Last month we released the long out of print album “Elevator To Eden” by British duo LIVES OF ANGELS. We decided to ask the man who made the album, Gerald O’Connell some questions, here’s what he had to say:
DE: What part of England are you from? What was it like growing up there and what music did you listen to as a teenager?
GO: London. Born and bred. A suburb called Walthamstow. A fairly ordinary place, a fairly ordinary upbringing. I was born in 1951. My father enjoyed music so I grew up listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly in the fifties. We both liked the early, R&B based Rolling Stones material and then my teenage years coincided with the sixties music explosion. London was a great place to be at that time, and I went to a lot of clubs and underground gigs, watching bands like Cream, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix, Jeff Beck with Rod Stewart, King Crimson and so on, in many instances before they had even recorded. I saw Led Zeppelin several times in small clubs as they did their first few gigs, standing just a few yards from Jimmy Page and watching his guitar technique. But the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and I would have swapped it all for being in California and having the same access to Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Grateful Dead. I saw the Airplane and The Doors when they came to London in 1968 and that was a phenomenal thing, it really was.
DE: Did I recall you talking about working at Abbey Road Studios? Can you share some memories if so.
GO: No, it was CBS Studios in Whitfield Street. I got involved in quite a bit of mastering from tape to disc I worked with Arun Chakraverty who did ‘Aladdin Sane’ – probably the loudest and brightest piece of 12” 33 1/3 vinyl ever created. It was 1974. He liked my view on the EQ settings when he was working. He trusted my ear. It was a few years before I started playing with Mystery Plane. Maybe I should have stuck around at CBS, learned the trade from Arun and then moved on to sound engineering and production. Trouble was, I was studying Philosophy on an evening course at London University and you just can’t combine that with the music industry. I finished the course in 1977, and I was then free to resume my adolescence… still enjoying it!
DE: How did you decide to form the band and choose the name “Lives Of Angels”?
GO: I was in a band called Mystery Plane (check the MySpace page!) and Catherine played in it too. I had been working with Mark Harvey (who I knew from school days) since 1977. Mark was a prodigious songwriter and there wasn’t much room for my compositions, so I gradually built up a series of recordings of my own stuff as a side project – just to see if I could actually create the music that had been bouncing around in my own imagination since I was 16 or 17. After I had five or six pieces finished, it all seemed to hang together, it actually had a consistent musical identity. That encouraged me to produce more in the same vein, and the project snowballed. By 1983/4, after maybe two years of intermittent activity, I had stopped working with Mark and the opportunity arose to get some exposure for the material on an indie cassette release – so Elevator To Eden was assembled. “Lives Of Angels” was the title of a piece of music that didn’t fit on Elevator To Eden, and it seemed evocative somehow. You know, sometimes a phrase just sticks…
DE: How did you decide who would sing lead vocals and play each instrument?
Basically I did everything, and then Catherine would get roped in to help out if I couldn’t play a keyboard part or sing a vocal part. Her direct contribution was minimal, but indirectly she was a big influence, frequently pointing out when something didn’t sound right. Despite having enormous musical ability, Catherine has never been musically ambitious for herself. [OK, I just played that part of it back to Catherine before she went off to bed, and she agreed that it is a fair and honest account. Strangely, here in 2012, that exactly mirrors what would sometimes happen in 1982: before she went to bed she would listen to what I was working on, and give it the thumbs up or thumbs down. I would then work for another hour or two very much in line with her instinct on things. Thirty years and nothing has changed!]
DE: Do you remember the set up and equipment for recording your earliest songs?
GO: Elevator to Eden was recorded on and off between 1981 and 1983. It was recorded at home on Teac reel to reel 4-track machines, and mastered on a an Akai stereo 4000 DS Mk II. The setup was quite primitive. A variety of drum machines were used, all of them Roland models. The electric guitar I used was a 1962 Fender Telecaster that had had a Gibson PAF fitted at the neck early in its life. Guitar and vocals were recorded via a Fender Bandmaster valve (tube) amp with a particularly fine reverb effect. The last I saw of the amp was when I lent it to Gary Ramon of the Sun Dial. I’d like to think that you can hear it on some their records… The guitar effects used were an old Dynachord tape echo device exactly like that employed by the great Congolese guitar wizard Dr. Nico, an Electroharmonix Electric Mistress, a Vox wah-wah pedal and a small Boss distortion unit. The acoustic guitar on Ascension was a 12-string that Catherine bought me as birthday present. Soon afterwards the neck warped beyond repair, so this recording is all that survives of its excellent, deep sound. The only keyboard used was a Roland SH09. My bass guitar was a Framus, single pickup. Exactly the same as the one Bill Wyman often used – ideal for players with relatively small hands! It was a very basic setup, but there was no limit on time, so we were able to take as long as we needed to build up the sound layers and get the atmosphere right. In the end, it’s not the equipment, but what you do with it that’s important.
