Gazpacho imminently release their latest and most ambitious album, Fireworker. Keyboardist and one of the main songwriters, Thomas Andersen, spoke with The Progressive Aspect’s Leo Trimming about the concept behind this imaginative and epic piece of work.
This is my third conversation with Thomas, after fascinating interviews in London before their last two London gigs (2015 and 2018), so there is a growing familiarity in our relationship. What has been striking in all these discussions is Thomas’ intensity and thoughtfulness. He is clearly driven with passion about the weird and wonderful themes he comes up with to inspire Gazpacho’s increasingly dense and adventurous musical and conceptual journeys. However, underpinning that drive, imagination and intensity is a healthy sense of perspective, leavened with an admirable modesty about his obvious intelligence and quirky but insightful observations. Thomas presents his ideas on the band website and social media with a degree of humour. That twinkle in the eye is reflected in the interviews, punctuated with smiles and laughter, amidst the deeper points of debate and at times quite personal memories. Thomas comes across as a charming and gracious individual – for instance, he congratulates me on my wedding anniversary but also apologises for taking up my time on such a day (I assure him I have ‘permission’ to do so!). During our talks, Thomas somehow presents sometimes dark and perplexing concepts with an engaging, beguiling manner. You really cannot help but be drawn under his charismatic spell, much like the music he creates with Gazpacho, which slowly draws in the listener, gradually revealing its secrets and splendour over time.
Thomas begins our Zoom session with a virtual tour of his lovely lakeside home studio. This is his spiritual home, a property his great-grandfather built in 1920 and sold in 1940. Thomas recently regained the home in a story he says “involves Magic”… but that’s a story for another time. As the conversation develops, Thomas shows genuine interest in hearing my views on the impact of Covid on the working world and even how it has affected my listening habits. His genuine interest in others’ stories is an admirable attribute for this artist. I share with Thomas that my first encounter with Gazpacho was Tick Tock (2009) which I instantly fell in love with, first hearing it on Frans Keylard’s Rogue’s Gallery Podcast. Tick Tock is an album very close to my heart and I reflect that often the first album we get into for a band can inspire a special emotional bond, remembered like a first kiss (although Thomas jokingly suggests it may be more like a first ‘hit’ of heroin!). However, I note this is not typical of my Gazpacho experiences since, which have felt more cerebral in nature, needing time to absorb and appreciate through repeated listening. This is something we have touched on in previous interviews as Thomas believes that a Gazpacho album needs at least ten listens for the listener to really ‘get’ it. Thomas goes on to expand on this point:
“When you think about it, Gazpacho has grown more and more… ‘difficult’ with every album. It has spiralled out of control into this heavy concept. To me, Fireworker feels more like a serious novel.”
I have used previous articles to try to explain Gazpacho songs, but you don’t want every nuance explained. You leave space for the listener to put themselves into your music and to ‘feel’ it. I also suspect that even Gazpacho do not always fully understand everything they put in a song – it just ‘feels’ right – more emotional than rational. As we discussed about Molok, there’s always a tension between the rational and the emotional.
“Well, I’m two albums behind, as usual. I’ve started listening to Molok and I’m hearing things on it, thinking ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Other times I realise ‘That was smart!’ Sometimes it’s probably purely luck. Sometimes you express things in a great way… but you weren’t fully cognisant of why you wrote the line, which explains your thought. I don’t really know how to explain it.”
I’ve been getting into ‘Molok’ and heard ‘Choir of Ancestors’ for the first time since delivering it. I thought it was a very moving thing. I Love that song. I thought the lyric had some deeper meaning. I’m probably getting into it more now as I’ve been getting into family history. I’ve got back to the 1500’s.
“It made me think I totally agree with what that song said. There’s some strong moments in Choir of Ancestors, even though it’s not a complicated concept. It’s a simple concept: Roots dig deep. Have you understood the concept of Fireworker?”
(LT: At this point I blather on for a little while about what I think of it so far, fascinated by its sounds and atmosphere, but have to admit I need Thomas to help me understand it more!)
“If you give me three minutes I’ll try to sell you the idea.
Have you ever been walking with plastic bags in your hands and you slip on ice… and then…” (Thomas then contorts his arms and torso as if balancing to prevent a fall)… your body finds some position, and it does it before you know what you’re doing?
