Simon Tong may still be best known in some quarters for his guitar and keyboard work with The Verve, but he’s certainly been a busy lad since leaving them in 1999.
In fact, that period accounted for just three years of a creative career in which he’s also featured – most notably – alongside Damon Albarn with Blur and Gorillaz.
And while further work with Damon is mooted, a musician noted for many key moments on The Verve’s Urban Hymns and Gorillaz albums Demon Days and Plastic Beach is all about The Magnetic North at present, enjoying plenty of critical acclaim.
South London-based Simon, 43, also plays with the bands Transmission – alongside ex-Killing Joke pair Youth and Paul Ferguson, plus Dreadzone’s Tim Bran – and ‘heavyweight folk-rock band’ Erland and the Carnival.
And it was through the latter – joining forces with singer Gawain Erland Cooper – that he got involved with his latest project, the pair collaborating with composer, orchestral arranger, multi-instrumentalist and singer Hannah Peel, who also features with former writewyattuk interviewee John Foxx and his band The Maths.
The first fruits of that union were heard on 2012’s critically-acclaimed LP Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North. And that was followed last month by the similarly well-received album Prospect of Skelmersdale.
Yes, you read that right – the latter is a somewhat unlikely tribute to a place Simon knows well, having moved from Bolton to the West Lancashire new town in the mid-1980s. And like their brilliantly-atmospheric debut offering, Prospect of Skelmersdale is a fantastic piece of work – evocative, emotional, ethereal, and in turns majestic and melancholy.
Seeing as Erland’s from Orkney – hence the theme of the first album – and Hannah’s a Barnsley lass who spent her early years in Craigavon, County Armagh, are we to assume the subject matter of the latest album is down to Simon alone?
“Actually, it’s very much a band project. With the previous album, Erland’s from the Orkney Islands, so it was very much his idea initially, but we all wrote the songs. Myself and Hannah visited, stayed there and wrote about our views of the islands.
“It was the same with Skelmersdale really. We started with a few songs and a few ideas, then they went up and spent some time there. They had no idea what was in store for them in that part of the world! Again, they did some writing themselves, so it was very much a collaborative process.”
I wonder how many of us would have guessed this as the follow-up to that mighty work inspired by Orkney. But that brings me to next time – does it follow that they’ll be highlighting the contrasting qualities of Craigavon or Barnsley through Hannah’s links there?
“Yeah, I think so. It’s quite a personal thing to agree to make something about where you come from. I didn’t really want to do it. It was a bit too close to home! It’s really up to Hannah, as to whether she wants to do it. And if so, where she thinks would be a nice place to write about.”
So do you think she might be up for that?
“She better be, yeah!”
Simon, who has also featured on The Good, The Bad & The Queen project through his friendship and working partnership with Damon Albarn, first joined forces with Orcadian musician Erland in 2006, leading to the ongoing Erland and the Carnival, also featuring David Nock, Andrew Bruce and Danny Wheeler.
“We met first in London. He approached a producer I know, Youth, who was with Killing Joke and produced The Verve, wanting to do some demos with him. Youth was looking for young artists, and Erland, then in his early 20s, turned up on his doorstep, saying, ‘I want to be a singer, can you help me?’
“I met him a few years later at a folk night me and Youth were putting on. We got chatting about music and he was a big fan of Jackson C. Frank. We were talking about him and both really liked Jackson’s song My Name is Carnival, and ended up writing together, making demos and forming a little band.
“We did a couple of albums and through a friend in common, Hannah ended up supporting us on a little UK tour. We’d just started talking about the Orkney project and felt we needed someone else involved, having envisaged it as a lot more orchestral and cinematic.
“And she was perfect – she played trombone, she sang, did string arrangements and played violin. Hannah was a perfect fit, we got on really well, and it grew from there really.”
Erland and Hannah’s voices certainly work well together.
“Yes, they seem to complement each other.”
Do you pitch in with the odd harmony?
“Not really. I might have an idea, but singing’s not really my bag unfortunately. I’m more a frustrated singer!”
