Paul Simonon: Clashing colours

He is one of the world's most famous bass players, but with his new venture into design, the Clash's 'Sandinista' has turned fashionista. Craig McLean meets Paul Simonon

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The Independent Online

In the bowels of an old lightship moored on the Thames in east London, Paul Simonon is running through his mazey journey, from art to punk then back to art – and now to fashion.

“When I was a kid, my dad used to paint on Sundays,” recounts the handsomely raddled 57-year-old, his gravelly London tones as resonant as the basslines he's plonked out for four decades, first with The Clash and latterly with two Damon Albarn projects, Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and The Queen.

Painting duly became “an interesting passport” at Simonon's “crummy” schools in Brixton, “past all the bullies and whatever the environment was at the time … cos the other kids go, 'Paul, can you draw this for us?' ”

Before a fateful encounter with the teenage guitarist Mick Jones in a rehearsal room, art would prove Simonon's passport in other ways, too. “I managed to get a scholarship to go to private art college. So that sort of saved me, really. And then after a year of being there, I just wanted to just draw … like, in the traditional way. But a lot of the teachers were really influenced by American abstract art, and did not see any necessary point to doing life drawing.

“But when I met Mick, it just seemed ... I liked the idea that maybe being in a band was a more instantaneous connection with an audience. I was 17, 18, and you don't really wanna do what seems at that age like a prison sentence of being in a room for the rest of your life, drawing. There's a whole world out there, and music, when you're that age, seems a good way out.”

Some 40 years after leaving Byam Shaw School of Art and joining the band that grew into The Clash – and over a decade since the first exhibition of his paintings – Simonon will this month see his twin teenage passions come full circle.

Two weeks ago, a thumping new Clash box set was released. Sound System is a bumper CD/DVD/booklet extravaganza, based round the band's five studio LPs (including the triple-album Sandinista!) and tricked out with all manner of bells, whistles, dog-tags and badges. And the whole wallet-troubling shebang comes in a case designed like a vintage boom box by the artistically inclined bassist immortalised in Pennie Smith's famous photograph on the cover of London Calling.

Another Simonon project makes its debut tomorrow: The Flash Collection, a capsule clothing line designed by the Londoner in collaboration with the American rum brand Sailor Jerry. The limited-edition run comprises a bandana, a T-shirt and a Lewis Leathers jacket. Each item features lurid imagery based on designs by the original Sailor Jerry – the Hawaii-based tattoo artist Norman Collins, whose ink work created a worldwide reputation that in turn begat a rum brand.

Simonon is a rakish man exuding an old-world street cool, and he has his own style connections – his sons Louis and Claude are both models, and his girlfriend is Serena Rees, co-founder of the Agent Provocateur underwear chain. But still, the Sailor Jerry partnership is an unusual detour for him. From Sandinista! to fashionista, if you like.

“This is an interesting project for me cos it's the first time I've actually done something with a company as such,” acknowledges one-quarter of a punk band renowned for their anti-corporate militancy. He's here today in this battered old vessel being photographed and filmed for the advertising campaign promoting his three pieces. Aside, obviously, from the filthy lucre on offer, he was attracted by the chance both to work with a brand with an interesting heritage – Collins made his name tattooing American sailors during the Second World War – and to stamp his own aesthetic on a different kind of fashion collection.

Given access to Collins's archives, Simonon researched his designs and those of his contemporaries. “And it was interesting that really, at the end of the day, he is the template for all tattoo art – although, obviously, previous to that it was the Polynesians and Maoris that were the ones that were culturally using tattoo as a form of expression.

“And with the Sailor Jerry company, for me it's fine because it's about folk art – and in some way when you look at the images close up … they're almost like stained-glass windows. It's the sort of thing you can imagine almost being painted on a narrow boat. So for me it's a natural thing to be drawn to, folk art, as something that's quite simple and effective.”

To the member of The Clash most closely involved with the band's striking imagery – stencils, combat gear, camouflage wear – Collins's vivid style was hugely appealing. And in The Flash Collection he was able to apply this to items of clothing with relevance to both Simonon and the band's late frontman.

“Me and Joe Strummer remember very well when the Lewis Leathers shop moved from one premises [in London] to another part of town,” he nods. “They were pretty much the best leather jackets you could get in this country. Then we went to America and we decided to have quiffs, and we bought into buying American leather jackets. Just cos we were there and they were cheap. But Lewis Leathers jackets were really popular with a lot of American bands, insofar as it was exotic to them. Whereas to us American leather jackets were exotic.”

Simonon's sense of style was also prevalent during his time with Gorillaz. He and fellow Clash vet Jones joined the “cartoon band” founded by Albarn and the comic book artist Jamie Hewlett for their last album, Plastic Beach (2010). As well as playing low-slung bass, Simonon devised the nautical look that the entire collective – including Bobby Womack and De La Soul – wore for their world tour.

“So in some ways, me coming to do the Sailor Jerry thing was perfect. Let alone [as] during the Gorillaz tour we were all submariners – so obviously we've got to have rum. So, we had Sailor Jerry on our riders.”

So there was a mandatory tot of rum at every gig?

“Always, before we went on stage. But only the one tot!” he chuckles, flashing a gold-toothed smile.

In fact, without even knowing it, on that year-long musical project Simonon presaged his new fashion venture in other ways, too, when he devised his own tattoo for the Gorillaz gang. “Quite a few of us went to a tattoo parlour, and we all got these done …” he says, rolling up his sleeve to reveal an anchor on his forearm. “So if you see Damon Albarn, we've all got the same tattoo.” What are the words on the anchor?

“This one says das Kunst. Which has two meanings! The first one is 'the art' [in German]. And the other one, well, you know …” he grins.

Paul Simonon, still proudly making music with a bunch of kunst? That punk ethic never dies.

The Flash Collection is available from

Curriculum vitae

1955 Paul Gustave Simonon is born in Croydon, Surrey. His mother, Elaine, is a librarian, his father, Gustave, works as a civil service clerk.

1968 Spends a year in Rome and Siena when his mother's new partner gets a scholarship. Credits the trip with inspiring his love of art.

1973 Studies at Byam Shaw School of Art, Kensington, London. Meets future lead guitarist of The Clash, Mick Jones, who persuades him to learn bass guitar.

1976 Joins Jones and Joe Strummer to form The Clash. Simonon comes up with the name after reading a newspaper headline.

1979 The band's celebrated third album London Calling is released. The cover features an image of Simonon smashing his guitar on stage.

1986 The Clash break up. Simonon starts his own band, Havana 3a.m. It breaks up after recording one album.

1988 Collaborates with Bob Dylan to play on the album Down in the Groove.

2003 Refuses to reunite with The Clash for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

2007 Gets involved in the project The Good, The Bad and The Queen.

2010 Features on Gorillaz album Plastic Beach.

2011 Joins Greenpeace activists in an Arctic drilling protest and is arrested. He is jailed for two weeks.

2013 Co-produces a film with Mick Jones based on the recording of London Calling.

Alex Rogers