Simon Tellier Interview – Drummer for Pet Shop Boys/Gloria Gaynor/Charli XCX/Taio Cruz

There’s an air of effortless grace and composure that the French bring to the table. They even invented the name for it; a certain je ne sais quoi. A certain thing that is hard to describe, and harder for the non-french to imitate. These are qualities that I think of when I think of Simon Tellier, certainly one of the most talented and yet humble drummers I’ve ever worked with. And he is indeed, very French.

I’ve known him since I was eighteen. He later told me that when we first met, I spoke much too fast for his new understanding of the English language. We met attending the same music College – Tech Music schools where Simon had landed himself a scholarship to come over from France to study. Eventually we learnt to communicate, and I’ll never forget teaching him the word ‘cobbles’ on the streets of Edinburgh.

A year or so after we met, we both auditioned to join an in-house band at the successful pop production house Xenomania. We got the gig, and it was the most unusual entrance into the music industry for both of us. It was a very structured job – 10am to 7pm, Monday to Friday. Every day, we travelled forty minutes outside of London to a gorgeous house in the country, where our rehearsal space was in fact the pool house by the pool in the vast garden. A wonderful Spanish cook prepared a feast for us all once a week and we were on a salary (although we were not extraordinarily well paid, to have regular money for our first jobs as session musicians was a huge comfort). It was very bizarre, and it’s probably safe to say neither of us will work a job like that again.

Everyone in our school knew what a fantastic drummer Simon was, and working with him 5 days a week for many months in that job meant I really got to see it first hand. He had certainly put a lot of work into it, playing drums since he was 4 years old and doing shows with his musician parents around France. He was the youngest endorsee of Mapex when he joined them in 2005. After he embarked on his move to London to attend the music school, and his stint with Xenomania he went on to play with many high profile acts, such as Tinchy Stryder, Taio Cruz, Christophe Willem, Charli XCX and Gloria Gaynor. He’s most recently been busy touring with the legendary Pet Shop Boys. I got on the phone with him one Saturday afternoon to ask him for the details of his tours, past and present…

V: You’ve worked with a string of great artists. I’m so interested to hear all of your stories, especially about working with Gloria Gaynor…

S: Yeah, I’ve done a few shows with her. I was working with another artist who had the same MD (musical director) as Gloria, so she put me forward when they needed a dep drummer. They asked if I could read music, which I could. It was all the original band apart from me, and there was no rehearsal, so I met them all at sound check. The gig was on this beautiful beach in Italy. I started to set up and organise my charts on my laptop, but I realise I had forgotten to bring a foot-switch so I could turn the pages of the charts during the show. I ended up having to have a very sweet local crew guy sit next to me for the entire show, turning the pages on my laptop every time I nodded at him, all whilst my snare was smashing his ear drums.

V: It just shows you’ve gotta be nice to your local crew, they’re worth their weight in gold! You never know what you might need to ask of them!

S: Yeah, luckily he was happy to do it, but it was really funny. My next show with her was a Russian wedding, in Greece. After a horrible long journey there, we eventually turned up to a beautiful resort. All our rooms had balconies, it was beautiful. I had greek coffee for the first time. The whole place stunk of money, and the audience didn’t really seem to care when we played. Of course everyone got up for ‘I Will Survive’ but it was a shame. The most glamorous show we did with her was at an artist’s (who won’t be named!) end of summer private party in St. Tropez. It was in a club with a tiny stage, and there wasn’t even a line check before the show. The party was crazy; it was like a champagne spraying contest in there. It was filled with A-list celebs; I even saw Simon Cowell there. There were girls walking round in nothing but lingerie, handing out cigars and cigarettes that we could smoke inside.

V: Wow. And what is Gloria like?

S: She’s great, really lovely. And all her gigs were kind of like that. We played a yacht designers birthday party at the yacht club in Monaco which was nuts.

V: Fair enough, I’m sure she’s only going out for the right money and shows. Those all sound like fun, glamorous shows. What other shows from your career have been some of your favourites?

I really loved playing with Birdy, and the French artist, Christophe Willem. It was nice to be in France so much, and playing with him was surreal as I watched him on TV when I was sixteen, winning Pop Idol. Fast forward five years later, and I’m playing shows and getting drunk with the guy.

V: Yeah that must have been really strange. It’s funny how music can put you in those scenarios; it can elevate you from being at home watching someone on TV, to then being on stage with them. What other moments have been surreal for you?

