Tommy Concrete: An Interview

Tommy Concrete is a musician from Edinburgh, UK.

"Force of Nature" does not even begin to do justice as a description of Tommy Concrete. In this interview we go deep on songwriting, recording and mixing during a pandemic, and the challenges and opportunities that have presented themselves to musicians over the last 30 years.

Weirding: I've read that it was a goal in your new music to compose songs to fit the shapes and colors that appear through synesthesia. I'm interested in the extent to which you would consider music — or the music composition process — as a visual art.

Tommy: Synesthesia is when the senses blend, so music isn't necessarily a visual art as such. It’s more like that when I experience something it happens through all senses. 

For example, say somebody claps their hands together to create a clapping sound. They will also create a physical sensation in their hands. The two sensations are intrinsically linked in the sense that the sound of the clap can be altered by the force of the hands striking together which in turn presents a different touch sensation. It's pretty easy to predict that a really loud clap may hurt your hands more — or that softly hitting your hands may create a quieter sound.

Weirding: So the two senses are sort of the opposite sides of the same coin.

Tommy: So is the action of clapping, a sound which generates a sensation of touch? Or is clapping a touch sensation that generates sound?

Weirding: Right, that makes sense.

Tommy: For me, a sharp clap also stimulates a flash of white light. And a soft clap presents a vaguely visible dark orange cloud. Okay now it gets complicated. If I decided to create a yellow flash of light by clapping my hands together, I would know how loud it would be and what it would feel like. 

So does that mean that clapping is the creation of light? With sound and touch as sensory side effects? 

So yeah music is visual — just in the same way that it's physical. Heavy riffs through a massive stack will physically vibrate the listener, but it's also purple. 

That's what synesthesia is. It’s the combination of the senses. 

Weirding: And how is that reflected in your music?

Tommy: It didn't become part of the compositional process until my most recent album Hexenzirkel

For many years I wasn’t aware that not everyone could taste color or see sound. And then when I did become aware, it was presented to me through a pathologized lens that viewed it at best as an anomaly and at worst as a sensory disability to be overcome.

I’d utilized the relationship with sound and color on each of my albums since 2017’s The Necromancer, but it was always part of the process after the compositional stage. This was because I was still essentially repressed with residue internalized ableism at my synesthesia abilities. I had yet to embrace it as an essential and valid aspect of the way in which I experience and can affect reality.

For my latest album Hexenzirkel, I utilized synesthesia as the compositional starting point. 

Previously I had become aware that songs were finished when they looked right. This time around I decided what they should look like before writing a note. I constructed music that would generate the visuals I wanted. 

On my Unrelaxed 1 & 2 albums, I spoke about autism and neurodiversity in the lyrics. But I didn't want to do that on Hexenzirkel. I didn’t want to become the 'autism guy'. 

It was still important for me to express this identity though. So I felt the synesthesia experiment was the way to go.

Weirding: You have a number of vocalists join you on the new album. How did you manage this in the midst of the pandemic?

Tommy: It was a nightmare to be honest, but the amount of problems we had to overcome really shaped the album. There is a Zen saying: ‘The obstacle is the path’. That pretty much defined the process of recording guest vocals on Hexenzirkel

It’s amazing though — as the end result is the sound of adversity being defeated.

The unique situation of pandemic lockdown really shaped who appeared on the album, as half the guests were not my original choices. So a selection process appeared wherein the main thing I was looking for were vocalists who saw the opportunity to contribute to Hexenzirkel as a way to battle the negativity of lockdown. 

Laura of King Witch recorded her vocals remotely and she was the first to get it all done. 

Ramage did his at his studio. Jenny from Juniper Grave and Christian from Love/Hate and Warrior Soul did theirs on the stage at Bannerman’s Bar in Edinburgh one afternoon — which was bizarre as the pub was officially shut and none of us had seen hardly anyone else for months. Jenny got really into and performed her takes onstage, foot on the monitor and everything. The vibe was surreal and really special — which added such a huge dimension to the album. 

Branagh did his vocals at my place — which was technically illegal at the time. This gave the session a strange and unique feel and really brought home the reality of the global situation. 

Finally I recorded Jam’s vocals at his place — in a state of intoxication so intense it’s unbelievable I even managed to turn the laptop on. This session was even more illegal for multiple reasons.

