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April 23, 2012 | by  | in Arts |
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Interview – Tommy Ill

Adam: So this [New Hat and a Haircut] is your first album on a major label – now you’re with EMI – and I couldn’t help but notice that the sound is blown out a little; it’s gotten bigger, there’s a bit more of that 50s/60s big-band brass music, ragtime piano etc. What exactly has influenced that – is this the stuff you grew up with or just stuff you think sounds cool?

Tom: Yeah, it’s a little bit of what I listened to growing up. It’s also – the production on this, there’s really three-four of us who make the beats. There’s myself, Kelvin Neal, Buck Beauchamp – who’s also my hypeman on stage – and James Goldsmith, who’s engineer; he sort of project-managed the whole record, but he also did music stuff here and there. With the earlier stuff, it was mostly my production, a little bit of the other guys; with this record, I 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, so it was nice to get that. But they also have to make beats that they know that I’ll feel comfortable rapping on, things like that, and things that my voice will work on – you can’t make it too powerful, then the music might overwhelm my voice, things like that. So yeah, it’s a delicate balance, I guess.

Adam: Obviously being on a major opens you up to more resources –

Tom: Definitely.

Adam: So how has that influenced how you’ve navigated that style?

Tom: It’s been really good in that we’ve had EMI’s support and we’ve had a wee bit of an advance in money to spend, things like that, but at the same time, they really didn’t force us to do it any way we wouldn’t have done it otherwise. They’ve left us to our own devices, which has been cool, because we did all the vocals – 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. So we still did things on a budget when we could. We also hired a studio to do percussion and record Alphabethead doing scratches and all that. It’s nice to have money to pay people who, in previous things, have helped us out for free.

Adam: And obviously you mentioned Alphabethead, Pikachunes is featured on the album and stuff like that; have you been able to bring in more of these artists you’ve worked with before but haven’t been able to pay or…?

Tom: No, it’s more that we were all pretty good friends. There’s heaps of people on the next record – I’m already thinking about the next next record – but I want to do more collaborations in the future because, just from playing shows, you end up with so many friends who are musicians and things like that. It’s kind of cool.

Adam: Yeah, with Wellington and Auckland music scenes and stuff being quite insular, as things in these areas tend to be.

Tom: It’s such a small country that you end up knowing everyone eventually.

Adam: Exactly. So, there are running themes through your albums – the drinking problems, the hedonism of twenty-something youth in New Zealand – and I’ve also noticed that, particularly in the album, you mention how people try to rationalise your position now with where you were before, making songs like ‘Robot’, the idea of you being a ‘joke rapper’ or ‘parody’. So how has this progression come about? Do you feel like you’ve changed significantly from where you were in the past?

Tom: Not in any kind of deliberate way. I think, maybe, 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. It’s always just been whatever music came out, whatever we got. It just sort of happens. I think, with this record, we were listening to the latest Kanye West album a lot when we were making it, and so we were ‘we need to need make our version of that’, but, when you set out to do something like that, it ends up sounding completely different anyway.

Adam: Generally speaking, about the themes that you’re dealing with, is this stuff that you feel is of your time now and may not carry forever, or is there something universal about it that you could probably keep rapping about it until you’re fifty or something?

Tom: I don’t know. I mean, I’d hate to be rapping about the same things in, like, twenty years or whatever. Man, that’s a weird thought, rapping in twenty years, but, um, I don’t know. As I said, I guess it’s just really influenced by what’s going on in my life at that point in time. So if I’m, say, breaking up with a girlfriend or drinking too much or whatever, then that’s what’s going to come out in the songs, but if I’m working an office job –

Adam: Because you mention that on the mixtape and the album –

Tom: Yeah, I do that too.

Adam: Is that a new development, or…?

Tom: I’ve been working a 9 to 5 for five years now, which is getting harder and harder to balance with the music as well. 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.

Adam: So do you hope that someday you’d be able to live off the music, do that full time?

Tom: Definitely. I’d love to be able to just do music all the time, but it’s a tricky thing. I tried to do that for a little while, a long time ago, and I think, when you’re just sitting at home and I was on the dole and stuff, when you’re sitting at home and you’ve got nothing to do but you know you want to make this music but having no appreciation of this spare time that you have because you have so much time, that you end up smoking pot, playing video games all day. So I think having a day job really helps you appreciate the amount of spare time that you have when you have it.

