October 25, 2014

Too Much: Bright Light Bright Light Talks New Album, Ableton, & DIY Marketing

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New York — Following an initial foray into music with folk-inspired releases under his given name, Welsh DJ and singer-songwriter Rod Thomas transitioned into electronic productions after adopting the alias Bright Light Bright Light. After four years of learning to produce, finding his sound, and building a grassroots fanbase, Thomas released his 2012 debut Make Me Believe In Hope to critical acclaim. However, despite the raised profile stemming from the album’s reception, Thomas is still an entirely independent musician, doing everything from self-producing and mixing a majority of his new record to personally mailing out copies from his online store.

His album Life Is Easy—out now—is the product of one year’s stay in New York City and sees Thomas collaborating with a set of high-profile artists, including Elton John, Del Marquis of the Scissor Sisters, and The Invisible Men—who recently produced Iggy Azalea’s Billboard No.1 single “Fancy.” With an aesthetic reminiscent of the 80s synthpop of Pet Shop Boys melded with the dance drama of 90s house, Thomas has continually brought an air of sophistication to his musical approach. Even the release of his music bridges the traditional with the unorthodox, with Thomas dropping free downloads and online exclusives while still pressing physical singles, EPs, and cassette tapes.

After discussing his DJ origins with us last month alongside his retro-tinged Nexus Radio guest mix last month, we caught up with the Welsh DJ, producer, and singer to talk about the new album’s influences, the challenges of being an independent artist, and how he made the transition to electronic music.

DJ Times: How did you get into music?
Rod Thomas: I’ve always kind of made music and played music when I was growing up, but after college I moved to London and worked for a record company for two years. It was in distribution trying to get independent records into stores, so I learned a bit about how music and labels work. Then I quit my job and played my guitar and sang on the subway for two years, gradually building up money doing that and bar work to put out my first song. I played more live and built it from there.

DJ Times: There’s a definite 90s house diva heartbeat running through your work. What divas were you listening to growing up?
Thomas: I loved all of the Mariah Carey mixes David Morales had in the 1990s. I love everything David Morales, Frankie Knuckles, and Junior Vasquez.I love Martha Wash especially when she was sampled by Black Box. SNAP! vocals were amazing, as was Robin S.’s “Show Me Love.” I love the drama of the songs; they were very fierce and there was a lot of passion in them. I wanted to have something on my record that felt very alive and very vibrant rather than just straight-up production.

DJ Times: How did you learn to produce electronic music yourself after adopting the Bright Light Bright Light moniker?
Thomas: My friend James Yuill was using Ableton Live at the time, so he was showing me how to use that and some of the tricks you can do: creating instrument racks, creating drum patches, and how to mix in it. I finally switched over to Ableton, and I learned how to use it properly by doing remixes of people. It was playing around with ideas: getting a topline from someone and trying to write a song around it, playing around with sounds, and building a library. I wanted to get better at it, so I just made myself sit away for six months, learn production, get plugins, buy more equipment, and work out reference points on how I wanted to sound like: how warm, dry, reverb-drenched, how hard the drums should be. Then I figured out what sort of personality I wanted the sound to have. That obviously shifted a little bit when I brought on people like The Invisible Men and Andy Chatterly for the first album; they cleaned it up a bit. It was all education.

DJ Times: How did moving to New York affect the creative process for Life Is Easy?
Thomas: It affected it a lot. The energy on the record really comes from living there. My ethos behind the first record was that where you live and how you spend your time determines how you feel about your life, so I wanted to take that advice and make it happen for a different album about a different subject. The energy of New York, being somewhere different, having different friends and situations around me every day provoked different responses in me—like optimism and new energy. It was a really healing experience for me because I had lived in London for nine years and it got very stale. I felt very invigorated by living here, as well as very challenged and welcome. It was a nice boost that gave me a lot of energy again.

DJ Times: Elton John features on the single “I Wish We Were Leaving” and you’re opening for him on tour. How did this working relationship come to be?
Thomas: We met four or five years ago when I was managed by his management company that he runs. We met briefly and he listened to a couple of songs. This was before I was doing Bright Light Bright Light stuff. I eventually left the management company and was putting Make Me Believe in Hope together, but I hadn’t seen him for a long time. When the record was released, he’d read a review where it got four stars in a big UK magazine. He rang me and said, “I’d just seen this review and it’s amazing.” He rang me again the next week after he had heard the album and he loved it. We became friends and started meeting up and talking about music. We just got on really well with a lot of shared interests, music, outlooks, and senses of humor. We became much better friends and talked about doing something together. I was putting this record together and I played him “I Wish We Were Leaving” and he really liked it, so I asked him if he wanted to sing on it. He said yes.

DJ Times: What are the difficulties and benefits of independently releasing music?
Thomas: The difficulties are things like posting stock out from your artist website. I’m the label, label manager, one posting all the records out, artist, tour manager, and musical director, so I don’t have the time to post them all out nor the resources to pay a team to do so for me. It’s very useful to have to connect with fans directly; you can see the orders and you can see where your fan base is geographically based. It’s a really wonderful thing, but having the time to post everything out is almost impossible to manage if you start to have any real success. As an independent artist, you own your material so you’re not in debt to anyone, but you also don’t have the advance from a label to market your stuff as effectively as you would if you did have one. Not in a blaming way, but when I was being written about alongside acts like Monarchy and The Sound of Arrows—who both had record deals—I had to compete with them at like 1% of their budget, which is really tough. It gets tricky if someone has, say, a $100,000 marketing campaign and you have $1,000 and have to make that work.

DJ Times: How does social media play into that?
Thomas: It makes it infinitely more doable. People can repost pictures, repost links, and share whatever. Even without a marketing campaign, the first album sold over 10,000 records, which is good for somebody without a budget. I really think that was the product of social media.

DJ Times: Your records are heavily electronic and synth-based. How do you translate them to a live setting?
Thomas: Thinking about how you replicate sounds on stage is really tough. When you write an album and work on the production, you spend hours filtering sounds and making patches. How the fuck do you make it sound like that on stage? Most of the stuff is written and produced in the box, so I can sample it effectively but I can’t replicate the equipment. I can have MPC triggers and Ableton samples lifted directly, so when people play they can trigger them even if they can’t replicate them with analog equipment.

Watch the video for “I Believe” below, and listen to Rod’s exclusive Nexus Radio mix here.

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