My time with Simon Holmes (by Tim Byron)

Tim Byron played with Simon in The Aerial Maps, Adam Gibson & The Ark-Ark Birds, and Big Foma.

My friend Simon has passed away.

Firstly, this is going to be hard news for a lot of people, because Simon was very well loved. So because this post might be hard to read, I want to point out that it’s sometimes hard for men of a certain age to admit to needing help – there’s a cultural value in Australia about resilience and self-reliance and stoicism, and a feeling that getting on with it is the best you can do. There’s a good side to this, I think – it often means you don’t get caught up in the small stuff. But it also means that people often lose the ability to deal with the big stuff.

Going and seeing a doctor and getting a referral to government-subsidised sessions with psychologist isn’t going to totally uproot your identity. It’s not self-indulgent. Mostly, the usefulness of a psychologist is about having an impartial person to run things past, who can give you strategies for dealing with specific situations and events, who maybe can join the dots between events and your feelings in ways that help you understand. A good psychologist is mostly about helping you see the forest for the trees – as a result, they can  lay out a path for you to follow out of the forest. So if you’re reading this, and you need it, do have a think about seeking help. Also, if you’ve read this, and you had a poor experience with a psychologist, and that put you off – please do try again. Studies show that the connection you make with the psychologist is really important. Sometimes you just don’t quite connect with a psychologist – psychologists do have a variety of personalities. It’s worth persisting until you get someone you do connect with.

So please do consider seeking help if you’re having a hard time of it. [Edit: I also want to point out that I am saying all of this because I am a psychology lecturer, and I want people to seek help if they’re already struggling and then have been faced with this news. I know little beyond what the family has released publicly and made this blog so friends could share their memories.]

Anyway, I’ve spent the last few days alternating between sad, hopeless, angry, frustrated, sad, devastated, and resigned. I should have been spending this weekend just gone in a recording studio recording some songs with my friends, including – on guitar – one Simon Holmes. I really wish that I was writing a very different post right now about how well the sessions had gone.

So I’ve been thinking about my time with Simon.

In October 2006, I played keyboards with Lazy Susan for the first time at the Every Night album launch. At one rehearsal at Troy Horse a little afterwards, I remember Lazy Susan’s drummer, Simon Gibson, pulling me aside and asking if I was interested in playing in a covers band he played in called the Sharkalarms. “You’ll have to play Khe Sanh,” I remember him warning me, seeing if I’d recoil. That was fine – Don Walker is clearly an amazing songwriter. I ended up playing my first show with the Sharkalarms in April 2007.

The day before the show was the only rehearsal I got before my first Sharkalarms show (at Troy Horse, again). That was the first time I’d met Simon Holmes, who played guitar and did some backing vocals in that band at the time. I remember that Simon would also sing lead vocal on ‘Love Really Hurts’ by Billy Ocean. At various times in the time I knew him, he’d point out that ‘Love Really Hurts’ was, in his opinion, the perfect pop song.

It might have also been that first rehearsal where Simon first busted out one of his favourite stories: the ‘play half’ story. I was probably a bit nervous playing in a new band. I was likely playing some showy stuff to prove I belonged, that I was good enough.

Anyway – as Simon told it to me – Miles Davis would always get in hot young players coming into his band to play shows. There was never any rehearsal before the show. At their first show, he’d say nothing to them whatsoever. About halfway through the show, no matter who he was talking to – Herbie Hancock or John McLaughlin or Marcus Miller – Miles would lean over and say, “play half”.

This seemed like Simon’s guiding principle in music: play half. In other words, musicians often say more by saying less – complexity doesn’t equal articulateness. In 2007, I still needed to hear that. I heard that story over and over again as I played in bands with Simon, as new people came into the bands who needed a little guidance.

The Sharkalarms were the first real covers band I’d played in, and it was an education. In bands playing original music, the crowd is there because they want something new, because they’re listening. But with a cover band, the crowd largely don’t give a shit who you are. Simon and I were the two non-Bondi types in the band – Adam and Simon Gibson, Pete and Bluey all being long-time residents – and we’d exchange looks of bewilderment at the odd world of Bondi RSLs and surf clubs. I do remember the look on Simon’s face one time when one young guy was lifted out of his wheelchair so he could crowdsurf.

I knew who Simon was because of the Craig Mathieson book The Sell-In, about alternative rock in the 1990s, which I’d bought when it came out in the late 1990s. Mathieson’s book basically starts with The Hummingbirds – they were basically the first major-league successful Australian ‘alternative rock’ band. I mean, their first album Lovebuzz was named after a Nirvana song (in 1989, well before Nirvana were Nirvana) and they had a single that got to #19 in the charts! In The Sell-In, Simon came across as bitter about his Hummingbirds experiences, about the band being screwed by fickle industry stuff and broke up. But he said he’d been a bit misrepresented by Mathieson – that was his perception of what had happened, but he didn’t actually dwell on it that much.

He talked to me a bit about having no expectations about the Hummingbirds beyond getting to the stage where they’d play headline shows at the Phoenician Club. When that band ended up doing things like supporting INXS, he was happy to enjoy what he saw as a surreal ride. He had a good array of stories from his life as a Hummingbird, like the time he played a British festival in front of tens of thousands of people…who were there because they wanted a good spot for when The Cure were playing afterwards. Or when he talked guitars with Johnny Marr. Or what it was like to record with Mitch Easter who’d produced some pretty influential R.E.M. albums.

That same year I joined the Sharkalarms, Adam Gibson was putting together a new musical project, the Aerial Maps, solely devoted to doing his patented very Australian spoken-word-over-music thing. Simon Holmes was producing the album, and they asked me to play on a couple of songs on the album, recording at Damien Gerards in Rozelle. I do remember playing Simon’s old Farfisa organ in the studio, doing my best Steve Nieve impression. It would have been the first time I’d played a vintage combo organ. And then I was in the band, playing a lot of Simon’s simple-but-effective ‘play half’ keyboard parts. The band went on tour, and I got to know Holmesy a little better.

Another favourite line of Simon’s: “The Beatles are one of the only inexhaustible sources of conversation”. This was fine by me, because I’m pretty sure Jadey and I own at least three copies of Revolver. Though Simon talked to me once about how that was not always true for everyone. He remembered playing in a band with a brand new keyboard player who might have been a drug addict, and who couldn’t stand how much the rest of the band talked about music (because he presumably just wanted to talk about drugs). About halfway down the Hume Highway, driving interstate to a gig, that keyboard player apparently exclaimed, “don’t you lot talk about anything else apart from music?!’

I played with Simon in the Sharkalarms and in the Aerial Maps for a year or two, but then I was replaced in the Sharkalarms by someone called Boat Ramp Pete (this was apparently another weird Bondi thing). And then I finished my PhD and then moved away to Queensland in 2009, and so I didn’t see Simon much for a while. He wasn’t one for social media. I sent him a copy of a CD of some recordings I did in another band to see what he thought, but I got the address wrong and it came back in the mail with ‘wrong address/return to sender’ written on it.

I came back to Sydney for a visit one time, staying with Danny Yau; Simon popped over, and I discovered that Simon now had a newborn with Justine. And he was driving! (I too had only just got my Ps, way too late in life). A couple of years later, back in Sydney again after Christmas, not too long before we moved back, I went into the studio at Damien Gerards again, playing on a couple of songs on a new Adam solo album that Simon was producing. Simon had remembered an old Aerial Maps song that I’d written the music for called ‘The Year Our House Burnt Down’ and they wanted to do that for the solo record. And so they were very happy to have me around to do it right.

When I’d finally moved back to Sydney in 2014, Simon had apparently moved out to Kurrajong, on the north-west outskirts of Sydney. But that didn’t last; he felt isolated, and so they moved five minutes away from where I live, on the other side of the Cooks River. I think maybe it was good for his mental health to play music, and Adam Gibson was recording a new album last year – Cities Of Spinifex. So it was natural that Adam invited him to come along and play some music. One thing I remember from those sessions is the song ‘Indian Pacific’, which has a weird, distinctive keyboard line that’s quite atonal. Adam had actually played a loop of that line to me, saying it had come from Simon, and could I base the music around that? By the time we got into the studio, Simon complimented me on the excellent weird keyboard line. I had to tell him he was the one who’d come up with it, and he laughed and said that sounded about right but he had no memory of it. He slotted in the perfect bassline to go along with the song, too.

About the time we were recording Cities Of Spinifex, I was also rehearsing with another band, Big Foma, that was going to Hobart in a few months to do some recordings of my songs with Dave Carter at UTAS. We’d been playing with another guitar player who pulled out – too busy. Because I gathered that it was good for Simon’s mental health – also because he was bloody Simon Holmes and it was always a pleasure playing in a band with him – I asked him if he wanted a free trip to Tasmania to play on some music with me. He did!

And I think he enjoyed playing with us and working on the songs. He had very specific ideas about what he wanted his guitar to sound like – transistor amps from the early 1980s, and lots of chorus and vibrato, because he’d been listening to lots of stuff like Bauhaus and Siouxsie And The Banshees recently. I was happy to let him. As different as this was from my initial idea of what that band should sound like – I was thinking more along the lines of, I dunno, Spoon or the New Pornographers – he was always someone who played what a song needed. And it totally worked – he knew how to fit into a sound.

During the recording sessions in Tasmania, he got a phone call from his young daughter Maisie. He requested that they turn the studio speakers up so she’d hear what he’d been doing in Tasmania. After playing some of the song to her down the phone, he said to her that “it might not be The Wiggles, but it does have some musical legitimacy.” In the studio, we thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever said. But it was a measure of his sweetness and respect for the people in his life.

If ever he had a suggestion for a song, he’d always say “you can always tell me to fuck off, but…” before saying something reasonable and often a very good idea indeed. If only because he always said that, I did tell him to fuck off sometimes as a joke (but probably incorporated those ideas into the song anyway). As a guitarist in my band, I loved that he both thought that “The Beatles are one of the only inexhaustible sources of conversation” – you really could talk to him about The Beatles for hours – but also that he loved Aphex Twin and Yes and Killing Joke. And, oddly, he was a really big fan of Keane.

He told me once that, in 1977, he heard a 15-second snippet of The Sex Pistols on an ABC news item, the kind of colour feature at the end of the news, a ‘look at those crazy musicians and what they’re doing now!’ kind of thing. That 15 seconds was enough to leave him transfixed, and convinced that all previous music was over and he should start anew. He told me that he immediately got on his bicycle and tied his Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Yes vinyl records up to his bike so that they’d trail behind as he rode around suburban Canberra. It was an expression of youthful punk spirit. Knowing that Yes were still his favourite band in 2017, I asked him if he regretted ruining those records. After a pause he said, “yeah, I did, once I realised I still wanted to listen to Yes.”

Another favourite Simon Holmes saying: that rock and roll was all about “hurry up and wait”. This was a line taken from Eno’s oblique strategies; I heard from someone else recently that he had a pack of Eno’s oblique strategies cards and would bust them out in the studio. Having him in the band was a dream, really – him being Simon Holmes From The Hummingbirds was nice and all, but what was great was that his thought processes just meant he came up with things I never would have thought of. That  all worked perfectly.

He had a radio show on 2SER of a Saturday night with his son Milo St. Clare Holmes, where each week he’d explore a different genre or style or sound. I did his radio show a few times this year. The first time we did The Beach Boys with Jadey, four of us in the studio, and it was beautiful to see the respect with which Milo and Simon interacted as father and son. After that, Milo was in Japan, and Simon wanted me to fill in so he’d have someone to talk to on air. We did a show about the ‘West Coast whine’ (i.e., that funky worm synth sound that’s all over Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg songs from the early nineties). We did a show based around mashups that ranged from Neil Cicierega to Freelance Hellraiser. Apart from his stipulation that it include 2 Many DJ’s ‘No Fun/Push It’ (the first mashup he’d heard), I got to choose the mashups; I mainly chose them to see what he’d react to, to see if at any point I’d have picked some combination of songs that was too sacred (I was disappointed in that regard – he was open to everything). We were going to do another one together that was about fake bands from movies.

