Lucas: (Right. Time to meet with Simon from And Also The Trees. I’m a long-time fan of the group and was going to relish our discussion tremendously. I’d suggested we meet at the Pinch And Giggle over in Retchingsted, but a farthing came in the return post with instructions to give it to the urchin waiting out in the street. He would lead me to Simon’s preferred public house, a half-buried and leaning structure, belching up cobbles and coal smoke in a damp lot off a forgotten lane with a sign so filthy, one could only make out the sooted grin of a leering Saracen. I smiled in satisfaction, found my man in the common room and, after settling in with a mug of something dark, began.)
I’d like to start out by commending you on a highly-decorated, laudable, vigorous, 35-year career! But mercenary military exploits aside, similar things could be said about your musical endeavors, and those of the group. You’ve always been interesting, always been surprising, always been artistic. Have you reached your creative goals and been satisfied with each new recording project? From your own catalog, do you have any particular favorites, and if so, why?
Simon: Thank you – I suppose being musically interesting, surprising and artistic would have been up there at the top of our list of creative goals… although the list would certainly have been a subconscious one. Creatively we are and always were a very instinctive band and that makes talking about our music in a cerebral way a bit difficult.
All albums have disappointed in one way or another, too much reverb on everything on this one, too much keyboard and not enough guitar on that one, over complex arrangements on this etc etc, but they’re usually things that hit you when you listen back some years later. I have a feeling too that it is these dissatisfactions that keep us hungry.
Personally, my favorite albums are the last 3 studio albums… ‘Further from the truth’, ‘Hunter not the hunted’ and ‘(Listen for) the Rag and bone man’ – the last just edging it as my favorite as it has two songs I am inexplicably fond of in ‘Candace’ and ‘Mary of the woods’.
(The beer is a good one, some kind of dark beer from a local microbrewery, quite flat but with a good flavour and cold enough. Beer in pubs has got better over the last few years. Lucas goes up to the bar to order another couple of pints… the sun breaks through the clouds and shines low across the flat winter countryside, it makes the pub seem darker inside… ploughed fields, leafless oaks, an old man on a bicycle approaching and a girl with an accordion gets out of a bus down the street. Fire glowing in the hearth.)
Lucas: Has keeping a musical troupe like yours together for so long, and functioning well, been a challenge, or has it been easy? Any thoughts on your own longevity? Are you all still living in rather different locales? I spoke with Steven a few years back and he mentioned that you were all scattered across the continents, spread out rather like the pungent perfumes, drifting in adventurous, sensuous tendrils, from the tent of a sultan’s harem.
Simon: (wondering exactly how strong this beer really is?) Yes we’re scattered all over, it’s just Paul living in Worcestershire now but we rehearse there still, in a shed by the side of a motorway surrounded by hens and roosters and stinging nettles. It feels important to go back there somehow, although now Ian has moved away from the midlands it has become even less practical. I was talking about it to Emer our keyboard/dulcimer player the other day, she’s the only non midlander amongst us and I was expecting her to be relieved at the idea of future rehearsals in London but she said not, and that it was an important part of being in ‘The trees’ – all that hanging around in the cold with your shoes caked in mud. It’s miraculous that we’ve stayed together and managed to keep making music together but ‘The trees’ are important to us all for all sorts of reasons and we hold it together.
Lucas: (At this point a buxom barmaid, perhaps emotionally incited by eavesdropping on our talk of oriental harems, heaved her bosoms at us, which we regarded nonchalantly. Our feigned indifference no doubt kindled further passions, but she was barked at by the landlord and was ordered down to the cellars on some errand or another, sparing her, somewhat.)
If I rifle through my notes, I do believe I will find that you’ve been releasing your own records since some time in the nineties. Is this accurate? If so, then I must say it was a business move that was rather ahead of its time. Of course, now it’s all the rage to release your own records, but the nineties was a time when the fashionable thing to do was park your catalog on the stolid foundation of a venerable institution. Did you guys see which way the wind was blowing, or simply decide that a middle man was not required? Do you believe that it was, in retrospect, the superior method of conducting yourself through the swampy bog that is the music industry? Would you do anything differently?
