Q&A With Simon Taylor-Davies of Klaxons
Every once in a while, asking a stupid question pays off. As evidence, consider the following Q&A with guitarist Simon Taylor-Davies of Klaxons, a buzzy British band profiled in Westword’s October 4 edition. In about half of the pieces about this particular STD and cohorts James Righton and Jamie Reynolds, his name appears as “Simon Taylor,” while the majority of others refer to him as “Simon Taylor-Davis” – so I sheepishly asked which he preferred. Turns out both are wrong, and hundreds upon hundreds of articles printed about him in a dizzying array of publications are currently perpetuating the errors.
The interview below begins with that exchange before branching out into a wide range of subjects, including the years he spent growing up in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the touristy birthplace of William Shakespeare; the process by which he came to love literature that wasn’t written in iambic pentameter; a call-center job at which he read Thomas Pynchon in between processing orders for concert tickets; Klaxons’ cheeky invention of the “new rave” label, which promptly caught on in ways the players never could have imagined; his possible future as a professional conceptualist; the group’s progression from a terrible live act to a strong one; a danceability debate; the ceremony for the 2007 Mercury Prize, which featured drunken provocations aimed at critics, a comment about fellow nominee Amy Winehouse that Taylor-Davies says was taken out of context, and victory for the Myths of the Near Future CD; and plans to make what he’s come to view as the trio’s first album.
It’s an entertaining talk, no matter how you spell it.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Let’s get what’s hopefully the dumbest question I have for you out of the way first. Half the time, articles list you as Simon Taylor, and the other half of the time, you’re listed as Simon Taylor-Davis…
Simon-Taylor Davies: Actually, that’s probably the nicest question I’ve been asked. Still to this day they spell it wrong. It’s pronounced “Taylor Davis,” but it’s spelled “D-A-V-I-E-S.” But everyone always spells it “D-A-V-I-S.”
WW: Really? I’ve never seen it spelled “D-A-V-I-E-S.”
STD: I know. I don’t know how about changing the spelling your name globally when it’s constantly spelled wrong. But that’s okay. James and Jamie are constantly confused for each other, so I suppose I’m quite lucky.
WW: So even though your name is always being misspelled, you feel like it could be a lot worse?
STD: A lot worse, yeah. Like having my name under someone else’s picture or something like that.
WW: I understand you were raised in Stratford-Upon-Avon…
STD: That’s true.
WW: How would you describe it?
STD: It’s one of the most fascinatingly bizarre places you could possibly visit. Every time I go back there, they’ve knocked another building down to make it look another few hundred years older. It’s constantly become more of a fossil of itself. There were plans a few years ago to turn the entire town into a kind of Shakespearean theme park. It was bizarre, because I constantly grew up around tourists. I grew up in a town that was populated by no one who lived there. So there’s definitely a sense that nothing’s concrete there. It’s a very kind of fluid place. We used to really enjoy watching Japanese tourists running after ducks with cameras and American people asking for directions and, to our amusement, getting all the pronunciations wrong. So it was an exciting place to grow up.
WW: Most people would assume that a tourist interested in Shakespeare would be more intelligent than the average tourist. Sounds like that’s not necessarily the case…
STD: Not necessarily, no.
WW: Does every kid who grows up there get roped into participating in Shakespeare festivals or Shakespeare events of some kind.
STD: I suppose they do. I haven’t really thought about it in a long time. It’s quite nice talking about it. I suppose it’s more of a perception when you’re growing up there as a teenager about the theater. It’s this huge kind of cloud that overshadows the entire town, and you hear all these vulgar stories that are passed down about these they have. Friends of mine used to work in this very famous bar there called the Dirty Duck – kind of a world famous bar where all the actors used to go. And you’d hear stories of people gagging apples and all kinds of weird after-hours bondage parties. All these weird stories used to fly around. But the theater was incredibly kind to all the schools. There was a lot of participation with the schools getting involved in theater productions. So it was a fruitful place to grow up.
WW: Did you get involved in any of those productions?
STD: I did. I studied there at school, and post-school. I almost ended up getting a degree in it. But I decided to do fine art rather than theater.
WW: There are a lot of literary references in your work, but Shakespeare isn’t one that I’ve been able to find. Is that because, growing up there, you either fall in love with Shakespeare or you think, there’s got to be something else?
