Features Interviews

Glass State: In Conversation with Sweet Williams’ Thomas House

The Zaragoza-based artist talks us through Sweet Williams’ latest offering.

Whether it’s been through the abrasive, post-hardcore-inspired assaults of Charlottefield or the endeavours under his own name and as Sweet Williams, Thomas House has always approached things from unique angles.

Having spearheaded a band that has projected vastly different shapes and colours since the 2011 debut LP, Bliss (Endless Love), under the Sweet Williams moniker, House has spent the last two decades beavering away at the fault lines of slowcore and post-hardcore, managing to conjure up something akin to a reverse engineered blend of electric folk.

With a consistent stream of releases following Bliss, such as the elusive quality of the Sweet Williams canon, each record could be considered a highlight in its own right, depending on where the mood takes you – this week, Please Let Me Sleep On Your Tonight, Where Does the Time Come From (both Gringo Records) and That What You Hit  (Wrong Speed Records) top the list. Then there’s House’s latest Sweet Williams dispatch, the wonderful Sweet Williams, which is arguably his greatest conquest so far.   

With a series of serrated jams which include the customary Sweet Williams hairpin turns, the House produces a homespun warmth that was perhaps absent on earlier works. It underlines the juxtapositions House has always delivered. Cohesive is perhaps the wrong word, but on Sweet Williams, it feels like House has produced his most immediate record yet.

At the end of March, I managed to see House perform at Rites of Spring – the Bishop’s Castle all-dayer curated by his other band, Haress. We got talking after his set, which was a stripped back affair that surprisingly added new dimensions to the songs from Sweet Williams.

During our conversation, we’d arranged to have a chat over Zoom in the following weeks, and from his home in the Spanish city of Zaragoza, we spoke about the creative process, music of the past and present, and Sweet Williams.

Thomas House @ Rites of Spring (photo: Simon Kirk)

Sun 13: So how did the rest of the UK tour finish up?

Thomas House: “It wasn’t really a tour as such, I just did three gigs. Partly because I was over to play Rites of Spring, and TST the weekend before in Brighton, which was a similar kind of festival that was put together by Colin [Wakefield] who always put on the bands that I’ve played in since I was really young. He was retiring from doing that, so he was putting on a big thing, and I was definitely going to come over to play that, and definitely going to play the Rites of Spring. And then I booked the London gig to cap it off, which was really nice.”

S13: Talking about music when you were younger, can you tell us about your first memories?

TH: “Music was really important in my household. The record player was more important than the TV in our house. I remember watching The Tube. It used to be on a Friday night and they would have cool and interesting bands on there. My dad would make tapes for me and my sister, our favourite songs from his records and then those cassettes would get played to death in the car. My dad was into stuff like The Smiths and the Cocteau Twins, New Order, amongst other things. A lot of stuff that he loved when he was growing up, like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. My mum was a big fan of The Cure.

“The earliest memories are my dad bringing home like before 4AD records, I think. Possibly one of my earliest memories of a pop song would be something like would be Pearly Dew-drops’ Drops by the Cocteau Twins. There was always music playing in the house.”

S13: I guess in terms of direct influences for Sweet Williams, there’s a ’90s posts-rock/post-hardcore leaning. Codeine…

TH: “That came a bit later, because I’d sort of grown up in a house where there was a lot of alternative types, not just guitar music, you know? Music from different places in the world, and classical music as well. Me and my sister were encouraged to have open ears. And also, we were encouraged to play music from an early age. I started playing the violin when I was seven or eight or something. And then my sister was playing the cello, and we both played the piano.

“Then around ’92 that was when grunge happened. So that was the first music that I got into in my own right. My sister was already getting into indie bands and stuff, then I got into a lot of grunge, and then, subsequently, my dad got into all the bands that me and my sister were getting into, so that was cool. We used to listen to music a lot together, especially in the car. My dad took us both to lots of cool gigs, and then I got old enough to start going out to gigs on my own, which, in the ’90s, you could do it when you were 14 or 15. You could get into places where you weren’t supposed to and see these bands. And so I started meeting a lot of people who started turning me on to weirder, further out stuff, which at the time – when I say weird – I mean like Slint and Codeine. That was the time friends were giving me tapes of all of those kinds of bands. So that was all in the DNA, you know?”

