Reading time: 10 minutes (15 if you read the awesome bonus features scattered throughout). Words: @whisperednothin
Richards Mill is a crumbling building that’s towered over Ann Street for as long as anyone can remember. Despite repeated attacks from arsonists and ambitious councillors, it’s resisted attempts to topple its red bricks and replace them with something more soulless.
In the shadow of Richards Mill lies Captain Toms, a studio and practice facility that’s clung to Ann Street for a mere 15 years. It doesn’t have listed status and it doesn’t attract the ire of pyros and politicians. Nevertheless, the fact that it’s still standing is something of a miracle.
In an infinite number of infinite universes, there is an infinite number of Ann Streets. An infinite number of them don’t have Captain Toms sitting on them. This is our world however, and in our version of reality, Captain Toms is very much alive. Not just alive, but in rude health. Both the studio and its proprietor – Captain Tom himself – have never been better.
There’s a second live music event to be streamed across the globe. There’s a record to release by The Voice USA finalist Terry McDermott. There’s tours to schedule across Europe and LA and there’s reasonably-priced confectionary to be sold to starving musicians.
Make no mistake though: it all could have turned out so very different.
“I was studying Applied Physics at uni,” muses Tom, “and I sometimes wonder: “What would have happened if I’d just ended up working in a physics lab?” Would I have become yet another physics teacher in a school somewhere?”
The physics world’s loss has been the music world’s gain, even if the music world was a little unsure at first.
“In all business – and specifically in the music industry – when you say you’re gonna do stuff, people just say “Yeah,”” notes Tom in the most sceptical tone he can muster.
“And then they wait for you to do it. And even once you’ve done it they go “Mmm…nah, that was alright, but I’d have done that better.””
Naysayers aren’t the only obstacles Tom’s faced over the years.
Were there ever any rocky patches when our Captain considered calling it a day?
“Oh fuck, dude, you’ve no idea man.”
He toys with a loose thread on his sweater, wrapping it around his finger.
“The day they came to cut the water off. That was a laugh….”
“The day they came to cut the electricity off. That was a laugh…”
How bad did things get? Our first bonus feature, How Captain Toms Came To Be, recounts the full story. Click on the tab below to read.
How Captain Toms Came To Be
“It’s strange how few people ever question how I got here. How did I go from a tiny studio in a Dee Street basement to a 3,500 sq foot custom built studio with five rooms. How did it happen?
I know that the people involved in the story would be utterly disappointed and deeply offended to know that this is the way it went down, but I don’t mind telling it now cos it was all far enough and long ago. Besides, if you go and read books about other people in business, this is the way things get done. You find ways to twist the equation.
I have mixed emotions about telling this story, but the reality is that if you want to make something, you often have to take a ridiculous gamble.
So I got money for funding the [Dee Street] studio through Aberdeen Enterprise Trust and the Scottish Youth Business Trust and I just blagged everything. That was OK cos it was a tiny little studio and I kind of got away with it. In order to come here [to Ann Street], pay the deposit on this place, three months’ rent upfront and actually physically build it – cos it was just an empty warehouse when I got here – I needed 70 grand and I had about four hundred quid.
I’d actually seen this building for lease at the start of ’99, cos I knew by then…Dee Street was mobbed, people were in till four in the morning and stuff, it was stupid. So I knew by then I needed a bigger place and this was the only building I could find that was central enough. I’d asked about it and the guy had literally laughed in my face when I’d told him what I was gonna do with it.
So me and Q thought “Well fuck this, it’s obviously not meant to be, let’s just get what we can out of the studio for the last few months, buy a camper van, fuck off and drive around Europe playing acoustic guitar.”
We hadn’t actually done anything – that was just the vague plan as we knew we’d be out of there by the end of ’99 and they didn’t wanna give us another lease cos the various people around us had gotten quite bored of us by that point.
And then, I dunno…July ’99 the guys that were leasing this place phoned me up out of the blue: “Are you still interested in this building?” and I’m like “Really? You just laughed at me before,” and they said “Well, yeah but we see you’ve got another place [at Dee Street] and if you think you can make a go of it then why not? So long as you’ve got the deposit for the rent, go for it.”
I thought “Right, how can I get the money to do this?” as I didn’t have many funding options. So I found, as there always is in Aberdeen, ‘a person’ who had fifty grand. They were more than happy to invest in the whole thing. “Yee-hah, ace.” Steaming on with the project, builders, architects, the whole thing, da da da. Start building in here on the 1st of December 1999, everything’s looking good, managed to get them to give me the month free to build it and all the rest of it, cool.
