Simon Tong is The Good, The Bad & The Queen's quiet riot, a versatile, stoic musician's musician who is clearly Damon Albarn's go to guy– after the Verve dissolved, Tong replaced Graham Coxon on tour with Blur, he plays live and in the studio with Gorillaz, and has been, of course, in TGTBTQ from the very beginning, starting with Albarn's initial trip with Tony Allen to record with a grip of Allen's musical associates in Lagos, Nigeria, straight through to our time with the band in England for our Issue 43 cover story. When he's not unassumingly collaborating with Albarn, Tong is working on his upstart folk label Butterfly Recordings, created in partnership with his friend and occasional collaborator Youth. Read the full interview from the aforementioned cover story after the jump.
Outside of The Good, The Bad & The Queen, what are some of the projects you’ve been working on recently?
I started to play with the Verve 20 years ago– that was quite a long time ago. That was my first foray into music, we all kind of went to school together and grew up together and since that I’ve just been caught up in different things, a bit of production, writing, a few sessions here and there.
Producing other bands or your own stuff?
Yeah, I’ve got a little label I’ve been starting up for the past couple years - it’s just like a little folk label [Butterfly Recordings] and I’ve been producing a lot of stuff with that and getting that stuff out.
Do you listen to a lot of folk?
A little bit - I wouldn’t say I’m an aficionado, what I love is a lot of the stuff that was coming out in America over the past 5 to 10 years. Will Oldham and that kind of thing…Sufjan Stevens, some really good stuff coming out. So it was a way to try and get the British versions of those people. Something really lo-fi, really cheap recordings, almost field recordings in a way. Yeah so we’re doing that, and then I’ve stepped in for some Gorillaz sessions. It’s the best time working with Brian [aka Danger Mouse], and I’ve worked with Damon [Albarn] before with Blur—touring with them.
With the Gorillaz sessions were there tracks already built with Brian and then you would come in and add guitar parts?
Yeah they would have it all pretty much finished and would just need a few little bits of guitars and stuff, or Damon might have put down some idea of a guitar.
And you would come in and actually play them well.
[laughs] It was a great way to work I think, to be able to do like 3 or 4 songs in an afternoon and just churn them out.
So for this project what were the initial conversations that happened - what was the evolution of your involvement?
Tony [Allen] and Damon had been wanting to work together and do a little bit of writing and do demos, and then the idea was to go to Nigeria and that’s where I got involved. We went to Nigeria and did a couple weeks of recording.
That was you, Tony and Damon?
Yeah that was me, Tony and Damon. The bass player was someone that Tony played with at the time, and there were a couple guitarists from Nigeria playing in there, and we had brass and percussion and backing singers. It was great. A big band, but it just didn’t quite - it was good but it wasn’t…it just didn’t quite sit right with Damon’s…. He wasn’t totally happy with the way it was going, even though we kept some of the backing tracks and some of the rhythm tracks we did, I think he didn’t really like the bass player. And lyrically I don’t think he really got his head sorted out on what he wanted to say and what he wanted to do. I think that, even though the music was great, it wasn’t new, it wasn’t pushing the boundaries.
Was it heavier in more of a funk or afrobeat kind of way?
Some of it was.
A little busier?
Yeah, there was a similar kind of vibe to the album though - some of it was quite laid back, but yeah there were a few more afrobeat things going on.
What was your connection to African music before you went to Nigeria?
Really, I had no previous experience with African music other than listening to the Fela albums.
The Nigeria sessions were in Lagos?
Yeah, it was just a great stinking industrial mess.
How did the project begin to change - specifically with a mind to your involvement in it - as it progressed from the demos y’all recorded in Lagos?
When we came back, Damon had a chance to listen back to what we were doing in Nigeria because we weren’t sure about it.
When was it that you were there?
A couple years ago I think. So he kinna got Brian initially, just to see what Brian thought he could do and how it could progress. Loads of artists like to keep control completely, but Damon is really good at delegating and going to someone like Brian and doing a “You make the decisions, I’ll make the music” kind of thing. So Brian just kind of crossed over and said okay we’ll keep that one and maybe a bit of that one and started scratching around in different places.
Were you around much for that stuff?
Yeah, we did a couple more tracks—Tony came over to London again and we did a couple tentative tracks. We basically just needed a bass player, that missing element.
When Paul Simonon came in to try it out initially, were all four of you playing together, or was it just listening to different demos with him, or was Paul playing over recorded tracks you already had, and you all just listening in?
No, I think it was just straight. Well I think to get into the swing of things he played over a couple things - I don’t think any of those songs actually made it on the album. But early on we sort of started again, actually. As a four piece, just in the studio, press record and start to play. You could tell instantly that it was going to work. It just did.
So from the beginning basically, you guys were playing live together.
Yeah, Damon would just come in in the morning with a cassette with a few ideas on it, or 3 or 4 songs maybe, and we would just start working off it a little bit. Then we would go straight to record. It was very much that kind of “I found it on the ground” kind of thing, you don’t really rehearse, you just rehearse as you are actually doing it.
What was your attitude, did you have any sort of general approach or thoughts you had in your head about the role you wanted to play as the guitarist?
No, it was just kind of taking each song as it came. And it was the feel of the demo very much that we wanted. Some of the later stuff, Brian went against these kind of big overproduced things and really wanted to go back to real basics, as near to a demo as possible.
Brian is very good in the studio, just knowing that he is a big fan of psychedelia and the Beatles and stuff like that, and the way that they used to record, not really having any rules, maybe play a song one way and then take a couple minutes and play a song a completely different way, and then kind of stick those together. It’s just very off the cuff, and not being precious about parts, you know guitar parts. I think Tony’s drum parts got cut up quite a bit, so nothing was precious, no parts were sacrosanct.
It’s interesting how you can hear Brian’s hand on the album, where you can feel his presence in the tunes, with drum drops, and then sometimes Tony’s parts are definitely manipulated.
For the tracking, Brian would take it away on the computer and really kind of zone in on the sounds and distortion and try to make it…he almost made it more lo-fi, he fucked about with it and made it old and grainy.