July 21, 2015 Interview – Chris Thompson – Legendary Voice of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
Sustaining a career for forty years is quite an impressive feat, but doing so in Rock-n-Roll is astounding. For English Vocalist/Guitarist Chris Thompson, the journey has been filled with many exciting memories including leading Manfred Mann’s Earth Band to mega hit singles, collaborations with everyone from The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald to Genesis’ Steve Hackett, and everyone in between. In no way sitting back and reflecting on the years gone by, Thompson remains extremely active in 2015, having released a brand new album last year, entitled Toys & Dishes, putting together Jukebox: The Ultimate Collection, performing live, and managing time with his family. Recently we caught up with the legendary vocalist for a look into his amazing ride, plans for the future, a introspective look at the music industry, and more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in Rock-n-Roll for over four decades and, in that time, you have had success with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band as well as a series of solo records through the years as well as other collaborations. First, tell us, what has the journey been like for yourself through the years?
Chris Thompson – It is amazing to think that I am still able to be in the music business after forty years, but it has been incredible. I came from a very small town in New Zealand and I ended by playing with, seeing, or meeting most of the people that I grew up listening to. It has been a fantastic journey and I am happy that it is continuing.
CrypticRock.com – Forty years is a very big accomplishment. Now, as mentioned, you were part of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and you became an intricate part of their success with your signature voice on their hits. How did your involvement come with the band, and do you look back at that time with the band with fond memories?
Chris Thompson – Of course I look back on the band with very fond memories, and it was an incredibly exciting time. I was lucky to be involved with something that was as successful as it was. I actually got involved with the band by answering an advertisement in a magazine called Melody Maker and it said “band with deal needs guitar player/singer, no time wasters.” I had to take a cassette down, then I had to go into an audition, more than one actually, with Manfred, I think I had about ten. He finally begrudgingly told me that I had the job.
CrypticRock.com – That is quite a story actually, you do not hear about things like that now days.
Chris Thompson – No, I guess not, but in those days that was the way bands did it. There was no internet to check around and see what people are like. Like I said, I was living in the Northwest of London and I had to go down to the Southeast, which is as far opposite as you can get with a cassette. I knocked on a door, handed the cassette to him, and then went all the way back home. Then I got a call from Manfred saying, “Can you come down and do an audition?” That is the way it was.
CrypticRock.com – That is a very interesting story. Your resume is really impressive; you have worked with Steve Hackett formerly of Genesis and you have worked with The Doobie Brothers as well. It seems like you have really kept yourself busy over the years. Is that ability to partake in a range of different projects essential for you as a musician?
Chris Thompson – I think at the time it was essential, because there was a lot going on in my life and I had to be able to jump from one thing to another thing. The thing about music is I think that one thing leads to another thing. I kind of left the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in inverted commas, because I left them, then I went back, left them, and went back right up until 1999. Manfred took so long to make albums that I would have gone crazy doing nothing. I did my first solo project with a band called Night, which is based in America, and we toured with The Doobie Brothers. I met Michael McDonald and Patrick Simmons because we were touring with them. I got involved with writing with Michael and I got involved with writing and recording with Patrick as well.
Then the other things just kind of came up by chance really. I met Queens’ Brian May during the time I was working with Manfred, we shared the stage a few times. Steve Hackett was looking for someone to sing on a few things, I think Brian suggested that I did it. It was pretty much word of mouth, I was lucky enough. I was somebody that always wanted to keep busy and always trying to do a whole bunch of things. I wanted to learn to write, to write with other musicians is art within itself. I was lucky enough to be asked to be involved in all those projects.
CrypticRock.com – One can imagine it is very enriching as a musician to expand their horizons.
Chris Thompson – Absolutely. It is a fantastic thing to turn up one day and write a song with Michael McDonald, then turn up another day and be doing some vocals with Elton John, and on another day I am doing something with Alan Parsons. It was not one day after another, but it was during a period of time that I was working with other people.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like great memories. In 2014 you released a new solo record Toys & Dishes, and it was actually your first solo record in a decade. It is really an excellent Rock record. What was the writing and recording process like behind this record?