S: I remember when Taio Cruz had his big hit, ‘Higher.’ Myself and my girlfriend at the time would always be singing it, almost in parody as it was on the radio and being played absolutely everywhere. Then the MD, Kojo, gives me a call and asks me to come audition for him. It was funny. The Gloria Gaynor gigs were always surreal too. Obviously ‘I Will Survive’ was such a big hit, but I knew so much of her music from listening to it at my grandmothers house growing up. She would always be played on this french radio station called ‘Nostalgie.’ Of course, my current shows with Pet Shop Boys are surreal. Every time we play ‘West End Girls’ it’s really great. It’s such a good track, I never get bored of it.

V: Yeah, to be playing tracks you’ve grown up to, with the artists themselves must feel so great. How has it been with touring with Pet Shop Boys, since they are such an established act?

S: It’s been really great; the venues and crowds have been amazing. The craziest bit for me was the second South American leg we just did. It was mostly festival shows, and we played at ‘Rock in Rio.’ It’s the biggest festival and stage I’ve ever seen. When you’re playing, you can’t see where the sea of people ends. There were 150,000 people there.

V: That’s amazing. I find playing to big crowds so addictive. It’s such a buzz. Do you crave big crowds or prefer smaller venues?

S: I love the adrenaline of the big crowd, but it’s fun to play in small clubs too, and have that close proximity to a crowd. You can actually see the people’s faces. Sometimes there’s more energy in the smaller clubs too. But the audiences were great in South America. Pet Shop Boys are big in Brazil, but it can be a dangerous country, so they had to make sure everything was a safe as possible. We flew by private jet a lot, which was obviously amazing. One night when we were in Brazil, Chis and Neil invited the whole crew out for a big dinner at a Brazilian BBQ restaurant – which is the best food ever! We were eating, when I noticed there were two big, intimidating looking guys sitting near to us. I didn’t think much of it, but when we got up to leave the restaurant, they got up too. We walked to a petrol station next to our hotel to get some drinks; in Brazil the petrol stations are a place to drink and socialise. There’s seats outside, and people pull up their cars and play loud music. It’s a bit shitty honestly, but it has great vibes. It’s warm, and people are in a great mood. The two big guys follow us there too. We go back to the hotel and everyone is in the lobby saying goodnight, and I notice the two guys are sat at the hotel bar. Everyone but myself and two others have gone to bed. I go out for a cigarette and one of the guys follows me. I’m getting really worried now. He comes up to me and says ‘hey, you must be Simon.’ I’m assuming he must be a big fan or something… it turns out he was our security guard.

V: What a weird way to be acquainted with your security! You think he would’ve been introduced to you…

S: I guess he didn’t wanna intrude, and wanted to find the right moment to say hi. They decided to get security because they got mugged before in Rio. By drag queens. It was in the Daily Mail the next day.

V: Wow, well that’s a story! How did you get on with your security after that introduction?

S: I had really funny but awkward experience with one security guard. I had met this girl in Brazil. She wanted to hang out with me after our show, so I suggested grabbing some drinks from the petrol station next to the hotel. What I didn’t realise was that Victor, the local security guard had to come with me to meet this girl. Everyone else had gone to bed, so he was free to monitor me. So, all three of us go. He sat on a table next to us whilst we tried to talk and have a date. Every time I went to the bathroom he had to come with me. I felt bad; I told him it that he didn’t have to, but he said it was his job and he had to. After a while it just got too weird and we just invited him to join us. The thing is, he was a really attractive guy, and it turned out he went to the same school as this girl and they were starting to really get along.

V: Did he poach your date?!

S: No, but I caught her looking at him! Eventually, she hinted that we should go back to my hotel room to be alone… but he had to take us up the elevator! He finally left us at the door, thankfully! That was definitely awkward.

V: It sounds like an eventful tour.

S: It was a great year touring with them, but after that year of working really solidly, I wanted to go home. I’ve never had that before, but I was just so tired. I got sick in Brazil too, which made it harder. You’re just with the same people all the time. You can’t really write music. I missed my friends and family. You’re sick of airports, cars, hotel rooms. You feel like you don’t have your own space, and nothing is yours. It gets really strange. And strange because it was the first time that I had ever felt like that. I was getting pissed off for no reason. At the peak of my frustration, I had a situation with airport security when they took my drum key away. I just kicked off at them, and that’s not like me at all.

V: Do you prefer to be at home then?

S: Well, I’m creating and inventing the other side of my career when I’m at home. I want to be both touring and spending time at home; it’s about getting the balance. I love touring, but I love writing too. Ideally, I can be comfortable enough to choose where I put my focus and not just take gigs just because I need the money.

V: Yeah, I think it’s great if you can strike a balance. So what music are you producing when you aren’t touring?

