Doctrines of Minimalism – by Paul Comrie-Thomson


Originally writing from that southern musical haven known as Dunedin, Simon Comber followed the release of his debut album Pre-Pill Love with a move back to his Auckland stomping grounds, where he wrote all the material that would end up comprising his latest effort Endearance. Many musicians speak of the effect their immediate surrounding have on their creative efforts, but for Comber, “there is more falsehood than truth in the notion of a writer’s external environment shaping their songs.” He does concede there may be a “small amount of truth, but it’s very hard to quantify.”

“A writer’s internal environment is far more influential. I just finished reading the play Ajax, by the wonder Greek dramatist Sophocles. this is far more likely to make its mark on any future songs I write than the fact a hideous Esquires coffee shop just went up on Karangahape Road.”

Despite refusing to give Auckland much credit for his creative output, from a recording perspective Comber did feel compelled to head south once more to record the album.

“There is a Masonic lodge in Port Chalmers. It is painted black from head to toe. There is one small blue stained-glass window downstairs and a deer’s head on the wall, its antlers barely visible through the type of darkness you thought only existed on the inside of a coffin. No studio in Auckland was able to provide such a perfect backdrop to the recording process so I had no choice but to fly down south.”

Regardless of what actually influences Comber, the key to his success really lies in the songwriter’s ability to take a particularly narrative approach in his lyrical musing, which Real Groove reviewer Gary Steel noted, “manages to evoke the stark reality of humdrum suburban lives.” Comber explains that he has always been drawn to songs that have narrative movement.

“I’m not necessarily talking about overt ‘story songs’ – though Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Tecumseh Valley’ is completely perfect – but also songs whose lyrical structure and use of poetic devices manages to infer that ‘something is happening here.’

“If a narrative song is well written the listener starts rolling a movie in their mind. By the end of the song a very slight, but by no means insignificant shift in consciousness has occurred. If it is badly written, if it is heavy-handed and the listener can see through its contrivances and poetic props, then he or she will be repelled by it much more than they could ver be repelled by a catchy pop song that is merely vapid.”

From a sonic perspective, while 2006’s Pre-Pill Love was a more acoustic affair, Comber has made a concerted switch to the electric on Endearance. While he concedes that most of the songs were still written “on an acoustic, and from a structural point of view they have more in common with folk songs than rock songs”, he did recognise that “these new songs needed something different from my first album, sonically speaking.”

“I’d also been listening a lot to some great electric guitar albums, like Sonic Youth’s Murray Street, and the very underrated second Television album Adventure. So the switch just kind of happened. The songs still have a lyrical focus though, and there are no distortion pedals or riffs in sight, so I don’t think the essence of my style has been overly effected by the sonic alterations.”

As Comber points out, the folk in influence is still present on the new album, with songs that straddle a perfect balance of minimalist complexity. “I definitely tend to favour a stripped back production. This has a lot to do with my lyrical focus. The more layers you add, the less chance you give the words of making any kind of impact.

“Many hundreds of years ago composers got tired of writing church hymns with single note melody lines and started adding harmonies. The clergy was very concerned that htis would obscure God’s message. I am no believer, but I’m with the clergy on this one.”