By Ren Kirk
I met Wellington-based rapper Tommy Ill on Ponsonby Road while he was in Auckland. Sitting outside Conch while it poured - in true Auckland style - we talked music, robots and breaking teeth.
Your first EP Toast And Teakettles came out in 2007, was that when you started making music?
I’ve been doing it since I was about 13. I heard the Beastie Boys at school, asked someone who it was and went out and got the CD. I sort of thought,’ why can’t I do that?’ and so I did. So I used to hawk CD’s at school but it’s taken a while to get to the point where it all makes sense.
So did you do music (other than learning the Beastie Boys CD by heart) at school or play any instruments?
I can play a bit of guitar and keyboard but I’m a bit to uncoordinated for it really, though I do come from a really musical family. I did sing in choirs but then my voice broke and so it made sense to do raps.
In your upcoming tour you’ve got Buck, Shorty K and B-Cool along with you, do you make music with them on a regular basis?
Yeah. Buck and Shorty K make beats for me and when we’re doing gigs they do some backing vocals as well. There’s also James Goldsmith, he’s the sound engineer and recorded and mixed the album. He plays keys too. But as well as making music, when we’re on stage they jump around the stage, tackle each other, that kinda thing.
And you’ve sort of become known for your ‘antics’ when performing live haven’t you... does it ever go bad?
Last time we played Cassette I jumped into the crowd and as I did, my friends boyfriend turned round and his elbow went into my mic (which was right by my mouth cause I was rapping at the time) and it broke my tooth. I got ACC and got it fixed though.
I know you’re playing Cassette again soon, are you worried about more accidents?
No, I’m excited for more accidents – but ones that don’t hurt anyone.
So other than ‘rap’, how would you describe your sound?
Maybe alt/rap... or indie/rap. Mostly it’s about the people who listen to the music, but it’s self-depreciating rap music.
What is your writing / recording process? Do you write lyrics first or make the beats?
Need to find base for the song first. So I make some basic beats, sorta play around with them and then find lyrics.
I try to have an idea of what the lyrics are going to be about first or it ends up sort of being about nothing. I write a whole lot and try and it get it out fast, then go back and edit. And being under pressure, when you ‘have’ to come up with something makes it forced and definitely doesn’t work as well.
What aspect of your creative practice gives you the biggest kick?
Hearing a track for the first time and it works! This album has 10 tracks but that’s down from about 40. It’s a great feeling when you get it right. Sometimes it’s like wonder and amazement, like, ‘How’d we do that?’
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learnt musically in the last year or so?
The value of friends helping. Having their ears and getting a fresh perspective on a track.
Do they need to be friends who do music?
Just really people who like music. My friends all do a lot of different stuff, but they’re pretty much all creative.
So your self-titled debut LP was released on August 23, were there any highlights, any nightmares?
‘Matchstick’s, which is from an earlier EP, is one of my favourite tracks and I really wanted it on the album. We’d recorded it at Bucks house and somehow lost all the files. I freaked out! I asked Grayson Gilmour if he could help, said we really needed to record it in the next 2 days. He did it, totally saved my ass and even made the song sound better... so it was a bad and a good thing. But mostly it was a lot of fun. Good people involved on the project and getting to work with friends all the time was cool.
And about the latest single, ‘Robot’ - I read that you think robots are neat. If you were going to be a robot, what sort of robot would you be?
A love machine. Not in a sexy way, in a compassionate way.... give people hugs when they’re down. I’d probably fight crime on the side.
Would this love-robot-who-fights-crime-on-the-side have a sidekick at all?
Yeah, a talking cat. It would look like mine (white and grey with a pink nose) and it would talk in a deep African American voice, like Samuel L Jackson.
What’s your Dream Collaboration?
Das Racist from New York, Animal Collective and Dan Deacon. I did get to play after him once, at a friend’s house party. It was his 21st and Dan Deacon just agreed to come along and he stayed for my set. It possibly the best party I’ve ever been to.
What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
Sage Francis at San Fran, he was awesome! Amazing stage presence and so engaging for just one guy. He really changed the way I thought about live sets.
Best gig you’ve played and why?
The first ‘Camp A Low Hum’. It was the first day, an outdoor stage, and the sun was going down. There didn’t need to be heaps of people cause it was just such a great vibe and about having a good time.
What place is always with you where ever you go?
Just wherever friends are really, it’s all about good company. Castle Point is pretty awesome... but that’s probably because of the company still.
What’s the best way to listen to music and why?
That’s a hard one. Some people are best live; recording doesn’t catch how powerful they are live. Others are better in the studio. But as a general rule, over drinks with friends.
If I gave you some play dough, a stick and a rubber band what would you make?
I’d make a hat from the play dough with a rubber band strap and a stick in the top. And the play dough would be the colour when it’s all been mashed up, brown with flecks of colour.
What’s the best stress relief in your opinion?
Scotch Whiskey on the rocks. And ten deep breaths.
What’s great about today?
Like today right now?
Really? Are you being sarcastic?
Well it could be worse.
To celebrate the release of his debut full-length album, Tommy Ill will be touring the country with his sidekicks Buck, Shorty K and B-Cool and support act, 47 Diamantes. Keep an eye out for him in a town near you;
8 September – Dux de Lux, Queenstown
9 September – Refuel, Dunedin
10 September – No. 8 Wired, Timaru – All Ages show + R18 show
11 September – GoodBye Blue Monday, Christchurch
17 September – Cassette Number Nine, Auckland
18 September – Loop Select 009 Launch @ The Bacco Room, Auckland