Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Very Candid Conversation with Neal Smith

While just about everyone is familiar with the name Alice Cooper, many people aren’t aware that Alice Cooper started as a group. The Alice Cooper band started in the late 1960s, with Alice Cooper as the lead singer. They first signed with Frank Zappa’s label, Straight Records, as a psychedelic act. It was not until 1971 and their third album, Love It to Death, that they became the heavy metal act that Alice Cooper is known for. From 1971 to 1974, the Alice Cooper band performed a lot of music that Alice Cooper still performs today as a solo artist—“No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “School’s Out,” and “I’m Eighteen.” In 1974, Alice disbanded the group to go solo and released Welcome to My Nightmare in 1975. Since then, Alice Cooper has remained a solo act. The group tried to carry on in 1977 without him under the name, Billion Dollar Babies. They recorded one album, Battle Axe, before they disbanded. In 2011, the Alice Cooper band, as well as Alice Cooper as a solo artist were both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realized the band was just as essential to Alice as the E Street Band was to Bruce Springsteen. In other words, the band itself was just as important as the singer was.

Neal Smith was the drummer of the Alice Cooper band. Not only did he provide great rhythms, but he was also involved in writing songs. When the group broke up, he continued in the music business for some time, but he eventually left to become a realtor. Although Neal is currently a realtor, his musical side has not left him. He has formed a group called  KillSmith  in which he plays drums, guitar, and sings. Like  the Alice Cooper band, KillSmith is heavy metal, but the band also explores many other musical styles. Neal expects KillSmith’s third album to be released in late 2014.

In this candid conversation with Neal, we discuss Alice’s early day as a Zappa-signed psychedelic act, Alice’s classic days, the Billion Dollar Babies era, Neal’s time as a realtor, getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and KillSmith. Once again, I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview. But most of all, I want to thank Neal for taking the time to not only talk to me, but to provide some of the photos I used for this interview.

Jeff Cramer: What encouraged you to pick up your sticks?

Neal Smith: I actually played trombone when I was in grade school, and my music teacher thought I was terrible. I always wanted to play the drums, so I started playing drums. I was happy about it, and my music teacher was happy about it. I'd always loved the drums, from the early rock and roll of the '50s and the '60s. I started banging on pots and pans in the kitchen with wooden spoons like a lot of people did before we could buy drums, and that's what got me going.

JC: How did you meet Alice?

NS: We all went to school together to a junior college—Glendale Community College—in Phoenix, Arizona. I was playing drums in another band called the Holy Grail in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1966 to 1967'67. Alice (or Vince, as he was known) was also in a few of my classes. Glen Buxton and Dennis Dunaway were in some of my classes. As a matter of fact, their drummer at the time, John Speer, was in a few of my classes. We became friends because we were local musicians and the only guys with long hair at the time in the school. That was how our friendship started, and that was before we ever played together.

Later, when the Holy Grail had broken up, I rekindled my friendship with them in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and they gave me a place to stay. I always tell people when I joined Alice Cooper it was called the Nazz. Not only were they some of my best friends, but they were also writing original material. That was key to me.

I was very, very impressed that we were writing music. It was conducive of the sixties. Of course, there were certain elements that will be psychedelic, but it was a lot of experimental music, and that was our attraction to each other. It was a little bit different from what the other drummer John was into.

JC: How did Frank Zappa discover you? You were on his label initially.

NS: We were friends with the GTO's, and we hung out with them at the Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip. Miss Christine who was one of the girls in the GTO's—well, they all hung out with Zappa, but Miss Christine was a babysitter. She kind of lived at their house a lot and took care of Moon Unit, who was a baby at the time. So, after we became friends with her, she told Frank about the band and that he should listen to them. She said that we had band called Alice Cooper and the lead singer's name was Alice. That kind of perked Frank's ears up, and we went over to his house and did an audition. He pretty much signed us on the spot.
 The Alice Cooper band, a 1969 psychedelic act signed by Frank Zappa

JC: When you were signed to Zappa’s record label, the first two albums, Pretties for You and Easy Action, were psychedelic music. It wasn’t until the third album, Love It to Death, that the Alice Cooper band became known as a heavy metal theatrical band.

NS: It had to do with the song writing. We were just forging some very original music for Pretties for You and Easy Action. If those albums would've caught on and sold, and were gold and platinum albums, I'm sure we would've continued in that vein. [“Apple Bush,” a tune Neal wrote during that period, can be heard here.]

That didn't happen, so our music started to change and we started writing in a different vein. You read the songwriting credits—all of us wrote on the album. We all played our instruments and everybody was creative in the songwriting effort. You know, Alice was just one of the guys in the band. Alice is a great guy, I love him, but there's a band of five people, and he was not the craziest person in the band.

JC: Were you still signed with Zappa when that whole “chicken incident” happened?

NS: Yeah.

JC: Since you were there, what really happened?

NS: We were playing the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, and we went on stage right before John Lennon. I think we did our show between the Doors and John Lennon. We did our crazy show, and at that time we released Pretties for You and Easy Action. We sold about 20,000 albums across the United States and Canada, so we were far from a successful band, but our reputation piqued their interest in watching us play. We did a big, giant outdoor arena, which holds about 20,000–30,000 people, and the Toronto Varsity stadium was a great venue for us to play.

We wanted to make an impact, and we were on, it was dark. We had a great light show. We did our crazy show, and there are still segments of my crazy drum solo on YouTube to this day [To hear Neal’s drum solo, click here]. During the end of the song we were playing, we did this big, psychedelic rave with a drum solo, and just go nuts and everything. There was a chicken on stage, and Alice threw the chicken off the stage, and whatever happened to it happened to it. I mean, we were on stage playing, so we never saw what was happening to it on the ground. But the next day, all the newspapers across the country said, “Alice Cooper bites the head off a chicken and drinks the blood.”

It was freaking great. We loved that stuff. From that day on, that kind of opened the door for us to do anything that we wanted to do because more people came to see us than not. And either people say, "That's great, what a crazy band," or they were just totally disgusted, which we were hoping for anyway. They were totally disgusted, and they wouldn't have anything to do with us.

Zappa was one of the first people who heard about it. He said it was a great story whether it was true or not—it didn’t matter. It’s just an amazing story. We’d  been in Time and Newsweek, and the reputation of the band and what we were doing was so different from anybody else. Nobody could really put their finger on it, but that one show kind of encapsulated everything that we were up to that point.

Alice Cooper as heavy metal act 

JC: You mentioned the Doors. On the album Killer, is “Desperado" really a tribute to Jim Morrison?

NS: Well, you know we knew the guys. I mean, I knew John Densmore and Robbie Krieger better than anybody, more than I did Jim Morrison, although I'd met him a couple of times.

JC: But is the song really a tribute?

