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Completely Frank – The Unexpurgated Version!

March 31, 2015

Frank Simes, musical director, The Who

Simon Wright Interview

03.29.2015

1. Tell me about your own musical background.

I was born and raised as an American in Japan, as my father was working for US Army Japan as a judge advocate, and later an appellate court judge.  I started singing and reading music in second grade choir.  My dad gave me a guitar for Christmas just before I turned 11.  I played in a folk band when I was 12, and in rock bands from the time I was 13.  I landed a record on RCA Victor with a band called Sunrise when I was 14.  We moved to Solana Beach, CA (near San Diego) when I was 15, and six months after we got settled there, I moved to Los Angeles.  The deal I made with my Dad was that I would continue attending high school, while living with USC students who served as guardians.  I got myself into Fairfax High School, which had an excellent music curricula. I studied flute, clarinet, alto clarinet, and music theory at FHS.  Having been granted a special recommendation, I left high school in my junior year to attend college, where I continued my studies in theory, piano, and composition.  At age 17 and 18, playing in a progressive rock band called Claritas with Steve Laughlin, a keyboardist and composition major at USC, and Danny Sofer, a drummer and theory major at USC, I learned a lot about electronic and experimental music.  We recorded at Sound Arts Studio, and rehearsed at the USC electronic music department annex.  When I turned 20, my musical interests beginning to lean toward pop- and art-rock, I formed a band called The Whizz Kidds that signed a deal with an A & M custom label.  A song I wrote called “Sweet Honey” received national AM radio airplay.  Bouncing from band to band after The Whizz Kidds disbanded, I later became guitarist and co-songwriter with Martha Davis of The Motels.  My work with Martha led to joining Don Henley as his guitarist and co-songwriter.  During my 20-plus years with Don, I also played with Warren Zevon, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Nicks.  I also became a composer for Paramount TV during my time with Henley.

2. How did you hook up with the Who and when?

I met Roger 12 years ago. Roger had fired a guitar player, and then another, for his charity band that played two shows in LA.  Two of his bandmates recommended me.  After playing with him for five minutes, he said “that’ll do!” and I was in. After our first gig, he asked me “What do you think about putting a quartet together and going on the road?  How would you fancy that?”  And I said “I would fancy that!” (More on this later.)  Three years later he asked me to be his musical director and to help him form a band for his solo endeavors.  Subsequently, Roger’s band went on several tours, which eventually led to my directing the music for a world tour of Tommy.

I met Pete in England at a rehearsal for the world tour of Tommy with Roger, and we were joking and exchanging stories with ease. Two years later, Pete Townshend and the management team asked me to work on the music sequence for The Who’s performance at the Olympics 2012.  Pete and Roger decided to name me the musical director for the most recent Quadrophenia tour, and then, later, prepared material for the current The Who Hits 50! tour.  They both seem to feel comfortable with my dealing with matters of intricacies, music and otherwise. They have both commended me on all the choices and recommendations I’ve made.  I do understand the explosive power and the freedom their music represents, which is something I never forget as I’m working on the details.  We – Pete, Roger, and I – have an unspoken understanding about it. There are times when I have to deal with some prickly matters and a bit of friction (could you imagine The Who without them?), but most of the time it is quite a happy experience.

3. What is it you do that the Who can’t do themselves?

I score all the horns, strings, synthesizer (ARP), backing vocals, and some of the keyboard parts. That is, once according to the studio recordings, and once according to past live performances. I made hundreds of mixes of the individual songs, emphasizing different instruments, primarily for the horn players and keyboardists to pick off their parts. I made lead sheets for all 16 Quadrophenia songs, that is, charts containing the chords, melody, and lyrics, primarily for structural reference. I made separate horn scores and charts that included three trumpets, a trombone, and a euphonium for the most part, and included parts for the mellophone. I had to divvy up the parts among the two live players and me. They played two of the five parts and I played the remaining three parts. I made non-linear click tracks for six of the songs, as these needed to be synchronized with the visuals. “Non-linear click tracks” means that the tempo would change, speed up and slow down, as The Who’s music, particularly the songs of Quadrophenia, is very much like orchestral music, accelerating and decelerating according to the “emotional dynamics” of a given piece.    Unlike other acts that play to a lot of recorded vocals and instruments, we played everything live, and the click was used only for synchronization with the visuals on six of the pieces. I made executive decisions about how to edit John Entwistles’ bass solo from 8 minutes to 2 minutes, 30 seconds. I recorded all the horn parts in a studio, from which horn samples were created. I programmed these samples into my Kurzweil keyboard or Kontact 5 and, of course, learned to play these parts.  I also learned how to play all of Pete’s guitar and vocals parts, in case Pete did not attend a particular rehearsal or a soundcheck.  I take part in all personnel issues, including finding keyboardists and horn players.

