ALLAN MOSTERT QUINTESSENCE Q&A
One of the great wonders of Quintessence was the high quality of musicianship the band produced. Key to this was the impact of Allan Mostert, one of the UK’s most underrated lead guitarists, who was only 16 when he joined the band but played like he was born with a lead guitar in his hands. I believe that Allan should be up there with the guitar greats of the 60s such as Clapton and Peter Green, he really is that good.
Allan had a guitar technique which mellowed as he gained experience in the band to include passages of exquisite subtlety. Check out the live sequence on the “Self” album to hear what Allan could do with the lead as the band stretches out into a long, Dead-like jam. Quintessence time also allowed him to study and practice the disciplines of Indian classical music and on one Quintessence tour, Allan would play a short set on the sitar with his friend Ned accompanying on the tablas before the full band came on.
Since the band broke up, Allan has carried on a very intriguing musical journey, expanding his musical repertoire to telling effect but in a number of directions. One of the big surprises of Allan’s post-Quintessence oeuvre is his vocal presence. The years have given him this smoky, expressive voice which is an unexpected delight. His guitar playing, meanwhile has continued to evolve, along with his concurrent skills as a musician in the Indian tradition. Allan has gone on to explore such diverse styles as grunge, ambient, techno, trance but somehow despite these different modes has kept his own individual style intact. Much of his music seems like Moon music.. with subtle shades and intuitions, echoes and loops, and you hear some astonishing virtuosity at times.
Prof Cornelius feels it is an honour to interview this extraordinary musician and have a chance to listen to some of his musical output. Edited highlights of interviews with Allan follow:
You seemed to spring fully formed as a musician out of nowhere, but that could not have been the case?
I'm still working on being fully formed. But when I was 11/12years old, I started to get generally interested in music. Apart from the Beatles and the overall Mersey beat thing, I listened to my older brother's jazz and R`n´B records – the likes of Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis, Modern Jazz Quartet and Barney Kessel - and would have really liked to play drums. But they were too loud and too expensive, so that desire never materialised. When I was 13 I started playing jazz and blues piano at home and also double bass in a jazz trio with school friends at school. We even played at the annual school concert, which was quite out of the ordinary at grammar school. By the way that's where I know Dave (Ned) Balen, who later played tablas with me on sitar with Quintessence. Later we used to open the Quintessence gigs with a sitar/tabla set. Ned played on some Quintessence records and gigs and also with Surya, the Indian dancer who played tamboura on “Blissful Company” and the 2nd Album, - and also after Quintessence when I played veena and he mrdangam (drums) in her group at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and for her short English tour. So, I was originally really a bass player, although I also played a bit of guitar at this time.
When did you first pick up the guitar? And did you then switch to electric from acoustic?
I learnt my first chords on the acoustic guitar when I was about 5 or 6 years old. Then I didn't touch it, until I played in the primary school “orchestra” at 10. I got seriously interested in playing guitar and music generally at the age of 13. I got my first electric guitar when I was 14, on which I played a kind of psychedelic John Lee Hooker thing.
Was your family musical at all?
Yes, my older brother Michael was already a professional musician when I was about 8 or 9, and I sometimes used to hang around when he rehearsed with his band in our London flat. This was very exciting for me at the time. The drummer would sometimes let me sit at his drumkit.
How did you become so good on the guitar.. was it records, practice?
I used to practice all the time, but I never thought I was so good – I always tried to do my best. The big breakthrough was when I started playing sitar and learning ragas. Before that my playing was a mix of blues, jazz, and whatever came to my fingers. I was definitely trying to get away from pure blues and moving in a psychedelic and progressive direction.
Did you have any guitar heroes in the beginning?
Yes, I admired John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stan Webb from Chicken Shack and Peter Green with early Fleetwood Mac - when they were still a pure blues band. I also liked the guitar players (Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner) from Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Janis Joplin and early Frank Zappa. Also the London bands such as Steamhammer, Mighty Baby and also the guitarist who played with Sam Gopal from Middle Earth. I used to listen to John Peel on Sundays, when these guys would play live sets on the radio. Fantastic music. In 1967, I got my first Ravi Shankar record, which was also a great influence.
