Sunday 24 March 2013

Q & A with Bruce Thomas

Between the years 1977 and 1986 Elvis Costello & The Attractions knocked out more classic albums than any other British band I can think of. I loved pretty much everything they did from Pump It Up up to I Want You. The contribution Bruce Thomas brought to The Attractions is enormous. In my opinion his performances on songs such Beaten To The Punch, Chelsea, New Lace Sleeves, Shabby Doll, and Shipbuilding, put him up there with the best bass players of all time. He features on a few other Costello albums from more recent times (most notably Brutal Youth) and over the years he's done sessions with various other greats such as Paul McCartney, Billy Bragg, The Pretenders etc but these days his time seems to be taken up writing celebrated, best selling books about the legendary Bruce Lee. Anyone wanting to know about life on the road should get a copy of his very amusing book "The Big Wheel". The Rebel:How well did you know Barney Bubbles? Do you like many of the sleeves he designed? "I knew Barney very well and counted him as a friend. I’d already known Barney for many years before his involvement with Stiff Records. He designed an album cover for one of my earlier bands, Quiver — and modeled his cover for us after the style of a Grateful Dead album sleeve … think ‘inlaid wood, stained glass and floral motifs’. It was later, in the punk/new-wave period, that he began using references from the Constructivists and the likes of Miro and Picasso — as seen in his black, white and red sleeves for Ian Dury or the cover of Imperial Bedroom. I love every piece of work Barney did and he is rightly regarded as perhaps the pre-eminent record cover designer of his era and as both an icon and an inspiration to others. Barney was a lovely man, warm and open and with no side to him. Perhaps he was a bit too open and sensitive — as no-one realized until it was too late that he was subject to bad bouts of depression. He’d have been amused by this blog, though — The Rebel — “the Shapist school of art — all the shapes are different colours”. The Rebel: Various name photographers like David Bailey took snaps of The Attractions - who impressed you the most or flattered you the most? Bruce: "I got the impression at David Bailey’s session that it was very much “business as usual” for him. He sat each of us down in turn in front of the camera and made a snap assessment of us — he took one look at me and decided “mad professor”. I enjoyed our sessions with Keith Morris, more for him as a person than as a photographer — he was another friend who died early, an ironman triathlete and extreme-depth diver who never came up one day. My favourite photographer was Brian Griffin — I think of him and Barney as very much the graphic and photographic equivalents of each other. Brian is a very inventive photographer who did some pioneering shots of business executives for the broadsheets which were some of the best newspaper photographs of their day. His photographs of the Attractions that I really like were taken at a house in Los Angeles and are a pastiche of Hockney’s swimming pool paintings. Brian came up with one of the best comments about creativity I’ve ever heard. I can’t remember the exact figures involved, but you’ll get the idea. Somebody once remarked at a photo shoot: “A thousand pounds for a single photograph! How long did it take you to do that?” Without missing a beat, Brian replied, “Thirty-five years and one five-hundredth of a second.” The Rebel: If the money was right would you reform The Attractions and do a tour in which you play an album in its entirety? (Both Suede and The Cure recently performed each of their albums back to back over different nights) Bruce: "You should be aware that I’m the only one not in that line-up any more, and that Pete, Steve and EC are working happily together with a replacement bass player — presumably someone of a more malleable nature than his predecessor. So no reformation is ever going to come about under my initiative — or under any other circumstances I can foresee." The Rebel: I thought Nick Lowe's last album was really charming do you hold him in high regard either as a person or producer or singer songwriter or bass player? Bruce: "I hold Nick in very high regard as a person and all-round good bloke, as a producer, as a singer and as a songwriter — so four out of five isn’t bad! Nick himself once took Steve Nieve to one side and gently explained to him that his Rachmaninov-like flourishes might not be appropriate for the particular track we were recording. “There are two types of keyboard part,” said Nick, “there are creative keyboards, and there are