Tom Fazzini's been doing this music thing for nearly three decades now. From early on, it was in his blood; in his system. Early on he was part of the great trio, A Small Good Thing. Now that this West Yorkshire native has hooked up with the great Chicago imprint, Locust Music, his gently cooed words are spreading like a brush fire. His first album for Locust, "Sulphur, Glue the Star," is a wonderfully morbid journey through thick and thin. It's time to hear Fazzini roar. This interview was conducted in June of 2006.
I guess I became consciously interested in making music from about the age of 12, the very early ‘70s. It was then I started making these flat guitars out of sheets of hardboard, bits of wood glued onto them, a few nails, lots of thick and thin rubber bands at different tensions. I'd paint these contraptions gaudy colours, pose in the mirror with them to Roxy Music's “For Your Pleasure.” It's almost like there was some borderline autism thing going on. Anyway, to my young mind that album seemed to be coming from some star-burst place - the themes, artwork; it was a portal for me out of the world I inhabited at the time: white working class, sectarianism, football as another strand of that. It just didn't do it for me.
So, yea, that inspired me initially. That and a desire for “something other.” Fitting in wasn't in the script from an early age and I felt I'd been handed one with the pages all mixed up. My upbringing was fairly fractured, lots of displacement, social inclusion wasn't always that easy and could be problematic. (Born in Brisbane, a move to Strathclyde, Italian extraction.) I mixed, but largely I got by, I guess, creating my own internal world, visiting there probably more than was healthy. Still do.
Round about age 15 I started doing voice recordings, laying down primitive harmonies and melody lines on two cheap cassette players and bouncing down, back and forth ad infinitum till the sound quality eventually degraded to a metallic squeal, dissonants playing off one another, words becoming indecipherable. That fascinated me. I got a real guitar too - twelve pounds, with an almost balsawood back. I went to lessons and was taught crazy stuff like “A fox went out on a chilly night”, “Oh when the Saints”, etc., and finger-picking in the “boom-ching” style, so a bit of a schism set in there.
Faust 1V was another early cornerstone. Still love “Jennifer”, very glacial, that bass throb thing they've got going on that one. That album was pivotal as a means of opening my mind to possibilities, non-homogenised lifestyle notions, maybe other ways of being. Still sounds great.
Well, those two, certainly. I just had a thirst for stuff that challenged me, music that couldn't readily be understood and that demanded a bit of work in terms of taking it in. Music in the mainstream back then wasn't too inspiring, just as it isn't today. What's popular is always the lowest common denominator. So the only route to hearing something truly interesting is to become an anorak.
At secondary I hung out with the music nerds like myself, those who were no good at sport, were puny or obese or had an ear missing and would go “cross-country” running at school rather than opt for the tyranny of football. This meant doing a loop circuit round the school grounds rather than slug it out on the pitch with some insane P.E. teacher barking “dummy!” at you. (Scottish for “Leave the ball, get out of the way, let somebody else take it, dummy.“)
We'd do a lap then hang about the boiler room, swinging on the hot pipes talking about “No pussyfooting” by Fripp & Eno, Skip Spence's moustache on the cover of “Oar” or that first track on “Marjorie Razorblade”, before turning in another unconvincing lap.
“Hall Of Mirrors At Versailles” by Terry Riley and John Cale on “Church of Anthrax” felt very “out there”. That made a big impression on me about then. I remember thinking of it as my inner landscape, extending out to the River Leven, the reeds, Dumbarton rock and replaying it endlessly, lying on my back, head jammed between two speakers on the floor.
So many influences really. My mother's strange easy listening records from the revolving LP racks in Woolworth. One by “Ronnie Aldritch and his two pianos.” Bizarre, funereal - made Liberace sound as full-bodied as Thelonious Monk in comparison. That record was nowhere back in '66 and it's nowhere now. I liked Kevin Ayers, the very early stuff. He was such an idler, didn't seem to give a toss, which I found most attractive in a talented person. Everyone's now such a media-whore.
Funnily enough, most of what I don't like inspires me: that which has me running in different directions and to the furthest corners. You can't underestimate that.
