Declaring Independence | Thomas Lang
They've been on CBS, they run their own company called Dry Communications, and they've learned a thing or two: they are a band called Thomas Lang. Phil Ward meets the Scousers with a Dry sense of humour.
So is there life after a major record deal collapses? Liverpool's cool tunesmiths Thomas Lang say there is - and they can prove it with a successful independent label, some nice office furniture and a compilation album of rich, classic songs...
Few singles captured the full romantic wistfulness of the mid-'80s like The Lotus Eaters' 'The First Picture Of You', which scaled the Top 20 in the summer of 1983. On tour, the Liverpool duo were augmented by a band of local musos including a backing singer called Tom Jones. Yep, that's right, Tom Jones - so you can understand why, when they made their own stab at the main chance, their young vocalist changed his name to Thomas Lang, simultaneously christening the whole outfit.
By the time Thomas Lang released their first album Scallywag Jaz in 1987, all talk of the New Romantics had, of course, subsided, and they were identifiable with a new, mature wave of songwriting which was warmer, jazzier and, actually, genuinely romantic. That first album and its follow up, Little Moscow were the fruits of a major deal with Epic Records - part of the CBS empire which was about to capitulate in an even more major takeover battle with Japanese giant Sony. As so often happens in the midst of machinations of this kind, artists were neglected and Thomas Lang soon found that their best bet was to throw in the towel and strike out on their own.
Dry Communications was duly born, not just their own label but an integrated record and marketing company in which all the various musical and non-musical talents of the band are put to maximum use - not least in refurbishing their own office premises perched under the wooden beams of a Liverpool city centre attic. The marketing company offers promotional services to other acts, including an information database and an attractive plugging policy in which clients need only pay if airplay or other press coverage is actually achieved...
"It's no different from someone who wants to be a musician and who's got a day job," according to keyboardsman David A. Hughes. "It's something you have to do to keep on doing music. We did it because we believed it was just the beginning of our careers, rather than the end. It was initially to get Lost Letter Z out, which has extended to the new compilation, and now we have to see how that does to assess the feasibility of the next album."
"It was a case of survival, really," adds Tom. "The easiest option, in a way, would have been to go with another label, but then you run the risk of being ignored again. When that happens, you do have to sit down and think why you got involved in the first place, to dig deep and find the motivation to carry on. We were lucky to be able to get Dry started in many ways, but at the same time it took a lot of backbreaking, physical work. The first thing is to try and keep your spending down; we can put in windows, do the plastering, fit carpets, do electrical wiring, so we did, we built our own office.
"And we've always disagreed with the amount of money bands spend on recording, lying around in top studios as if you're on holiday. That's where a lot of pressure comes from - you mount up such a bill before anything is released, the pressure for success is immense. So you do whatever it takes to reduce the pressure."
Drummer Andy Redhead explains how self-promotion expanded into a service for other bands... "Actually, it was other people who began suggesting we put Dry at their disposal when we did OK for ourselves with Lost Letter Z, and I think the advantage we have is that we've been on both sides of the fence: we are musicians, as well as being involved on the business side. We understand why artists get frustrated. We understand that it is, after all, a matter of life and death."
"The process is demystified," states Tom. "You need to eat, so you use all your knowledge and all your skills to make a living wage. We're not saying we're brilliant at everything, but after what we've been through we know as much as anyone sitting in a plush office on 50 grand a year. But you do get to understand the pressures those executives are under. Doing one artist - ourselves - between five of us takes up nearly all our time. So imagine what it's like with a roster of 16 bands. That's why there's a battle between the artists to make sure the product manager, or the A&R executive, is on your side - because if you piss him off you'll go to the bottom of the pile. It's not a matter of life and death to him, it's just another day at work."
A day at work in the Thomas Lang band can clearly include a lot more than singing or playing. And a lot more than PR, as David admits... "We can be tough A&R men on ourselves, too - it's frightening. We were so anxious and deeply involved when we started Lost Letter, we found ourselves slipping into that mode, being hyper-critical and not enjoying it. But you can learn to do both - musician and A&R man - which you have to if you're going to take the responsibility of having total control.