STD: Yeah, it just wasn’t one of those things I was really into as a kid or an adult. It wasn’t anything I ever got really fascinated about. I was more into science fiction – and I didn’t really get massive into science fiction until I was in my early twenties. I was a fan of films and things. I didn’t really start reading heavily until my early twenties, and I got heavily into Ray Bradbury and J.G. Ballard, who some might consider science fiction – some of his work. And then from there on, it was those two, I suppose.
WW: You also have a song called “Gravity’s Rainbow,” which I think I read too young. If somebody came up to me today and asked me to describe it, I’d be totally incapable. Is that a favorite book of yours, or was it a good title?
STD: I read the book cover to cover in about five days. After I graduated from art school, I found myself, like most people do, in this sort of web of confusion. You’ve spent three years dealing with abstract ideas and then you suddenly get plummeted down to the real world. I could think of nothing more exciting than getting a real job. I thought there’d be nothing more exciting than doing something completely opposite of what I was doing at school – like working in a call center, which I did for seven, eight months. And I learned to double-task – to take bookings as well as read at the same time. So I’d read a couple of books a week. I haven’t read that much since I worked there. I used to read and engaging in automatic writing. I’d engage in writing and reading, and just kind of filled up sketchbooks with ideas and sentences and strings. That’s where “Atlantis to Interzone” came from, and that’s where “Four Horsemen of 2012” came from. That and a conversation with my grandfather. So I found it strangely an incredibly creative place. Funnily enough, I was talking to someone the other day, and I was saying maybe I should go work in a call center for six months…
WW: In order to prepare for the next album?
STD: Yeah, in order to prepare. So that was the kind of books I was reading while I was working.
WW: I can only imagine how surreal it must have been reading “Gravity’s Rainbow” in between getting calls at a call center.
STD: The exciting thing as well, people were booking tickets for concerts: gigs and shows. And I used to get these bizarre people that would phone up claiming that they met certain members of bands in epileptic fits and all these other even more abstract ideas. It was an incredibly interesting place to work.
WW: A lot’s been made of you guys inventing the “New Rave” moniker as a joke and then watching it take off. But recently, I’ve read reviews suggesting you aren’t really New Rave, which seems crazy to me. After all, since you invented it, who could be more New Rave than you? Is that amusing to you?
STD: Yeah. It’s just kind of snowballed, and gone off into so many strange directions. It’s a bit like – what is that cartoon? Cat-Dog. Kind of like a cat and a dog in the same body chasing itself around. New Rave was something that got incredibly out of control and ended up being this huge fashion accessory in terms of the clothing, which we never really exhausted. We wore colorful clothes once in a video, and that was really the length of it. And it ended up at a kind of High Street fashion store called Topshop in England, which is a hugely influential store, which then made their entire collection around what we’d been wearing. Now you walk down the street in England and there’s a definite group of people who dress in certain ways and consider themselves New Rave kids. So I guess you could go as far as saying we successfully invented a new form of youth movement in England. It’s not solely us in terms of the music, but in terms of the aesthetic, there are definitely young people in England who dress in that kind of manner, which is still kind of baffling to me.
WW: That demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate the press. Does it surprise you that more musicians don’t try to do that? That they just go along and do as they’re told instead of trying to impose their own ideas?
STD: I was just thinking about that this morning, funnily enough, watching a YouTube clip of a band we used to be friends with and now we’re not…
WW: Do you care to mention their name?
STD: No, there are ongoing debates (laughs). But I guess the reason we did that is because we came from a funny background. We weren’t really musicians. One of us went to art school and one of us studied history and the other studied philosophy. We kind of approached the band more in terms of an idea. We had these loose ideas about how to create this fantastical pop band that wasn’t of this world, and that would write songs about things that would probably be considered a little strange. And to try to impose these ideas of books and ideas – things that were considered high art – and throw them into youthful mainstream music. We approached it as a kind of an idea. We saw it as a complete package. And hopefully one day we’ll have high paying jobs in marketing (laughs).
WW: So the band is just a means to that particular end?
STD: Today, it feels like it is. But yeah: We knew we had to create a complete package, and that was something we were completely obsessed with. From selecting the directors of the videos to making all the artwork ourselves. To really keep the reins on everything as much as possible.
