Currently working as a radio producer during the day and touring with his band, The Tamers, at night – I spoke to Adelaide-based singer/songwriter, Thom Lion, about artistic beginnings, music videos, night terrors and his latest release.
You’re currently on your promotional tour for the release of your EP, Sleep Riots, playing extremes – from the huge Teneriffe Festival in Brisbane, to an RSL on the Gold Coast. Do you tailor your shows to suit smaller vs larger audiences?
A little bit. For the smaller gigs, because there’s more intimacy there, I might throw in a few more witty stories or just a little bit more banter. The band is quite new we’ve been working on this, just having one great show in one big set that we do really well. The festival was obviously amazing, because there were thousands of people there! And the stage was sitting on the river. The RSL was a little more low key. It’s the first time this band has gotten away together, so [it’s been] a lot of fun!
How are audiences responding to your music?
It’s been good. I guess, so far, from the weekend just gone, they responded really well. I’ve been working really hard on trying to put on a show and be more of a front man because the first half of the set, I’m kind of glued to the piano. But we’ve been working on getting a bit of crowd involvement and getting some energy in a show and it’s been awesome. So in my mind, it’s going good.
You don’t really hear of many front men behind the piano.
Yeah, it’s kind of one or the other. The piano is more of a rarity these days [as] you see a lot of artists on guitar. Anytime I see a band that comes up that has piano in it, I’m a big fan. Piano is my main instrument [and the one I’m] most comfortable [with], because it’s the one I learnt first. I love the emotive feel of the piano, how deep it is and how I feel like piano songs can touch your saddest emotions more than other ones. The piano can just go to places that other instruments can’t – just as the guitar can go to places that the piano can’t.
How would you describe your music to those who haven’t heard it before?
If you go with the typical labeling, it’s like alternative pop. But I like to think my songs are catchy, and they’re emotive so they give you the feels – the happy or sad, either is good. It’s being true to the songwriting. I’ve always thought writing and lyrics were my strong point, where I can be “fucking real man” [laughs] and people can feel that realness coming through. I just can’t stand that really generic [formula] you hear a lot in mainstream radio.
Where do your sound influences come from?
A lot of that is thoughts I have. Before we go into recording, I’m like a little magpie – I go and hear other songs and things that I like, and I’ll just go into the studio knowing that I want that type of synth sound. Or when I’m writing a song, I might want it to go to a different structure to your normal pop song but a big big part of it was John [Castle] who was our producer in Melbourne. It wouldn’t sound anything like what it does without his help in crafting the sound and producing the EP.
What can you tell me about the EP, Sleep Riots?
Sleep Riots, it’ll be a five song EP. The title refers to, I have up and down sleep, and so, I sometimes have these night terrors where, ever since I was a kid, I’ll wake up but I’m not really awake and I’ll think there’s these basketball-sized spiders in the room. My sleep is very disrupted sometimes and the impact that that has on other things. I have some epic sleep stories!
I’m just relieved and stoked to get the songs out because I’ve been sitting with them for a fair while now. I’m happy to let go of the reins a bit. The EP was done like six months ago, so it’ll be a relief to get it all out there. I’ve just heard it so much, I think it’s good – it’s just so hard to tell because you become numb to it but the way of gauging is that very first impression you have when you first hear the full mix of each song, if you’re stoked at that point then I guess you should just trust that.
The next single, November, is a song I wrote when I was 19 years old. That’s the oldest song on there. That’s the song that epitomizes the little stories about the sleep stuff. I hope people like it, try to hear the stories in the songs and can sing along. I rate it as the best song on the EP, so it’s exciting that I can finally get everything out there, let it do its thing.
You originally recorded it in Melbourne, before re-recording the vocals back in Adelaide. Why did you decide to do that?
I recorded the crux of it in Melbourne. And then, just the vocals, to get them right, I came back to my home studio just so I had some breathing space. I think everyone in the studio was watching me and I couldn’t quite let go properly, I don’t know what it was properly. But I couldn’t get the vocal texture right. It’s very weird though, because if I’m on stage, I have no problem letting go completely.
I was surprised to learn that Lion is actually your middle name, which your parents allowed you to choose yourself. Is that right?
My parents were kind of hippies, and they left the middle name part open and they said I could decide my own middle name. When I was four, I was really obsessed with lions so that’s what it is. Lucky it wasn’t something stupid like Power Ranger! So now it’s just a convenient stage name. No regrets. I’m happy that it could have been something really stupid [laughs] so I’ll settle for Lion, that’s okay.
And you’ve run with it in naming your band, The Tamers, and in your current promotional shots as well. It’s almost as if your younger self knew something …
[Like] a little prophesying four year old [laughs] That lion picture is [from the November music video]. Kind of taking the piss but it’s a really cool film clip. Very cinematic. There’s this animal catcher guy swooping around town collecting people dressed as animals. Obviously, I’ll be biased because it’s the newest one, but I reckon that one will be the best one.
What made you want to be a musician?
I think it’s the release that you feel when you write a good song. I find it therapeutic to write music, and I feel that’s like, where you’re accessing that conscious part, you’re free from the rest of everything else. I like performing. I just like being creative. This is why I wanted to go into radio, as well – anything creative, I just love doing.
You’ve been doing music for a long time – how would you say you’ve grown as an artist?
I used to try and write poetry and songs when I was a teenager, so I’ve definitely got a hold of how a songwriting process goes to me, and knowing my formula that I can work to write songs with. In recent years, I’ve just flown with my confidence. I feel a lot more at ease, performing and recording, more comfortable in my own skin. Where, early on, it was like, “Am I meant to be singing?” “Am I good enough?” But now, I’m a lot more comfortable.
Where your parents musicians as well?
My great grandpa was a concert pianist, but other than that, my parents weren’t musical. They were very encouraging though. I have a lot to thank for them. I started playing piano when I was 11 years old (my neighbours were getting piano lessons and I started loitering at their house until I started lessons as well) and my Mum would put me in poetry competitions – and it evolved when I started putting the two together.
Who was the first band you saw in concert?
Oh, what a good question! I have three older sisters, so they used to take me to gigs when I was really, really little. I saw Lenny Kravitz when I was six years old. I was [also] at the Nirvana concert when they played here in the early 90s – I would have been like four-ish or something [laughs].
That’s some pretty cool names – but you’ve also played with some impressive acts yourself.
In my travels, I’ve played with some really cool acts like the Waifs and the Rubens. There’s a girl called Sal Kimber & The Rollin’ Wheels, I played with her in Melbourne recently and she was really amazing. I always love being able to support artists that I admire.
I more so enjoy hanging out with them, having fun and talking about what they’re doing. I guess it is an inspiration to see their actions [and] how successful they are – but it’s just great to hang out and have a beer with those sorts of people. I’m always interested in success, how that happens and seeing the different personality types. People are all cut from the same cloth, everyone has to piss everyday sort of thing, so I find it really interesting to dig into what other people’s habits are, what got them to certain places …
[The] most interesting person, would be one I met in radio, was Paul Dempsey. He just [knows] every single facet about his sound. I tried to adopt that level of knowledge and control – cover every aspect of your artistry, so you can always get it right. He was very interesting [and] very down to Earth.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
The November release will happen with the EP and so we’ll be pushing that song. Later in the year, we might be going into the studio again to record another bunch of songs, which will become a debut album. [But] once this [tour] all winds up, I think I’ll have a break for a month or something. [laughs]
Catch Thom Lion and The Tamers at Jive, Adelaide on July 30th.
Sleep Riots is out July 29th.