Couldn’t Write It: Steve Davis & Kavus Torabi discuss the unlikely story behind their new book
It’s hard to say which plotline is more ridiculous: a gang of diseased bats and a fish market become responsible for the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II, or Steve Davis touring the festival circuit as part of a DJ duo and live act… and he’s actually good. From what started as a bit of laugh, the musical journey of Steve & Kavus has taken them to serious critical acclaim as part of The Utopia Strong: a tough-to-pigeonhole psychedelic mindfuck (with Steve on the modular synth) that Steve Hillage rated highly enough to invite onto his band’s first tour for 40 years. It’s little wonder they wanted to write a book about it. Who wouldn’t?
Medical Grade Music is part-memoir and part-excuse-to-wax-lyrical about the (often obscure) musical acts and creative characters that have inspired the duo throughout their lives. If this sounds like the indulgence of a couple of ageing rockers then you’d be right, but rather like their musical performances, they carry it off with such authenticity and manic energy that you can’t help but join in the fun with them. In among the funny anecdotes and musical trainspotting, there are also some surprisingly poignant human stories.
Steve and Kavus first met in 2009 at a Magma gig in Paris. Although Steve was rather busy being a world champion and TV personality, he had actually been Magma’s UK promoter for a time in the late 80s. He lost a fortune, so it was a nice twist of fate that Magma became responsible for his next (and infinitely more successful) career in music.
The book has many more tales of serendipity, i.e. despite Kavus’ standing as a highly successful musician with the likes of Cardiacs and Knifeworld, it was thanks to Steve that he reached his musical zenith and became band-leader of Gong. The fact that a cafe in Brentwood was involved is yet another reminder that their journey together would make an excellent spoof were it not actually true.
Kavus’ own pre-Steve journey would have made a good book in itself. Struggling to get by as a musician and fanzine writer on the south-western free-party scene, he ended up performing at the now-infamous Castlemorton (but didn’t realise it was a rave until he stumbled into the wrong field when tripping on acid) before moving onto the squats and warehouses of Leyton, Hackney and Stoke Newington.
The conversation starts with Kavus sounding somewhat muffled, trying to remedy the situation by plugging in his condenser mic…
“SPEAKING OF CUNTS”
Kavus: Hang on, I’ll just condense the cunt.
Me: Haha, that’s like what they would say in the north east where I’m from. ‘Cunt’ just becomes an entity as opposed to an insult. It’s less offensive in certain regions.
Kavus: I ‘cunt’ quite a lot in the book. It’s just how everyone talks in Plymouth… it’s almost a term of endearment.
Steve appears on Zoom, looking a bit fuzzy, and doesn’t say anything for a while. It looks like he’s eating cereal.
Me: Sorry Steve, we’re just busy talking about cunts. I’m definitely not going to say, ‘speaking of cunts… here’s Steve Davis’ – that absolutely didn’t cross my mind at all. Perish the thought.
Steve’s response is inaudible. He flounders for a bit, trying to plug in his mic.
Does this man really perform live as a modular synth player?
The cunt discussion gathers pace.
Kavus: If you play a really good riff or something they’ll say ‘oh you cunt!.’ ‘This daft cunt ‘ere has just played me a great riff.’
Me: There’s no doubting it’s a bit of a variable. I remember Larry David tackling this in Curb Your Enthusiasm. There was that card game where they were all effing and blinding, but then suddenly it all goes wrong when he uses the ‘c’ word.
Kavus: Yes! But it’s definitely worse when the Americans use it. Like that bit in Casino when…
Steve: Can you hear me? Sorry, my connection’s really bad here.
Me: Yeah, although you’re still sounding a bit underwater.
Steve: Can I make a request Mike? When you’re writing this up, could you start with ’speaking of cunts’? I’d love that.
Me: I’ll try my best to get it in. Let’s see if we can get away with it. Anyway… the interview! I want to start by saying how much I enjoyed reading the book while listening to the bands you were talking about in each chapter. I felt like I was getting into character. I assume this was one of the main aims of the book… to turn people onto music they hadn’t heard before?
