Tom Bailey is back singing the songs that made him an international pop star. Across the US and Europe, in venues large and small (mostly large), the Thompson Twins' founder, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer has been singing hits from his storied songbook, along with tracks from his recent solo release Science Fiction.
On a short break from his continuing tour, Bailey spoke to Keyboard about songs old and new.
It was great hearing you at The Iridium in NYC a few weeks back.
It was fun, wasn’t it? That gig kind of took me by surprise. I thought it was just going to be a little curiosity gig. But in fact, I found it quite emotional and intense. I really enjoyed it. It's good to throw a few small ones amongst the big ones. They’re just so completely different of an experience. With a big crowd, you go out a bit more like a lion tamer. But with an intimate show, it’s possible to have almost a personal relationship with that number of people. You see them, make eye contact and you start to sing certain lines to certain people and it’s very, very intense.
Your new album is called Science Fiction. Does it feel like science fiction to you to be making pop records again?
Well, I was very, very nervous about getting back into it. But as soon as I did with performance, it felt very much like an old friend. And the same thing happened with starting to write songs again in that format. I do believe for me that there’s something special about pop songs. I do work with other kinds of music, but there’s something about the demand and economy and directness of a pop song that really turns me on. So to force myself back into that corner again was really good for me. And it was a very happy experience. Obviously, in terms of getting back on and riding a bike, you never forget how to do that in some ways. I think in some senses, my songwriting technique is a little bit old fashioned, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. I kind of picked up where I left off in terms of the “three minute-15 second thing.” That’s really how I did it. I really didn’t come up with any radically new ideas. It’s still kind of “intro-verse-chorus.”
I read an interview you did recently with Jedd Beaudoin where you said “Haiku is very concise. It can go anywhere. You’ve got this very precise form. Pop music is like that.” I sense listening to this record and a bunch of your older albums that there is a reverence on your part for the format.
Well, I grew up on the Beatles, and they were masters of that art, but also supremely experimental when it came to it. And because they went through the psychedelic era, there was also a kind of mysticism built into that. And as a teenager, I recognized that that was the art form that I wanted to do. It took me a while to get into it. But there was not only the intrigue and the creative challenge of the art form, but also the way it connected with society. So rock and roll to me was a way of proposing a better world. That’s the essential motivation of it for me.
I have endless conversations with producers and songwriters about what constitutes pop music these days. The traditional song format that many of us came up on is no longer the norm.
That’s true. The potential is there for all these old rules to be broken. I’m interested in something more abstract than that, and it’s the kind of flow of tension and release between the performer and the audience. You see it very much onstage where the verse belongs to me and the chorus belongs to the audience. So you kind of pass it to and fro over the line of the stage, metaphorically. So that kind of tension and release I think is common to all forms of art and architecture. Once you recognize that, it actually doesn’t matter what materials you use to create that tension and release, but it has to be there for it to work.
You’re not turned off by some of the things you hear in current music?
Oh, of course I’m turned off by some of it. But not all of it.
So you still can find things that you hear today that intrigue you?
Yes. Although, I do think that pop music in general has lost its kind of motivation. I call pop music the “cute cousin of rock and roll.” And as such, it has a direct bloodline with the responsibility of rock and roll, which is to be rebellious and change things and to say to the previous generation, “We’re not accepting this. We want a better deal. And we’ll raise our fists if necessary to get that deal, even symbolically.” And that’s what rock and roll has to do. Pop music for me always had that ambition as well. Whereas now, regardless if I like the tune or the production or the crazy arrangement idea, for me it’s about whether it has that ambition or whether it’s just about being famous. As soon as it’s just about being famous, I lose interest.
You’ve spoken recently about how years ago it took months of studio time and many thousands of dollars of gear to make pop records. Now you can do it on a laptop on the go. Is the process still exciting for you with the technology of today?
Obviously, you gain an awful lot of time and facility by the laptop studio approach. It’s a reality for me because I travel too much to be in one place for a long time and do studio time recording sessions these days. So I have to do that, and I have to say that I engage totally with the work as a result. The one thing I do miss of course is that kind of special. “We’re in the studio this weekend, so we better get our shit together and make it good” attitude that was bringing out the best in some people. So I think you’ve got to create it in your own head. You’ve got to make your creative moments very special for yourself.
I dug out your August 1984 Keyboard cover story where you talked about your penchant for the technology of the time. You mentioned your affinity for the Oberheim OB-Xa, the Prophet-5, the DX7, and the Oberheim DSX Sequencer that interfaced with a Movement Systems computer for click and drum sounds. Do you still have any of that old gear?
I still have the Oberheim and it gets a lot of use. Actually, my son has it and he’s using it in a lot of his recordings. So I don’t have my hands on it right now, but it’s still in the family.
Did you use it on the new album?
No. I’ve been traveling too much so my laptop and the Oberheim never met, which is a pity in a way but that’s fine too. His obsession is very clear with analog equipment so I feel good about letting him borrow it for the moment.
Seeing your live show and watching the integration of live performance with pre-recorded tracks, I realized that this is something that you’ve done for decades. You were running tracks to augment your show at a time when very few people had figured out how to do that.
Yes. Back in the day we used tape and that was all very interesting and it was seen to be kind of cutting edge. And it seemed to go alongside the whole business of using electronic instruments, which I have to remember that back in the day there was still a lot of suspicion about that. So I was used to the fact that we had to take a position of justifying our techniques. And in some ways, the best way of getting on with things was just to hide it away. So when I think in the early days we used to put the tape recorder onstage with us like it was a member of the band [laughs]. But then I figured, "Actually no, that demystifies something." So it’s better to stick it behind the screen. And in fact, we even put some of our musicians behind screens to increase that kind of mysterious aspect, because I want people to be amazed by a performance, not for it to be explained.