NS: Alice wrote the lyrics, so we wrote the song. As you can tell throughout our albums, the band is originally from Phoenix, Arizona. There are always influences from the southwest, whether it's historically or whether it's contemporary, but those things exist as part of who we were and who we are. And, like I said, Alice wrote the lyrics to it. He may have been inspired by some of Morrison's lyrics. No matter what you do when you're creative in music, there’s always an inspiration and you kind of go with it.

So, Alice is the only one who could really answer that question. Jim Morrison's name was never mentioned when we did the song. Alice may have wanted to take on a bit of a persona with the way he presented the song, or the way he sang the song, and he was influenced by that, but we didn't sit down and say we were going make it a tribute to Jim Morrison. And some of it has a Doors’ vibe to it. I suppose someone could read that in there, but it wasn't something that we consciously thought about or talked about.

JC: Love It to Death and Killer contain straight-up heavy metal. School's Out and Billion Dollar Babies is the beginning of Alice's theatrical side. On School’s Out, your sole credit is for "Alma Mater.” It’s actually one of the most sentimental songs that Alice Cooper ever done. I think it really captures the whole feeling of being a teenager and waiting until school ended, but then you really realize you do miss it, especially if you had a good time with your friends.

NS: Yeah, we lived in Los Angeles, and we'd move to Detroit, and then we moved to Connecticut near New York. We all lived together in a mansion in Greenwich, and I was in my room with my acoustic guitar that I wrote most of my songs on.  I had idea in that chord structure, and while I was picking through the chord, I came up with a melody. Alice also came up with some of the lyrics. That was how we wrote the albums—we’d all sit down and listen to the songs. We’d work them out if everybody agreed to do the song.

I think “Alma  Mater”  adds texture to School's Out and gives it a little bit of a flavor that none of our other albums had had up to that point. [To hear the song, click here.] And I think that was one of the great things about the group Alice Cooper—we did a lot of different things. The song, "Blue Turk," is kind of jazzy, and then we had some straight rockers and some great ballads. It’s not like “Ballad of Dwight Fry"—that's a ballad. It wasn’t a cheesy girl-boy “I'm in love,” or “I fell out of love” bullshit stuff.  I mean, it's what we did. "Alma Mater" is a slow, it's a ballad, but it really fit into the context of the album. Alice tweaked a lot of the lyrics in that song, too.

I don't even remember ever really talking about it when I wrote the song originally, but it was just something that had a melancholy feel to it. That's the kind of mood I was in. I was happy it was on there and in the new Super Duper Alice Cooper movie. As a matter of fact, “Alma Mater” is playing as the credits roll at the end.

JC: That's good. In addition to songwriting, you have a lot of good drum licks, like on the “Billion Dollar Babies,” the title track itself, “Return of the Spiders” from Easy Action, and the drum solo near the end of "Halo of Flies.” [A live version of “Halo of Flies” can be heard here. Neal’s solo is at the 6.19 mark.]

NS: I never want to be a glorified metronome. I think there's a time and place to hold the beat down, and then there's a time and place to really have fun and go nuts. That band certainly gave me the opportunity to do it, but again, everybody in the band was sort of sharing in that same spirit of creativity.

When I was writing drum parts, the only people I was ever thinking about were other drummers. I really didn't give a fuck about anybody else. I'm writing my parts, and if the song sounds good and a drummer listens to it and likes what I'm doing, that's the biggest compliment I could ever have. So, I really targeted my drumming to other drummers, and over the years, I’ve been lucky. I've had people contact me and say they were inspired by the work I did. That, to me, is the biggest compliment and biggest success I ever had in my life.

JC: After Billion Dollar Babies you returned to more straight-forward rock and roll with Muscle of Love, which was going to be the last album for the group. In your opinion, why did Alice break up the group, or why did the group disband?

NS: Well, that's not my opinion; it's what happened. There’s only one story—we took a year off, so everybody could do solo albums, and Mike did an album called In My Own Way. Dennis helped me with my solo album called Platinum God, and Alice did Welcome to My Nightmare. Alice found success with Welcome to My Nightmare. After that, we all agreed to do an album tour. We'd get back together and record the ninth Alice Cooper album.

Alice just reneged on the deal—that's all it was. There’s no other story. He was the only one who kept it from happening. He just wanted to continue a solo career. And again, if Michael would have found success with his album like Peter Frampton did after he left Humble Pie, maybe Michael would have kept going.

Mike, Dennis, and I got together as Warner Brothers was screaming for another album, and we [as the group Billion Dollar Babies] put together the album Battle Axe. It wasn't called Battle Axe at the time, but we put together a group of songs and we wanted Alice to come back with us. We were going find a guitar player because Glen was having problems at the time. We all wanted to get together, but Alice went and did his second solo album, and he took his solo career from there.

I mean, we were making tons of money. Who wanted to stop doing what we were doing? But Alice had found his own success. I never agreed with it but, I was totally supportive of everything everybody did in the band. There was obviously a problem because he didn't own the name. We all owned the name “Alice Cooper.”

So, a couple of things had to be handled legally, but there were never any lawsuits or anything like that, because I, for one, didn't want be in any lawsuits with my best friends. I know other bands have done that, but we had done a lot. We had become very successful, and I wasn't about to have it all just rot in court and make a bunch of attorneys very wealthy. We broke up at the height of our career, and if a band's going to break up, it's better doing it that way than a lot of other ways.

JC: When I listen to Battle Axe, a lot of it sounds like the Alice Cooper band, only that Alice is missing on vocals. I was first taken aback when the music shifted directions near the ending, where the music sounds more like Emerson, Lake and Palmer than Alice Cooper.

NS: That was due to Bob Dolan, our keyboard player. Plus, I sort of wanted to experiment a little bit more with some other stuff—not fusion or jazz, or anything like that—and that was the direction that we went. Bob came up with some of these ideas, and I said, “That's great.” It just pushes your talent to farther limits than you've ever gone before, and that's why it was exciting for me. I thought Dennis and I as the rhythm section did a great job with those arrangements, and they were really fun to play. It would probably take me a long time to learn them if I had to learn them today.

A radio ad for the Battle Axe album

JC: The group Journey originally came from the original classic Santana lineup. The label clearly liked the music and the songwriting but realized a lead singer was needed if the band was to succeed.

NS: Right, right.

JC: And as you know, they got Steve Perry and became their own band, no longer in Santana’s shadow. Did you ever think of getting a new lead singer?

NS: No, our singer was Alice. We were still a band, but Alice wanted to go solo. Dennis can sing, Mike can sing, I can sing, and you know we did that. We had two guitar players. Mike Marconi played with us, and Bob Dolan—who was on the Billion Dollar Babies tour with the Alice Cooper band—played all the keyboards for the Battle Axe album. There was a lot of talent there, and I wasn't going to have auditions to find a lead singer.

