Interview with Tom Monger - Fan Club Exclusive
We were extremely fortunate to be able to conduct a fan question and answer session with Florence + the Machine harpist, Tom Monger. We asked you for questions, and this was his reply…
After we played “Dog Days” the crowd cheered so loudly I had to cover my ears. Our sound guy told us afterwards that the cheering had sent the decibel level machine off the scale...
Luana Thomas, Ronda Jenae Anderson, Patty Groom: You are an exceptional part of the band, and without you they wouldn’t be anything. The harp makes the difference!
Tom Monger: Thank you so much. It means a lot. When I was growing up, music gave me a lot of joy, excitement, comfort and support and I always hoped that, as a musician myself, I’d have the opportunity to do the same for others. I’m really grateful to have been a part of something that means a lot to so many people, and grateful for the support you give us which enables us to keep going :-)
The Florence + the Machine Fan Club: We asked Florence to answer this when we interviewed her too: summarise the Florence + the Machine fans in one word/phrase.
Emma Sluyter: What do you think your life/career will look like in 10 years?
Tom: Mmmmm...well...going on the last ten years it would be difficult to predict! It was only 7 ½ years ago that I met Isa for the first time, and that was purely a chance meeting. I still have to pinch myself sometimes. I just hope I’ll still be doing this, and hope I’ll have the experience of working with as many people as possible and do something new and exciting. In terms of my life, obviously becoming a parent changes your whole perspective. I’m still kinda getting used to that... I’ve given up trying to predict what life has in store for me because it doesn’t work like that ;-)
Amelia Lord, Krista Aasen, Lucy Smith, Emma Goffe, Natalie Jayade: Which is your favourite Florence + the Machine song to play, and your favourite song you’ve covered with the band?
Tom: It changes from time to time, but I guess “What the Water Gave Me” is probably my most consistent favourite. I also really enjoyed it when we did “Strangeness & Charm” and “Seven Devils”, but we don’t do those ones as frequently.
My favourite cover would be when we did “Fairytale Of New York” with Billy Bragg...partly because I think it’s a great song, partly because Billy Bragg is one of my all-time favourite musicians (and I urge every single one of you to check out his album “Don’t Try This At Home” because it’s one of the greatest albums of all time) and partly because I thought we made a pretty good job of it!
Plinio Morais, Nicolás Valiente, Joel (@ShakenByAStorm): What song was the most difficult to learn and to play?
Tom: “Breath Of Life” was probably the most complicated one to learn as there were so many different sections...I remember having to have a crib sheet with the chords written out on the floor the first few times we played it live.
“Rabbit Heart” is probably the trickiest…there were about three different harp parts going on, on the record, so having to play all three at the same time when we do it live is a bit of an operation, but I’m beginning to get the hang of it ;-) It was even more complicated when we did it on the “Lungs” tour, as I was also triggering the “raise it up” [pre-recorded] backing samples, which meant there was something else I had to concentrate on. We’ve got better technology now, so I don’t need to worry about that any more. I used to have to do the same for “Strangeness & Charm” and there were a few nights when I wished I had an extra set of arms.
Tessa Lucas: Coconut or watermelon?
Tom: Watermelon...my daughter’s allergic to coconut so we don’t have any in the house.
Aphrodite Strigou: The harp is maybe one of the band's trademarks among with Florence's powerful voice... How do you feel when people recognise Florence and the machine as a solo artist when you are a very important part of the band?
Tom: Well, it’s OK as long as I get my credit on the album sleeve for the songs I play on.
There have been some occasions when someone else unrelated to the band has tried to claim that they were the harpist with FATM, which annoyed me a bit. Also, an item in a certain leading UK-based music paper said something like “Florence was backed up on stage by her band and a harpist”, as if, despite having toured with this line-up for the previous 4 years or so, I was a separate entity to the other guys. It just goes to show how much notice some people take.
And of course there was the time when all the reviews of “Dog Days” commented on the “ukulele” or “mandolin” at the beginning, but I think that’s been covered before...
Katie Scrivener: What were your career intentions before Florence and the machine?
Tom: To be part of the best rock band on the earth.
I actually had several ambitions: to play on a number one record, to play Brixton Academy, to have a platinum disc on my wall, to play Top Of The Pops and Jools Holland...the only one I’ve yet to achieve is to play on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, but maybe that will happen one day...who knows. Then I can die happy.
Gill Santos: how involved are you in the producing and making of the songs and album? Do you make an input as a member of the band or do you just play Florence's vision?
Tom: It depends on a number of things. We all have some level of input into what each of us does individually, certainly in the live versions. Flo has definite ideas, and sometimes one or two members of the band will have suggestions for someone else. We’re all very creative and we’re really good together both professionally and personally. Sometimes it can be challenging to create a version of a song for live performances. For example, ”Breath of Life” has an orchestra and a choir on the record, so we had to find a way of recreating the drama with just the band. Everyone was very involved with that, but obviously Flo and Isa took the lead as it was their song.
Working on “Ceremonials” was very band-oriented. We all got together in a rehearsal studio for about three weeks with the demos and worked solidly on the parts and the overall sound of the band, so by the time we went into record we’d pretty much worked out what we were going to do. Some bits got tidied up in the studio, but the foundations were there.
