In Conversation with Tom Sheehan
In Conversation with Tom Sheehan. Greenwich, October 2016
With Tom Sheehan’s new photography book – ‘In between Days- The Cure in Photographs 1982-2005’ being released this month on November 28th, The Flood Gallery sat down over a curry and pint to chat to Tom about his deluxe books and hear more about his epic career in photographing the icons of rock. Present at the table were Tom, Chris Marksberry from the Flood Gallery, Carl Glover the book designer and Chris Carr who is running the PR for the release.
Left to right: Chris Carr, Tom Sheehan, Carl Glover, Chris Marksberry.
Photo credit: The Count - Alex Sheehan
In this first instalment Tom talks about his first two books AIM HIGH and IN BETWEEN DAYS and relationships with Paul Weller and Robert Smith…
Chris M: The relationships you’ve had with artists, as we have seen with Paul Weller and the Cure. They are very respectful relationships and they’ve obviously enjoyed working with you. They’ve both written very warm and genuine forewords.
Tom: Indeed, that’s probably because I’m quite economic with my time. 9 times out of 10 I won’t ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do, I’m not one for sort of doing crazy shots or anything like that, or doing anything that compromises them. Certainly with people like Robert Smith, there’s no point in taking a picture of him while we’re having a pint because that doesn’t go with his visual persona. What’s the point you know, I mean it never was my endeavour to get people off their guard, although by saying that I did take a picture of Ozzy Osbourne whilst he pissed on the Alamo.
Chris M: When we first had a chat about doing a book you straight away said that Paul Weller would be the obvious one for you to do first, why did that spring to mind?
Tom: Because he’s a really straight up guy. He’s someone if you want to approach him with an idea you’ll get a yay or nay immediately, you wouldn’t have to wait around forever, plus I did have a huge archive as with the Cure and other bands. Starting with Paul seemed a good thing because he is like a modern national treasure if you will, a lot people like him because of his longevity of going through all the Jam, Style Council and his solo stuff, he’s been making records longer than most people around.
Chris M: The book was from 1978 – 2015, have you photographed anybody longer than that? Would that pretty much be one of the longest relationships?
Tom: That could probably be it on a timescale but there would be other bands like the Charlatans I’ve photographed more of because I had a more condensed period of working with them, for 15-20 years. With Weller all those sessions apart from some I shot for Polydor, Style Council were shot for Melody Maker. I managed to photograph Paul 20 odd up to 30 times.
‘Aim High. Paul Weller in Photographs 1978-2015’ by Tom Sheehan. ©Tom Sheehan under sole licence to Flood Gallery Publishing.
Chris M: With the likes of Weller and the Cure, Robert Smith in particular, they both look like they’re quite self-aware of presenting themselves to the lens.
Tom: Completely aware and that’s why not just those two, but any other musician I wouldn’t want to take too many pictures with their guard down, now not saying I don’t have pictures of musicians with their guard down but they’re not for publication, they’re just my hedge against inflation. But yeah both Paul and Robert are charmers to work with, you know they don’t particularly want to be doing the photography they just want to make the music, so you go in armed with what you need to get and get in really quick and get out really quick and come back with something you’re happy with. You can achieve more and to my mind get better pictures by just rolling it out and getting on with it rather than having boards saying this is what we’re going to do and it’s all bolted down, you don’t bolt down music so you shouldn’t bolt down photography.
Chris M: With both books, Aim High and In Between Days, are there any particular sessions or particular shots that stand out to you as the most memorable?
Tom: Certainly the Aim High Slip Case cover shot of Paul. That was done down at his studio at Black Barn in Surrey, I think I’ve been down there and shot him there 3 or 4 times actually. I remember I just put up a black sheet, he had that nice kind of military style jacket and I shot him a couple of rolls there and then around the studio, all done in half an hour. I just liked the idea of moving fast and getting results. With people like him, as I’ve said before they also enjoy it if you can work fast and move them around. They just want to get it done and get back to recording or whatever they’ve got to do. Although subsequently since then he’s told me “I looked like I’ve been out on the piss for a few days” I said “well you probably had”.
With the Cure probably my favourite picture of Robert is the one taken on the roof in Brussels because I’d done portraits in the dressing room and then the next day I got him up about 4 o’clock when it was getting dark, it was November. Robert said “alright Sheehan, what fucking time do you call this?” if it had been half an hour later it would have been dark!
In the shot’s Robert has got a kind of a glum look which helps with the goth edge and I think I’m stood up on this kind of vent thing so I’m higher than him and I got all the houses down below.
Robert Smith, Brussels, 1987. ©Tom Sheehan
Carl: Robert’s got a very good body language hasn’t he, I noticed that having looked at those pictures for so long that he’s never at a point where he doesn’t know what to do with his hands for example, he’s very expressive with those.
Tom: I think presumably that must’ve come through just doing so many sessions, it’s like anything you do it so many times you know how to stand. It’s like Michael Stipe, you’ll never take a bad picture of Stipey because he’s just an artist throwing a shape or not, just stood there he always looks good.
