interviews‎ > ‎

Mark Thompson-Smith (Big Life)

posted 25 Oct 2011, 06:45 by Paul Woodward

Hi Mark, this is Woody from Midlands Rocks; I hope you’re well and up for answering a few questions for us!
“Hi Woody, I'm very well, thank you ... Fire away!!”
First off, I have to say I love the Big Life album; it’s not an instant pop album, it has real depth and maturity to it that really appeals to me and I know it will never gather dust on my shelf!
“Thank you very much! I'm really glad to hear that you consider it worthy of more than “just a few plays”... It's actually what Steve and I hope for when people hear it. It’s a real grower. Luckily more people are coming back to us saying that they are finding it to be an album that they’re playing more than they expected too, and finding more to listen to each time... It’s incredibly flattering.”

You have been in sort of a self imposed exile from the music biz, until recently, so what inspired you to come out of exile and form Big Life with Steve Newman?
“'Self imposed exile'...? I like that description!!”

“I suppose it was ... I completely switched off in the mid 90s, lost the passion for singing and moved in to IT. The disappointment of being in the right place, but at the wrong time, i.e. in the States when Nirvana hit, really blew me and loads of major acts out of the water. And then, when the Praying Mantis stint finished, shortly afterwards, after I returned to the UK, I took a long hard look at the prospects for continuing and just stopped.”

“Apart from a brief return to playing, with Mike Walsh and the guys, to support Xenon in New Jersey on Thanksgiving Eve '95 and releasing “A Far Cry From New Jersey” to honour a promise to them, that was me done.... Or so I thought?”

“Steve and I met at exactly the time I gave up. He was going to join up with me for a local band I'd started to put together, he even learned all of the songs, and then I changed my mind! He reminds me of that quite often!”

“I hadn't actually met Steve at this time though; it was all done via phone and tapes sent through, but we met shortly after that, when I went over to apologise to him...! Coincidentally, he was going to ask me to be the singer on his first Newman album too - good job I didn't do it, 'cause look at him now, Ha! Ha! He’s a fantastic talent! I always claim that I’m the reason and catalyst for his amazing success ...hah!”

“We actually became very good friends from that point on and even though I wasn't singing or writing at the time, Steve very kindly asked me to come over and listen to his new songs and chat about them; be a sort of an unofficial sounding board as it turned out? He eventually asked me to sing backing vocals on a few songs, and in hindsight I think he was trying to coax me back in to 'getting back out there again'.... He finally succeeded, thank God!”

“The main reason that I returned to singing again though, was a combination of being made redundant - I didn't want the other job on offer in the company at the time - and the death of a close friend of mine two weeks later, in early 2005. I met up with friends of mine (from my Portsmouth based, US rock covers band back in the 80s, Fay Wray), at the funeral actually, and it was one of those 'Life's Too Short' moments. We decided to get all the guys back together and through that, I discovered that I really wanted to sing again.”

“Not long after that, I received the invitation to join The Sweet on the tour of Sweden. I wouldn't have accepted and  / or been able to do that tour if the events of late 2005 onwards hadn't unfolded in the way that they did, but fate / destiny are strange things!”

“After that tour, I knew that I wanted to sing and write again and the person I wanted to write with was Steve! That was the start of what became BIG LIFE!”

The Big Life album was written over many years yes, since 2005 I believe? Why did the album take so long to write, record and release?
“Actually, the writing was very quick and very easy... I felt like my writing dam had burst, so loads of ideas came pouring out and we put together 15 songs in seven and half days, and by early 2006, eleven of the final songs that made the album were done.”

“The guide tracks went down gradually, but as you know, Steve's a very busy bloke and much in demand, so we slowly nudged them along in between his projects until he'd finished the superb “The Art Of Balance” CD. He basically then said, “Right, let's get this done” and committed 2010 to the “Big Life” CD.”

“We felt the album needed two more songs to really close it out, so “Dying Day” and “Better Man” were the last written, allowing, by late autumn, the recording process to be virtually done.”

