Tuesday, 27 March 2007

INTERVIEW: with Tommy

By Charlette Hannah

Tommy Benefield, lead singer/songwriter of Tommy, and Tommy and The Fallen Horses, spared a couple of hours on a murky Saturday morning to have a chat with a long time fan about the new album, Tomorrow I Might Go, his upcoming tour, and opinions on far too many things to include on one website! Recorded at Bethells Beach, Tommy collaborated with filmmaker Stephen Walls to make an album and a documentary at once. Due to the length of the interview, I've truncated it somewhat, but if you really love Tommy, you can have the tape!

Charlette: So when's the documentary coming out?

Tommy: Well, it's an interesting one actually. C4 initially showed interest but they haven't actually gotten back to us about whether they're going to play it. It's been about two weeks now where they've said 'yeah we'll talk to you then' and still failed to get back to us. I'm uncertain whether or not they're going to play it. If they're not it's cool, 'cause there's obviously Juice, Alternative TV, and even Inside New Zealand potentially, so there's a lot of places we could shop if C4 aren't interested. I'd be surprised if they're not, not because I think our band is so well known that we were going to merit a huge audience of watching the documentary, but just the quality of the documentary itself. It's quite a unique thing. What this film maker Stephen Walls has done, is instead of focusing on the making of the album which has some interest, but I think a lot of the documentaries that I've seen have some sort of similiarities, generic techniques and generic content that people are looking for. To me it's not interesting. I've seen documentaries of great bands and I've just been bored. Whereas what Steve's done, is his interest is in the personalities and the hearts, and the emotions and the thoughts and dreams and creative processes of the musicians themselves. So the documentary is much less about making an album and more about a group of people coming together to achieve a common goal. So really we could have been painters or we could have been plumbers. It's about a group of people who are working together and have ego's and hearts and love and skills and wisdom and all that stuff, and it's all gone into a melting pot to create an album. So it's a much more intimate and personal and multi-dimensional piece of film than most of the rockumentaries I've seen. So to me it seems more interesting, and a really innovative thing for them to play. But they've been kind of apathetic about it. I guess everyone has different opinions.

Charlette: Did you know before making the album that Tommy was going to break up and it was going to be a farewell album?

Tommy: Yeah, to be perfectly candid about it I was at a point where I was thinking maybe Tommy should break up before we made the album. What happened was, I worked so hard on getting the first album done that I was burnt out. Because I hadn't been able to work on it purely from a space of non-attachment and love. I'd gotten into some sort of ego-stories and was identifying with my own mind too much and I was believing what it was telling me which was 'I worked so hard on this and no one helps me and I'm by myself and I'm the one taking all the risk' these kind of negative stories. I just thought you know what I want to do? I want to leave the whole Wellington reggae scene behind and I want to start playing alternative country music and I want to play intimate music and I don't want to be playing with these guys. I was negative about a lot of stuff and positive about only a little bit of stuff. What happened was I had a great experience on tour where I spent some time with my friend Jesse and had this beautiful night of talking all night and it just reawoke some things in me, some beautiful things and some deep things in me where I immediately got a new perspective of stuff. And what I thought was, ok instead of just doing one album with the band and then letting it go, why don't we get into the studio again pretty soon, let AJ produce the album the way he wanted to produce the first album, give the band a lot more creative freedom than I have in the past and let them really feel like they've created the album they wanted to create. So that the last memory of the band doing something together isn't of me feeling totally stressed out and burnt out and controlling the thing, but that everyone's last experience is that we all came together at this beautiful time and we co-created something. I thought that would be a beautiful last thing to do rather than ending it at that point. So what happened is the band came together and we made that album and it was a beautiful time. We recorded the album nearly two years ago and it's been finished for a year just waiting to be released. In that time both Iain and Paul decided to go overseas. And AJ the drummer has been working on his solo projects, one's called SOS Project and one's called Diwata. I've also gone back into the studio with my other band Tommy and The Fallen Horses and we're halfway through finishing our first album. The band kind of became even further apart after the recording of the album. So we're not even going to be touring the album with the same line-up. There's going to be some gigs that have Iain in it but most gigs it's going to be a whole new line up. Still under the name Tommy and still doing the songs from the albums, doing all that reggae, happy high energy good time stuff. So I didn't know or when the band was going to dissolve but I did know that for me it needed to end because musically I've been heading in quite a different direction for quite a long time.

Charlette: So it was quite amicable?

