Thomas Leer

Late-night films, surrealist art and “scraping across the wave shapes”, Thomas Leer revisits his past ahead of the re-release of ‘The Bridge’, his 1979 classic with the late Robert Rental

SALVADOR DALI’S CHRIST OF ST JOHN OF THE CROSS

“My dad took me to afternoon war movies a lot. Once, we were early so we walked up to the art gallery at Kelvingrove in Glasgow. I was only about eight or nine, so I saw this painting from my tiny perspective – it looks down on Christ, with the fishermen at the bottom – and it blew me away. Not the religious aspect, just the look and feel of it. I felt childish wonderment. I didn’t understand it, but it moved me in some way.

“I got into art in my teens. I even attempted to paint, but I lacked talent. When I discovered Dali again that painting made sense, and I channelled it into music, into creating something with perspective. You can record a ‘clean’ track with no reverb, but when you add effects, you get a perspective that’s bigger and more spatial. That’s quite abstract, but creating art is abstract.”

DAD’S SHORT-WAVE RADIO

“His name was Tommy Wishart – just a regular working-class man at the council builder’s department, but he was a short-wave radio buff. So every weekend, me and my brother woke up to this cacophony of noises – it was him scraping across the wave shapes, looking for new channels. You might get a burst of an orchestra playing Strauss, but not tuned properly, so I’d hear these weird modulations as I went in and out of sleep. It annoyed me, but after two or three years of this he’d browbeaten me into loving electronic sounds.

“When I started making electronic music I recognised those sounds, the modulations and phasing. He’d planted that seed without intending to. It’s interesting how somebody can affect you without really trying. He died a few years ago.”

THE JOY OF BOOKS

“Another guy that influenced me was an eccentric road manager called John Clark. I was 15 or 16, singing in local bands around 1969. I’d never been much of a reader, but he gave me George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ then he followed it up with ‘1984’, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Eyeless in Gaza’, and eventually Jean-Paul Sartre. These opened my mind up to things – particularly Sartre and existentialism. When I started writing lyrics, these books really came into play. I was never an intellectual like John, but I learned something about wordplay from that period, and I thank him for that.

“Our band was called Flesh And Blood. We played heavy rock – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple-type music. We played all over Scotland, backing up Frankie Miller’s band The Stoics, The Poets and even the Bay City Rollers once, before they became massive.”

EDINBURGH MOVIE HOUSES

“Film was the biggest influence on my life, even more than music. In the mid-70s my girlfriend and I lived in Edinburgh and we didn’t have a TV, but luckily the city had a lot of movie houses. We’d go to late-night films like Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ and Martin Scorsese’s ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’. Then I discovered Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Andy Warhol… these films felt really important in some way. I bought an 8mm clockwork camera, a projector and some editing equipment and started making movies in Edinburgh. Like painting, it wasn’t really my talent, but I learned a lot about editing and applied the techniques to music. My album ‘Parts Of A Greater Hole’ is pretty much an editing job.

“Seeing these movies was like seeing Dali’s painting, they showed me an internal world. They were about real people and strange events. Nicolas Roeg, in particular, took you somewhere between the real world and the surreal world. ‘Performance’ is my favourite film of his, but I saw ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ three times in the same week because I was so blown away by it.”

THE DOCTOR OF STRANGE

“Lynch also takes you into another world, although I don’t really consider him to be a movie maker – he’s an artist who happens to use the medium of film. What I love about him is that he doesn’t try to explain it, he just waggles his fingers at you and says, ‘Well, it was an idea’. You never really know who he is or what he thinks. Is he a violent man? A peace-loving man? You don’t know, but he takes you into worlds where people really identify with the strangeness. He presents the art and it’s up to you then. 

“What I write and produce has the same attitude, especially the lyrics. I don’t want people to think that’s who I am or what I’m thinking about. I want them to make their own mind up. I love Lynch’s music as well. His weird, surreal blues – like The Residents but more musical. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea… but neither am I.”

TRUE ORIGINALS

“I’m only interested in people who are originals. Back in the 1970s, I hated most pop music until David Bowie and Roxy Music. Brian Eno invented the punk rock sound on ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’. At least three or four songs on that album are punk. They’re played at breakneck speed, with him singing in a weird Cockney accent… and this was before the Sex Pistols came along. 

“People like David Lynch and the German artist Joseph Beuys don’t follow trends, they just do their own thing. It’s in their character. They have the strength to do it and not be influenced by outside forces. In 1978, with punk rock still raging, Kate Bush had this squeaky voice and a song about ‘Wuthering Heights’, but John Lydon maintained she was one of the best songwriters Britain had ever produced. Then in the 80s it was all about the Blitz Kids and great production sound, but Nick Cave was making these wild rock ’n’ roll records. You don’t remember the new romantic geezers, but Nick Cave is still going strong.

“My way of doing things is different, I’ve veered off in all directions – dance music, jazz, pure electronics… my music’s got a lot of different influences, but my character’s indelibly printed on it. Would I call myself an original? That’s for other people to tell you.”

‘The Bridge’ by Thomas Leer & Robert Rental is released by The Grey Area

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