The neck of my Guitar
Phone-interview with John Soeder The Plain Dealer

Paul Simon on songs about war, being a Hall of Famer, Garfunkel

Friday, June 23, 2006
John Soeder
Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic

Still crazy after all these years? Like a fox! On his aptly titled new CD, ´Surprise,´ Paul Simon teams up with edgy collaborator Brian Eno for a sonically adventurous set of poetic musings on life, death and 50 ways to leave your broker. Simon, 64, checked in for a phone interview last week before a tour rehearsal in Stamford, Conn.

Q: How close does ´Surprise´ come to the album you set out to make?

A: It is the album I set out to make.

Q: Which assumes you had something in mind going into it?

A: No, I didn´t have anything in mind. I never really have anything in mind when I begin. Only what I don´t want to repeat from where I left off. What I´m going to change from the last thing I did. And what I´m going to explore that I enjoyed the most from the last thing I did, or the last series of works I did. That´s how I sort of begin.

In this case, it took a little bit longer to begin, because of 9/11 entering into my 60s - which could only be equated (laughs) in my mind, those two events. To the rest of the world, it was one event. But in my mind, they were two big events.
They made me really have to think about the usual questions I begin with, which are: Do I want to do this again? Who am I talking to? What´s on my mind?
When I can get those things clear - which isn´t easy for me, to figure those out - then I think, ´Well, of the things that are on my mind, I don´t think I´ll talk about this. I don´t think I´ll talk about that subject. And this is off-limits.´
Musically, the team of Steve Gadd and Robin DiMaggio being the rhythm and me playing the guitar, and Brian Eno, once that team was in place - and I don´t actually remember when it was that Brian and I began to work. Probably in 2003, maybe in the spring of that year. I´m not sure. But once that was in place, then the process worked like this: I would start with rhythm -drums, loops, turning them around, keeping them at uneven, asymmetrical intervals. Not by bars. But by, like, a minute and 15 seconds of the same groove, but only on high-hat or something.

Then I´d begin to improvise guitar pieces over it.
This had a couple of exceptions. I think ´Wartime Prayers´ was written as a guitar piece, before I went into the rhythm part. And ´Father and Daughter´ was written already and put in an animated children´s movie (´The Wild Thornberrys Movie´).
So the process is the drums, then the guitar, making up, searching for the structure, then a pass through London to see what Brian had to say about it musically.
Maybe he would add sounds or textures. Or if it was earlier on, he maybe would alter sounds, alter the drum parts or filter the guitar parts, or change the direction of the piece while it was still in that stage where it was malleable and could be changed.
Sometimes we´d start just with drums and fool around, the two of us, in the studio and begin to make up something.
That´s how it was made.
We would work for five days. Then I´d go back for a period of months, tinker around with the next set of drums, or what it is that we did and maybe begin to think about melodies, or edit and reshape and finally get a structure down, keep sculpting until the song had an interesting shape for a song.
For me, the songwriting process is sort of letting stuff drift up into your awareness, then editing it.

Q: On their new album, the Rolling Stones have a song called ´Oh No, Not You Again.´ Does familiarity breed contempt for established artists? And going off the title of your new album, is it challenging after all these years to create any element of surprise in your music?

A: I´ll go to the second question. I don´t think about creating an element of surprise. I think about what I said earlier. What was I particularly taken by, with the last thing I did? And what did I find that I lost interest in? That leads me on to the next place I want to explore.
This sort of thinking began when I finished ´Hearts and Bones´ (Simon´s 1983 album). I said, ´I don´t like the process of writing a song by myself in a room, coming into a studio with musicians and making a record and finding myself frustrated that I´m not getting the record that I wanted or that I imagined. And not knowing how to correct it.´
Even though, at that point in time, I´d made many, many records that were hits, that were satisfying. Still, that frustration led me to go, when I was working on (1986´s) ´Graceland,´ into making tracks that I liked. Making the record first and writing the songs afterwards.
That created opportunities in writing that the other way of doing things didn´t present. And so that´s the way I began to write, from that point on.
I never really switched back to the first way, except in writing ´The Capeman´ (Simon´s 1997 Broadway musical), which had, like, 30 songs or something. There where times when the song had to be a narrative and it had to be maybe just a simple song with a couple of instruments or just a guitar. Then I did go back to the way of just sitting and writing a song.
But otherwise, since then, I´ve been about reacting to the construction of the track. And that has been reduced to, for the last two records, starting with drums.
I think I´m finished with that now. But I don´t know. Because I haven´t even begun to work on whatever it is I´ll do next.
So anyway, in response to ´How do I keep a surprise going?´ I´m not thinking about it. And if I were, I wouldn´t have the vaguest idea of what it is that whoever it is I´m trying to please was expecting. So how would I surprise them?
The Rolling Stones song - I don´t know it. I guess what they mean is, ´You guys have been around forever, and oh no, not this again.´ I guess it´s meant as a joke, right?

