Les Thomas is a Melbourne singer-songwriter, activist and blogger who has built a name for himself as a strong supporter of alt-country music in Australia. His songs resonate with themes of social justice and a desire to awaken social conciousness. He recently released his full length album Survivor’s Tale, a record that tells the story of those whose voices aren’t being heard and with a style that takes in the poetry of Townes Van Zandt and the honesty of Billy Bragg he sings songs that ring true.
You can catch Thomas for the first time in Sydney on November 9th at the Petersham Bowling Club with Darren Cross, Lisa Caruso and Not Good With Horses. Ahead of his trip up from Melbourne the editor of the alt-country music blog Unpaved tells us about his musical influences, highlights and future plans.
What was the album that first led you down the dusty path of Americana music?
I don’t remember not loving the sounds. I’d be glued to the TV watching Westerns as an infant and listening to people like Jim Croce on long drives with my dad, so I had a good early indoctrination. As for albums, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison is number one, because it shows exactly where Johnny Cash’s heart is at; it’s courageous, passionate and generous and kind. It clearly meant an enormous amount to the prisoners there, but I think it also gave the general listening audience a different way of looking at the situation.
I’ve always loved Steve Earle, but the Jerusalem album got him banned from a lot of US stations because one of the songs, ‘John Walkers Blues’, is sung from the point of view of an American who fought with the Taliban so, given the political climate, that struck me as incredibly brave and pushed me to want to write more.
Townes Van Zandt’s Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas changed everything about the way I play guitar. Those live versions of ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and ‘Mr Mudd and Mr Gold’ in particular forced me to practice fingerpicking and flat picking properly for at least a year.
What’s been the most memorable gig you’ve played and why?
Up to this point it would have to be the Melbourne launch of Survivor’s Tale at Thornbury Theatre because it was the culmination of several years work and I was surrounded by incredible musicians like Jeff Lang, Justin Bernasconi, Ben Franz, Cat Canteri, Alison Ferrier, Mandy Connell and Ruth Lindsey. There’s a very definite sense of occasion about something like that and every word and note felt fantastic. My basic approach to playing shows is that any show can be your best, though, and every one of them is an occasion. All going well, people will be moved in a good way.
How did you learn to play your instrument?
I’ve always been a big listener and I grew up strumming various stringed instruments and playing drums, but about four years ago I got in touch with Justin Bernasconi of The Stillsons. He’s an extraordinary player and I felt I had to learn from someone whose music I really appreciated and he helped me get my head around theory, fingerpicking, flat picking, better timing, listening. It seems to me the best musicians are the ones with the best listening ears. You can’t become a good author without reading a tonne of good books and I’d say the same goes for music, so seeing and hearing great players and writers do their thing — Chris Thile, Jeff Lang, Liz Stringer, Robert Ellis, Vince Gill, Richard Thompson — is a hit of inspiration and education in one. Recording is a massive education every time, but it’s incredibly fun.
What do you consider the finest song you’ve written and why?
‘Song for Selva’ because it made the biggest difference to someone’s life. Selva is a Tamil asylum seeker who’d been detained for 37 months and I hand delivered him a copy while he was still in there and he used to crank the song to boost morale, then about a week after community radio started playing it he was released into the community. Whether the song did or didn’t influence that decision, it means a lot to me that it demonstrated support to him and the basic idea of treating asylum seekers as worthwhile human beings is still very relevant. Musically it’s very simple, but it tells a real story.
If you could sit-in with one other musician (living or dead) who would it be?
That’s a very tough question. I have a lot of heroes: Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams. One of the really intriguing characters I would love to have met is Buddy Bolden, a cornet player from New Orleans who helped create what came known as Jazz. Michael Ondaatje’s book Coming Through Slaughter tells his story. His life was utterly harrowing, but music took him above his circumstances as it continued to do for artists like Miles Davis, Nina Simone and lots of others, but he was creating something that had never been heard before and changed the world as a result. He would have been a bit like the Jimi Hendrix of his day, finding totally free expression through music. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a Hendrix if Buddy Bolden hadn’t set the ripples in motion.
Do you feel there is a strong folk/country music community in Australia and what does it need to grow?
Very much so and there’s a lot of people including yourself who are dedicated to nurturing that. In Melbourne, we’re extremely fortunate to have people like Denise Hylands, Brian Wise and David Heard who’ve been sharing this kind of music at RRR and PBS for more than 30 years. Music venues seem to love this area of music, probably in large part because it goes well with beer, tends to avoid noise complaints and it works for adults. When I started Unpaved, I was very aware that I was trying to do my bit to complement that and trying to highlight great music that, to my mind, wasn’t getting as much written love as it deserved, with music journalism being in the state it is. People like Justin Townes Earle or Jason Isbell go over well here, I think, because they’re very emotionally direct and I think that’s more important than any accent. Beyond music lovers who seek out the good stuff, I don’t think Australia has really woken up to its own talent yet, people like Liz Stringer, Van Walker, Raised by Eagles totally deserve to be widely celebrated.
We’d probably die waiting for large music labels to kick in with a significant contribution, so I’m in favour of a punk rock approach that says the best people to help us are ourselves by going to gigs and supporting live music and community radio in every way possible. I’m very encouraged to hear about new venues opening in Sydney and other places.
Seeing the massive crowd at Out On The Weekend in Melbourne was a pretty big sign to me that this area of music is extremely well loved and if we keep cultivating the right conditions, I don’t see why it won’t keep growing. The music itself has history and staying power in it.
What’s your favourite Americana release so far this year?
The album I’ve given the most listening to this year is Joe Henry’s Invisible Hour. He has a brilliant touch lyrically and as a player and producer.
What are your musical plans over the next 12 months?
First of all I’ll be launching the Survivor’s Tale album in Sydney at Petersham Bowling Club on November 9, which I’m very much looking forward to. Early next year I hope to release a single called ‘Freedom Fighters (Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner)’ and keep writing and recording until I have enough songs that I’m happy with to form a second album. I’m concentrating on singing more like I speak and discarding anything that gets in the way of communicating the songs, hopefully to lots of new people as I go.