By Dale Martin
(LSM June/July 2010/vol. 3 – issue 4)
Tom Gillam may still be somewhat of a newcomer to the Texas music scene, having only lived here fulltime since the making of his late-2009 release Had Enough?, but the New Jersey-born roots rocker is no rookie. After years of paying his dues playing cover band gigs in Philadelphia, Gillam finally released his debut solo album, First of All, at the very end of the ’90s, and spent most of the last decade winning fans and enthusiastic reviews on the strength of his hard-rocking sound, characterized by his great lyrics and slide guitar playing and the ultra-confident backing of his band, Tractor Pull. In 2005, the year he released his third album, Shake My Hand, Gillam was nominated for best emerging artist by the Americana Music Association. But halfway through the recording of his next album, Never Look Back, Gillam’s rise — and life — almost came to an abrupt end when a serious heart attack took him to the brink of death; close enough, in fact, to briefly flat line. He lived to tell the tale, though, and emerged a changed man.
Well, almost: Today’s Gillam may be drug-free and stone-cold sober, but his music is as uncompromising as ever. Had Enough? isn’t just his first album recorded entirely in his new home state of Texas, it’s also arguably the best of his career. In the following interview, Gillam talks candidly about his Jersey/Philly roots, his past addictions and why his move to Texas felt like coming home.
Since you didn’t start your career here in Texas, I thought we could start out talking about your roots.
OK, cool. I was born in Camden, N.J., which is about 20 minutes from where I wound up living, which is a town called Deptford. Oddly enough, the hospital I was born in is the hospital they took me to for my heart attack and bypass surgery. So I was born there and I died there.
I’m the oldest of five kids. My dad was into weird gadgets and grew up in the ’50s, so he loved rock ’n’ roll. At one point he bought an old jukebox. He filled it with 45s, and disconnected the coin slot so you could play music for free. He would restock it every couple months with all the new music that was popular at the time.
What was your dad’s taste in music?
He was really into the British Invasion and country music. My parents were huge Johnny Cash fans, Bill Anderson, guys like that. Whatever was popular in the ’60s or was on the country Top 40 charts at the time. Then we had a fire in the basement when I was in the seventh grade and the jukebox was ruined … but it was OK because by then we had a stereo. Like I said, Dad was a gadget guy and about that time he bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder that would play pre-recorded tapes. But my brother and I figured out it was also a two-track recorder so we started recording stuff on it. We had started a band by this time. We would tape our rehearsals, and then me and this other kid figured out that if we would sing harmonies, then switch to the other track and sing more harmonies, then we could have four-part harmonies.
Is that when you first picked up guitar?
No, the guitar came later. I started out as a drummer. When I was in the sixth grade, I wanted a drum set but my parents didn’t want to buy me one. So they bought me a snare drum and a cymbal, which I decided would be my drum kit. About this time they got my brother a cheap guitar, a Harmony Rocket guitar and a Vox amp. So we started messing around with the drums and guitar. Then in the seventh grade they bought me a used drum kit and my brother got a better amp. He wasn’t much of a guitar player; he wanted to play sports, but music was all I wanted to play. Around the start of high school I got bored with the drums and picked up his guitar and a bunch of music books. These books had all the Beatles songs in them and I knew all those songs from Dad’s jukebox.
Did your band have a name?
I’m sure we had one, but I can remember. Eventually it became a band called Wintergreen. We picked that name because we liked Johnny Winter, although it doesn’t make any sense when I think about it now. I had another friend that also played drums so he became our drummer and we had like four guitar players. Then I talked my brother into playing drums. So for awhile we had two drummers and three guitar players.
Like the Allman Brothers.
Oh, we loved the Allman Brothers! We couldn’t play their music, but we loved them. I picked up the guitar during the summer before the ninth grade and by the end of the year I was good enough to play in a band. By the tenth grade, I was gigging on a regular basis. Our dad was our “manager”; he got us gigs at high school dances, just anywhere we could play. We had a station wagon and we’d load all our stuff in it. In his eyes, I’m sure it was all just fun, but in my eyes, it was what I was going to do. I had a band all through high school and that morphed into the band that started playing bars in the Jersey area when I was 18. We became a pretty popular cover band, but after a couple years we got bored and started doing our own music. By the ’80s, I got another band called Radio Rodeo. The cow-punk thing was popular, like Jason & the Scorchers, so we put together this really weird hybrid band that actually got pretty successful in Philadelphia.
