Q&A: Chris Tomson Celebrates His Self-Doubt as Dams of the West
"A lot of this album tries to balance and deal with feeling simultaneously super pumped and super bummed..."
April 3, 2017
It has been quite some time since I found an album oozing with as much genuineness as Youngish American, the debut album from Chris Tomson, AKA drummer of Vampire Weekend AKA Dams of the West. In what seems to be an audio diary at times, Tomson is unabridged on this record, touching on a variety of topics including his romantics, religion, Montana, and pizza. There are tidbits of knowledge and irony relatable to all ages scattered across the tracks. That being said, each song carries its own message, as on “The Innerancy of You and Me,” where Tomson croons of love and the hypocritical mannerisms of modern relationships, shining light on how it can be, or on “Death Wish,” which potentially epitomizes the record, Dams reflecting on the majority of his habits and worry. However, though Tomson focuses on some harsh subject, he reaches some ambiguously positive conclusions, like on the aforementioned track where he realizes he just wants to “fix the fixable things.” An LP brief in run time but hefty in content, Youngish American shows us a man uncertain of his life but uniquely optimistic and insightful in the worry’s wake. Though a retired formula, for an adequately troubled middle aged man to make a singer-songwriter album, Dams of the West manages to create his own story that leaves a mark on you.
Tomson enlisted the help of The Black Key’s drummer Patrick Carney, and his separate discography of impressively smooth production (Tennis, The Sheepdogs), paired with the album being made by two drummers, is obvious. Drums are most predominant on the record, and that is okay – it’s another factor which allows this singer-songwriter motif to thrive: most are a man and a guitar, and this often sounds like a man and some drums. Even so, Tomson undertook all instrument playing on the album to create a clean and coherent piece of art. What’s also notable is his ability to make this undertaking into something independent of Vampire Weekend’s sound, an immediate jump one listening to Youngish American would make. He’s created a story here. In under 40 minutes, Youngish American delivers the story of exactly what the title promises, while entertaining with consistently catchy tunes; Dams of the West is his own honest machine.
Amid my analyzing of the record, I was able to come into contact with Tomson for a Q&A on Youngish American, he offering insight on inspiration to the album, its formation, and the mental preferences and struggles following him throughout. I am appreciative of him taking the time to add some reflection.
Did you have this concept for an album for some time or do you have some dramatic story where you were in a place and looked at your friend and said “hey, I’m a youngish american.”
I would say that there was no particular “a-ha!” moment but more of a gradual recognition of where I was in my life. Personally, I have found that by the time I realize that something is changing, the actually change is generally almost done!
I think you’re fortunate in that you’re creating this solo album seemingly in not a place of midlife crisis, but contentment and comfortable celebration, seeing as you have love and inclusion in a successful band. I also believe lyrics can be indicative of positive and negative feeling to those facts – does this album for you lean more towards a celebration of sorts or a mid life crisis?
I feel incredibly fortunate about a number of things in my life, to be sure. However, I also feel like such good fortune does not completely insulate anyone from self-doubt, self-questioning or any number of other negative feelings. When I was writing the album, a real breakthrough came when I realized that instead of avoiding that juxtaposition it was more interesting to lean into it, to explore it. In that way, I feel like a lot of this album tries to balance and deal with feeling simultaneously super pumped and super bummed, so your question is really spot on!
Inerrancy often being used to describe biblical literature, could you see a religious/spiritual film over your relationship? (In that you find your conversation and everydays to be consistent and not contradictory)
I found the term inerrancy to be so striking because of its implication of 100% certitude. Personally, I am always wary of being absolutely sure of anything (except maybe in some of the hard sciences). I think some degree of doubt is very healthy, especially when it comes to the Big Ideas like faith and love. Both concepts require significant trust and a certain mysticism that leave a lot of room for questions.
Did titles come before or after writing these songs? They are sung with such a coherence it feels someone gave you a couple of words and said make a song out of that title.
Each song came about in a different way. The one major example I can think of is the phrase “The Inerrancy of You and Me” came to me as a title first but it happened to fit in with some lines I had about fighting at the Home Depot, so its hard to say. I definitely tried not to overthink anything too much and let it happen.
Does the location the album cover shows have any significance to you? Does your attire and expression either? How did the idea of the album cover come to you?
I worked with the artist Jake Longstreth to come up with the cover. My initial idea was to put 10-20 little CTs strewn about some Big Sky-ish landscape to both recognize and subvert the idea that it was a solo album on which I played almost all of the instruments. Jake had that landscape picture from a hike he took years ago and was playing around with my idea when he came upon the single, totemic CT image. He said, essentially, “Your idea is cool but this is better.” He was right! The outfit and expression of the lone, large CT were not overly thought out but were more impulsive. I have favored a deadpan look in photos (even family ones where I am supposed to be smiling!) for most of my adult life so that just felt natural I guess.
What is your favorite quality of a Dam? Least?
Favorite: power generation
Least: ecological damage/disruption
What is your favorite quality of the West? Least?
Favorite: the landscape (especially with mountains. Being a flatlander from NJ, the mountains of the west have always been very evocative to me)
Least: hard to say! I’m gonna keep it positive and say none!
Did you collaborate any Vampire Weekend demos or concepts or try to separate that area of your music career for this?
No, Vampire Weekend and Dams of the West are completely separate projects. Obviously I participate in both but at vastly different levels. Truthfully, I love both scenarios!
Do you feel this album stands out if compared to VW’s music?
I hope so!! While there are certain similarities (especially in my approach to drumming/rhythms) that is not for really me to say. That’s for people like you and articles like this!
So you and Patrick Carney are just going to make an album where you guys drum right? A battle of some sorts?
