INTERVIEW WITH SIMON H. FELL  moderated by Philippe Renaud

first published in Improjazz no. 50

Improjazz has had to wait some considerable time to undertake this interview with you. It was supposed to be published to celebrate Bruce's Fingers 15th anniversary in April '98. What's the reason for this delay?

Unfortunately (at least from the point of view of this interview), the past 6 months seem to have been the busiest of my career so far. Although there has been the usual (limited) selection of gigs, and two recent BF releases (9 Points In Ascent with Graham Halliwell and Frankenstein with Charles Wharf), the real reason for being so busy has been the realisation of a new large-scale composition project for improvisers, Compilation III. This has been by far the most complex and involved thing I've ever done, and will also be the first Bruce's Fingers double CD release. It features 42 musicians playing an astonishing range of acoustic instruments, and has involved me writing approximately 600 pages of manuscript, and editing down from something like 12-14 hours of recorded material, both improvised and notated. In the past 6 months, I've spent something like 300 hours in the studio working on this project, so a lot of things have got behind schedule!

Well, we'll come back to Compilation III later. But first I would like to ask you about Bruce's Fingers. What made you decide to set up your own label back in 1983?

I suppose the answer would have to be the foolhardy ignorance of youth. Like many young musicians starting out on their careers, in 1983 I sincerely believed that all I had to do was make the music I could hear in my head, and the musical world would fall over itself offering me money, recording contracts, fame, etc. Or at least I thought there would be some kind of career progression where things would get easier and projects become successively more significant. Of course I was completely wrong, but the realisation of that comes later. So, since the first two or three labels I sent tapes to didn't reply, I simply thought I should put this stuff out myself. I had also realised early on that making one's way in the 'business' had as much (or more) to do with your ability to 'hang out' and be part of a 'scene' as it did to do your music. Since I've never been very good at any of music's social skills (I'm intolerant, shy and nauseating by turns) I decided I would start my own 'scene'. I was short-sighted enough to think that once a tape was made or an LP pressed, the world would fall over itself trying to buy it; I had no ideas about distribution, advertising or anything. Of course I'm now a grizzled pessimist (but still socially challenged).

What are the main problems facing someone like yourself running their own label?

From a label point of view, the answer invariably comes down to the same thing: distribution. This is something that Improjazz knows a little about, of course! The are many enthusiastic small organisations (like Improjazz) who try very hard to get music out to the people who might want to hear it, which is a very difficult job in a 'market economy' when the potential audience is really very small. These people are trying as hard as they can, just like the labels are. But I have to say there are also distributors (sometimes quite well-known ones) who systematically abuse the labels they distribute with impunity; the labels have next to no power and some distributors really are unscrupulous about bullying and misleading them. This is by no means a rare occurrence and all small labels seem to be in a state of permanent crisis caused by having unpaid stock tied up with distributors. Unfortunately, there are also some cases of just plain criminal activity; distributors steal records or refuse to pay invoices and effectively say 'what are you going to do about it?'. They know that people like me don't have the time or money to get involved in the law (particularly international law), so they just get away with it. Fortunately these cases are much rarer, but it's happened to me on two or three occasions.

From a personal point of view, the real problem is always lack of time. If it's done properly, even a small label like Bruce's Fingers has the potential to be a full-time job; for many years I've had to choose between my own playing technique and performing career and running the label. At one time the label was taking up so much time that I wasn't able to practice effectively and my playing reflected that. I've now resolved that and my playing takes top priority when I'm preparing for a performance, although I still don't have time to really develop my career as a performer in the way I should. Thus there's also a perpetual backlog of jobs which need doing for the label; this isn't helped by my activities as a composer, which also takes up a lot of time (I work slowly and very methodically I'm afraid). It just seems I'm perpetually in a state of time-management crisis these days. John Butcher's told me he feels the same about looking after Acta....

The musical focus of BF seems to be centred very definitely around your own work; is this is a deliberate policy decision, and if so, why?

