Most readers will know Tom Robinson as the 6Music presenter who introduces new music to us on a weekly basis. Back in the seventies and eighties, though, Robinson was a political pop sensation, releasing several albums and grabbing numerous top ten spots with The Tom Robinson Band. Fifteen years after his last release, I caught up with him, as he embarked on a mammoth UK tour, to talk about his new album Only the Now.
First and foremost, how did this album come about? It’s been a long time since your last LP.
Yeah. I was on the road for thirty years as a recording artist, and I made ten or eleven albums at the time. Towards the end of the nineties, things were getting a bit run down; I was getting kinda shunted into the nostalgia circuit, which I really didn’t want to get into. So when an opportunity came up to go and work full time for BBC radio I made the leap and became a DJ. The past fifteen years I’ve been full time at 6Music, but I never stopped writing songs. There was always songs on the backburner that I never really had any plans for. But then an artist I’ve been playing on the radio a lot, a producer called Gerry Diver, contacted me and said ‘If you’re ever thinking of making another record, do get in touch.’ So at the end of last year we tried a couple of tracks out and it just went so well that we’d thought we’d get together and do a whole album. But we couldn’t do a whole album because we never had enough money so we did a Pledge Music campaign and basically the people that wanted to hear the album funded it in advance.
The title of the record suggests that this is something that’s in the present for you. You mentioned that there were a lot of songs written over the years, were any written recently or has the record been building progressively time?
I think all of them have grown over time. There was a final spurt once we started recording, a few songs raced up to the finishing post and presented themselves. Obviously the removal of Legal Aid and the banking crisis created songs of their own when these events turned up. The last one to be written was the title track, which really sums up what the whole thing is about: living in the present, the past is gone and you can’t relive it. The future is completely unknowable. So you have to live in the minute and that’s what I’m trying to do. There’s no point in me trying to remake the records I made in the seventies. We tried to make something that was relevant to the day and belonged in the day, and people who have never ever heard of me will judge it for its own merit.
How would you describe the sound of the album as a whole?
It’s voice-based. That’s Gerry Divers big thing. He got me to raid through my address book to find as many different voices that we could bring to the record. Even on all the songs that I’m singing on my own, he got me to put the vocal on first, which is quite an unconventional way of making a pop record. He gets the vocal down and spends time working on that until he is happy with it, and then creates the sounds around. So the sound of each particular track is driven by the quality of the vocal performance.
It features collaborations many collaborations, with the likes of John Grant and Swami Baracus. ‘The Mighty Sword of Justice’ is overtly political, and features Billy Bragg, is this something you were conscious of when asking him to feature, or did he contribute ideas?
The song was actually written before Billy came in. So when said he was happy to come and work on the record, we chose the track that suited his style. Out of all the verses he chose my favourite verse. He’s been a big support. Whereas, when we done ‘Holy Smoke’, Gerry said ‘We need the voice of God somewhere’, and again I was rifling through my address book and Ian McKellan came up. If you want the voice of God, Gandalf is pretty close.
When people think of albums they try and think of artists that have influenced it. Do you think you’ve learned a lot from the new music that you play out on your show?
The things that have influenced me are the things that have gone outside the box. When Tune-Yards came along, I was like ‘Oh my God, where did that come from?’. Somebody like Tune-Yards or John Grant coming along is like a breath of fresh air, and it knocks you out of your habitual ways. But they don’t influence you to the extent that you want to imitate them, because I wouldn’t know how to. I can only write songs the way I write them. The main lesson I’ve learned is to try and be yourself as intensely as you can.
If I was to go and listen to an artist or band after this interview, who would it be?
Rather than go for one of the big names that people like Zane Lowe or Steve Lamacq would be tipping to you, I’d suggest a band from Glasgow called Park Planet. I don’t think they’ve played any live shows at all. They’ve just been beavering away in a shed in their back garden, writing these little tiny gems. Every few months I’d be listening through to over two hundred tracks, as is the case every week, without even looking who’s on it, but each time a Park Planet track came up I was like ‘Oh we have to play that.’, and then I look and go ‘Ahh! It’s them again.’ They’ve just finished their album. They deserve some support because it is genuinely interesting and arresting new music. Their latest track they’ve sent me has an irresistible groove to it. So, yeah, Park Planet, that’s my pick.
Finally, you’re about to embark on a UK tour which sees you reach Edinburgh in November. Does releasing an album after such a long period of time make this tour different?
It makes it terrifying in case as it is so long since I last did anything. I’m just really doing my best to let people know that we’re going to be out there. The band is probably the best band I’ve had for the past thirty years. They come the closest to the original 1970s band that people loved so much. Andy Treacy [Faithless] is on drums. For me to play bass with a drummer of that calibre is such a treat every night. It’s very exciting doing the shows with this lineup, and the reaction over the summer festivals has been amazing. Edinburgh is close to my heart because I used to do the Fringe every year.
Tom Robinson plays The Queen’s Hall on 6th November. Only the Now is out now.