Guy Evans, best known as drummer with progressive rock legends Van der Graaf Generator, grew up around jazz in Birmingham, where his mother sang Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee classics and his father was a bandleader. One windswept north London day back in March, he talked to ‘Jazz For Modernists’ about growing up in Brum, his role as a musical events organizer in mid-sixties Coventry, drumming in a late line-up of NUTsMag faves The Misunderstood and, above all, the influence of jazz on his musical development and the underground scene in London in the 1960s. Today, Guy continues to be engaged in a multitude of musical collaborations such as the performance collective Echo City, in addition to being an integral part of the current three-piece VDGG.
01: Your father (Joe Evans) was a saxophonist and bandleader in Birmingham. What were your first musical memories or influences?
GUY EVANS – Oh, well, that was it, and it was my mother as well, my mother was a singer… we actually lived in a flat opposite the large pub/dinner-and-dance place where my dad’s band (Joe Evans Orchestra) had a residency. Our place was pretty much the dressing room on a Saturday night… everybody ironing their tuxes…on a summer’s evening, I’d leave my bedroom window open and I could look straight over into the pub and see the band and hear them, see my Mum and Dad play.
02: A major influence on you was Bill Harris, a local trumpeter…
GE: Were there a god, Bill Harris (not of Woody Herman’s Herd) would be my godfather… he was a kind of flatmate of my parents and a very fine trumpet player… unlike my Dad, he was interested in modern jazz which a lot of big-band musicians regarded as rather alien when it first happened and he used to turn up with white label copies of the latest Charlie Parker or Miles Davis recordings. I just thought it was music from Mars… and that’s where I think it got into my DNA.
03: Was modern jazz in any way rebellious if your family was mostly playing pre-bebop swing?
GE: It wasn’t really rebellious; it was just that my dad found it all a bit too much really. I was very intrigued by it, wowed by the virtuosity, but it was just the adventure of it. One of the first musicians I really got hooked on was Miles Davis. I remember that one of the first things that struck me about Miles Davis was that I could hear the mistakes. I was thinking ‘this is music that has got mistakes in it’ or in which mistakes aren’t really mistakes, but part of the vocabulary or a different avenue, different direction to go in… I remember being very blown away by Birth of the Cool.
04: That was released in 1957, so you must have been very young.
GE: I was ten. Before that I’d heard things that were hugely influential. My dad took me to see the Count Basie Band when I must have been about six or seven and I was just completely blown away by them. I’d never seen anything like it. I’d heard big-band music obviously, but nothing of that power, that kind of elasticity, I suppose. And the drumming, of course, was absolutely wonderful!
05: So, were the drums your first instrument?
GE: I started off playing soprano saxophone and recorder, funnily enough, but I used to go along to my dad’s big-band rehearsals and sound checks on a Saturday. I used to sneak up onto the drum kit and start fiddling around in spare moments… a few of the more waggish members of the band would start playing, so we’d have these little kind of free jazz interludes and I just loved the control when everybody started doing what I was dictating.
06: You were a big fan of Mingus. Were his records easy to get hold of?
GE: Relatively. There was a fantastic record shop in Birmingham that, to my delight, I found is still going, called the Diskery. It’s a specialist record shop, a collectors’ record shop, and now it’s all sorts of genres but then it was very much jazz and blues place and I used to just dive in there and get stuff.
07: Were you part of Birmingham’s Mod/R &B scene? Venues like Whiskey-a-Go-Go, El Sombrero coffee bar, the Kardomah Cafe?
GE: El Sombrero coffee bar I went to a couple of times, yes. In Digbeth, I think. I don’t remember who I saw there…The Kardomah Cafe was never a venue as far as I know, but it was a haunt of mine… I used to pass through the centre of Birmingham on my way to school, and that was a bit of a gathering place for the sort of hipsters from my school. There was another place, more esoteric… a little cafe called The Stage Door, behind the old Alexandra Theatre, I think. It’s gone now… that was very beatnik; one had to have one’s black roll neck sweater and gaulloises. [In terms of mod], I think that maybe I was unaware of what was happening. I was leading quite a strange life really and kind of picking my own tribe, or being my own tribe or whatever.
Beatnik haunt: The Stage Door Cafe, Birmingham, Go here!