You know, we did everything in the context of what we knew, and I was very, very happy with the album. It was a great stage show. Unfortunately, there were some management problems, and we just couldn't get the thing off the ground. So rather than beat a dead horse, we all just kind of walked away from it. It was a great record, and we had a lot of fun doing it—it was also a huge theatrical show. So, any comments that have ever been made about us not thinking in theatrics is almost ludicrous, because we put about a quarter of a million dollars into the show and had a big production. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, but we ended up with a great album anyway.

A theatrical look at Billion Dollar Babies live

.JC: What happened after Billion Dollars Babies?

NS: In the late ’70s, when Alice was on the road, Dennis and I stayed in Connecticut. I think Alice moved to Los Angeles and then he lived in Chicago for a while, and then he moved back to Phoenix, so he was doing his thing while Dennis and I were still in Connecticut. We put a band together called the Flying Tigers. We played around the East Coast for a couple of years, and it was a four-piece band. It was like the Beatles—two guitar players, bass, and drums. Dennis played bass, I played drums, and the lead singer's name was Paul, and the lead guitarist’s name was David.

We played for about three or four years, and then music started to really change in the ’80s, I had some personal issues with a divorce, and I was working with so the band, so it was time for the band to end. At that time, I had told people that if they ever needed any help with drumming I'd love to play if it was some music that I liked. The Plasmatics was one band that asked me to play with them, and I recorded their second album, Beyond the Valley of 1984, in the early eighties. Then Buck Dharma from Blue Oyster Cult did a solo album in the '80s. I wrote one of the main songs on the album called “Born to Rock,” and that was a music video that played quite frequently on MTV.  I played a couple of songs on that album.

In the mid-1980s, Alice called me and Dennis up and wanted to get together and do pre-production with Kane Roberts on a new album he was working on. It was going to be the Constrictor album, so he and Kane came to Connecticut and we worked out all the arrangements as a live band at my studio for two weeks. We knew that Alice and Kane were going to record the album with all synthesized drums and synthesized bass, but he wanted to work out the arrangements with a live band. It was great, because he had gone through some tough times in the early '80s, and if you see the movie Super Duper Alice Cooper, you'll know what I'm talking about.

So, we all got together. You have to remember that Glen, Alice, and I shared the same room on the road for about four or five years, and we lived under the same roof, so we're pretty close. It's like being brothers in college or something. You go through a lot of experiences together and that sort of thing. And sometimes, those are the only people you can really talk to. Alice kind of opened up to me on what had happened with his fights with the demons of rock and roll in the early '80s, and he straightened his life out and came back big-time in the mid-1980s, and then by 1989, he had the big hit with “Poison.” I thought that was great, and we're all still friends and everything. That kind of takes us up to the ’90s.

I actually got out of the music business. I started working in selling residential real estate in Connecticut and it totally changed my life. I'm around a whole new set of people. There were a lot of great people in the music business, but there were a lot of flaky people and I was just kind of tired of it.

JC: What made you choose to become a realtor? As you know, a realtor is such a different profession than being a drummer.

NS: Well, when the band was together, I had actually started investing in properties, and I was making money that way, too. I'm a Libra, so I have a balance between business and being creative. I've always had that desire to learn more about investing in properties,  so that was a very natural thing for me to do. I met a lot of friends that were in the real-estate business.

A friend of mine owned a real-estate company, and I got my license because I was interested in the business and the subject of real estate, residential real estate, and I thought it would be good for me to have that knowledge. The next thing I knew, my friend offered me a job in her company and that was about thirty years ago. Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been doing that mostly full time until a couple of years ago, with the Hall of Fame, and the economy slowed down a little bit. I’m still doing real estate,  but I’ve been putting a little more time into the music lately.

JC: We'll get to the music you are doing now with KillSmith. In the meantime, I want to talk about being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It wasn't just Alice—all of you were inducted?

NS: Absolutely, yeah.

JC: Describe that experience of getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

NS: It was kind of a bittersweet thing for me, because I knew that we were qualified to be inducted in the mid-1990s, twenty-five years after our first album. Our first album was in 1969, so I think we were actually eligible to be inducted in 1994. It was ironic that we were nominated eighteen years after we were eligible, and then we got inducted. Glen, our guitar player one of my best friends in the world, he had passed away by then, so that was the bittersweet part of it. But he was the heart and soul of the band, and to me the honor was really for him. He was the one who sort of got me in the band—between him and Mike Bruce—because I was pretty good buddies with them when their drummer quit.

Alice Cooper band rehearsing for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show

It was a very, very special thing, and it was great that we all got back together. We did some shows and we played, and it was an amazing night at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. It was like the old days we partied all night long. It was great. It was fantastic. And, of course, we were inducted in with a great group of musicians, so it was a fantastic night and I'll certainly never forget it.

I was hoping—and I know Dennis was too—that we would do a few more shows after that, which would have been ideal, but again it just never happened. It goes back to the same reasons from when the band took the year off. I'd love to do some shows together with the original band, but I don't think it's ever going happen unfortunately for the fans. That's the only reason I'd really care to do it—for the fans—but it was a great party, man.

JC: You did agree to appear on Alice's three tracks for Welcome 2 My Nightmare.

NS: Yeah, that was in the fall of 2010 before we were nominated for the Hall of Fame. It’s funny, because I'd been trying to get the four of us together with Bob Ezrin to do some recording for about ten years. One day, I finally got a call and Bob wanted to hear you know the music we'd been working on, and Dennis had a song called “A Runaway Train.” I had a song called, "I'll Bite Your Face Off," which was the single off the album, and then Mike Bruce had a song called "When Hell Comes Home" on the album. Not only did we play on the album, but we wrote the songs that we played on. They came out as collaborations, but the original ideas for the songs were we each put of them together.

It was great. You know, it’s always great seeing Bob, and it was great being in the studio with Alice, Dennis, and Mike—all four of us. That was fantastic. I'd still love to do that and do a whole album, too. It’s still on my bucket list. Maybe it'll happen, maybe it won’t, but at least we got to go into the studio and do the three songs together on Welcome My Nightmare. That was a great opportunity for us.

JC: So, tell me about your new project, KillSmith.

NS: With the way recording has changed through the '80s, the ’90s, and the 2000s, if you can put a pretty good, steady track down on a recording, it can be fixed almost seamlessly. You can't even tell where it was fixed if there are mistakes. So I thought, what the hell, I would try to record some stuff.

I started doing some recording with a friend of mine, Peter Catucci. He is a bass player, and lived close to where I live in Connecticut. He had a studio, so we put a band together and we did two CDs by the name of Cinematik. One was called Cinematik and the other was One Full Moon Away. It’s really lighter stuff. It was all hand percussion. I've always wanted to experiment with playing and writing a whole album of just hand percussion instruments, so it served two purposes.

I got to do that, plus Peter and I got to be really good friends. I actually started to get into the heavy metal bands of the '90s, and one of the main bands was Rammstein out of Germany, if you're familiar with them.

