Interview with Jason Sawford of The Australian Pink Floyd Show

Aside from attending a David Gilmour or Roger Waters concert, seeing The Australian Pink Floyd show is probably the closest one can get to experiencing what Pink Floyd might have been like today if they hadn’t broken up. The ten members of the band have spent over two decades perfecting their faithful reproductions of hits like “Money,” “Wish You Were Here,” and “Comfortably Numb” and deeper cuts including “Echoes” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” A spectacular light show, giant inflatables, and video projections that have lately integrated 3D elements provide the ultimate visual counterpart to the psychedelic textures of the music. Armed with a steadfast commitment to life on the road, The Australian Pink Floyd Show have been winning the praise of Floyd fans the world over.

Keyboardist and founding member Jason Sawford was kind enough to have a quick chat with Rock Edition backstage before the band’s recent concert at the Wang Theatre in Boston. Read on to see what he had to say about The Australian Pink Floyd Show’s inception, performing for David Gilmour, and writing original music.

How’s the tour been going?

It’s been wonderful. It’s been going really well. Quite a number of sellouts. It’s a really well attended tour, and we’re having a lot of fun. It’s good.

What have the setlists been looking like on this one?

We’ve got a main setlist that’s sort of like the greatest hits setlist, but we do a few unusual numbers in there as well. We cover all the things like “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” “Comfortably Numb,” “Brick in the Wall,” which you’ll hear, but we also do things like “Dogs” and “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” and “Arnold Layne” because we do like to include some unusual numbers as well.

How do you guys choose the more unusual ones?

We listen to what we like and what we’d like to have a go at, and it’s just a consensus. We have a discussion where we say, “Okay, we’ll do this one this year, and maybe next year we’ll do something else.”

Do you ever have massive disagreements about what to play?

Not terribly, but we all have our different views on what we like. But we usually find some sort of agreement. There’s lots of stuff I’d like to do, but there’s only so much time you’ve got to do it in.

What would you say is your favorite song to play live?

I’ve got quite a few. We’re doing “Dogs” at the moment, which I really enjoy playing. We also do “Careful with That Axe, Eugene,” which I also enjoy playing — sort of hypnotic, I really enjoy that one. And I’ve always enjoyed playing “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”

That’s my favorite Pink Floyd song.

It’s a great song. I love it. I don’t know how many times I’ve played it, but I still love it.

With that keyboard intro —

Oh yeah, of course. For a keyboardist, it’s a good song to play.

Definitely. Are there any tracks that you’ve wanted to play live, but for whatever reason, you’ve never gotten around to doing them?

Yeah. “Atom Heart Mother.” I’d like to do “Atom Heart Mother” one day. It’s one of those ones which is just a little bit more obscure, but I’d love to try that one.

What has been the most challenging one to put together?

I think something like “Sheep” because a lot goes on; for a keyboardist there’s a lot of stuff going on. So that’s a fairly challenging one to get right. There’s that middle part where you’ve got to really concentrate, and the bass is ticking away. That can present some challenges.

Yeah. All of ‘Animals’ is pretty intricate.

Yeah. It’s a really, really good album, really interesting album. A lot goes on. “Sheep” is a pretty busy song.

Definitely. You’ve been in the band for over 20 years, and you’re an original founding member. Could you take us through a bit of the band’s history?

Yeah. I answered an advert — there was an Adelaide music shop — [the ad] wanted a keyboard player and a singer and a guitarist. This guy who was a massive Pink Floyd fan was trying to start a Pink Floyd band. So I went along with my synthesizer, which I had just bought — it was an old, chunky, analog thing — and we started from there. Steve Mac [guitarist and vocalist] joined the same day, and that’s when the band started, in 1988. We got together, and I think our first setlist was, in fact, “Dogs,” “Shine On,” and all these interesting songs. We started in a very small way doing little pubs and clubs. Tribute bands were a new thing at the time. In 1992, we decided to all move into a house together, and we said, “Let’s become full time musicians.” I think we were all writing our own music at the time. We all moved into the house together in Adelaide, and we traveled around Australia to get some money together to travel to England. We bought a one way ticket, and then we couldn’t afford to go back to Australia, so we were stuck in England. We all moved into a house together in England, and we just plunked away at Pink Floyd, and here I am now.

