Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Paul Simon Stranger to Stranger Interview 2016 - and some music too!

"I didn’t think that Bridge Over Troubled Water was a hit”: DiS meets Paul Simon

Jude Clarke
4 May 2016

In London for an almost literal ‘flying visit’, a two-day press junket to promote the upcoming release of new album Stranger to Stranger (his first since 2011’s So Beautiful or So What), it takes a little while, at first, to synch in to the rhythm of Paul Simon’s speech. Courteous and solicitous in that way that Americans of a certain era frequently appear, our pre-interview preliminaries, once I’ve been ushered into the suite in Claridge’s where Simon is based for the day and introductions are completed (“Jude? Hey Jude?” he asks with a wry grin), consist of the Actual Living Legend guiding me from room to room until we’ve found the best place to sit for my recording set-up and then making sure I’m offered a beverage of my choice, while ordering his own lemon and ginger tea. A brief discussion of the delights of English tea and the perils of caffeine ensues, while all the while my brain is screaming to me, in uncouth txt speak, underneath the surface, something along the lines of “OMFG, ACTUAL Paul Simon, there, in front of you points dies.”

Preliminaries completed, the inner voice’s exclamation marks start to subside slightly as we settle in for the interview proper, Paul answering my questions slowly, in a considered and thoughtful manner, peppered with pauses while he contemplates the best way to express a point, often starting a sentence then back-tracking to revise his words and rearrange them into a better approximation of what he is trying to convey. Every bit the man in his mid-70s he now is, despite the boyish baseball cap and the wrist embellished with beads and bands, he speaks with alternate humour and authority, and almost fierce levels of eye contact.

We start by talking about how his experience of London today compares to the mid-60s era when, famously, he moved over here after the initial failure of first Simon and Garfunkel album Wednesday Morning, 3AM. When I ask if it would still be fair to describe him as an anglophile, he responds with a firm “yes. I lived here a long time ago, but it was such a great time in my life.”

But things must have changed a fair bit since those days, both London itself and, well, his own personal circumstances?

“Well of course. Both. Everything is completely changed. When I was in London in the Sixties I was taking the tube and living in Belsize Park for a while, and in the East End for a while. When I first came I lived in Essex, so it was a completely different world. Travelling around now – I step outside and somebody opens a door to a Mercedes to me, and I step in. So… not the same world.”

Does he miss the earlier free-wheeling days, then? He replies, candidly: “No, not really. You can’t be young when you’re not young, you know? I don’t particularly want to ride the tube and miss the last bus and hitch-hike out in the rain. I’m fine to be spoiled a little bit now.”

Because of course you would be. And the anglophile gene seems to have been passed down to his daughter too, now living and studying here in the UK: “She just loves London and England and travelling. Maybe she got that from me, cos I’m the traveller of the family.”

I’ve had a preview copy of Stranger to Stranger for a couple of weeks leading up to the interview, and I’m really looking forward to Paul talking about it. An album of curious echoes and beats, peopled by mysterious and sometimes disturbing characters, it has a mood and a feel rather unlike anything he’s done before. Turns out Paul, though, wants to know what my views on it are (“I’d actually be very interested to hear what you thought it was about”). Gulp. So I waffle something about how it seems to be more themed around sounds and rhythms than the lyrics and (sigh of relief) he concurs. Was that a deliberate choice?

“Yes, I guess. But not in the sense that I set out and said: Well, the next album that I’m going to do will be about sound and rhythm. But that’s what it became, pretty quickly. Not that I don’t spend a lot of time on the lyrics – I do – but thematically, the music and the sound are more of a unit than the lyrics are.”

A continuation of a process that he started on his previous album, So Beautiful…, he recruited “my old friend and engineer Roy Halee, who did all the Simon and Garfunkel records – in fact, he did the audition tape of Simon and Garfunkel, and did Graceland, and did Rhythm of the Saints, so he’s always been my favourite collaborator”, enticing him out of retirement (“he was bored, he was happy to have a chance to come back”) to work with “bells and overtones to colour sounds, and to create echoes that were different to the echoes that were available through the technology.” With Halee bringing “an analogue sense of how records are made”, along with his other engineer Andy Smith and Paul himself they were able to “translate that analogue aesthetic to the digital world”. As this process went along they focussed on “how a note ends and the next note begins, how textures should change”, making the music feel, he believes, “almost more three dimensional” and also making the lyrics, which he always writes after the music has been laid down, “a little bit more interesting, and – on the tracks that were particularly moving – a little bit more personal as well.”

