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Tom Adams – Composer, Song-Writer

In the wake of  Tom Adams‘ new album  Silence, a magnificent collection of introspective piano musings, we met up for a rambling conversation on the blend of compass-like focus, serendipity, and trusting enthusiasm that make up his creative process, whether applied to song-writing, electronic music… or skateboarding.  

Tom Adams 1

Aylin Uysal

I set off to do a PhD in music composition and electronics in the U.K., but after about a year of working on it, I was increasingly feeling like it wasn’t the right thing for me to be doing as I increasingly wanted to make music more than talk about music. As part of the degree, I had to give a talk at a conference that was in Berlin. The first night I arrived, Nils [Frahm] was playing a show, and went straight from the airport to the concert. At the end of his set, Nils invited a member of the audience, “Does anybody want to come up and play a song?” I did, and it went down really well, which was wonderful. It turned out that there were a lot of very useful people to have met in that evening.

At the time, I knew nothing about the music industry, so Felix [Grimm] came up to me afterwards and said, “Are you doing music, are you working, what’s going on?” And I didn’t know what a manager did, so I just sort of blew him off a little bit, and was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m doing some stuff…” I wanted to go say hi to Nils! Somebody later said, “Oh my gosh – Felix knows everyone! If he wants to work with you, that’ll open up so many doors…” So I got in touch with him, and we started working from there.

It’s very brave to play after Nils!

I only felt I could do it because being a singer-songwriter, I wasn’t trying to do anything that overlapped. If I’d got on stage and tried playing some solo piano, there would have been a degree of comparison… I wouldn’t get on stage and play a song after Radiohead had just got off stage! [Laughter] Doing something different, where there’s no overlap, is the only thing that’s going to work in that kind of situation.

I was actually going to ask you about serendipity… When you’re in the place you described with your PhD, that in-between place of not really being happy with it, but not knowing what’s next… It creates a space of allowing, a space for letting new things happen…

Yeah, it also made me more motivated to work on my own music. In the process of starting the academic study, I realised it was taking time away from what I wanted to do, which is making music. Suddenly, having this opportunity put in front of me to focus on my own music – it really gave me a lot of drive to actually put time into my own projects and see where they could go.

It’s like the whole universe is conspiring to say, No, this is for you…

Yeah [laughs]. I had this wonderful evening, and the following morning, quite hungover, at 9 o’clock, I was giving a talk to fifty very sober-looking academics, and I realised, this is not what I want! Last night – that’s what I want. And that was really a moment for me – that weekend, I had a lot of clarity.

Did you end up finishing the PhD?

No, but I was able to convert it to a Master’s degree, so that was good. I think I’d enjoy going back and completing a PhD at some time, but later in life, where I feel like I’m looking for the right things out of it.

Could you introduce yourself, tell us how you’re creative?

That’s a very hard question, actually! I’m mostly creative by accident. When I try to be creative, nothing interesting happens. Sometimes you need to give space for something to happen, and when it comes up, you just follow it where it wants to go. Most commonly, that’s been music, for me.

Increasingly, I’ve been getting into drawing and – it’s a bit random, but also making Lego. [Laughs] I wanted to study engineering for the longest time, until I got distracted by playing the guitar. I think making Lego taps into that a little bit. It’s so satisfying, making something physical – with music, you very rarely make something. You make something that exists on a computer, and then it exists in the air, and when you finally get a CD or a vinyl, then you have a physical thing, but it’s a long process. When painting or making Lego… you just have a thing in your hand, straightaway. That tactile feedback is very rewarding.

Would you say that it’s as a child that you started to want to create things?

Yeah, I used to make Lego all of the time, and then I got very much into building radio-controlled cars. I built some robots which were trying to mimic animal movements as a teenager – I actually went on a BBC programme called Techno Games, which was essentially robot athletics. With the help of my Dad and a neighbour, we made a few different animal-themed robots that did horribly badly in the competition, but it was still a lot of fun, and a great learning process! I was really interested in that for a long time.

Do you enjoy this world that you’re creating?

Yeah, it’s really satisfying to make stuff. More recently, I’ve mundanely been making tables for my studio, and that’s also very rewarding. I think it’ll spill over into making music. I almost only use hardware to create, so physical synthesizers and tape machines, and that kind of thing. Not necessarily for the sound, but just for the quality and immediacy of the interaction, which feels much more real than doing things on a computer.

