Simon Hanson is an English musician, drummer, songwriter, producer & film-maker. He is best known as the drummer with the band Squeeze and previously with Death in Vegas with whom he collaborated with Iggy Pop and Liam Gallagher. Over the years he has lent his talent as a drummer to various artists including The Aloof, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Baxter Dury, Joy Zipper, The Boy Least Likely To, Secret Affair, Glenn Tilbrook, Ace of Base, Natalia Imbruglia, Hall and Oates, Energy Orchard, Roger Daltrey, Tony Hadley, Bruce Woolley, Rick Wakeman and The Dogs D’Amour. (Read More)
Many thanks to Simon for his witty contribution to our Debut series in which he recalls the making of his debut solo album Songs from the Silver Box.
Debut – Songs from the Silver Box
by Simon Hanson, Sep 2015
It was a freezing February morning in East Berlin.
As I looked out of my Kreuzberg hotel window I watched the expectant tourists in their search for the punk zeitgeist that seemed to evade them all. I thought to myself, the only way to really scratch the surface of this town is to know someone who knows someone who can show them what this place is really about.
My computer chimed to remind me that I had mail.
Boy did I have mail. It was an email from my manager telling me that a song I had written was being entered for the Grammy Ballot. No, not granny ballet the Grammy Ballot. The Grammy Ballot is the process of selection that songwriters suffer before being actually considered for a Grammy award. The songs are sent out to a panel of notable experts who then decide which song will be put into the Grammy pot. This then gives the writers, publishers, managers and other associated hangers-on the chance to lobby the Grammy Board for their songs to be included.
Happiness surged through my body like spikes of hot water from my steaming morning shower. As I skipped into the studio where I was working, slightly more of an egoistical ass than I had been the day before, I was thinking in my head that I was a real-life Grammy Winner.
I am not.
Let me explain. I am a drummer. I have always been a drummer. When I was a small boy playing with toys I was a drummer. When I was a rebel school kid having a sneaky fag behind the bike shed I was a drummer. When I was a reluctant delivery driver for Rumbelows I was a drummer. You are born a drummer. It is in your blood. That I would play the drums whatever obstacles life decided to put in front of me had already been decided.
Drummers in the general scheme of things don’t usually write songs. If you’re a member of a successful band then occasionally you will be invited to the exclusive members lounge of songwriters. But the norm is you just sit at the back, bang the drums, get the girls and generally wander through life with a happy disposition and a secondhand Jag.
I had written odd pieces of music over the years but nothing that had dipped a toe in the illustrious waters of chart success (whatever that is these days). So, to me, this single act of industry acceptance such as anything to do with the Grammy’s was the first stage that gave me confidence to release a solo album.
That wasn’t, however, for a good few years to come.
I don’t play any other instrument than drums. I had two trumpet lessons as a child, culminating in my trumpet tutor Mr Peter Clarke whispering in my mother’s ear, ‘I don’t think your son is destined for trumpet greatness. Why doesn’t he try the drums?’
I rang him to say thank you after my first appearance on Top Of The Pops. He had no idea who I was, but pretended to remember me.
Having no specific skill on an instrument that produces actual tunable notes, one might think would hamper a singer-songwriter’s journey. To be totally honest it really did, until a beautifully philanthropic and charismatic friend in New York, Mr Bill Sauer, gave me a small white box emblazoned with the ubiquitous Apple logo.
It was 2007. And when I opened the box I had no idea what an iPad was. It looked to me like a portable television that had passed through a mangle. I pressed the only button I could find and my life changed. Forever. A sweeping statement you might think, but to this day I believe the iPad to be the biggest landmark in musical instrument technology since the Atari computer.
The iPad opened a world of creativity and possibilities unseen before in this universe and the brilliant thing is they (the little men in white coats) at Apple have no idea what they have done. None. In the same way that the little guys in white coats at Roland Electronics in Japan had no idea that by inventing the 909 drum machine they changed every dance floor in the world. The binary boffins at Apple could have never comprehended just what they had done. This is why. The iPad is purely a thin processor with a fancy screen. However, it relies on programs or apps that are created by third party developers. The rush to grab the gold of app success meant the real genius creative minds of the new digital age were given an opportunity to shine and prosper. This resulted in a liberally stocked library of musical applications, affording people like me the unqualified position of multi instrumentalist.
iPad in one hand and imagination in the other, the two worlds collided like a supertanker hitting a fireworks factory. The dark corridors of my creativity were suddenly illuminated for the first time as I stood at the dawn of my new world. I felt like van Gogh if he’d just discovered the paintbrush or Beethoven stumbling over a piano for the first time.
My first song was clunky and naive. My second song was clunky and naive. My first album is clunky and naive. I am clunky and naive. But it doesn’t matter. The normal confines of creativity filtered through the world of business are broken down. You can make your own record and it can sound how you want.
