Tom Robinson is a UK based singer/songwriter and broadcaster for the BBC. Former punk rock legend with The Tom Robinson Band, this year he’s released a new album and we had a chat with him to find out more about it!
Hi Tom! This is the first album you’ve released in 20 years! Why did you decide that now was the time to do it and how do you feel about that?
Well it’s really 19 years! The thing is, I was on the road for about 30 years, making different records and slugging around promoting them, and it was quite nice to stop for a bit. I got a job with BBC 6 music and so I’ve spent the last 15 years enjoying other people’s music and not having to stress making music of my own. But I never stopped writing! I carried on doing songs just for myself. I turned 65 this year, my daughter turned 18 and I didn’t have kids at home anymore, so it seemed like a good time to do it. Plus, I met the producer Gerry Diver and we just really clicked, he had a really fresh and modern approach to recording.
As expected, the songs on the album are very political- The Mighty Sword of Justice in particular has a powerful message about the British legal system.
There are actually only two political songs on the album, but reviewers have tended to single those out because they’re the most similar to what I used to do back in the ‘70’s. Also, I suppose when we play live those are the ones that really connect with people as they can relate to them. But really it’s just an album of songs about things that I feel passionate about; some about my kids, some about my friends who died of AIDS. It’s quite a broad palate and by no means an album of rabble-rousing protest songs.
Why do you think music can be such an effective way of getting important messages out into the world?
Increasingly the equalities we’ve had over the last 50 years are being eroded so I guess whatever field you work in you do the best to help the things you care about. If I were a bus driver I might wear a big badge saying protect our liberties, or if I were a journalist I’d be constantly writing about it. So, I don’t think music has any special thing about it, and I don’t think political music changes anyone’s mind to be honest. I think people only listen to the music that reflects their own prejudices, so I don’t think any reactionary Daily Mail readers are going to hear one of my songs and see the light *laughs*. But I don’t think that invalidates it, because if you’re preaching to the converted and they’re feeling ground down by a lack of political change and then they go to a concert and there are 200 other people who feel the same way, and you can all join in on a song together, and suddenly there’s solidarity and you feel like you’re not alone. It’s the individual audience member that can really affect change. People doing their day jobs, people with their families, their mates down the pub, arguing with other people. That’s what makes the change. So, you help give the tonic to the troops, the audience- but it’s the individuals that change the world, not the performers.
Lots of the issues you’re singing about now are similar to those you were singing about with The Tom Robinson Band in the ‘70s. What do you think this says about the state of British society today?
I don’t think there’s been a better time to live than now. I think it’s a wonderful time! I was born in 1950 and every decade I’ve lived in people have been saying, ‘Everything’s gone to hell, God it’s terrible’. But in the ‘50’s the atomic bomb was invented, we had the Cold War, we had rationing, everyone had to do national service…it was a bloody awful time! The so-called swinging ‘60’s were for a tiny minority and the rest of us were living under the thumb of the establishment. The Vietnam War was going on, there was the corrupt Wilson government and in the ‘70’s there were strikes all the time and race riots. It was horrible! People go on about the good old days of punk rock but I used to come off stage with people’s gob hanging off my bass string. Really ghastly times! * laughs * Then Thatcher, at her height with the miners’ strike in the ‘80’s. And yes, we’ve still got a horrible government, we’ve always had horrible governments *laughs* You know, there’s always been humanitarian catastrophes, the world has always been about to end but this is a much more compassionate and more tolerant and culturally interesting society than the one of the ‘70’s. The fact that a Conservative government brought in gay marriage, for God’s sake, unimaginable! And to have people of Pakistani origin who are frontbenchers in the House of Commons, like Sadiq Khan, what a wonderful man. So, I think this is a much better time to be alive than when I was singing with The Tom Robinson Band, it’s also a much better time for music itself, there are many more opportunities for musicians.
It seems like promoting new artists is important to you-it’s also part of your radio show on BBC 6. Why do you think this is?
