Detailed interview with the Starlite Campbell Band by Ian McKenzie of Blues in the South

Detailed interview with the Starlite Campbell Band by Ian McKenzie of Blues in the South - an update from Simon Campbell

A BiTS interview: The Starlite Campbell Band

Inspired by the mid-to-late 60's electric blues, the new album by Suzy Starlite and Simon (aka the Starlite Campbell Band) features Steve Gibson on drums (Van Morrison, Jack Bruce, Chris Farlowe), Jonny Henderson on Hammond organ and Wurlitzer electric piano (Robben Ford, Matt Schofield, Otis Rush) with special guest Danny Boy Sánchez on harmonica.

Ian M: Nice to speak to you. Let me start off by asking it’s up to you which one of you answers these questions, by the way. But let’s start at the very beginning. How did either of you get into music in the first place?

Simon C: Well, I got into it when I was 16 years old really. I started playing guitar when I was 16. Having heard a friend of mine’s record, Wishbone Ash, Argus. And I heard that and that’s what really did it for me, you know? That’s what turned me onto electric guitar playing. Of course, I was into music before then but that’s the thing that really turned it for me. Ian M And Suzy? Suzy S: With regards to music, my mum used to have a vinyl playing session every Sunday and I always knew from a young child that music was in my life. It was a part of my life. And I just think I picked up the acoustic guitar at 16 and taught myself because I just felt like I needed to write songs. So I think that was it really.

Ian M: Sorry, Simon, were you going to say something?

Simon C: No, that was it. That was the end of that question.

Ian M: Okay, well then let’s move on slightly forward a bit because I gathered that you had a whirlwind romance. Tell me something about that.

Simon C: {laughs] Well, what happened was, we met on the Isle of Man and I was introduced by a friend of mine to this songwriter who I heard was appearing near by and I went to see her. And she played some of her songs. It was quite folky and acoustic at the time. And, to cut a long story short, I listed to the songs and I said, why don’t we form a rock and roll band. And she’d never played with a drummer before. So I formed this band and then we started playing live together. And after a few gigs we realised that we’d accidentally fallen in love. We didn’t realise it, but that’s what happened. We decided to move to somewhere we were going to go to Nashville, Tennessee, actually. But we decided in the interim to move somewhere warm. So we moved to France and then to Spain and we’re still moving, you know? So that was it. It was very whirlwind, wasn’t it?

Suzy S: It was. But you’re a complete wonder, surprise.

Ian M: I suppose you must worry about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations though.

Simon C: Well, I mean, indeed. It’s one of those things that happens and, you know, life is always full of surprises and challenges. Being a musician all my life really, these challenges keep coming up. And it’s just another one, you know. But we are always moving. We are getting a lot of radio play with this new record and some great reviews. So we’ve been really looking at doing a lot of touring. But I am optimistic and think that Brexit might not be as impactful as you imagine in the future.

Ian M: Well that’s good to know. Tell me something about the brand new album Blueberry Pie then. When you went into the studio, was it all written?

Suzy S: Well, Simon and I decided that we were going to write the album together. So we wrote it over a period of two weeks, went into the studio and arranged. But I think you can have an idea of a song when you write it together and it comes to life actually in the studio, in the recording process. You respond to what the song needs to come alive in terms of arrangement. I mean, you can have an idea but it’s really in the studio where you feel it sort of say what it needs. Because we’re song writers primarily so we always try and work in terms of what each individual song needs.

Simon C: Yeah, that’s right. And I’ve been a producer for a long time so I produce other people’s records and a lot of my own stuff over the years. So for me, the studio is very much an experimental bed really in that we have the basic tracks, which we did in a demo form. And then we got the guys up, Jonny Henderson and Steve Gibson, who are both remarkable musicians. And we just really relied on them to create their own feel and sound and interpretation for their parts of music. Then at the end of it, I ended up putting some fairy dust on it like a guitar, with the vocals, along the way. So it was a pretty organic process.

Ian M: Have you gigged the stuff yet?

Simon C: No. We’ve done one gig, in Valencia, which we did to just to record the video or the video clips, if you like. So we’re looking to be touring, as I said, in Northern Europe and the UK later on this year.

Ian M: A number of musicians that I’ve interviewed over the years have told me that when they first gig the music, they find that it changes and they change their arrangements and they even change the words. Has that happened to you?

Suzy S: [laughs] Ian, all I can say is that when you play with Simon, you never know what’s going to happen. Because we have a song, but we improvise. And the thing is that there’s a structure. But sometimes we just go to different places, especially with the solo. It can go anywhere. So there is a never a set song length that would always be the same, or the same solo even, because it’s all very much an organic sort of thing.

