Tom Bailey, Synth-Pop Songcrafter

Photo by James Cumpsty

Sometimes you have to step away from the nonstop wheels of the hit-making train to nurture your songcraft. Such was the case for Tom Bailey, the chief architect of the super-successful ’80s synth-pop masters Thompson Twins, who racked up an impressive string of hits including “Hold Me Now,” “Love on Your Side,” “Doctor Doctor,” “King for a Day,” and “We Are Detective,” to name but a few. After the Twins dissipated in the early ’90s, Bailey moved away from the chart-chasing game by experimenting with the electronic/dance hybrid known as Babble before channeling his creative focus into soundtrack work and a dub/electronica project called International Observer since the early 2000s.

But the pull of pop songwriting was too strong to resist forever, and Bailey eventually found himself working in the form for the first time in 25 years with a cosmically named solo album, Science Fiction (Mikrokosmos/BFD). From the universal yearnings of the title track to the Bowiesque thrust of “What Kind of World” to the seductive reggae vibe of “Blue,” Bailey reinforces his inherent knack for creating instantly sing-able choruses and melodic hooks. “I guess I never thought about it that way, but you only have a certain amount of time in a pop song,” reflects Bailey. “You have to be very concise and get on with it, really!”

Bailey, 62, is currently on an extensive summer tour with Boy George & Culture Club and The B-52s, and I called him during a tour stop in Houston to discuss the sonic structure of Science Fiction, how he once built his own P.A. speakers, and reconnecting with listening to music on vinyl. Somebody’s got their eye on me. . .

Mike Mettler: I think a good subtitle for Science Fiction would be Stargazing. Does that sound about right to you?

Tom Bailey: Absolutely, yeah! About two or three songs into writing this album, I realized a kind of umbrella concept was emerging. And because I’d done quite a lot of work making music for films about astronomy over the past few years [including 2010’s Sidereal Motion, under the name the Bailey-Salgado Project], I think I was collecting the magic cosmic forces. (laughs) It’s interesting, because you can combine the hard science with the dreamy wondering aspect of looking up to the sky. After I had written the song “Science Fiction,” I thought that was the one that captured the overall concept of the album — the one that tied it all together — so that’s why I took that title for the album.

Mettler: “It’s all you’ll ever read” is the line from “Science Fiction” that keeps running through my mind, because the facts we read about every day are fiction to some people, which is an odd juxtaposition to be in.

Bailey: Ah, yeah yeah. On the one hand, it’s a song about someone who can’t get their lover’s attention because they’re too busy reading science fiction. But of course, the larger metaphor is just what you said — that we’re distracted by a certain fiction we need to know the hard facts about. (chuckles)

Mettler: As a card-carrying lifelong journalist, I do love my facts! The overall feeling I get from the Science Fiction album is that you’re questioning things and looking for answers. The very last line of the album at the end of the song “Come So Far” is, “Don’t know where I go,” which has a bit of an open-ended feel to it.

Bailey: That’s right! “Come So Far” is a very specific song about a young man’s journey to London. The world is in such turmoil that some people have to give up everything in order to survive, which is really what that song is about — the price we have to pay, sometimes, in order to do that.

Mettler: Over the past 25 or so years, you’ve done different kinds of songwriting — sometimes for groups, for soundtracks, and sometimes for the dub style of the International Observer project. Did you have to adjust the dial slightly to write pop music again? It almost seems like you slipped the glove right back on like you never left the pop form to make a “Tom Bailey” record from start to finish.

Bailey: Well, it is like reconnecting with an old friend, you know? (chuckles) I had been writing pop music from a very young age [the first Thompson Twins music was released circa 1977], but there is something really special about it. There is something unique to pop that doesn’t exist in other forms of music.

But I also have to say, maybe it was good I was away for that time, because a lot of my contemporaries who kept going — they’re kind of tired of it, you know? They’re tired of playing their old hits after thousands of times of doing it. (chuckles) Whereas for me, it was a real rush of enthusiasm rediscovering that music [when Bailey returned to the live stage in 2014] — and that’s what got me back into recording a pop album.

Mettler: While I’d love to see you play classics like “We Are Detective,” new songs like “What Kind of World” show you still have things to say as an artist.

Bailey: I do still have things to say, and I think that’s part of the burden of pop music. Of course, some pop music is very throwaway, trite, and saccharine, and we allow that for a few songs, I guess, in each generation of pop music. (chuckles)

But what continues to interest me about it is it’s a form with all sorts of rules and requirements that also allows the expression of profound ideas. And that, to me, is really, really interesting. It’s easy to have really profound ideas when you’re an experimentalist and you’re making music that’s 2½ hours long (chuckles again), so I’ve got to figure out how to fit all that into a 2½ minute song. And then you’ve really got a problem, but it’s really fascinating in how you solve that problem — to make it catchy and adaptable. That’s the thing.

Mettler: It would be interesting to see how many vinyl sides you’d need to fit a 2½ hour song across. (Bailey chuckles) Since we have a nice, concise 43-minute album here, I have to ask — was it conceived as two sides for vinyl?