JC: I've heard of the name, yes.

They're just amazing, and their Mutter album is one of my favorites. To me, that's like the Sergeant Pepper of heavy metal albums. It's just an amazing record, and probably one of the only albums I still really listen to. I had some songs like them that I thought would sound great, so I put an album together in Peter's studio. I laid down the drums and the guitar, and he was the bass player, so we basically had the rhythm section right there—bass, rhythm guitar, and drums. And then we just built the songs from there. We had some keyboard players and other guitar players come in to play. I don’t play lead guitar. I don’t ever want to play lead guitar, but I play rhythm on all the songs.

KillSmith Two album cover

The first album came out in 2006, and it was called KillSmith Sexual Savior. Then, around 2011–2012, right after the Hall of Fame, I released my second Killsmith album called KillSmith Two. From KillSmith Two on YouTube, I've got a song called “Squeeze Like A Python.” [To watch the video, click here.]

JC: Yes, I saw the video and I realize the woman dancing in the video is the director.

NS: Right, yeah.

JC: That was interesting. I would have not guessed it.

She also took all of the videos. She took all the footage, so it was a lot of work, but it came out great and we’ve gotten a great response to it on YouTube.

We’ve just finished our third album, and I'm working on the new one right now called KillSmith and the Greenfire Empire. KillSmith and the Greenfire Empire is more like a concept album. Instead of being heavy metal all the way through from beginning to end with the exception of a couple of minor changes, this has a lot more texture to the music. There's even like a little bit of a New Orleans jazz blues kind of a song.

In the first two albums, I produced with a drummer and mixed with a drummer. He's great, but the newest one I mixed with a guitar player. There's a noticeable difference. Anybody who's heard the first two albums will notice a big difference in production on the third album. I'm kind of excited. I love them all, but it's a nice change for me in the brand-new one. All the music is done; I'm just working on the packaging, and hopefully by sometime in the late summer or early fall of this year, 2014, it'll be released. I actually have ballads on there. I have some of the heaviest metal songs I've ever written. I invited some female vocalists and a couple of other male vocalists that I've worked with in the past, some friends of mine to appear on the album.

I'm mixing that up with not only singing most the vocals myself, but I'm bringing in some other elements to weave a more interesting tapestry to tell a story. Every single song has something to do with the storyline, and that's something I had never tried as a solo artist before. It’s actually kind of nice because the theme's sort of there, so you always have a theme to work within and it's very different. It's fun to do.

That’s the project I'm working on, and I’m very, very excited about it. If we can find an audience and we can play some shows, that would be great. We had done some rehearsals about two years ago to take KillSmith Two out on the road, but it just didn't work out.

The fact that Alice Cooper the band has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame almost gives it some legitimacy, and I'm the kind of person who doesn’t want to be too legitimate. In my real-estate business, it's a very straight business but when it comes to music, I like to be a little bit on the other side of what's acceptable, what's the norm, and that’s my comfort zone. I think with the KillSmith stuff I'm still able to stay in my comfort zone.

JC: Is there anything else besides KillSmith?

NS:  I'm helping a friend of mine with a movie right now, and I been working on that for about a year. It's called Desolation Angels: Rise of the Boas. It's about the Russian mob in the tri-state area of New York and their Mexican cartel allies. There’s a group called the Boas, a mercenary group of a very covert organization of the government that disrupts organized crime. I play one of the main roles in the movie, and I'm also going to be writing some of the music for it as well, so I'm kind of excited about that.

The Billion Dollar Babies album was just released a few months ago in the super audio format on CD, and the whole album was remastered in super audio. It came out great, and there's been a huge buzz and response to it. So, there's been a lot of things going on.
 And, of course, there’s the new Super Duper Alice Cooper movie, which was fun to watch. I hope a lot of people and all the fans get a chance to see that.  Alice, Dennis, and I, and Shep Gordon, our manager, were in the Tribeca Film Festival for the opening of Super Duper Alice Cooper, and it was a lot of fun to be there. A lot of fans were there to see the movie and there was big party afterwards. We are lucky enough at this stage in our life that we still get a chance to get together and hang out once in a while.

Neal Smith today—2014

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Very Candid Conversation with Sonja Kristina

Progressive rock is a genre in which rock abandoned the short song and made lengthy compositions that were often more suited for classical music and jazz. In addition, the music contained some classical and jazz elements.  Progressive rock was most popular in the 70s, and some of the most popular bands were Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. One unusual band of the progressive rock era was Curved Air for two reasons. First, one of the lead instruments was a violin. Second, and not least of all, Curved Air was fronted by a woman, Sonja Kristina. It was rare for a female to be the lead singer in a progressive rock band. Sonja had also come from an unusual background in folk and musical theater. She was discovered in a London production of Hair.

During the 70s, Curved Air would have many lineup changes. The original lineup included violinist/keyboardist Darryl Way, guitarist/keyboardist Francis Monkman, and drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa. Future members would include Eddie Jobson (who would also play with Roxy Music), and Stewart Copeland (who would go on to play with The Police). Curved Air initially broke up in 1973 and then broke up for good in 1976. Yet, one person remained constant—Sonja. She was the spokesperson and sex symbol of the band. Curved Air could survive many lineup changes, but if Sonja were to leave, there would be no Curved Air. Later bands, such as Blondie and The Pretenders, would have many lineup changes, yet a strong front woman remained constant throughout, and the band could not survive without that female presence.

When Curved Air broke up, Sonja would go on to marry Stewart Copeland, who then went on to bigger things as he formed The Police. Once a front woman, she now had found herself as a rock star’s wife. In addition, she went back to theater. In the twenty-first century, she found herself reforming Curved Air. Some old members, such as drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa and guitarist Kirby Gregory, are back along with some new members. In 2014, a new Curved Air album has been released called North Star.

In this candid conversation with Sonja, we look back at Curved Air’s history in the 70s up until the present. Not only do we look at her past as a singer, but her other roles as an actress, a rock star’s wife, or a croupier at the Playboy Club. I want to thank again Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview, but most of all I want to thank Sonja.

Jeff Cramer: How did you get interested in singing?

Sonja Kristina:I’d done a couple of little solos when I was in junior school. It was a Christmas concert and I sang “The Holly and the Ivy.” It looked like there were nods of approval from the teachers and that was just one verse. Then I learned guitar. It was classical guitar, but I learned a little bit.

Then I started learning songs from the 101 American Folk Songs  book, and I learned to play the chords on the guitar. I started singing some of the songs I’d learned to people and they really liked what I did. My guitar teacher, Sister Ann, was a nun, and she got all teary, so I was obviously doing something right.

I just took lots of opportunities to sing songs to people, and I knew there were folks clubs in my local town and in the town where my school was. I also got lots of records from the record library with people like Odetta. Then in 1964, I discovered Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was a big influence on me, so I learned a lot of her songs as well.

