April/May 2017

by Laura Dooney

Thomas Oliver: On Life Beyond Mars

by Laura Dooney

Thomas Oliver: On Life Beyond Mars

Despite an already solid and diverse career playing in his own band, providing vocals for drum ’n bass tracks, putting out the first all-instrumental Weissenborn slide-guitar record (2013’s ‘Beneath The Weissenborn’) and most recently winning a major songwriting award, Thomas Oliver tells Laura Dooney that ‘Floating In The Darkness’ feels like his first record.

‘Floating in the Darkness’, Thomas Oliver’s new release, pulls together the themes of love, and loss and finding your way back again, that run through the 10 songs – but also refers to a subtle cosmic theme – because he likes the metaphor of love and space.

“They’re both so vast and incomprehensible. It’s my first solo album as a singer/songwriter, and the amazing thing about music is you always feel like you’re at the start. I guess if you’re always excited, you’re always somewhere new or somewhere that’s fresh to you.”

Recorded in the main across three Wellington houses, the album features some of the capital’s finest talent. Heavy hitters like Lisa Tomlins and Rhian Sheehan appear, alongside some young musicians Oliver encountered at Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua, where he guest judges on a panel for performance assessments. That task allowed him the chance to scout for talent, snapping up hungry and talented musicians to work with him.

Recording at home further meant Oliver had the freedom to be as meticulous as the evident and self-described perfectionist wanted. He describes the space as modest, but says his gear, collected over the past seven or so years, is “…as good as you can get.”

“I’m kind’a drawn to the idea of removing any excuse of it not sounding as good as the music you want it to sound,” he explains. “If I have gear that’s sort of middle range in terms of quality and it doesn’t sound as good as the shit I’m listening to at the time, then I can blame it on my gear. But if I have the best gear I can get, and it doesn’t sound as good, it’s my fault.

“I like knowing it’s always down to me, I can’t blame it on anything or anyone else. I’m drawn to that and I guess it makes me work harder to make sure it is at that level.”

By the way he talks about his processes and the evident dedication, it’s impossible not to note how hard he works.

“I only really know I’m hard working because people tell me I am,” he laughs. “I love it, and I love being meticulous. I’m obsessed by details, so I never like to brush over things or make a roundabout effort. When I am into something I like to go in as far as I can… I’m all or nothing.”

This is Oliver’s first album as a singer/songwriter, but he is already well known for the 2013 instrumental album played on his Weissenborn slide guitar that reached far beyond the international slide guitar community, into the mainstream.

“I never imagined I would do something like that, it happened organically. I started going really deep on the Weissenborn, I felt like the instrument hadn’t been explored as much as it could have, or should have. I just went down that rabbit hole and ended up making a whole album of it, which had never been done before.

“It had a really wide appeal which I totally didn’t expect.”

With this album Oliver feels he’s been able to bring together different elements of his career, his different hats of band member, slide guitar player, drum ’n bass vocalist and singer/songwriter.

“I’ve always kept them very separate so as not to confuse people too much. I realise a lot of people who know me as a slide player might see me feature on a drum ’n bass track and think, ‘What the fuck is this?’, which I kind of love. I like the diversity, I wouldn’t want to push it away for the sake of brand concision.

“This album feels like finally I just let go of trying to be lots of separate things and just put them all together, which is part of why it feels so fresh to me. It feels exciting. It’s not like there’s a drum ’n bass tune in there, because there’s definitely not, but just that the mentality and approaches are all bound together. I play Weissenborn on it, but it’s not all about the Weissenborn, sometimes it’s electronic, sometimes it’s stripped back acoustic. It all works together, but it’s not like I’m trying to be one specific thing.”

The experience was liberating and the result is an album that moves smoothly from the slinky beginning of Tenderly, to a stripped back tale of loss in Budapest Is Beautiful, an atmospheric and glowing Let It Be This One, to Boy, a 10-minute tribute to the pains of growing up.

While the album is only just now released, Oliver already snapped up the 2016 Silver Scroll award with early single If I Move To Mars.

Winning the songwriting prize strengthened some connections overseas with the likes of booking agents and publicists, but he adds with a laugh, it hasn’t gone to his head.

“I try not to get too distracted by stuff like that… There are positive and negative things that pull you along, I feel it’s important to know what to let affect you, and what not.”

It did provide a chance for the musician to sit back and reflect on what he’d achieved, to stop and be grateful and proud of all he’d done, something he says he’s terrible at, tending instead to focus on the next step. He’s always been a “progress person”, he says.

“I feel me, as a brand or whatever, is never going to explode. My strength is in continued refinement and dedication, and I kind’a like that.  I don’t intend to stop. I love making music, and I don’t do it for the money or fame, basically everything is just snow-balling. As long as I keep doing what I’m doing, and keep getting better, and as long as it keeps building, then I’m happy.”

Now with a strong set of songs that represent where he’s at, Oliver is keen to take his brand further. An eight-date tour of NZ comes first, then he’s heading to Australia in June, the States a month later, to do some writing and recording sessions in Nashville, then touring Europe in August and September.

“I’m ready to push it, and be completely behind it. I feel like I now have one concise album that represents me completely. It feels like I’m just starting, and I love that. It’s so amazing to have something that makes you feel at the start all the time.”