An Interview with Steve Newman and Mark Thompson-Smith
Steve Newman is a hugely respected name in melodic rock circles who through his band Newman has become renowned for consistently strong songwriting, stunning guitar playing and wonderfully melodic vocals. Therefore there were a few raised eyebrows when it was announced that he had teamed up with one time Praying Mantis vocalist Mark Thompson-Smith, who had been out of the limelight for almost a decade, in a new band called Big Life. Their debut arrived a couple of months ago and instantly blew away any doubts that there may have been about Steve's wisdom to deviate from Newman after their excellent The Art Of Balance album, or Mark's ability to put in a stunning performance after so long away. With us heading towards the halfway point of the year, it is no exaggeration to say that the duo's self titled album is one of the melodic rock highlights of the year so far. Sea of Tranquility staff writer Steven Reid had no hesitation in catching up with Steve and Mark to find out more.
SoT: Hi Guys, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
So let's start at the beginning. I know that Mark has been involved singing back-up vocals on some Newman albums, but how did you guys get to meet and when did you first work together?
Steve: Hi Steven, good to talk with you. I was initially introduced to Mark through my good friend Mark Mulholland who was the drummer on the first Newman album. Mark TS was looking to form a band after returning from the US and I was recommended as the guitar player. Unfortunately due to one circumstance or another this didn't work out, but Mark and I kept in contact.
SoT: So Mark, I think it would be fair to suggest that you are possibly best known for your stint with longstanding British rockers Praying Mantis, but I know you have also been involved with some other impressive names in the business, can you give us an idea of the other bands and projects you've worked with?
Mark: Firstly, thank you for your kind words in your review of the Big Life album on SoT...very much appreciated!!
SoT: My Pleasure!
Mark: Well, I was out of the music game from 1994 to 2005 apart from releasing a solo album A Far Cry From New Jersey in '98, but I have been lucky to have played with some great talents in bands previously.
Obviously Praying Mantis in '93 and more recently a brief stint with The Sweet, but before then I was lucky to have spent two years in New Jersey with Mike Walsh from Message and Departure which included some time with Mike's good friend Dave Rosenthal of Red Dawn, Infinity and Rainbow fame and now Billy Joel's long time keyboard player. That was a great time if somewhat frustrating as the band Mike and I put together was really impressive, but the timing was all wrong due to the emergence of grunge, so it wouldn't have mattered how good or bad we were as the record companies were turning their backs on melodic rock. Just before that I'd recorded with London band Flight 19. We had a couple of songs included on the Metal For Muthas2 CD and Flight 19's Gary Flounders later produced the Praying Mantis Cry For The New World album and we both played with them on the tour of Japan in '93
The two main bands before that were in the mid 80s with Idol Rich, featuring Nick Burr who went on to join the second version of Lionsheart and then Touche with the twins Mark and Steve Owers, now of The Psychics. Touche went as close as you can possibly get to a deal with Atlantic but the twins decided to go another way with Steve Grimmett and form the initial version of Lionsheart instead....small world, huh!!
SoT: As you were saying Mark, the last band you were active with in the public eye was The Sweet back in 2005, what have you been up to for the last five or six years?
Mark: I'd given up on singing in the mid nineties...I'd actually fallen out of love with it and the business and, as I said, apart from honouring my promise to Mike Walsh to release our CD. I was pretty much done and dusted until I was made redundant from the IT industry and then, sadly, soon afterwards a close friend of mine passed away.
I met up with good friends of mine from my old Portsmouth band Fay Wray at the funeral and it was a turning point, a "Life's too short moment". We ended up getting back together after 20 years, started rehearsing just for the fun of being together again and then completely out of the blue, Bruce Bisland from Praying Mantis called up and asked if I was still singing and if I was, could I help out The Sweet as Tony O'Hara was leaving the band...and that was that! I met up with Andy Scott, we rehearsed and before I knew it I was in Stockholm singing "Ballroom Blitz"!! Unfortunately, it was only a temporary thing but how can you go back from there? So I didn't. I invested my redundancy cheque into running rock schools, which I still do now, and I got on the phone to my good friend Steve Newman and said "I want to start writing and recording again!"
