When Malaysian Sam Gopal was in London in the '60s to further his studies, he somehow got sidetracked into rock music. There he met Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin and recorded one album, Escalator, with Motorhead's Lemmy. Gopal today is a musician and artist because he dared to dream.
You played with Jimi Hendrix. This story has hardly been heard around the world. Would you like to tell us, what you were doing in London in the '60s?
Jimi Hendrix and my first band, The Sam Gopal Dream, played many gigs together on the same bill around London like the Roundhouse, Middle Earth, Alexander Palace, X'mas On Earth at Olympia, etc. Jimi jammed with us at the Speakeasy Club (January 1968). This came up as I gave a hand to a friend for an article on Hendrix. I came to London to further my studies and, in '65/'66, I started my first band, The Sam Gopal Dream, with Mick Hutchinson on guitar, Pete Sears on bass/organ and me on tablas. Andy Clark (organ/vocals) joined us a bit later. London as a cosmopolitan city was inspiring as I was also growing and developing my own identity. It was nice to hear visiting musicians like Hooker, Stevie Wonder about 13 years old then, Nina Simone, Grateful Dead and, of course, local bands.
Back then how did people in Europe, London react when they found out you were a Malaysian? Did they know where Malaysia was on the map? Which part of Malaysia do you come from?
Some who heard our music with the tablas related me automatically to India, and I had to correct them. To others I had sometimes to explain that Malaysia is near Singapore, while some were satisfied to hear it is near the equator. In places like Holland I just had to mention Malacca and they seemed to know where, due to their colonial history. There was the odd time some even thought I must be from South America.
I remember back then, I listened to the radio for The Strollers, a Malaysian Band. Singapore had The Quests. Do you remember P Ramlee? Why didn't you start a career in Malaysia?
Yes, of course, I remember the great P Ramlee. He was special. The Strollers and the Quests here I am at a loss. I do remember seeing a film called The Girl Can't Help It. That was the first time I heard Bill Haley ("One o'clock, two o'clock...") and the other great rock legends. I spent quite a bit of my pocket money to see this film again and again.
The reason I did not start a career in Malaysia was because I was in London doing my studies. It was only a few years later that I decided to form my first band. I was not brought up to think about music as a profession, then, though music was always in me as far back as I can remember. I was not even 18 when I boarded this big passenger liner from Singapore en route to Europe. There is this one very strong memory in my mind: stopping at Djibouti, "the horn of Africa," first time listening live to the intensity of some African drums on the outskirts there... and I wanted to play.
Was the music scene back then receptive to a tabla player? Besides the tablas what other instruments do you play and what is your other favourite instrument?
It was the first time in swinging London that the tablas were playing with guitar and bass. Also it was the first time for many in the audience to hear the tablas. Some even thought they must be bongos! Our music was cooking and we could play. This gets through anywhere. There was the odd weird comment within the industry and fraternity... "you cannot play without a drum kit" or "what, no regular drummer?" But I kept on. The feedback from drummers in London and Europe was fantastic. Apart from my main instrument the tablas, I also play some guitar, keyboards, bass guitar and percussion. My other favourite main instrument is guitar. Wherever I travel the tablas and guitar come first... then my suitcase... I have a very understanding wife who supports and encourages me, by having less in her suitcase, for my other musical accessories.
Escalator by the Sam Gopal Band is a collector's item these days because Lemmy of Motorhead wrote the songs and sang on it. What's your relationship with him? Are you guys still in touch?
I am glad that Escalator is a collector's album. It was well received then and we had some great reviews from the press. We used to rehearse before recording Escalator in my flat in Earls Court with Lemmy living just down the same street. Roger was a couple of minutes away also in Earls Court. Only Phil had to travel right across London from East Ham to us. We last met in the early '80s and toasted to an early morning tea... catching up with the past. We joked with each other about taking good care of one's health. We have not seen each other since then. He is living in the States... I have been in Nepal, Berlin, and here in Germany. I love Lemmy and am proud of what he has got together. I am sure we will meet in this life again.
