Recent Music Reviews
10 Q's with BIG LIFE's STEVE NEWMAN & MARK THOMPSON-SMITH
Hiya gents… What are Big Life currently up to? (recording, gigs, plans etc.)
Steve : “Hi Jason…. Alright? I’m currently in the studio recording the follow up to “The Art Of Balance”, the last Newman album. I’m hoping to get this out in the late summer. And, I am also about to resume rehearsals with my band, as we have some dates close to confirmation for the summer and towards the end of the year.”
Mark: “Hi Jason; I'll be helping Steve on this album, on the backing vocals again, and then we'll be gradually nudging along new Big Life songs as we're already planning on recording the follow up album later in the year, ready for release next year. We're also planning a couple of live dates for the band, once Steve's finished recording the Newman album, so keep a look out for those!”
Could you take us through the songs on the excellent new album ‘Big Life’ then (e.g. story behind the songs, song writing process etc)?
“Steve: “Yes and thanks very much for the kind words Jason! Really glad that you like the album.”
Mark – “Thanks Jason… One of the most special aspects of putting this album together for me, was really that Steve and I didn’t have any kind of set plan for what the songs would be like or how they would sound; so he just let me throw everything at him, suggest to him that we use certain musical progressions, riffs or licks that he came up with (that he may not necessarily use on a Newman song), and we worked it from there.”
“I’d be saying, “What's that you've just played there...let's use that ...I know it's different, trust me, it works... it's great! And ‘vice-versa!”
“There was seriously, so much trust between us… I mean, I hadn't written for so long and had no idea whether it could work or whether what I could come up with was any good..., so, it was unknown territory...? Almost like starting all over again? And for Steve, he was having to move away from being, pretty much, a solo writer after so long (which might have been awkward for him once we were off and running), and settling into a partnership again?”
“Right from the start, he was so open and encouraging in everything I pulled out lyrically, melodically and arrangement wise, though ...He's a very generous guy to work with, both writing and recording wise, and we have both gained something special from this. We've enjoyed the experience so much that we're definitely going to do the second Big Life album as soon as we can!”
Those songs though, they’re wonderful!
“Steve:- “They were really easy to put into order really… “Dying Day” was one of the last songs that Mark and myself wrote for this album, but it had to come first. We had most of the songs in place but felt the album needed a really up-tempo opener? We were so pleased with the way “DD” turned out; rockin’, but melodic too!!”
Mark :- ”Yes, “Dying Day” certainly opens up the album in a big way for me too and I'm very much looking forward to playing that one live. Lyrically, it's a reflection of the uncertain times that we’re currently in; on so many levels, and reflects that age-old desire to find somebody to lead us out of the turmoil and on to safer times. The middle section is so powerful and for me really, has a sense of tension and turbulence... a great arrangement!”
Steve:- “Close To You” is next and was an idea that Mark started with. He had a great idea for a keyboard melody, so we built the song up around this. I love the tension in the pre-chorus’s and the whole feel of this song. It rocks along nicely!!”
Mark:- “This one was really the starting point of our writing together wasn’t it? Neither of us had any songs in the locker; I hadn't written anything in 13 years, so we were literally at point zero.”
“Day 1 comes… I said to Steve, “What have you got?” He replied, “Nothing, what have you got?” And, it was like, “Well, I've don't have anything either really. Apart from this little keyboard melody that’s literally just hit my head 10 minutes ago on the way here”. And, that was the beginning of “Close To You” and the first inkling to both of us, and for me particularly, that we had started out on something that was special!”
What comes next?
“Steve:- “Better Man”; another one of the last songs we wrote together for this. It’s based around a pretty simple chorus, I feel, but the harmonies take it to another level!”
Mark:- “Yes, it was the last one but even in it's raw form, we both knew that this was the potential single from the album, right? It came together very easily, with me just taking the track home, just to work on the second verse a little more? It needed a little extra to the melody before taking it in to The Blue Room (the studio).”
“All in all, it's a song that most people can relate to. We all, at times, can do better in life; within our relationships, with loved ones and friends, just, with their help, pull life back on track!”
Steve:- “Calling” comes next… During the writing process for this album we initially started by sitting down, just with an acoustic guitar; just playing and singing, seeing what came out? I came up with this riff, and the song developed from there. We added the Indian/ethnic sound, which really added to the whole feel of the song, and the song just fell out!”
