Tom VR talks early morning music production, scoring films, and albums that will take you somewhere else

“I would say it’s always better to go longer. If there’s anything that I’ve learnt from this project, from my album, it’s that rushing things out… I don’t think it’s worth it.”

For years Tom VR has ceaselessly redefined the landscape of electronic music with tunes that transcend genres in new and exciting ways. Ahead of the release of his much anticipated album, Please Keep Shimmering (out 22nd September 2021 on ‘All My Thoughts’ – Seb Wildblood’s label), we sat down to have a conversation about finding inspiration during difficult times, northern club culture, the relationship between music and film, and some of our favourite albums.

With release day fast approaching, how are you feeling about the launch of your new LP?

I’m just super eager for it to be out. I’m really excited for people to hear music that I’ve been working on for a long time, because it has been a long time. I feel as though it’s been a particularly long run up for this release. I think I started working on it near to the end of 2018.

On the ‘All My Thoughts’ Instagram page, the label described the album as, “The end result of a long, turbulent creative process – it’s an album about perseverance and finding inspiration in the face of monotony and self-doubt.”

Finding any form of creative inspiration during lockdown must have been extremely challenging. Did you find this inspiration internally or externally? If internally, did this stem from important memories and experiences, or something else? If externally, what provided this at such a dark and miserable time?

That’s a good question. With my first album, the inspiration came a lot from external sources: things like films, media I was consuming at the time, and my friends. There were lots of field recordings of things around me: samples from films, samples from podcasts, things like that. So I think the way I used to approach making music was that I was a lot more about focusing on external stimuli for my creative output.

Then since I started working on the second album, obviously the period of time that it was over was prolonged massively. A lot of that was in lockdown, in isolation, but I wouldn’t regard it as a ‘lockdown album’. Throughout all this time I’ve worked a standard 9-5 as well, and still do, in customer service. At the time when the album was made I used to work for a different company, quite a large company, and I used to have to deal with quite a lot of not very nice people. I worked on the phone and also worked doing emails, Twitter, things like that. When I carried that on through lockdown, it felt like it was very difficult to find inspiration during that period in my life. I think it was because when you do a job like that that’s just so monotonous and so draining, it can be quite difficult to switch off and do something creative.

So what I started to do at the time – and this is something I do more now too – is instead of trying to source inspiration to then make music creatively, I’m starting to do it in the reverse. I’m starting to make music and produce, in order to kind of get into that flow state, that meditative state, a little bit more.

When I’m talking about a ‘flow state’, it’s the same as when you’re reading something or if you’re playing a game and you don’t even drink water for an hour… or two hours, or you don’t even look up and you look at your watch and go, “Shit, it’s 10 o’clock… how the hell did that happen?” I’ve been trying to pursue music as an exercise where I can reach that more regularly. You might come up with an idea from that process that you like so much that it’ll then drive your creativity for the next week.

As well as that, around that time (during lockdown) I started doing paintings and going on walks with my girlfriend pretty regularly to photograph flowers and stuff to make these videos that I post. I was also trying to discover new avenues to become inspired externally as well.

You went to university in Leeds. What did you think of the city? Did it have any impact on the music you were making at the time?

Yeah, I loved it a lot, and part of me thinks that I left too early. I always constantly say to people that I’m going to move back. I feel like one day I might. The impact that the experience of living in Leeds had on me was huge. I had never really gone clubbing in the traditional sense until I moved to Leeds. That’s where I probably learnt about dance music in a physical sense, because everyone before they’re 18 listens to music, watches videos on YouTube… you kind of get this idea in your head about what raving is going to be like, and then when you actually experience it for the first time it’s always completely different.

It also had a huge impact on me with regards to the people I met there. I met some of my best friends to this day in Leeds, specifically Louis, who runs Valby Rotary with me, and Jack, who’s a super close friend of mine as well (both producers – Jeigo and Louf). If I hadn’t met those two, then I probably wouldn’t be making the music I’m making now.

The city impacted me massively, and the people I met there especially. The clubbing scene in Leeds is just incredible. The clubs are amazing.

Does the music scene and community up north differ from the one in London? If so, how?

I don’t think I’ve lived in London long enough to know truly what it’s like in terms of the clubbing environment. I’ve only been to a handful of the places that everyone talks about going to: number one, because we’ve only just been allowed to start going out again; number two, I only just moved here in January.

