Away Away

25 April 2012 | 10:44 am | Steve Bell

More Mick Thomas More Mick Thomas

Talk about stepping out of your comfort zone. Mick Thomas might have been one of Australia's finest singer-songwriters for nigh on three decades now, but until the recent release of his debut solo album The Last Of The Tourists he'd always gone through the process as part of a band – for years as the focal point of esteemed folk rockers Weddings, Parties, Anything and then later with his vehicle The Sure Thing. You'd think the mere act of going it alone would be daunting enough, but Thomas further acquiesced to the wishes of his producer Darren Hanlon – himself no slouch at the singer-songwriter game – and decamped to Portland, Oregon to record the album in an unfamiliar environment and surrounded by (mostly) unfamiliar faces.

Those familiar with Thomas' oeuvre won't be surprised at all that he totally nailed the project – the album not only hangs together well as a whole but also contains a couple of tracks up there with the best work of his career – but the process sure wasn't without its nervous moments.

“I am happy,” Thomas ponders of the result of his labours. “It's as hands off as I get on a record in a lot of ways, because I kind of let Darren call a lot of the shots. I reckon the thing I would have changed is that we did it all in a week – basically five straight days – and then there were a few overdubs to be done, and I kind of left them in Darren's hands and that was really like pulling teeth because he was travelling so was getting stuff done here and there and sending me back the files. After a while that just got so messy and convoluted, and by the time the guy started mixing we weren't even sure which mix we were listening to half the time – I guess it's a peril of the digital age.

“Then I was a bit unsure of how it sounded so we found this guy to master it – again, I just looked on the internet and found this guy who's got good credits and he seemed like a nice guy, so all of a sudden it's being mastered by a guy that I've never met – and then all of a sudden you've got an album! I really felt a bit disconnected towards the end of the process for me, but that just made me pleasantly surprised when I put it on.”

Even the beginning of the process was relatively roughshod, Thomas flying over to the States armed with a batch of songs but no real idea about how they were going to be committed to tape.

“Darren's got this funny kind of paradox in that on one hand he's got this really stringent idea about what he wants and a really strong work ethic, and on the other hand he's really disorganised in some ways,” Thomas chuckles. “I didn't even know he was going to play on the record – I thought that it might end up being pretty acoustic-based, because when we were going to Portland I just had no idea about who was around to play on it, but Darren would just say, 'Oh yeah, the engineer plays drums, he's pretty good', but when the engineer played drums Darren had to do the tape machine – it wasn't like a big operation – so there was a lot of making it up as we went along really in that regard. But I reckon that gives the record a sound.”

The Pacific Northwest isn't somewhere that you'd imagine a songwriter like Thomas would trek to for a recording session – his songs are generally intrinsically Australian to the core – but it proved to be the perfect locale.

“Darren was there and wanted to work there,” he shrugs. “We live in this era where you can just check things out straight away, and everything I saw [about Portland] on the web I liked. It's very arty, it's got this massive bookshop that they're very proud of, they're into coffee, they're into food, they're into beer – it's all micro-brewing, they call it the micro-brewery capital of the world – so it's just like a massive Fitzroy really. We were really comfortable there, and it was great spending a week in an American city and not coming out feeling like you've got scurvy – you can actually eat pretty well and cheaply. The fact is with the Aussie dollar being what it is it's actually cost-effective to record over there – the poor old Yanks need some money injected into their economy.”

Of course it's ultimately the batch of songs which makes The Last Of The Tourists so strong, and apparently Hanlon played a significant role in the track selection as well.

“A lot of [the songs] have been around for a while, and Darren had a big role in shaping them into the album,” Thomas admits. “I had about 30 songs and Darren said, 'Just give me everything you can lay your hands on', so I dragged every song that I thought was a possibility out and said, 'We'll both pick ten, but let's do it at the same time so we're not influencing each other', so we both sent through ten songs. There were four or five which were on both lists and they automatically got in, but then the five that weren't on my list that he'd picked were ones that I wouldn't have gone near in a million years – I thought they were songs that were just gone, I wouldn't have picked them. But then I thought about it and decided that it's pointless me working with someone different if I'm not getting to let them say what they think, so I just went, 'I'm going to do this', and I think that's where some of the odder choices came from.”

There were some concessions to familiarity – Thomas did let his good friend Mark “Squeezebox Wally” Wallace come along for the ride, his sidekick since the early days of WPA.

“Darren was adamant that it wasn't a Weddings record and when I said Wal was coming along he was a bit funny about it, and I had to relay that to Wally, but he ended up playing on over half of it,” Thomas tells. “Once I got there and realised that I was comfortable outside my normal comfort zone – that sounds like a dumb thing to say – from Wally's point of view he got to do some stuff outside of his normal thing like autoharp and keyboards, and I reckon that's really important to do that stuff. Like The Gin Club operandi, where everyone's playing an instrument that's maybe not their first instrument. I did some percussion stuff and Wal was playing weird keyboards and this engineer was playing drums and Darren was playing bass – we were making it up pretty much as we went along, it was good.”