5th of December, by which point, you know, a couple of rooms were up and everything had been ordered, there were all sorts of things lying outside, equipment had been ordered, suddenly out of the blue: “Oh hey Tom, I can’t give you that money any mair.”
I opened the first studio at 21, so at this point I guess I’m 24 years old, I’ve signed all the bits of paper, I’m in it up to my fucking neck and the guy that’s giving me the money has just pulled out. If I cancel it and just go “No” then within a few days’ time my business will have closed down, I’ll have no income and no job and I’ll have all the bills and cancellation fees and the contracts and all the rest of it for the lease on this building, for the building work that was already done and for the time they were booked to work – silly numbers. If I stopped I was instantly gonna be fifty grand in debt and unemployed.
So I thought “OK, let’s stop and have a wee think about this and try and be creative and come up with a solution.” So I went down to my bank and explained what had happened and made it sound better than it was and they said “Ah, that sounds interesting, yeah your studio’s OK cos you’ve had three years’ successful trading, we can lend you 66% of whatever you wanna do.”
I went away and thought about that, came back: “So if I get ten grand, you’ll lend me 20 grand?”
So I went around all my mates and ex-girlfriends and brothers and everyone I knew and borrowed 100 quid here and 500 quid there. Got ten grand together, put it in the bank, got to the bank and was like “There’s my ten grand”. Did the loan deal, signed off on the loan deal – this is the interesting bit by the way – I get the loan document so I can give that to the builders so they can start building it. I’ve also got this quote from the builders telling me how much it was gonna cost. The quote from the builders says 55 grand, so they need to see a thing from the bank that says “Yeah, we’re gonna lend you 45 grand” – you can see where this is going.
I just scanned in the bank quote, changed the number on it, printed it out, scanned in the builder quote, printed that and went for it. Not because I’m a malicious or illegal person or anything like that. It wasn’t meant to have a go at those guys or rip anyone off – that’s not why I took the chance. I took the chance because if I didn’t, I’d be completely fucked.
24 years old and in a right fucking mess. I mean, OK I could have declared myself bankrupt and moved myself back home, but I didn’t want to be another person that had failed at a thing. I didn’t want to miss a chance like this so that’s why I took the risk and did it that way.
I paid the builders the deposit cheque, cos I did have the 20 grand loan (and the ten grand I’d had to go and give back to everybody). I paid all the deposits, basically had nothing in the bank and was just like, “Well, I’d better get really busy really quickly.”
The day the builders finished, they came back and went “Can we get the rest of the money?” and I had to say “No, I don’t actually have it, sorry, but I’ll pay you up as quick as I possibly can.”
Yeah…that took a few years. But I got away with it.”
The reluctant entrepreneur has seen it all, and yet he’s emerged, still smiling and still trading.
An African gentleman leans over the counter, interrupting our chat with an anxious holler.
“Captain Tom? I’m disappointed.”
There follows a long-winded and fast-paced explanation as to why £50 for PA hire is still unpaid.
Tom listens patiently to the cool story and then brushes off the whole affair with one of his “Don’t worry about it dude” shrugs that instantly defuses the situation. You could be driving off a cliff in a stolen Ferrari with a barrel of nitroglycerine in the back and so long as Tom was smiling in the front you’d be convinced that everything was gonna be OK. And that’s the thing – it probably would.
He’s the sort of guy who would keep grinning if you spilt a pint on him*. (*Don’t test this theory at a gig.) Tom is calmer than a dead body in a bathtub. You cannot rustle his jimmies.
We’re sat in Captain Toms’ office-cum-man-cave, a space that couldn’t be more more alpha if Bear Grylls was to pull up a stool and start drinking his own piss. There is a knife embedded in the wall, a stage pass for King Tut’s, a statue of Yoda wearing a party hat and battle of the bands press clippings: Tom Still Loves Making Music. There are drum parts everywhere, a sea of cables and a carpet fixed with duct tape.
“I’ve got one of everything in the loft,” admits Tom.
I nod. “If the zombie apocalypse ever hits, you’re sorted.”
His hands gesture freely, but otherwise Tom sits rock steady atop his stool, the captain of a ship that is finally steaming through open water. In his black ribbed sweater and non-designer jeans, Tom’s been wearing the same outfit for so long it’s in danger of coming into fashion.
While we speak, the laptop on the desk sporadically chirps new notifications. Emails arrive from American promoters seeking to book Fat Hippy artists. The phone rings steadily. Musicians pop into the office to linger and bands exit rehearsal rooms to borrow gear.
Everyone wants a piece of the Captain.
