OK Simon, What Do You Think?

An interview by Sue Hickling of the Nottingham Blues Society.

OK Simon, What Do You Think? - An interview by Sue Hickling of the Nottingham Blues Society. - by Simon Campbell

Following a performance at the Big Wheel Blues Festival, Sue of the Nottingham Blues Society, home to the British Blues Awards, kindly requested an interview. Here is an unabridged transcript.

You first picked up a guitar at 16, tell us a little about your early career and your first experiences of the Blues. What made you switch from playing Rock to Blues?

Well, actually I have always played the blues, but just didn't realise it!

The first bands that I became interested in were Wishbone Ash, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Of course the first two Zeppelin albums are based totally around the blues: there are law suits to prove it!

When I first started playing, I had three guitar lessons. My teacher, Simon Lilley, told me to buy "Super Session" by Bloomfield, Kooper and Stills. Bloomfield was a tremendous, electric blues man: lovely playing and a great tone. He also encouraged me to listen to a Hard Road (featuring Peter Green) by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton. These albums are quite remarkable and they have recently been remastered for CD in 'stereo'!

To be honest, I didn't realise at the time where all this music had come from; I am now enlightened. So really, it was the blues first, then rock, and now back to the blues.

Who were the influences on your musical career, and if you could play with any Blues legend alive or dead who would it be?

Blimey! I have a vast array of guitar playing influences that include: Andy Powell & Ted Turner (Wishbone Ash), Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore, Paul Kossoff (Free), Rory Gallagher, Alvin Lee (10 Years After), Santana, Dave Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Robin Trower, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, the amazing Jan Akkerman (Focus), Jeff Beck, Justin Hayward (Moody Blues), Gary Moore, BB King, Alan Murphy (Go West), Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Vaughan (Fabulous Thuderbirds), Brain May, Scotty Moore, Prince, James Burton, Danny Gatton, Chet Atkins, Eddie Van Halen, Brian Setzer, Angus Young, Billy Gibbons, Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Jerry Donahue, Robert Cray, Jeff Healey, Tom Morello, Neil Young, Edge, Daniel Lanois, Jonny Greenwood and most recently Martin Simpson...

Out all of them Jimmy Page is still my favourite and not particularly for his playing which can be 'variable'; his guitar orchestration and recording techniques on the Zeppelin albums were amazing.

I was very fortunate to work with Big Jim Sullivan and Derek Lawrence (Producer of Deep Purple and Wishbone Ash) on the Little Brother album. Having Big Jim sat right behind you when constructing and playing parts really focusses the mind!!!

With respect to who would I play with, that's a very hard one, but I think it would have to be John Mayall...

You played the main stage at Burnley Blues Festival, tell us about that part of your career. What makes a good gig for you as a performer?

Yeah, I have played many blues festivals over the years, but I always like Burnley and Colne! I suppose its because its close to my home town; the crowd really love the blues!

The time you are referring to was a funny one really, The band I am most proud of, the Disciples, had split and following a few years layoff I was on the musical rebound. I put a new incarnation of the Disciples together which included Kevin Whitehead (drums) and Craig Fletcher (bass) from Barclay James Harvest and Paul Wright on guitar.

I am not keen on playing with other guitar players, many are generally too noisy, have a bad tone and don't listen to what the other guy is playing. I have been fortunate to work with some notable exceptions where you spark off each other. Paul was one of these along with Mike Hehir of Sad Cafe (from the Method days), Rob Livesey, Craig Walton (RoadRunner) and Eddie Horrox (Disciples) - I will have forgotten someone so I apologise in advance.

What is a good gig? Well, there is nothing like playing a packed venue with an audience that are either really into your music or are open and interested to listening to new stuff. I have always played mostly original material, so thats really important to me. In essence, I don't particularly care if I play to 100 or 10,000, providing its packed!

Secondly, I am a man who loves great tone, not just from guitar but from the whole band. So a great, musical, band who give each other space and are not too loud on stage, lovely monitors and a great monitor engineer really make my day! You then just have to hope that the guy out front is also doing his job, after all the audience is king!!!

Tell us about your new band The Very Very Bad Men and your latest projects.

When I moved to the Isle of Man I hadn't really played in anger for 10 years: the fantastic, vibrant, music scene on the island reignited the passion.

I was fortunate enough to bump into a number of knowledgeable people when I started to look for band members. They directed me to Steve Rowe and Nick Collings. Steve is a fantastically musical bass player with a big, fat, thunderous tone. Nick is without doubt the best young drummer on the island and is just getting better and better every gig.

