As if being the six-time world snooker champion wasn’t achievement enough… as a respected prog/electronic music DJ, Steve Davis is upping the ante again, this time as a recording artist with The Utopia Strong

If you’ve suspected for a while that our civilisation has fallen into a parallel dimension or that we’re living in some kind of simulation, the rest of this paragraph may only support that theory. To imponderable modern mysteries like “President” Donald Trump, “woke” Axl Rose and Shane “Hollywood smile” MacGowan, let us add Steve “critically-acclaimed musician” Davis. 

The 62-year-old, six-time world snooker champion formerly known as “Interesting” has joined a band, and not just any band. The Utopia Strong’s self-titled new album is one of the finest debuts of the year, an expansive, progressive work of awesome wonder that is reminiscent of the ambient freeform soundscapes of krautrock pioneers Cluster. Prepare to unleash the kosmische. 

Davis, the immovable force of snooker during the 1980s when the sport enjoyed unprecedented popularity, has joined forces with Kavus Torabi, whose CV includes Gong and Cardiacs, and Michael J York, who has played with Coil and Teleplasmiste. Davis meanwhile has played with Cliff Thorburn, Terry Griffiths, Doug Mountjoy and Tony Drago, making The Utopia Strong a supergroup of sorts.

It’s an unlikely story for sure, although if you’ve been aware of Davis’ post-snooker extracurricular activities aside from his job as a BBC pundit, then the possibility of him getting involved in music in some capacity wasn’t completely unthinkable.

Davis DJs for a start, has his own radio show, and he famously promoted a three-night residency of French prog-jazz behemoths Magma at the Bloomsbury Theatre in the late 80s just so he could watch them play. 

But even the man himself hadn’t the slightest clue he might one day start a band.

“There was no plan to make a record and there certainly weren’t plans to do any gigs,” he says, supping on a pre-soundcheck ale in the backroom of Hackney’s Oslo where The Utopia Strong will play later. “It just happened because we hung out, made some music and listened back to it and thought we could make a record with what we had. Then we gave it to Rocket Recordings and they actually liked it! Wow! Then we had to do some gigs around it. So everything has happened as a consequence of us jamming in January 2018 and having a bit of fun.”

The formation of The Utopia Strong is a story of camaraderie and circumstance that’s taken over 15 years to come to fruition. Davis and Torabi met in 2003 at a Magma show in Paris and kept in touch sporadically. A few years later, Davis invited his new acquaintance to guest on his radio show, the ‘Interesting Alternative Show’ on Phoenix FM, and the pair had such a gas that Davis asked Torabi to come back every week as his co-host. Their bromance blossomed into a DJing partnership, which culminated in a spot at Glastonbury in 2017. 

Enter Michael J York, Torabi’s bandmate in experimental art-rock group, Guapo. York conveniently lives in the Somerset town from which the festival takes its name. The temptation for basic home comforts and running water became too great for Torabi and his pal Davis, who turned up at York’s out of the blue while the festival was still going on. York, the driest of the trio – both figuratively in general and, at this point, literally – had no knowledge of Davis’ previous sporting endeavours and would refer to him as “the one who likes Magma” when talking to Torabi. 

It turned out that the three of them had a lot in common. Torabi has played the harmonium and guitar in bands too numerous to mention over the years and is as obsessed with music as Davis and, like Davis, York turned out to be a modular synthesiser player too. Davis is undoubtedly the novice of the group, having been in possession of his modular synth for little more than four years. The former green baize botherer bought one after seeing Hirvikolari supporting Chrononautz at Cafe Oto in 2015. 

“It’s like you’re trying to coax music out of this weird music box thing,” says York. While it doesn’t require Rick Wakeman-like dexterity or even “playing” in the traditional sense, it does require a degree of nous. 

“One of the great things about the modular synth is that you don’t have to put in 10,000 hours of practice,” says Davis. York uses a keyboard, but Davis is more of a plugger-inner.

“You physically put wires in like a telephone exchange,” he explains. “It’s very hands on so it feels more like an instrument than a computer programme on a laptop.”

A jam between the trio was eventually scheduled for the beginning of 2018, and when they came together – mostly for their own amusement, remember – the session immediately bore fruit. York had the foresight to record everything they were doing from the very beginning, and the results of those meanderings yielded around 10 tracks with possibilities. The music they’ve continued to make since continues to emit sonic waves of positivity, emboldened perhaps by the strong kinship that permeates The Utopia Strong. 

