Pittsburgh: Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown by Monica Yasher

Posted on 11/20/2009 by Monica Yasher

" You're not taking notes about life. You shouldn't be. You should be experiencing it."

I had the opportunity of meeting up with Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown. Kim is the only member of Savoy Brown that has had a place in the band from it's inception, forty three years ago, to today. I guess that goes with having the responsibility of forming and maintaing the band. Kim is an accomplished blues guitarist, having been donned on the cover of Guitar Magazine and having his music placed on the Billboard's top 40 charts. He has also become an accomplished acoustic guitarist and painter merging both challenges into one great show concept. But don't be fooled by Kim being placed on the pop charts and painting, Kim is a true bluesman sharing with me that one of his greatest accomplishments is bringing blues music to Britian in a time when blues was not known. Let's see what else Kim told me.

Monica: I read about all this cool stuff you are doing.

Kim: Right.

Monica: Traveling. It looks like you have an electric effort CD and an acoustic CD?

Kim: Yes, that's right. I'm doing both.

Monica: Do you have a favorite?

Kim: Well the electric thing is something that is very deep within me. You know what I mean? I have tried to make an art out of playing the guitar very well all my life . Sometimes I can reach sublime levels playing with that, and I even know that myself. Sometimes, I can't. It's like any kind of art. You really strive to express yourself on the guitar, and not just trying to recreate something that has gone before. I'm not trying to be a guitar God. I'm not trying to do any of those things. I'm really trying to express myself in a deep way. So electric guitar playing is a very deep thing with me and I can't discount that.

Playing the acoustic guitar is, I would probably think, a lot more fun, because I don't have the history of playing the acoustic guitar. When I play acoustic shows, I'm on my own, which I like. It's a challenge for me to play the acoustic and to do all of that, and I think I have a good show and I enjoy doing it.

But, with the electric guitar I put years and years of trying to play this instrument and trying to be the best at it. That's what I'm trying to be. And I'm not saying I AM the best at it. But, I'm trying to be the best at it. I think we should try to do that in anything we do in our life. That's my attitude. If I was building a table, I would build it to be the best table I could make. That's the kind of drive I have with the electric guitar. To be the best; and, when you got that drive, it's good. But because your driven like that, it's not a thing of fun so much. The drive can be fun and tonight when I play people will see me having a blast. But, underneath is all the angst that goes in it cause I'm actually trying to really play that instrument.

In many ways when I was seventeen, I was as good as I am now. I have all the technique in the world now. If you saw me now from then, you would say wow he's a better guitar player. But technique doesn't mean you're any better than when you started playing. These are the things that I am constantly battling with. If I play a slow blues, I'm not just playing a slow blues I've learned ten years ago. I'm playing a slow blues that I learned forty odd years ago when blues was much more current than it is now.

To play the guitar for me, as electric guitar, is often a battle. It flows out of me at nights and that's great. There are other times it doesn't come so easy. To the audience I hope they don't know the difference. To an audience every night is the same. For me trying to play, you just go through these things. I take it very seriously, and when you take something seriously, it isn't just a walk in the park when you are trying to express yourself. In any art type of thing where you are expressing yourself, it's a lot of fun and a lot of hard work at the same time. So, that's a long story but you asked. (he laughs)

Monica: I think that is a great answer. I hear that from more than one guitarist that I love it. It's part of me but it's work. It's work. It surprises me every time. I was so surprised to hear that for as many years as someone like you has been playing the answer I hear, and I will ask you, Do you practice?

Kim: Oh of course!

Monica: That amazes me. I would think you just come and pick up the guitar for shows. I can see from your website that you are still playing around with the equipment, because you want to play with your sound yet. By changing components you can make all new sounds.

Kim: Oh sure. What you are doing, what you are trying is to be the best that you can be. If you are not take it even further, you have to be the best in the world. I'm sure every guitar player is doing the same thing. You have to have that. That's the drive you have to have to even be good. If you don't have that ego that says I'm going to be the best, I'm going to be the best, you won't even be good.

