Interview by Kit Burns
Greg Thomson is a singer/songwriter without gimmicks, without the MTV gloss. Yet he doesn’t quite belong in the indie-rock world of irony-laden existentialists and smart asses, either. Rather, I’d put Thomson somewhere between the insightful storytelling of Jackson Browne and the painful honesty of E from the Eels.
Kit Burns: I would call much of your lyrics “reflective” in the sense that it seems that you are finding truths about yourself in the words that you write. Would you call yourself an introspective person? Describe your songwriting process to me.
Greg Thomson: Yes, “reflective” is a good word to describe my lyrics. I wouldn’t call myself an introspective person; perhaps a more accurate term is “acutely self-aware.” I used to be a cut-up when I was younger; I was loud, had lots of friends, and wouldn’t have been called inward by any stretch. As I got older I became less interested in all the noise and frills and opinions, much more interested in the core of things, in as many “truths” as I could find, in myself, in others, in life in general. I use lyrics and the lyric-writing process to explore these truths, to locate them, small or large, and refine them to something that can be delivered in a song. Some of these “truths” are the simple truths of a specific emotion or thought or mood.
The lyrics definitely come from a personal space. In many ways my songs are my diary. I don’t really write anything else. I’ve written “creative-writing” type songs before that I’ve liked, but in this case, all the lyrics come from my direct experiences, emotions, moods, thoughts, observations, etc., although I try to channel words and phrases that reach out and connect to something others can relate to as well. I’d hate to be so self-absorbed that I’m writing just about myself and not offering something bigger. For example, a song like “Flame” captures my mood and thoughts while embracing the good truths in a relationship worth fighting for, which hopefully others can relate to as well. “Where Does It End” is perhaps the other side of the coin, questioning where a relationship is going with all its complexities, yet there is still a lot of love expressed as part of the journey. These are experiences I think are common; hopefully, the songs aren’t expressed in a common way but connect to that common experience. “What I Find” is a truth about someone else – a supposed friend who turns out to be not sincere at all, something we all experience from time-to-time. “Pretending” is definitely a truth about myself. I wrote the song to explore what it meant to pretend to myself but used my observations about others to help write the lyrics.
I write songs as organically as possible, without a structure or pre-conceived style or mood in mind. I start with the acoustic guitar, my primary writing tool, and a handheld recorder, usually while sitting on my bed. (Being a bass player, I could only get so far with four fat strings, so a while ago I taught myself the guitar so I could put together chords and write songs). I start by playing around with a chord progression or a line until something catches my ear. Pretty soon a melody starts in my head, and I’ll work through that until there’s a verse or chorus that feels right. Almost at the same time, some words will pop in my head that fit the melody and mood; those words will then spark the specific idea or subject for the song. I’ll record the basic song on the handheld, then listen back and refine it from there, usually fleshing out the lyrics at the same time (which on a good day tend to just flow). I’ll spend a day or two with the basic song, listening back and making refinements, adding a bridge, changing certain things about the structure, etc., and continuing to hone the lyrics. After finalizing the basic song on the handheld, I’ll record guitar and vocals on my digital 8-track to get a better feel for the whole song, making some final changes that usually give the song that “finished” feel.
With this group of recordings, I used the acoustic guitar/vocals demos I made at home as the guide tracks for the band. The band listened to each song a couple of times, we talked about chord progressions, transitions, dynamics, etc., then we played the song once or twice and recorded the basic tracks, giving each song a live feel. Then we’d add the vocals, lead guitars and keyboards, and finally do the mixing. It was a thrill to hear the songs come to life with the band, and for me as a songwriter; it was very satisfying to witness the basic songs changing very little during the recording process.
Burns: Is there more than a little bit of you in these songs or do you draw upon the real-life experiences of others as well?
Thomson: As mentioned above, I tend to write about my experiences/thoughts/feelings/ moods, but use my observations of others as well to flesh out the idea and find something universal in the lyrics. My goal has always been to write unique lyrics that provide insight or thought or truth and make a connection to other people in some way. That is, of course, what all good lyrics do; I hope to achieve that.
Burns: What musicians had the deepest influence on you and in what way?