I doubt it. I generally don’t enjoy being publicly embarrassed and his grooves would totally crush me.
Having worked with him, do you see yourself ever producing for someone else?
Sure, if the right situation comes along!
Do you enjoy the process of making an album? Insecurity and fright and all?
Yes, for sure. If I didn’t, I would definitely be in the wrong line of work! I think that embracing the insecurity and dealing with it is incredibly healthy and ultimately makes for more interesting work. I would be lying if I made a record that was like “I’m all good! Absolutely nothing wrong over here!”Photo Credit: Emily Tomson
What kinds of art show up in your music? Meaning what movies, other music, inspired Youngish American?
Oh man, this is hard to say. I will say that (I hope) the album has elements of Renaissance religious painting, Joan Didion’s nonfiction writing and the vibes of mid-90s Sportscenter.
Is there any significance to the time of release for this? Does it feel too early or too late?
There are a lot of logistical and functional reasons for when an album gets released and Youngish American was definitely subject to all the of those. I do think that it was released into the world that I was writing about though so I hope it doesn’t feel too late.
Do you add any sort of inflection to your voice when singing, or does it come to you naturally?
I’ve taken a few lessons to improve my technique but, for better or worse, what you hear on the album is my natural singing voice.
If you had to describe a few of the songs on your album as animals, what would they be?
Youngish Americans is a giraffe, for sure. And Will I Be Known to her is a cheetah.
As mentioned on Polo Grounds, do you have a passion for Stephen Foster and Oh Susanna?
Not in particular, although I do find things that are resolutely “American” and the reasons why they are considered to be so very interesting.
I think when you sing “And when I sit down and write a record, Can I be more than just another sad, sad white man?” it defies most possible criticisms to the album. Is there anything from the album that you would possibly categorize as being from just another sad white man? Anything you’d like to elaborate, annotate, or expand upon?
That line is definitely one that came from the self-criticism and doubt that generally accompany most writing. I tried to have a healthy perspective about who I am and what I was trying to communicate and all of the relevant pitfalls and and privileges contained therein.
Are there any topics you would have liked to have wrote of on your album looking back?
Not really. Moving forward, there are definitely new things and areas that I am interested in pursuing but this album is really a snapshot of how I felt in that moment in time. I don’t think it’s perfect (obviously!) but I am proud of its accuracy and honesty.
How is playing live as lead different from what you’re used to?
It’s pretty different! I am now standing up! There are some performative lessons that I can translate to being up front from drumming but, in general, its a totally different animal. I am thoroughly enjoying being uncomfortable and figuring everything out though.
What’s your favorite pizza?
Sausage and onions (preferably caramelized but not essential).
Is Montana special to you? Is working there the only significance it holds? What were those people like that they allowed you to milk the cows?
Montana is almost a holy place to me. When I drove through it on the first Vampire Weekend tour in 2007, I was awestruck by the natural beauty. Again, I’m from New Jersey, so being under the Big Sky and surrounded by gorgeous and sometimes menacing mountains was very powerful. I decided on that first drive that I wanted to spend more time there and finally got my chance after the touring for Contra finished up. I was a ranch hand at the Germann family’s ranch in McAllister, MT for a month and absolutely loved it. I think I was helpful in general but I was definitely not very good at milking cows!
Photo Credit: Emily Tomson
Do you still follow some sort of church, Unitarian or not?
I feel like I have more faith than ever before but I don’t really attend any specific church, no.
What do you believe Jesus did look like?
That was one specific thing I remember from a Unitarian service when I was 10 or so. The minister said something to the effect of “if you look at the Bible, there was a lot of sitting around, eating and drinking wine. And people generally weren’t as tall back then.” I distinctly remember that because he was essentially saying of every likeness of Jesus I had ever seen, “well, maybe not.” The fact that this person of religious authority was questioning something I though was a religious certainty was very powerful to me.
What is the most “fixable thing” in our present time?
Empathy and compassion.
When was the last time you felt that “old” sense of abandon?
When I bowled 4 games in a row. That’s tough on my shoulders now.
As mentioned on Polo Grounds, what do you think your “cards” hold now? Some Jokers or some Aces?
I think I have a full house, Jacks over 5s. A good hand, to be sure, but definitely beatable.
What makes you a “weirdo kind of drummer”?
I don’t know! I think because I never took any lessons and just kind of felt it out things that seem normal to me seem crazy to more studied drummers!
Is Youngish American more of a bridge or a tunnel for you?
Hopefully one of each.
What is the best sporting event experience you’ve had?
As a fan: watching the Nets make the NBA finals 2 years in a row.
As a player: assisting Matt Bonner on a basket in a charity basketball game.
Do you think your father in law would or has he enjoyed the album?
I know for a fact he does and, yes, Perfect Wave is probably his favorite song.
If you could give a mantra for the album and the process of its creation, what would it be?
Be open and honest with yourself. Celebrate your limits and self-doubt instead of ignoring them.
Photo Credit: Chris Tomson
Though I was taken back from listening to Youngish American alone, having direct contact and explanation from Tomson has led me to appreciate his work even more. He’s created a poignantly kind record to listen to, opening up and giving his story, and did the same with this interview. He is an honest man who means what he does, unapologetically, and I am eager to see what chapters of his life he decides to share next. One of the final things I asked him was whether or not he felt Youngish American could move a nation, and he told me that was something up to me; I’ve decided it certainly is. We’re in an impressionable time where stories mean a lot, and truth means even more. Chris Tomson makes a perfect combination of those two on this record, and I highly suggest it be heard. Dams of the West’s music can be found on a variety of platform, including iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon. Be sure to also visit his website.