Chris Thompson – I have always been writing songs and working with different people. I did not make a record for that length of time because I felt that the way the music business was and because of this sort of genre I was in, it was kind of a waste of time. You put your heart and soul into a record that takes a year and a half, and then it basically goes into your cupboard, unless you are lucky enough to have a hit from it or you know get it in a movie. That is a very difficult thing to do, and it gets more difficult by the minute. I just decided when I was with new management, after they suggested I speak to an English record company, to see if I could get an advance to make a record. They thought it was a good idea to do it.
I am living in Belgium and I came across a young Dutch guitarist/producer with a studio, and we just started writing. The record was going in the right direction for me, so we just kept writing. That was the wondrous thing about Pro Tools. I went to him and I worked two days a month, then I bought all the tracks back home, wrote lyrics, wrote other parts or changed them around. Then I would go back to him with a whole bunch of Pro Tools files and he would slip them into what we were doing, then we would be off finishing that and writing something new. It was a really great process because even though we only got together for a couple of days every month for the first year, we created about fifteen or sixteen songs, but only twelve made it onto record. Then eventually we had to get together for weeks at a time and get all the parts done, and get other musicians. It was a process which I had never done anything like that before. For me it was a new thing to have plenty of time to sit at home and work on the songs just myself without any pressure of having to pay for a recording studio, I just did all the vocals at home and it was a great process. The reason I did it was because my management felt it was a good idea to make a new record.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting, and it worked out well because it is a great record and it has received a lot of positive reviews from people.
Chris Thompson –Yes, they did. The problem that we have, and I am not the only person with this problem, is getting radio play. I am not talking about radio play on the Rock shows at 2 AM in the morning. It is trying to find something that has appeal or get a radio station to play something in a time where people who buy records or download music can hear it. It is a big problem for myself and a lot of other people in my position as an artist.
CrypticRock.com – Completely understood. You look at traditional Classic Rock radio, they play tracks from twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago, but a lot of the artists such as yourself are still actively writing music. The question is, why does Classic Rock not play the newer tunes by the artists which they play a lot?
Chris Thompson – Yes, I do not understand that either. I suppose they could not call it Classic Rock, then again I do not know. It is a mystery to me, what has happened to radio. I really do not understand why it has become so centralized, so dependent on advertising, and does not involve feedback from listeners anymore. When we were trooping around with the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and we had “Blinded by the Light” on the radio, people would call in and say, “What is that song? We want to hear it again,” and they would play it again. Then you would get other radio stations that were not playing you at all for a while and they would start playing you as well. That is what made a hit. Now the radio stations are beholding to their advertisers, and they have to kind of play the same as every other radio station. I do not know what it is like in America now, but I think Pop radio is fairly stylized now. There is not the University radio stations and there are not the radio stations anymore that would break artists. It makes it very difficult for somebody of my ilk.
CrypticRock.com – You are absolutely right. Perhaps the only saving grace for radio now is satellite radio. Satellite radio is the only outlet that people can discover new music on opposed to generic Pop radio nowadays.
Chris Thompson – Yes, you are right. I guess that satellite radio will only get bigger because the cost is so much less, and they can afford to go out on a limb for musicians. I hope they do, because it is such a difficult thing to get on the radio. I have been working with a young Belgian artist. I was helping him with his English. He wrote in English lyrics, but English is not his native language so I was helping him a little bit with his pronunciation and trying to make it sound a little less Flemish. Here is a guy that is managed by Live Nation, he has a deal with Warner Brothers, and he cannot get radio play. He is great, it is a great record, and yet it is not Pop radio, it is something else. He has one radio station that plays him because it is Alternative. He has the backing, he is playing everywhere and doing all the festivals, but he cannot get normal mainstream radio to play it. It is just weird and he has all the backing and money that is available. It is very difficult for artists, so imagine somebody that is making a record on their own that is very talented; unless you win The Voice, or X Factor, or American Idol. Even then, it probably does not necessarily mean you are going to be successful, but at least you are going to stand a chance that way. That seems to be it.