Nothing is more pleasurable than working on music with total commitment. For that matter, everything in life is that way for me.  Maximum pleasure is gleaned from total commitment to any endeavor.  It was a huge responsibility to prepare for the Quadrophenia tour, and, yes, I felt the pressure and stress at times, but all in all, it was an incredibly rewarding experience.  I did four times the work for the current tour, preparing sheet music and audio tracks, and trial mixes for varying tempos and/or pitch.  I arranged music for and created many audio tracks from a 70-song master list for The Who Hits 50! tour, generating 1,600 pages of sheet music, lead sheets, vocal scores, extracted vocal parts, and lyrics. This body of sheet music, etc. represented about 1/3 of the total work I accomplished.  I also created 50 audio tracks for rehearsal purposes, and created new performance audio tracks for 20 songs.

4. Talk us through how you prepare for a tour like this – how much do you do on your own and how much do you do with the band?

5. For this tour where did you rehearse and for how long?

6. How many songs do you rehearse?

The preparations for the Quadrophenia tour required three-and-a-half months of working 10- to 14-hour days.  The Who Hits 50! tour required about five months, working at the same pace.  Roger, the three keyboardists (John Coury, Loren Gold, and I), the horn players (J.G. Miller and Reggie Grisham), and I rehearsed in LA for about five days, and then we rehearsed for another four days in Florida with Pete and the rest of the members.  For The Who Hits 50! tour the three keyboardist, an understudy drummer (Scott Deavours), and an understudy bass player (Jamie Hunting) did five days of preliminary rehearsals, followed by two or three days of rehearsals with Roger Daltrey and Simon Townshend.  We lacked the time to go over all 70 songs, but we covered a majority of them.  In London, we rehearsed at the British Grove Studios for about a two weeks, followed by three or four days of full production rehearsals at Shepperton Studios.

7. With such an enormous back catalogue how do you decide what to play?

As I said, we amassed 70 songs, from which we first chose the obviously iconic, the patent hits, the lesser hits, the older hits, and so on, placing the songs in categories and in a semi-hierarchical fashion.  Creating the sounds and building arrangements was part of my job.  I also had to generate rehearsal tracks in a way that we could hear Pete’s vocals and guitars for the LA rehearsals when he wasn’t present.  And similarly, I had to embed Roger vocals in those audio tracks for the preliminary rehearsals, so that the rest of the members could play along with his lead vocals when Roger wasn’t present.  The backline musicians, including Simon Townshend, did play through all 70 songs at one point.  When Pete and Roger got into the mix, we began segregating the songs that weren’t working from the ones we would keep.

8.Do you check out fan websites to see what the hardcore are asking for?

For The Who Hits 50! tour we did refer to fan websites, and The Who site blogs written by hardcore fans.  At the top of lists devised by hardcore fans included such songs as A Quick One, While He’s Away, Slip Kid, The Song is Over, Relay, and Happy Jack.  We do play the mini-opera and Slip Kid, have played Relay, but we discarded The Song is Over and Happy Jack.

9. Were you a Who fan before you started playing with them? If so which era did you like most? Did you ever see them live?

I have been a fan since Tommy and Live at Leeds, when I was barely a teenager.  I played See Me, Feel Me/Listening to you and Summertime Blues in one of my first bands.  Woodstock was what riveted me.  I did see them live once at the Forum in LA in 1983.

10. Are there any real obscurities you’d like to see the band play? (We vote for Dogs, the great lost Who single!)

My favorite lesser known tunes are Cry If You Want and Slip Kid, both of which address a young man’s respective existential plights.  They are transmogrifications of Young Man’s Blues.