Sounds like a cool story.

Yeah, there’s been a lot of adventures along the way.

Sounds like it! How many people did you have in the band’s first lineup?

It was a five-piece at the start. Obviously, since then we’ve had a few lineup changes. We’ve added singers and a sax player, and the show’s just gotten bigger over the years. When it started, it was myself and Steve and Colin [Wilson, bassist and vocalist] from Australia — he’s not the original original, but he’s from Australia — and then we had a couple other guys who did a few years with us but went back to Australia. So it was a five-piece originally. I think we had a sax player as well, and I think we had one female vocalist on one stage.

What have been a few of your favorite times in the band’s history?

I guess it’s always when we did something for the first time, like the first time we played in England. We played for David Gilmour; that was a great memory. The first time we came to the States. That was a very exciting time and the response of the people to the music. I think one of the best gigs I’ve ever done was in the island of Malta, a Mediterranean island. It’s a little, little country. It was a national event; we played to about 15,000 people. When we arrived at the airport, we were front page news! [laughs] It was incredible! That’s a real [good] memory of mine. I fondly remember that one.

That’s awesome. Could you say a little bit more about the time you played for David Gilmour?

We did a gig in London. It was in Fulham, I think… No, no; it was in Croydon. We played this place in Croydon, in London. It was right around the time that [Pink Floyd] was doing The Division Bell Tour, so he was still on tour. We did this gig at Fairfield Halls in Croydon, and we didn’t know he was in the audience, but he turned up backstage. He just knocked on the door. He popped his head around the corner, and we thought, “My god, it’s David Gilmour!” He was very polite. He says, “Hello! Would you mind if I come in?” We say, “Yeah, sure!” He comes in, and he has all his entourage there. There was [Pink Floyd percussionist] Gary Wallis and all the girl singers and everything. He said hi, shook our hands; we had a beer. He asked if we wanted to play at a party. So we said, “Yeah!” That eventually led on to playing at his birthday party a couple of years later.

You got to play alongside Richard Wright there, right?

I did, yeah.

How was that experience?

That was phenomenal. That was a fantastic memory. I remember he was very polite. He came to the front of the stage; you could see his head just above the stage. He says, “Do you mind if I play the Hammond, please?” And I said, “Yeah, certainly!” So he came up onto the stage — he’d had quite a bit to drink — and he says, “You play the keyboards, and I’ll play the Hammond.” So he played the Hammond, and I played the synth, and we did “Comfortably Numb.” He did all this stuff, all this crazy playing. It was great. There he was. I’m right next to him, playing “Comfortably Numb.”

That must’ve been crazy.

It was.

Moving back to the live show, I’ve read that you guys have tried to recreate the songs note for note. Do you allow yourselves any room for improvisation?

We’re pretty strict about doing it note for note. Pink Floyd did improvise, particularly some of their early stuff, like “Echoes” or “Set the Controls.” It’s hard to know which version to play, so sometimes we’ll try to pick [parts] out of various things and reassemble something. We’ve done that. There’s maybe a little bit of improvisation, but we’re pretty strict on keeping it note for note because it’s Pink Floyd. We could improvise, and maybe we might choose a song and do that as a separate project, but most of it is pretty strict, note for note, whether it’s the album or some kind of version that we think is definitive.

I guess in some ways, that’s probably more difficult than improvising.

It is because you’ve got to have a lot of focus and discipline to do it. You could improvise a song, whereas if you’re focused on what the version is, you have to stick to that. You have to get the right sounds. That does take a lot of discipline.

Have you guys ever considered going into the studio and recreating one of the Pink Floyd albums in its entirety?

We have, actually — played it live, and recorded an album. We’ve done ‘Animals’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ before. Yeah, we’ve talked about doing things like that, maybe recreating a Floyd album of some sort, maybe improvising a bit, doing the album that Pink Floyd might’ve done.

That would be cool.

