TOM SOUTHAM – DIRECTOR, CANNONDALE DRAPAC
Former professional rider and now Directeur Sportif TOM SOUTHAM talks The Boss, Zorba the Greek and tunes in the team car during stage races.
Disc Breaks: What is your Current City?
TOM: Bristol - home of trip-hop, Massive Attack and Roni Size - in the racing season, and Melbourne during the off season. One hemisphere wasn't enough.
Is that where the Pirates of Penzance are from?
TOM: Indeed it is. Rugged coastline, good for hiding stuff.
Do you take on any musical tastes from where you’re based or your travels during the season?
TOM: Absolutely. Music is situational – if that is the word. When we're in Bristol our friends fill our rooms and our nights with a lot of disco & house, but when I'm away its more personal. That being said I'd never listen to Manu Chao at home but Klier had it on a lot at the Tour and it was really right for there.
Do you mean situational as in driven by the people, the occasion and the purpose of your being there?
TOM: Yeah, absolutely. Surrounded by the right people drinking the right thing you can find something in music that you may have missed in another environment.
This is a response to the last two questions, I’m curious to know if you notice a big shift in the music tastes between your homes in Melbourne and Bristol? And by extension does each city bring out different musical tastes in you?
TOM: There is a shift, but I'm not sure that I really notice it. Sometimes though I'll go to put something on in the wrong place and I have to turn it off because it just doesn't quite fit.
What was the last race you were directing at? What music were you listening to?
TOM: Tour de France, although I'm on the way to the Vuelta now. This morning on the way to Spain I listened to The Clash, because there is a Spanish civil war influence in their idea of rebellion. I'll probably listen to Crooked Fingers "Dignity and Shame" on the flight, lots of trumpets. Lovely.
What music do you remember growing up around? Who was the first person to get you into music?
TOM: My parents always made music a pretty important part of our lives. When I was four or five I listened to Born in the USA flat out. I had a cassette with Dire Straits on the other side, and I played it to death. It staggers me now that a record about working class America could have such resonance with a kid growing up in the South West of the UK. But it was rock from America, and back then America was still something of a promised land. In 1985 America was in the future. That was a long time before Trump, however.
I felt the same way growing up with American movies. Do you think it’s because as foreign children the USA was a kind of fictional wonderland and so the places and themes they were singing about were viewed at livingrooms distance through Hollywood tinted screens, giving them a kind of mystical appeal? I know since living in the states, visiting the locations of my favourite films and realising them as actual places changes my feelings towards them. Then Trump is elected and you realise that it was the people on your street that voted him in and whole image is just fucking burnt and the ash buried.
TOM: Absolutely. You know the first time I went to New York it blew my mind - I mean steam actually comes out of the subways, and the taxis are yellow and all that, which isn't an interesting thing in itself but it is when you've seen it through that lens it is really exciting. Whenever I travel through places with names that are in songs it's always strange, because it's just a place but when you've heard it and kept it in your imagination for so long you feel like it should be more.
What is the first song you remember liking?
TOM: First song I remember my sister buying was the 7" single of Tiffany's 'I think we're alone now'. I must have been 5 or so, but she was two years older and I just thought if she liked it, it must be OK. I actually heard it the other day on a TV program, funnily enough. I think she is in a boxing ring in the video. What happened to her?
That video clip is pretty funny, she’s playing a bunch of shopping mall shows, and there’s a bit where an old dude does a weird dance solo with his hairpiece coming off. It’s so weird. I think she’s singing country music and starring in B- celebrity reality TV shows now days.
TOM: That was probably 30 years ago. Fuck.
Did you play a music instrument as a kid?
TOM: No. I tried to play guitar for about a week at school. Girl I liked took the classes. Roberta Quinn. Nice girl. I think she has children now, none of them are mine.
Who knows what could have been man. Glad things seemed to have worked out alright for her.
If you could go back and learn a musical instrument, which would it be and why?