On top of all this you will want to add in the fact that probably from the time I was 20, I had a drug problem — a drug and drinking problem which would escalate in various forms and pretty much held me back from doing what I should be doing. It was a lot easier to focus on, “we got a gig, let’s go get high,” as opposed to “I gotta write some songs.” Then, once I cleaned up in my early 30s, I had a hard-rock band called Gypsy Rose that eventually ended and became a band called Blue Noise. All of these were bands that went nowhere. I got frustrated with everything and started my solo career in my mid-30s.
You’ve always been very honest about your past with drugs and alcohol. It seems like musicians fall prey to that simply because they are exposed to it so much.
You’re right; you’re around it and it’s easily available. When you are in this world, no one wants to be in their own skin. Everybody anesthetizes themselves from the life that they live, and some people can handle it, some can’t. I think that artists, by and large, are an extremely insecure bunch of people. Just because you have talent doesn’t mean you can deal with the fact that you have talent. There’s a whole set of things that go along with that. Add that to a business where there’s no business plan and no path to follow. It can also be a popularity contest, where being the best doesn’t necessarily mean you finish first. That’s just a fact. My philosophy is that famous and popular people are there for a reason, but it doesn’t mean they are the most talented. The first lesson of the music business is that it’s a numbers game and just because you work really hard and do all the things you are supposed to do and you have talent, it doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the Top 40. My point is that if you add that into an already insecure humans head, you have a recipe for disaster. It’s like, “Well, I can be depressed and upset, or I can have a few beers, a shot of whiskey, smoke some weed or do a line, and I can pretend that everything’s OK.” That worked out pretty well for awhile and I had a great time. I don’t advocate drugs or drinking, especially for somebody else, but it worked for me for quite awhile, until it didn’t work anymore. Then that downward slide is really fast, so fast you don’t even realize its happening. Then you go, “OK, I’ve got to make a change.”
But your creativity was still there, it seems. When I listen to your early albums, the music and lyrics are solid.
I would say the downfall to all of that is that when I wrote songs, I was writing for a million different reasons, but not writing for me. In my mind, I was just trying to get from point A to point B. The down side is, that’s not the way to be an artist and it was a life lesson I had to learn. That lesson was how to be me and not worry about what everybody else thinks. I’m probably not articulating this the right way, but I really don’t care if anybody likes what I do. I don’t write a song because I think, “Oh boy, everybody will love this song.” I write it because it just won’t leave my head. Then I go in the studio and record it.
I have a business and creative partner, Joe Carroll, and he has the studio. I met him in 1995, and that’s when I started to get serious about my solo career. We worked in a music store together. Joe had a four-track recorder and invited me to come over and work on songs together. Soon the 4-track turned into an 8-track and I could tell that things were getting serious. My friend, Dave Rath, played drums on some tracks and really liked what we were doing, and he offered to manage us. It was Dave who later suggested we cut a CD, and he actually found the money for us to do it. The he started getting us some gigs, and that started our journey.
Once that first CD, First of All , came out and things started to take shape, that’s when I got down to business and realized, “This might go somewhere!” It’s like, all of a sudden, my songwriting was becoming a viable craft. I decided I wanted to take it to the next level, to see what I could really do. That’s why, in my opinion, my first album is really Dallas. That’s the one where I went, “Ah, I get this — I can do this and I can do it forever.”
Speaking of Dallas, when did you first set your sights on Texas?
In 2000, after Dallas was out, we came down to Texas and I met [KNBT-FM’s] Mattson Rainer. After that, Texas was a tour stop at least twice a year. The people always really got it in Texas. In Philadelphia, people would say, “I don’t like country music, but I like what you are doing.” They still thought we were a country band, and I was the farthest thing from a country band. I’m still not interested in country music; it just doesn’t do anything for me. I mean, I take everything song-by-song, artist-by-artist. People will ask if I like Keith Urban, and I’ll say, “I don’t know, but I like Radney Foster, and he wrote a few hit songs for Keith Urban.” But is Radney Foster country? I’d say no. So … when I came to Texas, and the fans said, “You guys rock,” I instantly went, “Ah, you guys get it; you know what I’m talking about.”
So you’d been coming down here for years before you actually moved here.
Right. Starting with the first album, I probably wrote and recorded without a break up until my Never Look Back album . That was the point where I slowed down. I had my heart attack after we finished recording it, and I was down for about six months. Then we began recording for what would eventually become Had Enough? right before Joe left for Texas. He was here for about eight months before we moved down, but we had made the decision that this is where we were going to go.