Tommy: Absolutely. Me, AJ and Iain just played a gig for the cosmic corner party just last weekend. Absolutely, we're all really close and we all love each other a lot and wish each other well in our current journeys, which for two of the boys is travelling round the world and for two of us is pursuing our music in more of a solo capacity.

Charlette: With Bethell's Beach, did you hear about this a while ago and decide to make an album or how did that come about?

Tommy: That came about because we met the filmmaker Stephen Walls when he came to see us play a gig at Lee Sawmill in Auckland. He really loved us and told us how he wanted to film bands at Bethell's Beach. None of us had ever heard of Bethell's Beach before. He wanted to do a series of concerts with great New Zealand bands and have a series of six one hour specials of having New Zealand bands play at this beautiful location. He was in the process of trying to make that happen. We said 'that sounds interesting, we'd be keen to be part of that' and we were really humbled that he thought we were good enough to be part of that line up, I mean, he was only thinking of doing six bands and he just really loved us. So that was a great feelig. I said 'look, it's really interesting that you're talking about this because we're actually going to record our second album soon, we're going to do it by ourselves, AJ's got all the gear we need. We're actually wondering where we're going to do that, maybe we could do that in this place you're talking about.' I don't think at the time it was actually what he had in mind but for some reason I was hearing that that was what he was after, and he said 'that's cool'. I thought my record company was going to get in touch with him to follow that up. Finally I asked the record company, we've got a date, we're going away in one month so can you tell him that's the date, and they said 'we haven't actually talked to him since that night'. So I kind of freaked out and they gave me his number and I rang him up and said 'hey bro, we're ready to record that album, it'll be in these two weeks and that's a month away, is that gonna work?' He hadn't heard anything about anything, and he wasn't sure, but within a day he got back to me and found a way to make it work. His film cost $40,000 to make or something so he got a lot of funding for it and invested his own money in it and invested his time for free. It's a big budget. It was two weeks of having a full time film crew. So it was purely through him that we chose Bethell's as a destination. I've since been up to the west coast of Auckland at least 2 or 3 if not 4 or 5 times a year so it's become a place that's really special to me.

Charlette: Did you find it intruded on the creative process to have the film camera's there?

Tommy: There's a certain funny factor which goes on whenever you push record on sound gear or on film. There's a certain self consciousness that you get. That self consciousness, it seems to be unavoidable. You do an amazing take of a song, and then you say 'ok, we'll record this one' and then all of a sudden it's a bit different. There's a tightness and rigidity and a fear of getting it wrong which goes on once you know that it's going to be there forever. And as soon as you know something has the possibility of being eternal rather than fleeting it changes how you feel about it. So what I think happened having a film crew following us around all the time is that we actually built up a tolerance to being recorded. Because everything we said or did was recorded, it didn't matter whether AJ pushed record or not. So after a few days of that, we got used to the fact that everything we said or did was going to be documented in some way, shape or form. In some ways maybe it actually helped us because we overcame our self consciousness of being captured.

Charlette: That's interesting. So it was more freeing than restricting.

Tommy: Yeah, I think so. I'm kind of an extroverted personality and I also have this part of me which always desires to reveal every aspect of myself, or my humanness. I've always fantasised about living with people or living in a way where nothing was held back and people were able to be completely present and open in every way. Even as a kid I remember thinking that. The friends that I've drawn myself to, and the lovers, over the years have all been people who have that high level of openness and that degree of intimacy. Again, for me being on film all the time, it was fine because I didn't have a policy of 'because I'm on film I'll be on my best behaviour or I'll only say these things'. It was like 'sweet, I've always wanted to be this open anyway'. So I wasn't self conscious because I didn't feel I needed to monitor myself.

Charlette: So would writing lyrics be a way of expressing all that openness and getting things out to so many people?

Tommy: Yeah. It's an interesting question. It's interesting relating those two together. I'm not sure. Definitely performing and writing are all forms of self expression. Absolutely. But actually I think there's a distinction. I think what I express through my music is... I think it's like an actor, you know, Johnny Depp plays a lot of roles, and there's got to be something of him in all those roles, even though they might be vastly different and he might be really sensitive, or really angry, or really wooden or really crazy, but there's always some element of him. My songs are kind of like that. There's always some element of me but I'm not really writing from my own personal... most of the songs aren't confessional or autobiographical at all. They're stories, they're metaphors. So what I'm expressing in my music is different to when I'm talking about myself on the radio or I'm being interviewed and I'm talking about my own experiences of life, that's actually much more intimate than when I'm singing a really heartfelt song. When I play I always like to have the emotion of when I wrote the song, so I can give it the most potent representation and really connect the audience into what that song's about, or what it was about for me at the time. So though I express those emotions and that comes from me the actual content of the song has often got nothing to do with me and it's just a metaphor, it's just a forum through which to explain some concept or its just a medium to paint a picture of a certain feelin. Whereas talking with you, or with a friend or a lover or my mum, or whoever it is, that's much more intimate in the sense that while it may not be so emotionally charged it is much more speaking about who I am. The songs are not always about me.

