Simon Kirke’s Sonics Are in Good Company on New Solo Album
“This album covers my life from age 6 to 66 — it’s a 60-year span from front to back,” Kirke explains. While All Because of You clearly showcases Kirke’s formidable songwriting chops, the track that’s garnering much-deserved attention is his jump-reggae ukulele version of Bad Company’s indelible 1975 FM hit “Feel Like Making Love.” But You also has some definite legs to it, with tracks like the deft jazz of “Melting on Madison,” the turnaround joy of “Into the Light,” and the pleading nature of “Lie With You” — somewhere out there in the ether, the late Harry Nilsson nods his approval — showing the multi-instrumentalist Kirke to have some serious chops.
After auditioning a pair of high-end Sennheiser HE 1 headphones in a private listening room at the the company’s pop-up store in Soho in New York (as some of you already know, they’re the successors to Sennheiser’s legendary Orpheus ’phones), Kirke, 67, and I sat down in an open-air lounge to discuss the making of You, how music can connect you with your kids, streaming, and loving Ringo. The sun and moon are definitely shinin’ on this skinsman.
Mike Mettler: Right from the opening lines on the title track that starts the album — “I’m happy in every way / So happy, it’s a brand new day / There’s a song in my heart, a spring in my step” — a tone is immediately set for a great, positive vibe that carries all throughout the record. It really sets the template for what’s to come.
Simon Kirke: That’s an amazing observation. Thank you very much. I never thought of that. A lot of the songs were written in the perspective of my new girlfriend, whom I’m getting married to later in the year.
It really was a labor of love. I know a lot of artists say that, but it was a year ago when I started making it. About 15 months ago, I had all these songs, and really nowhere to record them. I had a couple of solo albums out before this [2005’s Seven Rays of Hope and 2011’s Filling the Void] that really didn’t do anything at all because I didn’t have the backing of a major record label, so they kind of fizzled out. But when my manager David Spero heard these songs in their raw form, he said, “I can get you a deal.” And he did.
We went to Chicago to record with this band he manages, The Empty Pockets. They’re in their late-20s, and some of them are maybe 30 or 31 — they’re old enough to be my kids! (laughs) But they were great with the material, and I could not be more proud.
And I have to give Mitch Stewart, the remix engineer, major credit. He studied recording for 4 years at Berklee. He’s also a musician, but what he did with a keyboard and on the screen with Pro Tools was just the beyond. It was wonderful to watch him work.
Mettler: Naturally, a lot of people will zero in on your ukelele version of “Feel Like Making Love,” a track that has so much rich aural detail to it. It’s a prime example of why listening to this album via low-grade MP3s is not the way to go.
Kirke: You do want to hear all that minutiae, all the idiosyncrasies. Someone said they could even hear my fingernails strumming the ukulele.
Mettler: It’s true; you can hear that. Do you feel being a multi-instrumentalist helped you in the writing of this record? Do those skills make you a better songwriter?
Kirke: Yeah. They make me slightly more rounded as a songwriter. The ability to play guitar, piano, and sing is more important than playing drums, because playing drums now is kind of second nature to me. I don’t practice, I don’t do rudiments, I don’t sit down and do paradiddles all day. What I do now before a tour is I get a little more fit! (chuckles)
But when it comes to songwriting, to be adept on guitar and piano is crucial for me. I’m good enough to get by. The piano and guitar are the musical vehicles I use to write songs. So far, touch wood, it’s held me very well.
Mettler: What All Because of You song do you feel is the best example of all of your compositional skills coming together?
Kirke: Well, let’s see. I couldn’t have written “Melting on Madison” on guitar. That was sheer keyboards. I was studying a chord sequence on the piano, and it worked really, really well. And it became an amazing track, thanks to the saxophone by Art Hays.
Mettler: Writing chords on keyboards versus writing them on guitar can be two very different experiences.
