Name: Paul Simon
Progress Report: Rock and roll icon hits the road this fall and prepares to bring a live version of Graceland to the masses in 2012.
It was a lovely coincidence that just a few days after watching Songs of America, a recently re-released documentary about Simon and Garfunkel from 1969, that I had the opportunity to speak to Paul Simon. The iconic singer and songwriter released So Beautiful or So What — his first studio album in half a decade — to critical acclaim earlier this year and the record continues to be one of 2011’s most beautiful listens. In addition to a short US tour this fall in support of Beautiful, Simon is currently plotting a 2012 tour to celebrate Graceland, one of the most profoundly influential records of the past 25 years. It’s hard to know how to even begin a conversation with Simon, a person who has spent over 45 years creating some of the most important music of this century. Luckily, Paul Simon — who just turned 70 this October — is remarkably easy to talk to.
STEREOGUM: Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk to us.
PAUL: Happy to do it!
STEREOGUM: So Beautiful Or So What really is one of the year’s most beautiful records. In comparison to previous albums, was this a difficult album to make?
PAUL: No, it wasn’t. Some tracks were more problematic than others but generally speaking I just wasn’t really thinking about making a record in terms of being difficult. It’s something I really enjoy doing, so even when there is something that’s a problem or tricky it’s still fun to figure it out. It was actually a very enjoyable record to make.
STEREOGUM: So much of the critical response for this record had to do with the subject matter, which leans heavily on spirituality and mortality. When you were making these songs, was it clear pretty early on that these subjects were coming up again and again?
PAUL: I think it was about in the middle of the process when I noticed it and that’s really all I did — I just sorta noticed a lot of “God” in one form or another in a lot of the tracks. I think at that point I’d done six tracks and I think five of them had God in them and I said, “Hmm, that’s interesting, I wonder what’s going on here?” And said, “I’ll know by the end.” I didn’t set out to make anything. I had no goal in mind other than to make music that’s enjoyable to listen to. The subject matter comes along as I write or respond to what I had created as a track. So I don’t know if I would say it was coincidental that it’s spiritual, I really don’t know, but it wasn’t intentional. I don’t really know what spiritual means, you know? Just because you mention God doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a spiritual experience or that you’re describing one. It could be anti-spiritual or any number of things. Also the amount of time that you mention that, it’s not always in the context of a deeply spiritual experience. It could be comedic or ironic.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, you really come at the topic from a variety of angles. The record has a very sly sense of humor as well. You talk about these weighty issues but manage to have a sense of humor about it, which I think is a hallmark of so much of your work. Do you feel like people often overlook that?
PAUL: Mmhm, I always say that a lot too, that a lot of people don’t pick up on it, but on the other hand a lot of people do pick up on it. Maybe a lot of people don’t, but a lot of people do. Some people see the world with humor as an integral part of their vision and other people don’t. But I do!
STEREOGUM: I know you’re about to embark on a very lengthy tour this fall for this record.
PAUL: Lengthy for me, not that long really. About seven weeks.
STEREOGUM: Long enough.
PAUL: Yeah, definitely long enough for me. It’s really long for me to be away from home. You know, some bands go out on the road for a year or longer these days. I couldn’t.
STEREOGUM: How is the experience of touring for you? Historically, is that something you have enjoyed doing?
PAUL: Well you know, both. I like it … and there are times I like it a lot. If I am playing somewhere where the sound is good, I like it more than when you have to fight to hear. The longer I go out there the more I have to fight the fatigue of repeating yourself. So you know there are times when I really enjoy it and then there are times when I go out to do the best I can because I am committed to doing a show that night … and maybe I don’t feel like doing a show that night.
STEREOGUM: When you have such an iconic body of work — but you’ve also just released a new record — is it hard to strike a balance between playing new songs and also plenty of the old ones that people are desperate to hear?
PAUL: I try and make an interesting set and what I’ve found is particularly, in the spring when I was playing, is that people responded to how well the song was played and presented more than how familiar to the song they were. So if I really showed the song to its best advantage the audience could feel that. And I’m not playing songs I don’t want to play, but I am playing songs that I haven’t played very often or maybe ever and those are particularly fun to do if you do them right. And I’m playing some cover songs, which I seldom did before, and now I’m doing a few of them and that’s fun too. There are enough things to explore and learn about this particular set and choice of songs for the set that should keep me occupied in a way that’s enjoyable for the length of the tour.
