INTERVIEW: Bright Light Bright Light (2012)
Growing up next to a coal mine in a valley in South Wales, Rod Thomas (aka Bright Light Bright Light) never imagined that his music would touch people around the world. Described by NME as the “male Robyn,” his music is a poetic mashup of the happy and the sad, with uplifting dancebeats contrasted by beautiful, and often melancholic lyrics. His love of 90s sounds comes through loud and clear in his music as well as his DJ sets, resonating with a new generation of music lovers as well as those of us who enjoyed it the first time around. His debut CD, ‘Make Me Believe in Hope,” is easily one of the best albums of 2012 and definitely a must for any lover of electronic dance music with intelligent lyrics. Maybe he is the Pet Shop Boy for the hipster generation?
DJ Ron Slomowicz: I first heard about you when Popjustice put out that single. How did Popjustice the website sign you?
Bright Light: I’ve obviously been reading the website for a very long time, and we decided to put out a free download single a few months before that. I sent it to Peter and he really liked it. We started chatting over eMail, we met up for coffee and he told me about the label. I decided that it would be a good first single, we got along really well so we started working together.
RS: That’s awesome. Did working with him help you hook up with other producers or what was that process like?
Bright Light: No, he didn’t actually. He did introduce me to a few people but more on a social basis. From those introductions, a lot of work relationships grew a little bit more organically. He was obviously a very good person to speak to about advice and what good, musical people are working in my area. He’s great for chatting about music and just sparking ideas.
RS: Very cool. You used to be more acoustic pop, while your newer stuff is more electronic and dance-based. What made you want to change your direction?
Bright Light: I wanted to have more fun. I think while I’m still young and while I can get away with it, I want to do a lot more dancefloor-oriented music. I always wanted to make electronic-based music, but I was working within my means and I didn’t have an awful lot of equipment that allowed me to make the production that I wanted to do. I made a really big, conscious effort to invest in the new stuff, think about what I wanted to do, and think about production techniques that I wanted to use. I took myself away from public performance for a while, sat down, worked on the album, and found other producers to help accentuate that sound.
RS: Very cool. What was your original artist name- because I seem to think it changed?
Bright Light: It was just Rod Thomas, my name.
RS: Why is there two ‘Bright Lights’ and not just one?
Bright Light: It’s a quote from “Gremlins,” the film.
RS: Okay, and why did you go from Rod Thomas to Bright Light Bright Light?
Bright Light: The sound had changed so much and I wanted to have a real identity. I DJ and remix a lot and I wanted to have an identity that tied everything together. You can see that the remixes stem from my production values- and my production values stem partially from my influences, which I DJ out all the time. As far as the name, I wanted to have something that made sense to people and that they could understand and guess what it might sound like whether they heard my DJing, remixing, or my songwriting first.
RS: So you are DJing at a club called Another Night right?
Bright Light: Yes, I run that.
RS: Is that a weekly or monthly thing and what kind of music is played?
Bright Light: It’s every other month and its just ’90s music. We play a lot of our favorite records like R&B, dance, house, and handbag. The guy I run it with and I are both from the same place in Wales. Neither of us were old enough to go to clubs when our favorite records came out, so it’s fun to set up a club night where we can play them all on a big sound system. Over the last year it’s been really fun, we’ve had Richard X as a guest DJ and Sara from Dub Style. It’s been really fun and it’s been a really nice thing to do every other month and play all our favorite hits.
RS: You’re also part of a group called Sink the Pink?
Bright Light: That’s another club that I just DJ for sometimes. They’re a nice collection of people like artists, DJs, and performers.
RS: You obviously love ’90s music and I can hear that in the music you make, who are some of your biggest influences as an artist?
Bright Light: People with strong identities like Kate Bush and David Bowie. People like that who have worked really hard to put a lot of their personality into their music. You can understand an artist as such rather than someone just releasing singles. People like Depeche Mode and Erasure and all the Vince Clarke productions that stand on a different level. It isn’t as apparent in my music but people like Joni Mitchell, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, and then David Lynch. All of his music and the visuals that he uses are huge influences. “Twin Peaks” is one of my favorite things. Everything I like has got a very distinct personality attached to it. I really like the idea of having something more three dimensional when making music.
RS: It’s really cool because when I listened to your album a few times I kept thinking of Pet Shop Boys.
Bright Light: I love the Pet Shop Boys.
RS: The lyrics are kind of sad in a way, but the music is so happy and uplifting so there is a contrast.
Bright Light: Yes, I like a contrast. It’s nice and whenever I’m really happy in life I always feel a bit sentimental about the time passing, or if I feel really sad I’ve got a lot of happy memories that I can contrast stuff to. I like the interplay of things being happy and sad. I like being fully happy sometimes as well though. You know what I mean?
