At Home With Simon Taffe
A festival born from a record collection… that’s exactly what End Of The Road Festival was and is. Laura Williams spends the morning listening to records with the festival’s founder, Simon Taffe, in his North London flat…
There aren’t many kids lucky enough to be gifted a ready-made 2,000-strong record collection, but for a (then) CD-obsessed teenage Simon Taffe, that is what marked the start of his journey into the world of vinyl. It was the late 90s, when people were ditching their old records and replacing them with CDs. End Of The Road Festival founder Taffe went the other way.
“Dad’s friend was basically moving away,” he recalls. “He’d just bought everything on CD and didn’t want that much stuff, so whittled his collection down. I got given about 2,000 records – there was loads of stuff in there that I liked, stuff I hadn’t properly checked out. Like every single Bob Dylan record and every single Pink Floyd record. It was a pretty solid collection.” Taffe’s still in touch with his vinyl angel and says his friend sometimes borrows stuff back from him.
Recalling the point where his love affair with CDs began to dissipate and vinyl took pride of place on his shelves, he says: “One of my first records I bought was Neil Young’s On The Beach, because I couldn’t get it anywhere, and I paid £45 in Professor Plastic in Edinburgh; I saved up for it, then they released it on CD. I didn’t want them ever to release it… it was my special find.”
It wasn’t until he fell for The White Stripes at the turn of the century that Taffe started seriously buying vinyl. “It was when you couldn’t get stuff on CD, stuff that was 7″ only,” he recalls. “So I started buying loads of 7″ singles. I got obsessed with The White Stripes. It was the first band that I became an obsessive collector of. I had to have everything. I had it all on CD, I had it all on vinyl, I had it on every format. My mum always said it’s because my star sign is Cancer, we’re collectors. It got really weird, but it got me into more 7″s, and from there, I’ve been buying them all the time.
“The great thing about vinyl is it forces you to listen to it all the way through. Vinyl is still a believer in the album format, which is getting slowly lost, unfortunately.
“In the 60s and 70s, your mates would say, ‘Come round the pub,’ and you’d say, ‘Oh no, I’ve just got the new Neil Young record, I’m gonna stay in and listen to it’. That’s what used to happen. That never happens now. We get so many ways of listening to music, that’s been lost. It’s so passive. And that’s the great thing about vinyl, it puts you into the headspace of really listening to music – it forces you to listen to it.”
Wishing on a star
As he puts some Sibylle Baier on his record player, Taffe concedes how important the kit is: “At first, I never had the best stereo, it was all about the best collection, and then I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’ve got all these great records and a not-so-great stereo’.”
He’s now got a decent record player and visits record shops at least once a week.
“I discovered Rough Trade in 2000 and used to come up every single week,” he recalls. “I have to be in a record shop at least once a week, or I start feeling a bit weird. That’s how I discover music, really, when I first went in and would buy new vinyl all the time – and I still do. Back then, I liked The Strokes and those sorts of bands, but I’ve always been into my alt-country, like Lambchop, Ryan Adams and Bill Callahan.” The latter is playing End Of The Road festival this year, a coup for the festival organiser, who says: “Every year now, there are bands I’ve been chasing since 2006, like Bill Callahan.”
His persistence has finally paid off, as it did with Sufjan Stevens in 2015. The US singer-songwriter is responsible for one of Taffe’s most-played albums in recent years, Carrie & Lowell, and he’s got a few more on his wishlist, including PJ Harvey and Bonnie Prince Billy. “I’ve been pushing for Bonnie Prince Billy for years,” Taffe sighs. “He wrote me a handwritten letter, I dunno how he got my address, and basically, he said, ‘I don’t like festivals, but keep bugging me’. So you never know.”
“I asked Nigel House if Rough Trade would get involved. he said they could bring the shop down; it’s the first time they took it to a festival” – Simon Taffe
Taffe’s relationship with Rough Trade and friendship with Nigel House, who helped set up the Rough Trade shops, proved instrumental in helping him set up his festival in those early days.