With the live show, the addition of those tracks seemed to give people an almost symphonic sense of arrangement and of excitement. But it wasn’t like you guys were just sitting-up there pressing Ableton controllers. You were all making music.
Absolutely. There’s a way of constructing an MO so that that happens, and also to synchronize video as well. We are working to a click, so when we decide to start a track there’s no variation in the arrangement. We do what we’ve rehearsed. But if we stopped playing, it would all fall apart. So again, something I’ve kind of learned over the years is that you have to design a system which delivers the result, but it also has to have you walking on ice. In other words, if it’s just too easy to get great results, then somehow the spark goes out of the performance. So if there’s actually a possibility that it’s all going to go terribly wrong if you don’t play your part, that’s the moment it kind of comes alive for me. I know that my music is way too complex to perform totally without that technology as well. I’d need 15 or 20 people. So there is an awful lot of technology in support with us. But it’s still a live band playing. When I say we work to a click, the only person who hears the click is the drummer in fact. Then we all play with the drummer.
I’m wondering if you or any of us can be inspired by current technology the way you once were when it was truly new. You came to the forefront when synthesizers were state of the art and almost a planet unto themselves. Is it hard or even possible to recreate that kind of naiveté?
That’s an interesting thought. But I think the first thing to remember is it’s about music, not about machines. Machines have this incredible part to play in the way we make music now. But you can trade one machine for another. For me, it doesn’t really matter what machine you use ultimately as long as you have the creative challenge to express within that process. So I know what you mean. It’s almost like it’s too easy. But then we see the results of that in kind of just halfhearted music, people that aren’t stretching themselves and not exploring potential and not being experimental enough. But it also reminds me that back in the day when the Oberheim first came out, there was this kind of legend that when the MIDI Retrofit was done and everyone sent their machines back to have MIDI added, the dealers discovered that no one had gotten any new sounds in the memory banks. Everyone was just using the presets. So you had these machines that were designed to be experimental and no one was experimenting on them! So it comes down to people. In the end, we have to be the critical kind of fizz in the experiment, otherwise the chemistry isn’t there.
People have been playing the piano for hundreds of years and there’s been no shortage of people getting inspired off the same technology and the same wood.
That’s right, because they were discovering nuance and different developments and techniques and style and arrangements and all the rest of it and going places they never imagined at first. You’re right. The essential mechanism of the piano, once it has improved to a certain level, hasn’t changed in 250 years.
Is there any gear that you’re using now that you’re particularly interested in?
Oh no, not at all. It’s all very, very tedious and obvious. I don’t like to add too much extra hardware. I like to keep it all in a simple little bag so I can carry it around. I’m using quite a lot of the Waves plug-ins. And I do most of my writing and arranging in Logic. Me and hundreds and thousands of other people are doing the same thing.
You’re using just the Logic instruments and plug-ins, or do you incorporate others?
No. I’m using pretty much the onboard Logic stuff. I’m very lazy about shopping for new things. When I turn on a computer in the morning, the last thing I want to do is audition new software [laughs]. I want to get on with making music. So people have to suggest, “Hey, you really should get this,” or whatever. Someone did that the other day. I make a lot of Indian music and they said there’s great set of Indian instruments, but I haven’t gotten around to checking it out.
I had a really interesting chat with Howard Jones last year about how much of his music and so much of the music of the 1980s was positive. Why do you think that was, and in this upside down world that we live in now, do you think we’re ever going to get that back?
I do think the world in general has had the optimism kicked out of it by events. Also, definitely in the ‘80s there was a sense that we could still imagine a better future for ourselves and insist upon it. And in a way, something like Live Aid was the kind of perfect expression of that. They were all coming together to say we won’t accept such that a tragic problem is insoluble. But also by the same token, that became like the biggest event. It was unsurpassable. We couldn’t do that again. So things had to change. And then what have you got? You’ve got ecological meltdown, you’ve got economic meltdown, you’ve got wars, you’ve got 9/11, all these kinds of things, and basically people lost their optimism. What I’m saying to my listeners that are coming back for more now is, "Don’t forget that we once had that and it’s an important thing to hang on to." And I see there is a look of recognition to that idea. Yesterday we played at the Rewind Festival, which is a big ‘80s thing in the UK, and there was a very, very up, optimistic crowd. I think they totally get it still. The problem now is you need to find the excuse to evoke that again because people became kind of—what do they call that when people became kind of tired of charitable work? And so everyone turned away from it. There was a time when everyone was trying to link music to another way of raising money for some charitable cause. You’d get these calls saying, “Phil Collins has agreed to do it and we’re talking to Sting.” It was just the same old, same old, same old. And so people became tired of that. It’s like everyone wanted to repeat Live Aid every six months and that simply wasn’t possible.
And now unfortunately, there are so many problems in the world that you’d have to a fundraisers on TV every day to combat every issue we’re dealing with!
Yeah. And we became cynical. Now people say, “Yeah and where’s the money going?” The innocence of that model has collapsed on itself. It’s significant with Aretha [Franklin] dying as well, I was reminded that she was singing because she loved to make music, but that whole thing was about civil rights, ultimately. And so, to me that was a great example of someone whose art was connected with the great motive of improving the world. We’d all do well to remember that. I think hope does spring eternal, so maybe it will.