Welsh-born Rod Thomas, better known as recording artist Bright Light Bright Light (and that’s from a catchphrase of Gizmo from “Gremlins,” in case you are 12), has given us four majestic dance pop records and countless hours of chill thrills. His latest release “Fun City” is a true bop with a vibe that’s both refreshingly new and blissfully retro, tapping into the sound of this strange moment; in fact, his bittersweet anthem “This Was My House” might be the unintended anthem of quarantine. Bright Light x2 is also a beloved local DJ when not touring with Cher (or in lockdown), and his uber-popular tea dance makes its long awaited return this weekend! [Cover photo: Warren Piece]
Thotyssey: Hello hello, Bright Light Bright Light! Thanks so much for chatting with us today! So, we appear to be in the long-dreaded “second wave” of coronavirus quarantine. What gets you through this, personally?
Bright Light Bright Light: Wow, what a question! I think that’s still TBD! I have no idea what the range of emotions is going to be over the next few months, but for now I’m watching lots of old horror films, trying to get better at composing alongside writing pop music, and enjoying an uplifting cocktail in the evening.
How much have you enjoyed your livestream performing experiences, by the way? Is livestreaming much different than, say, a televised performance?
It’s a weird one to describe. Mostly it’s different because you’re totally on your own doing it–no team, no people filming, just you into a webcam. It’s definitely harder to have any energy feed from it, and less rewarding in many ways… but trying to do my best during a really strange year, you know? I have really, really missed performing and DJing in front of people!
The recent single off your newest album Fun City, “This Was My House,” is about how we are losing our safe queer spaces to violence and apathy (although despite that dark theme, it’s still a great dance track!). But now it really feels like an anthem for so many things in this moment, like what quarantine has done to nightlife.
Yeah, the timing of that was really strange, I must say. Obviously I wrote it way ahead of COVID and the release was scheduled back in January, so to have it released just as lockdown happened was very surreal. People are definitely more aware of the importance of physical safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. But the song is also a reaction to how the last election’s voting fractured families, and that hasn’t changed this time round either with a similar divide.
You’re from the UK: born in Wales, and later you lived in London. Do you think there are any huge differences between what’s happening here in the US versus there, as far as how people are dealing with the virus and quarantine?
I don’t know how to explain it, but it feels like the UK has taken things less seriously than the US. Or, let’s say the liberal parts of the UK have taken things less seriously than counterpart liberal parts of the US. I saw people inside bars in London months and months ago, and it was only the end of September that there was any indoor seating in New York. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of people taking flights all over Europe from the UK, and I know only two people from my friends in NYC who have taken flights–and that was for family emergencies. So I don’t know, I’ve been really shocked by people going on holiday in the UK; it makes me so nervous. Everyone has different comfort zones, of course. But the UK approach–and the fact that mask wearing is not mandatory in the same way as here–is way beyond my comfort level.
But Trump’s finally on his way out, and there’s a few vaccines in the works, so happy times may be back soon! What do you really look forward to doing again once this is all “past” us?
I think seeing this as “past us” is sadly overly optimistic–although the space to actually feel alive for a moment is incredible! The damage that that man has done to the country, and to the Western World, is wild. He’s empowered and validated such horrific hate speech and violent mindsets, it’s going to be like constant firefighting over the next decade. I’m looking forward to not waking up every morning feeling absolutely fucking shit, worried about what the government is going to do next to ruin LGBTQ+ and immigrant lives out of sheer spite. But I’m aware there are plenty of people left in the Senate who are hellbent on stalling any progressive movement. So I’m buckling up, honestly.
Switching gears for a moment: how do you think an independent musical artist’s success should be measured these days? You, for instance have put out four albums as Bright Light Bright Light that have been widely streamed and downloaded and critically praised, you’ve toured and collaborated with Scissor Sisters and other superstars, you have gigs all over the globe… and you have creative control over everything you do! For that matter, do artists even need major labels anymore?
Success is different artist by artist, I think. Like, I’ve survived 14 years as an independent artist, 10 as BLBL, and supported myself and built a career… which is definitely a form of success. But I’ve never had a hit single, and that does matter to the industry. It’s impossible to be seen by an industry that still relies on archaic statistics and means of measurement of success.
Artists definitely have benefits from major labels. For example, there is no way to cut through the sea of music out there without a marketing budget. There is absolutely no way to compete with–for example, Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Robyn, Carly Rae Jepsen–without a huge budget, as they have such omnipresence; all eyes are on them. Arguably, even Robyn and CRJ struggle with that compared to the other three… but to many, they’re also superstars. (I like all of those artists, FYI!)
An independent artist struggles to find their audience, and that’s the problem. Yes, it’s easier to release with streaming, etc., but it means that the volume of new music is proportionally greater… so being heard over the din is equally hard. It’s highly unlikely you’ll match any kind of success of a major label artist without the machine and budget of a major label. But that’s not necessarily your goal!
Many artists are super creative when it comes to nurturing and loving a fanbase, which I pride myself on, too. But there’s no way to deny that outside of a traditional label system, it’s extremely hard to establish and grow in comparison to those with a budget, as even to get people who follow you on Facebook to see your post, you have too boost it. The monetization is inescapable.
Tell us about what it was like to work with Elton John, and how those collaborations with him came about!
Elton’s a huge music fan, and is always keeping an eye on what new music is being released. He really liked my debut album Make Me Believe In Hope and got in touch. We became friends over the course of a year and then ended up working together on my song ‘I Wish We Were Leaving,” and then three more times on the Choreography album. He’s obviously one of my music heroes, so it was an amazing honor and a truly unbelievable reality to find myself working with him. Hands down the funniest, most generous and most hard-working musician I’ve ever met.