Whereas Simon properly left West Lancashire in the late ‘90s, eventually settling in South London, I headed the other way, having first visited the North West from the South East in 1989. Yet I find Prospect of Skelmersdale evocative of the Lancashire I got to know during early visits.
The Magnetic North’s musical tribute of sorts provides something of a soundscape bringing to mind those formative trips out, my better half determined to show me much more than the dark satanic mills I probably expected. And it turns out that Simon first moved to Skelmersdale from the Farnworth area of Bolton in the mid-‘80s.
“Yes, I lived in Bolton until I was 11, then moved to Skelmersdale and was there until my mid-20s, pretty much as The Verve took off.”
He seems fairly reluctant to go too deeply into his own story, at least no further than the music and the album itself, so I don’t push it. But he has documented before his family link to the town’s long-established Transcendental Meditation community, his parents’ initial reason for moving.
Is it fair to say he was something of an outsider in his formative days in Skem? His musical endeavours give the impression of a deep-thinking lad somewhat removed from a lot of what was going on around you. Much of that neighbourhood had Merseyside links, but he was a Bolton lad.
“Yeah, but I think there are a lot of outsiders in Skelmersdale – I think it’s a town made up of outsiders, with a lot of people moving there for whatever reason. The TM community started there in the early ‘80s, but the people who already lived there were very accepting of it really. I think they found it very amusing at first, and there’s never been any antagonism really.”
Let’s face it. Skelmersdale’s unlikely to ever win too many tourist accolades. Yet when I put a link to the band’s Northway Southway on my Facebook page I found myself adding, ‘Finding beauty in the mundane is real art’. That’s not meant to sound patronising (or pretentious), but Simon, Erland and Hannah have somehow encapsulated something artful in the mundane.
“Perhaps it’s something in the roundabouts and the concrete!”
That could be part of it. But as someone based in not so far off Leyland who’s also worked in Chorley and Preston, there’s plenty of evidence of roundabouts and concrete there too.
Take for instance my adopted hometown, Leyland, once known – pre-motor and rubber days – for it pastoral beauty, and still with plenty to celebrate on that front through its rich parkland, but at its heart something of a concrete jungle in places.
Along with Chorley it somehow avoided amalgamated new town status in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but evidence suggests something of a Skem effect in a once-thriving industrial area. Meanwhile, new estates keep popping up, and a huge new neighbour, Buckshaw Village, has sprung up on adjoining former Royal Ordnance land.
In short, it all seems to be part of a movement joining all the gaps between the Irish Sea and the Pennines, giving me course to doubt the more optimistic brave new world vision put forward by the town planners all those years before.
“Well, last time I went, Skelmersdale felt different to me than when I was growing up there. They planted thousands of trees when they built the place and over the years they’ve come into maturity, and it feels like the countryside is grabbing it back and taking it over.”
That’s a more positive way of looking at it, and I have to say The Magnetic North’s latest opus almost inspires me to head down to Junction 26 of the M6 and head along the M58 to re-find the Skelmersdale exit, going through passport control around Pimbo. Let’s face it though, my only real reason for calling by before now was to cover occasional football matches at Skelmersdale United.
“Yes, most people just drive past it on the motorway.”
I get the feeling Simon has something of a love-hate relationship with his former new town, and is only really beginning to rationalise it now he’s been away a long time.
“I suppose so. I’ve got fond memories of it as well as sad memories. It’s a strange place. The fact that it’s a new town did make it different to growing up in more traditional towns like Bolton and Leyland. It’s got a weird kind of displaced feel about it. It feels like most of the people I knew have moved on to other places now.”
That’s not just a Lancashire thing of course. Anyone who’s lived in or near a new town anywhere in the UK should be able to appreciate the theme, and the sentiment. And Prospect of Skelmersdale certainly has a universal feel and somewhat timeless quality, something I think anyone who grew up in the ‘50s,’60s, ‘70s and even the ‘80s can relate to.
“Yes, especially in the ‘80s, when there was that whole thing that Mrs Thatcher hated the word ‘community’ and seemed to want to destroy communities as much as possible. Places like Skelmersdale have had to create their own community, wherever they were shifted from – be it Bootle or Liverpool, or wherever their families were. Over the years, people have had to create their own communities again from scratch.
