Outside it’s a beautifully bright Sunday lunchtime, but chill in the shade. Indoors, in the snug of Paper and Cup, it’s cosy warm. Tom Brosseau, his friend Eva, his manager Mary Jones, and I are happily ensconced in Calvert Street, E2, about to reap the rewards of the coffee machine currently threatening to drown out Tom’s soft voice.
Tom is on tour with his seventh solo studio album, Grass Punks, released in January this year on UK independent Tin Angel Records. We’re meeting just before he plays a short set at Arnold Circus for Bandstand Busking. He’s late for our interview, having forgotten his guitar, but who can blame him given that we’re the-morning-after-the-night-before ? For him, this was a sell-out show at the Sebright Arms with his touring band. Ben Reynolds (guitar), David Butler (drums) and Joe Carvell (double-bass) briefly joined us, with roll-ups and squinting eyes, before we retreated for coffee.
Inside, Tom keeps his cardigan on and fidgets with the outsize collar, pressing it to his throat throughout the interview. It’s the same mixture of guardedness and vulnerability he displayed when meeting friends on arrival at the bandstand. He hugs in a curious way, side-on and slightly floppy. At the same time he stoops from his lean height and brings his head down into shoulder or chest. This makes him very much more the embraced, the held party. In fact, you can see something of his sweet openness, gentleness and politeness if you watch him talking between songs during his recent NPR set as he works hard to be talking to, rather than at, people and cameras.
Grass Punks is an album with a long gestation, already recorded once before putting down the version that you can now hear. The previous version was completed “in upstate New York with good friend [of Tom’s] Adam Pierce [co-producer of 2009’s Posthumous Success]”. It was “on a different label and the record was great but something was missing so for that reason it got scratched.” In the process of that recording Tom left Fat Cat amicably and entered a “driftless” period where he “was on no label” with “no budget and no time constraint; really just kind of a rolling stone”. It was at that point that he got together with Sean Watkins of Grammy Award-winning band Nickel Creek. “Sean has been a friend of mine for a very long time and … it was almost like an excuse to get together: the music didn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with it!”
Whether or not the music was the most important part of their collaboration, the 20-something-minutes long, nine-track album is a beautifully sympathetic pairing. Native of Grand Forks, North Dakota, the 37-year old has returned to a sparer set of arrangements after the fuller sound of Posthumous Success and work in Les Shelleys. He concedes that “I could probably [have made a] more commercial record, and maybe I have in the past but it’s not really interesting to me.” There is nothing revolutionary in what he and Sean Watkins are doing but there is equally nothing boring about the way in which their two guitars separate and intertwine, and the arresting backing that they provide for Tom’s compelling voice and words. Listen to the simple but unimpeachable guitar bridge on “Today is a Bright New Day” (2:26 onwards) and the way that Tom delivers the coup de grâce with the line “all I wanna do is get away from the light”. A killing blow indeed.
Tom downplays it: “Sean and I got together… and it just kind of happened”. I ask him whether or not it was strange to record the album again with someone new; did it feel unfaithful to the old record, to the songs ? “You know it didn’t”, he replies, “Sean didn’t know the recordings before so he had no bias, nothing to a/b it with; there was no sense of ‘well, you did this here and I can see it didn’t work…'”. So as far as Sean was concerned “he was hearing the songs for the first time” and because he was, so was Tom: “it felt like I was doing it for the first time … everything was open, it was all opportunity.”
Given the very intimate nature of the recording of the album, of the closeness of sharing a recording with just one other person, I wonder if Tom feels sad having completed Grass Punks. “I do feel sad”, he replies, “but also very happy that we have this thing, that we could have done this.” He sometimes wonders how we was so lucky to have been able to do this record “with this wonderful musician with all these projects. Why me ? Why did he make the time for me ?” Part of the sadness is down to the uniqueness of the experience: “it’s a really special thing that will never happen that way again, each piece of music made never happens in that combination again.” Some of the joy that Tom finds is in the wider team that brought the record to release, “a big labour with so many hands involved.”
Reflecting on the time he spent on the album Tom “thinks about some great moments, recording, me and Sean and a mic between us and just trying things out.” “Cradle Your Device was a moment like that, something just happened there.” After that “you lose memory of it, too” and he “can’t really recall going in and recording [all the other] songs”, “[we] were just doing it and then at the end there is this package.” Singles ‘Cradle Your Device’ and ‘Today is a Bright New Day’ are the “bookends”, recorded first and last. There’s a track that ended up being left off the album called “Phantom Love”, whose seeds were first sewn when Tom was a child, growing up in Drayton, North Dakota, spending time at his Grandparents’ house. The idea of the phantom limb, whose nerves continue to transmit feeling after an amputation, was “mulled over in [his] mind over the years” before finally being written about the time of Grass Punks. He thinks back over that song “a little bit” and maybe we might one day hear on it another record. But Tom isn’t sure he would ever go back, he likes to keep moving, keep going forward. “What would we be trying to do ? Recreate the same thing ? That’s not interesting. We had a good run, the two of us: two friends and we got to know each other a lot more.” There’s also the problem of scheduling, “time wouldn’t match up for another five years” and besides which “I would be thinking … we’ve kind of already been here before; now that we have the time to hang out I would much rather just hang out, get a sandwich and a cup of coffee !”
Since Grass Punks was released, Tom has been on the road, including a tour of Europe taking in The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, England and Wales. It’s a tour that he has been enjoying immensely and the journeying is a huge part of that. “On a side note that’s something that I have kind of learned about travelling and playing music: the music actually plays a very small part.” Given the way in which Tom describes his life, that viewpoint is probably vital: “my road has been a very long one, and it’s been kind of a tough one, but it’s been very rich [including] being able to travel around and see the world. My life is on the road and that’s kind of how I have to be. I’ve been doing it for a long time, probably since around ’99. Is it getting any easier ? I’m not sure, but I’ve never enjoyed it more.”
Tom does have a home base, and regularly performs at the famous venue Largo, in Los Angeles, where he has played with actor John C Reilly. Tom remembers “playing a song and opening up my eyes and looking out and seeing Julia Roberts. I get star-struck anyways, but it was my first time ever in Los Angeles. She wasn’t there to see me ! [Tom and Eva both laugh, looking at each other] I was opening up for Jon Brion…”
Having taken a while to get around to recording Grass Punks, and spent some time taking it out to play, Tom is wondering about the future. There’s a live record that he has been wanting to do “for years and years” and Gregory Page (of San Diego) has vaults of music from when Tom first came to that city that he would like to do something with. At the least, his sights are set on another album to record this year and release next. He has “some really great things” he would like to say and “it would be neat to get that on record, and not wait five years !”. On that note, Tom is required on stage, where he plays a few songs from the album, and one new one called “Take Fountain”, named after the advice given by Bette Davis to aspiring actresses (take Fountain Avenue – it’s a quicker driving route into Hollywood). It’s a short set, played eyes shut: against the startling sunshine, you might have thought, but I think that’s just Tom’s way.