Martin Simpson Interview 2019 talking about his new album “Rooted” and his love for music
Nick Cody: Hi, this is Nick. I’m with Martin Simpson and I believe you’re going to start by playing us a track from your latest album.
Martin Simpson: Yes, from the album Rooted, this is called Ken Small.
Nick Cody: Wow. There’s an amazing density of information in that song.
Martin Simpson: There is.
Nick Cody: What’s the starting point for something like that?
Martin Simpson: I had a little bit of information about this place, Slapton Sands in Devon. I went there at some point. I guess it would have been around 1990 or something. I had a trip there and I was told that this awful thing had happened in the Second World War. By that time, the information was out of what had happened, but it had only very recently been revealed.
In 2014, I went back there and I was walking on the beach and at Slapton Sands and thinking about this story that I’d been told. The first swallow of spring flew over my head, and so I wrote a song called Dark Swift and Bright Swallow, which is about the place. It alludes to the place and it alludes to what happened there. But it’s basically about what these birds do for us because they come back year after year. They come; they leave us; they come back, so it was about that. I went back down there and I sang the song that I’d written for them if you like. The local people really responded in a very positive way to the fact that I’d written a song about their place that they loved. One guy in particular, Dean Small, the next time I went down there, he came to the gig and he brought a mandolin to show me and he brought a book to show me. The book was written by his father who was Ken Small. That’s where this story really kicks off into what became the second song. Ken Small was a policeman actually to start with from Hull. He moved to live in Immingham, near Grimsby, became disillusioned with the police force for various reasons.
Martin Simpson: He became a wig salesman and a hairdresser. He did very well because he was a very smart bloke. Boy, when he did something, he did it with his full attention. He then went on holiday down to this place, Torcross, at the other end of Start Bay, the west end of Start Bay. He found a guest house, which he bought and moved down there just thinking, “This is it. This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do, and I will be happy.” He got down there and had a massive nervous breakdown, just could not get up. A fisherman friend of his said, “You should start to beach combs.” He started to beach comb and found amazing things, really astonishing things, King James Gold coins. He found a gold clock watch face, which was just unbelievably ornate, from a pocket watch, and diamond rings and all sorts of things and shrapnel on an English holiday beach.
Martin Simpson: Turned out that in 1943 that whole area had been evacuated so the Americans could practise for the D-day landings. April 27, 1944, they did a thing called Operation Tiger, which involved sailing a big curving flotilla of landing craft, carrying amphibious tanks, trucks, ammunition, fuel, you name it, from Lyme Bay to the east where Lyme Regis is, so from Dorset in a curving line into Start Bay and Devon. It was alas very mismanaged. There was an English destroyer on the outside of the line, but it was not on the same radio frequency as the Americans I think due to a typo. At one o’clock in the morning, a flotilla of German E-boats, which were motor torpedo boats, very powerful, very fast, attacked the landing craft from the inside of the line. The English went, “Oh, the Americans are using live ammo again.”
Martin Simpson: They had no idea. Anything was amiss. It was pitch black and some miles away. They killed about 1000 men in this very brief attack. Then they were gone because these things did 40 knots, incredibly fast and powerful. The whole thing was hushed up. It was completely hushed up. It was basically for morale and in terms of letting information out about what was about to happen. It was a complete no-no that it should be allowed to be public, so it was not. It remains, basically not. It’s never formally been revealed what happened there. Ken Small was beachcombing and one night it was a massive storm and the rollers just literally made a cliff out of the beach like that. What was left were a couple of mines and the obvious site of a battle. There were shell cases and shrapnel and you name it, bits of vehicle littered all over this beach.
Martin Simpson: His fisherman friend told him that there was something out in the water, which they’d been snagging their nets on for years and nobody really knew what it was, but they assumed it was to do with this. He sat about discovering what it was and found out that it was a duplex drive amphibious Sherman tank, which basically drove off a landing craft. It had propellers on the back of it. It drove off a landing craft into the water. It had big canvas sides, which kept the water out of it. The idea was that it went along until it got to a certain point where it was on the land, then it dropped the canvass sides. The propellers were no longer functional enough. This one failed and there it was on the sea floor. He said, “Right, well, I’m going to get to the bottom of all this,” literally and metaphorically.
Martin Simpson: He decided he would salvage the tank. He went to the British government and said, “Look, I found this and I would like permission to salvage it.” They said, “No, go away.” He thought, “Hmm, well, that’s not what I expected.” He got in touch with the American government, slightly more pragmatic. They said, “Well, you could salvage it, but in order to do that you’d have to own it.” He said, “Well, what would that cost?” They went, “50 bucks.”
Nick Cody: For a tank.