I guess a lot of it depends on how far developed the song is too. For example, the main harp riff on “Dog Days” was there on the original demo that Flo and Isa sent to me, except it was played on a synth. I just transferred it, and added the little melody that comes in on the third verse. Some of the “Rabbit Heart” parts were suggested by Flo and Paul Epworth when we were recording it, and the melody at the end of “No Light” was written by Isa when she originally wrote the music.
But then you have something like “Cosmic Love” which was a very new song when we first started performing it live, and I kinda developed my part over the course of the UK tour. I remember doing the part for “I’m Not Calling You a Liar”; I was working in an office just around the corner from where I lived, and Isa sent me a demo one morning. I loved it so much, I ran home on my lunch hour, worked out a part and sent it straight back to her (no one seemed to notice when I got back to my desk in the office over an hour late). I think that one and “Cosmic Love” are the ones I’m personally most proud of.
Roman Hallows: Where do you feel like the band is musically at this point since we've seen the more organic side to the band and then a more orchestrated, more instrumentally heavy mix?
Tom: It’s important to never stay still...well, you can I suppose and some people do, and go for 10-20 years making the same album over and over again…but that’s just uninspiring in my opinion. It’s supposed to be an adventure as far as I’m concerned, so anything could happen. Maybe we’ll make a smooth-acid-funk-jazz house album one day...
I’m really grateful to have been a part of something that means a lot to so many people, and grateful for the support you give us
Margaret Shelega: What’s your favourite place in the world?
Tom: Whilst I type this I am recovering from an 11 hour flight back home from San Francisco and feeling very jetlagged and dopey...so right now my favourite place in the world would be my bed.
It’s hard to say though because, although we’ve been to a fair few places on tour, we don’t always get much of a chance to actually “see” them. We’re either travelling on the bus, or in airports, or working. I always enjoy New York and Sydney, and I miss them if we don’t go there for a while, but they are both places that we’ve actually spent a decent amount of time in and have been able to actually experience properly. I’m sure there will be other places to add to that list once I get to know them better.
I was recently reading a book called “America Unchained” by Dave Gorman, which documents a trip he took driving across America from coast to coast. There were passages in the book which I found very evocative of when we’ve been travelling a long distance through America and it made me want to experience that again. It’s such a vast country and has so many different terrains and cultures; it’s such a great thing to have been able to do and I’m very glad that I’ve had that opportunity.
Malcolm Calder, Elisia Crowther-Missen: I remember during the encore at the O2, Florence quipping something about 'the harp has lost its mind', and that the harp had gone out of tune. How difficult is it to tune a harp? I would have thought with the number of strings it would be quite difficult, and not an easy thing to do mid-show!
Tom: Yes, I remember that gig well. what actually happened was, I have my harp going through a laptop which contains all the effects I use, so basically instead of having about 40 guitar effects pedals, I have the effects on the laptop and I only need 4 pedals to control it. Anyway, at the beginning of “Dog Days” I use a delay effect, and I’d set it up, and just as we started, my laptop crashed.
At the beginning of one of the best known songs.
In front of 30,000 people.
It is pretty difficult to keep in tune, especially under the lights, and transporting it...some harps keep their tuning better than others. There was one tour when we hired a harp that just refused to stay in tune and I spent the whole tour with my right ear clamped to the sound-box when I was playing so I could sort it out if it got too bad. What’s REALLY annoying is when you break a string halfway through a gig, because it’s usually a string that you use all the time...and it usually decides to break just before “Cosmic Love” or “Rabbit Heart”, or one of the other songs when the harp is quite prominent
Donald Lucas Lorance: If you had to pinpoint your single greatest achievement, what would it be?
Tom: Leaving home and managing to survive and build up a lifestyle in a different part of the country. Don’t get me wrong, I love where I grew up, but I’ve seen so many people I grew up with who have either stayed there, or moved away and then gone back later. They’ll probably never leave and that’s probably fine for them, but it wouldn’t have worked for me.
Michael Kayaerts: If you had to choose one major hit from the moment to cover with FATM, which would it be?
Tom: Hah...oh dear. I’ve got no idea, my listening habits right now are either 90s techno or crazy-ass-head-mash music. I don’t suppose “minipops67” by Aphex Twin counts does it? Actually, my favourite song of the year has been “Red Eyes” by War On Drugs...wouldn’t mind covering that one.
Holly Davis: What has been the most memorable moment for you during the time you’ve been part of Florence + the Machine?
Tom: So many memories and stories, I don’t know where to begin. This weekend we played The Bridge School Benefit in San Francisco, and it was such a great experience (and quite emotional too) that it’s going to stay with me forever as a treasured memory.
To answer your question though, I would probably say the time we played the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury in 2009. “Rabbit Heart” had been released at the beginning of that week, and “Lungs” was coming out just over a week later, so everything was still quite new. We walked on stage and the crowd was HUGE...they stretched out beyond the tent and up the hill behind. After we played “Dog Days” the crowd cheered so loudly I had to cover my ears. Our sound guy told us afterwards that the cheering had sent the decibel level machine off the scale...truly a memorable event.
Leah Moloney: What’s the best part of being a daddy?
Tom: Just being with that beautiful little girl; watching her develop and discover new things, hearing her little voice... It’s truly fascinating to see her learn new skills. She’s just started walking so we’ve had to start baby-proofing the house! It’s just so overwhelming how much love I have for her...I can’t put it into words.