“I think they’re quite proud of that. We did a blog for Q magazine, which was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek ‘rough guide to Skelmersdale’, very much on the light side. But we got a few angry responses from the area, saying we were taking the piss, letting us know how proud they were of their town and how this was a great opportunity to be more positive about it after being so downtrodden over the years.
“So that was one of our points when we were making this album. We felt we needed to put something really positive in there as well as the bleakness – putting some hope in there. Towns like Skelmersdale, and similar places up and down the country, have to do it themselves, having been failed by successive Governments – Conservative, Labour, whoever. At the end of the day it’s the local people who have got to make their lives liveable and better. So we felt we couldn’t paint a bad picture. We had to find positives, and we did.
“We found a lot of writers’ groups and artists, including a great artist called David Ball, originally from the town. If you get a chance, look at his website. He did a great project based at the main shopping area, getting lots of people to bring along old photographs from the ’60s and ‘70s.
“He published them in an amazing coffee table book. You can look at picture of something seemingly mundane, like a red Ribble bus driving around a roundabout with a ‘70s or ‘80s haze from the camera film, and to me it looks magical. And if someone from abroad saw it, they’d probably see it very differently from what we might.”
Out of interest, there’s a link to David Ball’s Skem project here. Meanwhile I see a comparison in the artwork of some of the early Ladybird picture books, depicting a futuristic vision of what these wonderful modern new towns might look like.
“Yeah. Nostalgia is built into it, although you don’t think at the time you’re ever going to look back at something like that with nostalgia. Time enriches things.”
As I was scribbling down notes while listening to the new Magnetic North album, I thought of a few bands that sprang to mind – from Belle & Sebastian and Noah and the Whale through to British Sea Power, Public Service Broadcasting and Smoke Fairies. Any of those ring true to Simon?
“Maybe. I suppose those are similar people who tend to sing about where they come from. Not kitchen sink, that’s not the term, but about people and places.”
Also, no doubt primarily through Hannah’s vocal, I also thought of Dubstar or even an indie version of Enya … or at least what Enya would be like with a little more edge.
“Well, if we sell a tenth of the records she has, we’d be happy!”
I’m not alone in my praise for the album, and a few weeks ago Prospect Of Skelmersdale was album of the day on BBC 6 Music (the band also featuring in conversation with station presenter and friend of this blog Tom Robinson recently). There’s been a great reaction, hasn’t there?
“It’s been nice, and in France the last album did well, and this one has also created a lot of interest. We’ve been doing quite a lot of press over there. It’s very odd speaking to French journalists about Skelmersdale! But I think France had similar kinds of new town project.”
Which brings me on to Cergy-Pontoise on this album – is that you celebrating West Lancashire’s twinning arrangement?
“Yes, it’s a kind of new town on the outskirts of Paris.”
Did you ever visit there with your school?
“No, but I’d see a sign mentioning the twinning when I drove into town. There was something romantic about that. I felt it must be an amazing place – just like Skem, but outside Paris!”
It’s a nice pan-European idea, and you certainly seem to have attracted a strong French following.
“Yes, I think they just like the concept. They don’t see it as pretentious, but more of an idea behind an album rather than just a collection of songs.”
And how was The Magnetic North’s recent live show in Paris?
“It was good. It was the first show we’ve played in four years, so it was a little rough round the edges, but it was great.”
How does it work live – is it the three of you and lots of loops?
“Well, it’s the three of us and whoever we can afford, usually a drummer and one or two string players. It can get quite expensive. We can’t play too many gigs because we have to cover our costs.”
I envisage quite a visual show, with old film footage running in the background, like the Skelmersdale public information film that features on one of your promo videos. Am I right?
“Yes, wherever possible we’ll project images and film behind us.”
The band’s album launch involved a sell-out at The Forge in London on April 14, with that followed by a show at St Phillip’s Church in Salford this Sunday, May 1st (with a link here) and a ‘homecoming’ of sorts at the E Rooms in Skelmersdale on Friday, May 6th, the latter another sell-out as it turns out.
