Chris Thompson: He's The Voice

 

By Ryan Sparks

Chris Thompson's majestic and soulful vocals have been entertaining classic rock fans now for almost four decades, and thankfully he's showing no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Chris' rise to worldwide prominence began in the mid 70's when he took over the front man duties for Manfred Mann's Earth Band, a gig which he held off and on well into the 90's. While primarily known as the voice behind the signature Earth Band classics "Blinded By The Light", "Davey's On The Road Again" and "Runner", to name just a few, Chris has been diligently carving out his own identity as a solo artist in the years following his departure from the band. In fact he's assembled quite a formidable band of his own, which includes his close collaborator, Norwegian guitar wizard Mads Eriksen.

These days the British born, New Zealand raised Thompson makes his home in Belgium home and continues to tour Europe with his band, performing his own material right alongside a wide variety of material that he helped make famous from the Earth Band's back catalogue. His latest release is a fantastic new CD / DVD package that combines a live radio concert along with a show that was filmed in Aschaffenburg Germany. However, the concert film was not without its problems, as technical difficulties meant that much of the material had to be scrapped. Undaunted Chris decided to release the show and along with the radio concert, which is featured on the CD portion, together makes one hell of a great package for his fans.

Ryan: This is a fantastic new DVD / CD collection that you've just released. The DVD portion of the package was filmed in Aschaffenburg Germany, and I know that things didn't go originally as planned, as you weren't able to present the whole concert due to technical issues. What's interesting though is that rather than scrap the whole project, you decided to release the material that was salvageable. Great idea, but can you tell me why you decided to do this?

Chris: Well like I said in the liner notes, I think anyone else would have given up. Everybody had put so much effort into it that I thought it would be just stupid to let it die without any of it seeing the light of day. As there were seven tracks that were in order, I thought I might as well just do that, but we came up with lots of different plans to include videos and other bits. It just came to the point where once we'd done the live CD in Berlin and we'd gotten permission to use that, I thought that we just needed to give everybody a taste of what we do video wise, and then we'll just do something like that again in the near future. So that's the real reason behind it. Then the other part of it is we played in Dexheim, and I had a look at that stuff and thought that it kind of had the hits on it, so I thought that it made sense to do something at least.

Ryan: So it wasn't part of the original plan to release this collection as a combination DVD /CD? The CD portion of the set come out of the fact that you didn't have a complete DVD?

Chris: I didn't have the complete DVD and I was just trying to think of what I could do. Then we did the live to radio show, and actually the keyboard player asked me afterwards if I had listened to it. I said "No I haven't" and he said 'Well you should because it's really good'. So I had a listen to it and it was really good. I think it was my manager who came up with the idea of putting it together to see if it made any sense.

Ryan: Was there any indication during the concert that there was a problem?

Chris: No. What happened was, I think we did the show on a Saturday and the following Wednesday I went into the studio to mix it. We transferred all the information into the computer to mix and I just started hearing some weird stuff. Something from another song would come across on the current song that I was listening to, so it appeared that the digital dialer was just being sprayed around. I had a CD that was recorded on that night, so I was able to record that from the beginning to the end and I was able to see how long it was. It was 1 hour and 58 minutes or two hours. Then I took the beginning of the audio from the DVD to the end of it and it was 1 hour and 56 minutes, so there was 2 minutes missing. That 2 minutes wrapped itself around other parts of the recording, it just got stamped on it like it was overlaid. I've never heard of that ever happening and probably never will again. I had no idea during the show though, everything was fine and rosy.

Ryan: For the most part there is that feeling of the set list playing out in the order in which it was originally performed on that night.

Chris: Yeah, that's exactly how we performed it.

Ryan: It must have been somewhat bittersweet when you looked back at the footage, given that visually what you did manage to save looks great.