Simon: Be nice to make out we could see the music industry disaster coming but we didn’t. Autonomy was important to us, for creative reasons… like wanting to produce our own art work and write at our own pace but also we had developed a deep mistrust of the music business in general. We reached a point where we just said ‘fuck the lot of them, let’s go alone’. It wasn’t a wise decision from a career point of view at the time but I think our self imposed isolation was quite positive creatively, we didn’t bother about press or anything much – we just got on with our lives and got on with making the music we wanted to make. And eventually things worked out quite well. Our original drummer, Nick Havas, once noted that in every Elvis movie he’d ever seen there came a point when Elvis would turn to some interfering trouble maker in gunslinger stance and say “we don’t want any trouble…. we just want to play our music”. Now I don’t know if he ever really said that but we liked it and it became a bit of a band motto. Cutting out the middle men and not bothering to service the press was part of that questionable philosophy.
(I sat, staring into the flames waiting for the next question… then heard a low snoring sound coming from the direction of my interviewee. I was about to wake him with a sharp retort that it was him that brought up the subject of the music industry when I realized it was in fact a gentleman at a neighboring table who had slumped sideways and was lying where Lucas was previously sitting while he himself was back at the bar ordering more ale.)
Lucas: And how do you regard the current industry atmosphere? Do you have a favorite or preferred method of releasing music? Have you given up any old methods?
Simon: I get the impression no one really knows what the hell to do… I certainly don’t, but we’re quite lucky in the respect that we have a strong following who will go out and buy (I hope) the next CD or LP. This should cover our costs, but costs have to be cut everywhere. Some people have got the idea that it’s all Ok really because bands just have to go out and play live more often and that’s where the money is… but bands aren’t getting paid any more for live shows than they were 5 years ago.
I like vinyl, so I’m glad it’s back.
Lucas: (We were suddenly interrupted by a boisterous party of seven or eight solicitor’s clerks, eager to add some color to their cheeks after a long day of shuffling reams of parchment. Coats and hats flew about in a flurry, mud was knocked from various boots, the fender at the common room fire was appealed to in a warming capacity for those appendages, and eventually libations were distributed and peace was regained.)
You recently teamed up with The Cure again for a few installments of Show Business. Long-time associates, I think? Any poignant reflections on your respective professional tangents, or thoughts on your relationship with those characters?
Simon: Yes, it was great playing at a really big event like that again and great to see Robert (Smith) and Simon (Gallup) again after all these years. It was an amusing challenge to try and condense 12 albums into a half-hour show too. But we love playing live and we feel lucky that with ‘And also the trees’ we get to play a really wide range of venues. We’ve always liked the intimacy of small clubs but it’s nice to be able to play theaters and places like the Hammersmith Apollo too.
As for the tangents in our career and that of The Cure… well I admit it was difficult not to ponder on that once or twice and I suppose the freaky thing is realizing the gulf between their ‘popularity’ and ours. They have six and a half million ‘likes’ on facebook for example and without advertising anywhere can sell out three nights at the Apollo in less than an hour by just announcing it. Impressive. They have written some fine albums and some excellent singles and that once mighty force that was the music industry swept them up and out of sight, almost…. but I don’t reckon that was ever meant to happen to us… it couldn’t have for the simple reason that we’re not much cop at writing singles and Robert is a bit of a genius at it. I never really think about this kind of thing though – I think of them as musicians, like us, like you. When I first started being in the band of course I secretly would have loved to have got on ‘Top of the pops’ and played to stadiums of adoring fans – but I grew out of that quite quickly.
(The solicitor’s clerks file out into the fading afternoon light, jostling past me as I take my turn ordering drinks… maybe a whisky chaser this time? No, not yet… the day is still young, don’t want to be locked by 5 o’ clock as they say. I hear a drum beating somewhere out in the streets.)
Lucas: What are you guys listening to, lately? Anything catch your ear? What are some go-to discs in your collection? I would also open this up to other media, such as literature, Bazooka Joe comics, anime or medical advice pamphlets. If you are a fatal Downton Abbey binge-watcher, you can divulge your indulgences here, guilt-free. Both our readership and myself have similar addictions, I’m sure.
Simon: My favorite album of last year… (or was it the year before?) was Bill Callahan’s album ‘The river’ – there is not a weak track on it and he writes very fine lyrics… funny at times which is a very rare talent. I’ve been listening to Space Ritual by Hawkwind a bit too and the usual stuff like Nina Simone and Brel. Mahler and Satie – but this year I must search into the classical vaults a bit more thoroughly as I have been listening to the same composers for too long. I must say I don’t listen to a lot of music. It is almost constantly in my head.