Carl: Whenever I see a still from a Beckett play, Robert Smith is doing that kind of leaning thing where looking in the camera almost set quasi leering.
Tom: But also the thing is I think a lot of time it helps if people lean forward, because it helps with their chin, you get a slight lean forward and you get a better line.
Carl: Robert has got a very pronounced jaw line.
Chris C: Robert used to hate it. In those days, record companies used to give you a clothing budget and in a lot of cases they used to get a stylist. Robert, Lol and Mike Dempsey kind of engineered it so they could get the cash and the other two went out and got some threads, Robert’s only threads were brothel creepers.
Tom: Which you would never see.
Chris M: On both the books Paul and Robert looked like young kids almost when you first photographed them, fresh faced. Successful at that point but very much at the start of their career. You worked with them both all the way through until when they were mature adults and their careers had gone right to the top. Did you see them change as people as they became more successful?
Tom: I think probably when I came over the horizon and they recognised a face they knew, that put them at ease immediately and I’ve always approached them as musicians and not as friends. When you’ve got your camera in your hand you can be their enemy and once the work is done you can sit down and have a beer and have a chat. With both, certainly more with the Cure, we always had a jolly up. With Robert it’s gone further, to a more friendship level in the sense of doing his wedding pictures, doing Lol’s wedding pictures, doing Simon’s first kid’s christening, parties and end of tour parties. I’d just be invited but I’d have a camera and take some pictures while they’re up on stage - on that boat on the Thames with a bloke called ‘The Pub Singer’, pre-dating Vic Reeves by 20 years!
I’ve always approached them on the day with what you need to do. Your history kind of helps in a way but you can’t pull at it, like being an old chum of theirs or something, because you’ve got your own endeavour and they might have a whole day of this bullshit that they’ve got to do. I can only go in and do my thing. It helps because they know that I’ve come in peace, but they also know that I need to do something and although our professional friendship is good, it’s not going to make it any easier for them. Then again, I wouldn’t want to do anything that would make them look daft ten years down the line.
Chris M: That friendship thing with Robert Smith, obviously being asked to do his wedding photographs is amazing, it’s been mentioned by Robert Smith in the foreword about you playing snooker together, and you’ve told us about a few evenings where you had a curry and stayed in Soho until the early hours, what were those evenings like?
Tom: They were fantastic, you play snooker for x amount of time then go to a restaurant, usually The Last Days of The Raj in Covent Garden and stay for longer than you should’ve done, we could be in there for 8 hours and it wasn’t just the once, it was several times. It’s just talking and drinking and eating and talking and drinking, an evening takes its own form and the tongue gets loose after the ales and you’re off. Lest we forget we’ve been playing snooker for 3 or 4 hours and we weren’t dry then if you catch my drift.
Chris M: Were you potting any balls?
Tom: Well when we weren’t potting them we knew it was time to move on and go for something to eat, get some solids inside you.
Simon Gallup, Tom Sheehan, Robert Smith. ©Tom Sheehan
Tom: Sometimes we had the Melody Maker versus the Cure just to get us all wound up, we’d play and do a couple of things where we’d all play each other for 2 or 3 frames, then it would be like a grudge match of Melody Maker versus the Cure, by which time we’ve had 4 or 5 pints each and a few vodka and tonics and gin and tonics. It was really good kind of faux aggression wind up, everything mattered on that ball, the excitement builds and you’re a bit lashed up, it was good times.
Chris M: There’s a really good session in the book from The Cure in Orange concert, how did that all come about and what was that like?
Tom: Tim Pope was making the Cure in Orange film and once again we got on board just to do a cover for Melody Maker. They did it over a couple of days where they rehearsed and set up camera angles and all that one day, the next day they did it in front of a live audience, it was good.
Chris M: I just wanted to touch on your use of the English language. There’s a phrase in Robert Smith’s foreword where he remembers you saying “why don’t you and the other Herbert get stuck in that spinning Henry whilst I fire off a couple of frames and we should all be done before the tapster’s had time to pour your next gargle.”
Tom: Basically what you’ve got to do is put a carrot in front of these herberts, say if you do this, you can have that and the barman will give you a drink, so let’s just do it eh? Off you go and do it and you’ve fooled them before they know what they’re doing. Using language in such a term that it’s got to be you that says why we are here, let’s not fuck about, no point arguing about it.
'Aim High - Paul Weller in Photographs 1978-2015' is available now and ‘In Between Days - The Cure in Photographs 1982-2005’ by Tom Sheehan is available for pre-order now ahead of release on 28th November and there's also a launch & book signing event at The Cannick Tapps, 109 Cannon Street, London EC4N 5AD on 30th November from 7pm onwards. All are welcome!
‘In Between Days – The Cure in Photographs 1982-2005’ by Tom Sheehan.
©Tom Sheehan under sole licence to Flood Gallery Publishing