It has been an unfortunate side-effect of the past two years of Pandemic disruption that some of the many great bands who began their careers at the turn of the 1970s, and were eagerly planning 50th Anniversary celebrations, found themselves suddenly ‘all dressed up with no place to go’, as the song has it. Uriah Heep were just one high profile victim of this ill-timed hiatus, but another which can be added to that list is Curved Air, whose debut album Air Conditioning, lest we forget, hit the UK Top Ten on its release back in 1970. Naturally, this milestone would have been celebrated in style by the current band – still led from the front, naturally, by the evergreen Sonja Kristina. Happily, after a couple of enforced tour cancellations, those 50th Anniversary shindigs are about to finally happen – and so what if it’s a couple of years overdue? Imagine if you got to have your 21st birthday again when you were 23… it would still be a great night out and then some! I caught up with Sonja via the miracle of Zoom (‘what an age we live in…’ etc), to talk about the current state of the band, look ahead to the tour, and have a little look back over our shoulders as well. I began by talking about the current line-up of the band, which has seen a couple of changes in recent times…
VT: It’s interesting to look at the current make-up of the band, as there have been one or two interesting developments. Firstly, longtime violinist Paul Sax has left the band after being around since the first reunion happened in 2008, which must have been a blow I would imagine?
SK: Yeah, it’s just that it’s painful for him to play. That’s the main thing, it’s from from the way he’s been holding his violin all these years, it just hurts his neck and shoulder. He’s been to see osteopaths and things like that, but he just thought it’s that time, you know – he’s got a nice little cottage in Wales and he just wants to to retire now, but he’s been wonderful. I brought him in because I fell in love with his playing when he was in the Acid Folk band with me, because a lot of violinists just sound like they’re playing the violin part, you know, a kind of ‘fiddly, diddly’ thing or whatever, and of course he can do the ‘fiddly diddly’ bit really easily, but he also played lines that sound like electric guitar lines, and just beautiful melodies. He’s got so much energy when he plays as well, and although it was a case of big shoes to fill after Darryl [Way], he certainly did it with aplomb. Actually, when Darryl said he didn’t want to do the gigging thing any more, first of all we thought of Eddie Jobson, and we even asked Simon House, but he really didn’t want to be in bands any more. But Eddie came, flew over with his with his tech person, and he did one low key show, and it was fine. At least we did do a show – he was supposed to be doing two festivals with us, but they didn’t happen and so suddenly he was coming over to do a couple of very public performances, and he ended up doing an intimate show. It was lovely that he did play with us at all though, he got to know the band and they got to know him, and then, as a result of that, he took me to play with him on his 40th anniversary, so I went to Japan with him. He flew me over there, and that was really nice – I remember I was sitting next to John Wetton. Lovely hotel as well and, I really like being in Japan. That was nice of Eddie to do, but it was relevant because he was doing a retrospective of all of his songs from throughout his career, including Curved Air. Eddie would have been too expensive to join with us at this point though, because he doesn’t tend to just get up and play. It’s a major production with him to have all these sounds and everything, so it’s two people, he has to come with his tech as well so that he doesn’t have to think about creating every single sound. It’s all kind of a set thing that they work together, and we weren’t really set up for that. So anyhow, I contacted Paul, and my keyboard player Robert Norton as well, who was also in my Acid Folk line up, and is still with us today. Did you ever see the Acid Folk by the way?
