Thomas Walsh resides somewhere between the best-kept secret in pop-rock and the figurehead of the cult of Pugwash. The band he formed back in 1999 with the release of Almond Tea has always been a loose collective (albeit shored up in recent years by Tosh Flood, Shaun McGee, and Joe Fitzgerald) with Walsh being the defining songwriter and vocalist throughout. Recent news via Kickstarter and Facebook broke that the seventh release intends to shake things up again with the band effectively becoming a duo.
But not any ordinary duo. If anyone could match Walsh’s unique bona fides it would be Jason Falkner, formerly of Jellyfish, The Three O’Clock, and The Grays, and now apparently with Pugwash. A Kickstarter campaign (found by clicking here) is underway to fund the recording (and more on that later). Fortunately, Popdose was able to conduct a sit-down (more a Skype-down) with the maestro himself to sort it all out.
Two things are immediately evident when it comes to Walsh. First, he’s one of the last genuine Nice Guys in music and a consummate raconteur. Second, he’s a fan who loves music more than he loves making it. That’s considerable when you realize just how much he appreciates the latter. A conversation with Walsh is just like talking with your friends, discussing all the tunes you love and totally getting lost in the wonderful minutia of it all.
POPDOSE: So it seems you’re changing up Pugwash again. For people who might read this with the image of what Pugwash is, based on the last two albums, they might be a bit surprised by this. However, if they looked all the way back through the catalog to the beginning with Almond Tea, they’d see that band membership has always been this fluid sort of thing, and the central person that ties it all together is you.
But the news is that Jason Falkner and you are the next iteration, as it were.
WALSH: I’ll be honest about it, there’s no other way to be but honest about it. You’re dead right. Pugwash has been my thing since I began it in the early-’90s. It’s always been my thing. I’ll be the first person to say I hate the fucking name. It’s one of those things where a lot of people like the name and a lot of people hate it, but I’m stuck with it. That’s the way it is and I’m fine with it…don’t really mind. Some people are saying, “You can change the name,” but depending on what Jason does with it, you never know. We might collaborate. But I’ve written all the songs again, 25-plus songs. He’s listened to them over the weekend and he’ll pick a certain amount and we’ll work on them.
So yeah, Pugwash has always been my thing, and even the people I’ve worked with know that. It became a “band” really for The Olympus Sound because I’ve been making these records for all these years, and I’ve never had that traditional band of friends and talented players. Joey Fitzgerald, Tosh Flood, Shaun McGee — they’re all amazing players and great friends. We did two records. The last one, Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends), was tough. It was a tough time for us, for health reasons, a lot of that stuff. We soldiered through, made the record, but it didn’t leave a beautiful taste in the mouth. A lot of records are made out of adversity, and we’re very proud of it.
But I didn’t want to make a new record in that environment. I had plans to write a record in the new year and we had plans to do it. But (one of the band members) suffered with his health a lot and he needs to get better and healthy above everything else. I had to consider his well-being first and foremost.
But there’s also that Tosh…Neil Hannon asked if Tosh could join The Divine Comedy to tour around Europe. And of course, you gotta say yes to that. And I was delighted because he was going to get real, paying work. Then The Divine Comedy’s tour started selling out, so they’re adding more dates and festivals, so he’s booked up right through the year.
I sat at home at Christmas and realized I had to make a record this year, for me, and I had to enjoy the process again and not worry about other people. Some are not well, others are getting on with their lives. It’s up to me to figure out what happens next with Pugwash.
I’ve known Jason for twenty years this year — I’ve known him longer than I’ve known the lads. So I rang him, and I asked him what his year’s like. He said, “It’s fuckin’ full up, but if you’re saying to me we can make a record, I’ll make time.” That was an amazing thing to hear. The minute I heard that, I was hooked. I got excited again. Within a week I’d written all the songs. It’s just a very special time.
They guys in the band are off doing other things. I mean, they’ll always be friends forever, but it’s just time to be doing different things. And to have Jason, with his engineering and production, and playing all the instruments aside what I’ll be playing — bits of piano, rhythm guitar, vocals — that’s going to be really quite special.
