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Artist of the Week: Steve Hubback

June 21, 2009 by · 4 comments

Mariana Velichkova’s interview with the metal craftsman and musician Steve Hubback

When and how did you get started in making gongs and sculptures?

From 1980 til 1989 I made a living only by music and I could never find the gongs and unusual sounds I was looking for. So, in 1990 I was in Aarhus in Denmark. I got some thin stainless steel discs and started hammering and heating them into gongs.

I worked almost everyday to learn how to create decent gongs and of course it took years. I was fortunate that within 2 years I had some of Scandinavia’s best drummers/percussionists playing on my gongs and metal percussion, such as Marilyn Mazur and Paolo Vinaccia.

After some time I started working with brass and bronze and learnt how to forge cymbals, then I learnt welding and blacksmithing and that’s when I started making larger outdoor sculptures.

What fascinates you the most in gong making?

All of it really. The process of creation. Every work is unique and when the form is done I have a good idea of how it will sound and after the final heating, that’s when I hear the true sound for the first time and sometimes I’m amazed by the power of the vibrations.

What is the relation between form and sound?

Everything. It’s not easy to really explain, but my creations sound like they look and look like they sound. I’m happy that I can make small gong sculptures that are quite light in weight and yet the sound will be far greater than what one would expect.

Having invented and pioneered sculptural gongs has opened up a lot of possibilities and it’s an ongoing process which has led me to being involved with some very unusual projects, such as creating a garden of stainless steel sound sculptures pivoted on trees in a forest in Wales.

Tell us more please about your pursuits in music.

I formed my group Metal Moves in the late 90’s. I wanted a group to only perform on my sculptures and instruments. We also recorded 3 Cd’s and the last recording was finished in February this year. The music has been a kind of folk mixed with industrial sounds. I also make special harps which we use in Metal Moves.

I’m going to reform the group with a new line up and take it more in a kind of folk/metal/atmospheric direction. We will feature the harps, some drums and lots of tuned percussion, it’s also very visual and will be like some kind of fairy tale experience.

I’m also doing solo concerts with one drum and 2 gongs and small percussion sculptures. I perform a kind of acoustic trance music. With the drum I perform with 3 sticks in my left hand and 2 in my right. This creates a much more intense and powerful music and I can explore many possibilities with this approach.

Last December I recorded a very atmospheric (avant/Jazz) album with Dutch reedman Ad Peijnenburg. We usually perform at least 5 concerts a year in Holland. The next one should be in the Cathedral in Eindhoven.

I’m also still connected with Sax and flute player Theo Travis. He’s playing in Gong and Soft Machine. We have performed together in Holland, Serbia and England and have 2 Cd’s available.
I’m also now getting more involved with Celtic music and I’m playing Bodhran (Irish drumming with frame drum and 1 stick)

As for the music I listen too. It’s quite diverse. I listen to Celtic music, Avant Garde Contemporary, like Xennakis and Arvo Part. Heavy Metal, I love Iron Maiden. Jazz, still love John Coltrane and drummers like Tony Oxley. Groups like Magma, anything which I feel is real and alive.

What is art for you?

Art for me is something that reaches me and gives me something strong. It can lead to other things, other ways of leading one’s life and developing spirituality, it may be something that gives me a sense of wonder. Something that lifts my spirit and gives me inspiration.

If you have to replace art and music with something else what would it be?

I’d be a wine and Mead (medovina – honeywine) maker and maybe a bee keeper too.

What is the most unforgettable festival or exhibition you have been at?

There’s a few. Druga Godba in Ljubljana 1987 was very memorable. I performed an outside solo concert there, although the general ambience and people I was with made it exceptional. I remember in the hotel an English/African group called Taxi Pata Pata were there and there were over 12 of them all trying to get English breakfast with very specific instructions to 1 communist waiter, who offered only ‘Continental breakfast’ which was very bad warm mocha coffee.

Stale bread and jam and that was it! After a while the waiter cracked and disappeared. The whole clientele in the restaurant waited for about half an hour with much laughter and culinary comments, before venturing out together to find breakfast in the cafe next door. We all got on really well and a festive situation started and kept on developing into quite an amusing and unforgettable few days.

