A Conversation With Chris T-T

This week, I’ve been lucky enough to catch up with who Jon Snow has described “one of the great underground artists of our time”; Xtra Mile’s Chris T-T. Chris is sitting on a new album to be released in October, and it’s one I’m looking forward to very much was very excited to have the opportunity to hit Chris with my best shots…

Hey Chris! For people unfamiliar with your music, how would you describe yourself?

My two big music influences are the US punk/indie underground and English folksong. I love stories in songs. Also, I’ve been a writer and music maker for a long time now – did my first album in the late 90s and this is my 9th album – and it’s been my job for 10 years – so it’s a lifelong vocation for me, not a shot at celebrity.

Your new album “The Bear” is out on 7th October, what can we expect from it?

The Bear is a full band album, taped with my live lineup The Hoodrats, who are close friends not a session band. It’s electric guitar-based music and I’d pigeonhole it as psych-rock. We took some influence from early Hold Steady, Sebadoh and older stuff like the Faces and the Animals. Also, we tried to record when possible playing together in a room, committing to tape as soon as we could get through a song, still getting our heads around our parts – because that’s something I’ve not been able to do much before. I also love that all the backing vocals is just us each singing a part, so you can easily make out the individual voices other than me.

So although it’s my songs and voice, it’s very much a group effort. For example, there were songs I loved and expected to go on, which the band threw out because they weren’t good enough – so they have a powerful say, which is why their name is on the record. I reserve final rule – but then I challenge myself to let go of it.

If there’s a theme to the album, it’s looking for steadfastness in the face of what Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit calls “these disastrous times”. If there are triumphs to come against the enormity of the world’s current adversity, they’ll be small, personal triumphs. So we go looking for those. But also, The Bear is less “themed” than my previous albums; I definitely prioritised music we loved, above telling one over-arching story.

It’s your 3rd full-length out on Xtra Mile, that’s a great label to be part of isn’t it?

I’ve been incredibly lucky there. You might be surprised but I’m no ranter about the “music industry” as a villain; it’s occasionally a grimy business but the vast majority of the time, people I encounter on the business side – major or indie – are good, committed people, who’d often earn more money, or have more job security, if they took their skills away from the arts altogether.

Xtra Mile comprises the most consistently honest, realistic people I’ve worked with. When I first signed they were a smaller label (even Frank Turner was still playing to crowds of 150, though we knew he’d go large) and their core business was the PR side, so I’ve been fortunate they’ve done so well, while I’m still onboard. But they’ve not once asked me to compromise anything, or do “one aspect” of my stuff, nor made any big claims about what we’d achieve. The roster was already great back then – and now it just kicks rocknroll arse, so I find myself getting to know some of my very favourite artists in the world, as label-mates. They sincerely work to give it the feel of a family. The PR/plugging side was also unusually straight and very well handled and they pushed me hard when I needed it.

One less said point about the music biz is; if the prevailing wind is away from labels and towards self-releasing all music except 25 global superstars, then I’m sad about that because I think the expertise and objectivity lost there will be grave, as with the publishing industry. I think of a good indie record label in what people call the “old model” as actually for more equable, honest and progressive, than artists relying on impersonal digital systems such as Amazon, iTunes, Google, Spotify, etc. etc. believing those systems mean they’re somehow more independent or empowered. They’re bigger, greedier global corporations than the major labels ever were, treating my end of the supply chain just as badly, like a supermarket with a supplier, with far less pro-activity than the old systems.

Why “The Bear”? Do you just particularly like them, or is there a greater, deep genuine meaning?

Well I do love bears but yes, the title is allegorical and connects to how we ‘bear’ weight, or survive through terrible times. The etymology of ‘bear’ is full of strength, maybe stillness, right? That line in the title track “You need some gumption to fight that bear” is a quote from Chicago radio show This American Life, where someone was talking about teaching in tough schools, where you know it’s truly hard but you go back day after day.

I also like that ‘bear’ is code in the queer world as well, which in my head adds a subversive feel. There’s not really anything subversive left in heterosexuality! And I’ll admit I do like the vague connection it has to my previous work; the adapted A.A. Milne poems. Sneakily I love the idea of someone who’s only heard my music because of the Milne show and then listens to The Bear and is totally shocked. There’s definitely a sense of that in why I decided to make a strongly ‘adult’ work following Disobedience, because I spent 18 months playing incredibly polite shows, almost in-character of someone being formally ‘nice’, to reach out to families and a broader swathe of people.

So you’re heading out on a 27 date tour with Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo, that’s pretty exciting!

It is. I can’t wait, they’re a lovely team – the band itself (who I’ve known for years) and manager and crew, proper sweethearts. Especially excited because we’re touring in a bus and I’m onboard, which takes a lot of the logistical worries out of a lengthy support tour and will be ace fun. Emily and her band may perform the most sublime, beautiful folk songs but believe me, they party like a hip hop entourage.

