Following a long trend of feature interview meeting places I arrange to chat with muso extraordinaire Simon Stafford at a local hostelry, the Fat Cat and on arrival I order a pint of the black stuff and await Simon. His name doesn’t always ring a bell with music lovers as he tends to be in the background, but how many other musicians can boast that they were in the wonderful Longpigs, then played with the legendary Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros before joining Jarvis Cocker’s band and now plays with his good lady Angela Basson in BlackCatWhiteCat! Add to that he played different instruments in most of those outfits including drums, bass guitar, lead guitar, keyboard, brass etc, and that only brushes the surface !
On cue in walks the ever friendly Mr Stafford, with a ready smile and firm handshake and after sorting his thirst quenching requirements he sits and begins to tell his story.
Born in Westminster, in the city of London, Simon grew up living next to the Albert Hall where his Dad was a porter in a block of flats and they lived in the basement. He explained “ it wasn’t the place where you’d hang around with your mates, the King Of Jordan had a flat there and the architect Richard Rogers was on the next floor, but there again I was privileged to have Hyde Park as my front garden.”
Simon is keen to explain how he feels early experiences shape your attitude towards music and although coming from a non musical family his Dad was an enthusiastic listener of music, particularly jazz and would point out and analyse sections of music with the young Simon. Recalling with a smile on his face “I sang in the church choir which had a massive musical influence on me, then my voice broke so there was a time when I could sing bass, baritone, alto and soprano, so if someone didn’t turn up I could fill in for them, doing four part harmonies” he explains with a hearty laugh, then adds “ that trend tended to continue so if a band was getting together and short of a bass played I’d play bass or short of a drummer I’d play drums.” He continues “the school band didn’t have a drummer so I said ‘buy a kit and I’ll learn to play it’. A week later they bought one, so I jumped on it and though I hadn’t played before I’d heard a bit of Cole Porter and stuff so I started playing. I was 16 and it was the 80’s when it was all monophonic synthesisers and we were trying to write stuff before midi.”
I’ve been in Sheffield so long, working with Longpigs and Jarvis and lots of other people, I’ve toured with Babybird, just done a session of recording for iMonster and did a tour with Reverend and the Makers, so I’m a bit of a musical whore really.
The South Yorkshire connection came about after Simon came to University in Sheffield to do music. Disillusioned with the course he dropped out but stayed, enjoying the pace of life after the rat race of London. He picks up the tale “I wasn’t sure I was going to be a musician as I’d never known any and didn’t know how you became one. I knew Crispin (Hunt later of the Longpigs) from university parties and jams, he asked me how I fancied playing bass. He’d never seen me play bass but they were desperate so I said yes, borrowed a bass and started rehearsing and 20 years later I’m still playing it professionally. “Ever modest he adds “I’m not a proper bass player though, for a proper player its part of their identity and that effects how they play, I’m more cerebral, I have to think what I’m going play and work it out. I’ve never felt comfortable playing bass; I look over at guitar players thinking ‘I’d rather be doing that’”.
The first step on his career as a musician was with the Longpigs and for the first time Simon realised it could become a job. He explains “we rehearsed in the daytime; we’d get there at midday and rehearse for 8 hours every day for about 2 years until we got signed. That’s when I learnt about collaboration, working with the others to make it as good as you possibly can do. Everyone was focussed. It was volatile at times, which sometimes helps but sometimes hinders but it was very creative.”
Was that when Richard Hawley joined Longpigs? Simon shakes his head and clarifies “we had a keyboard player for about 2 years prior to Richard joining, then about 2 weeks before we got signed Crispin decided the keyboards had to go as it wasn’t working. Hawley was told ‘we’ve been plugging away for this offer for years so don’t read it just sign it’. He must have felt it was like a juggernaut rolling onwards so he said ‘ok’, but perhaps that was the start of the ticking time bomb, because Richard had ideas of his own.”
