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Interview with Thunder
30 January 2017
THUNDER - An interview with Luke Morley
Despite playing farewell tours on two separate occasions, the beloved British band Thunder are still active, still making records, and still filling venues. When their last comeback album 'Wonder Days' was released in 2015, it proved a hit critically and commercially, so the quintet of guitarist Luke Morley, singer Danny Bowes, drummer Harry James, bassist Chris Childs and keyboard player/guitarist Ben Matthews have kept momentum going by recording a brand new album, 'Rip It Up'. James Gaden had the opportunity to discuss things with the band's chief songwriter, Luke Morley.
It's great to have chance to sit and talk to you Luke – at the risk of making you feel old, Thunder was my first proper Rock gig.
It's a bit late for making me feel old, because Justin Hawkins told me the exact same thing last week! (Laughs)
So, onto the reason for the interview, which is Thunder's new album, 'Rip It Up'. It's yet another strong entry into the Thunder discography When 'Bang!' was issued in 2009 there was a lot of speculation that might have been the final Thunder record, but then you recorded the superb 'Wonder Days' which was extremely well received – it was your first top ten album since 1995. Did that response put any pressure on you for writing this as a follow up?
We don't take ourselves too seriously, but we do take our music seriously. It's nice to get good feedback, of course it is, but we are quite critical of ourselves. I don't feel any pressure on me because I write songs, that's what I do, I'd do it whether I get paid for it or not, the fact I do get paid for it it just a bonus for me!
Last time you and Danny spoke to us (in Fireworks #68), when 'Wonder Days' came out, you told us you did songs in batches and found it a very effective way of working. Was this the same method you employed for 'Rip It Up'?
We did, it was basically three sessions over a six month period. It really helps me massively, because I'm the person who writes the songs, which is one thing, but I produce the records as well, so creatively it can be difficult to wear two hats. This way, we can go in, record a few songs and then I can go in and change something or make something a bit better. It also means if we go in to record a song and we don't think we've quite got it, we can go ahead and try again at the next session. There's lots of reasons why it's a good way of doing things, we discovered it sort of by accident but it definitely works.
When you look back at all the Thunder songs over the years, you've written them all, except for a handful which were co-writes with you and somebody else. Have any of the other members ever tried bringing in songs for consideration of has it always been a case of "Luke will write them"?
Occasionally it's happened, Harry particularly used to come in with quite a few ideas early on, but as time has moved on, and he's so busy with Magnum and whatnot, I think his inclination to do it is less and less. I suppose they know I'll write them anyway! (laughs) Also, songwriting is one of those things that the more you do it, hopefully the better at it you'll get, because it is a craft. It's like making furniture, the more you work at it and the more love you have for it, the more you should improve theoretically.
With you being such a proficient writer, do you have a particular way you write, do you start with lyrics, music, a title?
There are no rules if I'm honest. Sometimes it'll start with a lyrical idea, sometimes I'll mess around on the guitar and stumble on something I think is quite good... I drive my poor wife mad, quite often I'll get up in the middle of the night and go downstairs to the studio and lay something down. Inspiration is a very strange thing, it can happen at any time, usually when it's the least convenient! (laughs) You have to be open to that and ready to go with it, it's not a nine-to-five job. You can try to write, if I haven't written for a while the first things I'll do tend to be bloody awful, but after about a week the brain gets back into the groove and you think "Ah, there it is!" and you find you can still do it. It's a funny business and I'm still learning, that's the beautiful thing about writing, you never stop learning. Hopefully I'm getting better, and I've learned to trust my own judgement. There's no right or wrong way of doing it, you just have to keep your mind open for any form of inspiration and if it taps you on the shoulder, you have to be ready to go with it.
When you have a song idea, how do you demo it to the band? Do you do a fully fleshed out demo for them, or just a basic skeleton and let the other guys fill in the blanks?
