Remember gay clubs? Remember Pride festivals and the sense of hope and unity that suffused those events? Rod Thomas does. The Welsh singer-songwriter and DJ’s new album, Fun City, his fourth as Bright Light Bright Light, isn’t just inspired by the music that has always dominated gay dance floors. It’s also a tribute to the indomitable spirit of the LGBTQ community, which has been fueled in large part by that music.
As the title suggests, Fun City is a joyful record, packed with queer voices: Jake Shears, Andy Bell, and Sam Sparro are just a few of the guest vocalists featured on its 12 tracks. And Thomas is doing his damnedest to maintain that energy, despite the fact that his plans to tour have been quashed by COVID-19. To celebrate the album’s release on September 18, he’s put together a live TV special that will stream online and benefit both the Ali Forney Center and local New York nightlife workers via the Club Cumming Community Chest.
NewNowNext called Thomas at his home in Manhattan, where he’s been riding out the pandemic, to chat about Fun City, political disco, and all those guest vocalists.
Where did you originally expect to be and what did you expect to be doing at this point in the sort of lifecycle of promoting this album?
There was a tour and I was meant to be headlining, like, five Pride festivals. I’d been planning to do a lot of LGBTQ outreach with this record and to work with local queer artists and DJs and drag queens across the different communities [where] we were touring. And work with queer charities and really use the message of the album to try and do something for people in each community. Which was really the point of the album. So that was disappointing and just impossible to replicate on a digital level.
Did you set out to build an album around collaborations?
Yes and no. I definitely wanted to fill the album with queer voices. I didn’t think I’d be able to get as many people involved as I did. So, it was kind of a happy accident, I suppose. But it did make more sense given the nature of the record and the themes that it was written about. I’m really pleased that I managed to make a record about the community which actually represents as much of the community as I was able to do.
Did you write each song with a particular guest vocalist in mind? How did you decide who would be on each track?
I’d come up with the song, and I had in my mind a kind of dream list of collaborators. And some of them I did write with that person in mind, or I had a clearer idea of who I thought would work for the track as I was writing it. With “Saying Goodbye,” I definitely did picture Justin Vivian Bond singing with me. With “Love Song,” I let Big Dipper write his part for that. That was the only true writing collaboration. I just think he’s fantastic. No one can do what he does in that way, so I thought it would be fun to just let him bring his own sense of humor and style to the record. And the others were just kind of thinking who would fit well with what track. It was really cool to see them shift the energy or change the delivery of certain lines so that it felt so much like them.
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TV Special Live Show 9.18! Gorgeous @alancummingsnaps let me film a TV Special-style live show of the whole album at @clubcumming that airs as a live concert on 9.18 for release day! All 12 Fun City songs live! ✨ Super special celeb guests! Costumes! Lights! Moves! Talking points Charity donation via sales Livefrom.events/funcity for tickets. $10 standard $15 charity donation $35 charity + gig T-Shirt! Filmed socially distanced. 3 people max in the space including the amazing @tylerrayjensen my visual collaborator for the album who filmed it! All guests digitally in. Charity ticket amount split between @aliforneycenter and @clubcumming community chest. #FunCity #ClubCumming #TVSpecial #digitallivemusic #LGBTQ #LGBTQmusic #queermusic #lgbtqsafespace #greetingsfromfuncity
You’ve said that Fun City is about the ways that music and dancing have sustained queer people in difficult times. That seems like something everyone needs right now. Do you expect it to speak to an even broader audience for that reason?
I mean, I was hoping it would before I wasn’t able to tour. I really do feel that this year has shown that unless you already have a huge audience or a huge marketing team, it’s kind of impossible to cut through the noise online. The minute somebody like Dua Lipa or Taylor Swift puts out a song, then the whole internet is talking about it. There’s much less space for independent artists or emerging artists to find that foothold. So, I don’t know, honestly, that it will reach the people that it was intended to. But I do know that it has reached some of the people that I wasn’t expecting it to. I’ve had some really lovely messages, especially with “It’s Alright, It’s OK,” which is about gender [expression]. I’ve had lots of amazing messages from people about how important that song is to them.
It is a dance album, of course. But it’s also a pretty political album.
Traditionally, disco and dancing have been a way for queer people—especially Black queer people like Sylvester—to dance through pain and express emotions, whether they’re heartache or defiance. To sort of fight against injustice and prejudice through music. That kind of music is super important to people who are not in the kind of rich bracket, but especially to queer people who have relied on gay clubs to have that momentary escape from the drudgery of the rest of the lives when being gay or LGBTQ wasn’t legal. So, you have no safety throughout your week and maybe you go out to the gay bars and find that escape for an evening. I think that ethos of what music is capable of is super important, and I wanted that in the record.
I read that you recorded all of your vocals on the empty dance floor at Bedlam, a gay club in New York. What were you trying to capture in doing that?
I feel like the experience of being in a queer space is liberating and kind of empowering. I wanted the vocals on this album to feel like I was empowered and that I found where I belong. It gave me the opportunity to sing the album as I would sing it on a dance floor. It’s an album written about the queer community, so it seemed like a really campy, fun idea to have the album literally recorded on a gay club dance floor. I would do a couple of takes where I was using a handheld mic, walking around dancing and singing. It was really cool to sort of play around with that instead of just being in a sterile studio room.
In recent years, you’ve opened for Elton John, Cher, and Erasure on their massive arena tours. What has touring with those type of mega pop stars illuminated for you about fame?
It’s definitely wild. Stepping into those worlds for the duration of a tour is so hard to describe. [Laughs] Honestly, it’s much easier than touring on an independent level, because everybody on their teams is getting really well treated, really well paid and really well respected, so everybody’s in a good mood all the time. And that’s really rare when you’re touring on an independent level. It is so insane being in those venues and seeing the way people go to those shows. They know all the words to the songs, and it’s such a huge audience. You really do see the power of music.
Fun City is out now.