Bailey: Well, it is ready-made for vinyl, and I have obviously organized the tracks for Side A and Side B — which, incidentally, we call “Science” [A] and “Fiction” [B]. (chuckles heartily) But, in fact, it’s in making sure one side isn’t longer than the other. For technical reasons, we want the sides to be pretty much the same length. Otherwise, one side will end up being louder than the other.

Mettler: Well, I’m looking forward to listening to it in that form. I bought records and 45s back in the day. . .

Bailey: Right, yeah, me too.

Mettler: . . . so I’m curious to know what the first record you bought as a kid was that had an impact on you.

Bailey: Well, I kind of hit the ground running because my family were very musical. Amongst other things, my father was one of those guys who built hi-fi systems and he was always making big speaker boxes, so I was surrounded by big, glorious sound! We also had a big record collection, which was my early exposure to recorded music.

And like a lot of kids my age, it was when The Beatles became psychedelic that it all suddenly turned me on. I mean, I liked the early Beatles stuff, but I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. But when they went into Magical Mystery Tour [circa November 1967] and those kinds of things, I felt a massive potential for pop music to be more than just, “Hey baby, I love you.” Yeah, it was completely different after that.

Mettler: Did you ever wind up building any speakers yourself?

Bailey: Yes, I have done that in the past. I even went as far as building P.A. systems for the early Thompson Twins band. We couldn’t afford to buy the system that we wanted, so we just started to build them.

Mettler: Okay, “Doctor Doctor,” to borrow a phrase, what’s the secret to making a good P.A. speaker?

Bailey: Well, it depends on what the function you’re looking for is. In terms of P.A.s these days, they’re very, very powerful and compact. And I must say I remember that surface area had a lot to do with how good it feels, you know. Less efficient speaker enclosures — but lots of them — deliver a different experience from a small, powerful, efficient box.

Mettler: Now that you’re back out on the road and doing a lot more touring than you used to, do you get much chance to sit down at home and listen to music?

Bailey: That’s an interesting thing for me, because I travel so much. I was just in New Zealand where I live part of the year, where we have a regular home hi-fi with a CD player and all that. But I just got to the stage where I was looking at vinyl again. Somebody bought me a turntable and a nice amp, and that caused a change in my listening behavior. Suddenly, I was sitting down, holding the album cover, reading the notes, and listening to the whole side of an album while sitting in front of the speakers again.

And I realized, the only time I ever did that was when I was in a studio, so I’ve really enjoyed reconnecting with the experience: “Right, I’m going to sit down and listen to a great piece of music in a comfortable chair in front of a nice pair of speakers.” It’s very different from doing it on the run, or having it in the background, or skirting from track to track or streaming it.

Mettler: I do something similar at home that I call appointment listening. I do it on a schedule, with no distractions. Was there a specific album you listened to recently that you really connected or reconnected with?

Bailey: Oh yeah, yeah. First, I was listening to a German experimentalist I had seen on tour, and then I was digging out a reissue of the [October 1968 classic] Walter/Wendy Carlos Switched-On Bach. All those recreations of all that Bach music is just stupendous music to my ears!

Mettler: I remember my parents playing that album on the console when I was growing up. I think it helped connect a younger listening generation to classical music, myself included.

Bailey: Oh sure! It was the biggest-selling classical record at the time. [Switched-On Bach tallied over a million copies sold by 1974, and it was the second classical album ever to be certified platinum by the RIAA, in 1986.] And, as you say, it introduced so many people to great baroque and canons — and that’s really important.

Mettler: As somebody who also sits in the producer’s chair, have you ever thought of doing surround sound at all?

Bailey: Oh yes, I have done some things in surround — theatrical mixes, of course. But that’s something that involves going into a dedicated studio situation to do it, and these days, I tend to work from home. And I’m often traveling when I work, so I’ve kind of reduced my studio to laptop and headphone essentials, and therefore, I’m not set up for doing 5.1 in that way.

But surround sound — that’s an amazing thing. It’s an amazing thing, especially if there’s a dramatic narrative going on in the music. It’s great to have that kind of impact.

Mettler: I’d sure love to hear Science Fiction in a 5.1 mix, I can tell you that. Another thing I noticed is that each song on the album has a unique vocal delivery. Was that a deliberate production choice on your part?

Bailey: That’s kind of you to say! That was the time I actually went into a studio with Hal Ritson [who’s produced artists like The Chemical Brothers and David Guetta], because I find it difficult to be my own producer when I’m doing my own singing. I have to be completely an artist when I’m performing vocals, so to wear the producer’s hat for that would be difficult for me to do. I guess some people can do it, but I find it difficult.

So, Hal Ritson worked with me on the vocals, and produced them. And we talked a lot about what the attitude was in each case, which quite often changed from song to song. In other words, I didn’t just press go and start singing — we thought really clearly about the dramatic potential and the correct attitude for each song.

Mettler: To wrap things up, is there one song or album in terms of production quality from the prime Thompson Twins era that you can listen to today and say, “Yeah, we nailed it”?

Bailey: Ohhhh, that’s a difficult one! (chuckles) I mean, I enjoy listening to the old stuff, but I don’t make a big habit of it. To me, a lot of that music sounds like what the production style of the time was. There was a degree of fashion to what the band was about then, and those things change. But I liked to have a bit of a heavy bottom, and I was maybe too much influenced by reggae to make records without too much delay and echo and things like that. But I do like all those kinds of things.