TOM LOW settles in with a pint at The Baltic Fleet. It’s a pub he knows well. Back in 2009, on his return to his hometown after a childhood growing up in the North East, it was The Baltic Fleet where he arrived one freezing January night carrying a battered old guitar, part Beatle, part Kink, part Stone, resplendent in candystripe jeans and wearing sunglasses. Back in those days, the Baltic’s open mic nights were the stuff of legend; a crowded bar running late into the night on the dock road, levels of raucousness were reached that the building’s previous regulars a century before would’ve been mightily proud of. That was very definitely then, and this is very definitely now, for, with a new label deal, a new sound, and even stretching to a new name, 2016 holds very real promise for the artist formerly known as Thomas McConnell.
Since discovering The Beatles in the strangest way imaginable (via his childhood fixation with the Ringo Starr-narrated Thomas The Tank Engine), music became Tom Low’s obsession, his learning curve, his only way forward. With an old piece of kit belonging to his father at his disposal, he began to discover the dual processes of recording and composing. “I started playing guitar when I was seven, and taught myself piano when I was nine,” Low explains. “My dad had this mad little recording machine, so I used to just mess about on it a lot. I’d record hundreds of these, like, shite instrumentals, just me playing chords basically. I’ve still got them too. From there, I moved on to writing songs.”
“It was always what I wanted to do – since finding The Beatles, it was just, ‘OK, I’ll do that’,” he continues animatedly. “Throughout my teenage years I kinda thought, ‘I’ll move back to Liverpool, meet three other people, and we’ll wear suits and be The Beatles’.” Following a course at the City of Liverpool College, Low set about getting out and playing wherever and whenever he could. Support slots on tours with China Crisis, Ian McNabb and Squeeze followed, all the time helping Low sculpt, build and hone what he wanted to do. “Those gigs were really good for me; I learnt a lot. One night we’d be in a big theatre, and the next night a small club; it was different all the time, which was really good.”
The creative process became all-encompassing for Low in the years prior to the move back home, but formative years working solo at home in Newcastle meant he found frustration in writing with others. “I did join a band, but after a short time I realised I wasn’t into it,” he admits. “I was so used to writing on my own and playing everything myself, I wanted to do it all. It’s a control-freak thing, I suppose, and a comfort zone kinda thing too. Pretty soon after I started that band, I just decided to stay solo. I still love playing with other people live, but I just want to write on my own.”
It would be fair to say that, in previous years, he’s never hidden from or feared the massive influence The Beatles had on him, though he found much comfort there. However, there is now a feeling – particularly with his most recent EP, Phone – that he’s ready and willing to chip that mask away a little. At a recent gig supporting Euros Childs at Leaf, he displayed a much more open mind, and slightly darker, heavier, but less restricting tones. There’s a newfound sense of experimentation to the new material, and a newer openness of mind in the writing.
“I’m into just seeing how elaborate I can make stuff in my bedroom. I hear everyone talking about this whole ‘stripped-back’ thing, but I just think, ‘I’ve got all these keyboards, I might as well make something as crazy as I possibly can’,” comes his honest assessment. “I’m not really into all that acoustic-y stuff anyway. All the records I like are weird, quirky pop records, and they’re kind of dense. The Beach Boys for instance: big, fat, huge sounds. They’re the sort of ideas I’m into, that density.”
“Just before I did the last EP, I had a renaissance with Pet Sounds, which I’ve loved for years,” continues Low as he warms to his theme, “but this time I just got nerdy with it, and started making these arrangement charts so I could see what was happening as well as hearing it. All so that I could see that there’s an oboe here, followed by a key change there, and I soon found that they’re not just normal chords, [Brian] Wilson’s using all these crazy jazz chords. I want to try and write at that level, rather than any other. It’s composition. I like the idea of trying to hone what I’m doing into that kind of mapping. It’s all just maths basically, combinations of numbers. And you can make it as complex as you want it to be. I suppose I’m just trying to lift the magical element out of each piece, so I can see how it works. I like that.”
The Phone EP – slated for release in late February – was completed in late summer, and really does mark that change of direction Low details. New paths travelled into fresh territories. Built over insistent, rhythmic, lo-fi analogue stabs, with layer upon layer of interweaving harmonies, its four songs form a neat whole, and see him expanding his ideas away from the previous Beatle-tinged jangle of the Thomas McConnell of old. Those Brian Wilson and Bowie influences shine, and stand proudly alongside an appreciation of Burt Bacharach in some of the chord progressions. Mutant pop, you could say. You should say.
To Low’s mind, getting these songs out there deserved a different, fuller approach. “I finished the EP, recorded the whole thing on my phone, and thought it was a lot better than the stuff I’d done in the past. So I didn’t want to just put it on Bandcamp or something, with no help getting it out there, cos I’d done that before so many times. In the past I’d have said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m releasing a single’. But really, am I? Nah, I’m just putting a song on the internet. So I didn’t want to just waste it, and have it go nowhere.”
The time really couldn’t have been better, then, for Deltasonic to show an interest and get involved; and, in many ways, there couldn’t be a more appropriate label, or a better setting, for the new world of Tom Low. The proven track record, their continued search for the different, the new, the better, the more inventive and experimental makes them the prefect bedfellows for the next part of Low’s journey. Coincidentally, after sending the EP over, he and label boss Ann Heston met, ironically enough, at John Lennon’s childhood home of Mendips.
“Yeah, despite me trying to get away from that Beatles sound, it’s as though they’re still helping me,” laughs Low at the recollection. “When Ann messaged to say they were interested, I was with Colin Hall, who runs Mendips, and he just said, ‘Meet her in John’s’. So, the first time we met was in John Lennon’s living room. Funny, that… I hope to conduct more meetings there in the future.”
As he finishes his pint in The Baltic Fleet, he muses on the future, and it’s clear that it’s a future for him to relish and keenly anticipate. For any musician, this is the best of places to be. A new label brings new inspiration, a fresh start, and a chance for your work to come good. “I’m just lucky, and made up to be working with a real, proper label, not only cos they liked my stuff in the first place, but that they got back to me within, like, 10 minutes or something,” he enthuses again, drawing from a seemingly endless well of enthusiasm. “It’s amazing. Normally, I’d send my stuff off to some info@ address or something, and just know that I’d never hear anything back from them, so to be have people like Deltasonic on board is cool.”
As well as the release of the Phone EP, and more writing and recording, the early part of this year also sees him on the road with Mercury nominee C Duncan for his UK and Ireland tour (calling at Leaf on 4th March), which he’s more than stoked for. “Yeah, man, I love his album; he seems like a nice guy, and we’re kind of similar, both writing alone in our rooms. It’s this really beautiful, layered, almost choral stuff. He has a classical background too, which I’m really interested in. The tour should be great.”
With the forward momentum afforded him by the support of an encouraging label and a band he’s assembled from likeminded souls, Low immediately feels more comfortable in the ability to just concentrate on the mutant pop. “Crazy, mad pop music that’s been affected by nuclear war… I want to mess it up. There’s no need to stick to the patterns. I still want catchiness, obviously, but I just want to make monster pop music.” And, knowing how this prolific, hardworking, creator and composer works, with Tom Low, more is always firmly guaranteed.
The Phone EP is out now via Deltasonic Records.