Tom OC Wilson is perhaps a name that most of you don’t come across every day. Yet he made last year’s best album according to me (together with Karda Estra and L’Rain of course), the genre defying Tell a Friend.
It’s an album that combines the insanity of idiosyncratic British artists like Syd Barrett with unsingable melodies, odd time signatures and something that almost sounds like twelve-tone serialism. It shouldn’t work, but it certainly does! It is pure pop music that’s also seriously avant garde, the only record I can think of that resembles it in spirit is David Stoughton’s Transformer (or perhaps Happy Family’s The Man On Your Street) and has that scatterbrainy anarchist way of looking at song writing as you might expect from a very young Paddy McAloon. I simply had to interview this madman genius!
Tell me a bit about your background.
I was born in London and grew up in Bristol. My first musical loves were Talking Heads (Fear of Music was a staple of family car journeys), and my parents’ collection of 60s pop records, especially Sgt. Pepper. I began learning guitar around the age of 7, and started writing my own songs soon after. For the next 10 or so years, pretty much all I listened to was pop music, particularly the more adventurous of the indie bands current at the time, Blur, Radiohead, Catatonia and Garbage being among my favourites.
From 2001–2004 I studied music at the University of Southampton, and was suddenly exposed to a world of sounds that were new to me. Here I discovered 20th century classical music, being particularly taken by the emotional depth of Messaien’s work, and the colourful harmonic language of Stravinsky’s early ballets.
I also managed to catch a series of hugely ambitious concerts by artists such as Michael Riessler, Denys Baptiste and John Surman, who would fill the stage with professional players from a wide range of musical backgrounds, and lead them through exuberant concert-length works that were among the most energising experiences of my life. All the music I have made since then has basically been an attempt to fuse that same sense of joyous discovery with the pop songcraft I grew up with.
John Surman, the saxophone player? One of my favourite Brittish jazz albums is actually Tales of the Algonquin which he recorded with John Warren. Tell me a bit more about this concert!
Yup that’s right, he’s great! This was a piece called That’s Right, where he was working with the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the massed brass ensemble London Brass. It was a single piece and lasted for something like an hour.
The sheer volume of sound was obviously very impressive, but what I remember most of all was the sense of organic change in the music, and how the energy built up almost impercetibly to something truly overwhelming. And of course all the players were wonderful. It was also the only time I’ve ever heard soprano sax live, a beautiful sound (in Surman’s hands anyway!).
It seems like a rather big step, from contemporary brit pop to 20th century classical and avant garde jazz? But perhaps that’s the thing that makes your own music sound so unique? Before this interview I honestly couldn’t even begin to figure out what you’d been listeing to, how you ended up where you did.
Well, that’s nice to hear, thank you! As a composer I’m a big believer in listening widely, as I think it can only make your own artistic voice richer and more nuanced. I think precisely because I hadn’t really listened to much non-pop music before going to university, I found all these things tremendously exciting. In hindsight, however, perhaps it wasn’t such a big jump as it felt at the time.
Given that the kind of pop music I was drawn to was the more structurally precise, harmonically rich stuff, it maybe wasn’t a surprise that I was drawn to say Stravinsky, who pushes a lot of the same buttons for me. Of course his technical language is completely different from the world I came from, and you can have a lot of fun with that.
The Rite of Spring never stays in the same time signature for very long – what happens if you apply that idea to a pop song? You end up with something that definitely doesn’t sound like Stravinsky, but doesn’t sound quite like a straightforward pop song either. If I’ve successfully managed to cloak my influences but you like the results, then I’m delighted!
…and it is some sort of pop music, weird and surreal, but very melodic, very light. A few weeks ago I interviewed another contemporary favourite artist of mine: Richard Wileman of Karda Estra.
Although you sound totally different I think there are some similarities in that you both stand out as visionaries of sorts. Richard told me about his fondness of chords; in your case you seem to be obsessed by melodies. It’s almost like your melodies are living entities that control you rather than the other way around…
Oo I don’t know Karda Estra – thanks for the tip! What you say about melodies is totally correct. Melody is probably the most important aspect of music for me, and the moment I find a melody I like is the moment a song becomes a song, rather than me just messing about. I really like your description of melodies as “living entities”.
Defining a good melody is notoriously difficult, but to me it always seems as though the best melodies have their own concrete identities, as opposed to being just a collection of pitches. A lot of the work of composition for me is to do with rewriting melodies until they have attained this quality of “concreteness”.
It’s interesting what you say about rewriting, because it’s also very hard to figure out how long it takes to write those songs, and to rehearse them. On one hand they are extremely complex, but on the other there’s also this lightness to it all which I mentioned before, which can give you the impression that the whole process runs very smooth.
The songs generally take a long time to write, and a lot of that is to do with aiming for that lightness of touch you mentioned – where I use unexpected features I want them to sound fully integrated into the song – so it’s gratifying if that comes across. I usually write on Logic Pro and produce very detailed demos so that I can listen back and make notes on anything I feel is holding up the enjoyment of the track.
