· By John Frazier
Inspirations, A Musical Journey with Chris Simpson of Mountain Time
If there’s one thing that’s certain, listening to Chris Simpson’s Mountain Time uncovers layers upon layers of artistry that may be unexpected to long time listeners of his prior bands Mineral and The Gloria Record. On Music For Looking Animals, his affinity for songwriters from the 60s and 70s is on full display and the album is a looking glass into some of the music that inspired him from a very young age. We asked Chris to dive deep and come up with a list of songs that have profoundly inspired him as an artist — and the end result is a fascinating look into his world and how the sound of Mountain Time came to be what it is today. Explore the full list below and follow the Spotify playlist here for future additions. Mountain Time's new album Music For Looking Animals is available everywhere June 26th.
David Bowie - "Five Years"
I first heard this song shortly after learning that George W. Bush had won his second term as President. I felt entirely alien in my own country. It was the first time I think a presidential election had hit me in this way, like a wave of depression and darkness. It wouldn’t of course be the last, or even the worst such experience I would have. Something about the lyrics at the top: “Pushing through the market square/ So many mothers sighing/ News had just come over/ We had five years left to cry in.” It was just one of those moments where a song comes to you across a vast expanse of time, plants itself firmly in the present moment and rips your chest open. It also includes one of the great lyrical stanzas in my mind: “Think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor/ Drinking milkshakes cold and long/ Smiling and waving and looking so fine/ Don’t think you knew you were in this song…”
The Velvet Underground - "Sunday Morning"
This was the first Velvet Underground I really took in. This opening track going right into, “I’m Waiting For My Man” is one of my favorite opening sequences of a record. These guys were just so open and vulnerable and tough and out there all at once. They could feel like the sun shining down on you or the world caving in. But there’s always such an honest pure child-like heart to what they’re doing. Esteemed guitarist Tom Verlaine of Television famously said that he was so depressed upon hearing this record because he realized he had already learned too much to ever be able to play the guitar like Lou Reed did.
Van Morrison - "Sweet Thing"
In the phase that followed the dissolution of The Gloria Record I was adrift in every way imaginable. I had started to explore Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’s early records and felt like what I wanted creatively and musically was to return to this kind of acoustic simplicity. I wanted to write songs I could play on my own on an acoustic guitar or the piano. Discovering the Astral Weeks record by Van Morisson was among the most exhilarating experiences of my musical life. I kept listening to it transfixed. I couldn’t stop. For a long time I wasn’t sure if I liked it. It felt like I was seeing behind some sort of curtain into the horrors and ecstasy of human existence somehow. The whole universe felt unmasked in it. There was nowhere to hide in these songs. Sweet Thing is so much more than a love song. It became the anthem to me and my now-wife’s relationship at the time and evolved with us through many struggles, eventually becoming the song we used for our first dance at our wedding.
Leonard Cohen - "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes"
Around the time I was exploring all this music I was also exploring a whole world of writing and thinking that was equally fresh and astonishing to me. One of those writers/thinkers was Joseph Campbell and his book ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ about the universality of the hero monomyth. I had the feeling that Leonard had read EVERYTHING and was giving it back to me with a wink and saying, “Yes, but…” His grasp of the human condition in all its beauty and ugliness made him feel like a wise and compassionate elder. An adorable owl with an eternal glint in his eye spitting Zen koans and wrapping your knuckles with a stick when you got distracted.
Bob Dylan - "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)"
This is the first Dylan song that facilitated a deep dive into his entire body of work for me. I had embraced the early folk anthems, in all their earnestness. This was something else. Blonde on Blonde was the culmination of the controversial “electric” period, which left his diehard folk fans feeling betrayed and abandoned. After this there was once again nowhere left to go but somewhere else entirely. The instrumentation and feeling of this record was very much what I was after on a lot of the earlier Zookeeper recordings. I couldn’t imagine a more exuberant and blissful sound.
Neil Young - "Harvest"
Neil always stood out to me for that angelic, feminine voice. He has worked so long and fearlessly in essentially the same form song wise, but his melodies and voice are always so singular and stunning they transcend the repetition of the form. His view of nature was almost mystical but the mundane and human was always his muse. Harvest is such a beautiful love song. This is one of the songs I always sang as a lullaby to my kids at their bedtimes. They still immediately recognize it now when it comes on.