Weirding: How do you feel things turned out?

Tommy: I couldn’t be happier with the results I got. And I am so grateful and honored for everyone’s contributions — because the sense of dread and impossibility was crushing throughout. 

It’s interesting as there were more people involved in the making of Hexenzirkel than any other album I have done either solo or with a band. It really embodies a spirit of connection and a refusal to be beaten by nothing short of a global crisis.

In terms of recording the music, I felt like a mad scientist. 

All my notes were drawings, geometric shapes, numerical patterns, and physical concepts drawn in numerous notebooks. Maniacal scrawlings that I had to convert from visual to sonic. It was completely intense and couldn’t have been achieved in any other situation. 

I started a new job the first day of lockdown and was promptly sent home for essentially the first two months by midday. So I worked full time all day every day on recording. It’s a blur and I was suffering quite significantly with psychosis. Had a couple of scary ‘breaks’ during this process — which is all ‘on tape’ so to speak. 

The lyrics were written almost in diary format throughout this time, focusing on whatever negativity I was fixating on that particular day.

Weirding: And what about the mix itself?

Tommy: The hardest bit by far was mixing. 

Ramage did this without me being present — as restrictions wouldn’t allow. And he’s not quite as anarchic as Jam or Branagh. So the mix was ‘fully legal’. 

We ended up working out a process wherein he would work for four hours and then email me what he had done. I would listen and then we would have a phone call. Then he would go back to work. This ended up being quite productive even though it was pretty unusual. To be honest though, I actually think the finished result wouldn’t have been as good if I had been there. This is because he didn’t mix it to take into account my visual plan for the album. He mixed it based on what he thought sounded best. Which meant it didn’t ‘look’ like I originally planned it to look. 

But it did sound better than it was supposed to look — and it still looked fucking great. 

Mindmelter.

Weirding: You've covered a lot of musical ground in your time playing and recording. You've also seen many changes in music over the years. Your own music seems to be infused by so many changes both stylistically and with regard to the themes you explore. What do you think about the health of underground music right now? Some people would say that we're in the midst of a new golden age while others see such difficulty caused by the consolidation of record labels, difficulties to tour schedules caused by the pandemic, and the effect of big streaming platforms on the musicians' ability to get known and to survive. I'm interested in your thoughts. Are we in a golden age or are things more difficult than they've been over the last couple decades?

Tommy: Yeah, I have certainly done a lot. And since my first gig in 1987 the scene has changed so many times it is hard to keep track in my own head. 

Things are better in so many ways now, but just as many things are worse. For example, it’s so much easier to record and release now — with home recording being outrageously good and digital distro and print-on-demand being a thing. And the millions of professional tutorials on absolutely everything at your fingers on YouTube. Plus the record company strangle hold on every single professional service is long dead — making every aspect of being a DIY outfit infinitely easier. 

Unfortunately, all of that is exactly the problem. It’s become so easy that the scene is utterly flooded with bands. Which is of course wonderful — as it’s such a more accessible environment now. However, for those bands and artists that really want to go as far as they can go, there is the extra hurdle of having to rise above the millions of acts who are just sort of diving into it or doing it for a bit of  a laugh. 

I’m not saying those voices should be silenced. I’m just saying that there is a traffic jam on the Highway to Hell. 

Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Well, here we are in that manifestation of that prediction.

Weirding: It’s a different thing than back in the 90’s, isn’t it?

Tommy: Back in the early 90’s my first band — Warp Spasm — blew up and gained relative success almost immediately simply by being the only progressive thrash band for a hundred square miles. Not only did we not have rehearsal rooms with a full backline provided, we didn’t even have rehearsal rooms. So before we could even practice we needed a full backline with PA and transport and the whole get up. And then go find a different church hall, scout hut, disused office, or squat or whatever each week just to set up before being hoofed out. 

This simple logistical fact cut our potential peers and competition down by about ninety percent — making recognition way easier than it is now. Also, out of all the few bands that did manage to exist, getting folks to gigs was a military operation. And it included endless flyposting of posters around town. 

Weirding: I remember all that postering. And all the postering over old posters. Sometimes a wall or telephone pole would be a half-dozen or more posters thick before someone would come along and tear it all down. And then it would all start over again.

