Songwriting is often described as muscles that constantly need to be flexed, or they will atrophy. This is the part where former Thompson Twin Tom Bailey walks onto the stage to tell the audience that he hasn’t written a pop song in 25 years, and yet his songwriting muscles are swole, bro. His upcoming solo album — his debut solo album, if you can believe that — Science Fiction is armed to the teeth with the same Velcro hooks and singalong choruses that vaulted the Thompson Twins to the upper echelons of the charts. Bailey’s peers will congratulate him in person, then curse his name behind his back for making songwriting look so easy. (It’s not.)

Popdose stole some time with Bailey to chat about the new album, and learned a new rock and roll rule: when touring with women, the health food store is the new guitar shop.

Where are you right now?

I’m in London, actually. It’s a very warm and humid afternoon in London, so I’m taking a rest in a darkened room for a moment. [Laughs]

I love the new record.

Thank you very much. Thank you.

Not only that, my 11-year-old son was immediately taken in by the production, so good on you mate for that.

Wow. So he’s an expert in record production, that’s interesting, at 11 years old.

He’s been listening to music since…he hasn’t really had a choice. I’ve been forcing it down his throat since he was born.

Of course. That’s interesting, but the fact that he can separate the experience from the production is an interesting thing.

I think he’s gotten used to listening to a lot of his parents’ music, and he’s gotten a feel for production style. He knows what an 80s record sounds like, and he knows what a modern-day record sounds like, and you bridged the gap rather seamlessly with this album.

Well, a lot of adults can’t do that, so he’s doing really well! [Chuckles] I’ve been making records all my life, okay, I haven’t stopped, I’ve always been doing it. But [I] just recently decided to make a pop record again. And that has a kind of specific set of consequences for me, in terms of how it’s done, and inevitably, although I try to be contemporary, there’s a bridge to where I left off as well with the last pop record, which was a long time ago.

How long was the span of time between the moment when you started writing the first song for this album, and the moment you finished the last song?

It’s was quite a long time, like a couple of years, partly because I was doing it in between lots of other stuff. And because I have an insane travel habit. Not just touring and things, but I don’t live in one place, and I move around all the time. So I’ve just gotten into the habit of working with a laptop and a pair of headphones. That’s my studio these days. Which is a great thing, but it does mean that a lot of work gets done in hotel rooms.

It’s funny to say out loud that Tom Bailey made a bedroom pop record, but you did.

Isn’t that a fantastic thing, that the final democratization of the technology has taken place. So if you have half a mind to it, you can very quickly get to it, whereas back in the day, the whole thing was about getting permission to go into the studio over the weekend. It was all we dreamt of, all the time. And it was constantly denied us, and yet held in front of us as some kind of morsel, or bait.

One of the most refreshing things about the album, to me, is the arrangements. I feel like the art of arranging a pop song has taken a serious hit in the last decade.

Well, if you write a song by committee, which quite a few successful songs are these days, then one of the things that’s going to come up is, ”Oh, just start with the chorus, because that’s the hook.” That may be an inspired idea, but after a while, if everyone does it, it just becomes banal, you know, just going for the short attention span capture. And obviously there are still certainly disciplines of arrangement where you have to make it within the 3:15 mark for it to be on the radio, and all of those things still exist. And I love those, the boxes you have to tick to get there. But there are several ways of doing that.

What was the biggest adjustment you had to make writing for yourself versus writing for a band?

[Pause] That’s an interesting question, inasmuch as I’m now realizing that there was no difference at all! [Laughs] I’d never thought of it that way.

I didn’t know if there was a group dynamic that you had to take into account.

Oh, okay. Well, back in the day with the three-piece Thompson Twins, there was a constant push and pull of debate of ideas and stuff, that’s true. But the fact is, our division of labor, which we very formally worked out, was that I was in charge of the music, and so I’d just get on with it. Alannah (Currie) wrote a lot of lyrics, it’s true, so she spent a lot of time contributing to the songwriting process, but not really to the record making, or the music side of it. And Joe (Leeway) was really interested in the live performance aspect, the theatrical point of view. So it was always pretty much down to me, I guess, and that’s why there’s not an enormous change.

