From the Funky Mofo archive: Funky Mofo’s Jo Whitby caught up with Simon Mastrantone via email:
Jo: You have quite a colourful musical history. For our readers who have just discovered you, could you tell us about yourself? (How you first got into music, your punk past etc…).
Simon Mastrantone: Sure! I think it really started for me when I was in junior school and saw Freddie Mercury in the Bohemian Rhapsody video. I thought how awesome, a man wearing black nail varnish! I started a band there and then. I called it Jester because it was the only member of the court that hadn’t been used as a band name.
Then, when I was around 14, my friend Dan Mckee and myself got into punk rock in a big way. We mined the genre and fell for a lot of the late 70’s/80’s US punk band like Bad Religion and The Dead Kennedys, as well as some of the UK stuff like the Subhumans. We liked the music but also loved the ethic; the fact these guys went out there and created scenes and put out their own records. Inspired by this, I stopped playing drums and picked up the guitar and Dan and I formed The Academy Morticians. We released our first EP and organised a few shows in the school canteen. We then got involved in what turned out to be a really vibrant underground scene in Birmingham. Over the next few years we put out another EP and two full-length albums and toured the UK and had lots of fun. When it stopped being fun we stopped playing together and moved on to different things. We sometimes talk about doing more Morticians stuff one day so technically the band still exists.
The last thing I did before going solo was play in a Prog Rock band called The Cluster Bomb Faeries. It didn’t last long but it taught me new musical things and helped me vent some of what I am told, are my more ridiculous musical tendencies. Then I stared listening to Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell and lots of jazz and started playing solo.
J: Tim Buckley is named as a key influence in your solo material and you can certainly hear a similarity in your musical structure. When did you discover Tim’s music, what was it about his music that made you sit up and listen?
SM: I discovered Tim about four years ago via David Brownes book Dream Brother which a friend had lent me. The thing about Tim Buckley for me is that it isn’t just the music. I did love the music and I loved the way that he combined virtuosity with great songs, which, especially these days, is rare. But what I love about him is how his music reflected who he was. Like when I first got into punk rock the thing I loved was both the music and the way that music related to the artists lives and politics… I find you get a lot of musicians who make some interesting music but are actually really dull people; and maybe its just me but I find it makes the music seem a little false. Kooky for the sake of kook. Like a friend who constantly reminds you of how “absolutely mad” they are. Not that they need any more publicity, but take System Of A Down. When I first heard their music as a fifteen-year-old I was blown away, it was so insane. But I imagine that had I read an interview with them and discovered they were a bunch of conservative, redneck frat boys, I think the magic would have gone. Turns out 7 years down the line they are still making interesting music and saying interesting things. And I love their latest album.
But the thing about Tim Buckley was that he was so interesting. When it came to his music he was at times completely uncompromising. You could hear that in the transition from Happy/Sad through to Starsailor. But then you get absolutely no time to prepare yourself for the funk rock Greetings from LA which at the time, you can’t blame people for thinking was a bit of a sell-out… The whole thing screams compromise. But then you got that with him in his personal life. One minute he seemed totally principled and noble, a warm and considerate friend…. the next minute he was screwing around on his wife. But he never hid his flaws behind his music. “Do you want to know the reason, I cheated on you!” he asks in sweet surrender! His music was such a good, honest reflection of who he was in all its flawed and multi-faceted glory.
Don’t get me wrong though, I really like Greetings From LA.
J: You’ve worked with Jeremy Warmsley on your latest tracks. How did he get involved?
SM: Jeremy and I started playing solo at around the same time. We met playing on the same scene in Cambridge. We knew each other before the music but when I saw him perform he sang something in French which made me shiver. Normally that kind of thing is cringeworthy, but I thought he had something going on. We have been friends since and he’s been involved in some way in most of my recordings from the last 2 years. Jeremy is geared up to his eyeballs and doesn’t charge!
Creatively we have a nice relationship. We see eye to eye on a lot but coming from completely different musical backgrounds, we see eye to foot just as often. We started work on my debut EP this May but abandoned it after a month of blazing rows, booze, Buffy and lost car keys. Then Jer hooked me up with a great engineer and I put together my latest demo. Jeremy plays bass on it and we produced them together. I think Jeremy must love me because no matter how abuse I give him, he still puts kisses at the end of his text messages.
J: You also started the first ‘Songs In The Dark’ evenings in Cambridge with Jeremy. What is ‘Songs In The Dark’ all about and how did it begin?
SM: The bare bones are that back in Cambridge, Jeremy and I both wanted to play regularly but couldn’t generate the kind of audience a band can. When you first start out in a band you have the combined audience potential of every members friends. Not having many friends we figured doing something together might generate a real following. We also felt our music wasn’t the kind of thing suitable for open mic acoustic nights and both he and I felt a little out of place when we did them.
The slightly longer version is that I wanted the night to hark back to the DIY ethic of my earlier days. Back then a gig wouldn’t just be a gig. There would be people selling fanzines all over the shop, people passing out flyers for related shows, club nights and local protests, there was merchandise available from all the bands playing… and people would just come for the vibe even if the music wasn’t specifically their thing. You’d see lots of regulars and they’d all be there for that vibe, a proper scene. I hated the fact that live music culture in the UK has all but been reduced to either seeing an established act at a local Academy or seeing your mates band play at the local pub under a promotions banner that claims it isn’t pay to play but tells you to bring 20 people or they will bad mouth you to other promoters. It’s gangsters at both ends. It’s a bad situation and anyone wanting to play music without the resources of a major label is in trouble, especially if they are doing something that differs from the mainstream
So we wanted an alternative to that, something that could establish itself over time by putting on interesting stuff; not just music but alternative comedy and poetry. With crucial help from our friend Richard Dark, the night took off in a big way. We then decided after a year that we wanted to run a second night in London and thanks to the nice people at Plum Promotions, we ended up with a regular spot at the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon. We do the night on the last Tuesday of every month in London. The next one is October 25th. The Cambridge SITD will continue for at least another year, Richard is in charge at that end.
J: The Malones?
SM: Any sane person surely loves the Ted Danson-headed sitcom Cheers? And no serious musician can be without a Ramones influenced side project? I think that answers your question… Keep your eye on www.myspace.com/themalones.
J: What’s next for Simon Mastrantone?
SM: I’m currently plotting a release of some description. I’m talking to people at the moment and I have a mini-album’s worth of material ready to record. The stuff on it ranges from the atmospheric stuff on the latest demo to some rockier angular stuff. I’m heading into the studio again next month to put down some of these latter tracks in demo form. But times are quite exciting at the moment. And of course I’ll be playing at the next Songs in the Dark!
Interview by Jo Whitby