Thomas White Interview

This week sees the release of Thomas White’s new album Yalla, and I thought I’d find out a bit more about from him via the pubs he lists in the lyrics of the closing track English Sargasso: The Dorset, the Hand in Hand, Fitzherbert’s and The Globe.

Thomas White - Yalla!

We start things off at The Dorset, or to give it it’s full title, The Dorset Street Bar. There are records of The Dorset being a pub going back to 1845, so it’s been a firm fixture in Brighton for quite some time.

RO: So the album’s called Yalla! Where did that come from?

TW: The name loosely means “Let’s get going” or “Come with me” or “Follow me”, that kind of thing, but that side of it’s got nothing to do with the album at all. It was the name of a bar out in Dahab. It’s weird talking about it as a finished thing, because it was just a few little recordings on my laptop when I was out there. By the end of the trip I’d got the tracklisting roughly in my head and had worked out I wanted to do something with it. Straight after coming back from Egypt, I went on tour with the Levellers, and I played them it on the tour bus one night and they said “you’ve got to do something with this, what’s it called?” and the folder it was saved in on my laptop was called Yalla, and that just stuck.

RO: It was recorded out in Egypt, but before the Arab Spring of 2011, was there any hint of that at the time?

TW: I was out there September to October 2010, and then I went back out on New Years Eve 2010 and stayed for another two weeks. The second time I was there I left maybe two weeks before everything kicked off, and there wasn’t a hint of it. There wasn’t the smallest little sniff that anything might kick off.

RO: What was the process of recording it?

TW: I truly had nothing to do and I got a bit freaked out. I had just worked for nine or ten years solidly on music and never really taken a break. It was my first holiday in five or six years. I just don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t had my guitar and laptop and the means of recording. I’d go to a bar about seven or eight in the evening – the bars only get busy at the weekends – and just sit there and write stuff down and just doss on my own, and the next morning I’d try and get some kind of shape around the lyrics or try and fit the lyrics onto another chord progression.

RO: What were your influences when you were writing the album? It’s got a very 60s psychedelic folk feel to it. Is that the sort of thing you were listening to at the time?

TW: I was listening to a lot of The Clientelle – really great, maybe a little bit more twee – and a lot of Broadcast – I always listen to a lot of Broadcast and Trish Keenan’s my favourite singer – and a lot of Saint Etienne. I was really trying to get that light, female sounding vocal.

RO: The cover of your album is a piece of art made by your dad:

TW: I don’t really know the story behind it, I just asked if I could use it and he said yes. It’s called “Festival”. To me it looks almost like paving stones or crazy paving, or maybe the bottom of a swimming pool. It’s made of small cutouts from the Guardian and Observer magazines. He doesn’t want to do anything with them, it’s just one of his ways to pass the time.

The next pub in the song “The Hand”, refers to The Hand in Hand up in Kemptown, run by a friend of Tom’s. It’s also home to Brighton’s only remaining brewery. We decide not to walk all the way up to Kemptown, but it’s a good point for us to talk about record labels, which go hand in hand with the artist to put out a record.

RO: How did you end up on Bleeding Hearts?

TW: I’ve got to credit a friend of mine, Miles Heathfield (from the band Clowns) who basically badgered Chris Davies to put the record out. I’m sure he said to me “This stuff’s great, you’ve got to put it out”, and then the next thing I knew he said “I’ve spoken to Chris and he’s going to give you a call”. He made the whole thing happen originally.

RO: Had you played a Bleeding Hearts night before this?

TW: I had, yeah. I’d played it once or twice.

RO: And you’re playing the next one?

TW: Yep – on the 2nd April. The night after the London show.

RO: How does working with Bleeding Hearts compare to working with Fatcat – another Brighton label (who’ve put out the last couple of Brakes records)?

TW: I’ve not had that much to do with Fatcat personally, and the way that Brakes works as a band is completely different. I haven’t dealt with Fatcat in the same way – there’s a much more democratic band setup so it’s not comparable.

