Thompson Twins' Tom Bailey on the Seduction of Nostalgia, Creative Drive, and 'Science Fiction'
Though he hasn't been quiet in the 35 years since the Thompson Twins came to an end, Tom Bailey is just now getting around to his solo debut, Science Fiction.
20 July 2018
The Thompson Twins called it a day in 1993 after a string of hit singles and memorable LPs. With Joe Leeway out of the picture, remaining Twins Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie formed the unit Babble, incorporating more of the dub influences that had been central to Bailey's entry into the pop world. From there he embarked on a career that involved a series of collaborations, production gigs and the like. There was no talk of a Thompson Twins reunion and no career as solo artist. Bailey had distanced himself from the pop hit format, becoming more exploratory. More (ahem) worldly.
Until a few years ago. As Bailey explains, there came a time when he was persuaded to perform the hits of the Thompson Twins for concert audiences. Sing the hits, as they say. He accepted the challenge and before long was working on a series of pop-oriented tunes that would ultimately comprise the LP Science Fiction.
The collection provides a nice overview of Bailey's knack for writing direct, concise pop songs that also upset the notions of what a pop song should be. He incorporates some of the international sounds that have been key to his career from the start while marrying his past with more contemporary sounds. His writing, singing, and ability to excite listeners with bold new combinations remains intact. One can hear this firsthand view the record's "Ship of Fools", "Work All Day", or the titular number.
Speaking from a hotel room on the morning of a gig somewhere east of the Mississippi River, Bailey proves a warm and considerate interview subject. Though the conversation is clearly about his current undertakings, he's not averse to discussing his musical origins or some of the Thompson Twins' more curious musical adventures.
What made this the right time to make a solo album?
About three or four years ago I was seduced into performing some of the old Thompson Twins hits. I went into that with some trepidation but very quickly realized I was enjoying it. It was very much a nostalgia thing. I wanted to make it more of a current, creative challenge. The obvious thing was to start writing more pop songs again. I have been doing a lot of writing and recording, but it hasn't been pop. I wanted to get back into it.
What challenges or surprises did you have as you started writing in that world again?
It all seemed very familiar as a discipline. It's just that I hadn't used it for a long time. There's the obvious metaphor of getting back on a bicycle and realizing that you can still balance. It felt a little bit like that. Making pop music is not an easy thing. It demands specific disciplines if you want to get it right. It's kind of a brutal test bed. Of the millions of pop songs that are written you only hear the best ones. I had to take it very seriously and say, "OK. What are the boxes that we have to check to even get back into the game?"
But, luckily, I have this love affair with the form. Haiku is very concise. It can go anywhere, but you've got that very precise form. Pop music is like that.
There are moments, listening to this album when I detect a world music influence. Of course, when I thought about it for a moment, I remembered that this is nothing new. We can hear that in Thompson Twins.
I'm really interested in music that comes from outside my immediate musical neighborhood. I do the Indian thing, I do the dub thing. I'm very, very comfortable allowing those things to inform whatever I do. That was the umbrella concept for the Into the Gap album, the idea that where two cultures brush up, that's where the interesting thing happens. It's not the pure, mainstream version of something but the accidental collision or intersection of cultures that brings up something new and challenging and can capture the imagination.
I just watched Here to Be Heard, the documentary about the Slits. One of the things that get brought up is that at the dawn of punk most people were listening to reggae and dub. There weren't punk records to be found yet.
That's absolutely right. I used to hang out with the Slits in those days, so I know exactly what they're talking about. The scene in the underground clubs was happening to a background of reggae music. We followed people like Don Letts around. At that time, I lived in Clapham in South London. As I often say, reggae was the music that was drifting out of open windows and open doors in the summertime. That was the local flavor. To me, it was a new thing. I'd just moved to London and was naïve about all that. I was totally engaged with this new sound.
With dub, I was engaged with the alchemy of the studio. That fascinated me and motivated me to get into the studio. That was a big thing for bands in those days. No one had that technology at home. You had to go to the studio.
You work with a laptop as your studio now. It's a box.
I think there are two enormous moments when technology liberated me as a musician. One was when we could afford drum machines and synthesizers. At the beginning of the Thompson Twins' success, we became masters of our destiny suddenly because we were able to design a pop experience using the tools that had become available. Massively, massively liberating. I can't overemphasize that.
That's kind of happened again. Instead of booking into a studio for three months to make an album, we can now work on the road. It's the most amazing thing. But it's funny: When I talk about this, people are still suspicious. It's like they think it's less valuable somehow. [Laughs.] It reminds me very much of the days when people said, "Synthesizers aren't real instruments."
This is very real, and it's a battle we have to fight, people who are adopters of technology. The fact is there are now millions of people around the world using that technology to make records. Some more successfully than others. For me, it means this: Since I travel an absurd amount, it means I can just get on with ideas. I don't have to wait for that spare time which, these days, never arrives.
So it is made in hotel rooms and my backyard, the back of the bus, even more exotic locations.
Do you feel that you can be as innovative with contemporary technology as you could be in the early days?
Yes. Although the technology allows you the freedom experimentalism is a state of mind. If you don't think that way, you can never do it. If you do think that way, then you'll find a way. This technology is liberating, but it doesn't ultimately hold the key to creativity.
You mentioned being seduced into revisiting the Thompson Twins material a few years ago. How was that for you on an emotional and musical level?
I was so disconnected from that body of work that it did take me a long time to come to terms with it. But once I'd made the first step, it was very easy. What I hadn't anticipated at all was the enormous emotional connection with the audience. I guess, as a musician, you're always thinking about what you're working on now.
But for every artist, there is a period where you think retrospectively as well. You think about what you were doing 30 years ago and examine that in the light of current experience. It's these new perspectives that allow it to be interesting.
But until the first concert of doing this Thompson Twins stuff, I was super nervous. I didn't know how it was going to be received and therefore how I would feel about it. I was on the side of the stage, waiting to go on, at the first concert and there was a song that I'd decided not to sing in the concert and instead used an instrumental version as an intro piece of music. Then I heard the audience singing it for me! I realized then that it was going to be OK. People aren't coming along just to check me out. They want to hear that music again.
There's a deep need to do that. Part of that is just demographic. Some of the people there were in the '80s audience and have now raised their own families. Their kids have left home, so they're suddenly free to pick up where they left off.
I sometimes pretend that I don't have a sentimental bone in my body and thumb my noise at nostalgia. But a few years ago I went to see Nile Rodgers and Duran Duran. The second that Rodgers launched into those old hits, I got very emotional.
There were the soundtracks of our rites of passage. We came of age. We did the things our parents told us not to do with this music in the background. It's kind of fixed in a way as part of who we are as adults. It will never go away. I guess every generation has their own soundtrack. I'm part of that for the '80s generation.
You're introducing songs from Science Fiction into the sets.
It depends on how much time we have. If we only have 45 minutes, I can't go on and play ten new songs. They're not going to take that. Everyone will just head for the bar, I guess. If there's time I sneak in some new ones and they're going down really well. So, the longer the show, the more I'll play from the new album.
Do you feel like you want to continue making solo records?
I'm not going to slam the door having pried it open. I have started writing songs since finishing Science Fiction. But there are other things to do as well. I want to continue with the Holiwater Band and International Observer as well. Having done this album very much as a solo artist I'm also interested in pursuing collaborations. It's just a question of managing my time and my creative interests. But, yeah, why not?