MadeLoud Artist Interview - Tommy Ross

Meet Tommy Ross, a Palm Springs-based multi-instrumentalist who has had a fascinating career arc.

Beginning as a fan with early dips into the '80s Los Angeles punk scene, Ross transitioned into making his own music with the new wave group Innocent Bystander, and his efforts eventually culminated with a solo effort that has yielded both Christian-themed rock operas and over twelve(!) home recorded albums in the last four years.

Ross talked to us about his earliest influences, his history as an addict, and overcoming his struggles to produce music and plan for the future.

According to your bio, your interest in music began early in life, but you were inspired to become a songwriter while at college. Could you tell us more about that transformation?

When I first started playing guitar, my best friend and I were total Stones freaks, and one of my first concerts at age 12 was The Faces, which along with Zep and The Who formed my early influences. Then in 1977, when the punk scene first broke in Hollywood, I was 15 and used to go every night to an underground club called the Masque. It was there that I would hear and often get to hang out backstage with bands like X, Fear, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, etc. Then, the new wave scene exploded a couple years later and by that time I was in my first year in college as a music major.

One Saturday afternoon, my friends literally dragged me to a free outdoor concert by Michael Des Barres, the guy who had been the lead singer for Detective and Silverhead, but had his own new wave solo thing going now. I didn't want to go cause I'd never heard of him and didn't think it would be fun. Well, out comes this guy in white shiny pants, black top, and bright red sports jacket with a Budweiser in his hand. He belts out the first couple of lines of a song, then pauses and jokes "Thank you very much, goodbye!" and I thought, "Wow, this guy is like the epitome of cool." He then delivered this powerhouse set of new wave rock tunes from his album at the time, "I'm Only Human" and I was just awestruck. The next day I bought his album and a couple nights later, picked up my guitar and started writing my first song which was about a girl who I was dating at music college. I wrote that first song, “Precious Jem,” and within about 2 weeks I had written 13 others, put a band together, and started getting out there with the songs.

Moving forward, you formed the band Innocent Bystander. Were you part of the Los Angeles scene that birthed hair metal, or was your project more new wave oriented?

It was definitely more new wave oriented, and that same summer at the same outdoor concert series, I was exposed to two other acts that would have a profound impact on me. One was a guy named Jamie Sheriff, who like Des Barres, made a dramatic entrance to the stage by picking up his piano bench and throwing to the side of the stage while he banged out the first chords of his songs. I always dug him cause was the only new wave artist from that scene that was a pianist, so his songs, while very rock, had a natural melodic curve to them that others didn't. Very pretty at times but always tough, too. I also bought his album the next day. He disappeared from the scene rather quickly and to this day I wonder what he's doing. I feel like I know him through his music and still listen to it, even though he only put out one album and an EP. The other act was Oingo Boingo, which many people are more familiar with cause they were a lot bigger and stuck around for 16 years. I was actually featured on Richard Blade's K-ROQ lunch hour once as being "L.A.'s biggest Boingo fan. Blade asked me a bunch of questions and played Boingo songs for an hour, it was SO cool!

There were two incarnations of Innocent Bystander, one that went from about 1980-1987 and another one from 87 to about 1994. They were both four piece bands with totally different members, but in the first one, I played guitar and sang. We sounded a lot like the Clash and the Stones and some of the other bands I've already mentioned. In the second band I just sang lead.

I’m sure it’s difficult to discuss, but could you talk a little about how you became trapped in drug use, and what it was like coming out of that?

I had a traumatic childhood due to not only due the fact that my parents were divorced when I was born, but my mom sent me to boarding schools starting in the very first grade, and military boarding schools at that. Every weekend I would get to come home, and it was like Friday night was heaven, Saturday was even better, and then boom, Sunday afternoon I would have to go back. After this goes on for literally hundreds of weekends, it starts to fuck with your brain. Of course, all of our childhood issues always stem from the same thing, rejection. It just comes in a million different flavors like ice cream, but it's still rejection. By the time I hit 12-13, I was like a time bomb waiting to go off and that's exactly what happened. I started drinking, smoking pot and dropping acid. Pills were a big thing back then, uppers and downers. I was doing all that shit when I was 13, cutting school, you name it. My parents didn't know what to do with me, they kept sending me back and forth to each other. "Here, you take him!"