Q: Precisely.

A: OK. So for me, the same thing is: Who are you talking to? But there´s no answer to the question (laughs). You just don´t know who you´re talking to. Basically, you´re talking to whoever´s interested. I´m not writing particularly for any generation, although I keep the subject matter pretty relevant to what I´m thinking, so it´s sort of age-appropriate, in a sense.
I think of these records as two separate conversations. One is lyrical and the other is musical.
The musical one, as far as I´m concerned, isn´t actually attached to any generation or time. It´s what I´m interested in rhythmically, what I´m interested in harmonically and whatever it is that I learned over the years about what I love about making records and singing.

Q: The music doesn´t date itself. But your lyrics really reflect the zeitgeist, almost like, say, John Updike´s ´Rabbit´ novels. Without directly saying this song is about New Orleans or that song is about the 2004 presidential election, it´s all in there on ´Surprise,´ in these inner conversations or conversations between people.

A: Yes. When I started out by saying, ´I´m not going to write about this or I´m not going to write about that,´ everything else that wasn´t excluded felt to me like it was fine, however it emerged.
If I were trying to write a hit - in the sense that I was trying for a hook that was repeated so often and was so powerful a hook that it would be a hit - I would have a different objective. But I´m not trying to do that. It doesn´t seem (laughs) it´s a very appropriate thing to be doing, at this point in my life. It´s like, I´ve written enough hits.
Hits belong to a certain generation. It´s a youth radio thing. If you stumble into one for some reason - like ´O Brother, Where Art Thou?´ or even ´Father and Daughter,´ which is kind of a hit. It´s certainly recognizable enough. But I just stumbled into it. I didn´t intend it.

Q: Here in Cleveland, we got to hear ´Wartime Prayers´ before the rest of the world.

A: Oh, with John Mayer? (Simon performed the song when he taped a VH1 television special at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2004.)

Q: Yes.

A: That was the first time I ever tried to sing that and to play it. Now I can do it. But its very hard to play the guitar part and sing the song.

Q: ´Wartime Prayers´ is a timeless yet timely song, unfortunately. Are enough artists speaking out about the war?

A: I don´t know. Whether they are or they aren´t, it´s on everybody´s mind. It´s not like you need more songwriters to write about it so the subject could be clarified. It´s pretty clear.
I don´t know that it has any effect on the dialogue. I suppose if anybody wrote something that was so brilliant and captured everything so perfectly, if somebody wrote a masterpiece, it might have an effect. But that´s true for anything. Any masterpiece is going to have an effect.
That Green Day album, ´American Idiot,´ that was a great album. It was kind of right on the subject and a giant hit.
So it´s not like that hasn´t been touched on.
And on the other side, like the red-state anthem, if that exists, I mean it probably has been expressed in one form or another by Toby Keith or somebody.
Those songs, they do a certain thing. They don´t actually affect what´s going on. But they probably contribute to the babble - you know, this confusing conversation that the country seems to be having.
I wrote ´Wartime Prayers´ before the war started, but not before it was obvious there was going to be a war.
Unless your country is invaded or unless you´re going to stop a genocide, I don´t really think when you add up what you get out of wars that they come anywhere near what you lose, in terms of the horrors inflicted for generations and generations.
What you do get out of them, on the positive side, are enormous technological leaps, which eventually get translated into everyday life.

Q: So everyone ends up driving a Hummer, right?

A: Or everybody´s driving a car with a navigational system.
It seems to me it would be far more efficient to take those trillions of dollars that you´re going to spend [on a war] and don´t kill everybody and maim people. . . . You´d be better off just taking that money and doing good with it.
Now, do I think that should be said in a song? Doesn´t matter.
Songs are not essays. For the most part, they´re for enjoyment. So they should stay in the areas of love, family, parties - you know, everyday life. Or everyday sorrows.
But as political statements, very seldom have they been effective, in any real sense.

Q: I´d be remiss if I didn´t ask about your longtime percussionist, Cleveland native Jamey Haddad.

A: Jamey, who I´m crazy about, is not touring with me this particular time around.

Q: He´s on the new album, right?