Although I’ll say one thing about having a three-piece band, is that you can never have a split decision. Whereas a four-piece can have two on one side of the table, and two on the other, staring at each other.

I feel like you’ve planted about half a dozen Easter eggs throughout the album. For example, in your song ”Lies,” you borrowed the bass line from ”Low Rider,” and with ”What Kind of World,” I hear a little ”Oye Como Va” by Santana.

That, I hadn’t noticed. [Laughs] Certainly, I would count Santana and one of the hundreds of people that I liked, so it’s not absolutely out of the question. But no, I wasn’t doing that consciously.

I feel like the title track has a little of ”Sister of Mercy” in it, ”Bring Back Yesterday” feels like a descendant of ”King for a Day,” and I hear a little of ”Tears” in the song ”If You Need Someone.” And I’m not suggesting that they’re blatant copies, because they’re not at all. They’re completely different songs, but I can hear hints of some of your other material in them.

I can’t quite process the second two, but I see what you mean with ”Science Fiction” and ”Sister of Mercy.” Completely different songs, except that chord structure of the chorus is the same, you’re right. So, well spotted.

Thank you very much.

Maybe that chord structure is, to some extent, a signature move. I make no excuse for that.

The song that I really want to talk to you about is ”Blue.” Have you seen the Pixar film ”Ratatouille”?


Okay. There is a scene at the very end where this cynical food critic tries the food that Remy the rat gives him, and he takes one bite, and you see him get transported back through a wormhole to when he was a child, and his mom was making food for him.

And that’s exactly what that song did to me. I was immediately this dumb, love-struck teenager again.

Wow. It was a strange song in that it was the less obvious song on the record, I think. It’s kind of introverted in its concept. But for me, the moment of magic with that was actually deciding to sing it in an assertive way. Partly influenced by the way that Bowie would do it, or something like that. In the past I have done — and quite successfully — I have done takes that are very, very internalized, where it’s all taking place in my head. And then, the other end of that spectrum is to imagine yourself on stage, and then operatically declaiming it to a crowd. Even though it’s a personal reminiscence, and very poetic in that sense.

That’s interesting that you mention Bowie, because what I heard, in the first verse, was Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout.

Wow, well, that’s a nice comparison. I wonder where he is. The last time I saw him, he had the longest, big white beard. It was magnificent.

I want to go back to ”Bring Back Yesterday.” That is a curious one for me, because you don’t at all strike me as the kind of guy who, even when playing your hits from 30-plus years ago, is remotely interested in bringing back yesterday.

It’s not really a literal explanation. It’s not really about nostalgia, it’s about regret. In relationships, if we’re honest with each other, there’s always the opportunity for regret. Because we do things that mess up, and it’s really about that. It’s a song that, as it says, you can be taking the drink to your mouth, but if you spill it on the floor, it’s gone forever. Sometimes those kinds of things aren’t valued until we lose them. I guess, now we’re gonna say that I stole it from Joni Mitchell. {Laughs]

I interviewed Terri Nunn of Berlin a few years ago, and I want to share two great stories that she shared with me about touring with the Thompson Twins on the ”Into the Gap” tour. One, she said that you had this amazing vegetarian chef, and the band would stare at your craft services table like a pack of starving cats.

[Laughs hard] That’s so funny. But they never said that at the time. I would have invited them to join us. I’m a kind of militant vegan, and I like people to think about taking up a plant-based diet, so there you go. And yeah, we always took a chef with us back in the day. These days, actually, now it’s much easier, because everyone understands what vegan means, and a lot of people are asking for it. Back in the day, it was like asking for the impossible, so we just ended up taking our own. But yeah, I’ve seen Terri recently, and a couple of other guys from Berlin, and they didn’t mention that. [Laughs]

The other thing she mentioned was that Alannah wanted nothing to do with her.