Simon C: Yeah, that’s right. I think we tend to respond to what the audience is doing. I mean, some audiences don’t like lengthy guitar solos and some really do. So we tend to find out what the audience is because at the end of the day, we’re delivering our music but we’re entertaining the audience. And that’s the most important thing. They’re the ones who are paying us, you know? So we are entertainers. But, in a way, we do change things quite a lot. You’re right that the recorded material is one thing but a live show is completely different. And I think a lot of bands now have actually lost that because you know, I’ve always been a big one for improvising because I’ve done a lot of jams and I’ve improvised and played sessions with a lot of people. So you sort of really get a feel and it takes you to a different place. If you listen to Led Zeppelin, for example, they were always good live. They’d stick in huge sections of new music in the middle of songs or whatever. They’d just do something completely different. And a lot of the old blues guys. I mean, my goodness me, the old blues line up like John Lee Hooker never used to stick to his songs.

Suzy S: [laughs]

Simon C: If he decided to stick another bar in or a bar and a half, he’d do it because he wanted to. And you can hear the band like a sort of train wreck. They’re catching up with him. But I think that’s what it’s all about, it’s got to be organic.

Ian M: Well, people have always said that John Lee was the most difficult person in the world to follow.

Simon C: Well, that’s right, all of a sudden, he’s putting a bar in and the bass player doesn’t know what’s going on and they all sort of fall into the next bar. But it kind of works, you know. And I think that’s something that music has lost quite a lot of. The organic thing where people are willing to take risks and make mistakes.

Ian M: Now, when you’re listening to music these days, who or what do you listen to?

Simon C: We don’t listen to the blues. What sort of thing have we been listening to recently? I listen to a lot of Daniel Lanois. I don’t know if you know Daniel Lanois but he’s Canadian, a huge, huge producer. But his own material is fantastic. And we tend to listen to a lot of more Americana and but a lot of older music. Neil Young, the Band; stuff like that.

Suzy S: Yeah. And Crosby Stills Nash & Young. We have vinyl basically. That’s when we listen to music because most of our time is taken up with working and writing and playing music. So when it comes to any time listening, it’s usually the vinyl. And it depends on what we feel like I think.

Simon C: Also Bowie, Moody Blues, Zeppelin of course.

Suzy S: David Bowie, yeah. Any genre really.

Simon C: With his death last year, I think we really focused on Bowie and we were playing all the old and new albums. We’re not typical blues musicians as we tend to listen to stuff more eclectic.

Ian M: And when you’re working in your studio, producing records for people or whatever, do you aim to produce in vinyl or what?

Simon C: Yeah, we do. I think that our studio principally we’re sitting here now, in the control room, and it’s very analog. We do go to digital rather than have a tape machine because tape machines are very expensive to maintain. And a lot of people can’t afford the tape, it’s also very expensive these days. So the ultimate you know, putting it down to digital is what we do. But everything else analog. We don’t use any plugins: we don’t have auto-tune - we don’t own it. So we just use our board, you know, old fashioned, essentially compressors and stuff. And really good mics. So it lends itself to the final product being vinyl, really, yeah.

Ian M: And what sort of stuff are you recording in the studio at the moment? Is it local bands or what?

Simon C: No, we have a lot of international acts. One of the first bands we had here was band called Chris Cheek, that’s Chris Cheek Sextet. And Chris Cheek is very, very famous sax player from New York. So we tend to get really British speaking or German people coming through here and recording. We recently had an Estonian fiddle player, who is massive in her country. And she does Estonian folk music. So we do a lot of different stuff. But really when people come here, they come here for the knowledge of old-school recording techniques which we specialise in.

Suzy S: And also, we had a chap called Joe Marshall from New Zealand who was travelling who booked a few days to come and record some songs with us. And we discovered that he’s an incredible songwriter. So it’s really quite beautiful. So we’ve been quite humbled. And I love the fact that our studio and our music gives us a really good excuse to meet interesting people which we have music in common.

Simon C: Yeah, we end up playing a lot of the stuff as well. We end up playing session on it. Suzy plays bass, I play guitar and we do backing vocals and stuff as well. So it’s quite an interesting which is good for our music because it really gets you in a good mix with other people.

Suzy S: And that’s what music is to us as well. It is about life, it’s about sharing that with people. It’s not for any other reason rather than sharing the human condition and expressing that. Joe Marshall

Ian M: A question for each of you to answer. Do you have a favourite track on the album?

Simon C: Ah! I didn’t think about that.

Suzy S: No, I’ve not thought about that either.

Simon C: Well, there’s a few. It is difficult. I think for me the track, Walking Out The Door, is the one that really kicked it off because it was the one that was kind of recorded first and it really gave an atmosphere for the record. What we wanted to do is we were trying to give some originality to the sound but based on those late sixties blues and rock bands because from there that’s when music was really happening. Very organic and organically recorded like we’re doing. We wanted to try and sound like that and I think that is the track that really signifies that sound. And also the arrangement, I like it.

