Interview

Q&A: Vampire Weekend’s Chris Tomson Talks New Solo Project Dams Of The West

The drummer’s side project is not supposed to be this good. Chris Tomson knows it, too — hence the neuroses he feels about becoming the fourth and final member of Vampire Weekend to release solo material. But Youngish American, Tomson’s first album as Dams Of The West, presents him as a clever and insightful songwriter overflowing with ideas. He’s the first to admit that songs about settling down into thirtysomething married life are nothing new, yet he approaches that subject matter with an incisive wit and whimsy that marks him as a worthy peer of Vampire Weekend bandmate Ezra Koenig, combining detail-heavy domestic anecdotes and thoughtful culture analysis into something extraordinary.

Those observations are ensconced in moody, uptempo pop-rock with a heavy rhythmic undertow, produced by Patrick Carney of the Black Keys. The aesthetic is beautifully exemplified on new single “The Inerrancy Of You And Me,” a song that applies centuries-old theological concepts to modern relational turmoil against a bass-heavy backdrop that will scratch the itch for those who’ve been craving the follow-up to Modern Vampires Of The City. “The Inerrancy Of You And Me” premieres today along with an Elvis-themed video shot by Tomson and his wife, Emily. She shared some context for the clip:

I think a lot of Chris’ music on this album — and this song in particular — asks questions about different cultural expectations and how those themes actually take on meaning in his life. In this case, placing him in a very specific space with all of the trappings of “love & romance” only to have him end up with a guitar in the bathtub seemed like an interesting way to further those questions.

Watch it below, and read on for an engaging conversation with Tomson.

STEREOGUM: Have you been the singer-songwriter in a band before, or is this totally new for you?

CHRIS TOMSON: I have, but not for a decade-plus, from some of my more sophomoric jam-band type situations in high school. It’s something that I have done in the past, but for the majority of Vampire Weekend I wasn’t necessarily fiending to do. Actually, when Vampire Weekend started, I was supposed to be the guitarist, and actually was so for the first two rehearsals, and then we couldn’t find a drummer and I said I could give it a shot, and here we are. Potentially not anymore, but certainly for a long time I considered guitar my first instrument.

STEREOGUM: The songs on the album really hang together in terms of their sound and subject matter. Did they all come out of you at the same time, or were some kicking around for a while? With debut albums you sometimes have years’ worth of songwriting collected, but these sound like they all kind of exist in the same time period.

TOMSON: Yeah, for sure. There’s some musical stuff I maybe had in my head for a while, but especially the lyrical content is very much of a time and place, which is, generally speaking, like a year and a half ago in my basement.

STEREOGUM: It seems like you had a lot of thoughts about getting older and settling down and being a thirtysomething. A lot of lyrics stood out to me, but can you unpack what was going through your mind?

TOMSON: I think, without being too explicit, I knew that when the Modern Vampires tour ended that we were going to have a fairly large amount of time off. So I went on a vacation and got married, and I got back to New York. And with Vampire Weekend having been and continuing to be such a great thing for me, but calendar-wise being very dominant in terms of life choices and where I needed to be and what I had to do, that being home as an early-30s [person] with sort of nothing to do and this blank space in front of me, inevitably my thoughts turned to, “What am I doing?” “You’re getting old, dude.” Shit like that. I’m not necessarily saying that any of my thoughts are particularly unique or profound, but that I was feeling them quite deeply at the very least.

STEREOGUM: So being married and having a wide-open schedule were both brand new things?

TOMSON: Yeah, and knowing that Vampire Weekend wouldn’t be active for a while, but still music in a very specific way being the only thing I’m professionally qualified to do, but also still remaining the only thing I wanted to do. That’s essentially where the album came from: a few months of unpacking that for myself and sort of realizing you can write about that sort of emotional content as opposed to just intense breakups or something.

STEREOGUM: You described those thoughts as not particularly unique or profound, but I think some of them are actually quite profound. I mean, I’m talking to you as a 33-year-old married man also.

TOMSON: You get it.

STEREOGUM: It hit home for me in a lot of parts. So, maybe not unique — and in fact it’s pretty universal — but to me, there are a ton of lyrics that resonated. Like “Death Wish,” there are tons of lyrics that resonated for me starting with the beginning, “Must have some kind of death wish/ Didn’t even start to floss until I was 31.” I thought that was hilarious.

TOMSON: For me that’s an actual true story.

STEREOGUM: I mean, who flosses in their 20s, honestly?