Harry Nilsson - "Bath"
Harry’s voice is unparalleled. No one could sing like Harry. The harmonies he effortlessly added to his own vocals. The orchestration and arrangements on the records. Because of the greatness of his voice, and the fact that he reinterpreted a lot of other people’s material, I feel like he is often overlooked as a songwriter. This is one of my favorites of his. The way the chord progression just keeps coming. I love the image of Harry coming home early one morning in the middle of a bender just to take a bath and head right back out into the fray again.
Big Star - "Nightime"
There is just something about Big Star’s Third album. It will always be mind-boggling to me that this came out when it did. This record was very important in helping me visualize the texture and palette I was looking for in the early Zookeeper days. The acoustic fragility enmeshed with the more atmospheric and unsettling elements. The ominous start and stop of the cello. "Nightime" was a revelation to me.
Graham Nash - "Military Madness"
Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners was another big record for me in 2005/2006. Military Madness is such a perfect lead track. The growl of those background vocals, the lilting acoustic and piano, that crazy wah guitar. Graham’s singing is so crystal clear and just beautiful. And I loved the cover image. It was a record I held in my hands a lot as I listened to it. It felt at once homespun and otherworldly.
Judee Sill - "The Kiss"
Judee Sill came up a number of times in my explorations but never really sucked me in. Until… I was on tour with Mineral in South America. I was in a hotel room in Lima, Peru, exhausted and missing my family so much. It was the first day of school back home and things were very hard there without me. I felt helpless being so far away and not being able to be with my wife and kids. There was a coffee shop on a cliff overlooking a beach a short walk away which had been reported to be exquisite by my band mates and I had every intention of going there. But I was feeling so low, I was just lying in bed drifting in and out of sleep. I was listening to a playlist on my phone and it had ended and switched to Radio play mode based on the playlist when this song came on. It destroyed me instantaneously. All the walls were obliterated, inside and out. I ugly/beautiful cried uncontrollably as it unfolded. Across time and space. This song originally set down in 1973, 46 years earlier, and a year before I was even born. It cracked me open. Dissolved at once the barriers that separate me from both my inner self and the world outside. It felt like a vacuum was sucking me in and down and up and out all at once. And it was so heavy and painful and righteous and powerful. I listened to it on an endless loop for the next week as we travelled, trying to hold on to that experience and sensation as long as possible. It remains a profound emotional and spiritual experience anytime I hear it.
John Cale - "Big White Cloud"
John’s voice is so authentic. I came to him from the Velvet Underground record he features so prominently on. I think I actually heard some of his more esoteric later work first, but his 70s “pop” records became an indispensable part of my musical diet. This song was always one of my favorites, but there are so many. This one has that bright, sunny, pre-disco Bee Gees, reverby strings and plunky piano thing that just drives me crazy.
Leonard Cohen - "Avalanche"
This is the first tree that fell for me, leading me inexorably into the forest of Leonard Cohen. I had heard some of his more popular songs and liked them fine. I had the first record and thought it was very good. I was working at a 24 hour diner where there was a lot of music and drugs and literature going around. I was waiting tables one night on a graveyard shift and heard this song playing in the kitchen while leaning on the window where the cooks put the orders for us. I immediately went back into the kitchen and asked who it was and one of the cooks gave me a broken cd jewel case with that big font: SONGS OF LOVE AND HATE, and that picture of Leonard looking possessed or ecstatic. I stood there transfixed, ignoring my tables in the front of the restaurant and their orders waiting in the window. I made the cook repeat the song for me when it finished so I could hear the whole thing. I went the next day and got the record, and it honestly took me a long time to listen past that first song because I kept having to play it again every time it ended. There is such a literary and cinematic feel to it. I immediately picture some lonely hunchbacked creature on a blizzard swept landscape, living in a half underground cave or shelter, marching bravely out into the elements to address the world with his song. It was astounding. It still is. Leonard is such a master at painting a picture and leaving you holding the brush and mute with questions.
The Kinks - "Strangers"
When people argue about The Beatles vs. The Stones, my answer has always been The Kinks. Which is not to say that I don’t understand and respect what the other two accomplished or meant, or that I don’t enjoy their records as well (I do, quite a bit). But The Kinks always felt so scrappy and authentic and relatable to me. They were funny and fun and serious and meaningful all at once. This is one of my favorites of theirs. It also featured prominently in my wife and I’s wedding music and feels like an anthem for choosing togetherness and celebrating uniqueness.
