Sound It Out: “20 Questions” #32 — Simon Jermyn

Another installment of the recurring “Sound It Out: 20 Questions” feature on, with an artist answering a survey inspired by the famous Proust Questionnaire…

(Photo: Peter Gannushkin.)

Electric bassist/guitarist Simon Jermyn was born in 1981 and raised in Dublin. After some years in Holland, Iceland and back in Ireland, he moved to New York City, in 2009. Since here, Simon has played extensively on the improvised music scene, collaborating extensively and recording both solo – see his atmospheric album Hymni (Diatribe Records, 2010) – and with various incarnations of his band Trot-a-Mouse. He released the Trot-a-Mouse album Pictorial Atlas of Mammals via Skirl Records in 2015, with the lineup including Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone), Mat Maneri (viola) and Tom Rainey (drums). Among that disc’s long-breathed beauties are two arrangements of iconic Elizabethan laments by John Dowland (“Flow My Tears” and “I Saw My Lady Weepe”). Simon has also recorded in a wide-ranging studio project with multi-instrumentalist/producer David Crowell; they released the album Spirit Spout through Skirl last year. Along with his affable, generous spirit, Simon has refreshingly broad tastes, ranging from the aforementioned Dowland to African music, from ambient soundscapes to soul classics; moreover, you can hear this reach in his music.

On March 7, 2019, Simon makes his leader debut in the Sound It Out series at Greenwich House, in a double-bill. The first half features his duo Sooner with Simon on guitar/electronics and Charlotte Greve on alto saxophone, electronics and voice. Joe Branciforte will be sitting in with them on live processing and synth. For the second set, Simon will lead a new lineup of Trot-a-Mouse, with him on bass guitar, Charlotte again on alto sax, Anna Webber on tenor sax and Mark Ferber on drums. The Irish Times has said: “To call Simon Jermyn a guitarist, or a bassist (his hybrid six-stringed instrument resembles both), barely hints at the range and subtlety of his musicianship. In a wider sense, Jermyn is a musical instigator, and his real instrument is his band.” — BB

  1. What was the first jazz album you fell in love with and stayed in love with?

Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard.

  1. What do you think is one of the most overrated jazz albums ever?

An anecdote instead: Once when I was a teenager, I bought an album from the jazz department at Tower Records in Dublin. I brought it back a few days later to see if I could exchange it. The guy working at Tower asked which department I bought it from, and when he saw that it was from the jazz department, he said: “Oh, you have to be really careful – there’s an awful lot of crap in there!”

  1. What’s one of your all-time favorite non-jazz albums?

I can’t decide… The Immortal Otis Redding, Fourth World: Possible Musics by Brian Eno & John Hassell or African Classics by Thomas Mapfumo.

  1. What’s the last album you listened to from beginning to end – and did you like it?

I can’t remember. Maybe that means I jump around albums too much…

  1. What’s your favorite film score?

Arrival by Jóhan Jóhannsson.

  1. What was the most recent concert – of any genre – that made you fall in love with music all over again?

The Craig Taborn Quartet at the Village Vanguard. Also: Chris Speed and Thomas Heberer played an improvised duo at Greenwich House as an intro to a tune with Angelica Sanchez’s Nonet last fall that restored my faith in humanity!

  1. Which are your very favorite and least favorite venues for live music?

I like any venue with good sound/backline, where the musicians are treated with respect and some people come to listen. Right now in New York City, that’s the Village Vanguard, The Owl, Threes Brewing, Barbès and Greenwich House Music School.

  1. What’s your favorite quote about music?

It’s an answer that Henry Threadgill gave during an interview with Wire magazine. It’s a bit long, so see at the bottom here…

  1. If you could have a drink with any late visual artist of the past, who would it be?

Does Jim Henson count?

  1. What are the top three tools of your trade?

Guitar, bass, pedals (then the amp, I guess).