CrypticRock.com – Yes it is a very strange time in the music industry. There is no doubt about that.
Chris Thompson – Yes, but having said that, I am able to go out to play gigs and people still go crazy. They still go crazy that I play the old songs. I am playing five or six songs from Toys & Dishes which I would never normally do, but they are being received incredibly well. People seem to enjoy the old stuff and the new stuff, so it is not the people, it is what they are able to hear.
CrypticRock.com – Right, exactly, speaking of the album Toys & Dishes, this new compilation you just released, titled Jukebox: The Ultimate Collection, spanning forty years, actually has some of the Toys and Dishes mixed in.
Chris Thompson – Yes, I did not want it to be retrospective. I wanted it to be from 1975 up to 2015. I thought, unfortunately, I have not done much in the last ten years as far as recording is concerned, so I thought I just had to put what I felt were the songs that really pointed to the direction of the best tracks for me. I started writing them in 2012, so they were developed over a few years, and I felt they deserved to be on that record, selfishly probably. I wanted it to be not just a retrospective, I wanted it to be up to date, so that is why they are there.
CrypticRock.com – Well they fit perfectly and sound excellent in the midst of all the other songs. Looking back and putting this together, did this kind of bring back a lot of memories for you? This is a lot of music.
Chris Thompson – Yes, it brought back a lot of memories. I have put quite a few of little bits and snippets of information about what it brought back to my mind when I was putting it together. I have actually put more detail on my website of what each song reminded me about. It took me back and made me remember really crazy things that happened, the terrible things that have happened, and the really fun things that have happened as well. In that respect, it was not easy to put together because most of the time I was dealing with two tracks and I was not able to go back and mix anything because either the masters had been destroyed or there was some problem that I could not get to the masters. I was dealing with two tracks most of the time, so it took a very great mastering engineer from Belgium who helped me make it sound the way it does. You could tell the songs came from 1975 but it is not too bad. It stands together as a record, which I am very happy about.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, it certainly does, it really is a great collection. People will really dig this as they start to discover it. Now you had mentioned that you do in fact tour, you have been touring around Europe for some time. You have not been in North America for while to play. Do you ever have any plans to perhaps go back to the United States?
Chris Thompson – Well I would love to, but nobody asks me to. I am kind of caught going to places where people ask me and get me to come and play. That has not been in America. It would be great to come and play in America, and, as you said, I have not been there for a long time. The logistics of playing anywhere money-wise is pretty expensive. I have a Norwegian band, we have been together for fourteen years, that is the band that is playing live on the compilation. I would need something really special happening for me, for people to be able to afford to bring me there and play. The door is not closed, that is for sure.
CrypticRock.com – Understood. It is expensive to travel to North America, especially with an entire band.
Chris Thompson – It is just really having the reason to go that way and to play a whole bunch of gigs. It would be wonderful. I am always looking for a reason to do it; perhaps getting a song in a movie or getting something played on mainstream radio. At the moment, I have had somebody doing five Dance remixes of my newer track off Toys and Dishes called “Dark Side.” It is amazing what they can do. They are fairly mainstream Dance versions. We had some success with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band just recently with a couple of Dance versions of “Blinded by the Light” and also “For You,” and they were very successful. “For You” was hugely successful in Europe. I think it was 130 weeks on the German Dance charts, and it was used for some sports as well. Whenever I play that song, people go crazy, even people that do not know anything about anything else to do with my music. It is nice when somebody thinks there is enough value in a song to try and do something different with it.
CrypticRock.com – That has to be very humbling. We were talking about how music has changed with the radio and such, you have been through four decades of this and have seen things change. Now we are in the digital age and the way we receive music, and the way we communicate with other people has changed drastically. What are some of the changes you have seen in Rock-n-Roll in the past decades?
