The new album by The Anchoress, The Art of Losing, is the follow up to debut release Confessions Of A Romance Novelist.
Under her everyday name, Catherine Anne Davies, she had been a touring member of Simple Minds since 2015 and also toured as support for the band as The Anchoress during their UK leg of the 2017 Acoustic Tour.
Co-producing and co-writing work also in 2017 and touring as a guest artist with the Manic Street Preachers, as well as featuring on the track Dylan & Caitlin on the Manics’ 2018 release, Resistance Is Futile.
October, 2020, saw the release of her collaborative album with Bernard Butler, In Memory Of My Feelings. The album received many plaudits and could well be nominated for the Mercury Prize this year.
As a writer, producer, engineer, multi-instrumentalist and solo artist, Catherine is quickly amassing an impressive body of work.
It was a huge honour to have Catherine agree to an interview for the Priptona blog.
Regular visitors to the blog will be able tell how much graphics and the visual arts feature here and in my life in general. I’m a bit of an amateur artist and love creating my own visual interpretations and I also like to draw and paint (even if I am not very good at it). One aspect of art that has featured heavily as a focal point for me personally is album artwork.
In my latest interview in the “Priptona Talks” series, I spoke to Stuart Crouch of eponymously named Stuart Crouch Creative about his career as a graphic designer and of his work with Simple Minds as their current graphic art designer.
What made you interested in graphic design? At school I wasn’t really sure what graphic design was but I liked painting and drawing, creating stuff. I was very into music and would make my own mix tapes and draw the covers – copying the logos and graphics from Smash Hits.
How did you start out? We didn’t have a 6th year at my school but my art teacher let a bunch of us take our O Levels a year early so we could then take our A levels in the 5th. My plan was to then go to art college but for a number of reasons I ended up skipping that and joined the art department at Barclays Bank as an apprentice. From there I went to an company in Covent Garden who specialised in movie video covers and then onto an agency called Peacock. This would have been the early 90s and that was my introduction to album cover design.
Is there anyone else’s work that was a particular influence in pursuing a career in graphic design? I would buy albums just for their artwork, my idol was Malcolm Garrett although he was then known by his company name – Assorted Images. His work was everywhere in the 80s – I would walk into a record shop, pick out the sleeves I liked and then check the credits and it was always Malcolm. That’s who I wanted to be and that’s what I wanted to do.
Who are your influences or other artists you admire (not necessarily in the graphic design field)? Kate Bush has been a big influence on me. She puts as much creativity into the visual side of her work as her music, not only her videos but her artwork, stage sets, everything. It’s that attitude to work and attention to detail that I admire.
Do you work or create in other mediums, or in other areas of the creative arts? I used to be in a band, I think that’s true of a lot of people in the music industry – lots of frustrated musicians around. If you’d heard my lyrics you’d see why I ended up as a graphic designer!
How did you start out with doing graphics for Simple Minds? They had a new management team, who I’d worked with previously on Simply Red, and they needed a poster for the 5×5 Tour. That led to designing the album of that tour and they’ve stuck with me ever since.
What is your favourite work you have produced for SM? Tricky one, I think the Celebrate album cover. Their Claddagh (heart / hands symbol) had been perhaps a little overused by that point and I wanted to try something different. I had a photo of Jim Morrison’s bust from his grave, at Père Lachaise – Paris, and it was covered in graffiti (photo below) – I thought it made a cool image – a mix of classic and punk. I sent it to their management team and suggested we use the stone bust from Empires and Dance with their song titles scribbled on but treated like an art piece in a gallery. We created a 3D model of the head (photo above) based on that one photo and commissioned a lettering artist (Ruth Rowland) to hand write all the song titles. I don’t think the band were convinced by the concept at first but had enough faith in me to see it through and they loved the finished image. When their 40th anniversary came along I thought – shit, what do I do now! That Celebrate image would have been ideal – but it was already done. So then I hit on the idea of the badges in a heart shape and I think that does the same job but in a different way, nostalgic but new.
The concepts for designs – esp. with the Simple Minds albums – are you given free licence to do whatever you feel suits? Or are you given a basic conceptual idea? Do the band themselves have much input? Each album or project is different, sometimes the artist has a clear idea what they want, sometimes it’s a blank slate but it usually ends up somewhere in the middle. One of us will start with the germ of an idea and we’ll play with it until it sticks. Jim is an absolute dream to work with – he won’t dictate how you do it but he’ll suggest moods and themes to help get you there. You want the design to feel like a natural extension of the music so the writer’s input is invaluable.
As the visual designer for the Doctor Who audio/visual output (Blu-ray/DVDs/Books/Audiobooks) – I have to ask – WHO is your favourite Doctor? That’s easy – it’s always Tom Baker for me. He was The Doctor when I was growing up, which maybe gives him an unfair advantage, but no story was ever boring or under-par when Tom was in it.
