Tom Clay is the bassist with Flight Brigade, but he has some solo work on the side as well, with his song, ‘Sanctuary’, coming out in early in the new year. We had a chat to Tom about life, music, and Robert Carlyle’s arms.
EP: What’s the Tom Clay story? How did you get to where you are today?
TC: I’ve been writing and playing since I was very young, but never really did anything with it, and I’ve done a bit of acting, thought I’d try that, moved to LA…it didn’t really happen, but my heart’s always been in the arts.
EP: Did I read that you were a hand stand-in for someone?
TC: I’ve done a few things like that, yeah…
EP: What’s the story there!
TC: Well I was a hand double for Robert Carlyle in the movie, ’28 Weeks Later’ – basically when he was running, through a door, grabbing a handle, that was me.
EP: Had you ever thought, “Oh my God, my hands are JUST like Robert Carlyle’s!”
TC: I’d never looked at the hands and thought, “You know, that’s something I could do if all else fails…it was quite a funny thing actually, there were about 8 or 9 of us shortlisted, and we had to stand in a line with our hands outstretched, and have them inspected…and they said, “oh that one”. And they had to shave my arms for it, which made me a bit upset. I’ve got hair on my arms, and Robert Carlyle is a bit hairless in the old arm area…that was good fun, covered in blood all the time, having to be a bit of a zombie, because halfway through the film he became a zombie, so when he was killing things and so on there was always a closeup on the hands.
EP: So now – you’re no longer an arm stand in…
TC! YES! Well, I did a few bits and bobs like that, and I pretty much put music on the backburner, and a couple of friends of mine suggested I get back into it. I joined Flight Brigade recently, and well, we’ve all been childhood friends, Olly and I grew up on the same street, and we lived together in Bristol for a year or so, and he’s always done music 24/7, never stopped, never paused – and he talked to me about 5 years ago and said, have you ever tried to play the bass? And I said, well not really…so we went out and bought a bass and sat down and started learning. And that’s gone from strength to strength. I’ve been loving it, we’ve done festivals, and playing all over the place, it started to explode in the past year or so, and we all get on really well.
But a couple of years ago, some friends of mine took me out for dinner and said, we think you ought to get back into your own music, we think it’s mad that you’re not doing it. They basically invested in me, and pushed me. I’m like most musicians, I’m really bad at self-promotion.
EP: Terrible terrible creative people! You just want to make the stuff…
TC: Yes! I just want to stay in a room writing and recording, if I didn’t have to go out and see anyone that would be fantastic! Haha! And going to gigs and playing live and so on.
EP: This is where the Renaissance worked really well, because you had Patrons…
TC: THAT’S RIGHT!
EP: It needs to be like that again, that’s where things like Patreon and so on are helpful.
TC: You need to have someone who believes in you…It’s hard though to know what to do. Because there’s so many outlets for content, you can literally flood social media, you don’t know what to put up and what not to. With Twitter for instance you’re constantly wondering, “should I put that up, what will that make me look like”, will I look like someone who people should be interested in listening to, or what if I retweet that and so on.
EP: But you’re always your own worst critic too aren’t you. It’s always, “I can’t put that out there because it’s crap” but meanwhile, if you put it out there, you might find you get the “OMG this is amazing”…
TC: The other thing is, if you’ve been writing something, playing it, recording it, gigging it, mastering it, shooting a video…you’ve heard it a million times…
EP: You’re sick to death of the bloody thing…
TC: Also you can’t hear it. You’re listening with different ears, so it’s really hard to gauge it. So having a mini-team around me is absolutely key, because they’ll say, “shut up it’s brilliant, put it up” or “what did you think you were doing when you wrote that”. It’s nice to have that.
EP: You don’t need too many ears to be doing that though, only a couple you can trust…don’t listen to fans necessarily.
TC: Fans definitely influence stuff like what is going to go into a set, the order in which you’re playing things and so on, but you’ve got to get balance, because if you’re too reactive you get a bit lost in that, you’ve got to stay focused on what you believe.
EP: Now, I know you took a big hiatus, I don’t want to talk to much about your wife dying, but that was a pivotal point in your career, wasn’t it?
TC: It was one of those crossroad moments, yeah.
EP: How long ago was that then?
TC: It was about 6 or 7 years ago. A lot of things have happened, it’s hard to remember the exact timeline because so many things happened. I was over here, and she had gone to New Mexico, which is where she was from, and I got this phone call from my brother in law, and I was trapped 3000 miles away…The impulse to make music just LEFT. I started working on property and stuff…
TC: Yes I was developing properties for a few years…it’s nice to use your hands, so I did a bit of carpentry, and I like a bit of solitude. Music is very exposing.
EP: So what happens after ‘Sanctuary’? Do you have a whole album lined up?
TC: I’ve probably got about 60 odd songs written and basically ready to go!
EP: They say that don’t they, you’ve got to have at least 50 songs in a pool in order to make an album…
TC: I think it’s important to be as prolific as possible…If you look at artists like Ryan Adams and so on, they’re always writing, putting stuff out, massive volume of work. That’s the dream isn’t it. I try to write every day really, square away a bit of time to write something down. It’s not always very good but it sometimes will turn into another song, or you can grab something for another one that didn’t have a good verse, or you needed a chorus…so we’re sitting down at the moment and trying to work out what to put on the album.
EP: Do you find something will pop into your head and you go, “ooh I’ll write that down” do you have a place to put your spare bits? An ideas book?
TC: I do in a way! Modern technology is brilliant – on your phone you’ve got a notes section for putting things down, a memo recorder so you can just sing into it while you’re walking around, you can do everything with it…lyrics usually come to me after I’ve written the music. I’ve usually written the music way before I start writing the lyrics for it, so I’ll hear a sound, I’ll hear a melody, something like that and I’ll start working on that, and I’ll record that and then I’ll sit down and start writing. The lyric writing process doesn’t happen here there and everywhere. I’ll sit down for a few hours playing with things. I always write my lyrics in the same spot.
EP: I’ve been talking to others about writing lyrics, and they say it’s a mathematical process, as much as anything else, because you’ve got to work out how it fits, and does it need a chorus here, does it need a…blah blah blah…
TC: Getting a good arrangement is definitely something that’s quite complex: it’s difficult to hit that right mix. A lot of people say, “don’t mess about, get to the chorus within 30 seconds” but I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for all songs. You can follow a formula and still get it wrong. I just kinda write, and see what happens. I’ve got another good friend, who’s a producer, who I recorded with over this year, his name is James Brown, and he’s got a really fantastic ear, and he would sit down with me and a song, and we’d play the song a few times, and he’ll say “let’s take this bit out, and let’s put this but in here” – it just changes the way you look at a song, and of course if you’re writing it, it’s very hard to look at it that way. I think it’s important to have someone who understands song structure, and has a critical ear, and be open to listen to that as well. We do that with Flight Brigade as well, Olly will come with an idea, and we’ll all bash it out at rehearsal, Neil, the drummer will say, “well what if you put this bit there or that bit there” and I’ll say something, and so on. By the end of it we’ll have a complete song.
EP: I was going to say that, how does it work with Flight Brigade, it’s a democracy is it? You all do your bit? Because there’s seven of you aren’t there!
TC: Yes there are! We’re all friends, Olly and Miriam are married, she does mini Korg and vocals, and her sister Dorry plays the violin, we all get on like a house on fire, but Olly does 90% of the writing really, so he’ll come to us with a song that will be 80% formed, and we’ll sit down as a band and work out what works and what doesn’t and why…then we’ll all write our respective parts as well. We all come in from different angles as well. Like, Neil is a proper metal head, and I like more folky sort of stuff, so we all have different roots, and Dorry is Classically trained, a fantastic violinist, she sees things on a really technical level. It kind of works, we all feed off each other, and touch wood, it seems like a good little formula!
EP: Sounds like it! So, do you sing your own songs at Flight Brigade gigs yet, or is that going to come?
TC: I’ve tried to keep it separate. Things are absolutely flying with Flight Brigade, and that’s taking about 80% of my time, it’s more a priority. With my stuff I’ve tried to let it grow organically, on its own. But having said that, I’ve done a few gigs and some of the guys from Flight Brigade have come and played with me, and they love it. It’s interesting, it’s quite nice, because it’s more grassroots than where we are now with Flight Brigade. There’s no beer in the dressing room or 45 minute soundcheck!
EP: Your style is kinda folky?
TC: Probably more acoustic. My Dad was an guitarist, my uncle plays fantastically – so they were always having a jam, and we had Fleetwood Mac and Paul Simon in the background. All the good stuff! I left home at an early age, so I had all that in my background.
EP: So who would you say your influences have been, musically?
TC: It’s a difficult one! There’s so much music! There are a few seminal moments, I know when I first heard The Joshua Tree, I felt like I’d experienced a bit of magic, it was life changing. My first Guns and Roses album, that opened my eyes. Listening to heavier stuff too, in my mid-teens, Rage Against The Machine…but then, definitely Fleetwood Mac. And Peter Gabriel! Some of his tracks have popped up in certain moments and have been quite key. Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, all those proper musicians.
EP: You’ve got to take something from everywhere, otherwise you put yourself in a box and it doesn’t give you any room to expand or try something different.
TC: Yes that’s important, you’ve got to be a bit eclectic about it.
EP: What about your influences in life?
TC: Olly, the lead singer of Flight Brigade, he’s always been there. He’s so grounded, strong. He’s always very calming. The guys in the band, they’re basically like family, if any of us has issues, or are feeling down, we’ll bring it to the band and talk about it together. They’re the biggest influence because they’ve been so constant. And then my friends Charlie and Damo who kicked me up the arse and told me to get on with it…
EP: What’s your take on the current state of the music industry?
TC: There’s definitely some areas that have changed exponentially, and won’t go back, physical record sales, that’s something of the past really. There’s definitely an impetus to start basically giving away your music for free as more of a marketing tool than anything else. And I think that there’s something quite nice about that, because it means you have to rely on a good live performance. If you can’t deliver a good live performance, if you can’t deliver the stuff you’re recording in the studio, live, then should you be doing it? Should you be creating something that can’t be reproduced in a live venue? There is something purifying about that. I think the music industry is very healthy. I think the music *business* isn’t quite so well. But the industry, there’s so many different outlets now. You meet so many great people on the live circuit, characters, and you’re all doing the same thing, trying to make a living from it. And the way social media is going too, it means that the guys who didn’t have a chance before, have so many areas for exposure.
EP: There’s no money in it, yeah, but that’s the thing about being an artist isn’t it, it’s not the money that motivates you, you have to get this thing out of you…
TC: Well yes! You can record in your bedroom now can’t you! You can make a great album in your bedroom if you really wanted to! You’re now able to hear really nice things that you couldn’t hear 15 years ago.
EP: I have one more question…and this is my favourite question that I ask everyone…what question do you wish that someone would ask you in an interview but nobody ever does?
TC: OMG! I have NEVER thought about that! Now I need to think of something quite witty! I wish I’d known you were going to say that! So that’s my answer. I wish I’d known you were going to ask me that question.
Thank you so much for talking to us Tom!