December, 2007. A reasonably long and – for him – unexpected interview with the Brighton folk singer Chris T-T, as his album Capital was about to be released. Originally published at The Void.
‘Where did anyone get the impression I was glum?’ – Chris T-T in conversation.
The supremely affable Chris T-T is a prolific singer-songwriter from London, responsible for a handful of well-received albums and EPs and gainfully employed by both a near-constant gig schedule and a weekend radio show on Phoenix FM.
Veering from sharp political comment to whimsical silliness via heartrending pathos, he’s an eclectic talent; equally at home acoustic and solo, or with a full on rock band. With a new album on the way and a new management team behind him it looks as if 2008 could finally be his year. He has not been warned that I’m phoning him, but rallies admirably.
Chris T-T: Let’s pretend I did know you were phoning, and that I’m fully prepared!
Owen Williams: Right then. Where are you – on the road?
No, I’m sat at home in front of the computer, having just finished the dishes.
That’s the rock star life I was expecting to hear about.
Rock ‘n’ roll! The tour just finished although I’m playing an extra London gig and then we’re done for this year, in terms of touring.
There’s a new album coming out, I think in the first week of March or maybe the last week of February, called Capital, which is brand new. It looks on Amazon as if Panic Attack at Sainsbury’s is a new one, but I don’t know what that’s about. It came out in 2000. Quite a few people have been fooled by this one quirk of Amazon. I suspect my old record label are in the process of re-releasing all my old stock!
I thought you were releasing two albums and an EP within a year – really knocking them out, like the Beatles! I’m disappointed now.
I’m sorry. I did always think I’d be that sort of artist, with an album every nine months or so. And then something went wrong! I think of London is Sinking as my last proper album, and that was like 2003 or 4. Nine Red Songs is more a mini album with acoustic stuff so it doesn’t really count.
Oh God, I was cheerful and now I’m depressed! Nah, I’m not that prolific, although there is loads of stuff written. My plan is if Capital does alright there’d be another one within a year. Ideally.
You’ve been plugging away for a few years now, but it feels like your stock is definitely rising.
New deal – simple as that. I was on a London indie called Snowstorm records for six years, that’s one bloke doing it in his spare time. So I just tootled along, and every time I thought ‘this album is gonna break bigger’ because there was loads of good press or whatever, something would cock up! Because he’s just one bloke trying to work on his own, with about eight bands on his books at one point.
So each time I tried to put a record out my heart got a tiny bit broken, because I thought ‘this is the one! I’m going to be really successful now!’ and then something really stupid would get in the way of it being efficient. It’s always a battle with distribution, especially up until downloads happened. In 2003 I had a load of reviews in the space of one week that were really, really good – like the Sunday Times CD of the week, 8 out of 10 in the NME… I really thought that Monday I’d sell loads and loads of CDs, but it turned out that Monday there were no CDs in the stores because someone forgot to send them to the distributor in time.
So in theory it was my biggest week ever as an artist, but it was completely squashed. And all the casual people that are after you because of the good reviews have forgotten you again in a week.
This time last summer I signed to Extra Mile, which is like a proper company, and they’ve got actual… stuff! An office! They do it full time and they’ve got a real sense of knowing what they’re doing, so I definitely feel supported and looked after in a much better way than before. And I’ve also got a proper manager in Los Angeles.
Wow – international representation! That’s the big time!
Yeah, except he wasn’t there when we started – he only just moved. And now he has to get up really early to have meetings with people in the UK, which is quite funny.
So what’s the next album going to sound like? Does it have the band on it or is it just you?
It’s very much a fully produced rock n roll band record. The This Gun EP was quite full on – definitely the rockest stuff I’ve done so far. And the album’s more of that. There are quiet moments, but it’s primarily a guitars and bass and drums album. I really like it because it feels like… Quite often I faff around on records, I think. In the past I’ve made records and put silly noises or stupid things between tracks – almost sabotaged myself by trying to be a bit more psychedelic than I should. This time it’s just a real strong collection of songs.
Do you worry that a bigger sound can detract from your lyrics though? Because they come across really well when it’s just you.
Er, yes! It’s a sort of trade-off, I think. In a way that’s something that some people who are into what I do solo will have to deal with next year, because we’re going to be touring for nine months, on and off, with the full band. It’s that thing of controlling it. It’s quite difficult until you get to a certain size of venue, to balance having a really energetic rock sound and still being able to hear the lyrics. We’re going to have to just make it work. I love the songs and they’re still wordy.
