Interview: Simon Wolstencroft

Simon Brett chats with ‘Funky Si’ about his life in music and of course, his relationship with the late Mark E. Smith.

“When I left school in ’79 it was all Two Tone, ska and The Specials, so when I played with Terry Hall it was just brilliant – even though he hardly said anything to me! I wanted to be in a band but I thought it was out of my reach. It was the same for all of my mates – but then Johnny (Marr) had this steely determination. After I turned him down and his band went sky high it was a really big shock. I thought “What have I done?” – but I’m over it now.”

It could be argued that drummer, Simon Wolstencroft, childhood friend of Ian Brown (Yet for some reason not the drummer in the Stone Roses) and long-time acquaintance of Johnny Marr (for whom he turned down the offer of a permanent job in The Smiths) has somehow, almost purposefully evaded the opportunity of going down in rock history. Yet, his story, as told in his autobiography ‘You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide, is evidence of a very different and important testimony to his place in British pop. In fact, it is a journey that threads itself from the days of punk, through the glory days of the independent scene as longest-serving drummer in The Fall’s ever fluctuating roster and out into a world where his Manchester contemporaries now enjoy a notoriety and respect on the cusp of legend.

Through it all, “Funky Si” kept on drumming as and where he could. And when he couldn’t pay the bills from playing, he got off of his arse and found a job. Now, thanks to his autobiography we find that his constant companion was an extremely well-hidden relationship with drugs that by his own admission may have stilted his progress – but until recently I knew nothing of this. I just knew him as “my favourite drummer”. Never showy. Always locked into a groove and when required, almost at one with click tracked sequences – almost as if the computers were syncing to the drummer and not vice versa.

One Saturday morning in February, an extremely approachable and basically nice Simon Wolstencroft answered a few of my questions and dropped more legendary names than Tom Jones (Basically because he grew up with half of them) while touching on The Clash (Fan squee!), childhood friendships, his new band, finding his musical ‘home’ in his fifties and of course, his relationship with the late Mark E. Smith.

SB:  Drummers tend to sit at the back of the band keeping quiet when they’re not hitting drums. Was the process of writing your autobiography and then the subsequent interviews something new to you, as I imagine you’ve had a fair few since its publication?

SW: Yeah, pretty much. I didn’t really do interviews when I was in The Fall. I’d sit in on an interview and put in the odd comment now and again if I was prompted by Mark, but I used to try and sit there and look cool most of the time.

SB:  You mention in your book that when Mark couldn’t be bothered or if he wasn’t in the mood, you would sometimes take the interviews for the band…

SW: I would, but I always the got the impression that the journalists didn’t care what I thought. Wherever they were from, they weren’t really interested. It was hard because they’d be asking about lyrics and stuff, and half the time I couldn’t hear what Mark was singing about anyway unless it involved me or people in the band or people I knew and then my ears would prick up, so it was very difficult really. Mark was into all that classic literature which just went right over my head – he was a very intelligent guy. He was a big reader. He was always reading books. People wanted to know where his lyrics came from and I just couldn’t answer journalists really. And I could tell they weren’t really that bothered about interviewing me really as a second choice after Mark. But I think maybe looking back in hindsight Mark might have been trying to give me some experience for later on in life. I have got a new band now and I will be doing interviews about them and I’ve done a lot about the book, so maybe he was thinking along those terms. It wasn’t a chore, I sort of took it as an honour. Mark said, “Listen, will you do this interview?” It might have been that he didn’t like the journalist that wanted to interview him but it was usually at a gig; not a proper phone interview and some local paper – not The Times or anything.

SB:  I got the impression from your book that as awkward a character as he could be, Mark looked after you and could be quite fatherly at times…

SW: Absolutely. He was really good to me at the beginning. He was fatherly and he ran the band like a little business. He had a little office that he ended up renting in Manchester and he’d make us all to go in and do a stint for a couple of days a week. There was no internet then – just a phone line and nobody ever rang, so I just used to get my head down. I’d just bring a cushion with me and a quilt because he never came in to check up on you. He even set up a private pension plan which came into fruition when I was 55. It’s not a massive amount, but I’m going on a trip to New York with some of it to see my mate Andy Rourke. God bless him for that. He set up private health care for us too.

It was good for the first few years in the band while he was with Brix (Smith) and then Saffron his second wife; but after they split up we seemed to lose the friendship that we had. For the last 4 years when I was in the band he’d have girlfriends and you’d never see him and concerts got cancelled and promoters wouldn’t touch the band because they thought they’d get let down. But yeah, he was fatherly – at least at the beginning.

SB:  Considering how candid you’ve been about yourself (Just looking at the title of your book for a start) do you think that writing your autobiography has been a positive experience?

SW: Absolutely. People always said that I should write a book because I’ve been associated with The Smiths and The Stone Roses, but when I reached fifty, I thought, “This is the time to do it now”. I don’t regret it at all. Was it cathartic? Not really cos I remember all the good times, mostly. But I get people saying to me, like, “Hey Si, do you remember that time The Fall were in Yugoslavia?” and I just don’t remember, which tells you what sort of state of mind I might have been in at that time. I only remembered a lot of it by going through my Musician’s Union diaries. You had to be in the Union to have your video played on TV and Mark made us all join.

SB:  In your writing you keep using the phrase, “Missed Opportunity”. Now, talking to you, you sound like you’re at peace with that. Has the book helped you to lay some of those demons to rest?

SW: Yes it has. Especially after reading Johnny Marr’s autobiography. I didn’t realise how much Morrissey wanted me in The Smiths, which was a total surprise, actually. [Simon turned down the offer, mainly because he didn’t like the sound of Morrissey’s voice] I mean, with the Stone Roses I ended up with Ian (Brown), my old schoolmate anyway and played Wembley Stadium last year, so everything’s come round. And now my new band, Lyla, is a funk soul band with a young girl singer, so I’m now actually doing some funky stuff. Considering my nickname is “Funky Si” I’ve never really done it. I used to listen to A Certain Ratio and all that early ‘80s disco stuff that I loved. One of the reasons I turned down The Smiths was because I was into jazz funk like Andy Rourke was and it was a million miles away from that. So, yes, I missed my opportunity. I did regret it at the time. It took me a while to get over and I just self-medicated for years. But then I joined The Fall and that sort of helped me get over the massive disappointment of missing out on joining a premier league rock band and I guess The Fall got me through that.

SB:  When you say “premier league band” what did you feel you were missing out on? The lifestyle or visibility?

SW: I remember going to watch The Clash. That’s how I started out, following them around on tour and that’s really what I wanted to do. I wasn’t that smart; I got a few ‘O’ Levels and I played football for the school but I kind of dropped that by the wayside and got into the music. When I left school in ’79 it was all Two Tone, ska and The Specials, so when I played with Terry Hall it was just brilliant – even though he hardly said anything to me! I wanted to be in a band but I thought it was out of my reach. It was the same for all of my mates – but then Johnny (Marr) had this steely determination. After I turned him down and his band went sky high it was a really big shock. I thought “What have I done?” – but I’m over it now.

SB:  You mentioned Johnny Marr’s autobiography. I loved the fact that there are times that the paths of both his story and yours cross over and they almost work as companion pieces to each other.

SW: Yeah, I think so – at least for parts of his book. I was a bit worried about the time I included where we all got arrested, especially now he’s a professor at Salford University, but I shouldn’t have worried . But I thought, this is part of my life and it’s already on record. I bumped into him not long after my book had come out.  He’d put diesel instead of petrol in his car and was waiting for the breakdown truck to come, so I stopped to say hi and help him. He said that he’d read my book and he loved it. I was so glad that he’d said that.

SB:  Has Mark E Smith’s passing made you re-evaluate your time with The Fall? You spent the best part of your career as a member and I imagine that this might have made you more aware of what The Fall meant to so many people.

SW: I knew that there would be press reports about Mark’s death but I didn’t realise it would be on News At Ten or across all channels. Maybe on Channel 4 news.

SB:  You were with The Fall for 11 years which kind of covers the time that I was listening to the band. For me, Mark’s vocals and your rhythms book-ended the sound. Is that something you’re proud of?

