Talking about show business, baby, with Tom Heyman

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A founding member of Philadelphia rockers Go To Blazes, Tom Heyman built up a solid reputation as a sideman after the band broke up in 1997. Moving to San Francisco, his guitar and pedal steel skills graced albums and tours by the likes of Chuck Prophet, The Court and Spark, Russ Tolman, John Doe and Alejandro Escovedo. In between this extensive touring Heyman also dipped his toes into a solo career releasing two well received albums in 2000 and 2005 but it wasn’t until the release of a third album, That Cool Blue Feeling,  in 2014  that he recommenced his solo career in earnest hanging up his guitar slinger for hire sign for the time being. His current release, Show Business, Baby, is an album which he says is, “a straight-up love letter/homage to my late ’70s/early ’80s pub rock heroes Rockpile, Mink Deville, The Leroi Brothers and all of their many offshoots.”

Heyman this week embarks on a lengthy tour of Europe and the UK in the company of Dan Stuart, the pair of them playing a gruelling 33 shows over 33 days in nine countries but he was kind enough to take some time out on the eve of flying to Italy to speak to Blabber’n’Smoke. And mighty entertaining it was too as he spoke about his love of records and how Dan Stuart is bad luck for any liberal minded folk heading into an election among other things.

Hi Tom, how are you?

I’m good, just sitting here in my kitchen in San Francisco where it’s 70 degrees out, just getting my stuff together for the tour, the usual pre tour anxiety making sure I’ve got the right amount of picks and strings and stuff, covering my bar shifts and stuff.

The calm before the storm perhaps as it looks as if you and Dan are going to be barnstorming through Europe for the next month.

Yeah, it looks pretty brutal. I didn’t realise until we put up the poster that there’s literally not one day off but Dan and I have done this a bunch now so we know each other pretty well and we should be able to tackle it. The worst thing was I had to learn to drive a manual car for the tour and there was no end of ribbing from Dan for that. I had to explain to him that my dad’s from Brooklyn and he didn’t have a car until he was 30 so driving wasn’t a thing for us until we moved to the suburbs and there everyone just drove an automatic, whereas Dan’s from the west where they have more manual transmissions, so I had to take some lessons before we go.

So it’s like 33 dates in nine countries, you’ll be exhausted by the time you get to Scotland towards the end of the tour.

Well you could say ten countries because I consider Scotland to be a separate country from Britain, I mean you guys didn’t vote for Brexit, did you? But we’ll be at the top of our game by then, we’ll be really tight in our show business thing. The first night of the tour is always the trickiest so in this case Rome gets to see the warts and all thing, how the sausage is made but by the time we get to you it will be seamless.

So essentially it’s a two man show, you and Dan. What will you be playing for us?

We’re going to be joined by Sid Griffin on several of the shows, some in the UK and a couple in Europe and that will be fun but for the most part it’s Dan and me. I’ve been working up a bunch of stuff, songs from my new record which is sort of like a full on rock record but I wrote the songs like they were folk songs at first so five or six of them I can do solo –  instead of sounding like Rockpile they sound like Leadbelly. And I’ve been trying to learn a bunch of other interesting things so I don’t bore Dan on the tour and he won’t be seeing the same show from me every night, I’ll be throwing something different or new in each night. I could maybe pick a set list of 10 or 12 songs that work and play them every night and the audience would be seeing it for the first time but Dan would be seeing the same show from me night after night so my primary objective, aside from putting on a good show, is to amuse Dan in some way.

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And after your set you’ll be playing guitar with Dan.

Yes, I add the colour. And again, Dan’s catalogue is pretty deep and I’ve played a lot of his stuff with him before so we probably won’t be the same every night. We’ll probably take requests as some folk will want to hear his solo stuff while others will want a Green on Red song and then he’ll sometimes throw me a curveball. But if you play with someone long enough you can kind of anticipate things a little bit and its fun as well, kind of being kept on my toes. It makes it kind of exciting. For me it’s like the best of both worlds. I started out as a guitar player and I just really thought of myself that way for a long time so with Dan I get to do two things, singing my own songs and then playing guitar with Dan.

 

Will you playing any of your older stuff.

There’s one Go To Blazes song that I usually play called Bloody Sam which I wrote about Sam Peckinpah. It’s a significant song for me because it was the first one I wrote which worked well and it seemed to really resonate with people. I mean I didn’t sing it originally, I wrote it and played guitar but back then we had this extraordinarily great singer, Edward Warren, in the band so I didn’t see any reason in singing. But I still like the song and it kind of weirdly dovetails with one of Dan’s songs, The Day William Holden Died and of course one of Holden’s last great performances was in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. But then I’ve got a bunch of new songs I’ve written so there’ll be a couple which I’ll try to put in every night. It’s a way of getting the tyres on them, seeing how people react. I’ve probably got about a record and a half of songs ready but every time I make a record it seems like an even more futile gesture in a world of a diminishing music industry so I figure I’ll try to make two more full-length records and then reassess whether doing them is still viable.

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That seems to dovetail with Dan Stuart’s declaration that his latest album is going to be his last, at least in the sense that most folk would call an album.

