Simon Mills, also known as Napoleon, is an electronic music producer and an eclectic DJ. He rose to musical prominence in the 00s as one half of wonky chillout duo Bent. His solo work continues his trademark quirky, slightly vintage, nostalgic, warm style, drawing heavily on his extensive record collection and an array of analogue synthesizers. Simon resettled in Ireland, and to keep himself busy he spent the whole of 2014 recording, producing and self-releasing an EP a month. He even does his own artwork. 2016 continues his hookup with the fast expanding Secret Life empire, new EPs, another album and a return to the DJ circuit.
“Napoleon is the UK producer specialising in finely crafted, downbeat electronic music. Formerly one half of Bent, he’s now striking out on his own and is releasing an EP a month this year. His tracks are perfect for those who like it highly melodic and nicely lush.”
“Napoleon features a staggering array of moods and rhythms encased in a digital aura, and each blend succeeds wonderfully. Low-key disco beats get glam treatments, thought-provoking vocal samples are spread over unique house rhythms, and seemingly countless other vanguard arrangements turn the album into stereo modern art.”
Simon Mills is an animated, pixellated, happy, cheeky looking man, at ease in his surrounding in his home studio somewhere down a Skype line in Ireland. He is surrounded by records, synths and old cassettes. He’s talking about his new EP, and the one before that, and the next one. There’s one a month coming out for the whole of this year, so there’s a lot to talk about and a lot to do.
Since ending an extremely successful decade with production partner Neil Tolliday aka Nail in super samplers Bent, Simon has been extremely prolific, releasing two albums and now all these EPs.
Simon has synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon where letters and numbers are perceived to be associated with colours. He feels it helps with the creative process, especially when it comes to designing covers to go with the music.
He seems to be enjoying the good life, making music on his own means doing exactly what he wants without compromise. That freedom allows him to indulge his mischievous side too.
“I love that old analogue synth sound, I have spent all my money on them over the years, my favourite has to be the Mini Moog, this one is modified so you can trigger from the computer. But I am starting to love early 90s naff digital synths, you know the ones that sound like they are from a Whitney Houston record. I find that, if I’m asking myself whether I should put the sound in or not I put it in as a dare. I used pan pipes recently, it’s beyond hipster, bad sax sounds from a keyboard? It’s so tempting!”
But sampling is still at the heart of the Napoleon sound, as evidenced by an incident on the road from Nottingham to Ireland.
“I had to make a choice between 4000 dodgy records from charity shops or a piano.
I chose the records! We ditched the piano outside a pub with a sign on it saying – I’m out of tune but I’m yours if you want me.”
So for now the solo life is working well.
“It helps you define yourself. I am addicted to melodies and interesting chords. I have got my own territory, built my own identity. Because I am over 40 I have a big arsenal of stuff that I have sampled and stuff that I love.”
And with that depth of knowledge and youthful spirit, 2015 will see Napoleon back on the road with a virtual record box on a USB stick and another stack of new tunes to play.
Where he comes from:
“I dropped out of a Fine Art degree to pursue my music instead and my first job was producing sample/music libraries, and I ended up having music on 28 Days Later, The Negotiator, Arlington Road and the game Half Life, and got a name drop in a Jean Michel Jarre album because he’d used a lot of the sounds I’d made.”
Then came Bent, five albums in seven years, DJing and live gigs all over, stacks of sampling and success. Everything changed with their critically acclaimed album Programmed to Love in 2000. From signing on the dole with blue hair, promising the lady behind the counter that he was about to get a record deal to jumping about in a space suit with star gazer Patrick Moore in the video for Swollen in a matter of weeks.
The end was a natural progression, Neil moved to London, Simon stayed on in Nottingham for a while before moving up country.
“My last studio in Nottingham was below Crazy P, which was great but very distracting, I just wanted to go to the pub with them all the time.”
5 defining moments
When I got a computer
In 1990 I got a Commodore Amiga. They had some basic music software and these songs that other people had made. I pretended to my mate that I had made one of them. That’s when the thought – I’d love to get into this music making thing – came into my head.
I could already play by ear, I used to mimic songs on my Bontempi organ as a kid, but the sampling really inspired me.
Meeting Patrick Moore
One minute we were on the dole, a few weeks later everything was coming true. At the time I was going to the job centre with blue hair saying I was going to get a record deal, then we did. We were both wearing space suits when we met Patrick of course. It was really surreal.
Bent supporting Orbital in Athens
“When was starting out in 1990 I was into 808 State, Adamski and obviously Orbital, so it was an honour to be asked to support them.”
Michael Caine choosing Bent as one of his Desert Island Discs
“We had already put a few albums out, and I needed a break emotionally from it all. Having a hero like him liking us was life affirming. I didn’t go for the academic route, I have followed a love blindly through thick or thin, and that moment confirmed that it was the right choice.”
The release of Magpies, my second solo album
“That was the first thing that was completely and utterly me, where my heart is. It was quite nerve racking because I was so close to it, but it was well received.”
Five defining tunes:
A Guy Called Gerald – Voodoo Ray
“This record hasn’t left my bag since I started DJing, and for me it sums up a classic sound that I was brought up with. Just an amazing classic.”
Kerrier District – Let’s Dance And Freak
“I have always been a massive fan of all things Luke Vibert – this disco alias is one of the many I love by him. I seriously think he’s a genius.”
The Beach Boys – All I Wanna Do
“A lesser known Beach Boys track, but one of my faves. I love the hopeful yet dreamy melancholic sound they had and they’ve been a big influence. I’m a harmonies addict.”
The Pointer Sisters – Automatic
“I don’t think I’ve ever played this and not been put into a good mood. It sums up the 80s for me. It’s made of neon!”
Lone – Airglow Fires
“I am a big fan of Lone, this one in particular is one I love to play out. He’s got incredible timing and the sound palette is perfectly up my street. Wonky and vintage!”
Debut album – Napoleon (self titled)
Second album – Magpies
1: A Castle Above The Sky
2: A Domed Forest Orbiting Saturn
3: A Treasured Family Visit
4: A Tale from ’84
5: A City Called Chimos
6: A Night Voyage
7: A Tape Of Beginnings
8: A Spanish Horizon
9: A Golden Road Trip
11: A Little Prince
12: A Wonderland
OSTs Vol 1: The Yamabushi
OSTs Vol 2: Schools And Colleges
Moogie Wonderland EP
Simon Mills: Copacabasa EP
Words: Chris Coco
Chris Coco, July 2014