Light me a smoke, I’ll tell you a story. An interview with Tom McRae.

On april 9th 2013, I got up quite early and boarded a train to Brussels. On my way to the capital I had a list of questions prepared, still adding and scrapping stuff with a pencil, trying to calm my nerves. This whole thing was something that came up quite suddenly, as I gathered all my courage and request an interview. After running a fansite for seven years, perhaps I was now ready to take that step.

Walking through the rain I got to the ABCafé ten minutes early. Hearing Tom’s voice on the upper floor, it hit me this was going to happen, and seconds later he stepped down the staircase, giving me a very friendly and welcoming hello.

Minutes later we’re both enjoying a cup of coffee, and Tom manages to make me feel at ease.
I hit the record button on the camera at the back… here’s what followed….

So you came in by train ?
Yes, yesterday evening because we’ve got a long full day today and I wouldn’t risk the Eurostar not running or something.

So, I’ve got two A4’s.
Okay, fire away

I have absolutely no idea…

Sure.
What it’ll be. I also asked a couple of forum members what they’d like me to ask, I hope it’s interesting
(smiles) O.K.

Alright. First of all congratulations on the success of your album.
Thank you, well, you know you played a part in it as well. It’s surprising, really, kind of  just what’s happened. I know it’s not going to chart, it’s not going to sell millions but it’s gone really well. The reactions are really good and the tour’s been good.

Yeah, it really took off. I was just wondering, you wrote an email not that long ago because of the success you’d be releasing it officially. I was just wondering for me personally, how big was the part that I played or how small was it because I got you some airplay on Radio 1.
Absolutely, and that was key really because the reality of doing records yourself and doing it DIY-style without a label is that you’re in such massive competition with stuff released by labels even if it’s bad music that no one likes it still gets written about, played, promoted because the labels will go into the radio stations newspapers and magazines and they will make sure that you write about them so you can’t really compete even if you’ve got friends and allies within the media. And so I thought, I’m not going to bother because without a label to do that it’ll never happen. And then you made that happen, just by, I say just but you gave them the record, hassled them and that did it. And I thought, well, that’s really, if that’s possible to do…(pauses)

It’s quite strange, isn’t it ?
Well, yeah, that never happened, I mean it doesn’t happen in the UK, it wouldn’t happen anywhere and I took encouragement from that and I thought, well, actually maybe there are enough people who still remember me, who are still in the business somewhere who… I can actually do what you do, I can directly ask for help. You might not like it; don’t play it. You might remember me, you might not. And actually not be afraid to ask, so I took your kind of lead, yeah you definitely played a big part.

I’m happy for that, I really am, because I think the crowd or the audience across the UK, across France, across Belgium they really do want to help and make a difference in some way even if it’s small, they will.
It’s funny because, even five years ago someone like me would be considered a pretty tiny artist, somehow clinging on. Even, having been on a major label in the early days. But now the world is shifting and to have the live audience that I have in the numbers that I have around the world is… People would kill for that. So, yeah, I’ve been sustained by this audience that is not the biggest, but it’s the most loyal and generous and you know, I feel incredibly lucky.

So, the record label was it a direct result of the success of the album or was it something you had been planning for sometime ?
Well I just thought I would never be on a sort-of record label again, having left Cooking Vinyl, who are fine, good people. In my experience over the years I just thought the world is changing there’s nothing that I can offer a label especially with this record that would encourage them to promote it. Because it’s a business, they wanna make money. They’ll hear my record and they’ll go… “Tom, it’s a lovely record, but it’s not going to sell”.  And I understand all that, to be fair they have been telling that my whole career. So I thought, why bother ? I won’t embarrass myself or them. I’ll come up with a name, “Oh, look, there’s a buzzard in a tree, we’ll call it buzzard tree records” and I’ll pretend I’m chief executive officer on my own. So I sit there, with my wife, and we’ll do it as a little home-industry. And it’s kind of, it’s a lot more fun. Every time, there’s a sale, we get an email or every time we get booked for a show it’s like a little triumph. Which, in the old days, on a label, you felt like you were failing if you didn’t sell a hundred thousand in the first week. You were made to feel like you’ve failed. So, I’m kind of enjoying it, really, small boutique.
You’re liberated in a way
Yeah, and also because the big business doesn’t really exist to help anything other than the big commercial acts. I think the world is dividing into kind of the music that labels are prepared to promote and the music that people release themselves. If “My bloody valentine” do it, “Radiohead” do it and people with a bandcamp page can do it, why can’t I be somewhere in between ?

