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The brother of Pete Townshend and a touring guitarist with The Who, Simon Townshend talks to Lisa Torem about his musical beginnings, songwriting and recently released solo album, 'Looking Out, Looking In'
On his blog this singer-songwriter claims that he “gave up drinking in ’97 and smoking last April.” Certainly those are laudable goals, but let’s just hope he doesn’t give up his songwriting habit as Simon Townshend is a shimmering tower of talent. He not only plays mandolin, rhythm and lead guitar, but his stage presence and hard hitting, visceral vocals belie an incredible softness. He sings of tortured love, disappointment and yearnings, while embracing friendships and praising human potential. Still the British troubadour readily admits through his profound lyrics that he doesn’t have all the answers.
Hammering out an original riff or reproducing a classic rock anthem seems to happen magically. Armed with discipline and a poetic soul, Simon Townshend stands to become one of the era’s most prolific writers.
On his own Stir label he self-produced half a dozen solo CDs, and with his band, the Casbah Club, he released ‘Venustraphobia’ six years ago. With his older brother, Pete Townshend, he contributed vocals to Pete’s solo albums ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Psychoderelict’ and has also spent fifteen years touring with The Who as well as with their lead vocalist, Roger Daltrey, on his solo tours. Busy as ever, with a brand new album ‘Looking Out Looking In’ coming out, his solo act touring North America and an exciting fall tour with The Who, Simon Townshend chatted with Pennyblackmusic about his musical beginnings, passion for songwriting and often complex relationships.
PB: Your father, Cliff, played in the Squadronaires, (An RAF band, which performed in England during and after World War II-LT), your mum was a singer and, of course, your older brother is Pete Townshend. Did you feel obliged to become a musician, or do you feel that your interest evolved naturally?
ST: It did evolve naturally. I just felt at a very young age that is what I wanted to do. I was so into music when I was young, running around the house with a tennis racket playing that and it just progressed really. I got my first guitar, I think, when I was about eight-years-old, and then I bought myself a piano when I was ten. I got a publishing contract because I was writing and I bought a piano. It just went on from there really.
PB: You had a publishing contract when you were ten?
PB: What was the first song you wrote?
ST: What was the first song? Proper song? The first proper song I wrote was ‘King’s Crown’ – about a witch stealing the king’s crown.
PB: That sounds very imaginative. You contributed vocals to ‘Tommy’ in 1969. That album includes some pretty intense lyrics. As a nine-year-old, what were you thinking?
ST: Oh. I don’t think I really knew what I was singing, to be honest. I was told to sing some words. I don’t remember thinking, “Oh, these are deep.’ No, I really don’t. I was asked to sing a part in ‘Smash the Mirror’.” And we didn’t hear any of the other music either. That’s all we heard. So I really didn’t know what I was getting involved in at that time, to be honest. It’s quite amazing, isn’t it?
PB; It is amazing. You don’t seem to take life at face value. Looking at your early work and your work now on the new album, one gets the impression that you really think deeply and you continue to search for meaning. The lyrics on ‘Bed of Roses’ and the title track from ‘Looking Out, Looking In’, are very reflective. Does this reflect a philosophy of life?
ST: I think on that particular record it does, yeah. “Looking Out, Looking In” is quite a reflective CD. I’ve almost got another CD written and it’s interesting how each album has its own sort of angle, but at the time you’re writing, you don’t too much thinking about that because songs just come, don’t they?
And it’s often the way life is treating you that inspires you so you do sort of write in the bag, if you like, for the period you’re in and the state of mind you’re in. I think that was a reflective album. I particularly wanted to make another record, a great CD.
Over the years I’ve pushed stuff out there that wasn’t as good as it should have been. I was determined, on this CD, to really work hard and that was my objective, spending a couple of years making a record.
PB: There is one song you’ve written, which is still not released, called ‘Denial.’ A listener on YouTube commented that the lyrics cut really close to home because he was coping with substance abuse issues. The song, in my opinion, goes way beyond the typical themes we associate with denial. Was that your intent? Were you referring to the denial many of us face in own lives?
ST: Yeah, very much so. I mean, without getting too graphic and personal – I had a year, which involved people that were close to me in denial. I’m glad you picked up on that song because it’s probably my most important song of the year really.
I’ve been writing a lot these last few months, and I think that one’s probably the cream of the crop. It expresses all the emotions of this whole year. I’ve had family members and people I love hurting themselves, really, and it’s tough to watch. There’s really very little you can do, as well. It’s really up to the individual, isn’t it?
PB: That’s a tough situation and you really nailed the emotion on that tune. There’s another song ‘She Asked Me’ on ‘Looking Out, Looking In’, and I’m going to ask you to walk us through this one. What was the DNA of this song?
ST: Funny enough, I listened to a cassette recording connected to my phone. I use a little recorder on my iPhone to pop my ideas down .and I came up with this one lyric I was interested in recording most of the night, and about three in the morning I got this idea and I just put it down.