Did you play in other groups before Quintessence?
Apart from a couple of school bands (blues, psychedelic and jazz), I played in a professional soul cover band for about 8 weeks in 1967. I was 15 at the time.
Just around the time you joined Quintessence, you had a particular style.. Wah-wah pedal to the fore, but this evolved quite quickly. Can you tell us about the equipment you had around the time you joined?
At the time I auditioned at Raja Ram's flat, which was early 1969 when I was still 16, I was lucky enough to own a 1960 Gibson 330 TDC with plastic covered P90 pickups. I played through a no-name valve amp bought at an electronic shop in the Edgeware Road. My speaker box was homemade with a Fane 15inch speaker. I didn't have a wah yet. I traded in this guitar for a bass and amp, as another guitarist appeared (he stayed for 2 weeks). During this time I played bass. As he left I could switch back to guitar. Shambhu played my bass equipment and I acquired the guitar which I played through the whole Quintessence time. This was a 1961 Gibson 345 TDC, with PAF humbucker pickups, which I still own. The amp blew out on one of the early Arts Lab gigs, and then I got a 2 x 12 50watt Marshall Bluesbreaker combo, which can be seen on early live photos, such as the Roundhouse gigs.
Quintessence tradition has it that your first two gigs - at the Roundhouse before Island signed you, were a great success. Can you remember what these were like, and what kind of stuff you played at this early stage?
I remember that Swami Ambikananda was already really involved in the band and particularly the Ashram at this time. So our material - I can't recall exactly which songs we played - was already forming itself in a defined direction, but, of course the jamming aspect of the band was in the foreground. If I'm not mistaken, the Swami actually came to these gigs. I think these were called 'Implosion at the Roundhouse', and we were one of many bands appearing. In fact this was where I met Ned Balen again as he was coming off stage and we were going on. The atmosphere within the band was very fresh and optimistic. This was summer 1969 and there were really good vibes in the air. My playing was definitely very Hendrix influenced at this time, and therefore at some point during and towards the end of the gig I would get into this feedback in front of the amp thing. In fact at the end of one of these gigs i blew out my speakers… all very wild. Shiva and Raja Ram were getting into the flute and high voice bit, which became one of the band's trademarks. As we were still playing with a small P.A. (for flute and voice), the band sound on stage was very loud, and therefore allowing me to achieve very good tube overdrive guitar sounds. There was lots of feedback (50watt Marshall at full volume). The sound must have been similar to the live recordings at St. Pancras Town Hall, as then we were using basically the same live equipment.
THE GRATEFUL DEAD
The famous Grateful Dead album "Live Dead" came out actually in early 70, though recorded in March 69. Now this seems to have had a direct influence on your style, especially as regards dynamics. So, the Jerry Garcia question; how big an influence?
I heard the Grateful Dead for the first time in 1969 as I was hanging round with Narada, who was the band's roadie at the time. This was the album 'Anthem Of The Sun' which first turned me on to the Dead. The album was made up of a series of live performances spliced together and a few studio takes in a direction like modern classical music with prepared piano etc. I particularly liked the way they would play major scales and would produce a TexMex type of feel. Everyone in England at the time was, in contrast, playing very blues orientated. I also liked the extensive jamming and improvisation, which gave a very spontaneous sound to the band. Another aspect was how they were a community and it felt like they were actually playing for the audience in order to produce a state of higher consciousness. I liked the way it felt so real and truthful. I also admired the interplay between Garcia’s guitar and Phil Lesh’s bass – who is a phenomenal player and musician. Jake was actually the big Dead fan in 1970, who brought “Live Dead” to the band. By this time I had already forgotten about them. I liked the same things about this record as mentioned above and was particularly impressed with the way Garcia and co. could play so soulfully and slowly in “Dark Star”. This was the aspect in connection with Indian music (Raga Alap) that I took over.