No, I never did catch any of the Acid Folk shows, I’m sorry to say…
Oh, that was such enjoyable time of my life! It all came from when Roddy Harris was running this sort of new acoustic scene at The Troubadour in Earls Court. It was in 1988, when I went down there, and we didn’t sing with microphones, he wouldn’t have anybody using a microphone, and I enjoyed that. So when I went out with the Acid Folk, I carried on with just singing, throwing my voice into the room, which was a joy, you know, and the instruments were just acoustic behind me. The only thing that was amplified at all was a little bit for the bass guitar, because we didn’t have a stand-up bass or whatever. And then when Robert joined, wherever there was a piano, he played a piano but then his keyboard might have had a bit of an amplification. What was really great about these boys was that they could improvise so well, they really had what I’ve always looked for. It’s interesting how I met Robert, because he was making money by selling and delivering delivering organic vegetables, you see. And so I had ordered some, I had a regular order from the people he was working for, who I think were called Bumblebee, something like that. Anyway, he was an attractive, charismatic guy, so we would get chatting, and he’d always come in, and then somebody where he works said – and I can’t remember how it came up exactly – ‘Oh, he plays lovely piano’. I had a little honky tonky kind of piano that had belonged to Stewart’s father [Miles Copeland], and had been around the road on jazz gigs and the like, and also used by the Police and things as well. So Robert sat down, and he just played and it was beautiful. Flying fingers and lovely melodies, just totally unique and individual. And in that moment, I thought, well, he was the right person. I know we’re still back in the Acid Folk days here, but then later, when Darryl left the reformed Curved Air we had to replace both keyboards and violin, because it’s hard to find somebody like Eddie Jobson who’s really excellent at both of course. So Paul and Robert both said ‘Oh, do you really think we can do it?’, because they hadn’t been with named bands and things like that. They’d played with loads and loads of bands, but they were all around the kind of festival circuit thing. I knew they were a good fit though, because they were great musicians. Paul had been to the Yehudi Menuhin school when he was prep school age. He was brought up by his father who was a violinist as well, and he was very judgmental, he didn’t approve of Paul playing with these bands and things that he did. Anyway, he started playing electric guitar, and then he heard Curved Air. and that’s actually what made him start playing electric violin as opposed to classical. Robert had been to the Purcell school, so they both had classical training, but they were also just wonderful, free players. So when they asked whether I thought they could do it, I said ‘Yes, yes, you can’. Robert is so good that he fitted right into Francis Monkman’s shoes, and in fact he’s had some conversations recently with Francis on the phone and they get on really well. Francis was always into sort of sound modulation, and exploring what one could do with all these tone controls and oscillators and things that we had back in 1970. And Robert also has a taste for the more retro sounds, but he also can do whatever he wants to do using today’s equipment to make the sound that he wants. With Robert and also Chris Harris on bass, there’s a long standing core in the band, pretty much since the first reunion. Chris was there from the start in 2008 as the rhythm section with Florian [Pilkington-Miksa], and then Paul and Robert joined in 2009, because Darryl just wasn’t enjoying the the gigging experience – which I love, but it drove him crazy, he didn’t like it.
Can you tell me a bit about the new guy you have on violin since Paul left – Gregor is it?
Well, there again, he was a lucky find, through a girlfriend of mine who I met at the Travellers Festival, the horsedrawn festival. I was asked if Curved Air wanted to play at the festival, so we went down, we played there, and I actually did one one set with the Acid Folk band and one set with Curved Air. I met this girl called Jane, who I remember had a really big camera. She was taking pictures and videos and things like that. Anyway, we became really good friends. And she made a video that went on the Live Atmosphere release – she filmed Melinda, More Or Less played by my Acid Folk people. Paul had been on the point of leaving for a couple of years, because it wasn’t easy for him to play by then, and at the time she had said that she had a young young lodger who was in London studying violin, but he was from Poland. And so she asked him then if he would be interested if the opportunity arose and he said, ‘Oh, yeah’. His name is actually Grzegorz Gadziomski, though he’s happy to go by Greg, which does make things easier! So when Paul did leave I asked Jane what had happened to him, and she said he’d gone back to Poland, but she got in touch with him and yes, he was still interested in it. Obviously, he’d been doing a lot of things in the couple of years since since we first approached him, so there were some nice recordings that I could play the others, and he actually kind of auditioned online because we sent him some tracks and then he sent back his. He learned them and then played them where he was and then sent them back so that we could hear what he did, and he’s just lovely – because, like Paul, he does do bits and pieces of busking, but he also plays with with traditional Polish folk bands and he plays in in orchestras and you know, plays whatever violin it is that is needed. And so he’s an all rounder, and he’s a good guy. So it’s worked out really well, and he goes down well with the audiences too.
Of course now you’ve got Kirby Gregory [guitarist from the mid-70s Curved Air] back with you again since Kit Morgan left. It was certainly a shame that Kit left because he was very, very good. But if you get Kirby in again, that’s a bonus in a way I suppose, isn’t it?
Yes it is. Even though he came in later, in 1973, he is still another link to the past, which I think is important. It’s important for me and I think it makes a difference to the audience too. He came back in when Kit left, because he’d been sort of on the back burner for a while too, because Kit also was having physical discomfort with back trouble. We’ve been in touch with Kit, but he still doesn’t play standing up, it’s still uncomfortable for him, which is a shame. We had another good guitarist before him, but Kit actually learned the whole set with one rehearsal before we went to Japan, because the guitarist we had, who played on the Reborn album [Andy Christie], he wouldn’t fly. So he was taking trains everywhere, but we couldn’t take a train to Japan! So that was why we were recommended Kit, and he just learned all the stuff and went on stage, and he was fab!