A: He plays on one track (´Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean´).
I made the album without percussion, because one of the things I wanted to change from (2000´s) ´You´re the One´ was to leave the polyrhythmic sound of hand percussion and go back to the drum kit, which I thought was an easier sound to hear a song with. I just inferred that from the reaction to ´You´re the One.´ It seemed to me that people were distracted by what I was doing rhythmically and missed a whole bunch of what else I was doing on that.
So the distraction, which I found very pleasurable - (laughs) because I like percussion and I like polyrhythms - but that distraction, it wasn´t what I was intending. I wasn´t intending to distract people from some simpler thoughts that I was trying to say in song.
So I decided to go and hopefully simplify the listening process and make it more enjoyable for more people.

Q: Who´s on the road with you this summer?

A: I just added one more guy, Robin DiMaggio, who´s on the album. So I have two drummers. I have Steve (Gadd) and Robin.
Then I have my old band. Mark Stewart on guitar and Vincent Nguini on guitar. Tony Cedras (on keyboards). Vincent´s been with me since ´The Rhythm of the Saints.´ Mark´s been with me since before ´You´re the One.´ Tony was on the ´Graceland´ tour with me. Bakithi (Kumalo), who´s the bass player, played on ´Graceland.´
Steve Gadd I´ve known since ´50 Ways to Leave Your Lover´ and ´Late in the Evening´ in the ´70s. He´s been my close friend
And Andy Snitzer, an excellent saxophone player, is playing some sax. But he´s also mostly doing ProTools computer stuff.
Everybody is playing a lot of instruments. Like, for example, Tony is playing keyboards, guitar, accordion and trumpet, and singing.
Mark plays lots of guitar stuff. He´s also playing saxophone and he sings.
Snitzer is doing the computer and playing saxophone.
So I have, within this little group of seven guys, a horn section and a vocal group. Not like we´re a very slick horn section or a very slick vocal group. But I like that sound they have. It´s guys who are not - with the exception of Snitzer, who´s an extraordinary player - the other guys are not primarily horn players. But they play enough horn, so they can play the parts. The thing is, their musical brains are very sophisticated. They´re average players with an unusual amount of knowledge. So the notes they choose are exceptionally right and the tone that they get is just average, which is what I like, actually.

Q: Any room for Simon & Garfunkel in your future plans?

A: Simon & Garfunkel, I did that, two years ago. Really, more than I´ve done me in the past five years. I did 72 concerts with Simon & Garfunkel. So that´s that.
I think we accomplished everything we needed to accomplish. We repaired our friendship. Were close again; that´s great. We took a final bow, which we had already taken before. But we took another one.
We got to meet the Everly Brothers and became friends with them. I got to rewrite the Simon & Garfunkel catalog from an arrangement perspective.
To me, that´s mission accomplished, to quote my favorite president.

Q: How does it feel to be a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, inducted with Simon & Garfunkel and for your solo work?

A: It´s somewhat arbitrary, in that there are people who should be in it who aren´t in it. But for the most part, yeah, it´s a big honor.
I don´t really spend a lot of time thinking about any of that. I´ve only been there twice, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Once was the time when I was there with John (Mayer). And the other time, I just popped in when I was on a run. I was going down to the lake. I stopped in and looked around. Did see Don Everly´s report card.

Q: How were his grades?

A: Not too great (laughs). It didn´t matter.

Q: He had something to fall back on.

A: Yeah, yeah.

Q: How often do you run?

A: Oh, I don´t actually run. I just was doing it that time. Most of my workout, it´s just kind of a standard aerobics and weights, some stretching. Just a stay-healthy kind of thing. But I do it five or six days a week.

Q: Hopefully, it doesn´t involve 900 sit-ups. (The narrator of ´Outrageous,´ a song on ´Surprise,´ claims to do 900 sit-ups a day.)

A: No, no not anywhere near that (laughs).

Q: You mentioned other people who should be in the Rock Hall. Who?

A: I´ll tell you one guy who should be in it and he´s not. They have a section for session players. Where´s Steve Gadd, the greatest drummer of his generation? He played on so many people´s hits and he´s probably the most sampled drummer in hip-hop.
The reason I don´t get too excited about those things or too upset about them is, you get a committee of people who you don´t know who sit in a room and make up a list, then people vote. Some arbitrary group of people - record executives or something - they make up a list and say, ´Let´s vote on these people.´
So unless you believe their authority is something that you really ought to pay attention to, the only thing you can say is the obvious question, which is: Where´s Steve Gadd?

Q: I´ll make a few phone calls.

A: OK. Good. I´d appreciate it if you did. Didn´t know you had a finger in that pot.


After the interview, Simon called back a few minutes later and left a message on my answering machine: ´Hi, John. It´s Paul Simon. I just thought of somebody else who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Neil Diamond should be in there. Just thought I´d tell you. Bye.´


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