Constant Mongrel’s Tom Ridgewell: “TB RIDGE AS THE DIRECTOR is a comfortable place for me.”

Original photo : Sophie Woodward. Handmade collage by B.

TB Ridge As The Director is a solo project from Tom Ridgewell of Constant Mongrel, Woollen Kits and Calamari Girls. His Rock n Roll Heart EP is neo-traditional rock n roll; rock n roll 101 but with drum machine, synths, vocoder and strings. It’s a fresh and intriguing listen. Gimmie interviewed Tom to learn more.

How has your day been? What have you been up to? 

My day has been great, thanks! I have been in Lara with my partner Sophie visiting Mum and Dad and my brother and sister in law and their 8 month old. It was really nice to see them all, as we haven’t been able to for a while. Especially Michael, as he has changed so much recently. 

Do you listen to music every day? What have you been listening to lately?

I do listen to music every day! I work at a little cafe on my own so I get to pick what music plays for around six to seven hours. At the moment I am listening to jazz a lot- Krystof Komeda is my jam at the moment, his soundtrack to Knife in The Water is so, so good. I’ve also been enjoying listening to some 70’s folk stuff, Maddie Prior and Sandy Denny (with Fairport Convention) for my lyrical content.  I let my partner do the music at home, so Townes Van Zandt, OV Wright, Eno and Talking Heads at the moment. 

You were born in and grew up in Melbourne, right? Has music always been a big part of your life? 

I actually was born in Ararat and lived in different parts of country Victoria before high school. The reason for that is my dad was a Presbyterian minister (a job which can make for lots of moves).  I bring that up to answer the other part of the question. Music was always around my family, neither of my parents played instruments, but we all sang every Sunday at church. Dad has a bit of a shocker of a voice and ear but would always lead the singing with gusto and my Mum has a lot of natural talent musically (she actually got a cello for her 60th birthday and is doing really well at learning) . Apart from church music, we did grow up with some classic rock like Creedence, Van and Bob. Also Sound of Music and Mary Poppins were favourites, Julie Andrews is so good! 

How did you first discover your local scene? What was the first gig you saw?

I honestly can’t really remember a first gig! I can remember gigs if someone brings them up, but off the top of my head I couldn’t say what my first proper show was. Getting into my scene was probably through my friendship with Tom Hardisty, and us playing music together from around 19/20 years old. He was friends with my ex-girlfriend and we hit it off and started playing with each other pretty quickly. That’s how old Woollen Kits is now, haha. 

Previously you’ve said that you were trained to play classical cello when you were young and your parents persistence to make you continue with it, when you really didn’t want to, probably helped form the way you think and feel about music now; how so?

Yep, thinking about that now has made me sequence some things together with that. I played cello from when I was about 11 and enjoyed it at the start but as teenagers do I began to want to distance myself from the old fashioned instrument. I wanted to play bass guitar and then my cello teacher (and parents) encouraged me to try double bass with another teacher as it has the same strings as a bass guitar but similar playing method to the cello. The bass has also the same first four strings as the guitar (which I had started to teach myself). Continuing on double bass was awesome and I learnt a little jazz and got ok with a bow with more classical stuff.

How long do you think you’ve been writing songs for now?

It took me a long time to say I was writing proper songs, but it was around high school age that I thought I was doing it. I resisted for so many years to actually learn some theory behind how to make a song. I suppose I thought it was all natural and free, which can be cool, but never very good unless you are some kind of genius. 

As a songwriter, what kind of place do you feel you’ve reached with new solo project TB Ridge as the Director?

TB RIDGE AS THE DIRECTOR is a comfortable place for me. It feels natural and easy to write this kind of music and I have embraced it. I feel like it’s going to be fun to one day make a band and play the songs live but for now the EP is a snapshot of a good little moment for me! 

I know you like a minimalist approach when it comes to lyrics; do you find it hard to write lyrics? 

Yes and no. I just tend to write lyrics after the music for everything I’ve ever done. I find it easier to find the right words for the music than come up with music for the words. So by default the way I went about making this music, I didn’t have much room for long lines. There is a part in the Gimmie Danger doco where Iggy says something about 200 words or less theory he takes on, I really like that. Simplicity is really important to me. If I read a book that’s too wordy or descriptive, I’ll stop reading straight away. The ultimate writing for me is simple words with complex themes. 

Your new EP is called Rock n Roll Heart; where’s the title come from? Was it inspired by Lou Reed’s 7th studio album, Rock n Roll Heart?

Yeh, it was kind of inspired by Lou’s song. Funnily enough, Eric Clapton has a song called Rock and Roll Heart too. For me it was just a line I had been thinking of the whole time I was doing the music for the song. The riff kind of came out of nowhere and sounds like some kind of discarded Runaways song or a Stones B-side and I just was in this place where I’d become sick of worrying what people thought of my music in regards to artistic legitimacy. Fuck it, it’s rock music and I liked making it.

Was doing a solo release born out of necessity because of lockdown?

Not really, I actually have a whole album of more singer songwriter stuff recorded a year ago that one day might see the light of day and I probably have done over 200 demo recordings of different types of music over the last six years. Maybe one of these songs (The Garden) would have been an idea for a Constant Mongrel track, but because we haven’t been able to play together I turned it into something for me. 