All you need is an imagination and a stable Internet connection.
The day a very good friend and colleague coaxed me out of my cave of insecurity was the day I decided to make my first album. Fuelled by my Grammy Ballot nomination revelry and pushed to the front of the stage, my good friend and musical mentor Glenn Tilbrook suggested I might sing a song we had co-written on his solo tour. I instantly said “yes sure” whilst inside shaking like a contestant in a Michael J Fox lookalike contest. After 30 years of confidently sitting at the back behind a drum kit, playing to more people than I could ever meet, I was now being charged with standing at the front – bare, naked, and with the security blanket of my drum set gone.
Yes I could sing. I’d been ooohing are aarrrring with the occasional oh yea for years. But the short walk from behind the drums to the front of the stage seemed like swimming the Atlantic in Marmite. What would I do with my hands? Where will I look? What shall I wear? Drummers are like newsreaders. We don’t actually have to wear trousers. No one will notice.
When the day came my nerves gripped me like Paul Daniels holds Debbie McGee on a night out. My tongue was drier than a Jack Dee punch line and my heart pumped in Morse code “get out of here”. My toes curled in terror. As I stepped up to the mark the world changed. I felt a warm loving invitation from the audience. They stared with intrepid expectation. I sensed they didn’t care how I sang they were just pleased to see that I actually had legs. My limelight debut passed without pain. To rapturous applause I snuck back behind the drums.
It was a new era, not an old error.
I was a singer. I needed a star on my own depressing room door. Still a drummer in my soul but my bow now had a new string. I returned home from that tour a new man. I had a room in my house that was dedicated to my drum kit, reserved for the odd occasions I would practice. This usually involved watching porn (another thing the iPad is great for – you can hold it with one hand). I brushed off the desk and cobbled together a small home studio.
The good ship Solo Album sailed her maiden voyage in January 2008. I collated a jumble of ideas that were strewn around my mind and computer and started piecing together my musical jigsaw.
To be given the opportunity (albeit self imposed), to make a solo record is like getting a brand new exercise book on the first day of term. The crisp white blank canvas stares you in the face and for the first time every single note, word, sound and nuance will be yours. After a lifetime in studios making other people’s music I was at last to create my own monster.
The joy of this freedom is indescribable. I could make an album of white noise. I could just shout the word cock for an hour or even recite some of my own poetry. Actually my poetry would just be the word cock over and over again.
Deciding on my instrumentation, considering whom I might ask to play with me, and what would the overall feel be gave me great pleasure. It was at this stage of my creativity that I realised there were so many things I wanted to say. I had built up a subconscious store of ideas, in the end far too many for one record. I discovered that when I listened to music I was categorising what I liked into two main sections. Songs I enjoyed listening to, and song that inspired me. Knowing that these subsections existed spurred me on to search for more and more new music.
Thanks to the Internet, the very beast that is strangling the old industry model, I was able to search and consume so much original music my head began to explode. It became a swirling mass of inspirational mish-mash. One day I wanted to make a rock and roll album then a dance album then an acapella album. My creative horizon appeared endless. This concoction of influence was partly responsible for the wide range of styles that ended up being included.
To this day I can still hear a song on the radio or online and want to do something similar. My acute love of all types of music drives me to endlessly scroll through the world before me, seeking new sounds and old sounds to add to my musical memory banks.
The first port of call was a song called ‘My Heart Is On The Left’. Sitting pretty in the pop pigeonhole, it is an account of the bizarre week I spent playing with the amazing Roger Daltrey. It was the spring of 2010 and I found myself locked into his world, on an ocean voyage from Southampton to New York.
We went on holiday by accident to paraphrase the great Withnail and I. We were to steam across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary II. He would talk about his time as a singer and then a band would accompany him on a few of his songs. That’s where I came in. My song was written as a reflection of how different he was in real-life to my expectation. I still wonder if it’s the best thing to meet your idols. Can fantasy ever live up to reality?
Roger is a warm, generous, and talented individual who rides high on the wave of his own success. A very sanguine, outspoken man with all the confidence of a high speed steam train. There were times when I felt that I had broken down on a level crossing and his confidence was racing towards me as I desperately twisted the key in my ignition while banging my head on the steering wheel. But nevertheless a lovely man.
My lyric is guilty of having a slight acerbic twinge that resolves in the middle-eight as I realise that I was in the presence of rock royalty. We were sitting at dinner one day and he was telling a story about this guy Jimmy. I missed the beginning and I couldn’t work out who Jimmy was. I was scouring my mind as the story progressed. Was it Jim Morrison? Was it Jimmy Page? Was it Jimmy Nail? I waited and waited for a clue. Nothing. Was it Jimmy Carter? Then, at last, all was revealed. Jimi Hendrix had visited Roger’s cottage and Roger had been painting the stairs. Hendrix had been drinking and tripped over leaving two perfect handprints in the paint. For years these legendary handprints remained on the stairs as a souvenir of Jimi’s visit. That is until Roger sold the cottage. Roger said, ‘The bloke that bought the house was such a cunt I didn’t tell him whose handprints they were’.
