Tomy Wealth is a drummer of extraordinary skill and creativity, a multi-instrumentalist, and a beat-maker with an edge. All of his songs are written, arranged, performed, recorded, and released by himself. The drum sound somehow captures the cultural mix you’d feel on a Yokohama night. But once playing live on stage, the music transforms drastically.
“It’s from hardcore that I’ve been able to improve my agility, power, and loudness on stage,” says Wealth. Live, his true talent emerges like an unleashed beast, grooving live drumming that dominates even the digital sampler beats.
His live drumming performances hinge on improvisation. The audience is drawn into a rumbling storm of beats.
Wealth describes himself as “a solo hip-hop beat-maker”, but sees MCs as unnecessary for his live performances because his drums communicate in much the same way as an MC communicates with lyrics.
Currently, Tomy Wealth is not only continuing his solo work, he is also collaborating with other musicians as well as writing BGM and songs for TV commercials. On top of this, he also creates the artwork for much of his own material and merchandise as well as for a number of other musicians.
We got lucky and had a wide-ranging talk with Tomy about his roots and what shapes his music today.
BNU: Where were you born and raised? What attracted you to music?
I was born and grew up in Yokohama, Kanagawa. Maybe the first music musician I really loved was Michael Jackson. I watched the Moonwalker VHS until it wore out and asked my parents to take me to the BAD Japan tour. I was probably more interested in entertainment rather than music at the time.
My mother used to be a jazz and soul singer, and sang me Burt Bacharach’s The Look Of Love as a lullaby. So music has touched me ever since I can remember, and I don’t know when I got interested in it exactly.
As a drummer, I can feel various influences in your playing style, like drum ‘n’ bass, hip hop, hardcore, funk … Can you explain how your style has changed or evolved?
There’s nothing to compare with the energy of live hardcore
I’m glad you felt different things coming through in my drumming. Before I began to play solo, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, I played drums in two bands, BAMBOO and DENTIST, and tried various genres of music. I’ve never been into funk, though, but some of the guys in those bands liked that kind of music, so maybe I unconsciously played a funkier style with them. I was at an impressionable age, so those experiences formed a kind of musical base.
There’s nothing to compare with the energy of live hardcore, I think. It’s from hardcore that I’ve been able to improve my agility, power, and loudness on stage. Without distortion though, it may be the hardest thing performance-wise I’ve done since going solo. I’m really happy if the listener gets a response from my live work or recording.
Who inspires you musically?
The musicians who affected me the most are Bill Evans—a nerd and a rigid disciplinarian who nevertheless played very soft and beautiful notes; Buddy Rich, who couldn’t read score but nevertheless worked his way up to become a premier player; and as I mentioned, Michael Jackson. These are the three guys that occur to me. It mean, it’s not that I copied their playing style from their videos—I was more affected by their attitude and musicianship. They’re different to the other artists who have influenced how I compose.
Did you learn drums from someone?
I’ve never learned drumming from anyone. When I was learning and sucked, I still liked how I played. But that’s because I have experienced a lot of failures and a lot of unplanned detours. For me it’s meaningful to experience both success and failure.
You’re not only a great drummer, but you also play all the instruments when you compose and record songs. Was the drum kit the first instrument you played? Did you have any musical background before you picked up the drums?
I didn’t have a musical background from early childhood. But as I said, my mother loves music, so she took me to a lot of concerts by musicians from overseas.
Although I never learned formally, there was an upright piano in my house and a Yamaha Clavinova in my room, because my younger brother used to practice piano. So I was familiar with piano. I was just mucking around rather than playing it, though. I guess that was the beginning for me making tracks, putting a preset rhythm on the Clavinova and playing a melody over the top.
I was also really into my swimming club in elementary school, so to enlarge my lung capacity I decided to join the brass band club. But because all the members were girls except for me, they made me do percussion [laughs]. It was around then I started practicing instruments seriously.
All the members were girls except for me, they made me do percussion
Percussionists have to play a lot of different instruments like xylophones and glockenspiels on different songs, and I played drum kit for the first time on Yesterday by the Beatles as a set piece. That encounter with drums was when I was in second year of Junior High.
For your live shows, you reconstruct songs ad-lib with a lineup of support members. To my mind, it’s inescapable that the rhythms created by laptops and samplers will dominate, but in your case, drums dominate the rhythm. How did you come up with this style?
I’ve never fixed my drum patterns from the beginning. I loved to play ad lib at gigs, so probably it’s a result of that. It sounds cool to say “improvisation”, but really I don’t even feel I’m improvising [laughs].
