Coldwater DFU - Mick Thomas

(album out 8 March 2019 through Bloodlines)

1. Boxing Day Drive
2. Bright Sunshine
3. River Again
4. Anything You Recognise
5. The Catalpa
6. Died In Ballarat
7. Murder Town
8. First Night In Asia
9. Aqua Profunda
10. Lake Learmonth Motel
11. Anything You Recognise (Reprise)
12. One Kind Favour

Half a lifetime ago – that is, at half the age he is now – Mick Thomas and his fabled outfit Weddings Parties Anything recorded their watershed 1989 album The Big Don’t Argue in Memphis, Tennessee. Working alongside Jim Dickinson, the legendary record producer who had weaved audio magic for the likes of Big Star and The Replacements, and recorded with goliaths like the Stones, scored an indelible mark on Thomas. It was an edifying experience that has carried with him since. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, which has seen Thomas, in musical guises both solo and with others, become one of the country’s most beloved folk balladeers.

Now a half-life later, Mick Thomas has returned to Memphis with his latest ensemble The Roving Commission, which includes former Weddo and long-time collaborator Mark ‘Squeezebox Wally’ Wallace, along with Ben Franz and Dave Foley. The band are on a musical and spiritual pilgrimage to recapture the magic that has stayed with him since those remarkable sessions. Sadly, Thomas’ mentor Jim Dickinson has since passed, so this time Jim’s long-time engineer Kevin Houston ably took the helm with some help from Jim’s son Cody Dickinson – he of the North Mississippi All Stars. The trip back to Memphis proved an informed choice, and those inspired sessions are represented in sound on the forthcoming full-length album, Mick Thomas’ Roving Commission’s Coldwater DFU.

While Memphis, the spiritual home of rock and roll, may be somewhat of a romantic choice for many musos recording in the hallowed U.S.A. and enamoured by its intangible mojo, Thomas is a little more pragmatic in his reasoning for the trip.

“I’m kinda sceptical about the whole importance people attached to Americana. If you look at some of these cities and take away their big tourist strip, and you look at their gig guide – this goes for Memphis and Nashville – you’re left with Melbourne on a Tuesday night, if you’re lucky, you know? So I’m not one of those people who thinks everything that comes out of there is amazing, but I do think that there is a sense of heritage and purity of the way music is made in a place like Memphis.”

It is that sense of pride that Memphis has in its musical heritage that struck and indeed stuck with Thomas on his visits.

“They have plaques in the main street for all the people that had worked in the industry – and it’s not just all your famous people; studio engineers and guys who managed bands get their own plaques too. Then you drive down BB King Boulevard onto Willy Mitchell Boulevard and all of this sense of heritage and tradition is very strong and very intoxicating. I noticed everybody seems prepared to stop and tell a story. You know, it’s all like ‘that was like the time that Bobby Rush was here,’ or some famous person or some person you didn’t know, but everyone seemed to have a story. There seemed to be a real sense that it was important, those stories were important, so in terms of the heritage thing it was very pronounced.”

After such a lengthy career with a workman-like output (some 24 albums and counting), the desire to mix up the creative process also came into the discussion for Thomas on why it was perhaps important to head back to Memphis after all this time.

“You look around, you’ve made a stack of albums over the years and it’s sort of important to change the way you do it. Some artists seem to be happy to go back to the same studio time and time again, working with the same people and still get really good, fresh stuff out of it, and I’m not saying it’s for everyone, but for me I do feel I need to change things around.”

Casting his mind back to the halcyon days of his first trip to Memphis, Thomas remembers that his producer Dickinson was a big one for sayings and had offered himself and the Weddings many pearls of wisdom garnered from his years working with some of the most iconic names in music, including the adage ‘The misery sticks to the tape.’

As Thomas offers, “he was saying that you should be enjoying the process and if you don’t it will become obvious. It should be an enjoyable and fulfilling experience, and if it’s not then somehow people are going to know and see through what you do.”

Along with the garnered Dickinson wisdoms, Thomas and The Weddings also came out of those sessions back in 1989 with a rekindled regard for the craft of being a solid player, as Thomas shares:

“The first time we went in there we were very hung up on the punk rock thing, or punk folk, you know. Jim really loved that about us, and we were determined to get the rawness of the Weddings down because we felt that it hadn’t been there on the first two albums. So we were in there and we were really bashing away to be full-throttle. Paradoxically, what did come out from it with was a renewed respect for musicianship as opposed to studio trickery- we came out with this idea that it was worth something to be a good player.”

This sense of musicianship was something that came to the fore again on this new record. The pedigree of The Roving Commission meant the band were definitely up to the challenge.

“I guess this time going back in with a couple of different players, like a couple of people in the band the calibre of Dave Foley and Ben Franz, it was really interesting watching Kevin Houston, the engineer, respond to them. Kevin said to me at one stage, ‘This is great, I didn’t think he’d be able to play so behind the beat.’ So he’s talking about a real sense of musicianship which is something they might feel they have something of a monopoly on down South.”

