Robert Johnson met Satan down at the crossroads all on his own. It was a different story for Savoy Brown’s Kim Simmonds — he brought an entire caravan with him.
Simmonds, who founded his seminal British blues-rock band way back in 1965, embraces the “it takes a village” approach, when it comes to his artistry. Throughout the years, his creative team has included his wife, Debbie Lyons, as well as an entire army of band members (including drummer Bill Bruford, guitarist “Lonesome Dave” Peverett and bassist Andy Pyle) and a vast storehouse of influences from his constant absorption of diverse musical styles and other players.
Furthermore, his crew must have struck a hard bargain with ol’ Lucifer, because Savoy Brown continue to be a vital force both live and on record. The 53-year-old group’s latest release, Witchy Feelin’ (Ruf), is all about gorgeous-toned, raging or sensual guitars, as well as driving grooves. The band plays everything with the fire and toughness of a bunch of snotty kids looking to prove something from an opening slot on a festival gig. Not surprisingly, Simmons — who graced the cover of the January 1975 Guitar Player—credits Lyons, drummer Garnet Grimm, bassist Pat DeSalvo, and recording engineer/mixer Ben Elliott with helping him deliver such savage and spirited performances on Witchy Feelin’.
Witchy Feelin’ sounds like it was cut by some brash kid rather than a blues-rock icon with decades of performance under his belt. How do you keep your playing and writing so vital?
Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that recently, and I believe it goes back to the very beginning of Savoy Brown. You see, I always had a very big vision for the music. Listen to “Mr. Downchild” [from 1968’s Getting to the Point]: It starts quiet and builds to a crescendo. That was me thinking blues music should be orchestral in its dynamics. I thought blues should compete with pop music. Why should it be some niche market? No. This is the best music in the world.
In addition, I didn’t want to play groove-or rhythm-based blues that didn’t have hooks. I certainly understand the beauty of grooves in blues — and a lot of artists never get very far away from that style — but that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Everything I did had to have a guitar lick. I was one of the first guys to do Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” in the U.K. Why did I pick songs like that? Because they had real guitar hooks. Right from the start, all of the Savoy Brown music we recorded in the early days was mostly based around riffs and hooks, and that put the songs into the mainstream thing. In fact, to this day, one of the things I’m most proud of is that Savoy Brown — just a little blues band — really cracked the pop charts in America. When I’ve gotten it right through the years, you’ll hear those hooks, those dynamics and those connections to pop and orchestral music. I certainly wasn’t analyzing it back then, but that’s what I was thinking.
How do you determine how far to push Savoy Brown songs without disrupting the expectations of your core blues-rock audience?
That’s easy. We spent two years testing the songs onstage. In fact, “Thunder, Lightning & Rain” [from Witchy Feelin’] started off as a ballad and ended up as a down-and-dirty boogie. It just shows you that when you write a song, you might not quite understand it yourself until you play it live.
I love the old method of road-testing songs. I suspect few bands take the time to do that these days.
Listen — even my songwriting sessions are all done live. I think that certainly helps the energy. I’ve got a drum machine going, I’m playing my guitar, I’m going through the lyrics to see what fits, and I’m getting it all down there and then. Then, I’ll know if it’s trash or if it’s good that very same day.
How did you pick the good ones for each album?
I don’t. I never decide on my songs. I write too many of them to decide. I trust other people to say, “This is good. This is bad. This is average.” I’m lucky to have my wife and a team of people around who support and counsel me, so that I can be artistic.
You mentioned “going through the lyrics to see what fits” when you’re writing. Do you peruse your songwriting notebooks for ideas?
It’s more that all the lyrics are completed before I even touch a guitar. I always start with the lyrics, because I feel if you have a good lyric, it can become any type of song. I could make it a country song, a folk song or a heavy-metal song. This is especially important when writing blues, because blues lyrics can cover a lot of genres. So I’ll get some chords or riffs going, and I’ll see which lyrics represent the musical vibe I’m going for. It’s actually very exciting, because the process of writing a song can go anywhere. Sometimes, you realize the title you have isn’t the best title. The title is actually somewhere in one of the verses.
