Interview with Simon Humphrey & Grey Cooper

It was a challenging point in the making of Modern Man Blues when Grey called for your expertise, can you describe that and tell us the immediate technical issues you faced and how you solved them?

Simon Humphrey

Well, it had been a while since Grey and I had worked on anything, but, you know when a musical friend calls up, I’m hopefully going to be there to do what I can. Grey had done an extensive amount of work on the project already but it seemed to be attached to some complicated history in various forms, and frankly, he was looking for a way forward. As a producer, it’s often my job to cut through all this artistic forestry and find a path through. Respected producers do this effortlessly, so the first job is to get ‘under the bonnet’ of what’s been recorded so far. So Grey shipped over all the project files for me to unpick.

The project had been rendered in Cubase, a program I’m not keen on, so I made it my mission to export all the good bits into ProTools, a more universal program that I’ve used since it’s inception. The Cubase files were a fucking mess frankly. However, we all work in different ways, so this was a way of redefining the parts into something basic and workable and saying goodbye to all the emotional and literal musical problems that had become attached along the way. Call it clearing the decks, if you like, but it meant a fresh start and listen for both Grey and myself, so we could begin a dialogue over the songs based on shared information.

I floated the idea of Grey having ProTools himself so that we could exchange files. Technically many musicians now do their own recording, and I wanted to give ownership of the music back within Grey’s control. But (and I think Grey will agree on this) he prefers the more traditional concept of relinquishing the technical aspects of recording to people like me so he can concentrate on the notes!

Anyway, all the songs were distilled by me into absolute basic song shapes ready to rebuild from the bottom up. Solid foundations etc.

A mutual friend of ours was drafted in to start to flesh out the songs again and in this process was suggested using a shit hot session drummer based in Nashville. You send him basic songs, exactly what I had distilled down, and back came some beautifully recorded multitrack drums. Awesome! Grey committed to using him for all the album tracks and the vibe that came back set the project going. That led to some more Nashville talent being drafted in, and so on. We were off and running!!

Grey

What people might not know about Simon is that he is so ridiculously talented. Not only can he get your album up, arranged, running and sounding like it’s just spun off the hit parade carousel, but he could design, landscape and plant your garden while fixing your house up at the same time. Well, not quite at the same time, he would have to do them on different days. In fact that is how we met, not just a shared love of the world of pop music, but a shared love of the world of alpine plants suitable for an English rockery garden. So we started out working together in a flower garden as well as a rock and roll garden. I have no idea how the hell 25 years have passed and I sure hope there are another 25 to go.

Regarding Modern Man Blues, I remember laying down one night and literally couldn’t sleep with worry about the album it gets you like that, it’s like a child, a best friend and a beloved family member all at once. Only it doesn’t talk back to you directly, and you have to finish it first before it speaks. Instead it conveys it’s need via your Mind, Body & Soul. Simon had retired; otherwise, I probably would have bothered him with the ridiculously complicated mess the album had become a lot earlier! Modern Man Blues started up as the follow up album to Big Road from Grey Cooper Blues Experience and all the original recordings were in our own rehearsal space and set to Cubase. Incredibly, some guitar tracks and even a whole complete vocal take on Roll The Dice still survived from those early recordings in 2015 to end up on the final album over 6 Producers later!

Protecting those parts were a main motivating factor, and it cost me money time and emotional energy to do it. But those parts represented a loving handshake to the past. The people, the places, the dreams and the energy. I wasn’t going to let that handshake not mean anything. Whenever I hear the opening slide guitar on Rock These Blues Away I think of standing in front of my amp in that damp old room in the back end of Sheffield while Steve the drummer fiddled about with the mic and amp trying to get it all to work!

If there is one thing I have decided after all these years of messing about forming bands, it is that I will never form another one! True to form, Blues Experience broke up and Steve / Allen the bassist wanted the files. So £560 quid and a lawyer later, I got them back and went to another studio in Sheffield to try and finish the album. This was another mess. The engineer left me with a pile of demos that were in a real state. On the other hand, over the course of one year I did indeed demo up all the songs that were on the album. But it showed me that when it comes to making an album, you can’t use people that primarily work with guys who walk in off the street wanting some piece of looped junk for their hip-hop demo.

Then I went to another producer in Sheffield who is quite well known. He tried to get it from the Cubase to Pro Tools but he couldn’t handle the job either, and blamed the previous engineer for making a total mess of the original recordings. I mean, I had been around studios since I was 18 and know the price of eggs and beer, I didn’t think they could be quite that bad. So it seemed to me that this new guy was not up to the job of rescuing my little band of 13 Blues songs that represented 6 years of my life. On the other hand, maybe it was that bad! I did do a couple of slide guitar parts on Kind Hearted Lover at that studio though, which remain on the final version. What the hell was I gonna do? There was only one thing for it, go to someone who really was brilliant, really did know what they were doing, really was a Pro Tools engineer and really would have the artistic and professional integrity to do whatever it took to rescue my work. Simon knew about all those things and they were important to him.

You ended up performing on the album with keyboard parts, effects and bass – how did you approach that? 

Simon

Grey and I have a lot of shared musical history going back over 25 years. He knows what I can and can’t do, so, if he invites me to play, I’m more than happy to contribute. If he likes what I come up with – happy days! I’m not a virtuoso player by any means, but I can slide into the musician comfy chair for certain people and it generally works out. I’m sure they’d tell me if not.

