What You See Is What You Get – In Conversation With Tom Bailey On Music, Touring, And ‘Science Fiction’

It’s been a lot of years since The Thompson Twins released their last single, ‘Play With Me’, way back in 1992.

Founding member Tom Bailey however has certainly never let the grass grow under his feet, what with writing for other artists, and collaborating on huge musical enterprises, such as the Bailey-Salgado Project, with astronomer and visual artist, José Francisco Salgado, and the Holiwater Project, a collective of artists from the UK, India, and New Zealand, which blended Indian music with lush, ambient grooves.

Then there’s his work as International Observer, with whom he’s so far released 7 albums of dub, or chill music, the most recent, ‘Free From The Dungeons Of Dub‘ having just come out on Friday 19th October.

So with all this in mind, it’s nonetheless surprising to discover that Tom Bailey has only this year – back in July – released his first solo album under his own name. Not only that, it’s a return to pop, something he thought he’d never do. The album, ‘Science Fiction’, is made up of ten tracks on which he’s been working for the past two years. First single, ‘Come So Far’, was released in June 2016, and is written from the perspective of a refugee in the current crisis. The song is a moving portrayal of moving into the unknown, with all proceeds going to refugee charity, Médicins Sans Frontières.

If Bailey wasn’t already busy enough, he’s about to tour the UK and Ireland next month, performing on the same bill as Boy George and Culture Club, as well as Belinda Carlisle. Bailey and Culture Club have already completed a 70 date US tour this year, and before that, they took in 9 dates across Australia.

Tom is also set to release a double A Side, ‘Feels Like Love To Me’/’Science Fiction’ on 23 November, to coincide with the UK tour. Yes. Tom Bailey certainly is very busy.

Understandably, when the chance came for Lisa to have a chat with Tom, she didn’t have to think twice.

EP: Thank you so much for talking to us Tom!

TB: Not at all! It’s a pleasure, where are you speaking from?

EP: I’m speaking from London, I’m an Australian but I’ve lived over here for 14 years now, so almost English.

TB: How’s it going so far!

EP: It’s going well so far! This summer has been quite nice, it’s not what I’m used to anymore though…but I digress…You’ve been on tour with Boy George and Culture Club for a while now, most of this year and a bit of last year as well, is that right?

TB: That’s right! We were in Australia in fact at the end of last year, and then we got a big summons for what stretched out to be about three months or so in the US.

EP: That’s incredible! You’re coming to the UK and Ireland next month, and you’ve got Belinda Carlisle on this leg, so how’s the tour been so far? How was the US?

TB: It’s fantastic actually! First off, I have to say we haven’t worked as hard as this since 1986 or so, so it’s like a glimpse of how it used to be in terms of the number of people we’re playing to, and the number of concerts, it’s taken me by surprise. A year ago I didn’t know I was going to have such a busy year. So that’s rather nice. And in fact, the whole thing can be terribly exhuasting, but I think, you know, because I’ve come back to this after a long break, and hopefully I’m a little bit older and wiser, you know, I think you learn to pace yourself, enjoy the good bits, rather than the mindless partying of this sort of life. I’ve had a great time, in terms of the other bands, it’s been fantastic, George is on amazing form, and his band is brilliant, and we’re a good combination, because there’s a bit of an overlap, but we’re a good contrast as well.

EP: So what have been some of the highlights so far?

TB: Sometimes it’s an interesting thing, people want to know about the New York, and LA shows, but actually I like to play the smaller gigs where people are amazed you’ve even bothered to turn up! What I call the village hall gig, of course we’re talking about a bigger scale than that, but the same effect counts, when you go to a smaller city, or a town that didn’t expect to be on the touring list, then everyone turns out and has a great time, so I really like those.

EP: There’s going to be a bit of that on the UK tour as well, there’s some smaller towns on there.

TB: Yeah! I think promoters have learned that it’s worth going to smaller places, because the venues are cheaper, and they can get parking and so on. But also because there’s an audience there that doesn’t want to drag into London or Manchester or Birmingham and so on. It’s an interesting thing and I’m pleased to see the promoters are doing that and being a bit more regional.

EP: I put the word out that I was going to be interviewing you, and Michael in Cork is coming to see you at your Dublin show on the 25th of November, and he would like to know how the tour came about, and how is it that you’re touring with Boy George and Culture Club? You said there’s an overlap there, but how did that all happen?