I was invited by RL Lunding a famous Danish guitarist to perform with him with another Danish artist called Robyn lubecker at a festival in Aarhus. RL still regrets it to this day. I had very little information about what we should do, except that we would be painted while performing by Robyn. So I bought a box of wine glasses and 3 bottles of strong red wine, a Van Gels suit and a pair of dark glasses. Idea being to look sharp – I would sing and do a kind of Scottish rap, whils’t RL played guitar and machines and Robyn painted.

When we all met for the first time 1 hour before the show. The festival was packed and the promoter had a special stage built with lots of protective paper around the walls and floor just for us.
Robyn had turned up with a very large fish (dead) which he taped dark glasses on and a walkman. He wore a coat with the armband for those who are blind and had a white stick.
I led him (and the fish) through the audience – he whacked a few people with the stick, which was provocative…. we hit the stage and all hell broke lose.

After every 5 minutes we all drank a glass straight down and then smashed the glasses against the wall. The fish was quickly getting disintegrated and mixing with the paint. The smell was awful, but we continued. I was playing an oil drum which fell off stage into the audience, it was violently thrown back – after 30 minutes we were finished. Paint, fish and glass everywhere. Absolute mayhem broke out after and people still remember this show after all these years.
Then there is the cement mixer on fire, but perhaps another time for that.

I part organised an event for Aarhus festweek called Madhouse, which took place in a large hall.
One of the ideas (not mine) was to have a charming lady called Kix dressed as a mermaid sitting in a large pool of water all evening. The Dane whose idea it was, made a border with plastic and metal chairs and then wrapped a giant piece of plastic sheet around it all and started filling it with water – lots of it. About an hour before the show was to start we were brought some food and I remember eating and watching the whole pool collapse and a tidal wave of water heading straight for me. I did my best to alert everyone, whilst still eating and managed to stand on a table, while everyone else got soaked.

Funny thing is, they swept the water out and built the pool almost the same as before and it was still filling when the audience came in. We insisted that everyone in the audience had to drink a large glass of free wine before entering. The show lived up to it’s name.

Then there was the Hydronorts. A masssive 3 part show in Kolding and Copenhagen. Lots of money was given and spent and part of it was for Sea Sculptures to be built by me and Englishman Paul Burwell (sadly no longer with us). 3 months after the sea sculptures should have been removed from the fjord. I turned up to collect some pieces and was asked by Harold the Danish manager if I’d help bring in the Sea Sculptures. I wasn’t so keen, but agreed. Harold wasn’t keen either and the next day we put it off as long as possible.

We enjoyed the late summer day at Harold’s favorite cafe and at 1500 boarded the vessel that would bring in the Sea Sculptures. This was a metal raft made of 6 oil barrels and a Yamaha outboard motor. Top speed perhaps 1 and a half kilometers an hour.

We attached half the Sea Sculptures when somehow, some of the lines got tangled with a navigational buoy. Harold spent a good 40 minutes losing his temper, almost falling into the sea and generally getting stressed. I was having none of it and relaxed and waited.
Finally we continued, by now it’s dark. We are in a fjord with an international sea route to the harbor, we have no lights at all, when we almost got rammed by a fishing trawler. The Danish seaman used foul language at us to my surprise.

Some time later we ran aground on a sand bank. This was infinite patience put to the test and I lost it as well as Harold who by now was beside himself. I don’t know how, but after 30 minutes we floated off and then took the extremely dangerous route into the harbor with no lights. We tied the Sculptures to a bollard and departed back to the cafe. I never saw the sculptures again as I left the next day.

I did a solo exhibition in Aarhus in Denmark in 1995. When I’d finished all the set up I went out for a meal and when I arrived at the gallery I couldn’t get through the door as it was packed with people. That was a great experience.

A few years ago in England I was invited by a major gallery to exhibit my gong sculptures. When I arrived I was really uneasy as I was broke, but within 24 hours the gallery sold almost everything. Talk about dynamics of stress levels, one minute on the edge of despair, next really living it up.

The Beltine festival in Telc (CZ) this year was great. I had an installation of my mobile sculptures there and all night long people were photographing, videoing and touching them. Nothing was stolen or damaged.

Your concept about art is…?

To be real about what I do, to have a positive intent and drive and to constantly work on developing my vision, to get the balance of intellect, technique and imagination/emotion in harmony which is synergetic and that is when it becomes something really special.

What is your advice to anyone who decides to dedicate his life to art?