I think it was an adrenaline rush to sing, to play the guitar, and to not forget any chords while I was singing. I’d also done quite a lot of poetry speaking at school when I was younger; in England it was called elocution lessons, so you learned to do public speaking. There were these little competitions. I’d won one competition, and I remember what it felt like to really hold the audience captive while I told the story of the poem, “We are Seven.” So words, casting a spell with words, and then casting a spell with a tune and telling stories and moving people. I began playing in lots of different folk clubs.

JC:I understand that Curved Air discovered you because you were playing a part in Hair.

SK:I wandered into my manager’s office, and I was a real hippie with bare feet, and I was out all night playing guitar at squat parties and just living a hippie bohemian sort of existence. He said, “Oh, there’s a show here that’s looking for people like you, and the advertisement said, ‘Hippies wanted, equity members only, must be good movers.’”

So I went and auditioned. We did lots and lots of auditions and recalls. Then I got into the show, and it was a fantastic experience ’cause we were working with Tom O’Horgan, the director from the La Mama Music Company in New York, and Julie Arenol, the choreographer, and Galt MacDermot were also there teaching us the songs. We spent more time working on being real on stage than actually working on the script. We learned the songs quite early on.

The show had to wait to open until theater censorship had been abolished in England. I think the day after it had been abolished, Hair opened and created a big stir in the theater world. I had a solo song; I sang a song about a Hells Angel with a white crash helmet who I’d lent $3.00. I was alone on the stage, and I went from a girl who just sang with a guitar and had a little bit of acting at school to a performer. I felt at home on the stage and uninhibited.

I think the boys who were in Curved Air were called Sisyphus originally, and they were in the pit band for another Galt MacDermot musical, Who the Murderer Was. That musical was happening when Hair was going on.  I’d been in Hair  over two years.

On January 1, 1970, I got a call from Roy, my manager, saying that this band wanted to meet me and try me out to join them. I was still in the show, and as soon as I heard their music, I felt that it was also very special, just like Hair was, as well as the acoustic folk music scene. I just felt very privileged moving into each new scene.

JC:I understand that Curved Air spent a lot of money on that picture disk—the debut album.

SK:When I joined Curved Air, they already had a publishing deal. Their manager was a photographer who’d offered to manage them, but he had some contracts in the business. He knew Lionel Conway, who was the head of Island Music, and he was impressed enough with the seeds of the songs that were developing, which weren’t really songs until I joined. So the publishing company paid our rent.

Curved Air’s first album Air Conditioning

We went into the studio and recorded our album, which Lionel Conway paid for. Then Lionel and Mark Hanau, the manager, took it to different record companies, and then we played a concert at the Roundhouse where quite a few labels came down to see us. After that, there was a bidding war, and Warner Brothers won. We were the first English band they had signed. They offered a lot of money. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was $99,000 or something like that over three years. That money went to the production company to reimburse the money they’d put into the band in the first year. It funded our tours, and after Warner released the album, it charted almost straight away. Our first big tour in big halls was supporting Black Sabbath.

JC:That must have been an interesting thing between the two unique sounds of Black Sabbath and Curved Air .

SK:Yeah, and the audience loved both, so we obviously had enough power. We were very loud; we had big Orange amps and really good amplification. Francis, our keyboard player and guitarist, and Darryl Way, the violinist, were experimenting with all the latest technology for effects and things. It was a very exciting show.

JC:We’ve talked about Hair and the folk clubs, but how did it feel now that you were the lead singer of this group Curved Air? Was there a difference?

SK:Well, it was just magical. My performance kind of evolved; the more gigs we did, I got more into bringing the songs to life, and I was getting into moving and dancing to the music. Then I started doing interviews; I was the spokesperson for the band.

We were all living together, and I didn’t want there to be any kind of barriers between me and the guys, so I was pretty much one of the boys. I wanted to be able to give them hugs, have play fights, and just be myself and get undressed or dressed for the show without having to hide away just so we could all be in one dressing room together. So, there were no boundaries; I melted whatever boundaries there would have been.

Curved Air as one

People have asked me, “What was it like? Wasn’t it terribly chauvinistic—all these men and rock music?” But it wasn’t for me ’cause I wasn’t playing the part of a girl particularly. I was just a hippie person. I didn’t wear dresses—I just wore trousers, flairs, and embroidered shirts or T-shirts in the very beginning. I just saw myself as a performer. I didn’t really sing about love at that time; it was all very mysterious kinds of stories about madness and abandonment and pain.

JC:In the second album, the band scored their first hit single “Back Street Luv.”

SK:We released “Back Street Luv” [To hear “Back Street Luv” click here.] when it first started getting played on the radio, then we did Top of The Pops. We’d already done another TV show before called Disco 2. The audience, which was mostly boys, started screaming when we came on stage, which was quite extraordinary. They were screaming like people screamed at the Beatles. When that single was in the charts, it was a novel experience.

We were also doing quite complex music in the show, as we were doing “Peace of Mind,” which Francis Monkman had written. It is a fantastic piece with lots and lots of musical changes and beautiful words that he wrote. We were also playing Darryl’s “Young Mother,” which was a very popular live number with lots of improvisation in it. On a musical level, the game was very high.

We then went to America. I think the first time we went was to promote the second album. We toured with some great bands, so we supported Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, and even BB King. We played with BB King in New Orleans in a very hot and humid barn type of stadium club. That was great; we could see all these performers and we were playing in big arenas.

JC:Was there a difference playing for more bigger people?

SK:It was very fulfilling. The music went down very well in America. They were cheering the solos that they liked, and they really seemed to appreciate music in a different way than they did in Europe. In Europe, they loved the whole thing, but the applause came at the end of the songs. In America, they cheered the solos, which was new.

JC:The third album, Phantasmagoria, was the last one that was close to the original. There were some lineup changes, but the third album’s lineup was close to the original lineup.

SK:The bass player seemed to change with every album. [Band members] Darryl [Way] and Francis [Monkman] had very different directions. Darryl was melody oriented, and apart from the classical things that Francis played, which he was very reverent about as far as popular music was concerned, it was very free form. The difference between them is that Darryl writes beautiful, simple, melodic song forms, and Francis is more eccentric and complex.

They were very moving in completely different directions musically, and as far as production was concerned, they couldn’t agree so they both each produced their own sides of Phantasmagoria. I think they had done this on the second album in that they did one side apiece. Once we’d finished Phantasmagoria, released it, and taken it out in America, they’d had enough of touring, so they decided that they were going to go off and concentrate on their own musical preferences and tastes. Darryl formed Darryl Way’s Wolf, and Francis joined the band Sky.

They did put on Phantasmagoria, one of the songs I had written in 1967 called “Melinda,” and that was nice because they were very wary of being thought of as a folk band. The very first time I met them they wanted their music to be kind of classical and rock rather than folk.

