Interview by Mark Lacey
“The great joy of making a solo album is that there’s no presumption of the style it’s going to be. I can pretty much do whatever I want. There was no pressure of any kind. It was much more about me going, well, am I happy with it”.
When Thunder split in 2001, seemingly for good, it served as a catalyst for Luke to write and record his first solo album ‘El Gringo Retro’. The album allowed him to explore a different persona, and despite featuring contributions from his Thunder bandmates, Harry, Chris and Ben, it took on an identity of its own. It’s been 22 years since that debut, and in the interim Thunder have cemented their position again as one of the UK’s most beloved rock acts, culminating in 2022’s ambitious and highly acclaimed arena tour. With Thunder taking another temporary pause, following Danny’s injury last year, the time was right for Luke to explore new sounds again.
MGM: I think it’s been over twenty years since you last put out a solo album. And this one is probably more accurately a solo album in the sense that you’ve pretty much done everything on it.
Luke: Yeah, after 22 years, I thought the world was ready.
MGM: Around the time that you did ‘El Gringo Retro’ in 2001, Thunder were taking a bit of a break. Thunder are taking a bit of a break again following Danny’s injury, but most of these songs were written prior to that, so was this always intended to be a solo album, or was it a Thunder album that didn’t happen?
Luke: No, it’s a creeping thing, really. When I was writing ‘All the Right Noises’, at the start of that period, three of these songs ‘Killed by Cobain’, ‘Errol Flynn’ and ‘Nobody Cares’ were written around that time. They didn’t feel like Thunder songs to me, so I just put them to one side, and I forgot about them, to be honest. And they stayed there pretty much until the start of Lockdown. I was also in the thick of writing ‘Dopamine’ at that point. I had lots of time on my hands and I was just going through stuff and I found these three songs and I thought, well, they’re quite good. My wife stuck her head around the door, and said, you should do something with those. So, I thought maybe I’ll write a couple of more. And a couple more just came out naturally, so they went on that pile as well. And then I thought, well, I’ve got five songs, so maybe I should make an album, I’ve got plenty of time. I’d done everything myself, and that wasn’t going to change because of COVID and not physically being able to collaborate with anybody, so it seemed like the right thing to do, just to keep going. We got various breaks in the lockdown, and by the time I’d got eleven or twelve songs a break appeared and it gave me a chance to go and do the drums and to mix it, which was at the end of 2020. And then we were back in lockdown again and obviously by then I was taken up with Thunder stuff. So, it sat there for a little while, finished. I wasn’t in any particular hurry to do anything with it. And then a friend said to me, this label had been in touch and asked would I be interested in either producing other acts or maybe making a solo album or whatever.
So, I said, funnily enough, I’ve got an album just sitting here. And then somebody else said, another label had been in touch, so it was very odd. It all happened at the same time. I sort of chatted to everybody and thought, fuck it, I might as well do it. While I was talking about that, and finalising a plan, Danny had his accident. So that put it on hold, because I just wasn’t in the right place to deal with that at all. The back six months of last year were quite difficult, as well as Danny, friends, and a couple of other family things going on. I just didn’t have the headspace for it, really. But the label I ended up with, Conquest, are a little label based in Hastings, and the two guys that run it, I’ve known years and I sat with them and said, I’ll tell you what I don’t want to do. I don’t necessarily want to do any gigs. Thunder is still my priority. Given all those circumstances, if you’re happy to release the album, let’s go with it.
MGM: It’s quite interesting to hear that the songs have been kicking around for a bit and that they’ve been written and put together over a period of time. You’re known to be a prolific writer anyway; not just with your own projects, but even writing with other people, like Heather Findlay, Lynn Jackerman and others. Does it make a difference that these songs are written across a period of time? It still feels like a cohesive piece of work.
Luke: Well, I think the last two Thunder albums were very time specific in terms of the subject matter. But I think with the songs on my album, they’re much more generic subject matter wise, so it didn’t feel like there was any particular thrust. Musically, it’s quite eclectic here and there. I suppose the great joy of making a solo album is that there’s no presumption of the style it’s going to be, as there is with a Thunder record, because Thunder’s a rock band, so people know it’s got to be a rock album. And despite us pushing at the envelope a little bit, it’s always going to be Thunder because when we get in the room, that’s the noise we make. But with this, with my album, I can pretty much do whatever I want. There was no pressure of any kind. So, it was much more about me going, well, am I happy with it? It’s been a gradual process all over, but having said all of that, it’s me that’s written the songs, so there is going to be a stylistic thread running through it, I guess.
