Original Interview with Ghostchild at Visual Music Translated by Min with help from 2pa2 and Ghostchild.
To see a band in concert, that’s fine. To spend a whole day with them when there are two concerts in the evening is better. Visual took advantage of their day with The Electric Soft Parade to ask Tom White some questions. The interview’s chaotic since it began in the dressing rooms of the Bataclan with Tom petrified by the idea of doing a concert as a three piece and finished in a sort of general euphoria in the dressing rooms of the Showcase. Hence a more relaxed ending.
Visual: One year now after the release of No Need To Be Downhearted, are you satisfied with the record?
Tom: Yes, yes of course, I think that is our best record. It is important that your new record is the best. In addition a good half of the songs were ready for a long time, two or three years… “Misunderstanding” was ready for almost four years, not exactly as good as it is known now, but the basic idea, verses and choruses and all that… Well, tonight we play as a three piece…
Visual: What kind of composer are you? You write all the time or…
Tom: I do not write on tour in any case, you see hotels, the bus, all that… I need a 4 or an 8-track to work all that seriously. Otherwise you cannot reflect and do something good. Writing happens a lot when recording…
Damo: I think you and Alex write a lot with the arrangements already in mind…
Tom: Yeah, I rarely write a song on the acoustic guitar, I think more in terms of chord progressions. Little by little everything takes shape.
Visual: Do you and Alex write together or do you each get in your corner and see what you can do next?
Tom: Yes we write separately, we collaborate for arrangements, but for the words for example, we never wrote together, we never suggested things to eachother. It’s not good to mess with someone’s words. I wouldn’t tell Eamon what to write. When we’re doing the harmonies for example there are no problems but we do not interfere too much in what the other writes.
Visual: Did being brothers save Electric Soft Parade when you’ve had your label worries (Editor’s note: the group was transferred to Sony BMG after the album The American Adventure)?
Tom: Yes, at that time there was no money, no manager, to be brothers has helped. We’ve been through a lot of troubles… It’s a strange relationship. If we have an argument and someone tries to interfere, Alex and I are suddenly together against that person! It’s a brother thing, we can hate each other but I would never let anyone worry him. I’m the only one who can talk to my brother the way I do and I would not let anyone else do it!
Visual: How do you perceive your development as a composer? Looking for a move towards more sophisticated things?
Tom: It’s still pop but with a limited budget. After that it depends on a lot of things, if you’re on a big label or not… excuse me I am not in great shape before this concert as a three piece.
Visual: No problem… You will soon release a solo album. How did this happen? This was a longstanding wish?
Tom: Not at all, it’s just that I recorded a lot of stuff between Christmas and New Year… and I wanted to put that out, a record made at home. To go back to your question, I do not write all the time, but when it happens, I try to take advantage of it. For fifteen days I take out all my gear and that happens! Generally that forms the basis of a new record. However my record is a bit sloppy, it’s full of half finished ideas. Maybe I will make a record much more prepared/elaborated in the next few years.
Visual: It seems that ESP are not a typically English pop band, but that your influences are much broader…
Tom: Yes we listen to a lot of rather different groups. Alex listens to Chicago (Editor’s note: 70’s prog group) Hip-hop also. But especially Old Chicago. You see he is really obsessed with them. People do not realize that because this is only the music, it’s not as if he washed his hands all the time or I do not know but now it’s a fact: he listens to Chicago and nobody reacts!
The interview is interrupted because it is time for the group to go on stage at the Bataclan. The rest of the interview takes place a few hours later in the dressing rooms of the Showcase. The dreaded concert as a three piece was a great success, the atmosphere is therefore so much more relaxed…
Visual: At the beginning of the group Alex sang almost everything and now you share more singing, or you complete it. What’s happening? Alex is punished because he listens to Chicago?
Tom (laughing): No, no, it’s just that we sing what we’ve written. Well there are many moments where this is not exactly the case for questions of tone. Generally the idea is this: the one that writes sings. I always thought that when you’re in a group and you write songs, it’s up to you to sing, except for the covers. It is strange to sing the words of another. But for the last album we tried to vary things, for example, I sing the verses and Alex takes care of the choruses as on “Life In The Backseat” or “Come Back Inside” but we love to arrange for that it is difficult to determine whether it’s Alex or me who sings.
Visual: You told me just now that you begin writing when you feel that this is the moment…
Tom: Did I say that?
Visual: This is what I understood!
Tom: Ah yes, I think I expressed myself badly, I write all the time in the sense that I collect small riffs etc. but as long as I have not been able to record and work on it all, it’s only shit. As long as I cannot play it in front of someone, these chords don’t mean anything. Sometimes I have melodies that stay in my head for weeks and finally when I come to record them, I leave them in a corner for a while and I come back to work on them again and have a clearer opinion.
Visual: While working thus that must not be easy for you to know when a song is finished, you could want to rework it forever.
