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Tom Ovans - The Triste Interview
|Often compared to Bob Dylan, and with a voice that sounds very much like his role model, Tom Ovans has been living in Austin, Texas making dusty-bluesy albums for several years. Often his subject matter leans towards the state of the world and America in particular, but he can also leaven the mix with gentle love songs too. For the last few years, since the album "The Beat Trade" in 1999, Ovans has used a stripped down band format in the studio and recorded quickly, with most parts cut live. Tom was touring the country and had just made it back to London when Triste caught up with him for a brief chat about this album.
Triste: The basic style of your album The Beat Trade seems to have a very primitive, stripped down, bluesy feel to it. Was that a deliberate decision to pare everything down to basics?
Tom Ovans: I don't know. I don't really do anything deliberate, but I knew when I cut the record that I had to cut it real fast. We cut it pretty much live. So I wanted to keep it real simple so that everybody could just jump on board and relate to and not have a lot of production done to them.
Triste: So how quickly was it done? Was it just a couple of takes and maybe the odd overdub or two or was it done strictly live?
Tom Ovans: Everything that I did, everything the guitar player did, everything the bass player did, and a lot of what Louane Bardash, singing the back-up did, was live - cut in about six or seven hours. We overdubbed a few things the next day and that was it.
Triste: And was it all mixed and mastered in four days total?
Tom Ovans: Yeh.
Triste: Was that necessity or through choice?
Tom Ovans: It was necessity. There was a sort of budget thing going on and a certain amount of necessity involved. We had to meet a deadline.
Triste: Were any of the songs road-tested live before you went and cut them in the studio. I notice that a couple of songs were copyrighted the previous year.
Tom Ovans: No, I don't really do that because I like to keep a song fresh for when I record it, so that when it's in the studio it's a completely new experience for everybody.
Triste: "Hey Woody Guthrie". Is that a modern response to Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home" in terms of work etc or was it just coincidental?
Tom Ovans: Yeh. It's real related. When I wrote the line I wasn't consciously thinking of that even though I've been a Woody Guthrie fan for ever and I used to play that song a lot. When I was writing my song it just came out. That line just came to me - there was nothing premeditated or anything. I think it does hark back to his day and how such a lot of things have changed since then. There's a lot of hi-tech stuff, but there's a lot of people being disenfranchised by it, at the same time. So there's a lot of people who are not receiving the benefits of our grand new economy in the States. Which a lot of people are getting rich from.
Triste: Your world view seems to be quite bleak - on an economic level as well as a personal level. What should the response of a thinking caring individual be to avoid being just another part of the machine.
Tom Ovans: A lot of the record is my response to what working people are going through. A lot of people are getting left behind. There's such a great gulf between the rich and poor - much just like in Woody Guthrie's days when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. And that chasm in the middle is getting bigger and bigger.
Triste: I'm sure you remember in the early 70's when people were predicting a future with increased leisure time and now it seems like the people who have got jobs are having to work longer and harder to keep them.
Tom Ovans: The promise of technology was to make life easier and more leisurely but the result has been that people have ended working longer hours as you say. It's the same wherever you go - it's all connected. The blue collar jobs are having to do two, three jobs to make what they should be making in one job. It's an incredible tragedy. Where have we put our values of human rights and dignity and spiritualises and what we're living for? It all seems substituted for by the mass race of greed and work and work and work?
Triste: Do you believe there's been a general dumbing across the world - a general over-Americanisation where other cultures are swept aside by the sickly sweet tidal wave of Coca-Cola culture.
Tom Ovans: You guys have seen it a lot in Britain too - this generic culture coming on of music and fashion. There's certainly a dumbing down of expectations. In music you see a lot of kids growing now up who don't know what live music's about or appreciate what live music is. They're just used to these machines banging out rhythms and a bunch of nubile young people dancing in front of them. You dumb down expectations - it's not true of all kids, but there's a mass culture. I don't know if that's an American thing or not? It's more universal, I think - corporations know no borders. You try and reach people on a human level, but it's safer to get through to people through machines. We have machines banging out the music. It's turning people into their machines so that they can become producers of what the corporations want them to do. It's like training them. It's not quite "1984", but it's certainly "Metropolis". People talk about communism but capitalism is a much more controlled system because it does it through peer pressure and money. It dangles a carrot in front of people and they bite. It's a strange thing, I know there are lots of people fighting it, but there's no voice for them in the press or TV or other media. You often don't hear the other side. You just hear this Gulf war thing.
Triste: In your song "The Monkeys Have Landed" are you talking about a specific group of people or a just a general malaise?
Tom Ovans: It's a combination of both. I'm sure it's the same over here, but in the States a lot of it relates to the Republican Party and their connections to big business and even the Democratic party too - as the line says, they're swinging from the left, they're swinging from the right. It's almost like the Republican party and Democratic party are one party; they're just working towards whatever feeds the money. That's what that's about - coming into our cities directing our cultures. You can see it here in Britain and in France. Money seems to be more important than culture and more important than people.
Triste: Same here with New Labour and the Conservatives.
Tom Ovans: In a weird way the Democrats are more right wing than Reagan ever was. It's really frightening. You don't see anybody from the left in the media they're just portrayed as these radical clowns are something.
Triste: Did you finish of the album with "Where The Moon Shines Bright" as a ray of hope at the end of the album deliberately.
Tom Ovans: I think when we cut the song we felt that was the last cut of the record. It was a kind of automatic thing when we heard it back. Maybe there's some hope there. I'm probably - you might think from listening to my music that I'm not optimistic, but I'm very optimistic or else I couldn't go on.
Triste: It's quite a bleak album.
Tom Ovans: It's bleak but to me there's a kind of optimism there too. To me it's more optimistic to let that stuff out than repress it. A lot of people consider Dylan's music bleak but to me it's very positive music as he's getting it out in front of people and saying this is what's going on. That's one of more optimistic things you can do. The true test of music to me is not commercial music to me. It's so easy to hide behind a blanket of sugar-coated stuff and that's the real evil.