Elton John. Cher. Erasure. Scissor Sisters. These are just some of the huge queer icons that Rod Thomas, aka Bright Light Bright Light, has had the chance to work with over the past decade. But with brilliant music in his own right, it’s fair to say he’s become something of a gay icon himself.
Now he’s getting political, with a new album on the way that explores the queer experience and what’s impacting the LGBTQ+ community, though there’s plenty of humour and dancefloor beats mixed in too.
And it turns out, he’s quite the gamer! Growing up playing 8 and 16bit consoles in the 90s left a big impression on him, not only for his taste in games but in the way he composes. All of that culminated in being chosen to perform the theme song for the recent hit game Murder By Numbers, the 90s aesthetic a perfect fit.
With a new single just out and the album due at the end of the summer, we caught up with Rod to chat about the importance of queer spaces, retro gaming, and a possible Zelda concept album…
Your new single is I Used To Be Cool, what was the inspiration behind it?
On the whole, the album is about the LGBTQ+ community and things that we face, like how safe spaces are in jeopardy a lot because people are shutting down gay venues, and the way that people voted for Brexit and Trump fractured families. But the album is meant to look at the gay or queer experience en masse, which obviously includes moments of uplift and fantasy and happiness as well. For me this song, I Used To Be Cool, is the escapism fantasy side of my life as a gay man where you see somebody hot and drift off into this fantastical world, forget who you are, go off on this wild tangent and let your brain run wild for a minute. Then right at the end it has to come back to real life and you’re like ‘oh well that was a nice thought!’
What was the inspiration behind the video? There’s lots of humour!
Yeah it’s meant to be taking the piss out of itself really. As a gay man I’ve had to learn very quickly in my life to laugh at myself and to not take anything too seriously. When you see somebody that you fancy it’s really easy to jump into this fantasy world and lose track of all reality. So we played around with little idea images from Desperately Seeking Susan, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Billy Idol and The Cars videos, just to be very campy and 80s and nostalgic about that moment and do something really silly. It’s looking at the more elite part of the gay world we don’t really have access to, this dreamy home we are never going to own and this super hot guy, and I’m just this lowly pool boy worker and we have this ridiculous romp around a house. It’s a Saved By The Bell-esque dream sequence video, it’s meant to be silly and fun.
Your previous single This Was My House was written about the loss of LGBTQ+ spaces. Why was this important for you to write about?
Because it’s happening and it’s real. Across the board there’s no bigger marginalized or victimized community than black trans women who die at an alarming rate. There seems to be no protection for their lives in place, there are very few places that they feel safe physically and I thought that was really important to address even in pop music.
I really think it’s just completely tragic how the voting in 2016 in [the US and UK] completely divided people and families. People are trying to work out how to navigate that new landscape, it’s really difficult. Thinking about video games, that’s a big escape for people, and you can withdraw from the horrors of everyday life and for some reason shooting these grotesque things that are trying to kill you left right and centre seems more manageable than having a conversation with prejudice family, which is a really worrying statement to be able to make, even glibly. A lot of the problems we’re facing are because there’s no conversation, it’s just people screaming at each other and mis-information. I really wanted to make this record a conversation piece, and it doesn’t have to be ‘you’re wrong and I’m right’ but ‘what can we do, where can we move to and how can we talk about these things’.
Do you feel the music industry is becoming more accepting of out gay artists? Has it changed over the last decade?
On one hand yes because you don’t have to pretend to be straight anymore, to be able to release music or have some kind of press. But I don’t know how actively labels are seeking to make safe spaces for queer artists. But then I don’t know how much they do that for any artist beyond the sales potential, and that’s also a business thing. In many ways yes it’s a more accepting industry than it was previously, but I still think there’s a long way to go in terms of representation and support for people like trans artists. Almost every industry has a lot more work to do to be representative and supportive.
And with the video for I Used To Be Cool being so outwardly gay, is that something you wouldn’t have been able to do a few years ago?
No, I’ve always been independent so I don’t think that’s been an issue with me. I don’t think I’ve ever toned stuff down. There’s also always been homoerotic content in my stuff. I don’t think [this video] is wildly different from other videos I’ve done in turns of gay representation or humour, but I’ve maybe right now felt I needed to do something completely gay!
What else can we expect from Fun City?
It’s kind of like a dancefloor representation of parts of queer history present and future. It’s really influenced by lots of queer icons like Sylvester, Jimmy Sommerville, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and bits of Bessie Smith and k.d. lang for some of the more tender moments. It’s just songs about who we are, what we do, and what we go through. It’s written to be mostly celebratory but with ways to remember there’s a lot more to do. A lot of disco is based on dancing through pain. It’s triumphant defiance I suppose. It’s not a ‘fuck you’ to everybody album, it’s this is who we are, this is how we celebrate, this is how we stay positive and creative and we would like you to be part of it.
