The Tom Holliston/ Show Business Giants interview
Tom: Yes it is.
Allan: Hey, how are you doin’.
Tom: I’m a few minutes early. I wanted to ask you a favour, if you could possibly do it. Do you have a phone book? Cos I just moved, and we’ve realized we don’t have a phone book.
Allan: No problem. I’ll get it and be right back.
Tom: Thank you! A yellow pages. We want to order some food! We don’t really have everything set up – we want to get some Indian food but, jeez, there’s nowhere... no phone book here.
Allan: Okay – getting a yellow pages. (Sets the phone down).
Tom (is silent, waiting. I kinda hoped he’d say something cryptic into the tape for when I was transcribing it later).
Allan: (Opening phone book). Okay, so I’ve just flipped to the restaurant section. Uhm.
Tom: It’s the Sitar.
Allan: The Sitar? That’s the place in Gastown, is it?
Allan: Okay, here it is... 604-687-0049, and there’s a minimum order of $25. Do you want to call me back?
Tom: We’re okay for now. I’ll call them in about an hour. Thank you!
Allan: No problem – I may actually put that into the interview! Okay... so – you’re a really interesting songwriter. You seem to me a champion of the obscure – you dig into some very odd... Uh... I’m sorta trying to categorize your songs, and figure out where they fit. You have lots of songs about things people normally don’t care about – your slacks, bats, gingivitis...
Tom: Ford wrote the song about gingivitis. That’s the first song he ever wrote on a guitar, and I can’t take credit for that one, and the song “Bats,” the lyrics for that one were written by Rob Wright.
Allan: Ah! Okay. But... I think of you sort of like the Auteur of the Show Business Giants – I think in some way, all the songs have your stamp on them. Or no? I mean, how collective are the SBG?
Tom: I suppose Ford and John write toward the band’s style, which is originally myself and a fellow named Steve Bailey, who used to be in a band called the Neos, years and years and years ago. And we sort of had an idea that we’d have a band where it’d be us, cos we couldn’t find anybody else who wasn’t already in a band, so we thought, we’ll just have a band and get different people to play sometimes, and then it sort of developed like that, and then people sort of fit their attitude or their style, I guess, toward what we were trying to do, which... I don’t... It’s not wilfully obscure, but I’m not very good at writing love songs and stuff like that, and I’m really interested in encyclopedias and dictionaries and, y’know, arcane and word origins interest me. And so does celebrity or call to celebrity, because I grew up watching the Mike Douglas show a lot on TV in the 70’s, the early 70s, mid 70s Catskills comics were really at their peak, like, the days of Shecky Green, and that sort of celebrity is kind of gone. There’s a different style of celebrity, but I think it’s... nowadays I don’t think people actually have to do anything, y’know? I think Madonna is one of the most influential people of the 20th century, as far as I’m concerned, because she ushered in a whole new art and lifestyle where, if you change your trousers every twenty minutes you can stay on top, y’know. So that sort of interests me a lot.
Allan: I also grew up watching the Mike Douglas show and whatnot, but you sound like you’ve thought more about it than I have.
Tom: (laughs). I guess so! It’s not really that productive, in that sense.
Allan: How was this past notion of celebrity – are you being critical, do you think we’ve become shallower?
Tom: No, I don’t think so. I mean, it’s an interesting study. Celebrity status is as common as asphalt, y’know, just from that perspective... although I think there’s certain things I don’t think people can do anymore. I mean, there’s certain, like – I don’t think it would be possible to make Valley of the Dolls anymore, because people just aren’t that big. People don’t have to act or don’t really do anything, they just have to be themselves. I think (back then) people still were expected to sing or act or do something, or have a quick, fast quip, y’know?
Tom: Perhaps I’m just completely out of touch with what’s new and modern, but I just don’t see anybody out there to take the place of the old six people who used to be on The Match Game.
Tom: There’s just sort of a different... there’s just not the same sort of shabbiness and trying really hard, but, y’know, to hide the fact that you have a one bedroom apartment. Even if it is in Beverley Hills, it’s still just a one bedroom apartment. I’m not very... I don’t explain myself so good...
Allan: No, no, it’s great, you just – after you speak, you may hear me sitting here sounding confused, rustling paper trying to figure out, okay, where do I go now?
Allan: So do you consume a lot of media? Do you read tabloids or things like that?
