Simple Ambitions

‘That was the tea arriving’, he says, leaning into my microphone, pours us both a cuppa in the Village’s downstairs bar.

‘Got to keep it civilised, you know?’

simp1

Ciaran McFeely, Simple Kid, or just plain Simp to his growing and vocal fan base, sports the flowing locks and wild, unkempt beard of a Corkonian Devendra Banhart. At the start of a UK tour to promote his second full length Simple Kid release, an album entitled simply SK2, The Kid is preternaturally friendly and self possessed. Simp’s eclectic combination of down home song craft ‘with a Talking Heads twist’, and at times radically modern production, has been compared to artists as diverse as Neil Young, Beck, and even late era Beatles. His music is self recorded, self mixed and self produced, and performed with an unpretentious experimental enthusiasm. Lyrically, Simp is leagues ahead of his peers, songs like ‘Serotonin’, ‘Average Man’ and ‘The Commuter’ stand out as philosophical reflections on modern anomie. The night before our interview, the Village shook to an all too brief set, near hit’s from the first two Simple Kid albums, intercut with a VJ’d duet with Kermit the Frog (It’s Not Easy Being Green), and a musical eulogy to British wrestling legend, Big Daddy. Simple Kid is not your average rock star.

A: Your band ‘The Young Offenders’ landed a major label deal from Sony when you were just 17, and made a stab at the UK market, what happened?

SK: I’m not sure if it’s the same these days, but back in them old days, they’d basically throw shit-loads of money at the wall and they’d give you half a year to become an international success. We didn’t. We did quite well for a month, that kind of classic English NME thing, and then we started to fizzle, and they made a decision… It’s weird, you’re young enough not to really understand it, you get pumped through this gun, you believe that you’re gonna do this thing, and then, literally a couple of months later, you’re signing on the dole, going ‘Eh?’, In your glitter tops and skinny jeans, the classic through the mill, just grind them out you know. Horrible at the time but I’m quite fond of the memories of it now; because it sounds awful if you say it like that, but while that’s happening there’s loads of great stuff happening to a seventeen year old, you know?

A: Do you think the music industry is suffering because there’s a high expectation on bands to perform so well, so quickly?

SK: I’ve had mixed feelings over the years, if you got me on a bad year I’d say it’s all terrible, but then I think, you’re trying to do something that’s the best job in the world, and if it doesn’t work out for you, you can’t go ‘It’s so unfair!’. The reason it’s unfair is because everyone’s trying to do it, and it’s the highest prize. I’m really easy going about it these days. I played three days ago to about a hundred people, who were looking at me like I was fucking insane, and it was horrible at the time, but afterwards I was like, ‘Well you know, that’s the way it goes’. I don’t have any overview of the music industry any more, I’ve given up trying to predict whats going on.

A: Did it save you from becoming Bono?

SK: I don’t think I was ever in any danger of that. It probably saved me from becoming something far more ludicrous. I’m trying to think of the most preposterous idiotic popstar… My dad’s always told me he’s really glad I didn’t make it when I was seventeen. Cause, he says, I was starting to show signs already, of just idiocy, but again, I’d love to have been an idiotic popstar when I was that age, I think that’s what you’re meant to be. I’m too old now to really go off the handle, if it really kicked off, but I’d love to have about ten rehabs, nine wives and seven kids behind me. Regrets, I’ve had a few.

A: It probably has it’s down sides too..

SK: It does, but you know, what a great thing to look back on. I saw this interview with Jason Donovan, and he’s great. Like he’s ravaged from drink, and post teen idol drug fazes, and he just looks like he’s lived. I imagine him by the time he’s sixty, he’s gona look great. I quite like the idea of that. It all depends how you play it.

A: With the first album, SK1, you released a couple of tracks with Fierce Panda, then signed with 2M and later Vector. The new album is credited to Country Gentleman Recordings…

SK: It’s my thing, its basically me and two mates. I’ve tried it major label, I’ve tried it indie label, which folded. The indie label basically went under. Just as we were getting to the point where we possibly could have had a hit, suddenly there was no money and it all folded. So I’m just trying it another way, and I’ll probably just screw it up myself this time, but at least I can only give out to myself.

A: But you are being published by Sony, is there any pressure from them?

SK: They have absolutely no interest in me, which is kind of great. You know, they just stick the label copy on and they’re probably not even aware that it’s out there, so I’m totally under their radar. Which is good ’cause I can’t bare them. My A&R mans name is ‘Flash’, and I just thought like, O… K, that’s enough, I don’t want to meet him.

A: Does he live up to it?

