050: Sue Tompkins (Life Without Buildings)

An interview with visual/performance artist and Life Without Buildings vocalist Sue Tompkins

Sue Tompkins

Sue Tompkins performing Milk, Gluk, Handel, Fame in London, 2018. Photo by Alex Zimmer. Photo courtesy of Sue Tompkins, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and DKUK.

Life Without Buildings produced one perfect album during the time they were together and recorded one perfect live recording during the limited touring they did. Then they called it quits. They still feel like a secret and an underdog—a band for music nerds—even if it’s now been three generations of fans who have connected with their work.

I first heard Life Without Buildings when I was in college. I had moved to the frigid Midwest from the warmth of Texas and I had found out about Life Without Buildings through one of my favorite band’s lists of their favorite bands. I really liked the music, which to me, fell under the broad grouping of “indie rock” but still had a real catchiness about it. I found the most comfort particularly in Sue Tompkins’s vocals, which played out in snippets of phrases and shouts and repeating, wandering loops—which felt very much like a parallel to the bursts of emotion that I felt constantly as a teenager. As I’ve grown older, it feels like a more apt metaphor for memory itself—getting stuck on little bits and pieces of the past and rinsing and repeating in my mind until they’ve lost meaning and found new meaning. Through the years, I’ve revisited both Any Other City and Live at the Annandale Hotel—it has become one of the soundtracks to the snippets of memory that I’ve gotten stuck on time and time again. 

Since their break-up, Tompkins has continued on with performance and visual art. Ahead of Any Other City’s 20th anniversary, we sat down with her. We chatted about what she still listens to when she revisits the band’s work, her creative process, how community-based radio like Glasgow’s Clyde Built Radio is keeping the Life Without Buildings spirit alive, and yes, what her pre-teen daughter thinks about the band’s recent TikTok virality. She touches again and again on creating community, joy, and finding freedom through art. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Crystal Leww: Why don’t we start with Life Without Buildings. It’s been twenty years since Any Other City.

Sue Tompkins: It’s so old! (laughter). Oh god. That’s weird to think about. 

How do you feel about the album twenty years removed? Any major reflections on it?

It’s such a big part of my life being part of the band, and music and performance and being on stage and writing. But I’ve never been someone who’s promoted it, so I think I’ve managed quite well to not reflect too much on it. I don’t sit around thinking “Oh, we should have done things differently or it should have sounded differently.” Saying that, when I do listen back—I have very random moments where I might, usually by myself, and I’ll just be listening to other stuff, writing, looking at other things online, totally attached to my phone or whatever—but I usually listen to the shorter songs.

Oh really?

Yeah, I find I don’t like the sound of my own voice, which is quite ironic. And I’ve got family—my nephew—he’s ten and he’s got this habit especially at this moment with this TikTok stuff that he keeps saying, “Let me show you this!” And I gotta go, “Thomas! Gosh, I really don’t like hearing myself too much.” I think that’s the double-edge. It means that I’ve never picked away at the band. And since then, I’ve got performances as a solo, you know, more in an art context. I never watch back videos. I just don’t do it. I’m not that comfortable with it. I think it’s a fear that if I did, I would become too critical. I’m so much happier when I can do something. And I think the band was that… just total joy, really, and enjoyment. It really was really freeing.

Do you think that there’s some amount of preciousness… that’s not the right word… it’s almost a capsule of that time in your life?

It is. When we were in rehearsal, the way we used to work was the guys [Robert Johnston, Chris Evans, and Will Bradley—guitar, bass, drums, respectively] would do the music and play it constantly to me. But I used to really enjoy that! It was no pressure! They would just keep going like this: (pantomimes strumming guitar).

Looking back, they were incredibly patient and natural about it. So none of them ever went, “Oh Sue, what are you thinking about the chorus or how do you think it might sound…?” but they also were very open if I did say things to them like “Oh that bit goes on a bit too long…”

It was a very natural thing—it’s like they let me absorb. It was the only way for me to get into what they were doing. [The music] could have been electronic, it could have been more percussive, it could have been anything—they let me absorb myself in it and then be able to start to go… okay I’ve got an idea in my head that goes with that. And then I would make notes about that and then type them all up and go to the guys with just mega piles of A4 pads of stuff.

When I listen to a song, I feel personally that real absorption in that moment: making it and rehearsing it and doing it and recording it. It’s very particularized and intimate. I wonder if some people hearing that, who like the band, are going to totally get that—and feel it. And quite rightly those people who go “God, this is jarring and I just don’t get it”—like any music—are just not going to feel that. But when I listen, [absorption is] quite a good description.