We’ve had a few ideas of doing something like that. We’re pretty busy touring, but we’ll have to try something like that.

It’s a monster tour. You guys are going through the end of April, right?

Yeah. We’ve got a little bit of time off during the holidays.

That’s good. Going back to the keyboards, I was reading that you’re very dedicated to dialing in the right keyboard sounds. Have you perfected that process by this time, or are you continually tweaking things here and there?

Often tweaking things. They’re pretty close, but the more you listen to it, the more you hear differences. It almost gets a bit nerdy because you’re thinking, “Well people out there don’t really notice it, but I do.” I am always tweaking it. If I change my keyboard setup, if I get a new piece of equipment, then I have to redo it all over again. There’s always tweaking going on. Steve Mac, on guitar, he’s always [tweaking]. He drives everyone crazy because he’s coming out with four notes again and again and again, just trying to get that right.

[laughs] You’re saying that you’re listening to it and it sounds different to you — do you listen to Pink Floyd’s records much these days?

Yeah. I try to make a habit of listening to it, but it is because I play it. I have to.

It’s your job.

Yeah. But I was walking around here, in Boston, and I was listening to “Echoes” because I’m going to study and play it. I still enjoy it, walking around with my headphones. It sounds good. So yeah, I listen to it. But when I do listen to it, I always analyze it. It’s very hard for me to put it on and — if I listen to another record, I put it on because I want to listen to it. If I put on Pink Floyd, or someone else puts it on, I’ll listen to it, but I’m taking it apart in my head.

It’s like studying for an exam or something.

Yeah. It’s pretty hard to get out of that habit.

Could you take us through a bit of your keyboard rig?

Yeah. It changes quite frequently. I’m still updating things, but at the moment, I use a Nord Stage, which is very good for Rhodes, pianos, Wurlitzers, and things like that. It’s got a pretty good Hammond sound and synth. I use a Roland V-Combo, which I use mainly for my Hammond sounds. It’s great for the internal Leslie effects. I use a Korg Triton for some things. I use a Novation for analog sounds; it’s a digital one but it’s got a lot of good analog simulation. A Yamaha 01V digital desk, a couple of Akai samplers, some Alisa sound units, and that’s basically it for me. I’ve got stuff home, as well, which I’m going to incorporate but have not gotten around to doing.

Is more of that stuff analog?

I’ve got some analog stuff at home, and I might incorporate some of it. The only thing about old equipment, unless it’s a new analog keyboard, is that it’s unreliable. If it breaks down, you can’t replace it. I have recently bought a Moog Voyager with all the knobs and things. It costs a lot of money; I’m afraid to take it on the road, but I want to play it on the road. I want to use it for revamping some things we do, like “On the Run” and stuff like that. I’ve got some stuff I want to incorporate, but it changes.

I’ve heard that if you drop one of those analog keyboards or if something happens, you’ll turn it back on and it’ll sound completely different.

Yeah, and the tuning and stuff like that. But because analog synths are quite popular — the old ones are collectors’ items now — they’ve started to remake new versions. Moog has remade the old Moog; the Prophet V has now come back — I’ve got the new version of the Prophet synth. They’re more stable, and they’re more reliable. If I was to use more analog stuff, I’d probably use a newer keyboard because it is more reliable, although I’d probably just collect the old stuff and keep it home in a home museum.

Earlier, you said you have samplers. When you guys do sound effects during the show, are those from Pink Floyd records, or did you have to try to recreate those?

There might be something like a bit of a wind sound or something, but mainly it’s recreations or sounds from sound libraries or playing something on the keyboard and then sampling it because it’s more convenient to use a sampler. It’s hard to sample things directly from the albums because all these extra things are going on.

I’m thinking of the little spoken word segments on ‘Dark Side’ — do you guys rerecord those?

Some of it’s rerecorded; some of it’s sourced from various sources; some of it’s just done in the studio. We’ve got a little Australian take on it as well. We do little subtle jokes there. A lot of it is, as much as possible, recreated in the studio, but you can find sound libraries that have very similar sounds. For example, on the ‘Animals’ album, there’s a lot of the BBC sound library, so you have all the dogs and the sheep. I’m sure that’s what Pink Floyd did. They probably used exactly the same library.

