Improv Collectives 2(b): BIC (Bristol Improvisers Collective)

Two Voices from the BIC
Transcription of ‘Interview’
David Grundy /// Mark Whiteford /// Graham MacKeachan
25.01.11 /// The Arts House Café, Stokes Croft, Bristol

DG: OK, it’s recording.
MW: Well, the first thing to say is, sorry we’re a bit late. You caught us out there. [Puts on bandana]
GM: You look like fucking Axl Rose now…Axl Rose, whoever he is.
MW: I don’t care, I just want to be warm – it’s fucking freezing here.
DG: So this is going to be the official? / unofficial? history of the BIC.
MW: It’s how I remember it.
GM: It’ll be a history.
DG: So there were two different Bristol collectives?
MW: There was the Bristol Musicians’ Co-Op in the ’70s/ early ’80s. I went to one of their gigs. That’s what turned me on to free improv in the first place. But by the time I got into free improv they had folded.
DG: Which was…?
MW: Well the BIC started, I reckon about ’84.
DG: When did the co-op fold?
GM: They were still doing stuff in about ’83, ’84, during the last couple of years at Hope Chapel. That was Bob Helson and Mark Langford and Will Menter. They also were still quite active doing gigs in places like Montpelier Hotel. Will Menter had his sewer-pipe percussion and woodblocks, when he was building woodblocks. Bob Helson and Mark Langford used to have a duo, Fender Rhodes electric piano and bass clarinet [Langford], and drums [Helson].
MW: Bob Helson became the free/ modern jazz drummer of choice in Bristol – he started really becoming the white Rashied Ali of Bristol.
DG: Did you have visiting musicians from America?
MW: Well, the co-op put on Leo Smith. And one of the Menter brothers got an
arts council grant of some kind to go to Chicago.
DG: Oh yeah, there’s that review of the concert Leo Smith did in Bristol [with Bob Helson].[1]
MW: Yeah, that’s by Will Menter, and he does a Marxian analysis of the difference between Bob Helson’s background and Leo Smith’s background.
DG: White working class and black working class.
MW: Yeah. To me, they’d all gone into playing jazz/ African music by the time I got into…
DG: Like African pop, world music, rather than little instruments?
MW: No, little instruments. The same Menter got another grant to go to
Zimbabwe and study mbiras.
GM: They had their heads screwed on, them lads, come on. They got grants!
DG: So what happened? How did it fold?
GM: We were completely outside of that.
MW: So we weren’t really involved with that. But what we did see was them doing jazz gigs. There was a very good, if you like, vibrant local jazz club, called the Avon Gorge Hotel, and they had already moved, like so many collectives in my opinion, from collective activity towards gigs. So they were all doing jazz gigs, and to my mind there was no collective activity happening any more.
DG: Was there any crossover between the co-op and the BIC?
MW: There was a slight crossover. There was John Boulding, Roger Skerman,
Paul Shorehouse. And there was that one night where a bass player and
saxophone player turned up to the BIC and did a jazz set; bless ’em, that was the one time that ex co-op jazz people came to the BIC.
DG: You were all less jazz-oriented…
GM: Well, they were a different generation to us.
DG: You were more punk?
GM: Yeah.
DG: Were you both in punk bands?
GM: I wasn’t. But we were coming immediately after those punk bands, and that idea of learning to play your instrument as you go along.
DG: So it’s the punk ethos applied to free improv, rather than actually playing
GM: Yeah. I remember we – I – saw them [co-op musicians] as hippies. They
would wear maroon clothes and sandals and have long hair and beards, these
older people…
DG: So it was sort of hippies vs punks?
GM: …at my age, when I was 22 or something, we’d walk into their things and it would be like, yeah, hippies vs punks, in a sense – because that’s what it looked like – older blokes with bare feet clapping and shouting and stuff, you know.
DG: So you were consciously – did you have a programme when you started? Had you heard about the AACM? Because there’s been all that scholarship now with the George E. Lewis book, etc, but that’s only recent – back then, was it less known about?
