Steve Thorne has been very much at the forefront of the UK Prog scene for the past decade since the release of his first two solo albums Emotional Creatures Pts 1 and 2. Renowned for his ability to assemble a stellar cast of supporting Prog musicians on his songs, Steve has just released his fourth solo album, Crimes & Reasons, another collection of straight-talking, thought-provoking songs.
DPRP’s Alison Henderson caught up with Steve at the Aubitt Recording Studios in Southampton, where his albums have all been recorded, found out how a curry or a day’s fishing is all it takes to get those prog legends playing with him and how his next album is probably going to be his last regrettably.
Interview for DPRP by Alison Henderson
DPRP: How long have you been in music?
ST: I have always been in bands but originally I was with a local band here in Southampton called Colony Earth. They were a bit schizophrenic as they played reggae music and prog rock, so we had audiences dancing to the reggae parts of the show. That went on for years and years until I hit a point when I decided I didn’t want to do it any more as all the gigging was suppressing my writing side. So when I started writing again, it was on the prog side.
DPRP: How did you launch your prog career after that?
ST: I was walking down the road and I bumped into Rob Aubrey (owner of Aubitt Recording Studios) who I had not seen for years. I told him about my songs and said I had no way of recording them, so he lent me an eight track machine on which I began to demo the songs for Emotional Creatures Pt 1. He said he was working with a lot of prog bands and introduced me to Nick D’Virgilio (Spocks Beard, Tears For Fears, Genesis) who had played drums for the late Kevin Gilbert. He has always been my main drummer.
DPRP: Nick D’Virgilio is a great prog name to have on your albums. Who did you get lined up next?
ST: I wrote to Tony Levin and dropped in Nick’s name along with my demo tape, asking if he would like to appear on Emotional Creatures. He got back to me and said if he liked the material he’d be willing to do it. Next thing I know, I got Geoff Downes to appear! I was like a kid in a candy store! Then came Peter Trewavas and it felt as though I was getting together the A to Z of prog musicians. John Jowitt also played, as did Gary Chandler and Steven Christey of Jadis who are also based here in Southampton. By the end of Emotional Creatures Pt 1, I was spoilt for choice! Oh yes, then there was John Mitchell who recorded here for the second album and Martin Orford recorded his flute parts in the garden.
DPRP: So bearing in mind both Nick and Tony are US artistes, how do you record with them?
ST: Nick records all his tracks here but for Tony, sends his files, then we discuss the parts and quite frankly, I never know what he is going to come up with either when he plays bass or the Chapman stick! But he does kind of know what I want and comes back with these beautiful flourishes which are part recorded on bass and part on the stick.
DPRP: Well, that is a terrific cast list to start your solo career. What happened then?
ST: Well, I put out my third album, Into The Ether, but unfortunately, I lost a lot of money on it so I have had to cut back on my guest list for Crimes & Reasons. So as a result, I wanted to make something a little bit more home-grown with me writing and playing all the way through it.
DPRP: It is certainly another collection of terrific and sometimes outspoken songs.
ST: Well believe it or not, I already have another album entitled Island of the Imbeciles written and recorded!
DPRP: You certainly do not hang about. How do you go about the writing process?
ST: Making an album is a constant thing as I have that luxury of being able to choose ten or 11 songs out of 30 or so that I may have written. I put all my best songs into a folder and discard the weaker tracks. I was completely ready to record Into The Ether within two years of making the others.
DPRP: Let’s talk about Crimes & Reasons. There are some particularly strong songs on it. I have to say, I think Moth to Flame is a wonderful track. What is the story behind it?
ST: I am glad you like that one because it started out as an acoustic piece. I wrote it just before I went to play at a Marillion convention in Holland. I performed it there on just an acoustic guitar. It was a simple, pretty little song that later became a bit of a monster. It is actually linked to “Julia” that appeared on Emotional Creatures Pt 1 which is all about an abusive relationship. This is actually the prequel song to that about Julia’s previous day and how she was looking for a way out.
DPRP: You are quite scathing on a couple of the other songs, such as Already Dead and Modern Curse.
ST: Yes, the first one is all about how modern culture has affected us, in this case, the character is glued to his chair, watching Sky TV and smoking a joint. The second is about the shallowness of some the many people who only seem to have a lust for gold these days. I have absolutely no time for all for the marketing culture and therefore those who believe it and lust after it rather than making something better of themselves.