TOMSON: That in particular is like, I guess that I’ve always found a lot of meaning in details, which is not the way everyone’s brain works or where people find meaning. But I think part of the process of me getting to this album, getting to these songs, was not feeling like I had to take things I was thinking about and take them on this pop template of there’s only a few subjects that are really broached in bigger songs. At some point I was like, this is what I think about, and this is where I find these meanings in these smaller things, which I think can build up to bigger ideas. But I find the heart of the issue in little things like not flossing when you should. I think there’s a lot of that throughout the record. I think once I got comfortable with the thought that, “Oh yeah, I can sing about things that I find interesting!” that the songs really came together and the album really came together.

STEREOGUM: I definitely agree that the accumulation of details can add up to something really fascinating, and that’s definitely the case over the course of the album. Another example is “The Inerrancy Of You And Me,” which we’re premiering today. The line that stood out to me was, “If we just tell the truth, there’s no need for absolution or confession.” So between that and the title, it seems like you’re addressing interpersonal relational stuff as well as maybe some thoughts on spirituality?

TOMSON: The term “inerrancy” is not something I knew offhand. During the recording of the album, my grandmother passed away, and she was a very strong Unitarian, and I was raised Unitarian as I mention on the album. And before going up to Rochester for the service, I was reading a little more about Unitarianism, I guess as a way of paying respect to my grandma and to reintroduce myself to some of these things that I hadn’t really thought about for a while. And through doing that I saw the term “inerrancy,” which is I think an explicitly American idea that the Bible is a historical document that is incapable of being incorrect — like, it’s literally to be taken as presented. And to me, that sort of cosmic sureness about anything always seems a little suspect, in a faith way and otherwise. I always think, I could be wrong. Even when I feel really strongly about something, it’s never a good thing to be 100%. It’s a good thing to be like 99% sometimes, but not 100. So that term to me, I thought it was very evocative and a very strong concept, and I was just applying it to a relationship that I’m in and the sort of relationship that a lot of people find themselves in — that is, I think, ultimately a strong one and a healthy one, but one that is not always a Gwyneth Paltrow rom-com, or at least the last third of a Gwyneth Paltrow rom-com.

STEREOGUM: Pat Carney produced the album, and it’s coming out on Danger Mouse’s label. How did you end up working with those guys?

TOMSON: When I had more or less the demos of all the songs I had written for the album, [Vampire Weekend bassist Chris] Baio came over. I didn’t realize how far along I was. He was just kind of like, “Dude, you’re essentially done. Do you know who would be good for this? Patrick Carney.” And I hadn’t really thought about producers, and Chris’ knowledge of sound and the current scene is way more deep than mine. But it just so happened that at that particular time I was also watching the BoJack Horseman Netflix show. I was really feeling that theme song, and a few days after Baio had come over, I saw Carney’s name and was like, “Oh, he made that.” So that was two data points from varied sources. I kind of felt like, “Yeah, I should reach out.” So I got his email and was sort of like, “Sup dude. I got these songs. You feel like producing it?” And a couple days later he was like, “Yeah dude, sounds cool. I got a couple weeks in November.” So that was the extent of our negotiations. But yeah, I think Patrick was really both great and gracious, and I couldn’t have asked for someone better to work with, especially with some of the attendant and inherent insecurities on debut shit. And also adding in some solo album stuff in terms of having been in a band and fulfilling a specific role within that band and now doing a lot of different things. He was very supportive and essentially treated stuff like, “Oh, it’s not a big deal.” So I was able to be like, “Oh yeah, it’s not a big deal.” So yeah, he was great. I think he did great work.

STEREOGUM: Other than the casual demeanor that put you at ease, was there anything about his approach that surprised you?

TOMSON: Honestly because I’ve really only ever known the Vampire Weekend way of working, there’s two ways of looking at it. One is, anything can surprise me because it’s not the Vampire Weekend way of working. The other is like, “Oh, this is how other people do it.” So it’s not surprising. I think I vacillated between those poles. He’s been part of enough records, both Black Keys and otherwise, that … where I have all this psychic weight, like, “Oh, fuck man, I’m like making an album, oh fuck,” he knew all the elements that you need to make an album. And I think he thought the songs were worth putting the time into, and then you just gotta do the work. I think that mentality helped me to get over a lot of shit that otherwise my neuroses might have hijacked.

STEREOGUM: Did he put you in touch with Danger Mouse? I know they’ve worked together a lot.