It was always fun to talk to him about music for two hours, so it made sense to do it with potentially thousands of people listening. It was also beautiful to meet his son, whose mannerisms – especially the rhythms of his voice – were obviously so much like Simon, and who was as good a listener in conversation as Simon was. The week before one of the radio shows I did, he’d done ‘smooth pop’ with Milo, I think, talking about the slickest of the slick. I remember asking him about what he played as we walked back to his car. “I didn’t ever really imagine I’d actively make the decision to listen to music from Sting’s solo career,” I remember him telling me. “Did you like it?” I asked, walking down Broadway. “It was interesting,” he said, which meant no. “But it’s popular because lots of people find something in it.”

Anyway, one of the tracks I selected for that mashup show was a mashup of The Commodores’ ‘Easy’ and The Cure’s ‘In Between Days’, which I’d deliberately picked because a) it worked really well, and b) I knew Simon was an enormous fan of The Cure, and I figured if he thought Billy Ocean had a perfect pop song, Lionel Richie might also be to his taste. The Hummingbirds, having reformed with Danny on bass instead of Robyn, were playing a Cure tribute show, and their set was based around Seventeen Seconds. And as soon as he heard that mashup, as we sat around the desk upstairs at 2SER, his eyes lit up and he asked, “do you want to play this with us at the tribute show? I’ll suggest it to everyone at rehearsal.”

I was going to play with the Hummingbirds! There was some talk that maybe they’d a new Hummingbirds record – he’d been writing songs – and I maybe kinda hopefully might have suspected that possibly I could have end up playing on that? In my head, this Cure covers gig might well have been a low pressure way to introduce me to the rest of the band. I wasn’t quite sure if I was imagining all that. I went and listened to Seventeen Seconds, and there were subtle keyboard lines on it that I reckoned I could replicate easily enough to impress everyone.

…and then, the next day, I got really really sick with whooping cough, I think. I was in no shape to make it to the rehearsal where we’d try it out. I was still ill by the time of the show. I asked Simon the next time I saw him how it went. “It was…interesting.” (They’d ended up going onstage at midnight, well after they were meant to, and had sound problems).

I’ll miss Simon’s endless array of rock’n’roll anecdotes (usually prefaced with “you’ll probably have heard this one ten times before”, which I usually hadn’t). I’ll miss how gentle and calm he was. I’ll miss how I felt a great kinship with him as someone endlessly fascinated with all sorts of music. I’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones’ Black And Blue recently because he told me it was his favourite Rolling Stones album (I do really like Memory Motel and Fool To Cry, and how that album feels so unassuming, almost tossed off). Recently, I’ve even been getting a little into Yes. I’ll miss that ragged black and red stripey jumper that he always wore.

He maybe came across as socially awkward…I felt that this was because he was this tremendously accomplished and learned man who didn’t want to come across as a braggart. He could hold court, but maybe he had to be coaxed into doing so – I remember one Aerial Maps gig where we’d been invited up to Brisbane with the Gin Club, and we stayed at Steve Bell and Michelle Padovan’s place. I remember Ben Salter and Steve looking up with such wide eyes at Simon telling his Hummingbirds stories. I went to bed at a pretty unreasonable hour, but Adam Gibson told me later that they were still up asking him questions hours later.

I’ll miss him.

8 thoughts on “My time with Simon Holmes (by Tim Byron)”

  1. I’ve shared this on my personal page. Powerful message and wonderfully remembered. ❤


  2. Thanks for writing this – it feels like the Simon I know – although at work “You can always tell me to fuck off but…” was worded “Do understand I’m not emotionally engaged to this idea but….”. I’ll miss him too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s