So the last few years have been a renaissance for me... I'm back singing, I run a team of young guys who teach kids how to play rock music, Fay Wray are out playing locally which is such a buzz and Big Life has become a reality. I'm absolutely stunned at the turnaround, it's brilliant!! Some people get a Harley, I got back on the mic again!!
SoT: How easy was it to get your voice up to speed again in terms of recording a full album, was it just like slipping back into the groove?
Mark: Luckily, the gigs with Fay Wray and the rock schools had given me a perfect way to get some way back up to par...the tones and range were there and the stamina came back eventually, but strangely Steve made me realise that I was singing "live" style - pushing it too much. So it was only when we started to really concentrate on the CD proper last year that I became used to recording again...it was great to bed back in to that style again.
SoT: So what about the beginning of Big Life. I know that Mark had been involved singing some back-up vocals on a few Newman albums, but how did you guys get to meet and when did the idea of Big Life begin?
Mark: Steve and I met just as I gave up singing and he was starting his first album so musically the timing was rubbish but he became a great friend. As he wrote and recorded his albums he'd ask me over to listen to ideas and gradually persuaded me to put in the odd backing vocal. I think the hidden agenda was to get me back singing again. If it was, it worked, eventually...thanks Steve!!
Steve: Haha...We'd been talking about working together for a while, obviously as you both mentioned, Mark had contributed backing vocals to a lot of the Newman albums but we both felt that we needed to get Mark out again and creating something between us. It all really started in 2005 when we were able to take time out of our busy schedules and sit and write songs for a few weeks. It was a very constructive time.
Mark: Yes, the writing process came first and was surprisingly very quick and very natural. We then slowly put ideas down as and when Steve was available as he's a busy lad.....8 Newman albums and one Big Life CD in 11 years plus all of his other stuff that he does is unbelievable! Anyway, Steve decided to devote 2010 to our project and came up with the name.
Steve: To me the name Big Life just seemed to fit the style of the music.
Mark: The songs were varied style wise, the production was starting to be big but with a very natural ambience to it and my lyrics touched on a few issues. Some were observational and some personal and that enabled me to realise that there's a huge other world out there after years in the IT wilderness. Steve's suggestion of Big Life just seemed appropriate.
SoT: So you didn't have to be enticed into singing and recording again Mark, in fact you were itching to get involved in music again?
Mark: As I said earlier, once I'd come back from Sweden with The Sweet, the passion was there again and from our very first song that we wrote together, "Close To You", I knew I'd made the right decision.
SoT: You must both be thrilled with how the album has turned out, as it is definitely one of the melodic rock highlights of the year so far. Were all the songs written especially for this album, or were some of them brought from other projects you've been involved with?
Steve: Thank you for your kind words Steven, yes, all the songs were written by both Mark and me. We sat around with an acoustic guitar and played, sung, and arranged the backbone of most of these songs in around two weeks.
Mark: It was like - Day one at Steve's ...Steve said "What have you got?", I replied "Errmm nothing, what have you got?'", Steve – "Errm nothing", Me – "Oh...errmm...well, ...I had this little keyboard melody pop into my head 10 minutes ago up the road on the way here...any good?" ...and that was how the song "Close To You" started.
SoT: My own personal favourite track from the album is "Calling", which has a great little guitar motif to die for before building into a monster chorus. Are there any tracks that you think really stand out, or that you would advise people to check out to get a feel for what Big Life are all about?
Steve: I like that song too!!
Mark: Loads of people love that riff! So did we when Steve came up with it, thank God. It's a really hard question ...Which of your children do you love the most?
Steve: I am proud of the all of the songs on the album and I'm pleased that it's been a real 50/50 writing experience with Mark, because it's taken some of the songs in directions we would not necessarily have thought to go. I love "I'll Still Be Here" for the chorus, also "Better Man" for the commercial appeal. I guess I love all of them in different ways and I think it has certainly evolved as a very varied album.