And you got to tour with Cher last year! That must’ve been wild.
WILD! It was so incredible to be mentioned next to such an icon. I actually bought a ticket to see her show in NYC that same year, so I got to see the show and then got the call to be part of it in Europe… it was amazing! We played at CHER’s largest ever crowd. To think she played to her largest crowd, so far into her career, is incredible… and we were part of that. So special.
I just rewatched your amazing video for “I Used to Be Cool,” starring yourself and other cute mustached boys including Sam Benedict at a pool house. Was that Fire Island?
We actually filmed it upstate in the Catskills, for a song that I’d written to sound at home on Fire Island. You know, it’s one of the most fun videos I’ve made. The house is gorgeous as you can see, and working with Sam was so fab. For those who don’t know, Sam and I work together at Club Cumming on my “Romy & Michele” DJ parties, so we’ve become good friends through Club Cumming. Having him on set was brilliant. He has such amazing energy, and is just such a joy to work with. It was lovely to be escapist and feel opulent for a day or two!
And the video for “This Was My House” features many NYC nightlife luminaries, including artists you collaborated with on the album. How important was it for you to have all these specific people in the video?
Crucial. We made this video before lockdown, and before the emphasis on amplifying voices was a national conversation. The thing I love most about NYC is the diversity of people who are the unspoken pillars of nightlife, and of the LGBTQ+ community. It was my goal to bring as many of them into the video as I could to show why these spaces are so important: the different people who build and frequent them, the different skills, passions, energies of the people in the city … I wanted it to be my homage to the awesome people I’ve met since moving here, and show that the song isn’t about ME… it’s about an US. I was so, so honored to have all these wonderful beings part of the video for the song, I had the BEST day.
Did you come to know Alan Cumming, famed actor and Club Cumming proprietor, through your love of Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion (where he participated in cinema’s most famous three person dance scene), or did you meet him for a different reason?
I actually met him at a friend Drew Brody’s show at Joe’s Pub. Drew sat us at the same table, so we started chatting and he heard my accent, and we just started blabbing and got on really well. So he invited me to his “Club Cumming” party in his dressing room after his cabaret show–where he had a small groups of friends at the afterparty–and then I asked him to sing on my record. Then I told him about the “Romy & Michele” party [I was already doing], and he was just opening Club Cumming–he was like, “OMG, you have to do it there!” And so I did.
Club Cumming has become such a vital performance space in the city!
It’s a wonderful, wonderful community space. The crowd is so different night by night, and all the staff are so … so interesting, you know? Like, they all have so many projects going on, so many skills, such passion… but also really care about the Club, and making it a home for whoever wants and needs it. I love that it’s in the heart of the East Village in a historical location (RIP Eastern Bloc and every incarnation before). It’s small, so you can make it feel vibrant and full easily, but (pre-COVID) you could pack it out and make people forget where they were entirely, and transform it into something totally unique. It’s a venue run with so much love, and I think that reads.
At the Club, you just DJ’ed a Kylie Minogue party celebrating her new album Disco. Neo disco is having a moment now, thanks to Kylie, Róisín Murphy, Jessie Ware, yourself, and several other artists… what do you attribute its current popularity to?
I like that you specify “neo disco.” It’s not disco, and I think that distinction is needed! I guess pop music has always borrowed from and idolized disco, so it makes sense. It is odd that all the big pop albums this year have chosen a “disco” direction; Róisín Murphy’s is the only one I would say is truly from a “disco” world. She clearly knows her deep disco cuts. Jessie Ware’s is a gorgeous synth-laden interpretation of disco songwriting; “Spotlight” is incredible. And Kylie’s is more of a pop radio disco-sampling vibe. So it’s been interesting to see each person’s take on it!
So, your “Romy & Michele’s Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance” returns this Saturday (3pm) to Club Cumming for a socially distanced, mostly door edition! Tell us a bit more about your history with this party, and how it’s going to look this weekend.
I created it to make something silly, accessible and community-focused for the city. I love that I have friends from all different walks of life, so I wanted to make something where people could hear songs of all genres with a no-snobbery attitude–in the daytime, so that my nightlife friends could come, people with families could pop out for an hour, friends between work shifts, friends who don’t like to party late or do drugs, or sober friends who still want a little dancefloor moment away from too much late-night time scheduling. I let people request songs on Post It Notes on a request wall, which I started so that people would see each other writing requests and start talking to each other–so, a subtle way to start conversations and introduce people to each other. It’s been so wonderful to see friendships form and collaborations start from the party!
This weekend it’ll be outdoors–so, very cold… but hopefully a nice way to get people outdoors before the weather’s too freezing. We’ll just play joyful, uplifting and sometimes unexpected songs to lift people’s moods in the middle of the afternoon!
What else is coming up for you?
On December 1st for World AIDS Day, there’s a special EP release to raise money for Visual AIDS. My album Fun City is all about LGBTQ+ history and future, and features some incredible (in my opinion) LGBTQ+ collaborators. So for World AIDS Day, my duet with Justin Vivian Bond, “Saying Goodbye Is Exhausting“–about loss in the LGBTQ+ community–is going to be featured to raise money for an incredible AIDS charity. It’ll be out digitally, and as a limited edition cassette, on December 1st.
To close… tell us more about what you are binge watching now!
Very weird, old, gorgeous horror films. If you care at all about old schlocky horror films, usually with fantastic fashions, total bitches and incredible soundtracks, I highly recommend Blood & Black Lace, Stage Fright, Crystal Eyes, and anything with a soundtrack by Pino Donaggio.
Thank you thank you, Bright Light Bright Light!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Bright Light Bright Light’s upcoming appearances, and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and his website. Buy or stream his latest album “Fun City” here.