Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi: 'Can you spot which of us is the rock star?'
S teve Davis is waving a modular synthesiser at me. He’s 10 minutes early for our scheduled chat, and his music-and-book-writing compadre, Kavus Torabi, hasn’t logged on to Zoom yet, so Davis is showing me his favourite toy: a synthesiser without a keyboard. There are a lot of knobs and switches, and holes where you slot in sound modules.
“It’s not lost on me that this is a bit of a blokey hobby,” he says cheerfully. “I was checking out online demos about how to use these synths and I ended up watching soldering. A bloke soldering modules. But there was nothing else to do, so I watched it for quite a bit.”
Ah, Steve “Interesting” Davis. Though I’m interviewing Davis, 63, because of his second life in music (hence the synth), he’s self-aware enough to play up to his long-time reputation. As the six-times world champion who dominated snooker in the 1980s, Davis was deemed less flamboyant, more robotic than his rivals. Spitting Image gave him the nickname “Interesting”, and he’s used it as his brand ever since. The most recent of his three autobiographies is called Interesting, he wrote a three-volume recipe book in the 1990s called The Steve Davis Interesting Cookbook, and his radio show is called – you guessed it – The Steve Davis Interesting Music Show. Davis being boring is like a joke tic. “Is Kavus coming on now?” he says. “That’s good. I’ve exhausted my chat.”The Utopia Strong at the Supernormal festival in 2019. Photograph: Maria Jefferis/Alamy
Davis sits back down on a black leather sofa, and picks up a bowl of breakfast oats. There’s a window behind him, some records to the right. The overall vibe is a bit “the ex-wife took the furniture but a trip to Leatherland sorted me out”. In contrast, when Torabi comes on to the call, to the sound of his dog, Teddy, barking, his curly-haired head looms out of a starry universe background. Things aren’t much less cosmic when he manages to get rid of it and reveals himself to be sitting in a book-and-CD-lined sitting room with walls painted like a lilac sky.
“Can you spot which of us is the rock’n’roll star?” says Davis. Torabi is in a sage-green embroidered kurta, his curly hair wild. Davis is in T-shirt and black tracky bottoms, with a short grey crop.
“Kavus wants me to grow my hair,” he says.
“Or a beard,” says Torabi. “A really long one, like David Letterman.”
“As a result of being around Kavus, I’m very aware that I’m no longer allowed to wear any type of blue jeans,” says Davis. “I’m wearing black chinos instead. As yet I’ve struggled to get into pointed boots. I find they’re uncomfortable on the ankle.”You’re really on the seat of your pants. I have absolutely no knowledge of playing a rehearsed piece of music Steve Davis
We could spend all day taking the mick about the differences between Davis and Torabi. Davis is a suburban, straight-laced, undemonstrative, retired solo sportsman. Torabi is an emotional, psychedelic, improvisational, band-hopping, working guitarist. But their friendship is born of their Venn diagram overlap. They really, really connect on music.
Not just any music. Though Davis’s 1983 Desert Island Discs included such mainstream acts as Stevie Wonder. Since then, he’s moved further and further into the truly alternative. What he and Torabi love is experimental, non-linear, out-there sounds. Their first meeting was at a Magma gig, in Paris, in 2006 (Magma are an influential prog-jazz-opera “zeuhl” band led by classical drummer Christian Vander). Davis worships Magma so much that he’d put on a series of concerts for them in London a year previously. In Paris, Torabi and his wife, Dawn, started talking to Davis, and afterwards Dawn said: “He’s one of us, isn’t he?” From there, Davis and Torabi’s friendship grew, to encompass the radio show, some impressive DJing gigs, an actual band, the Utopia Strong (they’ve made four albums), and now, a book, Medical Grade Music.
Initially, they thought they’d write a book that recommended 52 of their favourite music tracks. The idea was that the reader would spend a week listening to each piece, while reading Davis and Torabi’s analysis. But lockdown changed that idea, and in fact, Medical Grade Music has become more like them: a strange hybrid, an odd coupling. It contains two timelines and the reader hops between them. In one, Davis tells the story of his interest in music, the development of his and Torabi’s friendship, and the way they ended up working together. In the second, Torabi gives us his memoir as a musician, how he was born in a British-Iranian family where music was not present at all, and how he came to play with some of the most revered outre music combos there are, such as Gong, Cardiacs and his own band, Knifeworld.
Torabi writes compellingly about the 1990s, at one point describing how he had an epiphany at the infamous Spiral Tribe Castlemorton rave, though he’d arrived thinking it would be a crusty/space rock festival. He gives that whole Britpop decade a completely different musical spin: “Well, the story that we’re used to hearing about the 90s is the Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Oasis. But 90s London to me was this completely different story that was running alongside, and it was just as exciting. Under the radar.” He also, I have to say, writes brilliantly about taking acid. “I had to write the positive acid story, because it was really, really good for me, at least.”Kavus Torabi and Steve Davis at the Progressive Music awards in 2014. Photograph: Danny E Martindale/Getty Images
“Kavus has got his whole history in this music, it’s really interesting,” says Davis. “I liked Kavus’s bits of the book. I hated reading my bits for the audiobook. Things that you think are going to be really funny, when you read them out, you realise that maybe they weren’t. Or they are funny, but you’re not a natural orator.”