TB: It happened as a kind of “why not” decision, when we were asked to play with them in Australia. I think there were 9 dates or something, and to be honest, I was as much convinced by the fact that I was heading out there anyway, because I always go to New Zealand at this time. And I hadn’t seen George for half a lifetime, and I wasn’t sure how we were going to get on, but in fact it was an easy, kind of coming together of old friends and new friends. When they said, “this is working well, what do you think about doing the American tour?”, it didn’t take me long to go, you know that’s actually something I’d like to do. So, you know, as often happens in these things, one thing leads to another. Some little conversation backstage sets the scene, and you know, the agent gets called, and told, “hey what about making them an offer to do this”, and it really did happen that way…unless there really is some sort of controlling influence that I’m not aware of!

EP: Did you all know each other back in the day?

TB: Yes! Just from doing the night clubs, social life, and bumping into each other on TV shows, and we used to be on the same concert bills. And our paths used to cross lots of times, and then for a long time I heard nothing of George other than what I read in the National Enquirer…and so I was very pleased to see he’s really got his life together and was very very clear and focused and having a great time.

EP: Jane is going to be seeing you at your Nottingham show, she said Thompson Twins were her first concert as a teenager, and she had a poster on the wall like the rest of us all did as well, she wants to know what are some of your memories of the 80s and squatting etc? What can you remember about the 80s that you feel free to share basically!

TB: Haha! Well regards squatting, it was an amazing thing that so many people were able to squat in London at the time, and it meant that instead of having to get a crummy job like washing dishes or something in order to pay the rent, you were free to be creative, so many of the bands of that era –

EP: – well George used to as well!

TB: – yeah! Everyone was living for free effectively. At a very very modest level I must say! It wasn’t cakes and ale, we still had to make it through the week on the smell of an oily rag, but it did mean that we had time to write songs as bands, and to put our dreams into action. So that’s a period I look back to with some affection. It was a hard life, with a lot of cold and damp and mouldy…but it all grew out of that. Nowadays in London it’s so expensive to have the tiniest little space…one of my kids is living in London and she’s struggling to find places to live all the time. It’s all become a lot more conservative now. People have to get jobs, somehow get the money, people play it safe, they’re not going to say “to hell with the job I’m going to be creative”.

EP: It’s pretty hard isn’t it, that it has to be an either/or situation these days, you either have the full time to be creative but then you have to make some money somehow – or you have to do this working for the man business…

TB: I suppose some people are more suited to it, if they’re more rebellious, independent by nature, then they’re going to take to it more easily. But in sense of the circumstances, in that certainly there were all those places that were squattable, it created a culture of amazingly interesting stuff going on. I think my street, it was in Clapham where I squatted for a long time – I think there were five bands in that street.

EP: That would have been absolutely awesome! (laughter) Circling back a bit, and this is still with Jane, what do you think of the music of today?

TB: Well a lot of it is very interesting…(laughs)…you’re talking about pop music?

EP: Well yeah, I suppose so…

TB: I do have criticisms, I do have a feeling that in some fundamental sense, a few years back when we weren’t paying attention, rock’n’roll was somehow captured by a kind of corporate interest. For most of my life rock’n’roll was the untameable beast of rebellion, and was a big part in my motivation for getting involved, it was rebellious and a way of telling the world it had to change. Somehow now without realising it, we find that it’s about social media hits, and about selling things, and to make such a strange fall from grace – I don’t know if we’ll ever recover. And then you look into the details of it, and there’s all these amazing records coming out, but the really big ones are written by six people, so nowadays we can’t even trust the poetic voice of the singer, because they’ve got nothing to do with the writing of the song a lot of the time, and it wasn’t even one person, it was a committee of songwriters making sure that every possible box was ticked, and that every marketable device was included. And at that point I kind of start yawning a little bit, if that’s all we’ve got going for in terms of the kind of rebellious responsibility of rock’n’roll. I’m sure it’s not as simple as that, and that’s a kind of brutal criticism, but it’s valid nevertheless.

EP: You also find those artists are the ones that are pushed onto you, some powers that be somewhere have decided that this particular artist…

TB: No doubt! It’s the major labels’ attempt to monopolise the situation, they say okay, only a tiny percentage of them are going to be successful, therefore we put everything into that one artist and dump the rest.

EP: And they determine which ones they are.

TB: The majority of artists aren’t making money out of recordings anymore, they’re making a living out of live performances, I mean it’s alright for me, I’ve made my stash, I’ve got an audience coming back for more, but for young artists starting out, unless they happen to be exactly the right sort of person to be pushed in the manner you’re talking about, then it doesn’t matter what they’re saying or how good they are, they’re going to be left to one side. Again, it’s all shifting towards the safe, conservative, the unimaginative.

