Adam first heard Mr Tea & The Minions cheeky Balkan infused gypsy music in Mr Wolfs and it put a big fat smile on his face! Residing in Bristol, and with the release of their latest album just a few weeks ago, he caught up with with one of the founding members of the group, the talented James Tomlinson recently to talk about his passion for music and tea.
Adam Chisman (TP). “As a young boy what did you want to be when you grew up and how did you get to where you are now?”
James Tomlinson (J). “As a young boy I think I probably wanted to be a fireman but that didn’t last very long. I was very into sport when I was younger and then I started picking up the guitar when I was about thirteen or fourteen and that kind of just overtook everything else and pushed everything to the side. From there, in some form or another, all I’ve wanted to do is to play in bands and play gigs, and to teach guitar, and that’s what I’m doing now.”
TP. “So did you go to college or university to study music?”
J. “I went to college and university. At college I did various things but I pretty much sacked everything off except music, and then I went to uni twice to do music actually. The first time I dropped out, I was in London doing a music course, met a band up there, the typical 18yr old story, we were getting some gigs and I thought I don’t need uni any more. The band was going OK for a bit and then it kind of finished and I was like, what am I doing?! Moved to Bristol then and then went to uni again at BIMM. I graduated just over two years ago now.”
TP. “So how did the band originally form?”
J. “So after moving to Bristol I suddenly got really into a lot of Balkan, gypsy, gypsy jazz type music, and I was seeing all these bands, very theatrical bands, very energetic, playing this really technical music in a fun and silly way. It was a really interesting mix of dark melodies with upbeat rhythms and it really drew me in. It wasn’t a style of music I’d been into much before, except for Gogol Bordello who I’ve liked for years. I started trying to find my way around that music and initially started writing some songs on my own, and very badly producing some songs of Me playing and then layering some other instruments on top. I gradually decided that it was something I wanted to do. My girlfriend was a violinist so she started playing violin on some of the songs, and she’s still in the band now, and then our friend Elle who we’ve been friends with for years started singing for us. We were working with a different producer at that point but it all started from there. We then went down the live drums route instead of the production route and it’s we’ve like this for about two years now.”
TP. “Awesome. I really like it. As you mentioned you describe your sound as cheeky Balkan party music or gypsy flavoured ska. Who are your main influences other than Gogol Bordello?”
J. “Well that was the big band that I saw years ago and for the time, and for quite a few years after absolutely loved because I thought they were completely unique. I didn’t know much about the Balkan, Eastern European gypsy music and all the offshoots of that. Since moving to Bristol it’s bands like Sheela Na Gig, Carny Villains, The Destroyers, all these bands like that mix all these styles. There’s just something that really drew me towards it because it’s, like I said earlier, the types of music they’re mixing, but also just the idea that they’re mixing all these Eastern European gypsy styles with these more modern Western styles, and with Jamaican ska and dub, and other stuff as well. There’s so many things you can draw into it like rock and metal, and funk, punk, and have this big mish-mash of this stuff that sounds quite exotic but also also very driving and energetic. Also seeing a lot of these bands, and seeing the live shows as well is what really drew me in and made all of us think we want to do this.”
TP. “Well you’re wicked live. I saw you at The Exchange for the album launch for your new album, Tea Your Mind. As you are quite a large band, what’s the process like when you’re creating new material?”
J. “It will usually start with one of us. Initially that was me but nowadays it could be any one of us who’ll come up with a new song. It might just be a chord progression or a riff, or the singer Elle might come up with a vocal part, or Lucy might come up with a violin part. They’ll be something, and they’ll play it to us or I’ll play it to them. If we really like it we’ll develop it together. That’s usually the way. Various songs have come about in different forms, through jams or whatever, but generally there’s a lot of that process that comes before and then we’ll get to a point where we can play it live. We start playing it live and then at some point we’ll decide we want to record. So, when we record.. laughs. We’ve definitely learnt from out mistakes, but the way we did it for the album was doing it over quite a long period of time. We’ll book some sessions to record say the drums. We’ll record all the drums in a certain period of time to a click track. Then the bassist would play his parts, and then Me and the other guitarist would go in and record the rhythm parts and then the lead parts, and then so on for all the other instruments and vocals. We did that over such a long period of time, about two or three month in lots of little sessions, whereas next time we want to go somewhere for a few weeks, a little cottage somewhere, and get into a bit of a zone, and not have the time limits. If you record something and that’s all the time you had set for that, but then think, oh actually maybe I want that drum part to be slightly different, then it’s too late. There’s definitely downsides in that regard. It was quite a long and tricky process but it’s fun as well.”
TP. “Yeah I bet. I’d love to see some of the recordings and the out-takes.”
J. “Well actually we do have a recording. The most fun part is the group vocals, and there’s parts in our songs where we go, oh hey hey, or we all sing together. When we’re recording that there’s six of us in a room around some microphones, and as you can imagine it got pretty silly, and we had a lot of fun doing that. We’ve got a little video of some of that, I think it’s on Facebook somewhere.”
TP. “What do you get up to outside of the band?”
J. “Me and the singer Elle both teach. We teach one to one private lessons, she teaches singing and I obviously teach guitar. We teach locally at home or I go to peoples houses and teach them whatever they want to learn. It’s good fun and a nice thing to do for money because it’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time and money on myself in learning the guitar, so it’s nice to be able to give something back and be able to get away from doing the kinds of jobs which I just can’t do, like office jobs or things like that. I’ve tried.. well no, I haven’t really tried. Laughs. It’s just not me. It’s great to be flexible as well, to be self employed and to work when I want to work and if I want a day off I can have a day off. If I’m gonna play a gig I don’t have to ask for time off, I can just my students I’m not doing lessons that week. It works well for me.”
