Tom Ellis is a producer through and through, an unstoppable force in beat-making who has been prolifically putting out tunes since the mid noughties. Not one to chase fame, fortune, or any kind of mainstream recognition, he has actually earned himself a more enduring reputation as a humble artiste dedicated to exploring sound, and (more importantly) becoming close with the community of music lovers that surrounds him. As a resident of Freerotation (the mythically intimate, invite only festival in Wales) he is one of the figures pushing a sound that, for many people, signifies the cutting edge of electronic music – or at least its beating heart. With a new LP about to drop on the minimal music fan’s bread and butter label, Minibar, we spoke to Ellis about his lifestyle of immersion in music.
(Tom will play at Wire on 1st December 2017 for Schwein along with their residents, Dog Eat Dog’s Jordan Plange and Pete Melba of Up North.)
You have always been a writer of albums, since your first ones on digital labels, to last year’s From The Cabin Above The Clouds and to the upcoming LP on Minibar. What does creating an album give you above EPs or singles? Is it something that comes naturally?
Yeah, I love it. I guess it gives me the opportunity to throw a few odder tracks out there for people to hear. It’s nice to try and have a good mix of different vibes on a single release, so there’s more chance someone will find something that resonates with them. It does come quite naturally, as I write so much material, but there’s always a lot of changing my mind when it comes to putting a release together like this. Cabanne & Neric were great to bounce ideas off, they let me have complete control of the track selection, and guided me when I went through my typical phase of changing my mind five times before returning to the first idea!
Listening to the clips of ‘The Colour Red’, there has been a slight shift up since the last album. These are tracks that could probably be played in the club. But did you have in mind more of a home listening experience?
They work well in the club, as long as I have the right audience. I’ve been playing these out for a few years now, in various forms, and they’ve always had a positive response, so I hope DJs find something that can work for them in the club, too. I’ve always been a bit confused about people’s perceptions of home or club listening, and why there’s such a defined line for some people. I’ve never really been one for typical straight up techno beats and sounds, I get a bit bored of those simple rhythms and basic oscillator riffs after a while. I like making things complicated because i love complicated music. I know that probably pushes a lot of my music out of reach for most DJs, but I’m ok with that. I grew up with Leif and my brother, Joe, as benchmarks in DJing, and they’ve consistently shown me that there’s so many ways to blur that line if you construct a set properly, and so many deep and weird vibes that can work at peak time if it’s played in the right context. They also helped me realise there are people out there who want to hear things done in different ways.
How does it feel to be one of the very few British producers putting out music on Minibar. Do you feel a little lonely in that the majority of those making music in your genre are mainland Europeans?
On the contrary, I’ve always felt a good connection to the scene in Europe that really helps me realise i’m not alone. I love that there are people out there with similar styles and approaches to making people dance. The distance is irrelevant, as the only thing separating two locations is time, and time is an abstract concept we only invented so we would know when to have breakfast. So it’s fine. But yeah they release some amazing and inspiring music, and it’s an honour to be on Minibar again! Total pros, and gentlemen, to boot!
Since you are based in the Welsh countryside (I believe this is still the case?), does it feel like quite a culture shock to come into the city to DJ or play live? You have already spoken about how the environment influenced the composition of the last album. How are things a year on?
I am in fact living in the West Midlands at the moment, a stone’s throw from the infamous Sandwell District! But I was born and raised in North Wales, where i spent the first 18 years of my life in a village with no shops, no parks, no pubs and virtually no people, and have lived in various spots around Wales and England since. So yeah, the culture shock is always still a thing for me. I’ve never felt particularly at home in busy environments. I like space and I like peace. Saying that, there is rarely a culture shock when I arrive at the actual club, it’s always the same kinds of nice people who are passionate about similar things in life. This album is little different to the last, in that the tracks have all been in the works for years. A lot of them were initially written in the same cabin as the last album, some from my place in Cardiff, where I lived before that, and all the final tweaks were made in my current home studio, which I have to say is the best to date! I live with a couple of good friends who let me get on with writing and recording at any hour, in a loft studio that has great acoustics and everything i need to hand.
Why did you decide to move back? And how have you adjusted?
