Paul Simon may be the poster boy for the greatest generation of acoustically anchored singer/songwriters, but in an appearance at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles Friday (Sept. 30), he made it clear that what most interests him nowadays is sonics before lyrics.
“The thing about Kendrick Lamar and Drake is, they’re interested in the same thing that I am, which is sound,” he said. “How do you make a sound that’s arresting? It’s hard to find. The only difference between us is we’re fishing in different pools of sound.”
He’s determined to be full of surprises, at 74, more than ever. “I know how easy it is to become bored with popular music,” he said. “Because I am bored to death of it. I know that applies to me as it applies to every other artist … If you want people to listen, you really better make it interesting, because there are a lot of choices of things to do — not only things to listen to.”
The hour-and-a-half Q&A, hosted by veteran rock journalist and Grammys co-producer David Wild, was largely devoted to Simon’s latest album, Stranger to Stranger, which, were it to be nominated for Album of the Year, would represent the first time an artist has been up in that category in six consecutive decades. The collection is Simon’s most critically acclaimed since perhaps The Rhythm of the Saints, but it’s also in many ways his most musically esoteric work to work, placing him alongside maybe only the late David Bowie as pop stars doing some of their most challenging, least easy-on-the-ears work this late in their careers.
The album’s complexity bears a little explaining — to potential Grammy voters and rank-and-file fans alike — which may be what found Simon making such a rare speaking appearance, at a fundraiser for the Recording Academy’s educational initiatives. (Those not among the 200 inside the Clive Davis Theatre got to stream the first two-thirds of the appearance online, minus a concluding audience Q&A and a two-song solo set of “The Sound of Silence” and “Homeward Bound.”) Much of the interview focused on the arcane instruments, samples, and rhythms used on Stranger to Stranger — although Simon did tag on the precise reasons for the Simon & Garfunkel breakup 45 years ago as a sort of nostalgic bonus track.
He explained how the title of the new album’s opening track, “The Werewolf,” emerged out of the phonetic sounds he imagined an Indian instrument he was using for the track were saying: …were… wolf… And he concocted a story from there. Similarly, with “Street Angel,” he sampled a 1930s gospel choir, then slowed the sample down to match the implied key of the rhythm track, then figured he might as well just run the sample backwards while he was at it… and heard the reversed voices saying something that sounded like “street angel” (shades of backward masking), arriving at a narrative from that starting point.
With “The Werewolf,” he wanted to be both stark and whimsical for the first two-thirds, avoiding chordal instruments altogether until a massive pipe organ kicks in near the end and reinforces the we’re-doomed gravity of his theme. But before that: “I like the album starting with a joke. Milwaukee man led a fairly decent life, made a fairly decent living, had a fairly decent wife. She killed him…. It’s a good way to begin a record. The first impression that you get from a song is crucial. Because unless you’re really a fan, you’re gonna drop out of listening at a very early point when something is played. Maybe you’ll give something 30 seconds, maybe a little more, but if you don’t like it in that (time span), it’s very difficult to retrieve the listener’s ear.”
He thinks about lyrical dynamics as a way of keeping listeners alert and engaged. “When I collaborated with Brian Eno on Surprise, we used to talk a lot about attention span: At what point do we start to lose attention, or how can you get attention again? If I write something lyrically that is a bit more complex or I use an image that’s in a more enriched language that’s closer to poetry than songwriting, what I try to do after that is say a line or two that’s really a cliche — so that the ear, having heard this atypical thought, now hears, ‘Well, we’re just rolling down the road’ — (something) they don’t have to think … By the time the cliche is finished, the ear is ready to come back to the story and they haven’t lost their place. Because if the song keeps rolling along like a speeding train, pretty soon you say, ‘I don’t know what this is about. I’m out.’”
Asked what he learned from his band leader dad, who used to lead a dance band at the Roseland Ballroom for a quarter century, he said the best advice he got had to do with keeping keys in mind in how to sequence a set, which he carried over to thinking about song orders on albums.
“I’m still thinking there are albums, which is kind of not true anymore, but I think that way because I like the form. I came out of a generation that Sgt. Pepper made that form an artistic form. That’s the value system that I fell in love with, so I still stay with it, even though I know people just pick out tracks here and there. Making the album sound interesting has more to do with just changing tempos. It has a lot to do with key. So somewhere around the halfway to two-thirds point of (making) an album, I start to say, ‘This song needs to be connected to that song by something in a flat key.’ The next thing I write, I’ll try to fit it in’ — I’m sequencing right from the very beginning. That’s something I learned from my father.”