Martin Simpson: Yeah, for a tank. He bought the tank and then he went on with the salvage idea. It took him 10 years. He got literally no help, nothing but obstruction from the Brits. But in the meantime, he was developing this extraordinary relationship with people in power in the US. He’s talking to the Pentagon and people in the White House on the phone and writing letters. It was very laborious. It was massively expensive. In 1984, he got flotation devices and heavy haulage and he got this tank ready to go. The Army had said they would come and help, so he called up on the morning that he was going to raise the thing from the seabed and said, “Right, I’ve got the heavy haulage and the flotation devices in place so you know, I’m ready for you.” They went, “Well, if you’ve got those, you don’t need us, do you?”
Martin Simpson: They didn’t turn up, and so there was this massive, massive obstacles that he had to over overcome. He went on with his salvage, got it off the sea floor and then hauled it with these massive machines up onto the beach. When he got up to the road, his next next problem was how you get it from there to the place across the road where it was going to stay as a memorial for what had happened. The grease in the tracks of this tank was still there after 40 years. It just rolled itself across the road, which I think is a fantastic image. He’d done it; he’d revealed this story; he’d revealed this thing, and he wrote a book called the Forgotten Dead. Basically after he had done this, he just spent the rest of his life sitting in his car by the tank and people would come and talk to him.
Martin Simpson: There’s a line, the lady from Torquay brought the D-day mandolin, an old lady from Torquay who’d had a guest house, had had American soldiers billeted with her. In the Second World War, the American troops were often given mandolins, mental health, you know. These guys who stayed with her had gone off to Omaha Beach, which was a blood bath. When they came back, they presented her with this mandolin. On the side of it, it had the number of their landing craft. It had the date and where they’d gone to. It said by, “And by the grace of God, we came back.” Excuse me, so the mandolin was engraved with all their names, just scratched with something very sharp. They gave it to her, and as she grew old, she decided she needed to do something with this. She went down and she gave it to Ken as he sat in his car by the tank.
Martin Simpson: It was a real challenge to me to get as much of that information as possible into a brief song. I could have made it a much bigger song, but I didn’t want to. It’s a big enough story. It doesn’t need anything, I don’t think, except what it has, which is the things which will allude to what went on in such a way that if people want to, they can follow it up. They can find out. But I think it tells the story really well. I hope it does.
Nick Cody: Interesting question. There’s a filmmaker, I think it might’ve been Cameron Scorsese, that said, “Movies are never finished. We just release them.” Is there a point with this song or other songs where you go, “That’s it. I’m happy with it,” or is it a case of release? Is there a point where you go, “Yeah, that’s full stop. I’m happy with that”?
Martin Simpson: The really interesting thing about this one for me is that I’d finished the music. I’d recorded a demo of it and I’d done it in the key of F. I’m now singing it in D. I’d done it in a different tuning because I really liked what the guitar was doing, this guitar actually, so I recorded it with bass and electric guitar. I’d got the shape of the song. I actually haven’t finished the lyrics at that point. Then I edited the shape of the song to accommodate the finished lyrics and then I overdubbed drums and cello on it. When I listened, I really like it. It’s on the record. I really like it, and it had to be finished. It had to be done for the record because it was essential to me to have that song on the record and it’s one of the central stories to the record.
Martin Simpson: Having done it, I then was put in a position where I have to do it live and I decided that didn’t want to do it in the key of F. I didn’t want to do it in that tuning. I put it in the key of D now and changed it. Haven’t changed the lyrics and I haven’t much changed the arrangement. What I’ve done is I’ve put a bit more space in it, but was it finished? That record of it was finished. That’s the thing. The song? I hope that song will never be finished because it’s a story that needs to be told.
Nick Cody: A lot of your work, I’ve noticed that there are some really great stories where the listener is literally off somewhere into some other territory.
Martin Simpson: Yeah.
Nick Cody: How much of particularly history, in terms of story telling, informs what you tend to write?
Martin Simpson: I write right about what moves me and what happens to people, what happens to nature, those things move me. My songs tend to have people’s lives in there and they tend to have my experiences with nature and my journeys through the landscape, not journey as, “It’s been a journey.” You understand that. Not that. I think reality informs everything that I do, in a sense, the human experience. I made a record, I suppose it’s nearly 10 years ago now, called True Stories, but I figure I should actually be making True Stories, Volume Six next.
Nick Cody: We’re in this great room here with a huge variety of different instruments. A lot of people might know you primarily from guitar, but I’m looking at electric guitar, Stratocasters, banjos, mandolas, all sorts of strange and curious items. Do certain songs just inspired by certain instruments or how do things tend to marry up?