“I have to kinda do everything myself,” admits Tom. “I have to be the promoter and the guy who cleans the toilets and the guy that does the VAT return and also the guy that sells you the tin of juice and, you know, it only works cos I wear lots of different hats and so do all of the other people that work here.”
The first break in proceedings occurs 56 seconds into our interview.
Someone wants to borrow a plug extension. This will later be followed by:
“Could I borrow a mic box?”
“Have you got a large cable?”
“I’ve forgotten my tom. Do you have an extra tom?”
Of course Tom has an extra tom.
Every hour on the hour Tom is summoned like a bellboy to the front desk. Bands to book in. Bands to book out. Fees to collect. £12.50 here; £25 there, split three ways, four ways, five. Like the barman who knows the exact change for a nip and pint, Tom doesn’t need to do the math. He’s done it 1,000 times before and he’ll do it 1,000 more.
For the live events (the second of which will be streamed on 24th May), the man in the black wool sweater has had to pass some of those hats around.
“With Live at Captain Toms and the streaming gigs, there’s just far too much to do – you can’t do that all yourself. That’s what’s been really exciting for me: bringing together this creative group of people and going “Right, what can you do?””
A few days after our chat, the first Live at Captain Toms goes out.
I arrive at the studio at 12pm – just as the show is finishing. Men – men with beards – and heavily-inked musicians mill about outside, smoking and talking animatedly. Inside, the air hangs heavy with sweat and elation. It is the air of a practice room just vacated – three practice rooms and a studio to be precise. Stout-chested drummers lift out travel cases stowed with gear.
The production crew, who have been running on Red Bull and no sleep, are flushed with success. Save for a two-minute technical problem, the event has passed without a hitch.
The show (which I stream later) is like a Doric Jules Holland. But without Jules Holland. Pretty good then.
There is a commendably diverse line-up. There are earpieces to pipe viewing figures directly to the presenters. There are video titles announcing the artists and songs. There are even pre-recorded storyboard sections that are actually funny. It’s all highly professional. And free. What on earth is going on in Aberdeen?
Later, at Captain Toms’ evening gig (which is also live streamed), a similar pattern unfolds. It’s 8:30pm and the Lemon Tree crowd is milling about while a rock band strut their stuff. Two cameramen, shoulder mounts strapped on, closely follow the action, while a third cameraman is stationed behind the mixing desk. Meanwhile, burly bikers, matching in leathers, no hair and big beards, drink pints and snap selfies.
The event may not win a Multicultural Britain award, but it’s a diverse crowd nonetheless: teen emos staring sultrily at their phones; middle-aged women staring less sultrily at their phones; skinny bloggers scribbling on scraps of paper (a gym cancellation letter to be precise) and occasionally playing with their phone. Hey, it’s 2014. Don’t judge.
The gig is not a sell out. There aren’t queues snaking around the block. It’s still a clique, an esoteric event for an underground scene.
It’s seamlessly organised though – these days Captain Toms is a slick gigging machine.
The band let the last power chord ring out and the cameramen rush to the other side of the Lemon Tree to capture the songstress as she launches into her acoustic set.
A week earlier in Tom’s office, the sounds aren’t quite so harmonious.
A screamo band bleeds angst and finger-tapping from room one, while in the studio a blues band rattle through their greatest hits, the harmonica dancing merrily.
It’s remarkable that Tom is still so enthusiastic about live music, given the ungodly sounds that have permeated his ears 12 hours a day for the past 17 years.
“It’s like being in jail and having to listen to your cellmate take a shit,” I reflect. “It’s better for them than it is for you.”
Before our conversation can begin in earnest, there are bands to be served, the bread and butter whose rehearsal fees keep the lights on at Ann Street and allow Tom to reinvest his time in other barely profitable ventures such as the Live events, which are being broadcast for free.
Behind the counter, Tom patiently sells guitar strings and confectionary to musicians blessed with big dreams and small means. Those Space Raiders and Lion Bars have sustained countless Aberdeen bands through the noughties. If cinemas were as reasonably priced as Tom’s tuck shop, we could all afford to eat candy without requiring a second mortgage.
On a white brick wall hangs an unassuming cork noticeboard; back in the day it served as the pre-social media hub for bands looking to exchange goods, services and members. Today, in a hashtagged internet of everything, the notice board still performs a pivotal role.
Blood Stained Notes are looking for a bass player, “age and sex not important”.
An experienced death metal vocalist is touting his talents, “ask for Max”.
Above the counter, a white neon sign announces that this is Captain Tom’s, the apostrophe conspicuous by its presence.