Talking about links to the past, of course, very sadly, we lost Florian last year, didn’t we?
Yeah, that was very sad. He had already left the band a little while before that due to ill health, of course. He had various various niggling things, the most serious of which was lung problems. And that’s eventually what he sadly died from. He had several bouts of pneumonia, and then that was it. When he left, he was tired. He really was. I don’t know if he was tired of of gigging, because he did love it. But it was tiring for him. So that was why he left, but by all accounts he was quite low because he wasn’t out with the band any more, and obviously when you’re not getting the oxygen properly and things like that, you’re not 100% ever. So yes, that was a great shame. We have a great new drummer in though, Andy Tween. He also dates back to – well, can you guess where?
I’m guessing that will be Acid Folk again!
That’s it. All roots come from Acid Folk! Yeah, Paul Sax found him. He had just finished music college, so he’d had his musical training and studied percussion. He did some of his first solo shows with the Acid Folk, and things were very quirky with us, you know, so he worked very hard to get that really energetic feel, and he served us very well. But then when we needed to replace Florian obviously I thought we needed to check out where Andy was, because I had heard from him that he had a repetitive strain injury or carpal tunnel syndrome or something, so he had stopped playing for a bit whilst that was happening – but that’s all better now I think, or least he manages it. And he’s just so fantastic. He’s younger than the rest of us – me and Kirby the oldest of course – but he’s played in many different kinds of bands. He’s really in demand and he does a lot of session stuff, and he writes writes stuff for TV as well. He’s just such an asset to the band.
You mentioned that this tour will be Air Cut themed shows?
Yes, that’s right, playing that album as part of the show. We did an Air Conditioning one for the 45th anniversary. We played the Air Cut album when we went to Japan in 2020, when Mike Wedgwood joined us as guest. We’ve put out the two song videos from that tour [see the foot of this article], it was in a lovely, lovely theatre, and a good crowd and the band played played really well. We’ve mixed those recordings already, Robert has turned out to be our engineer and producer now because he has what I call ears from heaven. And can add exactly the right sort of effects and things. That was sort of supposed to be the beginning of our actual 50th anniversary year, so now we can actually celebrate the 50th year because we’re allowed to play again, and hopefully the venues will stay open, and hopefully the virus will behave itself!
There are still extra precautions which are needing to be taken of course, as bands are having to go out on tour in a ‘bubble’ with the band and crew, because the rules are such that if any of them happen to test positive with the virus, then as of this moment they would still be forced to cancel the shows.
Yes, I know. Our tour manager was saying this, that it wouldn’t be a good idea to meet around the merch desk and things as usual, but maybe people could perhaps bring their CDs and things to outside the dressing room and hand them and we could sign them – maybe even Live Streaming the signing! Yeah, there’s ways around it. I’m also thinking about the possibility of Live Streaming some of the shows as well, working out how. There are exciting possibilities.
Thinking back to the old Curved Air days, one thing that comes to my mind a lot is that I can think of very few other examples of this, but your first album (Air Conditioning) is so strong that it’s still regarded by a lot of people as your best album. And even the biggest bands, you tend to think of the first album as always a bit formative, and they find their feet later on, but you really hit the ground fully formed that first album; it’s remarkable looking back.
Well, that’s because with the material was really well played in. There’s a well known saying that you have the whole of your life to write your first album, then you have nine months to write the next. The second one is always hard, isn’t it? Because there’s a time pressure, and you’re also touring and things as well. So for all the years that we were actually working live, you know, you’re either touring or writing or recording, and it’s hard to write on the road. From the second album on you tend to get to know the material better after the recording, from playing it live, and that’s something I really noticed a difference with. On the first album everyone knew their parts inside out and had explored the material so completely, and we were excited by the recording. When it came to the next one you were suddenly having people presenting their ideas in the writing, and directing how things should be played, and how I should be singing, and it’s only when we got to play the songs on stage that we would be free to experiment and let ourselves go a bit. So I’ve always found the performances on the second album and Phantasmagoria to be a little restrained by comparison, especially in terms of my vocals. I was writing, of course, but there was a freedom in the playing which wasn’t quite there in the same way. When you’re being produced, in a sense, by the songwriter – even if I had written the lyrics – it does make a difference; which, again, is a reason why it was such a liberating experience later when I came to do the Acid Folk, with the freedom of expression which came with it.
