A golden Edinburgh evening after a day of silver haar. In a tiny rehearsal room near the Botanic Gardens, a band is performing. The singer plays a semi-acoustic, eyes squeezed shut, singing songs of French girls and twilight gardens, fireflies and summer rain. At the back of the room, sitting on a leather sofa, is an audience of one: a man nods his head, taps his feet to the beat. He’s told a few tales in his time, too, though his tend to be of blood not love.
The man is Ian Rankin. The band is The Bathers. “We’ve played to smaller crowds,” jokes the singer, Chris Thomson.
The Bathers are Scotland’s great lost band. They coulda, woulda, shoulda been big. They released seven albums between 1987 and 2001 and then vanished. Fifteen years of silence. Within that time two things happened: they fell into obscurity, their records unavailable; and, for those who loved them, absence intensified that love. When they played a small one-off comeback show in Glasgow in March, fans travelled from America and throughout Europe to be there.
Ian Rankin first heard them while living in rural France, an as yet unsuccessful author, in the early 1990s. A pal sent him a tape of their record Sweet Deceit. “I’d never heard songs about falling in love, and then the end of love, sung in such a dramatic and powerful way,” he recalls. “It didn’t sound like anything else coming out of Scotland.”
He wrote to Chris Thomson to ask to permission to quote from the song Ave The Leopards in his novel Black And Blue. Fast forward to 2016 and The Bathers are performing that track while Rankin listens – “A privilege,” he says – in preparation for their great return. They are playing London, Glasgow and Edinburgh this month. All the albums are to be rereleased. A new record should be out by Christmas.
“I can’t quite believe how much time has elapsed,” says Thomson. “It didn’t feel like there was going to be such a long pause, but I met someone, settled down. I was ready to become a family man, and all the loveliness that entails. Then the years just roll away.”
He is 54 now, silver-haired and mild, interested in discovering whether he can match or even eclipse the writing of his youth. “There’s that belief that you might just do something absolutely wonderful that exceeds anything you’ve done before.”
The return of The Bathers is down to the commendable sleekitness of bass player Ken McHugh … and the lure of David Bowie. It was McHugh who suggested, last year, that the band travel to Paris to see the Bowie exhibition at the Philharmonie. Just a bunch of old friends catching up after too long; that was how he presented it. But he had a plan. He booked a nice apartment in the Marais, filled it with booze – and, unbeknownst to the others – a couple of battered guitars and an old piano. The red wine worked its magic, and something else, too – an unspoken sense of unfinished business. Before long, the mahogany floorboards and wooden shutters were the first mute witnesses to an impromptu comeback set. “I think we all had a yearning to play together again,” says the guitarist Callum McNair. “It had been so long. You look at the tapestry of our work and you think, ‘What happened?’’’
It is a good question, with no simple answer. Sometimes things just drift. “It was sad,” says Hazel Morrison, the drummer and backing vocalist. “I wasn’t ready to stop. They were all getting married and having babies and I was thinking, ‘Oh, where’s my band gone?’”
And how does she feel about them getting back together? “Really excited. I’m a Bathers fan.”
This is something the band members have in common: they are admirers of their singer’s work. McHugh and his wife had the Bathers song Twelve as one of the readings at their wedding. They all want that music out in the world where it belongs, and they hope to help Thomson realise his new songs, although – at the time of writing – they were yet to hear any of them. “His wife says he’s got loads of songs,” says Morrison. “It’s a case of drawing it out of him.”
The band’s plunge into anonymous limbo has, no doubt, been a source of frustration, regret and even a kind of black comedy. The other day, McNair was taking his children to school and one of the other dad’s happened to mention how much he was looking forward to seeing The Bathers live, adding, “Have you heard of them?” McNair was able to inform him that he was, in fact, a member of the band. “People do say we’re the best-kept secret in Scotland,” he laughs. “But you think, ‘After seven albums, what kind of secret are we keeping?’ I think it’s time to stop keeping it.”
There is a purity to this comeback. It’s clearly not about “making it” in any commercial sense. “We don’t have any other reason to do it than love and loyalty,” says McNair.
He and McHugh have been Bathers since the mid-1990s; Morrison since the start of that decade. The band has had many line-ups over the years. The one constant is Chris Thomson. It is his voice, his vision. Which begs the question: who is he? Even those who know him fairly well find that difficult to answer.
“You could imagine Chris as a gentlemen scientist or archaeologist,” says McHugh. “Like a Victorian gentleman, there’s this whole emotional life going on under the surface. There’s a whole other world going on in there, and if you’re lucky you’re invited into it.”
Thomson grew up in Uddingston. His mother was a teacher. His father was a salesman with British Steel who stopped working when Ravenscraig closed. Thomson fell in love with music, and women, in the same cultural moment – the glam rock era. Suzi Quatro was his gateway drug. “I remember that horrible blushing feeling when you’re watching Top Of The Pops with your parents in the room, and, my God, you’re suddenly realising what sexuality is. It’s a beautiful five foot American in a leather jumpsuit with the zip half down.”
