Since riding to fame on the crest of the late '80s DJ sampling wave, Tim Simenon has re‑cast himself in a variety of moulds, not least those of producer and record label boss. Paul Tingen caught up with him to talk about his latest album and his brilliant career...
Tim Simenon first emerged into the limelight when his band Bomb The Bass topped the 1988 charts with 'Beat Dis'. At the time he was a DJ at the London Wag Club and the track, which consisted almost entirely of samples, cost him just £300 to make. Since then Bomb The Bass have scored numerous other hits, as well as releasing two albums, Into The Dragon (1989) and Unknown Territory (1991).
Simenon also began to pop up on the sleeve credits of releases by other artists: as producer of singles from Neneh Cherry ('Buffalo Stance'), Tackhead ('Videohead'), Seal ('Crazy', with Trevor Horn), and remixer of work by Annie Lennox ('Stay With Me', 'Money Can't Buy'), Charles & Eddie ('Hurt No More', 'Would I Lie To You'), Khaled ('Didi') and Depeche Mode ('Enjoy The Silence', 'Everything Counts').
The past year has seen an even greater deluge of music bearing the imprint of Tim Simenon, including production on three tracks of the In The Name Of The Father film soundtrack, together with Gavin Friday, and featuring Sinead O'Connor and Bono. Production of three tracks on O'Connor's latest offering, Universal Mother, followed, as did work on three tracks on Naomi Campbell's controversial debut album Baby.
Last Autumn Simenon entered the charts with a new Bomb The Bass single, the heavily‑distorted metal rap 'Bug Powder Dust', with US psychedelic rapper Justin Warfield. And early 1995 sees the release of Bomb The Bass's long‑awaited third album, Clear, released on Simenon's own label, Stoned Heights, via Island Records. It's an incredibly varied album, containing many musique concrete‑like sound sculptures, two spoken word tracks with only a rhythmic background (one of them featuring novelist Will Self), and many ballads. All in all it's an album that's moved further away than ever before from the dance music influences that were once his main inspiration.
In the flesh the 26‑year old Malaysian‑born Londoner is friendly and polite. He speaks very fast, and very emphatically. He reckons that the musical variety of Clear is due to the large number of collaborators he gathered, as well as his love of a great number of musical styles: "To me, Clear is just a collection of songs. The diversity is a direct result of the fact that Bomb The Bass isn't a solo project but a band. The dance music elements are still there, but I think that this album is just the result of my urge to try something new, which is what I always like to do. Doing the same thing twice is monotonous. I try never to have a continuous sound or formula. I know there are lots of ballads, but I don't think they're done in the usual contemporary way. I wouldn't know how to do anything that sounds like something else, because of the way I work."
Simenon adds that whereas previous Bomb The Bass albums were made by a small but steady group of musicians, augmented by the odd guest artist, on Clear he was the only stable factor. This time the Bomb The Bass band is varied for each song, and the collaborators were hand‑picked by Simenon for specific talents he admired. Thus the soul‑steeped 'Sandcastles' features Bernard Fowler, the harrowing 'Empire' is carried by dub‑poet Benjamin Zephaniah and Sinead O'Connor, '5ml Barrel' has Will Self talking, and 'If You Reach the Border' is a vehicle for American writer and former William Burroughs collaborator Leslie Winer. There are also some noteworthy guest musicians, such as bassist Jah Wobble, guitarist Skip MacDonald and drummer Keith LeBlanc.
The collaboration with novelist Will Self, Simenon explains, came about "through a mutual friend. I had read one of Will's books and liked his sense of humour. I asked him to come to the studio and see what he could come up with. Basically he ended up reading a piece across a backing track that I'd composed for him."
