EXCLUSIVE: Emerging onto the scene at the dawn of the 1990s, Thunder are one of Britain’s best loved rock bands. Releasing a string of albums and splitting up numerous times along the way, the five-piece led by school friends singer Danny Bowes and guitarist Luke Morley hit new highs with the release of comeback album ‘Wonder Days’ in 2015. Now about to follow up its top ten success with new album ‘Rip It Up’, the band are gearing up for another bout of heavy activity. We caught up with Luke to talk about the disc, his infamous guitars, and some storied Thunder history. Laughing on judgement day; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Luke, how are you this evening?
I’m very well indeed; excited that that the album comes out this week, and then we get into rehearsals, and down to Australia for the first time, which is strange this late into our career! And then of course there’s the British tour, so there’s loads going on over the next few months, and having been shoved away in the studio for most of last year, it’s great to finally get out there and play the songs for people and see how they react.
‘Rip It Up’ is incredibly, the eleventh Thunder studio album; do you still get excited leading up to a new release?
It’s still an exciting thing. I started writing this album at the end of 2015, so I’ve been living with these songs for a long time now, and that moment where people hear them, when the fans react to them and sing them back to you, it’s kind of gratifying. The nice thing about it is you never quite know how people are going to react – they will always flummox you, and I just hope that they will enjoy the album as much as they did the last one.
Do you know when you are writing and recording which songs are going to garner the most reaction?
Sometimes you’re kind of aware of that. From the point of view of writing the songs, it’s almost like picking out a football team; you can have the best eleven players in the world on the pitch, but they might get beaten by somebody from the Championship. My point is, you can think all the songs are great, but then oddly, some might last the test of time, some, people will react to really well to, some not. So it’s very difficult to know precisely how things are going to go. We don’t know; we just do it, and we trust our instincts and hope that people like it.
Have you ever got it wrong?
You have instincts about things, but sometimes I’m completely wrong. On ‘Backstreet Symphony’, I started writing ‘Love Walked In’, and I played it to Andy Taylor who produced the album, and I just said; “oh, I’m not sure about this, it might be a bit cheesy”, and he went; “If you leave that off the album you’re insane”. And every time I get the royalty cheque I thank him!
Were you surprised by the success of ‘Wonder Days’?
Well, yes! In 2013 we hadn’t played for a while, and we got together with the intention, largely, of doing some festival shows. Then we were offered this tour with Journey and Whitesnake, and we all thought it would be great fun, so we went and did that tour. We thought we’d go down quite well, but the response that we got on that tour was at times, quite overwhelming, and quite emotional in fact, and I think we realised that there was a lot of love out there for the band. That’s what spurred us on really, to go on and maybe make another album; “if we’re going to do it, we should do it now”. So the album came out of a big sense of positive energy, and not having done it for a few years, as the person who writes the tunes, it felt very fresh.
And then guitarist Ben Matthews got ill.
Yeah, the only thing that went wrong of course, was that Benny, just at the point where we were about to start recording was diagnosed with throat cancer, so that put a bit of a dampener on, initially. But probably it was just as well that we were committed to doing the recording, so we just had to go ahead. It was a bit of a strange time, because we were in the studio, taking the next step, and he was having a real miserable few months dealing with the cancer and all the treatments. But we geed him up as best we could, and we got to the last week of recording and he actually managed to come in and stick a bit of guitar on one song. But the success of it, yeah, it took us all a little bit by surprise. We’ve never had coverage on mainstream TV and radio, so every album, and every ticket we sell is down to fan power, and people genuinely wanting to come and see us, so we are eternally grateful to those people.
There’s a real sense of optimism on opener ‘No One Gets Out Alive’, which I haven’t heard in a Thunder track since ‘Welcome To The Party’.
Yeah, that’s an interesting observation. I think it is quite an uplifting track, and that’s one of the reasons that we put it first one the album; it’s very relaxed, despite being very up tempo, and a nice positive vibe. What I love about it is the vocals don’t come in for about a minute. When I was sending the demo out to the guys they said; “for a while there, I thought it was an instrumental!” *laughing*. So yeah, it’s a good way to open the album, and I think there’s maybe a spring in the step, and a confidence that’s come from the last album.
Despite the title, the album seems to be the usual healthy mix of rockers and Thunder ballads.
