After watching a storming set from Tom Fleming (also known as One True Pairing these days) at Manchester’s YES, I wandered over to the merch desk for what turned about the be a lovely little natter with the man himself. I was surprised how at ease I felt. This was, after all, a man I had seen on stage eight or nine times when he was one of the two lead singers in Wild Beasts. I’d been to see their final show in Manchester a few years before and had had to hold back the tears.
It might have been the four or five pints that had put me at ease. That was at least part of it. But it was probably more the fact that Tom was approachable, humble, and friendly. So friendly, in fact, that when I thrust a pen and paper in his face he scribbled down his details and agreed to an interview. Here’s how that went:
Fran Slater: So, your debut album is out. Congratulations. I’m a massive fan of the record and thought it would be a good as place as any to start. For me, it feels like a quite intense and claustrophobic piece of work at times, but with parts when it really bursts into life and grabs the listener. Was that what you were going for? And tell me a bit about your intentions with the album as a whole?
Tom Fleming: Thanks! I’m delighted to have it out. I spent quite a bit of time wondering what the hell I was going to do next, and I tried a couple of things in demo form, but I suppose I had to wait until I found a purpose for it all. I was aware I wouldn’t necessarily have people’s ears straight away, so I wanted to grab them hard if possible. I suppose claustrophobic is a fair assessment – the vocals are very loud, the lyrics get a bit uncomfortable, the songs are fairly tightly structured.
I really didn’t want to make a comforting record, it didn’t feel honest to where I was at personally, or more importantly, where the world was at the time.
I’m still a little disheartened that people weren’t as warm towards Boy King as I thought they should be, that some people didn’t get the nice Wild Beasts record they thought they deserved HA. I think this is a vulnerable record, but it’s wrapped up in a lot of aggression and sadness. It’s actually a bit more personal than I intended it to be, turns out. There’s a continuation of certain elements, and a reaction against others.
FS: That’s a really interesting answer. And thank you – it feels really honest. I think you know I was already a massive fan of the band, and it feels like a shame to me that you felt like the last record didn’t get the recognition it deserved. I’m interested in what you said about not having people’s ears straight away, though? Why did you think that? And do you think that if you’d just used your own name, rather than the new moniker, that you might have felt different?
This is 3 questions in one, but was there an intention in choosing to go by One True Pairing rather than Tom Fleming?
TF: Means a lot! Especially that you’ve stayed with me after the split…
I think, truthfully, I know how quickly things move, and it’s very easy to get shunted out of the narrative and for people to lose interest. I knew that Wild Beasts fans, if they knew it was out, would at least give it a cursory look, but beyond that I assumed nothing. On paper I can see how it might not appear to be an interesting prospect; guy who was once in a band releases record haha. I just hoped that people found something interesting in it on its own merit.
I think One True Pairing is sort of a badge I can wear. The name has resonances with the sort of music I’m making and the sort of games I’m playing lyrically. I also really felt allergic to the idea of it being a real singer-songwriter earnest thing, even though at the core that’s what I am I suppose. I know I’ve given people (not least myself) work to do with it, but I don’t mind that if the result is better or more interesting. Inevitably I’m remaking something and positioning myself differently, and this was supposed to be a really obvious signpost that I was aware of that.
FS: That makes a lot of sense, cheers. And I think the name really works with the album. And yeah, I see what you mean about people releasing music after they leave a band. I often give it a listen, but I’m not always impressed.
We’ll move on from the record shortly, but I suppose what made this different for me was that it felt really personal. Can you talk about whether this feels more personal than the stuff you wrote for Wild Beasts? And why?
TF: I wasn’t sure I intended it to be personal per se, but obviously there’s a lot of emphasis on the vocals and the lyrics, and so there’s a greater need to tell stories and be the frontman I guess.
One of the strengths and weaknesses of Wild Beasts was that we never committed to a single perspective or message, and obviously a solo record is a slightly different setup – sonically and thematically. Also it’s fair to say I had a lot of things on my mind, both personal and outward, and I think it’s not worth releasing something unless you take some risks and put your neck on the block, and be seen to be doing so.
I guess there is maybe less poise and artifice and it\s a little hotter and rawer. I think Wild Beasts were at our heart a band with a lot of anger and emotion, in a sea of nicey-nice indie, and I wanted to write that large on this record, and make sure people understood. Of course I think people have found that more challenging than I intended, but that’s often the way ha.
FS: Challenging in a good way, do you think? How have you found the reaction to the record?
TF: Well, hearteningly, there hasn’t been a single headline response really. I think in general people are on board with what I’m trying to do, and are reckoning with the problematic or difficult aspects, but truthfully I think there are a lot of people who don’t know it’s out yet. Partly my fault for not trading on the Wild Beasts link, but I think it might take some time for it to filter through.
Honestly, I thought I’d made a stadium rock record, and the reactions made me realise my idea of that was way off ha. I’m comfortable with that, but I thought people would hear the melody first and the spite later, and that doesn’t seem to be exactly the case. I had tried to pare it down and do something that would be direct and up front, but I get the feeling that I may have left a few more barbs in there than I appreciated.
FS: Well, from a personal perspective, I’d just like to say that I’m really glad it’s not stadium rock. That may have tested me! How’s it been touring this one?
TF: Ha well, I’m sort of treating it as such, or at least as some weird refraction of it. The touring has been good! It’s low key at the moment, but the audiences that have been in attendance have been passionate and committed. Obviously we’ve kept the stage show light to make it all feasible at this level, and there is something cool about turning up in a car, setting it up in 15mins and playing. I think at festivals etc people see the setup and expect something, then get something a little better than they bargained for, which is at least the right way round.