What would be your best piece of advice for someone wanting to work or gain employment in the graphic design field? It’s a very different industry now, you no longer have to work for a big agency to be taken seriously and social media means it’s easier to get your work out there and be seen. The downside is that there’s so much more competition because of that. If you want to get into music graphics my advice would be to approach up-and-coming bands or artists and ask to work with them. I get the appeal of aiming straight for the big guns but that’s trickier, you’ll have a lot more freedom with someone new, a chance to create looks and identities that young kids will be drawing on their pencil cases. Musicians are a pretty loyal bunch so there’s every chance they’ll take you with them on their journey. It will probably mean working for free at first but it gives you a chance to develop your skills and create a portfolio.
Are there artists, be they in the entertainment field (bands, musicians, actors, writers, etc) or other visual artists, that you’d like to work with or collaborate with? Duran Duran – if you’re listening, I’m waiting for your call!
Lastly – do you have a favourite colour? Not really, but if you put a knife to my throat I’d go for dark blue.
My thanks to Stuart for his time for the interview.
For almost a decade now, Warm Digits have been producing great music. First forming and producing live improv jam sessions together in the mid-2000s, the key duo of Steve Jefferis and Andrew Hodson will soon be celebrating the 10th anniversary of debut album release, Keep Warm, in 2021. Two other albums followed. The conceptual Interchange, released in 2013, was an experimental album that was also released with a film inspired by photography and illustrations drawn from the Tyne and Wear Archives, of the 1970s’ biggest civil engineering project on Tyneside – the construction of Metro. In 2017, they released Wireless World, with new lyrical elements adding an extra layer to their already signature sound, with guest vocal appearances by Peter Brewis of Field Music and Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne, among others. The album was widely lauded.
And now a new album is due for release on April 3rd, 2020. Singles released so far from the album include The View From Nowhere – featuring song-writing and vocal input from Scots musician Emma Pollock, Fools Tomorrow – featuring Maximo Park’s Paul Smith on vocal duties, and the gorgeous Everyone Nervous – featuring the wonderful Rozi Plain on vocals.
On the back of the album’s imminent release, I had the opportunity to interview Steve Jefferis to discuss the album and other probing questions. A transcript follows.
So, the first question I have is that you seem to be writing more songs with lyrics now and has it been a natural progression to do that?
To an extent, yes. The difference this time is that we knew from the start that we wanted to do vocal songs. And that people just seem to like them, really, and I guess they do make it [the music] more accessible generally. So, we had that in mind this time whereas with Wireless World it evolved a bit strangely that record. We actually completed it as a completely instrumental album. We had been thinking about doing vocals for a long time and a few people whose opinions we kind of respected and cared about thought we should think seriously about doing it. Others could hear that those songs could maybe kind of benefit from vocals. So we thought, well, “we’ll give it a go.” And that’s why that record took years and years to complete because we’d finished it, but then we went back, started talking to vocalists and then had to re-edit the songs to incorporate the vocals and then it ended up the record it was. This time having felt that the vocal idea went quite well on Wireless World we thought, well, “what can we do next?” So when we were writing the songs we were much more mindful that the vocalists would come in on this and so we wrote up to a point and went to the vocalists at an earlier stage. There was a lot more to-ing and fro-ing between us and the vocalists this time around.
There is also a track on the album that has a vocal that isn’t done by a guest vocalist. It is actually me singing. It is mentioned on the album’s sleeve notes that I am singing vocals on the album. I’m quite nervous about it and not sure if I really want it known that it’s me. How it came about was, when we were looking for vocalists for the tracks, I did guide vocals just to say this is what we have in mind for the melody, etc. Andy heard those and said “you know you can hold a tune, Steve, do you want to think about singing?” and I really didn’t want to. We had done the title track, Flight Of Ideas, as an instrumental but it didn’t really seem to work as an instrumental piece. So we thought maybe we should end up singing on this and that’s what we ended up doing. And I think it has come out okay.
Well you kind of did answer the second question I had as a consequence and talking about this. What I was going to ask was when you started out, did you see yourselves as a purely instrumental band?
When we started, it was all improvised. We’d play live with a synth bassline on a loop and then Andy would play and I would play improv on the guitar and after a while we’d get bored and start off another bassline, so it was all completely improvised and then at the point when Andy moved away from Newcastle we thought, we’re not sure this band is going to survive so let’s go into a studio and just record some of the improvisation and that worked quite well and that then turned into the album [Keep Warm], edited down from those improv jams. Tracks like Weapons Destruction, for example, were made up on the spot around the bassline and then edited down. So there has been two evolutions of Warm Digits, really. One is the evolution of very early improvisation to something much more song based, which is one of the big things that’s happened over the last two albums, and then the evolution from pure instrumental to vocal.
I think the label would be quite happy if we’d have given them an album with 10 vocal tracks.