GM: I think we knew a lot about that stuff years before we tried to play it. I found out by mail-order records from Glasgow when I was living up in Cumberland in the ’70s, when I was at school. I think the only books were Valerie Wilmer, ‘As Serious as Your Life’, which came out in ’76 or ’77, and apart from that you just had to read the backs of records, in those days. The only other books were Frank Kofsky [‘Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music’] and AB Spellman [‘Four Lives in the Bebop Business’], but that was very current in the ’70s, when we were getting interested in it.
MW: Yeah, we were coming out of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, AACM…
DG: Were you consciously trying to play like them?
GM: I couldn’t even play rock properly…people were showing me where to put my fingers on the bass guitar – it was that real punk thing of, let’s have a band and then learn to play.
DG: I guess that’s a generational thing, because maybe the older generation were more virtuosic jazz players?
MW: No, because there was a tradition within British or European free improv of the non-musician.
GM: Can I contest that and ask for an example, because I thought it was the
other way round…All those people who, in my mind, were responsible for starting the whole British free improvisation thing – John Stevens and Trevor Watts and people like that – were all in the air force bands, and you had to be at an accepted level of musicianship to qualify for those bands. Derek Bailey was a session musician – all those lot could play correctly, and they were jettisoning all the baggage and all the language, all the cultural references…
MW: I think there were people – I’ve got this belief that there were non-musicians, and that there was a slight trend at one point towards playing an instrument that wasn’t your instrument, an instrument that you didn’t know how to play.

GM: I mean, yeah, there was the Scratch Orchestra and Cornelius Cardew and all that stuff, but that was coming more from the classical side – that’s how people from art backgrounds, like Brian Eno, came into improvised music.
DG: So I guess you’ve got the jazz side, which is virtuosic, people who play well – cutting contests and all that stuff…
GM: It’s a weird thing, jazz in this country, isn’t it, because it’s an adopted
culture that’s been crystallised as a set of rules – this is correct jazz and this is
incorrect jazz – but it’s an appropriation from another culture, so in this country it’s always been a bizarre thing, a bit like English blues – there’s something kind of peculiar about it, second-hand. And I think, in a sense, improvised music let it become local music, like folk music, so that you were making your sounds – or, let’s say, we were making our sounds, to bring it back to what we were doing – we were learning together to make our sounds, and we were also, I think, consciously, trying not to emulate styles that people played in. So we were trying not to play riffs – you wouldn’t dare play something off a record that you’d heard and tried to learn – you had to make it up, and make it up in your own localised language, you know? Make a vocabulary out of what you’ve got, basically – which I think is what was important about that collective; stepping away and making our own collective as a response to not feeling we could be involved in the other,
existing collective…
MW: It did come from punk – it was that idea that you don’t have to play an
instrument, but if the motivation’s there…For me, there was politics and the
music came after that…
DG: But you weren’t trying to make propaganda music, like Cornelius Cardew’s Peoples’ Liberation group.[2]
GM: No, we’d never heard of that stuff at the time.
DG: You weren’t trying to educate the masses…
GM: No, well, I didn’t know anything about politics at the time. We came from
opposite things – you [MW] came from a Marxist/ Communist/ Maoist
background, and I came from rural, conservative, small-village parochialism…
DG: So you were basically apolitical?
GM: Well, romantically or nostalgically political in the sense that you could
identify with black American jazz and that kind of stuff, but in terms of real lived life, the early ’80s was more about waking up to the fucking mess that the world was in. Going into music, there was no political impetus in making sounds, but making sounds frees up your mind to think about things in different ways, and you can’t help but have some kind of consciousness of the reality that those sounds are happening in.
DG: It’s the kind of social side of the collective…
MW: And also just on a very mundane level, you think, ‘well, why am I doing this, and why are so few other people doing this?’ – and then you also became aware of, ‘what’s the pressure on me to not do what I’m doing’ – the personal is political. But for me it was the other way round, because I was into the politics first and then I discovered, with the black power movement in America, that, oh my god, there’s this music as well – there’s a music that goes with it.
DG (to GM): Whereas for you, it was the other way round. I guess you can’t speak for others, but what were other people’s positions in relation to this?
