Big shouts to Finals contributor Vivian Medithi for bringing the goods with this Tomu DJ interview! What you are about to read is a deep dive into intentions and ideas behind some of the most soothing, invigorating, in-its-own-world music out. Get into it. Thanks Vivian!
I first heard “I Love Music,” the B-side to Tomu DJ’s 2022 single “Sunsets,” in August 2020 and I’ve had its pulsating rhythms stuck in my head ever since. This was back when Half Moon Bay, the second album by Tomu DJ, was briefly titled FateLust.
Over the next year, Tomu would put out a handful of ambient and collaborative EPs, including gems like “Goes To Bossa During Covid Once” and “Zaza.” On August 20, 2021, Tomu released her debut album FEMINISTA to critical acclaim and broader-than-anticipated recognition for songs cheekily titled “Rock69” and “Dula Peep.” It's a contemplative album that works within house/indie confines, using those things to generate subtle tension and meditative reflection.
Now we have Half Moon Bay, a turned-up, quicker-paced album that moves forward with a determination that pivots between resolute thoughtfulness and sub-ecstatic catharsis. The overall effect is like being weightless, though it can be hard to tell if that’s in the vacuum of space, beneath the crushing pressure of seawaves, or in a plane doing parabolic arcs high overhead.
Tomu and I spoke about Half Moon Bay in the week leading up to its release, as well as genre labels, her collaboration with DJ Manny, losing her sense of rhythm, Khruangbin drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson Jr. and why cats are objectively the best A&Rs.
VIVIAN: What has it been like DJing out in the open again? I saw in May you did the Jacques Greene show.
TOMU DJ: I'm sort of side-stepping your question, but that show was funny cuz, I mean you've seen me play before. But ten minutes into the set, the promoter came up to me and he’s like, “Yo, what is this? I thought you played house techno” because I was playing Nicki Minaj and shit. And I actually had to change my set partway through because apparently I'm considered a house techno artist.
But that's interesting to me because I feel like my music isn't really-- I love house music, club. There are a few times when I tried to actually create stuff that is straight-up house or techno. I'm not super well-versed; whenever someone's like, “Oh, you DJ house music. Do you like this person that I just mentioned?” It’s a bunch of people I don't know.
VIVIAN: It’s really interesting that you say that because especially right now house is having a very popular moment, a trendy moment, and we’re definitely seeing discussions around, “This is house. This isn’t house. This is what defines house music.” So then it’s interesting to me to hear you talk about that because when I listen to your music, it’s difficult for me to put a hard genre label on it. To me, probably the closest thing, a lot of your work stems from your ambient stuff, and even the stuff that’s more danceable or percussive is trickling down from that.
TOMU: Yeah. My process is basically, I sit down and just wrack my brain until something takes form and it's frequently in a genre. Sometimes I'll throw in like, a reggaeton loop and then people will be like, “Yeah, you know, it's got the reggaeton influence, ambient influence, house influence.” And there's like a four on the floor kick or whatever, but it's all pretty random.
When people ask me what sort of music I make, I always tell them electronic, but it's not really. My end goal wasn’t to be a house producer or specifically an electronic person when I started making and releasing a lot of music. Before that I didn't know that it was something that people would like. But the kind of music that I listen to is a lot more mainstream and it's not necessarily like I'm trying to make mainstream music. For the stuff I'm doing now it mostly feels like I'm self-teaching myself to produce.
I do really like a lot of the compositions that I've released, but most of my work, I see it as a stepping stone towards being able to do what I really want, which is collaborating with people and just nurturing as much creative energy as possible.
A lot of people say “Oh, I don’t really care about genres,” and it’s a cliche because it's true. It does make me rather uncomfortable, not in a bad way, but just somewhat uncomfortable, when people try to ascribe some sort of genre to my music to be like, “Oh, this is how this is.” As you said these things are very hotly debated and are hot topics and you know, especially with a lot of smaller genres like footwork, jersey club.
I’ve always been associated with TekLife stuff… but I don’t really come from that culture. It’s very amazing to me, and footwork is one of my favorite subgenres of music. DJ Manny, Rashad, Spinn, are some of my favorite artists producers DJs whatever. But I cannot make the same kind of music, no one can really make the same kind of music as anybody else.
Like when you see on the album I have a collaboration with DJ Manny, I feel like people would expect some sort of footwork thing. But even DJ Manny himself has branched out. Obviously footwork comes from house music and he makes a lot more straightforward house music and his approach is very experimental to where it's all danceable, kind of ambient, very chordal and really bouncy. But because of his experience making so much dance music for the past several years, it kind of transcends genre a lot of the time.
Our collaboration is definitely very house influenced, but it's very footwork influenced as well and I don't know what you would call it, like bass music? I try not to act like I know anything about the genres of music that my music is compared to because I kind of just listen to whatever. Until I was like 15, 16, I didn't even listen to that much electronic music. Sometimes people will be like, “Oh yeah, this sounds just like Berlin.” And I'm like, “Yeah, I don't know what that is. I'm glad you like it.”