I think something which tends to get overlooked now is just how groundbreaking what you were doing with Curved Air in the beginning was, in terms of your role as frontwoman. I mean, we’d had the Janis Joplins and Tina Turners of course, but until Annie Haslam joined Renaissance there was nobody else doing what you were doing in such a male-dominated scene. You were the original ‘first lady of prog’, and you did open a lot of doors, so in these days of so many female-fronted bands, do you think that gets forgotten a little?
Well, I’m not sure about being forgotten or not, but certainly what prepared me for the role I took in the band was the long time I spent in the stage production of the musical Hair. Prior to that, any performances I did were just playing guitar and singing, you know, the singer-songwriter stuff. But in Hair we would be dancing so much during the show, as soon as the music struck up, and doing that eight shows a week for two and a half years made me feel very much at home with expressing myself on the stage. I remember at one of the early shows we did, at the Speakeasy, it was about the second or third song of the set, and I was moving as I tended to do, and Francis [Monkman] said to me ‘that’s it, go on! You dance!’, and so I did. I remember that very clearly. The band were very good in that way, they let me do whatever I wanted on stage physically, like going to the audience and really communicating and interacting with them, having ‘a love-in’ as I would call it, because that was my instinct. I think that over my life and career I’ve had some very fortunate breaks – such as when I left Hair and I was looking for something else to do, and Curved Air came along. But I do like to let things happen organically, such as when I find musicians for my band, whichever it may be at the time, I tend to just find them naturally rather than having formal auditions and the like. Sometimes there will be times when nothing is happening, for a year or whatever, but you just tread water during those times, you don’t give up on music and do something else, because the next thing will come along, and it tends to happen, as I said, quite organically. I didn’t plan to be any kind of new sort of performer, or a kind of prog glamour figure, but it just happened, and I like life to be like that, it’s exciting!
Now that the band is active again after the enforced lay-off, what can we expect in terms of Curved Air recorded output? Are there any plans?
Well, yes, there are. The first thing is to try to get a live album out from the Japan recordings, from the 2020 shows. Robert has been working on that already, smoothing out some issues with the recordings, and he will be getting on with producing that now. And we will also be continuing to work on new material which we’ve been gathering together for a new album, because of course there hasn’t been original material released since the North Star album some years ago, so I’m very keen to get that done. The thing to do is to make it as much of an authentic Curved Air record as possible, and for that I will work with the guys with any material they might have written, choosing the most ‘Curved-Air-y’ songs and arranging them to give the band room to play and make it something the fans will love. There are writers in the band of course, apart from me, but the style has to be right – Kirby, for example, is a great writer but he tends to come up with more rocky, bluesy sort of material, which might not work so well for the Curved Air audience, who like a little more light and shade or whatever, so it’s something that I really want to get right. When we did the North Star record what we did was actually to work on the songs as a band quite extensively, playing them and working out arrangements and things – which was quite volatile at times, but everybody hung in there and it worked out very well. It started with Robert and myself getting the ball rolling by laying out some basic arrangements, but it became very collaborative, and I think everyone involved can be rightly very proud of what they contributed to that album. So that’s very much what we’re aiming to do with the new album.
That sounds very exciting news for sure, and music to the fans’ ears without doubt. Before we finish, is there anything else you would like to mention to people reading this?
Well, yes, one thing I would love to mention is the Patreon page that we have, because that is so important in keeping the band going at the moment. With all of the cancelled things and the rest over the last couple of years we are really struggling to get enough money in to keep the band on the road, and the wonderful people backing us via Patreon have been so important. We have had some online events with the hard core of our supporters which have been great fun – we’ve done that using Discord, and I’m still working out the best way to use all of the online tools available. But Patreon really is our lifeblood, and I appreciate anyone who signs up enormously, I really do, so please do have a look and see what we offer for supporters. The internet is such an exciting resource with so much potential, even if it takes old-timers like me a while to work out the best way to use it all in the most effective way!
Thanks for your time Sonja, and good luck for the tour, which sounds well worth getting along to, for anyone with an interest in this great material, and with such an exciting new line-up!