GM: I can’t even speak for myself…Well, for instance, even the idea of a collective I didn’t think of as being a political thing up front, because – and here is another observation: it didn’t really seem to be a collective or anything; ideologically, it was just a bunch of mates setting up their own world where they could do what they want. You’re delineating a space where you can do what you want to in it – you’re setting up an autonomous zone that you can do your shit in. That’s what we were doing – we didn’t sit around saying, let’s have a collective…
DG: You weren’t sitting around, debating dialectics…
GM: No, because we didn’t have that vocabulary.
MW: It was called a collective just because it was a group activity. But there were outsiders, although it was a group of friends.
GM: I contest the collectivity of it insofar as it was a name for the thing, but it
was you [MW], Paul Reid, Adjoa [Andoh], me, who organised when we were going to meet the next week and so forth, and it was a core of organisation, but if we were all out of town, that wouldn’t happen – if those four people were out of town, those meetings wouldn’t take place.
DG: Was it every week?
MW: It was every fortnight.
DG: Did you have a particular venue?
MW: Yup, council social club.
DG: And they just let you have it for free?
MW: Yeah. I think it was subsidised anyway, in those days.
DG: What did they think of you using a council-type space?
MW: They were great. There was a bar, there was someone working behind the bar, and to this day, I can’t remember that person going ‘what the fuck is all this shit?’ I was a very self-conscious person – I still am, I suppose – and I have no memory of ever wondering ‘what’s that barman thinking?’ To this day I still don’t know his name.
There was a stage. This is just a little story really, but the first one we ever did, there was this guy sitting off, at the other end of the bar, in a donkey jacket – and I thought, ‘oh fuck, it’s a council worker, he’s just come to have a pint after work, and here he is stuck in all this noise’. And at some point – anyone could go on stage at the beginning of each piece – he gets up, and lo and behold, he’s got a guitar, which I haven’t spotted, plugs it into the amp, and it’s flippin’ Paul Shorehouse, who was quite an involved member of the co-op. He was playing it really, he just sat there drinking his beer and reading his paper…
GM: It was like Field of Dreams – “if you build it, they will come”…Having created that little space, in that council social club, people came out of the woodwork: a lot of outsiders, a lot of young students. In those days, all it was was some flyers in record shops, libraries; we photocopied flyers and that was it. We put some  caveat there – ‘no jazz’, or something – just to make sure it wasn’t a jam session.
MW: A lot of us were very anti-the Bristol jazz scene – well, I was, I felt it had sold its soul.
DG: What had it done wrong?
MW: To my mind it had got into emulating a kind of thing that wasn’t born of our lives and wasn’t born of our environment.
GM: Not that it’s not good, within that idiom – there’s a lot of good there…
MW: We used to call them ‘The Dick Emery Quartet,’[3] because as far as we were concerned they were impersonating other people, like they were impersonating John Coltrane; there were a couple of saxophonists, tenor saxophonists in Bristol at that point who were just very much doing that thing – it still goes on – basically, the Coltrane thing. And, for me, I wasn’t very impressed that they’d moved away from collective free improvisation into jazz gig performance. I mean, to be fair, I must emphasize, that walking in to that musicians co-op gig, not knowing anything about what I was about to experience, completely turned my life around; I would not have the rich and wonderful life that I have now if I hadn’t walked into that gig. It was like alice in wonderland, I dropped through this hole, and I just went, ‘What the fuck is this? Are these people playing together, or are they just making noises and ignoring each other?’ It was radical.
I’d listened to punk rock, I’d listened to the Pop Group, I’d listened to the Sex
Pistols, and I’d been told they were radical, but I suddenly thought, ‘no, this is something else.’ I didn’t know what it was, but I wasn’t discounting of it – I had a faith, I thought, ‘this is worth something, this represents a lot of my thinking and feeling at this moment’, although I didn’t connect with them [the co-op musicians] on a personal level – maybe I didn’t know how to introduce myself; I felt, ‘I’ve dropped through another world, and I didn’t have the language to approach those people’. So I went back to my punk band, but very quickly started to think, ‘what the hell are we doing? all we’re doing is rehearsing songs and performing them’, and I didn’t want to do that any more.