More positively: artists who are unmistakably themselves from the first few notes: Mingus, Ralph Towner, Reich, Schubert. Not many songwriters though, with the exception of The Handsome Family, Arab Strap and a few others. Rennie Sparks is such a great lyricist. Mark Hollis's solo stuff - very brave, those dry mixes. Rococo Rot for their almost aseptic technique - how they shift blocks of sound, position things. I'm thinking of a last track on a certain EP- makes me think of large white interior spaces, things being so clinical it could be cancer-inducing. Somebody called “mumm” is it? - they're onto something. I've little time for conventional songsmiths - it's all so much white bread.
Lots in the way of fiction. “Being Dead” by Jim Grace is a beautiful treatise on decay. Saki's wit, Brautigan's unique slant on anything, Raymond Carver for understatement, sorry I'm just spitting names at you. That Miles statement, where he said the reason he didn't play the old ballads any more was because he liked them so much. That inspires me. He wasn't ever going to seek out a comfort zone, and that's commendable.
I'm not sure what I learnt from being in A Small Good Thing. Okay, let's see.. how to be democratic without becoming diluted? Andrew Hulme's editing decisions were instructive over the years. Hmm.. Working on “Sulphur” was so different. It was always a very singular vision. To do it justice I had to be “benign autocrat,“ an odd position for someone like me. So many things in my life are controlled by other agencies, so for once this wasn't that, which felt liberating and daunting, probably in equal measure. First time as producer. I was living through a strange time too.
Funny you mention friends - most of these contributors were. I'm not very keen on artists and musicians per se, I find them too watchful, too head and no heart mostly. And they're no more sensitive than anyone else, maybe even less so.
In terms of showing willingness, anyone who was asked to contribute did. David Coxon's contribution was particularly important. That felt more than moving chess pieces. I've had those monologues tucked away on microcassette for ten years. Everyone seemed to trust me in terms of how they would be represented within a work they didn't know much about. I'm not sure how much they considered that. There was no handing out rough mixes in the interim either. I was superstitious and felt it would lose its power if I did that; looking for opinion, etc. It was simply done, mastered and then out there. All within six months.
Involving others helped breathe life into the album. It could have been self devouring otherwise.
I felt musically, I'd drifted off every map with this one. In a sense I was throwing down the gauntlet to myself in making this record at all. This was it, as I saw it - most probably the full stop on my music making. No “jump and a net will appear” about it. And if no-one wants it, tie a ribbon round it and lock it in a drawer.
An article on Josephine Foster ended up under my nose and I felt an affinity with what she was saying and where she was coming from. I contacted Locust and my intuition was right somehow as they liked it. I was bowled over.
The fucked up state of the world in the global sense doesn't inspire me, no. It wouldn't be best handled by myself as a songwriter, I'd be ham-fisted at that. I was thinking of inspiration more in terms of kicking against expected norms. I had an uncle once who used to smoke very thin black cigarettes and listen a lot to Gesualdo's sacred works. As a kid, I had a natural aversion to this. It was a bit like hanging around a chapel of rest until it was time to go again. Now, when I recall those visits it's not without Gesualdo who I've learned to love. Quite what I take away from that, I don't know. There are a few possible interpretations.
Given there's more music out there than we know what to do with, it can be overwhelming unless you willfully ignore it all. (A bad idea? ) What's aggressively marketed and ubiquitous can be off-putting I feel, which can work three ways, I guess. You can fall in with it (most non-music lovers do), or it can wholly put you off doing anything musical yourself in the face of this onslaught or... it can make you want to create something more personalised in a quiet corner where you can nurture that. Some folk prefer searching out, stumbling upon things instead, there's something juicy about that - like hitting on an unexpected find in a musty 2nd hand shop, whereas you know that won't happen in the supermarket where all the choices have been pre-chosen for you. Something like that? People like myself need Coldplay and James Blunt, if only to define what we don't want to do. That's inspirational. When I hear Coldplay, their sound so huge, monied and seductive, it feels distancing and I can't connect with it in a genuine way, other than as a small head in a mass of small heads. False emotion too is so inherent in mass appeal music today, it's numbing if you let it in. (Robbie Williams maybe being the best exponent of this.) Active listening's not meant to be part of that experience - it's broad brush strokes, all edges (and interest) smoothed off. Coldplay are very adept at what they do, but their music makes me think of dying and being pumped full of morphine. There is a correlation.
