When we were kickin around England for a week with The Good, The Bad & The Queen for our Issue 43 cover story, we obviously spent some time with Paul Simonon, which is the kind of experience that we never really thought to dream about, but then there we were. At the time, Paul had the very last hints of a black eye and a big fresh scar across his nose (we can't front: he obviously wasn't coming out with the story, and we pussed out and didn't ask) and obviously some of the best style to ever show itself on God's Green Earth. Being around him is crazily inspiring on an aesthetic level - in his world there are ways to go about presenting yourself, and you can either do it right like a man or choose not to care like a fool. Paul wears his jeans rolled with a modest cuff, silver keys around his neck, sits with one leg crossed over the other, smokes a cigarette casually, speaks some but not a lot, has an effortless, easy way about him, is always blatantly the coolest person in the room, and was, like, in the Clash and shit. Read our interview with him after the jump, conducted in London in the then-closed bar of the Roundhouse Theatre on Chalk Farm Road. And look out for more of our interviews with all four members of TGTBTQ in the coming days.
To start, you’ve been away from music for quite a while. What was more compelling for you about doing visual art and stepping away from music?
Well the thing about visual art that I like is that you are completely - or relatively so - in control of what appears on the canvas or what is being carved. The only thing you have is your own limitations on your vision. Essentially, I like it that I am completely in control of the finished situation. And one work could go on for 20 years, depending on how people work. Whereas in a group situation, it’s more complex than that and I think if you have a lot of respect for the people you are working with things can be quite interesting because you are getting a different viewpoint that you may not have considered. But to be honest, I just like tracking paint around. It’s something that I’ve engaged with since I was quite young, pretty much from the cot really.
Obviously you are never completely out of the public eye, but did you enjoy being sort of less out-there personally?
It doesn’t bother me either way. When the Clash finished I went to live in El Paso with this friend of mine [Nigel Dixon] to get a group together. It’s a fantastic place to go if you’ve never been to America before. After the first couple months he had to see a doctor and he essentially was told that he was going to die by Christmas. He had melanoma, which is like skin cancer. Anyway, we sort of ignored that to the point that we were actually able to make an album [called Havana 3AM] and tour around the world. Finally it caught up with him and he died, and I think really that seemed a good point to go in another direction and go back to what I did before - painting. To be in the public eye is not a concern of mine, I’m quite a private person, I don’t really tell anyone what I’m up to. I only told Mick Jones probably a month or two ago that we made an album last year, so I am very much a close to my chest sort of person. I didn’t tell my dad that I was in the Clash until I invited him to come see one of our first shows. That may be a bit extreme, but that’s just….
What was your initial conversation with Damon? What were you initially thinking about it?
I was really familiar with—obviously with Blur and obviously with the Gorillaz. I saw the first Gorillaz show in London, the first one they did behind the screen. So I was very aware of the music and I thought it was really exciting. In some ways it made me think, “Yeah I could fit into that sort of sound idea easily,” because it’s part of me as well. That sort of reggaeish type…anyway, when I heard a couple of tracks, we’d been talking for a couple hours. Just what we’ve been up to, where we live, what books, what films. Just trying to get to know each other I suppose.
You hadn’t met before?
Not properly. We had met once before in a group that had been organized by Chrissie Hynde, which involved me, Damon, and Joe Strummer. So that is a bizarre first meeting, but I sort of respected Damon a lot for his music, his integrity, his political outlook aligned with mine really. So I heard a couple tracks and thought, “Yeah I could hear stuff that could fit there, so we’ll just give it a go.” It wasn’t like, “Okay great in a year’s time we’re going to be touring and then we’ll do this.” I was really on a day to day, we’ll just see how it goes, and then suddenly we’re mixing the album, okay see how it goes…. I was very cautious and not getting too—it was amazing really because we just started jamming pretty much straight away and so many new songs started evolving. Basically, the fact that I was supposed to be putting bass on them was becoming more to the distance, and a whole new thing was developing through conversations and books both [Damon and I] enjoyed, and about London and local landmarks.
So you were very involved in the concept of the record as far as what the songs were about and that sort of thing?
I haven’t really written a song for years, you could say I just chucked a few crumbs in Damon’s direction. In some ways, my department is definitely the visual side of things, of the whole group. I like to oversee that, it’s really important. Obviously the music—it’s all important. But you can’t just have a group that’s got a great album but they dress worse than their audience. It’s an inspirational thing. And also my background in the Clash and all that sort of stuff. I come from the land of the Clash.
When you weren’t playing music, were you playing your bass at all?
No, I was playing electric guitar, sort of acoustical electric guitar. When I was a kid—when my parents separated—I went to live with my mum and stepfather and my brother. He got a scholarship—my stepfather—so we went to live in Italy for a year. And in that year, 1966, my mum used to take me to see spaghetti Western films. I didn’t go to school. I refused to go to school because the uniform was a big blue smock with a big black bow tie. I had to say to my mom, There is no way I am going to school wearing that. “Listen mom, we’re from Brixton, we can’t be seen….” Anyway, she pretty much relented and me and my brother just hung on the street, like urchins I suppose. Like we did in London. In London I hardly even went to school anyway. I had more important things to do. So yeah, musically, I suppose it was like a hobby, just to learn the spaghetti Western stuff and then a lot of dub stuff and just busk over the top of it really, just as a hobby. And painting was definitely the main thing, and still is. Now I’ve been away from the music for quite a while, and in one way I’m completely unsoiled by any weird projects I might have been involved with musically. Now I’m at a stage where I find it’s now possible to do both, the music and the painting. I wanted to give up time and space for the painting, to become proper at it. Not just “popstar’s hobby.”
