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Avant Garde Legend Simon Fisher Turner talks Derek Jarman, David Bowie, and Sonic Diaries

"And then, what becomes apparent, is that it wasn't 'David Bowie' at all—it was just this bloke from London who didn't like Emerson, Lake & Palmer."

by Robert Barry
01 March 2017, 11:52am

Simon Fisher Turner's diary entry for the 12th of January 1974, forty-three years to the day before I met him in the back room of a Notting Hill bookshop, reads, "Go to UK records, pick up LP for Mick, then meet Mick and Suzy." The LP was the debut Simon Turner album produced by the notorious pop impresario Jonathan King. Mick and Suzy referred to Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson and his wife (née Suzanne Fussey). The cover of the diary itself looks careworn, covered in stickers for MainMan management, 10CC, and Seventh Wave. Each one a carefully-selected badge of allegiance.

Since his days as teenage pop singer covering 'Wild Thing' and 'The Prettiest Star', Simon Fisher Turner has scored several dozen films for Derek Jarman, Mike Hodges, Michael Almareyda, and Lodge Kerrigan; he has made sounds for projects by artists including Alyson Shotz and Jasmina Cibic, and Shiro Takatani; he released three albums as the King of Luxembourg and four more (with Colin Lloyd-Tucker) as Deux Filles plus many, many more records under his own name for labels including Él, Creation, Touch, Mute, and now Mego.

He no longer writes down his daily activities in a sticker-clad journal. But he has developed a practice which acts, in some ways, as a proxy for diarising: he records sounds, almost every day, and almost everywhere he goes, sucking up whatever in his environment piques his interest through the mic on his phone or a little handheld Roland recording device. He calls them—not "field recordings"—but "life recordings". They have become the major source for his new album, Giraffe.

"It used to be really specifically for projects," he says of this documentary habit, "and now it's turned into a thing I just do constantly. It can be very boring for the people around me." Sometimes, he admits, he'll even do it in secret. Voice recorder will be surreptitiously switched on, in his pocket, on a family trip to the funfair at Christmas. He calls them "life recordings", he tells me, because "it's not to do with fields. A field is a field. I couldn't sit in here and put a tape recorder on, and say it's a field recording. It's a life recording because it's all these people's lives, it's my life, it's recording what's going on in this space, now."

We're eating tomato risotto, sat at one of maybe four or five tables in the back of Books for Cooks off the Portobello Road. All around us, the sounds of genial chatter, the clinking of cutlery, the sforzando whoosh of coffee machines. Following Turner's gaze, I can't help but notice every one of these noises. He seems permanently on the brink of distraction, forever interrupting his own sentences with some parenthetical aside that ends up derailing the whole chain of thought, alternately half-bored and fired up with the greatest enthusiasm in rapid succession.

As we speak, Turner illustrates his words with a whole menagerie of imitative mouth noises. Blah-bleeah goes the sound of trumpet voluntaries from some old East German propaganda tapes he recently got hold of. Crrr–chp–shrrr for the sounds he found recording the inner workings of Lear Jets for a project with artist Davide Quayola. Boom boom boom boom for a sound made by Turner's son that made its way into one of the tracks on the new album. Oom-cha-oom-cha-oom-cha is Turner doing the drums added by Terre Thaemlitz for a remix of the former's Epic of Everest soundtrack. Cccrrrrrr goes the nail of one of Shiro Takatani's dancers against the upholstery on a theatre pew. Crrrrshhheeeoooowwwwuh is a wave of filtered white noise from a Moog synthesizer.

I imagine him composing like this, all these sounds buzzing around in his head, or singing to himself in nonsense syllables at his studio desk. (Working on his Poème électronique at the Philips Studio in Eindhoven in the 1950s, Edgard Varèse was just the same.)

Turner's sonic imaginary has deep roots. "I was brought up to really listen," he tells me. "When I was at school we used to have an hour at least a week where the class would sit together and listen to people reading, going round the class." From childhood, he recalls the sounds of coffee machines and flamenco guitars on Spanish holidays, waves crashing upon the shore off the Cornwall coast of his youth and lolly sticks clattering against bicycle wheels. "My dad was a submariner so we were always near the sea," he says. "I became interested in sound because he came back from the far east with a cassette recorder when they first came out. I must have been 13 or 14. It was one of the first machines in England."

