator Tezuka Osamu. They were turned onto Osamu's stories by his daughter Rumiko, the head of Tokyo indie label Musica Robita, who thought the band could interpret them.
"She suggested initially that we do one or two tracks," says Hillage. "But when we read them, they blew our mind completely. We thought, wow, there are so many ideas here, we could make a whole album inspired by it."
The band compiled scrapbooks of iconic panels from each book, immersing themselves in the images while recording — a "very intuitive" process, according to Hillage. Giraudy was inspired by the books' expressionist imagery — "like (film directors) Sergei Eisenstein, or Fritz Lang" — while also noting how "the story goes from past to present to future — and suddenly there's a panel of Osamu trying to write the story! It's really avant-garde."
Hillage says that "the Phoenix story appears in many cultures — it goes back to ancient Greece and Egypt, the bird that is reborn from the ashes. But as you know, the Christian culture of Europe doesn't accept the idea of reincarnation on this Earth, while in Asian religious culture, it's an essential component."
It's an apt metaphor for System 7, who rose from the ashes of prog-rock reincarnated as a raver's godsend. Aside from their personal rise and fall, musically they're a good choice to interpret the "Hinotori"; no one does cosmic bird song on a guitar like Hillage, and the new album is full of it, along with rhythms that make you feel like you've been shot out of a cannon. For a journey through musical space, outer or inner, you just can't beat System 7.
System 7 play in Nagoya at Radix on Oct. 13 (www.radix.to); Nagisa Music Festival in Odaiba, Tokyo on Oct. 13-14 (www.nagisamusicfestival.jp); at Triangle in Osaka on Oct. 20 (www.triangle-osaka.jp); and Liquid Room in Ebisu, Tokyo on Oct. 21 (www.wakyo.jp). For more information call (0422) 49-9008.