Not at all. I'm surprised myself that BF hasn't put out more releases by other musicians; I sincerely hoped when I set it up that musicians of all kinds would be sending me tapes and that I could develop a healthy roster of artists working in different fields of experimental music. However, one of the key factors is that these recordings almost never cover their costs. [I probably could cover costs by going for more 'saleable' musicians, established performers, 'purer' (i.e. more familiar) musical forms, etc, but that is emphatically not what the label's about. I really wanted to reflect the work of musicians who are not part of the 'national scene' and who perhaps have no 'reputation', but who make interesting music. Unfortunately, this almost inevitably means that the records are difficult to sell, but decisions about what to release are made on artistic merit alone.] To return to the point, since these recordings almost always lose money, my idea of label sales funding a series of releases by musicians I find interesting really hasn't happened. Since I've always had many many ideas about projects I myself would like to realise, most of my personal money has gone into these. The number of other projects where musicians have been able to find the funding to enable a release and where I felt the music was right for the label have been surprisingly small. Perhaps over the next 15 years this balance will shift; however, artistic criteria will always remain more significant than sales potential. No doubt this will continue to make it difficult to fund regular releases.

Does your self-conscious rejection of stylistic pigeon-holes lead to difficulties? I'm thinking particularly of Su Lyn's Lines Of Desire, which must have disappointed and alienated many devotees of improvised or contemporary music.

Well, that album is an excellent case in point. From a commercial point of view, it would have been better not to release that album; not because the music was less commercial than the usual catalogue, but because if anything it was more so. Part of the audience for labels like Bruce's Fingers consists of people who are devotees, who are fans, of a particular kind of music, and particularly that kind of music. They want to hear music of a certain kind, and are not necessarily interested in music of other kinds; when this cosy speciality is disrupted, they tend to be extremely disconcerted. I released Lines Of Desire because at the time I felt it was doing interesting things within the format that Su works in; it's not improvised music or contemporary composition or jazz, but I still found it interesting. I probably still do, although I have little time to listen to old recordings these days. The reason for not releasing it would have been because the idiom was one not 'appropriate' for the label; well, the only idiom appropriate for BF is a certain style of speculative creativity, and I'm going to continue to embrace that in any field in which I find it. If someone doesn't like Lines Of Desire because of the music, then I can perfectly well understand that; but in order to make that assessment one has to listen without stylistic prejudice. The appreciation of music should not be a cliquish club which exists to create social bonds between individuals seeking an group identity; this is to mistake the mechanics of production for the means of appreciation.......

I see.... Earlier you mentioned your wish to give exposure to the work of musicians living and working outside London; you yourself have remained resolutely non-London based. How does geographical location affect the art and working life of British improvising musicians?

Of course, all these things are comparative; I can't really speak for other countries, and I'm sure only people who have lived and worked in a country for several years can get a real understanding of what level of bias and misrepresentation exists in that country. Certainly in England, the disproportionate amount of media attention paid to those musicians working in London has caused many mistaken perceptions to arise. Of course the capital city, particularly one as populous as London, will always provide more work opportunities for the musician. But for many years journalists and media people generally have made the false equation that because London has more working musicians than any other place in the UK, the music produced there must also be of an intrinsically higher quality. In part this is a comfortable laziness; as almost all significant English media organisations are based in London, it really is very comfortable for them not to have to put themselves out either geographically or conceptually in trying to realise that there are important things happening elsewhere. There have always been notable exceptions, of course; in its original incarnation The Wire tried to reflect regional creativity, as does Avant and Rubberneck. Unfortunately these are the exceptions, and most of the non-specialist media rarely puts it head above the regional parapet. One of the results of this is that it tends to encourage a self-centredness in London which seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy; London improvisers judging the success or failure of their work according to whether other London improvisers liked it, or whether other London improvisers give them gigs. I do find the self-reflective nature of the London 'scene' extremely disconcerting, especially when it seems so careless of the fine (and sometimes superior) work being done in many of England's larger cities. This situation has serious repercussions, because almost all Arts Council of England funding decisions reflect this skewed perspective.

Isn't that just sour grapes because you've never really been a part of that scene?

Possibly; but only to a partial extent. Even though I find taking part in them enjoyable and rewarding, I honestly do believe that the endless round of small-scale marginally-promoted gigs given by the same musicians to a practically non-existent audience (and each other) doesn't necessarily help develop new ways of thinking about creative music. And here I mean music that has genuinely new elements, rather than semi-familiar music dressed in new, weird or eccentric presentation, marketing, packaging or behaviour. The London scene is invaluable for enabling improvising musicians to maintain their techniques, develop working relationships and sustain an infrastructure for improvised music as a repertoire music, which are all very important contributions. But this doesn't guarantee creative and original music. Some players seem to have little artistic aspiration apart from 'more of the same'. Of course, this doesn't mean that I don't value being asked to play on the London club scene (please keep asking me!), but to me it's only a small part of my musical world, not an end in itself.