Martin Simpson: Instruments absolutely inspire songs. An instrument might give you one song; it might give you two songs; it might give you a waggon load of songs. I love these instruments. I love how wacky they are. I love how completely strange some of them are. They all have their voices and they all have something different to offer. Some of them, I don’t keep them for very long. You get something and it will make you right or play in a certain way. Then, you know it’s pretty much done, so you move it on. You might sell it; you might trade it for something else’s that’s going to give you something else to do. But also one of the things I do is I work with guitar makers, and indeed other instrument builders, to try and just get better instruments made. I’ve been doing that since I was 20 I suppose. I think it’s a wonderful thing.
Nick Cody: I know some of the guitar makers, but it might be useful just to how they informed again in terms of how you’ve played things.
Martin Simpson: I think that that’s a pretty hard one. I think because I play different guitars by different people over the years, but particularly, for instance, Stefan Sobell, who made this, he’s been the person with whom I’ve had the longest relationship. His instruments sound like me.
Nick Cody: Yeah.
Martin Simpson: They really do. That’s incredible to have somebody who reinforces your voice.
Nick Cody: This one here is a recent one?
Martin Simpson: Excuse me. I’m just going to pick up this errant thumb pick. It’s a very new Martin Simpson model. It’s African black wood, Transylvanian spruce, which I love. It howls in the night and it just has this huge voice. It’s actually very pianistic. You hear absolutely every note. It doesn’t go woof, like maybe an old Gibson. Beautiful sounding guitar, but you go like that and you hear the chord. With this, you hear every piece of the chord. It loves to be whacked. It’s very funny. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to do that, but I just started to go off there, which is what should happen when you play. Exploration.
Nick Cody: We were looking at the earlier one. Can we just have a look at that as a complete contrast?
Martin Simpson: Yeah, absolutely.
Nick Cody: Because I think you could not have two instruments more different, but also that sound fantastic.
Martin Simpson: It’s funny because the tune that I was playing there, it’s called When First Unto This Country. here’s a little tiny instrument, but the very first thing that I played on this was that tune. (singing) Tiny, focused, beautiful, weird thing. It’s interesting to me just singing that song. That that song is such a small song in some ways, but it’s full of detail alluding to this guy’s life what happened to him. That’s what I love about I feel myself in a direct line between a traditional song like that and what I’m doing and what I’m writing. I love to sing songs like that and play around with … What a great tune.
Nick Cody: Anyone who’s been following your music will know that the albums evolve and change. With some artists, which are great, but you go, “It’s kind of nice.” It’s similar to the previous album, but those ever expanding ideas and musical collaborations with people. You had Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr On the new album, you have …
Martin Simpson: I’ve got Nancy and Andy again, but in basically a section with Liz Hanks, who’s a great cello player. I think I’ve worked with a lot of these musicians before. Don Flemons is on there playing bones. Got various wonderful singers involved with it, Ben Nichols playing the bass, John Smith’s playing electric guitar. I’ve got Tom Wright playing drums on this record, percussion, but it’s not just who it is. It’s how you use them and how you get them to play. There’s a number of songs on the record that were just done by rehearsing the songs, really teaching these guys the songs. Liz would go away and write parts and Nancy would improvise and Andy would improvise until we could go in the studio and just sit and play it and play the exact form and performance that I wanted to do, but without putting the vocals because I was suffering with sinusitis the whole way through.
Martin Simpson: It was a remarkable thing to have these people who are so good, that they knew exactly how to play the song, even though I wasn’t singing it. I’d written them the maps. They’re sitting there and looking at it and they know what’s coming. They know where they should be and how they should be and when to drop out and all that kind of thing. Then, we went in and put Ben Nichols, the bass player, who is just fantastic on a lot of that stuff that to give it extra boot and down the bottom end. It’s come out sounding unlike anything I’ve done before really. There’s a lot of stuff in this room right now, which is pushing me in different directions. But it comes down to it, what I do is I play and sing songs. That’s what I’m continuing to do.
Martin Simpson: I haven’t written anything. No, I haven’t finished anything new since I’ve done the record, but I just keep finding things. Let me play you this. Kit and Max and I’ve been driving around [inaudible 00:33:49], like we do. When they’re in the car, we listen to music a lot. I do a lot of my work learning songs when I’m driving. When the three of us are in the car, we might listen to lots of different things. This particular day I think we’d listened to Queen and ABBA, the new album by The Specials.
Nick Cody: Which is probably not what people associate you with.
Martin Simpson: And Emily Portman. Long trip, so we’d gone through all that. Kit put on a live Bob Dylan record and this came on. (singing)
Nick Cody: Thank you so much for agreeing to be part of music for the Head and Heart, its been an absolute pleasure to hear from you. If people want to know more about your music, what’s the best place for them to go and seek you out?
Nick Cody: Thank you so much.