Simon Townshend: "Looking Out Looking In"
Photo by Ron Lyon
Despite more than three decades as a writer, recording and performing artist, it looks as if the time is now for Simon Townshend. Last November, he released his eighth solo album, Looking Out Looking In. It combines highly melodic material with introspective and observational lyrics, especially on standouts such as “Making Waves,” “Forever and Day” and the title track. While longtime Who fans will recognize a musical kinship to the solo work of his older brother Pete, his songs have their own distinct character.
Around the same time Looking Out came out in the U.S., he was on tour performing Quadrophenia with the Who. Unlike his previous work with the band, Townshend has a more prominent role playing guitar and singing lead on “Dirty Jobs.” The added responsibility comes about after adding guitar and backing vocals for Who concerts since 1996 and acted as Roger Daltrey’s right-hand man during several solo tours by the Who’s frontman.
While on the Quadrophenia tour he’s promoted the Simon Townshend brand with a combination of pre-show meet-and-greets, solo dates and internet interaction. Altogether, it works towards his artistic goal of staying busy and not allowing any moments to slip away.
Starting his musical career early, a nine-year-old Simon recorded backing vocals on the Who’s Tommy and then played the Newsboy in the 1975 film version of the rock opera. A few years later, he cut his teeth in English punk bands and followed that by putting out Sweet Sound, his 1983 major label solo debut. Simon acknowledges that since then it’s been a bumpy ride but remains pleased with what he’s accomplished, honest with any assessment of his work and steadfast in his desire to continue life as a creative being.
The following conversation tackles his solo career, growing role in the Who, Quadrophenia tour and being one part of the Townshend musical legacy that includes his father (saxophone), mother (singer), Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brother and Simon’s son (drummer).
JPG: You’re playing solo shows during gaps between Who shows. I saw the TRI Studios session. That’s your band, right?
ST: It’s what of my band I can get out to do it. I mean, I have a band that I use in England as well. These are guys…I’ve worked with Scott Deavours, the drummer on the Roger Daltrey tour. He brought in a bass player friend along, Dave Beste, who we auditioned for Daltrey’s band, I do believe. And then, I flew over my guitarist, Tony Lowe, a friend of mine, who plays second guitar. So yeah, it’s half my UK band. I thought it went really well. We only had one day’s rehearsal for that. It was very successful, actually.
JPG: It did go over quite well. Now, what was your son doing that you couldn’t pull him over, too? (He plays on Simon’s album.)
ST: Well, Ben just had twins earlier in the year, his wife had twins, and one of them died. So, his life has been turned upside down. Obviously, he’s done the album with me. I would like to have him out touring and gigging with me but it’s just not quite the right time for him. He’s talking about coming out with me next year when things settle down a bit at home and life gets a bit more organized and that.
I do love working with him. He has great empathy for my music like I do with Pete’s music. It’s kind of a family thing, isn’t it?
JPG: I was going to bring this up later but we can bring it up now. First off, my sympathies for his loss. Since you brought up working with your son Ben, I wanted to discuss the idea of several generations of Townshend musicians — your father and you and Pete and now Ben. I remember reading somewhere that Ringo Starr didn’t want Zak to play drums and according to legend Keith Moon showed him how to play. Were you the type of father that encouraged Ben or were you like, “Go be a doctor. Stay away from this business?”
ST: Well, at the time that Ben decided to play drums, he learned things very quickly. He’s one of those that can pick anything up and play. I am in a band with Zak but Zak was in a situation where he needed to go off and do a tour with his dad. I think he was doing the All-Star tour at the time. I had shows booked and Ben said, “Dad, I can do this. I’ve been practicing.” We did a rehearsal. He was a bit naive but he had the right energy and the right approach. He knew what to play and before long he was an amazing drummer. It just progressed from there.
When I’m recording, I love recording with Ben. He just slots in. He doesn’t overplay. Some musicians tend to get a little bit selfish in some respect. They want to prove themselves rather than enhance the songs that you’re working on. That’s annoying, being a writer and trying to be creative. You want parts that fit not parts that show off the individual. I certainly think that Ben played with great empathy towards what I was trying to achieve in the final end result. As I do with Pete, I believe that we have that umbilical cord between us that has the right intentions and has the right vibe.
JPG: Do you think with you and Ben and you and Pete that there’s a certain familial empathy where you know what they are trying to achieve?
ST: Definitely. We don’t have to say much. Put it that way. A lot of it is just automatically felt. That’s kind of what makes it special. I always remember seeing Spirit, Randy California and his father Ed Cassidy on drums, I always remember that being something special as well. I think people like to see a bit of family, don’t they? They like to see brothers on stage. When Pete and I play guitar together we play a sort of guitar duet on “The Rock” in Quadrophenia and people love that moment. I think that’s part of the reason for some bands’ success. Oasis has a brothers thing. It’s great. I think even sibling rivalry comes into it. It’s fun. People get a good feeling from that.
JPG: Yeah. but I think also, what I seem to like in the case of you and Pete is that it seems to be the anti-Gallagher or the anti-Davies where you aren’t punching each onstage?
ST: That’s yet to come.
JPG: I think you guys are probably past that point. I’d be surprised if that happened. Would have happened a long time ago. Keeping it in the family, your father was a musician, was there anything you learned from him as far as being a professional?
ST: Well, dad always used to say to me, “Keep writing. Keep writing Keep writing”. He became a very very able musician. He studied how to play and sight read music and played in a lot of trad jazz bands. He was very much a musician’s musician. He always impressed the idea on me to put being an artist at the forefront. He could see that I had a talent with words and melodies. It was clear that Pete had that. I think Pete also came in a time where having to play technically was important in order to keep his job in his band. They were doing a lot of covers. He was playing banjo in the very early days. That spilled out into a whole new era of music, the wave of rock music. Now, the digital age where people are actually not even playing instruments anymore and they’re making records. It’s a very different time.
I am 15 years younger than Pete as well, which people don’t realize that there’s a big age difference. What happened for me, my father said keep writing, keep creating and I went off on this artistic path. I always think of myself as an artist over musician. Having said that, in the last six years or so I’ve really put a lot of time into my playing, my learning and stretching myself, which has come at a great time for me because this Quadrophenia tour has landed at a time when I didn’t think that would ever come again, that opportunity to go out and be at front of house at a Who show singing “Dirty Jobs” in the lead vocal and I play lead guitar. It’s a great opportunity for me to show off what I’ve actually learned and how far I’ve come.
I’ve worked very hard, but there’s still this incredible artistic streak in me where my real roots are writing and recording new material and being expressive in that way. I count myself very lucky as well that I can do both. I’m lucky that I can go play in a club one night such as Joe’s Pub for 200-300 people, it’s small and it’s intimate, nose-to-nose, if you like, and it’s all very exposed playing in those environments. You’re on your own. You’re playing your music for a start. I play my own songs. And then, I can go out and play in an arena the next night [with the Who]. That’s a different buzz. So, I do count myself lucky and I’m enjoying the journey, if you like, and I’m enjoying what I do and I’m happy in my skin.