EP: Well now I’m depressed!

TB: (Laughs) Well I think we should be a bit depressed! But on the other hand you can say the responsibility to be rebellious has moved away from rock’n’roll to the internet or something, you know what I mean? And so maybe we should be looking for optimism somewhere other than rock’n’roll, it’s not a take it or leave it thing – it might be an either/or – there might be other ways of people putting their expression into making things better. I think the optimism itself has taken a bit of a hammering over the last decades, the world has been through so many weird twists and turns, I find that interesting as well, because I can appeal to my audience as people who remember the last time it was actually of optimistic – things like Live Aid, which was massive, because we thought it was possible to make a difference.

EP: Maybe that’s what we need to do, we all need to go, this is possible…we can do these things. Anyway! Let’s talk about your new album! It’s not that new anymore is it! It’s a few months old! We’ve been listening to ‘Science Fiction’ this morning and a few things struck me. First off – this is your first ever SOLO album – but you’ve certainly kept your hand in the music business, it’s not like you’ve not been doing anything…

TB: It’s my first solo POP record. I’ve released lots of music as a solo artist but not under my own name, and not under the banner of of someone singing pop songs, so in that sense yes, this is the first time I’ve done this since the days of The Thompson Twins.

EP: So why has it taken so long for there to be a Tom Bailey album?

TB: Well I think for a long time I wanted to get away from it, and give some attention to the other labours of love, and creative challenges that had been pushed aside by the success of The Thompson Twins. I thought finally, I can recycle all that and get back to all those other things I’ve said no to, but secretly wanted to do. So the Indian music, the electronic experiments, and all those kinds of things that were just lying in wait to be picked up, so for a couple of decades that’s what I’ve been doing. And I almost – I admit to being a bit in denial about the pop, I wanted it to be in the past, to be history. I thnk the other two (Alannah Currie, Joe Leeway) still do, they want it to be something they did years ago, they don’t want to look at it again. But there did come a point where I thought, as an artist, there’s always a moment where you become retrospective and think, hmm, look at what we were doing 25 years ago, and how can we interpret that, and reassess it. It sounds like a bit of therapy but in fact – someone convinced me to do it because it’s a bit of fun as well, and I ended up enjoying it so much that I became committed to that again, so that’s how it happens!

EP: Well you can hear that in the album!

TB: I was singing all those old hits, feeling that the one thing that was missing was some new material, songs with a contemporary edge, material-wise, and so I wrote some new songs, and one thing leads to another, and next thing you know you’ve got a new album, and blah blah!

EP: So the second thing I noticed – what is it with you and space? Like, there’s a lot of stars in your work, you’ve worked with astronomers, there’s a song called ‘Shooting Star’, ‘What Kind Of World’ talks about stars and Mars, do you particularly like space?

TB: I suppose, yes I do! It’s only recently in the past few years I’ve become in any way aware of the harder science of astronomy, but I’ve always had an interest in a cosmological view. Because, you know, it’s just a great metaphor isn’t it, people have always done that, they’ve gone out and looked at the stars, it causes you to think about what’s going on in your head. And also the same is true of ‘Science Fiction’, and when I realised that I was writing with these themes, and suddenly, how powerful they are – I’m not really a fan of science fiction as a literary genre, or even a film genre, but the brilliant thing about it to me is that it re-contextualises the now – you use the future as a kind of twist about what’s going on now. And that to me is incredibly exciting. You know when you’re writing songs you’re looking for a new way of saying the same old thing, the grand themes of pop music have always been the same, so when you find one, you think ooh – I’ve written three songs that involve stargazing (both laugh) – let’s make that an enduring theme for the whole album. And so that’s what happened.

EP: So what is the songwriting process like for you? How do you start – do you have an idea first, or do you have a melody in your head, or do the words come first, or do you just sit down and go, “I’m going to write a song today”?

TB: Well it comes in a variety of ways, and also a variety of speeds as well! Sometimes if you’re lucky it happens very quickly, and sometimes it takes an age to drag them through the processes that are required. But I think I should start more with lyrics, but the truth is, nine times out of ten I start off with a musical idea, and then try and find a lyric that I can bend into shape to fit the melodic and rhythmic elements of the music, and sometimes I have to take away the first thing I thought of, or change that melody or rhythm to fit the lyric, so I think that’s just the skills you develop over the years of doing it. And I think, if you’re interested enough, or even desperate enough, then it doesn’t matter how it comes, so long as it comes! And the only way of making it come it to put the hours in!

