Tom Bailey, the former Thompson Twins hit-maker and sometime Auckland resident, has just released Science Fiction, his first foray into pop music in over two decades.
MD: You’re touring the States at the moment, aren’t you?
TB: That’s right, I’m in Charleston and we just arrived here early this morning, so haven’t had a look around yet but I guess we’re heading into town this evening. We haven’t even logged for the show tomorrow.
MD: Ah Ok. So you’re touring with Boy George and The B-52’s?
TB: That’s right.
MD: Ah, and how’s that going for you?
TB: Well it’s fantastic. It’s a good ticket for those people who like music in the 80’s and also there’s a bit of overlap but there’s enough variety, so I think it’s pleasing a lot of people, and everyone seems to be getting on and having a good time as well.
People think I’ve been lying by a pool for 30 years, in fact, no.
MD: That’s always good, excellent. You’ve got a new album out, and it’s the first new music you’ve done in a long time so I guess the first obvious question is what prompted you to decide to come up with some new music after all these years?
TB: Well the thing is, it’s not that I haven’t been working. Other kinds of music, you know. I mean, people think I’ve been lying by a pool for 30 years, in fact. No, it’s that all the music I’ve been working on during that time hasn’t been mainstream pop music I guess, so in terms of the cultural mainstream I did a disappearing act but a lot of people have been following my other work. But about 4 years ago, I guess I crossed the line back into pop music to help someone make their record and I realised I enjoyed it a lot, and it just happened to coincide with the offer to do some shows of the old Thompson Twins material, and I just found myself enjoying it. But in order for it not to be just a nostalgia kick, I wanted it to have a creative challenge as well, so writing songs was the next thing. And you know, writing pop is a very different discipline in a way, from most other areas of music . There’s a lot of overlap but it has these particular boxes that you have to check in terms of directness and economy and getting on with the idea very, very quickly. Being about something and yet being catchy, foot-tapping and sing-along-able. Those kinds of things are particular creative challenges. It’s been a long time since I’ve engaged with that. And I realised, it used to be my day job, those are the skills I’ve acquired in the 80’s and I’ve let them lie fallow for so long. It was a real pleasure encountering it again.
People have realised there’s a way of making money out of shaking a fist, the whole thing’s gotten a little bit weird and sour.
MD: I’m wondering how you compare the pop music of the 80s to the pop music of today. Is it very different in your eyes?
TB: Well I’m not an enough of an expert on that but I do note, as a lot of people do from the sidelines, that pop music is, well I mean rock music in general, I think of pop as being the cute cousin of rock music. But it’s kind of been tamed by corporate involvement. So it’s no longer the free-spirited rebellious thing it used to be. And that, I think, now that people have realised there’s a way of making money out of shaking a fist, the whole thing’s gotten a little bit weird and sour. Now the bands are put together by marketing committees and songs are written by expert committees as well. So in some kind of weird way it’s lost its trustworthiness. Now, that’s okay for me to say because I’ve got a foot in both camps and I’ve got this excuse to be nostalgic about the past and how great it was, as opposed to writing in the present. But I’m not sure I’d like to start out being an 18 year old musician right now. For me, the thing that made me want to do it, that feeling that in some way music had an excuse, which was that it brought people together to make the world a better place or something. That’s what I miss.
MD: Well, that’s right. You performed at Live Aid, which is like the ultimate example of that I guess.
TB: In some senses yeah, that evoked a sense of optimism and togetherness which I think, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss that a little bit.
MD: Right. And the new album, you pretty much put that together on your own on a computer, not really a collaborative effort with anybody, kind of a solitary effort. Is that how you prefer to work these days?
I wrote quite a bit it in Grey Lynn, Auckland, recorded some there at home.