POPDOSE: What I’ve always appreciated about your songwriting is that great hook, not just the hook that is inserted into the song for the usual purposes of being memorable, but the one that kind of wraps around the song. It’s more than getting stuck in your head. It forces you to click back and hear it again. That’s been something pretty central to both yours and Jason’s work.
WALSH: Thank you for saying that. It can be very difficult, because for the songwriter you just don’t know. I’ll think, what the fuck is this? There’s nothing in this. The songwriter is his or her own harshest critic. But then you play it for somebody and get that feedback and they say, “That’s great.” Being your worst critic, you need that and that can break up your self-doubt. It’s not that you’ll never feel the doubt again. I always feel it, and in heavy doses, but I have a stubborn attitude. It might not feel right at the moment, but I’m putting it down. Come back a week later and you have that new perspective, things start sounding good. You think, well, there’s something there.
POPDOSE: Getting back to the subject of a great song that has that sense that you need to replay it, I keep coming back to the song “Here” from Eleven Modern Antiquities.
WALSH: A lot of songs that I write, I write quite quickly. I don’t really linger on stuff too long. I love when I go back to eventually build the songs and then, of course, those lyrics pop up that I know I should have put in. That’s the great thing about it. You can do little bits of honing here and there.
I remember with “Here” it was very simple and quick. Then I said to myself, you know, I’m just going to go for it. Bass drums, guitar, that classic big sound, and strings. So I asked Dave Gregory, and he did a beautiful string arrangement around this hook that I had in my head, that the strings should do. (Ed: Thomas describes a swooning passage of the string section in the chorus between lyric lines.) That idea was in my demo, but everything else, Dave just wrote and it was glorious. I put the strings-only mix onto one of the demo releases I’ve been putting out.
See, we’re a long-time dead, you know? People should hear the genius of some of these writers, some of these musicians, they should have that ability. As much as you like to mix things as best you can, something like the subtleties of a string arrangement always get buried, you know?
I was listening to All Things Must Pass recently. There’s an amazing string section in “What Is Life?” I never really…now, I have listened to that song twenty-five fuckin’ years! I now have a nice stereo system, and I’m listening to the remastered version — I actually wanted to blare “Wah Wah” because sometimes you just gotta put “Wah Wah” on and play it very loud, because it’s one of the greatest songs ever — after “Isn’t It A Pity,” “What Is Life?” comes on and I’m like, fuckin’ hell! There’s a brilliant string arrangement there! That’s like “Living In The Past” by Jethro Tull, a fantastic string arrangement that’s buried in the original mix.
With “Here” I thought, the strings have to be big. And even at that, when I heard the strings-only mix, there’s so many little things Dave put into it because he’s a genius. And it all worked so perfectly.
I did a vocal and I thought it was good, but in this case I really wanted it to be kind of perfect. A lot of my vocals are done in one or two takes, tops. More often than not they’re okay. But with this one, I wanted it to be bang-on. I wanted the end of the notes to be perfect and not run off into a waver or something. I actually put two different vocal takes together on that song, which is something I never do. But it really worked, and it does flow.
Neil Hannon though…he’ll do something like seventy takes! Then he’ll try and find the right one, ’cause that’s how Neil works! But I believe if you capture it, it’s there. You’ve got it. I may not be right — Neil is far more successful than I am, but it’s just great the way different artists work.
“Hung Myself Out To Dry”
WALSH: Some people have suggested, “Oh why don’t you change the sound of your music?” But…I love the sound of my records! They ask if I would try something different. I could, but if I don’t make a record for myself first…you can’t go out there and make a record just to please other people. It’s just…not.
POPDOSE: That’s right, And I’ve heard so many stories about artists who do those things and try different things that they decided upon strategically, but not from their heart, really. And sometimes those songs become hits, and then they’re stuck with ’em. You know, they compromised what they want to do, and then they go on tour night after night and have to play the hit they don’t even like.
