Luke Morley, guitarist, writer and band leader of beloved British Rock heroes, Thunder, is going through something of a purple patch right now. Hot on the heels of 2021’s ‘All the Right Noises’, possibly Thunder’s most socio-political album ever, comes the double album, ‘Dopamine’, inspired by and generated during the pandemic when Morley found himself with nothing to do but write songs!
Let’s take you back to my student days in Nottingham in the late 80’s. Long-haired and ready to rock, the best hang-out in town was Rock City and it was there that I first saw a new rock band out on a media tour. Thunder, formed from the ashes of Terraplane, were promoting their soon-to-be-released debut album, ‘Backstreet Symphony’ and this was a media / competition winners mid-afternoon show that I was lucky to attend. A lifetime commitment was made straight away! Tours, festivals, epic Christmas shows, retirements and comebacks were to follow as Luke Morley and lead vocalist Danny Bowes steered Thunder through nearly 35 years of a changing musical landscape to where they are today. I was thrilled to speak to Luke all about it recently.
Thank you for talking to me today, Luke, what a barnstormer of an album ‘Dopamine’ is!
My pleasure and thank you for the kind words. We’re very pleased with it. With everything that’s gone on in the last two years in terms of Covid and lockdowns, it gave me a lot of time to write new songs! (laughing) I put my head down and worked all the way through the pandemic and here we are now. That’s the reason it is a double album, we went into the studio with 20 tunes and once we’d finished we sat back and looked at it but we couldn’t really bring ourselves to leave off some of the songs or just use them as extra tracks.
You never know how many more albums we are going to get to make now that we are all ‘of a certain vintage’, you know? (laughing) So we wanted to put out as many of the songs as we could.
We still look at albums with an old fashioned mentality, I guess. Each one has to have an essential balance to it whereby it needs to fit together, almost like one piece and we felt that we could sustain that flow for the full 16 songs. It also stops our record label pestering us for extra content and the Japanese label for bonus tracks! (laughing)
Did you give a lot of thought to the track listing and the feel of each ‘side’ because the second disc feels a little more experimental in some respects.
Yeah. I did try and sequence the 16 tracks so that they did feel like one continuous listen if that’s what someone wanted to do but I also wanted the two albums to feel like they were their own entities so that they could be listened to separately as well.
The second disc is a little more out there at times for us, it does stray off into some newer or different areas a little. Some of the instrumentation is new – we’ve never done anything that has a three minute saxophone solo in it before! (laughing) Then there’s ‘Just a Grifter’ which has got an accordion on it, which is slightly different for us too.
If it felt right for the song, we went there this time. We’re at the point in our careers where we don’t need to give a fuck about what other people or critics might think. We still get people writing in and complaining about us using female backing vocalists sometimes! (laughing) It’s a tiny minority but they are there!
As a musician you want to stay curious and invest in new things and try to push yourself. We don’t want to keep making the same old album over and over again.
I like what you’ve done on ‘Big Pink Supermoon’. Is ‘Just a Grifter’ about who I think it is about? (No spoilers – you can work it out for yourself)
It is, yeah. It’s a slightly oblique, surreal reference but it’s still so clear that he’s fiddling all the people.
‘All the Right Noises’ was quite a political album and ‘The Grifter’ continues that pattern. Do you think you get enough credit for the serious songs you’ve written over the years?
I think that traditionally Rock music, as a genre, is not a genre where people look too deeply into the meaning of the songs. Lots of people who don’t know us lump us in with bands like Motorhead and Iron Maiden. All rock bands suffer from stereotyping but there’s nothing we can do about that, you just have to write what you feel and be honest with yourself. At my age it would be ridiculous if I was just writing songs about chasing girls all the time! (laughing)
Now, I’m more concerned with the world around me and what I see and how I feel about it. The ‘chasing girls’ part of my life is well and truly over!! (laughing)
Having famously retired Thunder twice now you seem to be going through a real purple patch in terms of creativity. Is that because you’ve got a lot to say right now or is that because of how messed up the world?
Both! (laughing) Both those things influence and effect each other. We live in very strange times right now but somehow the human spirit seems to always shine through the madness that is going on. The way human beings have responded to the awful events in Ukraine right now is very inspirational. There is just so much, both good and bad, to write about in the world, currently.
Are you always writing and generating songs or will you have a quiet period now as you take ‘Dopamine’ out on tour?
No, I gave myself a little break. After we’d finished the last recording session for ‘Dopamine’ I had a break, re-charge the batteries and all that but I’m starting to get itchy again now!
The hardest thing about being a musician in the last two years was not being able to play live. Not performing is really weird. Danny (Bowes, Thunder lead singer) and I were chatting about this the other day in that the last 18 months was probably the longest period we’ve gone without playing live since we were teenagers. We did two Christmas shows in December which were quite emotional in terms of us getting back on stage again. The May shows can’t come round quick enough for us!