STEREOGUM: What type of band are you taking with you on this tour?
PAUL: The band that I had last spring, it’s an eight piece band: two guitars, piano, keyboards, percussion, drums bass and saxophone but everyone doubles or triples on things, so I really have a three piece horn section available to me and one of the pianists plays percussion too. So I really have four drummers since the bass player can also play. Everybody plays a lot of instruments, so there are a lot of colors that are available and it’s really more like a fourteen piece band.
STEREOGUM: Nice to be able to draw from that kind of arsenal.
PAUL: It’s great. I think people enjoy it too, they like seeing guys switch instruments and you can change the color of the setlist from song to song really drastically. You can go from loud to soft then horns to keyboards and back and forth depending on the instruments or combine things. That’s what makes playing some of the older songs fun again because you can tweak the arrangements and search for new ways of interpreting them. That’s fun for me. They’re all great musicians and like to play all the instruments. I would say that we’ve really come together as a band now. We played about 50 shows in the summer and spring and now the band has a personality of its own. It sounds like it has its own unique sense of being a band.
STEREOGUM: So many of the bands I normally talk to are these young kids who are making what would be considered new, emerging music. Still, it’s amazing how much your work comes up as a point of reference. Any time there is a conversation about the influence of world music or African music — be it in regards to Vampire Weekend or, say, Damon Albarn — your work also becomes a part of that discussion. Whether it be someone playing tracks from Graceland in a bar in Brooklyn to a bunch of kids referencing Simon & Garfunkel when it comes to talking about singing harmonies, it must be gratifying to know that there seems to be constantly regenerating young fanbase of people discovering your music and loving it.
PAUL: Yeah, sure it is. I’m pleased, flattered- all of that stuff. But it’s mostly an indication that what I’m thinking — even though it’s being developed away from Brooklyn and all of that — it’s still similar enough to the way other people are thinking to be understood and considered interesting. Which is gratifying, because it’s frustrating to be working and you’re in a vacuum and you don’t know if anybody hears it. I mean, I just hear about it, not that I am out there a lot listening to it but I do hear a lot about people listening to it. You know, the work I was doing on this record and the recording technique … it wouldn’t feel dissonant in an indie band.
STEREOGUM: No, not at all.
PAUL: Or in an indie band’s set. It has that quality to it. So did the stuff from my first solo album. It had a very indie feel to it, you know just minimal and unusual instruments for the time. So I think people get led into that and come to rediscover whatever else I did. Once you like an artist you want to discover what else they did. Since the arc of my career is so varied and long it’s an interesting trip to get on–to see what happened on one album leading to the other. Like, for example, the emergence of the Rhythm of the Saints as an album people listen to even more than Graceland — that’s pretty new — because when it came out it was a hit but people were slightly disappointed. They liked Graceland more, but now it seems to me people like Rhythm Of The Saints better.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting how cultural opinions about things like that can shift over time. That record does get referenced a whole lot these days.
PAUL: Yeah, it was very sophisticated drumming at that time. And that record is twenty years old … so once you get twenty years of music coming at you from everywhere, it doesn’t sound so strange as it did whenever it came out. I think it was 1990. At the time it seemed unprecedented that it would be an album of all percussion. West African and Brazilian as a mix was harder for people to grasp than South African. South African is easier music to hear on first listen. But now people have listened to so much stuff and so many complex rhythms and polyrhythms and electronic music where you can program things in a polyrhythmic way that those records now become very interesting. At the time there was no other context for them so they seemed strange. I think that’s what happens. It doesn’t sound strange anymore.
STEREOGUM: Aside from this tour in the fall, there have been stories floating around that you will be doing a special tour for Graceland next spring.
PAUL: Yeah, that’s in the discussion stages. I would be happy to revisit that and do a Graceland reunion. There’s a documentary on Graceland that’s coming out in January that notices the 25th anniversary of the record, so it’s time for that show to come around again one more time. Almost everyone is still alive, so we could still reconstitute the band and do it again. I think they’re trying to do that and work out everyone’s schedule, but it’s still in the process of being coordinated.
STEREOGUM: It’s such a beloved record. I know lots of people would love the experience of seeing it performed live all the way through.
PAUL: Yeah, I think people will be interested to see it.
STEREOGUM: I know you have a busy schedule today so I won’t keep you, but thank you very much for your time. I’m very much looking forward to the live shows.
PAUL: Thanks again.