Interview: Chris T-T Revisited

Written by: Owen Williams

The Void last spoke to Brighton-based singer/songwriter Chris T-T at the end of 2007. High time that we caught up with him again then.

In the meantime he’s changed his distribution set-up, written fiction and non-fiction, produced artwork and photographic projects, released two albums and two EPS, lectured, toured endlessly, invaded the Edinburgh Festival and started a small revolution. Cheery and friendly in person, he is still not overly given to smiling in photographs.

It’s four years since we did one of these. What’s been happening to you in the meantime?

That was when Capital came out, right? I’ve made two records since then and toured loads solo – I made Love Is Not Rescue in 2010, which was a quiet heartbreak-y record and then last year I did a family-friendly download album of A.A. Milne poems from the 1920s. That was an Edinburgh Fringe show first and then I taped it. I’ve also done a lot more public speaking and debating about music at conferences and workshops – and I rebuilt my business method, so I now rely on a great website more than other ‘business’ people. I’m not quite DIY but much closer to it. Self-managed, for example.

How’s the recent tour been? Any highlights? Lowlights?

It was the most fun I’ve had on the road for a long while. I’d deliberately booked unusual venues off the beaten track as an experiment to learn about working in non-circuit places (and start to build a new network). That was fascinating: worked very well. I got London DIY artist She Makes War to support me and her set was damn superb every show.

Main lowlight I guess was that I booked the tour to play some new songs about Jeremy Clarkson but in the end didn’t quite finish them in time, they weren’t gig-ready. People got a taste but not the full lot. Hopefully I’ll get those out in the summer. Also the weekend of Brighton and London was crazy busy because I got offered extra shows and panels at the Great Escape festival and a support slot in London earlier the same evening as our London headline. It was hard going for the weekend but very rewarding. I definitely feel like I got the intense schedule nailed.

Is touring basically how you make your living now? Do music sales factor at all these days?

Touring is a significant part of my income, along with merch sales, downloads, PRS/PPL rights stuff and a few other things like the occasional placement, or an organisation commissioning me to compose music. I also speak at conferences and run songwriting workshops. All that makes up about 80% of my income and then I do a bit of writing here and there as well.

I think you need to cast a wide net and stay creatively open-minded, while also keeping expenses reasonable, and in fact making an honest living is straightforward. I need a new record now though, because it’s been too long: the A.A. Milne project was ace but it’s not a proper T-T album and has kind of got in the way of new work. I love playing to the wider age range, so I’m not knocking it but when my last LP came out I still had a manager and agent, so I was one step removed from the process. Now I’m in sole charge, I can’t wait to see the process of an album through.

What’s your take on the filesharing debate?

It’s got pretty simple: the debate is now redundant because it’s the reality within which we work anyway. Filesharing is/was maybe theft, but certainly no worse for most artists than the exploitative way the industry used to (and still often does) work. I believe in a fairly optimistic future for culture: I see every piece of audio/visual art in the world being instantly streamable for subscription, instead of ‘owned’ (except for beautiful low runs of artisan physical product) and someone coming up with a relatively fair way to recompense artists for their contributions.

This actually has the added benefit of valuing repeat listens. So currently, with CDs and downloads, you pay the same amount, regardless of how many times you go on to listen to the music. You can get hyped by a smash hit single, purchase a rubbish album off the back of it, never listen to it again and you’ve still paid the same amount as you do for your favourite ever LP that you’re listening to every month for the rest of your life.  But with a universal streaming model, if you love something so much you play it to death, the artist gets a reflection of that devotion in the payment.

Of course, the money isn’t balanced yet – systems like Spotify don’t fund art-makers, because they’re still in bed with the old-school gatekeepers – but I feel optimistic we could get there within this decade.

Last time we spoke you were on your way out on the road with a full band – now you’re back to solo acoustic. Was that an experiment not to be repeated, or something that’ll occasionally come back?

I plan to tour with my band lineup, called The Hoodrats, over the next year to eighteen months. Both the next EP and the next proper album will be band records – maybe not as full-on as Capital, closer to earlier albums like The 253 – but certainly built around the Hoodrats lineup. It’s the longest consistent lineup I’ve ever had and I love them. Live, we’ve become a proper band, not like me plus a backing group. I want to see if we can translate our spirit to the studio. All the members are great singers and multi-instrumentalists, so I want to trust the band to make an ace album.

