It's not completely a "like father, like son" scenario in terms of precise career, but there's little question that the artist known as Def.fo - otherwise known as Tom Powell - has followed in his dad's footsteps in terms in being in the music business. In addition, Steve Powell - the dad in question - co-produced def.fo's debut album, Eternity, with his son. But while the majority of Steve's work has been behind the scenes as a producer, engineer, and the like, Tom is right out front, singing, playing, and programming his heart out, albeit with a little help from his friends on occasion.
Def.fo dropped his debut album, Eternity, late last year, and it's only the first part of a three-albums-in-three-years plan that the Liverpudlian musician has plotted out. Fortunately, he found time to discuss that plan with Q, along with his origins as a musician, how he got a couple of notable guest musicians to join him in the studios, what his expectations for Eternity are, and more.
You were already somewhat predisposed to music from a genetic standpoint, I suppose, given your dad's work in the business.
Yeah, exactly. I kind of grew up always having music of good taste playing around me. [Laughs.] Some people say, "I grew up with music playing," but mine was particularly good and interesting music - and more obscure than the average - when I was growing up. A lot of the stuff me dad worked on at the time would get played around the house, and also stuff he listened to and was inspired by. He was originally a guitar player, me dad. He loved a lot of Hendrix, Jeff Beck, all that kind of stuff. He's a really nice guitar player, and then from guitar he got into production and engineering, and he's had studios and lots of local legends from 'round our way that he's recorded albums and EPs with over his lifetime. He did stuff with the Stairs, the Strands, people like that.
I remember the Stairs because - being the obsessive Anglophile that I was and remain - I paid attention to anything that was released on Go! Discs at the time.
Yeah, they had some good ones! They had the Stairs, they had the La's, who famously recorded their album a lot of times. Another famous Liverpool band. Me dad's actually worked with the bass player for the La's, John Power. He did a couple of his solo records. They were done around our house. He used to have a garage-conversion studio, so John was recording there, and then he'd sit out there with John after they recorded. He also had Lee Mavers from the La's around doing bits a good while ago in that same garage studio. When he had the home studio, there was a lot of musicians dropping by, and at that point, I was probably in my late teens, and me favorite band then was the Who. I was really into that. I wouldn't listen to anything outside the '60s at that time. [Laughs.] It was, like, the '60s, and at a push, the '70s! So having all these bands that I loved dropping 'round the house, it was just a dream come true to me, and it was an inspiration. Big time.
So at what point did you decide that you were going stop just listening and start playing?
Well, I kind of always wanted to do music ever since I can remember, literally going back to the age of three. I remember just writing little childish throwaway songs. Then when I was a bit older, maybe seven years old, I remember kind of coming up with my own world, which was called Nutcracker World. and I wanted to create a whole concept album with that. [Laughs.] So I've always been creative, I've always had a wild imagination, I've always wanted to do it. But life gets in the way. There's always some other thing that's there, and before you know it, you're in your mid-thirties, and you've played on some fantastic records... I've done that, I've been really privileged to, but I've never put anything out that I've written myself. I've just turned 36 this year, and my first record's out this year, so I'm hitting the ground running: there's a record this year, there's gonna be another one, it's already ready to go, and then there'll be one the year after.
So what's your writing process like?
It can vary. If I'm writing something more acoustic-y, a folk or acoustic song, I'll probably start it on acoustic guitar. It'll usually be on the back of hearing a melody in me head, or something that gets stuck in me head. An idea, a lyric, a statement, whatever it is, I'll usually write on acoustic guitar. But because I like a lot of triphop and indie sounding stuff as well...I've got a lot of different influences! If it's something more like that, it'd be more electric-based or more electronic-based. I'll usually start with a drum loop or a drum sample or something like that and play bass or guitar around it, come up with a riff or a bass groove and then build on it from there in layers. I like to work with loops a lot in that respect as well.
So it's two different ways of working, because I'm inspired by a lot of different music tastes, and I don't really like to go, "Right, it's just gonna be a folk album," or, "it's just gonna be a psychedelic album," or indie or trip-hop or whatever. The two albums that I've recorded that are ready to go, and the one album that I'm gonna working on as soon as I finish the demos, they're all very varied from track one to ten. It's folk, psychedelic, indie, trip-hop, and whatever else. "Psychedelic folk-hop," that's the only way I've been able to describe it! [Laughs.]
Well, it was already evident from listening to Eternity that you're all over the place stylistically, which is certainly not a bad thing.
Definitely, yeah. That's kind of a reflection of what I listen to. No two days go by where I'll put something on a record or I'll stream something, and it'll be the same kind of genre.
I don't know if you saw, but I added "Play It Cool" to a recent Q playlist.