QUINTESSENCE NORWICH CATHEDRAL 1972
You were playing in a non-traditional band with the flute and vocals both competing for air time as it were. How did you as a band come to pace solos?
Well, obviously because of the nature of the instruments (voice,flute), Raj would tend to play the quieter more meditative solos at the beginning, also the above mentioned voice and flute thing, and as the excitement built up the loud electric and wah guitar would come in building up to a point where Shiva would enter again with chants and vocal improvisations, when the band would end up in a percussion jam with chanting, and everybody, including the audience, singing. At this point we would bring the song back in, or later on finish the gig, leaving the audience singing and screaming for more.
At one point Melody Maker wrote (12 July 1970) of the 2nd album "its main function will be to elevate the lead guitarist to hero status". You must have got a lot of adulation as the band progressed. How did you handle this?
I was really never aware of this, apart from signing a few autographs after the gigs. Offstage I never met many people, and would spend life meditating and practicing sitar and later the veena at home. Noone, not even the band, let me know about this popularity. I didn't read the write-ups in the music press at the time. So this is the first time I have ever heard this.
You seemed, too, to have softened your lead style considerably, was this a conscious choice?
There were several aspects which led to this change. At the time we recorded Live At St. Pancras and Burning Bush (on the 2nd album), I played a 100watt Marshall Super Lead amplifier through a WEM 4X12 speaker box. This amp was loud, and when turned between volume 7,5 and 10 (full), which was the normal volume and setup for all guitarists in England at the time, it produced the typical screaming rock guitar sound heard on so many records from Hendrix to Cream, Jethro Tull (Mick Abrahams) etc, etc. A bit later on I had 2 amplifiers and 2 boxes and played stereo. Sometime in 1970/71 Quintessence were doing well enough to afford themselves a P.A. system, and we could put microphones on all the instruments, e.g. drum-kit, guitars, congas etc. and finally the volume on stage could be reduced allowing the flute and the voice to be heard more clearly.The disadvantage of this for me as lead guitarist was that instead of the above amplifier setting, I could only turn my amplifier to maximum 1,5 to 2. so that was the end of the wild guitar sound. Apart from that, by this time I had gone completely off Hendrix and the standard rock guitar thing, and was concentrating more on the modal (raga) type of guitar, my typical style. This was also the Garcia influence period. I had always admired his less distorted American guitar sound. I also had a chance to get away from my preset role in the band, being able to play slow and quiet things. Perhaps the main thing is that at this time i was concentrating mainly on Indian music and started trying to bring in Veena and Sitar styles into my solos, trying to get more meditative and thoughtful.
Any favourite Quintessence tracks? (for example, if you recall it, a brilliant lead break on Dive Deep the actual track, then the work on the live gig on "Self" album, etc etc.)
Yes, I agree with you, I still like those guitar solos. Apart from those two, my personal guitar solo favourites are in chronological order: Ganga Mai, Body, Midnight Mode, Burning Bush, Sea Of Immortality, Dance For The One, Epitaph For Tomorrow, Wonders Of The Universe, and perhaps my absolute favourite solo is on Vishnu Narayan.
Allan......playing the solo in VISHNU-NARAYAN ?
What memories do you have of the various big festivals you played at?
The idea of doing festivals was really great, and we, as a band, initially looked forward to it, but inevitably we'd be faced with some acts who'd completely mess up the vibes on stage. For instance when we played at the “Hollywood” Festival (UK, June 1970), which we were obviously really looking forward to because the Grateful Dead was there, we had to go on stage directly after Black Sabbath. I don't know which promoter came up with this idea, but for us it was nearly a catastrophe to perform after these negative vibrations. I remember having a really hard time playing my guitar at this gig, and apart from us all trying our best we were rather disappointed. We stayed and watched the Dead's set in the afternoon, which was brilliant, sitting on the grass in the front row. This was an experience I will never forget… simply fantastic. Another incident was when we were booked for a festival somewhere in Germany and were waiting all day for our performance which was to be about 10 o'clock at night. Deep Purple were on just before us, and they just wouldn't stop playing, although well overtime. At about half past eleven near the end of their set, Ritchie Blackmore poured petrol over his Marshall stack and lit it. There was a huge fire on stage, police and fire brigade were called, and by the time our equipment was set up we eventually got to play only a 20 minute set before everything was stopped. This was very disappointing. So, after experiences like these, apart from the hassle of setting up equipment and having no sound-checks, we quickly went off doing festivals, and rather did our own solo concerts in halls.