Simon devoted a substantial portion of the interview to discussing the influence of the 20th century composer Harry Partch, who invented some instruments Simon uses on the new album.
“What Partch said that was so interesting was that the idea that an octave is divided into 12 tones is a European idea and it’s not correct… Partch said no, the octave is divided into 43 microtones… And he had to invent instruments that could play these 43 microtones.”
Simon has tried to refocus his singing, so that he’s not just focused on a C, but finding the variant possibilities in the upper or lower parts of a C… Needless to say, no one would confuse Simon’s Grammy Museum Q&A with the one the Chainsmokers did in the same hall the previous night.
The very name of the venue led to some recollections about the time Simon spent under Clive Davis’ wing. “When we played him the (Bridge Over Troubled Water) album, Clive said, ‘Wow, what do you think is the single?’ I said, ‘I think it’s ‘Cecelia.’’ He said, ‘No, it has to be ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’’ It was five minutes. We knew it was really good, but I didn’t think it was a single. ‘Cecelia’ sounded like the hit to me. So I owe him that.”
The demise of Simon & Garfunkel right after that, their most massive album? Simon put it down to Garfunkel’s acting habit, but also suggested his wandering interests would have divvied up the act if Carnal Knowledge hadn’t.
“It was the movies that broke us up,” Simon insisted. “We were separated for too long by two movies that Artie made. But no matter what, we couldn’t have followed Bridge Over Troubled Water with a (similarly epic) album… It would have been like my first solo album anyway, because you have to go down and make it smaller and more rhythmic. And that would not be playing to Simon & Garfunkel’s strength, which includes having a big ballad, which Artie can knock out of the park. Singing rhythm was not his forte. Whereas I already wanted to go to a Jamaican rhythm … I thought, if I want to get this, I’ve gotta go to Jamaica. That would not have been an easy argument to make to Artie… He wouldn’t have liked that. And probably wouldn’t have liked that song, ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ Or maybe he would have — that would have been a harmony song. Other ones, like ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,’ there isn’t a natural harmony there. So then what? I guess what I’m saying is, we would have broken up inevitably, very soon after Bridge Over Troubled Water. I don’t think there was anything more to be said that was fresh. I really wanted to go to these rhythm places. I really liked gospel music. I didn’t want to play finger-style folk anymore, or write that way. So we were done. It’s very hard for duos to stay together. Don and Phil (Everly), Paul and John (of the Beatles), the Eagles — I mean, it’s just hard. There’s like a lifespan, and then you’re done. You can stay and repeat yourself, but you’re done.”
Simon has been seen as being a little rough on Garfunkel over the years — though he reiterated that their early working relationship was an ideal one — but he made it clear that he’s been tougher on himself. He recounted an ongoing inner dialogue he used to have with the critic within.
“There was a time where I really, really was down on myself… and I really took an ego beating, from me. I said, ‘Your stuff, it stinks, and you’re a thief. You took that idea from here, and don’t you dare get up on a stage and sing that song from this thing when you know you took the substance of that…’ When I started to say, ‘Yeah, but,’ the voice said, ‘And, by the way, don’t bother with an explanation, because I know the way you talk. This is not a trial. This is a sentencing.’ It really felt like a wound. And it took about six months before I said, ‘You know what? All of that maybe being true, still, millions of people really liked it. So, even if I’m a total phony, you can’t say that’s bad.’ So therefore the voice might have been telling a lie about some of the other stuff, too. That is my piece of advice to any of you out there who suffer the same internal voice severely criticizing you: It’s full of shit. I had a period where I would smoke a little bit and then go to write, but then I would get my paranoia: ‘Oh, this stinks, that’s not a good idea, that’s a bad idea.’ Finally, I would say: ‘You’re right. It really isn’t a good idea. It’s really no good. I have one question for you: Who the f–k are you? What did you write? Oh, nothing? Okay, well, I’ll see you — I’ve got to go to work.’”
The borrowings Simon would seem to be referring to were rampant in his early career — a subject that led to one particularly good topical joke.
“’American Tune,’ I learned from Bach [from the St. Matthew Passion in the 1720s], but the melody preexisted Bach; he took it. So I mean, that’s really a hit. ‘El Condor Paso’ [based on a 1910s Peruvian melody]… ‘Scarborough Fair’ [an old English folk song]… 400 years, you’ve got a hit. And Spotify would owe you… like, what?” A pause for the punchline. “Hundreds of dollars!”
Simon maintains a very high standard for what constitutes a hit. “I always say the song I wish I wrote: ‘Silent Night.’”