I compose a lot of library and advert music. For the last three years I’ve been doing a lot of it. My housemate Sarah (DeCourcy – Musical Director) got me into it and has been helping me so much. She said to me, “you know, you’re making music in your bedroom and you’re not making any money from it.” I thought, “fair point!” Every quarter its nice to get that PRS cheque. It’s really good for when I’m not touring… since touring can be so sporadic, writing is the regular thing. It’s not always instant money, especially to begin with, but it’s a good investment of my time.

V: Where did you learn your production chops?

S: I’ve been producing for a long time but only recently started taking it seriously. Sarah taught me a few things, and I learnt from videos and things online. I’m not really a mixer, but it’s important to have some mixing skills to get something simple sounding good.

V: Yeah, I guess job one is getting the programming and live recording right, because well, you cant polish a turd! You can’t mix it to make it sound good if it wasn’t in the first place. Do you use Logic?

S: Yeah, and a little bit of outboard gear. I use a Fat Man compressor. I would love to get some Neve preamps, but it’s two grand for a little piece of gear… it’s a lot! Honestly, I don’t really have anything fancy, I’ve got one mic – an SE G3500, and I’ve got my bass and guitars. The rest is all in the box. I learnt how to use synthesisers properly, what they actually do rather than using presets and just hoping for the best. Producing library music really changed the game for me. I just talk to lots of other people who give me tips. The musical director with the Pet Shop Boys is a producer too. I always call him up to ask questions. I would also love to release my own music, and make my own animation movies to accompany it. I guess it would be like Gorillaz; I don’t want to be the face of it. I’m still searching for my sound and who I am musically. I’m not sure which direction I will go, but its part of the process. I’m not going to release anything until I know what I am.

V: Is there anything else you like to do when you come off the road?

I do love going out and being social.

I’ve been thinking about drawing a lot…I would love to design my own clothes. The Pet Shop Boys have a wardrobe designer, Jeffery Bryant who has really inspired me. He dresses Duran Duran, Lady Gaga – everyone. He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. He can make an outfit out of anything. We were at a festival in Spain, and he took a table cloth from catering and made me a jacket out if it. I wore it for some photos that night. He really inspires me.

V: I remember you telling me the team were really into your natural style and ‘look’ for the band. Weren’t you also dressed in cloaks or something strange for the show too?

S: We have a big plastic helmet we wear at the beginning of the show, and we put back on later.

V: How do you find it performing in that?

S: It’s not easy, we have to sing and play in them, and you can’t really see very well in them. On some songs we have to sing and walk, so you have to be careful where you’re going! We got used to it though.

V: Have you ever had embarrassing moments on tour that spring to mind? Or a time where things went wrong?

There was this one time during a Christophe Willem show in France. We were playing Amneville Arena. It was going great, and it was the middle of the gig during the acoustic section, where it’s just a pianist and Christophe. I go off stage to get my usual sugar rush, eat a chocolate bar or something. All of a sudden, it all goes dark and there’s a power cut. The generators should have kicked in, but the power had cut a while ago and they had already been keeping the show going for a while and ran out of juice. So, we decide to go and grab the acoustic guitar. The crew took their torches and lit up Christophe’s face. The audience, all 25,000 of them, start shushing and we play a few songs like that until the power came back. It was a technical problem, but it made the show really special. I think that should be part of a show one day, a fake power cut!

V: That sounds amazing. Did you have any big learning curves on tour, or learn any big lessons quickly? I always remember on our tour together opening for Paolo Nutuni, I learnt quickly to respect the headliners space. I passed the band quickly in the corridor whilst they were waiting to go back on for their encore and the tour manager really told me off later for ‘getting in their way.’ I think in reality, he was much more strict than most tour managers, but I certainly learnt my lesson quickly…

S: I’m always prepared for the worst, as anything can happen. During a show with Birdy, the metal parts of my kick pedal broke. It was an acoustic gig, so it was really obvious. Luckily, I was also using drum triggers, so I quickly programmed a kick sound that I could trigger with another pedal. I feel like you always need to have two snares with you. If the kick drum skin breaks, you can always turn it. It was good lesson, to always have some kind of back up pedal. I also learnt not to do too many stick tricks when I started working with Xenomania. I remember missing the ‘1’ a few times because of them, so I stopped doing that quickly!

V: Do you have any fan stories you can share?

S: I have a big fan who created a website about me, a big Christoph Willem fan. She lists current projects and posts things regularly; it’s a really professional site. I should be paying her!                                   

To find out more about Simon visit his website: https://www.simontellier.com/

Or if you’re the curious type, visit Simon’s fan site: http://oh-stelliers.tumblr.com/

Vicky Warwick

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