Rod is Bright Light Bright Light, the sleek one-man band – frontperson and electronic musician master, but, most of all, a proud out gay man who makes pop music heavily influenced by LGBTQ+ interest pop culture! His fanatic instinct for premium pop culture has informed each of the four stealthily sophisticating records he’s fashioned.
In Summer 2018, Rod Thomas attended a rehearsed workshop of Nile Rodgers’ history of disco musical, We Are Here at a New York theatre. During the musical, he misheard a quote attributed to Mayor John Lindsay, New York’s governor during covering the 1968 Stonewall Riots. It sent him down a historical research rabbit-hole. ‘On his first day of office in ’66, everything shut down and New York went to shit,’ recounts Rod. The similarity to the climate he drops the new Bright Light Bright Light record into, though entirely accidental, is not lost on him. ‘All the lights went out, so somebody jokingly said to him, “you’re still happy to be mayor of New York?” And he replied, “I still think it’s a fun city.”’
The words Fun City hit Rod hard. An idea began to germinate, congregating the songs he’d been writing. His new material felt like it carried a wider purpose than just the dizzy highs of a solid gold pop fix. ‘I wanted to make a record about the community that I am a part of,’ he says. He realised he was composing a suite of music honouring the light, nodding to the dark of the LGBTQ+ experience. ‘Throughout the decades,’ he notes, ‘gay people have really had to make the most of their situation, in spite of the social, political and economic hardships of being “other.”’
In a moment of potent political turmoil, in a new New York under the tenure of a president with a speciality for throwing minorities under the nearest bus, you can see why the idea appealed. ‘I needed to find those moments of neon, gold and colour in this dark landscape.’ To make pop with purpose. ‘Fun City is a love letter to how diverse and inspirational those people are. Its aim is to help the community support the community.’ By assembling a spectacular array of guest slots to complement his central role, Rod put his money where his mouth is.
Rod Thomas moved from London to New York seven years ago. The surface has changed, but in the corners he primarily occupies, queer immigrant history still tingles through the woodwork. Rod has become embedded in the city’s outlier creative factions, as resident weekly DJ at Alan Cumming’s outré queer cabaret and dancing experience, Club Cumming. He throws a regular once a month Friday party at the Brooklyn bolthole, C’mon Everbody. In his NYC years, he has turned from smalltown Welsh valleys boy into a vital connecting tissue between queer tribes. Sometimes it really is as easy as simply caring about these things.
Mayor Lindsay’s offhand quote prompted Rod to look into the history of where it all came from. To immerse himself in old literature and film, searching online for an origins story of LGBTQ+ New York, at which to counterpoint the present moment, a melding of queers past, present. Steeped in his Sylvester records, emboldened by Sylvia Riviera’s inspirational, angry missives, his work feels reanimated with new momentum. ‘I just wanted to look outside of myself,’ he says.
Fun City is a record whose process is the product. Its primary concern is to engage LGBTQ+ communities into owning their own story, at each intersectional angle. It arrives courtesy of his YSKWN! family, an initiative of Rod’s instigation to nurture queer artists, to help lift one another up. To pass on the love. The wider remit is about making sure our story is written down, to add to those cogs in the wheel towards the LGBTQ+ story becoming a definitive tract.
Last year, Bright Light Bright Light experimented with a new performance technique, eschewing the old 20th century idea of having a band, replacing them with queer dancers, taking up space, as he opened up for Cher’s global tour. ‘Of course, it was amazing,’ he says, ‘and of course it was the gayest thing I’ve ever done, which is quite a fete really.’ One night in Cologne, the entire purpose of Fun City crystalized in his mind. ‘It was a particularly wild crowd and I got a bit lost in emotion one song,’ he recalls. ‘I said “as you can see, we’re really gay.”’
If you can’t say that to an arena full of Cher fans then where, quite frankly can you? ‘The room went fucking crazy. People started messaging afterwards, saying how important it was to say that. Just in terms of visibility. It was amazing to think that accidentally I’d done something useful. That was the gamechanger for me. It matters. People say, “oh, don’t be political.” But you can’t live without being political. If I can’t make an album about the community that I’m actually a part of, then what is the point?’
First of all, who is Rod and how do you identify?
I’m a male (he/him) and I’m a proud out gay man who makes pop music heavily influenced by LGBTQ+ interest pop culture.
How would you describe “Fun City” and what shall we expect to hear in this album?
It’s more focused on the politics and context of queer lives, so has a more community based approach than the last albums. I want it to start conversations, inspire love and hopefully connect people to each other a little more. This album is a loveletter to the LGBTQ+ community – its history, its present, its potential future. It’s inspired by the struggles we’ve faced and still face (‘It’s Alright, It’s OK’, ‘These Dreams’), by many of the incredible artists who have pioneered the way for us like Sylvester, Bessie Smith, Bronski Beat, Erasure, and also has in it the humour and campiness that is so much part of the colourful community.
