An Interview with Simon Mills

Back in the fall of 2000 a band from Nottingham England released an album called Programmed to Love that was one of the very first electronica albums I ever remember listening to, and it ended up making a huge impact on me, in large part thanks to songs like their first big hit, the soulful retro/futuristic track “Swollen”:

Between 2000 and 2006 Simon Mills and Neil “Nail” Tolliday released four amazingly wonderful full-length studio albums as Bent, plus a Best Of in 2009 and last year an album chock full of 34 unreleased tracks that are totally worth picking up in their own right. More recently Simon Mills moved to Ireland and started a new solo project under the name Napoleon, which is just as good, if not better than his classic work with Bent. (As you’ll read about below) Simon is busy as ever right now, creating some of the best work of his career.

You may remember that a little while back I wrote an Influential Media piece — a love letter, really — about Bent’s third album, Ariels, possibly my most favorite album ever. Well, I sent a link to that piece to both Bent and Simon Mills’ Facebook pages, and just recently Simon Mills not only wrote me back that he had read it, but he also did me the pleasure of saying some very nice things about the piece. That got us messaging back and forth and before I knew it he had agreed to do an interview with me.

I admit it took me a minute to realize how big this was for me. Simon Mills’ music has been such a huge part of my life for so long that for me this was akin to getting a sit-down interview with a Beatle. For those paying attention, you have probably noticed that a Bent or Napoleon song has been featured on almost every mixtape that I’ve put out on this blog. It really means a lot to me that I got to do something like this with one of my biggest musical heroes. Simon Mills, Bent and Napoleon might not be household names to a lot of you right now, but they should be and hopefully will be after you read this piece.

Anyway, enough prattling. Here is my interview with the great Simon Mills!

Bent - Ariels

I’ve been a huge Bent fan for a long time. I’ve tried to track down every major release you guys have put out, including a lot of the rare/unreleased stuff that came out after you put out the greatest hits album. I mentioned to you earlier that Programmed to Love was actually one of the very first electronic albums I bought that made a big impact on me.

The reason why we’re even doing this today is because I basically wrote a huge love letter to your album Ariels, so I think it’s appropriate that we should start there. I don’t know a lot about your song writing process, but I do know that at the time Ariels was unique in that it was Bent’s first album where you recorded all the sounds in studio instead of using samples. Could you elaborate a little and tell me a little bit about what the process of making that album was like for you?

[SIMON MILLS]: Hi Ben, hope you’re well!

I finally got round to answering your questions, thanks to taking the time to write them to me. Been pretty full on here!

Nice that you’ve been following Bent for such a long time now, and trying to track down all of our music – even I’m starting to forget what we’ve made!

In answer to your first question, by the time we got to our third album we had been gigging quite a lot, and not only were we having to give a lot of money away for sample clearance on the tracks we released in the past, we felt it would be nice to put together a live show using musicians that would’ve been involved in the recording process. In the past we had to translate our music for the stage, and having to teach musicians the parts wasn’t always easy, so we figured that if the musicians were there from the start it would be a more natural process.

Obviously we wanted to give the sound more depth and move away from just using samples as well, as we wanted to explore new territory. We’re still actually paying for the creation of the album, due to a lot of expenses with studio time, hiring different engineers, and mixing in a very plush studio in London. We actually had the album mixed well before we decide to take it to a bigger place, some of this was because the label wanted us to push the sound. It was at a time when my companies liked to spend a lot of money on albums.

Anyway, it was great to have Dave Bascombe mix the album – he definitely added a lot to it in terms of depth, and I felt like I’d learned a lot from him.

During the recording of the album we actually hired a church in the middle of Lincoln, which had a studio and living quarters there. It was in the middle of nowhere, so we had nothing to do but write music, mixing new ideas, and record all the beautiful instruments such as the grand piano which was in the main hall. I think it complimented a lot of the backing tracks we went in there with, because we still had a lot of sample based ideas… it just added another dimension to it.

Ariels may be one of my favorite albums of all-time, but my favorite Bent song is actually “So Long Without You”. I feel like people who say “I like all music but country” are just people who haven’t heard this song yet. I don’t really have a question to follow that statement up per se, but the inner geek in me would love it if you could offer any insight into what went into making that song.