So who are the 'unsung heroes' of the British improv scene? Where are the centres of regional excellence?

Well, by definition everyone will have their own answer to this question! Because these heroes are unsung, one often becomes aware of their existence only by chance. One thing's absolutely certain though; there are many gifted English musicians who, because they live and work outside (sometimes very far from) London, are overlooked, forgotten or ignored by the Arts media and establishment in a way which bears no proportion to their creativity. Among my candidates would be people like Charles Wharf, Pete Minns and of course Paul Hession. Paul is quite simply one of the finest drummers I've ever heard; not just one of the finest I've ever played with, but one of the finest I've ever heard. And he is so passionately committed to improvised music that it's painful. The fact that he is so cut off from the main thrust of improvised music in this country simply as a result of having very deep roots in the North of England is frankly scandalous.

Your association with Paul Hession has become part of the mythical standing of Leeds' Termite Club during the late eighties/early nineties. That seemed to have been a point at which a strong regional centre was having an influence on London music, which is perhaps a rare state of affairs. What was the feeling around the Termite Club at that time?

Well, although I haven't lived in Yorkshire for nearly 20 years, people still associate me with the exciting activities of the Termite Club during that period. In fact I'm sometimes rather irritated by the laziness of people who still assume I live in Leeds (and don't give me gigs in London.....) even though I've been living in East Anglia since 1978! Of course, I was only a guest at many of these Termite Club activities; the prime movers were Alan Wilkinson, Paul Buckton and Paul Hession. I'd known Paul Buckton from when I had been living in Yorkshire in the 70s (he had introduced me to playing improvised music), but when I met Hession and Wilkinson it was musical love at first sight. We started playing as a trio (Hession/Wilkinson/Fell) and for a short period things really happened. The beauty of Leeds at the time was that there was an audience for the music; a genuine desire and need to hear the music on the part of a reasonable number of people. This contrasts markedly with my experiences of playing improvised music in most places in this country, where you are performing despite the fact that there's no real interest from the wider community, just to try and keep the music available.

What's the latest on Hession/Wilkinson/Fell? They seem to have been quiet of late.

Well, that band does suffer a little bit from having no-one to make things happen. Conceived as a leaderless collective, it's transpired that none of us is very good at hustling for gigs. Both Alan & I also seem to have other projects which we want to pursue; certainly HWF has never been the sole focus of my musical endeavours. However, we will be doing a few gigs in the Autumn; we also have three CDs in the pipeline! There's a quartet with Joe Morris (the American guitarist) which should be out on Incus later this year, a trio album recorded in Newfoundland which Ecstatic Peace! are supposed to be putting out, and a new album for Shock (although we're having trouble agreeing on which music to release for that). The Ecstatic Peace! album was supposed to come out first, and the others were scheduled to come after, but there have been so many hold-ups with EP (they've had the finished master tapes and artwork ready now for over 18 months) that everything else has got completely confused. Maybe we'll get together soon for a 10th anniversary tour; it seems music can no longer exist without a marketing raison d'être anyway.

Apart from Compilation III, what else is upcoming?

Something Else with Mick Beck continues to develop (I was especially proud of Playing With Tunes), and IST (with Rhodri Davies & Mark Wastell) will be touring in the autumn (and hopefully releasing their first CD); this is a group I find very exciting at the moment. There's a quartet album with Peter Brötzmann, Alan Wilkinson, Willi Kellers & myself which we're editing at the moment, and an electro-acoustic album with Martin Archer almost ready (Pure Water Construction). There's a new quintet with Orphy Robinson, John Bisset, Pat Thomas, Mark Sanders & myself (The Arc) which debuted recently and is really exciting, (although whether there'll be any more gigs who knows), and The London Skyscraper group is reforming for three concerts in the Autumn.

OK, let's talk about Compilation III now. Do you consider this piece to be a particularly significant addition to your discography? After all, there are plenty of Fell albums to chose from already....

