Interview: Tom Bailey (Thompson Twins / Babble)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Interview: Tom Bailey (Thompson Twins / Babble)

From 1977 through 1993, the Thompson Twins – who in their commercial heyday were, as those who lived through the ‘80s know quite well, composed of three individuals, none of whom were related – were one of the more successful of the so-called “new wave” bands, earning seven top-40 hits during the course of their career, three of them hitting the top 10 (“Hold Me Now,” “Lay Your Hands on Me,” and “King for a Day”).

In 1989, after releasing five albums on Arista Records, the band made the jump to Warner Brothers, recording another two albums,Big Trash and Queer, before evolving into a new musical entity called Babble, but after recording two albums in this guise (The Stone and Ether), Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie – the stalwarts between the two groups, not to mention husband and wife at the time– decided to leave Babble behind them.

With Big Trash and Queer having recently joined Rhino’s digital catalog, we caught up with Bailey by phone and asked him to reflect on those albums, the transition from Thompson Twins to Babble, his semi-retirement from the music industry for the better part of the last two decades, and what led him to finally begin the process of stepping back in, as he’s doing this summer as part of the line-up of the Retro Futura tour.

Rhino: How was the transition for Thompson Twins when the band made the jump from Arista to Warner Brothers? Was it relatively seamless?

Tom Bailey: Well, I wouldn’t say that. [Laughs.] I’d say we probably were going through a lot of changes at the time, and behind the scenes we changed managers. We had a new manager, so I think he was keen to start us off on a new footing, because I think by that time we felt that we had too much baggage to carry with Arista. Not that Arista were a bad company or anything like that, but we needed… [Hesitates.] You know, we thought it would be good for us at that point in our career to have a fresh start, with a fresh set of people, and kind of re-launch and reconsider our approach to doing everything. Which we did: our way of working changed quite fundamentally at that point.

Certainly the band had a different sound when you arrived at Warner Brothers. There was always a dance element to the band, but it was more profoundly felt on Big Trash.

Yeah, I think it was partly because that was one of those moments where dance music was becoming important again, and the way that dance records had been made… Like, in the early ‘80s, the big breakthrough was electronics, using drum machines and synthesizers for dance records. By the time we moved to Warner, what was happening was that sampling – the looping of drum rhythms, drum samples, and what have you – created dance records in a new way. So suddenly the searchlight of interest landed back in the clubs, and everyone was kind of watching what was going on there again.

It was also a period where it seemed like bands that had been considered mainstream when they first debuted were suddenly being shifted over to the “college rock” charts, for whatever reason.

Maybe so. And in our case, maybe we were kind of rediscovering our underground roots. Because we did come from fairly – how can I put this? – minority tastes of music. [Laughs.] When we first started, we were by no means a mainstream pop success. We kind of discovered that as an experiment in how to get a hit record…and it was a successful experiment, but I guess we didn’t want to do it forever.

Nonetheless, you still pulled a pretty significant chart hit with “Sugar Daddy.”

Yeah! At least, I think it was. It got played on lots of radio stations, I remember. But it was the last of the pure pop songs for us, in a way, because we definitely got more and more underground after that. But “Sugar Daddy” was still a pop record, and in the best sense. And I remember Warner Brothers saying that: “Wow, that’s a real pop record! We’ll have to work it!” [Laughs.] I think they were expecting something more challenging and art-based.

You also had one of the great pop singers guesting on the album: Debbie Harry.

Yes, and on “Queen of the U.S.A.” We’d done some work with her – we wrote some songs for her solo album (“I Want That Man” and “Kiss It Better” for 1989’s Def, Dumb & Blonde) as well as producing and recording them – and we became friends, so…I guess by way of some kind of return favor she did that over the phone. Now, this seems crazy now, because these days we’d be going via all sorts of hi-tech internet connections, but she actually sang that down the telephone from her home in New York to the studio we were working in in London. [Laughs.]

Is there a particular song from Big Trash that stands out as underrated or unheralded?

