“As Personal to Me as I Could Manage”: An Interview with T_A_M

Son Raw speaks with T_A_M about the moods that helped influence his latest record, In Tandem, living in Scotland, and creative progress.
By    May 19, 2016


Readers of my monthly grime wrap up should know the name T_A_M by now. I first came across his music on the Try Industries compilation way back in 2014, but he’s since made move after move, appearing on leading labels like Coyote and Local Action while pushing his music in ever more idiosyncratic directions. Now, he’s dropping his debut LP In Tandem on Apothecary, and it’s even more of a curve ball: a dark, intricate—and yes, gentle—work that’s closer to electronica than grime. I spoke to T_A_M via DM about the album, Scotland and late summer frost. —Son Raw

First up, can you introduce yourself for our readers? Where are you from, how’d you first get involved in music, and how’d you come to release an album now?

T_A_M: Hey—I’m Thomas (Tam) and I’m based in Aberdeen in the NE of Scotland. It’s grey, cold and not a very exciting place to live. I’ve played in bands since I was 16 and like so many others eventually decided to take full creative control and start making music on my laptop about four years ago.

Joseph from Apothecary had asked me if I’d be interested in working on an LP for the label in 2014. Prior to that it had been something I’d have liked to have done but never given much actual consideration to.

You’ve put out quite a lot of different music this year—”Watty” fits nicely into the instrumental grime thing, which is where I know you from, but your release with Local Action and In Tandem are VERY different. How’d that come about? Have you always been making stuff across different styles and were waiting to drop it?

T_A_M: Yeah, I’ve always made a very broad variety of music and up until this year, only a very specific, club-centric selection of it has been released. For quite a while I think I was limiting myself to making stuff purely to play out or have other DJs play, for whatever reason, but in the last couple of years and more specifically the last 9 months I’ve realized that there’s no point filtering that sort of thing so I’ve just been making whatever I feel like and not really thinking much about it. If I like it, I figure someone else is bound to as well!

How did you begin the process of making In Tandem? Was it always “meant” to be an album, or was that decided as you were making it?

T_A_M: Well since Joseph had asked me to work on an LP, it was always something I was keen to get sounding cohesive and varied as opposed to a collection of 10 or 11 club tunes. I struggle to think of any album that has taken that format that I’ve actually enjoyed from start to finish. My favorite electronic albums are broad in scope and have tried to convey a specific type of mood, so that was something I wanted to aim for.

One of the most striking things about the album is how meditative and relaxing it is, without falling prey to easy ambient clichés. I’m writing these questions from a park while listening to it, and it’s quite fitting. Since you’ve also made some pretty rugged club tunes, what inspired this mood?

T_A_M: I spent a while trying to think of what was going to inspire the mood and it initially started to take shape as I was in a love/hate relationship with where I was living and how bleak and grey it was, but also how it’s where all my friends and family live. Basically weighing up whether to stay or leave.

As I was finishing the album up though, a long term relationship ended very unexpectedly, I lost my job and ended up having to move back with my parents—all within a few weeks of each other. So the more somber aspects of the music all of a sudden seemed to take on a different meaning and from there, the last of the writing, song titles and artwork very much reflected that pretty grim turn of events.

That’s also interesting considering your earlier work—the same techniques you could apply to grime in terms of drum programming, mixing, and melody are now applied to something very delicate. “Trooner” has an eski-lead but also a very pastoral arp pattern, for instance.

T_A_M: Yeah, I guess it’s just the way I make tunes transferred over to a more emotional type of music. I’d like to think there’s sounds that crop up across all my music that means it has some coherence…hopefully [laughs].

The darkness is apparent in the sound, but there’s also a warmth and organic quality to the instrumentation—there’s electronic elements yes, but also a lot of piano and such. How’d the sound palette come together?

T_A_M: I started off trying to make a conscious effort to use a far more limited selection of sounds than I would usually do so a lot of the songs only use about 7 or 8 channels. I don’t actually play piano but my ex-girlfriend had a really cool old, slightly out of tune piano in our flat that I sampled and managed to cobble together a few interludes out of. There’s also a breakdown in “The Gulls” that my ex played as I sat and tried in vain to explain what chords I wanted her to play.

Lots of recordings that I took on my phone are scattered throughout it in the background and a bit of the percussion as well. I wanted it all to be as personal to me as I could manage.

Were you inspired by any outside listening? Usually artists I speak to tend to avoid listening to anything while making albums, but I’m curious cause if there’s any reference points here, they’re probably not music I’d be aware of.

T_A_M: In terms of the actual sound of the album, I tried to remain fairly free of any direct influence—if that’s possible? But one album that I really took influence from in terms of the mood and pacing was Call Super’s Suzi Ecto. It’s—I guess—a techno album on paper but the way it flows is so organic and fluid and exciting, it was something that I really wanted to try, and at least make an effort to capture but without the techno aspect.

Pouring over the track titles, there’s some intriguing wording there. How do you go about naming stuff?

T_A_M: “Gang Faur” and “Fare Waur” come from this really grotty, old roadside cafe on the way out of Aberdeenshire. It’s got this huge writing that says “ye may gang faur and fare waur” which translates to “You could go further and fare worse” which I’ve always thought was pretty funny and self-defeating and reflects my feelings about wanting to leave but being fairly unsure of it at the same time.

“Summ Kirk” is another Scottish thing. Kirk is a Scottish word for a church. When we were in Barcelona last summer we stood outside the Sagrada familia and my mate was like—”aye, but it’s just some kirk” and thought it had to be a song title.

They’re all mainly little in-jokes or fleeting thoughts that have some meaning to me and end up sticking.

The penultimate track, “Bleak End,” is the longest by a margin and feels like an emotional peak/centerpiece. How did that one come about?

T_A_M: “Bleak End” initially wasn’t going to be on the album but once I was getting close to finishing it, it just seemed to fit the rest of the mood pretty well and provided a bit of heavier percussion and bass that was maybe slightly absent from the rest of the album.

I know it’s a bonus track, but “cor – Bano” knocked me out of my reverie right now! Had to remind everyone you’re still for bangers?

T_A_M: Haha—yeah, that was on a compilation that Apothecary put out last year so it’s a bit older and definitely shouldn’t be considered part of the album! Just a wee bonus.

Any shout outs/last words?

T_A_M: Gang Faur!

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