S13: Was that in Brighton or London?

TH: “I grew up in Hastings. But there wasn’t a lot…. I mean, I saw some great bands in Hastings, there’s still a pretty sweet live music scene [there]. I think there are a lot of musicians who lived there, people doing interesting things. But at the time when I was there, there weren’t a lot of other people, certainly not my age, who were listening to John Peel and wanting to play in bands and wanting to play in weird bands. Everybody wanted to do mainstream stuff, or covers. There were a lot of covers bands and blues bands in Hastings at the time.

“I started going up to Tunbridge Wells on the train. I don’t know if you know Tunbridge Wells, but it’s about halfway between Hastings and London, 45 minute train journey. Up there, there’s a club called The Forum where a lot of the John Peel bands would come through on tour, or the bands that you would hear on the evening session on Radio 1 as well. It was what they called a toilet venue, but there were other people my age going to gigs there. That’s where I met a lot of friends who started giving me tapes of the weird kind of stuff.

“And also, it was easy to get a gig at The Forum. Your band could play the Monday night showcase. The people that ran the place, if you had an ounce of enthusiasm for live music, if you turned up a couple of times and they recognised you, and you said you had a band, they would say, ‘Well, your band has got to come and play here. And do you want to learn how to do sound? Are you looking for a bass player? Because so and so plays the bass, and you should talk to that person over there. They want to start a band and you guys should hang out’. And so that was the first place where I found a real sense of encouragement. I think loads of people would say the same thing about The Forum. Loads of my lifelong friends, my best friends, and loads of the people that I’ve played with, I’ve met through there. Loads of my favourite bands are bands I saw there when I was a teenager.”

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S13: Can you tell us about the process behind Sweet Williams?

TH: “Yeah. I think it took me about 18 months to write all the songs that are on it. Usually when I do an album, there’s the newest songs, and then there’ll be songs on there that are 10, 15 years old. Just because there’s always something old lying around that’s appropriate [and] fits with those newer songs. But this time, it seemed like this one was all written in a shorter space of time. It feels more thematically linked than others. Not that there’s any overarching concept, but [I] just wrote the songs and then we recorded them. It was a really painless, easy process.

“My next-door neighbour [pointing], who lives the other side of that wall, was the engineer on the record [Sergio Segura]. I was going play bass on it myself, but my friend Phil [Goulding] rang me up a week before we were going in to start recording and said, ‘I’m gonna come and visit you’. He lives in Berlin, and I said, ‘You can come down and visit me this weekend, but we’re going to be recording’. Then I remembered he plays bass, I said, ‘So do you want to play bass on the new record?’ That worked out really well. He just learned it all in a day and then came in and put the bass parts down, which was really good. Him and Pablo [Jimenez] just learned the songs and did them, then I did my stuff over the top of it. And then I mixed it in this room that I’m talking to you from, which took a little while.”

S13: What was the most important thing you wanted to capture with the record?

TH: “As always, I just wanted to get the songs down. I felt like I’d written some songs that were closer than ever to what I wanted them to be, you know? Like anyone who does any creative endeavour knows, you have an idea or a sort of mission statement for what you do, and you never quite know, it’s never 100 per cent, which is kind of a cool thing. You start with an idea or an aim, but along the way sometimes the ideas just don’t want to fit that mould and do what you want them to do. The ideas have other ideas and you have to keep listening to the idea –  let it speak to you and let it evolve in the way that it naturally is going to, because trying to force it just doesn’t work. Like, you might want a heavy, grungy sounding song, but if the song’s not saying that, if the song wants to be a clean, quiet number then if you try and force it the other way it’s going to be bad.