We only really wrote about 14 songs, which is very peculiar. I think it’s really funny now—I look at other artists’ output—it feels so tight. 

Maybe put yourself in the shoes of younger you—what were some of the themes that were jumping off points for the band? 

At the time, there were really particular themes present for me, personally, [but] just because the nature of the band and the way we recorded, we never analyzed it. That was so great to be able to get it made. And I still work like that: if I’m making a painting or doing a text work, I never think about the outcome. I think about the process—I’m really interested in process. 

I always think about a short song like “14 Days.” It’s not the one that everyone plays. It’s not a long one. It’s just quite bouncy and there’s a lot of guitar in it. I remember thinking that I wanted a title of a song that has a number in it because all the other titles are words so I want a number. So I thought, okay, I’ll just think of a number that describes an amount of time like… a fortnight but you call it “14 Days.” Like you wouldn’t call a song “A Week,” you’d call it “7 Days.”

Interesting.

And then I wanted something about pre-empting someone leaving you. I’m saying I’m going to leave you in 14 days, [and] I remember quite enjoying the oddness of that. My experience was sometimes you just don’t see it coming—relationships where you sit down and someone just says, “This just isn’t working” and you thought, “Oh I thought it was.” It’s a cliché but it does happen! It definitely happened to me before where I thought that I’ve just been let down. It’s almost a song about empowerment or power to say, actually, I know that this is going to end but I’m not going to let you know for 14 days—some sort of play or manipulation or sadness [and] actually making it sound like a happy, poppy song! 

If I’m going to listen to one of our songs, I listen to that. Because I like that it sounds like one thing but the meaning or feeling is maybe a different thing. It flickers all the time between this is quite catchy and “Oh she’s going to do this again, he’s going to do that again” because of the repetition, and it’s quite short and sweet and complete.

I think because the album plays out in snippets—I think back to myself about the first time I heard the record and how I was freezing and living in Chicago. I think about staring out the subway window while it was snowing and playing in my headphones and being broken up with more than anything else (laughter).

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! That sounds awful but in a way, I dunno. You know when you hear a song that just really you can relate to a particular time and space and person, work, or experience. Good times, bad times. When I hear the album, I hear that. So in a way, it’s amazing to me that it can sort of magnetize you to something—a particular, fleeting moment. I think I’m probably just interested in that, how important it is to have things that make you feel really alive even if they might be really difficult memories, that make you go “God, I’m really glad I’m not in Chicago and it’s really snowing and I’m upset.”

It’s interesting to hear you say that you don’t go back and re-litigate that album. It’s been twenty years and people are still talking about it and it’s gotten a revival on TikTok. To me, Any Other City feels like one of the most litigated, secret music nerd albums of almost the last twenty five years.

(laughs).

So it’s interesting to hear you say that there’s only bits and pieces of it that you want to revisit to or listen to quite often.

You know I think that’s purely to do with my own relationship with my own voice. I really love recording. Obviously, my own voice is such a big part of my work. But personally, I don’t enjoy listening to it. So that’s why the shorter songs like “Envoys”—I like that one. It’s how contained it is. Whereas something like “The Leanover” or “New Town”—the two longer ones—that could be a make-or-break for people for me. Because they could go “I really do like this… or I really don’t.” (laughter).

Yes.

I just find it easier to listen to the shorter ones.

I like the word “nerd.” I just like that sort of, intimate, being yourself—I think “nerd” is a really good word, y’know. Just not being afraid to like stuff that is covert, a bit more hidden.

I totally get it. It appeals to the—

Nerds.

(laughter). I prefer to call myself introspective but yes, you can say “nerd,” too. 

And I would hope that it would appeal to nerds.

So let’s fast forward. Life Without Buildings is obviously one of the most documented pieces of work that you’ve pulled together. How is that either the process, the phrases, the questions, the repetition, the use of melody—how has that evolved into your current work and how you work today?

Really the foundation for it. I try to change but I think I’m a real creature of habit to do with work. So the process if I was making a performance within an art complex which is just me and a microphone and text that I’ve written, I think it’s very similar to Life Without Buildings. It has the exact same… repetition, statements, questions, singing bits, talk-y bits. The rhythm of it, the structure is the same—it’s just not got a band. I think a lot of the references in my art performance are related to music and support, group, being with other people. That’s what I used to love about the band—just feeling that, just splodge—all together, doing something. I’ve missed that, I’ve missed that a lot. 