The album, from the lowlands, was it intended to be an album on itself or was it to abridge the gap between Alphabet of hurricanes and the next album ?
Well, really, it was part two of Alphabet of hurricanes that I had abandoned, I wasn’t going to finish. And I had kind of given up on that idea because I’d left Cooking Vinyl and they own Alphabet. But I had these songs and I had gone into the studio to start on a new record with my band in Wales and we made that record, it’s great I love it and we’ll do something with it. But these are the songs that kind of kept coming back and I started adding a couple of more songs which didn’t fit the new record. So I thought, this actually feels like I’m finishing part two and instead of abandoning it i just thought “You know what, I’ll do it myself”. I won’t make a big thing about it, I won’t… I’ll just finish it, and if I like it I’ll come back to it. And I liked… enough… to put it out and tour it and I’ve never toured solo before, while this is the right record. So, very unusual for me everything started to make sense, normally it never makes sense.

The album it deals with loss, tragedy in some ways. It feels like a very personal record this time around. So are you trying to come clean with things in your private life that happened or are they rather just stories you came up with, based upon emotions.
Eurm, that’s a good question. (pauses). I think I’m starting to shift my writing away from being explicitly directly personal. It’s more, sort of, character or narrative based which draw on some of my experiences but aren’t specifically about me because after a while you go insane as a human being trying to lead the sort of life to give you the material to write the songs. I’d be dead. So, no, I believe that you can be a good artist, an honest authentic artist and still draw on people’s experiences so… I did a bit of that, I think I’m starting to learn how to do that. Just sort of, slowly understanding it but also I did combine that with some of the most explicitly personal songs I’ve written, just to kind of almost show to myself that you could do that and it would be okay, not being self-pitying or you know.

It features a stripped version of “Sloop Jon B”
(affirms) Yeah
Which is very very… it’s completely different from the original. Nearly every artist has got one; a covers record. Is that something you might do in the future, and if so, what song would you really like to tackle ?
Hah, that’s a really good question. I think that (pauses and thinks) for those cover albums to be interesting I think you have to pick something that’s not really in your gene pool of music. So I think I would have to, which is why Sloop, when I was asked to do Sloop John B., I thought perfect, that’s just so not the sort of song that I’d write and I love it. You have to kind of find something about your music in someone else’s songs so I think I’d have to do something like, you know, up-tempo, upbeat.  Super commercial songs, like Abba or Scissor Sisters or something just to find something different because there would be no good from me covering artists that I love. Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, it would be boring, plus I couldn’t get anywhere close.
And they are already perfect versions so there would be nothing more to add.
No, I think, you know, who did the Cover of AC/DC songs, was it Mark Kozalek or Ryan Adams or someone…
I think Mark Kozalek.
Mark Kozalek,  and that’s cool. I mean that’s a good way of doing it.

The result is a quite lengthy and successful solo tour, as you just mentioned, do you think this will finally get you back to the States because it’s been a while since you were there.
I’m booking a tour, even as we speak, I’m planning on going back in October. I’ve not gone back for a bunch of reasons. It takes up quite a lot of the year to plan, to go, it’s expensive. And I kind of focus more on Europe. When I moved to the States, I was living there, I felt like I’d let things slip a bit here. It’s arguably slightly easier for me to tour here.
It’s hard to keep track of both worlds.
Yeah, without the label support to flip in between. So I kept going back to the States every year but more to fill up and to write, which I’ve enjoyed but I think it’s time to go back and play so yeah, hopefully October.

Would you consider ever doing a B-sides tour, or a setlist specked with a couple of seldomly heard songs for the hardcore fans.
I don’t think I’d do a specific tour like that, I might do a one-off show or something for a very specific reason or … and I think this solo tour has allowed me to actually do that more, to slip in a few songs, to do stuff that perhaps not everyone knows. A couple of B-sides, things like that, which I can’t do with a band because with a band you’ve got a very set amount of time to rehearse.
You can’t do everything…
Yeah,  you can’t do everything and a band show has a different ark, when it’s just me solo I can kind of make it up on the spot. So I have certain things that I know I want to do, rehearse to give the show shape and kind of give it an ark or a direction and also slip in things just so I can remember how to play them.

