“No one can fully escape tragedy. Not in the dimly lit dance clubs of London, not in the nearly black sex clubs of Berlin; not even at home in Toronto where someone always leaves a light on when you’re going to be late. The economist was wrong. There is no safe place; there is only what’s next. That is where Tom Boy is born” reads the manifesto that accompanies indie duo, Tom Boy’s, new music. Born out of the turbulence that ended the pair’s previous band, CAIRO, Tom Boy is writing indie anthems that serve as a microscope, or a therapy session, to address the pain and complications that CAIRO went through before it met its end.
“I wrote that bio as a love letter to CAIRO, to say like, ‘this project exists because of what we went through together and I’m very grateful for that.’ The bio mentions those specific cities because they were pivotal to a lot of the decisions we made as a band and also where a lot of the drama happened” says Nate Daniels, frontman of Tom Boy, as we chat over Skype; him in a grocery store in the -14 degree temperature of Toronto, me on the floor of my living room in the balmy 10 degree winter of Bristol. “I took a year off after we had broken up with the other band, because of a bunch of interpersonal problems. I knew that I didn’t want to give up music. Dante, the guitarist, and co-songwriter in the new band, felt the same way. So, we decided to take a bit of a break and then start to build assets for a new project instead of just walking away.”
And that became Tom Boy?
“Yeah. We took about a year to figure out a producer and figure out if we were going to do it here in Canada or somewhere else. We took songs that CAIRO had already started working on, used those as our base and it started from there.”
Are you happy with how it’s going?
“I am. When you are in a band with five other people and you have an equal partnership, a lot of your artwork gets diluted because it becomes this democratic voting system, which I feel slows down the creative process as well as hindering it. So, having two of us has actually been really exciting because it feels like it’s ours. Having left our label and management, we are doing everything ourselves, not just the recording and writing but the marketing and our publicity as well. We hire photographers but a lot of the time we are putting together our own assets and everything that goes out from us is now touched by us. The branding and the music is a lot more cohesive this time around, which I always felt was lacking with CAIRO.”
Does that feel empowering? Doing it all on your own?
“It does, although it’s a lot more f*cking work. Even if it isn’t as successful as if we had a major label release, it’s still a lot more gratifying to have any kind of success when you’re doing it on your own.”
In previous interviews with CAIRO, the band spoke about side-lining success just to make music, and that making money would just be nice. Do you still feel that way?
“Eh. I guess my terms of success have just changed. I was reading this article about this Canadian musician who was bitching about the music industry: how hard it is to be a musician and how he has to be on the road now more than ever. That kind of work doesn’t scare me. I’m totally happy to be on the road all the time. It’s not like I’m planning for another career or job. My success is literally just being able to share my music and doing that for the most part of the year. I’m not as stressed or anxious as I was with CAIRO; I feel more relaxed this time around but I’m definitely also hungrier. I know what it feels like now.”
Although Nate is not exempt from ‘bitching about the music industry’, even if he does have a drive and commitment to his career that isn’t mirrored in every artist.
“The music industry tends to be this ‘old boys club.’ If you don’t play the typical music that falls into the box and gets played on the radio, then you’re going to find it difficult. I have a lot of music friends who will back me up on that. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel, it just means I’m more realistic than I used to be when it comes to the music industry.”
Do you think that feeling that you ‘need to fit the music box to be successful’ is exclusive to Canada or is it a global trend?
“I think that there are places where it would be just as difficult to be a musician and to make a living, but Canada does present a lot of challenges because of our geography, population number, our industry in general – which is a little archaic. They are feeding the legacy artists, but they are not willing to put the money into promising new artists.”
Why have you chosen to make music in Canada then?
“We have a wonderful granting system – which I’m very thankful for. A lot of the music videos and recording can be paid for in Canada. Sometimes I wonder if that’s a crutch. We rely on that money to make moves in the industry but really, we’re twiddling our thumbs waiting for grant money to come through instead of taking a risk on our own art. I do a combination of both where I’ve invested a lot of my own money and time, but I also apply for grants. The grants help take us overseas, which is the goal because Canada only accepts artists once they’ve got a break in some other country.”
Why does Canada only accept artists that have already had some success?
“Radio is such a large thing in Canada because most of the population drives to work, so labels are still paying attention to that format, and want to adhere to that format, to a certain type of arrangement, subject matter, and sound – which usually mimics the bands that are doing well in the day. They are looking for bands that sound like currently successful bands, so they don’t have to pay the price of them not doing well. But I do get why pop music is fun and why it’s listenable.”
Why is that?
“When people want to celebrate or feel good, you are in a state that’s a lot different to when you want to feel something. When you’re on a road trip or a wedding or a club, you want to be singing along with your friends, not thinking about the lyrics. You want to be in the moment and I think pop music provides that. Which is ironic for me to say that as I started off my career as a folk singer-songwriter with very depressing music and lyrics. That darkness is still in my music but in a much cheekier way.”
