Tom Hartney Post Little Red: ‘We’re Doing It All Ourselves’
In the days following his Little Red departure, Tom Hartney spoke to DARREN LEVIN about his new project Major Tom & The Atoms, taking risks in the studio and why he’s still proud of the band’s journey from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs to the world stage.
Tom Hartney apologises for being a bit groggy. It is, after all, 10am when M+N contacts the musician at his Melbourne home, a mere two days into his new life as a former member of Little Red. Detached from the protective womb of the band he formed with high school friends Adrian Beltrame, Dominic Byrne, Quang Dinh and Taka Honda in 2005, Hartney is now having to re-learn all the things he took for granted as a member of Little Red.
The band enjoyed a relatively fortuitous run from the outset – from the initial buzz generated by a Tote residency to winning their place onto the V Festival bill in 2008. Further success followed in the form of the independently released 2008 debut Listen to Little Red, which ended up being licensed for release internationally, and 2010’s Midnight Remember, which spawned Hottest 100 favourite ‘Rock It’.
But Hartney reportedly grew frustrated with his lack of songwriting input in Little Red, forming Major Tom & The Atoms initially as a side project to explore his developing interests as a gravelly baritone singer and songwriter. Buoyed by the initial reaction to the project and the recording sessions that yielded debut EP Shake It Till You Break It, Hartney has now decided to devote his full attention to Major Tom – even though he admits to being a bit “stressed” about the prospect of doing it all himself.
Does it feel like starting again?
Yeah, we’re doing it all ourselves. That’s the thrill of it all really. Every single victory – whether it’s a gig or a song we’ve put out – nothing can really be expected and that’s what’s really refreshing about it. Life wasn’t meant to be easy, and having to earn that success is invigorating, really. It’s great to be able to build your image, to have total control, but the downside is a lot of hard work.
I guess it’s your thing now, you don’t have to deal with so many voices, or be a democracy anymore.
The guys in the band are really proactive and involved, which is part of what I’m really excited about. They all have opinions and so far all those opinions seem to coincide. I want to make sure they feel involved in it. Creatively, I started the band and I put my stamp on it as a main songwriter. I wanted the format of the band to serve my voice: I’m a gravelly baritone singer. To be able to control all that from the outset is empowering, I guess.
I don’t think anyone was surprised by the announcement this week. Has it been coming for a long time?
Well, the last gig we did with Little Red was New Year’s Eve. It was a really busy year. We toured overseas, maybe 10 countries, which was so fun but really tiring as well. We went to England, France, Germany, Japan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Canada and the United States. This year we started off with a bit of time off. I grabbed that opportunity to record the EP, which I’ve been meaning to make for the last year or something with Tony Buchen, who produced it.
I met him through Andy Bull when they were supporting Little Red in 2008. He was encouraging me to record a solo album. I wasn’t ready, and didn’t have the songs together or the confidence. By late last year, I put the band together [The Atoms]. I envisaged it as a side project at that point, but when we took some time off from Little Red at the start of this year, and I went in to record the EP, it was really refreshing to play with new people. The enthusiasm was really infectious and it makes you enjoy it more. That’s where my attention and passion was for most of this year. So I suppose it has been a while coming.
Do you still talk to the other guys? I heard [drummer] Taka [Honda] and [bassist] Quang [Dinh] had left the band as well.
I’ve been in Korea, believe it or not, for the last month – my wife is Korean. I’m still friends with all the guys but I haven’t been in contact with them to let them know about the announcement. I couldn’t really speculate about what they’re feeling. Last I knew we were having a break, and then I got back from Korea. Since I’ve been back I haven’t heard any announcements from the Little Red camp.
When we spoke to management earlier this week they said they’re still continuing, but I wasn’t certain who was in the band anymore.
Well, I know they’re still continuing.
Your last album Midnight Remember sounds conflicted to me in a way. It had its foot in the old sound, but also hinted at a new direction. Were you pleased with the direction the band were taking?
I guess it was a bit like that. I don’t think it just came down to who wrote the song. Quang wrote ‘Forget About Your Man’ and ‘In My Bed’ – they’re quite different songs. Dom [Byrne] wrote ‘Rock It’ and a more folky song like ‘Follow You There’. We saw that as a good thing – the eclectic nature of the music was part of the appeal of Little Red to begin with. We didn’t think it was conflicted.
I haven’t listened to the album [in a while], but thinking about it, it might be [conflicted]. I did hear people say there were certain songs that sounded like they didn’t fit on it. I wrote ‘Place Called Love’, which was a different direction to the rest of it [Midnight Remember], and it’s kinda more the direction I’m pursuing now with the new EP. I think there were musical divergences from that point on – and that’s partly why I wanted to start my own band, with The Doors being the main influence. When we [Little Red] were demoing songs at the start of the year – it’s ages ago now – we were talking about making the next one a bit more coherent … I didn’t think it was going to be in the Doors-y direction, it was going to be in another direction, which is why I decided to make my own EP.
Tom, you’ve got a really distinctive gravelly voice, which was rarely heard in Little Red. Was that part of the reason for starting a new band, to put that voice front-and-centre?