Also, I’ve started thinking about re-working these new rocking songs for a solo, folk-ish audience. Some I won’t be able to play but some will be really great arranged differently.

So when can we expect the album headline tour from you, and are (album band) The Hoodrats coming along?

I have a solo headline tour right after the Emily Barker shows, from late November til Christmas.

Then in January the Hoodrats reconvene and we’ll tour the album but probably only for a couple of weeks. We had to wait until (lead guitarist) Jen got home from My Bloody Valentine shows, plus (bassist) Johny is finishing his PHD. But I’ve started booking January shows, we’ll rock it – and we’re taking Oxygen Thief from Bristol out as tour support, who is fantastic.

You recently played the inaugural Devizes Folk Fest for Sheer Music, how was that?

Actually that was a very beautiful afternoon – I like Devizes anyway, it’s a pretty, slightly cut-off place and the Folk Fest was in this stunning little park in the middle of town that the council have regenerated. The café even has wifi. A really decent number of people, including a lot of families, showed up to hear music. The whole lineup was good, especially Jessica Mary York.

The thing was, I didn’t expect the gig to work out because I have a rule about the A.A. Milne show – it requires a real piano. I used to occasionally perform it on a keyboard but it never felt right, so I put this rule in place. When Kieran (who was promoting the festival) emailed, I explained the piano thing, totally assuming there’d never be one in the park. But that dude is a genius and he effectively sourced a decent free piano in a few days and then gifted it to Hillworth Park, so I could do the show – and they’ve got a permanent piano out of the deal.

Honestly, they should put on regular quiet, piano based music in that little café now, solo jazz guys and people like me, playing unplugged. Especially in summer, it’s a perfect location for small evening shows that are a bit too “polite” for the pubs.

As you mentioned, the set you played was your incredible ‘Disobedience’ set, how did singing AA Milne’s poems come about?

My Dad read me Winnie-The-Pooh when I was growing up – like so many people. I’ve always loved Milne poems and did one new musical version, of ‘Market Square’, on my Love Is Not Rescue album in 2010. Then I wanted to do a show at Edinburgh Fringe Festival but needed to figure out a hook that wasn’t just a Chris T-T gig, because there’s no way me playing the same town 20 days in a row was going to work!

So the A.A. Milne thing just came to mind. I started researched and working at it and it just sounded perfect. Plus it was a way of bringing people who’d not heard of me to a gig, enough to make a run at the Fringe viable.

You’re in ‘residency’ at Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums, what does that entail?

Ha, I’m having the best time. I’m exploring like mad – it’s actually five major sites: the Royal Pavilion, Brighton Museum, Hove Museum, Preston Manor and the Booth Museum, which is an extraordinary, disconcerting collection of Victorian taxidermy. I’m writing blog entries and publishing a daily photograph of an object from somewhere across all their collections, using Tumblr. I’ve also started a series of audio podcasts, interviewing people about museum stuff. That’s taken longer because podcasts are more tricksy to edit than I’d imagined but now they’re coming together nicely. I’ve got a lot of creative inspiration out of it, including some new material, so it may affect whatever music comes next, after The Bear. By the way, there’s a great stuffed mama bear in the doorway of the Booth Museum but I’d already titled the album that when I met it.

Of course you do so much in the way that you juggle music with photography, public speaking, and all sorts of other fun, how do you fit it all in?

Oh it’s easy, like any freelancer I guess, it’s in the scheduling. I can’t imagine I work as many days in the year, or half as hard, as most full-time workers out there, it only seems like a lot because when you’re in my trade you have to shout about everything you do, to build an audience.

The Royal Pavilion residency has fitted perfectly into the 6 month gap between finishing tracking the album and when it actually comes out, requiring promo and touring. The mistake is to be so scared about income that you forget to schedule space for pure creativity, assuming you’ll just fit that in, in between admin and organised stuff. I learnt (painfully actually) a few years ago that if you have a creative goal (even with no specific known financial outcomes) you have to schedule that time in as firmly as possible, otherwise the creative side of your work falls prey to the administrative side.

That’s just a very pompous way of saying, Chris, put it in your diary to get off the fucking computer and play some guitar.

Who were your biggest musical influences growing up? Have they changed at all?

My lifelong biggest influence is Bruce Springsteen and I remain a devoted fan, beyond objectivity. Also I got into alternative music through Carter USM and the generation of UK bands just before Britpop, who’ve been a bit brushed under the carpet of music history. That connection is great because I’m now friends with – and often work with – Jim Bob who was my single key UK lyricist hero growing up.

My influences haven’t changed but maybe broadened. I didn’t listen to any soul or jazz until my late 20s, for example, whereas now I listen to loads of 60s and 70s soul music and a fair bit of classic jazz stuff. I’ve always been a music freak with broad taste though – I actually did a college degree in pop music, I was so obsessed with it.

From all of your time on the road, who are you favourite people to tour with?