GM: I was thinking about that trajectory away from that, which seems to be
pretty standard: there’s a lot of experimental stuff and a lot of talk about
collectivity in collectives – including the old musicians collective in its first, ‘heroic phase’, as they say – but then there’s a trajectory away from actually collectivity
towards a sort of cloud of individualism, and the trajectory also seems musical, in that things become more and more idiomatic, or styles crystallise as each trajectory shifts away from the collective centre. So what you were seeing with the old Bristol musicians’ co-op was people shifting into jazz things here, and this duo here, and this electric band here. The same with the London Musicians’ Collective after it was initially set up – you have a very brief phase where it could be considered collective, and then beyond that, things organise themselves around a tiny nucleus of people who are prepared to fill in the forms and do the administration for that, and it fragments to the extent that we’ve got this project going on here, and this project going on here, and person x forms a kind of jazz group and there’s less and less interactivity between the different spokes of the wheel – that’s what happens, it fragments, and trajectories diverge. So the collective thing, I think, is only ever nominal, apart from a very, very brief flowering. At the moment of inception, the idea of collectivity is at its most potent, and whether it’s human nature or social conditions in this mindset, this European mindset, this culture, I don’t know how far collectivity actually works – it seems to have this half-life where it’s constantly, constantly falling apart; people who are prepared to organise become the inner circle, and we all float around the edges of that and further away from that. The only thing that keeps any collective together is that there are benefits from having the name of something being a collective which a fragmented bunch of individuals control – the use value of the name of it being a collective is stronger than the collective feeling of individuals within it; it gives it clout. It’s an organisational thing, it replicates all other hierarchical organisations.
DG: You can say, ‘I work with a collective’, rather than, ‘with a bunch of mates’…
MW: I’ve done that, I’ve put it on my CV…
GM: Although ‘collective’ these days, it’s a dirty word.
MW: What you’ve got to bear in mind is, collectives need maintaining. When I’m doing stuff in Bristol that’s basically consensus based – that stuff, it doesn’t just happen by accident, you’ve got to focus on it. So at a meeting about, ‘shall we use this hall or use that hall?’, someone else has to also be in charge of maintaining collectivity – what’s that word – consensus…
GM: ‘Manufacturing consensus…’
MW: In non-hierarchical programmes, someone has to stay on top of consensus.
GM: That’s the inherent flaw in the idea of consensus.
MW: Yeah. But the thing that really throws the consensus thing off is the western mind, the western need to achieve something; there comes a point when they go, ‘listen, consensus is fine, but we’ve been here three hours already and we do need to work out how we’re gonna trash the cops at G20, so let’s just crack on’. So there’s this crucial point where there’s another factor which becomes more important, gets prioritised over and above, the idea of maintaining collectivity.
DG: But is there much point in maintaining collectivity if you don’t get anything done?
MW: Yes, in order to maintain and get collectivity done. And to make sure that you stop achieving things, because I think achieving things is to the detriment of our lives, to the detriment of doing things…I think that’s where it goes wrong; when they think, hang on, I’ve got to ‘achieve’ something now.
DG: So you have the collective start-off without expectations, and then you think – ‘hang on a minute, we could achieve something here; oh look, we could get an arts council grant, and have a gig here, and play with this famous person here’ – and that’s where the problem starts…
GM: All those hooks get into your flesh…
MW: It’s ego and the outside world. And coming back to technical ability, I think one thing that happens a lot – I think it happened to the Art Ensemble – I know I’ve got it – is that you’re being a free improvising musician, but if you’re playing in front of other people, you think, ‘yeah, but they’re going to think I don’t really know how to play the saxophone.’
DG: As if it matters.
MW: As if it matters. And somewhere in my mind, in my ego, it does matter. Even with my fine avant-garde, outsider status, still, when I go to Safehouse in Brighton and someone gets their soprano out and plays it properly, I think,
‘maybe I just need to prove that I can play this thing.’ A lot of musicians have
that – Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, The Art Ensemble of Chicago – there was that constant thing, ‘oh, they can’t really play, and the only reason they’re playing that music like that is because they can’t play.’ And for me, listening to the Art Ensemble, there was a point where I fell out of love with them, because they did fall foul of that: they seemed to be playing a lot more jazzily, with long saxophone solos, etc.
DG: You think they were doing that because people were criticizing them – wasn’t that more paying tribute to an African-American tradition?
MW: Who knows? But they started becoming way less tinkly, less spacey.
