Friday, 19 April 2013

Tom Alford Interview

Californian song writer and musician Tom Alford’s seven track album “Desire Caught By The Tail” appeared out of nowhere in the mid nineties.  Those lucky few who investigated it, intrigued by the beautiful cover art and drawn by the Earle Mankey production credit on the back, were all to be rewarded by musical treasure of deep joy and emotion. Tom could write rare melodies as beautiful as your truelove’s smile, sprinkled with lyrics of charm, depth and resonance delivered up in a pure light honeyed vocal to die for. Mr. Alford it seems was a major talent. The opening track “Elliott Dreams” is a legendary popsike gem that should be on every neo psych comp ever released but while technicolor tendrils weave in and out of every track from there, this is no Dukes Of Stratosphere Games for May affair.  But instead music from a wider kaleidoscope as it follows the songs, each a perfect jewel of majestic melody and passionate musical invention, littered with numerous moments of heart stopping bliss at the sheer beauty of what is unfolding between your ears. It’s a profoundly rich and memorable listening experience, the type of record that’s never going to leave your side once you’ve heard it and instantly fallen in love with it. And that seemed about it, we waited in vain for the next album and it never came. I think I looked him up a few times way back when I first got the internet but other than quite a few glowing reviews for “Desire” I drew a blank. Until a couple of weeks ago when I noticed a Tom Alford commenting on The Three O’Clock’s facebook page and my heart took a little leap.  And indeed it turned out to be the very same and not only that, he had done another album, Second Foundation a couple of years back, once more with Earle Mankey in the producer’s chair, that had some how totally passed me by. Tom kindly despatched a copy in my direction and it has rarely left my player since it arrived. The highest praise I could possibly lavish upon it is to simply say it’s a Tom Alford album, in that it is everything you could hope for and dream of, standing shoulder to shoulder with “Desire” with another thirteen pop wonders of Alford magic. If you have not already got both these fine albums then you are missing out big time, they truly are classics of the genre. If on the other hand you do already have them nestled in your collection then sit back because you’re in for a treat.
Tom’s an excellent fellow indeed so naturally an interview with the man was not a chance to be missed. So questions were sent and as I like best, I pulled myself out of the results and left just Tom’s words to tell you his story himself. So it's over to Tom.

“Okay Venus?” “Okay Steve” “Right Let’s Go.”
“I was born in San Rafael, California in 1958. The day after I was born some people came to the hospital room and informed my mother that since I was born with AB negative blood I was descended from Aliens! The Twylo People* wanted to indoctrinate little Tommy so he would know where he came from. They continued calling my mom until the family moved away nine months later. My mother didn't tell me this until I way in my 40's. I was a little miffed I didn't get to meet them but on the other hand, I can understand.
My mom used to play Nat King Cole records in the house, whom I still love. My parents gave me a transistor radio when I was three. I was into rock'n'roll, and distinctly recall 'Venus' by Frankie Avalon as an early favourite. My older brother Owen was taking guitar lessons and I became obsessed with playing guitar. My parents bought me a guitar for my 4th birthday, which you can see me playing in the photo on the back cover of 'Second Foundation'. I wrote a song that first night I got my guitar called 'Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman'. When I laid down on my side I could hear my heartbeat and I imagined that it was the sound of monsters coming over the hill to get me. Although my family applauded when I was done I'm sure it was a bunch of nonsense.
I started taking lessons when I was seven. In 1964 the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. Ten seconds into 'All My loving' I turned around to my family and announced, "That's what I'm going to be when I grow up". My other passion at the time was Fireball XL5. The other kids wanted to be Steve Zodiac but I wanted to be Robert the Robot.

 I first performed at the Alameda County Fair in 1970, with a harmonica around my neck and an acoustic guitar, playing “Mr. Tambourine Man” to a crowd of several hundred. I often played guitar with my childhood friend Jon Stebbins, who also wanted to be a Beatle. We would perform at school functions. Growing up in Livermore, California, Jon and I formed a band, 'Rockbottom' in high school along with Mike Judd (vocals) and Ralph Streicher (drums). We played at dances and various functions around town. I also played guitar in the High School, jazz band, a thirty piece big band in which Matt Finder played trombone. He would later go on to play in the Tonight show band.
My younger  brother Mike was playing drums by then and we set up in the attic and I would play with him almost every day. We would play originals, rock tunes, standards, anything. Jon would sometimes come over and the three of us would rehearse.
In 1978 Jon and I moved to West Los Angeles with the idea of forming a band. The two of us came back to Livermore one week to record a demo. Using two cassette decks, we recorded a crude two-track, five song demo. Recording the basic tracks first, we would then play along with them and sing. We did a cover of The Monkee’s “Circle Sky”, along with a song I’d written,  “Roni Don't Leave Me” and “All My Life”, co- written by myself and Jon and then two of Jon’s songs, “She's Gone Too Far” and “Ready To Go”. Although the recording process was crude, the results were exciting and in the direction of powerpop, surf, and punk.