Yea, it's so good isn't it? Very moving. What can I say? I guess I like the way reading fiction can indirectly promote fluid thought, as well as being entertaining. It's vicarious living but as long as we leave the books now and then and dip back into first hand experience, whatever we've read isn't going to have any reductionist impact on us. It can only add. Maybe helps us reflect on this messy life business. Escapism too is a wonderful and needed thing, possibly essential, if only into our own heads for half an hour a day. And, you know, we're all dysfunctional now, since that word's been coined. Fiction's an ideal place to celebrate that. Great quote from somebody, don't know who - “Literature is the civilized place for uncivilized thoughts and feelings.”
Quirky you mentioning that. Thanks anyway. This guy in Skyscraper hated the album and even made reference to the godawful album title! Thought the songs were all odes to my girlfriend or something. What a thought.. A lot of literalists out there.
It came about quite simply. There were these child's drawings in a friend's kitchen. One sheet had the word “supher” on it - a misspelling of something, I imagine - and another half-underlying sheet with a message to his mother to glue the star onto the top sheet. A straightforward request. I simply scanned “sulphur”, “glue” and “star” in that sequence and I found those words had a poetic charge for me, which I couldn't rationally explain, despite the child's seemingly prosaic message. One of those lovely chance things that can crystalise in a second. In retrospect, 08 makes reference to “stars winking out,“ the songs themselves would have a sulphurous smell. An inlay sleeve with a “scratch and sniff” would've been excellent.
I'm very much an indoor person, a bit like a cat, a domesticated one. My house influences me. It has an odd vibe about it and it wouldn't suit everyone.
Hmmm.. lots. I used the bottleneck on the end of “glare” with tension in mind - thrumming it off the strings. He's going to be shot and things are getting worrying.
I was listening to “Frankie teardrop” by Suicide last night for the first time in years and as an exercise in claustrophobia and tension it's second to none. Wouldn't work at a christening.
Some of the worst have maybe been the most entertaining. Upstairs in the Fenton Leeds 1993. that was a stand-out gig. The room was double booked though I was impressed at the big turn-out, a popular girl was simultaneously wondering who the freak on stage was playing this faux Americana Okie shit at her 21st. (Country played at breakneck speed. Brief period. ) Anyway, I never met her personally. Somebody had a water pistol full of lager, was firing it into the soundhole of my guitar. The guitar lead I was given was less than two foot long, so I had to play these very spirited songs but stay absolutely still and at an unnatural angle so the bitch wouldn't pull out. It also had a loose connection. This insane guy who booked me in the first place was sat less than a foot away saying “One more song.. one more song..” all the while from a mixing desk the size of a dinner plate. The audience was whooping with the on-off-on off crackle as the lead did its thing and it became a party piece. They either collectively thought it was by design, were being sadistic or good natured and welcoming; I never did figure it out.
Best gig? I really enjoyed playing Sheffield Uni's “Cool As Folk” evening in may. So well organised and harmonious. I'd go as far as to say I felt minor waves of unconditional love. It was flowing both ways.
No tour as yet. Maybe America late next year to coincide with the 2nd album, which I'm currently working on. For now, adopting the less is more principle, refining what I do in gentle stages. In an ideal world I'd like to play dentist's waiting rooms, blood donor outlets, places where people would rather not be and turn it round for them! Unfortunately the National Health Service is £512 million in debt so I probably wouldn't get paid.
New-ish? Iceland's Mum - “Summer make good“ - very absorbing, love that girl's voice. “Birthright” by James blood Ulmer - “Devil's got to burn” & the coda where it trails out on flute. Bonny “prince” Billy's “Master & Everyone“ from a couple of years ago and just acquired - very tender. “American Primitive Vol. 2” : Pre- War Revenants (1897-1939), which surfaced last year. The weirdness that is “ Tommy Settlers and His Blues Moaner - “ Big Bed Bug”. That and track 6: “(Red Hot) Old Mose Molly Man.” Yay ha!
Yea, when I made reference to listening to “Hall of Mirrors at the Palace at Versailles” by Terry Riley and John Cale I meant to mention how T. Riley's multi-tracked soprano sax back then put me in mind of the geese I always heard in the night through my open loft window. These geese roamed in the fenced-off warehouse grounds of Ballantine's Whiskey and were there to ward off intruders. This peripheral sound was very beautiful and unsettling, an almost sci-fi element to it. The soundtrack to my growing up. I took them for granted. I miss them, those magical birds. It's CCTV now.
-- Brad Rose (24 July, 2006)