TP. “Nice. So Mr T & The Minions, where did the name come from?”
J. “Again, it was never meant to be anything more than a joke name at first, but then again a joke name kind of works for us I guess. The Mr T bit came out of, like I was saying earlier about Me badly producing some songs, I started working with a producer and he said that I couldn’t just put my music up under James Tomlinson, that’s really boring. You’ve got to have a name. So I was drinking from my mug, a Mr T mug as in the A-Team, and my surname’s Tomlinson, people sometimes call me Tomo, so it kind of fit. The Minions bit was nothing to do with this Despicable Me stuff, it was actually before that all hit off. We’re not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing being associated with it either as we don’t really want to be associated with it, as funny as they are. Anyway, Lucy my girlfriend, for years and years we’ve called her my minion, her and another short friend of ours. She’s very short, 4′ 11″, very cheeky, and quite silly. At festivals she’ll be in this cheeky little mood and friends would call her my minion. When she joined the band we kind of decided to call it Mr T & The Minions and it stuck. It was never really meant to stick but it did and I think it works.”
TP. “Nice. And did I hear that you’re in a two-piece with Lucy as well?”
J. “Yes, it’s Me and Lucy, the violinist. We play as Razzomo. She’s Lucy Razz and I’m Tomo so.. actually I probably shouldn’t keep explaining it as it sounds more exotic when you just leave it. Laughs. We play more of the traditional gypsy stuff. In the band we play original takes on that kind of music mixed with other things, but as a duo we play the traditional songs but then give it a bit of a twist. These songs kind of lend themselves to being taken your own way anyway so different regions of the Blakans and the different gypsy groups will have variations. We’ve taken our favourite ones and then done them as a two piece. I do the percussive stuff on the guitar, give it a beat, and then she plays the fill line. That’s really fun as well, and it’s really nice to be able to make a really loud energetic sound just using the acoustic guitar and violin. You don’t have to bring any equipment, just cycle with the guitar on your back. We quite often play before the band as well because it works quite nicely, and seeing as we’re there anyway, and it’s something a bit different. We do a little half an hour set before the band plays.”
TP. “Brilliant. Well as the band you’ve just had the album launch and I’m sure you have lots of plans for the tour so what’s coming up?”
J. “Yeah, so we had the album launch and then the very next night we went all the way down to Cornwall to play our last festival of the year which was fun.. and very wet. Last weekend we were in Brighton and Lewes, again really fun. This weekend we’ve got Exeter.. I’m not gonna take you through all the tour dates by the way. Next weekend is really exciting though as we’ve got three gigs in Germany. A band that we played with a few years ago at this festival in Croatia.. we randomly got this gig in Croatia at this fantastic festival and met this amazing German band. We got them over here for some gigs last year and now they’ve repaid the favour tenfold because they’re getting massive in Germany and they’re playing these four to five hundred capacity venues and selling tickets for twenty Euros each, and we’re gonna be supporting them. That’s really exciting. From there we’ve got lots of other gigs. We’ve also just added a free Bristol gig to our tour because it was such a fun night at The Exchange. We wanted to put another gig on but didn’t want to do another ticketed one just yet, we thought we’d do a free one at a great venue. It’s November 12th and it’ll probably be Razzomo then Mr Tea & The Minions.”
TP. “I did see that you’ve got one in Newquay coming up in Whiskers. I’m friends with James aka Lucky who works there and he said you had a lovely time the last time you played there…”
J. “Did he tell you anything else about that night?”.
TP. “He said it might have gotten a little bit silly… can I have the edited version?”
J. “It did get a little bit silly. Basically we decided that rather than do what we normally do and drive quite a long for a few gigs the same weekend, that we wanted a bit of a holiday. It was at the end of the summer last year, and we had the gig in Whiskers and then spent the rest of the weekend in Newquay. The night of the gig Lucky was feeding us copious amounts of drink and we all got very drunk and had a great time. He came back to the hotel that we were staying at and we had more drinks. At some point in the night we decided to cover him in stickers. Laughs. It’s kind of a thing we do, we like to put stickers everywhere. None of us have any memory of this happening but the next morning he said he woke up, went to the toilet and found a sticker attached to..”
TP. “An intimate part of his body.”
J. “Yep. I was trying to think of a good way to describe that. We’ve had some good times with Lucky and we’re looking forward to spending another night with him.”
Here’s a feature on Bristol24/7 called Talking Passions. It’s a Bristol-based interview series that hopes to inspire your creative side by interviewing passionate individuals in Bristol’s arts and music scenes. The driving force behind the series is a belief that within each of us is a creative soul with untold capabilities. It’s not always easy to follow your dreams and try to make it work, and it should be celebrated!
Started by local journalist Adam Chisman, and with links to various Collectives in the city including Liquifyah, The Coconut Collective, as well as Irish online magazine Ceol Caint, Talking Passions comes in two weekly parts, with brand new written interviews on talkingpassions.com and Bristol24/7 and audio interviews on BCFM’s The Bristol Music Show and Soundcloud.
Words: Adam Chisman (Talking Passions)
Pictures: James Tomlinson & Mr T & The Minions.