The Point
Returning to L.A. we started playing with Greg Edwards, star of the Livermore High football team (and now a standout on the UCLA fencing team) on bass.  My brother Mike moved to L.A. at the age of seventeen and the four  members of what would soon become my first proper band, The Point were in place. I made copies of the demo tape and sent them to various people. One day the band was rehearsing in our apartment when Kim Fowley blew in the door and declared that The Point was 'the Byrds of punk rock!'  and further declaring that the band was headed for big things. Fowley announced that he had played the tape for Stiv Bators 'who loved it' saying, "These guys got roots, man, they understand !"  Fowley announced that Bators wanted to work with the band and departed.
A week later Fowley and his gopher came back to the apartment when Mike was alone. Cornering him, they announced that Stiv had his own bass player and that Greg was out of the band.  This did not sit well with us, we had not even agreed to have Stiv in the band in the first place but Fowley insisted that the band needed a frontman.  We would cross swords with Fowley a few more times before deciding to have nothing more to do with him. We got tired of being hungry so at some point we all got jobs. Mike and I moved in with Greg and Jack Baird (another Livermore ex-patriot). This apartment came to be known as the Pile, because things were left around in big piles. Jack helped out as our roadie for the first seven shows, before he was tragically killed in a car accident. We carried on in shock after that.
The trouble with the band started when Jon Stebbins then announced that he was the 'frontman', a position for which he simply did not have the talent.

The band recorded a four song, 10 inch white vinyl E.P at Mystic Studios. We did one of my songs, “Like Animals” and three by Stebbins, “Rocket Race”, “No Desire” and “I Don't Wanna Go.” The record did not sound like the band did live, although, as a calling card it brought the group to the attention of Joe Nolte of the Last who thought the group had potential.  He passed the record to Vitus Matare who was at the time putting together the Warfrat Tales compilation. Vitus brought the band into the Last’s rehearsal space/studio to record the song 'Pothead'. Vitus hooked up my guitar with three effects pedals and he operated those with his hands as the group played. The track sounded like nothing else on the record and people either loved or hated 'Pothead'. Coming in at six minutes, the psychedelic jam would represent the four members as one and would be considered by some as the Point's finest moment on vinyl.

The Last had used The Salvation Army and the Bangs as their opening groups at several shows but these groups were now the Three O'Clock and the Bangles and were headlining their own shows. I used to go see those groups at clubs like the Roxy and the Whiskey A Go Go, and six months later they were both headlining the Palace in Hollwood, I think the capacity was about 3000. They were both at the peak of their power. In 1985 I saw the Three O'Clock play a sold out show there and all the girls were screaming like it was a Beatles concert. Later, right before Vermillion came out, I read in Music Connection magazine that they needed a new guitarist. I sent them an audition tape but they went with Jason Falkner.
The Point and Wednesday Week became the new opening bands for the Last. Vitus Matare insisted that both groups needed new records and so both groups started recording at Radio Tokyo recording studio in Venice. Wednesday Week were a three piece and I started playing session guitar for them, you can hear me on 'Perspective' on the 'Betsy's House' E.P.

The Point shared the stage with The Unclaimed, The Last, Rain Parade, Green On Red, The Leaving Trains, Concrete Blonde (when they were called Dream 6), The Crawdaddy's, Gym and the Lockers, and a hundred other groups. My favourite gigs with The Point were the two that Jon missed.  We played a huge party at a house up in Malibu, just myself, Greg and Mike. We didn't know we were going to play, just that we were going to a party. Another band were playing and a friend told them we were there and would they let us play when they were taking a break ? We played as a three piece and it was awesome. The three of us played at a much smaller party at the same house some months later on acoustic instruments in the living room and again, the music flowed out of us.

