Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey returns to pop music with “Science Fiction”

James Cumpsty

With his new solo album, “Science Fiction,” former Thompson Twins member Tom Bailey has made a welcome return to pop music. After Thompson Twins ended in the early 1990s, Bailey initially launched Babble with bandmate/then wife Alannah Currie. Babble had a more experimental approach, utilizing sampling extensively and incorporating influences such as world music, dub, and ambient. Bailey continued to shift away from pop with his next long-term project, International Observer, and participated in collaborations such as The Bailey-Salgado Project (with astronomer José Francisco Salgado) and Holiwater (a collective blending classical Indian composition with contemporary styles.) In 2014, he revisited his work with The Thompson Twins by starting to perform the material live again. This re-ignited his appreciation for pop music and paved the way for “Science Fiction.”

The following interview with Bailey was conducted as he was embarking on a US tour in the summer of 2018, with solo dates in addition to shows with Culture Club and The B52’s.

Since The Thompson Twins, you’ve released music as International Observer and been involved with other projects. What made you do a solo album at this point in time?

Tom Bailey: “I guess it’s a solo album because it’s pop music. That’s the significance. As you mentioned, I’d been making records all along, putting out lots of albums and things. It was really just performing some of the old Thompson Twins songs as a show that got me thinking again how much I enjoy writing pop music. That was a trigger. I soon felt like I was meeting an old friend; there’s something about pop music in particular that awoke some kind of muscle memory. It suddenly felt very natural and the right thing to do. As I was thinking about it, I was unsure, but when I actually started doing it, it felt great.”

Do you think the other work you’d been doing influenced your solo pop music?

Tom Bailey: “Of course, that’s the big payoff for dabbling in all these different areas. They inform each other. As long as you’re clear about what you’re trying to achieve, you can leave the side doors open to these influences. I totally love that. You’ll hear little bits of Eastern and Indian and dub and all sort of things in my pop music. Like people who listened to International Observer said, it was the most melodic dub they’d heard. It just crossbreeds.”

How much thought did you give to the expectations of Thompson Twins fans?

Tom Bailey: “It’s important to not spend too much time guessing audience reactions. By the same token, I think it’s completely realistic to know that you have to check some boxes. And I set out to make a pop record. So for me, it’s the same things that were important back in the 70s. Does it make you tap your foot? Does it make you sing on the chorus? Is it about something? Can you trust where it’s coming from? And I think as you get that right, you can expect the rest to take a natural course.”

Did you conceive this album entirely as a whole, or were there perhaps musical ideas that you’d accumulated over the years that you lacked an outlet for because they didn’t fit with what you were doing at the time?

Tom Bailey: “I haven’t really thought about that, but there probably were little ideas in the back of my mind that finally got out. What I think did happen was two or three songs in, I realized there was some umbrella concept. I was using a lot of imagery about space, looking up at the sky, just kind of stargazing. That overarching metaphor became important for me. And then at some point, I wrote the title track, and realized that ‘Science Fiction’ would actually be a good title for the album. It seems to have a foot in both camps; it’s about hard science and also the dreaming aspect of stargazing—the fantasies that we have about what’s out there and how it allows us to put a light on our present situation. I think that umbrella concept appeared maybe a third of the way through.”

So, you made this album primarily on your laptop?

Tom Bailey: “These days we’re very lucky that it’s possible to carry a sophisticated sound studio around in a backpack. Because I travel way too much, I’ve just gotten into the habit of working from a hotel room, really, or even perhaps more pleasantly, exotic situations as well. It means that when I’m home or wherever I have a workstation, I tend to not elaborate in terms of equipment because I know I’ll be traveling with these ideas. So aside from occasions where I decide that I need to use a particular instrument, or I go in to record vocals, which I usually do with someone else, then most of this is done on a laptop. That makes it part of the contemporary thing as well because so much music is made that way. They’re all doing it. It brings along a certain sound. There’s always a tension between wanting to fit in and wanting to sound different from everyone else. I hope that part happens naturally. I didn’t start doing this yesterday, so I’ve learned a few tricks. “

While making the album, were you thinking at all about how the music would be performed live?

Tom Bailey: “No, generally not. Looking back to the 80s, that was the big liberating moment from the Thompson Twins, when we stopped being a band who played instruments and started being a group of people who designed music together, designed a pop experience together. We made it a rule that we never worried about how we were going to perform it until we had the record made. Otherwise, it becomes a confining barrier to experimentalism. If you want to make a rhythm track by banging on the side of an oil tank, then you should do that. “

Does this lead to having to re-think or re-interpret songs for the live shows?

Tom Bailey: “Yeah. And that’s another thing you have to allow. As long as it’s recognizable and people can get into it, it’s totally acceptable to do different versions live than on the record. That’s part of this band and our performances. There are a couple of songs you’d know but they are not like you’ve heard before. People enjoy that, as long as you don’t mess too much with things.”

What factors went into deciding which Thompson Twins music to perform live?

Tom Bailey: “Well, there’s a funny story about that. Four or five years ago, when I first agreed to do a performance of the Thompson Twins hits, I went to my CD shelf and pulled out the greatest hits and the CD was missing. Someone had taken it out and didn’t replace it. So, I actually had to go into town and buy a copy of the Thompson Twins greatest hits. That’s how out of touch I was with that music; I hadn’t listened to it for a long time. I went into town, went to a store with my collar up, and tried to buy my own record without anyone recognizing me. On the way home, I was reading the tracklist on the back of the CD and pretty much decided then. It was completely obvious, with a couple of exceptions, that I’d chosen my set list, there and then. It seemed to be screamingly obvious which ones were needed. There have been a couple of adjustments. In the States, for example, there’s a song called ‘If You Were Here’ which was in the movie “16 Candles.” It’s much more popular here in the US than in the UK. And I love that song anyway, so it’s always a pleasure to do it. “

For the live shows, what is the balance in terms of new solo material and Thompson Twins songs?

Tom Bailey: “It really depends on the time. Recently, we’ve been opening for Culture Club and the B52’s, and we get 45 minutes so if we do a lot of new stuff, we’d have to drop some of the hits, which the audience doesn’t like! Headlining, we play for an hour and a half or something, so we play a lot of new material as well.”

What are the major ways the evolution of musical technology has affected how you work?

Tom Bailey: “They just opened up and democratized the making of records. Anyone with a little bit of spare cash can now make a professional sounding record. That’s a wonderful thing. It also leads to a lot of ‘music by the yard’ coming out, so you have to curate more carefully. But there is some astonishing stuff coming out from people who are expressing themselves freely because it’s not complicated by having to go through the mill of the music business.”

In the past, had working within the limitations of the technology helped shape your sound in positive ways?

Tom Bailey: “Yes, of course. Especially if you’re being experimental and pushing to the limits. You always find the brick wall you need to work around.”

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