Yeah. They really love it. You know, they’ve got their eye on things that are going to hook people in or catch peoples’ ear on the radio and although I am very happy that people like the vocal tracks I am also feeling having part of the past two albums as instrumentals feels important as it is still an integral part of the band.
That’s what really hooked me in with you guys was that you are – or were – an instrumental led band. To me it feels the emphasis on instrumentals in rock and pop music has been lost in recent times.
Yes, I agree. For instance, when you saw us Glasgow I think we did three instrumental tracks and three vocal tracks in the set, and that felt like a good mix…that it’s not “Oh, they’re doing an instrumental now to sort of pad everything out”, that actually this is the kind of band we are and the vocals are special guests.
So when you’re writing the songs with lyrics on them, are those ideas for the lyrics happening first or is it a musical piece first before it’s being worked on lyrically?
It is, absolutely [the latter]. If not finished instrumentals then at least coherent songs in their own right before any lyrics evolve.
Do you ever have any title ideas? Like is there something like just words that seem to develop a track or is it all just musically driven?
The titles are right at the heart of everything actually. That’s a good question. When we were purely instrumental all instrumental bands have the problem of “what on earth are we going to call that song?”, because there are no lyrics to take a line from. That was one of the things that got us thinking about concepts for the records. Not for the first album, but for Interchange and for Wireless World, we started working with an idea of what the album could loosely be about and then just thinking of song titles. We both have a background in electronic music, you know like Warp Records, electronica and one of things that those bands often do is to have completely nonsense song titles that are like, you know, a kind of glitchy computer malfunction type. We wanted to get away from that as we felt that would seem a bit of a cop out, so let’s give these proper titles even if they are not vocal tracks. Then what happened from there with Wireless World is we had all the song titles for the instrumentals and the vocalists took the titles and used that as inspiration for the lyrics they wrote. And that was…not in all the cases but in quite a lot of cases. It was a case on this record as well, like The View From Nowhere had a title from the start. We listen out for phrases and ideas that have a ring to them and keep on a list as potential front runners.
That was the next question I was going to ask about, was your collaboration with Emma Pollock on The view From Nowhere. Was Emma involved in the writing of the lyrics?
Yes, that’s right. It is mixed on this record. Some of the lyrics are ours but that one she wrote the entirety of the lyrics. We fed her the title and the kind of idea that was in our minds originally for that…the short conceptual idea of what it could be about and she took that and wrote words around that. There was a bit of back and forth. She did a demo and we suggested a tinkering to a couple of the lines but yeah, that’s all her work. I’m really pleased with how that one came out lyrically. I’ve always been a fan of her work and she has this way of writing these lyrics that are very elusive in a sense that…you can get a sense of what they’re about but they are quite hard to pin down the actual meaning. And that is true of…well, I hope it is true of that song. That is why I am so pleased with it as she did exactly what I was hoping she would do with it.
This is going to sound a really pedantic question, in retrospect. The bass on Replication…do you play the bass parts?
Yes. And that is one of the other things that has evolved over time. It used to all just be synth bass but since we wrote End Times [a track on the Wireless World album] which had that really funky bassline on it, and it just seemed to work, there has been more bass guitar on the songs. I think that song did originally have a synth bass on it as well. How that came about was…that was one of the ones where it was written in the style in which we always used to write, which is to have a synth loop going and just play along with it and you play for a while and then something eventually jumps out and you think “oh, yeah, that could work”.
You’re a father to two young children. So how do you manage the work/life balance?
Oh, God! Well…we kind of don’t in that I don’t think we do it particularly successfully. I spend a lot of my time quite tired and quite stressed because they’re the priorty. I have a day job as well. And so there’s that and the travelling and then the band. I mean…I suppose the answer is it just kind of fits in the gaps, really. And with a lot of support and understanding from my wife who’s enabling it to happen.
There can be advantages to it in the sense that, like, with this record we just needed to get it done because we had so little time. So it can help you to focus a bit because, you know, I’ve got a little bit of time on a Wednesday during the day when I’m not at work to do music whereas 10 years ago I would have probably just noodled around and maybe have come up with something useful but mostly have done nothing productive at all.
And the way technology is these days, you can record from home. You don’t need to be in a studio to record. Andy and I don’t need to be in a studio together to work on things. There are still advantages to being in a studio. You’re working with an engineer and things. But the freedom you have to work at your own time and pace and the quality of home recording now is…well. Andy is more of the technically-minded one, really. He does the production, the mixing and mastering and everything that makes it sound like a proper record. And he tidies up all my mistakes. He makes sure everything is recorded properly. So Andy and I do it all from home.
Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with in future recordings? If so, who would be your dream collaborator?
