RGM Introducing – RockCounsellor

Hiya folks, thanks for joining us in the virtual RGM lounge today, grab a brew and take a seat.

Please introduce yourself and RockCounsellor?

So, I’m Thoby. The ‘h’ is a recent thing that came about as a result of Googling my name some time ago and discovering there were more Toby Burtons than I was comfortable with. I grew up with Toby being an unusual name, and that made me feel different in a positive way, that I suppose I liked. So I added the ‘h’ to stand out again on social media. It also serves the purpose of differentiating the music making me from the professional me. Or that’s what I’m telling myself, anyway!

The RockCounsellor nom de plume came about when I qualified as a psychotherapist in 2015. I wanted a new artist’s name for the album I had promised myself I was going to make, and it just felt right and, again, unusual. 

I understand RockCounsellor is a collaboration. Who’s your collaborator?

Yes, so I wanted to collaborate with Richard Campbell to produce RockCounsellor’s songs. I knew Richard from having recorded with him before at his Orpheus Studio in east London, and we always got on very well. He’s a pleasure to work with, and he has great ideas, and is just so creatively generous. We also share a love of classic 70s and 80 pop and rock, which I think is pretty clear on the album!

I also needed Richard to play bass and drums for me, which he is amazing at. In fact, he ended up doing much more than that, contributing guitar and keyboard parts, and solos, as well as orchestrating my musical melody lines and arranging my songs with me. He’s also amazing with vocal harmonies.

What’s your musical story?

A long one. It began when a bunch of friends and I started a punk band called the Playschool Barmy Army. We were about 13. This was before we could play real instruments. We all played cardboard guitars instead, and vocalised the music. It was a cappella punk, I suppose. Needless to say it didn’t last long. We went electric as soon as we could play three chords.

By the time I got to college I was into the new romantic bands, and had started wearing make-up and posing around the place. We had added a synth player to the band, which by then was called the more new romantic sounding, Siere Novar, and we played at college and in local halls, and got some press in the local papers.

In 1987, we moved to London, having a harder rock sound and look, and calling ourselves,1967. We played pub venues around London, many of which have since closed – The Bull and Gate, The Falcon, The Laurel Tree – and eventually got a record deal in the early 90s as 67, by singing and screaming in an English accent onto the grunge bandwagon. 

We signed with Southern Records (who also signed Therapy?, Babes in Toyland and Silverfish). We released three vinyl singles and got reviewed in the music newspapers and magazines, played some support gigs with the likes of Jesus Lizard, Shellac and Girls against Boys, and recorded an evening session for Steve Lamacq. But the person doing our press changed around the time we released our third single, and she wasn’t as much of a fan of ours, so we got much less press for it than we’d gotten for the first two singles, and the record company wasn’t prepared to release the album that we had recorded due to the lack of attention we had at that point. 

So we eventually parted ways. Unfortunately, we felt a little wounded by this and rather than pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and get on with it, we panicked in the face of the impending BritPop movement, changed our name, cut our hair, lightened our sound a little, and then all fell out, and split up.

I struck out on my own after that, calling myself Pocket Rocket after my drum machine, and knocked out a few CD singles, before deciding Pocket Rocket needed to be a live band so we could play the London toilet circuit. We had a lot of fun, playing loads, both acoustically and as a full electric band. We had a few line up changes over the next 10 years, before ending up a two piece with the drum machine. If your readers are interested, they can listen to Pocket Rocket (UK) on Spotify.

So RockCounsellor’s debut album, MusicTherapy, is coming out on 5th November. Tell me about that?

I promised myself I would make an album to support me emotionally through treatment I had to have for bladder cancer. I got diagnosed in 2016. I was lucky to avoid chemotherapy as they caught the tumours early, but it meant a three year course of immunotherapy. So, yeah, as music therapy, I decided to use the time to record an album of songs, some of which I’d been playing in Pocket Rocket in recent years, but I also wanted it to motivate me to write new songs on the piano, which it did. It seemed obvious to call the album MusicTherapy. 

Tell us about how you write songs?

I’ve definitely felt less inspired to write on the guitar in recent years, which is what prompted me to teach myself some rock piano. The night of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony I watched Paul McCartney play ‘Hey Jude’, and I thought I’d have a go at playing it on my daughter’s digital piano. And I got the bug then. My piano playing is good enough to write, but I haven’t had the opportunity to play piano or keyboards live at all, so my confidence in performing is pretty low. 

Having said all that about the guitar, there are a number of songs on the album that were written on the guitar. I still like that balance of piano and guitar led songs. So, I know I have to keep persevering with getting my guitar playing mojo back. 

What about the lyrics? What inspires you to write them?

As I said earlier, I started off writing and singing lyrics before playing the guitar. For many years, I would write about romantic relationships I was in – or wanted to be in, or had ended. I think I’ve always been interested in people, which is maybe why I came to enjoy my work as a counsellor. I definitely think that’s made me more interested in the way people behave in relationships. In my songs these days, I use relationships to frame other topics. On the album there are songs about cancer, greed, addiction, loss, righteousness, control.

And bearing in mind we’re going into another lockdown, how was the first lockdown for you, creatively?

I was writing a lot of lyrics. I was determined to capture the moment and get a lockdown/pandemic song out of it. Eventually I found an angle on it I liked, which is a song Richard and I have just started working on. It’s an apocalyptic Beach Boys inspired song.

Were you playing live much before the first lockdown?

RockCounsellor is a studio project for the time being. I became frustrated with playing my original songs live a while ago. Playing original material live as an unknown band of older musicians is too often soul destroying. After weeks of rehearsal and promotion, playing to a few friends and the other bands does not leave you feeling that good about what you do. The days when I had enough friends to come out in large numbers are long gone. When I turned 40, I started a social network for older musicians called ROCK-TIL-YOU-DROP (RTYD) to attempt to tackle this issue and eventually ended up promoting gigs, with some success and some failures. I met some lovely people, some of whom I remain connected with on social media. But it was a slog, and when Facebook came along and enabled musicians and bands to connect directly with their friends, relatives and fans, RTYD lost its niche. 

Anyway, I keep my hand in on the live music scene by playing with London’s self-proclaimed leading smut-rockers, 14 Carat Grapefruit, which is fun, and because we have a comedy schtick, we always get an audience. 

Who is inspiring you at the minute?

Well, as I said I like a lot of classic pop and rock from the 70s and 80s and that music still inspires me because you can still hear something old that you didn’t know, but that you love. My favourite bands over the years have been The Ramones, The Adverts, The Stranglers, The Doors, Roxy Music and Fugazi. But some of the contemporary bands I like are: Everything Everything, Idles, King Gizzard, Future Islands, Twenty-One Pilots (my daughter introduced me to them). And I really like BC Camplight. 

Name a four piece band made up of legends – who would be in it? (drummer, bass, lead singer etc)

Oh, god! I don’t know….John Bonham on drums? Bryan Ferry singing lead? Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto on guitars and backup vox? JJ Burnell or Chris Squire on bass. Someone on synths – Nick Rhodes or Richard Barbieri or Brian Eno? 

What makes you stand out as a band / artist?

My hats.

Right now, what’s pissing you off the most?

The weather. I hate autumn. 

Is there anything else you would like to share with the world?

The link to buying my album, of course! rockcounsellor.bandcamp.com/