Well, ‘Rip It Up’ in the context of the song, it’s not about ripping up what we do, but ripping up other people’s perceptions of what we are. We’ve always felt that perhaps there’s a bit more depth to it, musically, than people give us credit for, and I think on this album we felt that some of the songs; ‘Right From The Start’, ‘In Another Life’, ‘There’s Always A Looser’; they’re very Thunder songs, but in terms of the arrangements and what’s going on, the power comes from the performances, rather than having to saturate it with layers and layers of guitars. I think as we get older we’re much less concerned with how other people see us. The nineties and the early noughties were very kind of genre-specific, and I think that’s changing; if you look at young people now, and how they listen to music, they’ll cherry-pick tracks here and there, so it’s less of that tribal idea. We’ve all certainly got eclectic tastes and hopefully, that comes through in what we do. I mean, we’re always going to be a rock and roll band, but it’s nice when you can acknowledge some of those influences that are maybe outside of that.
It must be nice to be at the top of your game, after having split up a number of times before.
Yeah, we should split up more often! *laughing* In the past when we stopped, it was because we didn’t feel, for whatever reason that we wanted to carry on. That sounds really simple and fundamental, but one of the nicest things about being in Thunder is we’re all great friends. Over the years, when a band splits up, people always assume there’s been some terrible falling out, or somebody’s nicked all the money, but the first time we stopped, we just felt like we weren’t progressing, in terms of how the business was going. It was before the internet had really kicked in and we just didn’t feel there was any way we could reach new people. It was a bit like the hamster in the wheel type syndrome, and we all thought maybe it was time to stop. The second time we stopped because Danny wanted to try something else, and I think he realised that he missed singing. People have got to do what they’ve got to do in life, and we’ve always been supportive of each other, even when we’ve not been working together. So, Thunder is a bit like a family, and that’s the way we look at it.
So you bowed out with the best intentions.
Obviously, it’s disappointing for some fans when it stops, and we’ve never, ever, at any point in our career given it less than 120%; whether that’s making records or putting on a live show. We’ve always tried very, very hard to give people value for money. They part with their hard earned cash, and we want them to go home happy and satisfied. It’s really important to us that people realise how much it matters to us.
Moving on to set lists, and with so much material, is it hard choosing what makes it into a live show?
Over the years it’s evolved into my job, really. It’s like picking a football squad; there’s some songs that we probably have to do otherwise we’d get lynched, and then we’ve got a new album, and we want everybody to hear that, so you have a good percentage of a new album. Really it’s just a question of balancing it out. You’re right in so much as with every new album it gets harder, but just think how hard it is for Mick Jagger. It’s just one of those things; of all the great problems in the world, it’s insignificant, in that sense. But it’s a matter of balance; when we toured ‘Wonder Days’, I think we had seven songs from that album in the set, and I remember thinking; “is this too many?”, but it didn’t feel like it was, and the audience didn’t tell us it was, so obviously it wasn’t.
Do you ever feel like dropping the likes of ‘Dirty Love’ in favour of something more obscure?
‘Dirty Love’ is a great case in point; we have left it out before – we’ve left it out a few times over the years, but lots of people want to hear it, and it’s only a few minutes out of our lives. But you’re right; we never rehearse it, and the only time we ever play it is when we’re on stage - when there’s an audience there, it’s great. We love playing, so it would be fun to go out and do some of the more obscure songs, and we do occasionally; at our Christmas shows we tend to put quite a few songs in there that we wouldn’t normally play, and it’s a fun thing to do, and sometimes you think; “oh, we should play that more often”. But over the years, the songs that become the most popular tend to float to the top. It’s almost like osmosis; you can’t really stop it happening, and we go with that to an extent.
What’s your favourite and least favourite Thunder albums?
Oh crikey! That’s quite difficult because I’m not in the habit of listening to them that often. In the process of making an album you’re listening to it so many times at various stages that by the time it’s finished you tend to not want to hear it for a while. I think there’s nice moments on all the albums. I think that some albums have more nice moments than others, but I think some albums are almost necessary; like a stepping stone to the album that came afterwards. With any band that has a career as long as ours, really, that’s going to happen. I think the stepping-stone albums are probably ‘Giving The Game Away’ and ‘Bang’, and don’t read anything into the fact that we split up after both of them! *laughing* I think both of those albums are stretching out for something; I’m just not quite sure what.
