By Pat Prince
Simon Townshend has become an integral part of The Who’s touring band. And his contribution to the band is especially significant when it comes to performing rock operas, like the recent tour of “Quadrophenia” — which is when Goldmine had a chance to chat with him – or past performances of “Tommy.” (Note for trivia buffs: Simon has been recording and performing since the tender age of 9, when he was recruited to add vocals to “Tommy.”)
The music for these rock operas is so intricate that Simon often gets to share lead guitar parts with his famous brother, Pete, which fulfills one of his lifelong dreams.
But what is most important to Simon is his songwriting and solo material. His seventh solo album, “Looking Out Looking In,” was recently released in the U.S. by Eagle Rock Entertainment. During Goldmine’s interview with Simon during The Who’s Quadrophenia tour, he started off by explaining the background of “Looking Out Looking In.”
Simon Townshend: I did put the album out in U.K. [last] February, I think it was, and then throughout the year, it gained momentum. In the end it got picked up by a major distributor, Eagle Rock, which really helped, because it got the record out in stores in the States, gave a bit more visibility to it. I’m really pleased, because it’s some of my best work, so I want people to hear it.
Goldmine: Do you think your other albums didn’t get the visibility they needed in the States?
ST: Probably not. I think my first album, “Sweet Sounds” (1983), which got on a major label with Polygram, got a good shot, you know, but everything’s balancing on a fine sort of edge. Sometimes things fall the right way; sometimes they don’t. I always look at what I’ve done as a journey and I’m here — where I am now — and I’m enjoying myself. That’s true. I’m not making that up. I am genuinely having fun. I love playing small club gigs. I love writing my own music, and I love the fact that I can still walk out in the street. Yeah, I sign autographs and meet people, but it’s not like I can’t walk out and enjoy my life. Plus, I’m jumping up on stage with The Who in arenas and playing to large crowds. I have a lot of responsibility in those shows, playing some lead guitar and some lead vocals. Something I’ve done for myself in the last decade — especially in the last few years — I really focused on the artistic and musical side of myself, and I’ve worked hard at improving and gaining more confidence, and that is what makes the job more enjoyable is when you really do know what you’re doing and just relax and go out and have a good time.
GM: I’m sure you’ve talked to your brother, Pete, about the pressures of trying to put out a hit song.
ST: Well, you know, nowadays the music business is so different. I mean, in the ’80s and, I guess, in the ’70s, there was a lot of money in the record business in terms of selling product. Right now, it’s kind of restricted to your “X-Factors” and your big stars of the commercial world, whereas artists like myself make a lot of digital downloads where people share music. One person can download it and share it with a hundred people, and no one knows. At the end of the day, you’re just spreading the word, getting the music out there. It’s not so much about how much money you make. It’s not so much about how high in the charts you are. It’s more about are you enjoying what you’re doing? Are you allowing people to hear the music and share it? And, if so, they may come to a show and enjoy the live experience, which is ultimately what it’s all about — getting out there and playing live. I certainly don’t think the money is there like it was in other eras of the music business, especially when the CD revolution came along; artists were making a fortune. It’s different times, and actually I really quite like it. I like the fact that one of the tracks on my album … I was bored one night, and I couldn’t sleep in Japan, and I got my video camera, and I went out and took a load of film. I got back to the room, and in a couple of days, I edited it and put it to the music and put out this piece of artistic expression that’s unique. And I was able to create something; it’s a wonderful medium to have. I really quite like it. I like the fact that I can be hands-on, and I think the same can be said in the studio. In those days, you’d kind of go in, and you’ve got the band, you’ve got your big expensive studio, you’ve got everyone there, and you say, ‘OK, we can press record now.’ And everyone does the best they can, and there are a lot of takes until it’s done really well. For me, I like the intimacy of being in my studio late at night, and I’ve got my own guitars in the room. I can record when I want. And sometimes, the best vocals don’t happen in the middle of the afternoon when it’s supposed to be happening. It happens to be in the middle of the night. And that’s when you capture something special. It’s also about being able to write music and put it down quickly. What John Lennon did is write the song one day, record it the next and release it the next. Well, you can almost do that nowadays. It can only be good for an artist where you are opening these doors of being spontaneously creative, if you like.
GM: This video, was it to a particular song on the new album?
ST: Yeah, it was to “Bed of Roses.” I’ve done a few YouTube videos on an official YouTube site with quite a few live videos. It’s got three or four I created myself, using simple ideas, and it’s a way of getting music out there.
GM: You’re cutting out so many middlemen that it truly is a pure form of expression. There’s no one looking over your shoulder in the studio. There’s no one directing the video.