I mean, I’ll take this question as to mean vocal collaboration? Well, we have done a music collaboration before with Field Music [a BBC Radio session that happened in January, 2012, between both bands that was produced as a 10” vinyl record]. But I think me and Andy are so…we’ve just got our way of working together musically that just works. I’m thinking about vocals… Well, do you know what? For this album we did sit down and write a long list of who is on our dream vocal collaborator’s list, knowing that from the off most of them we wouldn’t stand a chance of getting but the one at the time of my list was Sufjan Stevens. He’s an amazing singer-songwriter. He’s been nominated for an Oscar [for Best Original Song for Mystery Of Love in the film Call Me By Your Name in 2018]. He made two albums about two American states. I suppose you’d say he’s folk rock? He just has a beautiful voice and writes very emotional songs that just make you cry. He made an album called The Age Of Adz. It’s much more electronic. I think it’s a beautiful album. So, yes. I would definitely die happy if we were ever able to get him.
One of the other ones on my dream list would be…one of my favourite bands growing up was Wire – they’re a British post punk band who are still going. Again the vocalist, Colin Newman, has an incredible emotional voice – and we’ve done a cover version of one of his songs – which is actually an instrumental. But I consider them [Wire] and him [Newman] a big influence on us. So that would be my other dream collaboration were it to have the chance to happen.
Okay, this one kind of leads on again from what we’ve just discussed. These questions are blending in very well! I love the description of your sound in the press release for Flight Of Ideas – “ If Can met Chemical Brothers in a fireworks factory.” It mentions musical influences like Steve Reich, could you expand on the musical influences that you have?
Okay, sure. Well, the simplest thing to say is one of the things our previous manger used to describe us is – if My Bloody Valentine played Krautrock. Which is not far off the original idea of the band. We both come from backgrounds in more pure electronic music. We used to play laptop electronica and that is how Andy and I started collaborating. Quite quickly we discovered that it was really hard to make that kind of music exciting live because you’re just standing on stage with a laptop, essentially. Andy had always drummed but he just hadn’t been drumming on our collaborations and so he just started drumming along in rehearsals and it sounded amazing. So we thought “oh, this is good!” and eventually I picked up the guitar. But there had always been this electronic undercurrent to it.
So I suppose the three influences mainly are the classic electronic music, like Kraftwerk, then through to techno and acid house grooves and more contemporary electronic music like the kind of Warp Records type electronica and then cosmic disco and Scandinavian stuff like Lindstrom were the big electronic influences.
The second lot of influences come from Krautrock – particularly Neu! Can, up to a point, and Kraftwerk – that kind of rhythm seemed to just work really well really quickly when we started playing and it’s a lot of fun to play and feel you can – particurlarly when we’re improvising – you can just play that rhythm for hours and find new things to discover in it.
And the the third set of influences comes from guitar led music, in particular shoe-gazing, so – for Andy as well – but for me, in particular, I’ve always been a massive fan of bands like My Bloody Valentine and the noisier of the shoe-gazing bands. There’s an American band called Medicine who are absolute favourites of mine. And so those blends of influences felt like quite a new thing to do when we started out, blending the sounds of electronic music with Kraurock and shoe-gazing guitar over it. I think Andy has probably got a wider set of influences than me so if he were here I think he might be talking a bit more about jazz. There’s certainly a big sort of jazz element in his drumming, although generally the rhythms are more Krautrock or Indy sounding but the way he plays is quite improvisational, really, so he would probably have that in there.
Off the back of the electronic influences there’s also the more minimalist and classical end as well, we mentioned Steve Reich earlier, that has a looping, repeating electronic motif on it. That wave of American minimalist guys, really. I’m worried I’ve missed out who Andy would say, but you’ll have to do with my version of names and influences.
The next question is what would be your ‘go to’ album on a good day?
Okay. Now I find this really difficult to answer you see because…
Or, conversely, the album of solace for you on a bad day? So the yin and yang of what would be an uplifting one and what would be your wallowing one, I guess?
Erm…I’ll take the – I dunno what this means but – the solace one comes much more readily to mind. I might mention Richard Dawson, actually. A singer and guitarist from Newcastle. He put out a record called Nothing Important, which – particularly the title track – is incredibly emotionally powerful and very sad but kind of compelling. I’m not sure if I draw solace from it but it is something I would go to if I’m not feeling great. Or the other might be a favourite record of mine and Andy’s which is Music Has The Right To Children by Boards Of Canada. There’s real melancholy in there…which is not always easy to do in a record but it also has an eerie quality to it. I think it’s great.
The uplifting stuff would be kind of…indy pop. The Pastels – the Glasgow band. But I can’t think of one particular album off the top of my head right now. We might have to come back to this one.