When pressed further on what the Roving Commission bring both to his music and to the studio for Coldwater DFU, Thomas explains:

“I really like what people bring to your music. I like it if I just start playing a song and the band just start falling in around it, just bringing their own thing to it. I’m not prescriptive about what people play and my music and my songs. I really like working with these really great quality players who are creative people, who just bring something of their own to it. I was just over the moon with some of the stuff Ben Franz bought onto the record as a bass player. Reconvening with Wally since the last album was really quite crucial, and Dave Foley coming on board and being really committed, has been really important. That gives me the nucleus of a really strong playing band.”

When discussing an overarching theme for the new record, it seems clear to Thomas that Coldwater DFU is an album that offers resolve to the often heavy subjects tackled.

“They’re all big, quite lengthy and pretty weighty songs,” he explains. “I guess there’s kind of a sense of resolution in all of the songs. A sense of, well here’s a problem and here’s not how I fix the problem, but here’s how I deal with the situation. Here’s how I accept it. I reckon that whether it be ‘Boxing Day Drive’, where you don’t really find out if this person driving for days and days, to be with someone, to fix a relationship, you don’t really find out if they do, but you get this sense that they’ve arrived at this position where they know their actions.”

In an album full of big songs, ‘Bright Sunshine’ is one of the key tracks. A complex song, that concerns Thomas and his long-time Weddings associate Michael Barclay visiting the Dachau Concentration camp and registering the reactions of people there.

“It’s the way that anyone perceives a monument or a big thing in life is kind of their own. It’s really personal and the song is about trying to not be too didactic about the way that people express any given thing in life. The key line being ‘it’s love not work that sets you free,’ which is in contrast to the ‘In Work Is Freedom’ sign that hangs over the gate at Dachau.”

Another track on Coldwater DFU with a fascinating backstory is ‘Died In Ballarat’: a song about The Moscow Circus going bankrupt in the former gold rush capital.

As Mick explains, “there was a whole bunch of the circus performers stranded there for over a month, with no money and no food. I think there was a fair bit of hospitality extended to them, but I thought it was a time when the whole ‘stop the boats’ was in the news and how would those people would be feeling reading that, and thinking about the population of where they found themselves stranded. I was thinking about how they would deal with that.”

On ‘Anything You Recognise’, Thomas again exercises his deft touch for examining and making sense of the daily travails of the Australian condition.

“It’s a song about me living in the same area for twenty years, and looking at the changes and how that’s affected me and my wife who’s been here with me,” he shares. “It’s like well, we’re really not going to halt the march of progress, so it’s not a song about how good it used to be, or how bad it’s getting, it’s about how we have to accept that.”

The album closes on the tender ‘Lake Learmonth Hotel’ which, as Thomas explains, is about,

“an old guy, walking through halls of the hospice thinking about the ghost of his long-gone partner, it’s just him coming to grips with that timeline of his life, and that maybe some things do live forever. Again it’s the love that will give him that sense of resolve.”

Artists are usually keen to spruik their most recent albums as being their best, and while Thomas often errs on the side of humility when it comes to such lofty claims, he does contend:

“Well, I played it to Michael Barclay who was in the Weddings forever, and he played with me a lot post-Weddings. I gave him a burned copy, and he rang me about 40 minutes later from The Geelong Road, because he was driving home, he stopped that car and he said “Mick, it is fucking amazing”, and I heard him say to someone else that it’s the album he’s been trying to get me to make for a long time. I think it would be up there, like the sound of it is a really strong record.”

Though the album was recorded on the other side the world in a place full of its own heritage, Thomas is pleased that the antipodean essence of his music still shines through.

“We live in this epoch of time where Americana has become this massive thing again. I guess I grew up at a time in the 60’s and 70’s and we’d just come out of the 2nd World War, we had the Vietnam War to contend with and there was really a healthy dose of scepticism about the USA in a cultural sense. I’m really glad that that is still there in my music, and I don’t feel any apology about that, and I’m glad that going to Memphis only served to kind of ramp that up a bit more. The thought you would sing about anywhere but your own place is a complete anathema. When I look at the whole thing and look at taking it on the road, I think that the fans are going to really love what the songs are about, and the fact that the thing they’ve supported in my music over the years is stronger than ever.”

So, in closing, what about that title Coldwater DFU?

“Coldwater is the place where the studio was,” Mick explains, “so the actual place we were in is called Coldwater Mississippi. DFU? Well, there’s this woman called Reba Russell who sang on the record. We heard this story, which she confirmed for us, that she was the first person to go to the Zebra Ranch after Jim Dickinson had died. She found it a really weird experience and she said that the night before she had a dream that Jim was speaking to her. Someone asked her, what did Jim say to you? She said that he had said, “Well, don’t fuck up!””


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