EP: I’ve heard that before, it’s like one of these things, it’s like a muscle, and it’s got to be exercised by putting in the hours.

Peter from Dublin wants to know what you learned from working with Nile Rodgers!

TB: Oh well…

EP: I know it was a long time ago wasn’t it! (both laugh)

TB: In a musical sense, of course, he is a consumate and extremely sophisticated musical mind, and with great technical abilities as well, so working with him was working with one of the great living masters of popular music, there’s no question about that. Personally speaking, when I worked with him, in 86 or 87 I can’t remember, he was scraping along the bottom with his own personal problems with drugs and alcohol, and it was a difficult time as a fantastically enlightening time, and I’ve got to say, I played a concert with him about a year and a half ago, and I was so pleased to see him – again, like George – in a fantastically healthy frame of mind, having overcome his demons as well as some health problems –

EP: – yeah he had that big cancer scare –

TB: And of course, he’s appeared on so many hit records, because he possesses that thing we all like, that simple, infectious, groove and fun, so yes, I absolutely adored the time I spent with him.

EP: So what’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned as an artist, and why? And what’s up there as the worst piece of advice possible?

TB: Oh gosh! Well I think the best piece of advice in terms of the day to day pursuit of creative activity, is to be true to yourself as an artist. Because very very often you get dragged into making commercial decisions that years later you can never feel great about them. So if there’s any sort of dilemma, or a 50/50 split decision, I say always go towards the art, and that translates into being more creatively experimental really, rather than doing the same thing that everyone wants you to.

EP: So what’s the worst thing that someone’s told you?

TB: The worst thing is the opposite – people say “why don’t you do it like so and so” or “they’ve got a bigger hit than you, why don’t you do it that way” – it’s a facile misunderstanding of what the creative process is about.

EP: Alex has asked – and it’s going to be a little controversial, especially when we’ve been talking about making possible wrong decisions, but would you be okay say if Trump asked if he could use your song ‘Don’t Mess With Doctor Dream’ in fighting the opioid crisis in the US?

TB: That’s a very cunning question!

EP: If he said, “Oh come on Tom!”

TB: I’ve got to say I find Trump completely repulsive in every way, and I wouldn’t eagerly jump into bed with him on any project, but of course, if something was in reality going to have government money spent to help people out of an addiction to drugs, I would have to look at its merits.

EP: So ignoring the person proposing it, but looking at the actual proposal.

TB: Exactly.

EP: Ah very good! Okay! One more question, and I ask this of everyone that I talk to – what question do you wish that someone would ask you in an interview but no-one ever does?

TB: No-one ever asks me what it’s like to listen to my own music!

EP: What is it like to listen to your own music Tom Bailey? (both laugh)

TB: It’s like an audio diary of the things I was doing and the thoughts I was having on the day I made the record.

EP: Do you ever sort of cringe a bit, or think, “Oh wow that was a really good piece that I wrote there” or “how on earth did I get inspired to do that!”

TB: A whole gamut of things! And sometimes it’s like, “Oh wow! I’d forgotten how good that was!”, and sometimes it’s like, “Oh God, I could have done that so much better”. And very often I’m thinking, “you know what, if I did that now I’d leave out that bit and put that bit in”. You’ve got to edit your previous work I think.

EP: Thank you so very very much for talking to us today and all the very best for the UK and Irish tour, and for Science Fiction! And hopefully we’ll come and see you!

TB: It’s been a great pleasure talking to you! Thank you so much!

You can find Tom Bailey online on his official website, Twitter, and Facebook. See here for information about his forthcoming tour. ‘Feels Like Love To Me’/’Science Fiction’ is out on 23 November, to coincide with the UK tour.

Tom Bailey - Feels Like Love To Me [Pack-Shot Video]

About the author

Lisa has been writing for over 20 years, starting as the entertainment editor on her university newspaper. Since then she's written for Popwrapped, Maximum Pop, Celebmix, and ListenOnRepeat.

Lisa loves all good music, with particular fondness for Jedward and David Bowie. She's interviewed Edward Grimes (Jedward), Kevin Godley, Trevor Horn, Paul Young, Peter Cox (Go West), Brendan B Brown (Wheatus), Bruce Foxton (The Jam), among many many more. Lisa is also available for freelance writing - please email lisa@essentiallypop.com

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