‘My Heart Is On The Left’ features the legendary John Bentley on bass who has more musicality in his little finger than rightly should be given to any man. The guitar was played beautifully by Mr. Adj Buffone. He’s amazing. Google him!
The opening track on the album was the second song to be written. It was written and recorded between Inverness and Edinburgh on a single journey. The lyric represents everything I viewed from the tour bus window and the music inspired from the same. As a writing method I feel to date it’s my proudest moment. Confining yourself to a set of simple rules can aid creativity. My view on songwriting – especially as I have come to the party quite late – is that anything goes. There are no rules. You can’t get it wrong. Giving myself abnormal boundaries excites my imagination, the limitation leading to different choices and new worlds.
The third track on my album was recorded solely on my iPhone, including a video for the song. This restriction as I have said adding to its uniqueness. The drums were from a soundcheck somewhere, the piano was recorded at a friend’s house and the kazoo was done in my loo. Kazoo in the loo what a poet! No really. Bathrooms always have great sound. All the other instruments are from an app called Garage Band. Strangely the microphone on the iPhone is really good for that trashy drums sound, it squashes the noise down and give the drums mood. The lyrics explore the issue that if you are in a relationship then it’s sometimes difficult to maintain friendships outside of your relationship with members of the opposite sex. Well, it is for me! Especially if they are super hot and called Linda. The chorus has no words but represents me saying AAAAARRRRGGGGGHHHHHHHH.
To this day my favourite track on the album is ‘Savaged’. It was very easy and quick to write, tumbling into the studio one winter’s morning. The lyrics however still remain an enigma. I believe the song to be written about addiction to narcotics, that was my intention. But everyone I talk to thinks it is about an ex-girlfriend, including her, especially her. This is what I love about the music and lyric coincidence, no, not the shit film with Hugh Grant and Michael Barrymore, but the fact that personal interpretation of someone else’s words happens inside your head and you are the only person who knows how that feels. This also happens on a later track called ‘Perfect’. A wonderful guy came up to me after a Squeeze show in Washington and asked who the girl was in the song ‘Perfect’. I smiled and thought how amazing that he had made a story up around the song. I felt proud. When I wrote the words they were direct homage to my two-year-old son Charlie.
‘Savaged’ really came to life when my old friend and virtuoso bass player Ian Leese added some fucking genius bass playing. This viciously talented musician blessed me with some bottom end beauty. At the beginning of the second verse he does this monster rundown the neck thing that still sends a shiver down my spine. The Rhodes keyboard at the beginning was played on my iPad and the drums were recorded in the hallway with my kids running around. The vocals took me ages as I wrote the song in a key that was too high for me to sing. When I tried to re-record the song in a lower key I couldn’t remember what notes I had played. It all sounded wrong so I just persevered put some tight pants on and wham bam there I am squeaking like String (sic) from The Police.
The Isle of Whithorn is a beautiful peninsular in the west of Scotland. This song came about as I hauled up in an amazing pub for two days off on a winter tour in 2010. Drinking with the locals I discovered that the location for the final scene in The Wicker Man movie was a short walk across a few hills. After a couple more pints I headed off in search of the spot.
With music in my head I walked for about three hours and realised I was completely lost. It was getting dark, it was freezing cold, and I had no phone signal or money. Not that money would have helped as I could see no signs of civilisation in any direction. It was all fields, hills and sea. I remembered that the sea had been on my left as I walked out, so if I put the sea on my right I should make it back. Another three hours walk back and I staggered into the pub, expecting to see the early stages of a search posse gathering to rescue me in a yellow land rover with a blue light and a ladder. Instead a lovely wizened old man looked up from his pint and said, ‘Aye did you find it son?’ ‘Yes’ I said. ‘Aye’ he said then turned back to his pint. On my walk I managed to grab some footage of what I believed to be to film’s location. It’s in the video I made for the song. Have a look see what you think.
One track on the album that sounds very different to me is ‘A Certain Kind Of Wonderful’. This track was recorded in a small hotel room in Meribel where once again I had gone on holiday by accident. Squeeze was playing at a festival and I was given the opportunity to spend a week at the ski resort before the gig. When I said yes I didn’t realise I was the only person from the band who had opted in.