The other spoken word track, 'If You Reach The Border', was constructed in an unusual way, especially given the recent technological advances which enable full‑frequency sounds to be transferred via telephone lines. It's probably typical of Simenon's tendency to deconstruct common working methods that he decided to record Leslie Winer directly via a normal transatlantic phone connection, just at the time when superior technology is available. He says: "She was in Massachusetts. I'd sent her a cassette of the backing track, which she played via a Walkman's headphones. She then read the text across the groove. We recorded her directly into a DAT and I then sampled parts in an Akai, spread them across a keyboard, played around with them and composed the song from it." Simenon acknowledges that these two spoken word tracks could be seen as being an extension of the experiments he does in the Interference project. Interference is a collaboration with drummer Keith Leblanc which is not meant to be of any commercial value, but more a laboratory for experimenting with sound and the spoken word. He agrees that Bomb The Bass is equally a laboratory for him, where he tries to combine the art of sampling with the energy of rock and roll.
When we arrive at the subject of technology and his preferences, Simenon explains briefly that he uses a Minimoog and Sequential Pro One a lot for basslines, but that he has "no rules." Illustrating his general disregard for the conventions and rules of the music industry, he says that he doesn't care whether he records on digital or analogue, "whatever sounds best," and as far as sequencing goes, he was until very recently still working with Pro24 on an Atari Mega 4 computer. "I know that Pro24 is for some people rather ancient, but why change something if it works and you're quick with it? I'm not a snob."
When I subsequently try to get specific technical views and preferences out of him he suddenly explodes. With a raised voice: "I don't know, people take this all so seriously, but there comes a point where you just have to start enjoying it. I take my job really seriously and am as professional as I can be, but the fact is that you still have to be able to have a good laugh. When people say: 'this is the only way to do it', you might as well have a set of blinkers on. I can't really give you a definitive answer to all these questions you're asking me, because my ways of working are always different." He continues: "Doing interviews like these is enjoyable enough, but it's not the bible. At the end of the day I might be talking a whole load of bullshit. Some people read so deeply into interviews and think: 'this is it'. But the shit is always going to change. People have their own opinions and do things in different ways and that's how it's always going to be. Technology will always be advancing and if you say: 'I'm doing it like this and will always do it that way', you might think a month later: 'what a schmuck I was to even say that.' I would never ever restrict myself to only one way of working, I'm always open to try new things out."
Simenon's views are the result of his own background as a non‑musician who uses technology to express himself and who therefore has a practical and low key perspective on the whole 'magic' of the recording process. So perhaps it's not surprising that he refuses to be seen as any kind of authority on music technology and music in general, nor that he declares with some pride that his keyboard skills are nothing to write home about: "I had some piano lessons at school and got to grade three. I'll never say that I'm a good keyboard player. What I'm good at is putting stuff together."
The one‑time Malaysian was sent to a boarding school in London at the age of eight by his father and played keyboards in a band during his teens, his only experience of playing in a 'normal' band. His intention was to study mechanical engineering at University, but he decided instead in 1987 to take a part‑time course at The School Of Audio Engineering in Holloway, serving, meanwhile as resident DJ at the Wag Club every Saturday. In 1988, at the age of 20, he followed in the footsteps of other DJ‑centred acts like Grandmaster Flash, Coldcut and S'Express with his hit 'Beat Dis'. Simenon comments on the DJ connection: "I suppose I was tuned in to what was current at the time and was able to pick and choose what I wanted with some knowledge of how it should be applied." Though large sections of 'Beat Dis' were lifted off other people's records, the drums and bass were written by Simenon. It's a credo to which he's remained faithful to this day: he doesn't like to adapt rhythms or bass lines from other people. Programming them himself — or having them played by live musicians — is a working method that's essential to him: "It's how the name Bomb The Bass came about, because the samples were either scratched in live or sampled and looped on top of the rhythm section. So the concept was one of bombing the bass line with different ideas, with a collage of sounds. Bombing was a graffiti term for writing, like people would 'bomb' trains or whatever."
