A Town Called Thomas
We caught up with longtime gentleman troubadour Mick Thomas for an impromptu interview at Byron Bay Bluesfest 2012 after seeing him perform a set of brand new material with his band The Roving Commission and Oregon folk singer Shelley Short. The night before, he had also played with his legendary band Weddings, Parties, Anything do play a knockout set before The Pogues’ Bluesfest moment. He shared his thoughts about recording overseas, Melbourne’s supportive music scene and some of the ideas behind his new songs.
Interviewed by Les Thomas
What made you choose to record your latest album in Portland Oregon?
Darren Hanlon, who comes from Portland, was in the band with me for a while. I just really wanted to work with him and Daz had a lot of contacts there and the studio was cheap and the dollar was strong. It all makes a difference!
They also have a pretty strong music scene, with Blitzen Trapper being one of the bands here at Bluesfest. Were you able to get much of a sense of the music scene while your were in Portland?
Not so much the scene. We didn’t see that many band’s while we were there, but I guess it’s just the fact that there are so many musicians available to come in a play at the drop of a hat. You just get the feeling there’s something on generally in Portland. But we met Shelley [Short] and the engineer turns out to play for M Ward and someone from The Decemberists drops in while you’re in the studio. It seems like the kind of place where it wouldn’t take much time for people to start hitting you up to play.
Does it make a lot of sense economically to record in the US?
It’s nowhere near as bad as you might think. The strong dollar was incredible and they were slow to send an invoice which meant we probably save about $500 just because of the appreciating dollar at the time.
Playing music in Melbourne for a long time, and you’re closely associated with a lot of people doing great things in this area. What have you made of the development of country and folk styles of music?
I think it all goes back to The Dingoes; that’s a pretty prevalent sound in Melbourne. I think it’s got to the point where there’s always going to be a new songwriter coming through who’s writing about the town, so I guess that’s Van Walker this year and Ben Salter’s moved to town and i think that’s raised a few eyebrows ’cause Ben’s a pretty busy sort of guy. But they’re all great names and I’m really happy to be associated with any of them really.
You’ve got a knack of being able to write about places really well. How do you write a song about a place and not sound like you’re writing for the tourism board?
It’s a perennial problem, because the first time I went to Houston, all I wanted to do was go to Galveston and everyone just said “Well, Galveston’s a shit hole.” All I could think of was the song. So probably a million people go to Galveston expecting this beautiful place and apparently it’s not, so everyone talked me out of it. I guess I just have a love of the sound of place names in songs.
You’ve also done a lot of mentoring with young musicians.
Now you’ve got a lot of official programs run by The Push or APRA and I’m always happy to do it when they ask me to, but I’ve always thought it was part of being a responsible artistic person. When I came up i was really happy for the support I received off Paul Kelly or mark Seymour, who were really friendly; weren’t territorial, you know? So I do get really stroppy on some musicians that don’t come and watch the support band because I guess it’s all part of it.
I guess it’s person by person, but how would you say Melbourne artists fare in terms of confidence and belief in what they’re doing?
It is a person by person thing, generally speaking, but as long the scene is supportive of someone wanting to have a go you’ll find people developing confidence, but it really is an individual thing and a few people are a bit too confident I reckon! (laughs)
You finished your set today with your song The Last of the Tourists which is a pretty poignant choice for Byron Bay on the last day of Bluesfest.
I wrote that one in the Mediterranean. All my life I wanted to go to Greece and Turkey and some of those places and I was lucky to be there when things were winding down. I guess oves the years a lot of those places start to lose what was beautiful about them in the first place. So watching the rain clouds coming in and seeing people dancing tiredly tonight, it did seem poignant.
You song about the guitar that Tommy Emmanuel reject would get a laugh out of a lot of musicians. Was that a reveling song to write? [The guitar in question was built for Tommy Emmanuel by Maton Guitars, but later found a home with Mick Thomas as the song goes.]
I wrote it pretty lightheartedly. And I’ve got nothing against Tommy Emmanuel whatsoever. I just thought it was really funny how your pride or your vanity gets you.