Although he recently released an album titled ‘Science Fiction’ under his own name, the music world knows Tom Bailey better as International Observer, and lingeringly best as the frontman of ‘80s superstar pop act Thompson Twins. (Hold Me Now – hello people!) He recently toured Europe and the States with Boy George’s Culture Club, confirming his apparent return to pop music. Alastair Ross grabbed the opportunity to talk with the sometimes Auckland-resident, permanent pop icon.
Tom Bailey is enjoying a restful sunny afternoon in his Auckland home, shaking off the remnants of a bad case of jetlag, but in high spirits and more than happy to share his thoughts on everything from his latter-day glorious pop past, to his present forays into dub, soundtracking documentaries about textiles and the benefits of technology which have aided and abetted his lengthy career.
Bailey’s first foray into the world of music started with the formation of The Thompson Twins, named after the bumbling detectives from The Adventures of Tin Tin. Starting initially as a four piece the band eventually coalesced down to the three-piece any ’80s music fan will be familiar, Joe Leeway and Alannah Currie, and from 1982 through to 1991 enjoyed a steady stream of success internationally before eventually breaking up, and for a brief moment rebranding as the band Babble. Bailey and Currie were married and returned to live in NZ towards the end of the Twins’ career, but eventually split, with Currie returning to the UK and Bailey splitting his time between the UK and NZ, which he continues to do to this day.
After leaving the heady world of pop music behind, Bailey made ventures into soundtrack work and started a new musical project International Observer. 2018 saw the release of his fifth International Observer album, ‘Free From The Dungeons Of Dub’. He has also produced work by other artists including Stellar*, for whom he won the Producer of the Year Tui at the NZ Music Awards in 2000.
Also last year, after a lengthy hiatus from pop music, Bailey released his own-named new album ‘Science Fiction’, once again displaying his uncanny knack for writing a pop hit.
This album has largely been done on a laptop travelling around the world, I haven’t really used a studio, apart from the vocals that were recorded in Hal Ritson’s studio, I haven’t really used the kind of equipment I would have done in the past.
You know I think there is a certain kind of push and pull about that (technology), it’s always nice to have the opportunity to kind of delve back into the ’70s and have this amazing, ahh, just well-designed and engineered equipment from the analogue era. But by the same token that’s a very slow and deliberate way of working, and I really enjoy the fact that I can be in the back of a bus and have an idea and 10 minutes later be thinking, ‘Yes! This is great and I like the sound of it.”
So there is something about the mercurial advantage of kind of satchel studios, you can carry them around, you know, instead of how we used to wait for the opportunity to get into a studio. Essentially in music, that’s what I am interested in, kind of getting on with it. So I think it has been an enormous breakthrough to be honest, and it echoes in a way the breakthrough of the era of synthesisers and drum machines which was also a very significant moment in time for me in terms of technology leading the way in making things possible.
So I think twice in my career I’ve had these enormous realisations that technology has made something possible that simply wasn’t possible before.
Yeah. We did two albums as a more conventional band, in the sense that we had, you know, drum kits and guitars and what have you. And then on the third album it became possible for me to get hold of drum machines and keyboard synthesisers. So that third album, ‘Quickstep and Sidekick’, was really the one that the first hits came from – and that was made without guitars or drum kits. So you know, without realising I had kind of crossed over, as I now realise, I had crossed over into designing music for records rather than having a band and trying to make them play the right things.
I think the creative role of the musician shifted slightly and as I say it was more of a design problem suddenly because there was no reason why you had to fit the music to the band anymore, rather your imagination was a blank sheet and you had the technology to somehow fill that with the hit you wanted to make.
There is a story I have told a thousand times, which was at the end of the second Thompson Twins’ album with the guitar and drum kit band we didn’t have enough material, and at that point I had just got my hands on a drum machine and synth. Because I was enthusiastic about working with this new gear, I kind of said, “Don’t worry, I’ll come up with a kind of track for side two that will fill some space.” And to the embarrassment of everyone, even to me, it became the hit single – because it was very direct and unencumbered by the need to fit to the band. And it was done alone, and more or less completed alone, and I had to design parts for everyone to play or copy. So that they had some sort of ownership of the recording, but it really was an enormous signpost for me that in order to have hits you have to think that way – make the hit first and not worry about the band.
For so many years I avoided it, almost to the point of it being… you could say it was a denial project. I really, really didn’t want to go back there and so I pretended in a way, almost pathologically that that was the past, nothing to do with me, I don’t do that kind of stuff anymore. And I guess what happened was I just decided that was the end of that story and that I wasn’t open to discussion about it.
However a couple of things happened where I was teased back over the line into pop music working with Aleks Syntek, a Mexican pop star. It was just one of those things that came along as a side project and I said, “Well, there is no harm in doing that, anyway who is going to know as it’s in Mexico?” And in fact what I found was that I enjoyed it so much that it kind of broke down this denial of the past.