“When you go into record shops, you find the person behind the counter who you have similar taste with – Nigel has really similar taste to me, country music, basically – so we built a whole relationship on that and he was recommending stuff. About four years after I started shopping at Rough Trade, I said, ‘I’m gonna start up this festival’, and he started helping me out, because I had no contacts in the industry. He would give me an email for Nick Cave’s people: I didn’t even know what booking agents were. He’d just write stuff down on scrap pieces of paper, so I asked him if Rough Trade would get involved and he said they could bring the shop down; it’s the first time they took it to a festival and it went really well. A few years later, they were doing other festivals – Green Man, Field Day, etc.
“I think it’s just cool to have a record shop on site. You can discover a new band and instantly go and buy the vinyl at Rough Trade. That way, you don’t forget. Granted, it can double your festival spend!”
On the bill…
Simon’s picks from the End Of The Road 2017 line-up
“There is something about this album that feels so complete. I believe it was all recorded live in the studio, with a fairly modest band setup. Bill has such an economy of words and the way he puts emphasis on one word and repeats it, until it almost takes on a new meaning, especially in the song America, is amazing. I also think his voice on this record really shows how well he can sing. On Riding For The Feeling, for instance. It annoys me when I hear people say: “I prefer it when it was Smog”, I don’t believe they’ve listened properly. He’s releasing his best records now.”
Courtney Marie Andrews
“Possibly my favourite record of 2016. Everyone I play it to loves it immediately [including Long Live Vinyl]. It’s her sixth album for the US folk artist, although seems to be the only one with a full release. It feels like she’s honed her craft for many years, playing with great players and touring endlessly. I love it when you discover an artist like this and you have a whole back catalogue to explore.”
The Jesus And Mary Chain
Stoned & Dethroned
Blanco Y Negro
“This is the Jesus And Mary Chain album that means the most to me, the one that doesn’t really sound like any other JAMC album. It’s the first record I heard by them, when I was 14 years old. This record was on constant repeat when I was younger and I went back to it recently; it still makes me want to go on a road trip. It has the best indie-rock duet ever in the form of Sometimes Always with Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. As a 14-year-old getting rejected by girls, hearing the line ‘Fuck with me and I will fuck with you’ channelled my energy and just made me want to be in a band.”
Thought Rock Fish Scale
Paradise Of Batchelors/You’ve Changed Records
“I love this band and this is my favourite album of theirs. It was recorded live straight to tape, which gives it this certain mono sound – a sound that I love. Think early Velvets, Bill Callahan and Jonathan Richman. The songwriting here is the best I’ve heard in a long time – philosophical, intimate and dark.”
Hot Casa Records
“Like with many End Of The Road acts, I don’t know why this band isn’t more well known; though I’m sure their time will come. This record just makes me want to dance and never stop. Whenever I play it, people ask me who it is. That’s always a good sign. It’s the perfect African soul record and it’s also my favourite record sleeve of 2016, with a brilliant illustration.”
Label of love
The bands of record label Bella Union have also featured heavily in End Of The Road line-ups and they, along with Heavenly and Secretly Canadian, have curated stages at the event. “I have a good relationship with a lot of record labels,” Taffe says. “I love records and record labels.”
Father-of-two Simon has seen his 3,000-strong record collection split in two in recent years – half at his former Sussex home where his ex and children still live and half in his rented London flat. He’s looking forward to reuniting the collection when he buys a new house, but is undecided as to where – London or possibly Bristol, closer to Larmer Tree Gardens, the Victorian pleasure gardens on the Dorset/Wiltshire border that have been home to the festival since its inception in 2006.
“I haven’t properly ordered it until I get a new place. I don’t alphabetise them; if I’m having mates round and drinking, just no. I generally order them by genre: soul, electronic, African, world music, country artists – Springsteen, Young, Dylan – and three shelves of American indie-alternative, that’s kind of End Of The Road. And then I’ve got all my 7″s. I DJ with 7″s, rare soul music – music that no one knows, but you can dance to. The End Of The Road set is a bit more of a crowd-pleaser.”
“I ask myself the question, ‘Would I buy that on vinyl?’ before I book bands to play the festival” – Simon Taffe
That’s not where the relationship between the Festival and record collecting ends. The programme design was made to be the size of a 7″, too. And when it comes to the line-up, Taffe remains heavily involved.