WALSH: The only sense in doing it is if you’re fuckin’ potless and you can’t pay the rent. That’s the only sense for it. Pugwash and The Duckworth Lewis Method (Ed: the duo featuring Walsh and Hannon) are a long time gone, in a way. But you know, if a song clicks with the audience, you really don’t have a say in it. If it clicks and two million, ten million get to hear it, there’s nothing you can do to stop that.
Well, that’s the dream, isn’t it? It’s so difficult to get to that position. If you were a football player and you could throw sixty yard throws every game, or you could run the whole length of the pitch, score touchdowns every time you got the ball, there’s nothing stopping you from going up the ranks and into the greatest teams in America and being a superstar.
With music you either have to make people like what you do, lift a finger up nowadays…all they have to do is press a button. Or actually get out of the house and walk to a shop to buy a record. You have to count on people doing all these physical and mental things to get them to like your music, or to quantify or validate that they like your music. With sport, there’s not much stopping you if your talent is there.
POPDOSE: So the Kickstarter campaign for the new record is on, and it’s doing well.
WALSH: (Crowdfunding) has become, in a way, the only way to make a record like this unless I was suddenly to come into money. It’s the only way artists like me can genuinely make records anymore. Because there is such a genuine, wonderful, loving fanbase out there for what I do, I feel I can go down a road of a Kickstarter pledge campaign.
The first time we used it, for the last album, we did it all wrong. We started the pledge after we started recording, so when we needed money for the recordings, we couldn’t fuckin’ pay them! We had to wait until the pledging ended, and the people had to wait, and it was stressful and difficult. So this time, I thought, let’s look around a bit. Katya (Duft) is great at those things and she looked around. But we went with Kickstarter. They’re up-front about their percentages and all that stuff.
Because I’d been involved before, I knew some of the pitfalls. I felt strong enough to go and ask for what I needed. Honestly, it’s not half of what we need with the entirety in mind, but it’s definitely what we need to make it. Everything else we’ll need to sort out later. I felt comfortable enough to ask the fans to be involved, and they’ve been amazing so far!
It’s gonna be tight. It’s a lot for people to commit to because we’re all having difficult times. I realize that, but it’ll be enough to make the record, so we’ll make it work.
I put a new song up in the Kickstarter campaign. We’ve reached sixty percent for pledges and this was part of the goals, so I put the song up…I picked it randomly. It was a song I remembered, didn’t need to go through the demos, it was just with me. And the response has been brilliant! I’m very excited where, sonically, these songs are going to go. (Ed: Sorry, folks. If you want to hear Thomas perform the new song, you’ll have to pledge to the campaign.)
And people have been incredibly generous with supporting and promoting the campaign! Just this week, Joe Elliott from Def Leppard said he’s going to put it all over the Def Leppard fanbase. He’s a big fan of mine! So I sent him an email, told him about the campaign, and he wrote back, “Fuckin’ hell! Won’tcha buy me a pint!” It’ll go all over the Def Leppard site and he’s actually writing a big blog about it.
Joe’s a lovely guy, and he loves “Fall Down”! He’s said it’s one of the great singles released in the past twenty years.
POPDOSE: I agree with him! But I tell you, I love the b-side of that, “Happy Again.” I was surprised it didn’t hit the album (The Olympus Sound).
WALSH: “Happy Again” was by far the song that seemed to be the one to open the album. It was probably going to be the first single. We rehearsed it, put it down in the studio and it was fuckin’ brilliant. It was really strong, but for some reason when we started on all the other tracks, then went back to it, it seemed to just become…a song as opposed to something special. We started getting into overdubs and bits and pieces, the odd trick here and there. When you get into the silly subtleties of a song because you think you need to “save” it, it’s getting further away from your grip. It makes a really great b-side, and I’m proud of it as such. And you know how important b-sides were when we were coming up.
I think it is still a very strong track. If I were ever to pick a dozen songs to re-record as a Pugwash thing, I’d pick “Happy Again.” I think that might be, between me and Jason, that could be fuckin’ huge.
“Take Me Away”
WALSH: I actually now have some friends, fans of my music, who are idols of mine! That’s an amazing thing.
POPDOSE: That has to be surreal. You get to work with Dave Gregory, Andy Partridge, you get to hang out with Jeff Lynne…that’s crazy!