DE: Did the evolution of the synthesizer have an effect on your sound?
GO: Not really. Much of what people believe to be synthesizer on the recordings is actually guitar! I would put a lot of work into getting floating, textured guitar sounds and then combining them in layers to create a particular atmosphere…
DE: The guitar playing on all the songs reminds me of Krautrock and Psychedelic Rock. What was your training like and who were your influences?
GO: Well, you’ve got two out of the three guitar influences right there: Michael Rother from Neu!, Amon Duul II (‘Elevator To Eden’ comes from one of their songs – ‘Archangels Thunderbirds’. They sing ‘There is no elevator to Eden but a hole in the sky…’. Garcia, Cipollina, Kaukonen and finally the great Dr Nico, Nicolas Kasanda – you can hear his influence directly on In The Image Of Youth in particular. I first heard him in 1973 and it really changed my mind about the guitar. It took me another seven or eight years to incorporate the influence into what I was doing and to integrate it with my own musical ideas. Once it was there I had my own sound and approach and things developed naturally. Nico, to my ear, played like an angel: a pure ethereal ray of musical light.
DE: How did you create your unique “sound”?
GO: The influences in 6 and the setup in 4 answer a large part of that, but I actually had an idea in my head from a long way back about how I would like my music to sound. I just kept working away with the tape machine until I pieced it together, found something that matched what was in my head.
DE: What were some inspirations for your lyrics over the years?
Very difficult to say. I have always daydreamed a lot, occupying an abstract world of my own. I have expressed it since 1989 through art: http://www.gacoc.demon.co.uk/flux.htm
Dream fragments, phrases from all around that I might pick up and find fascinating, strange little childhood memories and mysteries.
DE: Who were your musical contemporaries at the time in England or around the world?
GO: In the 1980s? The only ones that interested me were New Order and Depeche Mode. Later I got to like The Cocteau Twins. Over time my musical tastes have become more and more eclectic : Nusrat Khan, Haider Saleem, Lata Mangeshkar, Chopin, rediscovering the avant-garde jazz that I first listened to in the 1960s…
DE: So much creative and diverse music came out of the UK in the 1980s, what do you think caused this rich and talented culture?
GO: I think it was because so much great music went on in the two previous decades. All musicians and composers stand on the shoulders of giants. The greater the giants, the taller we stand.
DE: I first heard your song “Ascension” at a club in San Francisco and the dance floor went crazy. Did you write music to make people dance?
GO: I have never thought about how people would actually use my music. I try to do original things, things that I would be surprised and delighted by if somebody else did them.
DE: Can you describe your most memorable/favorite live gig?
GO: That I played? None. Never had the right resources to create good music live, so it’s a blank.
That somebody else played? Seeing the Soft Machine as a trio in small club in 1969. Music just seem to pour out of them in a stream… Extraordinary.
DE: How do you feel about the renewed interest in your music and newer bands that look to Lives Of Angels for inspiration?
GO: I’m enormously gratified. The stuff we did in the 1980s always felt to me as though it deserved wider exposure. I tried to craft things that would stand the test of time, and have a depth of mood and feeling that would stay with people and grow in their imagination. So, if there is real interest now, I feel vindicated – a lot of work went into it. I’d always like to hear from bands who draw inspiration from what I’ve done: in my own head I’m still 19 years old and excited about creative possibilities.
DE: Lives of Angels recorded 2 albums and broke up, correct? What happened next? What have you been up to since?
We never ‘broke up’ – Catherine and I are still together! I just stopped doing music in 1989 and became an artist, creatively. In 2000 I realised that computers make things possible the were impossible for me in the 1980s, and I started to create music again. Some of it can be heard on our MySpace page:
‘Venezuela’ is a little tribute to Dr. Nico that I meant to record in 1985 and finally got around to 20 years later… Lives Of Angels just works to a longer timescale than other bands. Since 1989 I’ve worked in Telecoms, New Media, doing stuff in Australia and India… but all the time painting and drawing. Sometimes I think that creativity is like a benign mental illness, impossible to shake off. If you suffer from it you just have to do things.
“Elevator To Eden” is now available in the STORE: