Interview with Simon Cowe
|Si pictured at Van Dyke Club, Exmouth Road, Plymouth, early 1970`s (source: internet)|
RG: After researching through old tour programmes, photos, albums etc. I compiled the following list of guitars you used with Lindisfarne. May I ask you to enhance/correct the list:Gibson ES 345, Gibson Barney Kessel, Gibson SG (50's Les Paul), Ovation, Stratocaster (non Pre-CBS), Mosrite, Yamaha FG 3000 Jumbo acoustic, Bozo, Harmony Mandolin, Gibson J55 Jumbo acoustic.
Si: That was no Barney Kessel! That was my old (something like) E120 cello style Gibson with piano wires for strings. It had a horrendously stiff action and was difficult to get, never mind keep, in tune. I swapped it along with £100, for an open back "The Windsor" 5 string banjo (which I still have) in Camden Market, London, in 1972. For a while I played a Gibson 332½ - a hybrid between a 330 and a 335 - wired like a stereo but with a solid block of wood up the centre of the body, which helped reduce feedback.
I just sold the SG last year. It had been refinished some time before I bought it (reducing its value by 50%) and I had put Grover machine heads on to replace the stiff, clunky, ineffective original ones. Before I sold it, I managed to find and refit the original Gibson tremolo and Tunomatic bridge, but it was pretty beaten up, including a snapped and repaired neck, courtesy of lan "Walter" Fairbairn during my JTL days. We were coming onstage one night and Walter, in an unusually exuberant mood, managed to wrap a foot around my guitar lead, sending it into what, for me, became a slow motion cartwheel ("no-o-o-o-ooo") ending in a mess of chunks, splinters and metal spaghetti on the floor. Nice original case, though. In spite of its multiple injuries, after repairs, Mark Knopfler called it "the nicest Gibson neck I've ever played."
Ovation - no, never. The rounded plastic back means they keep slipping out of your grip when you try and play them. Alan was the Ovation man.
I got the Strat after becoming frustrated with trying to get more variety into my Gibson guitar sounds in order to fit in with the ever increasing range of genres (including a few songs which nodded in the direction of jazz) into which the Lindisfarne repertoire was moving. All I knew, on the day I went guitar shopping, was that I wanted an electric guitar with a nice action, that you just plugged in anywhere and with minimum of twiddling, would sound good in a variety of styles. That really only left one choice, and it didn't matter to me about the year, colour or country of manufacture. I spent the whole day in London's West-End music shops playing every Strat I could until I found the one that "felt" the best.
I just sold the Mosrite, too - to a guy in Japan who paid full price even though he only really wanted it for the tremolo & pick ups - less than 24 hrs after it went on sale on the web. I bought it in NY circa 1972. I was wandering around a music shop and noticed this weird guitar leaning against a wall. "Oh, that's not for sale - it's in for repairs", says the shop owner. Can't remember how, but I walked out with it half an hour later, $100 lighter.
The Yamaha wasn't mine, either. Alan again. The model number FG 3000 that you refer to may have been the instrument presented to Alan in Tokyo (1973) by "Mr.Yamaha" - one of the big bosses of the company. It was a hand made pre-production prototype and I remember "Mr. Yamaha" explaining why the company was about to dominate the world acoustic guitar market. "Yamaha have bought all the seasoned timber used in guitar making, so for the foreseeable future, we will make the best guitars". What can you say? The Harmony mandolin was a good workhorse, and recorded well acoustically in the studio as well as having a bright, clean electric stage sound. Jacka and I had a matching pair at one point.
The Gibson J55 is a beauty and I miss it. It's the acoustic on the track "Woman", amongst others. I recently bought a Yamaha FG331 to tinker about on at home. Its OK but doesn't come near the robust roundness of the Gibson when it comes to character and oomph.
RG: What about any effect boxes used? Electric Harmonix Echo Flanger, Chorus
Si: EHEF - yes and a Boss compressor in earlier days. Over the years, as technology advanced. I graduated to a Yamaha FX500 effects box. Every conceivable effect could be mixed into one patch and the machine could be programmed so that a different sound for each song in a set could be sequenced into it and controlled by a footswitch.
RG: String size ?
Si: Different strings for different tunings. My standard electric gauges were 11, 12, 18(p), 28, 44, 56 if I remember correctly (thousandths of an inch).
RG: How were the acoustic instruments picked up for amplification ? Did you often have problems with feedback ?
Si: At first, we used to play acoustically into mikes on stage, but the feedback problems soon put paid to that. I found the "Lawrence Silencer" a good, rugged, easy to fit pickup (it just clips into the sound hole) giving a fair bit of acoustic character to the amplified sound. Feedback was almost eliminated.
RG: When you moved to Canada, what happened to your guitars and equipment?
Si: I continued gigging with Lindisfarne for some months after emigrating to Canada in 1993. So I kept all my equipment based in the UK. When I finally said goodbye to the band in the summer of that year, I left behind my gigging equipment, in case of possible future sorties. I did manage to bring one interesting instrument to Canada with me. After my brother Marcus died, I inherited his Hamer electric. Marcus was guitar roadie for one of Iron Maiden's guitarists. I think his name was Glen. (Marcus once said "I call them Ron Maiden, but don't ever tell them that!"). Glen had designed a custom configuration instrument and asked Marcus to pick it up from the factory - "Oh, and while you're there, get yourself a nice custom-made one, too." It's all right for some, eh? Marcus asked Hamer to make him a cross between a Gibson and a Fender. Something with a switch that transforms it from an SG to a Strat. The guitar I now have is a fine attempt at that marriage. Fender style fret wire but with a flatter, wider, thinner neck than a Fender with 2 Strat type and 1 humbucker type p/us. It'll never sound exactly like a Fender or a Gibson but it's a good effort.
RG: Alan Hull has been pictured a few times with a cheap Yamaha acoustic. Was there a special reason to rely on it or why didn't he move to a 'better' one? Was it for B&F when he moved to an Ovation?
Si: My guess is that those pictures were of his "Clear White Light dedicated" guitar. Don't recall when he got the Ovation.
RG: Way Behind You (BT1), Go Back (DD), Plankton's Lament (DD), Uncle Sam (FOTT), Dedicated Hound (The News), Positive Earth (BT3), Reunion (although credited to the whole band).
You must admit, these aren't too many songs to be written by the main guitarist of the band over a 20 year period. How come? I imagine there must be many more songs written but that remain unrecorded. How many of your compositions still exist in some form ?
Si: Those were the tracks that got finished. Yes, there are many odds and sods of half finished songs lying around on tape somewhere. One day maybe
RG: Recently I received various copies of articles from the early 70's (e.g. Sounds in 73) where Alan told Jerry Gilbert " it was down to Si who used to take a long time to tune up, as a result me and Jacka had to talk" or this one from Rod " we had so many different guitars in different tunings that we lost a lot of pace on gigs"
Si: There were lots of tuning breaks in the early days. Different tunings all had to be done by ear, and "on the fly". Very frustrating.
at a festival in Portsmouth, in May 1993 - by Julia Revell
RG: "Uncle Sam" was re-born during the "Untapped & Acoustic phase" of the band and became part of the setlist for several years. The main guitar lines were played by Rod on his Dobro using an open tuning. But when that song was performed by you in the early days, was it played as open tuning too?
Si: Yes. D A D F# A D - capo on 3rd fret.
RG: Were there other songs with a non-standard tuning? I remember that you told me that CWL is dropped D ( = both E's are tuned down to D ), although today the band play it in standard tuning. (Apart from Rod, of course, who seems to have forgotten that there is an EADGBE tuning at all!).
Si: We sometimes used "Rab Noakes tuning" - Normal tuning, but drop the 2 'E's down to 'D's, as you mention re CWL. "On my own", "Turn a Deaf Ear".
RG: The mystery of the long version of "January Song". Only a few weeks ago, a friend of mine Michael Clayton discovered a Norwegian album containing an almost 6 minute long version of JS that contains a wonderful middle part with a great electric guitar solo. Do you remember this one?
Si: No, but I'd love to hear it, please. [will send Si a copy. RG]
RG: Ok, it's 30 years ago, but why didn't it make the final/official album and - even more strange - how come that out-take found its way to Norway?
Si: I don't know, but it might just have something to do with Paul Karlsson (sp?), an Oslwegian entrepreneur responsible for booking Lindisfarne several times in Scandinavia and propagating Smurfs.
RG: You contributed far more to the songwriting in Jack the Lad - 10 tracks across the first three albums. Was this band more suited to your style of writing? "The Old Straight Track" in particular is a great album.
Si: We were still searching for a direction in the early JTL days. "Old Straight Track" certainly went in a strange direction but I think that album was the "funnest" (to use a local expression) time of my musical life. We were pushing the boundaries of our progressive-folk roots and taking Fairport/Steeleye type liberties with the arrangements.
