The Simon Fell Interview, 24th March, 2001

Evil Dick meets Simon Fell in a pub in Essex.

ED: It's the worst stereo microphone in the Universe. It's stereo here, and here....and then it's just mono.

SF: It's known as an ash-tray microphone...that's where it belongs!

(The conversation shifts to the "When Worlds Collide" Zappa tribute at LIPA (Feb 2001))

ED: Yeah... I just thought it didn't have any edge to it. It didn't have any kind of Grrrr...errrr

SF: Everything about it was kind of...

ED: Polite...

SF: Soft at the edges. The Muffin Men decided the repertoire that was played would be instrumental and not sing the words which takes a layer of dirt away from the music. And the orchestra and musicians, I didn't get the impression they were firing on all cylinders.  But fine, if someone had said to me "Come to Liverpool and hear a concert of jazz/rock with a very big horn section.", well, I wouldn't have gone, but if I had I'd have thought, fine...that's what this is.  It's when you're told this is when worlds collide, the opportunity of a lifetime to hear the ultimate collaboration of rock, jazz and classical music, you think, no, I'm sorry, it's not!

ED: Well, it may have been about thirty years ago.

SF: Well, I don't think it would have been...maybe that's the thing? Most of the music we're talking about is about thirty years old, or a lot of it is anyway and it doesn't compare to Orchestral Favorites, and even a lot of the stuff Zappa wasn't happy with.

ED: London Symphony Orchestra.

SF: I don't know that record, I wish I did.

ED: It's one of the ones I haven't got because all the reviews I read of it say it's a bit dodgey round the edges...more like a posh demo...

SF: One reason it sounds like a good record to me.

ED: Yeah.

SF: It's partly that problem with Zappa: what he wanted to be was not necessary what it would've been best for him to want to be...

ED: I see.

SF: I think there was always that problem with him that he wanted accurate performances, he wanted proper classical musicians and yet when he gets it he realises something's's like the whole Boulez experience. Here we are with a top flight contemporary music ensemble and one of the worlds great conductors who are giving mercilessly accurate readings of the scores and, of course, it's not very interesting because it hasn't got the ambiguity or the dirt in the cracks which you need for that music.

ED: What's interesting about that album is there are two or three synclavier pieces stuck on there as well, which I don't think gel with the Boulez conducted pieces.  They seem more like fillers.

SF: What happens so often with those kind of records, and there are quite a few in the Zappa catalogue, is that you don't really get the pleasures of the synthesis between these two, you just get those two things underlining what the other thing is missing. If you listen to just the Ensemble Intercontemporain and Boulez, and forgot you'd ever heard The Mothers or the Synclavier pieces and just listened to it in it's own right, there's much to be enjoyed.  But when you put them next to each other you realise neither is perfect and that what they're setting out to achieve hasn't been realised.

ED: But he did achieve it early on.

SF: Oh, he achieved it with 200 Motels and Orchestral Favorites. He achieved it with Studio Tan.

ED: But why the change of attack? It's like his ideas separated out - or he wanted to pursue the individual issues the projects threw up more.

SF: I think Zappa over-estimated himself as a composer and under-estimated his collaborators. I think he's still a very interesting composer. A rock composer in the tradition that Duke Ellington is a jazz composer. I don't mean their ambitions are limited but that they are working in a tradition where what you do is very definitely and positively enriched by the performers in the process. There is added value in compositions being performed by the right musicians whereas in classical music it isn't part of the process.

ED: Well, your compositions require a lot of input from the performers...does that mean you don't consider yourself a fantastic composer?

SF: It means I don't consider myself a composer in the tradition of Michael Finnissy or James Dillon or Boulez or anybody from the very straight, classical tradition. That doesn't mean I wouldn't like the chance, exactly like Zappa, to write for an orchestra. But I also know that working with a professional orchestra, again as Zappa found, would probably be very frustrating and less fulfilling than working with jazz musicians or as I've often done, student musicians. For that sort of music accuracy is not the only criteria as it is with most classical music performance. I suppose that's why I would consider myself a jazz composer, even if I'm writing for orchestras. Because, actually what I really want is for the musicians to take some responsibility for what they do during the performance, rather than them just saying, "It's the composers fault. He made us do it!".

ED: I always find it really weird when you listen to this sort of music and you have free jazz improv and free improv and the actual distinction between the two. You're in a free jazz group and you play with jazz improvisers...but is it really jazz, or..?

SF: (Chortling to himself)

ED: I'm asking a pig ignorant question to see if I get a pig ignorant answer!

SF: Well, yeah...

ED: I lent one of your CDs to my supervisor and he said to me it seems like free improv hasn't come a long way in the last thirty years.

SF: Well, it depends how much you listen to improvised music, I guess. I'm sure we could find any number of improvisers and you could play them a piece of classical music that was written yesterday and they'd say it hasn't changed much in the last 100 years. So I think it's a question of degree. It's shame. But I suppose if someone played me two bits of folk music fifty years apart I wouldn't notice the dramatic evolution because I'm not tuned into that. But to go back to the more fundamental question "what is jazz?" or "when does it stop being jazz?"...I think it depends on two independent factors. As with rock and classical music there are traditional instrumental groupings and hierarchies which make for something to be classifiable as jazz simply because it has certain instruments. So, if something has sax, bass and drums you're in a situation where it's probably going to be related to jazz, unless it isn't, but it has to be kind of established if it's not, otherwise your assumption would be that it probably is.