Charlette: Does the inspiration for the songs come from people that you know?

Tommy: It comes from the people I know in that it comes from the flow of lifeand the experiences I have with people, but I don't very often write about stuff that's happened in my life, or in my friend's life. The stories just come. Writing is not a conscious thing. I don't sit down and go 'ok I'm gonna write a song and this is what I'm gonna write about'. I've tried to do that 10, 20, maybe even 40 times and all the songs were terrible. That's not the way I write. What I write is I pick up the guitar and I'll play some chords and I'll find some that I like, the way they sit together and I start humming along. Not even humming along, I find the chords I like and I start singing and the words just come out. As soon as I have a sentence I like I'll put the guitar down and write the whole song. Then I'll pick the guitar up and play it. It takes maybe five, ten minutes. That's kind of how I write. There's no conscious thought of 'this is a story'. It's really quick and the sentences just come through me. If my mind is deliberately putting poetry in there, the songs are normally of a lower quality.

Charlette: Do you consider yourself a successful musician? What does success mean to you?

Tommy: I think my success would be measured for me by how true I am to my music. How true I am to the creative force that flows through me. To put it simply, I won't measure my success by how the external world responds to it, but by how true I am to the internal world from which it comes.

But I can also easily talk to you objectively in a superficial way and say I probably won't consider myself a successful musician until I have a sustainable capacity to financially support myself and a family which I one day intend to have, through my music. If I look at the external world for factors that would be one way of judging it. If I look at the part of myself that's highly ambitious and that wants to be a big huge manifest, I would consider myself successful when I've sold as many records as Eminem. I don't have a ceiling of 'I want to be as big as Fat Freddy's Drop', when I get into that headspace of how big I want to be, I want to be fucking huge. I want to be as big as Elvis or something.

I look around New Zealand musicians and there aren't many who are making a really good living from music. I don't think Bic Runga is. Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn are. Wayne Mason, who wrote Nature, which was voted the best New Zealand song ever, has never earned a living from music.

Charlette: Do you think for New Zealand musicians to really make that kind of living it's necessary to go to Australia, the UK or the States?

Tommy: Yeah absolutely. I think it's difficult to do it purely here. And when we look at those who have done really well, who do make a living purely off music, like Neil Finn, he's made so many trips overseas and sells records all over the world. There's cities in Australia which have the same population in New Zealand, and you think about that in America, but actually just across the water it's like that too. I think you can make a good living, you know, just being Midnight Oil. I think they make a bloody good living. But being Shihad or Fat Freddy's Drop or probably even Betchadupa, I don't think any of those guys are making a living. Maybe Bic Runga, but probably more from selling her song to American Pie soundtrack more than from actual record sales. Even if her album goes triple platinum, it's still only 40,000 records.

Charlette: Do you see yourself in the future moving overseas to do more music?

Tommy: I definitely see myself making music overseas and performing music overseas, but there's a quality of musicianship in New Zealand which is really high. With the advent of affordable high quality sound equipment, New Zealand studios can compete fairly comparably with American studios and European studios but at such a fraction of the price it's ridiculous.

Charlette: Do you think there's still a big imbalance between male and female singer/songwriters.

Tommy: What I think is that the people who buy records for the last 50 years have been predominantly men and that the female market for buying music is increasing on a yearly basis. I think that's recorded, I think that's a fact, I don't think I'm making that up. I think women are buying more and more records, and historically they bought less. It's probably coming to a point where it'll be on a par soon. I think men are more likely to buy male singer/songwriters, and women want female singers. I think that's kinda cool, I think that makes sense. I mean, most men I know want to have a son and most women want to have a daughter, and if we want to have two kids, most people want to have a girl and a boy. I don't think there's anything sexist or inherently wrong about that. I think that just like in the acting business, just like in every fucking industry, women are getting paid less and slowly over the next century or the next millenia, that that'll probably balance out again. Definitely music as much if not more so has been dominated by men before.

Charlette: What sort of advice would you give to other bands?