Yeah, it’s just automatic.
“… and your brain has instantly worked out the mathematics exactly how to place your arms so you won’t slip and smash your head on the ice. So that means there’s a part of you that can turn the ‘Leo’ part of your brain ‘off’, override him and turn him off like that (snaps fingers) – fix the dangerous situation and give him control back when everything is OK.”
So, it’s basically the ‘Fight or Flight’ impulse?
“It’s MORE than that because it can turn you off and control your body. Let me ask you, would you drink a cup of spit?”
Never, of course not!
“Well, when you’re kissing someone that’s what you’re doing.”
Thanks for that thought today on my wedding anniversary, Thomas! (Laughing)
“Yeah, I’m sorry man. You knew what you were walking into – I don’t feel sorry for you! (Laughing) But when you kiss someone that’s your ‘Lizard’, your ‘Fireworker’ chemically sampling the spit of a partner for compatibility. It would only be interested in the productive side of things. Do you know when you have sex they can also turn off the sense of disgust in you? You will do things in the throes of sexual passion that you wouldn’t do at a board meeting at work.”
Yep… I think my colleagues might have something to say!
“They probably would. At other times you will also do things that normally don’t feel natural. There was once a family of two parents and two kids adrift in the Pacific Ocean. These were modern kids that would not usually eat broccoli, but after one week at sea they were ripping the heads off seagulls and drinking the blood directly from the birds’ necks. Once we get to a situation where the ‘Fireworker’ starts caring, you’ll drink the blood and you’ll drink the spit, and do things to gain status to make yourself more attractive to a sexual partner.
“Life on Earth started about 3.8 billion years ago, and you are the result of an unbroken line of successful procreators. That life that started 3.8 billion years ago has directly copied itself through billions of years all the way up to you. Do you think perhaps one or two of those might have committed some murders, some rapes, and other very, very bad things?”
I suspect all of us have some dark history buried in our ancestors.
“We had to as we’re the Survivors. The life force within you is the exact same life force that has somehow managed to survive for billions of years through sometimes not nice means. You and me are only the ‘vehicle’ in which it currently travels. All it wants is for us to procreate. It wants to copy itself, and it doesn’t give a shit about you, and once it’s done with you it wants you to die because you need to back off to make space for more generations of ‘It’.”
So that’s the instinctive core of Fireworker?
“The concept is that ‘thing’ controls you chemically. If it doesn’t agree with the path you’re taking it will punish you with severe depression, extreme anxiety and various mental illnesses. It will force you to do whatever it wants. What I’m saying is that there is no such thing as ‘Free Will’. It will actually make the decision but allow you to rationalise that you made the decision.
“In the opening song Space Cowboy, the Brain is a large cave, and the person travels inwards to see if it’s possible to reach deep down inside and see the ‘Fireworker’ himself – also known as the ‘Space Cowboy’, or ‘The Lizard’. Can you confront it and see who’s in charge? That’s the concept. The choir you can hear in ‘Space Cowboy’ is the Mind trying to warn him not to come any further. I’m sorry I’m talking all the time – you’ve got me fired up!”
That’s fine. I’m sure the readers would far rather hear from you than me.
“There was a Nuclear waste dump in Nevada where they were deciding what architectural way they could build to indicate, if civilisation falls apart, to warn primitive people in 10,000 years from now not to dig into all the radioactive waste? They built it with sort of spiky architecture and created a line which said in various languages and symbols:
There is only Death in the form of radio waves.’
“Originally, Space Cowboy was to have the choir singing a version of that text. We recorded it, but we cut it out because it sounded too much like a Meat Loaf album or a musical, and the choir went back to just vocalising.”
You really don’t want that! (laughing)
“The idea is that the Mind is trying to stop the main character from going too deep. If you’ve ever had an anxiety panic attack, and I have, so believe me – you think you’re going to die and you’re really scared. These punishments of the ‘Fireworker’ can be very severe. The Choir of the Mind is trying to warn him… but he continues anyway. He ends up on the last song, Sapien, finally confronting the ‘Fireworker’. It concludes with him being told it doesn’t even give a shit what his name is as he has no identity which matters to it. The ‘Fireworker’ is almost four billions old, and I’m forty-eight (laughing) – I’m Nothing! I’m just one of the billions of beings it has inhabited.”
