A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to ask some questions to Soft Machine's guitar player John Etheridge. John kindly answered all questions and even asked Theo Travis to answer one.
There are open and interesting answers regarding the music, the band, the past and future.

• About your (John’s) guitar playing: which/what/who inspires you to play the way you do?

My inspirations are of course many ..but like all players the real influences are the early ones ..For me it was Hank Marvin who inspired me to get a guitar. But the first major influence was hearing Django Reinhardt in 1963. I was really into this music until I went to see Eric Clapton with John Mayall in 1965 -that was stratospheric, the start of the whole rock guitar thing. Then Jimi Hendrix of course.
I knew these guys a bit and they were both very nice to me about my playing, which gave me confidence to go forward with the mix of Django and Eric that I was trying to achieve (early jazz rock!). Then I heard Extrapolation (the album) by John McLaughlin and In a Silent Way by Miles Davis ( with John Mclaughlin ) and that took me back to Jazz and formed the basis of my way of playing, which developed first with Darryl Way’s Wolf and then Soft Machine .

• What attracts you in Soft Machine’s music to keep the band alive?
I really enjoy playing the way I do with Soft Machine. When the band finished at the end of the 70s, I missed that area of playing very much. Playing with John Marshall and Roy Babbington pushes me to areas I don’t go with any other music and with Theo Travis we have really the best Soft Machine. We move through all the areas of the band’s history, free improv, driving ’fusion’ etc. The only thing that is not represented is the vocal aspect.

• Soft machine wasn’t a guitar band, only beginning and end. Wasn’t it difficult to fit in guitar parts in the older compositions like Kings and Queens?
My approach to this is that I don’t really listen to the old versions King’s and Queens .. Hugh Hopper brought in the music and I played what I thought fitted the lovely melody. To tell you the truth I don’t think I have listened to the original!
I say, quickly, that this is not always the case. We do Out bloody Rageous and I found a great version of that with 2 saxophones that helped my interpretation of the accompanying part ( which is my job there ). I use an organ pedal to imitate Mike Ratledge’s vamp.

• How do you approach the different styles in Soft Machine’s music, regarding Third-Seven versus Bundles-Alive & Well? Experimental jazz versus jazzrock/fusion?
Whatever we do it’s organic. We don’t approach the historical stuff any differently from the new material. Because I’m covering with guitar, what was essentially a keyboard band. I feel very free. John and Roy are not interested in reproducing the past and Theo, who obviously was not in the old band, brings his intelligence and creativity, which comes from his own background. He is of course quite a bit younger and has different influences

• Theo Travis is somewhat younger and has another background. How does he look at the older Soft Machine’s music? Isn’t it ‘strange’ to play someone else’s music from a band in which you haven’t played before?
This back from Theo himself-
“ It feels very natural to me to play the older Soft Machine music. I listen to lots of music from the late 1960s and early 1970s – some call it progressive/ experimental/ artrock/ Canterbury/jazzrock etc. – it is what I like, so is natural for me to play. As a jazz musician and a freelance saxophone and flute player it is actually normal to play other people’s music from a band in which one hasn’t played before. Often one might get a call to play a gig or two in a band as a ‘one off’. Or a recording session. That is the role of a professional player for hire and I am very happy to do that. On the other hand, I have actually run bands and been a band leader for most of my musical life, so I am used to that too. Soft Machine is a co-operative and works well as one. We all write for the band and we play music we were not originally involved in the composing and recording of. But now all the music we play live is very familiar to us- and feels like our own music. “

• Soft Machine today sounds ‘fresher’ than Soft Machine in the past, I think. Is their music timeless or does the present setting/arrangement give their music an actual ‘feel’? Listening to their recent albums and live shows it doesn’t sound obsolete at all.
Soft Machine is a much more cohesive unit now than it ever was in the past. There were many factions in the band in the old days, which impinged on the music. Things weren’t discussed, so anomalies, both personal and musical, went unchecked. We are now all very happy to be there and Theo ,particularly, coming from a generation where people discuss problems, has been a very good influence on us grumpy old geezers!

• Since I play a little bit bass guitar myself, I would like to know which bass Roy plays. Does he still play his 6-string bass?
Roy is playing a Fender Precision copy (I think it’s a Squier). We tried the 6 string bass guitar, but it didn’t have enough bottom end for our requirements now. Roy now gets a really deep bass sound, that is not possible on the 6 string.

• Are there any plans for new compositions? – an obvious question
We’re hoping to do a new studio album around December January for release, maybe, in the middle of next year. Theo and I write most of the new material. We’ll also dig out some old stuff and feature a lot of collective improvisation.

Thanks for the interview John - and Theo of course.
interview by paul lemmens - August 2020