Do any other elements inform your writing?
Definitely. I’m not one of those guys who plays in a void and invents something. I listen to all types of music all of the time to see if I can get some inspiration from a groove or a vocal or anything else. It could be Lightnin’ Slim or a modern rock track. I mean, if you’re going to write detective novels, you had better read a lot of detective novels, right? You’ve got to get inspiration from somewhere.
Furthermore, I’m not beyond listening to anybody. I love guitar players, and I’m fairly open-minded. Obviously, I’m a blues-rock guy, but I can recognize great talent on the guitar in any style, and I ask myself, “Hey, what can I learn from this?” For example, I learned a lot from Yngwie Malmsteen. I haven’t heard what he has been doing since the ’80s, but he had a beautiful guitar sound. I want beauty and poetry when I hear the guitar — which is why I also listen to all the jazz players.
Did you record the album tracks live in the studio, or build them up from the drums?
Yes, it was live. Of course. That’s the way this music should be recorded. I overdubbed some guitars and vocals, although, on some tracks — such as “Witchy Feelin’” — I kept the guide vocal, and what you hear on the album is exactly how we played it in the studio. I suppose I have the luxury of experience now, of knowing what I’m all about, so I’m not big on doing multiple guitar takes. It’s going to go down once, and that’s it.
Even the solos? If so, did you improvise them or work them out beforehand?
All those solos were done completely off the top of my head, and I left them as is. It’s a jazz sensibility. That’s the era I grew up with. I don’t want to overanalyze the whole thing, and I don’t want to take the stuffing out of it. I know from experience I could disappear down the rabbit hole. Yeah, I could give you six solos, but, to me, the first one is going to be as good as any of the others; and, sometimes it’s the best because it really captures your gut feelings. I mean, I did do a couple of takes on a few things — I don’t want to give you the idea the process was one way and one way only — but, by and large, I’m a first-take guy.
Given that live and improvised approach to recording, were there any surprises or epic failures?
No failures, but a surprise — or a save. I had a vocal melody and lyrics for “Close to Midnight,” and I sensed straightaway, from the vibe in the studio, that nobody wanted to embarrass me by saying it wasn’t working. Luckily, I had a good idea: I said, “Let’s do it as an instrumental.” I could feel the angst go out of the room. [laughs] So I did a one-take thing, and I’m thinking, “I could play so much more on that. I could do these bends. I could rephrase some parts.” I can’t tell you how much 90 percent of my body wanted to go in and redo it. But the point of a song is not to show you that I can play guitar. The point of a song is to convey a feeling. So I stopped, and it was the right thing to do. We had it the first time. But I still listen to it today and say, “Let me do it again!” [laughs]
What gear did you bring to the sessions?
I’m completely a non-technician, so this is going to be difficult. I don’t even know what the guitars are called. The main one was a fairly new Dean Zelinsky model, and I also used a DBZ and an ’80s Gibson Les Paul. For amps, we had an old Fender Blues DeVille and some boutique amp. I like to run two amps simultaneously — one distorted and the other a bit cleaner — so we can choose one sound or blend the two for just the right tone for the track. A lot of the guitar tones were down to Ben Elliott of Showplace Recording in New Jersey. I had a lot on my shoulders with all the writing, arranging, pre-production, playing and singing, so it was great to not have to worry about the tones. Ben says all he did was put up the faders, but he’s being very modest.
It must be challenging to continually drive Savoy Brown toward creative success throughout its 53-year existence.
Right now, I’m very much aware of what being a leader means. It doesn’t mean that you get everybody else to do the work and reap the benefits. On the other hand, I’m not that guy any more, where it has to be my way. I’m the guy with the vision, of course, but I’m very open to criticism, and I usually run things in my life by gathering input. More and more, I view leadership within Savoy Brown as owning the responsibility to do my thing, and that thing starts with the guitar. I’ve got to plug in that guitar, get as good of a Kim Simmonds sound as possible and do the job I love as best as I can. If I do that, all the pieces in my life fall spectacularly into place.