Suzy S: Yeah. I think that’s a really good question, by the way. They’re all part of you and you love different songs for different reasons. Cry Over You and Simon’s guitar solo, I think that’s I didn’t really like electric guitar before I heard Simon play actually, and I think it’s for me, it just makes me cry every time I hear the line because there’s something about the guitar and the feel. It’s like words that you I’ve never heard a guitar, for me anyway, that moves me in a way that it’s like it speaks to me. So for me that’s quite a something that has always created this response in me. But the songs have different meanings and different feels so it’s difficult to have one, in an honest answer to you.

Suzy S: [laughs] I mean, that’s the other thing as well is that you give everything you can into this music but then after that you can’t determine how they’re going to be received and how they dance with other people. So that’s quite a humbling thing, you know. It’s something that we’re always, always thankful for whenever we hear anyone say that they’ve got the album or they’ve bought it. It’s like wow, great, thanks. You know?

Ian M: Are you constantly writing music? I read somewhere that you wrote 60 songs in a couple of weeks or something like that.

Simon C: We wrote the album in two weeks and since we’ve been together we’ve written 60 songs, all different genres, you know. We don’t tend to be genre specific. We take a lyric and then we sort of put the melodies and stuff to that lyric, generally speaking. So we have written in a lot of genres. But I think at the moment, certainly, the blues genre really connects with what we’re doing and it’s very much in our lives. For me, it’s going back now to when I was 18.

Suzy S: For me it’s a complete discovery with the bass. I mean, it’s seriously authentically amazing for me to have a bass guitar in my hands and to play bass in a blues song and express in that way.

Simon C: Yeah. Because you’ve only been playing three years which is incredible. She’s picked it up and she’s just got it, she’s understood the instrument. It’s amazing really.

Ian M: Well I was about to ask a question about the bass playing because I gather that you only started fairly recently. But do you find it easy or how do you get on with it?

Suzy S: I think the best way to say that whenever I’m very humble you know, I am humble with it. I know that there is a path to tread and to learn. But all I know is that whenever I play bass, I have the biggest grin on my face and I feel so happy. And sometimes, you know, when we’re playing live gigs, I get so into the groove that I forget to actually like be present with everyone else on the stage because it just completely takes me over. And so I juts it feels a part of me and I can’t really enunciate any more than that. I love it.

Simon C: Well, the first time she picked it up, it was the funniest thing in the world because I remember we had a bass kicking around. And I said try this and she picked it up. We had some drum machine pattern going on and she just played the 'one'. And I said, you are going to be a bass player babe. And she said, what do you mean? I said, you’re going to be a bass player. Well, it’s the way you play the one very well. It was perfect. Because that, you know, the first beat in the bar, it’s like the holy grail for bass players. That one. And where she played it was fantastic and her timing was incredible. So, you know and after that, it was really quick. She really got it.

Suzy S: Well, it’s I don’t know. I just love writing music and I love playing bass. And I feel very, very lucky and very happy.

Ian M: Tell me, there’s a question which I’m sure you’re fed up answering, but because I’ve got readers that I need to satisfy in due course when I produce this for Blues of the South, tell me about the picture of, I believe it was your grandmother, on the front of the album. How did that get there?

Suzy S: Oh, well, I was studying photography at school and I had a camera, a film camera. I was practicing focusing because it was a split-lens focus. And so I was focusing I was going round taking lots of shots of everything and my nana, my grandmother, Betty. She was like my best friend, I used to see her every day. At least twice a day. And I would say just stand there a minute. I was just practising. And she would get slightly embarrassed. Just getting to know and just trying to practice with the camera. And was such a proper lady, it was fantastic because just in this moment she just she didn’t swear, she just went ‘oh’ and stuck the two fingers up at me. At that moment I just happened to click the shutter and submitted it to my tutor at school and he just patted me on the back, because I had developed the negative as well in school in the dark rooms. I have the print. So for me, with the album as well, it’s such a beautiful thing. Because I said to Simon as well, do you remember that old black and white photo I took of my Nan? I’d really like to have that on the front because it means something. But the thing is, honestly, Ian, she had a great sense of humour but she was a proper lady. And so I sometimes think that she would laugh. And my brother says, oh, she would laugh about it. And yet sometimes, I think she’d be horrified. And so I keep going between this she’d love it, no she wouldn’t. But I’m really it means so much more to us that there’s a meaning. And it’s great to see her. Suzy's rebel grandma, Betty..

Ian M: It’s a fabulous picture and it’s certainly well deserving of the cover of your album. And speaking of the album, do you have any more plans to go into the studio again?

