The Southampton-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Steve Thorne has just released his fifth album, and he’s also initiated the self‑destruct sequence on a successful prog solo career.
He first made waves a decade ago with Emotional Creatures – a two-volume set that displayed strong songcraft and forthright lyrics dealing with thorny issues. It also included a stellar array of supporting talent hand-picked from Yes, King Crimson and Genesis alumni, to name but three.
“I took that as far as I could on Into The Ether,” confesses Thorne of his 2009 album. “I really went overboard on that. I was like a kid in a candy store with access to such great musicians, but I feel like I’ve done that now so I’m back down to basics.”
What he classes as basics for his final album Island Of The Imbeciles still reads like a letter to Santa from any prog musician – Nick D’Virgilio (Big Big Train, Spock’s Beard, Genesis) reprises his role on drums; King Crimson’s Tony Levin is back contributing bass and stick work to several tracks; Robin Armstrong of Cosmograf lends a hand – but in comparison to his previous albums, Thorne takes on the lion’s share of duties himself.
“A hell of a lot of it I’ve just done myself this time, which I always did, to be honest,” he reveals. “I’ve never made an album with Tony playing on every track – he’s only ever been on three on each album. I’d love to have been able to have him on everything, of course, but it’s all about budget so I took a lot of it on myself.”
Similarly, Nick D’Virgilio’s sought-after drum expertise doesn’t grace the entire recording. This time Thorne has kept and refined the rhythm sequences from the original demos to lend a more contemporary mood to the songs In The Frame, Animal and the title track.
“I do a really detailed drum track so that when I play it to Nick, he knows exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for before he even gets behind the kit,” Thorne explains. “I was looking for a certain sound to suit those songs. Animal has got a big, mighty drum sound you wouldn’t get off a drum kit.
“There’s a bit of electronica to those tracks – they seem to sound right done that way. I thought about putting drums on, then thought, ‘I’m probably not going to get anything like this atmosphere,’ so I stuck with those drum programs.”
While the musical aesthetic has undergone a change in the writing and recording process, one thing that has carried over from that solo debut in 2005 is Thorne’s refusal to shy away from often vitriolic social commentary in his lyrics.
Characterising his motivation, he says, “I’m a bit of a truth-seeker and I confront injustice. That’s the only theme running through all of it that I could link one album to the next with, but I’m not writing a concept album to moan solidly about the state of the world for 45 minutes. I don’t carry that kind of thing around with me all day – I’m quite a jovial person, but when it comes down to writing about the external around me, there’s no point saying it’s all damn wonderful when it isn’t.”
A download has been made available to accompany Island Of The Imbeciles – a cover of David Bowie’s version of My Death, written by Jacques Brel. Reflecting on the rock icon’s recent death, Thorne admits, “That was a real blow. I was a massive Bowie fan, totally one of my big heroes.”
The cover version was not a reaction to Bowie’s death but has been around for some time. “It’s something I recorded mainly as an exercise,” he says. “I got a new Pro Tools setup and thought I needed something to get my teeth into.
“It was languishing in my computer for three years. It’s a fascinating piece of songwriting. I’ve had it mastered to work with the rest of Island Of The Imbeciles so people can tack it on. It’s blended to be part of it but not part of it. That’s going to be available as a free download because I wouldn’t charge for that.”
I was like a kid in a candy store with access to such great musicians.
Thorne has been saying for some time that this fifth album will be the last under his own name. Like Bowie, he’s set to reinvent himself for the next phase of his career, which will be a band-based project, stripping away many of the prog elements for which he has become known, focusing instead on conciseness and the strength of the songwriting. Tin Machine, anyone?
“After this I’ll be doing more music under the name The Salamander Project,” he reveals. “I’ve been writing songs of a slightly different nature. I’ve got so much of that material, as strong as the stuff on the prog albums, and I want an outlet for it.
“It’s not a million miles away from what I do now but it might not have many weird beats on it, or 7⁄8 rhythms. They just haven’t got great big instrumental sections,” he laughs, adding, “I’m trying to draw in some musicians. I’m hoping to work with John Beck again from It Bites. He’s an amazing musician.”
Being in the position where he can call on some of the biggest names in the prog world to play his music and be able to distribute it free of label interference has the residual advantage that no one can censor Steve Thorne, and no one can dictate to him. He’s an independent artist in the truest sense of the term and he relishes having that latitude - it feeds him creatively and gives him the freedom to move on from his solo period. Conversely, it also allows him to keep the door open should he wish to return to that format.
“I may go back on all I’ve said in the future. Who knows?” he muses.
Time is waiting in the wings…
Island Of The Imbeciles is out now on White Knight. For more information, visit Steve’s website.