The current three piece format suits the players and gives us the freedom to improvise in many of the live songs moving them into really different areas. I don't see that happening any more: people play the song as per album. I believe in ripping it up! Sometimes we fall off the musical edge but that's what gives the excitement to the live performance.

Perhaps I am old fashioned, but a live show is just that, its an audio/visual experience. People pay good money to see you and they want to be entertained. Live the Very Very Bad Men are all about that, entertainment and exciting musicianship.

I am currently recording a new album, something I have been promising myself for a number of years. It is called ThirtySix and due to be released at the end of the year on 'Supertone Records'.

Why ThirtySix? Well, it's a musical journey through my 36 year guitar playing career as a rock/jazz but foremost a bluesman.

It is written, arranged and produced by myself (eek) with the assistance of ace producer / engineer Steve Boyce-Buckley and being recoded the very excellent Gracieland Studios which is still owned by the lovely Lisa Stansfield.

I have done a quite a bit of record production over the years with Milhaus, John DeJong and Rick Dowson and it's great getting back into a beautifully equipped studio with people who really understand recording.

Even though we are using ProTools to record, the analogue AMEK/Neve desk, vintage outboard gear and mics rounds the edges and sounds wonderful. We will be mastering down to good old 1/2" tape: luxury.

I am very fortunate in that I have worked with some fantastic musicians over the years and many are appearing on the album - you will have to wait to see the final rosta! Along with drums, bass and multiple guitar parts, It features brass, strings and lots of proper old keyboards with Hammond / Leslie, Rhodes, Clavinet, Wulitzer, Mellotron and some Moog in evidence.

We are currently three weeks in, the next stage is to go in and do the guitar solo's and overdubs. I know purists will dislike this but thats how I roll!!!

Are you planning a UK tour?

Yes, and in the process of working out venues as we speak with agents and promotors. It will be a bigger show than that three piece as I really want to add keyboards, backing vocals and perhaps brass to the lineup.

Don't worry, we will still be throwing caution to the wind live, just more complicated!

h4. What are your hopes and plans for the future with The Very Very Bad Men?

The aim is to publicise ThirtySix and get on to play festivals in the UK, Europe and the US. I still have a load of great contacts and I am sure we can make this happen. The great thing about being 52 is all your contemporaries still love the music we all grew up with but want new sounds to excite them again!

I am already writing for the next album :-)

You now live on The Isle of Man, what is the music scene like on the island?

It's fantastic, simple as that. People love live music and are very appreciative indeed. There are great venues and a lot of dedicated promotors, the only thing missing is a 4/500 capacity venue for touring bands.

Then only criticism I would have is that the Island has 80,000 people and therefore it's difficult for musicians to judge the 'world' standard, as they (and their audiences) don't really get exposed to the massive talents kicking around the pubs and clubs in UK towns and cities. And that's just the UK, go to Austin, Texas on any night of the week and be prepared to have your socks blown off and leave wanting to give up :-)

Having said that, there a few fine musicians, especially folk / traditional players who could hold up their head anywhere.

Do you think that being based on The Isle Of Man is a disadvantage when it comes to introducing a new band to the UK Blues Scene?

Ask me again in 12 months!

Seriously, I think the travel element is difficult and expensive but if you plan your gigs carefully I believe it could be more effective as you really have to focus on using your time and resources effectively.

With technology now being such a large part of marketing music, it can be done from anywhere. But, having said that, the blues is special: it needs to be seen live, it needs the atmosphere to make it work

Are their any young artists in The Isle Man that we should look out for following in the footsteps of Davy Knowles and Backdoor Slam?

I take this question in the context of individual blues/rock musicians, specifically guitar players/singers.

When I used to teach guitar, I knew within five minutes of someone picking one up whether they were going to be able to play or not and 12 months as if they were going to be great or not. On the Island, I haven't seen that so far...

To be successful (and I define success in this instance as being able to make a reasonable living out of the business over a full career) in the rock/blues scene you need three out of the five essentials. Being a great player (and I am talking world class here); having a world class voice; being able to write instantly memorable songs; be physically attractive and having "room stopping" charisma.

I am sure I will be barraged with comments about this but you asked me the question!!!

Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview Simon.

Sue Hickling: Secretary, Nottingham Blues Society.

Read the interview on the official website.

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