Then someone said, ‘Do you want to actually perform some of those old songs?’ It was Howard Jones that actually said to come to America and do that, I think I had already been subconsciously dragged across the line with Aleks, so it suddenly it became easy for me to say, “You know what, I was wrong to have closed that door completely.” And what’s more, because I did tend to think things through a little too much and perhaps theorise about things too much, I thought, ‘You are an artist,’ and at some part of an artist’s career you have a retrospective and think, ‘What was I doing 25 years ago and is it relevant to what I am doing now?’ And suddenly it seemed to be allowable.
Now all of this might seem really strange because some people might be like, ‘Well, why were you even embarrassed about the past in the first place?’ but I think it took such an enormous effort to get away from it. I really needed to close down the poptastic career of the Thompson Twins in order to do the other things I wanted to do.
Yes, I think you are right. You’ve hit the nail on the head, because it was a very difficult thing to close down on. You need to almost be petulantly forceful and say,” I’m never going to do that again,” in order to get away from it – otherwise people would say, “What about next year and a new album or a tour.” There were so many pressures to carry on doing the same old, same old, that it took a kind of grand gesture of refusal.
Saying all this now it sounds pathetically obvious! I mean at the time, you know, this all coincided with the move to New Zealand. I needed to get away from Europe and from the pressure of (and let’s face it the stupidity of) commercial success, because it does become a millstone and it closes down as many opportunities as it opens. You can’t walk down the street without being harassed all the time, so I just needed a break from that.
Well yes! My gang and the Culture Club gang get on very, very well. And it’s a big group of people. I travel with 10 people and they have about 30, so when we have a get together after the show, for example, you’ve got to find a big room! But generally speaking, on long tours what happens is you are constantly bumping into various people from the crew or the band and or the principal artists, and I must say yes, considering we did 85 shows this year and I think 75 of them were with Culture Club, we got on very well. George of course is in great shape and it wasn’t always the case. I’m very impressed with George, he has got himself together. He’s really seriously on the rails and doing what he loves.
Well yes and no. There is an enormous familiarity about it and that’s something that takes place between me and the audience. I was very unsure about getting back into this – in a sense I didn’t know if it would work. Actually the first time I played a small warm up gig was about four years ago. It was more or less an invited audience and someone tipped off the old fan club who turned up, so I was backstage and the time came to go on stage and I was thinking, ‘How is this going to go?’
I had made an instrumental version of different tracks of Thompson Twins songs I wasn’t going to perform that night and used it as a kind of intro piece of music. Like the song We Are Detective, which I wasn’t going to sing because it was originally a duet with Allanah, and she wasn’t there to duet with me – I thought I better not do that one – but what I found was that the audience sang the song!
So I’m waiting backstage thinking, you know, ‘How is this going to go?’ And I suddenly realised it’s going to be fine Tom, because they are not there to check you out, they’re there because they want to hear those songs… and it suddenly became a great pleasure.
There is a curious pleasure in nostalgia, that you are reconnecting with something you left a long time ago, so it made it very easy in a way for me to do from that point onwards. All I’ve got to do is turn up and do what they want me to do, and that buys me a little bit of permission, if you like, to fool around with some of the songs and play some new songs eventually, and to put on a show that perhaps is half of what you would expect and half a surprise. So for me, it’s become a really easy and joyous thing to do in that sense, and I get a big emotional buzz out of it. So on tour, I go to bed every night very, very happy.
It helps enormously that I have ended up with a band of musicians who didn’t come with an emotional investment in the material – I mean two them were not even born when those hits were written and one of them was too young to care! They’re all female my band as well, so they bring to it a very different initial starting point and attitude to most rock and roll bands. I love that, they are very, very clever and optimistic and precise, enthusiastic about getting it right, because essentially it’s like I’ve scored it for them and they have to play the parts. This is again different from a regular rock and roll band, but I absolutely adore working with them and I feel so lucky to do that.
I think that helps to be able to go on with these old songs and a familiar retro audience but with a completely fresh band that’s doing it as if for the first time.
Well yes, it depends on how much time we have. When we are playing our own gigs and we have a longer time I go way back to the second album, including that first synthesiser song I told you about and even one before that. Runaway I think is the earliest song that we do, and I am also including 4 or 5 songs from my new album as well. But if I have a short slot, if there is only 45 minutes or an hour or something, I can’t just do new material or obscure oldies (!), the audience wants to hear the big hits. So I’ve got to tick that box, otherwise I am being irresponsible.