For the first few days I was alone in a tiny hotel room and the resort was empty. All I had for company was an iPad and my own thoughts. ‘A Certain Kind of Wonderful’ was the result of an amazing view, a bottle of red wine, and a fascination with a south London kid called James Blake. Blake had recently released his first album and I had become slightly obsessed. He had made a record that pandered to absolutely no rules. His songs had no recognisable format. There was no time or tuning confines yet he had made a fresh original piece of art. Meribel is a ski resort, I don’t ski that well, so I just rode the ski lifts up and down all day and wrote this tune in my head. Listening back now it takes me directly to the ski lift and the room and that view.
Armed with my collection of songs I trundled along to Konk Studios in Crouch End and enlisted the help of the beautifully talented Dougal Lott to mix the music. Mixing is the penultimate step in the recording process. It’s where the audio level of each instrument and sound is sorted and set. It is possible to mix your own music but I prefer to have another pair of ears. The young bright ears of Dougal despite his tender 24 years had already worked with U2 and Metallica, so I felt in safe hands – or ears.
The very final step for any record is to be mastered. This where the individual tracks are balanced to be roughly at the same volume and any extraneous frequencies are curbed so you don’t break people’s speakers or hurt their ears. I was lucky to have Glenn Tilbrook offer to do this for me. His attention to musical detail is beyond compare. I swear he hears sounds other humans can’t. This is also the time when the gaps between the music are set and the track listing decided.
Once I had gathered enough music I decided that I wanted to sell my music with a book of artwork and lyrics. Realising that the music industry was changing I had it in my mind that people need something extra to accompany an album. I loved the idea of perhaps releasing a vinyl version, but in small runs vinyl becomes very expensive so I plumped for the book idea.
One lovely summer morning I became an independent book publisher and an independent record label in one fell swoop. My publishing company is called SIMON HANSON INDEPENDENT TEXT (S.H.I.T.). My record label is known as SIMON HANSON INDEPENDENT TUNE (S.H.I.T.). This fact slipped past both of the governing bodies in the publishing and recording world. Now I own two S.H.I.T. companies.
In the new world of music you have to do everything. You are your own manager, press agent, live agent, PR Company, receptionist, plugger, postroom boy, driver and artist. If you like control it’s great. If you’re lazy it’s crap. I am by nature a lazy control freak but the lessons I learnt are invaluable for every area of my life.
The album Songs from the Silver Box was self-released in April 2013. It’s a moment that will forever stand as a pivotal moment in my life. It met with a surprisingly good response. I sold only physical CDs, along with the book of artwork, in numbers that not only surprised me but also the girl at the Post Office, where I would regularly arrive with a stack of parcels.
For me though it was never about having a hit. I don’t think music should be. It was an experiment in the brave new world that the music industry had become. The album was a document of where I was at that time – a scrapbook of thoughts, feelings and artistic ramblings. More than ever music is a calling card for your club or gang. It’s the reason people want to be part of your gang but sadly not the way to make a living. That now relies on how ingenious you are as a musical entrepreneur.
The entire process was a joy and pleasure and I would urge anyone thinking of making a record to do it, just do it, especially if you can’t play an instrument!
Paul McCartney is reported as saying you should always write songs on your weakest instrument. I would like to take that one further and say you should write songs on an instrument you cannot play, even write a song on an old radiator – it doesn’t matter.
When my son Charlie was three, he came up with a song that went, ‘The sky is blue rat tat tat tat the sky is blue rat tat tat tat……’ ext. To this day one of the greatest songs I have ever heard.
Write a book, paint a painting, sing a song or tell a joke. Now is the time you can present your art to the world for free, from your bedroom. The world really is your oyster. www.ificandoit.com (that’s not a real website it’s comedy mechanism). You never know what might happen.
About Simon Hanson
Simon Hanson is an English musician, drummer, songwriter, producer & film-maker. He is best known as the drummer with the band Squeeze and previously with Death in Vegas with whom he collaborated with Iggy Pop and Liam Gallagher. His debut solo album Songs from the Silver Box was released in 2013.
Over the years he has lent his talent as a drummer to various artists including The Aloof, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Baxter Dury, Joy Zipper, The Boy Least Likely To, Secret Affair, Glenn Tilbrook, Ace of Base, Natalia Imbruglia, Hall and Oates, Energy Orchard, Roger Daltrey, Tony Hadley, Bruce Woolley, Rick Wakeman and The Dogs D’Amour.
Since 2001 Simon has worked with the Teenage Cancer Trust teaching young people with cancer to play drums and write songs. In 2011 Squeeze played The Royal Albert Hall in London to raise money for the Trust and following the show Simon’s drum kit (and two guitars) were painted by Damien Hirst and auctioned by Christies for the benefit of the Trust.
Simon is touring with Squeeze in Oct/Nov 2015 and a new Squeeze album From the Cradle to the Grave is released on 2 October 2015. Simon is also currently working on a show for BBC Radio 4.
Simon Hanson Links
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