08: In 1965, you went to study sociology and economics at Warwick University in Coventry… ’65-’68 must have been a wonderful time to be a student?
GE: Well it was staggering: I didn’t get much work done. I went in the founding year of the university and they were just about the most hip places to go to. I was one of 400 students who went there in the first year. As my late old mate Mal Peet said, the main distractions were mini-skirts and psychedelia. But there was also music and we had this fantastically generous entertainments budget and I became very involved in how it was spent. We had a great venue, not far from the M1. Bands used to love coming to play there as it was not far, and we paid quite well and had a very good audience. We had regular gigs by the Bluesbreakers, all the classic London bands like Steampacket, Shotgun Express, Graham Bond, everybody came and played loads of times; we had Cream, I think, on their second gig for 105 quid and I managed to get (through some personal connections) the Spencer Davis Group. As luck would have it, that gig was the week they topped the charts with Keep on Running.
09: You were in a group called The New Economic Model. How did that come about?
GE: That was a bit of hustling really. People wanted to have a whole evening of music and we were spending quite a lot of effort and money on support bands. Then there were just a bunch of us who were quite into playing music. We got into a little kind of jamming scene, put together a few tunes and we finally persuaded the university that we should be the support band. We were a kind of Soul/R&B covers band, they equipped us a bit and we put together the classic line-up: two singers, guitar, bass, drums, organ, sax and did many a gig. It meant that I was playing in a band on the same bill as all sorts of great people, learning from them. Then came the great dream moment when Victor Brox’s Blues Train came to play and the drummer didn’t turn up because he’d broken down somewhere. So I volunteered to play and we had a little dressing room rehearsal and I did the whole set with them which was a real blast for me.
10: Did you keep in touch with a lot of these musicians?
GE: Yes, Victor, particularly (I haven’t seen him for years now) because when I came down to London he was playing with Aynsley Dunbar. Aynsley’s two roadies lived in the flat above me and we became really good mates. I used to go and see Aynsley’s gigs all the time because I thought he was a great drummer.
11: Do you remember a band from Coventry called The Sorrows?
GE: Yes, I do. I don’t remember seeing them. I remember my cousin talking about seeing them, but I don’t think I saw them myself.
12: Peter Hammill (VDGG singer/songwriter) cites The Beatles’ Revolver, particularly ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ as a milestone. Do you recall Revolver [August 1966] having an influence on changing musical styles of bands coming to Coventry?
GE: I don’t know about bands coming to Coventry, because they were still very much the British blues boom…I think that remained quite a solid core of a particular style that I really loved. There were quite sudden moves into psychedelia, I suppose… Zoot Money suddenly became Dantalion’s Chariot and it all became quite psychedelic. One of the earliest bands we had at Warwick was The Move and that was interesting because, apart from looking really sharp, they were an extremely good band. They were quite hard-edged and loud and blowing up televisions and that kind of stuff. And then the next thing that came to Warwick that, live, was anything like a shift, was The Incredible String Band…and then it was Pink Floyd.
13: Was New Economic Model a jazzy R&B band in the Brian Auger/Graham Bond style?
GE: Yes it was, because the big thing that had come into popular taste or reasonably soft popular taste was Soul/R&B. We had the soul revue coming over. People were suddenly picking up on all this stuff. So they liked to dance to Eddie Floyd and Sam & Dave etc. There is a fabulous discipline in it (Stax, Motown) and, also, it is fairly forgiving of limited ability as long as you do the right thing. That was nice, to be able to discover that energy of an ensemble doing some relatively simple things, but doing them with some energy and feel.
14: So, were you able to keep your jazz drumming going, as opposed to having to completely change style?
GE: Yes. I’d say, with my jazz drumming, I always feel a bit bogus with that. I really love playing it with people who are very forgiving of me, but I don’t really claim to be a jazz drummer. It’s more something that’s in my blood as an influence than something I’ve ever really sat down and studied… I have a semi-frustrated, semi-in-awe relationship with jazz really. I’m in awe of the playing ability and the knowledge and the dedication; but I also get frustrated by the sort of familiarity of the territory now, sometimes. I thought it was incredibly rich the first time I saw Roland Kirk, Albert Ayler, Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp, and, of course, John McLaughlin, all those people. I was aware that I was seeing something real fantastic, something new, something that I was not even bothered whether it was jazz or not!
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