I had agreed to play with Wednesday Week until they could find a permanent member and it caused no shortage of problems with at least one member threatening to quit.  Our album The Magic Circle came out and got great reviews and extensive college airplay. Cashbox magazine predicted that we would become “major players on the L.A. scene”.  Option called it “a strange and wondrous record, the kind which Jack Webb might have cited 20 years ago as the results of a mis-spent youth”.  While Trouser Press said that “the results suffer when Alford cedes responsibilities to his less talented partner”.
The album was also issued in France on the Lolita label. In 1983, music connection magazine did a 'pick of the players' poll, where they asked a hundred musicians who their favourite bands were. The Point finished in the top 10, behind the Red Hot Chilli Peppers but ahead of Los Lobos.
When the Point was playing, my brother Howie would open the shows on accordion. He would then join us for the encore.

One afternoon after Magic Circle came out, I had the day off from work and Mike took an extended break from his job at the shoe store. We borrowed a friend's car and cruised around Hollywood. We went by the Hollywood Bowl. It's a massive structure. They leave the front gate open so tourists can look around. We went in and were the only people there other than a group of construction workers who were working on the stage. After a while we made our way to the very back row and had a 'smoke'. We started talking about our big plans when Mike jumped up and said, "I'm going to get on top of the Bowl !" With that, he went tearing down the steps toward the stage. I shouted "Mike ! Mike !" but he had a plan and nothing was going to stop him. I thought that he would come back in a few minutes, realising it was impossible (and a little crazy). Mike was gone for ten minutes, I was wondering what was taking so long when suddenly I see this little head appearing on top of the Bowl. It looks huge in person and Mike had gotten up there somehow. He came right to the very edge and lifted his arms in triumph. Then he started screaming and beating his chest like Tarzan. The kid from the small town had conquered Hollywood. Now Mike was dancing on the very edge of the Bowl, screaming and hollering at me, still in the back row. The foreman on the stage stood up and was scratching his head and looking around when he turned around and looked straight up. There was Mike, still screaming and dancing on the very edge of the Hollywood Bowl.
"GET DOWN FROM THERE, YOU IDIOT !!!" shouted the foreman. Mike came scrambling down the side of the giant structure in what seemed like just a few seconds. As Mike came running up the stairs towards me, the foreman continues his tirade. "It's not enough that you guys come here and smoke pot when we're trying to work, then you get up and start dancing on top of the Bowl ! When you fall off and kill yourself, guess who they're going to blame? Me !"
Mike made it up to the back row, bowed his head and threw his sweatshirt over his head as if he we trying to hide.

Less than a year later, Stebbins left the band and would be followed a week later by Greg Edwards. We came back together a few months later to perform the Beatles 'In My Life' at Greg’s wedding, but that was the end of The Point.  We also reunited in 2010 to perform a one off show at the Livermore Ranch Party for several hundred people. “All My Life” written by myself and Stebbins was put on the 'Children of Nuggets' box set released by Rhino records in 2005. It was then used on an episode of the Gilmore Girls television program.

After the Point broke up, I started managing Nickelodeon record store in Century City. That's where I met Morty Nevins. Morty was the accordion player in the group 'the Three Suns'. He had also written the classic 'Twilight Time'. I interviewed Morty before he passed away- Jan published it on the web site Psychedelic Central. Morty and I would meet for lunch or on a break and discuss songwriting. I learned a lot from him. I would play him tapes and he would offer constructive criticism. He offered to shop my songs to the major labels but was diagnosed with cancer and passed away quickly after that. I performed 'Twilight Time' at his funeral.
 I played with a few different bands but nothing stuck. Mike and I played in a group called the Prodigal Sons. Our one show with that band was opening for Fishbone at the Music Machine. Mike had a three piece R'nB band called the K.O.'s and I sat in with them at a couple of shows.

