“CRITICS SAY ‘TOM, DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB’
DIDN’T, DICKHEAD, WHERE YOU THINK I GET MY PAY FROM?”
I met Thomas Young, aka Wellington rap sensation Tommy Ill, during his lunch break at his 9-to-5 day job. When I asked him about this, with specific reference to the above lyric from ‘Coldest Summer’, a (now-removed) track on his recently-released mixtape Nostalgia, Zebra, Young mentions that he’s been part of the rat race for five years. “It’s getting harder and harder to balance with the music,” Young says, “but I’m lucky to have a job that understands, and quite a few people I work with quite like my music, so it’s quite helpful. They let me take days off every so often when I need to disappear and do a show.”
It’s a good thing he has an understanding workplace, because Young is developing into one of the most interesting and entertaining voices in modern New Zealand music. Since the release of 2006’s Toast and Tea Kettles EP, Young has been carving out a name for himself as our foremost purveyor of alcohol- drenched indie rap, music about the pursuit of happiness through parties, nightclubs and bottles of alcohol, music for the booze- drenched twenty-something crowd who wake up in the morning wondering what the hell they’re doing with their lives.
Young’s latest album, New Hat and a Haircut, sets these stories to significantly bigger beats than his previous releases, in part a result of his signing to major label EMI last year. “We’ve had EMI’s support and we’ve had a wee bit of an advance in money to spend,” Young explains, “but at the same time, they didn’t force us to do it any way we wouldn’t have done it otherwise…We bought an amazing microphone and James Goldsmith, our sound engineer, was housesitting for his mum at the time and we set up a live room in her walk-in wardrobe, so I did all the vocals in a wardrobe with dresses and things.”
The lack of interference from EMI has also allowed Young to explore a fully collaborative production dynamic, with interesting aural results. “With the earlier stuff, it was mostly my production, a little bit of the other guys [Goldsmith; Kelvin Neal; and Buck Beauchamp, who doubles as hypeman],” Young elaborates. “With this record, I sort of did a third of it, and the other guys did a third each. So there’s all of our influences in there, which has been fun, because Kelvin’s more a dance music kind of guy, and Buck is really into heavy metal, and I’m more into my Northern Soul and Motown.”
This development of his distinctive sound – a mix of big band brass music, ragtime piano, classic soul samples and modern dance beats – isn’t the only notable thing about New Hat and a Haircut. Young’s rhymes have also undergone their own transformation, delivering fully-formed raps on his pet subjects that are often just as hilarious as they are introspective. But his development away from the ‘parody rap’ his critics have (often unfairly) accused him of plying hasn’t been a conscious one, necessarily. “The music I’m listening to now, and just the fact that I’m a little bit older, probably shows in the songs, but it’s never been an ‘I’ve done this, now I need to go and do this other thing’ deal,” Young explains. It’s always just been whatever music came out, whatever we got. It just sort of happens.”
Young also has big plans for the future, and they’re not necessarily set in the style he’s already crafted for himself—“I think the next thing we do is just going to be completely different from anything we’ve done before that,” Young enthuses. However, it’s not as easy as just full-on rejecting that style—“Part of the problem is all the music is sample- based, and I kind of want to get away from that in the future, but that’s a sound that I love, and having that limitation of working with a sample…holds you back in some ways and also forces you to do interesting things as well in other ways. Lots of happy mistakes.”
Besides, the now offers its own ‘happy mistakes’, such as an unsuspecting TVNZ hitting Young up to perform on their mid- morning lifestyle show, Good Morning. “I was behaving myself,” Young explains, laughing. “Buck and Kelvin were dry-humping each other. This is the night after we’d had a sort of party at EMI’s offices for the album…we were a little bit bleary-eyed. It was really strange, we were all jumping around and they were getting a little too close and dry-humping each other and doing things to microphone stands and stuff. And it was after our first song we got told to tone it down, but then other people were telling us not to tone it down…Then we did our second song and I accidentally swore,
I think, the presenter called us Tommy Lee by accident…Hopefully we’ll be able to put it on Youtube, but I don’t know if they’ll give it to us, because they didn’t put it on TVNZ On Demand.”
Tommy Ill’s New Hat and a Haircut is out now in local record stores and on iTunes. He will also be playing Bodega on May the 5th, with support from Bang Bang Eche and Golden Axe.
PS – Tommy Ill prefers ‘Call Me Maybe’ to ‘Boyfriend’.