Dan Goldstein talks to chief Twin Tom Bailey about the virtues of playing pop and the dangers of relying too much on technology. But there’s more to this man than meets the eye.
Are the Thompson Twins mere puppets of a pretty-boy pop publicity machine, or sensitive, intelligent and talented musicians with more on their minds than making money? Singer and synth programmer Tom Bailey puts the record straight.
Whichever way you look at it, 'revolution' is not a word to be taken lightly. My dictionary describes it variously as 'a violent and historically necessary transition from one system of production in a society to the next'; 'a far-reaching and drastic change in ideas and methods'; and 'a cycle of successive events and changes'.
The Thompson Twins' new single is none of these things. Neither is the album, Here's to Future Days, from which it is taken. The single is a cover of the Beatles song 'Revolution' and is about as revolutionary by comparison with the original as this week's episode of Dynasty will be alongside last week's. It is also flatly, mundanely produced and badly sung.
The album isn't much better, though there are some brighter points to balance things out a little, notably the anti-Heroin dancefloor workout (and recent single), 'Don't Mess With Dr Dream', the Numan-meets - Gabriel chant of 'Future Days', and the curious reggae-tech of 'Emperor's Clothes'. But the main point is that Here's to Future Days isn't radically different from anything else the Twins have come up with. A little raunchier than Quick Step and Side Kick, a little less obviously commercial than Into the Gap, but basically the same formula the threesome of Tom Bailey, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway have been pursuing since they shed the unwieldiness of the band's previous seven-strong lineup in 1982.
Bailey, the man who writes the music, arranges it, helps produce it, and sings along with it, is sitting in front of an ancient electric fire in a small room under the arches of London Bridge railway station, waiting for an opportunity to answer my criticisms.
Why no Thompson Twins revolution in 1985?
'It's within the nature of pop music for things not to change too much. All we're doing is pop songs, that hasn't changed. We're writing pop songs today the same way we were writing them three years ago.
'We don't want to remain static, though. We've been looking for new flavours sonically. There's a lot of guitar-playing on this album, for example. Why do the same thing twice? Things are exciting to you for as long as they are, well, exciting. There's no explanation for that.'
To shatter one illusion right away, Tom Bailey is more aware, more intelligent, and more coherent than his popular pin-up image suggests. He speaks with quiet confidence, and any pause in his conversation is there for a purpose; it's always followed by a comment worth waiting a few extra seconds to hear. He is proud of the Thompson Twins' achievements (they've sold over 20 million records to an audience that spans the globe), but is respectful of my opinions and has as much humility — a quality rare among the pop elite — as anyone I've ever interviewed. He is a champion of the cause of pop, but his musical background is colourful and varied, full of wide-ranging influences which have, to some extent, made themselves felt in the Twins' output. I put it to Bailey that if the band's influences were more obviously disparate, if the breadth of their background were given the breathing space necessary to make a bigger impact, they'd be more likely to win friends among the musical cognoscenti.
'Well, I think the only way I could do something radically different would be outside the band, and I don't really want to do that right now. There are lots of things to tempt you away from the band, especially offers of production jobs. But I keep saying no because I'm fascinated by the possibilities the Twins still have. It'd be silly to get this far together and then disappear off at a tangent. After a time you need a big change, but that time hasn't come yet.
'Actually I don't listen to pop music much, except by accident because you can't really avoid it, no matter how hard you try. I don't have a record player, and out of choice I'd rather sit in silence a lot of the time. After the brain has been bombarded for so long by music, I'd rather it didn't have to receive any sound.
'You can't just shut yourself away, though. You'd end up just making Top 10 singles which, though there's nothing wrong with them in principle, would all be self-referential; there'd never be any new elements introduced.
'I do have deep connections with rather illogical sources, like Indian music and classical music. But I don't sit there and say "this is a pop song with tablas on it, because I wanna make some statement about India". It's just that I already feel good about lots of different musical things, so at the drop of a hat I can introduce elements of those things.
'Personally I'd like to do something more acoustic, use lots of grand piano and go back to my classical roots. But a lot of people have made mistakes there. I don't want to go through the "rock star makes album with London Philharmonic" routine. But a lot of my musical experience comes from chamber music, I have that inside me. To a certain extent it's been blasted away by the crudeness of pop music, but it's still there.
'The trouble is that everyone wants 3½-minute pop songs, and if you don't give them that, they get panicky.
'The escape clause from that is film music. If you work with films you can still have the hit singles and work under your own name, but everyone expects a longer form, they expect things to be more complex and more involved; it's quite acceptable.'
As we all know, deciding on a general style or direction is only the first step towards creating a new piece of artistic product. There's another load of details to be filled in before the picture is complete, and if you're a musician, these include things like structure, melody, arrangement, lyrics and so on.
Like everyone else, Tom Bailey has his own method of joining the dots.
