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Regular contributor ("Carson City Limits" and other content) for Random Lengths (circulation 56,000) in San Pedro, CA, 2001-present. Manga reviewer: LA Alternative (circulation 150,000), 2005-2006. Some manga reviews also ran in NY Press around this time. Entertainment reporting: Music Connection (circulation 75,000), 1983-1906. Travel writing: Oakland Tribune (1998) and Life After 50 (2006). Other bylines: Goldmine, Star Hits, Los Angeles Reader, Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Press Telegram, Blade, BAM, Daily Breeze, LA Weekly. Specializations include community news reporting, writing reviews (book, theater, concert, film, music), copywriting, resumes, editing, travel writing, publicity, screenwriting, lecturing, and content development. Education: B. A. Theater Arts, UCLA. Post-grad work, Education, Chapman University.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Thompson Twins: 1987 Interview

"East is East and West is West…Keep moving out into the gap."

-- The Thompson Twins, "Into the Gap," 1984

Note: my previously unpublished 1987 interview with Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie of the Thompson Twins is part of a sporadic series of interviews from my archives.

Remember how the Thompson Twins blended European synth-pop and World Beat? With three members that mixed gender and race, the band brought a new level of cultural diversity to the MTV age. They began in 1977 at the height of the London punk scene, when Tom Bailey was classically trained, Alannah Currie was much more the angry young punker that took out her emotions on sax and percussion, and Joe Leeway was a black guy who lived in the same squatters' community of starving artists and musicians. Bailey formed a standard four-piece rock group and the line-up shifted around as Currie and Leeway (and others) joined and originals (and others) left, eventually transforming into the totally eighties trio that gave the world such hits as, "You Take Me Up," "Nothing in Common," "Sister of Mercy," and "Into the Gap."

Tom and Alannah granted me this interview during the press tour for what proved to be their last major album, Close to the Bone, in 1987. At the time they were attempting to carry on as a duo after Leeway's departure. They'd just become public about their personal romantic relationship and Alannah had just miscarried a baby. (Wikipedia says The Thompson Twins ended as a musical entity in 1993; in those final years Tom and Alannah had two children, and got married in 1991--but are now divorced.) The conversation that follows stands as a summation of their career peak.

In person I saw the "chemical reaction" they described, beyond what their songs and music videos might show. Like their music, they possessed a connection born of contrasts. They could be compared to the couple in the movie Once, only he'd be the classicist and she'd be the street. Tom answered questions forthrightly, looking right at his interviewer. Alannah, despite her characteristically flamboyant dress and hair, was shy and demure, looked away and spoke softly—except when I asked her about women in music.

I: Your press release says you didn't replace Joe Leeway. Why not?

Alannah: Because Joe's irreplaceable. We don't really feel that we need to have anybody extra. It was really exciting when Joe was there and we were a three-piece. Now that he's gone, I write the words [and] Tom writes the music.

Tom: Joe would watch TV and make a cup of coffee, and then suddenly he'd walk in and after maybe a week [he'd listen] and [say] "What this needs is…" Boom!

I: How did you compensate for his contributions?

Alannah: We just ended up doing more work, but you can't, in a way. There's something about what happens with a band that people outside don't really realize. There's chemistry involved between the people in the band that makes for an extra factor—great songs or rotten songs.

Tom: We've been through about eight or nine different line-ups in ten years … so it comes as no massive shock that we've done it yet again and still carry on.

I: Alannah, let's talk about your songwriting. What patterns do you see in your lyrics? Do you find you often go back to the same themes?

Alannah: The way I write lyrics is just about personal experiences that I've had or that people very close to me have gone through. If I'm not writing lyrics, I'm writing poetry, then I'll write short stories, then back. In this album Close to the Bone we never start off with a theme. It just emerges. Because it's a record of your life, it's a bit like writing a diary. This album is very concerned with animal instincts, a seventh sense of rawness, about following your instincts.

She started writing as soon as she learned to write, writing anything, just to keep writing, regularly, emotionally.

Alannah: I don't sing the words I write. Tom sings. There's this constant search for—I write things from the woman's point of view, that are really for a woman to sing, and Tom sings them, so I have to change them or we have to talk about them. We're constantly searching for this human element that's not necessarily male or female. The song, "Sister of Mercy," originally I wrote it as a piece of poetry that was the sister's point of view. Then in order for Tom to sing it I had to turn it around.

I: One thing I've noticed about your songs, a woman writes them, a man sings them—you don't hear feminine or masculine emotions, you hear human emotions.