Everything they started to do – a big contingent of it was that they were keeping beats – they were doing stuff that showed they could keep a beat, that they could do blah and do blah. And it’s interesting that all the stuff that didn’t prove anything, like playing the toys, that didn’t prove technical ability, was gone by the ’80s.
DG: By way of contrast, what I find interesting about The Revolutionary
Ensemble was that it was that a lot of what it was playing was very technically
good – it wasn’t straight-ahead rhythms, but it was very intricate, they could play the hell out of their instruments – but then they would turn the radio on or go up to the microphone and start whistling, so it was integrated.
DG: What happened with the BIC, then? How did it implode?
MW: It didn’t really, it just fizzled out.

DG: So it wasn’t that process of arts grants, etc, it was just that people moved
MW: Exactly. Because, as Graham said, we weren’t really a collective. There
weren’t any meetings, there weren’t any committees, we were really just a forum for coming together and doing some free improvisation. So I suppose our only directive or plan – the main focus was, how can we stop this music becoming a jam, how can we stop it becoming pop music or jazz. So our whole focus, really, was artistic – it was, how can we have two or three hours on a, whatever it was, Monday evening, once a fortnight, where some free improvisation, as we would define it, takes place. So our main goal was to stop people, as I would see it, regressing into a jam session. And to be fair, it worked very well – it was amazing, it really was very effective – I was very, very impressed by how improvised it was, the BIC. There were some people who were into pop music, all kinds of shit, but, just by having these little techniques, John Boulding being one of them – one thing that would happen was that, if we had a suspicion that a little combo was getting on that stage that were going to get into some jamming or some pop riffing, all we’d do is go to John and go, ‘John, go up’, because he’d go up there with his alto and he would blow everything apart.
GM: If you want to know what he sounded like, think of that American band,
Borbetomagus – he was like a one man version of them. He played alto and he
played guitar as well, and you sometimes couldn’t tell if it was alto or guitar he was playing! He just went ‘skrrrreee’…
DG: So there so no way you could riff behind that…
GM: Well you could but you wouldn’t hear it!
MW: He was capable of going up there and blowing everything apart. He’s been dead a few years now, and he needs honouring; he played improvised music for all of his life.
GM: He was absolutely dedicated to it.
DG: But he never got any recognition for it.
GM: He was too extreme.
MW: And this is one of my bugbears; he didn’t fit in the normal hegemonic, social
way, so therefore he wasn’t accepted as an artist.
DG: Are there any recordings?
GM: No, I don’t think so. I think if the old Bristol co-op had made a record they would have forgotten to tell John to turn up that day…
But this is another thing; there’s a huge history – there are countless people
who’ve never recorded, who’ve been interesting and extreme musicians in one way or another…and not just musicians, artists in general…
It’s a folk music, for me, it’s a folk music, you can take your instrument and go anywhere and there’ll be a tiny little group of people who do improvised music in heir homes or out in a hall or even try and book gigs, and you go anywhere and you can play, and you have dialects and languages and you mutter and make your point and try…it’s a folk music, the same way that in Ireland you can carry your fiddle and go sit in in a pub…
DG: A universal language, universal grammar…
GM: You mean like the Egyptian, Kemetic stuff – the seven vowels…I think
Braxton talks about that…
DG: But you weren’t studying esoteric texts…
GM: We don’t know anything about that. And if we did, we couldn’t say…
MW: I read and studied a certain amount of shamanic stuff – European and
Celtic, mostly. There might well have been a book that was around at that point – that anthropologist…
DG: Mircia Eliade?
GM: Oh god…that fits on the shelf alongside Blavatsky and Annie Besant and all that theosophist stuff…Although that’s becoming increasingly respected now.
MW: But I think there was someone, there was some book talking about the
spirituality of sound, and we would also have picked up something from Sun Ra.
GM: But all that talk about spirituality – it’s essentially a way of selling your
product, like ‘spiritual jazz’.
DG: Though there is that [Amiri] Baraka essay [‘The Changing Same’] where he’s saying that it all comes from the same impulse – James Brown is singing about sex, Pharaoh Sanders is going ‘ommmmmmmmm’, but it’s the same impulse.