Desire Caught By The Tail
I had grown weary of living in L.A. and moved back to Livermore a few weeks before the riots. I started planning on recording a solo album. (The working title was, Paul Thought We Were His Backup Band). I had an album’s worth of material but limited time off from work and limited resources. I was still in touch with Heidi Rodewald from Wednesday Week who had done some recording with Earle Mankey and she sold me on the idea of working with him. I was scared about calling him. "Earle Mankey is a big star, I can't just call him up."  I finally got my courage up and called him and he couldn't have been nicer. I booked some time at his studio and then rounded up some friends to play on it. We knocked the whole thing out in a week, which was all the time I had. I did basic tracks with Mike McGlauhlin and Mike Alford (drums), Heidi Rodewald (vocals and keyboards) and Jim Libbey (bass and flute).
The reviews always compared me to the Three O'Clock, Robyn Hitchcock and The Beatles, which, I have to admit are some of my favourites.  Earle told me that he thought it sounded like what would have happened had Syd Barrett joined the Beatles in 1967, which, of course was a huge compliment.
Earle was fun to work with, he approaches it like a big adventure and his 16 track studio was the same equipment Brian Wilson recorded 'Smile' on, as well as The Three O'Clock and a thousand other recordings.
In terms of songwriting, for me the inspiration is everything. 'Elliott Dreams' was written about a friend of mine with down’s syndrome who used to come into my record store. , I thought he should have his own theme song. “Somewhere Tonight” “Strangest Angel” and “Forever Summer Girl” were written about a girl who had moved on and I knew I would never see her again. “My Only Song” was partly written about my Father passing away and partly about the no win situation I faced in The Point. “Wichita” was written about a friend of mine who was having trouble with his wife. “Voices Ringing was written about one night when I was closing the store and a beautiful girl walked by and gave me a big smile. I went home and wrote the song right there. Next night she walked by at the same time. I gave her a big smile and she gave me a withering glare, but what the hell, I got a song out of it.  The best songs are about real situations that you feel very strongly about.
The reviews were very positive so I put together a page of them and tried to get various A R people to have their artists cover songs off it. The guy at Arista records liked it and played it for the roundtable of executives, who liked 'Elliott Dreams' but had to pass because they were looking for songs for the new Whitney Houston album and “it just doesn't fit stylistically with her other material”.
I had a few offers from overseas to have it released on various labels. The labels were honest and told me firstly, they wanted the publishing and secondly I would not see any money from them. I passed.
My friend Dee Breazeale asked for a couple copies and sent them to Walmart radio who played it and tried to get Walmart to distribute it. The distributor called me up and explained that they only carried 500 titles “and you're not gonna take shelf space away from Bon Jovi, kid !” He did put me in touch with Not Lame, who carried indie titles, and they sold 150 copies. I got a lot of college radio airplay and did ok with sales, but did not swing that big deal I had been looking for. Jon Stebbins has written several books about the Beach Boys. He was interviewed for the job of writing the liner notes on their CD's. Although he didn't get the job, he took a copy of 'Desire' in and gave it to them at the end of the interview.

Life Gets In The Way.
After Desire I started writing for my next album. In 2000 an old friend from school knocked on my door with his guitar. Scott Faulk had been in Mike's class and I had known him since we were kids. Scott had a band that was playing at a bar on First Street in Livermore. After playing everything we knew he insisted I come down and jump onstage for a couple songs that Friday night. I did and we had a blast. Jerry, the owner of Hoppy's told Scott, "That's the guy I want in your band". We got together with Doug Dahlstrom on harmonica and started rehearsing originals, oldies, country, blues, and few contemporary covers like 'I Was The One' by the Hoodoo Gurus. In a couple weeks we were ready and performed that Friday night. Los Trio Locos was two acoustic guitars and a harmonica and we all sang. It was easily the most fun I ever had playing. All the other bands in town were about 130 decibels so we were a revelation to some people. We drew so many people that Jerry made us the house band and we performed every Friday from then on. The next week we broke the house record and two weeks later we broke it again.
That year  St. Patrick's day fell on a Friday so there were more people than usual. We were playing 'I Saw Her Standing There' when she walked in. Stan Edwards, Greg Edwards brother, was an old friend of Victoria Evanoff and had bumped into her in another bar downtown. She was planning on just having one Guiness and going home when Stan convinced her to 'come around the corner and see my buddy's band'. I couldn't take my eyes off her. Our next tune was 'Last Train to Clarksville' and she stayed all night. We started going out together and were married in 2007.
Los Trio Locos played every Friday night for a year before finally breaking up over musical direction.