The rhythm section on the first BTB album, Into The Dragon, was largely programmed, but on its follow‑up Simenon worked extensively with live musicians, including his former heroes Doug Wimbish on bass and Keith LeBlanc on drums (both well known from the Sugarhill group), plus the Japanese guitarist Kenji and singer Loretta Heywood. Clear features a mixture of both approaches, and despite the wide variety of musical styles, Simenon's signature sound, full of grit and distortion, is still very much in evidence. Questioned about it, he doesn't credit the sweaty, succulent swing of his music to all kinds of nifty programming tricks, but simply to the presence of live musicians: "It's because there are people playing. The guitars are for real, even when they have been sampled on the S1000 and then flown in. There's often a real bass player that's double‑tracked with keyboard bass. That's where the grit comes from. And in the mix I like the drums and bass to be pronounced. It's my philosophy that all the parts are there for a reason, as opposed to just ticking away in the background to sweeten things. If a part is there I make sure that you can hear it in the mix."
Simenon explains that a big and powerful sound is achieved by creating well‑fitting, transparent arrangements, plus the endless working on the right sounds through layering all manner of samples. "When I'm programming I'll normally have a drum loop going and will beef that up with other sounds, like a couple more snares or something. If you use just the loop as a backing track, you can't get the kind of weight I want, however much you EQ or treat it. So the programmed beat is usually stuck on top of the loop to strengthen the sound. Afterwards I take the loop away, or use it as an ambient sound, or maybe as a catalyst to get the swing right, to get the groove to feel good. Many people program a groove that is really too straight. For that reason there isn't any swing in a lot of electronic stuff."
It's at this point that Simenon professes his love of analogue synths, which is in part the result of the influence of Kraftwerk. Simenon used to have his own studio in West London, called Digiland. He found, however, that he and his MIDI programmer, Kerry Hopwood, spent too much time working in commercial facilities such as Westlake or Eastcote, and decided to flightcase Digiland. Mobile as it is, Digiland's equipment list is still impressive; especially mind‑boggling is the list of analogue synths, including an ARP Odyssey, EDP Wasp, Korg Mono/Poly, Minimoog, two Oscars, Roland Alpha Juno 2, Matrix 1000, Roland Juno 106 and Jupiter 6, Sequential Pro One, Prophet 5, an Oberheim 4‑voice and a Roland System 700. And there's a host of drum machines, including Linndrum 2, Roland R8, TR808, TR909, a Simmons SDS3 drum synth and a Roland Octopad II MIDI percussion controller.
The most worn‑out flightcases in the studio must surely be those which hold the Akai S1000/S1100 samplers. For the making of Clear, Simenon used a stunning nine of them. Hopwood and Simenon operated four S1000, two S1100 and one 1100EX samplers, with a Sony Optical Drive to facilitate loading and saving, and freelance keyboardist Dave Clayton added a couple more Akais. Clayton, who has been working with Simenon for almost two years, also brought in an Emu Morpheus, Roland JD800, Korg Wavestation, Roland Super Jupiter MKS80, Emu Vintage Keys and Proteus 2, Roland MKS50, Korg EX8000, Yamaha TX802, Jupiter 8, Juno 106 and an OB8. It's an enormous amount of gear to co‑ordinate; between the three of them, they use three Mackie 1604 desks and their own individual monitor systems. Clayton and Hopwood each work with an Atari, with Notator and Creator for sequencing, though Simenon acquired a Macinstosh Quadra 850 with Logic Audio software during the latter stages of the making of Clear. Altogether it means that each person can work on his own and be completely self‑contained, until the material is fitted together. Simenon: "I switched to the Mac and Logic because we're contineously expanding our gear. The eight audio tracks are brilliant for sampling big chunks of vocals and cleaning them up and comping them, even though we often use two ADATs too."
Despite all the newly‑acquired gear, the Akais will remain Simenon's "main sampling brains" for some time to come, largely because over the years he's built his own gigantic sampling librabry. He explains that he no longer uses samples from other people's recordings, and neither does he use sample CDs.
"All my drum sounds, whether they're from the TR808 or TR909, are on Akai disks. Many other additional sounds come from sessions. I don't buy sound libraries, I'd rather know what I've got in my own library by recording things for it myself. If you buy a library you have to sit down and listen to it all. I mean, how boring is it to listen for a whole afternoon to snare sounds or bass drum samples [laughs]? Also, I don't put days aside to go sampling snares or something. What happens is that whilst I'm working at sessions I'll sample things that sound good. So my library is constantly updated."
