Ian Simmonds

Dave Stelfox braves a chilly Brighton seafront to put questions to Ian Simmonds about his Juryman album, The Hill

By Dave Stelfox

 
A high gust licks at the tarpaulin windbreak as we sit down, nursing hot cups of coffee in cold hands. "I love things like this, about being here," says Ian Simmonds, gesturing to Brighton's derelict West Pier. "I can sit here for hours just looking at it. There are these big starling roosts in there and sometimes they all come flying out. They look like huge black clouds, its amazing to watch." This image is easy to picture and holds something of the dark, brooding character of Ian's latest album, Juryman's The Hill on Crammed Discs/SSR.

In fact, 34-year-old Ian's personality reflects his music perfectly. He is open, honest and expressive but also a little vague and slightly mysterious, leaving certain thoughts hanging in the air throughout our conversation, making the apparently simple seem somehow enigmatic. "Yeah, spiritually speaking I feel a bit more alive here than I did when I was living in London," he reveals of his new south coast home. "It got to the point where I needed more studio space and couldn't really afford to do it in London, so I spent a few weekends down here and found a nice place in Hove. I really liked it and moved in just before Christmas, basically to do this new album I'm working on as Ian Simmonds for Stud!o K7. It's three-quarters done and when my lease comes up in June I'll pick up and move on... I'm a bit of a gypsy like that. Moving around has never bothered me because, with my family, I spent the first 12 years of my life travelling. My father was a trumpeter and did a lot of touring so I've lived in America, Australia and Europe and all over Britain too. But living in London was just getting too much for me, the phone was ringing every five minutes, I wasn't getting any work done and I just needed a change of pace. Coming here was the best thing I've ever done. I've got a family of my own now and my daughter, Hannah who's six now, loves it here when she comes to visit me," he laughs.

As contemporary as Ian's work is, there is something classical and almost orchestral about the jazz-soaked atmosphere he wrenches out of cold, hard circuitry. This comes from painstaking attention to detail and a diverse musical background, including seminal jazzers such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, punk rock and contemporary pop. He is a big fan of TLC and Mary J Blige yet also cites Stravinsky as a big influence. However, external factors like environment, films and life itself appear to be his biggest influence. "The Hill was the last thing I did in London and it was recorded just near London Bridge around Christmas 1998. The album's inspired by the area I was living in at the time called Dog Kennel Hill near Camberwell and all the things I could see from my window on a day-to-day basis – just little life stories. On the top of the flats where I used to live, you could see for 25 miles across London on a sunny day," he recalls. "There's also a link with the Sean Connery film called The Hill too. It's the darkest thing I've ever seen and shows every single human trait, for better or worse. The narrative feel of the album could come from either of those ideas, but working with people like Roger Robinson who is a poet from Trinidad and Alison Goldfrapp gave it something else. Alison improvised all her vocals on the album which gave the tracks a real mysterious, ghostly, stream-of-consciousness feel. They're the moments you can't beat – when something really works."

His circumstances in the early 1990s have also left a lasting impression on Ian as an artist, most notably his time spent in Acid Jazz band The Sandals. "Being in a band was never really anything I envisaged that I wanted to do and I fell into it really. But it worked at the time and it's definitely informed what I do now because it was such a big experience. We were working together at the time of the acid house thing, but we were doing something a bit different. We were basically an art collective doing poetry evenings and things. We started making music in '91/'92 which just came from a few little things we were doing live at clubs like Tongue Kung Fu which we also ran. Within six months it had become a full-time thing with a major record deal, an album, months on the road and so on – and that's not a really healthy lifestyle. I won't go too deep into it but it got pretty hellish. Then the second album was shelved for some reason. My daughter had just been born and I didn't have a pot to piss in. It was doing my head in so I just decided to walk away from the whole thing and start doing things on my own and that's when the shift into working as an electronic artist happened. I took all the experiences I had, contacts and all that and set up my production company, All That's Left and went from there. I ended up doing an EP for Ninja but the first deal I signed was with Crammed Discs for the Juryman album which was co-written with Luke Gordon from Spacer. The second album is this one."

While Ian is happy in Brighton, he still finds the lack of funding and support for the arts in 21st-century Britain an important issue, saying: "Music is an art form, I mean I do see myself as an artist, first and foremost, and for some reason my music seems to be accepted better in Europe than it ever has been in Britain from a record label point of view. That's why both of the labels I record on are European. I spent years knocking on labels' doors with my music in this country and it didn't really work. Things like the funding for arts in France and Germany, it's second to none and that has a big impact on people creatively. Here, it just doesn't exist any more." The frivolous, sub-sixth form mentality of some sections of the music press is also damningly judged: "Being intelligent is quite often scorned here by the music press and they are the very people who should be supporting creativity. There was a review of The Hill in NME a while ago comparing the picture of me to a frog. Little digs like that, they're not necessary and it's got nothing to do with the music. What I'm doing, it's not exactly high-profile music. It's not necessarily for the dancefloor, as that's not what I'm fuelled by, it's actually quite subtle so I'd rather talk to people who are genuinely interested and who understand what I'm trying to do."

Any cinematic aspect to Ian's work, it turns out, is more than a passing coincidence as the artist has recently diversified into film production. "I’ve set up another company doing films with two guys, one called Adam Smith from Vegetable Vision and another called Sam Pattinson. We've just finished our first documentary which is a living history film about a group of guys who re-enact the Vietnam war in the Kent countryside. Now that's really interesting and it took a whole year's filming. Hopefully we're going to be going to Cuba in September to do anther documentary on Cuban hip-hop too," he says, enthusiastically. "Funny, I see music in quite similar terms. It's all about emotions and images, like little sound paintings in a way. Music's the ultimate passion in my life but it's true that sometimes the thing you love the most can kill you, so it's good not to put all your eggs in one basket. After all, as I've learned, you can lose everything like that."

"I actually find making music very difficult to tell the truth. People say that anyone in my position is really lucky, and yes I am, but it's not done without a lot of sacrifices along the way. But, yeah, I am very fortunate in the long run and as long as I can pay the bills and keep clothes on my daughter's back, then I'm happy to keep on doing all these different things," Ian continues, gazing out once again at the decaying grandeur of the pier. "It's all about leaving a legacy of good work that I'm proud of in whatever field really. I've never done anything easy in my life and I don't see the point in doing something if it's not going to challenge you. I suppose if I'd lived an easier, softer kind of existence then it would be different, but until that happens there are always going to be these emotions and feelings to work through in my music."
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