Mark Daman Thomas is probably better known for his work with experimental psychedelic outfit Islet. He's also the founder of revered Welsh independent label Shape Records and this week releases his first solo album International Dreams under the moniker Farm Hand.
DiS caught up with him recently and discovered playing in a band can sometimes be more stressful than going it alone, Ed Sheeran isn't so bad after all, and how the Welsh music scene is still as vibrant as ever.
DiS: Your debut album International Dreams has been well received by the music press so far. Did you expect such a positive response?
Mark Daman Thomas: No, not really. Any sort of positive press is a bonus. I tried to send it to as many friends and fans of my other band as possible so hopefully, they like it.
When did you first start writing songs as Farm Hand?
I lived in Cardiff for 12 years then came back to live in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Wales. At that point me and my wife were just having a child so we relocated back. Our lives changed quite dramatically all in one go. Prior to that, we were touring a lot with Islet. So there was a massive change in how we wrote and performed, and not just related to having a child; there were other reasons as well. One of the Islet members was also playing in Cate Le Bon's band so he would often be globetrotting. Anyway, all of this led up to me really wanting to perform and go on stage so I decided to make something up on my own. Luckily something happened which made that possible. I had a Shape Records stage at Focus Wales last year and one of the acts pulled out at the last minute. So I just said I'll do it to the organisers Neal (Thompson) and Andy (Jones). I wasn't ready or prepared in any way but I really wanted to perform so I just did it!
Were any of the songs that are on International Dreams ready at that point?
Some of them were. I'd done a little bit of recording so they were in quite different forms to how they ended up.
Which is the oldest song on the album?
I'm not sure which came first but some of them date back to when we first moved back into the countryside around the back end of 2015. I just started playing around with a loop pedal and gradually the songs began to form.
You've described International Dreams as being about "My continued desire (now in its 34th year) and preparedness to play international football for Wales." Was it always intended to be a concept album?
I don't know whether I'd call it a concept record! That's just a tongue in cheek thing really. The "international" bit relates to me growing up as part of a rural community where most people don't tend to have global ambitions. They're mainly farmers interested in their land so International Dreams is about me wanting to break out from that. I love doing international gigs so it's tied in with that as well.
Did Brexit play a part in influencing the record as well?
Definitely. I wanted to put my opinion across that the world is a more positive place when there are less barriers between one another.
The recordings seem quite minimal compared to what you've done in the past with Islet. Will it primarily be you playing the live shows or are you looking to introduce a full band at some point?
It's just going to be me. It's the fact I can just get in a car on my own and drive wherever I want to do a gig, like Manchester last weekend for example. It's quite nice that I can fit everything in one suitcase then go off and do a gig. I've been in bands for so long, renting vans and lugging enormous amounts of gear around. Also, I kind of got into the craft of being a solo performer and wanted to challenge myself to be able to entertain and engage a whole audience on my own as opposed to relying on everything else going on.
Rob Jones produced the album. What did he bring to the recording process? Did any of the songs change when he became involved?
He brought a huge amount to the album. It changed direction in some ways once he was involved. I was adamant not to have any live instruments on it whereas he encouraged me to use live strings and drums. He persuaded me it would be a much more interesting record that way and I agreed with him.
How did the record originally sound?
It sounded quite minimal to begin with. I got this drum machine from a car boot sale with just 12 beats on it so initially, I intended to just use them. When I started it everything was about limitations. I wanted to purposely put limitations on myself because I tend to get carried away and excited about how many roads I can go down when I'm making a record. I've got so many different influences but with this album, I wanted to keep it quite definite.
You've already touched on the difference between playing as a solo artist and as part of a band. Is Farm Hand going to be a long-term project going forwards?
All of the eyes being just on me was a brand new thing as far as I was concerned. But now I've got used to it so I'm trying to find ways of making that more interesting. There are so many solo artists and even bands around at the moment where one person leads it and the rest just play that person's songs. Whereas with Islet it's a pure collaboration between all of the band. So it is nice to have something with just me making the decisions. I'm enjoying that process so I'd like to think it will continue after this record.
Do you think being a solo artist has been tainted somewhat by the success of people like Ed Sheeran?