Thomson: My biggest three influences are, (not necessarily his early stuff with The Attractions), and Radiohead. Along the way I’ve had lots of other influences and music that I’ve liked, but none as much as these three. I’ve never tried to emulate them, so my music doesn’t sound like any of them, but their music has made the biggest impact on me by far. I think the common thread among them is the truth I find in their lyrics and the spirit their music captures the human spirit reaching for something – for better understanding, for better honesty, for a better way of looking at oneself or the world. They’re not a bunch of dance songs. I can listen to [Radiohead]‘s Amnesiac or In Rainbows or All This Useless Beauty (Elvis Costello’s best album in my opinion) or even the overplayed [the Who's] Who’s Next and never tire of them or the lift they provide.
Burns: What are the qualities, musically and lyrically, you feel separate you from other singer/songwriters in the field?
Thomson: Yikes, that’s a hard question. I’ve never tried to compare myself with others, to be honest. I appreciate the hard work and self-exposure that one goes through writing and recording songs. It can be a struggle. I’ve never felt like I’ve cracked the nut better (or worse for that matter) than lots of others. I like some songwriters, don’t care for others, but it’s very subjective. I hope people see that there’s quality in my music – in the lyrics, in the melodies, in the sometimes quirky structures, in the singing, which I try to make as honest as possible.
Burns: There’s too much mindless noise in rock & roll today, and I’m not speaking from the perspective of an old man who no longer “gets it.” Look at the lyrics of many today’s chart-topping rockers, and you will mostly find a teenage wasteland. Do you feel that the words of the song are as equally important as the beats, the rhythms? What first inspired you to write?
Thomson: It’s so true. Love the reference to teenage wasteland. At least with “Baba O’Riley,” Pete and the boys gave us something to think about. Lots of popular music doesn’t seem to reach for anything; it’s just there for entertainment, which certainly serves a purpose but doesn’t satisfy me personally. It’s always nice to hear something new that strives for a higher ground. By higher ground I don’t mean snooty and artsy, I just mean something to help us all understand things better. Too much of what I hear today describes the scene of the crime but nothing else – that’s about it. There are many exceptions, of course, and it’s nice to see the music industry heavily impacted by the Internet and downloadable music, which gives people much more variety than what they’ve had in the past.
I’m surprised by the cynicism that seems to prevail today – by cynicism I mean the worst kind, where people seem stuck – incapable of motion – of pushing forward and demanding something better. Lots of today’s music seems to reflect this (as usual, it mirrors the time in which it was created). The Bushies and their doctrine, if you can call it that, is a good example. How do these people continue to get away with such overreaching nonsense, immune to the true causes and long-reaching consequences? Why can’t the rest of us do something about it? It’s like we’re immobilized – ancient fish in frozen arctic ice (now melting away?). Good music used to push, prod, provoke, stand up for better thinking. People now seem to just accept things as they are, stuck in their environment, like we’re all waiting for some savior to wake us up. Not that we need a bunch of protest songs, but we need music to play that role again – like we need the media to play a similar role and ask tougher questions. I wrote the song “Buggy” as my anger song although it’s more creative I guess than direct (the bridge is direct anyway). If we can’t use our collective intelligence to develop new sources of energy and disconnect from our dependency on foreign oil, we’ll end up in worse wars and back to the horse-and-buggy, my tongue-in-cheek way of saying we need to do something.
I do feel very strongly that a song’s lyrics are as important as the beats, rhythms and melodies. The best songs meld all those pieces together with equal importance. In terms of my influences, I also love a lot of Dylan; Blood on the Tracks is one of my all-time favorite albums, and I am in awe of how he can take a simple phrase and make it mean the world. What usually hits me first in a song is the emotional truth – does it feel like it comes from a real or raw place? Then I’ll notice the lyrics and melodies, responding to something special or unusual. I like unique vocals too – Thom Yorke, for example.
I was first inspired to write back in high-school. I was the classic “let’s get a band together” guy. We played mostly covers, but I wanted to write something original from the start so we tried to write a couple of songs, even recording a “single” in a local studio. Pretty funny stuff. In college, I played in another cover band and was again the guy who forced the band to write a song. After college, I kicked the cover band habit because I only wanted to play original music. Most of the music at this point in my life was written jointly by “the band.” It wasn’t until later that I started to write my own songs, after learning the guitar. It’s hard to say what exactly inspired me to write songs. I just always loved good songs and wanted to create my own. Unlike some others, I don’t have a tragic moment in my life or something that made me “lose myself” in music – which is maybe why I’m not the suffering genius I think I’d like to be.