WW: I understand that you guys rose to prominence really quickly. Is it true you’d only been playing together for a couple of months when you were signed?
STD: When we were signed, it was probably about seven months. But I think from having record label interest, it was probably two shows, or three gigs maximum. I think the band had been incarnated for about a week. We had labels and lawyers and managers after us definitely within the space of a week of the band forming.
WW: With you having that much attention on you so early on, how good a live band were you in the beginning? Did you have to grow up in public?
STD: I’ll go as far as saying we were embarrassing. I think it was probably around March or April of this year that we became a kind of adequate live band, and I’d say over the past two months, we’ve become a good live band. I think the festival season this summer has really kind of shook us into place. I think probably since Coachella, we began the rise to being a really good live band, which I think we are now. There were threads of it, hints of it. But definitely, when we headlined the NME tour in January, we were a horrific live band. And I think the whole of last year, we were awful. Now we’re a kind of huge live machine. It’s a case of just accidentally learning, you know. I think if you play every day, it’s kind of hard not to become good. So we’ve accidentally fallen into being a really good live band now. The thing that was always there was the energy and the spirit. It was pretty obvious that we were having the time of our lives, and we were thoroughly enjoying what we were doing. People saw performance in us, and that’s something I’ve been quite disappointed with, especially this summer, seeing a lot of live bands. There’s an element of performance that’s gone. There’s nothing sporadic and nothing instant. Everything seems to be incredibly rehearsed. And that’s not something you could say about us. We were passionate.
WW: So you felt your enthusiasm and spontaneity made up for your weaknesses in other areas?
STD: Without a shout of a doubt.
WW: And although these other bands are more technically skilled than you were, because they don’t have the energy and enthusiasm, they’re less interesting to watch?
STD: Yeah. And it’s easy to do. We began to notice that we fell into these traps when we did television, which we’ve found really hard to do. On record, we’re kind of a glossy, shiny, golden pop band, but live we’re really chaotic. And everything we do is quite thin. There’s not three guitars or anything like that, so everything is spread quite thinly. If a vocal goes, or if a guitar drops, it’s quite noticeable. So it’s been hard doing things like television. That’s something we’ve really struggled with.
WW: Plus, when you’re on television, you’re handing over a significant part of the creative presentation to someone else. Is that an issue, too?
STD: Yeah. It’s really something that’s been quite baffling. I really don’t enjoy doing television at all. There’s no vibe, either. It’s really kind of weird. You go out there kind of sober and straight – not sober in the sense of not being drunk, but you haven’t played any songs yet, and you’ve got to get out there and play one song, and then that’s it. It’s all over. But the point I was getting at is, I got really fascinated with listening to live versions of band’s songs, which is something I didn’t do before. This summer, I got really into listening to Magazine and Wire and all their live shows, and seeing how much different it is from the record. And as a fan, I think that’s something you want to see. You don’t want to see a kind of repetition of the record.
WW: You mentioned the NME tour, and I came across a quote where you said you felt that you were the least danceable band on that tour. Do you feel you’ve gotten more danceable over time.
STD: No, definitely not. I think it’s more a sense of groove – and I don’t mean “groove” in the sense of “groovy.” Like wedges or flairs. I mean it more in a rhythmical sense. A lot of the other bands had backing tracks, so even as they played, they were playing along to a track, or elements of that, or they had disco beats, which I don’t think we have. But that would get the crowds incredibly hyped up, and then we would arrive and people would be quite confused from the beginning. It was an interesting tour. It was incredibly enjoyable, but from a performance point of view, I don’t know that we gained anything from that.
WW: I understand that in some quarters, you guys were initially dismissed as a novelty group. Does the Mercury Prize put an end to that once and for all?
STD: For me, winning the Mercury Prize was the first element of reality we’ve been confronted with since the band started. Everything else has been completely surreal for me: the headlining, playing Japan, touring America. All of those things have been somewhat surreal. And I think the other night was certainly the first sense of reality I’ve been confronted with since the band started. I’m still kind of confused as to what it means. We were always confident that we’d made a great record. But I’m still trying to figure out what someone else’s seal of approval means. Does it mean that we’ve become favored by the establishment and recognized? I’m still not entirely sure what that means.