It was right after you got home from a trip to Texas that you had your heart attack in 2006. Can you talk about that?
I came down for South By Southwest in Austin, and I stayed with Mattson that entire week. It was just Joe Carroll and I. And I felt fine. My whole thing was, I couldn’t get drunk. I was here for a week and I probably tied one on the first night I was here. Then after that I felt like the more I drank I just couldn’t get drunk — although I was, I didn’t feel it. We got on the plane to go home and I think officially the last drink I had was in Chicago O’Hare Airport. It was a triple Absolute and cranberry, and I got off the plane and I was feeling really agitated — I only had one day off, then I was supposed to fly to France. I also felt like I had indigestion. And then, long story short, a couple hours later, I’m dead. And after that everything changes, the fog goes away. I had plenty of time to sit there by myself. You know for three months I could barely get out of bed. It wasn’t an easy comeback, let’s put it that way.
And you had to stop cold turkey. That’s gotta be hard.
No, that part really wasn’t. Well, it probably would have been bad if I wasn’t so weak from the heart attack and operation. I was told that I couldn’t do anything for three months. I went from the bed to the couch and from the couch to the bed for three months and I had a lot of time to think about shit. The last thing I wanted was a drink. I just wanted to feel like a normal human being again.
Does that make Had Enough? your first “sober” album?
Absolutely. On Never Look Back, there were a few vocals recorded [afterward] and we also mixed it after my heart attack, but for all intents and purposes, Had Enough? is the only record I’ve done that I was positively sober the whole time. Sometimes it’s called my “comeback,” but I never really came back from anywhere — I was just on a nice trajectory. I still seem like I am, but my main focus is just on Texas now. This is where I live; it’s where I want to play.
Now that you’ve been here awhile, where do you feel like you fit in with the Texas music scene?
What I do is Tom Gillam music … You know, Red Dirt people seem to like it; singer-songwriter people seem to like it. So I’m lucky in that respect. I can play Austin, and I can play New Braunfels and do equally as well. Again, I really don’t do anything to fit in anywhere. I don’t do any of this to please anybody but me. Now, I always have an eye afterwards on how am I gonna market it; I would be lying through my teeth if I said I didn’t do that once we are done with an album. That’s why a lot of thought goes into the cover, the order of the songs, the flow and all that stuff — that’s just a smart business move. There’s no such thing as just being an artist anymore. You have to be 360, the whole package. I talked to Kevin Geil from Two Tons of Steel, they are an amazing band. Their merch sales are through the roof. Cody Canada and those guys, you know it’s $20 to get in the show and then for another $20 you can get a USB wristband that basically gives you the concert that you just watched.
Willie Nelson does that, too. It’s a great idea.
Yes, for the fans it’s just amazing, as a marketing technique it’s fucking brilliant. Marketing is very much a part of this job. You not only have to write the songs and perform them, you have to figure out a way to sell them in a market. Twenty-five years ago, all you worried about was getting some money from a record company. You put out an album and if you had a hit, you made some money. But I will be the last person to cry the blues — I’m glad the old system is gone. It makes it easier for guys like me to do the things that I want to do. When I was 20 years old, the thought of making a record was so farfetched. Unless you had a big chunk of cash you couldn’t do it. So fast forward to my 30s, and for about $3,000 you can make a CD. Fast forward another 10 years and you can do it for $300. So it makes it a lot easier. Joe Carroll has always been the brains behind our viral marketing. He was the first one to say we needed a website. I didn’t even know what the Internet was. He was the first one to get us a MySpace page, and he set up a Facebook page for me while I was in Europe. The next thing you know, I’m on Facebook five times a day.
What’s next for you?
If everything goes on schedule, I’m looking at early 2011 for some new Tom Gillam music. I want to get started because the band I have here has really gelled in the last year and a half. It’s getting to be a real band as opposed to hired guns. The new music I’m writing will be much more organic. Of course this could all change in the next few weeks. We played some gigs with Band of Heathens, I really like them, and they’ve had an impact on me. I don’t know if it will be a Texas record, but I live here now and I record here and I play here so I guess it will be a Texas record. I consider myself a Texas artist. The days that I was considered a Philadelphia artist ended when I put my furniture in my apartment in Austin. I never once looked back. I love everyone in Philadelphia, but I don’t belong there. I belong here.