20 Questions – an Interview with Simon Baker of Green Mind Gigs

On a cold morning in February, We Are Sound (well, two of us anyway) take refuge in the cosy living room of local gig booker and promoter Simon Baker’s house in North Cambridge. Here we drink tea, admire artwork, and discuss the Cambridge music scene and Green Mind, the long standing and thriving Cambridge gig promotion business he set up 17 years ago.

1. What was the first gig you went to?

Ned's Atomic Dustbin at The Corn Exchange in 1991 when I was 12.  I don’t have many clear memories, other than being a bit too nervous to go near the mosh pit and having very bad ear ache afterwards, due to the volume!  I know I enjoyed it though!

“We’re like the Cambridge Masons, but without the funny handshake”

2. How did you get into gig promotion?

I stumbled into it! I grew up in Cambridge and had been going to gigs since I was a teenager. I started volunteering for Shebeen Arts and Music – a worker co-operative that ran events at The Boat Race (a now-deceased legendary music venue in Cambridge). I helped out, doing whatever was needed – putting gig posters up, manning the doors and stuff, and this piqued my interest. When Shebeen finished at the Boat Race, in around 1997, I went with Richard Brown (who is now running the new Storey’s Field venue – “ex-Shebeen people are everywhere. We’re like the Cambridge Masons, but without the funny handshake”) to put on shows at The Portland Arms, where he also let me put on shows for my own band, Interlaken. Things went on from there...

3. And how was Green Mind gigs born?

It started really as a hobby. I made and distributed a compilation tape of local bands in 1999 and that snowballed into some touring, which put me onto the radar of people at various booking agents. There was a promoter called Jon Dunn (who ended up at Live Nation and Festival Republic amongst others) who I was in competition with, but when he moved on, he started putting people on to me and what started out as a cottage industry in small rooms soon developed a mind of its own, working in other venues too, such as ARU and Soul Tree. But for years, after The Boat Race shut (in 2004), until The Portland Arms became more of a venue in 2012, there was no decent 200-capacity venue in Cambridge.  I went ‘kind of’ full time in 2004.

4. And why the name?

‘Green Mind’ after the Dinosaur Jr. album. They’re one of my favourite bands, although to be honest it’s not particularly one of my favourite of their albums. It just happened to be lying around on the coffee table when I was looking for a name. It was a personal highlight for me to put them on at The Junction in 2009.   

5. Is it true to say that The Portland Arms is your regular venue to host shows?

Yes, definitely.  The re-development of the Portland in 2012 came at just the right time for me. Until then things had been really difficult and didn’t always work out. The venues I used cost a lot to hire and the few gigs that made money were fine but the problem was how to stop haemorrhaging money on the ones that didn’t. Before this it held 100, but I never made money on gigs there.  They still don’t make the main part of my income, but they keep my profile out there and keep me ticking over, which allows me to get the bigger gigs – and they’re the ones that make the money.

6. So what other venues do you use?

I’ve used the United Reformed Church, Junction 1&2, St Paul’s and The Corner House Pub, as well as venues in Peterborough and Norwich and we’ve just put on a gig at the new Storey’s Field Centre, at the Eddington Site in the North of the City.

7. And what would you say is your favourite of these?

[Unhesitatingly] Junction 2, definitely! But Storey’s Field looks like it could become a close second, and The Portland is always very close to my heart.

8. A small group from our collective performed specially commissioned vocal piece at the official opening of the Storey’s Field Centre in January. Tell us what you like about this new venue?

From the outside it’s yet another boxy new build, but inside it’s beautifully done. The gig we put on (headlining indie band Pale Waves, in February) sounded great – a nice acoustically dead sound. We made the stage a little too low on the first gig, but we’ll raise it for the next one, and otherwise it was amazing. The lighting was great and it would comfortably fit 300 people. It’s a great development for Cambridge and I think it’s good to have something that is easily accessible to people coming in from the surrounding villages, with easy parking.

9. How well catered for do you think Cambridge is, in terms of venues, as a whole?

I think it’s pretty well served now. People do still moan about there not being enough decent live music venues, but I question the demand. All the venues always have unbooked dates in their calendars, so that suggests there are enough. For things like classical, the city’s especially well-catered for, with bags of different spaces in the university buildings. We could do with a new really large venue though…

10. Essentially, it’s your job to set up and organise gigs. Are you still able to enjoy these gigs as a punter?

Well I can’t like everything I put on, as I need to cater for different tastes, but yeah, I do still enjoy it. I have people who can run shows for me, so I can just go out and enjoy myself without getting cornered with questions and admin.  

11. What’s your own personal favourite amongst the gigs you’ve put on?

[when pushed…] Highlights are being able to put on bands who haven’t played Cambridge for years. Like the Dinosaur Jr. gig in 2009. Seeing ‘Green Mind presents Dinosaur Jr.’ on the posters was quite an odd thing to see. But I think their manager liked it so that was a relief! Yeah, that was probably my highlight. And I still have the framed poster!