It’s a bit of a mission because we never had that when I was starting out. The music industry was so hard to crack and to get into- and if the music industry didn’t give you permission nobody would ever hear you. So what my crusade is through BBC Introducing is to bypass the music industry as far as possible and to give a direct lifeline to artists to connect them with listeners. Because if somebody is listening to my show and they hear an artist they really like they can now just go online and send them an email or Tweet them or Facebook them and become part of their team. I only made this album thanks to having my A-team (which is basically my audience). It’s only because they got involved with my PledgeMusic campaign that I could ever make this record. It had nothing to do with the music industry, it was entirely directed between the creator and consumer and I think the more we can do that, connect creators and consumers, directly via the online world, the healthier music is going to be.
That’s very true!
Well, I think it’s true anyway! *laughs*
Otherwise everything gets lost in the horrible world of Simon Cowell and the X-Factor…
*laughs* And we really don’t want that! Definitely not.
Okay, so moving back to focus on the album. There seems to be a lot of different influences on there- Folk, Caribbean steel drums and Punk. Why did you want the album to have such a diverse feel?
Well, it’s a funny thing; it’s partly my age I think because I cut my teeth in the 1960’s when music was really quite rare, contrary to what you might have heard. A lot of great music was being made but we couldn’t get access to it. Records were ruinously expensive, it was a week’s pocket money just for a single and an album was a birthday or Christmas present. So when you had an album you’d go round to your mate’s house and everybody would bring theirs and we’d all listen to them on their dad’s record player *laughs*. Once a week we had Top of the Pops, so we couldn’t say ‘Oh, I only like country music or I don’t listen to pop’, it was all just bloody music! We lapped it all up, so I’m kind of genre blind, it’s just music to me and if it sounds good, do it! I interviewed Laurie Anderson yesterday, really interesting woman, she said a really good thing. She said genres are for bins. They were invented by American record industry chains like Tower Records in order for them to decide which bin they should put your record in. She’s particularly cross about it because where does she go in? Does she go under Avant-Garde, Electronic, Experimental, or Women’s music? Or because she had a number two single does she go in Pop? *laughs* So, to be honest, I didn’t even give a moment’s thought to the genres that are in there, but I suppose, yes, they are quite mixed up.
There are many guest artists on the album- some that aren’t even musicians- like Sir Ian McKellen and Colin Firth. How did these collaborations come about and why did you want to include so many artists on the album?
It’s all about the voice I think. Gerry Diver, the producer, although he came through folk music, his real passion is the spoken word and the human voice and he loves the different textures and personalities in people’s voices. He made an album of his own called The Speech Project- it’s an amazing thing. He got me to ransack my address book and find * laughing * as many wildly different voices as we could find.
There are lots of big names on there…
Well yeah, John Grant I only got to meet because of BBC 6, but we just hit it off and he’s kind of a soul brother really. He was making his own album most of the year and then went on tour with the Pixies and it was only just as we were finishing the album he got home to Iceland and we emailed him the backing track of the song and he did the duet long distance! He did it in a studio in Iceland and sent us the audio so that was a very lucky thing.
That’s the beauty of modern technology! To finish up then, are you glad to be back on tour and what was it like playing the festival circuit this summer?
It was a big surprise playing the festivals as so many people turned up! Obviously if you’re just playing a small stage in one corner of a big festival, like Latitude, or Glastonbury or Green Man, you could just be playing to three people and a dog if you’re not careful but we were just bowled over. People flocked from all over the place! We were playing at midday at Latitude on the second stage and there were 2,000 people there! Unbelievable, there’s a video of it, just to prove that I’m not lying *laughs*.
Don’t worry I believe you! And how did the fans react to the new material?
The new songs went down even better than the old ones so that was a huge surprise! It was really great vindication for the songs. There’s 60% old material in the set, you know, if people are paying £20 for a ticket you’ve got to give them stuff that they know- that’s part of the bargain- so we do the old songs the very best we can, and then 40% are new songs from the album. I think this is probably the strongest band I’ve ever had in the intervening years from the ‘70’s for performing those songs. We’ve got amazing players, we’ve got the drummer from Faithless, and so phenomenal playing means we can do justice to the oldest songs. My final message to readers would be that we hope people will come for one, and stay for the other.
Thank you for your time!
Tom is playing in Nottingham on the 11th November @ Rescue Rooms. You can find out more by visiting his website http://www.tomrobinson.com. His album ‘Only The Now’ is currently available for download on iTunes and in all good record shops.
Edited by Georgina Varley