ED: always think about my famous interview with Eddie Prévost, him trying to say that the music wasn't jazz, it was coming from nowhere. It was the creation of this new music. But I don't know many people who think of AMM as anything other than a free jazz group.

SF: I think you have to start differentiating between different versions of AMM. When AMM was a duo with Eddie and Lou Gare, then to me that was very definitely jazz, not solely because it was sax and drums, but also because of the way the two were playing in that context. But historically, I think most AMM grouping are not related to jazz but owe more to contemporary classical music.

ED: Can you actually have jazz free improv?

SF: (sigh)...I don't know if there are...(silence)...(pause)...I think you have to say it's not black and white, and that a lot of improvising groups would cross that divide in the course of a performance. If you take a group with a lot of jazz elements there may be ten minutes in the middle which is nothing to do with jazz, and vice-versa.

ED: Do you think you've got into composition as well because you don't want to be stuck to that kind of thing? You want the freedom to explore other parameters of music?

SF: Yes, but I don't think we've finished with the previous question yet! Going back to the jazz/non-jazz's partly instrumental hierarchies and instrumentation, so if you have sax, bass and drums it suggests it's coming from a jazz tradition. If you have within that a situation where the saxophone player blows a lot and the bass and drums provide a carpet of support for that then you almost certainly have jazz, it might be free jazz, but it's still going to be jazz. If you have a less continuous pattern where things are hurled around the group, but still maybe within conventional playing techniques then you may have something on the cusp of free jazz and improv.  Then there was VHF which started off being sax, bass and drums and was never about jazz because none of us had any interest in playing jazz in that context. Particularly because Graham Haliwell is not a jazz player, and can't play jazz and doesn't have any interest in playing jazz...

ED: What do saxophonists do if they don't like jazz?

SF: They play early twentieth century French chamber music, of course! What else! But it's a good point. If you play saxophone at the beginning of the twenty-first century and you're not interested in jazz, maybe you should choose a different instrument. But anyway, within that context it's possible to make a music that's definitely not jazz but still looks like jazz until the music starts. And I think it can work the other way. You can have very unconventional instrumental groupings which end up playing something like free jazz. Not necessarily in sound, but in attitude. I think the attitude of free jazz is much more about continuous self-expression, non-architectural, free flowing, stream of consciousness. Neo-classical free improv is possibly more concerned with structure/architecture and space. Less self-serving playing, in terms that people should be quite happy not to play if they're at the service of the music. AMM had a lot of non-jazz players.

ED: They were accused of being John Cage jazz at one point.

SF: That's the sort of term someone would invent when no-one had invented the genre of improvised music.

ED: When I was speaking to Eddie, he said that members of AMM try not to listen to each other while playing. Is that something you do - or is it a combination of listening and not listening? -because I think that sort of breakdown in communication is strange.

SF: That statement could have a much subtler meaning in that the players don't listen to each other in the way jazz musicians listen to each other. They're happy to listen to the sounds, but not to listen to them as a reflection of some degree of personal, technical investment or skill or ability or expression. I think it's quite interesting to have simultaneous independent things happening - but I think improvisation is a bad medium to do that. That's like taking the one thing improvisation is good at, throwing that away, and doing the one thing composed music is good at through improvisation.

ED: Do you mean when groups try to create finished pieces?

SF: If you set out to improvise and not to listen to anybody else's playing, or anything else that's around you, then you're losing the most interesting aspect of improvised music. Four solo improvisations happening at once is really a composition, but no improvising group could really do that - like in that Gavin Bryar's piece where the musicians are hermetically sealed from each other.

ED: You have that in Compilation III, where you take separate recordings of people playing and put them together in different contexts.

SF: That's mainly what I find interesting about composition...not to try and do things which you can do through improvisation or do the same thing only have control over it, but to actually do things it's very difficult to do through improvisation; one of which is to have simultaneous independent things. Going back to Eddie's point, it's almost impossible to play without listening to other players, and unnatural and pointless to try and play music without taking any information in from outside while you're playing.

ED: It's trying to have your own individuality and not having any autocratic type of thing over you. No leaders.

SF: But that doesn't mean you have to ignore each other. I think a true non-hierarchical, non-autocratic, democratic improvised music would still involve the exchange of ideas. To say you can't have a leader, therefore, nobody must be allowed to put forward anything for other peoples consideration would be quite difficult to follow through.

ED: Do you enjoy being a band leader or do you find it stressful?

SF: Well...I don't enjoy it...

ED: The power over people?

SF:'m very bad at power over people because I don't really want to exert power over people. I'd like them to want to do what I want to do. I think being the organiser of something is a completely thankless task. I remember Billy Jenkins telling me how he'd driven himself to a nervous breakdown through trying to run bands. It's very easy to feel like that. And then when it comes to playing you're so stressed out you can't play properly. But for me, if somebody else was there doing the music that I'd want to hear and want to exist then I'd be quite happy to listen to their records and maybe join their band or something. But, that hasn't happened, so I've got to do it.