11. How would you describe the difference between this line-up and its predecessor?

The great thing about the current line-up is that, now, we have four additional singers apart from Pete and Roger, so we can handle the four-, five-, and six-part vocal harmonies that were impossible for the prior line-ups to handle, including the original line-up.  Songs like I Can See for Miles requires five singers to represent all the original parts.  Behind Blue Eyes requires six parts.  Join Together has five parts.  The Mini-Opera has six parts.

With three keyboardists, we can handle organ, piano, synths, strings, and horns simultaneously.  This way we can represent all the instrumental parts accurately in a live setting.  These would include songs from Quadrophenia, such as the Quadrophenia Overture, Bell Boy, 5:15, The Rock, Love Reign O’e Me, Join Together, The Tommy Overture, It’s a Boy, Amazing Journey, and Sparks.

In addition, I play mandolin on The Seeker, banjo on Squeeze Box, percussion on Slip Kid.  J Coury plays harmonica on Join Together, L Gold plays the jaw harp on Join Together, and all three keyboardists can handle the three claves on Magic Bus.  Representing the original sounds and instruments and backing vocals makes the overall effect much richer, not to mention, truer.  Previous line-ups would compensate for the lack of all those sounds and instruments by playing parts that never existed on the original recordings in order to fill up the gaps, so to speak.  It was more of a rock ‘n’ roll circus approach to the live setting.

12. Which gigs have you particularly enjoyed on this tour? Any incidents that stick in your mind?

The Liverpool show last December was phenomenal, and the second O2 Arena show very powerful. The Royal Albert Hall TCT charity event was very dynamic and exciting.  These three shows are the most memorable shows so far.  I remember Pete getting incensed at one of the shows because his guitar wouldn’t tune up properly.  He threw his Strat down on the stage, which was a hint of the way he used to smash up his guitars.

13. What will be your hometown gig on the US tour? Will you invite friends and family?

My hometown gig will be the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and the Honda Center in Anaheim, both of which are within 25 miles of my home.  And, yes, a multitude of friends and family will be attending the two shows.  And this can get expensive!

14. You’re playing smallish gigs (RAH) and hugeish gigs (Hyde Park). Which do you prefer and why?

I really don’t have a preference.  But, if I was to be forced to choose, I would say the smaller venues, because they are inherently more intimate.  But, in the larger scope, it’s really about the quality and energy level of our performance that counts, which has a direct effect on the level of audience response.

15. Is Pete really as miserable in real life as his onstage persona suggests?

Miserable?  I would never say that he’s miserable.  He does have an acerbic wit, and can be biting-sarcastic on stage.  He always makes me laugh.  Of course, he rarely, if ever, directs his sarcasm at me.  But, I know him more intimately, of course, and I see him more as an energetic, humorous, story-telling, thoughtful, and vibrantly creative person that knows what he wants.  He’s very decisive, but is open to my suggestions and recommendations.  He is a person of high awareness and complex thought, who fiercely guards his sense of freedom, creative and otherwise, and loves music in a profound way.  He has a poetic and philosophical mind, with a sense for nuance.  I consider him to be the most narrative-driven songwriter of all time, with a voice of his own.

When Roger was trying to persuade Pete to take me on as the musical director for the Quad tour, Pete was concerned that I would make the show all-too “tightly-knit” (Pete’s words).  I told Pete that I understand that The Who’s music, that is, Pete’s music and the way he plays, represents explosive energy and freedom.  In an email to me, Pete, sounding relieved and growing ever more confident about my approach, simply said “thank you”.

Pete’s attitude about songwriting, performance, and life are angst-driven, defiant, and energetic in an off-the-scale way.  He still possesses, to this day, an unquenchable level of incendiary energy and is a force to always be reckoned with.

16. What is in Roger’s mug?

Roger’s indefatigable energy is amazing and admirable.  He will sing till his vocal chords are shredded.  Remember that he is 71 singing songs fit for 22 year-old.  He has a great sense for the dynamic qualities of a show, and is therefore usually in charge of building the setlist.  Roger also spearheaded the production fantastic visuals we have used since the Quad tour.  He, too, has a high awareness of musical and vocal nuance, as well as knowing what it takes to make a show powerful and stunning.  Roger is also humorous, though less caustic than Pete. He is perhaps more about exuberance and levity.  His laughter is hearty and mighty as he recounts his many stories.  Roger has the weight of the whole band riding on his shoulders, and he does an incredible job of bearing it.