'I go into the studio well prepared. The songs are already arranged and mapped out and I know what's going to happen. The structure of the piece is there, but how it ends up sounding, how it eventually entertains your eardrums, is the result of a very volatile process that's impossible to predict. Working in the studio can lead to all sorts of surprises happening, the most extreme example of which is the song that you thought was going to be great turning out to be a bore, and the song you thought was average turning out to be a hit.
'The best example of the latter was 'In the Name of Love', the single which kicked us off in America. It was just recorded as a demo for the second album because the band didn't have enough songs; it was a source of embarrassment. It was put together literally in an afternoon, and that was that. But once you've finished recording, you know what's going to be a good song. If you're still singing the same chorus the following morning, you know you're onto something worthwhile.
'Not all arrangement is accident, though. I do a lot of arrangements and structures and things before we even go into the studio. I've got a small home studio setup with a Fairlight, a drum machine and an eight-track. I try out the most basic things like seeing if the pace is right. To be honest, I could then just hand the piece over to an engineer and say "see you in two weeks", because that's the time it takes to transfer the demo to a large multitrack format.
'I knew before we went into the studio for this album that we'd avoided guitars for long enough, and that now was the time to use them. It was almost as if I wanted to make something that was more of a rock album and less of an electronic pop one.
'I'm not a rock fan, so I always felt I was treading on thin ice. But I felt justified in changing the direction slightly, because I think people are becoming a little tired of the synth sound that has its roots in early Soft Cell, Human League, and Depeche Mode. That way of making records was really a reaction to traditional rock 'n' roll. Now we've come out of that, and the music isn't really a reaction to the electronics. It's more that we can now look back on what guitar music had to offer and use the best elements of it, and combine those with the best elements of electronics. We said 'no guitars' for two albums — though I sneaked a little bit on Into the Gap — because so much of it had been thrust on us.'
Ok, so the new album has more guitar-playing on it. Great. But it isn't a rock album. Structurally it remains as before (ie. the usual verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-eight-chorus sort of thing), and as far as instrumentation is concerned, the guitars don't really intrude on what is still a very contemporary, hi-tech atmosphere. The pounding drum machine beat, the growling synth bass, and the tingling digital tuned percussion are all very much alive and well and keeping the Thompson Twins in the public ear.
Clearly, Bailey hasn't been able to let technology take a back seat for too long, partly because his Fairlight represents such a crucial stage in the song-creation process.
'I usually get the idea for a song from just daydreaming or mucking about with a sequence on the Fairlight's Page R facility. A lot of the music comes from just doodling around. A painter has a sketchbook, I have my home studio. A casual idea can become a larger work, then a great oil-painting. My music undergoes a similar process.
'You have to be able to sustain a lot of interest in order to keep messing about with ideas, most of which you know are gonna go down the drain. I do reject an awful lot of stuff, and even in the studio, we tend to record maybe 25 or 30 songs, out of which perhaps 15 actually get finished. It's from those that we select the songs that are going to be released on the album.
'That's a difficult decision to take. We take the decision as a band, because although I write the music, Alannah writes the lyrics and Joe always has some input, too. You have to have a breadth of approach. If I come up with a great tune and Alannah writes some really miserable lyrics for it, it may be brilliant but we may not use that song because we don't want an album made up of 10 miserable ballads. If you have three miserable songs, you maybe choose the best of them as the one to use. For us as a band, the overall thrust has got to be a positive one. We like things that are energetic, things that have a sense of life.
'As for sounds, I work on them at whatever stage I'm inspired to. When I first got the Fairlight I set about recording a whole library of samples, sampling everything in sight. As I became more adept at using it, I learnt how to mutate existing samples, which is in some ways more interesting. Then there's the whole MIDI thing which has taken things one stage further; I've had MIDI retrofitted to the Fairlight so that I can combine the sounds of that with the sounds of analogue synthesisers.'
Speaking of synthesisers, Bailey's latest love is the Casio CZ range; he now has a CZ101 and the bigger CZ5000, MIDI-linked to a Yamaha DX7/TX7 combination. That gives him plenty of digital clang, but interestingly, the Twins' more traditional analogue sounds come from a pair of trusty Oberheim OBXas that have been knocking around for the last four years.
Bailey's reply to the obvious question of 'Wot, no new analogue?' is roundabout but reasoned...
'There is, among musicians, a never-ending dialogue concerning the equipment that's being used. You meet someone else who says "Well, I use these", and you try them out for yourself. I am aware of that dialogue, but I sometimes meet musicians for whom that dialogue is more important than anything else, and I think that's a pity. It seems obvious to me that a great song is a great song whether it's played on a computer system or whether you just sit at a piano and play it.
'I like the toys, all the new instruments that are appearing, but people will always use what they like because they like what they know. Sometimes when I tell people I'm still using some of the same synths I bought four years ago, they tell me there are newer, more appropriate machines — but so what? These are the instruments I know back to front, so I'm going to stick with them.