Tom: No, not at all. I try to avoid them. I mean, I would just... I mean, I think... I don’t smoke, but if people aren’t allowed to smoke in public places, I think – I mean, I can’t help – I dwell on petty details and stuff like that, and I dwell on things, but I really don’t enjoy looking at supermarket tabloids, because I find them very fearful. I don’t know, just sort of thinking - folks who devour, I mean, who actually are absolutely fascinated by Jennifer Aniston – although, I mean, on the other side of the coin I’m really interested and fascinated by how well the Toronto Blue Jays are gonna do this year, so I guess its – people’s different passions. Allan: I mean – I was wondering if you were exploring things in a sort of scientific way. Do you watch television?
Tom: I don’t have cable. Once in a blue moon when I’m in a hotel room, or something like that, I watch TV for half an hour and I’m kind of – well, I am almost literally shocked about how bad it is, like, how trite, how embarrassingly shallow. TV’s the kind of thing I think I would watch behind closed doors and shut the blinds so nobody would see me, cos I find it – well, it’s partly because it’s not – you can’t – I think people now who are in their early 20’s, if they were at all interested, have really missed out at 11:00 on a Friday night, watching The Incredible Two Headed Transplant – that just doesn’t happen anymore? And I don’t think TV is very fun anymore, like, y’know... But then again – I think I’m such an utterly subjective person, I cannot – this is not how the world is, this is how I see the world, and so I think those are two very different things. I don’t think my opinion carries very much weight or counts for very much. But that’s just how I see things, and I just, sort of, write about ‘em. I can’t help it! (laughs)
Allan: Part of my thesis – the songs are often on obscure or misperceived things. You also have a lot of songs about, sort of, middleclass life, and people just sort of – “Carrying the Ball for Hair Design,” “I’m Always the Last One to Know,” “Big in Real Estate.” Lot of songs about everyday details – you make little fascinating novels out of them, these moments of human experience that no one would really care to notice or write about.
Tom: No, because they’re unimportant, but I mean, that’s like 95% of everything is... The fact is that if something great suddenly came out of the ground, the fact would be that the ground would have still been there for quite awhile, y’know? And why not document the ground, rather than the great thing that came out of it, because that’s what everybody else is doing? And, y’know, why at this place – I think – it doesn’t really matter to me so much what the end result is, it’s like, why did it happen here? How did it come to happen, I find, a lot more interesting. I think it’s quite boring, though. It’s a pretty boring way of looking at things.
Allan: I’m not entirely sure I understood any of that...
Tom: I have a tendency to speak in very poor analogies, and uh, it’s just – middle class, whatever, things like that are of little or no consequence. I mean, say, okay, you can look across the street, and an hour later, something else is there, and everybody is interested in what this thing is now, but no one was looking there before, and there could have been just as many things going on, or not going on. Like, end results – I just sort of think – end results – I like to find out about, I’m interested in things that happen before some great result. Backgrounds, the stuff that’s taken for granted. I think it probably has a lot to do, in my young teens, with listening a lot to the Village Green Preservation Society, which probably influenced me, as much as – besides maybe Chuck Berry - as much as any music at all.
Allan: I’m a Kinks fan, but I don’t know that one – I’m more of a Muswell Hillbillies man – Why Village Green?
Tom: I just love that record from when I first – I dunno, when I was 13 or 14 and got a hold of it, because it was out of print and didn’t sell very well, y’know, but the Kinks period, the Ray Davies period, from like 68 to – I think Muswell Hillbillies was the last really, truly great record that he wrote, in my opinion... but I just love the different approaches he has, like, you know, writing about something after its happened, rather than writing about the event happening.
Allan: Can you tie that to a specific song?
Tom: I just like sorta putting together songs like “Alcohol” and “Holiday,” y’know? Like, there’s one song about drinking and there’s another song about going on a holiday, but there’s not a song in-between about a binge, and then having to go on a holiday... Y’know, there’s not like a – the middle ground is left out.
Allan (guessing): They’re kind of slices of life?
Tom: Yeah, and I love that, because, y’know, I wish – I just love that style in approaching songs that way. I think anybody can come up with a better song than, y’know, “My Girl” by Bill Henderson and Chilliwack, y’know, and each and everyone one of us to try to do everything in our power to at least write something that’s not as bad! Cos I mean, I get mad and I have temper tantrums, if I go into a restaurant and order some food and a couple of minutes later someone puts on classic Clear Channel rock, and I just get up and leave because I didn’t pay to hear this, y’know? And I’d love to see more people do that, because I mean, I think I have a perfect right, because f we’re really loud the police come to our door and tell us to turn it down because of the decibel limit, but I think there’s also a bad taste, shit-limit... I mean, a lot of people say, “I just tune it out, it doesn’t really bother me,” but it bothers me because its invasive...