  1. What’s your most indispensable piece of technology that isn’t music-oriented?

Embarrassed to admit it, but it’s my iPhone.

  1. What non-musical/non-technological quality is most important to being an enduringly creative musician?

Hmm, curiosity? Or humor? Or maybe maintaining a personal relationship with music that remains unaffected by the marketplace/careeristic concerns…

  1. What living person do you most admire – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most admire?

Anybody who is doing their best.

  1. What living person do you most despise – and what’s one quality he or she has that you most despise?

Generally speaking, I have a hard time with assholes. 

  1. What’s your favorite place in the world?

There is a huge lake in the Dublin mountains near where my parents live – it’s beautiful. Also, my apartment.

  1. If you could live in another time period, when would that be?

I would probably stick with this one, although people older than I am say that the early-’90s New York was very musically inspiring.

  1. What book would you most like to read again?

Probably one of novels by Haruki Murakami, or maybe James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I didn’t actually finish… 

  1. What film haven’t you seen that you feel like you should?

Citizen Kane.

  1. What aspect of the past do you miss most – and what’s one thing you look forward to about the future that doesn’t yet exist?

It’s a cliché to say, but I miss aspects of the pre-cell-phone world, even though living without that kind of technology seems impossible now. If we can avoid a climate catastrophe in the future, that would be great… 

  1. What would you like your last meal to consist of?

If I knew it was my last meal, I would be too nervous to eat. But if I didn’t know in advance, then it would be my wife Cara’s lasagna.

>> That Henry Threadgill quote, for the answer to question #8 above:

“So, somebody like Cecil Taylor’s music, you have to start from a distance. You start from a distance, you’ll work your way inside; you’ll start to hear musical information and you start to put that information down and you can hear where he’s doing this, and you could say, ‘What does it sound like he’s doing?’ It sounds like he’s playing some kind of cell here, some type of motive here. Is there some kind of dynamics that he’s working with here? Shading? All these different things that one could learn, but not to the extent where you give it to the students to mimic it, to sit and practice what Cecil Taylor’s playing, or play John Coltrane solos. These schools have kids playing John Coltrane solos. For what? I just really don’t understand what the purpose of that is. What are they supposed to ascertain from playing something that was supposed to be a personal statement by someone? I think there’s some confusion that has happened from the classical concept of teaching. You have to learn how to play the classical literature if you’re gonna be a classical musician, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it, you have to be able to do it – you gotta know it. You’re gonna play sonatas or concertos, you have to know these things. But you don’t need to know anybody’s solo, in terms of improvised music. So to spend all that time getting that inside of you, that’s a waste of time, because what’s gonna happen is you’re gonna start mimicking that. See, when you go to improvise and you’ve got that information in you, you’re gonna start taking that information and playing it in some form and fooling yourself that you doing something [laughs]. So, I think that the approach to teaching this in schools – they’re all backward in terms of that. They really shouldn’t be telling people how to negotiate going from a C minor to a so-and-so chord. I think this is very bad, you know. ’Cause, like I said, you listen to Don Byas do it, you listen to Paul Gonsalves do it, listen to Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis do it – all of ’em figured out a different way to do it, so they didn’t have the same information in terms of that. And that’s what we want to develop in students is a unique approach. How do you teach people in such a way that they can develop uniquely? That’s the whole idea, not the assembly-line method. The schools are exercising the Ford Motor Company approach. I don’t think that’s healthy – I think that’s very unhealthy. Matter of fact, I know it’s unhealthy.

I go around, and I listen to music a lot, live music. I hear a lot of young players. That’s how I find so many players. I wouldn’t call people’s names, but they all play the same things, basically. I can hear how so many players are doing the same thing. Come at a piece of music and everybody’s doing the same kind of stuff, you know, and a lot of times when I talk to them I found out they went to this school, that school, so I says to ’em, ‘So that’s where you got that stuff from?’ ” [laughs]