Now, for a detailed account of how I met Roger and what ensued…

In 2000 I helped Don Henley put his new band together. He was known to “clean house” every few years and fire the old band members or they’d quit on their own. Then he’d find new musicians to inject fresh blood into his act. I recommended a drummer friend named Rob Ladd, who auditioned, along with five other drummers, and wound up filling the seat.  Four years later, Rob returned the favor by recommending me for Roger Daltrey’s charity band, which Roger named The How.

I later learned that Roger was finicky about guitarists (no surprise) and he had fired the first two guitarists, one after the other. Roger had asked the members whether they knew a guitarist who could handle The Who’s music, and Rob said he knew someone who could. I got a phone call from the musical director who asked me to come to a nightclub in West LA where Roger had set up a makeshift rehearsal room.

When I parked my car I was greeted by Nigel Sinclair, who had seen me play in concert with Henley. He said he was a fan of mine, that he had followed and enjoyed my playing for years. Nigel, who is now a close friend, was a Scottish barrister turned film producer and owner of Exclusive Media, then Spitfire Pictures, and now White Horse Pictures, who produces on average four features a year. Nigel was also one of three guitarists in The How.

After setting up my amp, I started tuning my Telecaster to prepare to play. With no warning, Roger Daltrey sauntered in the front door, mindlessly strumming the chords to Behind Blue Eyes. Everything seemed in slow motion. Roger strolled through a cone of white light emanating from a single overhead stagelight. The air was hazy and the look of the moment was like a David Lynch film set. Dim, surreal, dramatic.

Back up to 1970, Tokyo, Japan, where I grew up as an Army dependent and where my father worked as a US Army appellate court judge. The film of Woodstock had just been released and I paid big money for me at the time to see it eight times. I wished that I’d been part of the scene that Woodstock represented and to be at Woodstock itself. Watching all the artists perform – Joe Cocker, Ten Years After, Santana, Ritchie Havens – was astounding. But, more than merely captivated or inspired, I was spellbound by the Who. Watching The Who play “See Me, Feel Me” followed by “Listening To You” drew me into a dream world. Seeing Roger flailing his arms, bare-chested in his fringed, white chamois vest, swinging the mic over his head, and watching Pete Townshend exploding with energy, jumping up and down, doing his windmills, and destroying his guitar at the end of “Summertime Blues” had me mesmerized. The lyrics “…gazing at you, I get the heat…” danced like magic in my head. I said to myself “I want to be like that, I want to do that! What I really wanted to do was surrealistically meld into the film and perform with them.

So, there I was, in the nightclub in West LA, seeing the guy that inspired me to pursue music. Wow. I knew Behind Blue Eyes, so I started playing the arpeggiated acoustic guitar part. Roger looked at me with a nod and a raised eyebrow, smiling, as if to say “Oh, you know it.” He went up to the mic and started singing. I fell in line with the harmony vocal parts. We were surrounded by 20 people, standing in the shadows, including the other members of the How, the production crew, and the rest of the entourage. Roger and I finished the song and he said to me “Well, that’ll do!” He put his hand out for me to shake it and with a thick Cockney, he said “Ro-jaah.” I said “Frank.”

A few days later we played a warm-up show at the same club. The show was unannounced but the place was packed like sardines. After the show Roger squeezed his way through the crowd to get to me and said “How would you fancy putting a quartet together and doing some corporate shows?” I replied “I would fancy that.”

Three years later I got a call from Roger to help him put together a touring band. I heard several weeks later that Nigel Sinclair was instrumental in persuading Roger to hire me as the musical director. Nigel told me months later that Roger said it took him “25 years to find someone I could trust,” meaning me. It was a gigantic feather in my cap.

To organize the audition I first secured a rehearsal room at Third Encore Studios in North Hollywood. Then I called all the drummers, bass players, and keyboardists I thought were capable for the job. I talked to other professional guitarists, record producers, and audio engineers for recommendations. I amassed a list of 33 musicians, all whom would audition over the course of three days in their chosen slot, with three or four audition slots of two hours each, three musicians per slot: a drummer, a bassist, a keyboardist. Roger, Nigel, Simon Townshend (Pete Townshend’s younger brother), and I ran the auditions. Before it all started Nigel and Roger were convinced the occasion would be disastrous. I proved them wrong by staying focused and organized. The auditions ran like clockwork.