Well yes, but if you only want one Fell album then I think Compilation III would have to be it. It is quite simply the nearest I've ever come to realising my ideas about composing for improvisers and for acoustic instruments in general. It's certainly the largest-scale piece I've ever attempted, and the sheer amount of time and effort which has gone into its realisation would make it significant for those interested in my music simply by default. More importantly, however, it's the first of these pieces where I've actually allowed myself free rein to finish the piece in the way that's required, rather than buckling under budgetary and time pressures. I've stuck at this one until I'm happy with it, even though this has been at some personal expense! (The project went considerably over budget......) This music represents the nearest you will hear so far to my ideal blurring of composition and improvisation; in every respect it is the most developed work I've yet achieved.

I notice that Compilation III has no electronic element; this is rather strange, considering how crucial a part electronics played in both Compilations I & II. Does this mark a lessening in your interest in electronics, or is Compilation III a somewhat different type of piece?

Well, the use of electronics (and in particular the recompositional use of samplers) continues to be a important part of my work, but Compilation III developed into such a large-scale work that at a key point I decided that I wanted to use this opportunity to explore the possibilities of acoustic instruments as fully as I could. Thus only the electric guitars and bass guitar use electricity in this work, and even they avoid the use of particularly elaborate electronic effects. (I think a slight fuzz/distortion on Colin's guitar is about as far as it goes.) My interest in electronics hasn't abated really, but this is very much an acoustic album. However, I don't think this makes it a conservative recording; the way the acoustic instruments are used and combined is extremely exploratory. Also, several recordings have appeared recently which explore my ideas about the use of samplers (I'm thinking of This Music Is Silent Until You Listen, Frankenstein & Pure Water Construction), but I don't often get chance to work with so many live instrumentalists. As a result it seemed sensible to follow the acoustic tendency that the music was developing.

The work seems to use a strange mixture of known musicians and unknown musicians. How did this come about?

Part of the purpose of the funding I received from the Arts Council of England was to allow me to devise a way of incorporating amateur and student musicians of any kind of experience or ability into what was essentially a high-powered professional project. Many of the 'unknown' musicians you hear on Compilation III are part of that process. Of the 42 musicians taking part, 14 are professionals (incl. John Butcher, Alan Wilkinson, Stefan Jaworzyn, Rhodri Davies, Orphy Robinson, Paul Hession, Mark Sanders etc) and the rest are volunteers. Finding ways of including them all, without putting undue pressure on them and yet encouraging them to experiment and explore was simultaneously one of the most frustrating and rewarding elements of this work. In the process I was rewarded with many fine improvisations, and made some valuable contacts for future experiments. Many of the students were extremely pleasantly surprised by what we were able to achieve with the relatively limited time and resources which were available, and all seemed to find it an enlightening experience. This even seems to point the way towards future work for me, as I'm sure that there would be many possibilities for repeating this type of process for new pieces in other parts of the UK or around the world.

Why is the Compilation III CD called Composition No. 30, not Compilation III?

That's an easy one. After releasing Compilation I and Compilation II, both of which were complex compositions specially recorded for release, I got a bit tired of people telling me that they didn't buy or listen to compilation albums, only original material. In fact there are probably people out there who still think that these records are compilations from older records; they're not! Compilation refers to each Compilation record bringing together musicians, performing techniques, compositional ideas and technological developments which I've encountered since the last one. Calling the Compilation III album Composition No. 30 is an attempt to avoid that type of confusion; no doubt it will simply cause other types of confusion....

Can we just talk about bass playing for a moment? How did you come to be a bass player? Who influenced you in this decision, and who influences your style of playing?

I became a double bass player through a situation which recurs time and time again in schools world-wide (probably). Our school orchestra needed a double bass; the school had a double bass, but no-one was playing it. I was studying music, but did not play an instrument, so it was decided that I should play the double bass, and that was that. I didn't really know much about it before I started lessons; all the music I was listening to at that time used bass guitar, although I had heard Harry Miller on King Crimson's Islands. (I know King Crimson are deeply unfashionable, and I know Keith (Tippett) is always very irritated when he's remembered for playing on those sessions, but the truth remains that for a lot of teenagers in the 70s they opened a door to free jazz and improvised music; an area which most of us didn't even know existed.) Now, having played the double bass for nearly 25 years, I can't imagine life without it. Even if I couldn't play any more, I'd want to have a few basses around the house; I just love the way they're so big and get in the way all the time. Playing the bass involves constant logistical planning about transporting and storing the instrument; I just can't understand how anyone can develop that kind of relationship with a tiny puny instrument like a violin or a saxophone (unless it's a bass sax!). It's a real joy playing with Rhodri Davies in IST, because the harp is one of the few instruments that can make a bass player feel like they're travelling light!