SK: He doesn’t even… This is a classic kind of thing, he hasn’t even met me. He’s like, ‘Oh yeah yeah’, signs the thing, and if I ever had a hit he’d be like ‘Let’s go to dinner’, and I’d be like ‘No, lets fucking suck my dick’.

A: You took a break between the first and second Simple Kid albums, was that basically due to the label folding?

SK: It was a really weird time. So the first album took a while to get into peoples heads. It wasn’t a big smash sensation, it was a word of mouth thing. It was this horrible summer where internally everything was going tit’s up, but the kids were just getting into it. You know if you’ve just heard about this new act and you go to a gig and or maybe you saw it a couple of months ago with a couple of your friends, and you’re bringing them all back… It was just to the point where people were bring people back, and instead of it being bigger and better, a load of my musicians (I had a band at the time) had to leave, I couldn’t afford to pay them. So you go, ‘This is great, this is great, it’s really happening’, and the press is all ‘This is really happening’, then you come back and clearly less going on. It was just the awful internal explosion of everything. I think at the end of it, I just said ‘Ah fuck that for a while, enough’. I was exhausted as well so I sat on my ass for two years. I always seem to be happy when it’s ticking along underneath the radar. I’m not sure what actually changes when you start to peep your head over it, maybe you need to be just set up really cleverly. You know, both times I’ve been on the radar, the foundations haven’t been very strong financially, and because I’m solo I mightn’t have had a consistent band. It’s weird, when you’re really busy, running off doing interviews everywhere, and at the last minute organising who’s gonna play your drums or something, you know after a while it just kind of caves in. You need to either have the machine behind you, which goes ‘we’ll take care of that you do your bit’, or you need to… I don’t know, you need to just know what you’re doing really. As you can probably tell from last nights show, I quite enjoy just fucking going with it, and it gets harder to go with it the bigger you get, you know? So I think I’m kind of quite happy just chirping along like this… It’s hard to show racist album covers when there’s press people there. <Simple Kid’s stage show includes a slide show of the worlds worst album covers – their hilarious, but hardly racist>.

A: You VJ during your shows, which is very unusual for a small act…

SK: I never realised it’s VJing. Is it? I suppose it is technically speaking, yeah. That’s so cool, I’m a VJ! Nice one. Yeah, it’s just a way of keeping myself entertained really. I find it quite difficult to stick with an acoustic guitar act for an hour and a half. Especially if everyone’s pissed up. You feel a bit ashamed coming out and trying to get ’em to calm down. I’ve kind of got enough now where, if it’s a really mellow audience I can go that way, and if it’s just like last night was, clearly a riot, basically go with it.

A: How would a Simple Kid performance vary, between playing a massive venue vs a smaller gig?

SK: If I’ve got friends around and they want to come along, then I can very easily redo a track, and take out some stuff or add in some stuff. The thing I love about being on your own is that there’s no committee. If I want to do it. I can do it, there and then. Like a couple of things yesterday were just… I spent the afternoon in the hotel programming them together. In the ‘Young Offenders’ I remember, I mean there were great aspects to it, but one of the things was that… ‘Oh no i don’t think that’s a good idea’, and it would really piss me off. Can we not just go with this, lets find out afterwards if it’s a good idea? They’ll tell us, the audience will tell us.
Less and less there are people who are always available… But you know if someone’s got a week off and doing nothing, it’s just kind of ‘Oh do you want to come?’. I’m going to New York in August, and I’ve got friends who want to come to that, so we’ll just kind of rejig it slightly, I’ve no idea what they’ll do, but they’ll do something stupid and goofy or whatever.

A: You have this famous story that they always ask you about in all your interviews. Your travels in the states and the Simple Kid moniker and so on.

SK: Yeah I mean, I used to do all this crap when I was first coming out. That idea about this hobo calling me Simple Kid was nonsense obviously, every person I’d tell it to knew it was, but they’d print it anyway. But the American journeys was true, I was just getting it out of my system really, you’ve got to live the dream. I’m really glad I did that more than most things, because it came after ‘The Young Offenders’ and it was all a very confusing sort of melt down. I made the mistake in the Young Offenders of thinking ‘This is my life now’, which you should never do obviously, and it was completely unprepared to go off to America, so therefore it was great, because it was unplanned; whereas ‘Young Offenders’ was all meticulously planned out. It was really amazing, kind of mind opening or whatever, you know just relaxing.

A: Did you have any hairy times traveling without a lot of money in places like San Francisco, with a large homeless population etc?