Simon Baker

12.  Have you put on any bands in their early days, that have gone on to become big stars?

God, loads! – Black Keys, Editors, Paulo Nutini, Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol to name just a few.

[We Are Sound also spotted a piece in the Cambridge News on the week of writing, where acclaimed indie-folk singer songwriter, Frank Turner who has joined the line up to headline on Saturday night at the Cambridge Folk Festival, say of Simon “…a big part of that (his early shows in Cambridge) was Mr Simon Baker from Green Mind Promotions. Simon was and still is a fantastic underground DIY promoter” Praise indeed.]

One that was an almost-ran is a funny story.  I still have a framed copy of our poster showing that Adele (yes, that Adele) was supposed to be the opener for a Jack Peñate gig in 2007. But when her manager called to say she may not be able to make it as she was recording ‘some album or other’, I had to turn her down as I didn’t want to risk having no support on the night. *wry smile* - I don’t think she sold *many* copies. [That album turned out to be Adele’s debut, seven times platinum award winning album ‘19’. You win some you lose some, Simon]

Sweet & Low by Fugazi - soundwave art

 [Looking at the cool piece of sound-wave art hanging on the wall in the living room where we chat…]

13. Tell us about the print on the wall. What’s the song?

It’s the tune that was playing when Kirsty and I came out of the Registry Office when we got married. It’s a track called ‘Sweet and Low’ by Fugazi.   [Awww]

14. Are you very particular about your own playlists for personal events?

No,  I let other people do what they want. If you want to DJ, then DJ, but if you’ve got someone in to do it, let them get on with it. Although I have to say that a background in organising events meant that organising our wedding was a cinch and totally stress-free, contrary to what lots of other people say!

15. How do you see the Cambridge music scene at the moment?

“The Cambridge music scene is the healthiest I’ve seen it”

To be honest, it’s probably the healthiest I’ve seen it right now. There will always be people saying it used to be better, but they’re just nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ of their youth. There have never been as many good bands and artists before as there are now – in terms of quality and of quality. 20 years ago there were a handful of really good bands and lots of OK bands, but I did a Cambridge playlist (see below) for the Guardian Newspaper last year and it was easy to find a current wedge and good variety of really decent artists.

The thing about Cambridge is that in certain genres – indie music for example, and anything a bit more ‘arty’ – it punches well above its weight. I put this down to various things. The presence of the Science Park (built by Trinity College), so the prevalence of the tech sector; the high employment helped by the university which provides jobs, which helps the thriving arts scene but has a downside in that rent is sky-high, especially in college-owned premises. In Cambridge, the Uni is both a good and a bad thing in terms of influence. But there’s a lot coming out of Cambridge right now, and not just musically, as that piece in the Guardian showed.

16. Which band that has come out of Cambridge is your favourite, or your ‘one to watch’?

There’s a new band called Lemondaze, who played at The Portland recently and are through to the final of the Cambridge Band Competition. They’re really good. And Lonely the Brave [Sound production by WaS’ very own sound man, Matthew Skidmore] are a more obvious recent success story.

17. How many gigs do you put on a year?

Probably about 100. It varies from year to year and different times of the year are busier than others. The summer can be very quiet but October to December, and again February to May are busy times. Possibly this coincides with Uni terms. In summer the festivals take off and the organisers have exclusion zones so for example there was a band I wanted to book but they were playing Latitude so until that had sold out they couldn’t commit to play in a certain (quite wide) radius of the festival.

18. What would be your dream gig to put on?

My Bloody Valentine. That’d do!

19. Do you go to festivals yourself?

I used to go to more. I enjoyed The End of the Road, for example, but I don’t go to many, no. I don’t like camping. Those days are way behind me. Last year we did an Airbnb at EOTR and it poured with rain all day on the Sunday, and I was so grateful to come back to an actual building to dry off at the end of the day. I hated being permanently damp – it was miserable! And I don’t care how old that makes me sound! European festivals where it’s sunny are the way forward I reckon!

20. What’s your game plan for the next few years?

“I’m not just some d*ckhead in a bedroom…”

I’m happy doing what I do and have no great urge to be the biggest promoter in the country or even to reach far beyond Cambridge. I’ve seen the crazy hours this would entail and the stress this can bring and frankly, I don’t want that. I’ve had two brain operations in the last 4 years (Simon has the brain condition hydrocephalus, which causes an excess of fluid on the brain), so I don’t need that kind of pressure. Green Mind becoming so established & recognised in Cambridge has been good as it’s proof that I’m succeeding and not just some d*ckhead in a bedroom ducking and diving. If I can keep my little chunk of what I do going, and keep on enjoying doing it then I’ll be happy.