Tough question because whoever I name, it leaves out many lovely people. You get different things from different companions and it’s a peculiar kind of friendship, especially solo artists on tour without loads of other people around, because we’re in each-others’ pockets for a fixed period of time and need to have each-others’ backs beyond all else, yet we’re all unusual creative weirdos (fundamentally self-absorbed and full of quirks), and then afterwards, in most cases you fade into the fabric of each-others’ periphery very quickly.

Tom White (from Electric Soft Parade and Brakes) singlehandedly reignited my creativity, he’s maybe the most prodigiously talented guy I’ve known (rivalled only by Alex his brother). He was constantly, constantly, creative on tour, drawing, writing, making films and photomontages and veering from one project to another. On the tour, he was mainly solo acoustic, then we had one gig at a terrible festival where nobody was interesting in songs, and 3 minutes into his set, suddenly he just switched 100% tangentally to weird disco-electro and in 10 minutes had everyone dancing. Then he never did it again, it was insane. Contrast that with his cover of the Nina Simone classic ‘You Can Have Him’ at the piano, which was jawdroppingly beautiful. One night, he sang it doing a pretty good vocal impression of Shirley Bassey instead and turned it into the funniest thing ever without altering the content.

Also both Frank Turner and Franz Nicolay have been great tour partners. My day-to-day cultural life was turned upside down by Franz getting me into spoken word podcasts, Americans talking politics and comedy and stuff. Since that tour, they’ve been my most consumed culture at home and on the road. And Franz has amazing stories himself because he’s another road warrior who has played everywhere nobody else goes (Mongolia for example) and worked across varied scenes. I’m not going to tell any Turner stories because they all get jumped on – and he has a thousand ‘old friends’ talking about him everywhere – but he’s a joy to tour with.

But I’d say apart from my own band, my best friend gained from touring is Jim Bob, who I mentioned earlier: he’s the novelist and solo artist who was the singer in Carter USM. I go on tour with Jim even if I’m not performing – twice I’ve gone on the road just to share driving, do merch and hang out, because him, Neil and Marc (his team) are amongst my favourite people, I’d like to think very close friends now. I’ve ended up being piano accompanist, support act, worked on 4 of his albums, made a pop video for the single off his last album, etc. etc.

What’s been your strangest experience on the road?

There’ve been many but I tell this story a lot about travelling north on the M1 on my own and suddenly being sick all over the place, while driving at 85mph on the outside lane. I pulled over to the hard shoulder just before an A-Road exit lane, got out of the car and sat on a grass bank above the motorway, feeling miserable, covered in sick. Then had this overpowering, almost spiritual experience: I realised that I’d set two different songs, from different parts of my career (‘Hedgehog Song’ and ‘M1 Song’ both at this exact motorway junction. It wasn’t a deja vu, it was completely the real place I’d set them – my sub conscious had obviously remembered it from driving past many times over the years. So not only were these two songs (written six years apart) connected to each-other in a way I’d never imagined – which became obvious as soon as I realised it – but also I was now sitting in the exact spot where they’d meant to be. But I was still really sick, with nobody there to share it with, it was very intense.

You’ve come this far in your artistic career, what would be your advice to any young musicians?

I wrote a piece that was 360 words of advice for young artists, for Andrew Dubber’s 360 project. It’s here: https://leanpub.com/360deal

The key thing is to sit down and think for yourself clearly what you want out of it and how long you’re going to give it. In my opinion, in almost every case, “success” as defined by the establishment media – even huge crossover household name success – is two things: 1) much shorter term than a life’s career needs to be and 2) a recipe for a broken heart. Celebrity’s only possible value is the financial security it can bring to a lucky few (which itself comes with many untold downsides). So I beg young musicians to think clearly what they truly want their life to be shaped like.

If you could’ve been in one band ever, who would it have been and why?

The E Street Band without doubt. Started early, lifelong career, huge shows, long gigs, worldwide respect, relative offstage anonymity (until later on maybe), and still at it 40 years later. I’d dream of being a Steve Van Zandt, with a broad range of other projects, political and cultural heft, except if I was in someone else’s band I’d want to be a piano player, not a guitarist.

Do you have a favourite show that you’ve ever played?

The next one. 😉

And what about one you’ve attended?

Sebadoh, Sheffield Leadmill, 1994, Decemberists, some club in Brooklyn, 2003, Springsteen’s two nights at Crystal Palace on the Rising tour and Hammersmith with the Seeger Sessions Band, seriously too many to figure out.

And finally, you’ll be returning to Devizes for Sheer Music’s Christmas Shindig in December, and we’re massively looking forward to having you back. Do you have anything special planned?

I will have been on the road for 10 weeks by then, so if I’m not on it, kill me. I love Christmas songs and know a bunch of them, so I’m hoping that by the time I reach you in Devizes, I’ll be dropping in lots of festive material. There’s a possible secret treat as well that I haven’t even told Kieran yet, so we’ll see about that one.

Thanks to Chris for being an absolute gent, and for being so honest with his answers. Dates for his upcoming tour with Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo are here and you can pre-order “The Bear” here.

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