I don't know! I still find it somewhat interesting that Ed Sheeran can do what he does. I'm sure he works a lot harder than people give him credit for. I've never really listened to his music although we did actually play with him once. Unbelievably, he supported Islet! It was at a festival in Holland. He was on before us then the headlining act was Cake. It was a very bizarre bill! It's the one story Islet have that most impresses our families.
You've always focused heavily on the visuals and artwork both on this project and with Islet. Would you say they're just as important as the music?
I think it's very important to visually marry up what you're doing with the music. I work very hard with my wife Emma, who does all the Islet artwork. She helped me with the Farm Hand artwork as well. We're both really interested in art in general.
Do you think an album like International Dreams could have been created anywhere else other than rural Wales?
No, not really. It would have been a different thing altogether. It feels like the life I'm living at the moment to me when I listen to it. For example, if I lived in Berlin it certainly wouldn't sound like this and probably wouldn't even exist.
There seems to be a lot of great music coming out of Wales right now, not to mention a very supportive almost community-like spirit between all the artists. Why do you think that is?
It's interesting. Because I'm part of that scene I've never known anything different. Wales is such a small country population wise that you tend to gravitate towards people doing similar things to yourself, and as a result, we've all become friends. Sweet Baboo, Cate (Le Bon), H Hawkline, Gwenno, and Meilyr (Jones); people like that. We've all known each other a long time and want each other to do well. It's good for all of us if people do well. I've released records by H Hawkline and Sweet Baboo on my label too.
Shape Records has been going for over 10 years now. How do you manage to financially sustain an independent record label for so long, especially in the current climate?
Some of the records I've released have done better than others but generally, they've all broke even. That's normally the aim. I've never been competitive. I've always wanted everyone around me to do well. I just love music. Releasing records and putting on gigs.
Which event or release are you most proud of? What has given you the most satisfaction in the time you've been doing Shape?
I'm actually surrounded right now by a lot of framed records. Right now I'd probably say the last Islet EP which came out late last year. It just felt right. I was very proud of us getting to that point and making the EP because a lot of different things got in our way. It's really hard to play in a band and run a label at the same time. I'm very aware there are much more difficult places to live in the world but it's quite hard to maintain that level of output being based here. Maintaining is one of the hardest things to do in music. If you have found success maybe you go down from that point instead of constantly going upwards to the point where people start to feel sorry for you but then you don't necessarily feel sorry for yourself.
What are the future plans for Islet? Is there another record in the pipeline?
We're recording a new album at the moment. It's been quite a slow burner for us, mainly due to logistical reasons and Emma's also expecting our second child so that's going to make things even more interesting. We've got a very long-term outlook that many other people don't often have. We'll continue to exist in our minds forever. This is just one of those times where we'll release music a bit slower than we'd planned to. Hopefully, we'll be prolific again in the future.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own band or record label?
Just try to be a positive person in every context. The way people talk about the music industry is very downbeat in conversation generally, but I think emotions should be put to one side about changes that have happened if you want to continue doing it. I try to look at positive ways of changing things I'm not happy with.
Do you think the advent of digital marketing and streaming has helped bands and labels achieve more recognition at an early stage as well as ensuring their music reaches a wider audience?
I'm very much a fan of independence so the fewer gatekeepers the better as far as I'm concerned. The fact I can literally go downstairs and record an album this afternoon then put it on the internet by tonight blows my mind and I think that's still something we need to get our heads around. How exciting and amazing an opportunity that really is.
Are there any new bands or artists you'd recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers should check out?
There's a new Welsh language record label called Recordiau Neb which means Nobody Records in Welsh basically, and they've got a couple of exciting acts on their roster right now. Twinfield and Ani Glass who's actually Gwenno's sister, they're both worth checking out. Also, Accu is another artist I'd recommend. She used to be in a band called Trwbador who never quite reached their potential but her work is really cool.
What are your plans for the rest of this year?
There's a launch party in Spillers Records in Cardiff next Saturday (4th November) which is the day after the album's released, then a couple of London gigs after. I'm trying to sort out a few more shows at the moment.
For more information on Mark Daman Thomas and his work with Farm Hand and Islet visit his official website.