And the 1971 Glastonbury Fayre? Allan at Glastonbury 1971, Ned (Tablas) on the left
Glastonbury was great, for the reason that all the bands and audience on the day we played seemed to have the same love and peace motive going. This was the height of the hippie era., and there were incredible vibrations. A rather shattering experience I had at Glastonbury was while wandering through the audience before our set, I took a look inside the so called 'bad trip tent', where they took the people who had dropped LSD and gone on bad trips. This experience strengthened the idea in me of what we were actually trying to do with our music and 'message'.
You also played at the 1970 Kralingen festival in Holland Allan at Kralingen
Kralingen was absolutely unbelievable. There were over 100,000 people there, a sea of people as far as one could see. It was totally peaceful, with smiling policemen and everyone doing their thing in complete freedom. The festival had magnificent bands like Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Stone the Crows, It's A Beautiful Day etc, etc. You could call it Europe's mini Woodstock, it was unique and unforgettable.
Can you tell us your own impressions of Swami Ambikananda?
Meeting Swami Ambikananda was the most important thing that ever happened in my life. He was like mother, father, brother and friend all in one. I still think of him everyday. He turned us on to Ramakrishna, Shirdi Sai Baba, Swami Vivekananda, Lahiri Mahasaya, the Divine Mother as well as Jesus and Cosmic Consciousness. He made us realize how the teachings of the above mentioned sages were basically all the same, how there is one God and a myriad of different aspects – and how whatever one does and whichever path one chooses, it's the intention that counts. It's not 'power', but 'Divine Love' that we should be striving for. Although outwardly Swami-ji seemed like a 'normal person', being in his presence was an indescribable 'high' experience. I remember how he would cook for us, in fact at the end of every Kirtan we would eat the food which he had prepared. He would give different people individual advice and special duties to perform. He did this for me too, but that remains private.
This was the 60s, and drugs were an inevitable part of the equation for most of the bands and their audiences. How big a part did this play in the expanded community that was Quintessence?
Although the members of the Quintessence Ashram came mainly from a hippie seeker background, drugs played no important role in the ashram, in fact Swami Ambikananda really advised us to stay away from this path.
Did you start to feel the musical zeitgeist change around you in 1971/72? And did this mean that audiences suddenly wanted something else?
Yes, I certainly did. I remember the 'glam rock' thing. It seemed like artists would sell their grandmothers in order to earn some money. Others got into a denim outfit blues, boogie and country rock thing, which I found really ok, but it was missing any kind of helpful message. I suppose the audiences started getting into alcohol and hard drugs like the performers of the time. This would explain Q's commercial difficulties then. Who wants to be told 'leave it all behind you, you've got to be free' when you've got a lifestyle like that? Our 'message' wasn't just a fashion which you change like a shirt.
The Hare Krishna movement began to grow strongly around this time in the UK, but they gave Q a lot of hassle. What are your memories of this
strange relationship - or maybe non-relationship with them?
I don't remember any direct hassle, but their attitude was very extreme and one- sided. They were always trying to convert us to their thing, talking to the band members separately in the breaks or backstage at the gigs, which was kind of disturbing. Our message, on the other hand, was very different in that we were saying God is God whatever name you call it. So, a universal concept. It was quite strange that they were playing the same venues, as these were pure rock music locations. But that was the beauty of the time, presenting all sorts of acoustic performers (Third Ear Band) and different types of bands (jazz-rock, like If and Soft Machine, and concept music like Yes and Pink Floyd). As far as I remember their stage performance was exactly what they did in the street, apart from maybe using a harmonium. On the whole I found it quite positive as it made our thing more acceptable. I remember I would walk down Portobello Road on a Saturday morning, and they would talk to me, knowing that I was a member of Quintessence, and try to convert me in extremely long conversations. It was hard to get away!I asked them why they were with that movement, and they told me that a lot of their members had very heavy backgrounds like hard drug abuse and Vietnam war veterans, so I could understand why they wanted such a strict and regulated path. Apart from that, I admired them as they told me they would do hours of meditation and chanting everyday before breakfast.