Steve: That was the original brief actually. We were going to do 52 bands and hope that people would spend a week of the year listening to each one of them, but we ran out of steam and realised it would be a really dry read, and our publishers said how much they liked the memoir side of things, so we put the two together. But that’s a great way to approach it. We’re delighted that’s something you’ve picked up on.
Me: Teeth of the Sea was probably my favourite discovery. They’ve got enough repetition for someone like me who has been conditioned by dance music. Some of your stuff is absolutely bonkers, like Magma, Henry Cow etc. They’re the absolute antithesis of four to the floor, but I like the experimental electronic elements for sure. I saw something in all of it.
Kavus: For me and Steve the journey of what we’re doing with Utopia Strong has been a journey the other way. When we met each other we came from ADHD kind of music that’s really changing all the time, kind of through-composed and complex, and then both of us coming into… we’re politely calling it ‘middle age’… we’re doing something in Utopia Strong that’s actually more repetitive but you can still hear that we’ve both come from this very through-composed ADHD kind of thing. Utopia Strong is gentle on the ears at first but then you think, ‘hang on a minute, there’s a lot of funny stuff going on within that repetition’. I won’t put out anything that I don’t totally believe in. To make this music that is totally wonderful with Steve and Mike [York, formerly of Coil] is quite something. In walks Steve Davis – someone who many of us grew up watching on TV – and once he starts getting his head round this modular synth, we’re creating this music that I’m really really into.
Steve: That’s why I think we’ve got a story to tell. It’s as much of a shock to us as it is to anybody reading it! It’s been so much fun remembering the stories from the last few years.
CASTLEMORTON & FREE PARTIES
One of the most interesting stories in the book is Kavus’ firsthand account of performing and partying at Castlemorton. The usual rave narrative doesn’t mention the presence of goth rock and thrash metal, but it was certainly there.
Kavus: It wasn’t exactly one of our best gigs [in his band Die Laughing]. As I was writing the book I realised, hang on a minute, Castlemorton is now notorious but I can write about it from a different perspective. I was into techno and raving, but we were going there to play as a band and be part of this traveller kind of vibe. I can’t stress how much of a bad atmos there was. There was such a schism between the traveller field and this big rave that was going on. Just looking at the vehicles; you’d have these old buses looking like something from Mad Max, but then over in the rave bit it was BMWs and puffer jackets. For us lot, we were in both worlds. At the time I was 19 or 20. Very open minded about electronic music despite the fact I was in a noise-guitar band. I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of someone who had no allegiance. I was just there to play music and listen to music.
Me: What was the balance between DJs and live acts?
Kavus: It’s hard to judge. Before I stumbled upon the rave, it was like being at a big free festival. And then I discovered the rave bit while I was on an acid trip and there were just thousands and thousands of people! I had no idea it was going on because the traveller bit that I was in was so big anyway. It just felt like its own festival. Finding the rave was like finding a secret grotto somewhere!
Me: Outside of Castlemorton, was the south-west free-party scene quite an even mix of metal and punk bands and DJing and raving?
Kavus: Yeah, it was. Where I’m from in Plymouth… it’s a naval town… a lot of townies… we used to call them ‘Kevs’. If you were into the alternative lifestyle which was covered by punk, rave, dub or whatever… all the freaks flocked together, so we all went to the same pubs and listened to each other’s music. Maybe in the bigger cities you had the ravers ‘here’ and the hip hop guys are ‘here’ and the metal guys are ‘there’, but we were just young people who wanted to party and listen to wild music and stay up all night and talk shit. On the same bill, you’d have a dub band, a crusty band, a punk band, a DJ – it’d all be on the same bill and everyone was up for it. Looking back it was a really nice scene.
STEVE DAVIS WAS A PROPER SOUL BOY
Devout fans of soul, snooker or Steve Davis could probably have told you this, but the scale of his interest will surprise many. He went to soul all-dayers, set up his own worldwide vinyl distribution company, and quite literally had a direct line to the legendary funk & soul jock, Robbie Vincent.
Me: I didn’t realise until I read the book that you went to some all-dayers?