What was it like getting back into the swing of playing bass, especially with Tony Allen as the drummer, the other half of the rhythm section?
The bass side of things was pretty easy in some ways. It’s trying to sort of find a place, but to lock in to Tony’s drumming was a whole other department. I’m not really a musician musician. Put it this way: years ago, when [the Clash] were in rehearsals, Joe Strummer got a piece of chalk and drew a line across our rehearsal room. On that side was Mick Jones and Topper Headon, and on this side was me and Joe. And he said, “That’s where the musicians are and this is where the entertainers are.” So I’m sort of more in that department really. Sometimes you make mistakes and it’s part of my approach. It was difficult to lock into what Tony was doing, but now I’m getting more familiar with it. It’s still complicated, but you know, it’s not like the standard thing. The bass drum is kind of like—there are so many other things going on, it’s like playing with Jimi Hendrix really.
And with Tony sometimes there’s nothing going on exactly when you expect something to be.
Right, yeah exactly.
One thing that Tony and I were talking about a little bit is that there is a really sort of un-precious sound to this band – a lot of the songs, for example, don’t really have proper endings, and there are notes flying everywhere sometimes.
It’s like a jazz group really. Also, musically it had to be the way it is - quite personal. It wouldn’t be fitting to be doing leaps in the air and swinging my arms around. I think musically there is a dignity that needs to be maintained, I think—we’re not expected to turn up and crank up and jump around. That’s what a lot of people expected at the shows really. I got a lot of messages from friends that didn’t know what to expect, and they said it was so different from what they expected, but really they felt it was quite original and they liked it even though they’d never heard the songs before.
That was what was interesting about the Ilfracoombe pub show because all those kids were just so psyched that you all were in the room and they were already jumping out of their shoes and then they got this music that is in this odd, mellow space. Although a lot of your bass playing is kind of aggressive.
That was part of my job in this project, to add a bit of grit, true grit.
One thing that I’ve enjoyed is that there are a lot of big holes in the music, specifically in your playing, sometimes on stage your body language seems—it’s almost like you are trying to hold notes back.
It’s quite a release in some ways. But it’s not because I know where I’m supposed to be at a point in the song, I know that there are actually possible variations that I can try, so I change it a little bit, but not much. Only right as the song is about to finish, that’s when I try and do a little thing there just for a moment, and then it’s finished. But if I go somewhere else during the song, it’s because I’ve lost some connection to Tony.
What have you been listening to over the last few years?
All sorts of stuff, really. Anything from Coltrane to reggae to dub to sort of bullfight music, Nouvelle Vague, because somebody gave me a record of theirs where they did a cover of “Guns of Brixton.” All sorts of stuff really.
Were you familiar with Tony’s music and his music with Fela?
Yeah, I was aware of that, I didn’t have my ear to the ground as much as I had in the past, because I was basically in the art world, the world of painting pictures and stuff so I was more up to date on the latest exhibition.
What were the beginnings of what you have been bringing aesthetically to the band from the art side of things?
I suppose it started off with me and Damon talking about songs—one of our first conversation pieces when we first met was Peter Akroyd’s biography of London. So yeah, we were talking about books and from that I started getting an idea for the visuals. I thought there has to be some sort of uniformity to a point, but basically you could say it was like the Irish navy look. I remember as a kid seeing Irishman standing around on the corners in London streets, they’d been out on the town and the next morning they’re still all in their Sunday best but without a shirt. But basically [as far as what the band would wear] a jacket was the provision for us.
But it’s slightly evolving - I’m sort of into English musicals, and so I want to bring that element into it. In some ways its sort of theatrical and not at all like a rock & roll show. There are little colored lights flashing and—I wanted it to be quite theatrical really, like a set. I actually wanted a couple lamp posts, but that didn’t come about. Originally the idea evolved from seeing this old film from the ’50s with this guy doing this rock & roll song on this electric guitar, and behind him is this surface, this backdrop of London.
I assume you are doing all the cover art?
Yeah, we’ve got a guy who’s involved with that, so basically I’ll sit down with him and with Damon and we’ll talk about things. But Damon pretty much leaves it to me really. That’s pretty much decided upon, we used images by an artist, probably from about 1890, who came to London and did lots of drawing and etchings and stuff. The poor and the rich. So there are a lot of influences from that that I wanted to bring in, and there’s an element of that in the music too, so you know, it’s quite handy having an interest in art.
What were some of the specifics of the early conversations about England between you and Damon?
Initially it was about London, insofar as references, but only in reference to names of streets and possibly something that might have happened in that street. Marble Arch, where they used to hang people. When they used to hang people they used to drive them all the way along Oxford Street and stop off at pubs and basically it was like a celebration in a way. Then as they are about to drop them, the relatives and family of the condemned person would rush forward the moment they dropped to hold onto their legs to pull them down so they wouldn’t suffer too much, and that’s where the expression “hangers on” comes from.
In a way, as it says, “this is a history song,” so “if you don’t know now then you will do.” Quite a few of the songs could apply to any town in Great Britain really. So there is an element about “drink all day, the countries at war….” The obvious reference point is the country being at war and also you’ve got the other aspect where the licensing hours were changing and you can stay up late and drink now, it could be read in lots of different ways, it could be read as where everyone is in the pub drinking and oblivious or just turning a blind eye to the war. There’s so many possibilities. That’s the poetry of good song writing.