Gareth Thomas – you know him from Goodshirt – the indie pop/rock act of the early 2000s who entertained us with iconic pop gems including Buck It Up, Fiji Baby and super-hit Sophie. Gareth played keys for the Auckland fab four, providing bass, vocals and hooky songwriting. An architect by day, he released his last solo album, ‘Fizzy Milk’, in 2016, and with the release of new single My Dog is setting up for a third album due out next year. It’s a fun song that cleverly reflects a dark subject, as Richard Thorne discovers.
There’s a great personal tale behind Gareth Thomas’s newly released single My Dog, one that pre-dates his time in Goodshirt, and provides the metaphor that explains the single’s extraordinary sound and equally unusual video.
A true story about a much-loved dog running off from his family home in New Plymouth, only to discover that the road to longed-for freedom came with a confusing avalanche of options and possibilities.
“The song was actually written a long time ago,” explains a smiling Gareth, clearly excited to be releasing new material. “It was written at the very end of Goodshirt – the band was about to record it when we broke up. So the thought of the song has been with me for a long time, and it stuck around. It was about our family dog from back in that time, and about a tough time I went through around there too.
“Generally I think the song is about being confused by the paradox of choice! Just the confusion, and that’s what I felt our family dog was experiencing when we found him.
“Our dog didn’t come home for two days. We’d been looking all around the neighbourhood, and I was driving to my girlfriend’s place late at night when I saw him. A long way across town – he was just a little dog – looking left to right, left to right, eyes glazed over, and he was just in a panic. He just didn’t know which way to turn, and I could identify with that feeling!”
Actually it could well stand as a metaphor for many an artist approaching their second album in confusion after a substantial break, or third as is the case here. 2016’s ‘Fizzy Milk’ (you might recall that album’s hooky lead single, All Eyes In The Room) was a sophomore to Gareth’s 2010 introductory solo release, ‘Lady Alien’. So the five-year gap is about right, but why lead with a song from so long ago?
“Well, I’ve been returning back to the Goodshirt way of recording things, which is recording at home, in my bedroom. (We recorded Goodshirt’s first album in a garden shed!) I decided that I wanted to get some electronic toys to inspire this album and I got a Moog synthesiser on TradeMe, something I’d always wanted for Goodshirt! And I also got some little Korg drum machines, and that basically has inspired the whole album.
“The album before was done in a studio, with a band, and horns and everything, but this one I decided to keep it compact and at home. And of course, an old Goodshirt song was perfectly appropriate for recording at home on those things. This is the first of a series, and I’ve made animated videos and photoshopped them all – so it’s the beginning of a sort of return to my roots for me.”
Those roots, of course, include Sophie, which reached #1 on the NZ chart back in 2001 and continues to entrance on-screen with that iconic one-shot video. Somehow there are strains of Sophie apparent within My Dog. One thing is the inclusion of big squelchy synth sounds. Another turns out to be the use of the major third.
“The Pixies used them a lot,” Gareth enthusiastically points out. “So it’s got a very similar chord pattern, in the verse at least, and a similar melodic pattern. It’s the same notes that are in Yesterday by Paul McCartney, which has really weird modulations – so it’s a cross between Sophie and Yesterday harmonically!”
A trained architect, Gareth’s musical creativity is increasingly matched with a strong investment in the songs’ visual representation. His last single, released in early 2017, Weird Fever, was accompanied by a chunkily pixelled video, and the matching cover art of ‘Fizzy Milk’ warranted award recognition. The video for My Dog stands out in its use of almost naïve pixel art, especially the uber-simplistic realisation of his dog standing up on its back legs, front paws raised in the manner of a dancer mid-pirouette. The inspiration, he admits, came from his ballet-dancing sister.
‘Black dog’ is of course a widely recognised metaphoric symbol for depression, though here it’s not quite that, more general mental health. The song’s lyrics are also included in the video, among them the repeated, ‘Wonder why you wander.’
“It’s more about confusion, I think, and anxiety,” explains Gareth. “It’s just not knowing where to go, the confusion. When I was feeling really anxious back then I couldn’t stop walking, that was the only way I could calm down. I’d get up in the night and just walk across town and back. Keeping moving was a good thing.”
While at least in part a simple electro-pop tune, My Dog is unmistakably edgy, and swinging from sweet upbeat verse to raucous chorus and beyond there’s an evident sense of anxiety within the music.
“Yes. The sonic is really dry and in your ear, it’s really close. There’s no reverb or space, it’s an in-your-head sort of sound. And the whole insistent drumbeat is really dry, like a pulse pumping in your ears, and when the chorus comes in I wanted it to be like a God-voice inside the listener’s head. ‘Only if you like to, only if you really want to…’ There’s no ambience, no room, so it’s really personal. When it opens up in the middle, it gets big, and that’s the chaos.”
“He was singing some more BVs with me, then he jumped on the drum kit and we recorded the drums through the vocal mics. It just got bigger and bigger and we thought, ‘Let’s just make it even bigger! You know how most songs fade out, fade to black basically, let’s try to make this song fade to white.’ We made it more and more distorted and more and more chaotic, and fed in white noise… so it’s a cinematic idea of fading to white.
“I think there’s a mixture of every distortion we threw at it,” he laughs. “There were some natural tubey ones, but a distortion I’m really liking now is bit-crushing. Like bad quality digital distortion, a really relentless sort of sound to it, I really love it. Then we had to get rid of it at the end, so just put a filter over it, down to one note.”
For the My Dog screen character, he limited himself to a palette of just 64 x 64 pixels, tiny in the modern scheme. His Instagram page (@gareththomastunes) includes a post illustrating the video-making process from sketch, into Photoshop where characters are drawn with a one-bit paintbrush and the animation done as well. Somehow there’s a sense that the music has been similarly pixellated.
“That’s totally it. The music’s all about recording on computer and the art is all about drawing on the computer, but just reduced down to the smallest scale so you can see the bits. I’ve been into 8-bit art lately, I’m getting quite addicted to it!
“With my architecture job I used to draw a lot on paper, but I don’t anymore, I draw on a computer. So I make my music on a computer and the art on computer as well, so it does go very much together. And I like reducing the bit rate in the sound, like those bit-crush distortion sounds, and that’s basically what I was doing with the artwork, crushing it down to the smallest resolution and having it still recognisable.
“I liked the challenge of seeing how far I could reduce the dog pixels. That’s sort of what you try to do with a pop song as well, it’s a process of reduction as well.”
After a two-year process, the NZ On Air Project-funded album is all but complete. Given the complications of Covid-19 lockdowns, he’s now planning a 2021 release, with singles/videos feeding out every few months until then.
“I could have done it a lot quicker but I had a day job of course! I got it all done then had to book sessions with Simon to mix it. This is my third, or maybe fourth album with him, he’s been great, but it’s a matter of working around his timetable. He’s been working with big artists like Pink, and it seemed every time I booked him in she was flying him over to California! Competing with her I had no chance!
“All the songs are very electronic, but it’s quite eclectic. I can’t help it,” he laughs. “This was probably the oldest one, it was just time to get it done. But others were written for the album, so it covers a spread of 14 or 15 years.”
Made with the support of NZ On Air Music.