“I ask myself the question, ‘Would I buy that on vinyl?’ before I book bands to play the festival. The whole idea of End Of The Road was to choose it through my record collection. When you look at the first few line-ups, I chose it from this,” he says, pointing towards the End Of The Road shelves. “Nothing else. It’s grown a bit now, and I have a team I work with who make suggestions. But if I don’t like it, they don’t get on the bill. I’ve turned down artists I knew would sell it out, but I want it to be something I’d love, that I’d go to. If I’ve got an offer out on a band, I don’t want to jinx it, so I won’t buy their vinyl until they confirm.”
As Ezra Furman’s manager, Taffe spends a lot of time in the US – the perfect place to pick up value-for-money records. He shows us his latest haul from Reckless Records in Chicago, plus some “weird shit” he picked up in a thrift store to remix into dance tracks with a friend – including a Popeye soundtrack(!).
De-sleeving one of his most recent buys, he says: “One thing I love about vinyl is the fact you can get a really good record for two dollars. It’s cheaper in America, because there’s more of them. The original The Modern Lovers is in my Top 20 albums of all time; I paid $40 for that, but it’s probably worth $100. I’ve been trying to be good recently because it got bad in Chicago, then I went to LA and it got worse. Though in LA, I did really well, ’cause it was all at [charity store] Goodwill.”
Simon’s favourite record store
Rooky Ricardo’s Records, San Francisco
“This is my favourite record shop in the world. It only sells 7″s, mostly soul and 60s garage. During my last trip to the US, I spent two days out of the four-day trip in there and spent $400 to $500. They’ve got a whole counter in there and you go in and say, ‘Right, I want soul-music covers of popular 60s songs, versions of Rolling Stones, Beatles, whatever – or the rarest recording of Nina Simone covering The Kinks or something, and he’ll say, ‘Come back in two hours’, and when you go back, he’ll have all these things he think you might like. Then you sit up there and they serve you wine, because with 7″s, you’ve got to listen to it all, both sides. If you know your labels well, you can take a risk – but otherwise, you have to listen. I took my son last time and I got him really into it, so we got a chair each and a stack each – he’s got really good taste in music, better than me.”
Best of the rest…
“Apart from Rough Trade East and Reckless Records in Chicago, which I’ve already mentioned, it has to be Amoeba in San Francisco, The Record Parlour in LA and End Of An Ear in Austin, Texas.”
A bit of know-how and a stroke of luck has led to some great finds, with Taffe managing to pick up Nina Simone’s “best live album” (his words), ’Nuff Said!, for $20 in Permanent Records in LA, as well as an original pressing of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme for $10 from a thrift store in Palm Springs.
“My jazz friends are really jealous,” he smiles. “You can find so much in Goodwill shops over there. These shops are like warehouses, you just find the most ridiculous stuff, like a Captain Beefheart original pressing for $10. If you’re clever, America’s the place, but it’s getting harder and harder, because the people who want to make a living from it are going out to these little towns, buying it up and selling it on for more money.”
Back across the Pond, he criticises rising record prices. “England’s tight on space and we overprice them in London. I don’t like it when it’s £50 for a limited-edition vinyl. I went into Rough Trade on Record Store Day and I saw the Father John Misty Record for £50; I looked for the normal version and couldn’t see it, so I asked at the counter and they said, ‘No, this is it’, and I said, ‘Well is he going to come round and play a fucking acoustic show for me?’. Sure, it looks really nice, but it’s not even worth it when it’s that price. It’s not fair to diehard fans, because you know they’re going to go get that and it costs them £50, it’s painful.”
Taffe shows us two identical Father John Misty records that stand out like a sore thumb on his bespoke record shelves. They feature a pop-up sleeve with a music player. “Maybe it’s part of a gimmick with him,” muses Taffe, who’s booked the former Fleet Foxes drummer for End Of The Road this year.
“He wants to be ridiculous, so fair enough. I think I’ll get rid of them, though – it sticks out a bit. It’ll probably be worth a fortune; I can’t sell records for money, though, I’d rather give it to my family.”