I feel like I need to touch stuff, interact with stuff, otherwise I feel like there’s always a barrier between me and it. It’s one of the beautiful things about any acoustic instrument – to make a noise, you have to physically interact with it. When you do anything electronic, your physical interaction is disproportionate to the sound coming out. It’s like a paradigm of effort and rewards inherent to playing an acoustic instrument, which is broken when you interact with an electronic instrument. So I can move a finger very slightly and hit space bar, and make every sound that’s ever been made.

I’m always looking for ways to physically interact with sound, because for me, the playful element is being able to see how this bit fits and can you plug this into that, if you twist this, how does it interact with that? It’s something that I enjoy much more with the physical stuff than on a computer, because when you’re using a mouse, you always need to use your eyes as well. With hardware, you can very quickly and easily learn muscle memory for where things are, so you don’t even have to look at it, you can just sit there, doing this, and look at that over there, and feel in control… It’s a lot more instinctive.

So you do introduce physicality to electronic music!

Absolutely. In a certain way, it’s a similar pleasure from doing something like Lego, where you end up with a thing in your hand… Lego released software, where you can build virtual Lego models, and I’ve always thought that was enormously pointless [Laughter].

Do you rest on rhythms, on a day-to-day basis, little things that you need to do before you work?

Yes, definitely. It works very well for me to have quite a rigid format to my day. It’s not necessarily timing-wise rigid – I don’t have to spend eight hours in the studio making music to feel like I’ve had a productive day. A shorter, more focused length of time, works well. And I’ve got really into skateboarding, and so my day tends to be: get up, go to the studio, go skateboarding, and then go home.

Tom Adams skate

Aylin Uysal

When you’re skateboarding, are there things that you’re working through? People often say that they’ll go for a walk, and…

I find that getting into nature and going for a hike is always good for the creative juices, but actually in my daily routine, it’s the opposite that works for me. I also go climbing. The thing that both skateboarding and climbing have is that they take 100% of your attention. You’re not even thinking about anything, you’re in your own little world – you get into this moment of flow, where you’re just doing your thing, and you’re not thinking about anything. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, so long as you can get into that moment. When you come back to whatever you were doing before, you have a completely clear mind and a fresh perspective.

How do you get to that place of flow, when you’re composing?

It comes back to what we were just talking about with the hardware-type thing: I very much enjoy improvising, and often I start with an initial idea, set off in that direction, and see where it ends up. Particularly when working with synthesizers, I have been building a Eurorack modular system, and you come up with a concept for this. I see what sounds come up, and what that inspires, and just follow that path.

I recently moved to a studio space which has got no windows. I was in two minds about this, but it’s fantastic, because you’re in your little world… The rest of the world doesn’t exist; you’re just there, doing your thing. There are no distractions, no anything. You’re in your cave, this temporary bubble of making music, and you walk outside again, and you take a bit of a break.

Do you need to adjust? Is it a bit of a shock to the system when you go back to a world of distractions?

Yeah, but it’s nice; it’s a good experience. I work very well getting in my own little world, getting in the moment and forgetting about everything.

You mentioned somewhere that when creating Silence, there were a lot of human sounds filtering in, and that you weren’t so attached to perfection. It’s fascinating that you’re putting connection above perfection.

What was very interesting moving to Berlin was that I lived in a countryside village for most of my life before that. I’m very used to having the windows open at night, and it was completely quiet, maybe the odd bird. And then obviously, living in a city, there’s constant noise, a lot of people, and it’s very hard to get your own space, sound-wise. For the first year and a half, I was always working in the flat, and there were always little sounds coming in. I was aware that the neighbours could hear what I was doing or there was a car passing… It wouldn’t interrupt what I was doing creatively, but it was the awareness, in the back of my mind, that there are lots of sounds going on.

That was good for me. I realised I couldn’t get rid of them, so I accepted them and moved on. Lots of recording processes can be noisy, with lots of imperfections. You can talk to any sound engineer and they will tell you about trying to reduce noise in your system, getting the best signal to noise ratio, etc.… I found myself working with equipment which was quite noisy, and I decided to just roll with it, and not worry about that. To just focus on delivering a story with the music. Once I accepted that, a new quality emerged from that, which is actually much more interesting than I could have got by trying to micro-manage everything from a technical perspective.