MGM: Some of the imagery you’ve got around your album cover, and that blue room with all the staircases, is really spectacular. It suggested you might have been writing whilst sat on a beach somewhere with an acoustic guitar, but maybe not.
Luke: Well, no. I was in my room during lockdown in my home studio, which is painted blue. That’s where the album title came from. It’s a blue room. It’s straightforward. With the imagery, I was talking to my good friend Jason. He said, I know just the place we should shoot this. And he’d been looking for an excuse to go to the building in question in Spain and shoot there for ages, so it all tied up very nicely.
MGM: The album cover is really reminiscent of the final scenes from ‘Labyrinth’ which featured David Bowie in 1986.
Luke: Well, actually the building did inspire the set for ‘Squid Game’. It’s by this mad Spanish architect, and it’s called Muralla Roja and it’s in Calp, on Costa Brava. It’s an amazing place, and it’s completely wacky. The geezer must have clearly liked his drugs because it’s like being in an Escher drawing.
MGM: Quite a few of the songs on here feel like they’re about personal experiences, and representing unfinished business, or heartfelt situations. Would you agree with that?
Luke: Certainly, on some of it. Erroll Flynn is about my father, who died a couple of years ago, and it’s about me as well. It’s about getting old and the male condition and all of those things. So that is kind of personal, I guess. Some of it is just me moaning. ‘Nobody Cares’ is me moaning about the mundanity of the stuff in most people’s Facebook feeds. Here’s a photograph of my dinner, etc. I suppose the first song ‘I Want to See the Light’ is thinly about COVID; about being isolated. There’s a song about my wife on there. I suppose it is personal overall, but I didn’t consciously do it. I think it’s probably because the nature of the last two Thunder albums was very much looking at the world outside. This is maybe a bit more inward looking.
MGM: ‘I Want to See the Light’ was played at a funeral of your good friend Daryl Clark, who many music fans will remember for being the founder of the musical charity, ChildLine Rocks, and the Sons of Royalty charity bike ride. You’ve dedicated the album to him. What did he mean to you?
Luke: Well, I think he was unique. I’ve never met anybody like him; an amazing guy and one of life’s great enthusiasts. Where lots of people would just give up and go, oh God, it’s too hard. He just ploughed on through, and I respected him for that. He was a good mate, I enjoyed his company, and we had a lot of laughs together. I talk about him a lot as well, and the ride is ongoing. It’s never nice losing a mate, but unfortunately, we’re getting to that age now.
MGM: Let’s talk about a couple of other songs on your album. Your new single is called ‘Killed by Cobain’, and reflects on Thunder’s misfortunes around trying to break into the US, and the cancelled planned David Lee Roth tour. How do you look back on that 30 years later?
Luke: Over the years we’ve been asked a lot, “What would you say to a young person about to go into the music business professionally”? My answer is always the same, which is just prepare yourself for colossal disappointment (ha ha). That’s the only thing that’s certain, and I think that was just one of those moments. Nothing is predictable. Just when you think you’ve got everything organised, things tend to go wrong. In that case, our timing had been very good over here, in Europe and Japan. With America we thought we were off to the races and then, one minute we were, the next minute we weren’t. I think that it’s difficult for a lot of non-Americans to kind of understand the seismic nature of Grunge. It was a bit like punk here in ‘75. It completely changed the way people looked at music. Radio formats changed; fashion changed. Lots of things changed. And whereas it took a little bit longer to get to the Midwest, certainly up and down the East and West coast, grunge was an absolute force. When all the radio formats changed and the attitude to classic rock or heritage rock suddenly went from being very cool to being the worst thing in the world, and fashion as well, with the facial hair and the plaid shirts and stuff, I completely got it. The hair metal thing was pretty fucking ridiculous. We never felt part of it, but I think in America initially we got lumped in with those hairspray bands, whereas we always saw ourselves as a jeans and T shirt band, really. So, it’s just unfortunate these things happen. I can’t complain though, because we’ve had a really good career, so you’ve got to let it go. It would drive you mad if you didn’t. I can still laugh about it.
MGM: Danny Vaughan at Tyketto recently spoke to MGM. He shared a view that it wasn’t just down to Nirvana that rock music changed so drastically. Fans were turning away from rock music, because they just couldn’t identify with the images it was portraying anymore. And then they looked at people like Curt Cobain and thought, actually, I identify better with that. Those MTV videos of the late 80s and early 90s, with the hairspray, the fast cars, and fast women were just bizarre.