So, getting back to the album itself, to me, Fools Tomorrow and False Positive in particular, those two tracks seem to be the more obvious move away from the usual sort of Krautrock motorik led sound and have more of the funk element to them. So where has….if you can articulate it…where do you feel this more funk based sound has come from?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean Fools Tomorrow was Andy’s song and that came from the rhythm. I think what it came from was he was just playing around with drum loops and he layered on two loops and came up with this thundering rhythm that that song’s got and it just worked quite quickly because it’s like “Ooh, we haven’t had one like this before”, but that rhythm’s amazing. So that song came from Andy playing around with drum loops and finding something that really worked as a groove. False Positive is one of mine and I think it came from finding a bit of confidence on Wireless World with the more disco-y tracks – End Times and The Rumble And The Tremor – and just being interested to see if we really turned this up a notch and made it really funky what would that be like? So False Positive has got this kind of ridiculous 80s synth on it, slightly cheesy and I tried it and I thought “oh, God, can we get away with it?”
It was FAB live! I really loved you guys performing it live at Saint Luke’s. It really worked.
Oh, that’s good to hear because I think I enjoy it but I think it’s one of the ones, partly because I think…so, one of the other things that comes from this album is they [the songs] were written in the studio solo. So False Positive, for example, I sent to Andy fairly complete but not fully formed and so one of the things with the track is that the groove hasn’t grown out of him playing drums on it. When we started to play it live, it was like “oh, god, how do I play this” and it wasn’t feeling natural to him at first. But as we’ve continued to play it live, it seems to be working really well. So it’s good to get that feedback that it works because between the two of us we were thinking “oh, does the feel right when we play it live?”, we weren’t too sure.
So, yeah. It basically emerged from me thinking if we tried to turn up the funkiness from the kind of songs we were doing on the last album what would that sound like and that’s what came out. Also with it being our 4th album in, there is quite a bit on there that is recognisably us, but there’s also things where we’ve tried to stretch things a bit or push the edges of what we’ve done before by experimenting a little bit. So that is part of the idea as well, like, what rhythm hadn’t we tried before that could work within the palette of sounds that we’re familiar with.
I have two questions left. Well, I think they’re two. I can see that there maybe questions within questions, potentially.
I have to say the tracks (for me), I’m Okay You’re Okay, and Everyone Nervous, as well as that bridge break in Fools Tomorrow – they’re the really emotional pieces for me.
So the question from that is, what do you hope people get from listening to your music? And would you hope that there would be visceral feelings that come from that? Do you hope there’s an emotional impact for people?
Yeah, yeah. That’s a really good question. I think both, really. The visceral one is probably the first thing. Largely because the band emerged out of that we want to do something that’s safe live and that people really enjoy to see, so that impact was the first thing we went for, But, you know you’ve got to have a bit of rage as well. I am very pleased that there are emotional elements too. If it is sparked off even just by a chord change, something like that…if it just makes you want to sigh or something like that. I have always felt that element of music is very compelling. There are songs where we try to put those elements in – I’m Okay You’re Okay is probably the one I think we’ve done it most successfully on. That was a difficult song to get right. It’s been kicking around for years. And it used to be a disco song. Andy wrote the song but got fed up with it but I really loved the emotional feeling of the chord sequences and thought “I’m not going to give this up, we’re going to try and make it work” and so we redid it as a Krautrock song and had this synth melody on the top of it.
It is the melody that does it. Its’s the thing that gives the song it’s emotional impact.
Thank you. I hear a yearning quality to it. And it is a lot quieter song than we normally do so that feels good to have that bit of space.
Final question (questions!) and I’m worried this might seem some kind of loaded question.
How important is the idea of commercial success for you? At a point we are at the moment where, you know, people are exposed to music more than ever before. Do you think that there is less importance attached to music in younger generations? Does it concern you? Or do you think it’s just a cyclical phase?
I mean, as far commercial potential goes it’s not overly important to us at all. What does feel important is that it’s got a platform for people to be able hear it. So it’s just brilliant that Memphis Industries picked up on the last record and wanted to do it because that opens the door to radio and festivals and bigger gigs that never would have happened otherwise. You know, we’re quite happy kind of being a Newcastle band with a decent following locally and not much else. But it feels great to have a platform. I mean, but you know… I’m not sure we would get on well with a big kind of bump in popularity because then it would feel that the stakes go up.
Going back to your question earlier about how we juggle it alongside other commitments, I mean that would be what makes me anxious because it’s like if the expectations go up about touring or whatever, then that’s hard on a personal level. I mean, I hope it doesn’t sound like a cop out. It’s lovely that people get the chance to hear it but beyond that, we are not particurlay ambitious about [success] on a commercial level.
Part of the question was about generational differences. I’ve got no idea what music culture is like for teenagers these days, but I do feel nostalgic for how it was when I was growing up which revolved around the weekly music papers of the UK – the NME and the like – and the the new bands you’d discover and go and see live.
I think when I was younger the scarcity of music in the sense that…I mean you had the radio and that…but you had to buy it, really, if you wanted to listen to it repeatedly. And so I think it was that scarcity that drove your curiosity. And so I don’t know how that works now because we’ve all got infinite music at our fingertips now. So I don’t know whether that plays a part in why it seems younger folk place less importance on it.