functional keyboards. What we need is functional.” I think Nick himself would agree that his bass playing never ventured too far from the functional. He was a great catalyst that allowed the band to function in the studio — and came up with many good ideas. He was one of those blokes you could pass an hour or three with bantering about anything, in a very English way. We used to converse in mock Shakespearian — “We must get this bass part right, for even now York’s escutcheons are a-flutter over Richmond’s gates”. We used to say that when we were older one of us would end up wheeling the other along the seafront at Bognor Regis. It hasn’t happened yet, though." (Above: Harry Pye meets The Jesus of Cool in Chelsea School of Art) The Rebel: How much fun were the sessions you did for The Madness album? Bruce: "I did pretty much all of my stuff as overdubs to existing tracks in one or two days — rather than take part in the actual creative process. Madness themselves were going through something of a split at the time but despite that their sessions were very easy going and I got on well with them and even did a couple of TV shows with them. I think at the time they were trying to shake off their cheeky chappie image and make a more mature Roxy Music-type album. I should imagine that, like the Attractions, Madness was fun to be a part of in the glory days." The Rebel: I always had a soft spot for the Steve Nieve song Sad about Girls. Did you have high hopes when The Attractions recorded the Mad about the Wrong Boy album? Bruce: "To be honest, I had no hopes for it at all! In general I don’t think albums of this type have ever worked successfully — except maybe that lot who used to back Bob Dylan, who did quite well for themselves as I recall. All in all though, I’d rather we hadn’t done it — that’s how I felt at the time and I haven’t changed my mind since. Steve’s song is the one redeeming feature." The Rebel:As a bass player would you consider working with cheeky young pups (with no money but lots of dreams and drive) or are you more holding out for legends and international stars? Bruce: "Giving some thought to the possibilities of treading the boards in a manner that wouldn’t rid me of any last remnants of dignity, surprisingly there are a few possibilities. As you say, a band of talented young pups who might embrace me for my great wisdom is one. A chill-out band actually holds some real appeal — or a cool R-and-B band along the lines of Mitchell Froom’s Latin Playboys project of some years ago. A singer-songwriter. Something fun like Status Quo or an Abba tribute band? A band of arty Teutonic babes in nighties playing angle grinders and cement mixers? Though, as you rightly suspect, I wouldn’t refuse a call from Eric Clapton. But at the moment my “play-along with” music of choice isn’t the Cream Reunion DVD but Miles Davis. I think John Paul Jones hit it about right when he took the gig with Seasick Steve — I’d make a good job of something like that." The Rebel: Where would you like to be in 10 years time? Bruce: "Not wheeling Nick Lowe along the seafront at Bognor! Maybe on a beach lounger in the Seychelles — or doing something so interesting and rewarding it would appeal more — hopefully something that’s as much of a surprise to me as it is to everyone else. But whatever the case, it will be with my mental and physical faculties still relatively intact." The Rebel:What's your fave Elvis Presley song and why? Bruce: "My immediate reaction is All Shook Up — and having then looked through the list of all 758 songs that he recorded, I’m not going to change my mind — not even my “Suspicious Mind” or my “You Were Always On My Mind”. All Shook Up has got the best and most effortless groove of any track he ever recorded. But the clincher for me is the lyric — where the usual songs of the day would have said, “There’s only one cure for this heart of mine”, Presley sings, “There’s only one cure for this body of mine, that’s to have that girl and a love so fine.” The Rebel: What's the best thing about being Bruce Thomas? Bruce: "Once you come to any conclusion about yourself … you’re finished!"


  1. Nice interview. I’m always sad to read about the animosity with Elvis Costello and Bruce Thomas as Thomas’s basslines are stupendous and add even more to Elvis’s fantastic compositions. One small point, I believe Madness bassist Mark Bedford (another wonderful player) provided the low end on Shipbuilding

  2. As a guitarist who became the bass player in EXHIBIT "O", we covered several Costello songs. In my opinion, Bruce Thomas is one of the best "rock" bass players. Learning his parts absolutely made me a better player. Bob Mancini