Tommy: Maybe you should ask Fat Freddy's or someone who's selling more records! I don't know if I'd need to give them any advice about anything really. If I was going to give them practical advice I'd tell them to read a book called 'Everything You Need to Know About the Music Industry', it's written for the American market but it's just as valuable for New Zealand. I dunno man, I dunno. I could give them advice that is good advice for me. But that advice won't get them stoned and laid, and if their agenda is to get them heaps of girlfriends and use heaps of drugs, then I won't have, I'm not up to play on that stuff. My values are different and what I want to achieve by making music is quite different. I don't want to make an identity of myself as Tommy the musician. I don't want my self esteem or my whole identity to be based on the fact that I play music. Whether or not I sell 10,000 records in my lifetime, or I sell 100 million. I think I would like to tell bands to let their music be as truly or authentically them as they can, to get their ego's or their minds or their intelligence as far out of the way as possible and let the music come through.

I don't believe that there's any wisdom that's so palatable on a universal level that I could give it and they'd be able to receive it. I think there's some things out there that are universally useful, but I think the key for each individual on the planet to hear this wisdom in a way they can actually utilise it is so unique that for me to say any generic sentence like 'there's no strangers, there's only friends we haven't met yet', well most of us are going to puke when we hear that 'cause it reminds us of Christian fridge magnets. But there's some truth in that. Bob Marley could say it with a little slant and people would hear and say 'that's so wise'. The way things are presented often really impacts on the way they're received.

Charlette: Is music a spiritual thing for you?

Tommy: No, music's not a spiritual thing. I mean, music is a spiritual thing in that, if I was a plumber, plumbing would be a spiritual thing. Music is not intrinsically more valuable to the world on a spiritual level than growing oranges or finding wood for the fire. That's what I'm good at, so it's spiritual for me. If I was really good at rallying support for things I'd be a campaigner. I don't think makers of music have a special status as being spiritual. I think you focus on the outside world or you focus on the inside world, and you come from a space of love and generosity or you come from a place of fear and greed. And there's heaps of musicians doing both, heaps of plumbers doing both. And there's heaps of people doing, you know, traffic patrol of the roadworks doing both. No, music doesn't make me spiritual.

Charlette: But for you, because that is what you're skilled at, is it spiritual?

Tommy: I think doing what you love without attachment is spiritual, absolutely. And whether that's making love or being a mother, or being a bus driver who just smiles at everyone who comes on the bus and makes eye contact and just lets them know he's there, and they're there too. Absolutely, doing what you love without attachment. Because doing what you love when you're attached to the outcome there's a very different energy attached to it.

Charlette: Do you have a day job?

Tommy: Yes, I work as a counsellor and I've been training in psychotherapy for four years.

Charlette: Would music be what you'd ideally like for a career or are you happy to string both of them along?

Tommy: Ideally, at the moment what I'd want to be creating is a capacity to create enough financial abundance from music to be able to just do music full time. So my priority in terms of the way I would like my life to be supported would be through music, not as a counsellor. But I do love working as a counsellor too. I say that, and I immediately think of the clients I have and I really enjoy being part of their lives.

Charlette: What's your opinion on the record industry these days, in terms of burning CD's and downloading etc?

Tommy: All I can talk of is at a personal level, and at a personal level, I don't feel guilty burning CD's. I don't feel guilty doing that. But the flipside of that is, is that all of the artists who I really love, the alt-country artists who I just really adore, whose music really inspire me, if I've dubbed one of their CD's, I'll always buy one or two of their CD's as well, or I might even buy a CD that I've already got of theirs. Not so much for the artwork, because that doesn't matter to me so much, I might even put it on my ipod or my computer anyway once I've bought it, but just because I want to be supporting them at a financial level. Like most people in New Zealand I have a policy of generally not burning New Zealand music.

Charlette: So you've got quite a big tour coming up?

Tommy: Yeah, we're going to be playing heaps.

Charlette: What kind of music will you be playing for people?

Tommy: That's purely the Tommy stuff. There'll be a few new songs on there, but basically it'll be the songs off the two albums that people know. When it comes to touring, people have come to see me play based on the strength of the album or the song on the radio. I think it would be disrespectful, I think it would actually be false advertising to not play the songs that they want to hear. I'm not a jukebox, and I'm not going to play whatever anyone wants to hear, but I want to give the people who are showing up to our concerts, buying our albums, I want to give them the utmost love and respect I can at every show. I want to deliver them at least 150% and give them a really emotionally charged inspired performance.

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