Previously you’ve commented “I usually hate recording”; has that changed?

My dislike for recording back then came from a drummer’s perspective! Anyone that has had to sit through live recording in a studio as a drummer will get the pain. You are freaking out about getting it right the whole time, if you make a mistake the take is over or even worse and someone else and it’s heartbreaking. I’d say I kept that attitude in the studio even if playing guitar for a long time but it’s slowly changed to the point where doing a record is the most exciting part of making music for me now. 

When you started out making Rock n Roll Heart did you have any references of where you wanted to go? Was there anything you particularly enjoyed listening to at the time (or when recording)? Initially how did you want the EP to sound? 

I definitely wanted to make an interesting sounding rock record. One of my key reference points was an interview with Genesis P Orridge about the song God Star that Psychic TV made. They stated that it was a nod to the sixties counterculture, and in particular Brian Jones. I suppose that Gen had been known to push boundaries with their work so something like that song was in a way giving some kind of consideration to the past and those that blazed trails for contemporary music. I’m not saying my other projects are particularly out there or interesting but for a while I think with Constant Mongrel I have tried to darken or subvert punk music with technical tonal variations on traditional rock scales.  So the idea of going back to the source without the darkness was what I wanted. 

Was there anything you were mindful of when writing this collection of songs? 

Definitely making music that was ‘me’ was on top of the list.

For you, what are the elements that make up rock n roll?

Well, that’s interesting. I’m gonna sound like a dumbass, but I actually met Liam Gallagher backstage at Merideth last year (btw, he is easily the most famous person I have ever spoken too). We chatted for a while but what came up was a discussion about another artist on the bill that night, his name is Hooligan Hefs from West Sydney. He does this new school drill rap stuff that’s really taking off in NSW and QLD at the moment. We both noticed how good the show was. I said, “I think that that is the new rock and roll!” He replied, “It wasn’t rock though, was it?” I asked, “What is then?” He responded with some babble about guitars and drums, etc. I’m still not sure I agree with him because if you get to nitty gritty, Oasis use far too many minor chords in regular major keys to be what a classic rock n roll band should be, they are more pop, so they aren’t rock, are they? I suppose his brother would know that more than him because I think Liam just sings, right? I don’t know where you draw the line, it’s the same as punk. I’d say a band like Primo! is way more punk than most bands that call themselves punk, but I still can’t really explain why! It’s an attitude and an ethic above all else I think. 

You used Garageband and a drum machine to make the release; did songs often form around a loop first? I really enjoy that you’ve, in essence, built classic rock style songs but used a drum machine.

Yep, they are all loops and layers. I suppose using the drum machine as a rhythmic driver is something that just seemed natural to making the songs because I wanted drums for the tracks and that’s all I could get my hands on. I find it funny people think it interesting or cool when a band uses a drum machine, it’s not really that cool. Maybe when Young Marble Giants or Suicide did, it was, but that was 30-40 years ago, we should be getting used to it by now! It’s just a jazzed up metronome. 

I love the auto-tune, strings and synth in the mix. I understand you used an iPad too; for what parts?

So it was recorded on the iPad too!  I don’t really have a computer that I can use for recording, so I use our iPad. It has all the features on it that I needed and I used a direct line in with an iRig, which was awesome. It really is a mobile studio that makes decent quality recordings! I am glad you like the extra things I did, I took a while to get to the point where I used auto tune on every track but am glad I did. It gives it an unnerving vibe sometimes as we tend to not hear it with guitar music very often. 

What drew you to choosing Woollen Kits bandmate and friend Tom Hardisty to master the release?

He has the skills and I get to buy him a present instead of giving him cash. Having Tom involved is also just awesome cause it’s another set of ears I trust, because he has great taste and does recording himself (to a millions times better standard). 

I’ve heard that you have a love of country music? When did you start listening to it? What kind of things do you listen to?

I didn’t grow up with country music, so everything I listen to now is just from my own research as an adult. I like a varying realm of country music which maybe some hardcore fans would question why or how. Any way some of my favourites are Loretta Lyn, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Carter Family, Steve Earl and, although she wasn’t always country, Bobbie Gentry. I also love early Cajun music. 

Is there anything happening on the Constant Mongrel front?

I wonder if we will get into a space and play together before the new year?! Maybe something might pop up soon in regards to a little release. I just can’t wait to hang out with the crew again. We have our Christmas party every year which is always a highlight of the season.

Anything else you’d like to tell us or share with us?

One time my Dad and I were watching an interview with Michael Stipe and Dad said, “Musicians have to be the most self-absorbed people in the world and if you ever become one, please be mindful of that.” So yeah, it’s funny that after all these years I have to be the sole answer for questions that might encompass self-involvement to answer. I hope and worry that I come across ok! On the other hand, Michael Stipe is boring and arrogant and I don’t like REM, even in any ironic 33 year old discovery of music I thought sucked when I was in my twenties kind of way.

Please check out TB Ride As the Director. Rock n Roll Heart EP out on Anti Fade Records 20 November.