Alannah: There are songs that perhaps wouldn't come up if men were writing them. … I'm not interested in, "Come on, Baby, let's get down, boogie all night long, you have a sweet ass."

I: There's a line in "You Take Me Up," about "I know what it means to work hard on machines," that's a working person's statement--not a man's or woman's statement.

Tom: A sort of industrial-gospel song, and we figured the cotton fields of the eighties are the factories.

I: Does Alannah write the words and Tom write the music?

Alannah: It doesn't always happen that way. Often Tom'll do a piece of music and just throw it at me, and say, "What do you think of this?" I'll write something for it. I'll do a piece of words and say to him what do you think? We don't really have a formula. We sit in two rooms, connected or one above the other, and Tom works on melody and I work on words and when one of us has a good idea we throw it at the other, literally. Down the stairs or through the room and leave that other person with it. Loads of stuff that I write he doesn't like, and he writes music I don't like, so when we come together on something we both get so excited. … The best songs we've written, that fact that although we've worked on it for weeks or months [leading] up to it, you can never see what it is you're working up to—will always come in 20 minutes.

I asked about their third-world or World Music influence.

Alannah: I got involved with the percussion thing [after a man told her a woman would never make a good percussionist]. It was after playing saxophone. It was the part that intrigued me. We were living in a part of London where there were a lot of races. You use traditional [non-Western] rhythms then you change it and start using machine rhythms.

I: Even in your lyric structure, Tom mentioned gospel…the call and response… the harmonies. That sort of thing of thing was a part of rock to begin with but it's been buried. So once more it seems like something new.

Tom: Isn't that the trick? Writing great songs? Hopefully you have an experience that can inspire you to do this. Eighty percent of songs are about love, another way of saying, "I love you." It's so boring, so cliché, what we have to do is find a way of making that phrase—say it as a fresh line, as if that's the first time it's ever been said. That's being extremely general, obviously. There's rules, but you hope that [the combination of] the inspiration, the experience, the songwriter's craft, comes into making it alive.

I: Tom, a lot of men say, "I'll work with anybody who's got the talent," but you've actually done it—worked in partnership with a woman and a black musician. Have you ever thought about what makes you do that and not just talk?

Tom: A lot of it comes down to chemistry. We're not alike. We're theoretically a very bad mixture of people. But why me and Alannah got involved—professionally and personally—we found it throws up a third thing, a sort of chemical reaction.

I: But so many white males are surrounded by nothing but white males. You've worked for years in a trio with a woman musician and a black musician, although I'm sure you'll say that's not by deliberate, calculated choice.

Tom: I never saw it that way. People pointed out, we've actually had them tell us, "You guys are the perfect image for an integrated world." We're like, "What?" We were [just] neighbors on the same street!

Alannah asked me about an unnamed documentary program on women in rock that she saw and unfortunately I had to tell her I didn't. (With the silly certainty of hindsight, I now see I should have immediately asked her the title and more about it.) As she elaborated on the topic, her typically British reserve dropped away and she became quite fiery, speaking the language of sexual politics.

Alannah: Basically what everybody was saying was, we struggle, we struggle, it's still a male domain. But there are all these women struggling and they are all supportive. I've never come across a woman who hasn't been supportive. It's this fine underground movement. It's getting stronger and stronger. Now a woman doesn't have to be the vocalist. She can play an instrument; she doesn't have to be up front. No short skirts and low-cut tops in order to make it. But still everybody's suspect because the music business is probably one of the most conventional, for all its bleating about how radical rock music is. It's totally dominated by men. Music's for people, it's not for men.

Tom nodded in agreement as Alannah ventured deeper into feminist language.

Alannah: I think that this myth of female sexuality that is this passive pretty Playboy nonsense--female sexuality is very animal. Women are presenting that. It's a personal thing, when you have an orgasm, you don't lie there looking pretty in false eyelashes. You're like an animal and you sweat. That's what the song, "Bush Baby" [on Close to the Bone] is about.

I: Back to the business side of things—whether or not there's a movement of women in music, changes are being made.

Alannah: Chip away, chip away.

Tom: About our backing band, we have three women and three men. That wasn't like a promotional, "That'll look good." We did that because we wanted to have a balance. It's more fun if you've got a mixture of interesting people. There is no chemistry [in an all-male tour and] I don't think I could do that. It would be so boring!

Alannah: Somebody said to me the other day, the day it all went wrong was the day Tom met me. There's areas that want to see an all-male all-white rock 'n' roll band and wish the Thompson Twins had remained so. It's like trying to invalidate seven years of work.

Tom: It started off with four guys, yes.

Alannah: And then Joe and I joined.

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