The fans, what do they mean to you because I imagine from time to time you see familiar faces on the front row in different countries.
Yeah, a casing point. I do, all the time actually. I’ve long since stopped calling people fans, I call them friends or, you know if I don’t know them an audience who I seem to see all the time. It’s something that  you hope for when you start, because you can find people who like your music. But then you start to think  I don’t just want to find people who like my music, I want people to like my music in the way that I like other peoples music. I want them to make my music part of their lives. Even if that happens on a really small scale,  it makes everything worth it. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s not the biggest room in the world, it’s not the fullest room in the world… I have a connection and I feel honoured by that. But also not.. the relationship is imbalanced with me preaching to the crowd, it feels like actually we’re all a little gang, we’re all doing this thing together. And the show wouldn’t work without the energy of the crowd and I wouldn’t perform in the way I do without the conversation that goes on. So for me it feels like we’re all putting on a play together.

This might be a too personal question so forgive me beforehand…
I’ll ignore it if it is…
Fine, deal. I think it’s safe to say that two years ago we got scammed by a certain fan.
Yes.
While it was a terrible shock for us to say the least it must’ve been far worse for you because I believe, we never really discussed it, and I’m not going to dig into deeper…
Oh, I don’t care.
Alright, luckily, but I do believe it really invaded your private life to a certain amount so I thought, this only happens with the Springsteen’s, Bowie’s, Jackson’s in this world and it happened to you.
You’re saying that I’m not as big as those people ?
I want you to be ! (both laughing).
How has this affected you, when you’re on stage now and see the front row, your image of the front row people must have gotten a beating after that ?
No, not. Because, the age of the internet has proved something to all of us and that’s there are a bunch of damaged people out there. You’ve only got to read the comments section of the newspaper websites to get a slight idea of how ill people there are.
And, so, it’s not damaged my perception of my audience at all. And the real truth is I’ve had people like this person and like this incident from the start.
You did ?
From my first record I’ve had weird letters. In the old days, when, you know before the internet, well the internet was around but you’d still get letters I was getting weird fan mail. And the record company wouldn’t go through it. They’d just send it straight on to me. I’ve even had death threats from the first record.
Death threats ?!
Yeah, I did, this is genuine truth I’ve had death threats. And you look at them and you think, well…
How can you bother even writing that ?
Well, yeah, it…. seems so meaningless. There was only … I don’t think I’ve ever even told this story, there was only on one point on my first tour where I’d had a couple of letters in a row and we knew it was a fan from France. And, one girl, got up on stage and ran from the side of the stage at me at a show in Toulouse. And (laughs) because there was a slight nervousness in my touring group, my tour manager ran on and we tackled her. She just wanted to hand me a note, and tell me she was on the forum so that was the only incident where other people have reckoned but no it doesn’t bother me. And this incident with the forum fan, it’s meaningless. There are damaged people out there. If you stand up on stage and do what I do you’re gonna get a certain amount of that. There are people who write to tell me how rubbish my records are, how bad I look, how much weight I’ve put on, how terrible my hair looks, I don’t care. You know.
I think it’s the only way to cope with those things
Yeah, if someone would turn up at my house and started bothering me that would be a different issue. But, you know it’s not going to happen.
You know, that was personal because we wrote emails and some of us even were making plans to go to a funeral which wasn’t going to happen. So for us, as a fanbase, it was a little important to know…
Also, she’s not well. There’s a difference, I think there’s a certain element of being a fan of music. You know, I’m a mad fan, if Springsteen’s playing I’ll get down in the front. There’s a line, kind of on a spectrum, where at some point that can go weird. And if you combine that, you know, with an illness it can’t go worse. I just feel sorry for her.
Alright.
No problem.

I remember way back, preparing for this interview I watched some older interviews, you said in 2005 you’d sacrifice your music career if it would mean to live a happy life. So here we are, seven years on and we’re happy to still have you around of course. Though, listening to “All that’s gone” was it written as a definitive goodbye at some point ?
My resignation.
Do you still have that feeling ?
I think that’s, I mean it’s very obviously from my point of view and my perspective as a songwriter. But it’s also about all my friends. A generation of artists who I’ve kind of grown up with who’ve… we’ve shared a lot of the same experiences so I wrote that from both my point of view and from a lot of people I hang out with now. Who feel we’ve been doing this long enough to know that, you know, we’re not going to be superstars. The dreams we’ve had as teenagers aren’t going to come true. You know, but actually that has nothing to do with success or failure, it’s actually just growing up. That’s growing older and realizing that even if you had any of those things and I’ve got very successful friends. It’s the same thing, there’s only one amount of money and one amount of success and one amount of time and that’s not enough. So you got to go at that point, you know, I’ll take what I’ve got and be grateful.