I do see younger people around who are passionate about music and attached to particular bands, so I think it’s still happening but is perhaps less of a unifying culture than it was in the past.
The current single from the album – the sublime Everyone Nervous.
It’s the summer of 1978. Simple Minds have been alive and kicking for several months. Jim Kerr and David Henderson (sometimes with Graffiti record store manager Scott MacArthur in tow), during days between Simple Minds’ weekly residency at the Mars Bar, go knocking on doors trying to drum up record company interest, handing over a demo tape.
Simple Minds have just secured their first gig outside of Glasgow, in Edinburgh. Upon word-of-mouth recommendations and due partly to his reputation as a knowledgable man of music through his chain of records stores, Bruce Findlay is visited by Kerr and Henderson during their visit to Edinburgh.
I begin my conversation with Bruce by asking how signing Simple Minds to Zoom Records came about.
Did Brian Hogg recommend you sign Simple Minds after having seen them play, or did you make the decision yourself once you’d seen them live?
BF: No, what happened with that was Jim and David Henderson came to see me in Edinburgh and had a demo they wanted me to listen to. They were playing in Edinburgh that night (the gig in question was at The Astoria, Abbeymount on August 10th, 1978), but I couldn’t go so Brian went instead. He just raved about the gig the next morning, saying how amazing they were. ‘You should see them, Bruce’! “The best thing since sliced bread.” He went on to describe how the gig was in detail. How they performed. That Pleasantly Disturbed was like a little symphony in one song. So it just sounded so exciting.
Fortunately they had a residency at the Mars Bar in Glasgow at the time that they had established over the previous couple of months. They’d already made a reputation for themselves. So I went to see them on the Sunday (Aug 13th) in Glasgow. They’d put me on the guest list as their gigs were now selling out every week. I was blown away by the gig. I hung out with them back stage afterwards and spoke to them.
Essentially I would have loved to have signed them right away, except I thought they were too good. Zoom at this point was just a singles label. I had released a few singles independently. I had only just signed a deal with Arista to get more financial backing, but it was still very much for me a singles label. That Zoom was a singles label and bands that I would work with would see it as a stepping stone to getting initial material released and as a consequence drum up further interest from bigger, well-established record labels. I didn’t see Zoom at that point as being a label that would release albums. That was not my ambition for Zoom.
So when I saw Simple Minds, I didn’t think they were ‘too good’ for me, per se, but that they were beyond the point of releasing a single and needing that stepping stone. And equally they didn’t come to me wanting to be signed or looking for a deal. They weren’t even looking for me to be their manager. They came to me because they were told I was a good guy to talk to.
So after that first initial Mar Bars gig I saw, I went to just about every other one. I also got other gigs for them outside of Glasgow, with the help of George Duffin. I got them more gigs in Edinburgh and got them introduced to [promoters] Regular Music and got them some good support slots. In the meantime, I hung out with them. I used to crash out and stay the night at Jim’s parents flat. Jim and I would sit up til all hours of the morning discussing…’the revolution’. Discussing what the band wanted and what their ambitions were, the state of the music business. We talked about all sorts of things. What we liked. What we didn’t like. [I must admit to getting just a tad envious at this point. Lol.] And we got to know each other. Me and the whole band, you know, but particularly with Jim. I occasionally stayed at Brian McGee’s house as well. His parents had a bigger house.
So that is how it all came about. Brian Hogg, yes, he went to see them before me on the night they had come to see me in Edinburgh and raved about them to me, so that was a big influence.
So Brian went to see them on the basis that Jim and David had been to visit you that afternoon, rather than having seen them by chance?
BF: I think he might have been going to see them anyway. It was a very exciting time with new music and because I had the Zoom label going and Brian was working with me at Zoom, we were interested in new music, and we were excited by it. It was quite a revolutionary kind of time. Quite an exciting time for new bands and new music and it was the birth of what became “the indie scene”. We were there at the beginning. I launched Zoom in 1977. So by the time Simple Minds came to see me in the summer of 1978, I had already released six or seven singles on the Zoom label. We were up and running. And I had a fanzine going called Cripes that was distributed through the record shops that Brian [Hogg] and I edited. So we were enthusiasts, as well as writing about stuff in the fanzine that we were involved with, either through selling the records in our shops or signing bands to the label or wanting to sign them. We’d also plug other labels. We were a broad church and we just liked the whole scene.
I saw a revolution, if you like. I thought the whole country; every little town, every big city, every serious independent record shop should start a record label. I saw the future as being hundreds of little labels, as opposed to five major ones, and the smaller independents would have an alliance with the majors. I started selling my releases to the distributor Rough Trade who then in turn started a record label. I was selling records in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. All over the place. Zoom releases. I was very keen and enthusiastic in encouraging others to start a label. I mean I encouraged Lenny [Love] with Sensible Records. I encouraged Bob Last when he started Fast Records and I promoted his records through Bruce’s record shops. I wasn’t wanting to take over the world. I was wanting to share the world with everyone else. That was the whole philosophy behind the thing.
