[16 August 2011]
I first met Englishman Tom Morris this past spring when he toured through the venue where I work in Dresden, Germany. He opened a show for the American band Dark Dark Dark. Although it was his first European tour as a solo musician, he stole the audience’s full attention, playing passionate songs off his recent solo release as well as songs from his band (Her Name Is Calla).
Morris struck me as a shy, thoughtful, and modest person off stage, and a proud and fearless musician on stage. He managed to lessen the tension of the cool German audience with his witty humor and eloquent storytelling. The acoustic performance reminded me of a fresh and less dramatic Damien Rice, in that each song Morris played was loaded with emotion and careful lyrical thought. Leaving a strong impression on the crowd, the musician wrapped up his set with a killer Kate Bush cover.
Following the performance, I told Morris how much I enjoyed his set, and he handed me a copy of his solo EP, An Ocean Is Enough to Love. I listened and listened more, as I downloaded the rest of his solo work and the releases from Her Name is Calla. Immediately, I was surprised at how much his band’s work differed from his work as an individual artist. Her Name Is Calla is a dark and twisted post-rock sound, with numerous instruments that grind and wind their ways through what sounds like an incredible amount of pain that inspired the songs; the vocals are less obviously significant, as they fulfill more of a background role to the complex instrumentation. By way of contrast, Morris’ solo work is straight-foward, simple, and clean. There are no surprises, no games. It’s as if the musician has come to a better understanding of himself and the art he creates.
Whatever the inspiration is for his music, Tom Morris’ work is consistently powerfully personal as he strives to give his fans a piece of his passion. PopMatters spoke with the musician about what it’s like to be a musician out of England and how he chose his path in the music industry.
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So you’re from England…where are you exactly from in England?
I’m from a little market town called Pocklington in Yorkshire. It’s a really quaint town. No trains, one bus stop, that kind of thing. But we manage to squeeze in about six pubs somehow.
How has your upbringing in England influenced your taste and opinions of music and the music industry?
I had a very good upbringing. My parents were, and still are, very supportive of my lifestyle and my choice to do music. My sister too. I began learning the piano at about age eight or nine I think. My parents were quite keen for me to learn an instrument but didn’t push me into it either.
Later, at about 14, I went to boarding school. My dad is in the Air Force and there was a threat that he might move around a lot. My folks were always concerned with mine and my sister’s education and didn’t want us moving around whilst in the years surrounding our exams. The boarding school turned out to be a great experience for me. Some early years of being relatively independent. It was also a very small school. I was one of only three people doing the A-level music course, and the only guy. Plus, I think I was the only person in the history of the school that had an electric guitar. I used to do little gigs at lunch times and charge 50 pence to come in. I think the general consensus was that I was terrible and couldn’t sing for shit. But I didn’t really care, I was always just interested in recording and writing music. I had the keys to the school so would often be there til about midnight just recording. I think by the time I left at 18, I’d recorded about three albums that I’d sell to friends and things or sell at pub gigs.
Lots of the girls in the sixth form were really into indie music and stuff like that, so I’d discover bands like Pulp and Headswim through them. At the time I was listening to a lot of At the Drive In, some Radiohead and Unbelievable Truth. Also started listening to a lot of Joseph Arthur and Wheat around that time. And I was majorly into Calexico. I think they’d just released that song “The Crystal Frontier” around my final year at school and it blew my mind.
As for the industry, I didn’t really discover it until a few later, until I went to University and met more like-minded but more-experienced people. The industry was just one giant, faceless conglomerate that I had no real grasp over. I felt like I had a basic understanding of writing and recording music, but no idea of how to release it. I was far too naive to realize that their were dozens of small indie labels already finding great music all over the UK. Bands that I was already listening to, but hadn’t made the connection.
How has it been being an English act? There are so many great musicians out of England at the moment…
Yes there are. There are so many smallish bands here that I listen to on a daily basis. Though, it’s a very small country. I see a lot of bands here that do well here and then assume that they can go into Europe or Australia or America and the same thing will happen. A tiny band like Her Name Is Calla with no management or support or anything… I imagine we’ll play our first gig in the states when we’re well into our 40s! Ha!
All in all though, there are a lot of music sites and magazines in the UK. Most of them are pretty good, but some of the bigger ones are a bit cliquey. They support acts for a certain period of time and then drop them and things like that as they move onto “the new sound.” Though I guess a lot of that might have to do with the fact that they don’t have enough time to write about so many emerging and existing bands.
You’ve been playing with Her Name Is Calla since about 2004? Can you talk a bit about the band?
Yeah sure, we’ve been around for a long time now, though I think it’s only in about the past four years we’ve been doing anything serious. Mike Love (bass) and I used to work in a shitty bar together. Mike came to see me play solo one time and asked if he could play with me in the future. Just acoustic guitar, bass and my vocals. He was so, so much better than me. A much more advanced player and he made me really step up my game. We lived in Leicester, which was where I was studying at University. We played loads of venues, normally as a tour support to someone. We’d play these 30-minute jams which would be about two or three songs fused together. We didn’t really have an idea of what we were doing, we just liked jamming together.