I once saw you play ‘Preaching From a Chair’ at one of the Christmas shows and Danny described it as one of the hardest songs to sing that you’d ever written. New song, “I Don’t Believe the World’ gives me the same vibes. Have you ever written a song and chuckled about what you’re making Danny do or do his vocals just cope with everything you throw at him?
(laughing) Listen, he’s gifted with an amazing range and a great voice but like all of us, he isn’t getting any younger. I feel less inclined to push him these days! Unlike a lot of singers of his age and generation, Danny can still do it, he can really still do it.
There are several reasons why he still can. He’s very professional about how he looks after his voice. He’s never been a smoker, never done drugs or abused alcohol and he never stops talking so his voice is always warmed up! (laughing)
As the person who writes the songs, it’s a lovely gift to know that you have got someone of Danny’s abilities on hand to sing what you write. If you look at the new album, particularly, he still gets up there at times but maybe it’s a natural thing where some of the keys are a little lower – I’m not sure – it’s not something that I worry about but it might be a subconscious thing.
We’ve talked Danny, let’s talk you. Some of the riffs on ‘Dopamine’ are ferocious, amongst some of the heaviest you’ve ever written. Was that deliberate? Songs like ‘All the Way’, ‘Last Orders’ and ‘Across the Nation’, for example.
I haven’t really thought about it. I have a notebook where I record all my ideas and I guess during the pandemic, whether it was frustration or anger, I don’t know, but a lot of riffs seemed to emerge all at the same time!
Are you driven by lyrics or melody when you are writing a song?
It depends on the song. There are no rules, really. Sometimes it starts with a couple of chords, sometimes a melody and sometimes it will start with a lyric or a phrase. If I’m ever having a day where I’m a bit stuck and nothing is coming I’ll just sit at the piano and wait for something to just emerge. There are no rules – I’ve been doing this for so long now that you find ways of developing the ideas into songs or generating the ideas in the first place.
Whose idea was it for the ‘guest vocalist’ on ‘Last Orders’? (Luke, himself, sings part of the song in a rare moment as lead singer!)
(laughing) I make the demos for the songs in my studio at home so with digital technology being what it is now days it’s possible to record a song to quite a high standard. On ‘Last Orders’, when I sent the demo around to the boys, I’d sung the whole song upfront. When we were recording it Danny sang the whole song and sounded great but there was something about my vocal on the first verse that sounded desperate, maybe? The whole point of the song is that it gets angrier and angrier and the contrast between my voice and Danny’s voice really seemed to fit with what we were aiming for in the song so we kept my vocal in on the first verse.
You mentioned the upcoming shows in May. How the hell does a band with your back catalogue put together a setlist that pleases everybody?
It’s a fucking nightmare! (laughing) When I get stressed about how it’s all going to work and what songs we have to leave out I think about Mick Jagger and The Stones and wonder how the hell they mange to do it! (laughing)
The principal is always the same for me. You look at what time you’ve got and where the anchor points, which have to be your most popular songs, are going to go. People have paid their hard earned money and you owe your audience the opportunity to hear most of your most popular songs. This time it’s even more difficult because we didn’t get to play ‘All the Right Noises’ live because of the pandemic so we have to think about that album too as well as the TWO we are just about to release!
With every new album you release, as a musician, you really want to play all of it but that’s just not feasible and you have to bear in mind that you might be playing to some people who haven’t even heard it yet too. The whole big picture is very complicated, it’s not an easy process and it gets harder with every album. People who come and see us are quite open minded and lots of them have been with us since ‘Backstreet Symphony’ so they know we are going to put a smile on their faces, even if we don’t manage to play their particular favourite song.
Speaking of ‘Backstreet Symphony’ – it’s nearly 35 years old now. Have you ever considered taking it out on tour and playing it in its entirety to celebrate the milestones at all?
We been asked to do that many times. We’ve always been a forward looking band. We’ve, obviously, all been aware of the various anniversaries that albums like ‘Backstreet…’, ‘..Judgement Day’ and ‘Behind Closed Doors’ have achieved. We’re aware of the popularity of those records and would never say never to doing something like that. I’d say we might not play a whole album from beginning to end because albums are sequenced differently to gigs and what you want to achieve on an album might not transfer to a live setting with the same tracks in the same running order. It’s a different experience listening to an album at home than it is seeing it done live in an arena.
Are there any Thunder songs that you consider ‘hidden gems’ that you haven’t played that much live? For example I love ‘Today the World Stopped Turning’ and songs like ‘It Happened in This Town’ which haven’t been played very much over the years.
To be honest, not really. When we rehearse, the songs that have eventually lodged themselves into the set over the years have been the ones we enjoy playing the most. They are the ones that transfer well into the live environment and not all tunes do. You can write something that sounds great on an album but doesn’t work as well as you were expecting or take off as much when you play it live.
Until you actually get into a room and play some songs live you don’t really know which ones are going to work or not. There’s a reason we’ve played songs like ‘Dirty Love’ live so many times and that’s because they are the ones that work the best in front of a crowd.
Buy Thunder’s new album, ‘Dopamine’ (released April 29th) on vinyl or cd right here