Grey

I did a show at Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues Club in the West End of London where the bassist had pulled out and the keyboard player did the same thing, being down to a 3 piece with one player who had never played the set before and a drummer on his second outing isn’t ideal on a new show. Naturally, Simon stepped up to the plate for bass honours, as we were recording an album together called ‘If Talk Was Money’ at that time, so he sort of knew some of the bass parts but not others. Anyway, we cruised into Wardour Street and I don’t know how, but somehow pulled it off with me being the only one who had an idea of the songs. He is truly a man for all seasons!

4 tracks on the album feature a remix you did at Chairworks studio, can you tell us about those sessions? 

Simon

The Chairworks is my spiritual studio home and the reason I now live in Yorkshire. It’s a world class analog based recording studio still functioning in this digital age. I’m pleased to say that I’ve been a big part of its creation, development and running since it’s inception. However, I’m now retired from day to day producing so that others can take up the challenge. But when the tracks were ready to mix, it seemed churlish not to give Grey some of that magic stuff that you only get from this kind of studio, so, we dusted off our best mixing threads and got the faders back into full on blues mixdown action. It worked great to be honest – but I’m still retired!

Grey

I just wish now was then, I wish time would collapse and the past, present and future all merged into one shimmering and pulsating light and Simon made a ‘comeback’ and we could do it all again! I remember working with Si when he had an industry leading home studio, before anyone had home studios. It was where we made an alpine garden in the grounds of this big art deco block of flats, and we made loads of music there! When he moved up North I remember him building the old Chairworks and visited to do a demo in about 2002 when it the studio was about a tenth of the size it is now. It’s just a truly marvellous place to be and do music, I was so pleased to haul him out of retirement albeit temporarily for this album job. It was important to me to have some of his touch on my lil’ ol’ set o music, the Gods demanded it.

Can you give a bit of background on how you got started in the industry and what sort of experience and production credits you put together? 

Simon

I left school, no college for me, and was headed for a job at the BBC. I’d mucked around with electronics and tape recorders and was a keen prog rock fan and budding guitarist. But a schoolfriend’s dad was a session musician and respected jazz pianist called Ted Taylor. He got his son into a new studio complex being built by CBS Records in London and that son got me in as an apprentice soon after. Goodbye BBC – hello rock’n’roll central! It was 1973. Just the luckiest break ever really, and, once I’d lost the three piece suit and tie ( I was still thinking BBC ), I was in the best place ever and learning to be a recording engineer at one of the best points in time and place imaginable. The seventies and eighties were the best decades for me, and many others, in the blossoming recording environment of central London. I’ve attached my CV which fleshes out the work that came my way*. But my career was kick started by me recording all the early Clash singles and their first album. That set me off on a freelance career that took in producing, engineering, programming, playing, writing, performing and eventually studio owner, signed artist and published songwriter.

What was your take on how Modern Man Blues finished up? 

Man, it’s a great album. It really is. It deserves to be heard massively! I didn’t produce it, it’s Grey’s work on many levels, and he has put many many hours of himself into it. It oozes quality songwriting, musicianship and performance. I’m thrilled to have helped Grey get it over the finishing line. It wasn’t so much a marathon, more a series of marathons that all had to be got through. Grey asked me to step up coz he needed what I could do, and I’m always chuffed when a project works out, especially to have had that producer input. But really, there’s a team of people putting their talent in, like on all the best albums. I really just ironed out the stuff that needed to go, so that the project could breathe life again. That’s a job I can do, so I did.

Simon Humphrey

Simons CV:

Starting in 1973 at London’s prestigious CBS Whitfield St. studios, Simon gained a grounding in recording techniques at the highest level in all styles of music, working with classical artists John Williams, Daniel Barenboim & the English Chamber Orchestra, jazz singer George Melly, show singers Michael Crawford and Bruce Forsyth as well as recording spoken word albums with Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price and poet laureate Ted Hughes. Simon worked on West End show albums, film scores, TV jingles and ‘musique concrete’ albums, as well as recordings by guitar legends Duanne Eddy and Bill Haley, comedians Tommy Cooper and Ken Dodd and many other international recording artists. Pop music recording was to be Simon’s main work however, working with many of the seventies well known names. Abba, the Glitter Band, David Essex (including an appearance in the film ‘Stardust’), Marc Bolan, Argent, Hot Chocolate, Tina Charles, Pan’s People (!), Sailor and Smokie among many others.

In 1977 punk arrived at CBS in the shape of the Clash, and Simon was chosen to capture the band’s seminal early recordings, now acknowledged as one of punk’s great albums, and for which the band presented Simon with his first gold album in recognition. Simon also recorded the Vibrators first album, gaining his first production credit (‘London Girls’ live’ at the Marquee’), also the Only Ones’ ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, a young and unsigned XTC, Manchester’s the Drones and many other New Wave hopefuls. In later years, Simon would also work with Talking Heads’ David Byrne and Television’s Tom Verlaine.

Simon left CBS in 1979 to pursue a freelance career in production and songwriting, releasing his own albums of disco and pop songs, having chart success with bands Secret Affair, the Jags and the Techno Twins, and helping to set up his first recording studio (‘Hot Nights’) in west London. During the eighties Simon mixed Culture Club’s massive second album, including UK & US number one ‘Karma Chameleon’, recorded Bros’ multi hit debut (‘When will I be famous?’) played bass on a Beach Boys album, engineered for film score ubermaestro Hans Zimmer, made the ‘Birdie Song’, and has engineered and produced in most of the UK’s famous pro recording studios. Simon has had a unique and varied career in music recording as an engineer, producer, musician, programmer & artist, but has now retired from audio engineering.

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