God Street Wednesday: Talkin’ With Tomo

Once we were connected, I learned Tomo was suffering from the flu and the mistaken belief I was in Gettysburg. He confided he’d asked to do the interview because he’s a big Civil War buff and seemed a little disappointed to learn I was nowhere near the famous battleground. But neither the flu, nor my lack of proximity to Gettysburg, kept us from having an enjoyable conversation.

Consumable: When did you decide to be a musician?

Tomo: “It really wasn’t a conscious decision, it’s just something I always did. I was hitting things [chuckle] as far back as I can remember. I built my first drum kit with tinker toy sticks and plastic sherbert containers, and threw some tinfoil over them to make ’em sound like sound like a snare drum. I begged my parents for drum lessons and they finally, at age eight, said ok. The formal lessons didn’t last very long, but I always knew, eventually music would be what I’d do for a living. It’s a very natural thing, like there’s no doubt I was supposed to be a drummer.

C: Did you play in school bands?

T: “Yeah, I did the concert band and started playing with other people at a pretty young age. High school is actually when I met Lo. He and I ended up at a school together in Princeton. He was a bass player then and we played – on and off – in different bands in high school. He eventually moved to playing guitar and then went off to school in New York. I went off to do a number of bizarre things – everything from car salesman to running around following some band around the country [chuckle]… Then, I guess it was the summer of ’88, Lo was going to school in New York, called me up, and said, “We have to start another band, move to New York.” and at that point I was ready to start hitting things again.”

C: Was that when you started singing?

T: “Actually, I sung before I ever played the drums. My parents tell ridiculous stories about me entertaining guests at our house, doing the entire score of Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Music Man and things like that. I grew up on Broadway shows. That was what I remember hearing early on. My mother was a jazz buff and I remember stealing her Chet Baker 78s and taking them upstairs to play on my Fisher Price stereo. As far as with God Street, Lo and Aaron were doing all the singing for the first three years. I don’t know why we hadn’t thought of getting another microphone. Probably financial [chuckle]. Eventually we began spending time when we were off the road, working on four part vocals. Every day before the entire band got together to rehearse, we’d spend a lot of time on vocal exercises.”

C: Tell me about the songwriting…

T: Lo, he’s the chief songwriter, divides his tunes up between himself and Aaron as far as singing lead. He’ll write to accommodate Aaron’s voice and his own.”

C: How about the arranging?

T: “There was a time when Lo would record a tune with a drum machine, play all the instruments on his eight track, and we would very strictly follow what had been recorded. Sometimes he says, “This is the drum groove I want. This is how I want it.” Other times it’s a lot looser. He’ll have a riff or melody in his head and he’ll say, “Give me some kind of shuffle groove that will match this…” then he’ll do something on guitar.”

C: Do you do a lot of improvising?

T: “It varies. We have some 15 minute, completely orchestrated, instrumental pieces where every part is exact and it’s the same every time. Then there are tunes… like from the new album, “Imogene” live usually runs seven/eight minutes because the end section is wide open and changes every night. We really tried to not make a slick, polished album and the producer (Jim Dickinson) helped a lot in trying to narrow down tunes that worked well together. There’s tunes I like better than others on it, but I think it all fits together. Certainly the theme of romance is prevalent through thirteen of fourteen tunes on the album.”

C: When I was listening to the album, I thought some sections sounded like other bands. Are you just quoting, or are you under the shadow of these bands?

T: “All five band members grew up listening to different things. A bunch of us grew up listening to jazz, some classical, others funksters. Lo’s mother was in a bluegrass band, so that was the first stuff he heard. Some of us have similar interests, some of us have musical taste that others can’t stand. I think we’ve been lumped in with the Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler. There was kind of a “New HippyBand” theme that was going on and we got left behind [chuckle] because they both shot off, signed deals early on and BOOM were out of our little picture. We’ve taken the slower path and are getting nearer to where those bands are, as far as level of popularity.”

C: What is the band doing to forge it’s own sound?

T: “The way Lo writes is, he’s got a great ability to cop a sound. If he has been listening to a Bob Dylan album he’ll write a tune and – especially if you know he’s been listening to Dylan – you’ll say, “Wow, that’s very Dylanesque.”

There was a period where Steely Dan was one of the main things that we all listened to and… I mean a song like “Imogene”… When you talk about direct quotes, we’ll freely admit [chuckle] there’s a certain “Black Cow” thing going on. He also has a whole bunch of songs I think are truly his kind of thing. On the album there are tunes people identify with another band. It’s frustrating to a band any time they get tagged a copycat or something like that. I think, our strong fans don’t compare us – and they get upset when people compare us – to other bands. My aim, and I believe the aim of the rest of the guys is to be a commercial success and break away from the “H.O.R.D.E./new HippyBand” kind of thing. We always want to make a fresh album, depending on how we feel at that time. The music we’re capable of playing and writing can certainly go beyond the “HippyBand” sound. I think the album shows that.”

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4 Responses

  1. Got to see Tomo play on Saturday night, actually, as part of Lisa Hannigan’s band. He has been with Damien Rice for years, and within the past few months joined Lisa on her first solo tour(s). A great guy to watch behind the kit — always smiling, adding backing vocals.

    Thanks for sharing this old interview.

  2. Thanks again for the GSW coverage. What a fascinating interview. Does anybody think the GSW story might have changed if instead of aiming to “break away from the “H.O.R.D.E./new HippyBand” kind of thing”, as Tomo says they did, GSW had embraced it, they’d still be around? Their music was certainly different enough but it seems they mistakenly thought (hindsight is alaways 20/20) that commercial success could only come through the traditional studio / big record label means.

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