Make sure you can find a way to get money to live alright. Being a starving artist is useless, you won’t make better art, you’ll just be starving and miserable. Life is too short and there’s no need to suffer and get crazy. Do what you believe in, work at it and learn how to get it out into the world. Most importantly you need a sense of humor, without it you wont survive.

There are many great artists that no one knows about, because they cant deal with promoting their work or are bad at bussiness. You have to do all this on your own, until the great day when someone else will help. That usually comes when you are ‘successful’.


Steve Hubback is from Barry in South Wales and started drumming seriously when he was 19. He attended the Barry Jazz Summer schools organized by the pioneer drummer Tony Oxley. This set him on the path and he worked hard at being a good drummer. Practicing at times up to 8 hours a day and playing as much live performance as possible.

In 1981 he left for Paris, playing in Rock n Roll, Rock groups, Theatre and some jazz. All through the 80’s he performed all over Europe, including 2 weeks tour of DDR and Slovenia in Yugoslavia. He recorded for record labels in Berlin, Denmark and Sweden and did TV broadcasts in Scandinavia.

In 1990 he started to learn metal craft. First with gong making, then cymbals. After a short time he had great musicians playing on his instruments, such as Marilyn Mazur (ex Miles Davis and at the time playing with Jan Garbarek) Paolo Vinaccia and many Norwegian Jazz and classical percussionists.

Progressing with his metal craft he learnt blacksmithing and welding and started creating large outside sculptures. In 1992 he created the world’s biggest gong in Aarhus Denmark. It was 2 and a half meters in diameter and weighed 150 kilos. It gained a lot of press in Denmark. Also in 1992 he did his first solo exhibition of instruments at Die Fabrik in Eindhoven, NL.

A very powerful and vivid dream that he had around 1993 changed his whole way of making instruments. In the dream he saw a percussionist playing in a pavilion on top of a mountain in Norway. Instead of playing a normal percussion set, this was really unique and different, lots of small drums and bells, Cowbells, woodblocks and a large living bronze Dragons wing, which had an incredible, warm, beautiful sound that sent all the audience into trance.

When he awoke, the image was very clear, and although he didn’t make exactly what was in the dream, it was the catalyst for the creation off his first Cymbal and Gong sculptures which he invented and pioneered (now there are a few younger guys doing this). Since then he has created hundreds of unique works that are both visual and sonorous pieces of art and have been exhibited in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Iceland, England, Wales and Czech Republic.

In 1996 he built a selection of Sea Sculptures for an exhibition in Kolding Fjord in Denmark.
In 2006 he created a garden of sound sculptures forged in Stainless Steel in Coed Hills art centre in South Wales. The sculptures are pivoted onto trees and when played, the tree vibrates, the ground vibrates. It’s an incredible experience.

So now he makes a living combining his metal craft and music. Mostly the metal craft is his living, but he does get good musical work as well. He performed on the soundtrack for the new film with Russell Crowe, Helen Miram and Ben Afleck called State of Play. The composer Alex Heffes wanted him playing on my sculptures. This was a good experience and the first time his work has been in a Hollywood movie. He has done soundtracks to animated films and documentary films.

Other musicians have borrowed his sculptures for projects. Steve Wilson from Porcupine Tree recorded on Steve Hubback’s gong sculptures for his ambient/atmospherique recording Pacific Codex by Bass Communion.

Some of the musicians who play his musical sculptures include Evelyn Glennie, Chris Whitten (ex Paul McCartney and Dire Straits) Welsh National Opera, Paolo Vinaccia (Terje Rypdal in Norway) Kenneth Ekornes (Marie Boine in Norway) Paul Clarvis (top UK film session percussionist – you can hear his sounds on many major films) Marilyn Mazur in Denmark. Valravn in Denmark and Mabon in Wales.

In the last years he has got more into creating atmospherique and fairy tale like mobile sculptures. These are created in Stainless Steel and really come alive at night when illuminated with light.

He is performing solo ‘Other world’ concerts on 1 drum, gongs and various metal creations. He plays the drum with 5 sticks, so it sounds like 3 drummers. He has recently finished the 3rd Metal Moves CD (this is my group that only perform on my creations). He is going to have a new line up soon for live concerts.

He still occasionally performs and records with some of Europe’s best avant-garde jazz musicians, but now he is more focused on his own music. He will also be working with Z’ev (one of the most original percussionists in the world) and he will be making more exhibitions later this year.

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