This an archive of an interview which was conducted by Total Blam Blam, news editor of David Bowie.com, where it originally appeared in 2009 following the release of ‘Songs From The Films of David Lynch’ the album which features Thomas’s version of the Bowie/Eno song ‘I’m Deranged’
What was your first experience of David Bowie and his music?
My older sisters were listening to ChangesOneBowie, and it was the one thing in their collection that immediately grabbed the attention of my radar and out shined most else they were listening to, to my ears. Oddly enough, and this is coincidental because it relates to the Lynch thing in a way, I’ve just remembered he was doing his part in the theatrical version of the Elephant Man at the time (my sister saw it, I didn’t, damn!).
I remember it being a comforting revelation that they regarded this skinny strange British man playing John Merrick as very attractive. I was pretty young and insecure at the time and in suburban America if you weren’t a jock you were a freak, it still seemed pretty clear that if you weren’t the muscle-bound footballer you were doomed. The revelation that you could be a ‘freak’ and attractive at the same time, that gave me a bit of hope. I bought Scary Monsters, and that along with some other great records became the soundtrack to my life at the time and helped me survive through school.
“Teenage Wildlife”, what a classic! Scary Monsters would still definitely be one of my desert island disks, nothing quite like it before or since. I’ve still got my original vinyl which is so full of dust and crackles. I gradually delved into the back catalogue as my slim finances allowed . A lot of records or songs can become important to you and define a period of your life, good or bad, but often you don’t want to revisit those records later because it’s reminiscent of a time or place or person that’s passed. The classic Bowie stuff is an exception to that for me. I still put on Low when I’m feeling low and it’s positive medicine, it’s somewhat timeless in that sense.
You chose to cover I’m Deranged for your latest album: Songs From The Films Of David Lynch. Was it a track you were familiar with before you embarked upon this project?
Oh yeah, both from the Outside album, where it fits into a certain context within the conceptual frame of that album, and from it’s use in Lost Highway, where it lives nicely in a different context. That said, it was the last track I chose for the Lynch album. I knew I needed to choose one more, but I’d shied away from that one initially, both because I didn’t envisage it working as a song I could pull off in my live performances which are solo (as it’s quite dense in Bowie’s version), and because I was just a bit wary of tackling a Bowie song.
In learning the song, was there anything that surprised you about it’s form?
It’s basic structure is simpler than you’d guess it would be. It’s built upon a progression pretty much of four basic chords that repeat themselves in a loop throughout the duration, both ‘verses’ and ‘choruses’. It keeps rolling forward over itself and you feel you’re traveling, which you are because different things happen especially with the variety of vocal melodies laid on top, but you’re also going around in circles. Because the Eno production is fairly dense and a lot is going on sonically, one’s initial impression would be that the structure would also be more multi-faceted.
Compared to the frenetic energy of the original, you’ve stripped the song back to produce an uncharacteristically but relatively laid back and traditional version of the track. How did you arrive at the decision to do that?
With most of the recording of this album things unfolded in a kind of serendipitous way, it has seemed all through the process a blessed project. I didn’t really plan, or have a preconceived notion of how it would work out in advance, I just knew that to warrant doing a Bowie track, at least for myself, I would have to do something distinctly different with it.
The obvious approach – because the DB version is very percussion-driven and, as you say, frenetic – and since I often work with self-made mechanical drum machines, would have been to get my machines rolling at full speed and build on that. But before I’d made a decision like that, and before I even decided whether it was right for the album, I was looking at the melody and the chords the piece was built on, and it became apparent right away that underneath all the busy instrumentation, in fact almost buried in it, is another one of those beautiful chord progressions that Bowie has such a talent for. So I decided to take the less-is-more approach.
There’s a loneliness and alienation and a kind of sad resignation that is kind of screaming to get out of the frenetic, cluttered space, which is part of what I’d describe as an almost trapped, claustrophobic feeling the Bowie/Eno version conveys, so what I’ve done, you could say, is to kind of take the shell off and hang the naked center up to glow in the dark of an empty space. It’s a really simple, strong song that can also shine on it’s own without much dressing. I had to really hold myself back from trying to embellish or produce it any more once I saw that, my natural inclination that I have to fight so often in the studio is: more more more!
You’ve been performing I’m Deranged on your current tour, how has it fared with your typical audience, if such a thing exists?
My audience is typically atypical, I’m proud to say! I’ve been pleasantly surprised by it being received really, really positively for the most part. I haven’t always been introducing it first like I do many of the songs from the album, and I think there’s a lot of people who know they’ve heard it. They recognize it, they know it, but what is it? And maybe it dawns on them halfway through, or even after, because it’s such a different version, but when two and two come together the reaction has usually been, as far as I can tell, one of surprise and delight. I don’t think it’s obvious from most of my music that I’m a Bowie fan, or that he’s had such a significant influence on me. It may have been apparent in my early days of doing music before I really found my own voice, but I also have always had such a wide range of musical tastes and influences, and Bowie’s influence might be less stylistic and have more to do with encouraging me to pursue my individuality. (“Nobody cares what you do, so please be yourself to death.”)
That said there’s another track on the new album, Wicked Game, which is also one that I was going to steer clear of because, well, you might say it’s Chris Isaak’s signature song and his version, in my opinion, is just so beautiful.
But, as with the Bowie track and most of the songs on this album, it wasn’t about out-doing or even trying to stand up to the originals, it was about exploring them and celebrating them from a different angle, so I just had a go at it, trying some different ideas just to see what would happen. At some point between playing around with an Ebow and a mechanical beat from Mother Superior I came across something happening in it sonically, maybe a hint of a ‘Heroes’ vibe, and rather than try to fight or disguise that I went with it because I felt it worked.
Those are two of the greatest love songs of all time in my humble opinion. It felt like a dash of Heroes in my Wicked Game was a complimentary ingredient, I’m quite happy with how that turned out.
You’re known for inventing and building your own instruments, such as the ‘Hornicator’ and ‘Mother Superior’ and for taping the sonar click of bats for the rhythm track on your cover of In Heaven (The Lady In The Radiator Song) on the new album. If you had to do another cover of a Bowie track for an imagined Bowie covers album, what song would you choose and what instrument would you invent for the purpose? Finally, what live creature sound would you incorporate?
Wow that’s a tough one. Maybe Chant of the Ever-Circling Skeletal Family, played on a large looping percussive device made out of whales bones, and embellished by a tank full of live rattling snakes!