Second Foundation
It takes a lot of money to record and put out an album. I flew to L.A. to start recording with Earle once more. Mike played drums and we did the basic tracks (17 songs) in a couple days. This time I did the overdubs myself. Heidi was on tour but I could kick myself for not calling my old friend Kristi Callan from Wednesday Week. Upon hearing it she said that she would love to record with me again.
The songs are about real situations, for instance “The Pool” was about an out of body experience I had. I went light years away to a place I called the pool. It had different levels and as you swam through each level it rang a note.  Those notes bounced off the other notes, I was brought there with a female and we did this underwater ballet that was creating music as we did it. When it was over we flew through space again and I went hurtling back into my body. “Wasp Lands On Sunflower” was written about my wife. “Ever Question Why” was written when the Bosnia/Herzagovina thing was happening. I was watching tv and they were showing some villagers leaving the area when a shell exploded and everyone started screaming and running. I grabbed my guitar and wrote it right on the spot. The music of “Yes It's You” goes way back to about 1979. I never came up with words I liked. I gave it to an ex girlfriend who is a writer and she came up with most of the words. “Boy In The Bubble” is about me trying to grow up and face reality. “Shiloh” was about a friend’s daughter who liked me. “After Today” was about a showdown at work with a miscreant. “What Could Have Been” was about a friend of mine who was drunk, got in a car accident and killed a girl. He's been in and out of jail. “I'm The Only One” is about a friend, a young girl who decided that she wanted to be a man. She has since sort of 'straightened out'. “Look To The Stars” is an old song from the 80's. The Point recorded it but Stebbins refused to play it live. “Strawberry Robot” came about because I wanted to write a Ray Bradbury science fiction song. For the sound affects I hooked up a microphone to an echo pedal and blew into it. Earle had me do it twice, and then he mixed it together. He then took the sounds and created the opening and the ending.
Some friends of mine have a daughter who was born blind. She loves music and hearing me play guitar. I was fixing dinner and just started singing, "Someday Girl, the light will shine on you"... I grabbed my guitar, hit record on the tape deck and the song poured out of me in three minutes. When I feel strongly about a situation the inspiration hits.  T I think the best songs come words and music together.
Fufkin made it their CD of the month. Blitz magazine called it “a quantum leap beyond the musical mediocracy of the early 21st century.” Indiepages said, “the guitars swirl gently together throughout these songs which, along with the multi-tracked vocals give the songs an almost hypnotising beauty”. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “The Everly Brothers in outer space”.
I received college radio airplay and these days internet radio airplay. I have hired a lawyer, Kip Edwards, Greg Edwards son, to shop it to record labels, as well as shopping songs to various artists to record. I have enough songs to do a really good album right now, or enough for a really great e.p.  I am currently in the process of doing song demos because I have some artists in mind that they would be perfect for. Last week I recorded session guitar for my niece at Fantasy studio in Berkeley. Her band is called 'Color Dies' and the track is 'Green Tea'.  The track is so commercial they might hit the top 100 before I do!

My newest project is shooting an indie film with my nephew Jesse called, 'Monsters From The Purple Dimension'. It will be 'American Grafitti' meets 'Night Of The Living Dead'. Michael Quercio has agreed to let me use a Jupiter Affect song in it, 'The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz'.
I also have heard from Chewy Marble who have offered to let me use 'My Monster', a really great song. I'm using some of my music as well as some more indie music from friends. I do perform solo around town from time to time, performing solo at coffee house gigs and sometimes at parties. I put a group together to perform at IPO 1997 in L.A. Right now, my only gig scheduled is the Livermore Ranch party in June. It usually draws several hundred people. But my focus right now is the film and recording. I also spend a lot of time doing artwork. I have won some blue ribbons at the county fair, and two purple ribbons at the Livermore art show for best in show and these shows had over 300 entries.
I have some new songs, “Into The Starlight”, “Nothing Comes Between Us”  and “I'll Be Your Picasso” which were all written about my wife. My friends who have heard them say that they are my best yet."

Thanks Tom for such and excellent interview. Second Foundation is distributed by CD baby, Not Lame, Jam Records, and can be downloaded at Apple I Tunes, Digstation, and Payplay.
Heres some useful links:

And to finish with a selection of Tom's excellent art.




Oh and in case you were wondering....

*The Twylo People are from a classic episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show.
The Twylo People look human except for a second pair of eyes hidden under their hair, plant walnut-looking alien eggs, filled with "absorbatron", in grocery stores around the world. Once a person opens one of these alien walnuts, they begin to take on the characteristics of the invaders.

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