By the time I was 18, I was already a full fledged alcoholic and remained that was for another 16 years. In the last couple years, I resorted to crime to support my various habits, things like bad check writing and thefts. Finally, I stole a van and got busted and wound up in jail where I had a deeply moving spiritual experience the third night I was there. Coming out of it was like literally being reborn, because I was literally dead and would have wound up that way. Friends, family, they would all talk about me that way: "He'll be dead in a couple years."

Tell us about writing Christian music for addicts. Where were these pieces performed, and what sort of reaction did you get?

It was a great time for me. I felt a strong calling to share my experience with other addicts and preach the gospel. I had a powerful testimony of how God had saved me from death or a life equal to it. Everybody that knew me knows that I couldn't have done it myself, it had to be divine intervention. The pieces were performed at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission and The Salvation Army Recovery Center in Carpenteria, and a couple other places I can't remember the names of. They were rock operas that flowed thematically from song to song, usually with spoken word interludes between songs, running about 45 minutes. I wrote three.

The first one was very autobiographical called "A Cry For Help" and I spent about a year performing that one. The second one was based on the miracles that Jesus performs in the Bible and using those as an analogy to how he can do that in anyone's life, especially an addict's. I performed that one for about two years, and it got not only the most exposure but was probably the most accessible musically and everything. The last one I wrote was my personal favorite and was very powerful. It was called "24 Hours In The Life Of Jesus" and basically told the story of the gospel starting from the Garden of Gethsemane to the cross to his resurrection, but told from the standpoint like he was alive, standing in front of the audience retelling the story, but commenting on it in modern terms, almost like looking back on it as if it were a dream. In order to have the most impact, I would ask the audience at the very beginning to please hold their applause until the entire opera was finished (which also helped throw off confusion and draw attention to the spoken interludes).

The reaction was pretty much the same everywhere we went, with an instant standing ovation which usually lasted for a least a minute or two, people crying, people coming to the front of the stage, and addicts making pledges of sobriety and/or asking Jesus into their lives. It was pretty powerful. I still to this day make the joke that I played to more people and had more response in those four years of Christian music then the whole other 30 years of my musical career!

You’ve built a studio and released a solo album called Fairly Twisted Logic. How does this new album – and having your own space to record – change your approach to making music?

There's such a difference being able to just walk in your living room and start recording, tracking, or mixing, whatever, then to have to write and go somewhere else and record the thing. The best analogy is like having a home office for your business instead of having to get in the car and go to a separate location all the time. Obviously, I wouldn't have been able to do 12 albums in the last four years without having a studio right there in my house.

You’ve been doing soundtrack work for documentaries. Which ones, and what was that experience like?

Being a lover of film, they were both great experiences. Both were for college film projects, but it was a great start. The first song was written on demand for a sports documentary on extreme sports, and I also included it on my CD Newspapers On The Floor. It's a pretty testosterone-filled hard rock thing with a little Boingo influence called "Dethrone The Champ." The other film, funnily enough, was also about sports, but more about a 'being in the zone' kind of thing, and I gave them an instrumental called "Spoiled Onions" which is an unreleased track left over from the Fairly Twisted Logic sessions.

Last, you’ve expressed a desire to do more soundtrack work. What would be your ideal job?

You know, quite honestly I don't have the music theory background to score a soundtrack, so I think my ideal job would be providing the entire music for let's say, an indie film, something that involved a lot of various beats and patterns, musical segues, or placing individual songs. At this point in my life, even though I do love doing live performances, it's all about selling my songs, whether it be to a movie or another artist or whatever. I am involved in a couple development deals with small labels, but let's face it, our industry has undergone a huge paradigm shift and labels aren't signing 45 years-olds, even if I do look like I'm 28!

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