We move now to Fitzherbert’s, the third pub mentioned. Maria Fitzherbert was the Prince Regent’s unofficial wife – she was a catholic and a widower, and an official marriage would have taken him out of line for succession of the throne. Later, the Prince Regent went onto marry one of his cousins officially – Caroline of Brunswick (who gave her name to the pub by the Level) – but Mrs Fitzherbert continued to live in Steine House a few doors away from the Pavilion and there was an underground tunnel between the two. This seems like a good point to ask Tom about Brighton, and about his history.

RO: You’re one of those rare sorts – an original Brightonian, aren’t you?

TW: I am. Been here too long!

RO: So, why did you choose the four pubs named in the English Sargasso?

TW: Certainly I’ve spent enough time in the Dorset, and the Hand in Hand is run by my mate Matty Davies. And the Globe – tons of my friends work in there or worked there. I basically know all the staff – my friend Jordan started working there and I got to know everyone over the last few years and I met my partner in there. All together they just tripped off the tongue for some reason.

RO: On now to venues in Brighton – with Brakes you were one of the first bands in Brighton to play the Green Door Store.

TW: Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. It had been open a few weeks.

RO: Where’s your favourite place to play in town?

TW: I think the place that’s got the most sentimental memories is the Pavilion Theatre. When me and my brother first started playing in bands when I was 12 and he was 14 we couldn’t get in most places, but the Pavilion Theatre was all ages and we saw Silver Sun, The Supernaturals, Six by Seven, The Delgados, tons of gigs that at the time really important bands for us. Over the years, was the real aspiration for us as kids – “If we can play the Pavilion Theatre we’ve made it!” And then we did, and it was like “yeah, that was alright, let’s do something else”. But as kids, it’s big enough that it’s really impressive when you haven’t been to that many gigs. It seems that these days there don’t seem to be that many gigs around where you’re as excited by the support band. In 98/99 I went see the High Fidelity supporting the guy from the Soup Dragons, and Six by Seven supporting the Delgados, Uresei Yatsura, and all these bands that everyone’s forgotten about and me and my brother would be down there as excited about them, we’d be down there at 7 o clock queuing to get in. And that era of music isn’t that fondly remembered, but… I read a review of my first album recently – my mate brought round a load of old copies of NME that he wanted to chuck out and he was like “you might want to take a look before I throw these” – and it was saying that era was my generation, that was our Baggy or Manchester. It wasn’t much of a movement, but there was loads of stuff the first 6×7 album, the Warm Jets album, Good Humor by Saint Etienne. There was tons of stuff that really shaped what I do. I read an interview with Joel Gibb from the Hidden Cameras today, and he was saying he could basically trace everything he does back to a five year period from when he was thirteen to eighteen when he was taking everything in. That’s had a million times more bearing on what he does than anything he hears on the radio now. I think if it gets you at that age and it excites you, if it connects with you, you never lose it.

<The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips comes on the stereo>

This is a great record. We saw the Flaming Lips at the Forum up in London on the Soft Bulletin tour in 99 and that was really important to us, seeing a band doing it without the conventional setup. Everything you see, now and back then, was drums, bass, two guitars, bit of keyboards, and they just rolled up with their backing track playing through massive bass amps, a huge screen and a gong, and they just went for it.

RO: Why do you think it is that so many people in Brighton are so creative?

TW: I don’t know to be honest. It seems to be one of those places that attracts that kind of thing. It’s weird – it’s never had a unifying scene, it’s always little things going on and you can almost join the dots between all of them, but never completely.

RO: Do you think it might coalesce into a scene?

TW: I don’t think it needs that. It obviously has some kind of a reputation and people feel that they have more of a chance of making it here, but I think people realise very quickly that it’s a big brainstorm of tiny little scenes. Everyone knows someone in the next scene, but I’ve never been to a gig where it’s felt like everyone who’s anyone is at that show.