“But this time around, I feel like it was much clearer. The relationship between the initial idea and the intention of something and the way that it evolved was, if not exactly in accordance with the ‘mission statement’, was just more pleasing. It felt like a culmination of having been writing songs for 20 years and all of that experience and knowledge of knowing when to quit forcing something and just let it be what it is. That whole process felt more natural than it ever has, and the results feel more satisfying to me.

Pablo played the drums, Sergio recorded it, Phil played the bass, Cristian [Barros] played guitar on a couple of tracks, everybody did a really good job.”

Sweet Williams - Sweet Williams

S13: In relation to that, having seen some of the new songs live, I enjoyed how much depth there was to those songs in the solo capacity. There wasn’t much of a deviation from how the songs are represented on record. They were just as intense stripped back.

TH: “That’s really nice to hear. I must admit, I thought I’d kind of blown it at that gig. I’ve never seen Burd Ellen play before, but I’m a really big fan of Gayle [Borgan’s] work as Pefkin. And they were amazing. They blew me away, and then having to play directly after that, I had a terrible case of what people call impostor syndrome. Everything all day was really great as well. I was playing with some of my favourite people and people that I really admire and respect, but I was never not going to play, because loads of those people are my really close friends as well.

“Just before Burd Ellen played as well, I met somebody, a guy came over to me and said, ‘Are you Tom House? We’ve got a friend in common’. And he told me who the friend was and I immediately realised I’m talking to this guy whose music I’ve been a fan of for getting on 20 years! The mutual friend burned me a CD of some of his stuff, Thee Gold of a Thousand Mournings from a split by The Pneumatic Consort & Johann Wlight.

“So I’ve been listening to Johann’s music for years. There are some other things that he did under different names – Itdreamedtome, that’s him as well. Similar stuff as that, but Thee Gold of a Thousand Mournings is my favourite. I’ve been listening for years and puzzling over it, and what little I could find out about this guy was extremely curious and really interesting. He’d become this myth, in my mind. He sort of vanished, and my friend who knew him said he’d moved house and they’d lost contact, so he’s like this enigma to me, you know? And then this guy’s come up and tapped me on the shoulder, just before Burd Ellen plays and he said, ‘Did you play in that band years ago that my friend did the artwork for?’ I was absolutely amazed to meet this guy. The hairs are standing up on my arms talking about it now. He was really nice and really friendly. And when I said to him, ‘I’ve been listening to your music since Barney copied it from me for 15, 20 years ago.

“So I met him and already feeling a little bit like ‘Wow!, there’s some sort of magic going on today’, and then Burd Ellen came on and were unbelievable. I think he was there to see them in particular as well, because he knows Gayle because they’ve traded tapes for years, and then I actually thought Rattle were playing next, and they were like ‘No, you’re on now!’ I was feeling all wobbly and didn’t know what to do with myself. But it’s nice that that you say that it sounded alright, the songs didn’t suffer being stripped back, because that makes me feel a bit better about it.”

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S13: The equally great thing for me was that you opened with Glass State, which, I think is the best song you’ve written. Can you tell us anything about how the song evolved?

TH: “Yeah, I mean, since you ask, that’s quite strange. I told you that all the songs were written in a relatively short space of time, but that has seeds going back a long way.

“I’ve had this recurring dream for years where I’ve watched various bands, some of them my friends’ bands, some of them just bands that I really love. One time it was Captain Beefheart, but with the Tragic Band. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that Captain Beefheart footage from the Old Grey Whistle Test where he’s playing a cheesy song with a pickup bar and it’s not the proper Captain Beefheart stuff. But I had this dream where I was watching that band, and I was watching the Old Grey Whistle Test footage, but they played this song that I’ve never heard before in the dream. I’ve had other dreams where I’ve seen bands playing the same song. This band Headquarters from Tunbridge Wells, I’ve seen them play it as well. I’ve always woken up trying to remember the song, or at least part of it or some element of it to make something out of it. I’d never been able to because, you know, you wake up and whatever you were just dreaming is gone within a few seconds.

