INTERVIEW: TOMMY SCOTT AND PAUL HEMMINGS

“It was Paul who suggested doing a solo album. I’d been putting it off for years, but he’s cool to work with. He’s got loads of cool old guitars that gave the album a real vintage vibe… me and Paul are Luddites. We can’t use computers and still use old eight-track recorders.”

Two-fifths of the Thomas Scott Quintet discuss how a friendship that’s spanned 35 years finally culminated in the Space frontman’s first solo album, bringing in Space and La’s/Lightning Seeds members to flesh out a vibe of “Lou Reed, Scott Walker, John Barry and Bernard Hermann sitting around a campfire risking the wrath of God” and how lockdown has already put Scott well on his way to completing his second solo album. Oh yeah, and why Frank Sinatra may have burned at the stake in medieval times.

With much of the world stuck at home since March, we’ve all had to find something to pass the time. In the case of Space frontman Tommy Scott, a good chunk of that time has been filled writing and recording a solo album with his longtime friend Paul Hemmings (erstwhile guitarist for the La’s and the Lightning Seeds, and co-founder of Liverpool’s criminally under appreciated Viper Label). While Scott may be best known for the hits he’s enjoyed with Space (“Female of the Species,” “Neighbourhood” and “The Ballad of Tom Jones” to name just three), working on a solo album allows him to approach songs in a more organic form than the mosaic of loops, samples and other sounds that underpin Space records. It’s a bit of a different way of working – although Scott notes that most of his work takes its root with an idea and an acoustic guitar. 

Of course, before that album makes its way out of Paul Hemmings’ recording desk and into fans ears, there’s still the matter of releasing his long-awaited solo debut, “Marionette” – also assisted by Hemmings, as well as Space bassist/producer Phil Hartley, former La’s and Lightning Seeds drummer Chris Sharrock (who, more recently, has been the go-to stickman in the Gallagher orbit of Oasis, Beady Eye and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds) and folk artist Emily Portman. Collectively, “Marionette” is billed as The Thomas Scott Quintet, but for all intents and purposes, it’s Scott’s solo debut. 

And a grand debut it is. Awash with guitars, sweeping orchestration and Scott’s unique knack for storytelling, “Marionette” is a quintessential autumnal record in the way that the best Scott Walker offerings are, with traces of late-1960s Kinks, cinematic flourishes that wouldn’t be out of place on an Ennio Morricone soundtrack and the songwriting and playing finesse that is pretty much expected from any musical output rooted in Merseyside.

“Marionette” will be released via AV8 Records on November 22, but a presale for a limited-edition CD and a limited-edition white vinyl pressing of the record will begin Oct. 24 at midnight at Scott’s website. Don’t mull it over – secure yours because the songs are great and once this run is gone, a subsequent pressing will not follow.

Ahead of the presale, Scott and Hemmings spoke with us about the genesis and construction of “Marionette,” and trying to look ahead in an uncertain future.

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To start, can you talk a little bit about how this album came together? Tommy, I know you’re most known for your work with Space, but there have been other projects, like the Drellas. Even though it’s billed as the Thomas Scott Quintet, this is your first proper solo album. Was it a “time is right” kind of decision, or something that had been percolating for awhile? 

Tommy Scott: Writing this album has been a long-time process. It’s oddly daunting writing a solo album – the songs are a few years old now and, funnily enough, I’ve actually wrote a second solo album in the lockdown, which I found a lot easier. I wanted this album to be song-based – most Space songs are more groove- and sample-based. I wrote this album on just an acoustic guitar, then went to Paul’s studio and put them down to a click.

Paul Hemmings: We just started going through the songs at my home studio. We practiced them on acoustic, would record them to a click track and build up the songs from there. Obviously, it’s good having a home studio because I’ve got a load of guitars around, effects pedals and various things, and you can experiment. You get these little mistakes that sound great and you can just leave it on. We played all the songs through, which is also a good way to do it because if you use computers and Logic too much, it’s easy to start a pattern of, “Oh, I’ll chop that and just use this bit and repeat it.” This has a really nice feel to it.

Scott: Then Chris Sharrock kindly did all his drum parts in one day without even hearing the songs.

Hemmings: I phoned him and just said, “What you doing? You fancy playing some drums on some songs of Tommy’s?” He came along and did all the drums in a day. He hadn’t heard the songs. He literally arrived at 11 o’clock in the morning – I’ve got an old kit here, but he brought his snare and hi-hats and cymbals. I used two mics on the kit. Just an old fashioned way of doing it, and it turned out great. He did 13 songs in a day.

Scott: Working with Chris Sharrock was magical, to be honest. He plays the drums like a painter. I had shivers down my spine just watching him. Phil Hartley played the bass, but then Space got so busy so we put this project on hold for a bit. When we decided to get it finished, Phil did all the orchestration really quickly and here we are.

Hemmings: What Phil did with overdubbed strings and orchestration, to me, I think it sounds like Scott Walker. Once you get the performance down and the foundation is there, Phil is just fantastic at adding other bits and making it sound fantastic, cinematic. I mean when I heard some of the songs with strings on them, I almost cried. I just thought, “This is amazing.” He’s a genius at this type of thing.

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How long have the two of you known each other? 

Scott: I’ve known Paul since the 1980s – he was my guitar player in one of my first bands, the Australians.

