Chris Tomson, drummer of Vampire Weekend, sat down with Rebecca Sowell, writer for WMSR Redhawk Radio to discuss his recent solo project, Dams of the West. Tomson released his first solo album, Youngish American on February 24, 2017. We discussed his foundation in music education, working with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, and spray tans.
WMSR: What inspired the name Dams of the West?
CT: Well, I think the baseline of that is that in terms of a band name or project name, I sort of knew very early on that my legal Christian name, Chris Tomson, is not the most exciting of names. It’s perfectly fine — it’s fine, it’s cool, last name is spelled a little bit weird. CT also seemed a little boring, like I’m sure there’s potentially millions of CTs in this country right now —
CT: That’s one of the bigger ones, certainly. I was thinking of people but states also, yes. I went through a lot of trial and error and came up with a lot of bad ideas, the occasional good idea, and then this one came up where I had read an article about literal dams of the western United States and the debate over whether they’re still useful or not and I sort of thought there was a parallel there of essentially being a dude writing rock songs in 2017 and existing in infrastructure built in the middle of last century and sort of figuring out how it still works.
WMSR: Interesting, I didn’t think about it —
CT: And also, I think dams are kind of cool monoliths, huge things of concrete. I think they’re visually interesting so there’s a visual element to it, there’s a conceptual underpinning. Also the Twitter handle was available.
WMSR: That can be a deal-breaker. What was the timeline like for your songwriting experience for the album? Did you write it all at once or was it spread over a large amount of time?
CT: Well, I think probably all the writing ended up taking place between March and August of 2015. So there’s a big burst once I sort of felt like I got a foothold and a way of songwriting that felt — maybe not wholly unique — but it felt interesting. It felt like I wasn’t hearing lyrics necessarily the way that that they were coming out that this felt interesting to me. Potentially new ground, new-ish ground.
Once that came to me, a bunch of stuff ended up coming quite quickly but some, like the last song, “Youngish Americans” the chorus and the second verse were sort of just stand alone that I had written early on in the process but then nothing was really working in a larger song context and then right at the end, the other two verses came and it filled out and became a full song. So you know, I think [it was written over] a fairly long stretch, but also a somewhat specific window.
WMSR: So right after Modern Vampires of the City?
CT: The tour finished, yeah. The album came out a few years before this, but when the tour finished, yeah.
WMSR: That’s right. So you seem to be the most lowkey member of Vampire Weekend. My friends and I actually joke about how you’re kind of the enigma of the group —
CT: [Laughs] Oh really? Nice! I don’t think of it that way but that’s nice.
WMSR: Well, I think it’s partly why I was so surprised to hear how personal your album and your songs are. Have you always strived to maintain a low profile on social media and through your appearances?
CT: I guess, although I would say as a fairly large counterpoint is that I’m putting an album out with my stupid face on the cover.
WMSR: [Laughs] That’s true.
CT: So that’s a pretty big vote on the non-lowkey side. I guess, I mean being in a band that does well is a very weird experience — a super blessed one, a very awesome one, crazy — but it can be confusing. The person that you are when you play those first shows, you either feel like you’re same person when you’re playing for a ton of people or a different person or whatever. I think I had — not a hard time — but I’m definitely the least adaptable of the band, I would say. I’m the most — not conservative — but I don’t pivot very well. Like it takes me a minute to change and Vampire Weekend changed very quickly a lot of times. So I don’t know, the low-key stuff, I guess? It’s probably also a little bit of a deflectionary mechanism of self-defense or you know, if you don’t put yourself out there then no one can talk shit.
So the song angle, that definitely wasn’t a conscious choice of like, “Man, I need to write super personal stuff” but I think, again, sort of similar along the lines of finding the voice of writing interesting songs, that was inevitably what I thought I had to say and what I thought people would respond to. I feel like my experience in life has been very singular, not unique, but it just feels like if I was able to say anything that would mean something to people, it would be from my experience. Even my parents were very surprised when they heard the songs, like I don’t think I told them half the stuff that I wrote about in the songs. My wife was also like, “Are you sure you wanna do this?” and I was like, “Yeah.”
WMSR: Might as well. So I’ve always associated you with drums, so it’s a bit surreal for me to see you singing and playing guitar. How many instruments do you play?
CT: Um… Twenty-one.
WMSR: Oh, wow.
CT: On the dot. No, I don’t know if there’s a specific number. But for the first two practices of Vampire Weekend, I was actually supposed to be the guitarist. I was a bit of a — I feel like people your age don’t know who this is — but I was a bit of a Trey Anastasio acolyte. Do you guys know who that is?
CT: Just like I thought. Well, ask your older brother or Google it. But anyways, I thought I would be the guitarist but then we had trouble finding a drummer and I always enjoyed playing drums and fooled around but didn’t know anything. So I said, “Well, I can give it a shot” and here we are. This, to me, it feels like I’m definitely less good than when I was in college at guitar but this feels like more of a return than a new thing. I mean, obviously doing it for actual people is new but the playing of the guitar is sort of old. The act of playing most of the instruments on the record was Pat Carney’s idea, who produced the album. He just said, “Can you do it?” and I was like “Yeah,” and he said, “Well, it’s just easier that way. Why don’t you just go ahead and do it?”