I wondered if I was hearing a metronome in “Sparks”?

In “Sparks,” I did use a drum machine, and I did the drum machine after the piano, and that produced a problem for me, because drum machines work at a rigid tempo, and I had recorded all of the piano parts in free time. I had to spend a very laborious and uninteresting time just dragging everything around so that each individual beat more or less matched up with piano noted. The end result was worth it, though!

But there are a couple of moments which I completely missed: at one point on the record, you can clearly hear my phone going off in the background… And I was so tuned out of those kinds of problems, was so accepting of everything, that they made it onto the record. I don’t think it matters. It’s like telling a story: deliver the music in the best possible way.

When you take it to the stage, do you have the same approach to perfection, or non-perfection? Are you trying to recreate something from the album, or do you simply let things happen?

It’s interesting because the album is recorded almost entirely as live takes, so the live show is quite a similar experience to the record, really. Most of the electronic sounds on the record were also created as live performances, using a patch I wrote in the software MAX / MSP that is processing the piano in real time and reacts to your playing. And I run that same software live, so often it’s quite funny, because if someone in the audience coughs, all of a sudden it gets picked up by the microphones and you get a processed version of somebody coughing – it’s not ideal, but I guess it’s okay. [Laughs] Particularly with live performance, I think that people appreciate the fact that what they are hearing is happening live in front of them, rather than being played off a backing track.

I was wondering how family and relationships – everything that’s not music – fits into what it is to be an artist. Do you ignore it, do you integrate it…?

I owe a tremendous amount to the support of friends and family. It’s very important to have friends who will say, “I think you’ve written better stuff…” Because when you’ve just made something, obviously you think it’s great. It’s great to have somebody who knows you well enough that they can be honest in their opinions.

My parents also, and my girlfriend as well, have always been wonderful. From a young age, my parents have always been amazingly positive about driving me to gigs, and you need that, particularly as a newer artist, because there isn’t the money and the big structure in place to really support you. You’re doing gigs by Ryanair and trying to fit everything in your hand luggage. I have no complaints, though! I’m enormously grateful to all these people who like what I’m doing enough that they want to put their energy and their time to help me continue doing it, it’s amazing.

You say in three different songs, “It’s all that I have,” and I was wondering, do you feel that you have an inner compass, that you have everything you need inside you to find your way?

Ha, I didn’t realise that; it’s not very original of me…! [Laughs] It’s definitely a theme in the album, however. If you want something, you have to commit fully to making it happen, or else you’ll always be asking yourself the question, “What if?”

It’s what I really felt with music and several other things in my life. I thought, I really have to do this to the fullest extent that I can, so that if I’m in a situation where I can’t do it, I don’t regret not having done it more. You can take that attitude too far, of course, but I really feel with music, it was important for me to move to Berlin, even though I didn’t particularly want to be in a big city…

Why Berlin – because of the contacts?

Because of the contacts, because I kind of knew that living in a small village wasn’t going to take me anywhere. And Berlin’s kind of… sexy [laughs]. Everything is happening in Berlin, and it’s much smaller than London; it’s easier to get in with the scene and find things going on. The opportunity was there and I knew I would regret not taking it!

When you’re making that kind of decision, is it “YES, this is it”…?

I tend to make big decisions in my life very quickly; I just have a feeling, and trust it. Sometimes, that’s worked out really badly, but something like moving to another country, you can’t spend a long time making that decision. There are always reasons to go, reasons to regret, always pros and cons, so if you’ve got a feeling about it, it’s always best to trust it and see what happens.

There seems to be a lot of trust in your process.

It’s partly what we were talking about earlier, having people supporting what you’re doing. I’m not putting it all on the line, I know that if everything goes wrong, I could move home for a couple of months, find a new direction, and move on from there. I have a lot of faith in the music that I’m making, I feel like I have a lot to learn, and I’m not going to learn that by half going for it. And I really want to just find out what music I can make, basically.

Every time I do a project, I’ve come out of it with more questions. My Dad told me, when I went to university, “You should come out of university with more questions that what you went in with. Then you’ve got the most out of it.” I think it’s the same with anything in life – you just want to keep learning. You want to come out more motivated to learn more – it doesn’t matter what it is.

