You’d be forgiven for expecting a classically-trained purveyor of avant-garde electronic chamber pop to be a little on the austere side.
Yet, even in the nerve-jangling surroundings of a central London pub full of paper-hatted office goons out on the company Christmas do, Simon Bookish is effusive, articulate and refreshingly cheerful.
He’s clearly proud of his latest album Everything/Everything; and with good reason: we don’t let just anything into our Top 50 Albums of 2008, you know.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, the album is a “big band song cycle about science and information,” meticulously crafted and played almost entirely on classical instruments – and considerably more accessible than anything he’s released to date.
This is a man, remember, whose last album centred around spoken monologues over waves of creepy electronica, and whose solo live act frequently overstepped the traditional cosy boundaries between artist and audience. “I remember a gig years ago where I ended up throwing a chair at the audience.” He looks sheepish. “But I don’t think I’m going to do that again. That’s out of my system now.” Just as well for the office goons obliviously enjoying their party at the next table.
Of all the proliferation of ideas on Everything/Everything, one overarching theme stands out for Bookish. “I knew this album would be about the idea of a flood of information, but I didn’t want it to be a depressing thing, for the tone of it to be obstructive or preachy. The atmosphere was meant to be ambiguous – that all of this stuff just exists, without being judgmental. The album is just full of things I’m interested in anyway. It’s about the joy of interest.”
Things he’s interested in: like science for example. Scientific themes, images and vocabulary run consistently through the album; and at first glance these are delivered with a straight face, from the cover art which references the periodic table to the imagined dialogue between Einstein and American visionary Buckminster Fuller on Carbon. But, he explains, “there’s ambiguity there too. It all balances on the seesaw of truth and fiction. The album is riddled with bad science… there’s a lot of half truths and lies on there.” Hence we get references to Ada Lovelace pioneering the practice of computer programming in 1853, “when actually she’d been dead a year.” Bookish giggles. “It might be a song cycle about science and information… but it’s so full of lies that you’re not going to learn anything from it.”
I ask who he is trying to confound with this seemingly capricious wrongfooting. “Erm, myself?” he says, but there’s evidently a method behind the mischief. “You have access to so many sources of information now, that there is always an element of untruth about them. Science is full of myths that are constantly being exposed as just that… so it’s not so different from advertising or any other form of information. It’s thrilling that people are interested in science, but on another level you realise that something like science is just as ambiguous as everything else.” Take that, Wikipedia.
In the way he pulls in data from hundreds of different sources, builds them into dizzying lists, blurs the boundaries between fact and faction, and somehow draws an emotional impact out of the resulting concoction, I’m reminded of Joyce and Eliot. And for Bookish, the Modernist creed helps to explain the mystery of how very different an artist he used to be. “Was it a conscious evolution? Well, maybe half conscious and half the fact that I’m very easily bored. I’m an old-school Modernist really – the idea of art for me is that you do something new every time. I just don’t see the point of doing the same thing twice.”
Everything/Everything sounds warm and alluring, and again he puts this down to circumstance rather than a conscious decision to create something more accessible. “Yes it sounds more organic, but that’s mainly because it has live instruments and no programming.” Tempting fate, I ask if could see himself taking a step into the mainstream. “I don’t see why not, but at the moment I’m not writing pop songs.” Could you write a pop song, though? “Yes, anyone could. Ten monkeys with ten typewriters could.” So how would he respond to more attention, more popularity; fame even? Not an appealing prospect. “I don’t expect it and I can’t imagine wanting to be a celebrity.” He thinks about the prospect for a moment. “No… I think it’s a sordid existence.”
The mainstream pop world certainly doesn’t hold much appeal for him. We reflect on the career of Scott Walker, the patron saint of sacrificing commercial success in the name of pure, uncompromising art. “I love those last two albums of his. Now he’s first and foremost an astonishing composer, but he’s had that really weird journey because he really was a teen idol pop singer and has very deliberately tried to escape from that.”
Unlike Scott Walker, Simon Bookish has never been a pop idol; but they do share a refusal to actively court popularity, which leaves them with far more options to choose from, and a satisfaction which comes purely from the act of making the best music they can. “I genuinely don’t think about how popular it will be: I think about how much meaning I can imbue something with and whether people get it. That’s what I fret about, what keeps me awake at night is that no-one’s going to get it.” That people understand what he’s doing is most important: he doesn’t give the impression of having lost much sleep over whether people like it or not.
He’s certainly serious about making the right decisions. He won’t play gigs in “horrible venues in horrible places” – presumably ones where the audience are more likely to throw chairs at the artist than vice versa. And he pays the bills by working in a library rather than taking on work as a jobbing musician working on mediocre projects: “I turn down rubbish… I’d rather do a genuinely rubbish job than a rubbish music job.”
In the light of this single-mindedness, it’s interesting to hear him enthuse about working with a team of other musicians to create Everything/Everything, in stark contrast to his self-penned, self-recorded, self-performed earlier work. “I missed collaborations and missed working with humans. On this album that’s what I wanted to do: to ditch the programming and work with people again. In the last five years I’ve not been focused on performing with musicians, and it’s lovely for me to be on stage with musicians now. It’s really nice to be part of a band again when it had been absent for my life for so long. I’m rediscovering the thrill of proper music making. It feels new again.” And perhaps this is the true key to the new Simon Bookish sound.
He’s enjoying himself a lot at the moment. “This is different material and a different attitude,” he says. “There used to be a deliberate emotional and intellectual wall, but this album is more of a mystery.” And, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a mystery well worth investigating.