I think there are certain kind of strategies that become my favourite tests to apply. So you have an idea for a song and the first test is; does it make you tap your foot and does it make you want to sing along? So if the melody is not quite sing-a-long-able then you can fool around with that until you think it is delivering that thing. I think the overall structure of a pop song has a give and take about it, there’s tension in one place and release in another and you have to make sure that takes place. You can’t consistently have the same thing all the way through, there has to be that push and pull. And you find out 9 times out of 10 that translates in a live performance. For example as I sing the verse to the audience and they sing the chorus back to me – so you see what I mean, there’s a give and take in that, tension and release.
There are certain melodic elements in writing that, for example, I like to look for in the structure. One that I am particularly keen on is, is what I call a ‘reach’, which is where you have got a melody and at a certain point it goes higher and everyone wants to reach that high note. I think that if you can write that into your composition then you are onto a winner, you make it a better song in terms of mass communication.
The other thing is, lyrically or conceptually, in order to test its universality I imagine someone dancing to it at a disco in a nowheresville town on a Saturday night. Mostly it’s two people, and I imagine one person singing the words to the other person and I say, ‘Does that work? Could they be singing it? And does it work for a man to a woman, woman to a man, a man to another man, does it work for a woman to a woman?’ If it passes all these tests then suddenly you realise that you do have something very universal. So this is all a bit mechanistic and it’s not the way you should start with a song I should say, [he laughs] but it’s one of the ways that you can make sure that when you’ve written a few songs that you have got ones that stand a chance of connecting.
I could talk for hours about this because songwriting is an art and a craft and there are lots of strategies and lots of techniques and mechanisms for achieving the right end of course. And in that sense it has a lot of analogous qualities to other disciplines. I often think that writing a song is a bit like building a house. It doesn’t matter what style the house is, there are certain things the house has to have, like an entrance – you have to be able to get in somehow and it makes sense if you have windows so you can see out and that it’s ventilated as well as protected – and a song has to be like that. There has to be a way into a song, but it also has to nurture you and give you a view of life once you’re inside it, so all of these psychological tricks, or metaphorical tricks, I think are helpful for me to work on what I’m doing.
It took a lot of work, but it was fairly quick and once I’d decided which songs they were – and I have to say that was completely obvious. I’ve mentioned this before in other interviews, so you may have read it, but when I decided to go ahead and do this I went to my CD collection to pick out the Thompson’s greatest hits collection and it was empty – someone had stolen it or something! So I had to go into town and buy one, which is kind of a measure of how I had disconnected from the whole thing [he laughs]!
I went into town and bought a Greatest Hits, and on the way back on the train I just looked at the list of songs and went, ‘Yeah that one, that one and that one, not that one, not that one but that one and that one.’ I made the live setlist with the exception of only one song and got it completely right. Because it was so obvious which ones I had to do, and the obviousness of it made it easy. Then the job was, ‘How can I contemporise the sound?’ And of course the technology we use on stage is completely different from what we were using in the ’80s, so I could start afresh with a clean canvas. ‘I know what the songs are, now let’s figure out how are we going to do them?’
If you can deliver to the expectations of an audience two or three times, then you gain permission to fool around with something as well. So there’s one song, for example, King For A Day – I sing it now as a very slow electro ballad rather than kind of as a foot tapper. But people hear the song in it I guess and I certainly enjoy discovering a new interior life for that song by doing it in a different way. I think there’s a lot to be said for re-imagining and re-inventing and almost kind of re-arranging the idea you first thought of.
That’s a very complicated question. I know exactly what you mean by it because I have similar feelings, but it’s not entirely because the way making or writing or performing popular music has changed into something else, although that is certainly true as well. But I think there is kind of a much more profound reason why it doesn’t satisfy you and me, and a lot of other people, perhaps our age group – it’s to do with the fact that pop music in the ’80s was still the kind of kissing cousin of rock and roll, it was part of the general thrust of rock and roll being a vehicle for change in the world.
Well first of all I should say I’m not the first person to think this and there have been other people that have said it more eloquently. The only reason rock and roll became massive was that it threatened to destabilise the old fuddy-duddy attitudes about sexuality, about creativity about war and peace, all of these things about which we said, you know, ‘We’re going to shake our fists with rock and roll until the world is a better place.’
This was like an extremely motivating responsibility, and the great thing about rock and roll was that it was completely untameable. You couldn’t calm it down, you couldn’t restrain it, you couldn’t somehow contain it, and I’m not sure how this happened, but at some stage it was contained – the marketers and the commercial managers of rock and roll, the people that were in charge of record companies responding to changes in culture and technology – started to play safe and they imagined that the way you create rock and roll is to dress up as a rock and roll star, [he laughs] you see what I mean?
So suddenly it became a smoke and mirrors act, and at that point the audience – that’s you and me – we fundamentally don’t trust the voice that we are hearing. Because if we think about it we know that the reason we are seeing that person performing in front of us is just that they have the right look, and the reason they are singing that particular song, which was not written by them but was written by six people in Scandinavia, suddenly it’s just driven by marketing, by the need for success. And latterly it’s driven by the need for traffic on social media.