What "automobile accident" sidelined your career in the early '70s? And were you managed by Led Zeppelin's Peter Grant at one time?
I was cruising on my Yamaha 125 twin-carb. Suddenly I had to avoid a car coming my side. On hindsight I see it on a positive level, though at that time it was a wrench of an experience. But I started really getting into studying studios and got more into the guitar. We were in Amsterdam when the Led Zep people came in and wanted to manage us. Peter Grant was decent to us, though the basic factors were handled by Richard Cole, his right-hand man. We did record a few tracks in the studio for them.
There is a mighty long gap between Escalator and your new album, Father Mucker. Where there many other albums in between, and are they still for sale?
Yes, it appears like a long gap, but simply because these are the only two albums to come out in the market. I always recorded and love being in the studios. There were other albums that I recorded. Building B, during the time of my accident in the early '70s. Largo in the '80s, a live Sangit; Soap Opera and Not For Sale in the '90s followed by Blind Man's Movie, and a live Brain Tonic. Then, there are the Kathmandu Tapes. I have also recorded many tracks in the studios from the '70s to now, though they are not seen as albums. I will bring these albums out on my own GSP record label at the right time. With Father Mucker being the first release on GSP, I have the freedom to create and mould the music the way I like, without any stipulations or procrastination being placed in the way.
Escalator is a very well produced album with a strong '60s feel, to my ears. What are you listening to these days?
Yes, I know what you mean about the '60s sound and, for those days, the production was okay but I was not happy with that tabla sound. Trevor, the producer (an old friend), was producing for the first time. They just did not have the experience and know-how to get the tabla sound I wanted. Being able to mix ice cream, does not mean one knows how to make ice kachang.
Around that time we were playing in the Speakeasy, Frank Zappa came up and asked me how I got such a great tabla sound on stage. I remarked that I actually was not happy with my tablas sound in the studios. Although I had done some studio sessions till then, I had hardly any idea what it took to make a record. There is a huge world of a difference between playing music and making a record in the studio.
Frank was recording at the Trident studios (London) and invited me to come up there the next day, after studio hours to check things out. This was '69. Zappa was not only a great producer, he also knew how to get a fantastic sound on stage at a gig. Frank "just opened the door" to me in getting into studio basics. Thanks to Escalator, I was determined to learn about studio production. Subsequently I started learning and, during the time of my accident around '71, I spent a considerable amount of time in the CBS studio building.
I recorded some tracks of Building B there and also mixed the whole album with an engineer there. I observed and noticed Mike Ross, a great engineer, while he worked. Those days I saw the first MCI computerised desk in one of the studios, but I was more into getting the analogue rudiments together.
Nowadays I listen to rock, classical, blues, folk any good music that touches and interests me: Steve Vai, Jaco Pastorius, Bonnie Rait, BB King, Haydn, Chopin whenever there is time to listen. I spend a few hours every day with the tablas, guitar and other instruments... also working on my next album does make it's own demands on time. I am really happy that time is such a valuable and elusive friend.
Looking at Malaysia from the outside, what do you think of the music scene there, or in Asia? Anyone you like?
Being away for such a long time... whenever I am there I love the fantastic and wonderful mixture of cultures. Sometimes I hear singing in Malay. Other times the dial on the radio tunes in to Chinese music, or it is Tamil or Indian music. I really love it when I hear something I cannot place: is it Thai or from Laos, Burma, the Philippines? There's a special thrill of discovery that touches but does not announce. I am sure there are some very good musicians in Malaysia and Singapore, but with due respect, pardon me if I do not know of them.
If you were born in this era would you embark on a career as an artist and musician, or climb the corporate ladder?
I will definitely
embark on a career as a musician and artist. Music, when one is devoted
and committed to it, is the most difficult of professions in the world...
it takes a whole lifetime. It is a blessing that takes one into areas,
sometimes unreachable for most. Apart from the talent, one receives only
what one puts into it. Sometimes I wish I had another lifetime in reserve
to call up for the next stage, after this one. My love and involvement
with tablas and music incorporates all the ladders of the climb. That
sums it all up.
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