Sometimes this will be where I’ve tried something too avant-garde, and I fear it will snap the listener out of the flow of the musical content (I was toying with an operatic vocal style in a recent demo – that soon got discarded!). But usually it’s a case of identifying areas where the rhythm is becoming too ploddy and I need to shave off a beat or two in a particular bar, or where the texture needs an additional element to prevent it feeling too formulaic. I listen back, make notes, redraft, and usually repeat this process many times.
With Tell A Friend, I was fortunate enough to be able to workshop the material with three wonderful musicians – James Ashdown, Steve Haynes and Steve Troughton – and to test some of it live before the final recording sessions, which allowed us to build up decisions about articulation and dynamics. Because of the structural complexity of the songs, I scored everything out, and sent over some initial demos with all the notes etc. specified, but played by sterile MIDI sounds – it was a delight hearing these get replaced by fully nuanced, human performances!
It’s funny that you’ve never heard of Karda Estra, since you have both worked with Kavus Torabi for example.
Kavus is one of my favourite current musicians, I love the uniqueness of his compositional voice, and the preciseness of his melodic and harmonic writing. However, he also has a truly colossal musical knowledge, and it doesn’t surprise me that his network contains people I’m not aware of! Where would be a good starting point with Karda Estra?
The best album in my opinion would be last year’s Infernal Spheres, but there are several great ones out there, Time & Stars, Strange Relations etc. He’s quite inspired by odd soundtracks. What is your personal relation to film music?
Thanks for the tips, that’s great. Film music is a really interesting area, because having an ostensibly “non-musical” brief often seems to free composers up to write things not restrained by a particular style. To be honest though, although I often refer to music approvingly by calling it “cinematic” I don’t feel very knowledgeable about film music, and it hasn’t been an especially dominant influence on me. There are individual film scores that I love as distinct entities, such as The 400 Blows, but I usually find it difficult to separate out music and movie. Because of this, I am more likely to be influenced by the overall emotional effect of the two working together than the purely musical characteristics of the score.
Having said that, I have spent a lot of time trying to write music that sounds like various Carter Burwell soundtracks (especially Raising Arizona and The Man Who Wasn’t There). I think he’s absolutely brilliant, but is the very model of a collaborative composer in that his music always heightens the film in infinitely subtle ways. Shorn of a movie to work with, my attempts at Burwellesque have never really worked. But part of the joy of being a composer is aiming for something, missing, and finding something else interesting in the process.
Freeze Puppy is what I used to call my solo material. It started as a home recording project, experimenting with Cakewalk software, and focusing mostly on guitar-led instrumentals where I played and programmed everything. I gradually started working with other musicians, and returning to writing songs. In 2009 I released an album called Animation which, although I have reservations about the performance, production (and some of the lyrics), I’m still very proud of musically. For the first time I felt like I’d managed to fully integrate my pop and experimental interests, and to some extent I’ve been writing in that style ever since.
I grew a little bored of the name Freeze Puppy though, and decided to use my own name, which feels like more of a blank slate. This coincides with the fact that Tell A Friend is the first album where I’m happy with the production, the result of collaborating with two very gifted producers rather than trying to do it all myself.
Beetles is a duo with a great vocalist called Laila Woozeer, who can sing pretty much anything. The setup is deliberately minimal – just the two of us singing backed by a single electric guitar – which has been quite fun as it has put the emphasis more on vocal counterpoint and unusual guitar shapes.
It has also been really interesting writing for another vocalist, both in a practical sense – Laila’s range and vocal stamina is greater than mine – and in terms of trying other lyric-writing approaches. A lot of the Beetles lyrics are more impressionistic/abstract, largely because I have confidence that she will be able to add the interpretative nuance needed for unusual word combinations to make sense.
You also have an ongoing project where you record unique songs every New years day, only listenable for 24 hours, am I right?
Yes, that’s right, though the latter bit of that isn’t necessarily a regular thing. Basically, yes, every New Years’ Day I write and record a new song. I had this idea of an album that grows by one track each year. For the past couple of years I’ve posted up the album-in-progress on my Facebook page immediately after finishing the new track, and left it up till the next day. Since everything else I do takes a long time, it’s nice to have at least one project that is done fairly casually. It’s funny that even there I still feel a certain amount of artistic pressure though – maybe if I had never played the tracks to anyone this wouldn’t be the case!
What’s next, any new records to look forward to?
We’re looking to start recording some new Beetles material in the next couple of months, and I’m just starting to think about writing new solo stuff. I rarely start a new album with a concept, but a lot of the music I’ve been enjoying this last year has been more atmospheric and less groove-based than what I was listening to while writing Tell A Friend – my favourite album of 2017 was Grizzly Bears’ beautifully impressionistic Painted Ruins, and the new band I’m most excited about are Northwest, a London-based duo whose music constantly hovers between fragility and tremendous power.
I’m looking forward to seeing how these influences might impact on the next album I make, and of course I have lots of other music to check out (such as Karda Estra!) too. In terms of the write-record-tour cycle, both my projects are at the pre-tour stages, but I’m aiming to arrange more live shows later in the year, all to be announced on www.tomocwilson.co.uk.
Finally, could we have your all time top 5 albums?
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
Paolo Angeli – Nita, L’Angelo Sul Trapezio
PJ Harvey – 4-Track Demos
Talking Heads – Fear of Music