Chris Thompson – Well, the availability of it is the biggest change. The fact that somebody can just download one song from your album, they do not have to buy the whole album, and I am not talking about a single. It is just somebody can, with a click of their finger, go on site, and in two seconds have something downloaded. You do not have to go to the radio or the record shop. Record shops do not even exist very much anymore. I think the biggest change is availability, and the other biggest change I think would be knowledge. I think the knowledge that you can get on the internet so easily and so simply about anything. You can go anywhere and find anything out about your favorite artist and what they are doing. I think, like you said, it is the communication. The world has become so much smaller that everything is available to everybody. I am not sure it is a great thing. I think digital and the advent of Pro Tool recording is fantastic because we were always struggling to find that extra track and do one more overdub on when you had a 24-track machine, it was always a worry. Now, you have infinite number of tracks, you can do whatever you like. That is a pretty big change, and I am not sure if that is great either. However, there are some instances it really adds to creativity and in other instances it takes the creativity away because you do not have to rehearse as much.
The other biggest change I find is that when we were making records in the ’70s and the ’80s, we would have some new songs, we would go on the road, play them to people, and we would see what they liked and what they did not like. It would make us change the arrangements and you would see what worked and what did not work. Now, you record the songs first and then you go on the road. I think even myself, after all the experience that I have had, I still think that if I went back into record the vocals again for Toys and Dishes on a few tracks, they would be better. I have learnt from signing the songs live that there is a different interpretation. I learned to be more interpretive and to try some things. In the end, I had to finish the record, like everybody has to finish a record. That is a big difference as well, bands no longer go on the road to try out their new songs. They do that in the studio then go out on the road. That is a loss for the recording industry and a loss to the bands that they do not go out and play these songs first. That is just the way of the world I guess.
CrypticRock.com – Those are all very valid points. You mentioned how there are no more record stores. For the newer generations, physical format is a lost art. As you said, music is being pieced apart, and it is kind of a shame because you have put all this effort into an album from front to back, and people may never hear it.
Chris Thompson – Yes, that is right, that is dead right. I think that is a big loss, but things have become so immediate for people in their twenties, everything is so immediate, they will not listen to a whole album anyway. Many will listen to fifteen seconds and then flip onto the next one. In a lot of ways, for them to just download the song they hear on the radio, at least they are downloading and paying for it. I do not think music lovers actually realize what a huge problem it is because bands and record companies would just disappear and people will not make music anymore. There will be the record company and the artists, and that will be it. People do not realize that when they download something for free, the artist does not get paid, and they had to pay to make it. iTunes is great, I buy stuff off iTunes all the time. They are paying the artists, and it is all getting back to the way it was, but there are a lot of sites where you can get whatever you want.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, you are right, and it is kind of sad. We can only hope for the best and hope that things will change in the future, but only time will tell.
Chris Thompson – Yes, we cannot moan about it all the time. You just have to get on with it and do it. I went and saw Fleetwood Mac with Christine McVie recently. There were 15,000 people going crazy. There were young people and old people, so people are still listening to music. There are a lot of bands like that. We cannot moan about it, because moaning never did anything.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed, I actually had one last question. My last question is actually pertaining to movies because at CrypticRock.com we cover all types of music as well as movies, particularly Horror films. I am interested if you are a fan of Horror movies, do you have any favorites?
Chris Thompson – I am a total non-fan of Horror movies. I cannot watch them (laughs). The nearest I got to a Horror movie was being in the band in a movie for a Vincent Price movie called The Monster Club in 1981. That was the nearest I ever got to a Horror movie. We spent three days with Vincent Price. He was a funny guy. It was a real thrill to do that, but no, I am sorry to say that I cannot watch Horror movies.
CrypticRock.com – That is okay, the genre is not for everyone. I completely understand. Vincent Price is an absolute legend.
Chris Thompson – He was a really nice guy. It was just us and The Pretty Things. We were the two bands playing in a club. They had to get some shots and it took three days because they needed to get something that looked like we were playing all night long. We had to play a few songs and then take our shirt off and do a few more. It was crazy, but it was good. It was nice to meet him, that was for sure.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like a nice memory to have of him. Now, you said you are not a fan of Horror, but do you have any particular films that you do enjoy?
Chris Thompson- Actually, I kind of like Action movies. I am a sucker of Action movies, but I am also a sucker for a Drama. I think I like everything except for Horror (laughs).