I’m Not Some Sort Of Genius: Bright Light Bright Light Interviewed

John Freeman talks to Welsh popstar in waiting Rod Thomas - aka Bright Light Bright Light - about dirty Ace Of Base secrets, the perfect pop song and Gremlins

Within minutes of meeting Rod Thomas – the Welshman who records under the pseudonym of Bright Light Bright Light – it’s apparent that he’s prepared to put the hours in to making his own brand of pop music. It’s somewhat splendid to meet someone who doesn’t want to create highly experimental art, perhaps, but is aiming for that most elusive of beasts – to make perfect pop. Certainly, last year’s debut single ‘Love Part II’ made a fine start with his viral hook swaddled in sweaty Hi-NRG.

Sat in the coffee room at his PR company, Thomas certainly looks the part – somewhere between John Mayer and Howard Donald’s younger brother. We talk about Ace Of Base and Erasure, and potential formulae for that perfect pop moment. He tells me about image consultants and video directors for his live show, but the meat of the project – the music – is already in the can with his debut album Make Me Believe In Hope set for release later this year. "My whole album is about connections and how throughout your life, you connect with people and it affects everything else that you are doing," Thomas says of the record that boasts a number of songs co-written with Andy Chatterley and two with Boom Bip. Chatterley has produced tracks for Kylie Minogue and his missus, Nerina Pallot, while Boom Bip is a Warp Records alumnus, having previously worked with Super Furry Animals and Mogwai – clearly, he’s rubbing shoulders with eminent names…

Before the Bright Light Bright Light project, you wrote more folk-inspired music and performed under your own name. Why did you decide to move in a more ‘pure pop’ direction?

Rod Thomas: Basically I got better at production. I grew up listening to lots of random things. I liked listening to Atlantic 252 that played pop and Euro-pop and I love the production of all the 90’s tracks, like all the piano house and synth sounds. So, while I was doing my folk-pop stuff, I was learning how to produce better, and learning how to work with sounds and programming drums. So, while I was making the music I was making, I was trying to think about what I could do next and spent quite a while working out the sound I wanted to make.

And have you always wanted to be a solo artist?

RT: Not really, I grew up between two villages outside of Neath in a farming valley. For me, making music has always been a solitary thing. As a child, part of the reason I started getting into music was that I had a lot of time after school. There was no one of my age around, apart from weekends when I would see my cousins. So, after school I’d listen to music on the radio and play flute, piano and guitar and was always trying to learn an instrument. I’m not an egotist; I don’t want to be a solo person my whole life but I didn’t have anyone around to be in a band with.

You’ve co-written a number of Bright Light Bright Light tracks with Andy Chatterley. He’s produced and written songs for some big names like Kylie Minogue and Pussycat Dolls. How did you get involved with him?

RT: He is a friend of mine from years ago. I went to him just to try and write together and we wrote three songs together extremely quickly. We wrote ‘Love Part II’ in about two hours and produced it in three, so it all happened in a day. It all felt so natural – not many people you click that quickly with. He seemed to be a really good energy, he is a brilliant producer and writer, and manages to do it in so many different styles. So, he was a really good guy to have on board with the album.

‘Love Part II’ was your first single and is an annoyingly catchy piece of pop. To me, it sounds like a very good Erasure song. Would that description sit well with you?

RT: That’d be perfect – I love Erasure. There is so much energy and skill, and there are moments in almost all their songs where you just think ‘Christ, that’s amazing’.

It does seem that a lot of current pop music does seem to heavily reference music from the 80’s. When was the last time you heard a pop song and thought it sounded radically new?

RT: Maybe the song ‘O.N.E.’ by Yeasayer is quite unique, because it obviously references – especially in the video – the 1980’s with neon and clubs, but the sound is very special and doesn’t sound of any particular era. It is its own blend of great melody and great production.

Is that your blueprint for a perfect pop song – great melody and great production?

RT: Yeah. For me, popular music should be something that connects with people and it is not too clever, although it doesn’t have to be simplistic or basic, it needs do what it wants to without laboring too much. All of these songs that have lasted through time have struck a chord and are simple enough for people to listen to but also clever enough for people to remember. They get into your heart.

There’s a great deal of snobbery about pop music – the veiled accusation is that if by trying to appeal to the masses the art form has to be dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator. Does that annoy you?

RT: It does annoy me that with pop music, people presume it is throwaway and it is not. The songs that people have sung for 30 years are not forgettable songs just because they are not on a guitar – they are great. I just want to do something that sounds well-written and is from the heart.

So, when you are writing lyrics to a pop song – as opposed to your earlier folk stuff – do you have a different mindset?

RT: Yes, I try to be honest and not too insular with it. I don’t want to write trite, throwaway lyrics but I want to write something that people will understand. I’m not some sort of genius working away in a laboratory; I just want to make music that people can relate to. Maybe it makes them think about life and how they interact with people, or maybe it just makes them smile or cry.

I also read that you love Ace Of Base – what is about them you so adore?

RT: Basically, Ace Of Base was the first album I ever bought. The songwriting is really effective, it’s really catchy and the mix is amazing. I DJ a lot and whenever I play an Ace Of Base track, people just erupt. It’s like they’ve seen their favourite friend who they haven’t met for ten years – the elation is amazing. I worked with a really big producer in LA – and I’m not gonna name him just in case he’s embarrassed by it – but he quoted Ace Of Base as ‘mixing perfection’.

You can tell me who is it, I’m sure they won’t mind.

RT: I can’t.

Go on, it’s not a crime to admit to admiring Ace Of Base’s production techniques.

RT: OK – it was Boom Bip. I don’t think he is particularly a fan of theirs.

Your first tour last year was supporting Ellie Goulding. That must have been a good experience, but isn’t Ellie just a tad dull?

RT: Ha ha. I think she gets a very bad press. She’s really smart and really funny. Obviously, she doesn’t make wild, crazy party music, so that initially pushes you towards the dull category but she’s really fun and she’s got loads of energy and ideas. I’ve got so much respect for her.

But don’t you want your pop stars to be outlandish and unhinged? At least Lady Gaga could never be described as dull.

RT: Well, sometimes you need something that excites you or is different from the real world. Lady Gaga’s songs are about very real things but it is nice to have a ‘star’ and she puts star quality into her work. On the stage, it’s great to have something that is incredible to look at.

Why do you refer to Bright Light Bright Light as a project?

RT: Bright Light Bright Light is a pop project and I wanna write pop songs that excite and affect people. It’s a stylistic project. Everything I do under the name Bright Light Bright Light (be it DJing or remixing) ties in with each other. In the sounds that I use, the moods that I create with the remixes and the songs that I DJ with, plus the music that I make, people will be able to see the connection and understand it.

I am working with an art director and a photographer to give the project a real feel. So, in terms of developing, it’s about working on the imagery and the presentation of it. All the songs have a thread, and the album has a thread and I wanted to think of a name that suggested something shiny and pop but also something that had an 80’s reference.

From the movie Gremlins?

RT: Yes, it’s a ‘Gremlins’ reference…

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