It must be odd to be deemed hilarious, when the joke is you being boring.
“Well, you’re aware of your image, but you don’t consider that it’s really you,” he says. “People who think that are people who’ve never met you. But also, no smoke without fire. If you get a boring image, there may be a reason why you’ve got that.”
That image has led to years of Davis being treated like a novelty, and there’s an incident in the book that demonstrates this. After years of a weekly radio show on the delightfully Partridge-sounding Phoenix FM in Brentwood and Billericay, Davis and Torabi were asked to DJ at the last-ever Bloc Weekend festival in 2016. Davis genially hosted a pool tournament for the artists and DJs, got drunk and enjoyed himself. When it came to DJing, he was very nervous, and when he finally dared to look up at the crowd, he was confronted with a sea of himself. The organisers had handed out Steve Davis masks, as a joke.
You could imagine a scenario of Davis being upset by this, but his good humour and delight in music meant that he wasn’t. He loved DJing, and for their next gig, at Glastonbury’s Park stage, he and Torabi had some tote bags made up with “Last Night Kavus Torabi Saved My Life” and “Last Night Steve Davis Bored Me Shitless” and threw them out to the crowd.When I’m with Steve, I feel like I’m a decent guy. I like myself when I’m with Steve Kavus Torabi
Davis’s lack of ego helped when, in 2019, he and Torabi, with Coil’s Mike York, decided to form the Utopia Strong. Torabi and York are very experienced musicians; Davis has never learned an instrument. The reason he chose an analogue modular synth is that it doesn’t have a keyboard. The first time they all jammed together, he says, he felt like “the guy in The Inbetweeners who gets on the motorbike and then smashes into the wall”. But he was aware of “when the stuff I was doing wasn’t sounding right. So I just turned it down.”
By doing this, says Torabi, Davis showed more acumen than most musicians, no matter how accomplished. “It’s about taste, isn’t it?” he says. “Steve has really good musical taste. And jamming together is about people agreeing with one another. It’s like a conversation: “‘For the next three hours, we’re just going to compliment each other and agree with one another, and when somebody makes a point, rather than take the alternative route, I’m going to do something that backs up that point.’”
Their conversational jams turned quickly into an album, which Davis was absolutely ecstatic about, especially when it was released on the highly respected Rocket label. Since then, they’ve made three more. And then there were the gigs. They both just love the gigs. Bravely, they are completely improvised, which is new, even for Torabi: “I’ve never been in a situation before where, when we walk on stage, we don’t know what we are going to do other than saying, ‘Let’s do this in E minor.’”Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi DJing at the OnBlackheath festival in London, 2018. Photograph: John Gaffen/Alamy
Davis likens playing in Utopia Strong gigs to playing a snooker game. “Improvising music is more like sports than actual rehearsed music, because you’re in the moment,” he says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, so you’re really on the seat of your pants. I have absolutely no knowledge of playing a rehearsed piece of music, I don’t know what that would be like. I may not be good at that. But fortunately I’m not ever going to experience it, because I don’t think we’re ever going to go down the road of playing our bangers to people five years down the line.”
All in all, they are both completely delighted with their new venture, and only frustrated that their gigging was cut short due to lockdown. No doubt they’ll get back to it as soon as they can. Middle-aged man friendship is a lovely thing, and Davis and Torabi revel in it. They both came into each other’s lives after a significant male influence went away. For Torabi, it was Tim Smith, leader of the Cardiacs, who died in July 2020, after being semi-paralysed for many years. “Tim’s one of the most, if not the most, pivotal figure in my life,” he says. “And with what happened to him 12 years ago, I lost him. I lost what we had.”
For Davis, it was his dad. “My father and myself, we were a team from me being 14, 15,” he says. “And even though I was going down the ranking list as a snooker player, we were still going through the same process of practising, he was my coach. I was playing for him towards the end, for his enjoyment, even though I wasn’t necessarily enjoying it myself. The moment he passed away, it was like, ‘I can retire’.”Strange Altar by the Utopia Strong.
“The thing is,” says Torabi, “whoever we’re with, we’re a different person. And when I was with Tim, I felt like such a good person. There have been times in my life when I hadn’t felt like that. And Steve came into my life around the time when Tim went from it, and it’s the same thing. When I’m with Steve, I feel like I’m a decent guy. I like myself when I’m with Steve.”
“I think I’m very lucky,” says Davis. “I never had to wallow in, ‘What do I do after I’ve retired?’, which is a problem for lots of people in sport because you retire earlier. I’ve not had to think about, ‘Well, I’ve got to find a hobby…’ We’ve been magnets to each other, and I think we’ve been lucky to find each other, and to go on a journey that’s a new start… If somebody had told me, three years ago, that I would be buying a couple of paisley shirts at Glastonbury festival, and wearing them on a stage playing music, you could have shot me.”
“And he bought those shirts of his own volition,” says Torabi.
Medical Grade Music by Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi is published by White Rabbit on 15 April (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply