My Passion Is Improvising: An Interview with Timothy Simmons — and Friends!

Earlier this year, Timothy Simmons released an album of instrumental tracks titled Climbing the Spiral Stairs. The plan all along was to follow it up with an album of collaborations building upon the original tracks that he had recorded. The result, Friends Meeting, is as mesmerizing as Climbing the Spiral Stairs, yet a different album altogether insofar as each musician brought something new to the table, dramatically transforming each tune. Given the nature of the project, I wanted to hear from Simmons as well as the artists he worked with to get a sense of how it all came together.

TIMOTHY SIMMONS

What was the idea behind following Climbing the Spiral Stairs with an album of collaborations based on that initial album?

I was so thrilled with how the guitar improvisations for ­Climbing the Spiral Stairs came out, that I wanted to expand on them. Since they were improvised, and my passion is improvising with other like-minded folks, I thought it would be fun to share them out and ask others to add their own improvisations to them. Once their improvised parts came back to me, I added drums, bass, percussion, synths, etc. But at all times, everything I added was improvised and recorded in only one or two takes. I wanted to keep the entire thing feeling live and improvised. So, even though it is all done remotely and with multi-racking, it still is a collection of free improvisations.

How do you know the musicians you asked to work with you, and why did you choose them to contribute to the project?

Well, you’re one of my oldest friends, and we collaborate all the time, so choosing you was easy. Plus, you engineered the recordings for the original guitar improvisations that this album was bult out of. Todd Rogers plays viola and violin on “Oscillation I,” Alina Plourde plays English Horn on “Oscillation II” and oboe on “Stick and Weave” and Jonathan Best sings and plays piano on “Waiting for the Afterglow.” They are all friends from Music for People, which is where many musicians go to explore improvisation and to make music that is free from rules. Drew Anello, who plays guitar on the track “Orbiting,” is an old student of mine, and Khalil Munir, who does the incredible recorded tap dancing on “Stick and Weave” is a fellow teacher and collaborator.

Why is the new album called Friends Meeting?

Friends Meeting is a title I’ve been kicking around for years, and in this instance, it just felt right, since the record made out of a bunch of friends meeting, virtually, to make music!

DREW ANELLO

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

“Orbiting”! I liked the tempo change and build up of moments it takes the listener on a journey. Also Tim asked me to play on it and I always jump on every opportunity I can to play on his music

What did you add to it?

I added some ambient guitar. I added a drone at the end I tried to not get too in the way.

How did you go about figuring out what to play? 

Honestly a lot of my session work is throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall and seeing which one sticks–haha. I try to ask myself is what I’m playing serving the music often its no and I have to create more space.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

It’s an awesome way for multiple artist to express themselves and create a masterpiece together!

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

Tim really kicked off my music career he’s been a friend and mentor for about seven years and has given me a lot of inspiration as an artist as well as taught me a lot of valuable lessons. One of which being adding silence to the tune. Its a really affective way to add more emotion to a song

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

I write music as a “Mello Anello” and play throughout NYC quite a bit. I also produce write and play for other artists and run a studio based in Brooklyn!

JONATHAN BEST

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

“Waiting for the Afterglow”

What did you add to it?

Piano and voice.

How did you go about figuring out what to play?  

I had just put a new mic pre/compressor in the rack and I thought this would be a good place to test it out. So I put down a piano track without even knowing the key. Just started playing. Then I recorded my voice making up words as I went. I asked Tim to take out two lines that I thought were superfluous.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

You come up with things that would have been impossible with just one. It’s like the universe is drawing with two or more crayons.

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

I always know it will be deep with Tim because he is dedicated. So it creates trust.

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

Everything’s a collaboration these days.

TODD ROGERS

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

“Oscillation I.”

What did you add to it?

Violin

How did you go about figuring out what to play?  

Tim’s foundation had an exuberance to it and when I hear this in a piece I’m often moved in a Carnatic direction.  To be clear, I don’t know how to really play in this style, but I chose something that to me was evocative of Carnatic.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

It’s the IT for me when it comes to music, it’s always been about the connection.  Even if I don’t play much or do anything particularly noticeable or interesting, just being inside the soundscape being created together is gold for me.

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

Tim’s arrangements are truly unique, and he has so much talent spread across so many instruments.  He even plays accordion for god’s sake!  These abilities are matched by his production talents.  On this piece for instance, he really dug in, probing in several different directions till he found what was just right.  All along the way he sent me versions for my input, making it a true collaboration

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

Definitely not!  My work always involved others.  Here in Brooklyn I started a project called “Throughline” which fuses electric blues and Eastern European influences with a dose of effects-driven spaciness.  It’s all original work and largely fueled by improvisation.

MARC SCHUSTER

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

I worked on “Spirals” and “Lost in Space.” I was attracted to the jazzy feel of “Spirals.” The track Tim sent me was originally called “Seven Up,” and it reminded of Vince Guaraldi. That was before he added the ethereal e-bow parts, which I like. Now it sounds like Vince Guaraldi teamed up with Robert Fripp to score a very cosmic Charlie Brown special. I mean that in a good way!

What did you contribute?

I added drums to “Spirals” and keyboards to “Lost in Space.”

How did you go about figuring out what to play?

For each song, I put the track that Tim sent me on a loop and just kept playing until I liked what I was doing. For “Spirals,” it was a matter of figuring out how the song moved, almost like figuring out the stride of a horse and then trying to walk alongside it at the same pace. For “Lost in Space,” I was actually listening for the spaces that I could fill in. In my head it was like, “Okay, Tim is doing a cool thing here, so I’ll hold back, and now there’s a part where Tim is holding back a bit, so I’ll play something.” I suppose the main thing I did was listen.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

My favorite thing about collaboration is getting a different voice on a recording. I do a lot of recordings where I play all the instruments. As a result, my music starts to sound fairly predictable to my ears. I always know what the drums or the guitar solo is going to sound like. Collaboration adds a layer of unpredictability, which makes the music more fun.

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

Working with Tim is fun because he lets musicians do what they want to do. He doesn’t say, “I need a guitar solo here, and I want it to sound like this.” It’s actually quite the opposite. When he asked me to contribute to this project, it was more a matter of picking a song I liked and then adding whatever I wanted to add. As a result, I got a chance to play drums on one track and keyboards on another despite the fact that I’m most comfortable playing guitar.

That’s another great thing about playing with Tim. He lets people go outside their comfort zones—and once they’re there, he pushes them a little further. With “Spirals” in particular, I knew I wanted to try my hand at playing drums, but I didn’t realize at the time that the song was in, I think, seven-four timing. It took me about three hours of playing along with the track just to come to that realization, which is when I realized that the original title, “Seven Up,” was a hint. I just thought Tim liked fizzy soft-drinks.

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

I recently published a children’s book called Franky Lumlit’s Janky Drumkit, which Tim actually encouraged me to write. It’s about a boy who wants to play drums but can’t afford a kit, so he builds one out of odds and ends he finds in the recycling bin. Very DIY. Tim and I are also releasing another album of improv music under the name Simmons and Schuster. It’s our second album. We’re calling it Dos.

I also recently unearthed some old tapes I recorded with my friend Brian Lambert a long time ago when we were the Star Crumbles. Interesting stuff. I feel like the past and the future get blurred a little when I listen to it. I can’t say too much about it because there’s some weirdness about who owns what. Not between me and Brian, but between us and other entities who shall, for the moment, remain nameless.

Dutch for Forest: An Interview with Cosmic Bos

Wading into the world of Cosmic Bos is not for the faint of heart, but I highly recommend it nonetheless. Over the past five years, the band has released twenty albums of improvised music along with videos and a podcast documenting their process. The self-contained unit does everything in-house—including music, video production, and marketing—so as to maintain full creative control over their art. I dropped them a line recently to see what makes Cosmic Bos tick and to learn a little more about their latest endeavor, Improv Squared, which allows other musicians to join in the fun. 

Let’s start with your name. “Cosmic” I get, but can you explain “Bos”?

Bos is Dutch for forest, also in English it’s a very lazy way to write boss. We had wanted our name to reflect the spiritual journey of music creation, to evoke the musical nature within us all, to give us all control over our creative destinies, to become our own Boss, to channel the Cosmic Forest, so yeah, Bos is Dutch for forest.

Cosmic Bos consists of Nick Jackson, Andy Jackson, and Joe Philogene. What does each of you bring to the project, and how did you start making music together? 

Andy and Nick are brothers and have been making music together for a very long time, Joe has been working with the pair for several years, appearing on the Cosmic Bos Improv Music podcast since the first season back in 2019. Andy and Nick are both seasoned singer/songwriters with a rich history of improvisation and worked together on previous projects including Products of Monkey Love Podcast (the original improv music podcast from 15 years ago), Vocalizer, Donny Stax & and Meta-Cassette. 

Joe became a full member of Cosmic Bos back at the start of 2021, with four full improvisation sessions making up the backbone of the third season of Cosmic Bos Improv Music Podcast. Joe brings a worldly vibe and rich musical knowledge and history to the project, with his traditional African instruments and his wise soul. 

Andy and Nick are multi-instrumentalists, and both do all the parts of the project, playing the music, mixing the music, releasing the music, shooting the music videos, editing the music videos and releasing the music videos.

What drew you to improv music in particular?

Andy – “the rush you get when you make something up on the spot and it lands is like drugs, and when you can do that with other people it’s an almost transcendent experience, like all taking drugs together. The music side of it was born out of my love for improv comedy, and not quite understanding why improv musical comedy followed such rigid rules for improvisation on the music side of the equation, all geared up for the comedy but little to no freedom in the music.”

Both Andy and Nick grew up with Whose Line is it Anyway? Which certainly helped with a love of improv. 

I’m curious about the extent of your improvisation. A track like “Space Babies,” for example, sounds very polished to me. Is it all just off the top of your heads, as it were? Lyrics, chords, and melody? Do you have any material or framework in place before you start recording? More broadly, how does your process work? 

Well, in the case of “Space Babies” that was indeed a prewritten set of lyrics. Andy has a big Book of Songs (Big B.o.S) full of poems/lyrics which often help inform the music creating process. The music in our sessions is always completely improvised, but if you hear well polished rhymes then the lyric is most likely prewritten, with the melody being improvised over the improv music. Our process is one of removal rather than overdubbing, so if something doesn’t sound quite right then we will just remove it.

On our record “Sunrise Reflections,” you can hear the original improvised version of Space Babies, this is also the version we made the first Space Babies video to, where Baby Theo is literally floating about in space. We were really pleased with how the song had come out of the improv, so we rerecorded it, so we could tighten up its structure, make it a tiny bit faster and put on a ridiculous intro. Then we made another video, this time allowing Baby Theo to build a rocket to take into space. So the extend of the improv is loose, but having a set of lyrics in front of you doesn’t dictate melodies, so sometimes you have to drop words or add in ones to make the lyrics fit the music. We have done it so much by this point that it feels like a game, one with surprising outcomes each time.

Your podcast offers an incredibly detailed look at how you make music. I’m reminded of the old saying about not wanting to know how the sausage is made. Cosmic Bos turns that notion on its head, taking listeners behind the scenes and, in effect, provides a glimpse into the sausage-making. What’s the idea there? 

Because we’ve made so many albums over the years, and have learnt all the in’s and out’s associated with the process, it only seemed right to lay it all out in the open. Back in 2019 we made a documentary about our process, and in the interim years our process has changed considerably. We also wanted to take a bit of a break from releasing improv music every month, and go back to our roots. Cosmic Bos put out our debut album back in 2017 and since then we realised we haven’t actually made an album in the traditional way for five years. It feels right to us to show our process, in the hope that it inspires others to have a go, making music is the most fun thing we know how to do and sharing that with people is the next most fun thing to do.

Humor is also a major element of what you do, but I wouldn’t describe your songs as “jokey.” Why is humor important to you, and how do you balance it with the more “serious” side of making music, for lack of a better term?

Because improvisation is usually associated with comedy it seemed only natural to include some of it in our work. For both Nick and Andy it’s fair to say they are heavily influenced by The Beatles, and in particular the fun loving approach to music that they had. You would never call The Beatles a comedy band, but songs like “Yellow Submarine,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and “Piggies” to name a few, are clearly meant to invoke humour, while also not being laugh out loud funny. It’s a unique place in music and we love to explore it. We also find that having humour in our work allows for the serious songs to hit with more gravitas, for example, our latest single ‘Vaccine’ is a very heavy song comparing humanity to a virus, but it is paired up with ‘Sir, France is ‘cross the Sea, See’ which is a silly quirky song about language and the French. We have to give a big shout out to our comedy musical influences, with Monty Python, Weird Al, Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D and The Lonely Island all being inspirations. And finally, Nick and Andy are brothers and as such are mandated to try and make each other laugh at all times.