You’ve worked with some massive queer icons. How have they shaped your work?
Oh a lot. Particularly Elton and Erasure (and Cher I suppose, I’ve been listening to her music since I popped out of the womb!), it’s so weird to have met and worked with some of these people that you’ve had no option but to listen to since the minute you can remember the music. It’s crazy to then realise they’re real people and to see them make songs start to finish, or rehearsing songs on stage and making a mistake and having to go over it again. We just think that they’re these ethereal perfect beings that we could never be like, so seeing them as human beings has been really influential for learning that everybody has to work really hard at their craft and everybody still makes mistakes.
I think in particular the Scissor Sisters changed my world. In 2004 when their debut album came out it sold so many copies and was such a huge success in the UK that it really showed me at a pivotal time that queer people could be mainstream successes again in a way they hadn’t been for a really long time. And I think their music gave a lot of young queer artists hope that didn’t exist before that.
Tell me about your experience performing the theme song for Murder By Numbers. How did you get involved?
It was amazing, so much fun! Ed [Fear] who works on their creative team was a fan of my music and I did a fundraiser for this new record where people could buy hand written lyrics or commission a song. He just emailed and asked if I had any interest in doing this and I said ‘yes, I love computer games!’ Initially I wrote the lyrics to it but they wanted to go with something their composer had written just for simplicity’s sake and publishing rights. So I just re-sang the lyrics they sent to me and did it in an afternoon. It was super fun!
What games have you been playing recently?
I’ve been going over old games. There’s something about the brain capacity that I have in this COVID time to really pay attention to new things. I feel like revisiting old films I used to love and replaying video games I loved when I was a kid is much more comforting to me than looking to new consoles or new music. With the work I’ve got going on and the intense loneliness of quarantine, I really don’t have the capacity to push my brain into a different zone.
I’ve replayed all my favourite Zelda games. I played Link’s Awakening, which I think is my favourite, and The Minish Cap and then Link to the Past. That’s my triforce of Zelda and I alternate replaying them again and again. I’ve been playing Wario Land, Kid Dracula, Maniac Mansion, Ducktales, Super Mario Land 2, Castlevania and Metroid. And I’ve been playing Secret of Mana – I actually wrote a song about one of the lines in the opening sequence. It’s called Careful Whisper and there’s a line in the game’s opening ‘time flows like a river and history repeats’ which I thought was awesome, so I used that in the song…copyright!
So what got you into gaming?
I did have a NES before a Game Boy but I just fell in love with the Game Boy so much. The way they made these games look so gorgeous with almost no ammunition graphics-wise was so cool to me. I just love the ingenuity of it all. Games like Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins I think is one of the most fun games. It looks incredible. I love it so much, but I’m stuck on the final level at the moment which is pissing me off!
You need to get yourself a Switch for the Link’s Awakening remake!
Yeah I don’t like the graphics of the remake though, I’m really sorry I’m a purist with that! I love the original graphics, I love the music. I do listen to the Zelda soundtracks quite a lot when I’m out on a run, which is a weird thing to listen to on a run or in the gym! Some of that scoring – those old games like Mario, or Sonic or Eternal Champions – the music they made is always in my mind when I’m thinking about compositions that I make, the simplicity but also the complexity of some of the melodies. I quite often have a few melodies going on – an instrumental melody, and my melody, and my harmonies – and I learned a lot of that through video games.
Yeah it needs to be catchy enough, but not annoying when it’s repeated constantly.
And they did it so well. Think of how many times you have to replay those Mario levels and didn’t get pissed off with the music, that’s kind of insane!
Do you think we’ll see more pop stars doing theme songs for games? We’ve already had Leona Lewis and Ariana Grande for Final Fantasy.
I hope so but I also hope that it’s the artists that actually give a fuck about them. One thing that really annoys me in the entertainment industry is the monopoly of the people who are already famous doing all of the things and they continually get asked to do the other creative projects because they know that will bring cachet to whatever project is being worked on. It would really warm my heart if people actually approached an artist who had some affinity with the project they’re working on. Maybe Leona Lewis does play Final Fantasy in her bedroom, I don’t know that(!), but it would be so much cooler if they got artists that really care about video games to do something for them. There’s plenty of us out there who would love to do something.
What’s next for you? Fun City is coming out soon…
September 18th. I guess what’s next is trying to stay buoyant in this weird year and try and make sure I do everything I can so the record gets to the people it needs to and working on projects in the background. Navigating this very weird time, I suppose. Playing video games for more inspiration! I do really want to work in not just video game scoring, but film and TV scoring too.
Perhaps we’ll see a Zelda concept album then?
I would love that so much! I love that franchise so much! I wish that I could claim I would do a better soundtrack but I don’t think I could. How brilliant that they have consistently come out with such brilliant scores for every game!