Tom: That’s true. Usually this is finished when someone comes and tells me: “you have a week to do that”. There I do my best to do all that I can in the minimum time. Anyway you can always turn to your old records and there are always a thousand things you want change… In fact this is a kind of discipline to learn. On the last record in particular there are songs where we very quickly knew they were finished… We wanted something that we can reproduce on stage, you saw just now with “Woken By A Kiss” even as a three piece it worked. We try to make songs that do not depend on the studio, songs playable even with a single acoustic guitar.
Visual: You were not even 20 years old during the first two records, you still appreciate them as much?
Tom: Ah… (taking a robotic tone) I like them very much, I think they are good (laughs) I explain to you, we had a guy at the Vienna concert… he told us that his girlfriend had dropped him the week he saw us in concert in York… in 2002! And he never got over it. He did not like our concert in Vienna because of that. He told us he had to leave the room when we played “Silent To The Dark”… fuck him! I have a lot more attachment to these songs than him and yet I play them every night.
There are groups who never listen their old records… I listen to what we’ve done when we’ve finished it but that’s all. You can not listen to your album and hear it as anybody else… This guy in Vienna I do not know what he expected of us! He says “give me your email so I can send you photos of the concert”. I replied “from tonight?”. He said “no no of York in 2002”. Why I would like to see that? This is from the past. If people like our old records, great, they are good but… The first… the second one is really good but Holes In The Wall, this is a nightmare, it’s like a machine you know.
Visual: You often do two concerts on the same day?
Tom: Alex and I actually played two concerts per day for almost a month in the USA with Brakes and ESP. It was really exhausting (Editor’s note: follows a series of jokes we do not retranscribe in order not to upset the sensibilities of our younger readers)
Visual: You played No Need To Be Downhearted in full with the help of projected films on stage. What was the idea for that?
Tom: Yeah we had to do it tonight but it is impossible for logistical reasons. I simply filmed Brighton, it’s just an artistic thing, there is no history. I had a lot of material so I montaged everything. It has cost a lot of money to buy a projector and all that goes with it! The songs on the album are good but I think it works out when you listen to the whole record. In fact the songs from our EP The Human Body are what represent us best.
Visual: It was not bizarre that the The Human Body has new songs and then No Need To Be Downhearted has titles that were older?
Tom: I wrote “Everybody Wants”, “So Much Love” and “A Beating Heart”, had “Kick In The Teeth” already ready, “Cold World”, this happened naturally. In addition it is good to have an EP of about twenty minutes…
Visual: Talking about “A Beating Heart”, it’s very impressive when you play it, there’s only four on stage and yet the instrumental passage of the middle seems enormous, as played by an orchestra. How do you do that?
Tom: This is a keyboard sound by Alex… an Indian lo-fi orchestra! That’s the point of A Beating Heart, three different parts – a minute of piano, one minute orchestral and one minute purely rock.
Visual: When you were a teenager you dreamed of this life or anything else?
Tom: You see today, this concert at the Bataclan, this is the kind of moment that gives you faith in yourself again, it was terrifying to play as a three piece but at the end it was great. But I have always dreamed of music therefore… If there was no music I will be a chef or artist.
Visual: How do you choose the covers, this is a special craving?
Tom: Yeah, some are old like “Always On My Mind” or “Happiness”…
Alex (who has just arrived): The trick is that we try to the max to make these songs sound like the Electric Soft Parade. When the Pet Shop Boys did “Always On My Mind”, it sounded like a new song.
Visual: This is what’s cool about your version of “Across The Universe”…
Tom: It’s the version by Fiona Apple actually! You hear it at the end of Pleasantville.
Alex: I relistened to Let It Be and I realized that “Across The Universe” is only a demo, there is nothing on it. I said “we will try to imagine what the Beatles would have done”… Lots of people have told us that it resembled the original but they are misled, just go and relisten to realize that is a demo! (Long digression on Phil Spector, McCartney)
Visual: To finish I made a short list of groups, including brothers, you can tell me who you’d like to be. Oasis?
Tom: Liam, he is cool, he does not care about everything.
Alex: I would be Paul, the third brother, the one that is not in the group.
Matt: Liam is a great guitarist…
Visual: Sure he is! Songbird and its two chords.
Tom dies of laughter: It is clear! And the words of “Little James” (He sings: “Live for your toys even though they make noise…”)
Visual: The Jesus and Mary Chain?
Tom: Probably William.
Tom: Ah yes there are the Greenwood… I would be… Phil! This is a good drummer. Otherwise Colin is a great bass player, but Johnny has too many effects pedals for me! I am not very keen on Radiohead you know, I have heard the last one which is not too bad, it’s better that Insomniac (Editor’s note: Amnesiac) or Kid A!
Visual: And the Kinks?
Tom: I do not know…
Visual: I will be Ray…
Tom: Yeah, but Dave he has this killer guitar sound on these solos.
Visual: Yeah “All day and all of the night”…