Chris: Yeah it was. We also had a problem with one of the cameras. One of the cameras was loaded with a drop shot, just a switch and it was dropping shots as well, so we had trouble with the moving camera also. It was one of those things; I don't wish that we hadn't done it, but I wish I didn't have to deal with all the problems. But I learned a lot about making a DVD. I was involved in every aspect on this DVD, because of the recording problem we had to first figure out what it was and if it could it be repaired. You go to all these guys who are supposed to be able to fix anything and you find out that they wont do anything unless you pay them a thousand pounds. So I had to figure out what was salvageable and how to fix it, just really in depth. I cut the DVD myself. I sat with somebody who knew how to cut it, so I'd never done anything like that before. As I said, I learned a lot.

Ryan: It was also a bonus that you got some fan footage in there in the extras, because this wouldn't have been possible back in the old days, but with technology the way it is today and everyone having a camera on their phone, it can actually help you in a case like this.

Chris: In this case it did yeah. Somebody by the mixing desk was taking a video of it, so yeah we were lucky.

Ryan: You got some nice visual effects on the song "If You Remember Me". You have that dual layered effect.

Chris: I don't remember that. I'd have to go back and have a look. I was probably papering over something that was wrong, I don't know.Â@

Ryan: A track that you did manage to get onto the DVD and the CD as well is "Whole Lot To Give", which is a great bluesy song that that I think shows a different side of you that maybe some of your fans might not have heard. I never knew you could play the harmonica that good.

Chris: Well, yeah [laughs]. It was a matter of having to, as the harmonica on the original recording was played by somebody else, so I just had to pick it up and learn how to play it. It's not something that I knew how to do, I just kind of learned it. That song was taken from a collection of songs that are eventually going to make up a musical, that I've been working on for about seven years. It's part of some music that I wrote over the last four or five years, the story has been evolving and still is. That's just one of the tracks from that lot of songs.

Ryan: When I heard it for the first time on this disc, I had this feeling that perhaps it was an old blues standard that I thought I should probably know [laughs].

Chris: No, no. But a blues is a blues. It's part of those songs and we've really got a lot of songs on that, but we find that in concert there's so many songs that people want to hear, that it's very hard to be playing new songs all the time. You go out and play two hours of new songs, because people come out to hear what they want to hear.

Ryan: I know of the project of which you speak because the last time I spoke to you, which was about six years ago, you were talking about it then.

Chris: Yeah.

Ryan: Also nice to see "Don't Kill It Carol" on there as well, which isn't a song you do very often.

Chris: It's a song that The Earth Band used to do sometimes, but we do it all the time now because people love it so much. It's not a song that I sang on the original record, well actually Steve Waller and I did octaves on it and then I sang on the chorus. Somebody came up to me at one of the concerts and said to me 'Why don't you play "Don't Kill it Carol?"' So we learned it and it's become a big favorite with people. They love it.

Ryan: In the interview segment on the DVD there was talk that the band was running through "Thunder Child" from War of The Worlds and that it probably would be included as a bonus track. What happened there?

Chris: Well it would have been, but it was part of the digital stuff that got destroyed. It's not a song that we play every night and I go hot and cold on it because sometimes it works really well and other times it doesn't. The night before we were going to record a whole bunch of songs, but something happened and we weren't able to do it. We recorded in the afternoon and did about five other songs, but they had the same problem with the digital desk. Everything was lost really. We did "Thunder Child" in the sound check because we hadn't been playing it much and we felt that if we were doing a DVD then we wanted to do songs that we were very comfortable with. So, yeah we did it in the sound check, so if we screwed it up we figured we could go back and do it again [laughs].

Ryan: As you mentioned you have some new songs on here and you touched upon the Rediscovery project. Tell me about the new songs, but also I was under the impression that you had in fact released this a few year back.

Chris: I think that probably the last time I talked to you I wanted to do a concept CD, so we did that. We went and got some money from the Norwegian government and we got funding from them and we went and recorded a whole bunch of songs. Then I realized that in order to get the other half of the money to pay the debt for all the work that we had done, I needed to produce a CD. So we did the CD called Rediscovery and we did some concerts, but nobody got the story. It became too confusing and I was the only person who knew what it was about

Ryan: Why was that? Was the scope of the project just too big?