Luke: Certainly that period from maybe 1985-87 was very much like that. I felt that Guns N Roses were different to that. They had an earthiness about them and a more almost punkish attitude. But certainly, music had got very pompous and up itself, and I think it became very bland as a result of that. And grunge was a bit edgier and a bit rawer. The sound of eighties records, I’m not a fan of; I don’t think that era’s aged very well musically, whereas seventies records still sound great to me. Grunge was harking back to the early seventies. We did a show with Soundgarden and Alice in Chains in LA in 1991, and Soundgarden just reminded me of Sabbath; very heavy. And Alice in Chains, I thought, were more interesting and had a slightly more modern take, and the two vocals they had was very interesting. But it’s only rock. The problem is that the indulgence of the eighties stuff, and the girls with big knockers, sprawled all over the bonnets of cars; it’s patently ridiculous and hasn’t aged well. Regardless of how good the records are, the imagery was not particularly good.
MGM: The song ‘Nobody Cares’ is one of the album’s highlights, and has a real Mediterranean / Sicilian / Godfather feel to it. What were you thinking when you put that together?
Luke: I have no idea. It’s the odd thing about writing. Some days you pick up the guitar, these odd things come out and I have no idea where it came from. I thought, that’s interesting. I don’t think it’s Thunder, but I think it’s quite interesting. To me, it sounds kind of Russian or Greek as well. It’s all based around acoustic guitar. I don’t think it’d be that complicated to do it live. We’ll see.
MGM: You’ve got a couple of guest spots on the album including Ricky Warwick and Danny Bowes amongst others. But how comfortable are you out front, singing lead?
Luke: It’s not something that I’ve ever had to worry about much because I’ve always worked with really fantastic singers, so it’s not something I’ve ever had to do. When I’m writing for Thunder and making demos, I sing all the demos, and some of the time that’s quite difficult because obviously Danny’s a pure tenor, and his range is a lot higher, so sometimes hilarious results. But, I’m comfortable in my own area, which is much more baritone; and lower down the scale. As for being out front; all lead guitar players are show-offs, so that’s not an issue in itself. How it manifests itself for a show, obviously I’m not going to be jumping around. I think it just makes gigging a lot harder because of the degree of concentration needed. There won’t be any late nights on the tour bus for Luke if he’s singing, because that’s what fucks your voice, and that’s why Danny over the last 30 years has been extremely professional. He always takes himself off to bed and looks after that, and I’m going to have to do the same if I do tour this. So, I’m not looking forward to that aspect of it.
MGM: Where are you with plans to tour this album? It would be great to see you re-united on stage again with Dave McCluskey, your old drummer from ‘The Union’.
Luke: I’m talking about it at the moment. If I can do it the way I want to do it, with the people I want to do it with, at the right time, then yes, I’ll do it. It was lovely getting Dave in to do the album. He did it very efficiently, very quickly and we had lots of fun. It would be nice to get out on the road, but it’s by no means certain because I have to make sure that all of the ducks line up in a nice, neat little row.
MGM: On the subject of live shows, you were recently pictured with Joey Tempest at the Rock Meets Classic Shows in Germany. It reminded me that you and Danny played on that tour a few years ago. It’s a great concept to align rock musicians with an orchestra. How was it going back to watch?
Luke: This year was the first one since Danny and myself did it in 2020. We only managed to get five gigs done before they closed us down because of COVID which is a bit frustrating because we were just starting to get going and enjoy ourselves. It’s a great bunch of people. All of the German house band are really good guys and girls; I’ve not seen Joey for a while and so, I just popped over for a couple of days to watch the show and catch up with a few mates.
MGM: Let’s touch on some of the Thunder stuff. You’ve just put out the re-issues of the first three albums, and it was really pleasing to see all the different additional tracks you’ve put on those. Do you have lots of material in the archive to call on?
Luke: No, we haven’t, to be honest. Particularly the EMI albums which have been repackaged a lot over the years. So, the opposite is true. The archive is really empty, certainly in terms of unheard songs, there’s very little left at all, if anything. We have got demos of everything pretty much going back through the years, but I’ve always thought that unless there’s something radically different about the demo, it’s a bit of a cop out just to put a load of demos out. I can’t see the point. One of the reasons that we picked the versions we did for these reissues is that we thought it’d be interesting to see how those songs that were originally recorded in ‘89, have changed years later. We’ve always been the kind of band that when we play a song live, it always develops and mutates. So, it was quite an interesting exercise to pick these live versions of the songs from later years and compare them.