RG: "Downtown with Brethren". That was the title of yet another interview Jerry Gilbert (Sounds) did with Rod in 1973. At the time Rod told him that the new band has already booked some gigs but does not yet have a name. It turned out to be "Jack The Lad", but what other names did the band consider? Si: That particular name searching session (they can drag on for weeks!) was over pretty quickly. The phrase was on our minds at that time as we had just returned from an Australian tour with Status Quo, who would regularly take the piss out of us hick-geordies-with-new-found-worldliness and bait us by singing "In-ter-na-tional Jack the Lad - CLICK CLICK" to the theme from "77 Sunset Strip" - a '60s TV series.
[Readers - if you are too young to remember how the tune goes, ask your parents. Or your grandparents. (Ed.)]
RG: How different was it playing in Jack the Lad ? Did you feel you had a different role in the band ?
Si: Since Rod & Ray & I had been so closely associated, and Mitch was one of the lads anyway, the transition for me & I think all of us was hardly noticeable. We were off in a new musical direction. But off together. I think we all more or less assumed the same roles as in Lindisfarne.
RG: What do you recall of the appearances by Jack the Lad on The Old Grey Whistle Test ? Do you know if the Beeb still have them or were they wiped along with so much other classic music TV ?
Si: Just that there was a PAYOLA scandal with that programme at that time. We learned years later that it may even have been that one or more members of our "office" may have offered by way of an inducement a pint of beer or otherwise and notwithstanding the foregoing perhaps a lunch at the Bombay Indian restaurant to certain BBC executives for the purposes of a securing a blah blah
Don't know re tapes.
RG: 7:84, the 'theatre group' released only one single / EP. What kind of music was it ?
Si: This from a UK government figure:
7% of the population of the UK owns 84% of the wealth. 7:84 was a touring socialist theatre company. The most important thing about the music in these productions is that it needs to tell the story. It makes for more "show" type music than pop/rock. The music was written by anybody in the company who could contribute something positive, on a collective basis, overseen by Musical Director Mark Brown - (also the M.D. from Monty Python) - from whom I learned a lot.
RG: Some time ago I received a video containing a copy of "Run for Home" on "TOTP" where one Si Cowe was wearing a very colourful, remarkable pullover - probably common in the late 70's. What happened to it?
Si: There was a girl in one of the London markets making these great jumpers using her imagination and a knitting machine. It must have been one of those. (It fell apart).
RG: For B&F it took a full day to find the right sound for Ray's snare drum. Did it take as long to find the right guitar sound?
Si: Guitar? 5 minutes. Snare drum? Always takes a day. The recording engineer has a deal with the pub down the road. (The musicians are going to end up down there on the first day anyway).
RG: In the later years you moved more and more from guitar to keyboard. Was it only on stage or did you play some parts in the studio too?
Si: Studio, too. Most enjoyable was that daft C'mon Everybody album. Recreating the old cheesy organs and violin triddles. Great fun.
RG: Who finally decided what keyboard part (on stage) was played, and by whom?
Si: As ever, a decision like that would be made by the band, but, usually, who-played-what was more down to logistics.
RG: Is there one gig that you could choose as the best ever ? Or the worst, where everything went wrong ? Or the strangest?
Si: Fortunately for me there were lots of best-evers (for different reasons) and I think that even the worst-evers get better over time! The strangest, funnily enough, was probably the most recent (see last Q. in this section).
RG: A highlight of the "C'mon Everybody" live shows was your version of "Mr Bassman". Was this your choice of rock'n'roll song when the album tracklist was put together and were any others recorded but not used?
Si: I can't remember who came up with Mr. Bassman - we all chucked in with suggestions at the time. I really fancied doing "the Auctioneer" but I can't do the "widdle you giddle me five fifferty five giddle me" bit. As far as I know, everything we recorded got used. I thought the album should have been called "Teddy Boy's Picnic" but the record company didn't like it.
RG: It has been noticed that you rarely seemed to sign an autograph using your own name. Is it fair to say that you were just not interested in the whole 'celebrity/fame' aspect of being part of a successful band? Just in it for the music?
Si: I cheated once and signed "Isaac Hite" all night when someone suggested it (I thought it was such a good one) but otherwise all different. The celeb/fame thing was useful for opening certain (often brewery) doors, but what I enjoyed most by far, and still miss, was the travelling. I must have already visited a hundred times more places than the average person does in a lifetime.
RG: According to Dave Hill's biography of the band, you started living in Canada while still being a member of the band, often flying across the Atlantic for a single show. Did this cause any serious jetlag problems? And was it financially viable?