But when I try to share a little more of my own interpretation, this time of the words, I get gently smacked down. Is there, I ask, a bit of a running theme about mortality in the album?

“I don’t think so, no. I think people look for that as an artist gets older. You think that, well, that’s going to come up. But actually, the only time that it’s there is in the last song – 'The Insomniac’s Lullaby'.”

I had read 'The Werewolf' (one of the album’s standout tracks, I think) as a metaphor for death – not so, then?

“No, 'The Werewolf' is a metaphor for...” he pauses. “I’m trying to find another word for ‘shitstorm’, but there’s a shitstorm, a tsunami coming. You can argue, or keep shopping and do anything you want, but the fact is that we’re in for a very very serious crisis, ecologically. The whole species is at a point where it really must decide whether it’s going to turn this planet into paradise in the next century, or whether things are going to be ruined. And that’s what the werewolf is. ‘The werewolf is coming’, you know?”

As such a master of the album as a format and artefact, having, in my opinion, made one of the all-time best albums in 1986’s Graceland, we move on to talk about how technologies in the last decade or so have affected how people consume music, and how artists themselves can respond to those changes.

“Well, I really like the album form, and I think it’s a natural form, and I don’t think it will disappear. I think there will be a revival of it, because artists like to think in that form. But what iPods and streaming does is it changes sound and attention span and it speeds it up.”

The antidote to that, he believes is for artists making albums to “take that into consideration – and I certainly did with this album. I spent a lot of thought on attention span: how long a song is, at what point do I want to stop saying lyrics and put in a guitar piece for a minute, and just let the brain, you know, absorb the information of the previous songs. “

He also took into account things like song length, varying it on the new album from two minutes ('The Clock') to nearly six ('Proof of Love'). “It’s really impossible to make an assured judgement about people’s attention spans, but I’m thinking about at what point the listener would get bored and the measurement that I have is: when do I get bored. And when I do, I change something – either the subject or the sound, or I stop the song. Because if you don’t stay entertaining, people stop listening, it’s really simple.”

So rather than predicting the death of the album, like many other commentators, he believes that we will see younger artists using it in a different way, taking their sound from “a piece of music that’s purely rhythmic to a neo-classical piece that has no drums at all, or lyrics” for example, with “a new mixture of what we think of as contemporary and pleasing.”

Missing the point a bit, I launch into a convoluted journo-splaining spiel about how this was, surely, what he had long been doing anyway with his music: mixing afrobeat with zydeco, folk with beatpop, jazz with lush orchestral sounds for as long as I can remember listening to him. Once again – and oh-so politely – he puts me right.

“Well, yes I have but… what I’m talking about now is even more than different styles, it’s changes of sound and thinking that keep you alert, keep you involved.

“I don’t need to give you a lot of examples, you know what I mean” he (kindly) adds, “but if your mind is such that you like it when it’s on shuffle and you go from hearing Beyonce to Hank Williams to Django Rheinhardt to some Debussy piece to the Beatles – if you like it when things jump like that, then that way of creating interest will find its way into the album form. Because really when things are on shuffle it’s just like a big album. The individual artist can’t possibly change from one person to another, but they can change enough to keep you interested and entertained. And that’s certainly what I’m trying for with this album.”

In terms of his favourite parts of the new album, Paul wouldn’t really be drawn. “What happens is, once I finish, I really don’t go back and listen to my older albums. By the time I’m finished with it, I’m finished. I know that when I go out to play live I’m going to play Wristband, Werewolf and Stranger to Stranger, but part of the reason I’m doing that is that I can do those songs with an acoustic band.”

Talking of playing live, I wonder if he’ll be coming over to the UK again to do some shows. And it’s good news for fans. “In the autumn. They haven’t announced it yet, but I know that it’s in the works.”

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