'Unless I come across things by accident or someone I know raves about something, chances are I won't hear about it. I don't go looking for new gear all the time.
I've got better things to do with my time and, in any case, I'm not necessarily all that good at working with new machines. When things flow well in art, they flow because the relationship between the craftsman and the tool is already well defined. When you hear a sound you want to get close to, you're more likely to get it quickly if you're using something you're familiar with.'
There is a long, telling pause.
'...The reverse can sometimes be true. Sometimes it's good to come up against something totally alien and ask yourself: What does this do? As with a painting, the overall colour scheme should be something you've already worked out, but the occasional element, a small ingredient of conflict and unintended expression, can set the whole thing off magnificently.'
But being constantly open to new ideas and suggestions has its problems. Bailey is acutely aware, for instance, that the open-endedness of computer technology can be as much a burden as it can a blessing.
'You do find yourself wishing things weren't this complicated. I sometimes wish I was a bit more naive. I'm not a rock musician and I never will be, which means I'll never be in a position where a guitar and a bottle of Jack Daniel's is my idea of the way to make music. It's a very simple and natural process for rock musicians, but I'll never be a part of that. Working with technology, you soon realise that in many ways there are too many choices. When you think you've investigated every alley down which you can go, you suddenly find another town-full.
'I've looked at ways of trying to discard 349 of the 350 options you have at any given time, but it's difficult. Working in an isolated environment is certainly a good start. I learnt that at Compass Point, when we were recording Quick Step and Side Kick. People warned me that if I ever needed a spare Lexicon reverb I'd have to wait three days for it to be flown over from Miami, but big deal! Music shouldn't be held up because there isn't a Lexicon; you should just get on with it and limit yourself.
'A painter can't decide, halfway through a painting, that his canvas is too small and that he'll have to put a patch in somewhere. He has to work with what he has. He defines the framework within which he's going to work before he starts.
'I think it's great, actually, that our choices are limited by the very fact that we're involved in making pop records. That's the other side to what we were saying earlier about being limited musically.'
Bailey's lack of dogmatism, his persistent acknowledgement of another side to every coin that's spun, is certainly refreshing — but being considerate can take its toll. A year ago the Twins moved to Paris to start work on Here's to Future Days. A few months later, the band's hectic schedule and Bailey's undying enthusiasm caught up with the man, and he collapsed of exhaustion. It was his period of enforced rest that was largely responsible for the delay in the LP's release, but once back on his feet, Bailey set about completing the recording with renewed fire in New York, where he called upon the assistance of one Nile Rodgers. The Twins had worked with a big-gun producer before (Alex Sadkin), but in '85, the co-producer took an active part in playing, too. Bailey explains.
'I'd always thought, in the past, that having other people playing on our records was a bad idea. It's difficult to get someone's emotional involvement in a situation when it's a case of "Come in Tuesday and Wednesday and do some drumming for us", or whatever. And if you do have an emotional involvement with a song after you've written it, playing everything yourself means you sustain that emotional content all the way through the recording. You keep close to the emotional source of the song. Between the three of us, we sing, play drums and percussion, program keyboards and sequencers, and even play a bit of guitar. If it hadn't been for that range of abilities within the group, I think I'd have learned to work with other people earlier.
'But when there's someone involved in a more consistent and intense way — as Nile was — then I feel really happy about it. His musical contribution was mainly guitar-playing. I've usually done that myself, but Nile's guitar-playing surpasses mine by such a vast degree, that I could never have done what he did.
'As far as production is concerned, his contribution was also limited, though still quite significant. It was difficult for him because he came into the project quite late. The songs had all been written and partially arranged, the basic tracks had all been recorded. But he obviously liked what he heard; he must have done because he decided it was worth tackling what he knew would be a tricky job. In the end I'd say he put the icing on the cake. He added another dimension to the recording that we would never have dreamed of adding ourselves.
'We ended up recording the album entirely on digital, but I'm 50-50 about it. It sounds OK... no, it sounds better than OK. But analogue recording has its own sound that I also like a lot, so the next album might be done on analogue.'
So the thoughtful, workaholic Bailey (now reckoned to be one of the pop world's most talented synth programmers) is already thinking hard about what the Twins will do next. They'd like to spend a large part of 1986 playing live, following the collapse of the band's planned UK tour two months ago, and they might have a bash at film music, record company and management permitting. And Bailey's going to make small but significant adjustments to his writing technique, too.
'In the early days, when we were a large group, things were very improvisational, they happened by accident. Over a period of years I've come to adopt a more refined process, where I've known what was going to happen. Things are very predictable using something like Page R, even though it offers so many options. But now I'm thinking of coming full circle to include more chance elements, not because one is any better than the other, but simply because I don't want to do the same thing forever.
'I'm already daydreaming and whistling into tape recorders, putting down ideas for the next album. I never dry up — unfortunately.'
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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