Creators Series: Vampire Weekend’s Chris Tomson on his solo venture Dams of the West

The Vampire Weekend drummer and solo musician speaks to us about his new record Youngish American, opening for Father John Misty, marriage and commitment, religion, maturing as an adult in your 30s and Tottenham Hotspur 

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(Photo: Still from “Death Wish” music video for Dams of The West, Dir. by Emily Tomson)

Shortly after the Modern Vampires of The City tour wrapped up back in 2014, Chris Tomson was in need of a break.

The Columbia University economics and music major worked tirelessly on three pretty stellar records – Vampire Weekend (2007), Contra (2010) and Modern Vampires of The City (2013). The ensuing endless stream of tour cycles was infinitely rewarding, but ultimately exhausting for the four members.

In the years that would come, the four members would branch out to other distinct passions and interests. Principal songwriter and vocalist Ezra Koenig would play Her (2013)’s ‘The Moon Song’ at the 86th Academy Awards with Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O, receive an official songwriting credit on the Beyonce record for ‘Hold Up’ thanks to an improvised idea spurt at a Diplo studio session, and consequently wound up getting his own quirky Apple Music internet radio show on Beats 1 titled ‘Time Crisis’, whilst also continuing to establish a pretty damn funny Twitter page.

Composer, multi-instrumentalist and secret weapon Rostam Batmanglij (who walked away amicably from the group in January of last year to establish ‘his identity as a songwriter + producer’), would break out as a bonafide and sought-after solo modern day maestro, producing tracks for namely: Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, Santigold, Solange, Frank Ocean, and the upcoming Haim album all while still being able to deliver a collaboration record with Hamilton Leithauser, and in the meantime is even about to drop his own solo album this fall.

Bassist Chris Baio has always had a reputation of being of DJ, and finally pursued his solo-musical exploits with alt-pop record ‘The Names’ in 2015 with track ‘Sister of Pearl’, a memorable FIFA 16 video game soundtrack favorite. He’s also just recently added to that with his second solo studio album, ‘Man of the World’ this past week.

Following the realization that they would have ‘fairly large amounts of time’ in the break after spending the bulk of their 20s essentially building Vampire Weekend, Tomson retreated to a life of inner simplicity instead. He took a vacation, got married, went back to New York City and started to really re-evaluate his place in the world.

According to an interview with Stereogum, he’d realize how dominant a force Vampire Weekend was in his calendar and schedule for the past several years, realizing it was a constraint in terms of “life choices and where he needed to be and what he had to do.”

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(Photo: Still from “Death Wish” music video for Dams of The West, Dir. by Emily Tomson)

In the wake of the VW hiatus with the amount of spare time he had, Chris Tomson got up, and found more confidence in his musical exploits, realizing he could (songwriting-wise) write about that time spent emotionally unpacking too, as “opposed to intense breakups or something”.

At a later date, he went into the studio with Patrick Carney of The Black Keys and re-branded himself as Dams of The West. The resulting album ‘Youngish American’ is a rustic, and at times sarcastic, but ultimately poignant 10 track collection of modern Americana infused with indie rock. Some tracks are challenging to get into, but others are charming and immediate tunes that share a great sense of pop sensibilities much like the more minimal Vampire Weekend tracks during the MVOTC era.

‘Death Wish’, probably the best track on the debut Dams of The West album, is a piano driven, confident ballad of self-assurance in turbulent, times of personal, ‘waking up and looking in the mirror type’ re-evaluation. “I’m more than just my Saturdays/I can only kill myself slowly in so many ways”.

The Inerrancy of You and Me’ is an up tempo, popping bass track on commitment and marriage “If we just tell the truth there’s no need, for absolution or confession”, whilst ‘Flag on the Can’ is a despondent and subdued rumination on American nationalism and asserting one’s own individuality.

We speak to Dams of The West on his influences like Joni Mitchell and The Beatles, religion, the new record ‘Youngish American’, professionalism in music, and maturating as an adult in your 30s.

Congratulations on the record release! The process of getting there must have been a lot of hard work and fun. How does it feel like to have your solo record out in the world? Is it gratifying?

Thanks! Having Youngish American released feels great in many ways although it honestly feels only like the first step. I am excited to share it with everybody but am also looking forward to creating more!

How emotionally needed was it to have that long break after touring MVOTC, and how important was that (amount of free time) in adjusting your head space as you go in working on this Dams of the West album?

I think all four of us VW-ers needed some time and space after we finished touring on MVOTC. The decade of our first three albums, which essentially was the entirety of out 20s, was incredible, exhausting, crazy, unbelievable, stressful and any number of other adjectives. I think we all needed to ground ourself in other things, whether artistic or personal or whatever, in order to be able to move forward in a healthy and positive way and, at least for me, that is what I have been doing since August of 2014!

The influences list you put up is very eye-opening and interesting on Spotify. There were a couple that stuck with me – specifically The Beatles’ Long Long Long Is that your favorite beatles track?

I’m not sure if “Long, Long, Long” is my favorite Beatles song but its definitely one that I’ve always been drawn to.  The way it manages both humbleness and devotion simultaneously is something that I find very moving. Also, I’ve always loved the story about how the ending was improvised to the rattling of a wine bottle on a speaker.

It’s one of the big themes on the new record. What does ‘maturing’ mean to you, personally?

Gaining a better understanding of your place in the universe (which, incidentally, is never the center of it), the true cost of consequences and embracing whatever responsibilities that may arise.

This might be your debut solo album, but you’ve had experiences in the past working on those 3 Vampire Weekend records that you might be able to take from and apply during the creation process of Youngish American. What have you learned in Vampire Weekend that might have helped either in the recording (or creation) process?