Chris: I think that it wasn't defined properly by what the songs were doing. It wasn't like a War of The Worlds where we had a character like Richard Burton saying what was going on, so people didn't really understand it. But I had to print some CD's because that was the governments rule, that we had to do a CD. So I'm stuck with the fact that there's about a thousand copies in existence, but I've changed the name. It's no longer called Rediscovery, it's much more user friendly now, it's called Rangi and The Magic Notes. I've written a script and I'm in the process of trying to make it much more like a multi-media musical, rather than just a stage musical like We Will Rock You or something like that. I'm trying to do it this way so we can hopefully be much more dramatic. I've written one script that wasn't good enough, so I'm just waiting on someone else, who I've met in my travels ,who is going to help me write another script. We'll probably have to write some new music and we'll probably have to get some actors and do a lot of filming and it will probably go on for the next four or five years.

Ryan: So maybe the time I speak to you we'll have something more to talk about in terms of this project?

Chris: I hope so. I think the story is now defined enough that anybody can understand it. I've produced a six minute DVD so I don't have to talk about it. I can just show it to investors or whoever you like and it explains what the story is about in six or seven minutes, which I think is probably the limit of people's attention span.

 

Ryan: I have to say your voice sounds great on these recordings and seems to get better with age. How have you managed to keep your voice in such top shape over the years? Do you have to take any special precautions with your voice or do anything special in order to keep sounding as good as you do at this stage in your career?

Chris: Well I think I'm very lucky. I practice all the time and you just have to be careful, especially when you're on the road. You have to make sure you get enough sleep, which I think is the biggest problem with singing. You have to keep your voice in shape and as soon as we're finished I'll do some practicing. I try to do the same thing with writing as well, so that I'm singing and writing at the same time, but it's not the same as doing the songs in concert, no matter how many times I try to tell myself that it is. I've realized that I just have to practice those songs. I just sing them and pretend that I'm at a gig, it's the only way. We've got a tour coming up in October where we're doing groups of 4 shows in a row, so I've got to be in shape to be able to do that.

Ryan: Your voice is like a muscle that needs to be exercised.

Chris: Absolutely. You need to practice, look after it, get enough sleep and be lucky.

Ryan: In addition to writing with Mads Eriksen over the years, you've also collaborated with Mike Slammer. When did you first meet him and were you aware of his work in the 70's with City Boy and Streets in the 80's?

Chris: I first met him when he was with City Boy. I didn't really know him very well, but I knew their drummer. When I was in the Earth Band we did some concerts with them, so that's how I met him. When he was in Streets, I think he was in America, because he's married to an American and I think they moved. I moved there in '97 I think it was and I don't even remember how we met up to be honest. I don't know how we met up in California, because we didn't live anywhere close to each other. He was like an hour and a half from where I lived. I think someone in England might have told him to give me a call. We got together and started writing and we did that CD. He's a fantastic writer and a great musician. I haven't collaborated with him in quite some time, although he did call and ask me if I would do some background vocals and finish some lyrics for Steelhouse Lane, which was a band that he was working on. I haven't seen Mike in quite awhile. He's still in America and I'm not.

Ryan: Over the years you've built up a loyal fan base in Europe, especially in countries like Norway and Germany and fans there are fortunate to get to see you a couple of times a year whereas us poor people on the other side of the pond haven't had the pleasure of seeing your band or The Earth Band for quite some time. Is it a case of waning popularity that has kept you from these shores or is just a case of logistics and the fact that it's too expensive?