“I know how crazy it sounds!”
To be honest, the concepts for Gazpacho albums often sound a bit crazy, but that’s the beauty of them. You’re pushing at the boundaries of ideas, and you’re challenging us to think about our existence through the music we listen to – this is NOT background music. You have to concentrate and focus on it… like a novel.
I was particularly interested in the Clockwork section of Space Cowboy, set in Paris. Tell us more.
“That’s a mixture of two things.
“Firstly, it’s the memory of my Mum when she was very sick with pancreatic cancer. She lived with me and my girlfriend when we lived in Paris. She looked after our four-year-old daughter. This was before we knew she was sick. We went to a market and an old gypsy lady said to my Mum: ‘You’re very sick, Madam, sit down.’ Mum’s skin was yellow because her liver was shutting down. We didn’t see it because we thought she was tanned. Actually, I don’t even know why I could not see it.
“So, the Clockwork section is a mixture of that feel and memory of Paris, combined with the story about the ‘Radium Girls’. That pertains to the story in the sense that there are some things that are a shitload more dangerous than you know. The ‘Radium Girls’ were the women back in the 1920s who had the job of painting on watches and clocks with radium so the faces glowed in the dark. That’s very fine, detailed painting so the girls would lick the brush, dip it in the uranium, paint the clock or watch face, and then re-lick it. (Thomas mimics those actions). Eventually their jaws started falling off due to the radiation. These beautiful girls became monsters. The point is that some things you’re doing that you think are innocent or harmless can come back to punish you. Who knows, maybe the ‘Fireworker’ will punish me for this discussion with you about it? So the Clockwork sequence is his brain trying to remind the main character about the ‘Radium Girls’, and saying: ‘Look what happened to them, don’t go to that place.’”
I wondered if there was a connection to Molok, which also references 1920s Paris? You seem to have a thing for Paris?
“It could also be that Paris has a romantic ring to it? You could never have a Gazpacho song in Chicago or New York, or the New World.”
Gazpacho music feels very… baroque maybe, and very ‘European’ in feel.
“I would definitely say it’s European, and it’s Romantic. To me mentioning Paris brings that element into the picture. Don’t forget that this stuff is written for the listener to dream themselves into… so Paris helps evoke something within that melodic context.”
I particularly enjoyed Hourglass – it sounds like glass, delicate and fragile.
“Hourglass is about all those people who died before us. Your ‘Fireworker’ or my ‘Fireworker’ – I’m thinking about all the other people who had ‘It’ before I have it now. All those people that have ground up and disappeared down the Hourglass. The only remnant of them is their contribution to the DNA that is now in us. The song was originally more ‘church-y’, like a hymn. We wanted to create a hymn to all the people that helped shape the DNA that became us… because it’s been a real ride, baby!!
“It’s a song of memory to them, but it did not turn out as hymnal as we originally intended. Also things got so loud and bombastic on the album we wanted to bring it back down a little bit to a more personal level.”
The title song Fireworker stands out for me with its Eastern or exotic flavour. It’s definitely a more immediately accessible song. I love the line “Lords of Pseudo-thinking”. Who writes the lyrics?
“Me and Jan-Henrik (Ohme) co-write the lyrics. ‘Lord of Pseudo-thinking’ is my line – I’m making fun of myself. I’m always scared about how I sound. I would hate myself if I was you! So I thought I might poke a little fun out of it.
“In Haiti they have a Voodoo God or Devil called ‘Papa Legba’. He wears a Top hat, smokes a cigar and drinks rum. He’s a Joker sort of Devil. He’s not an entity, he’s an actual flesh and blood Devil who walks among us. My theory about the ‘Fireworker’ was that Ancient cultures knew we had this thing inside us, and that’s why we invented all these Devils and Gods. I even think Jesus Christ might be an image of our consciousness, as the Good opposing the raw animal of the ‘Lizard’, the ‘Fireworker’. But that’s another debate… that’s for red wine night (Laughter.)
“‘Fireworker’ is ‘Papa Legba’ – he’s the Fun Devil. He’s the guy you’d like to go out and have a drink with… and the song sounds exotic as it’s meant to sound like the market place in Haiti where ‘Papa Legba’ says ‘Come up closer, I got to talk to you’. It’s also a nod to the fact that the ‘Fireworker’ part of us is also what makes us fun. What you like about your friends is their Fire.”