That’s what he’s saying and I think he’s serious about that but who knows? It’s tough in these days of streaming music, folk just making playlists.

I take it you’re a fan of a good old-fashioned record album?

I can’t seem to let go of that. When I think of music I don’t think of just a song but I go back to the way I formatively listened to music which was on vinyl, side A and side B. That sense of getting past that fourth song to get to the fifth because that’s really good and then the third one on the second side is brilliant. It would take what, 30, 35 minutes to listen to a record and I would listen to it the way people read a book, I would just disappear into it. I really like blues and I’ve got the original Stax recording of Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign and I love that record, it just works so well. Even collections of songs such as The Beatles’ Red and Blue albums, they work as albums to me, they’re really curated. Look at Neil Young’s Decades, it really works. So I still think of stuff that way, of grouping songs together, thinking we need an uptempo song here and then another in maybe a different key before we get to the ballad, that sort of thing.

It seems so much better than streaming songs, there was the cover art, the liner notes

Absolutely and I come from an age when the liner notes were really good, there was like a personality in the best ones. I remember a Thin White Rope record and I opened it up and inside there was a heavy coloured piece of paper with a single spaced typed message from the band talking about a tour they did of Russia. They toured Russia by train and, by the way, this was way before Billy Joel went to Russia, and it seemed like this insane misadventure and it just made me feel connected to the band and it made me listen to the record really differently. That experience of holding a record is just so good. I was always really disappointed when the liner notes weren’t there, I mean country records didn’t tell you who played on the disc but then you had the LA records from the seventies like Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy. There’s all the lyrics on one side of the sheet and on the flip side there’s a list of who played what, like Leeland Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Waddy Watchell and then there’s Jackson Browne on backing vocals and it’s like, WOW! That was exciting to me.

Regarding your own records there was quite a gap between Deliver Me and That Cool Blue Feeling.

Yeah, eight years really, how to explain that? Well I was really deep deep deep into the sideman thing and I was playing in some very active bands. I was with Chuck Prophet for several years and that included several European tours and multiple trips across the States. Then I was with a band called The Court and Spark who have now become hiss Golden Messenger and again we did lots of touring, I was playing pedal steel exclusively with that band. I also spent time playing with a guy called Lloyd Tripp, a rockabilly guy who had a band called The Vibes and then a later one called The Blubbery Hillbillies, you had to be over 250lbs to be in that band, and he was living in Texas when I was playing with him. I was doing some solo gigs from time to time but I was easily distracted. I was drinking a lot and I didn’t want anything to distract from my drinking. And then for a while I had a straight job, working in an office so you know, stuff got in the way and once I left Chuck’s band and left my job I went back to working in a bar and I was sort of at a loose end but I was always writing. The thing that really kicked things off again was a record I did, a collection of covers called Ballads, Blues and Union Dues, which I recorded live in the studio. I say about that record that anything you want to know about me musically you can find out on that record. So I made that and it was a very affirming thing, a real confidence builder and I was like, Oh, OK, I can do that.

At this point in the interview we were interrupted when Tom got a phone message urging him to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. Back to him…

I’ve voted already, I’ve done that. You know, it’s really scary just now. I’ve got a friend who has a silkscreen business and I was thinking of getting a T-shirt done for the tour saying “I did not vote for that motherfucker” but hopefully people can tell that I didn’t. If things don’t turn around on November 6th I don’t know what I’m going to do. This weird nationalism seems to be creeping everywhere. I followed the Brexit vote because I studied in England and I’ve got friends there and I was watching the vote and it was like, it’s close but the big cities haven’t come in yet so it will be alright, and then when the final result came in I couldn’t believe it. A funny thing is that Dan Stuart flew into the UK for a show at Glastonbury with Twin Tones on the day of the Brexit vote. And then later that year in November Dan and I were going to do a tour so he flies in from Mexico on the day of the election and I pick him up and get back to the house. We’re not watching the results because Hilary’s going to win we reckon,  so we’re playing guitars, sorting out the tour when my wife comes in and says, “Guys, turn on the TV,” and it’s like this red wave sweeping across the screens and we can’t believe it. So Dan is like some kind of bad luck charm, don’t let him come to your country if something bad is on the ballot. He caused Brexit and he caused Trump! But then here we are talking about music and Trump barges in because there’s no getting around it, there it is. I didn’t get the T-shirt but I’ve got a couple of songs that say a few things about the situation, not directly but it will be there, I’m not afraid to speak up.

Well, unless The Tories call a snap election in the next few weeks, you and Dan should be clear to land. Is there anything else you’d like to say before you head to the airport?

Not really aside from this straight commercial pitch. I’m going to have all my records on sale and I’ll have lots of vinyl, real records. Don’t make me take it home with me, buy them on the night and avoid that hefty postal fee, I’ve covered that for you. Vinyl’s great and records make a great Christmas gift so don’t make me take them back home with me. My baby needs shoes and she likes Italian shoes and they’re expensive so help me out folks.

And with that we let Tom get on with his packing. The tour with Dan Stuart meanders across Europe hitting Italy, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and France before a brace of UK dates. You can see the itinerary here.

The live pictures are from Tom Heyman and Dan Stuart’s Glasgow show in 2016.

 

 

 

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