So I would say at this point in time I’m not well-equipped enough to pick a side. But one thing that I did enjoy massively about the scene in, let’s say Leeds (but I imagine it’s the same in a lot of northern cities), is the fact that the communities seem very, very cohesive. It felt like a big family there. There’s a huge network of DJ’s in Leeds that’d all be booking each other. Everyone looking out for each other and constantly doing favours for each other, and helping elevate everyone. You’d go to whatever the night was you were going to and you’d see the same people, the same friends… even if you just knew them because they were in that club last week or two weeks ago. I think in a community sense that’s something that I feel I’m missing now but not necessarily because I’m in London, but because I’ve not experienced it yet, truly.

On social media you mentioned that Aleksandir’s latest album “seriously had an impact” on you. Could you explain this in a bit more depth? What is it about his music that stands out to you?

To me, I don’t really know anyone that makes music like his. It’s got a very intimate feel to it, which is something that I think is hard to achieve a lot of the time. A lot of the time in the album it feels like he’s almost singing in your ear; it’s like he’s in the room. I think that element of it makes it very special. During that period of time when he was working on the album and I was in a particularly monotonous and low period of my life – desperate to get some kind of positive external influence – he would send all his demos to me and ask me for my opinions on it. It gave me something to think about and give my opinion on that wasn’t my own creations.

Seeing it unfold for that amount of time and then seeing it get released… I think that’s why when I listen to it, still to this day, it makes me really happy.

Do you find it easy sticking to a regimented schedule with your music-making? Or do you have bursts of creativity at random points in the week that leave you suddenly rushing straight to the studio?

I wish I was the kind of person who could randomly run over to their computer, get a riff in their head, and be like, “I’ve got to get this down.” But it doesn’t really come like that to me because of the nature of how my day is structured. What I’ve been doing more recently – and this was actually suggested to me by Louis – is waking up at 7am and working on music until I actually have to start doing my job. It’s kind of twofold: number one because I feel I’m most productive right when I wake up… the other thing is when you get into that headspace and that creative zone before your day begins it almost sets you up mentally for the day in a positive way.

You’ve explained previously that with your label, ‘Valby Rotary’, the ethos is to put things out at your own pace. Do you take the same approach with your own music, or do you set yourself personal deadlines? 

That’s a good question. So, I’m not the kind of person to be like, “Right. I want ‘x’ many tracks finished by the end of October.” Or I know some people kind of go, “Okay… I’m working on this track – I’m gonna finish it by the end of the week, box it off.” That’s not really the way I operate. How it works with me more is that there’s not really a set ‘deadline’. I don’t really have a particular goal in terms of when something’s going to come out. But say if I’m releasing something with Seb, for example, a lot of the time those deadlines and goals will start to come into fruition along the course of the record being made. I would say it’s always better to go longer. If there’s anything that I’ve learnt from this project, from my album, it’s that rushing things out… I don’t think it’s worth it.

In your interview with Plain Sailing (Feb 2021), you explained that the album “was finished by November last year, but things transpired and there were delays and it was put on hold. Because of the delays I’ve been working on it even more, it’s been a long process but I’m super happy with it.”

A lot of musicians talk about how hard it can be to resist the urge of tweaking their material again and again, thereby ending up with several ‘finished’ versions of a single track. Can you relate to this? If so, do you think that this can have positive consequences?

I can definitely relate to that. With regards to whether I think it’s positive or negative, I think that really depends. You can spend a long time just stressing over something and tweaking and tweaking and going slowly insane. But that being said, with my personal experience with this situation I think it was beneficial. I genuinely think I must have told Seb that it was finished and sent him the tracks probably eight times… and I’m talking as early as probably the end of 2019. So many times I thought it was done, and then I’d have to sit on it for a little bit more. The more I’d sit on it the more I’d think, “Shit… it’s too long” or, “Shit… this track shouldn’t be on there”, or something like that. It took all that time and then for it to actually be finished, and the length of time for me to sit on it being finished… I don’t think ever when you say “it’s done”, it’s done, until you’ve completed it and left it a few months. But maybe that’s just me thinking about it in the way that I think about it.

I’ve got friends who finish stuff and they’re just like, “Yeah, that’s good. That’s good to roll. I’m happy with that.” They just crack on. That’s maybe an even more healthy way to think about it. Whether or not you look back on it and think, “Ahh, maybe that could’ve been different”, it’s fine, because that represents where you were at that specific time and that was your creative time stamp almost. But I find it hard to let go of a project like that, just because of who I am.