Oh, they’re all completely underrated. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I don’t really think about it that way, to be honest with you. You’re bringing back memories: I haven’t thought about either of the songs you’ve mentioned for a long time! When you’ve mentioned them, I’ve just gone drifting back to those memories. But it was great fun. It was a new era, as I said before, and we were trying out some new ideas as well as a new way of working. We’d also pretty much decided not to be a live band anymore. Somehow we saw that video and being studio-oriented was the way of the future. And it was partly because of the concerts that a lot of people were doing then, but also, you know, we had young kids growing up and all this kind of stuff, so our taste for hitting the road for six months at a time had probably waned somewhat by that point.

One of the holdovers from your old sound was bringing back Steve Lillywhite to produce a few of the tracks.

That’s right! We decided to do two or three quite challenging, aggressive songs – or aggressive-sounding songs, I should say – to snap out of this kind of cute, pop thing that we felt we’d landed in too firmly. We’d been kind of boxed a little bit and felt that we were badly represented in that sense, so we knew that Steve could make a hard-hitting record and asked him to work on it. And that was great fun. We did them very quickly.

Well, nobody does bombast quite like Steve Lillywhite.

Right! He makes a big, big sound. And he’s also great fun to work with, and we get on with him very well. I remember also that those songs, in a way, were the point of confrontation with Arista. We kind of said, “This is the way we want to go.” So we were a little bit showing off our ugly side. [Laughs.] In order to make them think, “Hmmm…maybe we should let them go if they’re interested in working with a different company.”

Beyond “Sugar Daddy,” the only other song from Big Daddy to be released as a single was “Bombers in the Sky,” which was, uh, not a significant chart hit. But, again, it did receive at least a bit of college rock airplay.

I don’t know about the States, but over here it did quite well, I think.

[Writer’s note: It apparently didn’t do substantially better in the UK than it did in the US, as it didn’t manage to chart on either side of the pond. It did, however, make it into the soundtrack of Gremlins 2, so at least it’s got that going for it, immortality-wise.]

From there, it was onto Queer, the second of Thompson Twins’ albums for Warner Brothers, and also the last you and Alannah recorded under that name.

Yes, and that became quite firmly underground and experimental. Again, we weren’t really looking to have mainstream pop chart success. We were digging in a different scene. [Laughs.] Hoping to find gold of a different sort. But it was great fun, and that was recorded in our own studio, in the building we were living in in London…which is where I happen to be right now, actually. I rarely am, but I’m London for the summer, preparing for this tour. Normally I’m not in England.

It wasn’t a pop hit in the States – although it did chart in the UK – but “Come Inside” managed to be a top-10 dance hit in the US, at least.

Yeah, partly because we definitely made dance-club versions for that song. We kind of set out to reinvestigate the cool mood and the foot-tapping-ness that makes a good dance song. We did the loop-sample versions, and we also did house versions and techno versions. It was a time when there were five or six remixes for everything. [Laughs.] One for every different subgenre and style.

Do you think the album’s title had anything to do with it being more of a cult hit than a commercial success, or do you think it was the music itself that did that?

Yeah, it was, to a certain extent, confrontational. And it was trying to be difficult, I guess. Of course, the real derivation of the title was an Edith Sitwell poem…or, in fact, an Edith Sitwell sample, where the poet was talking about her work, using the word “queer” in its original sense of being odd or unusual. And we kind of seized upon that frisson, that strange sensation with the way that meaning changes. We used it to be controversial. I think we were being slightly naughty with it, to be honest. [Laughs.]

Looking at Big Trash, “Sugar Daddy” was kind of the gateway drug into that album. For Queer, do you think that “Come Inside” is the best way to try and approach that record?

[Long pause, followed by an exhale of breath.] I guess so. I mean, it’s a way of looking at it. And certainly the title is an invitation, so…why not? [Laughs.]

Again, you’re reminding me of things I haven’t thought about for quite some time…and sooner or later you’ll land one I’ve got no memory of doing! No, actually, I remember a lot of things, and one of the reasons is that I’m a member of a very selective club, in that throughout all of that rock ‘n’ roll madness, I never drank or took any drugs or anything. I, uh, sort of cleaned up my act before success… [Laughs.] …and I was resolutely sober throughout all that madness. So I have relatively clear recollections.

Of course, that also means that every mistake you made, you can only blame yourself.

That’s right! And there were a couple of accidental medications. [Laughs.] But otherwise I was straight throughout!

After Queer, was there any talk of continuing under the “Thompson Twins” name, or had you already decided that that’d be it and then it’d be on to Babble?