But what happened with Simple Minds was they created a real buzz and the big guns in London were sniffing around and they were very keen for Simple Minds to go to London to play. So what we did to combat this London-centric idea, this notion that to “make it big” you must go to London, we made the big wigs there come up to us. In fact, initially we didn’t play in England at all. We thought if record companies were really THAT keen, they’d come and see us.
Again, at the point I was just an adviser. Unpaid, non-committal (but fully behind them wishing for them to succeed), and they had no obligation to me but because I began to talk on their behalf to these record companies, when push came to shove, whenever they [the labels] showed any serious interest they were told “speak to Bruce” and I’d speak to them. Finally Arista said to me “why don’t we give you the money so you can sign them to Zoom?” I wanted them to have an album deal. They deserved proper funding to go full-time, pay wages, and go for it. I thought “they’re ready”. Thoroughly professional in their mentality and attitude. Very together. Jim had a terrific vision for the band. He was a very bright kid. Nineteen years of age but he really knew what he wanted. Ruthless as well. He was really strong in his opinions and what he wanted and how he saw the band developing.
I then asked Bruce about the recording of Life In A Day.
The next part of the interview is in audio:
Continuing on from the audio…
BF: And all the songs were kind of there. If anything, in hindsight…I mean the band…within weeks of releasing it kind of went off it and couldn’t wait to start on the next album. They thought it was a bit derivative. All the critics had a go at them. “Oh, they sound a bit like Roxy Music and a little of Lou Reed” … and a little of this and a little bit of that and all of that of course was true. The band wore their influences on their sleeves. Personally speaking, I think it was a brilliant album. I think it was a brilliant debut album and I think it deserves a lot more praise than it got and it should have been a hit album. Life In A Day is a great track. Chelsea Girl was a classic. Some of the album tracks, Someone and Pleasantly Disturbed are fabulous. Yeah, it was maybe a wee bit…”John Leckie production” if you like but he had to put his stamp on it. John’s a lovely guy, but the band’s own confidence wasn’t there at that point, in the studio, but it came very quickly. The next album was dynamic. Completely different and much more experimental. But I was proud of the first album. I didn’t agree with Jim when he dismissed it.
I then asked the next question rather badly, and not very succinctly.
And audio extract follows:
What was the decision behind choosing the Rolling Stones mobile studio to record Life In A Day? Why not choose to record at, say, CaVa Studios in Glasgow instead?
BF: The Rolling Stone mobile was used – and we recorded some of it at Abbey Road Studio as well. I mean, come on, can you imagine the thrill? Derek Forbes in particular, who is a massive Beatles fan, going into the studio where The Beatles recorded all their stuff? So we needed to move away from CaVa and these places. Again, with hindsight, there’s nothing wrong with having…in many ways we could have done it at CaVa as it happens.
I mean nowadays you can record albums at home with Pro Tools and suchlike but in those days the thing was to get into the big and to use bigger studios and to use what the big bands had done. And there was an excitement and a thrill to it. Remember these were young kids. They’re a bunch of teenagers making their first record and although they were bright and they were smart, you know, the thrill of going into the bigger studio, the thrill of working with a serious producer – not that Brian Young wasn’t a serious guy at CaVa. He was a friend. And the demos were all good. In fact, I would still argue that Chelsea Girl, the demo, is ten times better than Chelsea Girl the album recording. But John Leckie got them to change the arrangement a bit. John needed to stamp his thing on it too. John was a terrific producer and the next two albums he produced are classics. Real To Real Cacophony and Empires And Dance, for me, are sensational albums and should have been smash hits. And it was one of the reasons we didn’t stay in the licence deal with Arista…but that’s another story.
I had the privilege to conduct my first ever professional interview for this blog with Simple Minds’ (and indeed Johnny And The Self Abusers) original lighting technician, Jaine Henderson. Upon gathering my notes to compile the transcript from the interview, what became clear to me was, despite my wanting to talk to Jaine about her work with SM and being involved in the early embryonic days of the band (and those discussions happened), was the fascinating life Jaine has had beyond her brief time as SM’s lighting tech. The interview became less about Simple Minds and her involvement in the early days, and just as much about Jaine herself and her life before and after her involvement with SM.
Brother David got himself a full-time job at the local record store, Graffiti, on Queen Street. Jaine would go in and hang around and help out on a Saturday. Members of the band (as of then, Johnny And The Self Abusers) would come in and be wanting to listen to things and would get chatting to David and from there David started to work as the sound tech and general “ideas man” for the band. He’d travel down to London with Jim Kerr and Graffiti store manager (and indeed JATSA band manager), Scott McArthur, knocking on record company doors, offering up demo tapes.