I think the biggest thing that I learned from VW over the years is to never phone anything in. From the album cover to promo photos to lyrics to arrangements, you want to make sure that it all means something and is adding to the world you’re trying to create. As always, whether one is successful at that is in the eye/ear of the beholder but I certainly did my best to have all things Dams feel connected.

Religion is a topic that’s referenced in your album – specifically in the Unitarian Church Lyric and the Inerrancy lyric (that I assume to be either derivative or attributed to something perhaps biblical – even though its applied to a relationship). What does religion mean to you in 2017?

I am simultaneously repelled by dogma and fundamentalism and fascinated by what has inspired them. I think faith is an incredibly important personal journey that seems too often to be ignored, as often by disinterest as by submission to someone else’s narrative. As mentioned, I was raised Unitarian but consider myself currently to be figuring it out. I hope I never do.

Following up on that, marriage is also a theme on the record, and your lyrics highlight a lot of millennial fears in marriage and commitment in a way that is witty and heartwarming (“don’t believe in the Inerrancy of you and me, but I think we can figure it out”) Define ‘commitment’ for us.

Commitment probably means a lot of things to a lot of people but to me it feels related to my answer about maturing above.  You have to figure out how to remain yourself while becoming part of a larger unit. That does not always go smoothly but if everyone in the unit is committed, communicative and on the same page awareness-wise then it can be very rewarding. Trust the process.

How was it like working with your wife directing on the music video for ‘The Inerrancy of You & Me’?

It was by and large quite fun! Emily and I came up with the idea for the video together and she put in a ton of work to make sure we could complete everything on a very tight schedule. A few terse conversations to be sure but I ultimately found it rewarding and an honor to work with her so closely on such a project of shared creativity.

You’re opening for Father John Misty for a couple of tour dates I believe? How did that come about? Are you a fan of his work?

I had met the good Father a few times over the years and had definitely been a fan of his since Fear Fun. The shows came about when he texted me asking if I could open a few shows, me checking my iCal and then texting back “kk! sounds good.” We finished the tour two weeks ago and it was a great experience for myself and the rest of Dams and I can confirm that FJM is putting on great shows right now!

I remember listening in to a video interview pretty recently and was struck by a quote by Dan Bejar of Destroyer and The New Pornographers speaking in the context of music on how “professionalism has destroyed a certain kind of environment.” Are you a naturally disciplined person? What do you say to that?

I have the capacity to be quite disciplined but I don’t always exercise that capacity when needed. So, yes and no (which my friends would call a “classic CT answer”).  I should add, though, that I don’t think that there is any one formula that works for everyone artistically. Someone might do their best work winging it and feeling things in the moment and someone else might be better off refining something over and over again. In general, I have a hard time believing in absolutes.

What can you tell us about Herbie Hancock (and his influence on your music)?

Probably not much more than you can read on Wikipedia. In a personal sense, though, his album Head Hunters was very influential in my musical coming of age. When I first heard it at 14 it quite literally blew me away.  I have met many people who do not share my fondness for that album but it will forever remain important to me (not to mention Sextant, Mwandishi, Thrust, etc.)

Let’s talk about Joni Mitchell. Why do you think she was such a good songwriter?

If I knew the exact reasons why I probably wouldn’t tell anyone! I am definitely a late arriver in terms of listening to Joni and realizing how incredible she has been for her whole career so I don’t feel terrifically qualified to expound on her artistry. I def bow down to her tho.

What was the last instant emotional reaction you got from a piece of art: film/music or visual art, etc, what was it from, and why do you think it affected you in that way?

As of this minute of me writing this, I would have to say the answer is the tv show The Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s set in the US of a near future (or an alternate present?) that is heinous and gross but also somehow not impossible to imagine coming to be.  I have not read its source book by Margaret Atwood but I have found the show to be both gripping and horrifying.

What is your songwriting process like?

This is a hard one to answer as it has proven to be different on a case by case basis. I think I can say, though, that what I was trying to do was express potentially common themes in uncommon ways and that I tended to gravitate towards illuminative details as opposed to shouting “BIG IDEAS” over and over.

As a kid or even as a teenager, what were some of the first (if I could call it) ‘profound’ occurrences with music?

A Derek Trucks slide guitar solo at the first big concert I ever went to (Allman Brothers Band, 8/29/99 at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ). RIP Gregg.

What do you think is the most underrated quality in life?

Empathy maybe? I don’t know, that feels a bit above my pay grade.

What is your biggest fear? (in music or wherever)

Large insects.

As a personal Vampy Weeks stan, I’ve got to ask, How the hell do you record the drums on the records? They sound amazing. There’s a sort of crispness and a boominess quality that actually makes the rhythm for vampire weekend very identifiable and if I may call it, stand-out.

That’s one secret I’ll never tell!

Lastly, I read that you’re a football fan (Is Tottenham right?). Gunner here. What is it about football that captivates you? I personally am drawn to the patterns and “beautiful football” that Arsenal (used to…) play as well as probably the passion and feeling/high you get when your team does something either amazing or against the odds, etc.

Soccer (sorry, can’t say football) was my favorite sport to play growing up and I have always enjoyed watching it be played by people way better than me. There is a flow to the game and a certain geometry that I have always loved and, having been a Spurs fan for the last 10+ years, I can also say that I enjoy the emotions that the sport can elicit both good and bad.  (Also, you should have mentioned you were a Gunner at the top. I might have approached these questions differently. COYS.)

Dams of the West will be playing at The Meadows Music & Arts Festival, New York City on Saturday, September 16.

‘Youngish American’  is now available through 30th Century Records/Columbia Records.

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