To be honest, I’m not interested in touring again solo, based on acoustic / electric guitars. I’m much better at the piano than the guitar and I’ve never really explored touring a piano-based show, but doing the A.A. Milne stuff has taught me that I can make a piano-based set work and it’s probably better overall than an acoustic set. I’d still take an acoustic but I want to be able to switch to a good quality, real, in-tune piano. That’s problematic though, because it locks out many of the rock/punk/pub venues I’d normally play.

Tell us about your A.A. Milne project. What prompted that, and how has it been received?

The Disobedience show and album came about from conversations with my friend Jim Bob [novelist and singer from Carter USM], realising how much we were both steeped in A.A. Milne’s influence growing up. Then once I’d put Market Square onto Love Is Not Rescue, I began to get this amazing feedback from friends’ children, that they loved the song. Then I was jealous about friends of mine going up to Edinburgh Fringe, I wanted to have a go and suddenly the idea dawned on me for a family friendly music show of the A.A. Milne songs.

Some of the poems had been put to music by other people in the past: did you have trouble shaking off any of the older tunes?

I grew up with the poems but I didn’t really know the earlier tunes, except vaguely Halfway Down because of Robin [Kermit’s nephew from the Muppets] and also the Gene Kelly version. They were first set to music in the 1930s but my new tunes for them are much better because these verses have the rhythm of informal folk tunes, rather than the stuffy parlour songs, as those versions were. Also the earlier music completely misses the pathos, I think.

The idea with this most recent tour set (and with the full A.A. Milne show as well) was to start with Halfway Down meaning one thing, then it gets reprised at the very end and has a-whole-nother set of meanings, because of everything you’ve heard (and ‘been through’) in between. In the Milne show, with a kind of arc, you don’t hear the loneliness at the heart of it until the reprise. So I tried to do a bit of that in the normal gig by reprising it the same way, after I’ve sung about all these other things. People may miss that – or just not care – but I know that each night, a few people were getting it and it’s an emotional kicker.

You sang a song during the tour [involving Fraggles!] from your forthcoming EP about Jeremy Clarkson – can you explain the concept behind that?

The EP is called The Taking Of Clarkson’s Lighthouse and it’s about me going to the Isle Of Man, where Clarkson owns a beautiful lighthouse, and taking it off him. In the EP we throw him in the sea and then build a new Alexandria out of his lighthouse by turning it into a haven for all human knowledge and wisdom. Then we turn the rest of the Isle Of Man into a Communist utopia, like a version of Castro’s Cuba for the UK. And the reason it all kicks off is that the Clarksons have accidentally committed Fraggle genocide with rat poison, because they’re bad lighthouse-keepers. So that’s the story, it’s a six song EP and it’s going to rock.

The Fraggles only lived in a lighthouse in the UK though. Different territories had different set-ups: in France they were in a chef’s kitchen, for example. You’ll have to explain why your Fraggles are in a lighthouse if you play those songs overseas!

All these references are obscure enough already, without having to explain the lighthouse at all! I think the song Swim Jeremy Swim from the EP is sort of lead single from my next full album, so in the US maybe we’ll just skip the Clarkson stuff and release a different single. Or something!

The A.A. Milne songs tie in quite nicely with your tradition of animal songs, I thought. Is there a particular agenda with those: a sort of deliberate metaphor that you keep returning to? Or do you just like animals?

I just love animals. Sometimes it’s an extended metaphor but often it’s actually just about the animal. It’s sometimes easier to make the point if there’s one step of distance added by making a character non-human, so the listener doesn’t identify quite so much.

Last time we spoke, you mentioned Loudon Wainwright, and it strikes me that there’s a kind of direct line from his Dead Skunk to your Hedgehog Song. Is that something that’s ever occurred to you?

I love that you’d make that connection and I adore Loudon’s songwriting, including Dead Skunk. He’s got that rare skill of doing both humour and deadly serious, even in the same song. Randy Newman can also do it, and it’s something I aspire to.

Hedgehog Song is a lot more sensitive and moving than Dead Skunk though.

Maybe, but it’s got a much greater bodycount! I presume a bunch of people get killed in the car accident!

Do you see yourself as a protest singer? Is there a sneaky agenda with the Milne songs to get to children early?!