The day before the first day of auditions, which were to begin at 1:00 PM, Roger called to ask whether he could come at 2:00 PM or 2:30 PM. He was jetlagging. But, I said “No, you need to be there at 1:00 PM. You really need to see the first drummer.” He said “OK. I’ll be there.”

All the musicians were quite capable and prepared with the material given. We were not looking for technical proficiency alone, but also for energy, a good attitude, a good mood, a good look, and most importantly, enthusiasm. We picked Scott Deavours for drums, Loren Gold for keyboards, and Jon Button for bass.

A few months later Roger’s management booked us on our first tour and rehearsals began. We concentrated on songs that The Who never played or played only a few times early on, some of Roger’s solo material, and a few choice covers. I deconstructed and scored the three- to six-part vocal harmonies on such songs as I Can See for Miles, Pictures of Lily,

Tattoo, and Behind Blue Eyes. In the early days, when The Who played live there were only three singers: Roger, Pete Townshend, and John Entwistle. Our band with Roger could sing up to six parts at once because everyone in the band can sing. It was thrilling for everyone in the band including Roger to hear these vocal parts as they were originally arranged and recorded but had never been sung live. The band has learned over 100 songs to date.

Since the first rehearsals, Roger and his band has toured North America several times and twice in Europe. We also opened for Eric Clapton on two arena tours.

Roger decided to tour a band version of Tommy, the 1969 rock opera, so I set out to score the opus in its entirety, a massive undertaking. What made Roger’s new version of Tommy distinctive was that the live presentation was true to the original recording, with all the backing vocal, horn, and guitar parts as it was arranged for the 1969 album. The Who never tried to re-create the album on stage. Their versions of Tommy were, according to Roger, like a “rock ‘n’ roll circus.” We have now done tours of Tommy in the US, Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan. We also played Tommy and the hits at one of the nights for the Teenage Cancer Trust (TCT) show week in 2011. Pete Townshend attended one of the rehearsals at Shepperton Studios in Sheffield, UK, where I had the pleasure to meet him finally. He also performed Acid Queen on his own and then Baba O’Riley with Roger’s band at the 2011 TCT event.

The Who made a documentary entitled “The Amazing Journey”, produced by Nigel Sinclair, Robert Rosenberg (one of The Who’s two managers), and The Who (Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey). Robb Ladd and I appear in the film, in which we demonstrate and explain what made Keith Moon’s drumming distinctive.

Today, when I’m on stage with Roger and we’re singing “Listening to you, I get the music…” and much of Tommy I get goosebumps and a building euphoria. When Roger and three others sing in four-part harmony, I flash back to when I was 14 and saw Woodstock those eight times in Japan. It’s over four decades later and sometimes I ask myself “How did I get here?” It is surreal. Mind-boggling. Hallucinogenic. The clock goes backwards and forwards at the same time. And then time and my world stand still. That’s every time I play and sing it. These feelings never leave me. When it’s time for my solo in “Listening To You” toward the end “Were Not Gonna Take It,” the final song in Tommy, I’m so excited, no, inflamed that I almost lose control of my guitar-playing.

It’s a fantasy realized.

17. What are your plans for after this tour?

No telling what the future holds for The Who. They may tour again…or not.  I’m busy working on getting two musicals that I’ve written with my partner, Lisa Verlo, to the next level, that is, to turn them into movies, or take them to Broadway.  I also compose music for TV shows and TV commercials.  I’m also the musical director for a musical based in San Francisco called Keith Moon: The Real Me.  I also write songs for my band Topcat, a rock band based in the style of English groups such as T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, and, perhaps, The Stones.  I will be producing two albums for an artist in the summer of 2015.  I’m also writing a book on music, movement, and enlightenment.

18. Tell us a secret…

What’s The Who without tensions flaring to the point of blows (almost)?  At the second O2 Arena on March 23, 2015, Roger said to Pete on stage “you talk too much”.  Pete replied “no, I don’t”, followed by a series “yes you dos” and “no, I don’ts” and some tense retorts and fighting words.  That was the closest I’ve seen them come to blows.  It’s safe to say that the air was thick with the possibility…

 

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