As things became more structured and we wrote more songs, Thom Corah (trombone/electronics,etc) joined us, and we kind of became a band. I was at university with Thom but by now we’d finished and were doing really shitty, low-paid, full-time jobs.
We’d done a few EP’s and things like that with a few different drummers. After a while we did a tour with a band called I LIKE TRAINS and released a single called Condor and River, which got us a fair bit of press and we’d joined a small UK label. Straight after the tour we kind of fell out with the drummer and almost split up. We had been in the process of recording a 10” for a song called “New England” but it all went on hiatus and the band virtually split as we didn’t know what to do next.
I felt very frustrated. I felt that we’d worked too hard for too long to get some momentum going only to feel it all grind to a halt again. So eventually, I went into the basement of Thom and Mike’s house and started to write and record again. I recorded an album which would later be called The Heritage. Mike and Thom would come down occasionally to play an instrument or two or to have a few beers with me. All in all though, I became very depressed. That was something that had always been bubbling under the horizon anyway. I was being bullied by my boss at work, and that would eventually erupt fairly spectacularly. I also had a few problems with my marriage and had just become a Dad. I think in retrospect, it had just become an overwhelming time, and taking and step back to think about things was never my strong point. For about three months I carried on with the album, sleeping only for about three or four hours a night until I became a little ill and unstable.
Right toward the end of that record, Adam Weikert joined us on drums. He was just the person we’d been looking for. Totally in tune with our humour, supremely talented, and master of about a dozen different instruments. I think in a way, it was Adam that helped me to carry on with music. He’s of a very similar mindset to me: totally in love with music and not really willing to accept any compromise. Either way, I had some very bad times following the completion of The Heritage, and the guys in the band really pulled together to help me. It’s very much a family atmosphere in HNIC, although we do occasionally bully the fuck out of Mike. He turned gray aged 21. Though it could of been because I stressed him out so much.
How did you decide to go in the musical direction you did with the band? Most reviews classify you guys as post-rock. How do you see the band?
Although I always had a clear idea of what I wanted our albums to sound like as a whole, it was with the help of the other guys that the records were able to come together. Whether that was just being voices of reason, making me tea, regulating my drug and booze intake or playing music well. We definitely had no idea what the fuck post rock was until we were tagged with it in some reviews and such. Most of the guys in the band still aren’t bothered by that genre, though Sophie and me do now have a bunch of Constellation records and things like that. I’m really not bothered with being labeled with anything. Post rock does encompass a lot of great bands, though I’m not a fan of music like Explosions in the Sky or bands like that. It’s a little too two-dimensional for me to enjoy. We all listen to a huge array of different music. I wouldn’t even know where to start with what we listen to. Though Sophie and I do have a cheesy pop song list that we share which each other on Spotify. Lots of film soundtracks, some hardcore music. Lots of folk.
The only thing I get a little sad at is when I see people say, “Oh not another UK post rock band!” I saw on a music forum recently someone recommended us and described us as post rock, only for someone to reply saying; ‘Post rock is so dead! When will these bands just stop!’, or something to that effect. Though arguably, our music requires patience, and a person who sounds like that probably doesn’t have any.
How has the whole composition process been for the band? Did you do a lot of the writing?
Up until now it has normally been me who writes the songs, or at least the basis for them. Either way, we’d flesh them out as a band. I’d send demos to the other guys using a program called Dropbox. We rarely rehearse or anything like that. Maybe two or three times a year. Dropbox really helps us to share songs and ideas, so when we do finally get together, everyone is on the same page.
Right now though, we’re working on a new album. Adam has written some of the songs for it, or written some with me. So it’s starting to become a much more collaborative effort. Sophie has her own independent PR company and works that side of things. Corah makes a lot of the synths and programs that we use live. Adam and me do the recording and production side of things. Mike complains to us and sometimes we listen.
You’ve recently released your own solo work, but have you always been writing your own material, just not releasing it?
Yeah I guess so. I’m not a very disciplined song writer and find writing lyrics really difficult. That’s probably why there’s only ever about eight lines in the average HNIC song! [Laughs]
The band is very costly to maintain. I wanted to start doing music more full time, though as a band a lot of the members are bound by full time jobs and have their own primary committments like children and relationships. I live alone and just thought, if I want to start releasing solo music and touring alone, now was the time to do it. If anything, it has made me more productive.
What drives you as a person? What mostly inspires your music?
Honestly I have no idea. There’s something deep down that just makes it really hard to give up. I kind of have this love/hate relationship with music. I love it, I love writing and performing, but I constantly have this nagging feeling that there’s really no point. Touring with music makes it really hard to hold down full-time jobs, and doing it part time with only part-time work makes it really difficult financially. And then there’s this strong feeling that you just can’t give it up. Like stopping playing would be the hardest thing to ever overcome.