I definitely hear the Flight of the Conchords influence! You also have a pretty strong following. I saw, for example, that your video for “Astral Underwear” had 7,000 views within weeks of its release. Do you have any advice for building a following? 

Just do your craft, that’s the best advice we can give. Andy and Nick have both been releasing music and video content for 20 years, and for 14 years YouTube has hosted that. We are part of the YouTube partnership program meaning we can host ads on our videos and also promote ourselves, which helps with building a following on that platform, but we had to get to over a thousand subscribers and something like 140,000 hours watched before we got to that point. We always try to make content that we want to share with the world, rather then chasing trends, and our following has grown steadily over time, there must be better ways to build bigger audiences, but they most likely would include compromises to artistry, and at the end of the day we consider ourselves artists.

Do what you love doing, and if no one will help you, then just do it all yourself, it has never been easier to make music then it is right now. Building a following is a byproduct of doing what you love, at least, if you want that following to stick around.

And what about Improv Squared? What’s the idea there, and how is the project coming along? 

Improv Squared is our latest distillation of the music making process. For the first two years of our podcast we made improv-revisation with a producer and performer Chris Mace. That process involved a day of improvising music, followed by a month of revising that music. It was long winded, but we managed to get seventeen albums out of it, with a variety of musicians joining us along the way for an episode or two (which is how we first worked with Joe). For the third year of our podcast we made completely improvised albums, four in total, with Chris stepping aside and Joe becoming the third member. We were searching for the space between these two improv techniques, and we think we found it.

Back in October last year (2021) we started work on Improv Squared, with “Astral Underwear” and “Ensemble Story” being the first two songs we made using the process. It was done by improvising for four minutes, and then overdubbing that improv with another improv, and then another. We put out videos to both these songs which shows us literally recording them. We then booked up sessions with Chris Mace and Joe Philogene to craft five more songs (“Vaccine” and “Back is Back” with Chris, “Champignon, Lumiere,” “Badder Decisions,” and “Talking Frog” with Joe), did an improv squared session with our good friend Donny Stax (“Magic Fun Guy”), crafted two songs using lyrics by Dayne Howcroft (“Faded Memories” and “Forever Bruised”) and constructed our French language dance track (“Sir, France is ‘cross the Sea, See”). These eleven tracks make up the first Improv Squared album titled Petite Champignon de Lumiere which is available on Bandcamp and everywhere else 1st April 2022.

We are already constructing the next set of improv squared songs to send out to other artists to build up album two, and if you are a musician and you would like to get involved then drop us an email at cosmicbos@gmail.com  

Anything else on the horizon?

Hopefully more live performances, but other than that, focusing on making our album ‘The O Door’ and podcasting out the whole process, and improv squareding with all the wonderfully creative musicians around the world.  

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions! 

It was a pleasure, thanks for asking.

Interview by Marc Schuster.

Kids: The Joy of Collaboration!

New song! I’ve been a fan of Brian Lambert for a while now, so I was especially excited when he asked me if I thought his latest song needed anything. He suggested that it might need a synthesizer part, so I added one and also added some backing vocals. And just for fun, I made the nifty poster you can see in the video below…

I really enjoy collaborating with other musicians. For example, last year, I really loved playing on a couple of songs with the La La Lettes — “J’ecoute La Radio” b/w “Song 71 (You Didn’t Want My Love).” I played keyboard and sang backup on the first one, and I played drums on the second one. And I seriously can’t listen to “J’ecoute La Radio” without smiling. It’s such a fun song!

And, of course, there’s my ongoing collaboration with Timothy Simmons. We’re working on a new album at the moment, but here’s a track from our first one. I’m not sure I’d call them “songs” so much, or even compositions. They’re more like sonic explorations.

“Tadpoles” by Simmons and Schuster