“And then when I started putting the ideas together for the songs that ended up being this album, it’d be a cassette tape with 20 riffs on it that were recorded over the space of a few weeks and trying to work each one of them up into a piece of music. I’d just moved to Spain and had to reorganise [things]. I had this cassette that was recorded in my then girlfriend’s bedroom when I was 16. There’s a cassette from one afternoon with 20 different riffs on it, [and] it had the two chord sequences for Glass State on it. This cassette is like 20, 25 years old by this point, but those chords were the basis for this song that I had kept dreaming about.

“So I worked it up into a song that didn’t take very long to get the whole musical arrangement. It just came really quickly as soon I started working on it, and then I was like, ‘That’s as close as I’m gonna get to that song’. It’s nice that you say it’s your favourite, because it’s one of my favourite things I’ve written, I think.”

S13: Tracks like Half Mile and Settlement have an outhouse, slowcore kind of vibe. Crazy Horse and Low just jamming out in a real organic way, which I guess feeds into what you were saying about how this record feels. It lines up the most with the initial ideas.

TH: “It’s nice you mention Crazy Horse. My dad was a huge Neil Young fan and got me into that stuff. From when I started listening to Nirvana, my dad was banging on the bedroom door, ‘What is this? Turn it up!’ And then saying to me, ‘Well, if you like that, you’ve got to check out Neil Young, because, he’s kind of The Godfather’. And you’re like, ‘Yeah, Dad, whatever’. But then you listen to it, and you think, ‘Fuck, he’s right!'”

Thomas House (photo: Frank Masters)

S13: The other thing that intrigued me was CD of demos for your next record, which were included with the vinyl. I’ve never seen anybody do that before. With capitalism basically degrading art, is it a case of artists having to come up with new ideas to try and combat that and kick against the system? Maybe I’m I thinking too deep into it…

TH: “No, I mean, I don’t know whether that’s the real conscious intention behind that particular move. But I take some sort of delight, and I think, Joe [Thompson], and Chris [Summerlin] at the record label as well, we all take some delight in doing perverse things and sticking a finger up to the kind of model we’re supposed to go by. I love being in this kind of world where we don’t have to conform and have a six week run up on the record, or wait for the reviews to come in or anything like that. And so it’s really nice to be able to just say fuck that and do things our own way.

“It was Joe’s idea, because they were the demos of the album, and he said, ‘Well, we could do something nice, put a CDR of the demos from the album. And because all three of us are big fans of PJ Harvey, she did that with her first record Dry – it originally came as a double LP with her four track demos, so we thought it was a cool idea. But the demos, they’re not that different from the record, they’re just not as good. A couple of the songs, maybe there’s slightly different arrangement, but nothing really that different, and it wasn’t really going to add anything to it.

“But I did have all of these other songs that I’d been working on while we were finishing the LP. I just thought we should put these songs on there instead, because it’ll be little bit more interesting. Joe said, ‘I don’t think anyone’s ever put the demos for the next album in their record before, so that’s a good idea’. There’s a slightly perverse thing about that. But in the end, I’m not entirely sure that that’s going to be the next album, maybe a couple of the songs off it will be on the next album, and maybe a couple of them on albums down the line. Assuming that there’s going to be another.” (laughs)

S13: Talking about your Tunbridge Wells experience, Wrong Speed Records feels like a modern day version of that, in terms of the DIY aspect…

TH: “I’ve known Joe almost as long as that. I started going to Tunbridge Wells when I was 14 or 15. And then I met Joe and his partner Elisa in Brighton at the Brighton Crawl when I was 18. So, we’ve got a long history. My previous band worked with his older label. You’re right, he’s always had the DIY attitude. The reason I met him was he and Elisa were standing on the seafront at Brighton Crawl in 1998. He was in a band called Stanton. They started their own record label, Johnson Family Records, and their first release on the label the first Stanton EP, which I have…

[Walks to his collection and picks it out]