MGM: Now these first three have been released, are there plans to now put out ‘Thrill of It All’ and ‘Giving the Game Away’, or others, in the future?
Luke: That’s the thing; to get the whole catalogue out there on vinyl. It’s not a massive difference, but it’s just a slight warmth of tone. I’m just an old-fashioned git. I like vinyl, I like pulling it out and holding it and being careful with it and treating it with some respect. It’s all part of the deal.
MGM: You’ve now been performing for the best part of 40 years, and with Thunder most of that time. Looking around the music industry at the bands that have had that tenure, many of them don’t really like each other very much, and yet the original four members of Thunder, along with Chris since 1996, you all seem to have that real camaraderie and friendship. What’s the secret?
Luke: That’s a good question. I think you’ve got to laugh at the same things. You’ve got to be able to laugh at each other and I think you have to learn to give each other space and respect. It’s not unlike a marriage. It’s like being married to four geezers at the same time. Mutual respect, space, sharing a sense of humour, all pulling the same way as people, and as musicians, and enjoying each other’s company. When we get together in a rehearsal room or on a bus, we’re like a bunch of kids and I think it’s important that we still have that. And, despite all of the stuff that’s happened with Benny and his battles with cancer and now with Danny coming back from this brain injury, it does make you realise that some things are more important than music. And without wishing to sound like one of Spinal Tap, the perspective that gives you on life and yourself and your immortality and everything, these are important things. We like each other, we get on. It’s not fucking rocket science.
When we were making ‘Back Street Symphony’, every Friday night, we would down tools and we took over the maintenance man’s room at Great Linford Manor and we set up as a bar called Harry’s Bar. Predictable. We’d go in there, listen to some rough mixes, we’d have a drink and a laugh and a chat. One night Andy Taylor and I were there, both a bit the worst for it. He said, I worked out what it is about you guys that’s so weird. And he goes, “you all like each other”, so read into that what you will. It’s obviously not an experience that some musicians ever get to enjoy.
MGM: You touched on Danny’s recovery from his brain injury. There will undoubtedly be a long road ahead, and in the meantime the timetable around Thunder’s future is hard to predict. It must be quite emotionally hard for you and the rest of the band, to see your long-time friend and partner going through that. And yet as musicians you all still need to go out and earn a crust, and work on other projects. It must also be very difficult for Danny to be on the side lines, and not be able to participate.
Luke: Obviously, it’s a difficult time for everybody involved, mostly for Danny and his family, so it’s far from ideal. But he and I have had very frank conversations about this very subject and I won’t go into detail, but as I say to him; as a group of people we’re in a holding pattern, and we need to give him all the time we can give him to get better and that’s what we intend to do. Throughout Thunder’s career, I think particularly the latter 15-20 years, people have all done other things at the same time anyway. And I think it’s maybe indicative of the business these days, with record sales being negligible now and streaming paying absolutely bugger all, I think all musicians have got to be able to be a little bit more flexible in how they approach their career. And that’s inevitable. Obviously, what’s happened to Danny has made that even more the case, I guess.
But, as a bunch of people, the most important thing is that our mate gets better and that’s far more important than, as far as I’m concerned, if Thunder will ever tour again. It’s important, but it’s nowhere near as important. It’s really about him first, and him getting better. And if at any point he says to us, well, I’m ready to come back or not sure yet, or whatever, then obviously we’ll deal with that when the time comes. But I do have to say that his improvement in the last six months has been quite astonishing. So, I do feel very optimistic that he’ll be back.
MGM: So, you’ve already suggested you’re exploring the possibilities of a solo tour. But has this album whetted your appetite for further solo music?
Well, if so, I’d better do it quick because I don’t think I can afford to wait another 20 years. To be honest with you, I’m not sure, because a lot of it depends on how Danny gets on, because when Thunder is running, it’s a very hungry beast in terms of what I do and my writing and what I spend my time doing. That will determine a lot of it. I’m always up for doing other things anyway, whether that’s producing another artist or writing with other people, and I’ll continue to do that either way. If enough people enjoy ‘Songs from the Blue Room, I might be tempted to do another one, but it just depends on all sorts of other circumstances that, at the moment, I’ve got no control over. I’m just going to keep all the options open and see where we go.
Luke Morley’s ‘Songs from the Blue Room’ will be released on 23rd June.
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