"CBS's A&R plan was to sign us in the wake of Sade's success on A&M, and had a route to platinum sales all mapped out. And when it doesn't happen straight away there's problems." Tom's theory on these problems is sound: "You can't trade off somebody else's identity. You have to find what is new and creative about each individual, and create new markets for it. Much as I admire and enjoy Sade's work, I never wanted to follow in those footsteps." Dave's theory, on the other hand, is a little more suspect: "You couldn't get into that boob tube, could you..." he adds.
The most tangible product of Dry's imaginative endeavours so far is two albums from the Thomas Lang group themselves - 1991's excellent The Lost Letter Z and a new compilation which brings together new songs, tracks from Lost Letter and material which graced the first two releases rescued for posterity from the Epic vaults.
Most of the Lang songs are Hughes/Jones compositions, ie. David and Tom, a classic pianist/singer collaboration elevated to another level by a sensitivity to the moods created by pure sound. "It's just a bit more involved than straight pop," explains David.
"Tom and I can't generate a song from one riff or one sound. We get bored, and we also work quickly. If it loses the momentum to keep us both interested, we'll move on to something else. It's not dependent on one synth sound, or whatever - although I do like the emotive content of sounds. We don't get too technical about it, we'll just think, right, a bit more doomy here, or a bit more 'green' there..."
"I love certain samples, the ones that shouldn't really be in there. Ones which are already chords, for instance, which create movement. Tom stops me from getting carried away and losing that original momentum, but you've got to mess about to get something that you've never heard before. Out of everything we do, that's still the best bit. That's what gives you the energy to get involved and do all the other things to reach that stage."
Tom expands... "We've used sounds, like a choir sound, because they're scary. It actually scared you when it came back out of the speakers. As long as it has some effect, it's all right.
When you're working on a song, and you've got the basic vocal and piano parts, you've got to exhaust all the options - take it to its full extent of success or failure. If you have an idea, you have to work it through and allow it to fail or succeed, otherwise you'll never know."
OK, you've written the songs, you've made the record, you've hoovered the office. Now you've got to take yourself on the road. Andy knows all about this - he almost literally tour manages from behind his drum kit. And he does the sums. "We did lose money on the last British tour, but we made it up on a Japanese tour - so it's all a matter of balancing it out so you can carry on. There used to be quite a thriving college circuit, but that's changed over the last couple of years; there just isn't the money around to support new acts. There's a bit of a void for venues that cater for acts like us, for audiences who like to sit in relative comfort and actually listen."
"We can be quite successful," David points out, "in a city which has a place like Ronnie Scotts, for example - so that includes London and Birmingham, at least - because it's a service to a particular type of audience, and that service just doesn't exist in most cities. We get the hi-fi generation, if you like, if there's a facility available. Where there isn't, I think that audience has just lost the habit of going out to gigs. Which means they'll lose the habit of buying CDs, because they won't be inspired to go and find one the day after a great gig. So it cuts back into record sales."
"It's a shame there aren't more places like Ronnie Scotts," muses Andy, "because we know the audiences are there. And it would certainly make my job easier!"
Andy Redhead - drums and tour manager. That just about sums up the DIY attitude that has stood the band in such good stead. The hope in Thomas Lang land is that the word at least be allowed to spread, and autonomy survive in artist and audience alike. As Tom says: "I love the fact that we can play in certain places to the people who we know buy the records and so on, but I want to get to new people. And I don't think audiences need be categorised so much: people who like to go out and get off their tits on a Saturday night are just as likely to want to sit down and listen on another night.
"I go to raves, and then I go and watch a band play, or a good singer... We've had people come up to us and say that we weren't what they expected, and who've stuck with us ever since. Any band needs that kind of exposure to pick up their audience. You have to take that chance, go to a new venue, maybe pick up only 10% of them, but it's worth it.
"It's getting harder because of the way music is marketed. It's assumed that people haven't got time to think for themselves, so they're told 'you need this, because you're in this bracket, this will appeal to you', and the decision is made for them. That's why, ironically, marketing is so important, and why we wanted to offer an alternative."
"It's like the Viz T-shirt," David concludes. "'Nirvana Till Tea-Time'. That's very accurate - the way what's hip is regulated."
It's also very good marketing in itself - for Viz rather than Nirvana, of course. It seems somebody, somewhere, is always trying to sell you something. But as Thomas Lang will tell you, whether you need it or not is entirely up to you. My advice is to beg, borrow or request on the radio any Thomas Lang album and give it a good listen. I guarantee you'll want to buy one.
Interview by Phil Ward
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!