My Memory’s Deathby Anya Zinn / 03.12.2013
Some call it ‘instrumental wizardry’, others say, ‘What?’ Regardless, Durban-born, Cape-Town-bred, solo musician Gary Thomas is one talented guitarist, who is perhaps still a bit too keen on superheroes. With a new album out this week, we thought we’d have a quick chat to Gary about what’s going on behind the scenes.
MAHALA: Your music is known for being intricately layered – not just instrumentally but lyrically: all your songs have these deep names like ‘Be All and the Beyond’, ‘Mystery Swamp Mystery’… I think something everyone wants to know is: what the hell does ‘Contraption Distoria’ mean?
GARY THOMAS: Distoria is a made-up word. There wasn’t another word that I felt summed up the essence of what Distoria is, so I invented it. That album cover has a weird looking machine that shoots you into the sky, into the foreverness of oblivion, that kind of thing. It’s the Contraption Distoria. The machine propelling you into the abyss with no return. Obviously.
How old were you when you wrote your first song and what it was about? Have you ever just written about a school crush?
I can’t remember exactly, maybe 14? I sent in some demos for Splashy Fen, recorded on a video camera. My mom came with me to drop them off, I was in school uniform. I stupidly didn’t make another copy so that little EP is gone. I’d love to hear those songs, it’s definitely the worst thing I’ve ever made. My old school crush songs are so lame. No one will ever hear those old Durban recordings… Wow…
It’s been a year since you released Midnight Atlas, and today will see the launch of your new album, My Memory’s Death. How has the process been of creating this album?
Well it’s a B-sides and Unreleased Music album. So a third of the tracks were from the sessions for all 3 previous albums, a third is an EP I did in January and a third is just other music I’ve had but never released. 90% of it was done already, I just went in to polish up some vocal takes, mixes or add an extra psychedelic 5 piece electric guitar solo. So it wasn’t as intense as previous records.
I know the one song on the new album, “Dear Simply”, was made 7 years ago when you were recording sound for a documentary with Guy Buttery. What’s the story behind that song? Do you think it’s good or bad that it’s still relevant now?
Well it’s a one take, live studio recording of me playing 2 chords while Guy shreds sitar over it. Its really simple but it’s quite beautiful. When I went through my archives I found it again and thought, “Why haven’t I put this out before?” I don’t mind if its relevant or not, it’s pretty. I like it. And it’s an interesting milestone from the first day of a long and great friendship.
When you listen to stuff from your first album, Wooden Boxes and Thought Hunting (2006), do you get fidgety and just want to edit it?
No, I’m like that with Midnight Atlas only. You have to let go at a point. Once you send the tracks out, it’s done, it’s out of your hands and you have to hope you did your best.
Midnight Atlas had a more polished sound than the ‘Neanderthal brilliance’ (as Rolling Stone once put it) of your earlier work, which some people saw as a compromise instead of an evolution. What’s the sound like on the new album? Do you think a more clean-cut sound is a compromise?
It’s funny, the original mix of Midnight Atlas was quite reverby and rough. But I was advised to kill a lot of the fx and mix things in a more upfront kind of way. I must say, I miss the reverb and one day I might bring out a remixed version. This new record has a lot of wet, trippy parts.
Over the past few years, you’ve had some pretty big endorsement deals from Proel, Ernie Ball, MK, Red Bull; but you’re still unsigned. Is this by choice or are you free for the taking?
Those guys have all been great to me. To be honest, I’ve never seen the point in signing in South Africa. For international missions, I’m definitely keen, I’ll work on it next year for the new new record. I find labels or companies taking 50% of a record sale for example, to be an absolute crime. 50% should be for my bandmate, if I had one. But sure, when I leave the country again, with the next record, I’ll see who wants to get together overseas.
Apparently you’ve been dubbed the ‘hardest working solo musician in South Africa’ – do you think that’s true?
Oh I don’t know, I guess it depends on your definition of hard work. I do think I’m good at cutting out the middle man in a lot of ways and having the determination to research how something can be done. But it’s sporadic, so one week, I’ll mission, the other, I’ll chill. When I tour, maybe I am, I think I can drive more than most people.
What’s an average working day like for you? Do you have a set routine or is it work when inspiration strikes?