As I mentioned in a previous conversation, I feel as if there’s a lot of emotional depth and weight to some of your music. What exactly triggered the movement of the darker songs in the two LPs of Her Name Is Calla?
Well, The Heritage was written in a very difficult time. I was very depressed. My wife and I had just had a beautiful baby girl, but we were struggling financially and had some problems with work and our relationship. I was drinking a horrendous amount too that was really starting to become a problem. This continued for a while after the completion of that record. Some time after that my wife and I kind of separated with she and my daughter moving up to Yorkshire from Leicester. I think it was around that time that I really stepped up the drinking and I’m not sure exactly when but there was an overdose and some days in hospital.
I joined my wife in Yorkshire and we tried to put it all behind us and start again. After a while it became apparent that I hadn’t changed much and some of those old problems would creep back from time to time. Eventually we agreed to separate. This all tied in with the time surrounding the writing and recording of The Quiet Lamb. It was a very sad time. Although now, we’re both much happier. We’ve both moved on and are still very good friends. I take her and my daughter to concerts and festivals a lot and I’m often visting them for dinner a few times a week. The cost was very high, and I do slip back into drinking a lot now and again. But ultimately, we’re both much happier now and I know I’ll always have her support and vice-versa. I rarely write about fictional things, or if I do, they’re a possible extension of a real-life episode. I probably write about the same things again and again too as I spend a lot of time revisiting the past.
The complex instrumentation is a big part of this “darkness”...how did you go about adding in the different instruments? When the band plays live, are you able to incorporate all of the instruments?
Between us all, we can play, or at least find our way around, a lot of instruments. So we’re in a lucky position that whenever we write a song and think, “some double-bass would be good there,” we’re able to do it. If we can’t do it we have a good network of talented friends.
Performing it all live has never really been an issue as performing live is a completely different situation altogether. It’s great to be able make the most of the controlled environment that is the recording of music, as well as letting rip and enjoying playing live with just the five of us. We don’t have particularly big indiviual set ups; I think it’s more of a case that we’ve worked on our sound for a long time.
How do you see your solo work in comparison with the work Her Name is Calla has created? Are you trying to write/create differently?
I guess the only thing that is different is that I’m trying to deliberately work with a very sparse sound. I don’t want there to be the layers in the recordings that HNIC has, otherwise what would be the point? When playing live, I think the biggest set up that I’ll have at the moment is guitar/vocals, with Sophie on violin and Adam on Banjo/Drums. So still fairly a fairly spacious sound. The major benefit with the solo music is being able to do whatever I want and work as fast or as slow as I like.
How many solo tours have you done so far?
I’ve only done one solo tour so far earlier this year. That took me from London, UK to Łódź in Poland and back. It was a really good experience. Traveling by myself was a little lonely, though I wasn’t on my own that much. And having a lot of freedom to explore and make/change plans without a lot of repercussions was quite liberating. Some of the shows on that tour were really poor as they hadn’t been set up correctly, though the majority of them will probably become some of my favorite gigs, all for different reasons. I have some solo shows coming up in the UK, Ukraine and Switzerland and a few other places. I really want to get back to Germany, Czech Republic and Poland again. I’m hoping in the new year I might be able to try and support someone else on a tour in the USA too. It’ll be much cheaper with just me travelling.
How does it feel to tour as a solo musician after all of these years, with just you and your guitar?
Wow, um…. completely different than being with the band. HNIC has always struggled to make any big impact in the UK, and I think that situation still remains. We have a very loyal fanbase in the UK, but it has never really grown or taken another step up, whereas the same cannot be said for Europe. We’ve always done well on the European mainland and sold more records. It’s a little too early to tell what is happening with my solo music, but early signs show that it is more of the same Calla situation. At least that’s how it feels to me.
Have you thought about how you want to release your music in the future? Will you be continuing solo and band work?
I’ll definitely be continuing solo and I’ll carry on with Her Name Is Calla until the bitter end. If at some point the other guys decide to call it a day, then I will respect their decisions and the band will cease to be. Though I would hope we have at least a few more albums in us. I’ve definitely visualized the next few records and I’ll be sad if they don’t happen.
With Her Name Is Calla, we will stay with Denovali [records]. They’re a very good label and are very supportive of us. We have a good relationship with them. As for my solo work, I have no idea. At the moment it’s just me. No plan and no one else involved. Though I haven’t really approached anyone about working together or developed a bigger plan. I just want to carry on touring and releasing music. Hopefully in the new year I’ll be able to do another solo tour and release a full length album. Until then I have a bunch of EPs that are out or available for pre-order, and a few random shows here and there.
What do you have in store for the next few years?
Phew! God knows! Just carrying on I guess. Trying to make it all work financially. Get myself into a position where I’m not forced to write by candlelight! [Laughs]
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To listen to T E Morris and Her Name Is Calla, visit hernameiscalla.bandcamp.com.
Jennifer Brown currently lives in Dresden, Germany, where she works for the Boston University exchange program during the day and for a club called Beatpol at night. To read about her work at Beatpol, visit http://amerikanerin-in-beatpol.com/.