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Idiot Son - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 8 / 12 / 2014

Idiot Son - Interview


Andy Thompson, the front man with London-based indie outfit Idiot Son, talks about his band's return after an extended hiatus and 'Stibbington', their first album in ten years

“It is going to be called ‘Stibbington’”, says Andy Thompson about his band Idiot Son’s second album and first release in over a decade. “Stibbington is a 24 hour service station on the A1 near Peterborough. I haven’t been in it for years, but I have passed by it every fortnight for the last ten years. That A1 trip has been so much of a part of my life for so long now that I decided to name it after that.” Idiot Son has always been an occasional rather than a full-time project for Thompson, who is the London-based indie pop band’s vocalist, guitarist and songwriter. First formed in 1998, it took Idiot Son until 2000 to release their first single, the vinyl-only ‘Sunflowers’, and then another four years after that before they put out their debut album, ‘Lummox’, which came out on Thompson’s own label, Poppycock. ‘Lummox’ did moderately well. It picked up solid reviews, drawing Idiot Son comparisons to the Trash Can Sinatras, Aztec Camera and the Blue Nile with its lush, hazily beautiful arrangements, and earning Thompson acclaim for his melancholic lyrics which on songs such as ‘Camomile Street’, ‘Buttercross’ and ‘The Daily Grind’ told of both heartbreak and the grey monotony of day-to-day existence in his adopted city of London. BBC 6Music DJ Gideon Coe named it amongst his ten favourite records of the year in 2004 (and this writer also made it his Album of the Year). While Idiot Son, which in its original line-up consisted of cellist Jonathan Brigden, guitarist Bob Broadley, bassist Chris Taylor and drummer Mark Lloyd, were never a prolific act, rarely playing even in this, their heyday, more than a few gigs a year, they also won several strong second-on-the bill slots, supporting Howie Beck, the Webb Brothers, Wheat and Lambchop. Thompson tentatively began work on a second album in 2005, initially recording some demos with Chris Taylor who was about to return to his native Ontario, but, despite it long being promised, it didn’t emerge. The gigs, already never regular, trickled away from being two or three times a year to once every two or three years, and for a long time Thompson and Idiot Son’s small cluster of fans heard nothing at all from them. Now finally Idiot Son are back. They will be releasing ‘Stibbington’ in January on Poppycock, and performing songs from it at what will be their first gig since 2012 at the Pennyblackmusic Bands’ Night at the Macbeth in London on the 9th January. The bulk of ‘Stibbington’ was in fact largely completed with Bridgen, Broadley and Lloyd all on board as far back as 2009. Part of the reason for this extended delay from this already slow-evolving act has been Thompson’s aging parents. While he has lived in London since 1989, Thompson, who is now 50, was brought up in Empingham, a tiny village twenty miles East of Leicester on the edge of the picturesque Rutland Water in County Rutland. At about the time ‘Lummox’ was released, his father started to decline with dementia and Thompson, who is an only child, began to get into the habit of returning to Rutland from London every other weekend to help his mother out. Shortly after his father died in 2009, his mother was diagnosed - in what was a particularly vicious blow of fate - with the same illness. For four and a half months last year, as his mother’s situation steadily worsened, Thompson took an extended sabbatical from his job working for a finance company, and looked after her at home until finally, exhausted, he made the reluctant decision to put her into care. “’Lummox’ was very much a London album,” reflects Thompson, who, now back living in London, continues to return to Rutland every two weeks to visit his mother and has now bought a house there. “The perimeters of ‘Stibbington’ are, however, bigger. There are a couple of good nods to London. I tend to very much write about things which are in front of me. I am not sure if I am good at creating things which are out of my line of sight, but I see the songs on the new album, however –at least symbolically - as being about the whole movement in my life in the last few years beyond London.” ‘Stibbington’ is also an album about love – how much one should take and give from a relationship, when to leave and more importantly when to stay, and how sometimes, against the odds, it does conquer all. “The most stable thing in my life in recent years has been my relationship with my partner, Jools,” says Thompson, who after twenty years of dating her but living in different homes – he in Brixton, she in Hackney - moved in with her upon his return to London. “That was definitely an inspiration. Again it is what I have front in me to play with. A lot of the album is about that sense of worthlessness you sometimes find yourself in, and why does someone see what they see in you.” ‘Stibbington’ begins dramatically with the tuning and cranking up of a strings section, out of which a soaring, jangling guitar line suddenly erupts and then a sample of what sounds like an old school actor, who with chest-thumping relish, proclaims the virtues and reasons for getting married (“You don’t marry her because she plays the accordion or because she’s pretty/You marry her because you love her with all of your heart,” and “It’s not what they are going to do for you/But what you’re going to doing for them”). Finally at the two minute mark the main lyric kicks in. It is a bleak, cautionary piece about a girl who dates a rapid fire succession of men but through her own casual cruelty (“Found herself another victim/Says that they don’t hurt until they cry”) and emotional immaturity (“Lost herself a good man/Found him too restricting”) finds herself on her own. “I wanted to kick off with something lively,” says Thompson about ‘Hold the Engines’. “Something that would make people sit up and go, ‘Oh, what’s what that? The sample comes from one of my few forays into going online. I am something of a Luddite in that respect, but I came across this site with all these hellfire Southern preachers on it. I would never be able to find it again now, but fortunately that night I had the sense – and I don’t often – to download it onto a memory stick.” “I don’t want to use samples just for the sake of using samples,” he continues. “That is the only sample on ‘Stibbington’. I just fell in love with it and knew immediately I wanted to try and do something with it.” In many ways the sample sets the tone and pace for a lot of what is to follow on ‘Stibbington’. ‘Tie the Knot’, Thompson admits, is perhaps the most directly autobiographical track and is in part about his own relationship, but equally about his parents’ own long marriage to each other, his relationship with them as well and his father and then his mother’s decline. It starts as a wistful ballad, and then with an injection of a sombre trumpet expands in force to conclude in its final seconds in a tumultuous mass of cello and other strings. “What did you ever see in me?” he sings at one point, and then “Could you take my shit?