What is the idea behind “Bright Light Bright Light” being the name of your one-man band?
I wanted a moniker / stage name that would remove the “first name, last name” identity and be able to have more fun. I wanted something that suggested cinema love, dancefloor love, shiny, disco influences music, and it’s a quote from Gremlins so it’s a nod to cinema, and sounds like something very nightclub friendly too!
How were your childhood years and when did you start getting involved with the music industry?
They were very calm, growing up in the countryside. I played my first open mic night at the age of 16 or 17 and then started playing small shows in Swansea after that, then after uni I worked at PIAS (then Vital) distributing independent labels which was an amazing learning curve. After that I busked on the London Underground for 2 years and cut my teeth performing there, which was actually a very cool part of my life. I met lots of good people doing that, bizarrely!
You have toured with Cher, Sir Elton John, Scissor Sisters and Erasure. Tell me about these achievements! How did this happen and was each experience?
Elton asked me as we were friends, and I spent an amazing 57 shows opening for him across the world. It was so incredible, so lifechanging. His whole team are the nicest people in the world. Cher’s promoter asked me as we worked together on the Elton shows and they liked me, so that was a nice surprise! It’s really cool to tour with your heroes, feeling part of theit travels, and getting to watch them perform every night. It’s so special.
What made you move to New York and how is your life there?
I was just really taken with the city the first time I visited. It’s really hard to describe but it felt really familiar and I just fell in love. I’ve met some truly inspiring people here, and have found a gorgeous musical and creative community who all help each other out, which has made life – even in spite of political hell – feel optimistic.
How is life for LGBTQ+ people who live under the Trump presidency in US right now?
It’s very difficult. I’m lucky, I live in the liberal space of NYC, but for people in the Midwest or in more central USA it’s incredibly difficult as he inflames the homophobes and tries to roll back our human rights protections. It’s a scary time and this man is so full of spite and hate it’s absolutely disgusting.
Who are your idols and your role models?
People who manage to make art seem effortless and a total part of themselves, musically, so like Elton John, Erasure, Grace Jones, Kate Bush, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson … I think Elton and Andy Bell are huge role models as they are outspoken, do lots of work for charity and amazing causes and use their voices wisely alongside their music work. Mariah too.
Who was your favourite pop diva as a gay teenage boy?
Honestly as a teenager I was Björk and Tori Amos obsessed. I still did love the Mariah Carey and Madonna albums, but those two were my go to women of the time!
Where do you get your inspiration?
Anywhere and everywhere! Mostly from other people’s lives, stories and journeys vs my own. I’m a bit of a sponge, so I do try to look outside of myself as much as I can.
Tell me more about YSKWN. What is it and how did you take this initiative?
It’s my record label imprint that I started alongside Megaforce over here, and it’s also an umbrella for a way to help LGBTQ+ artists, businesses and organisations, where I can help promote them organically, and try to help connect people in our community. I do a lot of community focused things, like my DJ parties, and I thought it would be a nice way to help likeminded people find each other. My resources are limited of course, but I’m trying to help on whatever small level I can!
How was your coming out and when did you start feeling comfortable with yourself?
It was not very fun, and I think it took a long time to feel comfortable with myself. Not so much “as a gay man” but as a person. Teenage years and early 20s can be very turbulent for some people and I think it was when I hit 30 that I actually felt like myself as it were, which might sound odd, but with some real ups and downs, 30s felt like I started to balance and own myself a little bit more.
Tell me about the collaborations in this album.
They are all figures from the LGBTQ+ world – some very famous, some very new – and I wanted the album to be a kaleidoscope of LGBTQ+ talent, so people could see some established favourites who have inspired me, like Jake, Sam or Andy, and discover some new people I find very inspiring like KAYE, The Illustrious Blacks or Caveboy. Because the songs are about our community I wanted to fill it with voices FROM the community, to bring it to life with their energy and their own stories.
How did the current pandemic change your life and affected your reality?
Well, it was incredibly lonely for a good few months. I have no DJ income, and no live shows, and am releasing an album without physically seeing any fans which is really disappointing. I’m doing my best, but it’s hard. I live alone, and there were some times or real loneliness and sadness, but it’s been much better over the summer. I really am worried about people who don’t have safe and happy homes, and people who need the public LGBTQ+ spaces … I can survive, but I feel like my reality is really shifted, and I worry for those less comfortable than me.
What make you smile these days?
Bagels, Jujubee, Mariah Carey’s online presence, random acts of kindness, bodega cats.
Are you in love at the moment?
What are your future plans?
Christ, what is anybody’s future plans at the moment! Taking it step by step for quite some time I think!