Glad you like “So Long Without You”! Yes it’s funny, because I wouldn’t say that I like country music that much, but in actuality I probably do! The core idea came from sampling old country records, part of the huge collection of daft vinyl I have. It was nice to explore a new style, and in the end we got BJ Cole to add steel guitar. Was the first track we did with him, which led to a whole lot more including tracks on Ariels, and a Dolly Parton remix that we were commissioned to do after somebody at a record label heard “So Long Without You”. 🙂

[Note: I included “So Long Without You” on my Lazy Mountains Mixtape.]

I didn’t have any idea that Dolly Parton remix existed! It’s quite beautiful. Unfortunately I’m not finding any download links anywhere and the only reason I can listen to it right now is because I found a YouTube link someone posted. Do you have any plans to release a compilation of your remixes like you did your unreleased / demo stuff a little while back?

Ah cheers! Well, no – not really… Would be nice thing to do though!

Bent’s last studio album was Intercept!, which came out all the way back in 2006. Since then you and Nail have been working on your own solo projects, including your amazing work as Napoleon, which actually sounds a lot like classic Bent. While I’m excited to no end that you’re still making new music, the question remains: Do you see Bent ever reforming to make a new album? Are you and Neil contributing anything on each other’s current solo projects?

Yes, it’s been awhile since the last album, and I don’t think either of us really feel like it was a Bent album as such. For me, I don’t really like the album. It was more biased towards playing live music so it had a bit more energy to it, but I felt that it lost its soul somewhere along the line. Around that point Nail needed a break from music anyway, and the music industry was changing. It was more natural to go and do our own thing. I’m sure we will get our heads together at some point, but we obviously live in different countries now so it’s going to be logistically tricky for the time being. We haven’t done anything for each of our projects at the moment, but that’s a possibility. 🙂

1 A Castle Above The Sky

This year you’ve made it your goal to release a new EP every month for the entire year. Now I don’t really have a lot of experience in writing music, but that seems like a whole heck of a lot of work. Well, we’re now three months and three EPs in, so…how’s it going?

Ha ha, yes the EP once a month idea! What the hell am I thinking, you may be asking yourself! Well, there’s a number of reasons why I’m doing it. Since I self-released my second album Magpies last year, I found it extremely rewarding to release stuff without the need for a label. My work is all my end idea; I’m not trying to win anybody over so the ideas are completely pure. From a financial point of view releasing one album a year is not viable so I wondered how I was going to do this. In December I decided it would be a personal challenge to write four tracks a month. Not only is this more financially viable, but it means that I would have to finish ideas off and be extremely decisive in the way I work. We live in a world where ideas can be stored on hard disks now, and both myself and Nail are from the world where we had to finish ideas off as you made them because of the hardware limitations. You couldn’t really work on more than one track at a time because it has to configure all the hardware to sound the same which is practically possible, where now everything is recallable. The downside to that is there are a lot of people writing music and not finishing their ideas, storing it on their hard disks thinking that they will go back to it at a later date. I did this, and I realized I wasn’t committing to my ideas and finishing anything off, so by releasing four tracks a month it forces me to really see my ideas through or scrap them!

What I didn’t foresee was that I’d be approached by a couple of labels this year – they also want me to send them tracks, so not only am I doing four tracks for my own personal Napoleon release each month, but I’m putting together tracks for labels as Napoleon, and even a new project on the side where I am delivering tracks every week and honing a new sound for a new project. It will be nice to have label releases under the Napoleon moniker this year as I’ve got the best of both worlds now; one allows me to work alongside artists and musicians, with decent promotion, while my other side is more personal but it will still have the same sound and come from the same universe. I’m also doing remixes on the side, so this year alone I’ve already made about 20 tracks! Look out for one featuring the vocals of Rick Astley, that comes later in the year and is actually a very uplifting track 🙂 … Today I’m finishing off a remix I’ve done for Billie Ray Martin, she’s a hero of mine!

I have to admit it’s quite a tough challenge doing 7-8 tracks a month, especially as I’m doing the artwork, plus the promotion. It’s requiring all of my time and energy to do it but it’s completely rewarding!