It’s never the same, but lately its: Wake up. Breakfast. Clean the kitchen. Check for important mails. No important mails? Go for a run. Swim in the sea. Have a jam. Eat lunch. Watch X-men animated. Send some emails. Ride my bike to Checkers for cat food. Call 2 people. Work out. Look on Buzzfeed. And superherohype.com. Have dinner. Hang with my wife.
By the end of today you would’ve released 4 albums in 5 years – are you going to give your self a well deserved holiday yet or have you already started writing for the next?
I never feel like I deserve a holiday because for me, work and holiday can happen in the same day a lot of the time. I have started writing for a new album. It will be a very solo album. I’m also starting an electric guitar shred band that I’ll talk about later, that’s going to be big. So, no, I don’t deserve a holiday. But maybe I should do a month long tour of Mozambique where I’ll make money from playing guitar and hanging on the beach.
I also suppose your tours could be seen as a small holiday – you toured Europe the beginning of this year, that couldn’t have been all work?
When I tour, I always add new, beautiful destinations to the list so I can explore and see the land. It comes hand in hand. Europe was intense because it was 17 cites in 2.5 months. We did a lot. But it was awesome.
For a lot of South African artists the ultimate goal is to be adopted by international audiences. But you already did a European tour – touring places from Belgium to England to Spain to the Netherlands. Should artists moving into international waters be seen as a ‘final destination’? Or is a career there as a South African musician not very plausible?
As a musician you need to first realise that you have to become a gypsy for a lot of your life. It’s not about SA vs the rest of the world. It’s about getting to play as far and wide as possible. Yes that will boost your career but it will also be a great ride, why not? Also, there are loads of venues and 50 million people here. You just have to research, publicise and travel a lot. People like music. People live everywhere. Easy math. I do think audiences overseas on a whole welcome a whole set of my moody weird music a bit more. Here, if it’s a solo show, people come to listen to me, but if it’s a festival or big event I’m playing, I do get a sense that SA people want some pop vibes after a while. I just wanna rock.
Apart from fewer pairs of Crocs, how does the crowd and gig compare between a show in Belgium to a show in Port Elizabeth where you recently performed?
I played in Gent in Belgium, that was cool, the people are really nice and its a really cool little historical town. PE is always a nice show but I never stay and explore, I usually have to leave for G town that night. So I have a limited experience of the city. But I did find that audiences can be similar all over the world. People appreciate music and even more if you’re doing something maybe that’s new to them. It was pretty similar talking to people after the shows in other countries as it is back home. I played in Brussels too, but that was in the top 5 weirdest shows of all time… Yowzers
How was the SA tour in September? Who else was on the road with you?
It was great. I was alone, which meant it was fast. I did 10 shows in 12 days. I had stuff to get back to in CT so it was a gig/drive/gig/drive scenario. If my wife comes with we’ll stop in the Transkei or East Coast for some extra days and do maybe 3 weeks. But this last one was pretty blitz…
So you’ve done the South African tour, you’ve done the European tour, what are you planning for the direction of your career next? (Metaphorically and literally, if you’d like).
I’m actually starting this electric guitar band thing, which I know is going to be great. There’s something very exciting in this music emerging. I’m going to change my solo name too and release another solo album to tour maybe the US, Canada, Australia, China? There’s always something big around the corner.
Any ideas for name changes? Thomas Gary?
I looked up anagrams for my name and the first one was Graham Toys! But I won’t do that. I’m not sure, it will come to me when the time is right. It’s a complicated thing. Maybe I should call myself “The Wind”, or “Thunderous Foreverness” or “Marmite”.
Last but not least, would you say you’re a better guitar player than August Rush?
Everybody tells me about that film after shows, here, Europe. It’s funny, I haven’t seen it, but I do know that the shots of his hands while he plays are actually shots of one of my favourite guitarists, an American lady called Kaki King. She’s so good. That boy has nothing, it’s all Kaki going nuts. Look her up. I have a feeling she’ll tour SA soon. Holy Moly.
My Memory’s Death is available for listening and purchasing on Gary’s website. The official launch is tonight, Tuesday the 3rd December, 8:30PM at The Waiting Room. R50 gets you entrance and an album.