TOMSON: Yeah, there was actually one time when we were in the studio in Nashville when [Carney] was on the phone with Brian [Burton, aka Danger Mouse], just sort of through the phone, Pat being the translator, was like, “Brian’s advice is ‘Don’t use your name.'” This was before he was interested in working with me as a label. But I had finished it and it had been done for a while, and I think Brian had listened to it early, and Pat told him, “Hey I think you should listen to this again, I think it’s worthwhile.” And last fall he got in touch again, and here we are. February 24, 30th Century Records.

STEREOGUM: In terms of the composition of the music, I feel like you can hear more of your contribution to Vampire Weekend just by hearing the musical shape of these songs.

TOMSON: I think with Vampire Weekend my contribution has been almost entirely rhythmic. And a lot of that, especially on the first album, came from me not being a capital-D Drummer, just thinking of the song in an arrangement sense and trying to come up with parts that made sense. I didn’t have, like, drum stuff that I would fall back on. And I think that my approach to drums is, for better or worse, still somewhat similar to what it was 10 years ago. But that’s cool that you hear that.

STEREOGUM: On “Perfect Wave” you mention hearing “pirate stories” from your father-in-law. Did I hear that right? What’s that all about?

TOMSON: My father-in-law’s from Pittsburgh.

STEREOGUM: Oh, that kind of Pirate!

TOMSON: So it’s a capital P. One of the things we’ve bonded over has been sports. That was this one particular afternoon where I said my favorite baseball player of all time is Eddie Murray, who started his career and ended his career an Oriole. So immediately my father-in-law Joe started talking about, I believe, the ’79 World Series, like, “Oh, we won that one over Eddie!”

STEREOGUM: OK, that makes much more sense. Next question: Do you think you’ll make more Dams Of The West albums?

TOMSON: I do. I don’t know when necessarily. I guess I’m a little bit of a free market guy. We’ll see what happens. I’m sort of surprised, because I’m generally a fairly unconfident person, [but] I feel good about the content of the album and I feel it’s worthy of putting into the world and is unique enough to warrant pressing on vinyl or something. So yeah, I think that there will be a point in time when I’ll hopefully have more to say or some more songs that are worthy of public perusal. But is that going to be next year? Probably not. But for sure, I don’t think this is a one-and-done thing at all. I think of this as a career both contemporaneous to, separate from, [and] part of the general Vampire Weekend universe. I think of it as its own thing. I hope to do it as long as it’s worth doing.

STEREOGUM: Who’s playing in your touring band?

TOMSON: It’s an all-female band, and they all have their own stuff. The keyboardist is named Emily, and her stage name is Emily Danger. The drummer is named Gabriela, and she has released stuff under Ela Minus. And the bassist is named Karen, and her thing is called Futurebrite. It’s essentially all friends of friends from New York. I realized how few musicians I actually knew when I was like, “I need to find some people!” But I’m really excited. They’re all great. Extremely overqualified.

STEREOGUM: So… will there be a new Vampire Weekend album this year?

TOMSON: I think all I’m legally allowed to say is that the album is under construction. But I think putting any kind of timeframe on it would be a disservice to the work that needs to be done and the work that’s already been done. This is a very political answer, but I think what I can say is a Vampire Weekend album will happen. Whether or not it’s this year I cannot say.

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Dams Of The West have a big slate of tour dates coming up:

02/20 Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter
02/21 Washington DC @ 9:30 Club
02/22 New York, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
02/23 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
02/24 Boston, MA @ Middle East Downstairs
02/25 Burlington, VT @ Higher Ground Lounge
02/27 Montreal, QC @ La Sala Rossa
02/28 Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
03/02 Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
03/03 Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall
03/04 Chicago, IL @ Metro
03/06 Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
03/07 Omaha, NE @ The Waiting Room
03/08 Kansas City, MO @ Knuckleheads Saloon
03/29 Albuquerque, NM @ Launchpad
03/30 Phoenix, AZ @ The Crescent Ballroom
03/31 La Mesa, CA @ Pete’s Place
04/01 San Diego, CA @ Casbah
04/02 Los Angeles, CA @ Troubadour
04/04 San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
04/06 Seattle, WA @ Neumos
04/07 Vancouver, BC @ Fortune Sound Club
04/08 Bellingham, WA @ The Wild Buffalo
04/09 Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
04/11 Boise, ID @ Neurolux
04/12 Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
04/13 Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre
04/15 El Paso, TX @ Lowbrow Palace

Youngish American is out 2/24 on 30th Century Records. Pre-order it here.