The other project you’re currently working on is Pincer Movement with Stephen Porter. Whereas Napoleon oftentimes sounds a lot like a continuation of classic Bent, Pincer Movement is a lot more of a departure from your usual sound, much more classic house than downtempo chillout, and yet there’s still an element in the sample choices that reminds me of your sound. How did that project come to be and can we expect to hear more music from Pincer Movement this year, considering you’re already making an EP a month as Napoleon?

Pincer Movement started when I contacted Stephen, because I wanted to elaborate on the house sound that I liked, and Stephen is a great house DJ with a large repertoire. I met him because he’s a local promoter that puts on big events, and I had met him through his festival Jika Jika. Anyway my idea was to build a new project leaving the emotional stuff for Napoleon, and build more of the club sound I love to DJ into a new output. I knew bringing in Stephen would discipline me to get an idea finished, with more of a club sensibility.

A lot of the influence of the sound also came from the tracks that I would DJ out in Bent, especially alongside Nail who’s just got a huge knowledge of house music. I’ve always liked that old vintage sound which is kind of really popular now and Nail and myself always collected the vintage gear that made those tracks, so I’m still making stuff like that on the side anyway.

I’m not sure where Pincer is going at the moment, because I have so much to do in order to survive, to be honest. We have a third EP pretty much finished so it would be good to get that one out.

Magpies

One of the things that never really dawned on me until I started digging in deep for my research for the Ariels piece I wrote was how melancholic your music was. The sound of your samples is so warm and inviting and the melodies are always so bright and bouncy that you often miss the fact that there’s a real feeling of longing and sadness hidden underneath the surface of a lot of your songs. Is this juxtaposition always a conscious decision on your part with your approach to making music?

The melancholy thing comes a lot from the music I love myself – the Beach Boys are a classic example of sunny music that somehow has a mixture of hope, yet longing. When we did Ariels, we actually sat down and said “let’s make this one more emotional”. It was a conscious decision. I don’t really like music that is purely dark – it’s easy to make in my opinion. But I love it when you have a more complex feeling within a track.

What have been some of your influences? Are there some things/artists that you keep coming back to for samples/inspiration?

My influences are quite wide, as are Nail’s. Nail has a huge record collection spanning a huge amount of genres. My music sense is less “underground”, but I think I have a more kitsch side to my taste. I seem to have a camp sense of humour for some reason. I got into electronic music in the mid-80s, but I guess it was in 1990 when I started to really pay attention. Both of us liked early hip hop, and I think my sampling ethos comes from that, especially artists like De La Soul, where they were quite comical in the stuff that the sampled, such as Showaddywaddy etc… not many people were doing that. So when I started making daft tapes for my mates, collecting “rubbish” from car boot sales and charity shops, it suddenly seemed like a great idea – let’s sample what everyone else isn’t sampling. Then of course we both love “serious” music as well, so the whole thing mixes into a big pot of influences… early house, artists who were on Warp records, West Coast 60s rock, etc, etc. When we did Ariels I was listening heavily to Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Supertramp, all of which are very much groups that love harmonies – that definitely was an influence!

2 A Domed Forest Orbiting Saturn

How often do you go out looking for new samples? Is it more typical that you dig deep into your current collection looking for new things, or are you more likely to be digging through record bins at your local shop every week looking for the next big thing?

I used to go out once in a while and do the sample-search; buy in bulk, etc. Do it before a big project. But now, I am out every weekend looking for stuff, and searching high and low in other places other than just car boot sales. Loads of online research. I do it about two to three times a week. I’ll often wake up, go for a swim, come home, try and find a bunch of samples and then work. Obviously, I have many hard disks full of audio, piles of floppies and zip disks, dvds… I’ve been collecting samples since 1990. Then there’s the vinyl, and tapes. There’s always something to grab, and because my tastes alter, what I didn’t consider sample-able 5 years ago suddenly sounds great.

When we talked earlier you said you wanted Magpies and this year’s EPs to be more “honest”. What exactly is it that are you trying to say with your music?