TB: I love working with people but this was a solitary task because I decided to do it that way, substantially. And one of the reasons is that I travel a lot, so it’s not that I have the same group of people around me all the time. When I’m on the road touring and performing, even then, my band chops and changes a bit because people aren’t available all the time, I have to take that into account. But I mean the fact is, the technology allows me to do that, so now the studio exists in a laptop computer. I can actually work on ideas on the back of the bus or in a hotel room or something, as I move from place to place. I just learned to do that out of necessity and that’s kind of become normality for me. If I need to get into a studio for particular reason, say I’m recording, vocals for example, I went into Al Rickson’s studio to record most of the vocals on this album, because I really didn’t want to do that on my own on the back of the bus. I needed the high technical standards but also the assistance of a vocal producer and an engineer, because at that point, that’s when myself as an artist, I just needed to be the performer, not the producer.
MD: Right. It’s always good to have another pair of ears and somebody to bounce off of, I guess as well.
MD: You recorded some of it in Auckland, is that right?
TB: That is right, yeah, I wrote quite a bit it in Grey Lynn, Auckland, recorded some there at home. In fact over a couple of visits, because that’s where I tend to spend the first few months of every year, at home, and it s a bit of a rest for me in terms of other commitments , so It’s a great kind of stocktaking moment. That’s where I get all the files or all the work I’ve done during the year to try and make sense of it. So a lot of that was done in Auckland, yeah.
I think it’s really important to be open to influences without being swamped by them.
MD: Well, I find Auckland to be a good place especially in the month of January when everyone’s kind of left and gone on holiday.
TB: Yeah that’s right. But back in the days when I arrived in New Zealand every year mid-January and there were actually people to greet you there at immigration rather than machines, they always used to say, “you arrive in Auckland every year on the same day”, and I said “yeah!” That’s my habit, and the reason was because I had no particular deadline to arrive so I just wait until the Christmas rush is over and the New Year rush is over. I think the prices drop on the 13th of January so my travel agent always booked me on a flight then. Didn’t realise I was such a creature of habit.
MD: It’s nice that they remembered you, anyway.
TB: Well nowadays it’s just a machine, so they’re inscrutable, they don’t mention it.
MD: I read according to the press release for instance, What Kind of World was inspired by David Bowie, but I was just wondering in general, what has inspired you to write these songs?
People were reporting forming emotional relationships with sex robots.
TB: There was no one particular cause, other than feeling the need to do something. I think it’s really important to be open to influences without being swamped by them. Some people say “what were the influences?” Sometimes I have to think hard to come up with an answer to the question. In that case yes, I can see a certain stylistic resonance with Bowie’s work, as far as I understand it anyway, in that particular song. And that’s because I was writing it when he died. It’s not like I was the biggest Bowie fan but I think all of us realised at that point how deeply influenced everyone’s understanding and enjoyment of popular music and what a great experimentalist he was, always pushing the boundaries for himself. So it was that kind of influence, if you like, rather than saying I’m writing a song like Bowie did. Although, the fact that it mentions the planet Mars and some of his songs mention the planet Mars, it seems like it’s a suitable subject, kind of stargazing. And surprise, surprise, a lot of the other songs on the album fall in that general category. A lot of just looking up at the heavens, just a lot of cosmology and ultimately, a lot of, kind of futurism because science fiction, as I understand it, seems to be about the future but of course it’s a way of looking at the present and stepping outside of our own boundaries in order to understand better ourselves. It’s a strange conceit but it kind of works.
MD: And I notice on the song Feels Like Love To Me, there are references to vengeful work of God, moving onto the greater good or not believing in the greater good , is there some kind of philosophy you’re trying to communicate as well?
TB: Well I suppose so, yes. The starting point for that song was in a way much more mundane. I read or saw some article about sex robots , which is a fantastical subject in itself, but what interested me about it was that people were reporting forming emotional relationships with sex robots, basically. It’s as if our human mechanisms were just ready and waiting to operate on that level. And so that’s where the title comes from. If it feels like love, is that what it really is? How do we draw the line? What is the distinction between the real and the sex? It does become a big philosophical question. And you were one of the first people to notice that in fact, I actually quoted in that song a line from the … rather dangerously, no one has spotted that yet but you’ve come close.