I don’t see myself as a protest singer, except occasionally when it suits me to. And no, there’s definitely no agenda – the complete Milne show has no politics in it, but for one comment, which is a joke [Chris introduces Market Square as being about communism if you’re a child, and about rabbits if you’re a parent]. Funnily enough, with the complete Edinburgh Fringe version of Disobedience, in the middle I put Hedgehog Song and M1 Song. No parents have ever had any problem with the show, it’s all been supportive, but I do like to notice worried mums and dads during the earlier part of Hedgehog Song because it’s a little bit gory – but the kids always love that.

Do you still write a column for the Morning Star? How did that come about? Is that not Preaching to the Converted?

I do still write it, although it gets a bit sporadic when I’m on the road. I write on the arts and in that context my opinions often butt up against the MS readership’s standard spread of views. By which I mean, I’d claim I’m not preaching to the converted because they often strongly disagree with me. An example would be arts funding, where I have really strong, considered views about the negative side of public funding of the arts (at least in the current paradigm), yet as a leftie, perhaps I’m meant to be shutting up and staying ‘on-side’ with that issue because funding overall is being so badly decimated. I get a lot of angry emails about that, whenever I write about it. But for me it is still crazily important to get the public funding processes correct, against a dismal backdrop of immoral cronyism and the perpetuation of patriarchal and/or patronising judgements about art. I’m not going to squish that view just because we’re in a time of wider unnecessary austerity to fund wholesale theft by the financial services industry.

Have you been following the Leveson enquiry?

I hate the media barons as much as anything, although I think a lot of people who’ve just dived into the story in the past couple of years really misunderstand the history. It’s a silly idea that we’re all surprised by the moral vacuum in search of profit, when that kind of exchange surrounds us every day. Also, the old school media is definitely in decline, so it’s ironic that we’re decimating Murdoch only now, when he’s already on the way out.

Your Wiki page mentions the ‘I Am Spartacus’ saga – I’m not a huge social networker, so I missed all that completely – can you fill me in?

Well, my bit was fairly small in the whole story: this guy Paul Chambers’ life was ruined because the courts decided a tweet he wrote was illegal – threatening – which it no way was. He already had a fair bit of support but I was so angry I wrote out again exactly what he’d tweeted (which was now declared illegal) and tweeted it myself, adding the hashtag #iamspartacus for the obvious reference. Then I asked a few people to do the same and – thank god, because I was suddenly terrified that I’d get arrested – lots of people did. The next day it was a number one global trending topic, so at least in my life I’ve had one smash hit.

I’m proud of it – It definitely made a positive difference – I was told #iamspartacus significantly reduced the risk of the CPS doing the same ridiculous attack again. But I didn’t particularly join their gang or anything, I wasn’t suddenly big mates with the stand-up comedy crowd who supported Chambers as well.

Funnily enough, recently, when that kid Liam something tweeted some nasty racist shit about the footballer who’d had cardiac arrest on the pitch, in fact his immediate trial and imprisonment was equally wrong, with no basis in real law – he didn’t threaten anyone either – but there was no way I’d have retweeted what *he* said because it was horrible! But it made me think about how funny it is that we move on and move the goalposts.

You use Twitter a lot: just a useful/fun tool or a genuinely powerful cultural force? Can you have a meaningful dialogue at 140 characters a time?

It’s a massively powerful cultural force – the biggest single motivating tool, aside from Wikileaks, for social change in the world today; an extraordinary change in communication and community.

The only problem is that, like so much else, Twitter exists on borrowed time because it’s funded by venture capital and I don’t believe it remotely makes a profit yet, despite being highly valued. We have to be careful not to fall too deeply into these things because at any point they can get fucked with beyond usefulness – especially now governments all around the world want to control, monitor or kill Twitter feeds.

And yes you can have meaningful dialogue in that pithy a sentence but more importantly you can open a dialogue, or a conversation among many, which is continued elsewhere, such as on the streets while you bring down a dictatorship. AND talk about Justin Beiber as well.

Follow @Christt on Twitter, visit his website, download his music, and go and see him live. He’s bound to be playing near you sometime soon.

Author: Owen Williams

Owen Williams is a regular contributor to Empire, and has smuggled work into Rue Morgue, SFX, Film3Sixty (given away with The Guardian and The Evening Standard), DeathRay and TV&Satellite Week. He doesn't blog and hardly ever tweets.

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