FS: Yeah, for me it felt really special seeing you perform in such a small venue and so pared back. It was an amazing show.
I’ll just ask a few more questions if that’s okay. Thanks for chatting to us. This one’s a bit off topic and I hope you don’t mind me bringing it up, but when I saw you in Manchester you dedicating Reaper of Souls to Scott Hutchison. He’s one of my favourite ever songwriters so that was a pretty emotional moment. Can I ask why you chose to dedicate a song to him. Did you know Scott, or have you just been touched by the music?
TF: Thanks, very glad you enjoyed it!
I didn’t know Scott personally no, though our paths crossed a little. That song was recorded (and lyrically finished I think) the day after they found poor Scott. My first thought was just, fuck this industry, and fuck anyone who doesn’t understand the strain and the disappointments that come with it. It feeds vulnerable people into the mincer. I was staying alone in a roadside hotel and didn’t really have a solid record yet, and just wondered how easily that could be any number of people that I know, or indeed me. I was hesitant to even mention it because there are lots of people who are closer to it who must have been deeply hurt by it all, and I don’t want to take a poise of taking on the pain of others. That song was made in a really sour mood, and lyrically it’s sort of about the omnipresence of death, illness etc and my desire to bring stuff in that songwriters don’t like to talk about so much, to try and shake people’s trees a bit. I suppose I related to it all a bit too closely.
FS: Thanks for that, answer Tom. I totally get what you’re saying.
I definitely wouldn’t worry about bringing it up, though. Scott, his family, the band, and the fans are all about talking about these things and bringing them into the limelight. I think one of the reasons I related to the One True Pairing LP as strongly as I did is that you are doing something similar to Scott, and using your own struggles to put a spotlight on the struggles of others.
Does it feel cathartic writing and performing this way?
TF: It does, yeah. There is a way I’m implicating my own audience I guess, like “you’re not listening hard enough”, and I think that people have found some aspects of it dark and challenging, but I’m also aware there’s some absurdity in there – whacking great guitar solos, big choruses etc. I hope people hear the emotional content beneath all the bluster, as that’s sort of the point. Certainly I’m enjoying singing on stage again, and hopefully lending some context to what I did on record. It should have a bit of energy.
FS: It has a lot of energy. In fact, I just went running with it in my ears. But for me that’s the best kind of music, music that you have to look past the surface to see what the songwriter is saying.
While we’re taking about catharsis, and as you’ve mentioned the old band a few times, am I okay to ask how you’re feeling about things with Wild Beasts these days? (My fellow editors would kill me if I didn’t).
TF: Hahaha of course, I was wondering when.
I’m very proud of what we did. To get from Kendal to where we got to is remarkable, and it took a lot of work and a lot of luck. I think we made some great music, and we saw the world as a welcome guest. It was fantastic.
We’re all still friends. I saw Chris a few days ago, and I’m going to see Hayden’s show in December. I think as breakups go, it was as good as it could have been, and there’s no lingering animosity of any sort.
There are always things that could have been different, but I’m really very happy with the decisions we made. We always had pale nonsense passing us in the fast lane which could get frustrating, but I think if we peeled back the layers, enough people could tell the difference.
FS: Do you know what, that’s so good to hear. I saw you guys eight or nine times and there always seemed to be such good chemistry on the stage so I was sad to hear rumours of a fall out. I’m glad rumours is all they were.
And yeah, must have been annoying to see some of the music that seemed to out perform you sales wise but I hope you all took solace in the fact that when people got you they got you in a big way.
While we’re talking other bands/artists, can I ask what you’re enjoying that’s out there currently? Anything I should be looking out for?
TF: Haha there will always be rumours. But yeah we’re all good.
I must admit to being terrible at picking up new stuff when it actually happens, I always find things late. I liked the new jpegmafia a lot, and I can’t deny the new FKA Twigs is quite something. Sorry are a band from London I like very much. Big Thief I love having spent some time with it. There is genuinely a load of music coming out, almost too much now that the old media channels are pretty much gone, or so far into mainstream pop that they don’t matter. It can be hard to pick through the noise, especially if you go anywhere near social media, but there is really good stuff happening.
FS: Agreed – I personally feel it’s been the best year for new music in quite some time, and Big Thief are definitely one of my highlights. I’ll check out Sorry – never even heard of them.
Okay, cheers Tom – this has been most enjoyable, but I won’t keep you any longer. Maybe you could sum up by telling us how you’d describe the One True Pairing album to a complete beginner? And are there any songs on there that stand out to you for any reason?
TF: If I’m among industry types, I always say Sleaford Mods fronted by Bruce Springsteen, which is obviously really reductive, but seems to get the bewildered reaction I’m looking for ha.
I think this is a rock record – an electronic one, sure, but it has all the drama and clatter and mess. I suppose this is an angry start, and I might drift over into something with a bit more air and fantasy in it next time, but I think it contains where I was at when I made it. I’m really happy with a lot of it, I like ‘King of the Rats’ because we built it all from the ground up with the synths, and I sung it once, and also the title track, which sort of dictated what the rest of the album was going to sound like. Ultimately I think this album had to sound this way, had to come out asking questions, had to be made quickly and relatively cheaply. It’s totally a product of circumstance.
FS: Lovely, you keep bewildering people! Why not, eh!
‘King of the Rats’ has my favourite line of the album; ‘I’m the dog you just can’t kick enough, show me love and I might bite your hand clean off.’ a stunning line that feels central to the whole piece.
Well thanks for the chat Tom, the album is up there with my favourites from the year and it’s been a pleasure discussing it with you. Good luck with getting it noticed – it deserves to be.
TF: Thanks Fran, appreciate it! And thanks for picking out that line – it was supposed to land like that.
Interview by Fran Slater