A Box to Hide In [a fantastic, and fantastically sad track about a man and woman both widowed by the London bombings but unable to connect with one another and continuing alone] was one of the ones the producer was going ‘do you have to add so much stuff to this?!’ because it was really reaching a peak, but there were still things I wanted to add on there. And I’m sure we’ll have a problem doing that live, but we’ll just have to fight through it. It’s very easy to get carried away during a gig. I’m terrible. I’m the worst for wanting my guitar really loud, in a totally unprofessional, getting-in-the-way, how-loud-can-I-make-this sort of way! Dinosaur Jnr! And then nobody can hear a word I’m saying and the magic’s lost.
What’s that song about giraffes?
That’s on London Is Sinking. I really like that one. It’s one of the ones that’s lasted and I love singing it live. You get songs that when you reach them on the setlist it’s like a relief, and I can breathe out slightly. I’m sort of known for my ‘animal songs’ a little bit – that surreal thing where there’s one great clunky metaphor. But there aren’t any on Capital. I’m sure people will miss them, but there will be more stuff like that in the future. Capital’s just a much more focused record.
There’s sort of a divide between your funny songs and your serious songs, even though your funny songs are serious as well. Are you getting away from that a bit?
I have no idea. Not in terms of what songs I write every day, but possibly Capital isn’t an album that’s got that kind of humour on it at all. It’s got some really nasty sarcastic moments, and the b-sides of This Gun have some funny bits. I’ve got another couple of album’s worth of material that does include that kind of stuff.
Is the Bankrupt song about Northern Rock, or is it not as recent as that?
It’s on Nine Red Songs, from 2005. I stopped playing it because every time I did I’d get through it and say to the audience ‘uh, that’s as close to KT Tunstall as I’ll get’, because it’s sort of piss-take blues and I’d feel by two-thirds of the way through that it was so clunky that it undermined the song. But then Northern Rock happened so I started using it again. I can’t not do it!
I was trying to describe what you sounded like to my friend who was coming with me to see you the other week, and the best I could come up with was ‘a bit Chumbawamba and a bit John Hegley’…
That’s nice! I haven’t had either of those before! I was once in Battersea Arts Centre, like eight years ago, and I was breaking up with a girlfriend really explosively in the corner of this café, and we were both sort of crying and shouting at each other… And then we suddenly both noticed at the same time that John Hegley was in another corner of the same café taking notes! We thought ‘Agh! We’d better quieten down’.
I’m not aware that we ever ended up in one of his poems. He’s been at a couple of my gigs though. I think he’s friends with Animals That Swim, who I’ve supported.
Is there a worry that, doing humorous stuff you’re going to be construed as a kind of stripey trousers, novelty act?
I think I do get a bit of that, although less than I used to.
I think if the single Eminem is Gay had hit really big it could actually have been disastrous for you.
That almost happened. People were phoning the little label I was on at the time going ‘this is a chart hit’, and I was like ‘yeah! Go for it!’ And Chris who ran the label at the time was like ‘no, you really don’t want to break with that. You don’t want to just be the Eminem is Gay guy’. There was a moment where Jack Osbourne got really pissed off actually. He was reviewing singles for Kerrang! and he was really rude about me, and cross that I’d insult Eminem. And he actually went with it away from that review and was going to go and do stuff about it, which of course would have actually given it a lot more publicity. But someone persuaded him not to, which was cool.
Even worse, earlier in my career, there was a song called Drink Beer that was really a kind of anthem that people loved. And the first thing I got known for was a thing called Dreaming of Injured Pop Stars, that was a list of different pop stars being mutilated in different ways, and it really did have that sort of on-the-verge…
If it had been better recorded it would have been big, I think. It certainly got some attention anyway. If anything, you’re quite flattering me when you say that the silly songs have a bit of seriousness. That’s actually quite a late development! On the first couple of records there are some bloody stupid songs, and they tended to be the songs that people wanted to hear, for a long time. So I have moved on, but I don’t think I’ll ever move away from that kind of lyricism that allows for the odd silly line. I think it’s dangerous to be funny. Artists that play with humour have to be really, really careful. I’ve got a song that says my favourite Wainwright is Loudon. He can balance humour and pathos really well.
It’s weird – I get sent things that mention me, obviously. Management do that. And I got sent this review of Napoleon 3rd which mentions “glum London folky Chris T-T.” I was like ‘where did anyone get the impression I was glum?!’