SK: I basically could get a hostel about once a week for an evening. There was a car park I used to sleep in, in San Francisco, in the Castro area which is the gay area, which I always figured might be a bit more friendly, and there were no problems. I mean it was uncomfortable obviously. There were always about four hours a night where it was fucking freaking, and then the sun would come up again and you’re like ‘Ahhhhh!’ But you know I dunno, I was only twenty three. I was elated at the fact I wasn’t sitting in my bed at home. I was kind of excited, ‘This is exciting, this is a bit weird’. I had no real grief, with any sort of stress you know… I did meet the hobo that I kind of turned into a lie. I did actually meet this guy in Santa Cruise, who was one of the most fascinating guy’s I’ve ever met in my life, and he was clearly some sort of tourette nervous, but a really intelligent guy. I was sitting around with him for the afternoon, and you couldn’t say a word. It was his show. He was this amazing guy. He used to laugh at me, cause he had me pegged, he was like ‘Oh your just this…’ <he almost says Simple Kid>. He was a proper homeless guy, and he knew I was just this Summer person who was there from my own choice. In a friendly way he used to completely take the piss out of me, and kind of cut me down to size. If I said anything, he’d have like a million more facts; and he’d be like ‘Oh really, oh really, oh da da da da.’ Ah he’s just, he’s my hero. Never even found out his name or anything, I’m not sure if he had a name.

A: It’s the tragedy of the states, you meet people who are so intelligent but are down and out…

SK: We’ll I mean, it’s all different over there, there’s no welfare so if you slip, if you don’t fit a certain demographic, or you have a bit of bad luck, there you are. It’s not a nice thing but, what can you do, I dunno. Maybe we can do something, maybe I can be Bono, and we can save these people!

A: You’ve got a hugely varied sound, on both your Simple Kid releases, from psychedelic prog, to funky electronica, to acoustic, all these different influences. How do you balance such a variety of sounds on an album?

SK: I just write as much as I can, it’s all set up at home, there’s no sense of like… ‘I’m doing a new album for the next two months, done, answer the phone,’ well it can be, but it’s kind of, I’ll go home in about a week, and I’ll have a couple of days off, and I’ll hopefully spend one day doing absolutely nothing, but the next day I’ll wander into literally the next room and I’ll press a couple of buttons on and we’re off, we’re recording. So it’s something that’ll come or it won’t, so by the time it comes to album time, it’s never finished usually, but there’s enough stuff. And sometimes it’s giddy and stupid, and maybe more poppy. Some of it’s kinda serious and mellow. You know, some of it’s trying to actually do something genuine, some of it’s just completely pissing around. I’ll get the feeling of which way I want to go, I can almost mentally bunch a lot of it together, all be it half finished, but I can kind of see the finished thing, and I’ll be like ‘Do I want to go kinda goofy and all stupid, or do I want to go really sort of…’ So for the last album I wanted to go reasonably serious, and sort of just try to do something real or whatever ya wanta call it, and I’ve got a funny feeling I’m just gona go off the rails the next one, just have the stupidest album of all time. I’ve got the feeling it’s gona be more idiotic, do you know? I think this tour is going quite well, and the idiocy of the gigs is kind of getting into my blood a bit so… Or else I’ll go the other way, I’ll come home and I’ll go, I’ve had enough of that. Make a Radiohead album or something.

A: Whose been an influence on your home low-fi, remix production style?

SK: It’s hard to know. I’m always aware that when I was growing up I was into artists where quality wasn’t necessarily… I mean I loved million selling Nirvana’s and stuff, and Smashing Pumpkins when I was a teenager, but I also loved Alice Donut, and stuff where the quality… You could barely hear it. Sonic Youth bootlegs where you couldn’t actually hear anything, but you’d convince yourself you loved it. And these days people like Jeffrey Lewis. You can tell he just recorded it wherever he recorded it, and put it up on the net. Some of my favourite music is Daniel Johnson and all that kind of stuff. It’s just the freedom basically. Again it’s that thing of not having anyone around going ‘Woah, you know if we don’t rerecord it, we won’t be in the top ten’, or whatever. So you just go with it. Now it’s just a routine almost, I go in and I record. Actually I’d quite like to, one day if I got an opportunity with a really good producer, say a Squarepusher type character, to do something a different way, where I’m not in control, to see what it’s like. Cause you get formalised. We’ll see, if someone offers…
You know it’s weird, we’ve been lucky enough to see some truly great gigs. It reminds me, I imagine if you were coming up today, and you’re a teenager, and you weren’t exposed to the good underground stuff. If you just thought that Libertines was the be all and end all, you’re gonna have this really narrow minded… Not that I’ve anything against the Libertines particularly – I’ve no opinion of them at all – but it seems like all the bands are quite similar. Whereas I think I came through at a lucky time… I was a teenager where we’d a really good local promoter or something, I saw all these really great, strange, inventive bands, and it gets you to that point where you don’t have to be… It doesn’t matter if it’s doing well or anything, the people in the room are going mental.