Big Star - "Blue Moon"
The gentleness of the flutes and strings and arrangement, coupled with the vulnerability and fragility of Alex’s vocals on this track are chilling. And somehow, like in "Nightime" further up the list, there’s always an undercurrent that feels almost sinister or reckless, I feel like I can never relax into the beauty of it for fear that reality will drop an axe on me if I lose vigilance. It’s hard to explain, but so bewitching. And there are so many songs on this album that do that to me.
Bob Dylan - "My Back Pages"
From the opening lines on. These words are a blitzkrieg to the senses and consciousness. What a wonderful and truthful paradox . That we actually become less attuned to our own internal compasses as we age and get filled with ideas, less capable of seeing and knowing the truth. That justice is beyond optics and learned catchphrases, and that true education is visionary and experiential, not academic. That gaining wisdom and insight is akin to shedding layers of learned notions. That we can actually grow younger, closer to the source. This is Bob at his finest. Firing on all cylinders and busting at the seams of the form he embodied for his first four albums. After this there’s nothing left to do but go “electric.”
Harry Nilsson - "I Said Goodbye To Me"
Since middle and high school, when I wrote a handful of them myself, I have always been obsessed with songs about suicide. Harry’s incomparable voice is on full display here, playing with tremolo and vibrato like a cat plays with yarn. The delivery is uncanny and when he switches from words to woahs and ohs it somehow only heightens the emotional power of the narrative. I also love the whole doubling the vocal with a track where the vocals are spoken instead of sung. So goddamn good. The loss of Harry Nilsson’s voice is one of the great tragedies of American song in my mind.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young - "Our House"
This is one of those songs I grew up hearing on the radio forgot about and then rediscovered later (or so I thought) before realizing every note of it was already emblazoned in my consciousness. It has defined my vision of domestic bliss. I sang this to my children as a lullaby every night for many years. Sometimes they still ask for it. It will never not make me think of my wife and kids and be grateful for the life I have. It will never not make me happy.
Paul Simon - "Mother and Child Reunion"
One of the greatest gifts my mother ever gave me was Simon and Garfunkel. Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Bee Gees Greatest Hits Volume 1 were the two records in our family record collection I always stole and played in my own room. Years later the self-titled Paul Simon solo record was something I spent an inordinate amount of time with. I think Mother and Child Reunion is a perfect opening track. I was obsessed with the sound and the instruments, recognizing it as something different than Paul’s usual backing. Seeking out the source and finding that it was recorded in Jamaica with Jimmy Cliff’s backing band and members of Toots and The Maytals made me realize that maybe I didn’t hate reggae music at all. Much later I would actually take a deep dive into reggae and rocksteady, being able to listen to little else for many years. But I digress... this song is brilliant. The whole record is brilliant. I wish I could put the whole thing on here.
Van Morrison - "Slim Slow Slider"
The perfect end to a perfect record, or, as Lester Bangs called Astral Weeks, a “mystical document”. A song about seeing an old friend or lover on the street and not knowing what to do. Someone who’s gone now in more ways than one. Someone who’s dying and cannot be reached. Van is such a master improviser he makes planning or arranging feel cheap. Anyhow. Heavy, heavy beautiful stuff.
John Lennon - "Oh Yoko!"
Thought I’d reward anyone who’s made it this far with a light and uplifting final track. This song is not only one of the only explicit love songs of its sort that I can stomach, but also a master class in the simplicity of a great song. Only one word of the lyrics changes in each verse. Every other word is repeated each time, and yet I still feel like it’s too short. Like it could go on forever. (Surely there are some more things that John could be in the middle of when he calls out to Yoko?) Anyway, this song makes me happy to be alive and in love and breathing.
**I hope you enjoyed this list. I am not a music critic, and this is a small percentage of what I have loved and taken in and held dear musically throughout my life. I just wanted to share with you some of the specific music and artists that were inspiring me stylistically when I began this journey with Zookeeper and now into Mountain Time. Much love to everyone out there, I hope you find some joy here. It means the world to me to be able to connect with and share my work with you. - CS
Listen to the full playlist below.