They probably didn’t go out and record the dogs.


What’s your favorite visual element of the show?

The thing is, I only get to see the lights from the stage, but I’ve seen the DVD. It’s probably something on ‘Comfortably Numb,’ when it kicks in. There are lots of subtle moments in the show. Our lighting designer is very talented, and he gets a lot of very good effects on it. I think one thing is when we do “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” with the 3D. When the scream kicks in, suddenly the screen displays this explosion and these things come out at people. That’s probably my favorite part.

How did you guys decide that you were going to go 3D on this tour?

We met a guy in the middle of 2010. He was associated with some LA studio that did special effects for things like Gladiator and Harry Potter. He was talking about this new technology, this new screen technology that enabled you to take the screen on the road and do a 3D show. We thought that was an interesting idea because Pink Floyd always had projections and quadrophonics and lasers, but they never did 3D. So we thought if they were still playing today, maybe they would do 3D. So we thought, “Let’s do a 3D show for Pink Floyd. It might work.” We got planning, and we got a few projections together, and that’s what we’re doing now. We’re doing this 3D show where we provide the audience with these glasses. It’s been an experiment. It’s had mixed success; some of it’s worked, some of it not so well. We just wanted to try and see what we could do to take the show a bit further. It’s been an interesting thing to do.

I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve never really heard of a band doing that before.

No, I don’t think there is a band that’s done it. This particular screen, it’s only just been made available, and nobody else has done this sort of thing. It takes a bit of organization. I think we are the first band to ever do what we’re doing.

How have you kept the music fresh over the past two decades?

Fresh for us?

Fresh for you and fresh for audiences who might see you several times.

I think we constantly review what we’re doing as a show. Our show changes. We might do ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ one year; we’ll do ‘Wish You Were Here’ another year. We’ll change the setlist; we’ll do something new like we’re doing this year with the 3D. I think that tends to keep it fresh and keep Pink Floyd relevant in new contexts. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Pink Floyd is awesome music, but as a musician, have you ever gotten frustrated playing a lot of the same songs over and over again, songs that were written by someone else?

It’s refreshing to do other things, and I would love if I was writing my own music and doing my own albums. We’ve talked about recording some other stuff if we get the chance to do it, since we’re so busy. I don’t find it frustrating; I just know that I would enjoy doing other things as well. I still enjoy playing the music, which I guess is because it’s great music. Even when I play it hundreds of times, it’s still fun to play. Towards the end of a tour, when I’m getting tired of it, [I’m thinking,] “I wanna go home now. I want to sit in my own sofa. I want to sleep in my own bed.” But other than that, it’s great.

Have you ever gotten the chance to do any side projects of original material?

We’ve got some things recorded, lots of ideas and sketches and things that are put on the back burner for various reasons. We’ve always been very busy. But I know we were talking only yesterday about doing something. Steve Mac said, “I’m going to convert my room into a studio. I’m going to record something. Let’s all do something.” So we have actually talked about doing it and trying to get all these ideas together. Maybe over the next few months, we might try to record something that people will want to hear.

Well, you have a great base to launch off of.

Certainly, yeah. A lot of people ask us about it, so I think people are interested. As I said, we did start out writing our own music. We actually wrote an album, made our own projections, and we performed it a few times in Australia and a couple times in England, but we were performing it for an hour before we went on with the Pink Floyd Show, so we were playing about three hours a night, and we were setting up our own equipment. It was absolutely exhausting, so we said, let’s just do the Pink Floyd for now. [laughs] That was the last of it. Since then, it’s been hidden away.

That must’ve been tiring.

It was. A lot of physical work. We didn’t have our own roadies then, so we were packing the van ourselves and driving the vehicles ourselves. We did that for quite a number of years, and it was hard work. It’s like, “I just want someone to pack the gear away for me. I want a beer!”

Pick up The Australian Pink Floyd Show’s latest concert DVD, Live at the Hammersmith Apollo 2011.

For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their official website.