It didn't take long for him to progress from his mum's Herb Alpert and Acker Bilk records to finding a music that could like his own. "I used to work in a record shop in Islington. I didn't like Hunky Dory when that came out," he explains. "But Rob, who used to run this record shop, said do you want to come and see David Bowie playing at Slough Technical College. And it was just mind blowing. I was a guitar man. Ronson was my man. Oh my fucking god. Nobody had ever played guitar like that before—not that I'd seen. But we took notice of what Bowie was saying, and you did think about your clothes a bit more. You didn't go to a David Bowie concert in jeans and a t-shirt."

You knew him, didn't you? I say.

"I didn't know him at all, no," he says at once, before admitting, "I spent time with him, but he's the man I didn't know." Their first meeting was not long after that gig at Slough Technical College. Turner's debut album was released in 1973 featuring a cover of Bowie's "The Prettiest Star." Later that year, while Bowie was rehearsing for the TV special The 1980 Floor Show, Turner, "was introduced to him by Angela, and he was far too busy to take any notice of the fact that, hey, this is Simon, he recorded one of your songs, blah blah blah. He was busy, man."

Within a few years, Turner had become part of what he calls "the MainMan Bowie support system". The phrase "hangers-on" Turner says, "isn't quite right. Friends of his wife, I would say." In 1976, he flew to New York to pack down Bowie's home there. Over the following years, he visited the singer several times at his new home in Switzerland, occasions which Turner remembers as "very funny times. Nobody was on drugs and it was just really challenging. It was like, what have you got? I've got nothing. I've got snuff."

"I used to just hang out," Turner says. "And then, what becomes apparent, is that it wasn't 'David Bowie' at all—it was just this bloke from London who didn't like Emerson, Lake & Palmer."

After a while, the cosy little scene in the alps started to become "very heavy and rather horrible." Turner returned to London. "I was probably asked to leave," he grants. There would be no second album with Jonathan King. Turner's future was not to be a guitar-wielding pop singer, but his encounter with Bowie—the man and the music—would prove foundational. "It drove me," he says, "for sure."

Turner first started working with Derek Jarman in the production office, making salad for the crew and driving people to and from the set. By the time he made Caravaggio, Turner had been promoted to composer. "Once he trusted you, that was it," Turner recalls. "He'd try and get the people together and we'd try and do it as best we could. He would just let us do it."

Traces of Turner's relationship with Jarman still linger on his latest album for Mego. There's a sample of some strings played by the Elysian Quartet for Isaac Julien's film Derek about the film-maker's life. But then Giraffe contains little snippets from so many of Turner's projects over the last eight years. Backstage sounds from one of Shiro Takatani's theatre projects in Japan, little bits of projects with Cynthia Beatt and Alyson Shots. Listen closely and you might just make out the sound of Tilda Swinton's partner, the artist Sandro Kopp applying paint to a canvas. "So these are my contributions to other people's work, finally put together," Turner says, "like a bouillabaisse, with lots of different ingredients."

He was introduced to Peter Rehberg of Mego by Klara Lewis, with whom Turner is currently collaborating on a live soundtrack to Walter Ruttmann's film Berlin: Symphonie der Großstadt. Though he admits he was not, previously, very familiar with Rehberg's Pita project, he was familiar with the label thanks to releases by old friends like Bruce Gilbert and Russell Haswell. If the aesthetic seems an odd match at first—certainly there's a world of difference between the soundtrack to Blue and a record by Farmer's Manual or Shit & Shine—what links them, finally, is an interest in sound itself. "It's very much a sound thing," Turner says, "as opposed to a music thing." Or perhaps more to the point, it's a record for which the distinction between the two becomes irrelevant.

"When I worked with Derek, I had 'composer' [in the credits to his films], but I worked with sound. People still don't understand." For a label like Mego, however, the commingling is second nature. For Turner, likewise, the careful coordination of different sounds is more than just a career. For nearly two years now he has been producing a series for Touch called Guerilla Audio. Every two weeks, a short burst of noises variously gathered, cut-up, processed, and compiled. The regularity of it has forced him into a habit of recording basically all the time, in a process analogous to the diaries he kept as a teenager. Giraffe is the first full-length release to have come out of this process. The whole thing adds up to what Turner calls "a compilation of experiences, an album of memories."

Giraffe by Simon Fisher Turner is out now on Editions Mego.

Robert Barry is on Twitter

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