Interview with Tom Gerritsen from The T.S. Eliot Appreciation Society

The first song I heard by The T.S. Eliot Appreciation Society was “The Grand Tour” – it blew me away and is one of my songs of 2016. The Society is the vehicle for Dutch singer/songwriter Tom Gerritsen and he has since followed up with the new LP “Turn It Golden!” It’s a wonderful piece of work that fulfils the promise of the lead single in spades. We caught up with Tom to find out some more about him and his music. He talks about his past as a Steve Tyler impersonator and his burning desire to drink beer with us in Dublin (and who can blame him for that?) Read on, it’s a really cool interview with great tunes too.

The new single, The Grand Tour, is has a much bigger sound than your earlier work, it’s a really beautiful piece! Is it reflective of the new album?

 Thank you! Yes, it’s rather different sound-wise. I recorded it at the same studio where I did all my recordings (New Ground Studio, Utrecht), but this time around I spent way more time recording than I did before. With the EP and with A New History it was: “OK, here’s my guitar, here’s a mic, I strum the chords, shout the lyrics, and there you are: one song down.” I think I spent 2 days in the studio for A New History, and now it was about 10 days, so in the whole recording process it felt like I was floating in this vast ocean of time where I could try different things, think about using different instruments, experiment a lot more. That’s how we (the producer Wouter Kors and me) came up with those slightly strange background vocals. That was something we tried out and when I heard it back through my headphones I was electrified by the sound: “Wooooowwwwww, can my voice produce these celestial [that’s a joke] sounds? Let’s put a background choir on every song!” Well luckily we didn’t do that, but you can still hear it on about 6 songs. So yes, the sound is reflective of the new album, although it’s one of the more exuberant songs: there are still some very spare-sounding acoustic songs (on an electric guitar) on the record; I’d say it’s about half-half. I was thinking of going full Bringing It All Back Home and do one side of quiet songs and one with the band-sound, but in the end I had too many band-songs, so I ditched that plan.

The T.S. Eliot Appreciation Society on YouTube.

It immediately reminded me of an Edward Lear poem, and the lyrics are surreal and fantastical – what’s it about?

Again: thank you! That’s the first time I heard someone’s reminded of a poem by one of my songs. Today I’m a happy man. I usually don’t like to talk about specifics within a song that much, because I think that the best songs leave open the possibility for the listener to interpret it in her own way. But I tried to make the songs on this new record a little less cryptic and they are way more specifically about something than the songs on A New History, so I guess I can write a little about ‘The Grand Tour’. The main thing about the lyrics of this song is the role stories play in our lives. Everyone is making up stories as they go along, about their life, about their happiness, about the way they envision their lives will unfold, but basically it’s all fantasy – you just have to try really hard to believe in these stories you tell yourself. Well that is what happens to the protagonist in this song, who is urged by his mother to be whatever it is that he wants to be, which is all well and nice, but ends up creating this whole mirror world around him, both to make this existence a little bit more bearable, and also to impress someone who he can never really understand. Well that’s the idea, though my finished songs always tend to be a little too chaotic to really summarize them in a quick way. There’s also the stuff this guy dreams up for instance, why is he so obsessed by this whole religion-thing? I’ll have to think about that for a while longer, let’s talk about it when I visit Dublin!

The video is brilliant, and really marries well with the song – did you have a lot of creative input into it?

I’m gonna stop staying ‘thank you’ right after this one coming up now: thank you! The video was mainly the work of Lotte van Leengoed, though we did go to a lot of bars together to try to come up with ideas. Important in this story is that this year I happen to live in this humongous country mansion that I take care of for a while. So usually you go out scouting for good locations for a video to be shot, but this time I could comfortably remain at my own house. This is already something which fits quite nice with the song: I would have considered it way too fantastical to imagine myself living in such a house sometime in my life, but there you go. I think the video Lotte made, fits quite perfectly with the song: there’s a song about someone who takes the power of stories quite literally, then this guy is sitting in a chair, just telling a story, and it all (or a part of it) comes to life in the background, eventually even invading the very room he’s sitting in.

When is the new LP coming out?*

September 30th, through Greywood Records.

*The interview was done before the release – so here it is , and it’s rather wonderful!

Are you a big fan of T.S. Eliot?

Yes, although I must say that he exerted his biggest influence on me when I started out writing my own songs. The mythical/mystical tendencies in The Waste Land, that ‘heap of broken images’ that was something that struck me. Or read this: ‘Unreal City / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.’ Man! That’s what I wanted to write (and will never write). You can constantly read and re-read his poems and think: ‘I don’t really know what’s going on here, but I get instant gooseflesh. After a while, you start to invest those words with meaning of your own, turning vague words into a personalized story. That’s what I like. Am I happy that I chose this particular moniker, now that I’ve lost the drive to show off the fact that I happen to have read a book once upon a time? That’s also a question for when I visit Dublin.

What artists have been the biggest influence on your sound?

I like Chad VanGaalen very much, though his sound is totally unique. I hope one day to be able to record a record at his studio, and use all these insane self-built musical apparatuses I imagine must be lying around over there. I listened to a lot of The Feelies while recording this record, especially their record The Good Earth. Bedhead. John Fahey as well, but he has mainly influenced the first song of the record. Although I think somehow the things you really like have a tendency to show up in your music anyway, you put them in either consciously or subconsciously.

How did your time busking in the US/Canada affect your songwriting?

The easy answer is: it mainly influenced my way of singing, as I needed to develop a loud voice to grab the attention of the passers-by. But I think some sense of the wideness of the landscapes I travelled through made their way into my music. Though at the same time it’s already quite a while ago, and that time busking is just reduced to a collection of vague impressions (or I guess you can call it a heap of broken images). Living in The Netherlands, I think you should go to places where they have actual nature every once in a while, just to remind yourself that we all once lived in such places. I haven’t done that in quite some time. Shame on me.