Adam: You released Nostalgia Zebra a few months before [New Hat]; there was obviously a bit of a problem regarding the Annah Mac sample in Coldest Summer. What was the story behind that?

Well, I put out this mixtape that was basically stuff I’d been working on just on my own. With the album and stuff, it’s Buck and Kelvin and James, but the mixtape’s just sort of my stuff that I’ve been fucking around with, and it was all stuff that we could never ever actually properly release because of the samples; everything was a bit dodgy. Could maybe have done the Ruby Suns one, Ryan’s a good friend of mine, but the other ones not so much. So yeah, put that out, start downloading it, then Radio Active started playing the Annah Mac sample, Coldest Summer, sampling Girl in Stilettos, and it ended up getting to number one on the Radio Active charts for a couple of weeks, and then it stayed in the top ten for about five weeks, and we were stoked. Told my manager about it, and he said, ‘let’s try and get it on the album!’ This is the eleventh hour of the album, the album needed to be out in a month or two, and he was like, “yeah, re-record the vocals and get a master done really quickly and we’ll sort this out, all we need to do is just clear the sample with Annah!” And he rings up Annah Mac, while we’re sitting there, drinking coffee in this cafe, and he rings her up and she sounds keen on the idea, she hasn’t heard the song but she sounds keen, and he emails through this offer. Then, that was on a Friday, and we only had that weekend if we were going to rerecord it and remaster it and put it on the album, we only had that weekend, and so I’m sitting there all weekend, waiting to ring up the engineer – because I didn’t want to stress him out until we knew – and on the Sunday or the Monday, I get an email saying Annah is not keen, she really – really was underlined – really hates the song, can you please take it down. I think what it was was that I pitched down her vocals because I kind of slowed it down a bit, and it wasn’t ever meant to be an insulting kind of thing, I just thought it sounded cooler and got the beat to a speed where it was good for me to rap on it. I think she took it is an insult, probably made her sound a bit more manly and stuff and that wasn’t cool.

Adam: It’s interesting that you mention it was an eleventh hour album possibility because one thing I noticed is that there are songs with a significantly darker sound on Nostalgia, Zebra than there are on New Hat. Like, on Tetrominoes there’s some of that anger and rawness, but on Nostalgia, Zebra there’s a lot more of that darkness occurring, if you catch what I’m trying to get out?

Tom: Well, they weren’t recorded at the same time. Most of the album – most of New Hat & a Haircut – was recorded last year, must’ve been about October, and during that time my girlfriend of six years left me, so I was in a pretty bad place. Maybe that comes through a little bit in the mixtape and stuff. So yeah, it’s a different phase of my life, and that’s probably the reason for that.

Adam: So, in this sense, do you see yourself potentially recording stuff like Robot, songs in that sort of vein, or is that a sound you think you’ve left behind?

Tom: I think the next thing we do is just going to be completely different from anything we’ve done before that. 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 is creatively more –

Adam: Working within restraints –

Tom: Yeah, yeah. It holds you back in some ways and also forces you to do interesting things as well in other ways. But yeah, it’s never really an intentional thing where we revisit a certain sound – it’s more we fuck around with the sound and when it sounds like something, you know. A lot of happy mistakes.

Adam: The ad campaign has been quite an interesting one – the Letterman interview, the Sarah Ulmer/Evers-Swindell twins ad. What’s the inspiration for this? Just the kind of comedy you guys find funny?

Tom: The Letterman thing came out of me and Brian Hansworth, who’s a DJ when we do shows and he’s the guy who makes all our music videos, he’s one of my oldest friends. One night after a lot of whiskey, we were talking, like, ‘hey, we could totally just fake a Letterman interview, it’d totally work!’ It was one of those stupid things you say when you’re drunk, but then the next day I remembered it, and took this interview with Lady Gaga, y’know as I was lying in bed hungover, and edited her out – and managed to do it quite well – and I called up Brian and said ‘hey, let’s get the green screen out and do it.’

Adam: You own a green screen?