Mark: I love them all for different reasons as well. "Calling" and "Dying Day" for the power, "Better Man" for the "chorus to die for", "Deep Water" and "Leaves" as they are very personal to me and "Feel Alive" for the re-awakening feeling and ...oh, I love them all even the bonus track "Hands Across The Water"...that's my thank you to all of my American friends from the early 90s
To be honest, I feel it's an album in the old sense, one to really listen to, not just once or twice. We're getting lots of comments about the different styles of songs, the light and shade and the fact that people are appreciating it more and more as they play it again means that it's not disposable as some albums are these days. Some reviewers have only played it once and it's gone by them - luckily most people have heard something and put it on again and it's really captured their interest.
SoT: It's great to hear Newman drummer Rob McEwan on the album. He's just such a solid time-keeper who's capable of adding a real flourish to the music, it must be great to have such a strong back bone to the music.
Steve: Yes, Rob is great, he has great ability to step in and know exactly what is required for each song.
Mark: Yes, there's no doubt about it he's an amazing talent!
SoT: I think the guitar work on this album is possibly the strongest performance I've heard from you Steve. Did not having the same level of vocal responsibility allow you more musical freedom to express yourself?
Steve: Thank you. I guess to a certain extent that may be true, although over the past few years I have returned to the guitar and played more than I have ever done before. The last Newman album was very guitar orientated. Big Life has a little more space in the music, so on some songs, such as "I'll Still Be Here" and "Deep Water" I was able to think much more about melody and delivery when it came to the solos
Mark: I think also that we co-wrote the album and as such Steve was very open to ideas from me and vice versa. If I heard something that was different from where he would normally go playing wise, I'd point it out and suggest he go down that new path and some of that ended up on the CD.
SoT: Actually Steve, what were the reasons for you being so keen on getting involved with a project where you are not the lead vocalist?
Steve: Ha, it was a welcome break and it was nice to give someone else a hard time in the studio! Seriously though, Mark was great to work with and we're great friends which made the process so much easier.
SoT: You both must be delighted with how the album comes together vocally. Mark put in a fabulous performance, but I was even more impressed with how your voices come together throughout the album. Was this a natural thing, or something that the two of you really had to work on to give such impressive results?
Mark: That's very kind of you, Steven, I'm very flattered. Steve's a great singer in his own right but luckily we already knew that our voices worked together from the few backing vocals that I'd added on Steve's albums. Obviously I was one who was a little louder this time around!
Steve: Yes, Mark is a great singer, it's a shame he's been away for so long! We noticed that our voices blended well when we recorded the BV's for "One Step Closer" back in 1999. So we had no trouble achieving some great results with the vocals on this album.
Mark: It was pretty natural but much in the same way with Steve's guitar playing there were certain times where he suggested I go slightly differently which was more akin to his vocal idea - we really learned a lot from each other making the album that way.
SoT: What was it about Mark's vocals that captured your imagination Steve?
Steve: I think he sings in a different way to myself, and melody wise, certainly goes in some different directions. It's not always predictable which I find great and admire so much in a singer.
SoT: Obviously there are some similarities between the Big Life sound and Newman, but did you do anything specific to try and set this album apart from your Newman output?
Steve: Not really, as I said before, this was very much a 50/50 effort right down to some of the guitar solo melodies. Every part of every song was written and arranged by both of us so sure, it has Newman influence, but it also has the Thompson-Smith influence too!
Mark: There's obviously Newman touches throughout because of Steve's playing and writing but we genuinely started off with his acoustic and me with the sole purpose of writing songs, no matter whatever style came out...after all, I hadn't written anything since 1993, so we had no idea what was going to happen. We're just incredibly grateful that all of the different ideas came flooding out to form the basis of the album as it is now.
SoT: As I said the guitar and keyboard playing on the album is top notch, but I did wonder if there was ever a temptation to involve some other people with this album and put a full band together for this project?
Steve: Thanks again for your kind words Steven, much appreciated. I don't think Mark and I ever really discussed that option. He was happy with the choice to use Rob for the drums and I had everything else covered!