JC:I could picture “Melinda” being played in the early folk clubs. I saw a YouTube of where the camera is mostly focusing on you playing “Melinda” just with you strumming your acoustic guitar; it very rarely cuts to the other band members. [To see this video, click here.]

You continued for the next Curved Air album Air Cut, and you brought on Eddie Jobson?

SK:I wasn’t sure what to do, but the management we had then said that we should carry on with the band. They said I should get a new band together and make a new album, and then we would fulfill our obligation. We could get more advance from the record company, ’cause every time we delivered an album we got more money to put into the project. Darryl, Francis, and Florian, were okay with this, and Eddie Jobson was the natural successor to Darryl.

Air Cut album

His band, Fat Grapple, had supported Curved Air on two or three concerts in the year just before everybody split up. He was a Curved Air fan, and he played electric violin and keyboards. He showed Darryl that he could play “Vivaldi” backstage at one of the gigs. So, we chose him. We had to persuade him to leave his bunch of friends in Fat Grapple and said this was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Then we auditioned for the guitarist and the drummer.

Kirby Gregory, whose playing with us again now, was just amazing. They were all really young, just a few years younger than me at that time. Eddie was seventeen, and I think Kirby was eighteen. They were both really good performers. The drummer was much more of a straightforward drummer than Florian was, so that meant that the drumming was different.

We all got together; we wrote materials together, and I put another one of my old songs from my folk days, “Elfin Boy,” which was about my very first passionate romance with a person, who actually was a rock star or was a popular singer himself. [To hear a one-minute sample of “Elfin Boy,” click here.] Eddie wrote the equivalent of Francis’s epic pieces; he wrote “Metamorphosis” and I wrote the words, and Eddie wrote the other ones.

We went out for a year and we played in Italy and all around England, and some European dates, and it was very well received.

I then wrote some songs and we went into the studio and recorded them for a new album. Our manager said that Warner hadn’t accepted the album so therefore we wouldn’t be paid the advance and the flow of money would stop.

Then Eddie was asked to join Roxy Music. I think he’d done some sessions for them. Then Kirby wanted to form a blues band with his friend Elmer Gantry. I don’t know if in America they’d heard of Elmer Gentry’s Velvet Opera, but that was his band and they were a very successful band. So Kirby and Elmer wrote some songs and became Stretch. That left me with no band for a while.

JC:What did you do in the time when there was no band?

SK:I had a child to support, so I had to go out and find ways of earning money. I first got a job as a sort of temp. I went to an agency, and I was put in this room full of girls. We were adding up figures in big ledgers and once we’d added them up— it was a TV rental company—they were going from pounds, shillings, and pence to digital money. We had to add all these things up, and then they were putting them on the computer. I did that for a bit; it was strange, but it was a good experience.

Then I saw that you could get paid to train as a croupier at the Playboy Club, so I thought I’d give that a try. I auditioned for the Playboy Club where you had to stand on a little stage in a swimsuit or a bikini and they would assess us, and then we had to do an intelligence test because we were auditioning to be croupier bunnies as opposed to cocktail bunnies. I did that for nine months.

I learned how to cut chips and deal cards and add up to twenty-one very fast—that was another kind of experience. I’d never been with so many women since school ’cause I went to a girls’ school. We had to sort of go and see the bunny mother before we went on to the floor.  We had the ears and the tail, and we had matching Minnie Mouse shoes that went with our costumes, but we wore a little, tiny mini skirt and a little sort of bib thing to cover our cleavage so we didn’t distract the punters [gamblers in British Slang] with too much flesh. Also, it was working nights as well, so I was arriving home at 5:00 in the morning and then getting up again after lunch time.

 JC:Did you ever meet Hugh Hefner?

SK:No, but Victor Lownes was around quite a lot. He ran the Park Lane Playboy and he would pick girls and invite them out to parties, and it was considered very rude to turn him down. I was never asked, but I just know that that was the case.

Then I got offered my old job back in Hair for three months; they were doing a short run of Hair, so I said, “Great, thank you very much.” I left the Playboy Club and did a run at the Queens Theater in the West End. I did some interviews, and the journalists were asking me if I thought that the hippie thing was passé by then, and this was in 1973. I said no and thought it was just as relevant.

When that run had finished, I moved into a flat in Hampstead.  I met this lady at a party after the opening of The Rocky Horror Show and a lot of the cast crossed over from Hair to The Rocky Horror Show; they were similar kind of theatrical family. I noticed at this party that there was a kind of a cynicism about the hippie thing.

Then I heard this woman talking about cosmic this and bliss across, so I headed for her and we got to talking. I said “My marriage had broken up,” and she said, “Oh, you can come and stay with me.” So we got a cab, and on the way back I discovered that she lived in the exact same flat that Curved Air had lived in when we were all together in 1970, which was where Elaine Paige, Tim Curry, and other people had stayed before Curved Air moved in. It was just a total coincidence and that was lovely.

I always find that these things seem to be signs, ’cause there it was. Ian Copeland was living downstairs, so I got to know him, and Darryl called me up around about that time and said that he was being managed by Miles Copeland by just another coincidence. So Ian was living downstairs from me, underneath where Curved Air used to live. There were lots and lots of music business people who stayed at the house on 87 Redington Road. Hot Chocolate, Roy Harper, the band America, “Joe Jammer” from Led Zeppelin, people from Stone the Crows . . . they lived at the same flat.

Ian, who was downstairs, he booked me a tour supporting Cozy Powell and Country Joe & the Fish. I noticed that Country Joe was also very cynical about the hippie movement as well, having done Woodstock. He said that he was very disillusioned with what had happened, and everybody had become junkies and it wasn’t working. I found that very sad, but I still carried the torch inside of my spirit.

I did that tour, and then Miles put the original band back together again. We did a very successful tour of mainly universities and town halls, and there was a lot of excitement, but because of my experience in being female, and whatever sex object I was in the Playboy Club, I reinvented myself. I stayed with my friend Norma in that flat with her and her family; she was from New York and she wrote lyrics for the next two Curved Air albums with me.

Then Norma moved to Portobello Road, and I was staying there with her. We used to go to Portobello Market and buy lace dresses and beads and fringes and things, and so I put together this look that I felt was like a space gypsy—I had a jeweled G-string, so it was my impression of a fantasy futuristic kind of vamp, I suppose.

Sonja’s new look

JC:  The next two albums would  have Stewart Copeland as  the drummer.

SK:Yeah, I first met Stewart in Ian’s flat downstairs from Norma, but then he became our tour manager. He didn’t make that much of an impression on me to start off with. I was actually in a mini relationship with Ian before I met Stewart.

The magic happened when Stewart came along for a rehearsal. That was when I thought he was really, really interesting.

We got together during that tour. After that tour, Francis and Florian didn’t want to carry on again, so Darryl talked me in to staying with him and we would get a new Curved Air with the musicians he had been working with who included Stewart. There was just all this linking of Copelands, and it sort of randomly all came together in a pattern. It also went back to exactly the same spot in London where Curved Air had begun to re-begin.