Are you pleased with the album and how it’s turned out?
“I think the word I’d use is “ecstatic”!!! I'm so incredibly proud of the CD and feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to put this together, and then to have AOR Heaven take it on; it was just wonderful!”

“After so long away from it all, it was just an amazing feeling to be creative again and to finally write and work with Steve on our songs, and to find that we gelled not only as friends but that creatively, we complemented each other across the writing, recording and production process. We really learned a lot from each other.”

“Although it took a while to complete, I think that it's benefited from that time, particularly vocally. If we'd recorded it straight off, then I'm not sure if I'd have been as comfortable with the vocals to be honest. I was a little rusty after all in 2006, but singing regularly with Fay Wray has made me match fit again...”

“That said, Steve and I did end up using a few of the original vocal takes from right at the beginning! They captured that immediate emotion of the song as I'd just written it. There are a lot of personal observations and memories in the songs and the original vocals seem to convey them more appropriately than a later take.”

What has been the reaction to the album in general and how do you feel about people’s reactions?
“As I said, I'm genuinely stunned by the incredibly generous reaction of the majority of people. Most people who have reviewed, played it on rock shows and bought it have really been so excited, and in some cases really moved, by the songs, which is so special to hear and read.”

“There are obviously others that have not liked it or just not ‘got it', but that's to be expected; the phrase, “You can't please all of the people all of the time etc.” certainly applies, but at least they took the time to give it a listen... That's as much as you can ask.”

What are your favourite songs on the album and any reasons why?
“Which one of my children do I like more, you mean?? I love them all!!”

“OK. There are a few... “Close To You”, as it was the first song that we wrote together. We didn't have anything in the locker when we first sat down to write it. It started off with the keyboard riff which I’d had in my head and that I had thought about only 10 minutes beforehand.... but we were off and running and it was pivotal!”

“Dying Day” for the drama it contains... A great opening track!”

“Better Man”, just because it’s one of those moments where we looked at each other and thought, this song's special, so catchy!”

“Feel Alive”, as it sums up my feelings of 'being me' again!”

“Deep Water” for the overall feel that Steve brought to a song about a family tragedy.”

“Leaves” is very special as it's about a change of perspective, due to my daughter's birth.”

“And “Hands Across The Water”, which is my thank you to Mike Walsh and my wonderful New Jersey friends.”


Is there any chance of seeing Big Life live? Maybe, as a double header with Newman, hint, hint?
“I would love to, as would Steve. We've talked about it and I've also asked After Hours if they'd like to be involved, as I really love their “Against The Grain” record, so let’s see! I'm so pleased those guys are back out again! An AOR Heaven triple bill? What a prospect!!”

“This year's out of the question now, as Steve's got a lot on, but the first half of 2012 may well enable me to pull it altogether, if they are all available and still up for the idea? I really hope they are!”

I know it isn’t easy getting decent gigs when you’re in a melodic rock band but I’m sure there are a lot of people who’d love to see the band perform!
“I agree! It would be really, really good to play the Big Life songs live. I've actually played “Takin' Me Down” live recently, and it really went down well, so I've definitely got the taste for more now.”


“You're right though; I know from Steve's experiences that it's very tough to get the gigs; hence me mentioning hopefully, sorting out this AOR Heaven triple bill show myself?”

“Having said that, with the resurgence of interest in melodic/hard rock, thanks to the major Van Halen US tours initially (and then Journey's success), you have seen promoters willing to put on more tours for the 'old school' bands that have thankfully come back on the scene; and that has also enabled newer bands like Houston, Serpentine and Vega to tour successfully too. So, it's starting to build again.... Long may it continue to do so.”