Chris: I think it's a bit of both really. The Earth Band was successful on the east coast of America and in Canada, and in the mid-west as well. You could pretty much draw a line from Detroit over to the east. We used to go to the west coast but really from Atlanta straight up the east coast. I think after Roaring Silence we went back one time. But it's really expensive logistically to get everybody over there and nobody offered to put a tour together. I mean it would have been great for us to go on a tour with Journey or Kansas or something like that, but it wasn't to be. As far as I'm concerned I'd love to go and play, but logistically it's expensive and no one's asked me. To put a tour together somebody has to come up with the idea to put you together with this band or that band and do an east coast tour or something.

Ryan: I guess it's easier for you living in Europe to do these gigs as you're closer to home.

 

Chris: It is a lot easier, but having said that I've got some friends that live in New York and I've done a couple of charity gigs with them. I guess people still remember "Blinded By The Light" there because it gets played on the radio all the time.

Ryan: A few years back on your Timeline disc there were a few tracks recorded with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Have you ever thought of doing a full album in that fashion? Maybe not necessarily just to reinterpret some of the Earth Band material, but also to include some of the songs that you've written over the years.

Chris: Well...that's an interesting thought. I just did a tour in January with Steve Lukather and Ian Gillan, with an orchestra and a rock band. It was called Rock meets Classics and it was really successful and in fact I'm going to be doing it again in February and March next year. But as for recording an album, I mean the logistics of recording an album with an orchestra is really, really difficult. It's expensive as well, but you can find ways to do things to make it not as expensive, but there would have to be a reason for me to do that. Like you said, do a reinterpretation of some stuff or something like that. That's a good question and I don't know the answer.

Ryan: For example the song "Zu Leben" came off great, as did your track "Your The Voice"

Chris: Yeah "Zu Leben" is great, I love that song. Like I said it's very interesting, I'm just not sure how I would do it logistically.

Ryan: Keep it mind though ok?

Chris: I will.

Ryan: One project that I didn't know you were originally involved in was with Steve Hackett back in the mid 80's. The album Feedback '86 saw the light of day about ten years ago. There's some fantastic material on there with yourself, Steve and Brian May. What do you remember about recording that material?

Chris: Steve asked me to come and sing on a couple of tracks that he had. So I went to his studio somewhere in Mortlake or something like that, just outside of London. I went in and sang some bits and pieces and tried to do a little bit of writing. I never heard anything more about it after that, until about three or four months later I ran into Brian and he said "Oh I've been working with Steve on some tracks that you did" and I said "Ok". He told me that they had been changing things around and collaborating etc.. but that they really liked the vocals. I think I did one other session and then I kept asking Steve what happened and he told me that they're weren't going to release it and then suddenly as you said, about ten years ago, there it was. I was actually looking at that the other day, I think I did four tracks on that.

Ryan: One track was the duet with Bonnie Tyler.

Chris: There's a duet with Bonnie Tyler on there? That's crazy. I just had it out the other day. I'm going to go have a quick look, if I can find it. [ed note: at this point Chris gets up and attempts to find the CD in his collection].

Ryan: The song was "Prizefighters".

Chris: Oh yeah "Prizefighters". That's something Brian was involved in. That shows you how my memory is. That album was something that surprised me when it came out that's for sure. What was the album called?

Ryan: Feedback '86.

Chris: Oh right. I was looking at that just the other day.

 

Ryan: You wrote a children's book a few years back and the last time we spoke you mentioned not being able to find a publisher, do you have any plans to revisit that and do you have any other books inside of you that might want to write one day?

Chris: Well we all have a book inside of us. That kid's book and every time I read it I change it. One day when I'm sitting in a car for four hours or on a train, I'll rewrite it and revisit it for certain. I read it to my kids and they love it, so I guess it does have some value. I think I've definitely got a couple of books in me, but one step at a time I think.

Ryan: Are you one of those artists that once you've put something out into the world, you don't necessarily want to hear it again or if you do you might be tempted to go back and want to change things?

Chris: Are you talking about music?

Ryan: It could be music or in this case your book as you mentioned going back and changing it. I guess specifically with regards to the book, why do you feel a need to do that?

