Harper Simon may be Paul Simon's son, but he doesn't attempt to capitalize on it. In fact,
you’d have to dig several pages
into his press kit to find any mention of his father at all. Of course,
it’s not as if the younger Simon has been standing in the shadows,
either. He has appeared on nearly all the big late-night television
talk shows, performed regularly with Yoko Ono’s Plastic
Ono Band and Sean Lennon, appeared in several films (including
cameos in two by Martin Scorsese), and played numerous festivals
and hundreds of other gigs as both a solo artist and with wellknown
bands, covering a stylistic range from folk to pop to rock
to world music. His debut album, 2010’s Harper
Simon, was an
alt-country outing produced by Bob Johnston (Bob Dylan, Johnny
Cash, Leonard Cohen) and featured stunning array of supporting
artists, including guitarist Charlie McCoy and other members of
the “Nashville A-Team.”
In contrast, Simon’s sophomore release, Division Street
pushes his guitar playing front and center, and tacks decidedly
into rockier territory, while still being loaded with memorable
hooks and melodies. With help from sonic guru Matt Chait,
he and producer Tom Rothrock (who helmed career albums for
Elliott Smith, Simon’s most obvious influence here) crafted an
abundance of compelling guitar tones, from brightly shimmering
to darkly ominous. “We used lots of guitars and amps,” says
Chait. “And almost all of the guitars went into an Empress Effects
compressor and a vintage MXR Six Band Graphic Equalizer, which
lets me selectively drive small tube amps into breakup without
muddying the low end. For Harper, we used it to get that honky,
nasal sound he likes so much on some Velvet Underground and
Rolling Stones records.”
Drummer Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) and bassist Nikolai
Fraiture (the Strokes) are among the artists that accompanied
Simon on Division Street.
Unlike on your previous album, the songs on
Division Street are
centered on your guitar playing. What led to the change?
When I first went down to Nashville to work with Bob Johnston,
in my mind we were just going to do what was to be a side
project for down the line, but the tracks ended up being part of
my debut album, which sort of set the tone in a way that I hadn’t
expected. The album wound up becoming about all these old
Nashville cats, great players, who I met through Bob, and then
some other New York and L.A. players came on. Among them were guitarists
Charlie McCoy and Marc Ribot. I had such great
guitarists that I wasn’t really looking to step out front so much
with my guitar playing and the songs didn’t lend themselves to
that either. But guitar playing is one of my strengths, so I wanted
the new album to be more about that. And I wanted it to be about
the kind of guitar playing that I did in my formative years, which
I hadn’t successfully captured on tape before.
There are lots of cool guitar tones on the record. Were
going for something specific when you started out?
I’ve never been satisfied with the guitar tones I’ve gotten
recordings in the past, so this time I thought I’d better focus on
that. Tom Rothrock is a great producer, and I loved his work on all
of the Elliott Smith records, which always had great guitar tones.
I particularly loved the sound of the acoustic guitars—but all the
production and all the tones were great. In the end, however, the
tones we got and the production style sounded nothing like those
records. My album took on its own life.
What guitars did you use and how were they
The acoustic guitars were mostly just recorded in Tom’s living
room, though I can’t tell you what microphones he used. They
were old Gibson jumbos, from the ’40s I believe, and although
at one point I thought they might be a little too lo-fi sounding
and not crisp enough, they had lots of soul, so I went with
What about the electric guitars?
The guitars I used most for basic tracking in the studio were a
’50s Fender Esquire, a ’60s Gibson ES-330, a large Gibson
with a white P-90, and an old Silvertone hollowbody—but we
tried lots of guitars and amps. We got some of the more aggressive
tones with my Epiphone Coronet, Tom’s black ’74 Les Paul,
and a badass-looking 3-pickup solidbody Supro that I used to get
a Brian Jones sort of sound for the solo on “Division
also played Matt Chait’s ’54 Harmony Stratotone to get some
the fuzzier, heavier tones, and there were some Gretsch Roc-Jet
and Tennessean parts in there too. Of course, not everything we
tried made it onto the album.
What were some of the amps?
Tom had a roomful of amps and he’d go in there and patch in
stuff while I was sitting in the control room, so I wasn’t always
what I was playing through. A lot of the time the guitar was split
dual mono into a Silvertone 1482 and either a blackface Fender
Super Reverb or an Ampeg Gemini IV. Some of the crunchier overdubs were done
with a brownface Fender
Princeton Reverb, and some Watkins Dominator
and tweed Fender Deluxe stuff may
also have made it through. I think the amp
I used with the Silvertone hollowbody was
an old Gibson combo that we rented. I liked
that combination so much that I wound up
re-cutting a bunch of parts with it.
Did you get the overdriven and distorted
tones directly from the amps, or were any
I mostly prefer to overdrive an amp, but
we did use a Lovepedal Amp Eleven and a
VFE The Scream! on some tracks. We also
just plugged directly into a mic pre on the
mixer to get some sounds. I’m not a big
pedal person generally, but we did use an
Empress Tap Tremolo, and the delays were
done with either a Strymon El Capistan or a
vintage Ibanez AD-80 Analog Delay. We also
ran the guitar through a Leslie 122 cabinet.
And Noah Georgeson added other effects
during the mixing stage
Were there any “happy accidents”
occurred while you were recording?
At the end of the last song, “Leaves of
Golden Brown,” there’s a little hook that
may not have come out very distinctly in
the final mix. I had a guitar going direct
into the board, no amp, through some kind
of fuzz pedal, and it was really feeding back
a lot. I was trying to get a Pete Townshend,
“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” toggle-feedback
sound and when I toggled the pickup
switch it produced this little musical hook
completely by chance, so I incorporated it
into the song almost like a melody.
Your vocals are mixed a little low on
some of the songs. Are you uncomfortable
with the sound of your voice?
Listening to the record now I do wish
that we had made my voice—and the guitar
solos—a little louder in the mix on a few
pieces. But what can you do? You learn a
lot every time you go through this process.
I think a lot of singers feel that way
though. I know Jimi Hendrix hated his
voice, as did John Lennon. I’m trying to
get better about it.
Your music and your guitar playing
don’t sound very much like your father’s.
Were you concerned about differentiating
yourself as you were getting your own
Not particularly. I have a lot of different
influences. I think as an artist you just have
to find out what works best for you, which
also involves understanding your limitations.
My voice has a certain sound, and my guitar
playing also sounds a certain way, so finding
my own style was more a matter of arriving
at something that was comfortable for me
and felt natural.