Monica: Do you think there really can be a best? For instance, on American Idol you can love them all but someone has to win. They are all truly a best.

Kim: There can be a best in the sense of history and writers. For instance, BB King is the best because in the end you trace guitar playing and you have to pick some people. You can't say here is a hundred people that we developed through. In the end you have to take BB King as the man where modern guitar was filtered through. That's not to say someone may prefer Freddie King. Someone may prefer Albert King. Someone may prefer Stevie Ray Vaughn. But the fact of the matter is history brings certain people to the top and they are considered the best. There is such a thing as the best.

Monica: Is he your idol?

Kim: I think he has to be the best blues have to say he probably influenced a player in my generation. Yeah. I think BB is the top of the pile and we all learn from him of course. I'm still playing his licks on stage.

Monica: Have you played with him?

Kim: I have never played with him. Strange to say as much as I love BB King and as much as I think he is a total master AND the best. I mean there are people that I have listened to that nobody knows about. Even in this day and age there are guitar players that nobody has a clue that they are my favorite guitar players.

Every guitar player is an idol to someone and does not know it. I could go on and on with influences and they are not all BB King. What you do as a musician…it is extremely important to have the kind of taste that you can recognize the best. There is no point in being a blues guitarist if you don't recognize BB King as the best. If you think that somebody else is the best …you have to know where the tiers of playing exist, and you have to realize...when I started off playing these were the things I differentiated. I had all the right people telling me what to listen to. Those guys were terrific tastemakers. So you grow up and you are able to differentiate the different guitar players. You are able to then to apply them to yourself and what you want to be and how you want to be. It is pointless to try to be the greatest guitar player in the world or trying to be if you're listening to somebody not already there. If you want to be the greatest classical guitarist you got to listen to Segovia. If you haven't then you aren't going to get there because you haven't set your standards up there.

When we started playing in England, we wanted to do all BB King. Now a days it might be incredibly pretentious that you will never be as good as BB King. Well, we all played pretty good you know what I mean, trying to get to that goal. If we didn't have that goal, I know people of my generation before me would never have the audacity to say that we can do that, you know what I mean? Because these players thought we could never be like that. I was young enough to come along and say, Hey I'll pick up the guitar and play that! Everybody around me said I was crazy and I will never play like a blues guy. And, of course I did! So it's my generation that had the audacity to dream and say we can do that. So you have to have those kinds of dreams.

Like today you have to be able say, for some kid that's sixteen, that I will be better than Eric Clapton. I'm going to be the best guitar player in the world. When you got that drive you can get there because it's that kind of drive that sets musicians apart. Some have it. Some don't have it. Some musicians are great because they have the drive to think they can get to the top. Maybe most of them do. I don't know. there's an old joke that every guitar player in the world thinks that he is the best which is of course ridiculous (he laughs!) It's ridiculous! Just ridiculous cause I'm the best! (he laughs even more!)

Monica: Yeah yeah yeah I know! (we both laugh-love his sense of humor!)

Kim: But it is a question of...

Monica: and talent. Even if you have drive you still have to have the core talent, don't you think?

Kim: Well yes I think so. You have to have talent. That can be a confusing as well. Too much talent doesn't mean anything. You have to have a certain amount of talent and then it is what you do with it. You may have an abundance of talent and it is just too much. I wouldn't say so much talent.

You have to have a calling to do it. You just can't say I want to play guitar. You have to have something calling you to play guitar. Now I have many abilities. But, when I started playing I envied certain guitar players because I knew I didn't have qualities that they had. I was never good at swinging. I couldn't swing that much. I may have had an abundance of emotion in playing. But, I couldn't swing too well. I had a problem with my timing. But, I had other things that were good enough to get me going. But, I didn't have the talent that encompassed everything. I had to learn all that as I went along. I was gifted enough in a certain area to be able to turn that into something. I certainly was not as talented as other people around.

I think the most important thing in guitar playing is touch. It is like any artistic thing. You have to have touch. It's almost the same as everything you do. Think about grabbing a pencil. It is all about touch. I can tell immediately if a player can play well. It's how he touches the guitar. It's how he touches the strings. A lot of people have no finesse when they play because they don't have any touch. That's really the most important thing in an instrument,is touch. Can you finesse those strings? Can you make them do what you want? Yes. Touch is the most important thing. You can't teach touch. That is something that you have or you haven't.

A lot of younger musicians can appear to be very very good. You can hide a lot of your faults as a musician. You can hide it. But, you can't hide it forever. So sometimes when a musician gets older, people wonder why they can't play when they get older. It's because they never quite had the touch in the beginning. If you have it, it never leaves you.

Also important is how you listen in your mind. How you hear the sound. And, you can teach yourself to hear the sound. You have to hear the sound very wide and broad. My daughter plays violin. When she was playing at a young age it was a very thin sound. I said to her think of these notes being round and big and warm and solid. As soon as I put those thoughts in her mind those notes came out differently from her violin. So I realize you can think the notes. You can think warm, soothing, big, and those notes will come out. You can teach a lot of that stuff. I don't think you can teach touch. There are a lot of people with technique. It doesn't mean that they have touch. Touch is something where you bring in your feelings.

Monica: Thank you. Let's talk about your career. It looks like you have a star at Hollywood’s Rock Hall of Fame and you will be inducted into the Canadian Blues Hall of Fame this year. What do you think your greatest accomplishment is?

Kim: My greatest accomplishment? I haven't gotten to the point yet...I'm always looking forward so much in my life and things, I have never looked back....That's a very difficult one. (He pauses and contemplates.) I can say that I have been part of a British blues movement that helped transform blues. That certainly is probably one of my musical accomplishments-being part of that scene that helped change the face of music.

Monica: How hard is it to be a musician today?

Kim: For me it's not harder. I am older now and have done it for so long. I have to stay motivated and really talk myself into really doing this, because you've done it all. I think it is really important for someone as myself to keep playing, more so to keep people inspired. People come along and get inspired whether they are musicians or just regular people. They thing if that guy can keep going on, then I can to at something. That's what I got from other musicians. That's what I got from John Lee Hooker. That's what I still get from Buddy Guy.

These are people that I was playing their records when I was thirteen and now I'm sixtyone. You get inspired by people. And, you aren't going to quit or give up. You are going to keep going. That is important to me, because my idols never let me down. I don't think that I should let other people down either. Music is extremely important to us. My idols don't let me down. Never did. I hope to walk in their shoes sometime and do the same thing. The music business has been changed. But, I've never been part of the music business. It was quite an accident that I became successful.

Monica: Why was it an accident?

Kim: Because I just wanted to play blues and play guitar. There was no future in it when I started. It was all Motown. The Rolling Stones became pop stars. There was no blues scene around at all. So when I started, other musicians told me not to do it because I couldn't make a living at it. So, I started a blues band because I loved the music and I wanted to play guitar.

Before I knew it, we were suddenly successful and suddenly part of this big blues scene. That was wonderful. And then the seventies came along. Before you know it, it kept growing and growing and you were a rock star and all this kind of thing. That was all and well and I embraced it. It was a blast and a lot of fun.

But, I have been able to come back to square one and this is the reason I am in play guitar and play music and be serious about what I do. There is no difference now to me then there was back when I was nineteen. When I was nineteen, I was working seven nights a week in a big music scene. But, I don't want to work seven nights a week anymore. I'm sixty one. I've done it already. Where I'm at right now, it is perfectly good. For someone else it would be a different experience. This feels good to me right now. I did it all and I don't want to do it all again. So, I'm very happy and it's a good scene for me.

I certainly know it is difficult for musicians today. The economy is hard. Times are tough. I managed my own interests for many years. I have always managed my life and music to accommodate changes in life. Maybe that's why I am able to keep going. I don't expect anybody to give me a living. I'm not chasing after carrots or anything. I try to draw back from public relations and exposure.

