By Kevin Porter
When one thinks of the legendary British blues-rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s, one thinks of Cream, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, but one of the central pillars of British blues-rock from that time is still around and still going strong. Savoy Brown has been in existence for over 50 years and is still a vital force. The album, Witchy Feeling, was one of Rock and Blues Muse’s favorite albums of 2017. Over 60 musicians have passed through Savoy Brown’s ranks, and former members have gone on to form Foghat and to join bands such as Fleetwood Mac and Black Sabbath. Savoy Brown just reissued a live album that had a limited release in 2004 called You Should Have Been There. The one constant figure in Savoy Brown throughout its 50-year run is legendary guitarist, Kim Simmonds, who was kind enough to talk to talk to us by phone.
KP: Savoy Brown has a live record coming out called You Should Have Been There. My understanding is that it was recorded in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2003 and had a limited release in 2004, and now it will get a more national release.
KS: Yes, that’s right. I think it’s a good record. It captures some very good playing on my part, and we had a good band at the time. I’m trying to expose some of the albums that came out some time ago but never had a national release. We’ll put this live album out and some other older albums to make our fans aware of them.
KP: Will you be re-releasing your solo albums in addition to Savoy Brown albums?
KS: Possibly. I have my own label now and it’s a good time to re-release and re-package some albums that have been dormant for some time. It keeps interest in the band and for myself.
KP: Are you working on a new Savoy Brown album?
KS: I’ve got the next album written, but I don’t like to jump into things. I like to write something and then try to improve on it. Sometimes you can write a dozen songs, and that’s good, but you can always improve and that is what is happening now. My plan is to put out a new Savoy Brown album in the next year or so. That’s another reason to release You Should Have Been There because it keeps people aware that you’re still around.
KP: Do you have your songs pretty much finished before you go in the studio or are they more loosely formed and then tightened up in the studio?
KS: I have them pretty much finished. The band and I also rehearse the songs before we record so we pretty much know exactly what we’re going to do. But even at that point, there can be changes. There was a track on Witchy Feeling called “Close to Midnight” that’s an instrumental. It actually wasn’t meant to be an instrumental—the song had vocals, but it wasn’t working. It was just a little bit too soft, but it sounded great as an instrumental. It’s just the nature of things—you go in thinking you have everything bolted down, but you have to adjust and make changes. Most of the time, I like to have everything nailed down. My demos are usually pretty complete, and then the guys come in and we refine the songs some more. I’ve done it all sorts of different ways, but it’s good to go in the studio knowing we have quality songs that we worked on, and we’re not just hoping some fairy dust is sprinkled in the studio (laughs).
KP: And it costs money to record in a studio.
KS: That’s another reason to do it the way I do it. I produce all the albums myself and I know how to bring it on a budget. It’s great to go into a studio with nothing in mind and play the rock star kind of thing but those days ended for me in 1970s (laughs). I’m pretty self-contained—I can produce, I can write, I can play, so I don’t need that many people on the outside. Obviously, it’s not all me—you have to have the right studio, the right engineer, the right band, and everybody else to help finish it off. But by and large, I’m not bringing in outside writers, I’m not bringing in outside producers, I’m not bringing in outside arrangers—I’ve learned how to do these things over the years.
KP: When you write songs, do the lyrics come first or does the music?
KS: A good song depends on the lyrics. When you have a good lyric, the song could be anything—it could be a country song, it could be a pop song, a blues song, you can mold it any way you want, so it’s all down to the lyrics. I write every morning, and that’s the first thing I do. I keep my antenna up all the time—what people are saying, what people are reading, looking for something you can use in a song. You have to always be in that sort of perpetual artistic state of mind. Nothing might be happening for two weeks, but you are in that state of mind anyway, and so eventually something happens. On top of that, I’m always listening to music because I’m looking for inspiration. Once you’ve got a lyric, then sometimes you don’t understand the lyric tones you’ve just written down. You don’t realize it should be a slow blues, you don’t realize it should be an up-tempo song or a ballad, or what have you. Sometimes it takes a while to understand the song that you’re doing. So many of the songs do morph into one thing or another. Sometimes you write lyrics down and then it’s done, but other times, a song could go through half a dozen transformations. The writing is important. I enjoy the writing. I start with the lyric, and once I’ve got the lyric, I start jamming around, and then I realize it goes along very nicely with that and then you bring in your own individuality to try to make it somewhat more interesting.
KP: Let’s talk about a couple songs off You Should Have Been There. The first song, “When It Rains,” is from the album Strange Dreams that came out in 2003.
KS: Yeah that’s right. It has a very nice cool riff. That’s another thing when I write that I like to have a musical hook, you know, a good riff. I may have had the riff and the lyrics, and I just meld them together.