Kirke: There’s also a comfort level with piano that you don’t experience on guitar. Guitar is really hard to play, even if you’ve been playing for a very long time. There are certain chords or positions on guitar that I can’t hold or play for very long, because it’s actually quite uncomfortable. When you sit down at the piano, that whole discomfort level disappears, because a piano is in blocks of eighth notes, and it’s the same the whole way out, whether it’s 66 or 88 keys on the keyboard. And if you can learn something within the two sets of eighth octaves, it’ll transfer further up.
Immediately, there’s a comfort level in playing piano that you don’t get with any other instruments. And I find the songs I write on piano are a little more relaxed than they are on guitar. For example, “Maria,” which I wrote on guitar in a Drop-D tuning, is in a gentle 2/4 time signature, and I augmented that with a string quartet. Ever since I heard “Yesterday” by The Beatles and written by Paul McCartney, I always wanted to do a song with a string quartet.
Mettler: Speaking of The Beatles, they were a huge influence on you after you first heard “She Loves You” in 1963.
Kirke: Yes. I was 14 then. And there was something about that tom-tom break Ringo does [Kirke mouths it, then claps out the beat and sings]: “She loves you.” And when I got to play with Ringo many years later [in one of his All-Starr Bands], I asked him about that. “Well, Richie, about that first tom-tom fill…” [Ringo Starr’s given name is Richard Starkey, and Kirke affectionately calls him “Richie.”]
He told me they were coming into EMI Studios at Abbey Road in cars, and there was this huge stream, a huge crowd of fans who were trying to get ahold of them. They ran into the studio through the main door while security held the doors open. Some kids followed them inside, having managed to get past security, and they were chasing The Beatles down through the corridor.
The Beatles got into Studio Two and they all jumped on their instruments, and the first thing you hear is [Kirke drums out the opening two-count tom fill, then sings]: “She loves you,” where there was that rush of adrenaline after being chased by these fans. So, anyway, yes — it was “She Loves You” that got my 100 percent attention.
Mettler: Did you gravitate towards drums first because of that, even though you do play a number of instruments?
Kirke: I play drums, bass, guitar, and piano — all the essentials — but I started out on drums. At 14, I was really just banging on books with drumsticks that I cut from a hedge, because I lived in a very remote part of England — we had no mail order; nothing like that. So I just banged around.
It wasn’t until I was about 15 that I got my first snare drum and a little cymbal from a town 30 miles away that my parents bought me. I was just playing along to records on the radio, and that’s where I got my timing from — listening to The Shadows and The Beatles, and listening to records.
Mettler: I still feel Ringo is underrated as a drummer. And he’s also left-handed, so I think people don’t always understand how he approaches playing the kit.
Kirke: It’s a very good point. Ringo plays a right-handed kit, but he plays it left-handed, so he leads with his left. If you’re a drummer, you go around the kit in an L-shape or a triangular shape, but he leads with his left. That’s just the way he is.
The thing about Ringo is he’s got a wonderful feel. And he’s always sympathetic to the song that he’s playing.
Mettler: He always does the exact right thing for every song he plays, and he plays to what the song’s strengths are. Each drum part he comes up with has a unique character to it, which is something that’s not that easy to do.
Kirke: It’s not. He took on the “traditional” role of a drummer. Progressive rock drummers like [Rush’s] Neil Peart, Dave Weckl, and Vinnie Colaiuta — they’re in a different world. It’s neither better nor worse. Each drummer, from Ringo to Levon Helm, Al Jackson Jr., Buddy Rich, and Louie Belson — all these guys fulfill a certain role. Neil couldn’t have played in The Beatles, and neither could Richie [i.e., Ringo] have played in Rush.
Mettler: And they’d both be the first ones to say so.
Kirke: Right. And like I said, the thing about Ringo is his lovely feel. Have you gotten to see the Netflix movie that Ron Howard directed?
Mettler: Eight Days a Week? Yes, it’s brilliant.
Kirke: It’s mad! Richie is smokin’! What an amazing drummer.
Mettler: The other important Beatles-related question I have to ask is: Mono or stereo? What’s your preference?