WMSR: That’s awesome. It’s really interesting for me that you studied music in college. I’ve always wondered, what was your instrument in college that you studied?
CT: The program at Columbia — I think you can take a track that’s somewhat more conservatory style but at least with my experience, Rostam and I took a lot of the same classes. I actually met him the first day of classes, first class. We ended up sitting next to each other in the back of this theory class and we lived close to each other so we became friends. It was mainly like learning some specific Western classical canon tenets of the theory. Then you could choose to be more performance, you could choose to be more composition, you could choose to be more music history at the musicology. I ended up doing more of the history at the musicology; Rostam did more of the composing.
WMSR: Okay, that makes sense. I was wondering if that really affected how you make songs now with that music background.
CT: I mean, I think any time anyone makes a song, everything they’ve learned is in play — whether they’re either purposefully ignoring something they’ve learned or utilizing it. You know, it’s there. There are some parts, a couple strings stuff that I wrote for the album that I still remember the rules that I learned from Professor Kramer freshmen year. So you know, specific small things that are not important to talk about. Maybe not the meat of the songs, like lyrics, but some of the arrangement stuff, that’s certainly still there.
WMSR: Awesome. Do you have any advice for current music majors? Especially with how grim job opportunities are?
CT: Oh man, I don’t feel competent to give advice to anyone. But again, my experience was very weird. After the first rehearsal of Vampire Weekend and the songs that Ezra and Rostam were bringing to the table, I remember thinking and saying to my roommate, “This is actually pretty good.” I had been in bands and stuff and they were fun but I never really thought I would be playing the Newport Music Hall in 2017.
So I don’t know, maybe like trust your gut? I feel like if you really think about it and think, “Does this feel worth the time, effort, money, sacrifice I’m gonna put into it?” then go for it. See what happens. If you really ask yourself and you’re unsure at any of those levels, then maybe you don’t. [Laughs] I don’t know, that’s the only vague advice I can give but even that’s like 60 percent advice. But think about it for yourself.
WMSR: I mean, I wasn’t totally feeling it as a music major. I love music and I love performing but I think that makes so much sense because it wasn’t clicking for me.
WMSR: But anyway, what I really like about your album is how you’ve established your own unique sound even though some elements remind me a bit of Vampire Weekend. Like the bass in “The Inerrancy of You and Me” kind of reminds me of “Everlasting Arms”. What was the biggest difference in the dynamic of making a solo album versus writing with a full band?
CT: Right, I think Vampire Weekend songs come together in any number of ways. Sometimes, but very rarely, it’s like the four of us at instruments. Often, Ezra starts something and then it goes to Rostam and they work on it and either Baio and I come in or we don’t — there’s any number of ways that it can come up. I do think with the differences, you don’t have anyone —
I mean, you could and I might in the future — but this particular album, I didn’t really have anyone that I could ask, “Do you have any ideas?”
In the studio with Pat [Carney] and the engineers, there was a lot of stuff going on. But I feel like the first time someone gave an idea that totally was not mine but then I thought about and was like, “You know what, that’s a lot better than my idea” was the [album] cover. My idea was to have like 30 CTs strewn about the landscape doing calisthenics or various things and then Jake Longstreth, the artist who was working on it with me, sent me this thing and was like, “What about this one big one? It still sort of gets the messages that you’re trying to play with but I think it’s a better image.” And at first, I was like, “Ah nah man, he’s wrong,” and then I thought about it and was like [Shrug], “Yeah, you know he’s right.”
So obviously, that’s not a musical answer but that was the biggest difference. There’s no sounding boards in real time and again, just trusting your own gut and instincts. [Laughs] Hopefully it worked, I don’t know.
WMSR: No, I think it did.
CT: Thank you.
WMSR: In “Pretty Good WiFi,” you mention visiting Daytona and getting a spray tan. I always smile at that part, not only because it’s funny but I actually live in Daytona now.
CT: Oh, nice. Do you get spray tans while you’re down there?
WMSR: No. I mean, I can’t even get an actual tan because I’m too pale.
CT: Well, spray tans would be good, then.
WMSR: Yeah, I guess. I’m just scared that I would get too orange or something.
CT: Which especially right now is a political statement.
WMSR: [Laughs] Good point. I was wondering, did you actually get a spray tan down there? Or was the lyric just symbolic?
CT: I think the best answer I can give is that like a lot of stuff on this record, it’s based in truth, but not necessarily ripped from the headlines. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Daytona. But Daytona… I think that name is a very evocative place of spring breaks —
CT: — NASCAR, fun in the sun. But I’d love to go to Daytona. If the Daytona travel board is watching this, hook me up.
WMSR: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s all I have.
CT: Cool. I hope you’re enjoying the album, I know I enjoyed making it and I hope you can come see a show. And shout-out to Miami of Ohio. Shout-out to Miami, Florida also — but in this specific sense, Miami of Ohio.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photos and video by Noah Eblin, used with permission.