Steve: Southport Weekenders, yeah. I didn’t go there to go dancing as such. But there’d be loads of people selling records there. Although I’m a real music fan, there’s also the collector-hoarder in me, and soul music lends itself to that because of all these small artists on small labels in America. Once I jumped from jazz rock to jazz funk and to more of the artists that sung as well, I found the really good soul singers. Then all the second league and the third league, the one-hit wonders, the no-hit wonders, the rare records, and I got sucked into the whirlpool which was the rare collecting. The Southport Soul Weekender at Pontin’s was good, but it wasn’t a patch on Bangface at Pontins! I’ve never had so much fun in my life as DJing at festivals and nights like that.
Kavus: Yeah, Bangface! I’d never heard of it until the booking came in, but I saw that Napalm Death were on – and I really like Napalm Death – so I said to Rick our agent, ’tell ‘em we’ll stay for the weekend and we’ll do the whole thing’, and he says ‘you know you’re the only act who’ve ever asked me to stay over at Bangface!’. I’m so glad we did! There was a late-night drum ‘n’ bass room and me and Steve spent a couple of hours in there, and I dunno if Steve had ever been that immersed into the world of jungle and drum ‘n’ bass before…
Kavus Torabi: Definitely a fan of Napalm Death
Steve: It was brilliant! And in yet another twist of synchronicity… in 1979 in my first year as a professional snooker player, I had a job to fill in for a few weeks to do an exhibition at Pontin’s in Southport because John Spencer couldn’t do it. And then I drive in to Pontin’s for Bangface and it hadn’t changed at all!
Me: I remember hearing in snooker coverage you had the biggest soul collection in the UK, but again, I didn’t realise until I read the book you were a distributor.
Steve: I jumped in with a guy called Rob Dearlove who did this fantastic fanzine called Voices From The Shadows which recommended all these records that I liked. I started financing the fanzine, and then we had the idea that we should have a mail-order company because Rod had all the connections. Then America started getting rid of its vinyl. There were these job lots… I ended up with a couple of hundred thousand. We sold loads of soul to UK buyers and funnily enough we sold quite a lot to American collectors. The soul collector is a strange beast. They’ll pay £200 for a record that’s sung out of tune just because it’s rare. Every soul collector put rare records on a pedestal over and above some of the great artists, and that’s where the whole thing falls down. So I went down that road and found some great music and made some great friends, but as I said in the book, I had these blinkers on and this was at the expense of everything else. I’ve come out of that now. Kavus has helped in many ways.
THE DEATH OF LONDON COUNTER-CULTURE?
Kavus lived through East London’s creative boom, having originally pitched up to Leyton in 1993. At first it was a struggle. He knew there were vibrant creative scenes in London but he didn’t feel part of any of them. Then, on the verge of moving back to Plymouth, he stumbled across Claremont Road: the epicentre for protests against the A12 extension and in Kavus’ words, “it was like an entire street of squat parties!”.
Suddenly he felt at home in London. It wasn’t long before he met Tim Smith from Cardiacs – a key character in the book who became one of his best friends and creative influences – and so began Kavus’ journey through various creative hotspots in East London.
Me: Do you find it hard to go back to somewhere like Stoke Newington, given how much it would have changed since the 90s?
Kavus: It sounds like inverted snobbery, but I don’t recognise the people there. It’s a lot more like Islington now. What really struck me – forgive me if I’m going on a bit of a tangent here – but I remember when as about 19, the first book about Syd Barrett had just come out called ‘Crazy Diamond’ and it talks about the scene in Cambridge and London in the mid to late 60s… the UFO club, the psychedelic thing. Being in Plymouth, I remember thinking, ‘can you imagine what it was like to have lived in that time?’. Fast forward to 2015 and I was touring with my band Knifeworld, and I’ve got a couple of younger boys in the band who were in their mid to late 20s, and I was talking to them about what it was like to move to London in the early 90s. I was on the dole. I hitched up here with some money that my girlfriend had saved on a £10-per-day job. We put a deposit on a flat in London, hitched back to Plymouth, got my mate to move all our stuff to London in an ambulance and then boom: we’re living in London, and I’ve never left. As I was telling this story to two young guys who both still live with their parents because they can’t afford the rent, it struck me that if I was 21 now there’s no way I could come to London.