Friction was inevitable as Longpigs were spending a lot of time touring, Simon admits “we supported Slade in the US for 6 weeks then Dandy Warhols for another 6 weeks when we weren’t getting on very well. We didn’t have the presence of mind to say lets stop and write the next album. I loved touring it was great fun but it wasn’t constructive, after we’d been on tour for about 2 years and supported every band that was offered, Sleeper, Pulp, Radiohead and each time it would be a bigger better different tour but we had a meeting and decided we’d stop touring.” He shakes his head and gives a rueful smile “then we were offered U2 support at Wembley then New York before 70,000 people, so we said yes again. It was too hard to turn down but would have been the right thing to do. Our career was littered with things like that where we’d go with what was offered rather than what was right for us.”
The writing was on the wall for Longpigs as Simon continues “eventually we got to the point where Crispin was fed up with Rich, fed up with Dee, not with me particularly as I’m easy to get on with, though people can’t find me annoying “ he admits with a smile. He continues “Dee was a great drummer but went through a period where he wasn’t particularly constructive. When we started writing the 2nd album he wasn’t in tune with our musical direction and not on the same social wave length as the rest of us. Then one morning he didn’t turn up so he got chucked out and we got Andy Cook.” The label was then bought out by another label with the upshot was the 2nd single from the album didn’t make it out to the record shops so Crispin said ‘I’ve had enough’”.
Then Simon was in musical limbo for a while, playing in a few local bands before getting the call from Martin Slattery asking if he’d like to join legendary Joe Strummer’s Mescaleros as bass player, though reluctant to play bass it was too good to turn down. Obviously a phase of his career that meant a lot to him, Simon agrees “I had a couple of good years with them and played some great gigs. Playing live we didn’t have any new songs and played a lot of the old Clash songs, so we were trying to write some new songs and were about half way through a new album when Joe died. We’d got about 10 or 12 demos but Joe hadn’t sung on them.”
With sadness he explains “we went into the studio straight from touring and didn’t have any songs at all but had a week booked. Joe set up the instruments strategically all over the studio, there was a keyboard corner; guitar corner, vocal corner, bass corner etc and we’d just jam and come up with ideas. We had 4 or 5 tunes and Joe would be going round the studio muttering words to songs then saying how he wanted the songs to go. I wrote a fair portion which I was pleased with and Joe seemed very driven and focussed. We had a break then went back in the studio a few months later and Joe had written 3 or 4 songs, this was just about three weeks before he died, he had some really good vocals and we were all feeling good about things. The last night of recordings we stayed up, just me and him and shared a bottle of brandy and chatted about life and kids. That was the last time I saw him.”
Simon confides ‘Joe was an inspirational person to be around; he looked hard but really was quite soft. It was such a tragedy, Joe was a lovely bloke”.
After the stint with the Mescaleros Simon went back to College and finished his degree and now teaches part-time in Huddersfield and Liverpool and really enjoys it “I wasn’t sure I would”. About that time he started playing with Jarvis and in between played with Richard Hawley on the road as well, Simon adds thoughtfully “it was a bit of recognition that we were still friends, I’ve always got on with Rich.” “I was playing keyboards with him, but it got to the point where I was doing lots of other things so had to tell him I couldn’t do it and he got John Trier in, which worked well.”
Longpigs had supported Pulp so Jarvis and Simon knew each other so it was a natural process for Jarvis to ask him play keyboards with him. The music maestro recalls “he came to our house warming party, for somebody who became that famous your behaviour with them can be a little affected and it’s a shame cos he’s a pretty normal bloke but he can’t do anything in public.” Expanding he adds “once he is among friends he’s normal, like in the studio we could have a right laugh doing daft reggae covers and he’ll dance like something in between Chuck Berry and Michael Flatley”.
Although Hawley played on the Jarvis album his solo career was flying so Jarvis used a few guitarists like Leo (Abrahams) who went on to play with Brian Eno. Simon continues with a look of sadness “then of course we had Tim (McCall who died in a tragic accident at home in Feb 2010) he was quite shy but very funny and everybody got on with him. He was a great guitarist but very modest.” I recalled a good friend, blues saxophonist Bob Swift meeting Tim for the first time in our local pub and Tim asked what was in Bob’s music case and from there a friendship developed and it was some time before, when pressed, Tim admitted to playing with Jarvis.