But yeah, the structure of thinking things, writing down—a lot in my phone now, and actually I write a lot physically down on pads and post-it notes and A4. When that usually gets too much and it becomes a physical, sculptural thing, I can stop, I need to stop, I need to look at what I’m writing. And then I really enjoy the editing process of going, “Oh god, that’s a bit shit, that’s rubbish, that could be something,” and just making piles and piles of paper and bringing it all back together. That is something that I still do when I do performance. That was the same process of being in the band and the only thing that would be different is that I would go to rehearsal and they would be making music and playing music. But I would still do the same thing of going through loads of sheets of music and going, “That’s that, that could be for another song.” It’s very, very similar. 

Does it start with “I’ve got an idea, I’ve got a theme” and then it just grows from there or how do these things start, really?

Tend not to start with themes. Theme causes me anxiety. It just makes me think [about] the confine of it. If I said, “I’m going to make a song about someone leaving you or you saying it’s not working out,” I think I would feel like I’ve locked down my thoughts. Whereas if I just write down my thoughts about anything—sometimes I put down one word, sometimes it can be that ploddingly slow—and when I’ve sort of got that build-up of words and phrases and statements and pages, then reading it back I can get an overview if there is a theme rather than working to a theme. I think that would be a good thing to try but I’ve always done it opposite—to sort of feel freedom and then start to edit that freedom a bit.

It’s sort of reigned in chaos.

Yes, that’s totally it! I think that’s why something about “stream of consciousness”—I still do struggle with. It’s just because it’s such a traditional, old phrase. It’s obviously very valid, but personally, I don’t have a stream; it’s very, very random. But the conscious part is the editing—going, “Oh I’ve gone on very long about leaving somebody or somebody leaving me”—and that can come out. But it’s sort of about being very soft on that process, not really forcing it too much.

What are you looking for when you look for that order? One thing that’s struck me is that your vocal performances of the band’s music all sound the same. It sounds so organic but you’ve clearly organized it into the patterns and how the way the words come out—exactly the same. So tell me a little more about that—how this sounds organic, off-the-cuff, but at the same time, you’ve thought a lot about and deliberated a lot about creating that order and that structure.

That comes from working from writing. My process with the band and my own work is that I’ve got to type it up on a typewriter. I’ve always got to translate handwritten notes into type. So when I was recording the album, they would always stand in the other room and I’d be in the cupboard, doing the vocal thing. I would be looking at these typewritten notes—which for some songs would just be one page because they would be very concise. So I could go repeat—something about looking at the typeface which has always helped me—something really [freeing] to be looking at these typewritten texts and just go off on one, slightly in one recording but still know where I am. It’s very structured; it’s not improvised words—the improvisation may come from the performance—the freedom to go, you can inflect, you can sing that bit, you can shout that bit, you can whisper that bit, you can say it coarser, you can [do] it in a different rhythm. But having that structure [in the writing] was everything for me.

I found that the music that the guys were making was very structural as well. So it’s almost like the double structure. Their music is quite predictable in the same way that I’m predictable—you go, “Oh god, she’s going to say it again, the same chorus might come back.” It has to do with order and chaos and freedom—all mixed together. I really love the order in the music.

Would you think about bringing instrumentation back into your work?

For years, I would love to do that, [but] I think I’m a very private person when I work. I have tried it—I got a Korg years ago, like a keyboard thing. And it’d be really basic like me with a triangle or something. But I really yearn and would love that. I’m really bad technologically. I can’t imagine myself using anything that I don’t understand how to work. But I think about it loads.

Talking about structure and freedom to improvise within structure, one thing that’s cool about repetition now is seeing other people create copies and replicas of your work and the internet facilitating that. You get to see people take on the same thing you did before but now it’s different takes on it.

Yeah. My daughter, Mary—she hasn’t got TikTok. And I was saying before all this—Mary, I’d like to see a few things on TikTok. And she was being an embarrassed, semi-teenager going, “Mum, don’t get TikTok! It’s embarrassing! You’re not allowed! You’re not allowed to get it.” So I was a bit slow to find out about it. 

Is she embarrassed that you’re viral now on TikTok?

Yes! She’s slightly coming around now because she’s let her friends know and they said, “Oh that is quite cool.” But Mary is going, “Oh god, oh no.” (laughter). I joke with Mary going, “Hey Mary, I am quite cool” but yeah, she’s not having any of it at the moment. Maybe when she’s a bit older, it might settle down.