You’ve been looking for ideas for some new merchandise over the past months and years,
(laughs)
And you took suggestions, and riding the train here I had another one pop into my head and that would be to have a song book with chords and lyrics to actually get it right for us aspiring guitarists. What new merchandise items can we expect, are there any things new…
(hesitates) Yes, which we….
Or are they still secret.
Yes, they’ll remain secret. We were working on merch for the album that I was making with the band which we will eventually release and tour, there are lots of things that tie in. I like it when the merchandise ties in with the record, makes sense and makes it as a universe.
The umbrella for instance.
Yeah, all those things. I mean you have fun with it because my relationship to merchandise I buy from other artists is because it’s fun, you feel like you’re both supporting the artist and you’re getting a memento, with the t-shirts but we think quite hard about it. Because you never want to rip people off, everyone knows why you have a merch stand, you want to make money, but you want to do it with a kind of charm and a sense of humour. I think we try and do that.

Have you reached a stage of contentment regarding your musical achievements in terms of sales, gigs…
God, no ! Not anywhere close. Every year I’m going to quit. And I think I’ve failed and I still consider myself  a failure on a lot of levels but that’s because that drives me forwards. I want to do better songs, I want to do better shows, I want to reach the biggest audience. I think that’s the reason I keep going. I’ve… This kind of sounds strange, but I feel lucky to be doing this. Again, a lot of friends can’t do what I do because they don’t have the live audience. So I feel in many ways, even though I’m not written about, even though I’m not kind of in the mainstream, I’m actually doing a better than people who were bigger.
You’re on tv tonight
I’m on tv tonight, so yeah I’m not going to complain about where I am but if you’re asking me if I’m content, no. I want the world, and I want it at my feet.
That’s a positive thing to know that you’ll keep going until you have reached that.
That’s my mission.

You also said that artists need to work more cooperatively in order to survive, something you demonstrated very well with your Hofel Cafe tour. Is that something that remains possible for the future and if so who would be on your dreamteam ?
Hah, there’s a good question. Well, first part it’s very difficult now in terms of finance to make those shows work. I fully intend to do something like that again, because it’s so much fun and money is the worst reason to not to do some things. So I think we’ll do it again.

Ultimate dreamteam ? I’d love to put on a show like the “Last Waltz, The rolling thunder” type of shows, and have a bunch of my, well Hotel Cafe was kind of like that really so I don’t see the point in grabbing people who are already massively established, like me calling up Bruce and say let’s do a song together. A, I couldn’t do it but B I like the idea of presenting the audience stuff that they normally wouldn’t hear. So it would be the same people I’ve always asked. Catherine Feeney who has got the best voice I have ever heard, it would be my friend Kathryn Williams from England, it would be Jim Bianco and, you know, Steve Reynolds, and those guys. Because it’s fun, you know.
And you know them already.
Yeah, I know them and one of those guys, Brian Wright who’s hands down one of my favourite songwriters who just happens to be a friend, has agreed to play in my band from time to time so I’m kind of living that out.

Are there any artists you feel especially related to in terms of  artistic activity or career path.
(sighs)
Not really no, because I still don’t think of this is a career. I feel I stumble from stepping stone to stepping stone. And I look around and that’s the only connection I get with other people because that is what they did as well. The people we celebrate now, the grand old men, you know like Leonard Cohen stature, even again Springsteen, these people is that it was ups and downs. You know, it was never a royal road to success.
Leonard Cohen has the biggest audience now…
Yeah, absolutely and even somebody like Nick Drake who’s been dead for how many years ?
Over 30.
Yeah, he sold six thousands albums in his life and now he’s dead he probably sells that a week, a day. He’s a huge artist. I think that… Don’t think it out. I don’t associate myself with any artist I just look at people who I admire like, well you stayed alive and stayed doing it. Other than that I don’t see a plan I just kept going.

Have you ever considered a drastic change in the style of music that you’re making ?
Yeah, yes. Drastic is probably not the right word because if I was going to sing it would still sound like me unless I faked a different voice. Yeah, in fact, I’ve got a side project on the go at the moment which I’m not sure about because I’m just feeling out whether or not I’m good enough at it. But yes I have thought about changing. And arguably think I am going to. I don’t know if it will be a Tom McRae record or something else.
As part of a band maybe
Yeah, part of the band or just kind of changing myself. It’s more fun. I like, I do those things anyway, but if I’m going to dress like this, talk like this present myself as Tom McRae, that’s my main source of income.