Kirke: Ahhh... (pauses) Horses for courses! Honestly! Back in the day, you could hear early stereo and pan completely to the left and hear the bass, tambourine, and one backing vocal. Pan far right, and you’d hear rhythm guitar. You could actually hear the differentiation of each instrument.
But, yeah, I do love stereo. It gives you a more panoramic audio landscape. Back in the day, I had an old jukebox — an Ami jukebox from the ’50s, with a big 15-inch bass [speaker]. Everything was in mono, and it was right in your face. It was lovely. But that was more a knee-jerk reaction to listening to music back then. Now I’m a bit more of an audiophile, and I do like stereo, I have to say.
I should also mention that Bad Company did a cover of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” last year for our fan club secretary, Lucy Piller, at three or four shows, and it just has a ripple effect. It rejuvenated all the songs around it. It was great.
Mettler: And isn’t that interesting for you as an artist — to be able to introduce deep tracks into a live set where there are a couple of things you absolutely have to play at every show.
Kirke: (nods) You have to play the hits. Every now and again, when you interject, as you say, deep cuts that are not quite so familiar with fans, it rejuvinates the set. It keeps us on our musical toes. I very much like to have the occasional track where they [the audience] go, “Hmmmm.” A lot of people will sit and listen to it, and not get up to go out and get a drink.
Mettler: When people hear you do songs like “Lucy” and “Crazy Circles” — which is actually my personal favorite Bad Company track — maybe they’ll go back and dig into your catalog a little bit further. They might find you’ve done other things like Free and go, “Oh, what’s that?” We’ve grown up with you, but a lot of people have no idea about your lineage.
Kirke: There are two or three generations out there who haven’t heard of us, or might have heard of us only by their parents. And human nature is such that we don’t go after the music our parents like, you know?
Occasionally it might happen, and you might come ’round to it eventually. I used to look at my kids’ CD collections, and most of what I liked was in their collection as well — Bob Marley, [Jimi] Hendrix, things like that. But they also have their own likes, like 50 Cent or Linkin Park — stuff that’s not really on my musical radar. For the most part, though, my kids and I pretty much like the same stuff.
Mettler: Did they ever come up to you and ask, “Hey Dad, do you know about blank,” and it would be the name of an artist you either played with or knew personally?
Kirke: No. I’d like to say that it happened, but it didn’t. My kids and I do have common listening grounds, though. And then my eldest daughter, Domino, turned me on to the amazing voice of Jeff Buckley: “Dad, you’ve got to hear this guy!” And I said, “Yeah, OK, let’s go and see him!” “Well, he died in 1997.” Ahhhh.
Mettler: I was sold on Jeff the minute I heard Live at Sin-é [a live Buckley EP recorded in New York and released in November 1993].
Kirke: What a singer.
Mettler: It was literally something that was in his DNA, to be a great singer.
Kirke: Right, because Tim [Buckley, the noted folks singer who died in 1975] was his father.
Mettler: Yes indeed. So to wrap things up here, there are listeners who will pull up All Because of You in the streaming universe and on Spotify. As an artist, how do you feel about that?
Kirke: Look, the whole streaming thing — and the whole Internet thing, if you take it under the bigger umbrella — it’s a double-edged sword. But it’s a wonderful device; are you kidding? Wikipedia, Google, all the search engines — you can read anything you’d ever want to know about anything. It’s at your fingertips, which is a stunning educational tool.
The flipside is the downloading and the piracy. We grew up in the age of Napster and Kazaa, and suddenly we found our revenue streams dwindling. Record companies were putting out CDs at $12.99, $13,99, and $14.99, but kids had the chance to get them on Napster for nothing? Hello! It wasn’t until Apple came out with iTunes [in 2001], because they figured, and not unreasonably, that you could buy a track for 99 cents, and dispense with the album. You could get the album if you really wanted to buy the album. You had the option to buy the single track. When we were growing up, we could buy 45s with the A and B sides, which is what you pointed out.
Anyway, we were talking about streaming — it’s great. We can now pick up our phones and download and listen to anything we want. It’s a wonderful tool.