I've a little studio at home and I'll do everything. Often I'll use a drum machine to stick a basic groove together, although I do play the drums. I've not done it for years, but I used to play them in bands when I was a kid, as well as some bass, I'd turn my hand to anything to do it. I have what I'd call a working knowledge of the instruments, so I'll basically do a fully executed demo, bring it to the guys, they'll all go away and learn it, then we'll go into the studio and thrash it around. Obviously at that point little things will start changing, but not that much, because you have to remember we've been playing together a long, long long time. I know pretty much exactly what each of them are going to do, what Harry will play, what key suits Danny's voice... it's like an old pair of shoes, it just fits nicely. It saves me time too, by doing a full demo, if there's a specific thing or a characteristic on the demo I really like, instead of trying to recreate it I'll just use it from the demo – particularly on the guitar solos, if I do them at home I tend to do them without thinking and sometimes you can get incredible results. If you're relaxed you can do your best stuff so quite a few solos you hear on this new album, I did them at home. I thought "I'm not going to be able to play that any better!" so I just took it straight from the demo.
That's the beauty of the digital age, you can do that so much easier than the analogue way of splicing bits of tape together.
That's exactly right. It's a boon for all creative people, but it's not a crutch, you've still got to do all the ground work, you still have to write a good tune and have all the elements. It's just a convenience factor, digital is very, very useful.
When you mentioned about doing the drums, one of the songs on the new record stood out because of the percussion, and that's the closing ballad 'There's Always a Loser'. It's another strong Thunder ballad, but it has these huge, booming, almost Led Zeppelin-like drums which I thought was unusual.
It's an interesting song, that. My original take on it was just piano and vocal that I did at home, and it was in a different key. It was almost like a Bill Withers sort of Soul song, I didn't really envisage Thunder doing it. But when we got toward the end of the album, it was pretty much done but I felt it just needed one more track, something else with a different element. I went back through my notes and bits and pieces. I found that track and thought it was a really good song, so I had to figure out how to "Thunder-ise" it. So I started by moving it to a key that suited Danny's voice and I thought the piano had to stay, because I didn't hear its as a guitar part. So to make it a bit more impressive I thought I'd try some huge drums. I tried it at home with some samples and thought it could work. So when we got into Rockfield studios, I had Harry just do it in a big, noisy room, but I got him to play it twice. We double tracked him, so effectively you're hearing two drummers on there, which is why it sounds so big. Sometimes when you layer things up, especially guitars and vocals, it can make things smaller but in this case it worked. People don't often double track drums and it can be quite tricky but Harry keeps time like a metronome. Even he had to get his head around it, but once he did, it worked. And of course the piano used on that song is the one at Rockfield, the same piano 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was recorded on, so that song has a lot of interesting parts to it!
There's lots of good songs here, some have what I'd consider the "classic" Thunder sound, others have something a bit different. The break in 'The Chosen One' for example reminded me of the 'Theme From Shaft'.
(Laughs) I can't believe you picked up on that, it's quite funny actually, when we got to that break it sounded a bit busy when the whole band played it, so I took a few bits out and it made more sense. We did actually talk about going down that route and putting some strings on there and going the whole hog, but I thought that was maybe making it a bit obvious and the reference is there, people with keen ears like yourself will pick it out and think it's like something from a Blaxploitation film. That's quite cool though, I was a teenager and I remember seeing 'Shaft' at the pictures, I love that music, I'm a big fan of Isaac Hayes.
The intro to 'Tumbling Down' reminded me a bit of The Who as well, before it went into a more typical Thunder sound.
We all have our favourite bands and I love Pete Townshend, he's a fantastic guitar player, and Harry is a big Keith Moon fan, so naturally we draw upon their influence from time to time. We can wear our influences on our sleeve whether it's The Who, Led Zeppelin or whoever and I think we can tip our hat like that here and there, because we are on our eleventh album – Thunder does have it's own identity, but I think it's nice to show people where you come from.
I think that's the great thing about Thunder – you said about seventies Funk, Thunder can go and cover a song like 'Play That Funky Music', you can cover '5:15' by The Who and 'Gimme Some Lovin'' by The Spencer Davies Group and none of them sound out of place, they all still sound like Thunder.
I think that the nice thing, being the age we are, is we grew up during a really incredible time for music, whether it was Rock, Soul, whatever, there was so much great music being played and it had a fundamental effect on us, it shaped how we hear music and that's going to come through in what we do.
You mentioned earlier about when you needed another song, you went back to 'There's Always A Loser' among your notes. Are you someone who has a big stockpile of songs that haven't made albums?