The first thing that came was the chorus - “She asked me to write her a song.” That was a simple idea in which someone said to me, “You know you’re always writing songs about other people. Why don’t you write one about me?” “All right, I’ll have a go (Laughs)”. It was an interesting idea.
Then the little guitar motif, the hooky guitar part - once I had that little bit, as well, I just knew that I had a song that was interesting. And then a few hours after, I very quickly finished what I started. That’s generally the way I work, anyway.
PB: It’s kind of Celtic, a little samba. There are lots of subtle styles there.
ST: Yeah, it’s a good one, isn’t it?
PB: You’ve been playing a lot of outdoor festivals in the UK this year. Several dates had to be cancelled because of the weather, and then there is the mud, lengthy ferry rides and, on one occasion, your amp blew out. Why do the festival circuit when it seems so much easier to just book a venue?
ST: Oh, it’s hunger. It’s desire to get the music out there. I just want to play to people, and at festivals you get good crowds and generally they’re responsive. I mean, weather does play a part in it. If it’s really bad weather, people can be put off to listening to music, can’t they, a little bit?
But on the whole in the summertime you get a great feeling, and I think it’s a great place to go out and air songs that people haven’t heard before. It’s a strange environment for that, but it kind of works. People are ready to listen. They’re ready to hear new music.
When you’re playing a club tour, which I did earlier this year, playing to a home crowd, every time you play – I bought a ticket to see you, personally. Where as at a festival there are very much people you’re seeing for the first time, and they’re giving you a chance, if you like, to prove yourself and I love trying to win over those crowds and play songs, and singing lyrics is the key to reaching people. I really enjoy that aspect of it.
And I suppose it comes down to how I grew up. I’m determined to get my music heard and a song like ‘Denial’ – when I sang that it just cuts through everything and everybody understood it at all of the festivals. ‘She Asked Me’ is another one with a lyric that affects people. They understand the lyric and what it’s saying.
PB: Let’s talk about your instrumental work in the current Who tour, on which the band is featuring the album ‘Quadrophenia’. One of the most powerful ballads on ‘Quadrophenia’ is ‘Love, Reign O’er Me.’ As musicians; your job is to support Roger Daltrey’s vocals. How do you allow Roger maximum freedom, while building those instrumental hooks?
ST: A good song as long as it’s played at the right tempo and a good key for the singer is always going to be singable. Front and back, he’s the one putting the song across. As far as playing it, you’ve just got to play with the view to how he wants it to be in order to deliver it well.
We spent a couple of days last week in a studio just going over where his voice is now, and how he feels about singing the songs in the original keys, or whether he wants to lower some of the keys; more in line with his voice now.
And some of the tempos on some songs – we did ‘Quadrophenia’ in ’96 /’97, and we also did it a couple of years ago at the Albert Hall in London , and we learned a lot then about how it needed to be changed in order to still work. On the whole, everything can be done in its original form, but on that one song we spent time, a tiny bit, on the way we were playing it before. It was a little bit too slow on the last leg. If you listen to the recording on the original album it was actually upbeat surprisingly.
It’s just little things: deciding how the voice will pitch is important at the head of the tour. That’s why we’ve already started in rehearsals, really.
PB: Now speaking of classic Who material, you’ve become known for your version of ‘Goin’ Mobile’ Is it a challenge to reproduce a tune that many fans will recognise from the original recording? Do you feel like you’re competing with the past?
ST: It is to a degree, but The Who never did that song live. The only time you’d ever hear that track was when The Who were on record and you’d often hear it on the radio as kind of a big song on American AOR radio, a lot more than people give it credit for and it was just never played live so when I was asked to do a song on the ‘Tommy’ tour, I said I’d like to sing a song of Pete’s.
“What would you like to sing?” I was thinking I would pick an obvious song, but I felt something more obscure or at least something that hasn’t been performed live would be more interesting. That’s why I chose that one and I’ve done it now for about three years, so I’ve kind of made it my own now and I’m very comfortable singing it. I never feel like I wrote the song. I always feel like I’m singing one of my brother’s songs, but because I’ve done it so much I do feel a connection with it - that I’ve sort of made it my own.
PB: There are so many relationships here that go way back and extend into the future. Pete and Roger were childhood friends, you have toured with Roger, and your son, Ben, and, of course, you and Pete are siblings. Even between the best of friends and in the best of families, there is competition. Has this been an issue? Do you ever have to set guidelines for your onstage performances?
ST: I think the guidelines will be there in my mind. I have my own guidelines when I’m playing. I don’t think Pete and Rog have guidelines for me, but I think I have my own. I’m aware that it’s a Who show, and I don’t want to seem to be trying to take over, or steal the limelight or dance around looking like an idiot. I think I’d rather be the cool person in the back being part of the support system.
In one article they called me “The Who’s secret weapon” and I quite liked that. That’s when I stood in the back doing all of the really important backing vocal parts or the chord parts and guitar parts that Pete can’t be bothered to do because he’s too fiddly, and he’s at the front of the stage being a solo man, and I’m sort of filling in the parts that I think the audience wants to hear from the record.