The centerpiece of the record, ‘Brainsurgeons 3’, is a 10-minute epic that has been augmented with additional instrumentation, steadily building to a crescendo, while other more compact highlights like ‘Emerald Tablet’ and ‘Swimmer’ came from lengthy improvised jams and were then chopped down and structured. 

“It wasn’t until that night when we came back and listened to these tracks that we started to think they were really good,” says Torabi. “I’ve been involved in this sort of thing all my life and you never get a strike rate like that. As these get-togethers continued, we started to realise we were making an album.” 

An almost child-like glee exudes from all three of them, which is especially entertaining considering their combined age is somewhere in the region of a maximum break. Their enthusiasm for music, particularly their own, is not only infectious, but clearly coming from a place of scholarly devotion. Davis, who was branded with the sarcastic “Interesting” epithet by ‘Spitting Image’ back when he was as famous as Prince Charles is definitely an erudite and, yes, interesting chap in person, though it helps if you’re a music geek. Did Davis want to be a musician when he was younger? 

“It’s like anything, really,” he says. “You think, ‘Ah, I’d love to play the piano or I’d love to play guitar’, but you don’t want to put the hard work in, certainly not when you’re getting older.”

“But I would say your brain works like a musician’s and obviously has done since the moment you first got into music,” says York. 

“I thought exactly the same when I first met Steve,” adds Torabi. “We had a night out and I thought, ‘He seems like a musician’. Not only the way he talked about it, but the way he thought about it. On the radio show together, Steve would be singing along with these really elaborate melodies that even trained singers I know wouldn’t be able to necessarily follow, these huge skips, and harmonic intervals, and he’d also be tapping along with complex polyrhythms of really avant-garde prog, and I’d be thinking, ‘I know drummers who can’t get their heads around that kind of counting.”

In an odd moment of recall, a magazine feature from the TV of my youth suddenly pops into my head and I remember that Davis was obsessed with the arcade game ‘Defender’. The 1981 joystick-operated shoot ’em up with five buttons instead of one or two was a complicated and, on the whole, deflating experience if you were more accustomed to ‘Frogger’. For those in the room unfamiliar with 80s arcade machines, Torabi begins comparing these video games to modern street drugs in the hope of bringing some clarity for the under 35-year-olds. 

“If ‘Scramble’ was LSD then this was the DMT of video games, it was the one the real true heads were playing! It seemed to have this cerebral vibe, it was really fast and it was a mindfuck of a game.” 

Davis was brilliant at ‘Defender’, but ‘Pac-Man’, with just a joystick and no buttons at all, left him feeling “agitated” he says, “especially as the chasing just got faster and faster”. With all these disparate skills in his arsenal, should he be known as Steve “Polymath” Davis from now on? 

“That’s a worry,” says Davis, sheepishly. “It’s too much pressure. ‘Interesting’ is great because it takes the heat off.” 

He adds that “being shit at ‘Pac-Man’” negates being able to register the highest score on ‘Defender’. Another thing that makes the former world snooker champion and ‘Defender’ savant anxious is playing live. As a musician on stage, that is. The Utopia Strong’s gigs are completely improvised, which brings more pressure than a well-rehearsed set.

“There are a couple of knobs on the synthesiser that shouldn’t be touched and I’m having anxiety dreams about it,” he admits. “I wish they weren’t there, like the knob that changes the pitch. Touching it is not a good thing to do. These dreams are awful.” 

The funny thing is, he never had snooker anxiety dreams. “I think I knew my trade,” he adds. This is an incredible claim from a man who had a record 18.5 million pairs of eyes on him on a Sunday night for the 1985 world snooker championship final against Dennis Taylor. Those of a certain age will be able to remember the all crucial miss on the black, and then going into school bleary-eyed the next day. 

“Well, all I can say is that it’s good to get nervous in the same way it’s also good to be concerned,” he says. 

One thing that assuages the nerves is a dose of pre-gig drinking, something The Utopia Strong appear to partake in with serious gusto.

“It’s the band that can’t say no,” laughs Davis. “I’m paying the price for being in a hard-caning band. My liver!” 

“I’ve never been in a band with straights before and it’s great,” grins Torabi. “It’s just three total caners. It’s the band I’ve been waiting for. I just didn’t think I’d find it when I was 48.” 

Yes, musically The Utopia Strong are all about sonic equilibrium and zen-like kosmische, but beneath the well-balanced exterior beats the heart of a wild rock and roll animal, caning booze and throwing TVs out of the window, provided the snooker isn’t on of course. 

The wanton debauchery may also be unexpected from Steve “Interesting” Davis, but this may all be a simulation anyway.

‘The Utopia Strong’ is out on Rocket

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