Allan’s work over the past 15 years has been rich and varied. It is a pity that this music is not widely available, because his musical vocabulary has greatly expanded. From his base in Germany, Allan has tried techno, grunge, ambient, and also carried on playing Indian classical music. The musical projects he has been involved with have all been lovingly packaged with vibrant covers designed by Allan’s wife and musical collaborator Monika. He has also tackled difficult themes of urban alienation, pollution and such like. Through it all, flashes of Allan’s guitar mastery shine through, but guitar is not the whole story. This is skilful music, in different modes and with different atmospheres. It should be commercially released and widely listened to.
BLISSTICKET (1995-1996) Allan and Moni
Brave New World
Plug in the guitars, turn up the volume, Allan’s grunge period opens with a bang. The personnel is Allan on guitars, Monika on bass and Martin Geilberger on drums. This trio kicks up an absolute storm right from the extremely heavy “Boomerang” with its sudden time change as the band launches into the fantastic chorus “Boomeraaaaaaaaaaang”. Here we get Allan’s lead at its fieriest, perhaps the direct descendant of his early work on Quintessence tracks like “St Pancras” and “Burning Bush”. The jams are well and truly kicked out throughout this album. It is extremely heavy – but it’s meant to be that way. When you then compare this to some of the less turbulent albums that follow, you realize it is quite a musical leap! None of the tracks are long, most around 4 minutes length. My favourite , I think, is the confessional, slow, “High Wire Walking”. This music must have sounded fantastic live. “Desert Moon” is another great track.. yes, there is a wah wah guitar at work in there. Allan’s vocal throughout are exactly suited to this gritty, heavy music. I wish I had the lyrics.
This is a softer version of Blissticket at work, and is I think a real masterpiece. Throughout, Allan’s skill on the guitar lights up the songs in incendiary flashes in a variety of tones and moods, but the guitar is not the whole point of the project – Allan’s vocals are a revelation, with this smoky, lived-in, voice he sounds like a Bluesman for the Ages, a really distinctive compelling vocal presence. The nearest aural equivalent to this album and the style of vocals is maybe the great JJ Cale, and it has a fantastic, earthy feel throughout. Check out for example the vibe of “Free the People” with its sing-along chant. I wish I had a lyric sheet for some of the songs just for extra clarity, but this is a naked, honest and accomplished. And the musicianship is top-notch while retaining a great “at home” kind of vibe. The message of the songs is important, as Allan muses on the injustices in the world we live in. Allan’s wife Monika provides a sturdy underpinning on the bass, tamboura and backing vocals throughout.
My favourite track is 10 minute “Ten Thousand Years” which settles into a great groove and some superlative licks. Like all great guitarists, Allan does not just go for the obvious, which is what makes his playing consistently exciting. It’s a guitar masterpiece. “One and One” shows Allan’s vocals off to great impact and is another stand-out. The intro to “Over High Mountains” features another good snippet of acoustic guitar before the song settles into a slinky groove. “Everyone needs..” has Alan rapping, and an unusual guitar (I think) solo, that sounds like a Vocoder.
Allan’s take on ethno ambient stretches over two albums with a lot of different musical moods, and allows him to marry his knowledge of Indian musical modes with some synthesized sonic landscapes. The result is quite subtly different from the standard kind of music in this genre, and “subtle” is a word that applies very well. It is intelligent music stretched through two albums with some breathtakingly beautiful passages. Sometimes in music it is what you don’t play that really helps, and the two albums are mixed well to allow plenty of breathing space and contemplative silence. Both albums are excellent, very visual and cinematic.