Tommy: It included multiple run-ins with the police including mental chases. And worst of all were the fights with professional flyposters. These got sufficiently serious enough for me to warrant carrying a baseball bat along with my big cauldron of wallpaper paste and posters. 

Again, this logistical warfare was something that ninety percent of bands couldn’t get their shit together to do. Meaning the “who dares wins” attitude resulted in whether you’d play well-attended shows or not. 

The amount of fucking bands now that can’t get their shit together to even click as ‘going’ to their own Facebook event is so frustrating. It makes no odds to me. I’ve seen the world and had my day, but I just feel sorry for the young hungry bands that have to fight through all the half arsed passionless drek. Especially as there is even less money now if you ‘make it’ then there was then — and there was fuck all then.

In terms of streaming and all the woes that come with it, I just see it as advertising. Spotify is how you advertise your music and Bandcamp is how you sell it. It’s not a perfect model, but it works. 

To be honest, I think this whole era we are in at the moment will soon collapse just as the old model collapsed with the start of the era of streaming. I think something will give and streaming will have to start paying people proper money. Or the next generation will just avoid it like the plague — as my generation abandoned the major label fantasy. 

My only worry is that if streaming services will start paying bands proper money it will mean that it suddenly costs more to get your music up — hence pricing DIY and micro-labels out of the market.

Weirding: Switching gears… tell me a bit about the title of the new album — Hexenzirkel. This is a word meaning 'coven' as in a coven of witches, right? Seems appropriate not only for the tone of the music, but also in that you've put together this group of artists to all work together on the project. And I guess the writing and recording of music can be a sort of ritual.

Tommy: The recording of this album was indeed ritualistic. So, I wanted to give recognition to the true essence of its creative experience. 

There are six tracks, six guitars per song, and six guest vocalists on the album. So the most heavy metal numeral of 666 was inherent in the creation. 

My original title was Hexagon, in reference to a six sided shape — and also a polygon that bizarrely enough causes me to be nauseous if I see one. I’m a sufferer of trypophobia which is an irrational fear of ‘holes close together' — the worst of which being a honeycomb of hexagons. 

As the album is mathematically influenced by the number six — and a lyrical journey into my own psychosis — it seemed fitting that the hexagon be the album's image. 

Most importantly though is the location in which the majority of the album was recorded — as in my home studio. This is located in the spare room of my flat and also hosts my wife’s extensive occult library. She is studying for her Ph.D. in occult studies and was working on this as I was recording my album — literally in a library of occult and black magic texts. This is some serious heavy shit and I'm not talking about edgy models posing on instagram with Satanic Bibles and Hellripper leggings. I’m talking about actual necromantic rituals and mind-boggling realm blending rites. So the fact that my album was recorded in one of the most exclusive private occult libraries in the world really needed addressing. 

So she suggested that instead of Hexagon I call it Hexenzirkel, which is German for ‘witches' coven’. 

This referenced perfectly with the fact that the album had so many contributors — but also that there is a heavy female energy in this album. Absolutely intentional. As a solo artist, my work so far has been hyper-masculine — simply by default. However some of my main influences are women such as Anneke Van Giersbergen, Lisa Gerrard, Siouxie Sioux, Sylvia Massey, and even Cynthia Rothrock. 

So yeah Hexenzirkel or Witches' Coven is my female energy album.

Laura from King Witch and Jenni from Juniper Grave obviously bring an immense power to the proceedings with their outstanding vocal contributions — which I felt needed referencing in the title also. 

In terms of 'doing an occult album', this also ties in with two of my deepest male influences — Jaz Coleman and Jimmy Page. Both of whom I am sure as fuck would love to spend a day perusing the necromantic texts in our studio library. Both are artists who deeply influenced the young me to delve into ideas of ritualistic composition. 

Also, on the track 'Entombed With My Pride By My Side’, the song starts with purring cats — literally mine and my wife's familiars. They gave their beastly voices to the ritual. Three wonderful creatures whose spirit and energy permeated every take by literally sitting on my speakers judging in a way that only cats can.


About

https://tommyconcrete.bandcamp.com/

New album: https://tommyconcrete.bandcamp.com/album/hexenzirkel 


 

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