But yeah, in the long run it was beneficial for me, and I’ll probably have that attitude moving forward as well… it’s something that I just can’t seem to shake.

That’s really cool to hear. I think if you were to force yourself into this mould of setting yourself deadlines then maybe it wouldn’t be the same music.

Maybe I’d be way more prolific… I don’t know. Maybe that’s a good experiment for me to try one day: just be like, “Right, I’ve got to stick to this. That’s it.”

Back in March of this year you described a mix that you’d recorded for Ransom Note by saying that, “To me it sounds like an imaginary journey that starts in the warmth of my bedroom and ends with the joy of the dancefloor.”

Are there any albums that spring to mind when you think of the concept of being taken on an ‘imaginary journey’?

God… loads. Not necessarily an album that takes me on a journey, but more of an album that takes me ‘somewhere’, is an album called Playing Piano For Dad, by H Hunt. It’s something that I listened to every single day during lockdown. You know when you do your ‘Spotify End of Year’ thing? This was my most-listened-to album for the last two years. It’s an album that’s all recorded in one take, just one guy at a piano in France… it’s basically recorded in this second floor studio and they’ve got the windows open. You can hear the street outside occasionally. You can hear him almost muttering and mumbling along with the music. It’s all improvisational. When I listen to that it really transports me into that room. I think there are a few albums like that when you listen to something and you feel like you’re actually in a place.

Another thing, it’s also slightly different, is Floating Points’ Elaenia. The album’s so cohesive and it sounds like there’s this sonic environment that you’re in… maybe it’s this kind of low level hissing or static sound that runs through the album. When it finishes you’re transported back into reality. I think there’s something really special about that. I don’t know if it was done intentionally or not. That’s a good example of something I listen to where from beginning to end I feel like I’m in a place, in a space. What about you? I’m interested to know.

The reason my eyes lit up when you mentioned Elaenia, Floating Points’ album, is because I hadn’t listened to that in years, and it’s an album that just demands to be listened to from start to finish. It really does teleport you somewhere else. I think another album that sprang to mind for me was Promises, the one he did with Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra. That one’s brilliant… I love that as well.

Oh yeah, incredible record. I mean he’s just like… a genius.

I’ll have to check out that first one you mentioned because I’ve never heard of that… it sounds so captivating. This whole idea of ‘background sounds’, which people usually try to block out of music, but I think they can make something feel so much more real sometimes.

The way in which you can hear him humming the melodies as he’s playing them out for the first time… it’s just really special, and I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s on this label called ‘Tasty Morsels’, and it’s free… you can just download it for free. Yeah… it’s mad, and I wish that I could own it on wax because it’s amazing!

In response to another question from your interview with Attack Mag, you said that if you weren’t making music you’d be doing “something to do with film, or food – most likely the latter.”

What’s your favourite type of restaurant to eat out at?

Good question. My favourite food is dim sum, so Chinese basically. My Grandma is Chinese, so my mum’s always cooked really good Chinese food. When I used to live where I’m originally from in the North West, in Chester, we’d occasionally go to this restaurant in Liverpool, which is called the Tai Pan, which is like a huge Chinese supermarket. Upstairs it’s a restaurant basically, and it’s super well-priced, really quick service, incredible food. Basically my mum and Grandma – or Po Po as we would call her – would speak in Cantonese for like 5 mins, and then they’d start bringing food. So I’d never really know what we were getting. That’s my dream food and dream restaurant, definitely.

Your last LP is entitled Films, and recently your music has been used in advertising for the ultra-lightweight furniture brand, Helinox. Do you ever imagine that your music could be used in full-length movies or any other kinds of visual media? If so, what kind of settings, environments or genres could you see your music working well with?

I do think about that all the time. For me something that I would love to do, something that I see as a goal for myself, is to be able to score a film. Reason being is that… well this is what happens to me anyway: I’ll be watching a movie, and something will happen, a particularly emotional scene… you’ll have the music, and the score hits perfectly at this particular moment when the dialogue or what’s happening on screen just hits that perfect ‘x point’, and it just hits me in the guts; it gets me in the stomach and makes me well up every single time. I think for me that’s why there’s something so special about the relationship between visual media and music and sound in general.

I’d like to score anything really, because some of my favourite scores are from films that are a mixed bag of genres. It’s almost like where I see positive affirmation – as in that’s what I want to be doing, that’s what I’m aiming to do. I think I’m going to make more moves to be proactive and actually try and do that in the future.

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014: Jenny Persson