As far as playing influences are concerned, I consider myself as a musician who happens to play the double bass, rather than A Bass Player. I can't really understand the mentality of people who are obsessed with the minutiae of instruments and technique, and who listen to music because it features the bass, or to check out what the bass player's doing. I'm very concerned to get the best sound out of my instrument, particularly when amplified, and I share this obsession with most double bassists. However, if I find myself listening to The Bass Player in any situation, then I think the music's probably failed. I'm interested in music; I'm not interested in bass playing unless it's as part of good creative music. Charles Mingus has been a tremendous influence on me, but probably more as a composer and bandleader; I've always tried to get the energy and commitment from my musicians which Mingus at his best gets from his band. Of course, he and Dannie Richmond were a superb rhythm section, but the only influence this might have on my playing would be to try and emulate that level of immersion in and commitment to the music. People sometimes mention Barry Guy, too. Once again, Barry's influence would really be that he was one of the first free improvising bassists I saw in the mid-late 70s (with Iskra 1903), and conceptually this was very inspiring. From a technique point of view, though, almost everything I have is self-discovered and self-taught. It may often coincide with other people's discoveries, but that is just coincidence. Never having had any tuition in bass playing apart from basic orchestral technique, the biggest influences on my playing have been a strange assortment of people like Paul Hession, Derek Bailey, Elvin Jones, Thelonious Monk etc etc.

Your position appears to be a little unusual in that many in the world of improvisation consider you as a composer who improvises, but I don't think you've ever been part of the infrastructure of composed music, have you. Where do you see your position in this regard?

It's true many improvisers consider me a composer who also improvises. Personally, I feel split right down the middle; I love playing improvised music and couldn't imagine life without it, but trying to realise intellectual concepts about structure and form is also something I could never abandon. My whole career has been a question of juggling these two often contradictory elements. I often think of something Lol Coxhill said to me: if he'd stuck to doing just one thing he'd would have had a much more 'successful' career. I'm sure if I'd restricted myself to just playing improvised music, I would have much much more work than I have now (and probably be a better player). But I can't get this composition thing out of my system. Perhaps this is why I'm so keen on recorded improvised music; the selection of pieces, ordering (and perhaps editing) into a cohesive, satisfying structure for an album, (rather than just a collection of pieces squeezed onto a CD) has always been one of my compelling interests. It's certainly true that I have nothing to do with 'official' composed music. I've never had any training or tuition whatsoever in composition, orchestration, arranging, etc; everything I know I've learnt from books (thanks to the public library). The world of contemporary classical music only seems able to function on the basis of where one studied, with whom etc etc. There are one or two exceptions, of course, but essentially it's a conveyor belt where someone goes into a music college at 18 (or earlier), and comes out a 'composer' at 21, with all the connections, the associations and the CV set up. Perhaps I'm bitter, but I've never been part of that scene. Why? Well, improvisation in scores doesn't go down very well in those circles (most classical performers are not very good at it) and I don't have the patience to write down things which could be improvised anyway; so my scores tend to look deceptively simple. They rely on the performers playing creatively, with passion and commitment, and that's a pretty rare occurrence in the classical field. My compositions have never been performed by a professional 'classical' ensemble, and perhaps they never will be (although I hope so). I get very irritated by what's happened to Zappa's music; a man who throughout his life spent a very great deal of his own money getting his music played by 'classical' musicians. Now he's dead it seems every would-be-fashionable 'groundbreaking' ensemble wants to play Zappa. Sometimes they do it quite well, sometimes very badly, but where were they when Zappa was alive? I'm sorry, this is turning into a bit of a rant.....

So who are your influences as a composer?

Charles Mingus, John Cage, Charles Ives, Anthony Braxton, Bob Graettinger, Anton Webern; I think these people must take most of the responsibility for the way I think about composition. However, the thing that's really influenced me about these people isn't the way they arrange notes on a page (or sounds in space) as much as the way they've managed create music which demands that the performer is committed, focussed and is going to put themselves out in order to achieve the required results. This intensity is sometimes physical, sometimes intellectual, but is absolutely necessary to realise these composers' wishes appropriately. If I could galvanise players in the way that these people do, then I could wish for nothing more. I'm certainly going to keep trying.

© Simon H. Fell/Philippe Renaud June 1998

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