ST: There are some producers that want to influence an artist with what they are and what they do, and, yeah, sure, they do great work, as well. But on many occasions, it doesn’t make the artist any more unique if they start to sound like the producer. As I say, it’s not always the case. It has been the situation where an artist like myself likes the freedom of going in and creating. You know, I like what Jack White does. He’s hands on. He gets into the studio and creates his own thing, and it can be as diverse as he wants it to be, because the rule books have been picked up and kind of thrown away, where you can get away with anything you want. It’s just whether you are happy with it as an artist. Is this what you like? Is this what you wanted to hear? And if you — you — can make it accessible overnight. It can be a little restrictive. The reach is what it is, and I use Facebook a lot to get new things out there. And you’ve got the website. But it’s not like television, and it’s not like radio was, but it is a medium, and it’s working.
GM: This is your seventh studio album. Creatively, what makes this one stand out from the others?
ST: I think it’s the songwriting. I actually have another album in the can at home. I had a couple years where the songs have just written themselves. I think you always know a good song when it comes along that quickly, and before you know it, it’s down.
GM: So you’ve been very prolific?
ST: I definitely had a spell, yeah. And I think a lot of it has to do with my personal life and my home life and family life, the road that I’m on — in terms of getting to where I am now, on that journey, I think helps me create music. And I think that shows itself in the quality of the songs.
GM: It’s got to be a shot in the arm that you’ve been able to enlist your son, Ben, to perform with you, as well.
ST: Well, Ben’s a great drummer. He came out with me when he was just 21 years old on the British Rock Symphony tour (1999) that was with Paul Rodgers, Roger Daltrey, Alice Cooper, Gary Brooker ... all these huge stars doing their songs, and Ben was in the orchestra, playing, sort of keeping them all together. I was very proud of him then, and over the years, I’ve used him wherever I can on drums on my records. He really has a great empathy with my music, as I think I do with Pete’s music. We’re family, so we tend to play the right stuff. We don’t play to show our ability off. We play to support the music and the song, to get the idea across. However simple or naïve the part may sound that you’re doing, it’s about the ultimate goal to get the song across.
GM: The song that struck me the most [on “Looking Out Looking In”] is “She Asked Me.”
ST: Probably the one I’m most proud of on the CD.
GM: It seems like everything just fell into place with the songwriting.
ST: Yeah, that was another 4 o’clock in the morning thing. I just finished recording another song, and the idea came to me — the verse and guitar riff. And then within sort of a half-hour, I’d written a song. That is what happens. Those sort of late-night ideas. And because of the accessibility of everything around me, I think the first thing I did was to pick up my iPhone, and I recorded the first idea and the hook. Sometimes, maybe, without these kind of gadgets around, you may lose ideas. They might be forgotten, or (you) can’t remember them right. You’ve got to get these ideas down quickly to get the exact same vibe on the final product.
GM: Sometimes the best ideas come when you least suspect, and you need to be prepared to capture them.
ST: When you’re relaxed and focused completely on something else. You could even be working on another song, and it becomes a last-minute idea for something new. It’s about how quickly and easily these ideas come to you, too, I believe.
GM: So you’re constantly writing and coming up with ideas, even now on tour?
ST: Not on the road. I haven’t written anything on the road. I’ve scribbled a few things down. I find it really hard to get away from the music of The Who tour.
GM: I was just going to ask you: Playing Who songs night after night ...
ST: They stick in your mind.
GM: It should have an influence on your personal songwriting.
ST: I’m not writing now, but what I’ll do is go home, and I’ll slip out of that mind set. I don’t really want to be listening to other people’s records and then writing. I want to clear my mind and see what happens and come up with ideas off the top of my head. I don’t want to copy people, whether it be The Who or whoever it is. It’s a very hard place to be creative. It’s not just “Quadrophenia;” it’s any music at all. You put a record on a few times — after that, you’ll be walking around for the rest of the day with that music in your head. Music has a habit of sticking around in your brain. I’ve worked very hard at making my music unique, trying to make melodies and ideas that haven’t been done before. But it’s very hard.
GM: You are also playing some solo gigs during the Quadrophenia tour. You have to switch gears from the arena to a smaller club. How are your feelings toward that?
ST: Yeah, that’s great fun. I love it. I’m lucky. Every now and then, I have to remind myself of how lucky I am. I’m honored to be part of The Who show and to be respected so much by Pete and Roger [Daltrey], that they want me there on stage, singing and playing. It’s a great thing, and then to be able to go to a club and play to 300 fans, sort of nose-to-nose, that’s another great thing.
GM: The best of both worlds.
ST: But it’s all about the journey, isn’t it? It’s all about: Are you happy in your skin? Are you going to be one of those people who suffer because you feel you don’t have this or got that, or you haven’t done this or achieved that? Are you going to be able to go to bed at night and go to sleep and not be down and not have any regrets? You know, I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be that bitter person. I want to be happy with what I’ve got. Yeah, I can do better. Yeah, I could have done better if I’ve done this or if I’ve done that, but I am where I am now, and I’m not resentful, and I’m not regretful. I feel I still got a lot in me.