Kavus: When I was living in Stoke Newington I was paying 60-quid-a-week rent. I was working as a labourer for about 60 quid a day. One day’s work I had my rent; two day’s work I had enough for pot and beer; three day’s work I could buy records and then that was it: I could spend the rest of the week making music. There’s no way that a young guy could do that now. The point I’m making is that I realised how different my life was to these young guys – like how I felt Syd Barrett’s day was so much different to mine. Things have really moved on. London’s not that place anymore. I like the fact that where I live now in Clapton there’s a nice sourdough pizza place and I really enjoy living here… I’m not saying all gentrification is wrong or bad, but…
Steve: I think there’s a real problem. There’s this big ring around London where people are stuck in now. They can’t move into London and they can’t move outside to the country. It’s an ongoing problem I feel. But what might happen as a result of the pandemic is that people could say it was the making of them artistically. Once this is all done and the dust has settled, there’ll be so many places that are going to be empty that somewhere down the line are going to be filled up with art installations and space to do stuff.
Me: Yes exactly. I think good creativity will find a way somehow, even in London. The emphasis may well move away from ‘licensed premises’ as we knew them and more into empty commercial buildings or quasi-art spaces with temporary events licenses, but surely the need will be fulfilled somehow.
Kavus: And maybe even a return to the free-party scene? The whole rave thing came along – no matter how much it was demonised by the government – and it was a necessity. People want to get together en-masse and have this transcendental experience. The power of music has not receded, and never will! It’s something incredibly important. Basically the whole book is trying to muddle through ‘I don’t know what this fucking thing is but it just seems incredibly important’. If you don’t have religion, as we say in the book, I think music is mapping out the architecture of another dimension – another very real dimension. If 500 or even 30 people can experience a portal opening into another dimension… I mean what else is there?!?
Me: Well there’s always snooker!! One of my favourite parts of the book was Steve’s analysis of snooker player’s walk-on music, especially Ken Doherty’s choice of U2. Of course he comes out to bloody U2!! To me, U2 symbolise a Ford Granada. It’s got a car phone, it’s got a walnut dash, it’s immaculate… and Ken Doherty’s driving it!
Steve: Haha, yeah. There really are not many players who are really into music. I think you need silence in your ears for snooker. Some older players practice with headphones in but I think that’s to alleviate the boredom because they’ve been doing it for so long. But you don’t see the young players doing it. I never listened to music anywhere near a match in case I lost. I didn’t want to associate losing with a wonderful piece of music. Stephen Hendry’s favourite band is The Smiths which I suppose is okay.
The line cuts out.
Steve: Neal Foulds… [the sound of robotic white noise]… Alan McManus… [more robotic white noise]
The line cuts out again.
Steve: Aggh, I’m sorry. I’m getting punished for being in Romford!!
And he’s gone.
This is probably an opportune time to end the article and tell you that you can buy Steve and Kavus’ book from White Rabbit Books from this link HERE.
But then an email comes in from Steve, with a rather evocative title:
Ordinarily, a 90-minute interview with two people would have already provided double or triple what you need. But what if you need to know more about the musical preferences of Alan McManus and Neal Foulds? And what about the Iron Maiden incident? There was nothing for it. Friday was arranged. If you don’t want to know the results from a bonus anorak fest with Steve Davis, then look away now.
IRON MAIDEN & THE SNOOKER CRY-WANK
Me: Right, let’s have the Iron Maiden conversation. You dangled a little bit in the book about being backstage with Nicko McBrain [the Iron Maiden drummer] and he wouldn’t shut up about snooker.
Steve: Yeah, Nicko’s a big snooker fan. He plays it and he comes to the final of the World Championship nearly every year. He lives in Barbados or something but he makes a real effort to come over. And he used to say to me ‘if you ever want to come and see Iron Maiden, be my guest.’ Then I dropped the bombshell on Kavus and Mike [Vennart, of Biffy Clyro and Oceansize] and they nearly bit my arm off! So we went to the gig – I’d never seen anything like it – it was theatrically brilliant. A very happy atmosphere, and then we went to the VIP area. Kavus and Mike were absolutely gagging to chat with some of their heroes. There was a bronze area, a silver area, a platinum area. We were in the platinum area – we were in the inner sanctum. And you could see all the other sanctums and who was in them.