Curved Air with Stewart Copeland (1st left)

JC:I noticed that the songs on the albums that Stewart was on were shorter, down to three minutes. One of the songs, “Woman On a One Night Stand,” is going for a Janis Joplin type of feel.

SK:Well, that was a song I had written after my marriage broke up. It’s about going out and being free, and having one-night stands and not finding them very satisfying. There’s a little bit of chemistry when you first meet somebody, but when you went to bed together it didn’t sustain itself that long, so you moved on. I had some fun. [To hear “Woman On a One Night Stand” click here.]

The band was writing and they came mostly from blues background. Stewart was Stewart. His own songs were very straight forward. Mick Jacques and Tony Reeves were very sort of bluesy, and Mick was a very bluesy and wonderful guitarist, a much more bluesy sound than Kirby or Francis. When they weren’t really bluesy they were more rock and wild. I think Tony Reeves came from Greenslade or went to Greenslade, but I think he had something to do with John Mayall, so this new blood that was in this new band was pulling toward a different kind of rock and blues. Even my own song.

JC:This would last for two more albums. What happened at the end of it?

SK:I wasn’t as in love with this material as I had been of the original band’s writing and the Air Cut band’s writing. It was okay. There were songs that I actually put my lyrics to and that part of it was good and worked for me. It was just that the songs seemed to be so disparate and it didn’t really seem to have a direction anymore. Darryl’s contribution on Midnight Wire was more ballad-oriented, but then on Airborne he started trying to create these Curved Air epic tracks, such as “Moonshine” and “Juno.” They were more kind of Curved Air, but they had Darryl’s lyrics.

I wasn’t crazy about singing other people’s lyrics at all except Francis’s. On the first and second album and Phantasmagoria Francis wrote some very clever lyrics that I did enjoy singing. But that was the exception. I didn’t enjoy so much Darryl’s lyrics, and the songs didn’t move me so much to perform. Yes, it was disparate but our very last song was a cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which we released as single. We did that live and it went down really well live.

We had a girl keyboard player in the last few months of gig—Alex Richman. She’s a good player, and she used to sing as well. It was strange for me to have another woman in the band. I can’t quite remember how she got involved except that we needed a keyboard player, or we experimented with having a keyboard player.

The new material wasn’t as definitive as the other Curved Air, as the best of Curved Air’s writing. Then punk was coming along and Miles decided to concentrate on punk, and our show wasn’t as cost effective. We weren’t selling as many albums as we had in the past because the way everything was changing in the music industry and the influence that was coming through.

Once again, we didn’t have our wages paid anymore. Both Stewart and I were very broke and we were living in a squat in Mayfair with Stewart’s brother Ian. We moved around to different places for the next two or three years.

JC:Around that time, Stewart would go on to The Police.

SK:Yeah, that’s right. He called Sting down from Newcastle. We’d been taken to see Last Exit, that was Sting’s band, by Phil Sutcliffe, who was a fan of Last Exit as well as Curved Air; he was a young journalist at the time.

We both really got Sting. He was very charismatic even though he was just playing in a college canteen or whatever—there wasn’t a big stage or anything. He had the voice, he had the presence, he was the only thing that was really memorable about that band. Then when Stewart wanted to form his own band he wanted a three piece; he was inspired by the Jimi Hendrix model.

He was also inspired by punk. We had free time, and we were going down to The Roxy where the very first punk bands in England were playing—people like Billy Idol and The Damned, X-ray Spex, and Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, which is one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. There were influences. The very first rehearsals and writing for The Police happened in our big, squat place. Stewart hadn’t done Klark Kent quite then.

After The Police had done a few gigs, Stewart and I moved a few more times. Then he did some recordings of his own stuff and invented this persona called Klark Kent, and this was before The Police had had any hits.

 Just before “Roxanne” broke, I was so broke that I went into a second-hand record shop to sell my albums. I noticed that they were advertising for staff, but the staff had to have a first-class honest degree or have succeeded in something, so I asked, “Well, does being a rock star count as having succeeded at something?”

It was the Record and Tape Exchange Empire, which is now really big; there are all sorts of clothing exchanges and computer exchanges in London. It was really cool working there; it was fun buying from the public and selling to the public. You really sort of found the value of things because the longer things sat on the shelf the cheaper they got. When people would come in to the shop and say “Sonja, what are you doing here?” I would say, “I’m working for a living, what do you think?” So I did that for quite a while.

JC:I saw an interview where Elvis Costello interviews The Police. I’m sure you know this, but from watching that interview, I noticed that Sting wasn’t the only strong personality in that band; Stewart was quite a lively guy.

SK:Oh yeah, and [Police guitarist] Andy [Summers] too in some ways.  

JC:You also did a self-titled solo album  in 1980?

SK:Yeah, and that’s just been re-released. It’s getting some good reviews after all this time. It seems that people really like it. At the time it came out, the record company collapsed and few people actually heard it when it came out. I re-released it a few years ago, but then the original record company, Chopper Records, wanted to put together a package of all the Chopper material now, and so we did a deal with them to put out this album again. It’s nice that people appreciate what I was doing then because at that time I was just channeling my version of Curved Air meets punk. I was working   with this band called Sonja Kristina’s Escape; that was when we were sort of developing the materials. That was the material that was on the Sonja Kristina solo album.

JC:After the solo album I know you married Stewart. What did you do during that time? You sort of laid low before we would hear these occasional reunions with Curved Air.

SK:I was having babies. I moved out to the country and took advantage of not being on the road, but money was coming in from The Police once they’d been to America, and “Roxanne” had picked up, and everything was very, very different.

Married couple Sonja Kristina and Stewart Copeland

Stewart’s money started coming in, and I didn’t have to work. That was when I started doing some fringe theater. I did another show in the West End—The French Have a Song for It—and we toured with it. It was really nice show. It was an English translation of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf songs. In that show there was an actress, Amanda Barrie, who was well known in England, and Helen Shapiro, who had been very well known as a young pop singer in the 60s. I enjoy theater, so it was nice to be able to take the time to do it. I did a musical on TV, which had been written by Dave Greenslade called Curriculee Curricula; that was a very strange and surreal piece. That’s what I was doing.

We bought our first house and were getting it decorated while Stewart was away. He had a very bad habit of calling when I was in the middle of a little fringe play, saying, “Sonja, I’m on this heavenly island and I’m lonely. Why don’t you come out and join me?” And I’d say, “No, I can’t. I’m in the middle of this play.”