TOM: Piano. All bases covered. Can't fail – day or night, party or funeral. You are the man.
What musical phases have you been a part of throughout your life? What songs defined each of those phases?
TOM: That's a big one. I would say that mine has been more of a steady evolution along the same type of things: band music. I've gone through phases of liking stuff like Nirvana when I was 13/14 (of course) but then I just aged steadily and tastes became refined. Couldn't listen to Nirvana now, but I would listen to The Clash. I think as you grow the musicians you like don't have to change as long as they are growing themselves.
My mother pointed out something interesting about The National. You can almost chart their own life development sequentially in the albums they've made. The things they are singing about (and their musicianship) has grown. At first it’s not getting with girls, and then it’s trying to get their heads around domesticity, and then contemplating affairs and eventually this sort of balanced comfort in where they are. That is a journey.
That is a journey. Your Mum also highlighted an interesting point about a band's musical progression as something that not only parallels those listening to the music but something that informs who they are as well, which is fascinating. As we age our tastes are refined to a point where we know exactly what we like but it’s actually all that time spent as a kid not having a super clear idea about who we are or what we like that really lead us down a path to where our taste may become refined. There is any number of times in your youth where you could have gone any which way, and it’s crazy to think that a genre of music or a band could essentially dictate not only what type of music you’re into but also the type of person you become. Do you think it’s a good thing to refine your tastes though? I guess it’s kind of inevitable.
What was the first album you bought with your own money?
TOM: U2 The Joshua Tree. I was six, and my old man took me to the record store with my birthday money and said this is a good record. It was 1986 and pre-everyone hating Bono. I still unashamedly love U2. I actually dragged Taylor along to their show in LA after the Tour of Cali. It was fucking great. Everyone tells me I'm wrong, but the thing about liking music is you can't be wrong. You like what you like.
That is the beauty of music, you didn’t do anything to determine whether or not something sounds good to you, so why should you be embarrassed by it? I saw U2 show a few years ago, it was the 360 tour with Jay Z opening, which was pretty weird now that I think about it. Great show though, they were full ball the whole time, reminded me of The Boss in that regard.
DISC BREAKS CHARLIE: My Dad actually gave U2 their first record contract. The way he tells the story, he found them in a pub in Ireland and thought “these guys aren't bad, with my help they could be great.” I'm sure he uses some poetic license with that line. They were obviously the biggest band he signed by some distance, and it was right at the start of his career. He's been trying to emulate that early success ever since and hasn't really come close. Bono often name checks ‘the Captain’ at live shows for giving them their break. My dad’s nickname in the music industry was The Captain, which for reasons unknown then became The Colonel. All of his mates call him Colonel to this day. He was in the army for a brief period, but was neither a Captain or a Colonel.
TOM: Does your old man know Neil Storey? He is a mate of mine and was at Island Records at the time, tells similar tales of U2 in pubs with 9 people in, in the early days.
DISC BREAKS CHARLIE: Yes he does. Small world. Also good to know that his U2 story isn’t a complete fabrication.
What was the first gig / concert you remember going to?
TOM: Band called Therapy. Wasn't outstanding. I've done better since then.
Was it a big show or small? What do you prefer, big stadium show or small club setting?
TOM: Probably a thousand people I'd say. I've been to great shows that have been in tiny venues and great shows that have been in stadiums. It depends on who and where I guess. I certainly don't love getting out of a stadium and thinking, oh fuck 60,000 other people want to catch the only train to the city centre of Brussels or somewhere.
What's the best gig / concert you've been to?
TOM: Bruce Springsteen in Barcelona in 2012. I've obviously been listening to the Boss my entire life, but I'd never seen him. I took my girlfriend (not a fan) and we ended up arriving at the front of the queue just as the gates were opening to the Stadio Olympico up there on Montjuic. Being Spain security was slack so we ended up right at the front.
