My idea of fun, your idea of fun
They make an odd couple: Tim Simenon, a former chart-topping teen DJ, and the novelist Will Self. Roger Clarke reports
Friday 10 March 1995
The recording of 5ml Barrel was, they both agree, a "surreal" experience. It took place at the Maison Rouge Studios in Fulham late last year. Self turned up looking and feeling more than usually cadaverous; he had "the most appalling hangover".
All good rock 'n' roll stuff, as is the script. The one they chose after a quick look through four alternatives wickedly describes shooting up with the scum from a morphine-kaolin precipitate.
Among its more gruesome moments are a description of using the monster- sized 5ml hypodermic in order to hit an artery "in the groin". Self narrates this autobiographical piece with suitably grim relish. Simenon's dark- hearted dub-industrial backing track is the perfect sound environment for the novelist's ravaged but lugubrious voice.
I mentioned to Simenon that I thought his collaborator seemed constantly on the verge of cracking up as he dolefully intoned the refrain: "Sometimes I wonder / if I might be losing / my incident room". Simenon beamed with pleasure. "Yeah, I particularly chose that take for that reason." There had been five takes in all, and the session only lasted an hour. They'd never met or even talked on the phone before the encounter. "Someone gave me Cock and Bull as a present," Simenon says, referring to Self's hugely successful collection of short stories. "I sent Will a backing track and a letter."
Self claims he has "absolutely no taste in music", but he was familiar with Simenon's track record. It's impressive by anyone's standards; he was one of the first of the new breed of DJs who became recording artists in the late Eighties (S-Express and MARRS among them), having an instant No 1 with his first ever release, "Beat Dis", in 1988, when he was a DJ at the Wag Club. He was only 18.
Much in demand as a producer ever since, he's created sonic landscapes for Sinead O'Connor's hymns to famine and the placenta, and worked small miracles for Depeche Mode, Neneh Cherry, Bjrk and the soundtrack for the film In the Name of the Father. "I'm not a musician," he explains. "I am more of a listener."
"I used to be on a mailing list for Northern Soul," Self continues, "but these days I usually end up listening to the late romantics on Classic FM." Yet he turns out to be quite canny in his choice of two records bought last year - Massive Attack and Portishead.
"I have to say I think Tim's record is better than either. It's darker and more cohesive. I like the way the music has so much architecture to it, so many layers and so much space. Tim has the ability to hold a whole lot of ideas in his head at once."
Self admits that he was initially put off collaborating with a musician - even one he admired - after hearing William Burroughs's work with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. He'd even written an article condemning it in The Modern Review. "I have listened to it again and changed my mind," he says.
William Burroughs was an immediate bond between them; neither have met the venerable Kansas author, but both maintain a considerable enthusiasm for the writer of Junkie.
Simenon came across Burroughs as a teenager "like all teenagers interested in expanding their horizons"; he has adapted Burroughs's famous "cut-up" technique (the random reorganisation of sentences) to his own music with Bomb the Bass. "The way I approach music is non-linear, and I've found his methods effective." Burroughs was scheduled to appear on a recent Bomb the Bass video of the first single from the new album Clear. The track (written with the American psychedelic rapper Justin Warfield) is called "Bug Powder Dust" - and is a brilliant thrash-rap exploration of Burroughs work. On another track, Simenon involves the one-time Burroughs collaborator Leslie Winer, taping a transatlantic phone-call.
"Burroughs is a perennial interest of mine," confesses Self. "And I don't really understand the nature of my obsession. Sometimes I wish I was gay to understand Burroughs better. He's the great avatar of modernism - the best."
Self is pleased that 5ml Barrel has "gained new relevance from the road- building schemes in this country, which seem to suggest a slow attrition of traditional sensibilities". The conceit he uses on the track is that by using a kaolin source for fixes the junkie is continuously injecting small granules of calcium into his bloodstream.
Self likens this to roadbuilding, with its banked earth and chalk; his bloodstream is now "the M25". Such counter-cultural references firm smoothly into an album which also features Sinead O'Connor dueting with Benjamin Zephaniah in an attack on colonialism.
They make an odd couple; Simenon the half-Chinese sound-sculptor who spends all his time in studios making perfectly controlled audio environments, and the frazzled figure of Will Self poking round the ragged edges of experience. Where Simenon is cool, almost feline, Self is both effortlessly articulate and sprawlingly arcane.
Nevertheless, they both want to work together again. Self has in mind an "urban opera" based on a cartoon-strip he used to write, called "Slump". Simenon, with his taste for "mavericks and like-minded souls", will have a challenge on his hands.
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