‘Giving The Game Away’ seems to be the least Thunder-sounding album in your discography.
It’s dangerous to analyse your own work, really, but I think there’s certainly moments on that. Song writing, the whole process, it’s where you are in your life; it’s what’s going on, it’s things that are on your mind and how you feel about everything, and most people’s lives go through different phases and ways of feeling. But it’s very difficult to be objective; I think how people react to the albums is really the odds by which we judge them. I think ‘Giving The Game Away’ has got one of the best songs I’ve ever written on it, which is the title track, which I love, but whether or not it’s a Thunder song is debatable. Lyrically, that’s one of my better moments, and ‘Just Another Suicide’s a good song. There’s moments on all the albums, and I think what’s really good about the new album and ‘Wonder Days’ is that the level of consistency, I think is very high, and it certainly felt like that when we listened to them all back to back when they were mixed for the first time.
I have to ask about the infamous ‘Coverdale-gate’ story, when you were rumoured to be leaving the band to join Whitesnake. There has been some conflicting reports over the years about that whole period; was it really just a publicity stunt?
Yeah, it was. We wouldn’t fall out over anything as stupid as that. The funny thing is that David [Coverdale], we’ve obviously worked with loads over the years. I genuinely don’t know where the rumour came from, but it might have been Rudy Sarzo that started it. Somebody told me that he’d said that he’d seen me going into a rehearsal room in L.A. where Whitesnake where rehearsing, which is complete bloody nonsense as I was in Japan at the time. So it became this thing, and then we just decided to go with it, take advantage of it, and the fact that it cast a slightly darker shadow over us, I think we were quite pleased about that because we were a bit sick of being ‘cheerful cockney chaps’, and for that reason, we kind of went with it. I didn’t deny it, and David didn’t deny it, and we just let it run, and fifteen years later, we let it slip that it was an intentional kind of repositioning of ourselves, shall we say!
Finally, I wanted to ask you about two of your most iconic guitars; the white Gibson Les Paul, and the famous ‘Luke Morley’ acoustic; do you still have them?
Yes. I’ve still got the white Les Paul, and the acoustic with the name thing. A guy that used to come and see us was a guitar maker in Birmingham, and he said; “I want to build you an acoustic guitar”, so I said; “okay, can you make me one like Elvis’ one, with ‘Elvis’ down the neck!” *laughing* Unfortunately, it got broken at a drunken party one evening in the house, but I’ve still got a twelve-string that the same guy made me with the same thing, but I never really play it to be honest, it’s just there.
The Flying V has now become synonymous with you in more recent years.
The Les Pauls are a very, very heavy instrument, and that caused me quite a lot of back issues in the late nineties, so I switched to the flying V at that point, because it’s a lot lighter. But on this next tour I’m playing something completely different again. I’ve ended up - and I don’t know why - playing a lot of Stratocaster. I always found them, for some reason, a bit kind of lumpy, and I never got along with them, and then in recent years, I’ve really got into playing them. So I think the Fender Stratocaster will be my weapon of choice over the next few months. It’s funny how things go, I mean, I started off as a guitar player because Hendrix really got me into the guitar, so it’s interesting to go all the way back around the circle, back to the Stratocaster.
It’s a big change for someone so readily associated with Gibson.
I know. That’ll teach Gibson! *laughing* Obviously, the white Les Paul was there at the start of the band and everything, and it was great, but I suppose, your tastes change. It’s still a lovely guitar, and I still play it, but I do like to play something lighter these days. The lovely thing about the Stratocaster is they gave you a lot more tonal possibility, and now people are making amplifiers that can cope with the variations, and are much more sympathetic to using for rock music.
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'Rip It Up' is released on Friday 10th February. Click HERE for exclusive editions direct from Thunder.
Thunder UK and Ireland 2017 dates:
17 Mar - Manchester, Apollo
18 Mar - Sheffield, City Hall
19 Mar - Newcastle, City Hall
21 Mar - Leicester, De Montfort Hall
22 Mar - Glasgow, Clyde Auditorium
24 Mar - Cardiff, Motorpoint Arena
25 Mar - Southampton, Guildhall
26 Mar - Ipswich, Regent Theatre
28 Mar - London, Eventim Apollo
30 Mar - Dublin, Vicar Street
31 Mar - Belfast, Mandela Hall