RO: The two big bands in Brighton at the moment are Maccabees and Rizzle Kicks, who are as different as two bands can be.

TW: Are Rizzle Kicks from Brighton? I’ve only ever heard the name. But I love Feel to Follow by the Maccabees, I think that’s an amazing song. I’ve never really liked the Maccabees, I thought they were a bit neither here nor there, but I’ve always liked Felix the guitar player. He’s a big fan of Brakes and would come up to us after gigs, ranting. But I heard Feel to Follow on 6Music, and I didn’t even know it was them, and just fell in love with it. It’s great.

It’s around now that my notes would have us move onto the last pub – the Globe – and lead the conversation onto the greater world of Thomas White and the other projects he’s been working on. But we’ve still got a drink in front of us, and we can hear ourselves talk so let’s just pretend we’ve moved on.

RO: You’re recording some new Electric Soft Parade next week – is that a single or an album, or are you just heading into the studio to see what happens?

TW: It’s an album. We’re doing four weeks. It’s all written.

RO: What about Brakes? When you played the Green Door Store in January last year, you said at the time that you were taking a day off of recording the new album?

TW: We got a lot of good stuff done, but Brakes doesn’t really involve that much input from me and my brother. That’s not something enforced by Eamon, we made the decision a while ago not to mess with the stuff he writes, to really just wait for him to write those classic Brakes sounding songs. We did a lot of sessions where we’d build backing tracks and he’d try and put vocals on top of them and it didn’t have the same thing, so we took a step back from it for a while. He’s just had two kids in quick succession, so we said to him “look, when you’ve got the time, get the songs together and we’ll go from there” rather than us trying to force it, so that’s what we’ve done, and he’s coming over at the beginning of April and we’re going to do a couple of weeks then and try and squeeze and album out of him. That’s really how Brakes works – we tried it in a few different configurations, but he’s one of those songwriters, a bit like Frank Black – it’s our band, but definitely his songs, and he’s got such a definite way of writing and such a strong voice.

RO: You also played on the Milk & Biscuits record that came out on Big Salad just before Christmas?

TW: That was done quite a while ago. I just helped Matt our recording one of the tunes on it, played on a couple of tunes on it, and made him a little video. Milk & Biscuits is really interesting – Matt has played in various bands, he played in a band called Zetasaur and plays in a band called Restlesslist.

RO: Weren’t you on the first Restlesslist Record?

TW: Yeah, and I played on and wrote a bunch of tracks on the new one. I don’t play with them live anymore but I record with them and write stuff. Milk & Biscuits was a little idea that Matt had, and he did a few recordings. I think he surprised a lot of people with that. I think a lot of people saw him as a guy they’d seen playing bass in a lot of bands, and he came out with this beautiful mini album. It’s great though.

RO: Is he going to do any more with that?

TW: Yeah, he’s got some quite elaborate plans, but I shan’t spoil the surprise.

RO: Anything else out there that’s about to pop out?

TW: We’ll just leave it at that, for now. I’m under oath. I’m not allowed to say.

RO: Finally, who else should we be looking out for in Brighton?

RO: I find those questions really hard. I think Kayla Bell from Foxes! is headed to do some really good stuff. She’s a really good singer. I don’t want to sound like a tit, but I’ve always felt she’s undersold by being in an indie band. I think give her a bit of space and give her quiet arrangements, something that lets her vocal sit higher in the mix. I think she’s great. Massively talented. There’s a great band called Fat Bitch – they’re a three piece, a bit Slint, a bit Don Cavalero, post-rocky stuff. Clowns as well. You should see Clowns. I used to play bass with them. That was a band I adored playing in, and I do miss it a lot, but I just didn’t have the capacity to keep doing it. But check them out, they’re amazing. The sound a bit like The Cardiacs, a tiny bit XTC, but more punk and more angry, just really interesting.

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