WW: I was going to ask about that. You’ve talked about how you don’t put that much stock in what critics say, and you seemed to kind of enjoy getting a two-star review in Rolling Stone. And yet, at the same time, from what I’ve read, you guys were very excited to win.
STD: We were, because that was the whole thing. It seemed completely bizarre to us that a group of people in their mid-twenties who could barely play their instruments when they formed a year and a half ago could take on these so-called musicians and end up winning a prize like that. We watched it last year and literally joked about how we were going to win it the next year. That’s not a lie. We hadn’t made the record, but we said, “We’re going to win that next year.” Completely putting on this half-arrogance and thinking how funny it would be. We’d managed to get a record deal and play gigs, and everything seemed to be possible. But the thing that was the funniest was when we arrived, greeting the people we knew had written about us and given us awful reviews. We’d had a few drinks by the time we arrived and James, especially, we had to kind of hold him back. He was absolutely taking after journalists outside. He was literally saying, “There’s no fucking way I’m talking to you, you fucking idiot.” We went through that one by one. Our favorite was this one at the Guardian, who wrote us off, which is quite funny, because that’s considered to be the arts paper in London, the kind of highbrow arts paper. And they absolutely hated us. They wrote a review of our record clearly without listening to it, and James decided to kick off about that. And then they wrote a kind of nice review afterward saying perhaps they got it wrong. But that was just a little element of abstraction that we find funny. It certainly has thrown up some interesting ideas, winning that prize.
WW: Afterward, there was a quote from Jamie where he said it was appropriate that you guys won over Amy Winehouse because her record was about the past and your record was about the future. When you heard him say that, did you think, shit, we’re going to be hearing about this forever?
STD: It’s interesting that you asked about that. Because for me, that’s my first experience with someone being misquoted. You read about this happening all the time, but unless you hear these things, or see them, you don’t really know about it. And this was literally my first experience like that. I guess he wasn’t totally misquoted. There’s no doubt those words came out of his mouth – but they got completely taken out of context. The way he was talking, he was saying we were huge fans of Amy Winehouse’s, and she’d made a great album. And then he basically started talking about how we’d made a futuristic album, and it was a forward-thinking record, and hers was a retro record. But he was talking about it in the vein of us being big fans of hers, and that got lifted. So it made it look like we were making a dig at her. It was kind of bizarre to see that touted around.
WW: Have you made any events to set the record straight? Or do you feel that at a certain point, there’s nothing you can do – it’s on the Internet and out of your control, and all you can do is shrug and move forward?
STD: I think she’s probably been one of the victims of one of the biggest amounts of misquoting. She’s this huge, absolute sensation, and so she’s well aware that things get taken out of context. We did briefly say hello to her on that night. And the whole night was kind of shrouded in her. That was all we got asked about. It was her from the minute we arrived on the rehearsal day to the minute we left. Poor girl.
WW: Your next record I understand will have prog and noise elements. Is that true?
STD: That’s definitely true. The way we’ve always written songs is we’ve written fragments and then assembled them together musically. I think the things we’re into and how diverse we are from each other is going a hell of a lot further. So when we tie those back together, I think it’s going to be really interesting. I for one am very excited because I could go as far to say it feels like the first time I’ve written music before. I wrote all the parts before, but now I can actually play guitar now, and I’m getting interested in sequences and samples and those things. I’m very excited that we’ve made a record that people like and I literally don’t feel we’ve even gotten started yet. I think we probably spent, I would say any more than ten days writing the first record, all in all. So it literally feels like we haven’t written any songs yet. There’s a definitely air of us dying to write more stuff, and we’ve got another week before we hit America to do. We’ve spent the last few days kind of recovering and assembling things. And now we get to start writing again, which is fantastic.
WW: When I hear mention of prog and noise, I think less danceable instead of more danceable. Do you think that will be the case? Or are those things not even in your thought process?
STD: I guess it’s really hard to think about, because I think I never really considered us a dance band. I consider us more of a psychedelic pop band that people dance to. We’re more like a regular indie band than a dance band. I’m kind of quite confused over that’s a kind of tag people are trying to adhere to, or whether we’re genuinely danceable.
WW: Maybe you should just come up with a new label.
STD: I think we will. We have no intention of making a similar record again. What the parameters of that will be, I don’t know. But I haven’t even listened to anything with beats in it for six months.