What you’re expecting and what you get when you meet Tony Simon, a.k.a. Blockhead, may be two entirely different things. “I think people think of me as this mysterious figure making music in a dark basement somewhere,” he said. And it’s no wonder, if they’ve listened to his second full-length, Downtown Science (Ninja Tune, 2005), a moody, beat-driven soundscape that sounds like it would turn to dust if exposed to the light of day.
But Simon isn’t that at all. He is a guy who refuses to take himself or the music business too seriously. He makes beats and chills. No dusty lab. No strange chemicals. Still, he did have to raise the BPM level at his shows because he wanted to get the girls to dance.
Simon is a talented producer who has made notable beats for Aesop Rock and has crafted two albums of multi-layered instrumental hip-hop for Ninja Tune (his first, Music by Cavelight, was released in 2004). And his debut EP, Insomniac Olympics (2003), had people burdening him with hefty comparisons and big expectations – things that don’t really seem to concern him.
Prefixmag.com: So you just got back from Toronto?
Blockhead: Yeah, Toronto’s a cool place. It’s kind of like a sterile New York. Of all the cities I’ve been to in North America it’s the one that reminds me of New York the most, as far as how it looks and the vibe there.
PM: What was the event?
Blockhead: It was for this film festival called Resfest. I just did a laptop show at the after-party. That’s pretty much the extent of the live show.
PM: Yeah, I saw you perform at Mercury Lounge with Sixtoo.
Blockhead: Oh yeah? Cool. It’s weird to perform in New York, though. I don’t like performing in New York actually.
PM: Why? Because people are so spoiled?
Blockhead: They’re spoiled, one. I’m no different when I’m in the crowd, but you go out West and people go crazy for the shows. It’s a little beyond me [why people get] that revved up about a laptop show – even though I do them – but out here people are just ice-grilling you and no one will dance . The whole East Coast is like that. And usually the shows here just end up being all my friends who don’t really want to be there anyway. So I’m kind of like, “All right guys here’s the show. Go ahead and drink!”
PM: That show was cool with P-Love there playing all the different instruments and whatnot.
Blockhead: Yeah, he’s really dope.
PM: I like his new album (All Up in Your Mind) a lot.
Blockhead: Yeah, I’ve been trying to get Ninja to send it to me but they didn’t make it, so I guess that’s going to be a problem. [Laughs.] But he’s a nice guy and a super-talented musician – with just about anything. The kind of guy who just reaches down and says, “Oh, a flute,” and breaks out with an ill solo or something.
PM: So your new album kind of came out of nowhere this time.
Blockhead: Yeah, I don’t know what was up with that. I know there was some back and forth on whether to put it out now or in February, so maybe that had something to do with it. I don’t know.
PM: I know with the first record when the “Insomniac Olympics” twelve-inch was out there was a lot of buzz behind that. I remember it being featured at Turntable Lab and Other Music and a couple of other places at that time. There was a lot of anticipation for the first album built off that.
Blockhead: I think that’s the point of twelve-inches. I know they released an exclusive MP3 before the album came out.
PM: Where? On iTunes?
Blockhead: There and the Ninja site I think.
PM: You can download music right from the site now?
Blockhead: Actually, I don’t know. (Editor’s note: You can download music at Ninjatune.net) I’m like the most hands-off person ever. I’ll just make the music and you handle everything else. Which kind of works in my favor and against me at the same time.
PM: What would you use for the single anyway?
Blockhead: Expiration Date is what they chose and I knew when I made it that would probably be the single.
PM: It’s kind of funny, though, because aren’t you the only American artist on that label?
Blockhead: Well, Diplo’s on Big Dada. But other than that, I might be.
PM: How did you end up there?
Blockhead: It was kind of random. I made Music by Cavelight. It was done because Mush Records asked me to do an instrumental record. I had no real concept of what to do, and I just made it, and they never even heard it because we lost contact. They go through phases where they disappear for awhile. So my manager Gabe convinced me that we should send it out other places and test the water. Somehow it trickled into Ninja Tune’s hands through Warp, and I think they were just playing it in the office and said, “We should put this out.”
PM: I was wondering how it ended up there as opposed to, say, Def Jux, where you already had a relationship.
Blockhead: I get asked that question a lot, and I just remember when I was making it I knew [RJD2] was [putting a record] out, so I figured they didn’t want another instrumental record, especially one that I knew would inevitably get compared to RJ since we’re both hip-hop producers who made instrumental albums. I just assumed they didn’t want it, and I didn’t even ask them. My relationship is good over there. I don’t know. I just assumed they didn’t want it. But then later El-P was like, “Why didn’t you bring it to me?” Then I felt a little stupid. [Laughs.]
PM: Ninja Tune is a good look in the sense that you fit in very well with what they were already doing.
Blockhead: Yeah, and this kind of music is bigger in Europe and Canada, where they are kind of based.
PM: Yeah, we were at Sonar in Barcelona this year and it was amazing to us how big electronic music is there.
Blockhead: I’ve never been to Spain. I need to go there. Everybody tells me that’s the shit.
PM: But you’ve been to other areas of Europe?
Blockhead: Yeah. I did a twenty-one-date tour with Sixtoo in Western Europe.
PM: What were some of the better places that you went?
Blockhead: I liked Brighton a lot. And Bristol. It’s funny – the non-London areas of the U.K. were cool. Paris was cool. Berlin was cool. I was down with everything besides Frankfurt.
PM: What was up with Frankfurt? Mucho Bruno?
Blockhead: A little bit, man. And we have a weird relationship with the fans there. It’s kind of like, “I loved your album – except for those four songs that I hate!” So you’re left like, “Thanks?” And they’re a little too aggressive with you. Just say hi and move on or say something constructive. I don’t know. They’re mean, but at the same time giving props. It was a little too strange for me.
PM: Can you talk a little bit about the source material? Is it all samples or are there parts that are played?
Blockhead: This one definitely has more live instruments on it, but it’s still like ninety percent samples. I’ll play out a bass line every now and then on the ASR-10, my keyboard. There’s some live bass lines and live guitars and even some live drums on the new album. I like to incorporate some live instruments, so I leave spots open. I work closely with this guy Damien Paris, who also worked on the first album. He co-produced some tracks with me and is just a really ill guitarist. I like to leave spaces for him to add a riff or even a solo.
PM: To your credit, the music has a very timeless feel. It’s hard to place what time period the samples are from.
Blockhead: That’s because the stuff I’m sampling from comes from all different eras. All different genres, all different eras. I would never sit down and try to make a song that sounds like it was made fifty years ago. RJ’s really good at that. He can take a track and make it sound like a band played it even though it’s taken from all different sources. I’m more random with my approach: take a flute, take a guitar and kind of smash it all together and see what happens.
Read Part 2: