“It’s wild, the number of people that I’ve met on my career path that have worldwide fame,” says Rod Thomas. “It’s mind-blowing.”
It all started with Elton John, whom Thomas met while living in London, before he adopted the moniker Bright Light Bright Light — often stylized as Bright Light x2. “I met Elton in 2009 when I was with his management company, which didn’t go very well,” Thomas says. “We met at one of his shows and got to talking. But then I left his management company and set up as Bright Light Bright Light, and felt like, ‘Oh well, that’s my chance, and now I’m gone.'”
Fast forward to 2012, when Thomas released his Bright Light x2 debut, Make Me Believe in Hope. John called to congratulate him on garnering a four-star review in the U.K.’s popular music magazine Q, and waved away Thomas’ plea to send him a copy of the album. “‘I’ve ordered it, don’t worry,'” Thomas recalls John saying. “Then he rang the next week and said, ‘I love it. Come to lunch.'” John would go on to collaborate on several of Thomas’ songs and to take him on multiple tours as his opening act. The two remain friends and in touch.
Beyond Elton John, Thomas has gone on to meet everyone from Ellie Goulding to Erasure to, most recently, Cher. And it was while serving as Cher’s opening act on a tour through Europe last year that Thomas solidified plans for Fun City, his forthcoming fourth album.
“I got a bit tongue-tied one night on stage, and I just kind of off-the-cuff said, ‘Well, as you can see, we’re really gay,’ and the whole room erupted,” says Thomas, recounting a moment on stage at a stadium in Cologne, Germany. “It was just such a flippant comment, just something that I say all the time, but people kept messaging me saying how important it was to hear somebody on a stage saying something like that. And that really struck a chord. Even in places as forward-thinking as Cologne, it’s still rare to have a young, gay man say that to that size of a crowd. So that was when I thought, ‘Okay, I’m definitely going to focus this album around the queer community and visibility.'”
Fun City, set for release this fall, is a tribute to the LGBTQ community, particularly the LGBTQ community as Thomas has found it in New York City, which the Wales native has called home for years now. Fun City is also a tribute to the many out musicians that New York has inspired before Thomas — including Scissor Sisters and the band’s frontman, Jake Shears, who sings a duet on the newest Bright Light x2 single, “Sensation.”
“Scissor Sisters are one of my biggest inspirations, so it’s really cool to have a proper duet with Jake. It’s a big, uplifting anthem about just being your gay self,” he says. “It’s about celebrating and meeting people who are like-minded and who lift you up. It was meant to be the kind of like, ‘let’s go out and get together’ song, which, obviously, we’re not doing now, unfortunately.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on Thomas and his career as an independent musical artist and DJ, keeping him isolated at home alone, away from the clubs and the concert halls that his career depends on. It has also upended some of his plans with Fun City, including performances at now-cancelled pride events the world over. And it further threatens to curtail plans for a proper fall tour to promote the new set.
Thomas kicked off his initial promotional plans last month with the release of the album’s first single, “This Used To Be My House.” The song’s video features many of the characters that make Thomas’ East Village neighborhood tick. There’s Colt Adam Weiss, a bartender from Club Cumming, home to his retro music-themed DJ event “Romy and Michele’s Saturday Afternoon Tea Party.” (“Colt is a big part of why the party’s a success, basically,” Thomas says.) Also featured dancing in one scene is Bill Coleman, a behind-the-scenes powerhouse “who has been making the city what it was and what it is and what it will be in terms of its musical output.”
The video was shot in and around New York in February, before the pandemic hit. “It’s taken on new meaning as a reminder of what nightlife was like before COVID,” he says. “The tone of it has shifted a little bit, but the message is still that these are the people that make up the wonderful day-to-day life that we have. And we should appreciate them even more now that we don’t have that.”
Thomas worries about the pandemic’s impact on his future as well as all of those celebrated on Fun City. But he’s been heartened by the outpouring of support from fans, and hopes they’ll continue to support him — chiefly, and simply, by sharing his music.
“Honestly, just share the music, that’s the biggest support at the moment,” he says. “Helping get the message out. Don’t give me your money — or don’t donate, if you can’t afford to. Just share the songs with a friend, make a playlist. Do something that is free for you and helps me get the message out to more people. That’s more important things than giving a dollar or $10 or whatever. Just help me reach the people I can’t reach. That’s the best thing anyone could do right now.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s talk about where you’re from and how you got to New York. How long have you been in America, and what prompted the move?
ROB THOMAS: I just had my seventh year anniversary in March, so it’s been a while now. Before that, I had been in London for nine years, and I felt like I had learned as much as I possibly could from being in the same place for that length of time. I played a show or two in New York, and I really loved the city. I thought it was amazing, and I met some really good people here. And I had been on tour with Scissor Sisters, who were based in New York. And then I got my visa to work in America, which meant that I could stay for a year. And I thought, “Well, I’ll just move there for three months and I’ll see how it goes and just have a different experience.” And after the first few days I was like, “Oh, god, this is amazing.” So I just decided to relocate, and it’s been so marvelous.
MW: Did the Scissor Sisters help motivate you to make the move?
THOMAS: Yeah. We talked about doing some stuff together, at least me and Del Marquis. And when I was talking to him about moving over here, in his building there was an apartment free on the ground floor. So it was like, “Oh, my god. Well, let’s move in that.” And so we had a really nice Friends kind of situation where I lived below him, and we used to go out and collaborate together and work. It was honestly my favorite time in my life. Living there and just having that kind of collaborative friendship was really cool. I’m obviously very happy now, in general, but it was such a moment in time, it’s like, “Wow, what a turnaround from just living in gray London to being in New York living [near] one of my best friends and making music.” It was really cool.
MW: What was it like growing up in Wales?
THOMAS: I grew up very, very rurally. I grew up, on paper, in a gorgeous part of the world — it’s very green, very beautiful. I tell people it’s a little bit like a Welsh Twin Peaks because I grew up in this old coal mining valley that had been forgotten about, pretty much, when the industry died. So it was very peaceful.
My parents have a lovely house, and we had grass all around us and farmland all around us. It was very idyllic, but it was just so sleepy that I think anybody with a sort of creative brain would really have to look at moving somewhere else because there just wasn’t enough going on around there, especially when I was growing up. There weren’t really any big art or music initiatives. It was just quite peaceful. And I’m very glad for that because it did give me a lot of time and space to do things, like get obsessed with listening to the radio and watching TV and movies and things like that, which really showed me a lot about the world outside of where we lived — looking to films, snapshots of America or Australia or France. I’m very lucky in terms of my upbringing. My family is amazing. And it was definitely sort of a safe place to grow up.
MW: When did you come out?
THOMAS: When I was 17, so just before going away to college.
MW: How did it go?
THOMAS: Well, it wasn’t fun. I really struggle talking about this. I get asked all the time, and I really hate it. It was really not great. I didn’t grow up anywhere near a village, but connected to that sort of area was a town that a lot of other villages sort of fed into. So I had a group of gay friends that lived, technically quite close, but, actually very far away, and they really were my rock during that period of time, and helped massively to sort of deal with the pressures of coming out in a place that is not tolerant of gay existence.
MW: When did you realize that you wanted to become a musician?
THOMAS: It wasn’t really a conscious choice. I wanted to do music PR, to do press for bands. So I did an internship in college where I worked at a record label in London just as an assistant doing whatever I could basically. And then after college I moved to London, and went back there to be a receptionist and kind of worked my way up to being a marketing assistant over two years. And was making my own music on the side, which I always thought just had to be how it was.
I got as far as I could with the job, and then didn’t really see how I could move forward with it and do anything creative with that particular role or that company, so I quit. And I was trying to get a job in an art gallery or a record store. But there was this scheme in London where you could apply to get a license to sing on the subway. So I applied for that and got it. I did that a couple of days a week and some bartending jobs, and ended up paying my rent from doing that, which was very unexpected. I did that for a while.
And then I kind of took what I learned from working at that record company into practice and set up my own little record label and started releasing music. And then, the third song got some attention, and then it kind of snowballed from there.
MW: Growing up, were you making music, playing instruments?
THOMAS: Yeah, all the time. I started writing songs when I was about 13. And I was always playing something. The flute is my first instrument — hi, Lizzo! — piano, guitar, stuff like that. I was always making music, but without really thinking about it too much. It wasn’t, “I’m going to be a musician,” it was just one of those things that I did as a kid. I played video games, but I never thought that I was going to be a videogame designer. In my mind it was never a feasible career option to become a musician.
MW: Did you also grow up singing?
THOMAS: Yeah, I grew up singing. Wales is sort of known as “The Land of Song,” that’s its reputation, or its claim to fame. And singing is a very big part of Welsh heritage, but again, it was just one of those things that you do because most people would sing in school, or in a choir or something. So it didn’t really make you feel like you were doing anything extraordinary to be singing all the time.
MW: How did touring as an opening act for Ellie Goulding come about?
THOMAS: That was the first big tour that I had ever done, in 2010. It was amazing. I had recently changed my management company, and it was the same company that managed Ellie. While they were planning her tour, I was just about to put out my first single. They thought of pitching her that I might be a fun, up-and-coming person to take on the road. And so I made a mix CD of some of my songs and some songs that I liked and sent that to her, and she said, “Yeah,” which is crazy. She was so lovely, and so welcoming, and really didn’t have to take somebody unknown on the road. It was really cool watching her work so hard that early on in her career, how dedicated she was and how talented she was. It was a really cool experience, and it really set up everything that came after that. It was a really great kickoff.
MW: You went from Goulding to the Scissor Sisters two years later.
THOMAS: Scissor Sisters is one of my favorite bands of all time. The fact that they had a huge hit album in the U.K. as fiercely gay people really did redefine the landscape and the possibility, for me, anyway. “Queer people have a voice now, and people do still care, and they will buy the records.” So to have them as a band was really important.
I don’t remember what really happened, but I think somebody on Elton’s team, when I was in New York, they were like, “Oh, Del [Marquis] lives in New York. You should see him, you should drop him a line,” so I did. And then we went out for drinks, and we went to watch Depeche Mode together at Madison Square Garden, and hung out a little bit, and had coffee and talked about music. And then we started bouncing ideas back and forth over email when I was back in London and he was in New York. And that’s when we started writing his Slow Knights project, which I wrote a couple of pop lines for, and I asked him to sing and play guitar on “Cry at Films” on my first album. And then we ended up going on tour together, which is just one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.
It was so gay. It’s like if you go on tour with one of your favorite bands in the world, what could be better than that? Because they were so important to the possibility of becoming a musician, to then go on tour opening for that band really gave me a ray of hope. It was such a come-to-fruition moment. It was just so amazing to have friends of mine in attendance, watching them be like, “Oh, my god, my friend is opening for them!”
MW: I know Pet Shop Boys is another one of your influences, and I’m assuming you’d love to collaborate with them. Are there other acts you’d love to work with but haven’t?
THOMAS: Oh god, there are so many. The Pet Shop Boys, they’re one of the last feasible musical heroes that I could possibly collaborate with that I have done nothing with to date. Also Kate Bush, who I think would be an amazing person to work with. Her music has shaped so much stuff that I’ve done. Mariah Carey, I love to death. I would love to do something with her. Madonna, obviously. Royksopp are an incredible production and writing duo. They’re amazing.
MW: Have you done anything with Robyn?
THOMAS: I haven’t, no. That would be really cool. I did have a song that I wanted to pitch to her team for this next record, but it didn’t end up going through. She’s, obviously, completely amazing, and that would be fantastic.
But actually, for this new album I only wanted to work with LGBTQ+ people, and seeing as she’s not actually LGBTQ, I kind of felt like I will hold off and will try and work with her at a different point in time when there’s a song that isn’t really about that kind of specific community. I know that she’s a gigantic ally, but for this new record it actually was important to me to prop up some people from the direct community first before I work with anybody else.
MW: Let’s talk more about the new album Fun City and your concept with it.
THOMAS: It’s an album that’s a love letter to the LGBTQ+ community. I feel like at this point in time, it’s important to recognize who you are, where you’re from, and what’s really important in your life.
Since moving to New York particularly, I’ve been so aware of all of the people from the LGBTQ+ spectrum who really enrich my life, like all of the bartenders and the frontline workers and the musicians and the actors and the writers and DJs, and just people that I see every day — people who run local businesses that make these safe spaces for everybody. It’s so important to recognize the fact that they just enrich your life so much.
The title of the album comes from a quote from the mayor of New York City in 1966 [John Lindsay], when he took over on his first day. There was a gigantic power outage, everything fell to shit, and New York became this crippled place. And somebody was like, “Are you still glad to be the mayor of New York?” And he’s like, “I still think it’s a fun city,” which I thought was an amazing quote. I liked the idea of this very fractured, problematic utopia where things definitely aren’t right, and they definitely aren’t perfect, but you still make the most of what you’ve got. And you make it beautiful in whatever way you can.
That’s the premise of the album, which is sort of inspired by how queer musicians made music to dance through pain, or took the struggles that queer people have had throughout history, and turned them into defiant anthems, like Sylvester or Bronski Beat, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Scissor Sisters, Hercules and Love Affair. We have all of these amazing people that remind us of people like Sylvia Rivera and all of the actual frontline workers who were doing community work and vocalizing the pain of society in the real world who inspired all of these queer musicians to be a defiant voice on record. I want people to know about our history and the incredible people that are working in our community day to day.
Every artist that is involved in it — and there are a lot of people on the record — are all from the LGBTQ+ world. And I wanted to show everybody I could in that world, from super-famous people to complete newcomers, so that people can learn a little bit more about the artists that you just don’t hear about. I wanted people to be able to hear artists that aren’t just the same six people that get featured in everybody’s tracks.
MW: I like that idea, and that you have a mix of people. Is the music also going to be a mix?
THOMAS: It’s mostly upbeat until the last couple of songs. I kind of wanted it to sound a bit like a fairground comes to town. And I wanted it to be a celebratory record. I didn’t want it to be a downbeat, “Woe is us,” kind of thing. Most of the tracks are celebrating our culture, and then the last two are the more somber side of things. It’s a diverse record in terms of its sound, but I hope it kind of works together.
MW: Looking over the featured lineup, I see you have gay rapper Big Dipper, who is a hoot.
THOMAS: I love him. I love him so much. He really is a fucking hoot. I really wanted him on the record just because I love his energy so much. He’s so joyful. He just makes everybody smile so much. You can’t even see a picture of him without just bursting into joy. He’s so great.
MW: There’s also Andy Bell of Erasure, who you’ve toured with.
THOMAS: He’s an icon. He’s one of my true heroes. He’s one of the first people I remember listening to as a child. I just didn’t know anyone like him. You have the Eltons and the George Michaels, but they were so famous, they were kind of in their own realm. And then you had Erasure, a million-selling act in the U.K., but they would do bonkers things like the ABBA-esque EP and go in drag as the ABBA girls. They were just fucking wild, and I couldn’t process how fun and how important they were to the visibility of gay people, even though Vincent [Clarke] isn’t gay. Andy, obviously, was a huge pioneer for gay rights and gay visibility. And his voice is just so perfect. It’s just amazing.
MW: Was the album originally going to be released in the fall, or did you push it back because of the current situation?
THOMAS: No, it was going to be in the fall. I don’t come from a record label with a ton of money behind me, so I have to play things very differently than a lot of the bigger artists. And I wanted to have a longer run up to the record, teasing music as I go along and building a community. The idea of this album is the community aspect of it, so I wanted to be able to have conversations before it came out about who was involved, why they’re involved, what made me want to work with them [and also] focus on different LBGTQ charities that tie into some of the songs’ themes. I wanted to have those conversations before the record came out so that people could understand why I made it.
MW: Obviously, COVID-19 threatens to get in the way of those plans. How has the pandemic impacted you and how are you coping?
THOMAS: Well, obviously, it could be much worse. I could be working in a hospital. There’s such a level of comfort that I have that many people don’t. It’s, obviously, very strange. I’ve been completely alone now for six weeks, which is really tough to cope with. It’s very unusual for somebody like me as well. Most days I work by myself, that’s fine, but then the evenings I’m usually at a show, doing a show, DJ-ing, or on tour. And so it’s a real adjustment, and it’s really, really lonely. But through touring and the downtime that you have on that and working at home, I’m kind of good at keeping myself active and busy.
One of the things that I was really looking forward to in the long run up to the album — I was supposed to be playing at lots of Pride festivals this year, which is super important to me, given the topic of the album itself. I’m really disappointed that I don’t get to connect with those queer communities in the run up to an album that is about them, so that’s a shame.
And obviously, I’ve lost all of the live earnings that I would have had from now until god knows when, which is a huge hit. And you just don’t know when you’re going to be able to do anything again that really helps you get your message across or helps you reach an audience. People say, “You can do the livestreaming.” I am doing the livestreaming, and it’s great, but it’s not the same as being able to go out and meet people, or to do the things that independent artists have to do. Because the reality is, the artists getting the most coverage now are the artists who got the most coverage before now. It’s Dua Lipa, it’s Lizzo, it’s the same couple of people that have the audience already that manage to reach the audience now. That’s not a slight on them — I love them. I think they’re amazing. But the reality is, the artists who are already exposed to all those people are the artists that everybody is caring about because you can’t break through that wall of sound. So I think that artists who are struggling to get that foothold and establish themselves and grow their careers are still struggling at the moment because the minute that live shows stopped, everything went online. So there’s already that volume of stuff online. How do you get heard above that?
MW: Had you done online work prior to COVID-19?
THOMAS: Yeah, I’ve done a couple of things. I was doing little acoustic sets from my studio online with Facebook and things like that just to test out new material, or I would perform requests. I had tested out that model so I knew that people liked it. I haven’t been doing live performances this time around. I’ve just been doing the livestream DJ sets because the party that I created in New York is about community, and it’s a way to make people forget what’s been going on all week for five hours and just come to the bar, listen to silly music with no snobbery, no music policy, and just meet like-minded people. And so it was really important to me to take that online first and keep that party going, and it’s been amazing. It’s been so fun. I’ve had thousands and thousands of people tuning in to listen to it.
Also, I’m doing these parties online ahead of live stuff because I don’t feel like it’s satisfying to watch a low-quality live performance. I would much rather give a high-quality DJ set that brings people some joy.
MW: You accept donations with the livestreams, but that’s about the extent of it, as far as what you might make, right? Would it be fair to say the majority of your income, at least pre-COVID-19, is from live concerts?
THOMAS: It depends. Sometimes, yes. When you do bigger shows, or if you’re able to do a headline set, say, at a festival or whatever, that’s a good earner. Honestly, if you’re an independent musician and you’re playing smaller venues, you really don’t make much money. But if you have merchandise or whatever, people often buy that a lot, which kind of offsets the cost. It’s really like a wheel of fortune — some shows you make a good amount of money, others you lose a tremendous amount of money. It’s about the balance that you have to have in planning those. People are always like, “Why don’t you come to X town?” Because I can’t afford to. I can’t afford to lose the thousands of dollars it would cost to get there and have 40 people come. I would love to play for those 40 people if it didn’t cost $2,000 to get there. It’s such a weird economy. A lot of my earnings, it’s like Frankenstein.
MW: It’s unclear when it will be safe and appealing to crowd in with thousands of others to see a live show.
THOMAS: Here’s the thing, the person in charge at the moment is giving absolutely not one fuck about making it safe to do anything. There’s no testing, there’s no information. He’s spreading misinformation. So I don’t know at what point sensible people are going to feel confident enough to be in a room that’s packed full of people. I don’t personally want to be on a stage, touching things that everybody has touched. There is literally no way you can physically walk around a live space without touching 150 things. And how does a venue keep all of that sterilized? There’s no way you can do that. So until there’s some kind of vaccine or whatever, I don’t know if people are going to feel confident in a live venue. How do you line up at the bar to get a drink? It’s a simple, practical question. How can you possibly stand in line at the bar when there’s a hundred people in the room? The whole concept of it is so wild. I don’t really understand how reintegration into normal existence can happen at this point.
MW: Are you okay, personally? Can you apply for unemployment?
THOMAS: I don’t know if I’m eligible, honestly. I’m not a citizen, so I haven’t received any COVID check. I’m fine for now because of that Frankenstein earnings thing. I have residual royalties that kind of trickle in once in a while, but that’s not sustainable. I really worry at the moment for everybody who has a non-traditional job, which is practically everyone I know, how they can kind of ride out this pandemic.
It’s a really, really tough time because people are being very kind, and they’re donating to help in every way they can. But, of course, a lot of those people aren’t working either. So it’s not like there’s this endless pit of money people have to just donate. It’s not sustainable.
MW: Until you can actually perform in a live venue and tour again, will you offer a full concert performance through a livestream?
THOMAS: No. On a very practical level, because I live in a New York apartment building, I can’t really make that loud of noise. I sing quite loudly. If you’re on a stage singing at normal volume, I can’t really stomp around and do a performance in my apartment with a house band. I don’t think that’s going to be happening.
MW: Years ago, you said that when you DJ you don’t like to drop your own songs into your sets. Is that still true, even when it comes to online?
THOMAS: I don’t tend to. Some of the virtual parties — I did play “This Was My House” quite a few times around the weeks when it came out. I gave an exclusive play, and people were asking to hear it, actually, which is really nice. So I did play it. It’s kind of different than, for example, at my party at Club Cumming — not everybody has come there for my party or knows who I am. So playing your own song there feels kind of mortifying. Online, they definitely have tuned in because they follow your page, so it makes more sense to play that song, and maybe I’ll lip-sync along with it or whatever. But that’s a different playing field than if you’re in a bar where people are just turning up because they’re drunk off brunch, you know? It’s not the same thing.
For all of its ups and downs, [the DJ livestream] has become a good platform to be able to get some kind of personality or message across online. And I have really enjoyed that aspect of it. The good thing with a DJ set is that it’s very interactive, and I think that’s much more fun than just talking at somebody through a screen. That’s not as fun to me or as fun to watch. I like the interaction of it, so I’m hoping I can find a way to make it a bit more performative and make you feel like you’re actually in the room with me, versus just watching a performance.
Bright Light Bright Light will release Fun City on Sept. 18. To stay informed of upcoming single and video releases, and any tour and concert announcements, follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Twitch. Or visit www.brightlightx2.com.
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