Chris: Because I don't think it was as good as it could be. It hasn't been published, so I can do that. It's the same with the Rediscovery project you know? I really believe that has a place somewhere, so I'll change the name and it will probably be all unrecognizable by the time it comes out, which is great because by then people will have forgotten about it and it can be almost like a new project.

As far as writing is concerned , I actually let songs go out the way they are. I don't go back and revisit them, unless there's something that I think that needs to be changed, so songs pretty much go out the window. With regards to my recordings, I try not to listen to anything I do because it will drive you crazy thinking I wish I had done this or done that. I listen to it for about as long as I can stand it and then it goes out.

Ryan: I remember the story about when you joined the Earth Band and how for the song "Blinded By The Light" that you must have done that song a hundred and fifty times, but the take we hear on the album, was the first one. Over the course of your career are you someone who prefers to nail a song in the first couple of takes and favors a more spontaneous approach or are you looking to keep working at it until it's absolutely perfect?

Chris: I think it's a combination of both. What I usually do is sing the song a couple of times until I'm pretty sure I have it nailed, and then I'll have another shot and try to get a take that might need a bit of repairs later. Most of the time I'm engineering myself that's going on Pro Tools and that has as many tracks as you want. "Blinded By The Light" had to be one take because it only had one track left on it. I had gone in and sung it over and over and never felt that I had it right. But as I probably told you before, everybody took a break for dinner and I held the engineer back and told him I wanted to have a go at it and that was it. The problem with Pro Tools is that you've got as many tracks as you like, so maybe I'll sing five or six tracks spontaneously one after another and then come back and mix and match. It just depends. Because I'm engineering for myself, it's given me more time to stop and start, which is probably a bad thing I suppose. Most of the time I don't think I work too hard at what I do. If I spend more than a couple of hours on a vocal, then it's probably because I don't know how to sing it properly and I'll have a relook at it.

Ryan: I know in the past you had mentioned that you thought that the best version of the Earth Band that you were a part of was the lineup with yourself, Mick Rogers and Noel McCalla. Could you ever see a return of that lineup? It seems as if Manfred has had a kind of open door policy over the years.

Chris: I'm not sure he has an open door policy. As far as going back to the band, it would be impossible. Manfred and I are really good friends, I talk to him often and we see each other whenever we can, but I couldn't go back to being in his band. About four years ago just he and I played together in a band with an orchestra and it was great. I just couldn't see myself going back to the band. I just think that's an impossibility really, because I've been away from it for so long. But to do things, just he and I fifty-fifty, and I don't mean money, I just mean where it's fifty-fifty, just him and I; to work with him again, we always keep that door open should the opportunity arise.Â@

Ryan: Last question, tell me about some of these other projects that you have in the works. You talked about the multi-media, musical stage show Rangi and The Magic Notes , but I also understand you're planning to release a new CD in a few months that will be a radical departure from your past work. You're going to be putting out a disc of 20's, 30's and 40's songs with a big band?

Chris: Yes, that's true. It's done and ready to go. It's a project that I sort of fell into really. I live in Belgium and I got asked by some people in Brussels to; well they do all sorts of compilations for the Readers Digest company and they asked me to sing some rock stuff. It's not karaoke or anything like that, it's original arrangements or interpretations by myself or whoever is doing it. So, I did a few of those and I think what happened was that somebody let them down for these 20's, 30's and 40's songs, so they asked me to come and do four, which I did and I really enjoyed it. They asked me to do some more and I ended up with about 8 tracks that seemed to be the core of some kind of direction. I spoke to them and they had a whole bunch of backing tracks with orchestra and big band, they had 6 or 7 other tracks that I could use, so I did 6 more and I used an original track that was arranged in the same style and then we did "Davey's On The Road Again". So, it's a collection of fifteen tracks where the arrangements are fantastic and the playing is incredible, but the singing is very different for me. It's coming out in August.

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