RS: When I heard “Quiet Night,” I thought of ’80s Stock Aitken Waterman. Did they have any influence on your life?
Bright Light: To a point, yes, but they were producing at a time when I wasn’t really paying much attention to music. I was younger than ten at that point. So that was just music that I heard on the radio and I never really thought about who was making it or the fact that it did have a production value or that it was a production house. It was one of those things I just took as what you hear on the radio. So now I go back and reevaluate their back catalog, like the Donna Summer album. Their kind of beats have always been a big influence, because I’ve heard them so much but they were never really a part of my music encyclopedia.
RS: Working on the album, you got to work with Andy Chatterley, what was that like?
Bright Light: It was great, he’s a really good friend of mine and we’ve been friends for years. We just started writing as an experiment to see what would happen, and we got on really well. We started working and did a couple of songs together, and I wanted to mix quite a few songs on the album. We became best friends doing it and I got to know him, his wife and kids pretty well. He was a really good mentor throughout the whole process actually, he’s brilliant.
RS: How did you meet up with Del Marquis from Scissor Sisters, who is also on the album?
Bright Light: I was in New York in 2009 for a couple of weeks and I had seen online that he was doing a solo record, so I looked it up and I really liked it and I eMailed him. We chatted a little bit on eMail and decided to meet up when I was in New York. We went to dinner and then we went to watch Depeche Mode. We chatted about music, got along super well, and swapped a few demo ideas around. Then over the course of the next few months we became good friends and I sent him a demo of “Cry at Films” and he loved it. We started working together, he agreed to do the background vocals and the guitar in it, and now we’ve turned it into a duet. I think it works really well as a duet and it’s fun. There are not many male duets happening at the moment so it was cool to do.
RS: Yea, there are not usually a lot of male vocals in dance music either.
Bright Light: That’s true actually; I’d like to hopefully be a bit of a contrast to female-led dance music. I really loved when John Lydon did the collaboration with Leftfield in the ’90s. It was really cool having a big male voice over a dance track. Even when you’ve got Bryan Adams doing dance tracks or someone like Modjo or Daft Punk, it’s really cool hearing a male tone over dance music that is usually female dominated. It’s a nice contrast, actually.
RS: So when you’re working on music, how do you actually write it? Do you start with a track that you create or does a producer give you a track? What is your songwriting process?
Bright Light: It changes massively between songs. As far as all of the collaborations that I’ve done and all the work with Andy and John, we sort of came up with the music together and then I wrote the topline on top of that. When I’m writing by myself, it can start with anything from a beat or the music with a lyric idea or a melody. It changes so much depending on what the track is based on. The tracks that are more dance-influenced probably started with a beat, and then the quieter ones probably started with a theme or an idea. It changes often.
RS: How involved are you with the videos? Are those your concepts or did someone come to you with a storyboard?
Bright Light: They’re collaborative, so for the record I’ve worked with lots of new video directors to explore the themes, shades, and colors of the record. The videos that we’ve done so far are the “Disco Moment” and the “Waiting for the Feeling” videos. They were done with Alun Davies, who’s like my art director for the project. Then we collaborated with other visual artists and things like that. I’ve also done some other ones for album tracks where it has been like opening the record up to them and seeing what they respond to. Then I worked with them on their ideas, defined them a little bit, and let them have fun. I think the album is about connections, what you get out of life and how you respond to your surroundings. It has been interesting to let other people respond to my material and see what they come up with. There haven’t been a lot of people pitching ideas; it has been much more organic than that and a lot more close to home. It’s been really fun.
RS: There are a few things I just wanted to ask you about the video. Maybe I’m being dense or didn’t really get it but what is the symbolism of the four TV headed people in the “Disco Moment” video?
Bright Light: The song is about how you can be really close to someone but they make you feel really far away. The idea with the television is that it’s something that everyone has in their home and something that everyone relies on to a point. You’ve got a connection with it and for a lot of people it’s like a friend. It’s something that you switch on and off but the television doesn’t actually need you at all. You kind of depend on it and you feel close to it but it’s actually something that’s completely detached and you don’t really affect its life. It’s a reflection of how the person on the dance floor is. You’re right next to them and they’re having the time of their life without you. You’re not really involved in it, you’re just a spectator. It’s the idea of spectatorship.
RS: What about the barber chair in “Waiting for the Feeling?”