Well, I think in many ways the Queer album was the first Babble album, and the first Babble album was the last Thompson Twins album. [Laughs.] Now that was kind of a seamless flow from one to the other. Musically, it gave us the opportunity to be a lot more experimental and just to forget that people thought of us as hit-makers…which, in a funny kind of way, is a millstone around your neck, you know? They just want more of the same. “You know, this is all very interesting, this experimental music, but what we want is another certified hit…and we want it now!”

I understand that impulse, but it also closes down one’s options as a creative person. There’s a time and a place for writing mainstream hits, and there’s a time and a place for wild experimentation that takes you a long way from that, and we’d reached that point again. But the first Babble album is one of my favorites. As a piece of work, I’m extremely happy with it to this day. My other favorite is probably Into the Gap, which is our kind of high point of commercial success. But in terms of what is achieved, in terms of the creative challenges being addressed, the two often are exactly the same to me, although one sold millions and the other one…didn’t. [Laughs.]

So what was Warner Brothers’ reaction to you moving from Thompson Twins to Babble? I would’ve thought that they’d say, “Look, you’re dropping a perfectly good, commercially-viable name!”

Yes, why didn’t they say that at the time? [Laughs.] I think they were kind of bemused and wanted to see what we were going to come up with, and maybe we believed that it would be interesting, so…they were convinced.

I can imagine that, like the two Thompson Twins albums on Warner Brothers, you’d also see both the Babble albums as being underrated, but what are your thoughts on Ether?

I think Ether is the more difficult one. The Stone we recorded in London, in the same home studio that we did Queer; Ether was recorded when we moved to New Zealand and built a studio there, and…it became much darker somehow. I mean, there are people who think of that as our finest work because their taste happens to be on the darker side. [Laughs.] But for me… I mean, I don’t feel quite as happy about it. You know, I use this expression, “having met your creative challenges and having found solutions for them,” and I think on The Stone we absolutely did that. It was very clear what we wanted to do, and we achieved it. Ether was a bit more lost in its ambition, I think.

With the understanding that Wikipedia can’t always be trusted, the entries for The Stone and Ether both reference Keith Fernley as being a proper member of Babble as well as a producer. Was that the case?

Well, he wasn’t a producer. I was the producer. He was the engineer. But he was still very involved. We were working together so much at that point that he seemed like an integral part of the team, so we kind of had this idea that Babble wouldn’t be like other groups, with formal, fixed personnel. People would kind of float in, and then, say, someone who would work on some artwork for an album cover would temporarily become a member of Babble. That was the way we wanted to do it, so…that’s partly an explanation of what you’re talking about. But Keith was certainly very, very involved. In fact, he subsequently moved out to New Zealand to do the second album, so that’s how involved he was. [Laughs.]

In the wake of Ether, did you ever consider going back into the studio as Babble, or did you just decide that that was it for the time being?

Well, there were certainly demos of songs for the third Babble album, and then what happened was… I think Warner Brothers thought we were too expensive for what we were coming up with, so they wanted to negotiate a way out. And by that point, I was living in New Zealand, staring out to sea on kind of a subtropical beach, thinking, “It would actually be quite nice to not have a record deal right now, to see some other things.” And that really began the 20-odd year hiatus, when I was just making records that appealed to me for no other reason than that I thought it was a good idea, or that it was creatively interesting or whatever. It wasn’t in any way chasing success – unless I was producing someone else, in which case I took that very seriously – so out of that time came all sorts of things: electronic dub albums and Indian music projects and so on and so forth.

To bring things up to the present, you opted to end your hiatus this summer, hitting the road as part of the Retro Futura tour. What made you finally decide to dive back in?

Well, what happened was, I’d done some work with a Mexican musician called Aleks Syntek – we’re writing together – and he wanted to write a song in the style of the Thompson Twins. And having written it, he said, “Well, why don’t you sing it?” And I thought, “Hmmm, maybe I can get away with this after a long time. After all, no-one’s really watching.” [Laughs.] And I did it, and I enjoyed it. So without realizing it, I crossed that line – that fatal line! – and found myself singing pop songs again.

So are you excited or intimidated at the thought of going back on the road?

Both! I mean, I’m incredibly excited, but part of me is living in fear. But hopefully by the time I get to the States I’m going to be all right. [Laughs.]