Tom: A long time ago I bought a giant green sheet which is all you need, drape it over, it works. I was sitting on a guitar at the time. But yeah, we found it funny. Some people found it not so funny. Some people believed it. I think the Herald believed it.

Adam: Outside of that, NH&aH has seen burgeoning popularity – you were on Good Morning, #9 on the iTunes charts the other week –

Tom: Got to number eight, very very briefly. Managed to get a screenshot of it.

Adam: How is this burgeoning interest in your work influencing where you take your career?

Tom: It’s hard to say at this point, because it still feels like early days to me. Maybe it’s not. I think the plan this year is to do a lot of shows here, hopefully do some showcases in Australia in September, I think? After that, I want to go to the States, do some shows, just as an excuse to get to the States. Yeah, it still seems like such early days after the album coming out that I’m just waiting to see how much of an impact it makes and where that takes us.

The Good Morning thing was funny though. We got lots of complaints.

Adam: I missed that – what happened?

Tom: I was behaving myself. 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, the album came out the day before, then we went off to karaoke and we had quite a bit to drink, we were a little bit bleary-eyed.

Adam: And obviously Good Morning not exactly the target demographic.

Tom: It was really strange, they were all jumping around – 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, I won’t say who, I’d get them in trouble. Then we did our second song and I accidentally swore, I think. The presenter called us Tommy Lee by accident – he was funny that morning, something was going on with him, he was messing everything up, gave the song the wrong name, I dunno, I felt kind of sorry for him. We did New Car Money, which has a fake ending, and that was the second song, and in the fake ending you can hear him go ‘OH, WOW’ because he was supposed to walk out and start interviewing us, but he didn’t realise that it wasn’t the end of the song. Kind of wish he’d walked onto the stage so I could put my arm around him.

Adam: Gutted I missed that now.

Tom: 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 their TVNZ On Demand.

Adam: That’s a surprise. Speaking of concerts, as you mentioned earlier, you’ve got the tour coming up at the start of May, you’re performing 5th of May at Bodega with Golden Axe and Bang Bang Eche. How’d that come about?

Tom: Originally the tour was going to be Bang Bang Eche and Spring Break for every show, we were going to bring them with us, and we’re going to bring Bang Bang Eche with us to Auckland as well, they live in Christchurch. But yeah, Bang Bang Eche are really good friends of ours since we played Big Day Out. They were playing the Main Stage and we were playing the New Zealand Stage, so Zach [from BBE] had this Access All Areas pass, so we’re hanging out backstage and we told the stage manager that he’s our roadie. We had all these microphone stands on the stage and we’d knock them over and then he’d run real low and pick the microphone stands up and we were just deliberately knocking them all over the whole time. Zach from Bang Bang Eche would pick up the microphone stands. He also helped me throw fake money into the crowd which had my face on it, looked like $20 bills. Yeah, they’re just good mates of ours, and same with Spring Break and same with Golden Axe as well. They’re just good friends that we know through existing in New Zealand music. Hopefully it’s a cool show. I like that there’s no real similarity in the music between the three acts, hopefully a bunch of different audiences come together and make it work.

Adam: And you were also at Bodega a couple of months ago with Zowie. I was surprised to see you on that bill, not going to lie – how did that come about?

Tom: James, who’s our sound guy, is their sound guy as well, so he goes on tour with Zowie, and they went and did an amazing Hennessy party in Hong Kong or somewhere just recently. I’m hoping to work with her on something in the future, we’ve talked about it, so – it’s kind of a weird matching but I’ve played a few shows with her as well.

Adam: Lamb or beef?

Tom: That’s a hard one, because, ethically or based on taste?

Adam: One for one, one for the other.

Tom: Duck.

Adam: Alligators or horses?

Tom: Polar bears.

Adam: Call Me Maybe or Boyfriend?

Tom: Call Me Maybe. Call Me Maybe is a good song.

Adam: Dei Hamo or DJ Sir-Vere?

Tom: I’d go with Dei Hamo, because he’s funny on Twitter. He’s angry at the guy at the laundromat who keeps stealing his socks.

Adam: Natalie Imbruglia or Alanis Morrissette?

Tom: Alanis Morrissette, I don’t know, she’s got something about her.

Adam: If you could pass one law, anything you want, what would it be?

Tom: Legalise crime. [laughs]

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