For Nate, music is a way to channel his emotions and come to terms with them as he sits in a dark room and lets the lyrics write his therapy session. He is not wrong about that darkness being ever present in his music, as demonstrated in Tom Boy’s debut single, ‘How to Become a Drug Dealer.’ With a pulsing bass and simple score, anger and frustration pour through in moments where the instrumentals could have been complicated. The music video – a neo-noir trailer park aesthetic of tiled club bathrooms and glitter cocaine, washed in blue tones and tilting camera angles, where Tom Boy play with a plethora of motifs – is a testament to the underlying darkness that wrote the track.
“How to Become a Drug Dealer is actually a confessional about what was happening in CAIRO. There was a relationship that developed in the band between Dante and Caitlin (the violin player) which I found out when we were touring the UK and kept secret because we didn’t want the band to fall apart. There are parallels between the relationship between a drug dealer and the person they’re dealing with, and a relationship gone bad where someone has gone back to a person even though they know they’re bad for them. The lyrics are pretty harsh because they are specifically about Caitlin and she knows it. It’s about drug abuse in the band and alcohol abuse in the band and relationship abuse in the band, and how we were juggling all those things on the road. The video mimics that darkness and has some fun with it with all the sparkling drugs. Dante’s mum actually stopped talking to him after that video, and he was like, ‘well this was my life for a while and we can’t not talk about.’”
Where are you now on that journey?
“Well, I don’t think anyone can fully recover from going through something like that. I mean Dante’s addiction, mine and Caitlin’s addiction, they are all still there. Maybe they are more managed now than they were before, and we are aware of them, but when we were younger it was just a free for all. We are all very different in our addictions but it’s something that we take seriously, and are very aware of, but exists. Is it fixed? No.”
What you went through and those themes you’re addressing are quite topical – be it depression or abuse or addiction. How should one approach these topics in music?
“Honesty, I guess. We, especially people in the public eye, tiptoe around a lot of things. Bigger stars are protected by teams of people who want to keep to a specific story. But I think if you face things head on, talk about them and use the language of what things really are, then you are way quicker to address them and accept them as they are. That is what we try to do, even if there are some lyrics that are ‘read between the lines’, there are other specific lines. Like ‘You talk top shelf prices, but you’re are rail thin,’ [How To Become a Drug Dealer] is about talking a big game and pretending they are of classy nature when they are actually doing rails in the bathroom or losing too much weight because they are doing too many drugs. I feel like there’s a smart and clever way to talk about it in language, but I also think it’s being honest in what the hell is going on because other people are going to relate to that. They’re not going to relate to you sugar coating your situation.”
Although Tom Boy is only in the preliminary stages of creation, Nate and Dante are bringing out a series of singles and live videos to ‘test the water and see what does well where instead of doing the whole album and guessing.’ They’re following up Drug Dealer with spring-time single ‘Lowrider’ which is a dystopian take on growing up in a small town and watching it slowly become gentrified by new developments until you no longer feel it is home. It looks like Nate Daniels has come a long way since the moody landscape shots of CAIRO’s music-videos. Gone are the thrift store vocals, cliché lyrical turn of phrases accompanied by drawling instrumentals and a rock-cliché, unstyled haircut. Nate Daniels seems to have grown into the man he was avoiding with CAIRO, and in consequence, is creating music that manages to be hard-hitting without falling into indie-folk melancholia. Perhaps this is thanks to the skilled hand of Dante, who works to take Nate’s skeletons and transform them into a ‘greater soundscape and bigger direction, making the music more upbeat and lively.’ Tom Boy is tapping into a sound and a theme that is edged with great potential.
To round off my 45 minutes with Tom Boy, I ask Nate for a few words to tickle the taste buds of our readers who might wonder what he’s learned from years of touring, addiction, writing, breaking and reforming. Whilst Drug dealer’s immortal line, “Who needs heroin when Molly’s got your back” could speak to some, what he says next might speak to everyone:
3 Life lessons
1) 1 am is a good time to go home.
2) Don’t eat spicy foods without a bathroom nearby.
3) The government is lying to you.
3 Love lessons
1) Love passionately but not possessively. You can’t own a thing in this world.
2) Court your lover on a regular basis. Nothing beats the little things.
3) Everyone deserves a private life. Space will save your relationship time and time again.
3 Musical/artistic lessons
1) Treat everyone like they will hold the key to your career one day – they will.
2) Whoever says don’t have a Plan B is right. Have a plan C, D, E, and F if you want to survive the roller coaster that is the music industry.
3) Ignore the critics AND the fans. If you believe the one you have to believe the other. Learn to listen to yourself.