The wives didn’t go out to many Police shows; we just went out altogether, all three wives, at particular times. The first time we went out was to Key West in Florida where we had a little bit of a holiday, and then we went out when they played Japan. We went out when they were touring Egypt and Greece. When they were out on stage and we wives were just sort of hanging out at the back and I could hear the roar of the crowd, I was thinking, “Oh, I miss that. I miss doing that.” So the fire was still there. It was still also a wonderful, strange, and crazy experience sitting on the sidelines while this band just got bigger and bigger and bigger.

Curved Air had been pretty big in terms of where we’d played, and we had chart albums, but The Police just got so big and they were playing the big stadiums. I went to see them in London a few years ago and was part of their entourage. I’ve been very fortunate in my life. I’ve had many lucky breaks.

JC:  You would do with a mini reunion with Curved Air in the 90s before Curved Air reformed in 2008 for good.

SK:I did The Acid Folk in the 90s. I was on tour in England. I wanted to get back out there again, so I sort of went back to the beginning in a way, but we kind of mixed it with psychedelia and playing acoustically in the new acoustic clubs. Then we played electric in the psychedelic clubs. Then we went all round England and that went really, really well. We were just playing small venues; some folk clubs and small rock clubs, but we would pull a good crowd. I had a great band.

Darryl had been sort of saying, “Let’s get back together again.” We did one gig in 1990, which was when I was doing The Acid Folk, and everything as well. In fact, The Acid Folk people came to those gigs. We got together because we were supposed to be doing a TV show, but then the TV show didn’t happen so everybody melted away again.

Sonja’s Acid Folk album

I was with The Acid Folk for six or seven years from  1996, and Paul Sax and Robert Norton from that time had been in Curved Air for the last five years; the violinist and the keyboard player were discovered back then.

Darryl asked me when I was busy working on a creative project, MASK, with Marvin Ayres, but I didn’t want to divide my creativity with getting together with Curved Air and be with my project MASK, or our project, Marvin and I.

But then we released our second album with MASK. Marvin started going back to his own music again. I was then mentally and creatively free to accept the idea of reforming Curved Air. It was Darryl who asked me, so I said, “Okay.” All the original members met up, and Francis dropped out because he still didn’t really like Darryl’s music. That aspect wasn’t going to work.

Darryl decided that a good way to get back into it, and also to re-claim a lot of the songs, which were copyrighted to Warners, that we would re-record the old Curved Air repertoire. We were going to play along with a couple of other pieces that he’d written—an instrumental piece and a couple of songs—but we would do it the way that he thought they always should have sounded.

I recorded in my studio, and Florian in his, and then we sent files to Darryl, who then put it all together. Darryl played everything else and then got a guitarist. Then we went out and it went really well. One of our first gigs was the Isle of Wight Festival. The reception was really good because people hadn’t seen us for a long time.

Darryl stayed with us for a year, and then he decided again that it was too stressful to tour. I brought in Paul Sax from my wonderful The Acid Folk band and Robert Norton, our keyboard player, to replace Darryl who had been playing very simple keyboards and violin but he couldn’t play both together. Now we had wonderful violin and keyboards, and so the sound is much, much richer than any other lineup has been and the potential was much greater. We have the same bass player, Chris Harris—he was working with Darryl on some other projects before. Darryl asked him to be part of the new Curved Air, so he’s still with us and he’s been the longest lasting bass player who’s ever been with Curved Air. He’s been there since 2008 so he’s been with us for six years.

JC: I understand there has been a new album out, North Star.

Curved Air’s new album North Star

SK:I’m very, very pleased. The album has only been out a few days, but the people who have already bought it are saying really lovely things about it, and they’re enjoying the album. I’m very proud of it too because it took a lot of work to get it together. We don’t live near each other, and we had to kind of accommodate everybody for periods of time in order to get the album into its finished form.

When we first talked about recording an album together, we decided that there would be no hierarchy; we would share all the publishing, and everybody would be allowed to contribute to the compositions. It wasn’t like one person’s would lay down how the song should be played; it would be sort of a group decision, a mixture between improvising and writing. Paul Sax came up with his own lines for the pieces, and everybody contributed lots of sketches of songs and pieces, but no words because I wanted to write the words.

The lyrics for these songs . . . I took melodies that were already there in the original draft, which meant that they were melodies that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of myself if I’d been writing myself. But I found words to fit with those melodies, and other ones I tried to do something that would fit on top of everything that had already been created or was being created. I messed around with it until I felt that I could feel the words and the music.

[Guitarist] Kit Morgan left after we’d started recording, and we were beginning to get into overdubs and production. He had a lot of problems in his personal life. He was kind of dispirited, and he didn’t want to be involved with the band. So we then asked Kirby if he would come back; he was always our first choice, because we had been in touch with him and he had actually done a guest spot on one of our gigs on two of his songs that he’d written. It was just the right time for Kirby too—he had a full-time job, but he wanted to go back to being part of a band and touring and everything, so he has been getting leave to play with us. He came in and replayed all the parts that Kit had done. He kept some of the themes, which were part of the song, but he completely put his own slant on the songs.

We actually recorded in one take two of the cover versions—“Across the Universe” and “Chasing Cars”—that we did on the new album. I had this idea of a Steve Reich kind of repetitive motif, so that was the basis of “Colder Than a Rose in Snow,” which was a re-record in a way. I had recorded the song with The Acid Folk and on the Sonja Kristina  album.

New Curved Air

Then we finished producing the album ourselves, which was brave, but Robert Norton, the keyboard player, has sort of been our in-house engineer. During the writing process, he’d saved mixes of where we were at with the writing and sent them all out to us. Everybody heard everything at every stage, and everybody’s opinion counted. It was the best that everybody could make it and to satisfy everybody’s standards of their own playing and of how the songs should be.

JC:Now with the new album and going back on tour again, how does it feel to be back again?

SK:I mean, we’ve been at it now for six years and we’ve played the big Prague festivals. We played Glastonbury, we played Isle of Wight, we played in Europe and Japan, but we haven’t played the States yet—we’re just we’re waiting for the right offer out there. Through Facebook, people say, “Come to Brazil,” “Come . . .” We want to go to these places, but the business has to be right. There are six of us, and we don’t have someone paying our wages; we have to be self-sufficient, so that’s these days. We put our own money into it. We have to be self-sufficient.

JC:What’s it like being back on stage?

SK:It’s great. Our band is made for festivals because they’re so dynamic and they’re such good performers that the big stage loves them. Also, we like playing in more intimate venues where the crowd is pressed up against the front of the stage. Everyone in the band is very committed to Curved Air. [You can hear the current Curved Air perform, “It Happened Today,” by clicking here.]

JC:Any other plans for the future beyond the new album and going on tour?

SK:For me?


SK:I’ve been asked to do some other collaborative projects. In fact, Dave Cousins just said that he’d like to write some songs with me. I’d like to do some theater at some point, maybe a play or a musical, but it would need to be something exciting and new, but I’m sure it’ll come along when it’s meant to. I just would like some time to explore the theatrical side of my vocational aspirations.

Sonja Kristina Today