An interview with Tim Burgess for our Men of the Year awards - after Tim's Twitter Listening Parties brought some much needed joy to the dark days of lockdown.
How are you Tim?
I’m good, just hanging out, celebrating my Man of the Year status!
We’re giving you an award for your sterling work with the listening parties and music in general, but how’s your year been from your perspective?
It’s not been the year I was expecting but its been an amazing year in lots of ways, and its been a nightmare as well. From March to September it was really hard. I was supposed to launch an album by playing live at South by Southwest and in New York. South by Southwest got cancelled, but New York was still open so we went there, played four or five shows and then were told to come home. That was it for social integration of the type I was expecting for a new album. But then there were the listening parties.
Can you tell us about the origins of the listening party and how it took off this year?
About ten years I was watching Riz Ahmed tweet along to Four Lions. It was fascinating hearing him say things like, ‘If you watch this next scene you’ll see me laugh – I laughed the least here and therefore that was the take they used.’ I thought that was really interesting. I asked people if they’d like me to do something similar for Some Friendly by The Charlatans, and they did. No one knew what a listening party was then but I ended up doing all 13 albums by The Charlatans about 5 times each and my solo albums about 5 times over over, in the space of about 10 years.
During the lockdown it just felt like the right time to do another. I posted out there that I’d do Some Friendly again and then Alex Kapranos posted out that he bought that record when he was 17 and at that moment I asked, ‘well why don’t you do one?’ And that’s how it all started. Within a couple of days I had Bonehead in to do Oasis, Wendy Smith from Prefab Sprout, Dave Rowntree from Blur. Dave upped the ante by showing an old scrapbook of laminated Parklife artefacts, lyric sheets and photos no one had ever seen. That helped me realise what it was capable of.
Did you have a sense of a community building quickly around the parties in those dark early days?
Yeah I did because it was so concentrated. The first five were all going to be at 10pm, so our friends in Japan could watch and listen as well. Then the following week there was 3 a night and the second weekend it went to 5.
At this point I got some help in, Some fans of the listening party, who I’d never met, offered me help and they started doing a diary for me because with me everyone was double booked about five times over. It got so crazy I was writing it all down on pieces of paper.
How quickly did it shift from you calling in favours and people approaching you?
Pretty quickly. I was going out to ask people who I really wanted to be on it, like The Pogues, The Chemical Brothers, Roisin Murphy. I just did everything through direct message but then everyone started to get in touch through Facebook, Instagram, email. I was like, ‘Its getting too much, I’m losing control.’ I like to keep it on DM!
It’s been amazing, its kept me on my toes. At the beginning I did 10 hours a day, working out what it was, where it could go and who to contact. Now lots of people are using it as a way to promote their album which is great.
So the main skills you’ve learnt this year are admin-related?
Well I had a crash course with admin doing my label O Genesis – that’s when I saw my first spreadsheet! This has not got quite like that, the diary is all I need: it goes from blue, which is potential, to black, for a confirmed one. And now I don’t have to do that!
Can you put your finger on why its proved so popular?
What people get from it is divided into a few categories. If it’s an album they loved in the past and they feel a bit low they can connect on a nostalgia level. From the maker of that album talking them through it, they can learn things that even the biggest fans may not know. If you have a new band, people can want to experience listening to it properly with the artist.
A lot of people said they hadn’t heard an album in its entirety for years. With playlists its fun to jump around but listening to a whole album helps you understand where an artist is coming from when they make a body of work.
As a musician now, do you still make your albums the same way in these playlist times?
Yeah you think of it as a body of work. You think people are going to listen to the whole album, expecting twists and turns some shape shifting along the way! I make a record and most people I know in bands make records to be listened to as a whole.
Maybe the listening party has supplied community but also some depth on things…quality time spent with music and each other?
Yeah they’re reassessing whats important. The connection is a massive thing for everybody, THE most important thing. People are realising how important nature is and music is there too. A realisation that music isn’t as throwaway as people thought. It’s not disposable.
You had a new album out and a fantastic new EP, the Ascent of the Ascended. Has this period made you reassess wha you want to do musically in any way?
Well I’m always reassessing what I want to do. I think about it endlessly. I must be hard to live with – I think about songs all the time. I followed the album up with an EP and I want to follow the EP up with more recordings. I’ve recorded 7 songs already.
How weird was it having an album and not being able to play and support it?
I was very excited about the band – when we did play in New York it felt so good, I wanted people to see it. It’s not been announced yet but my May dates are being put back to September. I think September will be ok and some summer festivals. It’d be great for people to see the band and hear the songs – I always think the songs sound better live, with the volume and seeing the people around you.
How did you replace the physical rush of performing?
I’ve been walking. I have been known to complain that I live in the middle of nowhere but during the pandemic its been a bit of a blessing. The listening parties kept me sane in lots of ways, and it had the rush of a gig – by the end of it you’re on a high.
Has there been many technical issues with people doing it?
I know Ariel Pink came in 3 songs late, but if you know Ariel its kind of what you want – any fans would like it.
But very early on I wrote a document about how to do a listening party. Its very embarrassing looking at it now but I’ll frame it one day. Despite it, nobody has done a listening party the same – it just goes to show how everyone is so different and does it in their own way.
Did you have supportive messages from people listening along?
Yeah people have had tattoos of the listening party logo and saying its really helped them through. Smaller, simpler things like being turned onto an album they never would have heard otherwise. It ranges from that to ‘I don’t know what I would have done without them.’
It did feel like it’d hit that national level, with Joe Wicks in the morning, and your listening parties in the evening…
It really did. And I did lots of listening parties with South America as well, which started at 11 ok clock because of the time difference. Columbian and Uruguayan artists. It got really big down there.
Personally speaking has it been good for you?
Yeah it has because I like the idea of having structure. Even though I’m quite chaotic I like the idea of having a few things in my life that I need to concentrate on. The listening parties have e been time consuming but its been an absolute pleasure, I’ve seen real worth.
You manage to create a nice warm place on Twitter when its mostly war…
When you’re talking to someone like we are there’s social decency whereas online you can do whatever you like because you’re invisible. The listening party has allowed people to be respectful of each other on a social platform, that’s part of its make up.
Have you thought back to what your first gig back will be when everyone is vaccinated?
Yeah high on vax! I haven’t thought that far in advance but I hope it’ll be a glorious thing. But what would also be amazing is if it doesn’t feel different to how it used to be. There’d be euphoria in knowing we’d gone back to how things were before.
What have you learned from this year?
That I need to be constantly busy. I always thought that but now I know it. I’ve learnt to keep in touch with a lot of people, connecting with my friends, some of whom didn’t have it easy at all.
Oh, and don’t write songs during a pandemic!
Well congrats for winning our award!
That’s amazing, thanks so much. Thanks for making me one of the men of the year.
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