Simon C: Well, of course, we’re very, very fortunate in that we have our own studio and the reason why we’ve actually developed this studio it’s a monster, you know. It’s like a, I don’t know if you’ve ever had one but it’s a monstrous money pit. Because things are always especially analog. Things are always going wrong and need repaired and stuff. But we are fortunate. So we’re constantly writing, we’re constantly putting ideas down. And I think the next album will be pretty quick after this. We’ve already started writing it. We’ve been so inspired with the response, you know. We’ve been writing so I reckon towards the end of this year we’ll be recording again.

Suzy S: We’ve got a single coming out as well which was recorded at the same time as Blueberry Pie which will we don’t know when we’re going to be releasing but that will come out probably summertime. Just to support our tour. But it’s part of the Blueberry Pie sessions because we wanted to share the whole pie straight away. We’re not releasing singles. We’re just like, let’s share the pie. Let’s get out on the road, meet everybody, play the music. And so we’ve got single called Heart of Stone which will be released in the summer. And then we’ll be back in the studio recording again. Very exciting.

Ian M: I have to say, from my point of view ,that I think the album is sufficiently good that you ought to prepare yourself, at the very least, for some nominations, if not some awards.

Suzy S: Oh my goodness! [laughs]

Simon C: Well thank you so much. That’s a delight to hear. I mean the whole thing I was very humbled to get a nomination in 2011 for vocal category. But, you know, awards are great and it’s lovely to be nominated because you really it’s like a pat on the back really. But we’re really interested in what our supporters think. And what has meant more to us than anything else is the massive amount of radio play and reviews we’ve had. And when people get it’s like an art when you do a painting, and you think it’s pretty but then you stick it in a gallery, and that’s exactly what we’ve done, and people are coming up to you and saying, yeah, that’s a great picture. And you think, oh, no, somebody actually because you don’t know. You write a track and you record and you think, oh, that’s great. And everyone, you know, you think that’s the best thing I’ve ever done. And then, you know but this has been really it’s been a surprise actually.

Ian M: Well, as I’m sure you know, I’ve got 3 radio programmes. I listen to dozens if not hundreds of tracks every week and yours are outstanding by comparison with many of them.

Simon C: Thank you. That’s wonderful. There’s a massive number of blues players in the UK and Northern Europe and it’s people like you and DJ/s, real enthusiasts, who understand the music and love it, who make it really worthwhile for us. Because the response, you know, this industry is fabulous. It’s a great thing for you to do, to support the music that we all love.

Suzy S: And can I just say as well, thank you for your support Ian. When I hear you on the radio, you are you come across so beautifully. I feel like you’re yourself. You make people really smile. And I know that you’re a real honest guy that’s just into the music and I have to say well done, congratulations and thank you.

Simon C: We were giggling the other day, weren’t we? We were giggling away with what you’re delivering.

Ian M: Well, let’s move away from the mutual admiration society just for a moment. If you could work with any musician at all in your next album, who would it be? Let’s have Suzy’s answer to that first.

Suzy S: Oh, no, because I know what Simon is going to say. So if I could work with any musician? Any musician. Well, Simon. Sorry. You see, the thing is with Simon is that I just feel totally happy with where we’re at. With the way that we write together and work together. And I haven’t really got any need for anyone else yet. So, maybe life will open a door but I’m really, really happy right now. But my honest answer is no, I don’t have any aspirations to work with anyone else.

Ian M: Okay. And what’s Simon’s answer then?

Simon C: Well, I think that one of my favourite producers in the world is Daniel Lanois and his organic nature and what he has done for many bands; Nether Brothers. And of course he recorded, probably, Bob Dylan’s best two albums, Oh Mercy and Time Out of My Mind. Yeah. And if there’s somebody I’d love to work with, it’s Daniel Lanois and I’d just leave him to produce it and I think it would be absolutely fantastic. His online documentary is fantastic and he seems like a really cool guy. So, that would be it.

Ian M: And then one last question. A very simple one really, where do you expect to be in 5 years time? What do you want to be doing?

Suzy S: Hopefully alive and hopefully breathing.

Simon C: [laughs]

Suzy S: And I think that really sums it up for most of us really. [laughs]

Simon C: I think she’s absolutely right of course, as she normally is. But I think in five years, I want to be touring probably, two albums down the line, touring regularly, with festivals. Because we love being on the road. I love playing live, we both do. And with a great band just delivering music. And hopefully being able to earn a living from it which is tricky these days, you know? Now, we do sell books. To be able to be out there doing it full time is one of the greatest gifts anybody can every have as a musician.

Ian M: Well, that’s fabulous. What a wonderful place to end. I think we’ll leave it at that and not pursue it any further. Thank you very much indeed, both of you for speaking to me.

Ian McKenzie for Blues in the South: February 2017