Are you happy to be home now and working there?

Well, yes, I make some money which I can use to record more records – that’s a good thing. Also, these last years I have met quite a lot of good people here in Utrecht, where there’s also a pretty lively music scene. But I hate the fact that you have to stay in the same place just because you happen to have a job there. My perfect situation would be: earning some money with which to pay rent by playing music and putting out records. Then I would live a couple of months somewhere in a cottage in Drenthe, write some music, record it, tour again, and move to a city like Tbilisi, where I would start the whole process over again, then move to Florence, etc. etc.

Have you recorded in Dutch? Was it an automatic choice to write/sing in English?

It was quite automatic, as almost all the music I ever listened to was sung in English. Also, Dutch is quite hard for me to sing in, as the sound of the language flows less easily (if that makes sense). I have a lot of respect though, for people who can sing in Dutch and make it sound good.

Do you think Non-UK/US groups get enough exposure in the major British and American magazines? Does it matter to you?

I don’t know, I don’t read that many magazines, but I do know that it’s a major event here when a Dutch artist gets a review on a site like Pitchfork, or is covered in the NME or something. That’s already quite telling. But I’m not at all angry. It would be nice to get more exposure, as that would increase my touring possibilities, but I will not hold a grudge against those who ignore me.

What was the first piece of music you loved, and why?

 Hmm, we’re getting into shady areas here. I think it would be ‘Love In An Elevator’ by Aerosmith. I remember playing this computer game called Quest for Fame (I just figured out the name again after an hour of Googling, caused by this question) which let you be the guitarist of Aerosmith, starting out in little bars, and, if you played well enough, gradually making your way to the bigger stages, and finally reaching the big arenas. It came with some kind of electronic pick that you had to connect to your computer, and you had to strum along to the chords on a tennis racket. So there I was, living the dream, strumming ‘Love In An Elevator’ on a tennis racket. I loved it.

What is your favourite song that you’ve recorded and why?

That would be ‘The Fall’ from Turn It Golden! I don’t know, the combination of the slightly melancholic piano and the jubilant choir and the honky-tonk feeling of the song still surprises me every time I listen to it, while normally all the joy is drained from the songs in the process of listening to it a bazillion times to detect the infinitesimally small errors that no one will ever hear. I’m also pretty proud about the lyrics to that song, where there’s this guy in the middle of a car crash tumbling down towards the forest below, and in these seconds he thinks about what he might have done with his life.

What song by another artist do you wish you had written and why?

I Want You’ by Bob Dylan immediately comes up, which is not a really revolutionary answer I’m afraid. Three perfect minutes. The melody is very uplifting, but it’s also the most melancholic song I know. For the most part I have no idea what he sings about. For instance: what does he mean with: ‘Now you’re dancing child with his Chinese suit / He spoke to me, I took his flute / No, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I?’ But every time I hear it, it tears me up. I don’t wish to sound dramatic, it’s just what happens. Strange song.

Name a song that makes you happy and why does it have that effect?

Vic Chesnutt’s You Are Never Alone, because it makes me feel that I can always change my life tomorrow. And that choir in the chorus: bliss. And the song is so sad! Bliss.

What music are you listening to these days?

I listened a lot to the new Chris Cohen, As If Apart, and I saw him play live just a couple of weeks ago. The record is very subdued and restrained, which gives the record this strange mysterious feeling, like there’s more going on than you can actually hear. The live show blew me away, the intensity of the performance really opened the songs up so I heard them in a new way. I listen a lot to the new Cass McCombs, Mangy Love, and there’s also this song from a compilation of music from Angola which I really like, ‘Tia’ from Arthur Nunes. Never heard of him before, but there’s something very beautiful and soothing in the song.

What’s the best new artist you’ve heard recently?

I like Methyl Ethel a lot, or at least the first half of their record  Oh Inhuman Spectacle. I went to two of their shows this last month; they’re even better live than on the record, which I always applaud in musicians. And their song ‘Twilight Driving’ is so good, it rather annoys me.

What, outside of the music world, influences your art?

Everything! Well, potentially, everything can get into my songs. I once went to a little house in Germany to write some songs, and I took with me a whole box of theatre plays. That was intense, the compressed emotions and psychology of these plays were channelled right into my songs, mixed with other more personal ideas that were awakened by the play. That’s why the second to last song of my last record is called ‘The Homecoming/Guilt’.

What do you think of music streaming sites like Spotify and Deezer?

Well, I think that for a lot people those services are a great way to discover new music from across the world (although I think that a lot of people just have hard-core mainstream music turning up in their ‘discover’-lists, though of course that’s the way it has gone since the advent of pop music). I do have my doubts about the influence these services have on the status of songs and music in general. Almost everyone now expects to be able to listen to every song ever recorded, because they pay a couple of euros a month. That rather deflates the value of a song, as opposed to spending a relatively large amount of money on a couple of albums at a record store. But that ship has of course set sail a long time ago, nothing that I can do about it. I would like to get more money for streaming my songs, but hey, who wouldn’t want more money?

What song would you like to have played at your funeral?

Smog’s ‘Dress Sexy At My Funeral’.

Finally, we ask everyone for a drawing, a little doodle or a sketch of anything (could be a self-portrait, a cat, a line….) to add to our artist’s gallery – so if you felt like sending us one that would be great but is entirely optional!

Kepp an eye out over the next couple of weeks when we will induct Tom into The Swit Gallery.

Tom’s Playlist.

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