SW: Yeah, it is. There are people who like the early years up till when Brix joined, then there’s my 11 years and then the latest band did 10 years with him. I’ve kept the record for longest-serving drummer, but only just. Keiran, The Fall’s latest drummer only told me last year, “I’ve done 10 years so I’ve nearly caught up with you, Simon.”  I am aware that people like the different periods of The Fall and you can kind of split it into three and I’m right there in the middle of it. I’m very proud of it, especially with tracks like Telephone Thing. Mark said to me, “The Glory Years are over, Simon,” after we got booted off Phonogram when he wouldn’t let them have the demos. I’m just glad that I got to spend all of that time with Mark – and got paid as well!

SB:  Judging by many of the records you mention in your autobiography, you obviously love dance and electronic music as well, but you say that you like to feel that you’re the one driving the rhythm. Wasn’t there a point where you left a band because you felt that wasn’t the case?

SW: That was a band called Big Unit which was an offshoot of 808 State. I was having to follow a drum machine or drum breaks. Once I’d quit that band I joined The G.O.D for two years where I controlled the feel of it and now I’m with my new band, Lyla. It’s great, I love it. Now I’m back in control. Don’t get me wrong, I do like some drum machines, samples and drum breaks, but when I go and see a band I want to see a drummer and see the expression on their face when they’re playing.

SB:  Are you a fan of the click track?

SW: Absolutely, which Mark never was. There was a Fall song or album he called Country On The Click which he made after I quit. I wondered whether it was about that. He hated it if the drums became too slick. I prefer it, though we did have to use it for the ballet we did with Michael Clarke [I Am Curious, Orange] because it had to be right for the dancers.

SB:  I’m assuming you’re completely self-taught on the drums.

SW: Yes, I am. One regret is that I should have learned to read the dots. People say I should teach, but I’d feel like a fraud because I can’t read music. I know it’s not too late, but I don’t think I want to teach, although I did teach my daughter and she burst into tears! Too much of a taskmaster!

SB:  The fact that you did teach yourself kind of feeds into the punk ethic. Do you think that’s something that might be missing today?

SW: I don’t know as that’s quite a broad thing, but what with the internet and everything else you can get Garageband and program a rhythm – but there’ll always be great drummers. There are some kids in my band at the age of 24 who are just amazing. There’s a drummer called Oscar Ogden who for me is the best drummer I’ve seen for a long time and he’s only 20!

SB:  One thing that strikes me about you is your strong work ethic. When you’re not busy with music you’ve always gone out and found work.

SW: That’s right and that’s something I’ve continued to do. I’ve got a courier van for running stuff around that lets me do the music in the evenings and I can listen to stuff we’ve recorded while I’m driving. I’ve never stopped drumming apart from one brief period after working with Ian Brown when I was down in the dumps and under the influence, but I’m doing more than ever now that I’m with Lyla. And my drumming is definitely improving. That makes me feel good.

SB:  Where do you think your work ethic comes from?

SW: My dad and my mum. It must be. I was on the dole for 6 weeks one summertime, just after I turned down The Smiths, but that’s the only time I’ve not worked or been in a band and earned money.

SB:  I wonder whether this work ethic coupled with fresh-faced creativity might have had something to do with the success of Manchester musicians. Certainly yourself and Johnny Marr always seemed to be working when you weren’t earning by playing.

SW: I’m not sure, really. I think that it’s the size of the city and the fact that it seemed to be raining all of the time. People had to go indoors. What are you gonna do? There were no computers or iPhones. You gonna do stamp collecting or painting, or be in a band? Luckily we were in the punk rock school where you could do it yourself. That’s why Ian became so successful and Johnny to an extent – but Johnny was always a hot shot, gifted and ruthless. But also Johnny is incredibly funny, like Mark.

SB:  Talking again of Johnny Marr, I really enjoyed the audiobook version of his book. Is that something you would do?

SW: I would, yeah – but nobody’s asked me to do it yet! I’ve got to think about the next print run of my book and I’ve got the chance to add something in there for the new edition.  I want to add that we played at Wembley Stadium with The G.O.D. Ian Brown said to me at the time, “You’ve made it!” I need to mention Mark and I really want to talk about my new band, Lyla, because I really believe in it. I’m so lucky to be in a band with these kids. And it’s the funk that I’m doing – the beats. The guitarist is playing like Prince and I’m working with funky bass. So finally I’m doing what I always wanted to do in a band!

❉ ‘You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide’ by Simon Wolstencroft is out now from Route Publishing, RRP £9.99. Check out our review by Ange Chan here.

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