Well, you’d have to ask her about that.

Fair enough. You mention veganism, we recently found a product called Beyond Burgers, that are made from peas, and they’re amazing.

I’ve also come across some fake animal protein made from peas that are very, very substantial, and saw people around going crazy for it.

If you hit a Whole Foods while you’re touring the States this summer…

Are you kidding? Listen, I have an all-female band. And my big joke is that every time we hit a town, if it was guys, they’d be saying, ”Where’s the guitar shop?” {Laughs] With the girls, they all say, ”Where’s the Whole Foods store?” And we stay healthy that way.

Tell me a good Nile Rodgers story. He’s #1 on my interview bucket list, and until I get him on the phone, I have to live vicariously through the people who have worked with him.

I recently did a gig with him, and I hadn’t seen him for years, and there was a rumor that we were going to play something together. So I went around to where he was rehearsing — this was the day before the show — and he’s in there with the Chic band just blasting away, you know, this is musicianship of the highest possible quality. [Laughs] And then I walk in, and he just stopped everything and introduced me to his band, and they all said hi. And then he said, ”Great, good to see you. Teach us a couple of your songs.”

And I said, ”Well…” Of course, inside, I was thinking, ”Oh, no. I can’t teach these guys my songs! This is ridiculous!” And I hadn’t brought a guitar with me. He said, ”No problem,” and he handed me the Hitmaker guitar, which is this legendary guitar he has that no one ever touches, right? And he said, ”Just be really careful, because it’s got really light-gauge strings on it.” So I took it, and I taught them a couple of songs, and luckily, in my panic, I could remember how to play them. But it was one of those strangely starstruck moments, not with him, because I know him well, but with the Chic band. And the next day, we sang a couple of Thompson Twins songs together, and it was fantastic.

In about an hour and a half, I’m talking to Thomas Dolby. He told me once that he wrote ”One of Our Submarines” for the Thompson Twins. So, two things: did he ever actually give the song to you? He wasn’t 100% clear on that.

No. This is the first time I’ve heard that. (Note: Dolby later confirmed that he never gave it to him. ”It was too good,” he said.)

Two, do you have a message you’d like me to pass along to him?

Yeah, tell him that I still want to work with him. We were talking a couple of years ago about working together, and doing some live shows in the States. And it’s very, very tempting, and I can’t give you the full details, but it was an extremely seductive idea. And I was hooked. And then, for various interpersonal reasons, not between he and I, but other people, it didn’t come together, and both of us got busy. Anyway, so I’m saying to him, we’ll do it sometime.

I will be happy to send that along, although after this tour that he’s doing, he’s going to go back to teaching, so I’m going to have to find out if Musician Thomas is going to be let out to play again soon.

He’s got a complicated, multi-disciplined life, and he doesn’t need to do gigs to pay the bills. So the good thing about seeing Thomas is that when he goes out [on tour], it’s because he’s really decided he wants to do it, rather than needs to do it.

I just read his book. It was insane. Your touring schedule is also insane. How many dates are you doing in the U.S. alone?

I don’t know, but in my diary, this year, including the States and elsewhere, it’s nearly 80 concerts, I think. And we didn’t do that many back in the day [Laughs], so I don’t know how I’ve gotten into the situation. It’s because we were agreeing to do runs with certain bills (Note: he is referring to Culture Club and the B-52s), and back in November, I was working with the Culture Club and Boy George in Australia, and it went so well that we said, ”Hey, let’s do America together.”

At this point, his next interviewer calls in, and we say our goodbyes.

About the Author

David Medsker

David Medsker used to be "with it." But then they changed what "it" was. Now what he's "with" isn't "it," and what's "it" seems weird and scary to him. He is available for children's parties.

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