“I grew up in this household where everybody was enormously pedantic about apostrophes and the correct pronunciation of things and people being able to express their disappointment at being part of a disenfranchised anthropocentric oligarchy,” riffs Tom, “…when I came to naming it I thought “No, I’m not having an apostrophe”, just to say “It’s got fuck all to do with that, it’s just a name. It doesn’t. Fucking. Matter.””
“But the sign up the top there has an apostrophe cos my old man got it for me as a present and put an apostrophe in it and I’m pretty sure the only reason he made it was just to prove a point.”
Everything happens for a reason, even if the reason isn’t immediately apparent. As a case in point, consider How Fat Hippy Came To Be, our second bonus feature, which can be found lurking within the tab below.
This is a story about how the Fat Hippy logo came to be. But it’s also a metaphor for how the Fat Hippy label came to be.
How Fat Hippy Came To Be
“Before I ran a record label, I had my little studio in Dee Street, and people used to laugh. “You’re doing what now? You stupid little hippy git!”
Then, once I got this place [in Ann Street] they were like “Woah, that’s pretty cool actually!” Bands started turning up wanting help and one of them was this band called Ariel. They didn’t have a driving licence but they had a bunch of gigs in London and I ended up managing them, which is where this thing started off.
We got five grand from Fantastic Plastic to record an album, which the band wanted to make in Riverside in Glasgow cos that’s where BMX Bandits recorded and that was their sort of vibe. So we went there, spent five grand. Then we had to record some more and I chipped in the money for it…
Anyway, one of the guys got a haircut and stupid stuff and the record label all went weird, phone calls were all bizarre and it was just getting annoying so I thought “Right we need to get this sorted out. This is ridiculous.”
So we’ve got a record deal with a label that’s doing well at the moment, we’ve got a band that are really good and want to play and I thought, “Well, I’m meant to be their manager…” I couldn’t get anyone [at Fantastic Plastic] on the phone so I just thought “Bother it, I’ll just book two shitty gigs”, rented a van and used it as an excuse to go down to London.
I remember thinking “We’ll just go into their office and fucking have it out, get the whole thing sorted out.” So we went to their office, had a really polite, well-phrased, long conversation, and at the end of it, basically didn’t have a record deal anymore and also didn’t have any money or anything useful like that.
So we were slap bang in the centre of London and didn’t have anywhere to stay cos there’d been a bit of a communication breakdown so we jumped in our van and just drove. We all had tents with us and stuff – we’d just been camping to make it cheap. (And these were in the days before GPS of course.) So we left London and thought “Right we’ll just keep an eye out and stop at the first campsite or spare bit of land we see cos we’re Scottish, we can camp anywhere, we can camp on a verge, it’s no problem at all.”
It ends up it’s nearly fucking Birmingham by the time we find anything, but eventually we stop at this campsite and everybody gets really drunk. Cos I’m the manager I’m like “Right, cool, I’ll go to bed, that’ll encourage everybody else to go to bed.” I’m lying in bed in my tent and six of the guys are standing about ten feet away from the back of my tent having this really long conversation about how when some of the dudes in this band were kids, in their school a fashionable thing was naked running, and how really a situation like this deserved naked running.
I was extremely drunk and concluded that the best way to get them to shut up, cos I knew that they’d be annoying everybody else in the campsite, and to get them to bed would be to leap naked from my tent and run!
So I leapt from my tent, naked, and ran towards them.
Before long, a heap of people had gotten naked, but most of them just rolled about on the floor laughing too much to move. Everybody was pissed as fuck obviously – band on the road. I ran round the van and was heading back to my tent when I turn the corner and this guy who was lying in the grass, drunk as fuck, got this picture of me in mid-stride, running naked.
I was about 18 stone at the time, so that’s where the Fat Hippy thing came from. And that logo, believe it or not, is in fact that picture scanned in and made ‘user-friendly’.
There are some bits you don’t wanna see – I took all the penis out of it. When you run naked, your thing goes ayeway, or maybe you don’t run naked much, I don’t know.
So that’s where the Fat Hippy logo came from: we just scanned that in and somebody put a circle round it and that was it. I used it as a logo because the way I felt that night, just so pissed off with the whole pissy, panny-arsed record industry, I genuinely did feel like “Fuck you guys! I’m awa’ back to Scotland to dae this myself!””
I’m not here to quiz Tom about grammar though (even though I do). Nor am I here to discuss arachnids (even though I do. Tom: “Oil has completely changed this corner of Scotland. The north-east now has the highest percentage of millionaires per square foot in the world apparently. Although interestingly the north-east of Scotland also has the greatest variety of spiders per square foot in the world.”)