Mark:- “I loved this riff as soon as Steve came up with it and its eastern feel just called out for that sound in the studio. When the whole band kicks in, it just takes you away with it... We ought to do an extended remix of this, just on that passage alone!! It's a great “light and shade” song and I particularly love the space I've got to work in the verses and then, it’s back up into the killer riff and chorus again..... It’s a very powerful, temptation-filled song.”
Steve:- “Then it’s “I’ll Still Be Here”; a song once again written very strongly with just vocals and acoustic. This is a great song played acoustically actually.”
Mark;- “Another easy song to write and a natural chorus.. A song about being permanently away from loved ones…”
Mark:- “I love the way this one came out and the song is purely autobiographical...I'd been away from music for way too long and I’m just revelling in the joy of it again!”
Steve : ”Musically, this song always reminded me a little bit, of Rush, which is no bad thing. I like the progression as it moves from one part to another. The temptation was to place a complex solo, middle piece, into the track, but the “less is more” approach certainly works better.”
Mark:- “This one is very poignant for me as it's inspired by a very special, yet troubled guy I knew, who 'lost his way'; tried to pull himself back from the brink and failed. Sadly, he's no longer with us.”
“The atmosphere of the track and Steve's wonderful guitar work have created a very emotional and special backdrop for this point in the guy's life, where there's the realisation of what he was doing to himself (and his family), and swearing to change his ways... It affects me greatly every time I listen to the song.”
“At The End Of My Rainbow”.
Mark:- “At The End Of My Rainbow” is the prime example of that generosity I spoke about, that Steve has with song writing! My lyrics really created a scene in my mind of a politician type character; travelling around in his car, through his constituency or at Speaker's Corner on his soapbox, megaphone in hand, posing questions to Joe Public, such as “What was their idea of happiness?”
“The ‘verse’ vocal reflected that, and it’s completely different to all of the other songs; the keyboard sound also, and, the guitars too; all wonderfully sparse, to let the questions float over the top, before opening out to the bridge and the chorus. I like the song a lot.”
“…..Actually, there's a unexpected twist in the creation of that song that I hadn't realised until this week, when Steve was discussing the artwork for his new album. He was comparing his previous CD covers and stopped on “Sign Of The Modern Times”, (which is a fantastic cover, by the way!). It has a street ‘barker’, standing on his soapbox, megaphone in hand, with the public racing by? Steve didn't mention it once, when we were writing and recording the song - that's how generous he is - but maybe that cover, in the back of my mind, was the seed for the song? .
Mark:- “I absolutely adore this song but I am rather biased, as it's about my family and the changes that I decided to make to remain close to home, to look after them, as opposed to gallivanting around the world. It's about growing up, I suppose, and thinking of others first. It's a simple, gentle song and arrangement but Steve's complemented the sentiment beautifully... The guitar solo is wonderful.”
Steve : “Yes, I love the atmosphere in this song too; there is a great deal of depth in it, not only in the music but also in Mark’s lyrics. He has a great way of describing something very deep, but not allowing it to become too dark by using uplifting melodies. I get a chance to open out at the end with a guitar solo, which ended up being twice the length that was originally intended? It just felt right that way!”
Then it’s “Stop In Time”?
Mark :- “That’s right! The subject matter is my reflection on couples, who marry young and then, possibly find that, later on, down the line, there are strong emotions and attractions for other people that well up which can have such a disruptive effect on family and partners? I've seen it happen!”
“Luckily, I married my wife later on, in my thirties, after both being unmarried to that point in life; so we both knew what we really wanted from our relationship.”
“Takin’ Me Down”…
Mark:- “Well, there's no doubting that this turned out to be a bit of a ‘tip of the hat’ to a certain Mr Coverdale and Mr Sykes in song style! It was totally unintentional but when Steve kicked off the riff, it all just fell into place!”
Steve : “Got to agree with Mark here; there’s a huge Whitesnake feel to this song and we just embraced that instead of trying to move the song in another direction!”