“I’d never heard of the band, but they were standing on the seafront selling this record out of a little cardboard box. One pound fifty, four songs, seven inch. I went over and just said hello to them, and they were just so friendly. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ They said, ‘We’re selling our record for one pound fifty. You should buy one!’ That’s when we became friends. I was with a couple of mates from Hastings at the time, and we all became lifelong friends. He’s always been like that, Joe. Whether I’ve been working with him or not, he’s always been really encouraging. He’s a bit older than me as well, so meeting him at the age of 18 as an enthusiastic indie kid, he’s a bit older, he’s in a band putting out his own records and I was like, ‘This guy’s cool!’”

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S13: I’m just connecting the dots here, but is that how your connection with Haress came about? Through Wrong Speed?

TH: “No, no. That’s an interesting case of just everybody knowing everybody. I can’t remember exactly. I don’t know the exact sequence of events. I was friends with Dave [Hand] and Liz [Still] from before they were involved with Wrong Speed. They must have known Joe just from their own label [Lancashire and Somerset], which is a great label as well. And Chris Summerlin. He’d been playing with Haress for a while before I started singing with them, then he joined Hey Colossus. So yeah, that’s more just kind of everybody knowing everybody.”

S13: Having lived in Spain for a while now, how much of an influence are your current surroundings to your songs?

TH: “I’m not sure. I think if that were to happen, I think that’s probably something that will happen over time. I definitely think when I wrote that batch of songs, and then the songs that are on the CD afterwards…. the thing is, writing happens every few years for me, sometimes there’s a gap. And then sometimes there’s a period where just loads of it gets done. And sometimes there’s a period where none of it gets done. But at that point, when that moment came when it was like, ‘Right, I’m ready to go,’ it was the first or second time I’d been in that frame of mind since moving to Spain. And just the fact that my lifestyle here allows that.

“When I lived in Brighton, I had to work a lot to pay the rent, I was working as a bartender, so late nights, and then a lot of the stuff that goes along with that it really eats into your time. So living here means that when I do feel like getting stuck into a project, and when I’ve got the impetus, I generally have the time and space to do it because I’m working a day job. I’ve got a little bit more free time and a little bit more energy.”

S13: I’ve always been interested in musicians such as yourself who have been around for a long time. Do you still engage with new music?

TH: “That feeling that you get when you’re a teenager, and you get into your favourite band when you were 15, or whatever. That’s a really powerful moment. Those kind of moments become fewer and further between as you get older, right?”

S13: Yeah, for sure.

TH: “I guess because you’ve experienced a lot more music and a lot more of everything. So it’s a bit more difficult for something to really cut through like that. But that said, and I’m not as hungry as I used to be, although I do still actively seek out things I’ve never heard before. I read stuff on the internet or in magazines, and if something sounds interesting, I’ll listen to it. But that amazing feeling of when of something really just goes straight through you? That doesn’t happen as often as you get older. I think most people say the same thing, but it does still happen to me. And I don’t know whether, a lot of the time, it’s music that I’ve seen live, but that experience watching Burd Ellen. And I don’t know if that counts, because maybe we were sort of connected by mutual friends. I don’t know if that counts in terms of your original question, but the last couple of years, it’s definitely been less so.

“There again, this is something that happens in spells. I got into a couple of records that are just absolutely from outside of any circle, or any overlapping circle. The Keeley Forsyth record, the first album.”

S13: Yeah, that’s great.

TH: “Around the same time is that that was the Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats record, Unlocked, which was good. I was really receptive to a lot of things right at that time for one reason or another. There were a lot of things that I heard then that I had no frame of reference for. But not so much recently, although there’s a great new band from Madrid, called Ensaña. They’ve got an album out on Repetidor. That’s fucking great. I’ve been listening to that a lot.

“The other new stuff that I’ve been listening to, I’ve come to it through overlapping circles, but I still think it counts. You know, Pefkin is always putting out new stuff.”

Sweet Williams is out now via Wrong Speed Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.

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