There is also Fade Away which is based on last summer’s riots and what it must be like from the point of view of some of these kids who walk past the shops, see all this gear and know they will never be able to get it. I have utter contempt for politicians in Parliament who just let this all happen, along with the current celebrity culture. It is not a good environment for kids to grow up in. I am fundamentally an atheist who hates politicians. There is a little bit of a punk part to me and a rebellious streak still.
DPRP: There is not much joy or many happy endings in your songs, I have to say.
ST: I will put my hands up and will say that I take Roger Waters’ line every time because as you can hear in The Wall and other Pink Floyd albums, he has an axe to grind and writes lyrics which have teeth. I have never been one to write “isn’t the world lovely” words as to me, they are not strong lyrics. You will never find me tackling middle class golden sunsets and mystical stuff as a result! (Laughs) They always feel weak when I sing them.
I do emotional lyrics, but as you heard on Sandheads on Emotional Creatures II, that was by way of a half apology to those who think my lyrics are a bit too in your face. At the same time, I think The Division Bell is musically superb but the lyrics on it bored the pants off me!
DPRP: I think one of my favourite of your recent vocals was on the title track of Cosmograf’s When Age Has Done Its Duty last year. How did that come about?
ST: Oh yes, Lee Abraham put me in touch with Robin Armstrong who wanted to see if I was willing to do some vocals for the album. I absolutely loved it and was flattered to be asked. Robin is such a breath of fresh air. I love his olde worlde view and those trades he sings about such as blacksmith’s. His grand-father was a blacksmith and my dad was a coppersmith so we have a similar outlook. He sent me his original vocal on the title track and said I would like you to sing it. It was great because it came completely out of the blue.
DPRP: I love the fact there is so much reciprocal business going on in prog and guest appearances being made on everyone’s album. Do you have any interesting currency or payment in kind for those musicians who appear?
ST: Oh definitely! Geoff Downes did all of his parts in exchange for a curries and he likes them hot – vindaloo in fact. Martin Orford lives just down the road from here and I appeared and wrote lyrics on Out In The Darkness on The Old Road album. It is funny that in all the time we have worked together, he has played flute on my albums even though everyone knows what an awesome keyboards player he is. He has retired from music now, because I do not think he liked the business. But after his contributions to my albums, I take him out fly fishing in the Meon Valley which is not far from here. I still owe him a day’s fishing!
DPRP: So, as you are the kid in the candy store, who would you most like to appear on the forthcoming album?
ST: Oh, I am a massive fan of It Bites and their perfect execution on all their albums. I have worked with John Mitchell but would love to write some songs with John Beck, who is the gentlest, kindest man. Who else? Oh prog royalty himself. Steve Hackett who I did write to about appearing on Crimes & Reasons but he was unavailable at the time, so I might try again to see if he can appear on Island of the Imbeciles. Another person I would love to have with me is Andy Latimer who has not been in the best of health but I would really like to see him do another Camel project.
DPRP: What other bands/artistes do you like or have influenced you?
ST: As I said, my hero is Roger Waters, but of course there is Peter Gabriel, Steve Harley, early Bowie plus some classical and reggae. I also love Talk Talk and Porcupine Tree.
DPRP: What do you think of the current prog scene?
ST: Put it this way, the early Genesis albums were full of memorable, catchy songs but I think too many bands that imitate them get fixated on bass pedals and mellotrons. By the very nature of the music, it has to progress and move forward.
DPRP: Will we see you going out on tour again to promote Crimes & Reasons?
ST: I have to admit that touring did not agree with me. I always seemed to end up with a bad stomach and I really did not like sleeping on a bus especially when it was travelling on the roads of Poland! I did not like the changes of food and lack of sleep either. I do remember the gigs I did do at the Spirit of 66 Festival in Holland, and at the Peel in Kingston-upon-Thames, where I supported It Bites who invited me on stage to do Once Around The World with them. What a thrill that was! No, my enjoyment has always been writing songs and recording them.
DPRP: So what does the future hold now for you?
ST: Well, I have decided Island of the Imbeciles is going to be my last album. My view is that you need to leave your legacy strong and I still have the capability to do this. I am going to concentrate now on helping younger musicians as a mentor, producer, engineer and writer for them.
DPRP: That is bad news for prog, Steve, but great news for the next generation of music-makers especially here in the south of England.
ST: I have to say I have been incredibly lucky doing what I love best and working with some fantastic musicians. I have always purposely stayed as a solo artist because I am a bit of a control freak and I never wanted to bruise anyone else’s egos. It really has been the best job in the world.
DPRP: Thanks for the chat, Steve, and we wish you well with Crimes & Reasons, and of course the forthcoming album. I shall be back in due course to find out how you got your next all-star cast of artists to appear on that one!