VIVIAN: Talking about the DJ Manny collab, especially the way that it opens the record, you and Manny have history stretching back to when you first started making music. So that’s a full circle moment in a lot of ways.
TOMU: Definitely. Manny is someone who really inspired me to start making music. As some people know, I would throw shows in college and I brought Manny to my school at least three maybe five times cuz the first time I booked him, I was just blown away by him. I think he's the best DJ in the world. And I think part of that, is that his DJing practice is very integrated with his work as a dancer…
Early on when I was doing those parties, I had a great opportunity. I got to see him produce a track in the apartment I was staying at. And it was a sample that he actually started with Dave Quam and then finished at my house. It was a remix of “First Day Out” by Tee Grizzley. Something about the way he was producing felt like it was so simple for him, yet it was so thoughtful. And the track was made very fast but it still sounded super good. Watching him produce that made me think, “Anybody could do this.” Not to downplay what he was doing but just seeing his focus.
If you're a non-musician and you think about a musician making music, you think about them sitting down with a pen and paper or trying to come up with shit. But it seemed like it just came to him and it made a lot of sense with watching his DJ sets where it's so inspired not only from the source material but the inspiration bouncing off itself to just create this otherworldly, really mind-expanding music that takes stuff we all know and love and takes it to, not the next level, but a different level…
I started off making a lot of remixes that were more directly footwork inspired. I was very, very inspired by Manny. If you've ever seen him live, you just see all these R&B flips, like Jeremih or whatever. So my first EP had Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Keith Sweat and Ashanti, all sample-based; once people’s Bandcamp accounts started getting taken down I removed all that stuff, just out of safety reasons.
So I was making that stuff and then I started experimenting with making beats but you know, I didn't think they were very good. Listening back to them I actually do like them quite a lot, but I can definitely see the ways in which I've learned. And then eventually I just kind of started naturally doing more all-original stuff. I wanted to sort of legitimize myself.
After my car accident, I sort of lost my sense of rhythm. l used to DJ a lot of footwork, a lot of just faster, electronic music if not footwork, and I've heard a lot of people since my accident describe my music as broken sounding or off-kilter, and my DJ sets are kind of like that too. It's not that I don't have any rhythm anymore, but my sense of rhythm has gotten a little wavy and I think you can kind of hear that in my music where, yeah, the drums are not the central focus. It’s the way the melodies interact and melodies and chords create these interwoven whispers that sort of sway you around. And then the drums are like the skeleton to that.
I don't consider myself very good at doing drums cuz I'm not a dancer like Manny, I didn't grow up in dance music culture really. If I were going to live music, it would be some light rock shit, like Built to Spill or occasionally maybe something more hip-hop leaning. But that's why it's even strange to me to be called dance music or to be associated so much with that because I don't see myself as an expert of that at all. I listen to a lot of popular music, a lot of classics and I always tell people it's stuff like Chaka Khan and shit that really inspires my music, even though it sounds nothing like it.
I want to make stuff that is emotionally expansive. Like you can tell that the person making it was like trying to say something, even though they didn't use words. Or, trying to capture a certain emotional state but not making it very clear-cut and obvious. If you put it on and just spend a moment with it, no phone or whatever, it creates this space for you to reflect on what's going on in your life up against the background of the music because it's not particularly about anything, it's very vague, very expansive. The waves, the whispers, sort of move your mind these different directions and for me, whenever I listen to it, which I especially do when my mind is overcrowded and I have been overthinking stuff, I always feel differently after it's over because it might bring you into a very contemplative and introspective space.
VIVIAN: So would you say the goal for your music right now is really to facilitate self-reflection?
TOMU: That's definitely one thing you can glean from it for sure. It is mostly that, but for myself. I am very blessed that other people want to hear this music and can relate to it. But especially the past few years of my life have just been really crazy with symptoms of mental illness acting up a lot and going through a lot of, I'll just say personal shit. Oftentimes, I just don't know what to do with all these feelings, and being able to express it through music, and music that sounds good to me, makes me feel something or better or different in the same way as listening to my favorite music, which sounds nothing like mine does.
VIVIAN: When you were talking about how you started making music, specifically remixes and footwork-oriented stuff, that was really interesting to me, cuz a couple of my favorites of your stuff is actually some of your pop music reworks, specifically, your “Clout” remix by Cardi B/Offset and the Fenix Flexin one “Wings” by Shoreline Mafia you did around that same time.
TOMU: Yeah, for sure.
VIVIAN: But that stuff just has a really heavy rhythmic component. And especially listening to Half Moon Bay ahead of the release and then also kind of looking back on FEMINISTA, one thing that was really interesting to me is just how much more prominent the percussion has become on this new record. On FEMINISTA the percussion was a little bit more like, “This is another element of syncopation,” so just another part of the mix, but here it kind of feels a lot more like a driving or central element to the music.