A: In the 90’s you had that whole revival of all the different eras…

SK: Yeah, unfortunately titled grunge, but there was a lot of good stuff underneath it you know.

A: You’ve a strong online fanbase, who remix your work and are hugely enthusiastic about your career. How do you feel about the use of new technology and the web as a promotional tool?

SK: I wasn’t one of the first people to do it, but it just seems a really obvious thing to do. I’ll say this, and you can choose to believe it or not, I’m not thinking of it as a promotional tool; it’s obviously what I’m doing, but I used to feel it’d be fun if we got people to do this, wouldn’t that be great?
It’ll take me probably another year because not every venues got wireless, but basically, I want to base something on bluetooth, where if you come to a gig with your phone, and I’ve got wireless or bluetooth going on, and I’ve got a big screen, theres going to be something happening. It’s got to be done, you know? I quite like the idea of people heckling me, behind my back. It’ll come up on the screen ‘You are a tosser’, or whatever they wanta say so… I don’t know, it’s just like the more I get into it, I realise that I’ve basically got my computer with me live, so it’s all really kinda fun. Yeah, it is a promotional tool, but I think my instinct is I do it because it’s really fun, and lets see what happens.

A: You connect with the audience..

SK: It’s just an easy way of getting people to work for you for free.

A: There’s a video a girl did for Serotonin, thats up on Youtube..

SK: Yeah I saw that, cause I look every now and again to see what’s there, and yeah it was her project or something. It was really sweet. I’ve no idea what it meant. Very dreamscapey. No that’s great, thats like… Means a lot more to me than… An REM slot is great and all that, but for some person to actually choose to use it for their end of year project I think is great.

A: How do you feel about mashups and the culture of appropriating stuff without necessarily reimbursing the original artists?

SK: I think it’s utter wankers who are giving out about it. Then they’ll do interviews about how their musics about you know, breaking away from the man, but I’m really unhappy I not making money. I think its great. I mean we were always doing cassette tapes when I was growing up and It’s the same thing. If enough people like you, I’m just about scratching a living and you know, it’s exciting, and you know that’s what I wanted as a kid. It’d be nice to be secure and all that but…

A: How do you feel about piracy in general?

SK: I think it’s sort of this rock and roll right. I’ve absolutely no kind of worry about it, I think it’s a classic evolution thing, you know it’s happening and if rock and roll implodes and ends, good, you know? The top end of music is getting so safe and middle class, and just horrible, and boring and tedious. If it takes the whole thing to go, to be eaten by itself… I mean the fact that – I’m guilty of it, but hopefully in a wearing it on my sleeve kind of way – the top bands are all imitations of bands twenty years ago, you know, imitations of their parents generation, and that’s the most exciting thing that’s going on. It deserves to go down the pan. And you know something will always come along that will be… You’ll always have something exciting, and the fact we can’t predict it, and ‘Ooo it’s all not the way it used to be’ is a good. Thats the idea. It’s what punk was. You know, people will look back on this, when the something comes out at the end, I suppose the Arctic Monkeys might have been one of the things, this whole avoiding the record company for a while… I hope it goes further. I hope, a whole new kind of music, a whole new… Maybe not even music, it doesn’t have to be music, a new thing comes out of it. People will look back and go, ‘It was really exciting I was there’, even though they were there going like ‘Ahhh!’

A: Is it possible to make a living doing what you’re doing, at the level that you doing it, where you have some exposure, but you’re self releasing and producing?

SK: Just about. I can survive definitely until the summer. You’re just praying that another little thing happens. It’s not the safest feeling but, you know, whatever. Again if everything goes tit’s up, you can always, if you’re really up against the wall, go and get a job again. Just do it, get annoyed enough with working every day that I sort it out and pull my finger out. You can’t live, I wouldn’t say entirely comfortably, but you can do it if you want to do it, it’s a choice. Some people are very nervous about not knowing what’s going on. I think I probably was until I went though the failure thing a couple of times. It was the most freeing thing ever.

A: Any plans for the next CD. Funky and crazy?

SK: Maybe not funky, I’m a bit old for the funk. I think I know what I’m.. I’m molding it in my head a bit. The last time I was home, I was home for a day on this tour and I was just sorting through tapes and stuff and I think I kind of know what I’m gonna roughly head for but, whether I do or not we’ll see when I start to actually sit down and knock it into shape. I’m not gonna tell you any more about it, in case it goes the other way, or I jinx it, but I think I’m gonna go poptastic, or my version of poptastic, whatever that is, we’ll see.

Simple Kid’s Album, SK2, is available in many good record shops.

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