Yeah, I saw that. Brilliant, thanks very much. I really appreciate that. It made me day!
Well, my daughter, who's in college, she sat down and listened to the playlist from start to finish with her friend Finn, and she said, "Finn loved 'Play It Cool,' I thought it was...okay." I said, "Listen to the whole album. You're gonna find something you love, too."
Yeah, definitely...and at the same time, not everything's for everyone! I don't mind, and I appreciate honesty, y'know what I mean? Everybody's got their own thing that they like, and that's cool. But tell her friend, "Thanks!" [Laughs.] That's the beauty of music, and any art form, I suppose. Some people are gonna love things, some people it's not gonna be their cup of tea. I think that's what makes things interesting. A lot of the things I listen to, I wouldn't call them mainstream, or I wouldn't say they have huge audiences a lot of times. There's a lot of albums that I've listened to that I've recommended to friends that no one had ever heard before. One I recommended recently to someone was an album by the Echocentrics called Echo Hotel. That's a very varied-styles kind of record, with a lot of guest singers on it. I know it's got the singer from White Denim on there and a few people like that. That's what I love listening to: varying styles, interesting people involved. They're sometimes underground things, as I say.
I will say that I probably would've put "Autumn Leaves" on the playlist, but it hadn't yet been added to Spotify when I made that playlist. I love that song.
Yeah, it's a nice one. I'm pleased with how that one's come out. It's a very happy song, and it's kind of a double entendre, the meaning behind it. It's purely focused on the positive, but it's got the double entendre of leaving the past behind with the seasons and that kind of thing. It's one of me favorites off the album. The string section at the end gets me every time. [Laughs.]
Normally I'd say it's a bit too predictable to ask the question, "Who are your influences?" But given that your music is all over the place, in your case, I'm legitimately curious to hear the answer.
Okay, so in terms of this album, I'd say Shack. I play bass with Michael Head, who's from Shack, so he's a huge influence musically and lyrically. A massive, massive influence. He's me favorite songwriter.
Beck is probably coming a bit later. I started writing songs that sounded like a Beck kind of thing before I'd really given him a chance. I came to like Beck a bit later. But I started playing a few tunes for me dad, and me dad's very straight. If something's not great to him, he'll say, "Yeah, maybe shelve that one," or if it's decent, he'll go, "Yeah, I think you might have an album on our hands there." But I started playing it, and he said, "Have you listened to Beck?" And I was, like, "I've heard the obvious ones, Odelay and stuff." And he said, "No, listen to Sea Change, listen to this..." And he gave me a few albums. And I was, like, "I get it!" I got it then. So I was writing things in a Beck style, but I wouldn't say I was inspired by him early on. I am now more so, now that I've gone through the back catalog. But he wasn't at the time. I think it's just chance that it's got a similar kind of feel to it.
What else had I listened to 'round the time of the album? Tame Impala. "Play It Cool" and "Eternity" are probably the biggest examples of that, the phase guitar and echo chamber as well. In more recent times... I wouldn't say they're a direct influence on the album itself, but I've listened to a lot this year to Katy J. Pearson and Nilufer Yanya. Now, they'll probably be more of an influence going forward, because I discovered them in more recent times, the last year. And again, they're two artists who are really varied in terms of every song on the album is different, and you find it hard to describe what they sound like, which is what I love. So, yeah, there's a lot of different influences. [Laughs.] It depends.
Oh, and as far as the strings, as well as Shack, I'd have to say Arthur Lee and Love. They're a huge, huge influence on that side of things, the orchestration mixed with the folk kind of sounds with the Spanish-y sounding guitars. I've listened to Arthur Lee and Love since I was about 16 or so, and it's something that's stuck with me all that time. I've even got them tattooed on me arm there. [Laughs.] I've got the logo right there! So they're one of me favorites, and the things that he and the band did with all the brass and the strings, like Forever Changes. I don't know how you can beat that album. Bloody hell, man...[Laughs.] It's just like something from another planet, if you put that on from start to finish and you listen. There's a lot of busy things going on with the music. If you listen to the bass lines... I mean, we did a gig covering Love songs earlier in the year, and the bass lines, there's a lot going on, but it doesn't sound messy on the track because it's so well constructed and orchestrated. I know from recording quite a bit that that's not easy to achieve.
You mentioned that Michael Head is on the album. How did that come about? Was that through your dad, or did you meet him on your own?