I really took to many of the lyrics on the album, a few songs making a real lasting connection with me. How do you approach lyric writing? Do you set out a theme and write a song from that perspective or is it more natural and from the heart?
“Thank you again Woody, ...that's really lovely to hear. My writing experiences seem to be based initially on the mood that the music creates and then it suggests certain phrases and evokes certain memories or observations? I find it more natural if I hear something initially, even if it's just a fragment of a riff and then expand outwards with my co-writer; but there isn't a set template... I've written the full melody and lyric previously too... I think I prefer the other way really though?”

You are a long time friend of one of the most underrated and under-appreciated musicians in the melodic rock scene – Steve Newman! What songs and albums of his do you really like and are there any reasons why?
“Ooh, there’s so many to choose from!!! “Dance In The Fire”, “Is This Love”? Loads of them..... I absolutely love “One Step Closer”, “Primitive Soul” and also “Stay With Me”, which is recorded and live ... He definitely knows how to work a crowd that Newman boy! “The Art Of Balance” is a great, powerful album in its entirety and really demonstrates Steve's progress in writing, playing and production... He just gets better and better.”

“The new CD (“Under Southern Skies”) has Steve writing some really wonderful songs, after an unbelievably difficult year personally!! You can hear that particularly on “Wish You Were Here”. It's an intensely emotional song and my heart goes out to him every time I listen to it.”

“I love “Under Southern Skies”, and “Montserrat” is just magnificent ... I agree with you that he is a very, very talented chap.... He's a damn nice bloke and a great friend too!!”

Are there any other musicians you would really like to work or collaborate with?
“Ann Wilson....! A nice duet would be great, thank you!!!”

“To be honest, Woody, I'm so fired up with how my life has changed around that I'm just grateful and amazed to be where I am at the moment! I am certainly open to other things too though. It's been flattering recently to be asked to get involved with three things already, so if any of them actually happen, you'll be first to know!” 

What bands are you currently listening too and enjoying?
“I actually get to listen to a whole load of bands, due to running rock schools for kids, so my taste covers a wide array of styles, but in the melodic rock/hard rock genre the new albums from Mr Big, Whitesnake, Journey, (what a great gig that was at Wembley!!) Newman obviously, Vega, After Hours, Work Of Art, Lionville. Redrum from Greece, (like them!) and there are two new bands down in Hampshire, over here, Summers and The Light Divided that are both really promising!”

What have been your musical career highlights?
“Big Life obviously; playing at The Ritz in New York with Mike Walsh and the guys, supporting Paul Di'Anno's Killers. Playing in Japan with Praying Mantis and meeting their amazing fans; the re-union Fay Wray gig that was so special after not having played live for so many years.... We encored with Giant's “I'm A Believer”, and that was brilliant! And, looking over at THE Andy Scott of The Sweet, in Stockholm, whilst we're both playing “Ballroom Blitz”, thinking, “How on earth did this happen? I used to watch you on Top Of The Pops!!!??” 

And have there been any lowlights?
“Yes, sadly!! Losing the Atlantic deal, with the Owers twins, when we were in Touche in the late 80s. We'd shaken hands on the deal with Ahmet Ertegun, but the twins and the manager replaced me with Steve Grimmett. Atlantic couldn't believe it, so they kicked the manager out of the office and the deal was lost for all of us. Not a happy time!”

“It all worked out for us all in the end though, admittedly separately. They changed their name to Lionsheart and produced a fantastic album, and I got to work with Gary Flounders and Flight 19, and then moved to the States to work with Dave Rosenthal and Mike Walsh, which was a fantastic experience.”

Thanks for your time Mark, and I hope work on a follow up album is well under way? Is there anything else you would like to add or say to Midlands Rocks readers?
“First off, thank you for the very kind words in your Big Life album review Woody... I was incredibly flattered but so happy to read that 'you get it'.”

“Big Life 2” has had its first seeds sown, but probably won't see the light of day until late next year, Steve's musical commitments allowing? We're both agreed that there will be a second album though, so let’s see what happens?”

“... And finally, thank you to all of your readers for taking the time to read this! Keep supporting Woody and all of the AOR/melodic/hard rock scene, and remember; you only get one life, so make it a BIG LIFE!!”