I read books… Donna Tartt lately and Colm Toibin and just starting my first Proust. My indulgence or vice is Aston Villa football club, I waste cavernous amounts of time reading about everything to do with them so although I haven’t been to a match for years I know all about all the players, reserves too and often lose myself in memories of when football was a different thing back in the 70’s and 80’s and I stood on the Holte end behind the goal yelling my head off in that mass of humanity. The whole obscene circus that surrounds the game these days pisses me off but I still can’t get these remnants of tribalism out of my blood.
Lucas: (I realized at some point that I had lost visual contact with Simon and decided it might be prudent to stifle my ambitions, slightly, in regard to my pipe tobacco and its ethereal product.”)
Can you enlighten me about the name of your group? “And also the trees”, implying what else besides the trees?
Simon: The words ‘And also the trees’ lost any real sense of meaning a long time ago for us – they were originally words from a somewhat juvenile song we wrote when we were learning to play our instruments – I didn’t know then that as I grew up I would become more interested in and care more and more about trees – or that 35 years later people would still be asking us what it meant.
(The sun is down now and the sky turns to a copper colour with purple bands of cloud ripping across it. Great that they still allow pipe smoking in this establishment – the chair, that before seemed rather hard and uncomfortable, has grown softer… and it’s almost as though it has grown arms that are gently hugging me back into the upholstery. The smoke coils up from the pipe bowl and looks a bit like a pirouetting dancer. God… that sky is amazing…)
Lucas: Simon, I’ve always loved the storytelling aspect of your songs. Do you tell stories using any other medium?
Simon: What?……… errrr, sorry. No… not really. Thanks.
Lucas: (We paused in our chat, noticing that the barman was, in fact, sizing us up in comparison to a couple of decrepit wanted posters depicting outlaws that, judging from the age of the poster board they were printed on, would have been, at this present period in history, administering their lawlessness from various advanced geriatric care centers, if they still walked the earth at all. Realizing this essential truth, he gave up this fruitless scrutiny and set to polishing various glassware with a greasy rag.)
Simon, it’s always fascinating to me when siblings work together. Did you always know that you were going to engage in rash artistic endeavors with your brother? Have you always been creative together?
Simon: Well, we played a lot as children, games that involved plenty of imagination, creating intricate worlds for our various collections of toys and models. But by the time Justin had bought his first guitar we had drifted apart a bit. The guitar brought us back together again, I was tremendously impressed when he started picking out the notes of ‘Interstellar overdrive’ and some of the Buzzcocks songs and that started the whole thing off I suppose. Neither of us had any idea we would get dragged into this on-going ‘Trees’ story for all this time.
(For a while I am totally submerged in reverie looking down the time tunnel back to our adjacent bedrooms on the top floor of the old Georgian farm house where we grew up in Worcestershire, Justin as a boy with his secondhand acoustic guitar and Bert Weedon ‘Play in a day’ guitar book… recording John Peel shows onto C90 cassettes, our first learning sessions as a band with the Havas brothers in Justin’s bedroom…. gigs in back rooms of pubs in Stratford and Coventry then, bizarrely, touring with The Cure before we could play properly and half of the band weren’t even old enough to be in more than half the places we played in…)
Lucas: I don’t expect you to recall, but we actually met and briefly chatted some years ago at a festival in Strasbourg. You mentioned that you were next headed to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. I have to respect a man who takes literary detours in the middle of a hectic show-biz schedule. Are you strictly a Conan Doyle chap, or have any of the modern incarnations of Sherlock passed muster for you?
Simon: Well, first – yes, I am a big fan of the Cumberbatch/Moffat/Gatiss Holmes.
And finally I do remember meeting you in Strasbourg, I was impressed because you were playing on stage wearing a cow mask, in fact the whole band was wearing them, and you had said prior to your performance that on the whole ‘Goths’ (it was a bit of a Goth festival) really didn’t ‘get’ ‘And also the trees’ and that in your opinion part of the problem was that we “freaked them out”. From a guy in cow mask that was quite a compliment.
Lucas: (Sufficiently embarrassed by this account, hearing a side of the conversation I have only very fuzzy memories of, I answered the best way I knew how. With another round. And just to be safe, I thought it was probably time for the whisky to make an appearance. The rest of that conversation, interrupted only by our moving to different chairs because the old ones “were a bit too silly”, and also our having to referee an impromptu bare-knuckle boxing match, and lastly there was that situation where we had to go up and sit on the roof because it was “midnight somewhere in the world”, was spent as you might imagine. And you’ll have to imagine it, because I don’t know if either of us remember any more.)