MW: I think there’s a notion – it’s almost like when they go to art school and art teachers go ‘yeah, that works’; to me, that’s a bit like going ‘oh, there’s a spiritual element to that music’ – it’s the same thing, it’s got no real foundation, and for me there’s no spiritual practice to back it up. I just have this feeling, if you’re going to lead a spiritual life, you need some kind of practice – that’s my personal belief, and I know that Joseph Jarman, for example, has a practice…
DG: But you wouldn’t bring any of those techniques into the music?
MW: Not the sounds, not so much, not these days. It’s more the actual way of
being in the space, I suppose…
DG: Would you say that music is a social space?
GM: Yeah. What we do is in a social space; what musicians are doing – musicians like James Brown, that’s social. Music has a function, a social function – what I think doesn’t have a social function is where the consideration of it having a value outside of the space that it’s done in takes precedence over the moment that the music’s created in. So if you’re in a rock band, or a jazz band, or any band, and you’re practicing to try and get good, so that you can make a tape, so that you can tout it around and flog it on the market – that doesn’t have any social function, you’re just being a function of capitalism. If you’re in a room with people, and what’s happening in that room is between those people, and any ther people who are also there to listen, or move about to it – that’s got a social function. So all kinds of music have social function – James Brown, all that stuff – there’s a great history of music that’s for a social purpose, predominantly, and only then is it flogged on the market.
MW: For me, even the rehearsal was not social function, it was actually a place where you practiced what you might do later. So for me it wasn’t social, it was – what’s the word – productive. It wasn’t about ‘how are we in the space’, because most rehearsal spaces are disgusting and uncomfortable; and it wasn’t about relating to each other as human beings, it was about ‘can we get this bit where we all come in right.’
DG: Would it work – is it a thing between the people who do it – do you have to know the people who do it…
GM: No, it’s the doing – the doing having precedence over…
DG: Like with the collective, there was a core but anyone could turn up and
communicate – you didn’t have to know them…
GM: Yeah. It’s all good, as they say…

DG: So when did it [the BIC] dissolve?
MW: When we all left town. I left Bristol in ’87 – I can’t remember whether we
kept it going till then. But this is the trouble with western society at the moment, as Graham’s already been saying –and you get it within anarchist circles the same – there’s a lot of people pushing all the time and saying, ‘look, everyone needs to be involved, it doesn’t work if one person is the motivating force’. But, with the BIC – me, Paul, Adjoa opened it up every week, we advertised it…
DG: What about zariba?[4] There’s at least ten people who’ve turned up over, say, the past four years…
MW: Yeah, but zariba’s not a collective; I orchestrate it…I’ve completely moved away from collectives. I’m not interested in running a collective. I’ve quite enjoyed joining other people’s collectives – and all the language I’m using is exactly what we’ve just talked about – but I see it as someone else’s, I don’t see it as ‘mine’, whereas, if it was truly a collective, it would be ‘ours’. I’ve enjoyed joining the Cheltenham Improvisers Orchestra and Safehouse in Brighton, but for my own satisfaction I like to run collections of hand-picked musicians, because I’m just looking for my own satisfaction, nothing else. Although there’s still a political element to the zariba…
DG: What is that?
GM: You’ve gone Stalinist, Mark?
MW: Yeah, I reckon…ha ha. The political element – I strive to get a lot of female involvement, and I try to incorporate mundane, everyday activity, to get away from the idea of the virtuoso.
GM: Have you ticked the ethnic box, Mark, at all?
MW: No, it’s chronic.
DG: Don’t you think these things should just happen organically?
MW: No, I don’t think racism is going to be tackled by organic means. It’s
GM: How would you encourage people to willingly come and play improvised
music who are, say, nominally non-white people in Bristol?
MW: Something about using venues, being in areas; using venues that are not in areas where people wouldn’t normally go. So if you look at the pub over the road where you open the door and all the faces you see are white, that’s going to set up a barrier towards people joining that kind of social milieu; they’re going to walk in and see it as they’re the only person in there as a person of colour.
DG (to GM): Do you want to dispute?