WALSH: Well, there’s no one in the world who recognizes how crazy it is as much as me!
I’m a fan. If I see a mint copy of ELO’s Time or Out Of The Blue, I’ll buy it! I think I have twenty-eight different versions of Out Of The Blue. I’ll still buy it. It’s like, beautiful records are there to be brought home, these things need to be saved. You can’t just let a lovely little creature just survive on its own. I have some records that I have ten of because I can’t see them in some crappy shop with dust on them. I think, no, that’s coming home. I’ll put a nice sleeve on it and put it in its place.
WALSH: In a way, these people and their music, they saved me. I grew up in a working class area in Dublin. We were poor. All my friends were sniffing glue or robbing cars. I had a few friends who loved sports, we hung out and they were okay. But I loved music. Some guys would call up, say, “Come on, we’re gonna go drink some wine and sniff some glue,” but I’d go, yeeaahh, but I just want to go home and play my ELO albums.
I got to go to his house when I was out in Los Angeles. Myself and Katya were there with Jeff and Camelia (Kath) drinking tea out in the garden. We just started talking for ages, talking about everything, and I’d say, Jeff do you want to hear a few stories from my ELO past? He’d say, “Yeah, go ahead, go ahead…” I told him I went to see them at Wembley Stadium in ’86 and I slept rough in London for two nights, just to see them play. And he’s apologizing! He asked, “Were you all right?” He was concerned!
I said, “Jeff, you don’t understand. These things mean the world to me because I loved the music so much.” These are the things that made me be here, and made me want to be a musician.
He’s genuinely surprised by the tours he’s done as of late. He’s constantly blown away by the response. He really thought not many people would turn out for them, and I had to say, “Jeff, do you know how many people love you in this world?”
He’s just one of the nicest people you’ve ever met.
POPDOSE: That’s something I think music fans like us share, really. There is a healthy respect for the history, of course, but we take this wherever we go. It guided me as a kid and it stays with me now. It’s not like some sort of lesson or anything, but it is a part of us. And it does kind of transport you to when you experienced things for the first time.
WALSH: When I first went to Abbey Road, I was with a friend and we stood on the outside in 1986. He kept saying, “Let’s go in! Let’s just run in!” And I said, no, I don’t ever want to set foot in there until it’s for the right reasons. It sounds like I was ninety years old talking when I was only sixteen — but I meant it. I wanted to be a musician. So when I went back in 2004, I was there to do work. We were doing strings for the Jollity album with Dave Gregory and the Section Quartet, and I was there as a working musician!
He let us in early on the night before the first day. We had the couches in Studio Two and the old red heaters…they still have them there, just as you see them in the pictures from the Sixties! And you need them to heat the room up because it gets so cold, it was around March or April. The bar is just out from the exit on the main floor. We all were drinking Rum and Cokes.
So I had Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles book with me and I looked back to what they were doing on that day in the past. John Lennon was doing the vocal for “A Hard Day’s Night” on that night exactly forty years to that day. I was fucking freaked. And there was another session on that day but from 1968, I think they were doing “Honey Pie.” A day later they were doing “Strawberry Fields Forever.” And it was, like, fucking hell, you know?
But Abbey Road is the most beautiful place. It’s incredible. It’s the little things like the lift. If you go to the top level where the mastering takes place, that’s a good five or six flights of stairs. A lot of people just walk up the stairs, but I’m a lazy bollocks a lot of times. I found a lift around near the entrance of Studio Two. It was left there from the ’50s or the early-’60s. It’s all this incredible ’60s brown color, brown cloth. It’s a time capsule, but you go up and it’s making a noise like (loud clattering sound), and you go up like someone’s pulling you up the fucking thing. But it’s wonderful because it has these big ’60s knobs you press. They’re not like the modern-day lift knobs. They’re all from the time. They use it now to bring gear up, like mixing desks and such. I just love getting in it because of what it is. It’s far more exciting than walking up the fucking stairs!
The Kickstarter campaign for the next Pugwash album is on. Find out more here. Thanks again to Thomas Walsh for being a gracious Skype host and for the terrific conversation.