Nice people can be very boring!
“No-one wants to be the friend of the old clergyman in the village. People like the dangerous guy in the leather jacket, and that is the ‘Fireworker’ at work within us. He gives you your fire.”
He’s the rogue within us?
“Definitely, but it’s also the force that if you have a project he gives you the fire to finish it. He gives you the strength you need. You couldn’t survive without it. So that’s why the Fireworker song bangs like that (claps hands).”
I really like Fireworker, and the first song Space…. Cowboy. Sorry, I keep wanting to call it ‘Space Monkey’! (Laughing)
“That would have been a good title! (Laughing).”
I have yet to really get into the final song, Sapien, so far. It clearly ‘bookends’ the album with the opening epic Space Cowboy. So what’s behind this piece?
“During Sapien the main character is discussing with the ‘Fireworker’ himself:
“‘Do I have a name? Am I an identity? Am I a living creature? Or am I just a shell you’re using to travel around who let’s me think I’m in charge but I’ll just do what you ask?’
“At the end of the piece the ‘Fireworker’ just calls him ‘Sapien’, because ‘Sapien’ just stands for ‘Homo Sapien’ – that’s what we are. He just calls him ‘Sapien’ because this is the incarnation that he lives in now, but Sapiens are pretty new… only about 200,000 years as a species. It’s the latest in a VERY long line. At the end of the song the main character loses the debate against the ‘Fireworker’. But also in Sapien the ‘Fireworker’ says ‘I was the one who carried you up all those stairs, and I was there in those times when you needed strength. You couldn’t have done it on your own’.”
That’s quite a tension, isn’t it? There’s a Darkness about the ‘Fireworker’, but without it we wouldn’t have survived. That instinctive desire to continue, to procreate. The implication to me is that we need that darkness within us to carry on, and without that parasite we would have died. We wouldn’t have got here, would we?
“Definitely not. You need someone who will kill. I sometimes think, especially when I’m around Robert the drummer, who is massive, that when you’re around men there’s always the underlying thing that we can kill each other. If I went to your house and set it alight you would quickly become very dangerous. That adds something to your presence. I think it adds an element to us – it gives an added element of a possibility of danger.”
Towards the end of the interview the discussion turns to forthcoming plans for a Live Streaming show by Gazpacho and the nature of next year’s planned tour, postponed twelve months from late 2020.
Thomas shares that the enforced delay of this year’s tour has given Gazpacho the unexpected opportunity to commence work already on the follow-up to Fireworker. Thomas also excitedly reveals plans soon for a special live streamed show in a fascinating looking museum, previously a paper factory, which Thomas hopes will help make it a ‘cool-looking show’. The date has yet to be confirmed but Thomas was clearly excited at the prospect of unveiling the whole new album in a live context, along with a couple of older songs, Substitute for Murder (from their 2004 album When Earth Lets Go) and the classic Chequered Light Buildings from one of their greatest albums, 2007’s Night.
Gazpacho live shows are always imaginatively presented, and in concert Gazpacho’s music takes on another dimension, but Thomas shares that this year’s ‘Fireworker Tour’ shows were going to be even more ambitious. Interestingly, Thomas explains that for next year’s shows unusually Gazpacho will play the full Fireworker album ‘because we feel the concept is so strong’. The plan is to play the whole album in sequence in one long piece with five sections. Thomas emphasises this shows the great faith the band have in the new material and its underlying concept. Such a decision also shows a remarkable faith in the open mindedness of the fans, but by next year the ‘new’ album will have been in the consciousness of the fans for twelve months. The prospect of an even more musically ambitious rock show with eye catching visual imagery, with artwork as usual from Marillion cover artist Antonio Seijas, and the customary excellent musicianship from Gazpacho is a mouthwatering prospect for late 2021 indeed.
Thomas concludes the interview proclaiming:
“… the discussion as to whether it’s a good or a bad album isn’t even important. It’s the concept and what you do with it – use this album to think about that idea…”
Of course, we’re not entirely sure whether it was Thomas who wanted to say that… or whether it was his internal ‘Fireworker’. Whatever – as he says, it will be one hell of a ride!
[You can read Leo’s review of Fireworker HERE]
Portraits of Thomas and the band by Nina Rojina Krømer, used with kind permission.