When I said Magpies was “honest”, I meant that it was influenced by myself, and not by what I think a label would want. It seems to be working for me that way. I am my own navigator, and it’s my map – so what is coming out is more true to how I’m feeling.

3 A Treasured Family Visit

On a slightly less serious note, “Sherwood Zone” on the new EP uses samples from 16-bit era Sonic The Hedgehog, the 16-bit era known as probably the best time ever for video game soundtracks. As you picked a Sonic sample I have to ask, if you had to pick a side, are you a Sega guy or Super Nintendo guy?

Haha! Well, the Sega thing is a good example of being honest. I wanted to create an atmosphere of how I felt visiting my grandparents who were really good to me. I always felt safe there, and I didn’t always feel safe as a kid, due to various factors. I can’t imagine approaching a label saying “I want to base an EP on visiting my family, and call a track “Fairy Bluebell”… They’d laugh. Many hours were spent playing on various consoles over the decades, but I fell in love with the music in the early Sonic games. I love the Mario music as well. I am a big fan of game/movie/tv/advert soundtracks. If I had to choose Sega or Nintendo, it would be difficult – Nintendo have definitely kept their fun factor intact, whereas Sega died out – I have most of the consoles.. hmm.. help! I love the Nintendo 64, but I loved the Sega Megadrive… I think… Nintendo get to be the winner by a hair… I wasn’t into the early SNES, but the later consoles were ace!

Finally, I’d like to leave you with what I thought was a rather beautiful image I had when thinking about your music as I was trying to fall asleep last night. It occurred to me that a lot of your songs reminded me of a grandparents’ house, that same house they lived in ever since they got married so many years ago. There’s different objects in that house from the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, etc, but when you look around the house you don’t see each object as being different, because they obviously have been there with everything else for so long that everything just kind of blends together to make one cohesive whole. Your music reminds me a lot of nostalgia, in that it sounds not like old music, but like how one might remember and think back about old music. I think what it is that I like about your music so much is how deeply nostalgic yet fresh it feels, in that every time you hear a new song it sounds like it could be an old favorite with all the pleasant feelings but without any of the repetition that comes from having heard that same song numerous times over the years.

That’s really just a long-winded, gushy way of asking how much do you tap into your own sense of memory and nostalgia when you go about creating a new song?

I love your analogy of the music – I often feel like I am obsessed with nostalgia. Every decade evokes different feelings and have different textures and references. I like to mix different eras together, like a 1980’s digital synth with a 50’s Latin percussion, or a folk song with analog synths behind it. I don’t feel that music is moving forward much sound-wise at the moment because we can have any sound we want. Limitation created style over the last century. But now we can have anything. So much music out there is retrospective, but I like to pull from many areas, rather than just have one place. I think my house is like that. I horde technology. I still have all my old games, computers, tapes, synths — even my Raleigh BMX — but I’m oddly obsessed with future technology as well. I always want the latest Mac, app, etc. I guess that’s why I had an Atari in the first place!

When I go to create a song, I think about references, textures, even colours, as I’m a Synesthete. I am getting more so as I am getting older. I just build stuff that hits the right spot in my own head – just like most producers, I think. I can’t write something I don’t like. Many people have said “Why don’t you just make something cheesy and pop, as it’s easy, you’d easily do it” – But I can’t. I can’t make something I don’t like, because I wouldn’t know how to run with it. I work more like a filter – I just gather everything I love and try and make sense of it. So, to answer your question, I massively tap into my own library of memories and nostalgia… even if it’s a house track, it will normally have a vintage element in there, or a reference.

——

Well, that’s it. I want to thank the wonderful Simon Mills again for taking the time to answer my questions! It really did mean the world to me to be able to pick the brain of one of my musical heroes.

Make sure to “Like” all of Simon’s Facebook pages to keep up with the latest news and please, please, please do yourself a massive favor and buy his music! It’s seriously some of the most amazing music out there. I cannot recommend this stuff enough. It’s life changing music, and so far the first three EPs that’s he’s released from his year of EPs are all fantastic, totally worth your hard-earned money.

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3 Responses to An Interview with Simon Mills

  1. Pingback: Napoleon – Step Off | C'est Non Un Blog

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