It's more a collection of half developed ideas really, I don't finish all of them, I get little ideas and I'll spend a couple of hours putting a basic shape of a song together, and if I go back and find it's still interesting me, I'll finish it. Occasionally I've done them and not been sure if they are Thunder songs, others will be obvious Thunder songs. Then occasionally I'll get one I'm really not sure what to do with, so I'll live with it for a while and see. It's not that it isn't good, it's just different, so there's a few of those knocking around.
You've got some bundles on the website, which includes an EP called 'Broken Mirror' which has four songs on. Are they all new songs, or ones you've dusted off?
No, they're all from these sessions and it was a really tough choice this time, we had sixteen or seventeen songs we felt really good about, so the 'Broken Mirror' EP is the ones that didn't make the final cut. That said, the quality is still pretty high in my opinion, we were really happy with those songs too, so we wanted a way to release them. Nobody really bothers with singles these days so we felt this was a good way of grouping them together and it offered good value for money.
Yes, because there's a three disc option too which is the studio album and adds 'Live At The 100 Club' which looks a great package.
That's right, and it's something that really matters to us. We're very lucky that we've had a loyal and very dedicated fan base over the years and one of the reasons is because we are conscious of the fact people don't have a lot of money. When you make new music, of course you want people to buy it, but we also want people to think they have gotten their money's worth, so we try as hard as we can to make sure that they feel good about stuff when they've bought it. We are very pro-active in that sense, with the artwork and things like that, it's something we care about deeply. Everything we do affects people's view of us, so we want a high standard that we're pleased with and that people will spend their money on and feel like it was well spent.
I remember when the band issued 'Bang!' and I heard the first track, 'On The Radio'. That song lyrically spoke about how little airplay you've had and how little mainstream support you received. Despite that, you do have a devoted fan base, you've had a string of Top 40 singles, you still fill venues, and 'Wonder Days' sold very well. Does it frustrate you that you didn't get that mainstream support, or are you proud you've achieved all of those things without it?
Bit of both really. (laughs) I'll tell you a story, we're very friendly with the Iron Maiden guys, they've been around a long time, even longer than us! Their manager said to me one day "Fuck Radio 1 and Radio 2, they never played anything of ours and we've never needed them. You must never forget you're making music for the punters, not for the radio" and I think he's exactly right. If you start to try and make records that you think radio will like, you'll end up chasing your tail in ever decreasing circles. Who knows, maybe Radio 2 might pick up on a track from this new album, but I can't afford to worry about that as a writer. I have to do what I think is best for us, and the more exposure it gets, the better, but I won't lose any sleep if it doesn't make mainstream radio!
At least these days there are things like Planet Rock which will play your stuff to a more targeted audience.
Yeah, there are genre specific stations now and Planet Rock is very good, it works closely with the bands and promotors. The Hard Rock community, for want of a better phrase, are very good at pulling together and helping each other out. Rock music is still very popular, despite what the BBC will have you think. It's a bit self contained, it would be nice to have more support, but it won't stop us existing if we don't get it.
Planet Rock did a poll recently on which Thunder album they should play in it's entirety and 'Backstreet Symphony' was a comfortable winner. Is that something you can look at as a writer and creator and think "Yeah, that was our best record" or are you too close to the songs to be that objective?
I think when people vote in those kind of polls, nostalgia plays a huge part. It's not always about the music, it can be about their recollections, what they were doing when it came out, what age they were, so I don't think they are the most objective of polls! (laughs) It's nice a lot of people like that album, but it's been around a long time and people have developed a fondness for it. That's great, God knows I'm very grateful. Do I think it's our best? I don't know, it's not for me to say really. You can't stand still as a songwriter, you have to keep moving forward, I think it's a dangerous thing to be content with your past. It's horses for courses really, I know we have people who come to see us and they haven't bought an album since... 'Laughing On Judgment Day'! (laughs) Amazing really, but I don't care, as long as they keep coming. Not everyone can embrace change, people sometimes need time to adjust to new things, but for us as a band, it's our lifeblood, we have to keep moving forward with new music, try and stay relevant by making new records. Otherwise we'd end up just touring every couple of years and doing nothing in between.
That mindset really annoys me at gigs, when any band, like yourselves, who have done so many great songs, say 'Here's a new song' and a bunch of people walk off to the bar. Really?