Mick's always been played in my house 'cause me dad worked on the record I mentioned earlier, Michael Head and the Strands. So me dad had worked with him in the mid-'90s, and apparently I'd met him when I was younger, when I was 3, 4, 5 years old. I don't remember that, but Mick's said that since. So I got into Love first, and then funnily enough I got into Shack and the Pale Fountains and all that kind of stuff afterwards by getting introduced to it by a friend. And then me dad kind of went, "Oh, the back catalog, it's bliss. There's a lot to listen to, but it's all great." So I'd always been a fan of Mick's, I'd always gone to his gigs and stuff like that. I didn't really know him well enough to talk to, but I'd kind of bumped into him a couple of times over the years and been in his vicinity at gigs and just kind of said "hello," that kind of thing. But I wouldn't say we knew each other.
But then me dad had his 60th party, and Mick came to the party, and I was just outside when Mick was passing, and I said, "Hiya, Mick, nice to see ya. I'm a big fan of your music." And that was kind of that. But a few months later, me dad got a call saying, "I'm looking for a bass player for a gig. Would your Tom fancy doing it?" 'Cause he'd heard I'd been playing bass with a couple of local bands and stuff like that. And initially I thought he meant just playing on the same bill as him, with the band I was playing with at the time. I was, like, "Go ahead!" And he went, "No, he's asking do you want to play with him?" I was, like, "Fucking hell, yeah!" [Laughs.] Dream come true.
This was about seven years ago. It was one gig, and then one gig led to another gig, and then another gig led to an album, and another album, and we've done strings of gigs. We've played all over the country, some amazing gigs. Yeah, it's really is a dream come true to be a part of Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band. Lovely people involved. When you're out on your tour with people and they're all your friends, it's like a second family almost. It's brilliant. And other than Mick being a great songwriter and musician, he's a lovely fellow as well. So I'm always thanking me lucky stars that I'm involved with him and the band.
And how he got involved with my record is that I simply asked him. I said, "There's a couple of songs that remind me of Shack or the Strands. Would you be interested in singing on them and doing a dual vocal alongside mine on 'em?" And he said, "Yeah," which is lovely. He came in, and we did it, and our voices worked really well together. They blended well together as a co-lead vocal. And he put a bit of percussion down on one track as well, because he's a really, really good rhythm guitar player, and that translated to percussion as well. So in a long-winded way, that's how it worked! [Laughs.]
Which tracks is he on?
So there's two. There's "The Healing Fields," and there's one called "Dreamers."
How did you find yourself working with Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian on the album?
Again, another really fortunate one, to get Chris on the record. So I'd met Chris a few times at places like Liverpool Psych Fest, and he's been to the odd Mick gig, and I've been to a lot of Belle & Sebastian gigs. I'm a big fan of theirs. But how I kind of got to know Chris is through my best friend, Toby. He moved over to Glasgow - he met a girl who lives there, Suze - and one of their good friends is Chris Geddes. So I met Chris with them at Psych Fest and stuff like that, and when I was making the record, I was, like, "I need some keys. I wonder if it's worth an ask." So I asked Toby and Suze if they'd ask Chris, and he said, "Yeah," and he put a few things down for the record. And they sound great. They sound absolutely great. He's a brilliant keyboard player. You've just got to listen to some of the Belle and Sebastian stuff when the keys are quite prominent, especially a lot of the riffy stuff. He's done the same with my songs that he features on.
Given that no one knows what to expect with a release in the present-day music environment, do you have any particular expectations for Eternity?
Erm... Not particularly, no. If people listen to it and like it, that's good enough for me. A lot of the time writing songs, you're just happy to get them out of your head and get them down and get them out into the world. It's obviously a lot of work and a lot of love that goes into any creative project, whether it's music or film, TV, literature, whatever it is. Yeah, a lot of time for me, it's just that I've got music and songs in me head and I want to get them out. If people like them, then that's amazing, man. It's a lovely feeling. [Laughs.] It's a great feeling. There's no kind of plans to tour the album or anything like that, as it stands. I'm very much focused on doing a three-album recording project, a studio project, for now. Which is a little bit different than how people do it, but I kind of like to do things me own way. So first album [in 2023], second album this year, which is all ready to go. It's a concept album called Music for Dinosaurs. It's a dystopian turned to utopian concept album. It's pretty out there, pretty wild...
Yeah, but you were writing concept albums when you were seven, so...
Exactly! [Laughs.] Exactly, man! And there's a lot more trip-hop influence on the concept album, I'd say, and there's some real nice guests in there as well, which I'll get to another time. Don't want to give away too much too early! And then I'll do a third album in 2025. They say you've got to have a five-year plan in life or a ten-year plan. I've just got a three-albums-in-three-years plan. That's my own take on things, doing things in me own little way. And then by the time 2025 comes along, I've got three albums out. I should be able to pick a pretty good set list out of that, if time permits to play it live!