The 10 track album unfolds with great care and delicacy from the opening track, “Monsoon Moon”, very much in an Indian mode. This is mesmeric, subtle music and the gorgeous Rainbows in Spring is an early highlight. The 13 minute “Om Shanti Om” brings in Allen’s lead in a silvery, moonlit landscape before picking up a bluesy riff. Dreamscape travelers brings in a more techno feel , but this album has a very varied series of musical landscapes. Another beautiful, serene passage is “Cool Breeze in the Desert”. The 11 minute closing track, “Ghana Ghana” begins with that seductive droning of the tamboura, before picking up momentum into what could be a great soundtrack for a movie about traveling exotic landscapes.
Recorded at the same 1999 sessions as Monsoon Moon, the album is I think one of the very best Allan has done. Take the opening title track, which is a master-class in guitar playing and needs to be heard for its subtlety to be fully appreciated. An absolute must-listen to for any Quintessence fan. Like Monsoon Moon, the album passes through many different modes, painting almost it seems by serendipitous accident some astonishing music landscapes. But nothing I think beats “Wirikuta Healing”. That track makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I also really like the very trippy “Beat Poets”, a whirling concoction of feedback, reverse guitar, strange tonal slabs of synth washes which sounds like music from another universe altogether until it finally brings you gently back to earth with an arppegiated twirling and bird song. Great, adventurous stuff.
TRANCE, DRUM'N'BASS EXPERIMENTS (2001)
Allan explores the possibility of synthesizers in the two albums “Indian Summer” and “Tabula Rasa”. The nature of this kind music puts the emphasis on twiddling knobs rather than simple musical expertise, and I think this is for me the least successful period of Allan’s musical journey, just because I miss his guitar skills on this album. That said, the lengthy “Indian Summer” is well worth a closer listen, and what Allan decides to include or leave out is always interesting. Even in this kind of music, which has attracted most people with synthesizers, Allan has an unusual musical take on proceedings and a very sure footed grasp of dynamics. This is 140bpm kind of music, a specific musical genre, and full of energy and invention. But I don’t think this is, ultimately, where Allan’s true skill and gift lies. It is too constricting a genre for him.
INSIDE WORLD (Burning Shed album 2003)
This album IS commercially available from Burning Shed records and gives you a good show case of the complex, multi-textured music that Allan now plays. This CD is a little brief – there is just 41 minutes here, but given the many different layers involved, it feels suitably lengthy. Allan is not afraid to experiment and simply follow the musical flow, and so this is ambient with a cutting edge. It sounds very organic.. is a way that’s hard to describe but is quite deliberate. It begins with the brief “Horizon” a very coherent surge of sound, which pulls you into another world of very mixed musical landscapes as track after track explores different textures. “Economic Spheres” slowly picks up pace and direction with some good flute runs over a gentle Indian rhythmn. Flute again throughout the album, notably in the short “Greenhouse wildlife” . The highlight for me, apart from the opener is the 10 minute “Inside World”, which is a kind of deep space cosmic ambience leaping in and out of quietness before surfing a wave of a quiet drone and the distant sound of a gentle electric guitar. This album is closest in feel to “Wirikuta Healing” and “Monsoon Moon”. Galactic/vegetable ambience I reckon describes it.
http://www.burningshed.com/ here you can order your copy of INSIDE WORLD !
Allan Mostert: Shuddha Gandara Ragas (2004)
This is one of my favourite of Allan’s albums, because in four different ragas –one only 3 minutes long – you can hear some pure improvisational skill, as Allan plays while Monika accompanies him on the tamboura (the one note drone you hear in Indian music). The science of Indian music is complex, different ragas evoke different seasons and times of the day. But this, overall is very intimate, personal and spiritual music. If you believe in past lives you can only conclude that Allan brought this major skill as a Sitar and veena player over from an Indian incarnation. My only minor wish for the album is that he found a tabla player to give him the accompaniment these ragas deserve. Just fantastic.
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