I was a teenage girl—you were a teenage girl. I don’t think you quite stop being so embarrassed about this stuff until you’re in your twenties. She’ll appreciate it in her twenties.

Mary at twenty-two will go, “Oh yeah, this is good” but yeah, nearly twelve is not good. (laughter). I have downloaded it and I have looked at it a bit. It’s sort of fascinating. I’ve sort of tried to stop myself from looking at it but why it’s happened, how it’s happened now. It’s particularly interesting how lots of women and young women, which is amazing—that it’s the sample of the first part of “The Leanover” song. I wonder why. I suppose it’s just the nature of TikTok but all of them getting into the rhythm of it and the expression of it and the expression of your face going “mmmm.” I don’t know what it is. It’s strange in a good way suddenly that lots of younger girls and women are able to express in that thirty second intro to a song.

I, too, was kind of surprised that it was the intro to “The Leanover” but I get it. It’s got a little bit of that ability to act it out in a musical theatre kind of way.

That nonsensical thing about it. There’s a nice freedom to go, it’s okay to not make sense. I sometimes feel or get a lot pleasure from that, from not understanding something. I think that little part of “The Leanover,” which hopefully is still quite catchy, is still quite musical but it is quite nonsensical or what does it mean? But I can act it a bit.

It’s funny you describe being very private when you’re working. This is a very public way for your art to be consumed. There’s a virality. There’s infinite amounts of people who can have a take on your work but at the same time you’re very private with your work. That sort of kind of dichotomy is fascinating to me.

I get that! But it’s a different freedom—I kind of enjoy that letting go. I’ve never been someone that goes “I made that.” Making art and music is about, sort of, just—hopefully enjoying yourself making, which I do. I’m lucky to really feel that. I do enjoy making stuff privately. I do really enjoy that. And then you got to sort of go… well, it is like putting a painting on the wall. That lack of control is really great. Seeing lots of people on TikTok, getting into that part of the song—that’s just brilliant. I think it could have been any other song and anybody else’s song! That’s how TikTok works—how these things go viral. It is sort of curious why it would be sort of an unknown band, like us. It is weird! It’s how it works, I suppose. I try not to analyze it, but it is curious and I don’t know why.

Maybe tell me a bit about how the audience plays into the work. What does an audience do with your work? Do you ever interact with them in your [performance] work? It’s not like this where like twenty years later all of a sudden your song has gone viral and millions of people are listening. In a performance setting, you’re getting that feedback real time, so how is that different from releasing music?

Totally different. My experience is doing live performances by myself for a long time now. The audience to me is part of it. And it comes back to when I do a performance, I’ve got my text and what I’m going to do—that gives me a structure. And again, this freedom that I can rely on it; I’ve got sort of this sense of what I’m going to do.

It is like being in a band and being like “We’ve got eight songs that we’re going to go out with our setlist.” Very similar. When I think about my relationship with the audience when I was in a band, I probably didn’t explore that enough—I didn’t feel it enough. I wonder if that’s because it was quite extreme. We would play gigs where there were six people there. And then we did an Australian tour and people seemed really excited and there were lots of people! It was quite… such early days, I suppose, with it. 

Whereas my own doing performances within much of an art or music-related context—to me the audience is everything. They still don’t impact on the structure—which I think is a defense mechanism. It gives me a certain confidence to go up there and go, okay everyone else is there. I’m here. There is that moment where you are standing in a crowd at an art opening and you’re chatting and having a glass of wine and milling about and then it’s a denial and acceptance that I know that I’m doing something live in five minutes and they probably know as well—but I’ve always quite enjoyed that. I’ve never gotten nervous. But there is sort of a weird separation where you go, bye everybody. I’m going to stand over there in the corner and do something. And if I just overanalyzed it… I just wouldn’t do it (laughs). I just wouldn’t do it! It seems so alien!

Yeah, but to your point, you’ve negotiated the terms of your engagement. Everyone knows what you’re there to do.

Oh yeah, totally! I know! But that thing of, why would I do it? And I think it has to do with the audience. When you do it—totally fascinating just how if you feel if it’s going okay, if it’s going well, what does that make your performance do? If it’s uncomfortable, a bit weird, people are bored, upset, angry, walking out, how does that affect? It is a really, I find it, a very intimate, mutual thing. Which is fascinating and it can be a bit crucial—I was going to say addictive—but crucial how you engage. I’m very interested in what it takes to engage with people. 

Sue Tompkins performing Country Grammar at The Modern Institute, 2017. Photo by Patrick Jameson. Photo courtesy of Sue Tompkins and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow.