KP: I’m no songwriter, but what I have heard from songwriters is that the song tries to tell you what it wants to be, and it’s up to you to figure it out.
KS: It’s very true. Certainly, I’m not a songwriter like a singer songwriter type of guy—those guys just amaze me. I’m just a blues-rock guy. But that’s difficult to do, let me tell you, because it’s all been done before so you got to figure out some way of doing it. That’s the hard thing with blues rock because the boundaries are set within the blues framework. Essentially all the stuff I write are blues songs; it just so happens that I might rock out a bit. So, there are parameters for blues songs that you have to write within, and I think a singer songwriter has very little parameters to worry about—you can sing about fried tomatoes if you want to, but you can’t sing about fried tomatoes in blues (laughs).
KP: Tell us more about the parameters you have to operate within a blues framework.
KS: Most songs are about relationships—Bob Dylan has written millions of songs, and a lot of those are about relationships—but it’s especially true with the blues. And with blues, you have a 12-bar framework and a form to work within. It’s a about finding something we all know about but saying it a little bit differently. One of the songs off the Witchy Feeling album is a bayou song. How do you write a bayou song—it’s all been done! It’s great fun to be able to say something within the parameters of the genre to write about. Like the lead-off track from Witchy Feeling, “Why do you do Hoodoo Me?” Well, it’s a hoodoo song, and surely, they have all been done before. I like writing a song with the genre we all know and the imagery we’re all familiar with but give it a completely fresh take. It’s the same with guitar playing—can you bring something fresh to it? That’s the challenge for me in blues rock is to is to say or play something fresh.
KP: I had a lot of fun last year when Witchy Feeling came out in telling people, “Why are you Hoodooing Me?”
KS: (Laughs). You know, it could be an everyday phrase.
KP: “Hellbound Train” is on the new live record, and the original goes all the way back to 1972. On the studio album, the song ends quite abruptly, almost like a train jumping off the track. What was your thinking in the studio at the time?
KS: It’s such a strong symbolic song. My brother came up with the idea when we were in the studio—let’s just end it. I’m always open to suggestions, and I thought it was a cool idea and worth trying. It was pretty wild at the time, let me tell you.
KP: You have a nice guitar conversation with David Malachowski on “Poor Girl” off the live album, where the two of you go back and forth with short solos.
KS: Dave and I used to do that—he is an excellent guitar player. That’s a song I still do. There are certain songs that you can’t or don’t want to get rid of, but at the same time, you want to breath some new life into them.
KP: My girlfriend and I saw you last year, and Savoy Brown was a three-piece band. Is that still the case?
KS: Yes, we are. I keep thinking I want to expand but the current band has such great chemistry. Every time I think about adding to the band, it all comes back to the fact that it’s a fantastic band. I don’t see that changing unless I get really old and need another guitar to back me up (laughs).
KP: I’m sure you don’t want to mess up a good thing, either.
KS: Well, that’s the other thing. A band is all about chemistry and it’s a miraculous thing. Anybody can be hugely successful, but if you don’t have that chemistry, then you’re going nowhere. Once you get that chemistry, it’s quite amazing. We’ve got the Beatles to thank for that.
KP: Savoy Brown has been around for over 50 years. You must take some pride with your longevity, but maybe some surprise too, because at the time the band started, I’m sure you didn’t think you would do Savoy Brown for 50 years.
KS: Certainly, some surprise. It is odd, but to have a long career, it’s like having a long life. It’s pretty cool because it gives you a chance to evaluate, it gives you a chance to change, it gives you a chance to grow, and it gives you a chance to mature. I think having a long career has given me a chance to do all those things. I think I’ve grown, certainly as a person, and I would like to think I’ve grown musically as well. It’s a two-edged sword, though, because you realize you’ve got more time behind you than you have in front of you. That’s a very sobering thing because I’m going to have to start to get ready for what’s to come. Right now, I think I’m at the last turn before the final stretch, because when you go down the final stretch, you’re going to be kind of ready for it. For a career like mine, it’s been a lot of heartache, but it’s like climbing the mountain. You climb the mountain, and it’s a killer, but you get to the top and you get that exhilarated feeling of being at the top. And it feels pretty good, to tell you the truth.
KP: I know Savoy Brown is going into the studio this year. What is next for you in addition to that?
KS: Yes, we’ll go into the studio this year, and we’ll have a new release next year. In between recording and releasing a new album, I’ll probably release one or two more older Savoy Brown records and do a few dates. My schedule is lighter this year—I’m giving myself a bit of a break and I’m enjoying it.
KP: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, and best of luck with the new live album and the album you will be recording.
KS: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
For more information about Kim Simmonds: