Following on from our recent look at Simon Bonney’s solo album Forever, Sun 13 were lucky enough to speak to the man himself. The interview took place over Zoom, which is a tricky thing to set up when the people on either end of the call are on opposite sides of the world.
Once connected, Bonney is an engaging and erudite person to interview. His answers to our questions are full and considered, there are pauses as he gives thought to the best way to express himself. As a consequence, his answers are frank and honest.
There is good news for fans of his music, as he and his wife Bronwyn are set to take to the road again to play a selection of the songs he has created over the years. This would appear to be the perfect place to start our interview.
Sun 13: There seems to be a bit of activity on the Crime and the City Solution Facebook page, are things gearing up again for you?
Simon Bonney: “Ah, yes, it seems that we’re going to give it another whirl as a three or four piece, possibly with guests. We’re just sort of trying to work out how to craft a sound with that line-up, we just want to keep it to something that’s manageable in terms of overheads. It will end up as being one of two things, it will either be an enjoyable six to twelve month tour of the world, a nice holiday, or it will be the beginning of continuing to make music and tour.
“Age doesn’t seem to be a barrier these days, there are blues guys who have been playing since they were 16 and are still playing 150 shows a year in their 80s and showing no signs of waning. So who knows? But yes, we thought we would, we just thought it was something that we wanted to do.”
S13: And you still feel that drive to go and play music.
SB: “Not always. And I don’t if I don’t feel it. I have felt driven on three occasions in the last 20 odd years, maybe. Other things get in the way that might dampen down the drive, like having small children… the collapse of the music industry.
“If I have something to say, that’s when I want to play music, and I feel that the world is in an interesting phase at the moment. Not a lot of conversation, things becoming more tribal. And so for someone who likes to observe things without judgement… I mean, I grew up with Lou Reed and he wrote a song called heroin, and he was probably at the time a heroin addict, but mostly what I liked about him was that he was like a camera in a room.
“And he captured a piece in time and recorded it, as it was, without really saying that much about whether he thought the behaviour was commendable, there was no moral judgement within it. And likewise, I don’t view the world through a moral lens. So yeah, standing back and observing interesting times or situations is a motivator for me. It’s a good time to observe.”
S13: Is that how you approach the lyrical side of your songs? Is it sort of sitting back and observing or do you sometimes look inwards and document your own feelings and emotions?
SB: “I’ve always been interested in in power dynamics, from any perspective, from political power, such as The Last Dictator, where he runs the whole country, down to the power dynamics within a nuclear family or between a group of friends. There’s always inward looking in that, there’s always some sort of reflection on how you’re living your life.
“And then there are other songs that are more personal, that draw on personal experience. I don’t think anything I’ve done is strictly autobiographical. But nevertheless, if I listen to Forever, I know where I was, at the time, I know what I was doing and feeling and where my life was at that point. And that record definitely reflects that.”
S13: That’s the album we’ve recently written a feature on. [Click here to read the article] And one of the things that struck me is that you’re you’ve gone from, as you say, writing about someone who runs a whole country and the focus seems to have become a lot smaller and a lot more personal on that record.
SB: “Well, I wrote it on a small Greek island, so even the location was small. Just Bronwyn and myself were there. And then we went to America. I always get the chronology slightly mixed up. I know children became part of it, but I also stopped drinking and drinking was a very daily part of my life. And so I went to Greece, stopped drinking, then moved to LA.
“That’s something I miss about the old days, you can’t do that anymore. You could go from Berlin to London, and life would reset and restart and you could begin again, reinvent yourself. And to a greater extent when we went to LA, we were totally unknown there, except amongst a small handful of people, and it was a complete reset. We had a very different life there than the one that I’d had in Berlin and Vienna. And yeah, it is personal record, it’s a sort of, sort of a celebratory record.
“As I wasn’t drinking I noticed other things, small things became more significant. You go to the art gallery, go for a walk, whereas my whole life prior to that centred around going to a local bar. So it’s an opening up record, in that respect.”
S13: Is that what’s been behind your frequent moving around? Is it the desire to reset and reinvent?
SB: “It’s more to do with curiosity. I’ve been to the Marshall Islands and Papua New Guinea and Bangladesh. The first time I went to the Marshall Islands, the phone was too expensive to keep on so I was just cut off from my regular life, from contact from outside. That’s all gone. If I find I’m there for work now, the phone would be on the whole time and I’d be in touch and there’s emails, but in the old days, the mail just stopped because you just didn’t give them a forwarding address and that was, that was the end of that (and no mobile phones).
“But I actually like living in hotels. I lived in a hotel in Papua New Guinea for the better part of three years, on and off. I don’t know if it’s restlessness, or maybe a combination of restlessness and curiosity. And then it’s interesting to see a world through my eyes, but obviously it’s interpreted through my cultural background. I mean, I’m not Papua New Guinean, so things will stand out to me that that would be normal for Papua New Guineans, part of their normal life.
“But when you go to a new country you notice things that, by the time you’ve been there for 10 years, become the norm. There’s a different way of viewing the world, a different mindset based on history and your own culture and so forth. I spent a lot of time in the Northern Territory and I’m glad I did that, to get to see places that Australians, for the most part, aren’t aware of. In the remote indigenous communities there’s a lot of suffering, but the communities are out of sight, so people don’t see them. So I’m always interested to get different perspectives.
“A Papua New Guinean said to me he knew who he was. He was from Bougainville and he felt that the West had a strong sense of individualism and that we didn’t have the same ties to the land, to each other, and to local history. He felt he knew what his place in the world was, and where he came from. He felt sad for us, that we didn’t have this sort of strong sense of community that he had, which was an interesting perspective. It’s a very violent place with high poverty, so from that materialistic Western perspective you think, it’s a pretty tough environment for him to live in, but he just had this different perspective on it. And I benefit from being exposed to those different worldviews, because it just shakes up your own perceptions.
“I think it’s good to know what’s going on in other countries, in other communities. Because the things we get from various countries are produced in probably pretty horrendous circumstances. And I think it’s important to know that. I spent a lot of time as a child on a farm, so we ate meat and we killed cattle, and we ate the cattle that we killed. But we also saved them too, if they were having a breech birth or something like that. So I know where meat comes from and I’m comfortable with eating it.
“But I was shocked when I was in America and we went to a place that they call Cowschwitz, which is just these pens, because it was so contrary to my experience of what you’d call a free range farm, just a typical 200 acres of farm in Tasmania. It’s good to know that those things exist so you can make informed decisions.”
S13: How did you go from that upbringing, from that background, to joining Crime and the City Solution? What’s the bridge between those two things?
SB: “Well I was probably a bit of an outsider when I was younger. And Australia was a very homogenous country in the 70s and the 60s. We were starting to get immigration in the 50s from the Mediterranean countries, and that was having an influence slowly, but it was pretty Anglo Irish and very conformist.
“More conformist I suspect than the UK is, the UK has got the kind of whole regional thing, you know, but in Australia, there was this rigid idea of what it was to be an Australian, and there wasn’t a lot of room for people who were different. Americans were the absolute opposite, within certain parameters they like the idea of individuality and choosing your own way of living life.
“But again, de Tocqueville noted that freedom of speech existed within a narrow parameter – diverse views within the accepted limits were fine but you couldn’t stray beyond the boundary. And that’s probably my experience too.
“But how did I end up in Crime? I grew up listening to Lou Reed and thinking he’s someone who talks to me, you know? And of course, being in the non-globalised world, I had all these visions of what New York was like, and places that I’d never heard of except occasionally in movies.
“And that led to a meeting of similar outcasts, and ultimately from Sydney to Melbourne, to the Boys Next Door and the Young Charlatans and it was a community, one of misfits that didn’t really fit into Australian culture in that period and that’s how Crime began.
“It would have probably not ended well for me had it not been for Mick Harvey. I mean, yes, there’s my own contribution but if Mick hadn’t decided to bring me to England and introduced me to Mute and to organise a band and a contract, there would have been no Crime and there would have been no Simon Bonney.”
S13: Well thank God for Mick Harvey then.
SB: “Well, yeah, you can forget that, and I’ve been remembering that more recently. Every now and then I go through a period of remembering that, the role that he played in my musical life, and I’m going through one of those periods again.”
S13: And how was it working with Rowland S Howard?
SB: “Well, I have different views on that than probably some people. I think it was a mistake. For me, it was something that Mick wasn’t in favour of as I recall, I don’t want to quote him on that, but the Birthday Party had broken up, Nick had gone off and formed The Bad Seeds and proceeded to work very hard and become very successful, and that’s well deserved. Rowland wanted to do These Immortal Souls, that was his thing, but Crime was just there and was something that he could be involved with and he didn’t have to do much to be involved, it just was there.
“I just think it wasn’t born of us having this amazing musical bond. It was just that we knew each other and had known each other for quite a while, and it was familiar. And I just think that he at that point could have gone on with These Immortal Souls.
“He was pretty socially isolated, if he’d been less so he would have been an obvious choice for a guest musician on any one of a hundred records being produced at the time, he had a unique sound and was a unique player.”
S13: Do you think he perhaps saw you as a replacement Nick Cave figure, in that you’re both obviously literate, sharp dressed front men?
SB: “No. Nick and I are very, very different people. We don’t even like the same literature. I don’t think what interests him interests me. There would probably be some crossover, like there would be between all artists, but no, Nick is Nick, he’s a force of nature. And as much as I’ve loved much of his work, it just looks at the world through a different lens, I think we have a very different worldview.
“There are these superficial similarities, which people have sort of held on to, but I had been inactive for a number of years, and not well, and to suddenly come in and be in a band that had two Birthday Party members in it and debut in London, that’s something you need to be ready for, and you need to really know who you are.
“And by the time the Birthday Party reached London, they really knew who they were. They definitely paid their dues, they’d played every show conceivable in Australia, and they really had formed a sound and an idea and identity. And I didn’t do that until I got into Berlin Crime.
“It was only when I met Alex that I did have that connection, and then coupled with Mick, to be able to put it all together. And then with the addition of Bronwyn and Chrislo and Thomas the band had an identity, and a similar worldview, musically, there was a compatibility, a connection.
“Even the way that we wrote. I’d write with Alex, we would sit in a room, he’d play a bit of guitar I’d do some singing- actually trying to work the music into the words and, for me, that was, that was the quintessential Crime. If people like the stuff that we did in the Rowland period, that’s great, but it always felt like it was never more than the sum of its parts. And they were good players, so it was, was always going to be good, but I didn’t think it was great.
“I loved every person in the Berlin band musically. Chrislo was one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met, but a complete genius. On some nights, he’d do things like he’d play a semitone off what Bronwyn was playing so it sounded out of tune, so it’s completely unpredictable what he was going to do, but then other times, he would play things that would really add magic to the song.
“And the thing with that band was that it was much closer to my musical roots, which are two fold, I loved The Doors, the way they approached music, the looseness, the lyrical structure, the long songs, the story songs. And the same with the Velvet Underground, they told long narratives and I’m sure no two performances were the same. And that was true of the Berlin Crime, so sometimes we could have an off night, but other times we could have a night that would be incredibly inspired and unrepeatable.
“I enjoyed going to America and I enjoyed making solo records. Probably not the best musical decision I’ve made in my life. Paradise Discotheque was very well formed and the communication between the players was very evolved. And it would have been interesting to see what would happened if we’d gone on, but you know, that’s counterfactual.”
S13: Going back to the lyrical themes, you touched on stories, and I just wondered if you’ve ever lent more towards actually writing a book? Is there a Simon Bonney book that’s perhaps been started or about to be started?
SB: “Well I keep starting a PhD, but is there a book? I don’t know.
“I’m not a big reader of fiction, but I’m a big reader of nonfiction, which I did for work. Could I turn the nonfiction information that I have in my head into fiction? It’s possible, but I don’t understand the structures of novels. I understand the structure of long dry analytical pieces and I understand the structure of news analysis and books on say the theory of international relations. It’s not as if that they don’t have fascinating stories within them which could be turned into fiction.
“I’d like to write something in longer form, I just don’t quite know… so many of the industries that I’ve been involved with, they’ve all gone through dramatic changes and academia is going through one at the moment. It’s collapsing due to the pandemic, because borders have been locked there have been no face to face classes. But yeah, in theory, yes. It’d be something that I just have to work out how to go about.”
S13: Do you still feel part of the music business or do you feel you’ve deliberately divorced yourself from that?
SB: “I’m not as naturally bohemian as most musicians. What I mean by that is, there are some people, like Rowland, Rowland was never going to join the public service, going to suddenly wake up one day and say, ‘you know what, I want to become a shipbuilder’. He was a musician and he was going to live and, unfortunately, die, way too soon, as a musician.
“And there are a lot of musicians who are like that, it’s not about whether or not they can make money, it’s just, that’s what they do, they don’t do anything else – at heart they’re musicians. There are other things that I have wanted to do, and have done and enjoyed. And I don’t long to go back to them right at the moment, so every now and then, I feel part of the music industry, because I want to play music.
“But unlike musicians, who have spent their whole lives in it, I can get out of date with the way things work, like singles and LPs and record sales. The answer is that it’s one of the things that I do, but it’s not the only thing.”
S13: It’s probably too early to answer this, but what is your tour schedule, where are you likely to be playing when you tour?
SB: “No, it’s, shaping up, we’ve signed to a touring company. And it will probably be in Europe and in the UK as the first sort of port of call and then America. With a smaller line-up we can travel by car, and keep overheads down, the goal is to play as many shows as we possibly can, to as many people as we can.
“The one downside of the Berlin Crime, and in fact, the later American Crime, was that people were involved in other bands. And so therefore it limited the amount that we could do. And that probably had an effect. I seem to recall that a lot of the Berlin Crime tours were done when there was snow on the ground, we tended to do the winter touring.
“I think we’re starting off at South by Southwest and then going back to Europe. And if it goes well then we’ll continue and if it’s a one-off for those people who wanted to see us and missed out on the last tour or want to see us again, then that’d be ok too.”
S13: Is there likely to be any new recorded material to go along with the tour?
SB: “I think there’ll definitely be a single or an EP for the tour itself, possibly a handprinted limited edition sort of thing. We’ve got a lot of new songs, but I’m always mindful that the last version of the band only played a short tour to promote our best of Introduction To Crime and we never actually got to tour American Twilight. So I’m keen to tour that first.
“We’ve got a long back catalogue, so I’d like to get through that, that’s what people would like to see to begin with. And then as it progresses and as a sound evolves then we maybe record a new CD or streaming or whatever it is these days.”
S13: Forever would seem to lend itself well to a two piece.
SB: “Yeah, it does. We did a lot of Forever on our tour with Mark Lanegan as a two piece. Mark was very supportive, there wouldn’t have been a tour without Mark. He very kindly let us stay on his tour bus and tour America and do the Iberian Peninsula of his European tour. And it was sort of a test to see if we could play in a stripped down form. And that was purely acoustic, there was just the acoustic guitar, a violin and two vocals and I was amazed that an audience of people that had come to see a rock band could remain quiet and attentive for a 30 minute acoustic set prior to a rock band.
“So that was encouraging and we said, we’ll build on that. So we decided to add some more members and go electric this time, with some acoustic, but it’ll be electric for the Crime songs, and maybe some acoustic, if we drop in some Forever songs and some from Everyman.”
Personally, this is massively exciting news. The chance to hear Crime songs played live again and being able to hear some tracks from Forever live for the first time is something that fills me with enormous excitement. We only hope that others are able to get behind Simon and Bronwyn’s latest adventure and that it can be sustainable.
The curse of being a cult act is not enough to provide enough income for a band to survive or to be able to write new music. The music of Simon Bonney has always deserved a wider audience and we here at Sun 13 have our collective fingers crossed that this time around this proves to be possible.
In the meantime, there is a mighty back catalogue of music to listen to and fall in love with all over again.
Sun 13 will keep you updated with any further news, tour dates, etc. Check back to make sure you don’t miss this opportunity to witness one of our greatest songwriters playing live once again.