10.30 PM on a hot Spanish night he walked on stage with no support act said ‘Hola Catalunya” and ripped into Badlands. He then didn't stop until nearly 2am. Not even pausing between songs. At 65. The energy was like nothing I've ever felt. Every single person in the stadium just having a good time. When a musician has been making songs for 30 years you attach parts of those songs to your own life, and your own hopes and dreams and really when you are singing and cheering for the artist you are doing it for yourself. Its an amazing thing.
Girlfriend left a fan, and we walked back to the city with some new best friends we'd just met. A good night.
That sounds wonderful, I love walking through the crowds immediately after a show just absorbing every ones energy, it’s like the peak of optimism, everyone on cloud 9 making lists for all the productive shit they’re gonna do tomorrow all before the death grips of their hangover take hold. That’s an interesting way of thinking about the music being a reflection of yourself.
DISC BREAKS CHARLIE: I'm always fascinated by the level of devotion to the Boss. My dad has a friend who has seen him live like 60 times, travels all over the world just to watch Bruce Springsteen gigs. He actually invited him to his wedding a few years ago, and this is a true story, by sending him a personal message that read simply “I've been to a few of your gigs over the years, so thought I would invite you to one of mine.” He’d never even met him.
TOM: People are insane with that stuff, they collect shows - can you collect a show? I don't know, but the weird thing is you meet these people and they are quite normal. So it must be OK.
Who's a teammate with the worst musical taste you’ve had to endure?
TOM: So this is where I really learned that no one has bad musical taste - they just have their taste. I had a teammate in my French amateur team (he's now a DS at Direct Energie) and the guy just played Dirty Dancing or Mariah Carey flat out. I hated that shit, and I told him, he just looked at me and said ' I know its bad, but it's what I like, I can't do anything about it, so I just go with it' and he shrugged.
Goes back to what you were saying before, you can’t help what you like. How about the teammate with great musical taste?
TOM: Not a teammate as such but my old manager John Herety really got me into a lot of music. I was in his teams for nearly nine years between 18 and 30 years old (with gaps) and he was always devouring music and putting me on to stuff. These days he's sort of gone off on a real country trip, which I can't quite go with yet. Maybe one day.
Anything stick out that he put you onto?
TOM: Two great records that he put me on to: Ryan Adams 'Gold' & Jessie Malin 'The Fine Art of Self Destruction'. Important records for me.
Do you still have or remember any old playlists you made as a teen to ‘psych’ you up before a race?
TOM: Beastie Boys pre-race a lot back in my youth. After that I didn't really use music just before a race. Didn't help my concentration much, and getting 'psyched' for me was always a much deeper thing.
What was getting in the right ‘head space’ for a race for you later in your career?
TOM: Going out the night before and meeting an interesting woman.
Would you ever listen to music put you in the right place for a race? What is the right place to be in now as a director before and during a race?
TOM: Focused. I almost never listen to music before a race now. These days its most important when I get back to the hotel and have 15 mins to change and unwind. Then I get the BOSE out and put Tom Waits on. Takes me so far away from the bike race; its great.
Does anyone take control of the music on the bus and what do they play?
TOM: Yeah, Taylor has his stuff on quite a lot. Rigo throws a bit on as well. He's the only one on the bus who isn't just a skinny white boy deep down. The guy can move.
Hahaha - What was his vibe like during the tour, given the pressure of being in contention for the win much of the time? I can’t imagine him letting that get to him much.
TOM: Cool as. Pressure is not a thing for that guy. Its impressive.
Have you ever had a ‘victory’ song or a track you associate with any performance, good or bad when you were racing or now when you’re directing?
TOM: I wish it had been Tom Tom Club 'Genius of Love' but I just didn't win enough, if I'm honest.
Hahahahahahahaha. Do you ever just put music on in the car during a race?
TOM: Being fairly new at this DS game I was always dead against putting music on. I was totally focused on listening to race radio and being serious. Then I had Klier in the car during one of the TDF stages and he had the fucking radio on singing 99 Luftballoons. I asked him what the hell he was up to, but as he pointed out you need to stay relaxed until just the right moment, and then you can focus well when you have to. There is a LOT of dead time in a team car on a stage race.