And, last but not least, “Nothing Without You”
Mark:- “Now, this was a really simple song that worked acoustically first, then lost its way a little in the studio; before working again by just using the original guitars and vocals, with the drum loop (which Steve originally used instead of a click track) then kept in ... It was all it needed; a little bass and drums completed it. It's all very subtle actually! “If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it!!”
Steve : ”Yes, you sometimes get those songs which lose their way. It was a revelation to strip everything back off this track and hear the bare bones. It works really well I think!”
Then there’s “Hands Across The Water” (the ‘Bonus’ track)…..
Mark :-“This again was autobiographical and my 'Thank You' to all of my New Jersey friends.... My time over there, in the early 90s, was very, very special and I've made life long friends aplenty.”
“Musically, it was great with the guys, but the timing wasn't good, as grunge kicked in! If I'd been there 3 years before, things may have been different? So many great bands missed out as the record companies started ditching the melodic rock bands… So many of us were done before we even really started to make an impact!”
“We wrote this pretty quickly and recorded it straight away ...It's slightly different style wise but it really rocks along well; it conveys the message to my friends.... And it's catchy as hell!”
Steve : “I really like the feel of this song; it shows a more relaxed style and is a great way to finish the album, which is why it’s important to mention it here!”
How did the two of you hook-up and what was the musical idea behind Big Life in the first place? You mentioned being really spontaneous at the beginning?
Steve : “Yes, it was certainly that but there’s a little more to it than that as well. Mark initially contacted me when he came back from the US; he was planning on putting a band together initially, and for one reason or another this didn’t transpire sadly, but we stayed in contact and became good friends, even when Mark wasn’t singing. If fate had turned out slightly differently, you may have heard Mark singing on the first Newman album, but once again, our commitments didn’t allow this to happen….”
“Mark has actually been involved in most of the Newman albums in one form or another, just doing backing vocals or something like that, just bouncing ideas around, and it was a natural step to work with now, and create the songs for “Big Life”.”
Mark:- “Yes, Steve’s right… As he was starting up on the recording front, I'd honestly had enough of singing, so the timing wasn't great; but as I mentioned, he’s always been incredibly generous and we stayed in touch and became great friends… He’s always asked me over to listen to the Newman songs as they were being created, and I’ve sung on the odd session, just a few backing vocals or such…. And, once I'd decided to get back in to singing full time, he was the first person I contacted to write with….”
“Recording the CD was a great experience for me and the results have far exceeded my expectations. Getting the deal was brilliant and the reaction to the songs has been so flattering!”
Any plans to tour at all?
“Well, although this was initially a recording project, we're both keen on getting out and playing, yes! There's a brilliant band in the wings so, we'd love to bring Big Life out live! Watch this space, ‘cause I really hope it will happen!”
Mark now – What were the highlights of your days in Praying Mantis? Do you still keep in contact with the band?
Mark:- “I have contact with Bruce Bisland every now and then! In fact, he was the one who called me up, to help out The Sweet, for their tour of Sweden in 2005, which was my first step back on to a live stage since touring with him in Japan in 1993. He's an incredibly funny guy!!”
“The highlights of the Praying Mantis time were the Japanese fans and the gigs... A wonderfully generous people; and being able to play with the guys in front of them was fantastic!! I still have friends now, from that time, some of whom live north of Tokyo, so I was really very concerned with the recent events over there!! Fortunately, they are all safe!”
Which singers inspired you and why?
“I don't know about the word ‘inspire’ but there’s many I admire definitely!”
“First up, has to be to be Ann Wilson without a shadow of a doubt! Steve Perry, John Farnham, Eric Martin; wonderful singers all. Powerful when needed, and able to convey an emotional lyric beautifully!”
“There are loads more: the bluesier guys; Paul Rodgers, David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes, Paul Carrack, Steve Overland, Danny Bowes... It’s not my area of expertise but I love them all the same; Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillen, Geoff Tate, Rob Halford. Paul Young of Sad Café, I love the “Chronicles” album. And I love soul singers like Anita Baker, Luthor Vandross, etc. I can't leave out Diamond Dave either, such a 'character' voice!”
Steve – the latest Newman album ‘The Art Of Balance’ has been gaining rave reviews. Have you found it better sales/promotion wise doing it independently or do you miss being signed to a label?
