Simon Thacker Guitarist Musician True Immersion Of Diverse Culture
Described as “one of the most important musicians of his generation” (ThreeWeeks), Simon Thacker is a composer, classical guitarist, improviser and ensemble leader whose ever-expanding musical world draws on a deep immersion in diverse cultures.
As well as touring as a classical guitar soloist, he has also developed some of today’s most prescient ensembles: Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti, a world-leading Indo-Western collective which has seen him tour and collaborate at major festivals in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, including for an audience of 60 000 in Dhaka and at The Sacred Pushkar, one of the region’s biggest sacred music festivals; Simon Thacker’s Ritmata, his musical laboratory with three of Europe’s leading improvisers; Karmana with Polish cellist Justyna Jablonska, a new vision for chamber music; and Songs of the Roma with Justyna and Roma Gypsy singer/violinist Masha Natanson, a new Romany musical journey. All of these groups have been selected for the prestigious Made in Scotland showcase.
Where are you originally from and what is your background?
I’m from rural Scotland, a place in the middle of nowhere overlooking the Lammermuir Hills outside a tiny place called Pencaitland, about 30 minutes south of the capital city, Edinburgh. Pencaitland also happens to have the best recording studio in Scotland, where all my albums have been recorded! I took up guitar around 10 or 11, initially through being obsessed with the music of Jimi Hendrix. I chose classical guitar as my main path though, as I saw much greater possibilities. Creating my own music was always crucial to me, from very early on, and so it has remained. I went on to study at Edinburgh Napier University (BMus Hons, 1st class) and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (MMus with Distinction). It wasn’t until a couple of years after touring as a classical soloist that I started to form my ensembles, as musical laboratories for my own compositions and experiments. The evolution in my musical world seems to intensify year on year.
How did you get into Indian classical music?
I always loved music when I was a child, and through primary school and high school, I really tried to explore every style, genre, and country musically. Living in a pretty isolated place makes you rely on your imagination a lot and I think music was a way of expanding the limits of my imagination. I started to seriously listen to Hindustani classical music at around 12 or 13 and began to delve into other forms from the subcontinent. It wasn’t until 2009’s nine-member Simon Thacker and The Nava Rasa Ensemble that I first had the chance to seriously explore as a performer with musicians from India. Since then this aspect of my work has grown and grown to the epic scale it is now.
What other instruments do you like to play?
I find a classical guitar to be quite enough! To be improving technically and constantly trying out different approaches, composing, transforming pre-existing music, innovating in the studio and everything else I do, I find the classical guitar is my medium for doing all of this. It has its limitations but that makes you think creatively, to transcend them. I don’t feel limited. Quite the opposite! I feel I’ve got so much to learn, to explore and to do through the classical guitar, another instrument would just weaken my focus. I also find that if I don’t give it my full attention, it is very unforgiving!
Tell us more about Trikala…
Trikala is one of those ideas, dreams even, that pops into your head, but seems too huge, too fantastical to achieve in reality. Except…I did it. Though it did take 3 years! I expanded Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti, which is my vehicle for exploring new soundworlds with inspirations from the Indian subcontinent as a starting point. It went from a quartet to a community of four different lineups, taking inspirations from Hindustani and Carnatic classical, Punjabi folk and the spiritual folk tradition of Bengal known as Baul music. At the core of each lineup are some of the great exponents from each tradition, such as Sukhvinder Singh “Pinky” (tabla), Afsana Khan (Punjabi singer), Neyveli Venkatesh (mridangam), Farida Yesmin (Bangladeshi Baul singer), Raju Das Baul (Indian Baul singer and khomok player)…13 musicians in all. It is a double CD, consisting roughly equally of my original compositions and my reimaginings of traditional songs. We have been blessed with mountains of extraordinary reviews and feedback from around the world, especially India and Bangladesh.
How did Scotland meet India? Tell us more…
I’m not interested in “fusion”, which to me suggests putting together pre-existing elements. I want to go beyond what has been done. Create anew. I’m driven to propel myself forward, as well as traditions, my groups, playing and compositions, and music as a medium to express. To do that you need great musicians of a like mind who you connect with on a spiritual level. You need to have an instinctual as well as a conscious grasp of each other’s musical world. Then get on board the metaphorical rocket (ST’s Svara-Kanti) and blast off into the stratosphere to explore new solar systems (the Trikala album). The album (and accompanying massive video series) was recorded in Kolkata, Chennai, and Scotland.
Tell us about your experience with stage performance.
Stage performance is one of the two things you live for as a musician, the other being recording and creating albums. There is nothing like communing with a capacity audience, whether it be playing to 60 000 people at Dhaka International Folk Fest as we did in 2016, or a local arts venue or a class of school children. One performance is as valuable as a week of practice, in terms of developing as a musician. Also, talking to the audience and setting the atmosphere is crucial. A performance for a full audience in a great space with good sound is a joy and privilege. I’ve been doing a lot of recording recently so I am looking forward so much to my upcoming tours.
If you were not a guitarist?
This is all I’ve known since high school so it’s hard to say. When I was really young I wanted to play football as a goalkeeper for Scotland. Apart from that, I have never given another path any thought!
Who would you want to collaborate within the near future?
I’m writing an album for Songs of the Roma, a group that is inspired by Romani traditions. My last couple of tracks to write will be instrumental so I’ll be working with two Romani musicians for that soon. For Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti I’m already thinking about how to build on Trikala. There are many musicians in each of the four fields the lineups are inspired by I’d love to work with and I’m sure there are many more that I don’t even know. I remember coming across Farida and Raju by luck on YouTube when I was searching for special guests for big performances in the region in 2016 and 2014 respectively, and look at what we’ve gone on to achieve! You never know what destiny has in store.
What is the plan for the next few months?
In October I’ll be releasing a new album with another of my groups, Simon Thacker’s Ritmata. This is a very different beast, for the combination of classical guitar, piano, bass, and drums, with a spectacular special guest on one track. She is one of the very best young flamenco stars (all will be revealed in a couple of months!). This is my loudest, most pumped up the group. The album is called Tàradh and I think people who know me from ST’s Svara-Kanti will be intrigued at how those influence and a whole plethora of others (13th-century miracle songs, flamenco, the Middle East, Native America) have played a part in creating something so multi-layered yet primal. Then I’ll be touring India twice and returning to Bangladesh, all going well. By December the first material from the follow up to Trikala will be underway and Songs from the Roma will be released early next year. My solo playing is about to go into overdrive. The solo guitar world in general needs a fresh impetus, I believe…watch this space.
Some words for your fans.
Thank you so much for listening, watching and reading! Without you, it would be pretty damn boring! I know that everyone who follows me is as obsessed as I am by authentic creativity, approaching “ears open” to experience the world and beyond, asking the provocative questions, swerving the shrill fads and fashions to get to the essence of what it means to be alive today, being at the forefront of new genres that sound so natural they feel like they could have existed forever, and experiencing deeply connected new collaborations that open your heart and expand your mind. Keep em’ peeled, as I will be delivering even more, in abundance, very soon.