(Laughs) Yeah, I've always taken the view that our live set needs to be a great set, so I tend to forget which albums the songs are from. Obviously I know which ones they're from, but that doesn't play a part, what's important is that it's a great live show. There's some songs we have to do of course, or there would be a major furore, but I don't feel hamstrung by the past in that sense. On the last tour for 'Wonder Days', I think we did seven songs from that album, in a set of fourteen, so that's half the show. I dare say this time we'll put in more new stuff, some stuff from 'Wonder Days' – that doesn't leave a lot of room to represent another nine albums! There will be old favourites, of course there will, it's all about making that hour and forty minutes entertaining, musically complete, they have to come away feeling they saw a really good show. We always get the odd complaint like "Oh, you didn't do 'Better Man'...'' or 'She's So Fine' or whatever, but | can't listen to all those people, I'd be a nervous wreck. We have to do what pleases us first, if we put together a show we enjoy performing and think is well balanced, then we'll do it better and it'll be a better show for everybody.
When it comes to constructing a set, is it democratic or does that fall on your shoulders too?
Yeah, it's something I do, it evolved that way really. It's a big picture thing for me, I'll be thinking of keys, tempos, will Danny be nicely warmed up for this song or that song, I'll maybe put a more demanding song in later on for example, we need songs to get people jumping up and down, then songs to give everyone a breather, and you need moments that get the audience participating. You have to factor all those things in and I'm not right all the time. We might play a couple of shows and something might not be working, so it'll get constantly evaluated.
I wondered, with you mentioning about Danny getting warmed up, as great a singer as he is, are there any songs you put in the set where he's said "Oh, come on..."?
(Laughs) Well I don't think any of them are particularly easy to sing. But he is blessed with a great set of pipes and great range. When we were young and the band started we used to stretch limits of that purposely because his voice sounds great when it's right up there. But subtly, as we are now on the wrong side of fifty-five, you have to be realistic. You wouldn't expect an athlete or a footballer to perform the same all the way through their career, so it's one of those things where you have to be realistic about what's possible. If you plan it well, it shouldn't affect the shows, but you don't want everyone to be fucked after one gig, especially if it's a long tour. You want everyone to get through the show and enjoy it, and it's particularly hard for singers, they're shouting their head off for two hours. As a guitar player, if I've got a really bad cold or a hangover, you wouldn't necessarily notice in my playing, but for a singer there is no escape.
And my final question, because this amused me, is on Wikipedia, Thunder are listed as a British Rock band who play Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. So I was wondering which album had the Heavy Metal on, because I think I missed that?
(Laughs) Oh, that terminology, what can you do? I bet there's loads of people who are into Black Metal and Speed Metal who think we sound like a Country and Western band. But people who don't really listen to Rock and don't know the width of the genre would probably lump us in with Motörhead and Iron Maiden just because of the name Thunder. You can't get frustrated about that, people like to put things in boxes. You'll know that yourself, as a journalist your job is to tell people what we're about and what we sound like, and the best way to do that is with comparisons, which you did earlier with some of the influences you mentioned. Occasionally though, someone will throw out a phrase like Heavy Metal and something will stick when it's not necessarily right, it's just lazy labelling. I think our music has a lot of nuances and reference points that have nothing to do with Heavy Metal and some of them don't even have anything to do with Rock, but they were absorbed into our subconscious and found their way out. You don't want to be in a position where you go "oh no, that's not Hard Rock enough" if it's good. It's all those things collectively that make Thunder sound like Thunder. But there's not much Heavy Metal!
Thunder will release 'Rip It Up' on 10 February 2017 through earMUSIC. For details on the album bundle options, visit http://www.thunderonline.com
Click HERE to read the album review on Rocktopia!
Thunder on tour:
Fri 17th - Manchester Apollo SOLD OUT
Sat 18th - Sheffield City Hall SOLD OUT
Sun 19th - Newcastle City Hall SOLD OUT
Tue 21st - Leicester De Montfort Hall
Weds 22nd - Glasgow Clyde Auditorium
Fri 24th - Cardiff Motorpoint Arena
Sat 25th - Southampton Guildhall SOLD OUT
Sun 26th - Ipswich Regent Theatre SOLD OUT
Tues 28th - London Eventim Apollo
Thurs 30th - Dublin Vicar Street
Fri 31st - Belfast Mandela Hall SOLD OUT