By Ben Kessler
London-based musician Rod Thomas makes pop music under the name Bright Light Bright Light, which is, of course, the exclamation with which gentle mogwai Gizmo expresses his sensitivity to harsh illumination in the movieGremlins.
The name encapsulates the strengths of BLBL's debut albumMake Me Believe in Hope, which displays a very special understanding of how '80s synth-pop and '90s house reflected the sensitivities of artists and audiences. Thomas, who calls himself a "cautious romantic," exquisitely uses note-perfect retro nuances to evoke very contemporary anxieties of intimacy. He's ever-aware that his generation's romantic travails aren't anywhere near new, yet his belief in hope?always a stronger artistic strategy than cynicism?keeps him striving for revelation, for fresh ways to look at life.
Thomas is also an experienced remixer of other artists' music as well as a DJ with his very own '90s-themed club night in London.
He will DJ the weekly Good Times party at Eastern Bloc in the East Village on August 1. The next day, he will perform a solo set of songs fromMake Me Believe in Hopeat Pianos.
You've said you're most influenced by the pop culture of the late '80s/early '90s. What is it about that particular period that inspires you?
I love the energy, the personality and the playfulness in the music. There were a lot of huge vocals on tracks, and lots of great vocal samples used by Black Box, Corona, and Livin' Joy for example. Really great hooks and so much passion in the delivery. I love the beats and production that David Morales and Todd Terry used, Basement Boys' style, and I loved how much fun there was in the videos made, how alive everything felt. Of course there's a bit of a rose tint, as I was young and it was my "discovering the radio and buying music" phase, but so many records (Bjork / Depeche Mode for example) still sound incredible today.
Do you think your stripped-back live show at Pianos will showcase different aspects of the songs than people would get from the album?
What's important for me is that the songs are ABOUT something. So I make pop/dance music, but each song has got a story. I'm a bit of a storyteller really. So I think stripping the songs away from the production allows hearing the songs in a more raw or exposed state. I've been doing a series of EPs called 'Blueprints' (the first one came out on US iTunes in January), which is piano versions of album tracks with some guest vocalists. I think it's fun to hear pop in a more simple form, and I hope hearing them like that in an intimate venue lets people get into the album a little more than they usually could.
What should people expect from your DJ set at Good Times [Eastern Bloc], in addition to a good time?
I like to play some bootlegs that I've been working on, and I love to mix up songs that influenced me from the 80s and 90s along with my favorite tracks right now. So expect Kindness, Ace Of Base, Morales mixes and Kelis. I just try and play the songs that have made me smile or made me dance. Good Times is a brilliant night. I can't wait to DJ there again.
Your album could be seen as part of the "crying at the disco" subgenre of pop (Robyn, etc.). What's the appeal for you of a disco downer?
For me, when something that tugs at your heart also makes you want to dance, there's not much room left to resist it. I love dancing, and I love being a bit melodramatic and sentimental, so when the two are together it's just too much. "Teardrops" by Womack & Womack or "Hyperballad" (maybe the Morales / Todd Terry Remixes) by Bjork get me every time.
You've said the album was partially inspired by things your friends were experiencing. Are you a good advice-giver in conversation, or does songwriting bring out insights or perspective you're less able to access in ordinary life?
I wouldn't claim to be a very successful agony aunt, but maybe I'm a good re-teller of things that have happened. I'm interested mainly in how people connect with other people, and with the places they live. What these people or places tease out in a personality. So I look at how people I see interact, and that prompts ideas for songs. I'm not going to spread people's lives around tabloid style (I hope!), but I think writing just about myself is boring.
Your album is called ?Make Me Believe in Hope, yet in "Grace" you seem to be saying that everyone has to find his/her own reason to hope. Do you think that's a contradiction in terms?
The title is sort of an incomplete sentence, so there's no definition of what it is that makes someone believe in hope. I don't think it's a contradiction, and I don't mean the title to suggest that you need someone else to make you feel hope. I wanted to look at what it is in people's relationships or situations that made them feel more, or less, optimistic, but also as a resolution for the album to realize that you're not powerless in all that. Things outside affect your mood in incredible ways, but you can still make your own luck as it were, and remember things that are important to you.