It was great being out in the wilderness of Wales, but I don’t drive so it wasn’t exactly easy to get by up there. I moved back to the city about 2 years ago now, because things didn’t work out with the girl I lived with and I couldn’t afford to keep the place on my own. Its been great to be back in civilisation, but i do miss those clear night skies with no light pollution, and the vastness of the landscapes. Adjusting to a 2 minute walk to the shop, rather than a 6hr round trip, has been pretty easy!
Are we likely to be seeing any more In Modo Di material coming soon? The label’s name is a term from classical music. How much knowledge of classical music do you have? And are you classically trained in music?
Yes, I’m working on the second release now. I’m really excited to get it out there! I’m ashamed to say I don’t really have any knowledge of classical music, and I’ve never had any music lessons. But I’ve been trying to teach myself more theory over the years, with some help from friends and youtube. I’d like to get some actual piano lessons one day, and maybe some drum lessons too. But half the fun for me is trying to make sense of it all, deconstructing chords and riffs from music I love to see what’s going on under the hood. I think there’s something to be said for learning from the musicians you love and respect rather than a teacher.
The influence of jazz in your music is clear, texturally and rhythmically. Why are you drawn to use these sounds in your productions?
Can’t really say for sure, jazzier rhythms have always just felt more natural when I’m playing drums. My grandad played saxaphone in a Glenn Miller style jazz band, maybe there’s something carried through in my genes! I’ve had quite a weird relationship with jazz though, I couldn’t stand it for years. But I started finding certain tracks that really opened up my appreciation of what those musicians were doing, and the fact they were the first people to refine some ideas of modes & scales, and swing and shuffle. Something incredibly complex and beautiful really blossomed in music during the 50’s jazz movement, and I have so much admiration for the people who worked it all out. So much of what dance music is built upon today, and our understanding of harmony and rhythm came from the work of those musicians. I guess there’s a part of me that wants to bring together the two worlds a little more, or at least see what it sounds like when I try.
You have been doing a show on KMAH radio for quite a while now: the Taunton Loft Sessions. Where does this name come from? How important is it for you as such a prolific composer to stop and listen to other people’s music?
The name comes from the name of the house I live in, Taunton House, and my loft studio within! It’s been a great experience hosting the show, and having a good excuse to put time aside to search for new music, and to have a platform for friends to host the odd guest show. I’ve found so many new artists and tracks that have inspired me since doing the show. It’s been a really valuable experience for me musically and I hope I can find the time to do it for years to come. Big respect to everyone who puts in so much hard work at KMAH, and a huge thanks for the invitation to host a show!
As an outsider, I admire from afar the tight-nit group of esteemed friends and family that surround you. Your girlfriend and brother are heavily involved in the scene, and obviously your extended Freerotation family play a big part in your life. How essential is it for you to be surrounded by creative people?
Ahhh I love them all to bits! The Freerotation family has grown to be so strong and such a positive force in all our lives, I couldn’t wish for a nicer group of friends and family. My folks have always been so supportive and patient with me too, thinking back I’m impressed with how quickly my Mum gave up on telling me to get a proper job! As I said before though, I do love my peace and my own space, I find I come up with my best work when I’m lost in my own little world for days on end. Weeks can easily go by without me realising I’ve been ignoring my phone or my inbox. So It’s really nice to know that at least once a year we can all be in the same place at the same time!
You visited Leeds recently to play at the infamous Twaddle night. Could you tell us about the days of that party, and what your impression of Leeds was then?
Those parties were always a blast! So much energy and enthusiasm. Certainly some of the noisiest crowds i’ve played to! From the first time we met, we all just seemed to click really well. They kept booking artists I really loved at the time too, so we just all seemed to be on similar musical tips for a good few years. Big love for all that were involved there! Really great to see Junes and Ian Tames doing well with their label, Galdoors, too!
What do your DJ gigs consist of at the moment? And what can we expect from the gig at Schwein?
I always tend to play my own tracks when I’m DJing, that’s pretty much why I write so much, so I have a good collection to put a set together from. Usually lots of unreleased ideas and edits of old stuff, sometimes a cheeky little remix of something. Depending on the crowd, it can be a great chance to test out new ideas and see how things work in the real world, and other times it can be a run through my best stuff from the last 12 years of producing. I’ll be spending the next week or so getting tracks ready for the gig at Schwein, so we’ll see. Possibly the first airing of some stuff off the next Modo release if I can get it ready in time!