Harper Simon: 'I'd love to play Abu Dhabi'

We talk to the musician about his new album, which he says is inspired by The Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground, and his fascination with the Middle East.  

Harper Simon onstage in Los Angeles, California, last November. Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty Images For Jameson / AFP
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Harper Simon, 40, is the son of Paul Simon and his first wife, Peggy Harper. As a child, he appeared on Sesame Street singing the song Bingo with his father. Rolling Stone magazine called Harper's 2010 debut album "a gorgeous collection of vintage sounding country folk". His new album Division Street is a tougher, psychedelic work partly inspired by The Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground.

What themes do the songs on Division Street explore?

Several characters on there seem to be at a crossroads; at some kind of pivotal moment in their lives. A lot of them are quite wounded creatures, troubled and out of control, but I'm rooting for them.

We particularly like the song Bonnie Brae. What's the story there?

It's loosely based on a person who was in and out of my life and quite compelling for a minute [laughs]. It's also about young people who aren't yet ready to get real, who are still enjoying their wild years. The title is the name of the girl in the song, but it's also the name of a street in Los Angeles so it's a bit of an in-joke. I thought it was the kind of name a girl in an LA punk band in the late 1970s would make up for herself, like Lorna Doom from The Germs.

Guests on the album include Nikolai Fraiture from The Strokes, the singer Inara George, Mikael Jorgenson from Wilco, Leslie Feist's musical director Brian LeBarton - was it daunting to steer the ship?

It was. I had to work through quite a lot of self-loathing to get through it. But the great thing about making an album as opposed to a movie, say, is that people can make a great contribution in just a few hours. I love all that much more than having to promote a record under my own name, which is hard for me.

You're mentioned in your father's songs Slip Slidin' Away and Graceland, and your mother Peggy is the 'silver girl' referred to in Bridge Over Troubled Water. When did you first realise you and your mum were part of the fabric of popular culture?

I couldn't tell you there was a moment. I realise that there are a lot of people that grew up listening to that music that identify me as part of that mythology, but they're not really in my world. We're actually drifting dangerously close to a conversation that I don't have with journalists here, but I'm kind of entertaining it because I'm enjoying our conversation. [Thinks a bit more] No, I don't want to get into that. It won't do me any favours [laughs].

In an ideal world, who would you have cover one of your songs?

Elvis Presley.

You sometimes play with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon in The Plastic Ono Band.

I like to do it because it's very different for me, especially with Yoko. Sean gets excited by nice chord changes and loves albums like Pet Sounds, but Yoko is more about improvisation and performance. Any Yoko show I've been involved in has always had an interesting cast of eccentric artists thrown together to jam so that Yoko can just be free over it. Just yesterday I was watching YouTube footage of us closing the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in England. Yoko's so inspirational. She just keeps going.

What are you reading at the moment?

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. It's a collection of short stories and a novella and it's very funny. I'm also reading David Foster Wallace's The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Wallace was probably my favourite writer of my generation. I read anything to do with him I can get my hands on.

Any plans in the pipeline to play in Abu Dhabi?

I'd do anything to get over to the Middle East. It's the area of the world I'm most interested in seeing. I've played in Afghanistan, and I'd love to play Abu Dhabi. I've been looking at The National's website today and reading a really interesting piece about Syria. It's always been a dream of mine to go to Aleppo, so it breaks my heart to read about what's happening there now.

Division Street is out on Play It Again Sam records today

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