I finished this record very keen to make electronic music. Because I engaged a lot more with the electronic side of it and I feel like the next record won’t be a solo piano record, it’ll be something different – in a similar style, but coming from a different place. In the meantime, I’ve made an electronic record, for myself, to explore that, and I’ve come out with a lot of ideas about new ways to approach what I want to do.

It’s not just faith in the music, as much as it is in yourself, in your art itself – it’s there for you.

It’s a journey of finding things, and also, developing your confidence. Funny, it’s the same with skateboarding – I’m a very bad skateboarder, but I enjoy it a lot. But you just have to get confident. The more you do it, the more confident you get. It’s things you could have always done, from day one, but you just couldn’t make your brain do them. You have to get your brain and your body to get onto the same wavelength, and then you can do these things. It all goes hand in hand. I get more and more confident with the sports I do, with the music I do, because every time you do something, you make mistakes, you learn, and you can have something that works. You get some positive feedback, you learn from that, and you keep moving on.

There is a quote that by Joseph Campbell, I think it fits particularly well with what you’re doing, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself in a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”

Yeah, it’s a bit of a cliché, but if you do the things that you enjoy, then you couldn’t ask for any more from life. You set off on a path and then things come up that you’re not expecting. You just follow where they lead.

As it happened at the Michelberger Hotel, with Nils Frahm…

You have to be ready to take opportunities when they come up; you need to be emotionally ready. It’s important to recognise when there’s a space in your life, that you’re ready for something new. You don’t have to go out and kill yourself looking for it, it’ll come along.

I’ve often thought about it in terms of looking for a piece of string… When I first moved to Berlin, I had a very bad bike, and the rear mud-guard fell off. I thought, “I just need a bit of string to tie this back on, so that I can get home,” because I couldn’t cycle with the bike as it was. Five minutes later, I found a piece of string. And I must have cycled past hundreds of bits of string earlier that day…

There’s lots of stuff out there, but if you’re not looking, you don’t see it. And as soon as you look for it, and you’re open for it… It’s there all the time, you just need to be looking in the right way and ready for the right thing. You just tune into stuff and it’s part of your world, all of a sudden.

Where do you turn for solace?

I love getting out into nature. I find it very inspiring creatively, as well – going camping, going hiking, getting away from lots of people. It doesn’t have to be by myself, it can be with some friends, or family, but the experience of being out in nature, getting out of the city is so important. You can do a lot of good thinking there. You mentioned earlier people going for a run and working through ideas… I don’t go for a run to work out ideas, but if I go on a week camping, I always come back having figured out something that I didn’t know I was thinking about.

Did you say that when you went on tour with A Winged Victory For the Sullen [AWVFTS], you set the guitar aside and composed an entire set specifically for that tour?

Yes! The music I was writing at the time was all guitar orientated, but when the opportunity to play alongside AWVFTS came up, I wanted to take the opportunity to write something a bit more cinematic and get away from the traditional “singer-songwriter” approach. Most of the guitar songs didn’t translate to piano so well, so I wrote a set of all new songs in the days before the shows. It was a good call, actually, because sound-combining synthesizers, piano, and the live electronics fell into place almost overnight. For me, it laid the groundwork creatively to go on and write the Voyages by Starlight EP, and now the full length Silence.

Do you see yourself going back to the guitar?

Tom Adams guitar

Aylin Uysal

I would like to, I barely play it now, which is a shame! It was the first instrument I really connected with as a teenager. Until that point, playing music had always involved slowly plodding my way through piano sheet music note by note – I’ve never really worked well with sheet music.

Playing in bands with your friends involves a lot more learning by ear, however – and that came very naturally. Getting into the electric guitar opened up music for me in a way that I hadn’t experienced it before. Now I’ve almost completely abandoned it! [Laughs] I want to start playing again; I think it will be good to have more guitar on the next album…

You mentioned your next album…

Yes! I’m just starting to work on it now! It is likely to be a much more fully-fledged affair. I wanted the record Silence to be very personal and very honest – that’s why I wanted to do the live takes, keep all the mistakes in there. I wanted to say, “This is me playing some music right now.” As a result, however, Silence ended up being quite a “safe” record to make because it occupies a particular space and doesn’t stray too far from there. I’m interested to explore bigger contrast in the next record, take a few risks, and use the studio more. It’s all up in the air right now and could go in several different directions – it’s exciting!

Thank you.

This interview by Gabrielle Sedita is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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