GM: There’s a point, I’m not quite sure what the point is – in musical terms it
would be the difference or benefit or even just point of attracting to this practice people of, for the sake of argument, a different colour of skin. I mean, if they’re not involved, wouldn’t there be some element of tokenism in trying to attract them? It’s like saying, ‘we’re a bunch of mates who go down the pub and we don’t have any black friends, how can we get a black friend?’ It’s that kind of mechanism…
MW: No, it’s that our thinking and our modus operandi is basically racist…
GM: I would contest that…
DG: I personally get uncomfortable with trying to ‘recruit’ people; the only reason you want to know someone is because you want to recruit them to your cause – it’s not organic.

MW: But I think the personal is political – you do have to look at your own
behaviours and patterns, and ask how much they’re feeding into, if not promoting some hegemony that you don’t agree with. Because otherwise, if you don’t have a conscious checking of what you’re doing, you’ll end up doing what everyone does. All of us sitting here have made conscious decisions about how we’re going to lead our lives, and decided we’re not going to do x, y, z. And for me there’s a point in just thinking, ‘what else do I do that’s outside my awareness’? I haven’t got any problem with political correctness; the case against it has been overstated. It’s usually white people who say it’s not needed, that racism doesn’t exist anymore…

But to get back to the BIC, we did our fortnightly things, we did some stuff with the Oxford Improvisers co-op [as was]– if not an exchange, we at least went down there, they paid us to go down for a gig. In the end, we just fizzled out because I –we – stopped putting up the posters and hiring the venue. Because, like Graham said, there wasn’t any actual fixed structure that would carry on past the individuals, once they’d left Bristol.
GM: And this is another reason why it was a beautiful thing – we never even
thought of applying for any money for it, any kind of legitimate promotion from any outside source.
MW: We were pure.
GM: There was no money, there was no treasury, there was no discussion, there were no rules that I remember – they were more like guidelines, to quote Pirates of the Caribbean.
MW: There were a number of us that intervened to stop it becoming a jam
GM: We had strategies – oblique strategies, or crass strategies, or both.
MW: I think what came out of it – there’s two things I want to address from what we were talking about earlier: I think what came out of the BIC was a whole load of young people [who] started forming improvising bands; there were these people who’d never heard anything like this in their lives. A lot of people that were playing at the BIC had never ever listened to free improv, Ornette Coleman, none of that shit, and they came and just went, oh, blimey, right, ok – oh shit, you can do this. A lot of bands came out of it; we had a load of bands; Exit Enter Leave…
GM: Flob…Trellis…
MW: Exit Enter Leave; Flob; Trellis; The Angelic Conversation…All these different combos that came out of it. So it wasn’t as though we were opposed to group formation; there were actually quite a few groups that actually did very low-level gigs. And my feeling was that when we all started operating again and came out of the woodwork as the BIC, the feeling I had was that some co-op members, some of the older members, gladly emerged and said, oh, thank fuck, now we can start doing some free improv again: Verity Hawkes, the soprano player, who played in the Feminist Improvising Group with Maggie [Nicols] and also with Cunning Stunts, which was a theatre and improv thing. But, yeah, we did some good stuff, we had some good times…
GM: It’s rhizomatic isn’t it; this one and this one and this one…
DG: Spread all over…
GM: It’s on a tiny, tiny, tiny, level…
DG: At a folk level.
GM: Yeah, back to that point
MW: But I have a feeling that people in Bristol that are currently involved inexperimental and so-called improvisation probably have no idea of the tradition that they’re coming from, of the musician’s co-op, of the BIC…
GM: Yes, and that’s how it should be – a non-centred, no-official-history folk
music. In one way there shouldn’t be an official history of this kind of stuff; there should be as many unofficial histories as there are people who’ve done it.
DG: So we shouldn’t be doing this whole interview…
MW: You need to say that this is just one figment…
DG: A figment of our collective imagination…


[1] ‘Notes on Leo Smith and Bob Helson Arising from a Concert’ by Will Menter (first published in the collection “Co-operative Music” by Bristol Musicians’ Co-operative, 1979. Now available online at

[2] Peoples’ Liberation Music (PLM): see


[4] Zariba is a loose collation of musicians/ dancers/ poets based in Bristol/ Cheltenham / London who have done occasional public performances/ residencies and regular private sessions, organised by MW.

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