ED: Yeah - I feel the same.

SF: It's like running a record label...

ED: It's largely you on the record label!

SF: Well that's because no-one else wants to put out my music. It's not because I want to run a record label.

ED: Is it doing well - do you get sales every week or is it sporadic?

SF: Is there a word for something more sporadic than sporadic?! Spo.........radic, maybe? It depends what criteria. In once sense the label has done very well in as much as considering the size of the catalogue, the profile is much higher than one might expect. But in terms of is it worth the amount of money I lose on it, the time I put into it, the labour and materials and so on, then no, definitely not. It's a complete waste of time.

ED: That's reassuring.

SF: But then if you start applying that kind of criteria, then so is improvised music, contemporary classical music and in fact most stuff that's not mainstream culture. I don't know how much running a record label has had an affect on things for me compared to if I hadn't. Things have turned out well, but the label is increasingly doing less and less now that I can persuade other labels to be interested in me.

(batteries run out)

ED: I'm probably wiping over everything we've just done...knowing my luck with this wonderful device.

SF: Do we have to go through all that again then?

ED: No.

SF:Thank God for that.

ED: I was going to ask something else.

SF: Evil Dick...

ED: Yes...why haven't you got a more sensible name?

SF: I don't know...I'm not quite sure what this fashion is for such sensible names amongst the younger members of the fraternity.

ED: Strange isn't it?

SF: Well I can see the attraction...

ED: You can remain anonymous and be incredibly rude at the same time!

SF: That's right. I've thought about pseudonyms for writing reviews. I've done one or two things deemed to be inappropriate for someone.

ED: Is this the recent Wire incident?

SF: (laughs) It would be nice to release a record and people not know it's me - so I could send it to different people without the baggage. Ben's a classic example. He decides on what he hears on the basis of who's doing it. It would be nice to do something without someone going "well, he shouldn't be doing this because it's not what he normally does..." On the other hand, if you start adopting different pseudonyms for different genres you've almost capitulated to the pigeon-holing obsession of the British arts culture. So, that's my reason for not having a sensible name.

ED: Have you had many albums out since Compilation III?

SF: There was a great month in 1998 when I think four albums came out within two weeks of each exactly where Compilation III sits amongst those is debatable. But I suppose between half-a-dozen and ten have been released since.

ED: 1998 - a big year.

SF: Yeah, it was quite a crucial year for me. Compilation III is, to me, quite old stuff now. The idea of the compilation records is to be retrospective because they look back and tie up certain associations and ideas that have been running for a while. I think Compilation III in particular was the end of an era for me. I think there have been quite big changes in the way I write music since then.

ED: In what sense?

SF: I think more recently I've become more interested in not having a kind of temporal division, between improvisation and composition.  In a lot of traditional jazz there are composed passages and improvised passages and I think over the last two years I've become more interested in writing music where the two are more blended.

(Batteries run out 2nd time)

ED: Hmm...I don't know.

SF: Nitty-gritty...

ED: I just found that highly amusing...the Webern substitution...(sniggers)...I'd have been laughing to myself for days if I'd have thought of that.  It's just a cunning scam!  It's very good.  Was there a reason behind it?

SF: Western classical music and to an extent jazz has become obsessed with pitch to the expense of everything else, and that's why a lot of classical music doesn't have the kind of rhythmic power that you associate with jazz and rock music.  The whole ethos of classical performance, composition, the way people are trained, relates around a relationship of pitches, one to another.  It's always been my believe that pitch is relatively insignificant, that what people really react to and what generates interest is timbre, rhythm and extremes of pitch.  One of the things I've been doing recently is using extremes of pitch a lot more. I remember when I did Compilation II I said something to Ben we used in the sleeve notes about the fact that you could take any tone row, however bizarre, and turn it into jazz just by giving it the right rhythm.  Be-bop is about rhythm, it's not about pitches.  There was one bit on the record where I took a Schoenberg tone row and used it as a be-bop head.  And so, to take my be-bop tone row on Compilation III and slip it into Webern's rhythms was really just the reverse of that.  Before we added the rhythm section to it what we had was something which actually sounded like Webern, only not as well played because the students weren't on top of the notes.

ED: But basically, it didn't lose any of its Weberness...

SF: No, not at all.

ED: Which is interesting, I suppose, but not necessarily surprising.

SF: To me that's a fairly obvious point, it's just a little personal crusade I've had for many years about pitch and the way people are obsessed with getting the right notes. I have to spend so much time going "don't worry about the right notes, just give me some balls, or whatever...just play something!" It's that problem which you hit with a classical musician, "I can't play's unplayable", and they give the score back to you.

ED: I've had that as well.

SF: The thing is, if you give that to a jazz musician and say don't worry about that, just go for it...

(batteries run out for good.)

Simon Fell continued to talk about composers like Varèse writing scores which force mistakes to occur simply by pushing the musician into ridiculous scenarios...ffffff