Pretty much. I love singing and I have a lot of songs. I wanted to get them out and let people here them. When you’re in a successful band with a label, they slow you down a bit. They want to do everything possible to maximise the success of it, and that’s understandable, but if you think about it, the only songs that I’ve been able to get across to the public for the past four years have been the two songs on Midnight Remember. That’s why I envisaged this as a side project as a way to air those other songs. When I got out the front, I really enjoyed it. I’ve got a bit of a different tone and pitch, and I wanted a new band to bring that front and centre.
Have you suppressed this voice? Have you always sung like this?
I’ve gotten better. I just haven’t been able to practice enough. When I started doing gigs with Major Tom & The Atoms to try and gear up for the recording, we were taking three-hour gigs. The most I ever sung with Little Red was a total of 15 minutes. At the start, I was like, “I don’t know if I could do this.” But the vocal performance I’ve given on this EP, which I’m really excited about, is the best I’ve ever done.
[Laughs] Well, we wanted to get creative about where we played. We didn’t want it to be too high profile, because we just wanted to get our chops up, so we played a lot of unconventional venues, weddings, shit like that. You’ve got to sink or swim.
“I always thought we were cool, but looking back it was a bit uncool, and that’s obviously what people liked.”
At what point did you think the side project was going to be the main thing?
When we recorded the EP in March , I took off some time from Little Red and concentrated on this [Major Tom] completely. We did a string of pretty successful gigs. We did this one late [2am] show at Pony Bar [in Melbourne] after we just did a gig at The Great Britain. We rocked in at 2am. It was a situation when we were pretty tired, but we had to do another set. Just the enthusiasm of the crowd – we just fed off of that. You just need that affirmation from the crowd to make you convinced you’re doing the right thing. That gig was particularly good. And also the recording. It was all live from start to finish. On one of the songs, we doubled the whole band track. Often people double one instrument, but we played the song through the left speaker and then re-recorded the band through the right speaker. So what you’re hearing is the song being played simultaneously by two bands … It’s just moment of innovation like that, and the enthusiasm of the guys. They’re just a shit-hot band.
So who’s in the band?
It’s the saxophone player and keyboard player from [Melbourne soul band] The Skylines. The drummer is – believe it or not – the original Little Red drummer [Adam Swoboda], admittedly only for a few gigs. He’s a good mate of mine. They’re kind of unknown guys, but pro musicians.
The sax is a real standout.
[Laughs] You can never have too much sax, particularly the kind of jungle growl of the sax. I’m in love with that. It’s like another vocal when I’m not singing.
Is ‘Mocking Bird’ indicative of the EP?
It’s probably the most straight-up pop number … It’s the oldest song that I wrote and I might’ve even played it with Little Red at one point. It’s an extreme direction; the other songs on the EP are more starker and psychedelic than that. The first single, ‘The House That Love Built’, is what I’m talking about when I thought up the band. That’s straight-up Doors. It’s a bit dark, but sexy – the rest of the tracks are like that. There’s another one called ‘Last Dance of the Lizard King’, which is another homage to The Doors. It’s always pretty psychedelic, so you probably wouldn’t expect that if you just heard ‘Mockingbird’.
Any reason why you decided to release an EP instead of a record?
Yeah, I couldn’t afford to make a record. [Laughs] Believe it or not. I figured I could do one EP now and then one later in the year. I personally prefer records, but just couldn’t afford it without a record label.
Did you go up to Sydney to work with Tony [Buchen]?
He came down here [Melbourne] and I went to Sydney for the mixing. We did the whole thing at Soundpark Studios [in Northcote], which is exactly where Little Red recorded our first album [Listen To Little Red]. It was convenient and felt like home.
I was wondering whether this project takes you back to the early days of Little Red.
Yeah, the only difference is I’m a bit older and world-weary. [Laughs] When we started with Little Red we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We were just having fun. That’s what people were attracted to – the fact we were naive and doing what we loved. I wouldn’t say we [Major Tom & The Atoms] are naive, but we are doing what we love. It’s not expecting to play to a huge crowd and get a rapturous applause regardless of what we do. Personally, I probably let my standards slip a little bit just due to complacency. That’s pretty embarrassing to admit, but now I have to win over the crowd from the word go – and I’ve become a better singer.
I guess it’s harder to connect when you’re playing those big shows and festivals as well?
Well, that’s it. When there’s a really big crowd as it was at places like The Forum [in Melbourne] and places like that, and you don’t see any familiar faces or anything in the front rows, there is a bit of a disconnect I think. But that makes the band bond more: “It’s us, here we are, we’re taking on the world.”
You must still feel proud about what you did with Little Red. You guys were high school friends who did, as you said, take on the world.
Exactly. We didn’t plan it – that’s for sure. We were very fortunate that everyone supported us … We weren’t contrived, we weren’t some fake contrivance of a label. We liked singing in harmony and that was probably endearing to people. I always thought we were cool, but looking back it was a bit uncool, and that’s obviously what people liked.