Being in the race is boring enough most of the time, I can imagine the car is bad. Are you going to continue with a little music in the car from now on? I’m intrigued to know what the stress is like in the car watching things unfold and trying to enact a plan but in reality having no way of making sure people do what they’re meant to or the situation unfolds as you predicted?
TOM: You know what, most of the time the stress isn't the riders it's the lack of information - or the difficulty of getting it. When you are a DS you are in a car behind the race, that means that you actually live in the past. Everything that you know for certain has happened. Its weird.
I have had music on most days at the Vuelta. French radio stations better than Spanish FYI.
What song do you play to get things started when you’re throwing a party?
TOM: James Brown innit. Tight.
You just got married, did you have a band playing or what sort of music was playing? I feel like you’d be right onto this.
TOM: So we had this really interesting situation where we were married in a village square in Greece. So we had to cater for about 150 locals and 100 of our friends. We had a local Greek band (who to be fair learned Beirut's Postcards From Italy for our entrance) and they played the first set. The Greeks will listen to this all night, but one by one all the Anglos were sat down. So we put our DJ on who played a lot of funk and soul then into a bit more Housey stuff. By which time all the Greeks were just sat staring at us all. Their dances are all quite well rehearsed and they all know the steps etc – where as our mates are just all over the place dancing to MJ or whatever.
So, we put the Greek band back on and to be fair to them - knowing the tempo was raised a bit, broke right in to Zorba and everyone Greeks and the Anglos all just got stuck in to it. That was cool.
We finished off with the DJ and it was great. 4 am we had to switch off the now deep house as the residents in the town square were kind of over it.
Good night though, music was a huge part.
Does musical taste influence how well you’re going to get along with someone? If so what’s a song that if someone played would let you know you’d click straight away?
TOM: Yep. I fall in love instantly with people when they are playing songs that I like. It's the best. I still remember very vividly being in Madrid airport in 2000 and walking into the CD store and the woman there was playing 'Charley's Girl' by Lou Reed. I was in the store 5 minutes and I have never forgotten her.
A song that would instantly turn you off someone?
TOM: Not so many but I may as well say: Donald Trump. What an idiot.
Fuck that guy man. Have you ever played a song to impress a person or group? If so, what was it?
TOM: Oh man, I've been that guy at 5am at the house party unplugging the AUX cord and trying to get people to listen to something that I really feel like they should hear. Sometimes Damien Marley, sometimes not that cool. I hate myself for that.
Oh God, you’re bringing back some deeply buried memories for me here.
A song you’re embarrassed to admit you like, but listen to often?
TOM: Shouldn't be embarrassed to like anything. Listen away.
Which song would you choose to soundtrack the highlights reel of your career?
TOM: Minstrel Boy by Joe Strummer. It’s 11 or 16 minutes instrumental. It is extraordinarily beautiful. I used to listen to it on a loop while training. Or the theme song from True Romance by Hans Zimmer. The song that lets you know everything is going to be alright.
What’s the best way to listen to music?
TOM: All the ways. Live, in a bar, in a car - here is a good one: Go for a late night drive in a fast car with the Dust Brothers Fight Club soundtrack on. That is pretty special.
One of the best.
If you were colonising Mars and could only take one album, what would it be?
TOM: I don't know if 'kids these days' will have experienced this but when we just had tapes and walkmen sometimes for a whole summer you'd basically just listen to one tape, over and over. You had to buy music and it was expensive so you just bought what you really liked and you listened fast forwarded, flipped the cassette and then listened to the other side. So in some ways we kind of did this. You really really listened to those songs too, because you didn't have a billion distractions in the palm of your hand. I guess that is what this would be like, so in keeping true to myself I would go for a cassette with Born in the USA on one side, and Making Movies by Dire Straits on the other. That lasted me for about eight years so it could do another stint I'm sure.