Maybe related to this or maybe not, you’ve been working in Glasgow for many, many years at this point. And it’s kind of homebase for you. Does that help that you’ve been part of a common scene? That you’ve got that common base to this point on audience and interaction?

There is a commonality wherever you go. Which I think is amazing. My experience outside of Glasgow and performing in different countries and stuff like that—there’s just something about audience, band, artist, performance—that isn’t particular to place. It’s just a mentality or something. 

But I do think that Glasgow is such a small… have you been to Glasgow?

I have, yeah.

A whole bunch of cities are kind of small. But for a city that is so small and feels small but the art and music scene. And it is really joined up and tight and supportive and warm. I think I’m very lucky to have had that. And it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to go, “That’s great! You’re amazing!” to everyone—it can be quite critical—but if someone is going to do something, or set up an art gallery or pop-up, or a band performs or anything. People here are still very open to that. It’s very supportive. And I think that has helped me feel more at ease.

Even being in a band—I never thought about being in a band—and just through friendships and art-related relationships and art school, when the guys asked me to be in the band, I hadn’t performed really ever but just said yes anyway! Just saying yes. I try to remind myself it’s good to say no, but it’s really good to say yes and if it cocks up and fails, who cares? It’s all right. I’ve thought to say yes to creative, collaborative art to produce more joy and create something!

Thinking back about Life Without Buildings—you guys really walked the line between experimentation and process and there’s also a real pop sensibility and melody about your work. Even now, you still hear [newer] bands talk about that album being one of their favorites. For you, is there anyone who you see carry that torch forward? What excites you about music today?

I would think about Glasgow straight away as an instinct. For example, there’s a radio station called Clyde Built Radio which is really near the Modern Institute Gallery who I work with. Especially during lockdown, they’ve been running this radio station and inviting loads of different artists and musicians and DJs. Something like that—not a particular band, actually, comes to mind. And Club Optimo—they must be so used to doing mega-parties, [but] they did it from their house. I suppose it’s a bit more [about] community, I guess. Keeping things going at the moment seems to be really important—of making music, recording music, playing music—that.

That feels like the spirit of the band to you? Just keeping the music alive?

Yeah. You know it’s funny that if you asked the guys in the band—[and] they might have a different view of it—I think they really did want to be in a band and be part of a band and always be in one. And ironically now, I think I can see that camaraderie. It’s really wholesome! (laughs).

You’re really trying! You’re coming together, you’re rehearsing and you’re really trying to make something that you can’t make on your own. Maybe I just miss it! Just at the moment, the isolation of everything. It’s something about feeling united in something. That feels quite good—feels really nice, actually.

Any work upcoming that you’d like to shoutout?

Oh, not really! I just kind of carry on working. I’m doing a few shows, a couple of things in Britain here. Just putting some paintings in a show. I would really like to make a new performance or make some sort of new recording or something. And maybe… I’d really love to try or try to find music with my voice again. And it’s just trying to out how that’d kind of be.

Looking forward to it! I must admit I was thrilled that Josh gave me a call and asked me if I’d be interested [in this]. 

You’ve asked me loads of questions. The questions you’ve asked me have stretched me! (laughter). I like being asked questions! Like I think that it pushes me to think about things that maybe I haven’t thought about in a while, like why did you do things in the first place? And where do they end up when you make them? And that’s just really nice, really.

One of my good friends is a musician. There’s a club—obviously closed right now—and basically we sit there and we get a drink at 8pm and sit there until 2am and she just tells me about her process.

Process for me is everything. I talk about it a lot. My twin sister is an artist. And the whole thing is process. The whole joy of doing stuff is process. If you get something out of that—brilliant. If people like that—well, that’s nice as well. But the process is the real [thing]. Because without process, you haven’t got anything, in a way. You’ve got to have a process. 

But that’s so contrary to the way that mass media is… I feel so much of pop is centered around output and outcomes. But your philosophy is quite different. 

(laughter). I know, god. I’m not saying that I don’t think about the outcome. But initially, I try not to. Even if I’m making a painting, I don’t think about the endpoint. I think about the present thing. And then leave it. And then edit. For me, to think about the end result would be a massive door slamming in your face. I wouldn’t know where I am.

So I can imagine sitting in the back of the club, talking for hours about process. I’d be up for that.

Sue Tompkins’s art can be viewed at The Modern Institute website. You can purchase the reissue of Any Other City at the What’s Your Rupture? website.


Thank you for reading the fiftieth issue of Tone Glow. See you at the club.

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