Bright Light: That was kind of Alun’s idea. He really liked the song and the idea of someone being spun in circles or waiting for something to happen. Or when you’re working yourself into a hole worrying about something. Therefore, the idea of the rotating is partly for the energy of the song, and you feel like you’re on a waltz or something. It has a ’90s vibe and has you feeling like you’re sort of spinning out of control and you’re not quite sure what is going on. You’re still staying in one place but everything else around you is going haywire.
RS: Let’s talk a little bit about remixes. I absolutely love the K Klass mix of “Waiting for the Feeling,” and the Fear of Tigers mix of “Disco Moment” is wonderful too. Did you choose the remixes; how did those work out for you?
Bright Light: I chose the remixer. I worked with Benjamin Berry of Fear of Tigers, who’s a friend of mine, on “The Fear of Tigers” and I really love his production technique. His record is amazing and I think he’s really clever and he does such great remixes. I wanted him to do one for me because he is brilliant. With the “Waiting for the Feeling” remixes, K-Klass is actually one of my favorite artists to emerge from the ’90s with a hugely influential record with great remixes. I met them at a gig and asked if they’d be able to remix it and if they had time. When you have some of your favorite ’90s people, especially being such a big ’90s enthusiast, work on your track, it is quite overwhelming. To work with them and Trouser Enthusiasts was out of control for me, I couldn’t really cope. “Waiting for the Feeling” is the most ’90s dancefloor track that I’ve done, and it was really nice to have my favorite ’90s people remix that particular package.
RS: I saw there was also a remix contest, were you a part in judging the winner of that? Or how did that work?
Bright Light: Yes, I got to listen to them all. It wasn’t just my decision, but I did get to listen to them and say which one I thought was my favorite. It was fun and it was really nice seeing people who have so many ideas, but not necessarily an agent or a label or anything pushing them. So it was a really fun exercise.
RS: I also saw that you, amongst every other person in the US and in the world, did a remix of Gotye. What was your inspiration for the remix?
Bright Light: It was probably the New York house scene. I really loved the melody of that track and it sounds so old and classic. I really like when Todd Terry was remixing stuff in the ’90s and he would take “Everything but the Girl” and turn it from an acoustic ballad into a New York dance track. So I wanted to try and mess around with that and see if it worked, and again the whole male vocal with a dance beat is really nice. I wanted to play around with it, change the harmonies a little bit, and make it something a bit darker because the subject matter is quite dark. I wanted to take away a little bit of the delicacy and add a bit more harshness to it.
RS: You also did a remix for Beyonce which was quite interesting. She seems like a different kind of artist than I’d expect you to work with.
Bright Light: Yes, for her remix competition. Oh God, I love Beyonce. I really love her so much. I mean she’s one of those people that has got these killer toplines, attitude, sass, and energy, so it was really fun to play around with that song. It wasn’t initially one of my favorite songs of hers but from remixing it I really fell in love with the content of the song. I really liked it, it’s really catchy. I was pleased with what I did, I made it kind of ‘clubby’ and ‘dance-y,’ and a lot darker than it was.
RS: Do you read your own press?
Bright Light: Yes, to a point. I try not to get too attached to what people say about me, but it’s interesting to see what people perceive me as, especially because I worked really hard to get an identity as Bright Light Bright Light. It’s interesting to see how people are responding to it, so I read a healthy amount of my own press, but I don’t follow every Google.
RS: How did you respond to the NME comment that called you the male Robyn?
Bright Light: That’s amazing isn’t it, it’s just so bizarre. I grew up next to a coal mine in a valley in South Wales, I never expected to be making music on a public level, let alone be compared to someone whose records I’ve bought since I was sixteen. It was amazing.
RS: I saw that you were compared to Kylie for “The Love Part II.”
Bright Light: That is great, and much more fabulous than I ever thought I’d be. I’m very pleased with that; I’ve got all of Kylie’s records, so that’s great.
RS: We’re the ones that called you ‘the haunting and compelling slice of poptronica’, and so we love you as well.
Bright Light: That’s amazing, thank you so much.
RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Bright Light: Thanks so much for caring enough to follow what I’m doing. Everything I do with music is about having fun; making it and trying to do something that means something to someone else. If it means something to you, then I’ve succeeded to a point and I hope that you like it. I want to be able to make music that means something to the people, and like I said about these collaborative processes, they’ve been so organic and really fun and it’s felt good. Obviously we don’t have the clout of a major label, but it’s been a more rewarding process to do it this way. Thank you so much for your support, it means an awful lot. I’m not being self-deprecating when I say I come from the valleys and you never expect anyone to hear your music, but you really don’t in Wales. I never expected anyone to even pick up on a song so it’s really incredible that you’re on board and I really appreciate it a lot.
Interview conducted June 2012. Special thanks to Talia Miller for arranging the interview.