Jaine went along to some of the gigs and would help out here and there. One time the guy who was meant to do the lighting was a no show, so Jaine stepped in. That was the start for Jaine as lighting tech.
The first official Simple Minds gig was at Satellite City on January 17th, 1978. It was nerve-wracking for all involved. Jim, in a Facebook post on Simple Minds Official in January, 2017 (just a couple of days before the gig’s 39th anniversary) expressed how nervous he was, and what a “big deal” the gig was for the band. Jaine and David had done some rehearsing leading up to the gig. The odd little slot here and there, helping out where they could.
Whilst starting out being the lighting tech, Jaine also helped with the band’s promotional material, creating tour posters for early local gigs. Offered a six month placement at a graphic design company, Jaine enjoyed learning to work in mixed media. One of the early iconic Simple Minds gig posters was her concept, incorporating a photo by Peter McArthur. “I saw the photo and thought it looked really good. There was a screen printer at work but you could only work with one colour at a time. Jim liked the whole ‘Village Of The Damned’ thing, so I had the idea of making his eyes red.” The posters would have a blank space of white at the bottom so information on each new gig could be added.
Such a successful concept it turned out to be that it lead to some official merchandise being made. You’ll see in the video below a badge that worked lenticular, so Jim’s eyes would flash on and off, depending on how the light caught the badge. Retro style badges of both Jim and Charlie with the “red eye effect” can be bought from the official band store to this day.
The lighting kit comprised four lights on a repurposed bread board that David had put together. Lights of various strength of wattage were used, including a 1000 watt floodlight that if used in unison with the other lights could lead to the lights overheating and short-circuiting. Other lights were added over time having been “rehoused” as part of the Simple Minds lighting kit.
The lighting rig got more complex as time moved on and as the band developed and endeavoured to put on more elaborate shows. Equipment got heavier too, and Jaine would struggle sometimes to set it all up herself. It was tough work, lots of heavy lifting and physically labour intensive. More than a solitary person working alone should have to deal with. But Jaine was reluctant to ask for help. “If I asked for help it would be seen as weakness, because I’m a girl, that I couldn’t take it. But it was because things got more complex. It was a job that required more than one person, especially for the physical setting up of the lighting rig.”
Jaine explained there was an element of freedom, and in some respects more control over a simpler lighting set up than what is around today. Most lighting rigs now are controlled totally with automated switches. Fairly much all pre-programmed with the light show being almost “curated” before tours begin to a setlist by the music act sticking to a fairly uniform presentation each night of a tour.
Back in the day when Simple Minds were starting out, new songs were penned on an almost weekly basis. Set lists could change quite regularly. For Jaine that meant that no two nights were ever really the same. “With the lighting set up I had early on I had greater ability, I think, to change with the mood and atmosphere of each gig. I had more control to change the sequence of the lights, and the shadows and darkness between the lights played as much of a factor in how the music came across to a crowd as much as the lighting did itself.”
In Simple Minds’ tour with Magazine, there was one particular occasion when things seemed to go awry, at a gig in London at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Simple Minds were support for Magazine on the tour, and as a support act, they were receiving a good reception from the crowds every night. By some accounts, this seemed to be hacking off Magazine’s manager (contentious as to whether it was the band’s overall manager or their tour manager). At this particular gig, halfway through the Simple Minds set, the power was cut. Off for several minutes without any sense that things were trying to be sorted out, the band embarrassingly trundled off stage. Most in the SM camp smelled a rat. Jim seemed to be of the belief it was the band’s tour manager that cut the power, but the real culprit will never truly be known.
As far as Jaine remembers things on the Magazine tour (and for what was the Life In A Day tour for Simple Minds, the album having just been released as they set off on tour), it was a small blip on an otherwise successful tour. A tour that she remembers enjoying by and large.
Jaine shared with me the story of the pink lamé jacket. She and Jim had seen this wonderful looking, sparkly pink jacket in a shop window and thought it looked great. Neither of them could afford to buy it outright, so they decided to go halves in it. It was an expensive jacket. Some £60! Considering the average weekly wage at that time was around £30, it was quite a sum! “We were going to take turns wearing it, but I ended up wearing it more often than Jim.” Then on the night of the gig at the Apollo in Manchester (a hometown gig for the headline act, of course), the Magazine road crew having seen Jaine wearing the pink lamé jacket had an idea. “Each night on the tour, John McGeoch would have his saxophone brought out on stage and handed to him by a member of the road crew”, Jaine explains, “but this night in Manchester, the crew thought it would be a great idea that I go on instead wearing the jacket, as if in a magician’s assistant guise with a ‘Ta daaaah! Big reveal’ moment that would surprise John. So on I go in the jacket with John’s saxophone and hand it to him. John wasn’t expecting me, so he was quite shocked. The crew and the other band members are giggling away enjoying John’s reaction, and I am mortified being on stage, standing in front 2,500 people, handing John his sax!”