/Could you handle that?” at another. “It is an angry song,” he reflects. “It is definitely about the Family Thompson.” The reflective, sparse ‘The Mission Hall’ takes its inspiration from a different source, but extends further on this idea and theme. “There is no real Mission Hall,” says Thompson. “But I have noticed it a lot in East London as well and since I came back down from Rutland that there are all these little pockets in London with these really beautiful, old buildings. Even by the docks where there has been a lot of regeneration, you will suddenly come across these stunning old buildings which have survived against the odds. You notice it a lot in the City too. They are constantly pulling down these horrible 60’s and 70’s buildings, and then you will see a building that is tucked away behind it that you didn’t know was there.” With its mournful, hushed tone, lyrics about “the last of lots” and “family tree and unfamiliar plots”, and all the changes in his own landscape during the last few years, one suspects, however, that ‘The Mission Hall’ again is broader-themed. “I think it is,” says Thompson. “It is about something that is in danger of being lost and just consigned to memory, but once again, as with a lot of my songs, there is a more personal focus to it. At one level it is about my family again.” It is not by any means, however, all so melancholic. ‘Pinheads and Needles’, another slow burner, which with ringing peals of brass that surge upwards to a crescendo, is the most gorgeous, tender of love songs. Despite their insalubrious circumstances, (“There are pinheads in the street/There is needles in the alley/Bottles on the path/Bottle banks is empty”), its two lovers find all they need in each other. “It is kind of makes the world a better place to stay with you/Hold you until the end of my days,” sings Thompson jubilantly as a last line. “Sometimes you just need to lock yourself away and not to worry about anything,” explains Thompson. “’Pinheads and Needles’ is about escaping from everything.” The final track, ‘My Perfect 10’, is similarly romantic. At two and a half minutes it is the shortest track on the album, less than half the length of nearly all the other tracks on the album, most of which are over five minutes. It is also the sparsest, having none of their lushness of sound, and stripped down to just acoustic guitar and Thompson’s vocal. “Come sleep with me/My perfect ten/Happy ending/Happy ending,” he croons towards its conclusion. “I wanted to close the album simply and also on a note of real hope,” he says. “It finishes with me singing ‘Amen, Amen’. After the preaching at the beginning and start, it tops and tails it really.” Its members’ locations has been another factor in Idiot Son’s absence in recent years. “Chris, the original bass player, who I dearly miss, is still in Canada,” Thompson says. “Jon Bridgen now lives in Brighton. Mark Lloyd moved to Leamington Spa a few years ago, and Bob Broadley, who I see more regularly, is still in London and lives in Crystal Palace. It is sometimes difficult to get them in the same room together, let alone on the same stage together.” Thompson admits also to some stage nerves being a reason for Idiot Son’s lack of live activity. “I am okay when I am on stage,” he reflects, “It is just getting to the stage which is the problem. I tend to think ‘Why do it when the live experience for me is quite hard work?’ I am quite happy to bury myself away in the studio and I always enjoy that, but live work is always more of a problem.” He is starting already to think about a third album, which he may record if geographical circumstances allow with the rest of Idiot Son or on his own using a grand piano, which belonged to his parents. “I have been writing for me quite a lot of stuff. I might just have to do it all again, “he laughs, before adding about the piano. “I started playing the piano regularly again, when I was back in Rutland looking after my mum, for the first time in many years. I played it a lot then. I actually bought my house in Rutland to store it. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it, so I bought a house to keep it in.” With Lloyd unable to make it down from Leamington Spa and Taylor in another country, Idiot Son’s line-up for the Pennyblackmusic gig will consist of Thompson on vocals and acoustic guitar; Bob Broadley on electric guitar; Jon Brigden on upright bass, and two cellists, Sophie Willis, who is Brigden’s wife, and Jo Silverston, who appears on ‘Stibbington’ and is also a member of Emily Barker’s Red Clay Halo. While production problems have held ‘Stibbington’ up and it may not be ready for the night, it will be available later in January. Thompson will also be selling copies of both ‘Lummox’ and the ‘Sunflowers’ single on the evening, all profits for which he will donating to CRISIS, the homeless charity. For all his nerves, Thompson is genuinely enthusiastic about playing the Bands’ Night. “I am really looking forward to it and performing with the guys again,” he concludes. “The fact that three-fifths of Idiot Son will be appearing at the Pennyblack night is a testament to something which was for a long time lost.” When he steps onto the stage on January 9th, it will be hopefully only be the first step on the way back for Andy Thompson and Idiot Son. Idiot Son will be playing the Pennyblackmusic Bands’ Night at the Macbeth, 70 Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, London with the Band of Holy Joy and the Bitter Springs. They will be on stage at 8.15 p.m. Tickets are available in advance at £6 at https://www.wegottickets.com/event/291987 and on the door for £7.

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