Steve : “That’s a good question, Jason. It certainly allows you to be more in control of where your sales are and to know what you are selling. You are also ultimately responsible for the image, presentation and sound of the product you are selling; which in my mind, is a good thing.”
“Obviously a label can have a better distribution and you don’t have to worry about promotion, as the label takes care of everything. It leaves you free to concentrate on the music! I think there are positives and negatives on both sides.”
Steve – how was the Firefest show? How easy or hard is it for you to get a decent run of live dates? Ideally which bands would you like to tour with and why?
Steve : “Firefest was amazing, and a very emotional day for me.”
“It was the closure of a pretty bad personal year, but, having said that, I had good emotions too. The band was awesome and, as I have said before, in many interviews, I really feel like a member of a band now rather than the focal point. That was so important to me, and the guys I have around me now perform and represent my songs in the way they should be played. I couldn’t ask for better musicians, or a better bunch of friends!!”
In this age of downloads and declining CD sales has the Internet helped you get your music out there or has it in some ways hindered it by websites offering free downloads etc?
Steve : “Realistically, it’s helped a lot. I don’t mind if music is more accessible; in the long run, it helps the artist. At some stage, even someone who illegally downloads an album may end up going to see that particular band? This is an evil that the music industry has to live with, because it’s not going away anytime soon. I think the fact that you can hear soundbytes now, so readily, is great for the artist as well as the listener. At least the public have a choice, and ultimately it is them who will make or break an artist.”
Mark:- “Bootlegging has been around for ages Jason, and it’s not going to go away, but it's the ease and scale of availability of it now that's the problem I think? I know some of the younger music fans seem to think nothing of getting music for free, and that's a different mind set; at the moment, it's certainly undermining any artists who don't tour and the traditional record companies who invest in them.”
“As Steve says, it's a double edged sword... You probably reach more people through someone passing your songs around illegally, but I hope there’s still those out there too who value the act of buying and touching the actual CD? If both sets of new listeners like us then it obviously builds awareness but you'd like to feel that the latter will still be around for a while? I don’t know! I fear it might not be the case! It's an evolving process and artists have just got to find other ways of coping with the changes in order to keep on putting music out there.”
What have been the live highlights for you and why?
Steve : “For me, most definitely Firefest, for so many reasons! Cambridge Rock was also very good, with very friendly organisers, and a great crowd too!!”
Mark:- “For me, playing with Mike Walsh and the US boys at The Ritz in New York supporting Paul Dianno's Killers; it was a great mid week gig and we pulled in ten times more people than them... I loved that, because fellow Pompey boy, Steve Hopgood, was in the band then.... Great!!”
“Playing with Praying Mantis in Japan and much later, of course, with The Sweet in Sweden, too! It was great fun with Bruce on both occasions in Japan and in front of such loyal fans! And on the latter tour! Who wouldn't want to sing “Ballroom Blitz” with one of the 70s legends, Mr Andy Scott??!! What a bizarre return to the music scene for me that was! I used to watch him on Top Of The Pops... Absolutely brilliant!!”
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from music?
Steve : “Amongst other things, you’ll see me at Air Shows mostly!! I have a passion for Second World War aircraft, so I frequent a lot of the air shows each year!”
Mark:- “All of my time is based around music, really Jason!...I'm probably over-compensating for all of the years away from it? I run ‘rock schools’ with a team of really dedicated people, teaching kids and Dads how to play guitars, drums and vocals. It's incredibly inspiring seeing how much fun they all get out of it ... 99% are into classic rock and not the bands of today. I play a fair bit with my old friends in Fay Wray (www.faywray.co.uk)… They’re brilliant fun and a damn good band to sing with; in fact, they're a huge part of why I'm back singing again now!”
Anything else to add and a message for your fans...
Steve : “I’d just like to say a ‘Thank you’ to both you and your readers, Jason, for supporting the “Big Life” album. We have been truly overwhelmed by the response so far. Little did both Mark and I know, when we sat down to write these songs, that it would develop into this, so everything from now is a huge plus!!”
Mark:- “Can ‘overwhelmed’ be an understatement?? The reaction so far has been wonderfully flattering and a welcome relief for me... After all, I'd never expected to write or record anything ever again, so I'd just like to say 'Thank you very, very much!! Hope to see you all soon!!