He formed a group, Friends Again, at the age of 15. As nice middle-class lads, they rehearsed not in the council house back-bedroom of rock lore, but someone’s mum’s outhouse in Bothwell. Already, as a boy, Thomson was a great reader. Tolstoy was an early favourite, although Proust later became more important. He seems to have a taste for romantic grandeur. It’s there in the books he reads, and the records he loves – Astral Weeks above all others – and the records he makes. The Glasgow, in his songs, is the dirty-glamorous chiaroscuro town, pre-City of Culture, with which he fell in love with as a teen. “I was just smitten by it,” he recalls. On the cover of the first Bathers album, 1987’s Unusual Places To Die, he is sitting on the Doulton Fountain in Glasgow Green, its stone filthy and cracked, the carved motto Let Glasgow Flourish appearing somewhere between ironic and defiant.
The singer-songwriter James Grant first met Thomson – “I was Marr to his Morrissey” – when Friends Again were looking for a new guitar player, and Grant, a teenage virtuoso, went along to audition. They were just a bunch of wee boys, all plaid shirts and angular haircuts. “Chris played Sweet Jane and I played along. Bear in mind, at the time I was quite good technically. I had to dumb down quite a lot because I was aware that if I was all over it, showing them how good I was, I would be pissing in my chips. So I fumbled about a wee bit. They never actually said, ‘You’re in.’ At the end of the rehearsal, they said, ‘Do you want to go and get some sweeties?’”
Grant was baffled and inspired by Thomson’s prodigious ability as a lyricist, but found him difficult to get to know. “He was a genuine enigma during a period when people were desperately trying to appear enigmatic. He was different. He seemed hyper-literate … He writes incredibly well about love; its intricacies and mental destabilisations. People can see that he’s really been hurt. Great songs don’t have to be the truth, but they have to contain the truth, and I think his do.”
Friends Again split in 1984 when Grant left to form Love And Money. “He said, ‘Hey man, I’ve got something heavy to lay on you,’” Thomson recalls. “I’ll remember that phrase till my dying day. ‘I’m leaving the band. And the rest of the band are leaving too.’ So it was like a sacking by any other name.”
Grant had begun to feel more confident about his voice and songs, and he knew he was good at communicating with audiences. It was time to strike out on his own. “I still remember the phone call I made to Chris,” he says. “I think he was really upset. I felt terrible and felt like retracting it right away … I suppose I was quite ruthless.”
Thomson found it a little sore when Love And Money started to have hits. But in some ways the split was a relief. Friends Again were being groomed for stardom. Thomson didn’t want it and probably couldn’t have handled it. So he formed The Bathers, naming them after the Cezanne paintings. Still, it’s amazing that his friendship with Grant survived.
“It was tricky in the madness of that whole period,” Thomson admits. “Especially as I started trying to woo James’s partner of the time … Nothing ever happened, thank God, but I had convinced myself that I’d fallen in love with her.”
This wooing – was it intended as an act of revenge? “Well, probably ten per cent revenge. That probably fuelled the desire.”
Thomson wrote about this romantic melodrama on Sweet Deceit. Heartbreak has always been his muse. “Maybe it’s a Scottish thing. I’ve always found it much easier to write of sadness, melancholia, which is quite a lovely feeling when it’s not too intense and hits that sweet spot.” The 1999 album Pandemonia, for example, is in part about a relationship with the painter Alison Watt. His records are intensely personal, reflecting and refracting his life. Lagoon Blues, from 1993, is a fantasy of Venice written when Thomson was suffering from agoraphobia – “a fear piling in on me”. It had begun when day when he found himself at Glasgow airport unable to board a plane to London. “That’s the nature of a condition like that. You give in to one thing – flying – and two months later you struggle to go to the greengrocer across the road.”
This was the start of a five year period of “irrational fears” of various sorts, including stage fright. He spent much of that time holed up in his St Vincent Crescent flat, which no doubt supercharged the garret intensity of the music, but made touring and the whole idea of a “career” in music difficult. Meeting his wife in 2001 and becoming a hands-on dad seems to have had the opposite effect: he is calm, happy and settled, which sounds like it has been good for his life, but bad for his songwriting.
“You’re absolutely right. I’d have to agree with that totally,” he says. “There’s nothing like a bit of trauma and heartache. It can be a real sanctuary writing or playing music. That’s the safety valve when you’re in those really dark situations. Sweet Deceit was written at a very difficult time in my personal life, and I think a really great bunch of songs came out of that. Pandemonia as well … In the personal day-to-day it was just awful, but it gave me a wonderful energy and feel for writing a bunch of songs about heartache.”
He has a day job as a gardener; keeps up his piano practice; hopes to make time to reread Zola. He thinks, perhaps, that the next Bathers album – working title: Sirenesque – will be the last. Posterity is much more important to him than commercial success. “I want to add a really beautiful album on to my body of work, so that people go, ‘Wow, this music is not actually ‘lost’ at all. It’s honest and good and true. How that did that get away?’” he says.
“Recognition is fleeting and nebulous and hard to pin down. Ultimately your reward is if you know yourself that you have pulled something off creatively. It doesn’t even matter if people don’t get it in the here and now. It is there for them to get. And it is worth the getting.”
A version of this article was first published in The Times