Hemmings: We’ve constantly done bits and pieces together. He was one of those people on that scheme when I came back from university in 1985. Liverpool was pretty run down at that time, and I looked in the Job Centre window and it was “Teach kids how to play guitar.” John Power went to the same Job Centre, because he lived near Penny Lane, and Tommy did exactly the same ­– really from that scheme, a lot of bands formed [Ed note: La’s founders Mike Badger and Lee Mavers were also participants in the program].

Scott: It was Paul who suggested doing a solo album. I’d been putting it off for years, but he’s cool to work with. He’s got loads of cool old guitars that gave the album a real vintage vibe. It was Paul and Phil who produced album – me and Paul are Luddites. We can’t use computers and still use old eight-track recorders. Phil put it all on his computer but still kept the vibe we wanted.

Hemmings: Tommy’s always had these songs – some of them weren’t going to work with Space and he didn’t want it to be like Space. He wanted it to be a bit more organic – drums, bass and guitar, rather than samples and loops.

Scott: Space is all about making songs with all the latest technology and throwing every genre of music into the mix to come up with something mad.

There are a few tracks that really stand out for me, I’m impressed with the sound you got on “Ghost of New Orleans” just in terms of the authenticity of that New Orleans jazz sound. But also “She Smokes Oblivious” is such a sweeping tune.  

Scott: The idea for “Ghost of New Orleans” came to me years ago when Space were touring America. New Orleans blew me away – all the cool people and quite gothic buildings, I felt like I was in an X-rated Scooby Doo movie. I loved the decedent vibe in the air. I can’t take the credit for the middle section – that was Phil Hartley’s idea. He’s the best musician I’ve ever worked with and the only person I know who could of come with a section like that. He wanted to recreate an old New Orleans jazz band as if half way through the song you walk into a different room and a jazz band is playing. He played every single part of that middle eight – he did us all proud. “She Smokes Oblivious” is my favorite – it’s based on Tippi Hedren in  “The Birds,” where she’s sitting on the wall, smoking, oblivious to all the crows gathering behind her.

Hemmings: Tommy is an incredible songwriter. If you went to Tommy’s house, you’d notice there’s not a guitar in the place. He’s got this big, gothic-looking horror shed – it looks almost like a small chapel in the Deep South – in the garden. That’s where his guitars and all his equipment is. And that’s where he has his collection of horror toys, skulls, Frankensteins. If I was a postman and I looked in the window, I’d swear a mass murderer lived there. [Laughter] It is completely bonkers. But it’s just him. He’s an incredibly unique talent. The lyrics are clever. They’re well worked out. They’re almost like Ray Davies in that they tell a story. It’s not just meaningless rubbish.

What are you most proud of with “Marionette?”

Scott: The whole sound we achieved. We wanted a “Transformer” Lou Reed-vibe mixed with Scott Walker and John Barry, crossed with Bernard Hermann all sitting around a campfire risking the wrath of god.

Hemmings: We’re really just having fun. We’ve always had this great collaboration. It’s never hard work. It flows, it’s dead easy and it’s fun. Which is what it should be.

This album was recorded prior to COVID-19 spreading around the world, although the finishing touches were put on it during lockdown. How have you been spending the past few months and what do you envision the industry looking like once the pandemic passes? 

Scott: These are some insane times we’re living in. I used my time to write a new solo album, which is strange as it took me over 20 years to write the first one. Looking forward, it’s hard to say. I’ve never been any good at promoting myself – I leave that up to everyone else. It’s almost like we’ve gone back to punk times and the whole cottage industry thing.

Hemmings: We’re in the process of recording his next album now. Tommy’s done a lot of it on analog equipment, and then we’ll transfer his demos into my desk, and we’ll do most of the guitars at mine, possibly the drums and we’ll play along with these demos and do all the guitars here. We’ve done about eight tracks already. Again, it’s trying to capture that magic that you can get. I quite like to mess around with stuff for hours. I get bored watching the TV. All the effects on the guitars and that, tape echoes, reverb, fuzz and such, that’s how I prefer to spend my time. Then we’ll give it to Phil, and any little bits that need doing, I’ll ask Chris if he wants to come along and play on it. I should imagine he probably will because there’s not much going on at the moment, is there? We’re using this time constructively.

Obviously this is a limited release, but in an age where you can’t really go out and tour or promote like you could a year ago, do you have any designs on how this could reach a wider audience?

Scott: I don’t know about bigger audiences, really – it looks like they’re going to get smaller and smaller. The reason I love doing this album is because we’re doing it on Nick Graff’s and Pete Wilkinson’s label and they only release it on a limited run of vinyl. I love a collector’s item.

Hemmings: This is only gonna come out on white vinyl. And once it’s sold, it’s gone. That’s it. I quite like that. It hopefully becomes a sort of cult collectible.

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Finally, I know you’re a longtime proponent of Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours” album. I’ve always preferred “Only the Lonely” as his ultimate torch album. What tips the balance toward the former for you?

Scott: I adore Sinatra. My dad got me into him, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. To me, “In the Wee Small Hours” is the best torch song album ever. It’s the way he sings the songs, going down to those low notes – the way he can get that melancholy to tell the story and spread right into the listener. I also love all the devil’s notes in the arrangements – they would of burned him and the band at the stake in medieval times.

Preorder your copy of “Marionette” here on Saturday.

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