I’m guessing that makes The Magnetic North the first band whose live itinerary reads, ‘London, Salford, Skelmersdale’. But will this ‘occasional three-piece’ always just be another project – however consuming at times – for Erland, Hannah and Simon? Because you all seem to be busy elsewhere.
“I think you have to be these days, the way the music industry is going. It’s shrinking! You have to keep your hand in with as many things as possible, I suppose. That’s becoming the norm for a lot of musicians, and to be honest it’s quite enjoyable to do that. In the old days you’d probably be stuck with one band, playing the same songs with the same people. So it’s quite nice to play with lots of different people.”
Simon also played guitar on Client’s 2007 album Heartland and has set up a record label with Youth, Butterfly Recordings’ current acts including Indigo Moss and Duke Garwood and the label releasing the What the Folk compilation.
For those not in the know I should add that the afore-mentioned Youth, real name Martin Glover, is also known for The Fireman project, alongside a certain Paul McCartney. Then there are the Killing Joke bass player’s many production credits on work by Tom Jones, The Orb, Maria McKee, Delores O’Riordan, Kate Bush, Guns & Roses, Primal Scream, Embrace, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Art of Noise, Crowded House, Yazoo, Erasure, Banararama, U2, INXS, James, Depeche Mode, Texas, Dido, Pink Floyd, and The Charlatans. Not to mention Take That, Wet Wet Wet (ah, sod it … too late).
Back to Simon though. He seems to be a musician who’s always pushed boundaries, from his work with The Verve to an on-going link with Damon Albarn, The Magnetic North and his other projects with Erland and Youth.
“I’ve just been lucky to work with lots of interesting people, I suppose. I’ve always tried to learn from them and take things from different people.”
Simon was brought in to The Verve in 1996 to replace lead guitarist Nick McCabe, after the band’s first short-lived split, remaining with them when McCabe returned. The highly-acclaimed 1997 album Urban Hymns followed, Simon playing on the big hits like The Drugs Don’t Work, Bittersweet Symphony and Sonnet. They disbanded in 1999, reforming for a couple of years from 2007 without Simon.
That must seem a little distant now, but looking back on your three years with The Verve, were those happy days on the whole?
A good apprenticeship?
“Very much so. But it just seems so long ago now. It will be 20 years next year since Urban Hymns. Ridiculous!”
Do you keep in touch with Richard Ashcroft and the rest of the band?
“Not really. Just Simon (Jones) … now and again. Everyone’s splintered off into doing other things.”
After that 1999 disbandment, the two Simons paired up in The Shining, although sticking together for just a year. And while Jones went back to his bass and keyboard duties with The Verve, his namesake replaced Graham Coxon in Blur, recruited as a guitarist for live performances. Furthermore, he stuck with Damon to contribute guitar to 2005 Gorillaz album Demon Days.
The following year he was part of another Albarn venture, also featuring The Clash bass player Paul Simonon and drummer Tony Allen, The Good, The Bad and The Queen album released in January 2007 to good reviews, a pan-European tour following.
Since then, Simon’s also contributed to most recent Gorillaz album, 2010’s Plastic Beach, and 2012’s Dr Dee soundtrack, written by Albarn. So do Damon and Simon still keep tabs on each other and share a few of their ongoing projects?
“Yes, and hopefully there’s something next year I’m going to be working on with him.”
So there’s something else to look forward to. Finally, I bring up the fact that Simon was voted The Axe Factor’s 40th greatest guitarist of the last 30 years not so long ago. Having spoken to him, I get the feeling this rather unassuming fella might struggle with that accolade a little. Then again, he did step into Graham Coxon’s considerable boots with Blur for a while.
“Yeah … that was a learning curve.”
As well as their forthcoming Salford and Skelmersdale dates, appearances have also been confirmed at the Port Eliot Festival, St Germans, Cornwall, in late July, and the Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons, South Wales, in August. For further details of those and further Magnetic North news check out their website and the band’s Facebook and Twitter links. Meanwhile, Prospect Of Skelmersdale is out now.