Simon Raymonde has one of the most storied careers in British music. Bass player with Cocteau Twins, he later went on to launch Bella Union, currently home to a stellar roster that reaches from Father John Misty and Beach House through to Explosions In The Sky, Ezra Furman and more.
Despite the evident enjoyment running a label brings, though, making music is an itch that Simon just couldn’t scratch. So last year he booked in some session time with long-time friend and exemplary drummer Richie Thomas, simply to see what would happen.
“We just wanted to mess around, basically,” he says, half chuckling. “It was never intended to be anything. I just wanted to make music because I haven’t done it for so long.”
Starting in his home studio, the two later moved to a space below a nearby cafe. Lengthy, improvisatory sessions followed, a pressure free environment in which the pair simply followed their own aesthetic whims. “It’s had different phases, the record,” he tells us. “Two four day sessions was how we started it. The first four days we just jammed with piano and drums, and just recorded everything we did. Second session we did the same, and then I brought all the stuff back home. Initially just to my flat, and added things on my computer.”
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Creating a bank of material, the project relied heavily on improvisation, simply making it up as they went along. “That’s how I’ve always done it,” Simon insists. “From the Cocteaus onwards. We just made it up as we went along. We didn’t have any songs. We always lied to the labels whenever they asked us what we were up to - “Yeah, yeah, 10 songs all ready to go!” And they’d be like: “Oh great, we’ll book you some studio time...” When there was nothing! And just basically press record.”
“It’s fun that way, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. You’re reacting to your environment, your circumstances. It’s a nice way to work. It’s spontaneous. It’s a bit hit and miss of course, sometimes you don’t feel like it, you turn up and it doesn’t feel right for it’s best to just go home, or go bowling, or something. That’s what we used to do.”
Ah yes, the Cocteaus. Does he feel under pressure, we ask, from such an influential past?
“Not any more,” he replies immediately. “I think perhaps I would have done when I was younger. If I’d made the record 10 years, 15 years ago. I think one thing about getting old is you stop caring what other people think. You see grumpy old people in the street, they have their own opinions and don’t care what other people think.” “I don’t know how it happens but it just does naturally happen. And I’m thankful that it has happened to me, because I’m just making this for me. If anyone likes it great, if no one likes it great. I don’t mind. I’m going to make another one.”
With this material now assembled, the pair chose the name Lost Horizons and set about finding guest vocalists. “I would finish the song instrumentally first,” he explains. “I would get back with pretty much a skeleton of a song. So whatever we jammed on a track – like, a piano part and a drum part – that would be it. Then when I’d get back to the studio I’d be like, I should put a bass on. So I’d put a bass line on. I’d fiddle about with the guitar and put a guitar part on.”
“And all of a sudden it became something. It was more than this skeleton, it had some meat on. Then at that point my brain naturally – because of what I do in my normal job of thinking about singers or A&R or whatever curation of bands, that bit comes quite naturally… to think, oh I know who’d sing perfectly on that. And then I would just mail them or call them, and say: I’ve got this thing, do you fancy doing something? And luckily they all said yes, and did it. It was just the most pleasurable and simple project I’ve ever been involved with.”
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One of the projects real high points includes a vocal from Midlake’s Tim Smith, a group signed to Bella Union and notoriously fastidious. Simon immediately starts to smile: “Well that’s a bloody miracle to be honest with you because no one gets Tim Smith to sing on a record! Well, Chemical Brothers did about 20 years ago.”
“I never expected him to say yes because he’s a real procrastinator, he doesn’t finish things. He can’t finish his own music, he can barely finish Midlake’s. He wouldn’t mind me saying that, because it’s just the truth. And it’s a funny story because I actually sent the song that I sent to Tim to someone else, just because in my head I was like: “He’s never going to reply to that!” So I sent the same song to two different singers and Tim ended up doing it, and this other person ended up doing it. I ended up having two vocals!”
The guest list quickly stacked up, with more and more parts being recorded; Marissa Nadler, Hilang Child, Leila Moss, Ghostpoet. As the vocals came into place, so too did the record come into focus. Simon explains: “When these were all finished vocally, it gave the record a completely different perspective to me. It wasn’t just this band thing any more, it had more light and dark to it. I was really happy with that.”
The record needed one more element, however, so Simon Raymonde booked himself two days of studio time, using the same space Nick Cave and Warren Ellis reside in to construct their soundtrack work. Seated at the same piano the great Bard uses, music simply tumbled forth.
“So far, touch wood, it has for me on this project,” Simon says. “As I said before, I don’t do it very often so I have 20 years of energy stored up, so when I go in a studio I’m bit like… wow! This is so thrilling! I have to sit at the piano and something exciting will happen.”
“That’s kind of what happened with the recordings but the Nick Cave piano… oh my word! This is not a fancy place. This is a tiny little room, just like a closet with two pianos in it – an upright and a grand. Nothing fancy at all. A control room upstairs.”
“I just went in there with a guitar amp in the other room, sit down at the piano and I was like, wow this is amazing! And I said, just press go and I’ll let you know when to stop! And tunes just literally fell out. Because the minute you touch it, it’s inspiring. It’s all about the sound and the tone. If it sounds gorgeous the minute you touch it then it sort of writes itself. Your hands sort of move to where you’re meant to go. Or they did in this circumstance.”
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The results are gathered on new album ‘Ojalá’, a sprawling testament to enduring creativity that despite boasting a vast cast hangs together remarkably well. Piecing together a full Lost Horizons band, Simon and co-conspirator Richie opted to play completely live, without using any vocal samples from the original record.
“No samples. No triggers. Completely live. Every note is live. I can’t really do all that stuff. I’m not technical enough to be able to do that. I was never going to play this live. If you look at the structure of the band or the project you’d think, well, that’s never going to work live. And then people kept saying: oh you’ve got to play live! Come on! And I thought, maybe… I’m not really that keen on live performance. Or hadn’t been. I don’t really like it that much, so I was really reticent about it.”
“I thought about the people I’d like to be on a stage with, and once I’d realised there was no way I could have even a fraction of the guests that are on the record in the live band – logistically it wouldn’t make any sense, half of them don’t even live here… they’re all American. Once I’d let go of the fact that it didn’t have to be the same people on the record, it should just be a band playing these songs, then it was easy.”
With the unavoidable commitments associated with running one of the country’s best labels, Simon Raymonde could be forgiven for placing Lost Horizons on the back-burner – however, with the gates to creativity now left open, it’s not something he can ignore any longer. So, will there be a second album?
“Probably. Probably. No going back now!” he laughs. “There’s no way I’m going to be doing this full time, because I just couldn’t. But I do love it. Just putting this band together, and being with them so much over the last three weeks rehearsing, teaching them the songs, playing them over and over, working out how to do it live, it’s been really great fun.”
“And I mean, being in bands – for me – hasn’t always been great fun. We’ve made some great music over the years but I haven’t always enjoyed the actual Being In A Band thing. I know that a lot of bands don’t get on that great, so I perhaps thought, well, I don’t really want that. That’s why I want to work with Richie, because I get on great with him. And if it’s just him and me then it’s easy.”
"Now there’s all these other people, so I kind of thought, well, it might get a bit tricky. But they’re all adorable. All young and new to it. It’s brilliant being with that energy. And it helps me. It definitely helps me.”
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'Ojalá' is out now.
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