I’m trying to do a job of filling in and supporting, not trying to steal too much limelight. When the ‘Quadrophenia’ show is out, I’m doing one solo and then I come upfront and sing a lead vocal, a song called ‘The Dirty Jobs.’ That’s the moment they’ve given me where I take the limelight, where I’m actually on the screen. That’s the moment there when I come up to the front and at that point it’s interesting what happens to me. Then I create the competition. Then I step into those shoes and I become a different animal because that’s the point where I have to suddenly push them aside and say, “She’s my spot, now. You’ve given me this opportunity and now I’m going to grab it,” and they then become peripheral to my vision. It’s a funny one. That’s where the animal in me takes over, I suppose, is when I get to the front microphone. Centre stage.
PB: That’s a fantastic description, Simon. Now as far as the other touring members, is your sense of camaraderie the same with everyone?
ST: I get on really well with Zak Starkey. He’s a drummer and he’s been a friend of mine now for a number of years, twenty years or so. Pino Palladino, on bass, he’s a great guy. He’s a dear friend of mine. It’s really good to be working with those guys again.
When we did the ‘Tommy’ tour, we used an American bunch of guys, who were also fantastic. I think it’s just getting on the cost-effective side of touring without Pete on his own. But I have missed those guys. I can’t deny it. I have missed Pino. He’s kind of my friend on the road to go out and hang out a lot.
Because touring can be quite - people think it’s so glamorous. But there’s so much waiting around and hanging about. You get a couple of hours every other day or every night to perform and the rest of the time you’re just waiting, aren’t you?
A lot of times you can go out shopping or get coffee, or whatever, but at the end of the day it’s a lot of travelling, a lot of flying. It can be tough.
PB: Those sound like very long days. Time management must be a challenge for you, touring with The Who and keeping your solo act circulating. Do you have any tips for how to do it all?
ST:Yeah. Staying clean. Really. Especially on the last Daltrey tour because I had a tour booked and then Roger’s tour was booked after that. We kind of had to move a few dates around but I had to do two tours, back to back - some of my solo shows, flying back to the UK. I was doing a lot of moving around in shows and I think the only way to do it, to be honest, is by looking after myself.
The thing is, with the voice, that you make one mistake and over sing one night and then you’ve kind of put yourself back for the rest of the week and then you’ve got no time to get well, if you like, or get back on top of it. The key is to stay in control really.
PB: Who have been your inspirations?
ST: Obviously, my brother was an inspiration from a very young age and my father, but in terms of artists that I love: I listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder as a kid; I used to love Stevie’s music. Elton John – when I was doing singer-songwriter stuff on the piano. Then I got into Peter Gabriel, Todd Rundgren. There’s an endless list. There’s an endless list of English and American musicians and I got into the mod scene a bit later when it was Paul Weller and the Jam, I loved him. The Clash, I loved, as well. There were so many bands from that era that influenced me strongly.
But my best music comes when I don’t listen to too much other music. You can just get influenced by your own mind then and you tend to write more originally. If you keep listening to other people’s music than you can get ideas based on what you’ve been listening to. The best thing to do is to write with a clear head.
PB: Are you producing much these days?
ST: I produced ‘Looking Out, Looking In’ myself and I’m doing the next one, as well, because I do feel I’ve found something. I absolutely made that record sound incredible and I think that’s just years and years of trying to get it right, and now I feel I’ve fallen on my feet with it and I want to continue on another album.
PB: How will that next album be different?
ST: I think the next album is going to be faster. The material’s more upbeat. I’ve written ten songs now for it. ‘Denial’ is the only ballad so far, which you’ve heard. That’s probably the slowest of the songs, but other than that they’re all upbeat.
PB: ‘Electric Friend’ sounded like, on the surface, it was about having an intimate relationship with your guitar.
ST: Well, a guitar is always handy to have on the road. If you don’t bother to have a guitar, you end up in a hotel room without a guitar and it can be frustrating. But I did have a situation. I was in the Sunset Marquis in LA. and I called a friend about getting tickets to an Eddie Vedder Show.
He was in Washington State on the other side of the country. I called him up and he put ten people on the guest list and, not only that, he met all these people that he didn’t know, showed them around backstage, made them feel welcome and he got them all drinks. I thought that was fantastic. I came up with the idea, ‘Electric Friend’ and then it crossed over to a guitar. So it was kind of inspired by Eddie, but written about my guitar. So it was quite cool.
PB: That is really cool. Simon, I have one last question. Now you’ve had this interesting life, but one day you arrive at the gates of Heaven, ready for the next stage and a big sign reads: “NO ELECTRIC GUITARS OR AMPLIFIERS ALLOWED. If you are not happy, you can take the elevator downstairs.” What would your choice be?
ST: Give me an acoustic. I want to go to Heaven.
PB: Thank you.