I can’t just come on and do 6 new songs and disappoint everyone.
MD: I didn’t have the lyrics in front of me so I had pick them out the best I could.
TB: Yeah but it is as if to say, if we believe something to be true, does that make it true? The triumph of the sex, and it’s a strange position we’ve gotten ourselves into with the contemporary culture.
MD: Now when you’re touring, doing the show with Boy George and The B-52’s, are you mixing in new music or do people just want to hear the Thompson Twins things?
it’s difficult to take over the cultural world from a remote place like in New Zealand, very few people manage to do that.
TB: Oh yeah, they want to hear the hits but I play the new stuff as well, and it’s going down well. It’s partly a question of time. If there’s enough time on stage then I play more of the new stuff, if there’s not then I play less, it just comes down to that, really. But I can’t just come on and do 6 new songs and disappoint everyone, I recognise that. It is a bit frustrating. If I only get a short time then I shoe horn in one new song and hope for the best.
MD: And the band you worked with here in New Zealand a few years ago, Stellar, reunited a little while ago. I think someone said that you were at one of the reunion shows, is that right?
TB: That’s right. I went to see them play down at the, I don’t even know what it’s called, the venue that’s attached to that new arena…
MD: The Tuning Fork!
TB: The Tuning Fork, that’s right.
MD: And what did you think of the idea of that reunion and reunions in general?
TB: Well, I was very impressed with them. It reminded me what great material it was. They have amongst their collection of hit songs, they have at least one that is like a world class number one record and it’s really frustrating that that didn’t go all the way, because it’s difficult to take over the cultural world from a remote place like in New Zealand, very few people manage to do that.
MD: Although Lorde has done it!
TB: Yes, she has. And that gives everybody hope.
MD: Yes, it does.
I like sitting on Ponsonby Road having a cup of coffee and saying hello to people. I don’t want to end up signing autographs!
TB: There’s a reason others haven’t done it. There are almost extra challenges doing it from a remote place. So I remember singing along to one of their choruses and thinking, you know what? This is testament to something that could have been so much bigger than it was because they had everything it took to be a great, successful group. And of course they were amazingly successful in New Zealand and some other places as well, but it was cut short by a particular circumstance I think.
MD: Ah okay. Well it’s good to see them get back together again
TB: For sure. I’m hoping I’ll see them do it again.
MD: And so what are your plans? Are you planning on coming to New Zealand and performing, doing anything along those lines?
TB: Well, I had one opportunity slip through my hands at the end of last year. We were playing in Australia and I thought, well, if ever there was gonna be a chance to just go there a little bit further and take the show to New Zealand, now’s the chance. We had some very generous offers but my managers just couldn’t make the financial sense of it. They said “look, we can do this, but you’ll end up paying for it”, which is fair enough, because sometimes you have to do that. But then I thought, you know what, I quite enjoy my rest life in New Zealand. I like sitting on Ponsonby Road having a cup of coffee and saying hello to people. I don’t want to end up signing autographs! So there’s some kind of weird thing that stops me from pushing to play in New Zealand with this band, although of course I do lots of concerts with International Observer and with The Holiwater Band in New Zealand. That’s an example of the things that are so little known that it’s not a mainstream proposition.
MD: Where do these concerts usually take place?
TB: Well, here they’re everywhere. We quite often play in festivals like the Splore festival for example and also much smaller concerts in Auckland and elsewhere. My Indian group, the Holiwater band, are regular visitors to New Zealand, so whenever they come to do classical concerts and I happen to be there as well, then I join in with them.
MD: Ah gotcha. And now that you’ve got this new pop music under your belt, the first album, are you thinking you’re going to be continuing on in that vain for a little while?
TB: Well that’s an interesting question. Having prised the door open again, it would be stupid to slam it instinctively, but I mean, I have no particular promises to make except that oddly enough I had been writing new songs since the album was finished, so goodness, who knows?