Gary Bushell was only deemed worthy of the bronze sanctum, apparently.
Steve: I introduce Kavus, Mike York and Mike Vennart and they obviously wanted to talk about music, but all he wanted to talk about his cueing! Like many people who play golf and snooker, they’re always trying to perfect their technique. They couldn’t get a word in edgeways. So we had this bizarre conversation about centre striking of the white ball. In previous years up here at the Crucible there’d be a party after the final and there’d be a band on… Nicko’s been on the drums! I remember when Mark Selby was champion he got up on the stage and sung a song – he fancies himself as a bit of a crooner – and there he was singing with Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden. It was bizarre. Almost nobody in the room really understood the significance of this! Apart from maybe the Belgian referee who’s a massive Iron Maiden fan…
Me: Olivier Marteel?
Steve: Yeah, he’s a massive collector – he loved it. Whenever he referees games at the Crucible and Nicko’s there, he’s proud as punch.
Me: I can remember seeing Nicko sitting in that little bit next to where the players come out where you’d occasionally see Damien Hirst or Prince Naseem Hamed or something.
Steve: Yes, and there’s that story I put in the book which Nicko told me actually, where Nicko’s sitting next to Stephen Fry at the Crucible and he whispers a bit too loudly that there was a two-ball plant in the middle pocket that neither player had noticed. The referee’s standing there waving his hand behind his back desperately trying to shoosh him, but then the player overheard and actually looked at the two-ball plant.
Me: I want to go back to the musical tastes of snooker players. I loved that bit in the book where you said of Art Zoyd [his choice of walk-on music at the World Championship], ‘the first time I heard it I thought it was music meant to be listened to lying on a sofa having a cry wank with a bottle of sleeping pills in the other hand.’ This is different criteria than most players! What do they actually think of your own music?
Steve: I gave copies to Alan McManus and Neal Foulds. On twitter you can see they make references to music that’s a bit more interesting… Foulds likes Talk Talk and some other more alternative music. As yet, neither of them have said anything about it. We’re yet to break into the snooker market!
Me: Well you’ll be seeing them at the World Championship this week – perhaps it could come up in conversation?
Steve: I don’t want to go up and ask them and say ‘have you listened to it yet?’ – it’ll sound so pathetic and needy… if they use them as beer coasters then so be it. When the music first came out, we had a little party with the Rocket label lads and a few friends, and one of the Rocket lads said, ‘this is just the start – the record’s just come out – nobody’s really heard it yet, it could be years before someone actually stumbles on it.’ You forget that. Who knows, somebody in five years’ time could stumble across this record and say ‘where’s this been all my life’… [trying to hold back the laughter] imagine if Stephen Hendry and John Parrott come up to me in five years and go ‘wow! I never knew you did that!’?
Me: The first time we ever spoke I remember you saying that your DJ life was a bit of an elephant in the room among snooker folk. Is that still the case?
Steve: They’re just not interested. They’re aware of the fact that this has happened, but it’s not something they’re inquisitive about. Maybe that’s a good thing because it means I don’t have to keep explaining it? They popped in one night when I was playing in York [during the UK Championship], but they left pretty quickly… they probably took one look and thought ‘this is not for us’.
Me: Jimmy White mentioned that he went to that gig on Eurosport actually.
Steve: They said something like ‘oh yeah it’s nice that he’s got something he does that he enjoys’, but they don’t know exactly what it is so they just move on!
Me: You’d have thought Jimmy White being a caner would have got it just a little bit. If nothing else, he’s experienced in staying up late in venues with music on.
Steve: I just don’t think music plays much of a role in the life of most snooker players. I think the adrenaline rush that sportspeople get taps into another vein, and it may be that the arts in general aren’t something that gets their blood boiling. We’re definitely thin on the ground for music fans in the snooker world, and maybe that’s the same thing with other sports. But there’ll always be exceptions I guess, so I’m pleased to be one!
And what a ludicrous exception he is. Jimmy White doesn’t know what he’s missing.