Si: It's amazing what a couple of matchsticks propping up the eyelids will do when you're trying to convince the audience at the Glasgow Fleadh that you haven't really missed 2 nights' sleep and are doing your 2nd (unexpected) gig of the day 6 hours after the first. Yes, it got confusing living in 2 time zones for a while. I called Ray Laidlaw once (from Canada) and he was extremely polite - thanks, Ray - given that it was 5 o'clock in the morning for him - "Oh, silly me - you're 5 hours ahead, not behind, says I."
As I was funding the trips myself, I ensured that, even if it meant flying cattle class (and it sometimes did), it was cheap. I was booking at the last minute and taking which ever seat was on offer. Sometimes, though, I was getting Toronto-Heathrow-Newcastle (return) on, say, British Airways for $CDN400. Not bad.
RG: During Lindisfarne's first US tour in 27 years, in Summer 1999, you flew to the States to meet up with the lads and even joined them on stage during "Fog" and "Uncle Sam". How did it feel to be back in the band? Maybe a little bit like 'the old days'?
Si: Oh, yes. That was a smart couple of days. A pal of mine, Graham Freed, a pilot who is another expat from my local pub in Toronto - the Feathers - flew me and a couple of mates to see the band in Cincinnati. We took off on a Saturday morning, the day of the gig, in Graham's 4 seater 1973 Aerostar midwing twin engine aircraft. The Ohio customs guys were putting in overtime at the weekend to meet us and gave one of our crew, Brian, a hard time determining whether or not the cigar he had brought from Canada was of Cuban origin (Nobody could work it out so they let us in). Graham parked the plane and we got a cab downtown and visited a couple of fantastic brewpubs before meeting the lads at the private garden party - which was the gig. Had a complete blast of a night and got up at the end for a couple of tunes.
Enjoyed myself so much that as I was strumming along I hardly noticed Mitch mouthing at me during Fog on the Tyne": "Si. Hello. Earth to Si. It's your verse now. Remember?". We ran out of beer near the end of the evening (Americans unprepared for Geordies) so we had a whip round and I was directed to a gem of a local off licence and came back with some of the best beers in the US, which in this day and age of brewing, means the world. It seems I'm still the band's part time beer monitor, too, in my spare time.
RG: Do you still follow what the band is doing since you moved to Toronto? Is the website useful to you?
Si: The website's fab and I'll often have a quick peep just before I jump in the car to work in the morning. Keep up the good work, Reinhard.
RG: What is your opinion of "Here Comes the Neighbourhood"? Si: As a title, it confused me a few times, until I got it. As an album - don't know, haven't heard it yet.
RG: You are now known and 'famous' for running your own brewery. But what about music? Are you still playing? Still writing songs?
Si: I still strum and tickle the ivories a bit. My kids all play so we jam and teach each other things. I'm trying to put together a fundamental recording device on my computer so we can lay some stuff down.
RG: If the band held another 'anniversary' gig at the City Hall, would you consider coming over to appear?
Si: Yes. But it would take a deal with a large corporation to fund it (Lear jet, limo, suite at Claridges, Flying Scotsman then rickshaw to the hotel which would have to have a real ale plungebath, etc.).
RG: Can you tell us more about your role at the brewery ? Each year, more American beers are previewed at festivals in the UK. Have you thought of bringing some over to the Great British Beer Festival?
Si: American?! (I live in Canada). I'd love to come over for the GBBF and promote our beer. If only
For 7 years I operated a "brew on premises" in Toronto. At a brew on premises, customers can come into your shop and make their own beer or wine using your ingredients, equipment and advice. I learned the ropes of the brewing industry by research, experimentation, joining the Canadian Amateur Brewers' Association and pursuing many other beer related activities (festivals, conferences, clubs, brewery tours etc.). I also passed a Beer Judge Certification Programme exam. I am currently a "recognised" judge, but soon hope to become "certified". Hmmm. Now I have moved up to the world of commercial microbrewing. The brewery I work at, Magnotta, is a state-of-the-art 20 hectolitre operation. The brewhouse, tanks, transfer and packaging equipment, sanitation procedures and brewing practices are all of the highest imaginable quality. We have been called "the benchmark brewery". I'm enjoying it immensely.
P.S. "Godisgoode" is the word brewers used for yeast before it was identified. They knew that if they prepared a concoction of sugars from barley malt and let it sit (ferment) for a while, there must have been some agency creating an intoxicating product. Having no idea of its mechanism, they shrugged their shoulders and said "God is good".
P.P.S. Usage of the Magnotta Brewery Logo by kindly permission of Michael Ligas (Operations Manager). Copying, reproducing prohibited without permission.