I’m here to ask Tom why.
Why is everyone suddenly talking about Fat Hippy and Captain Toms?
“In a lot of ways I feel like I’m still doing the same thing that I’ve been doing every day for the last 17 years,” he concedes, “but at the moment it’s in the paper all the bloody time and in a way nothing has changed.”
“But the reality is that a lot of things have changed and there are people that I met 15 years ago in music who I went out of my way to help for no reward – and in fact often lost money and time trying to help – but many many years later, everybody comes back.”
“It sounds like a stupid thing to say, but you would almost have to say as a sweeping generalisation that everybody comes back to Captain Toms. The thing that sparked this particular round of press was signing Terry McDermott just after he’d been runner up on The Voice USA, the final of which goes out to 18 million people.”
“What’s important is that Terry coming back and [playing at the second live event on 24th May], I earned that about 11 years ago. I just had to stay in business for 11 years to get my credit. It’s almost like a pension or something. You put in £50 a week.”
“I’ve been trying to tell people this for years but none of them have ever bloody believed me. My approach to doing things is “I don’t fucking care what the music industry is doing, it’s got nothing to do with me. I’m not part of the music industry, I’m in fucking Aberdeen where there is no music industry, so rather than having the same panny music industry as everybody else, we can have our own one. I don’t care if it says in some stupid book somewhere or on somebody else’s motherfucking wall that this is the way it has to be done because it’s us at a tiny little level and we can do whatever we fucking want.”
Even when he swears, Tom never sounds threatening. He could tell you your mother was a cunt and you’d thank him for the compliment.
With the studio and label having successfully navigated troubled waters, does its Captain feel a sense of vindication?
“Oh yeah, absolutely man. Completely. In every single way. I mean, obviously the way I do it, it takes a lot longer, that’s for fucking sure.”
So the moral of the story is “Work your ass off for 17 years and you might actually have something to show for it?”
Tom laughs. “No, the moral of the story is “Be careful what you wish for because you may well get it.”
A couple of weeks later, my drive across town is rerouted by a phalange of emergency response vehicles. Richards Mill is ablaze again. Across the road from the beleaguered building, a different kind of fire is burning bright, fuelled by good music, good vibes and a generous dose of fuck you.
He’s already vanquished the sceptics and naysayers. When the apocalypse arrives, Captain Tom should manage to see off the zombie hordes without any trouble. The man’s a survivor.
The revolution will not be televised, but it will be live streamed online.— Will (@ingandable) April 12, 2014
Live at Captain Toms can be streamed live here from 10am on Saturday 24th May. For more information, check out Toms on FB and Twitter. Click the tab below for the final bonus feature: Bands That Won’t Die.
Bands That Won’t Die
“In 97/98, there were only two bands in the world: Blur and Oasis. So you’d end up with one band in one room playing Oasis for two hours and then the next band would show up and start in the next room – playing Oasis. Even now you’ll sometimes get covers bands in all three rooms and they’ll all hit an Oasis song at the same time and you’ll be like “Oooh”.
“Then there were the Gordon’s kids who used to come along here. They all knew how to play Killing In The Name. They’d jump into the practice rooms, change out of their uniforms and emerge in their cliques, dressed as metal kids or skaters, then jump between practice rooms performing various renditions of Killing In The Name. One would do vocals on one version, then head next door and play bass on the second version and that’s all they’d do for an hour.”
Most memorable bands
“It’s all stupid stuff that stands out. I’ll never forget a band from Dee Street called The AIDS Babies. And it’s not because they were any good or that they even existed for more than about four weeks. Nobody else in the world will ever know about this band. Nonetheless, for that four weeks they managed to cause quite a lot of controversy in the world by calling themselves The AIDS Babies.
The other one would be The Famous Prostitute. People spend a fortune producing beautiful, well-designed colour A2 and A3 posters and put them up; nice things to try and catch people’s eye and all the rest of it. And largely people just walk right past them.
A guy came in here one day in, I dunno, 2002 or something like that:
“Got a pen?”
“Yeah, sure, what’s it for?”
“Gonna make a poster. Have you got a bit of paper as well?”
So I handed him an A4 bit of paper and a black permanent marker and he just wrote “The Famous Prostitute, Dr Drakes, Saturday”, drew a little stick man of a prostitute or a human in some vague shape and stuck it on the wall.
Every. Single. Person that walked past that poster stopped and commented on it. It’s just the irony of the whole thing: all these people spending a fortune trying to attract people’s attention and this guy just goes “The Famous Prostitute, der da der der, Drakes, bam”, and I swear, every single person commented on that poster because it stood out so much.”