Monica: Well thanks for talking to me! (We laughed)

Kim: This is fantastic. But it's my way of surviving in the business.
So the economic downturn and the music business collapsing, with the young people doing all the ipod stuff now, is not affecting me. I never plugged into the business. It doesn't affect what I do. When I play tonight, I will be playing to a couple of hundred people who are not interested in mainstream music. They are interested in musicians as myself. That's who I cater to, because that's who I am. Really the events around me don't affect my music.

Monica: I hear in Europe they are a more attentive audience than the American audiences. What are your thoughts on that?

Kim: I enjoy playing for American audiences. I understand American audiences. It's my experience. Every musician has a different experience. You have to make people listen to you. You have to get up there. I started playing to a dance crowd playing the blues. I was one of the first people to go into a club where no one ever heard of the blues. Somehow you have to get your music across to people. And, we were playing heavy blues. It went from that, to all of a sudden that audiences were riveted. You'd play and they would clap. (He claps.)

Monica: Did you like that?

Kim: You don't like or dislike it, because you're doing it. My experience, you can't do it and take notes at the same time. You can only look back years later. It's a living experience. You're not taking notes about life. You shouldn't be. You should be experiencing it. Looking back you can say that happened or this happened. You should be so engrossed in what you are doing. You are playing and performing and taking it all in. And, again, this isn't an ego thing. You are doing this for something else driving you. If you have an ego, you will never last forty odd years. You got to be doing this for something way beyond your ego.

Monica: Do you think your acoustic audience is the same as your electric audience?

Kim: The acoustic audience is a different animal altogether. Somewhat the same. I don't think the Savoy Brown crowd would come to my acoustic performances. A lot of people don't like acoustic. It's a bit softer for them. It's a different animal altogether. I understand that. Again, the acoustic thing, I get a lot out of it. It's a great way to express yourself. But, you are playing to a smaller audience, because it only appeals to a certain kind of audience.

Monica: You just didn't pick up an acoustic guitar twelve years ago? Right? You have been playing that all along with your electric?

Kim: Kind of. A little bit. I am an electric player. For promotional things you would have to play acoustic and I wasn't happy with my performance on those promo things. So that started me to think I should get better at this. It's a real challenge to play on your own on stage acoustically. It's not easy to get up there with an acoustic guitar. It's like being a comedian.

Monica: There's no one to cover up? With the band someone can have your back?

Kim: It's great. I like to engage the audience. It's a whole fantastic thing.

Monica: I read you create instrumentals. As a songwriter do you pick up the acoustic guitar and start to write? What do you do?

Kim: I do different things. Piano, acoustic, harmonica. After all these years I think I realize the song resides in the lyrics. I think the lyrics are more important. I think the average person relates to the lyric more than anything else. Now a days I concentrate on the lyric. I know a lot of my nonmusical friends will say that's a good song. I've come to realize they related to the lyrics. If the lyrics speak to them, it can be almost any kind of music behind it to a degree. If you write a good lyric, a country artist, pop artist or blues artist can sing it. A good lyric can be melted into any kind of musical format That's my thing now, the lyric. I think Bob Dylan, from what I hear, plays completely different chords to songs on stage.

Monica: He does.

Kim: Completely different chords. Now a days a lyric is very, very important. If I can get a good lyric, it is fairly easy to put it into a music format.

Monica: You tried acoustic, which was new for you. What else do you want to try?

Kim: I have a new career now. Painting. My new acoustic CD has one of my paintings. That's what I do every day now. Right now on the road, I'm missing painting. I paint everyday.

Maureen: Acrylics, oils?