TOMU: So you think the drums on the new record are better?
VIVIAN: I wouldn't say better. I think they do a different thing because, especially when we talk about your early experience and rock music as your main love before you got into electronic and other stuff, and then thinking about the way that your stuff compositionally functions in a more of this ambient or indie-rock space where… When I was thinking about what artists I would compare your sound to or your last album to, I'm thinking about names like Khruangbin as much as I'm thinking about like, Jamie xx, right?
TOMU: That’s nice, I love both those artists.
VIVIAN: And something that was really compelling about your work compositionally, it's definitely something where, the way that it builds is a lot more choral, it's in these melodic spaces that you mentioned earlier. So then it was really interesting to feel on the new record that the percussion was coming in a way where, to draw back to the comparison, on a Khruangbin record the percussion is usually in service of supporting the guitars and these other things.
TOMU: The drummer in that band (Donald “DJ” Johnson Jr.) if you've ever watched videos of them or seen them live, he's just incredibly on point, playing the most simple grooves but with such precision. It's not like their songs are super complex, but it’s the subtle way the grooves of the three members carry each other that makes it so listenable in any environment.
Their music has definitely inspired me a lot because of what I just said. It's really music that gets you through your day or whatever you're doing because it keeps you engaged while not being too crazy or distracting.
Obviously using a computer, I don't have to be an amazing drummer to be able to create simple grooves that serve to push the music forward, to underscore the underlying, or sort of overarching, ambient motion of these wide, expansive chords that are grounded and centered by these, really simple grooves that are more prominent across this album.
Actually a few people, like 30 or 40 people who came to the listening party for Half Moon Bay heard a very different record. There were some songs with no drums and it was a lot more experimental and we ended up changing it a lot.
VIVIAN: When was the listening party?
TOMU: It was like April or May. It was a while ago.
VIVIAN: On your Kanye shit. You were like “We’re going back to the drawing board.”
TOMU: Yeah. I thought that the album was done after the listening party because, another thing about FEMINISTA is, I listen back to it and I think it's a beautiful record and I really love it. But what I think differs about this one is how collaborative it is. Not only because I have some features from my friend Kim (kimdollars1) and Manny and SUCIA! on there but also, I worked with a label (Franchise) and I showed the album to a lot of people.
FEMINISTA I was really in my own head and that album was like a lifeline to me. I wanted to create something that was representative of myself in case I died. So that there would be something cool that represents me in an abstract way.
But with this one, because of the unexpected attention that I kind of received on my debut I was like, I do want to make something… for both the albums, one of my tests to see if it was done is, I would put on the songs during social situations with my friends or whatever. And if people were having a good conversation over it, either something funny or something cathartic or deep and smiles or talking about stuff that was important. I'm like “okay so this music is facilitating a good vibe.”
And it's also like animals, you know, my cats. People say music is really subjective, but if you go and smash a bunch of keys on your keyboard or your sim and there's a cat in the room, their ears will jolt up and they'll be like, “what the fuck are you doing?” But if you play a nice E Major 7 chord, they’re actually going to be really soothed by that. I've listened to all these songs thousands of times around a bunch of people and Justin Montag my label head and that's another reason the drums are, I'll say a little bit more on point for this record. I was more concerned with how other people would relate to the music. Not in a self-conscious way, but what I was trying to do with the album, creating a welcoming space was important to me, what other people would think about it.
VIVIAN: It’s funny because I really wanted to avoid a framing of, “We were in quarantine, everybody was isolated and that's why FEMINISTA sounds like that and now we’re outside and people are dancing and that's why Half Moon Bay plays like this.” But there is something really introspective about FEMINISTA compared to Half Moon Bay. The same elements of chord progressions and melodies feel a little bit more, designed for big speakers or to be played out loud versus on headphones or in private settings.
TOMU: I'm glad that comes through because when I DJ I'll usually play “Optimistic,” “New Body,” depending on the vibe of the set. But FEMINISTA it's like, it will infrequently make its way to my DJ sets because I do think it's, as you said it's a lot more, not isolating but it sounds like it was made in isolation. It’s me sitting in a room thinking my hardest whereas this new stuff, even if some of the tracks were made before, there's probably 30 tracks that were on the track list at one point.
Most of the creation process for the last few months is just deciding what was going to make it. And that is inspired by living normal life. I wanted it to be more ambient and more inoffensive is one of the things I was going for. But like having more real life, wholesome experiences did definitely influence the direction of the tracklist.
The album has been heavily in the works for probably an entire year, and somewhat in the works before that. And it was really the last two months where things really started to take shape and I started to really see, “What do I want for this project? What do I want to do for me? What do I want to do for other people?”