So goodness knows the record business has collapsed so totally that no one’s expecting to make money out of records anymore, the money’s in performance rather than records, but you use these things in the modern system in order to create a massive social media response and it gets people buying tickets in the millions. But it’s faux, you can’t trust it. There are no John Lennons, there are no Bob Dylans, there are no Abbas – and I am sure there are people with those qualities, but they are not in rock and roll, or pop anymore – they’ve moved to a different area because rock and roll is essentially not the untameable beast it used to be and therefore it doesn’t hold the thrill of excitement and the challenge to such creative people.
So I think in a way, it’s a strange admission, I’m fine, I did my thing and I also have the nostalgia audience so we remember what it was like, but I’m simply not impressed by an audience turning up in their millions to see someone who has a coached voice, they’re wearing the right clothes, the song is catchy because it has all the right ingredients in it. You know, that just doesn’t do it for me at all. Because it misses the essential ingredient which is the need to make the world a better place, not the need to get more likes on Facebook or Instagram or whatever. So I think that’s the thing, it’s the death of rock and roll which is the problem and not the fact that people are making a different kind of music.
I don’t think it’s possible because the thing is Joe and Allanah (I presume you are talking about the three-piece line up), well when they stopped doing it, they stopped doing it. Joe made a short attempt at doing acoustic guitar songs but that didn’t last long and he has moved into other things, Allanah similarly is very creative but she hasn’t stayed in music at all, whereas that’s all I’ve ever done.
I wake up every morning and make music, that’s my gig and that’s something I have to do, so it makes sense for me to be doing this – and it doesn’t make sense for them to be doing it. And to be honest I think it would be too hard, and now that I am kind of doing it on my own I think unless they were really, really motivated, I don’t want to drag them back into it. And of course that decision cost me a lot of money apart from anything else. It reduces the size of my audience essentially because if I could just write Thompson Twins on the banner outside the venue more people would show up, but because I have to write Tom Bailey or ‘that guy from the Thompson Twins’, or however it is expressed by the promoter, they can’t sell as many tickets. It’s just a fact of life, but it’s a compromise I’m happy to live with because that way I get on with the way I want to do it.
Seeing how it goes has to be the answer as I don’t know, but I’m not closing any doors. The reality is that’s it’s difficult to fit in all these side projects once the big touring thing is rolling along, and now that I remember that’s one of the reasons I had to retire from pop music in the first place – that it just didn’t give me time to do other things which I really wanted to do. When I did come to NZ and stopped Thompson Twins and it was momentarily Babble, then along came International Observer and films scores, so I bought myself time and space to do things I’d always wanted to do in the ’80s but never had the time for. Even though I could have just grabbed the opportunity there was too much going on and it’s a bit like that again – I’ve opened the door of pop music! But hey, what happens is I spend the northern summer doing that stuff and then I come to New Zealand and I won’t be touring until April and while I am here, I’m working on a film score. So I am doing all the things I can’t do when I’m being a touring pop musician.
I’m working on a documentary about Indian textile making in northwest India, so it’s not exactly mainstream pop music material (!) and I’m doing it because I have worked with the director before. Shuchi Kothari teaches film in Auckland and she’s been in India finishing another film, but she got in touch a while back and asked would I have a look at what they are doing with this documentary and of course my instinct was that’s a completely brilliant thing to do while I’m in Auckland. It gets me away from pop music for a while, which I need to take a break from, and Indian music is one of my loves – quite apart from the fact that working on movies is a great thing. Something particularly special happens when you get it right, the joining of sound and vision is just the most amazing thing. So this film doesn’t even have a title yet, it’s referred to as ‘Indian Textile’ documentary!
You wear a certain hat as it were, but with experience you allow yourself to be relaxed about the various areas of your activities informing each other. If I think back, even some of the Thompson Twins’ hits have dub ideas, some Indian ideas. So these things aren’t mutually exclusive but you have to be also clear that you don’t want to just water things down to a generalised mess, that there are clear stylistic objectives about the genre you are working in. And in the case of Indian music there are different systems of music and you have to look at it in a different way, but I absolutely adore the way that unexpected confluences occur.
So, you know, one thing informs the next, and poor old Jasper who runs Dubmission Records, the thing we have just released under the banner of International Observer is just him scouring through my old archives to see if there is anything unreleased, and he’s put together an album of stuff he’s found called ‘Free From The Dungeons Of Dub’. Actually there is a couple of new tracks on there and I am working on a new dub track at the moment, so yeah, I mean, I guess in any given day I tend to concentrate on one area of activity, but I’ve been doing the Indian documentary today, I might do the dub in the evening. For some reason dub really resonates well in New Zealand.