Talking about drastic changes, you mentioned a couple of times you’ve been busy writing a book, how’s that coming along ?
Again, it’s like everything else I do, I have no idea what I’m doing. I just started writing it, think I was going to start a memoir of the music business. Then I thought well everyone’s doing that, everyone is trying to write a book about it. Who really cares about me and what I’ve done ? And whatever my opinion of life is, no one is going to care. So I kind of shifted slightly from that writing into a bit of a hand book for people who perhaps wanted to do with music, it became a little bit of that. And then it also became a bit fictionalized so I’m writing this book but I don’t even know what it is anymore but I’m going to carry on.
Mark Everett from Eels, E from Eels did it with critical acclaim.
Well, of course he’s massively famous but I’m going to keep going, it’s interesting. I’m learning as I go.
It might be a nice item for the merch stand.
It might be. Would anyone care? Would anybody be interested in it ?
Yeah ! I think they would, I really do.
Okay, I’ll keep going. You can proofread it for me.

What recent albums or artist have you been listening to at the moment ?
Super recent. Well I think my favourite artist at the moment is Anaïs Mitchell. Do you know Young man in America, the record ? Before that, I can’t recall what it was called… “Hades… ”  Anyway, She.. “Hadestown”, she’s brilliant, fantastic singer songwriter, a great story teller. I love Feist, huge fan of Leslie Feist. Those are the records I keep listening to at the moment, I haven’t heard anything in the last, sort of year, that really got under my skin but that’s perhaps because I haven’t been actually searching so you know. Anything you recommend ?

Well, I was blown away by the new album by David Bowie, The Next Day.
Oh yeah, I still haven’t heard that. Should I listen tot hat ? I haven’t got it but I intend to

(Somebody comes in and kindly tells me I still have 5 minutes)
The new John Grant album.
Oh yeah, I’ve heard bits and pieces of that. I like that.
That was the main reason why I asked if you’d consider a switch in style of music because he did that and I hadn’t listened to it in the shop I just bought it because I liked the previous record Queen of Denmark.
Which are very different…
Yes, and I thought, is this the right cd in the package ? It’s been in the cd player ever since.
Well, I think that sort of changes have to come from within because, to be honest, every record company wanted me to change, to do this and I’ve got this theory about… If you’re an artist, if you’re Picasso, you paint like Picasso but you also can draw hands. You learn how to do the basics really well I think I’m just starting to get a hand at the basics and now that I think I can do that, I can move away.

I’ve got two more…
Sure

I know you’re not fond of concert films, live DVD’s so to speak. Still, might we expect a from the road kind of thing, documentary of 10-15 minutes ?
We talked about that, again, it’s hard to do it because I think … what interests me is to turn everything into some form of art. So a memoirs book, if it’s a straight memoirs, that would be boring but if it becomes slightly fictionalized it gets more interesting. The same with, sort of documentaries and things like that it’s as if they tell a story within themselves rather than just the “backstage” stuff . Have you seen the movie called “Searching for the wrong-eyed Jesus” ?
No, I haven’t.
It’s by a guy called Jim White
Jim White I know yes.
Get the movie. It’s about him driving through the Southern States and the characters that he meets and it has his music in it. And that’s how to make a good movie and involve your music and it would be art. It hangs together. If I could do that, that would interest me.

Alright, so when Tom McRae is not recording, touring or doing interviews like this, what keeps you busy ?
At the moment, and I am seriously, very boringly getting into gardening.
That’s a typical English…
Very typical, very English and also I’ve discovered that it calms me down. I thought I’d be slightly less angry at 44 but I need to get into the garden and I get out and dig.
Meaninglessly for hours on end, (holds an imaginary shovel in his hands and digs holes in the air)
Looking for gold or oil.
No, I uncover cow skeletons, but yeah I love doing that and walking a lot. I’m living in the countryside, it’s quite new for me. That’s where I do my thinking; digging and walking.

Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you.

 

I had no idea at all what I was doing, so I hope that this disadvantage
made me ask interesting, different and maybe memorable questions than the ones the professionals have asked.

Thank you, Tom McRae, for granting me this opportunity, impossible to forget
and for making me feel at ease for this interview. I owe you one.

Nick.

3 thoughts on “Light me a smoke, I’ll tell you a story. An interview with Tom McRae.

  1. A brilliant interview Nick, it flows so well from question to question :)
    My highlights are the ‘new secret merch items’ and the promise of another fab Hotel Cafe Tour :)
    Thanks again
    Gina x

  2. Great interview. It’s like he comes across as a person instead of an artist (which happens in most music artist interviews). So you’ve succeeded in your mission I’d say! Thank you for sharing!

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