Looking to the future Simon continues “Jarvis has his finger in so many pies; it’s possible he’ll get the band back together for more solo stuff but I don’t know if he will. The feeling within the band is that it would be nigh impossible to replace Tim, not just as a guitarist but socially within the band” he falters struggling for the right words and in the end they remain unspoken.
After a comfort break Simon returns and ventures back in time again as he recalls just before the call came to join Joe Strummer he got a call at home “a female voice said ‘hi its Polly Harvey here’ and I’m thinking, right Polly Harvey, Polly Harvey? She said ‘I got your number off the record company I need a bass player’ then it clicked P.J. Harvey. Her bass player had gone into rehab so I met her in a hotel in London, she played a few tunes on guitar with a practice amp and I played bass via a practice amp then she invited me to meet the rest of the band in Yeovil. It all went well till the guy came out of rehab, he was skint and clean and Polly called me up and said they were going to give him another go. They were up front about it all and never made promises, so that was a nearly one.”
“I’ve been in Sheffield so long, working with Longpigs and Jarvis and lots of other people, I’ve toured with Babybird, just done a session of recording for iMonster and did a tour with Reverend and the Makers, so I’m a bit of a musical whore really.”
I mentioned the Club 60 crew and how a lot of people in top local bands came from that community and Simon agrees and expands “I was one of a group of people who used to go to Jonny Dean’s house every night and jam till the early hours but when he moved out we were at a loss what to do so had to look for somewhere else. Liz then mentioned ‘where I work there’s a club downstairs empty why do you come and have a look’. It was in a right state then. The overriding ethos behind the group was just to have somewhere to play, trying to get into a studio was just a dream and the fact is that Paul (Blakeman) has been very instrumental in making the studio happen. Once he got that upstairs room Paul had a plan for it to be a studio he took the bull by the horns. Basically Club 60 is still just somewhere for us to play.”
Any more adventures? “I did was a tour with Paul Heaton, during a break form Joe Strummer, playing acoustic guitar and trombone and most of the backing band were Mescaleros, we did a few festivals. Then I worked with Cerys Matthews, playing acoustic guitar, she was amazing, a really good singer, a bit weird and wacky but a fantastic person too.”
When did the trombone make an appearance? When we did the album with Jarvis a few years ago he got a sax player from the Fugees to play a solo on one of the songs but when we toured its wasn’t really practical to get a sax player every night for one song. My Dad used to play sax a bit but didn’t play anymore as he said he didn’t have enough puff so if ever I needed it… so I borrowed it for the one song and learnt to play it in a couple of weeks then the first gig was a festival to 15,000 people and I was rubbish but by the end of the tour I had it down ok Now I’m a big sax fan and love Miles Davis and Coltrane.”
Bringing us up to date, Simon plays now drums for BlackCatWhiteCat, which features his very talented partner Angela Basson on vocals and their first release via the Club60 Singles club, was Fridge. “The original idea for the band came from Sophie Toes and Angela then Sophie eventually got more involved with Cuckoo Clocks. We had John (Kubiki of Violet May) on guitar and worked up a lot of ideas but he got a lot busier with Violet May. We also had Dave Sanderson (2Fly Studio and formerly Reverend and the Makers) in the band for while too.
Angela has an unusual writing style, as a singer who doesn’t play an instrument she writes by drumming and sings over the top, which she is really comfortable with. She comes up with lots of hooks then we get together, record it and have a listen, it’s very collaborative. At home, me and Angela will add bits and though its time a consuming process it’s a good way of putting it together. We are going to have a break and write more stuff, unless U2 ask us to tour obviously” he quips. “We have a kid together and have to get a babysitter every time we rehearse or play a gig but it works for me, it’s a new band and really good fun to be involved.”
As we close the interview I can’t help but be impressed by Simon, with all he’s done in the music business and the immense talent he possesses he is still the most unassuming of men and a pleasure to be with.
Remember the name… Simon Stafford.