Kim: Both actually, I've done watercolors in the past. Now there is so much. When you paint you realize how little time is left. Because there is so much to do. At my stage in life, it's giving me what should I say, understanding of my age and what I have left to do. There is such a lot to learn in painting and so little time. The summer goes by now and I can't paint in the summer. I can paint in the fall. But, it goes just like that. Now into winter. You constantly, even the change in weather, is a constant reminder of how little time there is left. So that's my new thing. I'm doing some art shows with my acoustic playing. That's my new career.

Maureen: What brings you to this?

Kim: Certainly the older I got the slower my career has gotten, like anything else in life. When you are younger and you are on the scene, you are working all the time. Careers slow down for everybody. It's during those slow points, when you play a couple of nights a week, you ask yourself what are you going to do with your free time?

If you are a restless type artist person, you have to find something else to do to express yourself. And, so I would start writing, painting, other artistic things to express myself. At this stage, playing the guitar in my front room doesn't do the trick. I have to have people to play to. Where with painting, you can do that in your front room. You can paint in a solid environment. You don't need an audience to watch you paint. So the painting and the writing became a way of me to fill in those gaps.

At some time, I may retire. Not planning to. But, I am artistically driven and I have to fill it in with something. That's how it started, by trying to fill in some gaps that came about as I grew older. I think if I didn't feel it with something, I would have an empty feeling.

Maureen: The one you titled, Invitation, how did you come to that?

Kim: Is that an abstract?

Maureen: Yes.

Kim: That's very odd that people like the abstracts, because I started to do the're not quite sure if you're faking it, 'cause everyone can slap paint on it. So someone like myself, you do have certain doubts, but you are driven to do it because you like to do it and you think you can do it. All of a sudden you are doing this abstract and the most important thing is pleasing yourself and producing a quality professional product. You don't want to create something that is amateurish and dullish. What is a professional quality abstract? Who is to say what that is? But in your mind you say to yourself that looks good to me.

This is a big surprise to me, because my guitar paintings I thought would communicate to people. They are guitars. It is an expressive piece recognized that it is a guitar. What surprised me when we started to show the paintings to people in the art world, just to get some feedback, people started picking on the abstracts. That really surprised me. It was like WOW. People like these.

People discussed with me expressive lines and balance. I was trying to make it a balanced visual thing. It was still a surprise to me that people liked them. It is so exciting when you can do something abstract and people like it. It is not unlike a guitar solo. A guitar solo is completely an abstract thing that you put together and people enjoy it.

So, it' I'm doing landscapes which is a real challenge because there is much more technique involved. You have to dry the paint in a certain way. I'm working from sketches I draw and bring back to the house and then paint. It's like the acoustic guitar. It's a challenge. Yeah I can paint a guitar. A very simple guitar. I'm not saying that I am any good. But, they come very easy because I know a guitar. I'm not painting Les Paul's photorealistic. I'm painting a guitar with a feeling. It's part of who I am. They come fairly simply. Some of them bad. Some of them good. They do come simply. With anything that comes simply, you put it to the side. You want a challenge. So you ask what I can't do. That's the landscape. The next thing will be portraits. I'm starting to want to do that and that will be an enormous challenge!

Monica: You are at a different place. When we started this interview you said you wanted to be the best guitarist to be heard. When you talk about painting, you are doing it for you.

Kim: I didn't pick up on that. It's nice you're firing it back at me because I'm learning a bit about myself.

Monica: Different place. It's for you. I love that concept of your paintings behind you as you do your acoustic sets. What a cool idea to tour with.

Kim: Yeah I know. I have a great back drop. The art thing I don't pursue as hard as my music. My main focus is touring and inspiring people.

Monica: One last question, who would you thank for your musical career?

Kim: My brother. My older brother. One of those guys that brought me up on music. He was always...made me listen to the best music. Focused me on the real good stuff. Then he became my manager and managed me for years. There was good and bad, believe me it wasn't all roses, like any family. But, in the end, I would have to thank him.

Monica: Thank you Kim for a great interview.

Kim: Thank you.

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Copyright © 2009 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.
Photograph Copyright © 2009 Maureen Ceidro. All Rights Reserved

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