Mark: We do know some incredible musicians in the UK and abroad but there really wasn't any need to involve anyone else - Steve's a clever boy - he knows what he's doing and as you've mentioned, his guitar playing on this CD is simply great.
SoT: The AOR Heaven label seems a really good fit for Big Life. How did you get involved with them?
Mark: It's a very good and growing label too. Steve has known Georg Siegl from AOR Heaven for ages and bumped into him at Firefest last year. He played him a few songs from the album and Georg offered him the deal there and then...result! We really hope that it does well for Georg, not just for us, because he's one of the true melodic rock lovers who's fighting the tide. Luckily, I think that the tide is turning in his favour as the interest in this music is coming back again.
Steve: I've known Georg since the release of my first album back in 98 and he has always been a great believer in my music. The great thing about him is that he has a true passion for melodic rock and is one of the most honest guys in the business. As Mark says, I was carrying some demos with me for the Big Life album at Firefest and it seemed a natural choice to play some songs to Georg as I have also been working closely with him on the last few Newman albums. After hearing the first few songs he immediately made us that offer.
SoT: I know that getting out and touring isn't quite so straight forward these days, but are there any plans to get something organised for playing some live dates?
Steve: You're not wrong, it has been difficult scheduling dates for the Newman band this year.
Mark: Initially, we'd only thought of this as a recording project but we've been bowled over by the interest from everyone and there seems to be a genuine desire to see the songs played live.
Steve: We do have a band waiting in the wings if anything should arise and we hope that the success of this album could produce some live dates. We'll have to see how it all goes.
SoT: I've been so impressed with the album that I'm already gagging for a follow up! I know it is early days, but what are the long term plans for Big Life?
Steve: Haha, well that's good!
Mark: Thanks again, Steven!
Steve: Mark and I have already talked about a follow up, it's just getting the time to schedule writing and recording. But hopefully we'll be able to get together and write and record another album.
Mark: Once he's out of the studio and sorted out the release for his next album we'll get on to that and look to release the next Big Life CD in 2012. We've also enjoyed the process of writing and recording together and already been approached to help out another artist so we're up for anything now...bring it on!
SoT: Steve, I hope you don't mind me asking a couple of questions about Newman?
Steve: No, not at all
SoT: I have to admit that I am a very late comer to the band, in fact it was you and your band's awesome set at Firefest that turned me on to your music. I had the chance to grab a very quick chat with you at the end of the night and you still seemed to be buzzing about the performance. How special was it for you and the band to play there?
Steve: Yes, it was a great weekend for not only myself, but the band as well, we'd had a pretty busy year, and Firefest was the icing on the cake!
SoT: You must have been touched by how well the crowd responded to you as well?
Steve: I know it's been said before, but the Firefest audience is just so great, everyone is there to listen to awesome music and catch up with friends, it's like one big family. Firefest was very moving for me on a few levels. I was very touched and proud of the guys around me, they worked so hard to get the songs sounding the best they could and have brought something so special to the Newman live experience. On another level, I lost both my mother and father last year, so it was a very emotional experience. They found out about my Firefest appearance quite a while ago and were so happy for me. They always supported me in my music.
SoT: I know that quite a few bands that played at last year's festival have DVDs of their sets coming out, is there any chance of Newman's performance being one of them?
Steve: Yes, we had our performance recorded and I will resume working on the audio for this towards the end of this year.
SoT: That's great Steve, I can't wait to relive that set. Is there any other Newman activity in the pipeline?
Steve: I am currently recording the follow up to The Art Of Balance now with a view to a release at the end of the summer.
SoT: That's something else to really look forward to! Well that's all my questions Guys, thanks very much for taking the time to answer them. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Steve: Thanks Steven, I'd just like to say thank you to you and your readers for the support everyone has shown. Both Mark and I have been very pleased and humbled by the comments that have been made in regards to the Big Life album. We're very proud of the new album and to have such a great reaction is so rewarding.
Thanks again, and all the best!
Mark: Steven, it's been a real pleasure...so glad that you like the CD, so thank you once again to you and your readers!
(Click here to read our review of Big Life)