Another reason to stop sampling from other people's records is, of course, the question of copyright. There are now a whole host of law firms in the US who specialise in finding (and sueing over) illegal samples — people with a wide knowledge of music (DJs maybe?) listen for hours every day to new releases. So it's become too risky to throw an obscure sample into your music and hope for the best. And Simenon is of the opinion that there's a moral obligation to ask the donor of a sample for permission and credit him. Often this results in having to give the sample donor part of the publishing rights, as in the case of the Bomb The Bass track 'Love So True', on which Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is credited as co‑writer, even though Simenon used only a few time‑stretched flute samples and a short flute solo.
The moral issues surrounding sampling and music‑making lead us into a discussion about the criticism that dance music and computer‑based music aren't 'real' music. Simenon sighs deeply and says with an air of resignation, as if feeling that what he's saying in this respect is falling on deaf ears anyway: "People of my generation have grown up with technology. I'm very fond of technology and everything that I work with uses technology. It's the only way I know. I'm not in a band situation; to make records I have to use technology. Why should guitar and drums be the final statement? Why should this be music and the music of someone who can't play an instrument can't be music? They're only expressing their form of music, from and for another generation. For me these kind of boundaries don't exist. I love technology and I love people who can play and I use both elements in the music I'm making at the moment, regardless whether it's things I write or when I produce or mix for others."
Having touched here on the many hats he wears, with an additional one — label manager — added recently, the question arises how Simenon sees himself these days — as a producer/remixer, or still firstly as a solo artist? He's quick to answer: "Both. I love producing and remixing. Yet I still love doing my own stuff and there's a mutual influencing and inspiration going on between these two sides of my work. Within a structure like with Sinead O'Connor or Whycliffe or Neneh Cherry, you always have to make sure that the artist is cool with what you add in, whereas when I'm working on things like Bomb The Bass or Interference, I can throw in bizarre things that give it a different twist. If I was doing production work like with Sinead or In The Name Of The Father all the time I wouldn't be able to experiment like that. So I'm quite happy to balance these two sides of my work."
"I would never ever restrict myself to only one way of working, I'm always open to try new things out.""I'll never say that I'm a good keyboard player. What I'm good at is putting stuff together.""I'm not in a band situation; to make records I have to use technology. Why should guitar and drums be the final statement?"
Tim Simenon's change‑over from Atari/Pro 24 to Macintosh/Logic Audio hasn't been all roses, according to his MIDI programmer Kerry Hopwood. He says: "What we discovered is that the audio side of Logic Audio is fantastic, but the timing of the sequencer is inconsistent. You record something somewhere and it will have moved slightly a couple of hours down the line. In fact, the timing has not been 100% on any Macintosh that I've worked with. I've used everything — Vision, Performer, Cubase and so on — but when used on the Mac I've found they've all suffered from the same problem. The timing on Ataris is so much better. Until recently Tim and I used Pro 24 on the Atari, which was as solid as a rock, whereas Creator is groovier and the best feeling sequencer that I've ever used. But they're old, which is why Tim and I went out and bought Powerbooks to run Cubase on. We found however, that the feel was just awful, really horrible. We'd spent all this money and were really dissappointed. So we went back to using the Ataris for sequencing and bought the Quadra for hard disk recording and editing.
"I think the reason why the MIDI timing of Macs is inconsistent is that you're stuck with the printer and modem outputs. Hooking up a Studio 4 or 5 to these ports is useless, because they're slow serial ports. The only parallel interface is the SCSI port, which is being taken up by hard disks and God knows what, whereas on the Atari you have access to all these parallel interfaces, MIDI ports, the cartridge port on the side and so on. I was speaking to the Emagic people the other day, and what they need to do is make some kind of Unitor‑type MIDI interface on a Nubus card. The whole vibe of Macs centres around Nubus cards and the possibility to build your own system, so I'm really surprised that no‑one has built a MIDI interface Nubus card yet. And until they do something like that I won't be using the Macintosh for sequencing."