I ask my supporting band members to play songs with as few changes as much as possible. I play my own original songs at gigs, so if we couldn’t pull it off, we’d have to break up. So as part of this, I arrange the music carefully if the song needs it. My style is like this. If my band members improvised a lot as well, it would end up being too freestyle. Ad lib needs basics, so I’m very careful to achieve a balance.
Of course machines limit flexibility, but we use different ideas to get around that. For example, sometimes I split a sample into three pieces, and then play each on individual timings. If I put some off beat, it generates a comfortable fluctuation with a kind of “live” feel. We can play organically with machines if we prepare things carefully.
I’m using my background as a heavy listener of DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, anticon stuff, as a base.
The guy in charge of most of this preparation is Yagi [Mutsuaki Aoyagi, samplers]. He’s doing a pretty important job for me. Actually, I’m planning to include solo parts for Yagi and Alan [Demsky, bass], and create some chaos with both of us, using eye contact to know when to stop and start. It’s interesting when we play live, people get the feeling we’re playing freestyle—if you feel that but can still catch the core of the songs, it means my support musicians are excellent. They are the pool. I’m a swimmer. I’m just swimming in it.
My style changed after I started to play live, but my concept has always been the same. I’m a not only a drummer, I’m also a beat maker. It’s different from a jam band, or rather a band. You may not see it, but Tomy Wealth is a solo hip hop beat maker. I’ve always kept to this basic idea.
Essentially, I’m using my background as a heavy listener of DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, anticon stuff, as a base. However, I’ve been invited to play at a lot of band events, I guess because I’m a drummer. That’s why I try to show the good elements of beat making in the context of a band when I’m invited to play club events.
The strange points of each genre are rather skills that not everyone has, so I believe that can be my strength if I show it clearly.
Except for music, what inspires you, for example movies or books?
I love movies. Inspiration from movies plays a huge part in my songs. You can do anything when listening to music, yeah? Like walking, driving, studying, eating, or falling sleep. Music flavors whatever you are feeling, it becomes your own soundtrack.
Especially with instrumental music, I think the great thing is that it’s a space to be filled, with you at the core. With my own music, sometimes I’ll invite a guest when I’d like to make an image of song a bit more concrete.
It may sound crazy, but by interpreting music as a movie in my own head, I’m roughly defining watching movies and creating music within the same category. So sometimes I keep movies running without the sound on when I’m creating songs.
I like books and I read if I’m into something, but I don’t necessarily read books regularly. I love American comics.
Yeah, cartoons. I’m not sure it they’re an inspiration for songs, but it makes up a large part of me. I’ve always loved to draw pictures and I used to sometimes earn a little money by making flyers. Even now I design my own merchandise, and I’m sometimes asked by my friends’ bands to design their merch, so I’m glad it looks as if my points make in line.
And I’ve loved Disney since I was a kid and been inspired a lot by it. Disney is a cartoon? No? I don’t know, though [laughs]. It’s been a part of me and I’ve learned countless things from it.
You’ve toured quite a bit overseas. Do you feel like there is much difference between the music scenes here and abroad?
Yeah, there’s a lot of difference. Firstly, Alan, my support bassist, is Canadian and has been in Japan for about five years.
Oh, he’s from Canada?
Yeah, he’s started to play bass with us right after he came to Japan, so there was already something of a cultural mix before we even went out on tour, and I’m feeling the gap in the studio every time [laughs].
How did you get together?
He sent me an email via Soundcloud to say that he was moving to Japan, so if I was performing any gigs, he asked if he could play bass with me. After that, he actually came to my gig at Shibuya PLUG, and after a few days I got the Canadian who totally cannot speak Japanese to a studio.
That would have been interesting, right?
Yeah, a lot happened [laughs]. Firstly, his taste in music was slightly different from mine, and I guess culturally, unlike Japanese, he’s assertive. Which is fine, but on the other hand I needed to make him understand that it’s my solo project and I want to achieve 100% of my vision.
You know, people say, “Music is a globally common language”. Yeah, that’s partially right. But I’ve tried it in reality. I’d been wondering about it for a long time.
I imagine it wouldn’t be easy…
Yeah, although, you know, he’s adapting little by little because of his vitality and seriousness, and before anything, he’s a nice guy and a friend. So I figured we could do it together.
In the beginning he was surprised by the Japanese live house scene, it was his first time performing in Japan. Things like the well-scheduled soundchecks, song lists, staff lists, meeting with bands, well-arranged facilities, the reaction of the audience, the prices of demo CDs and merch, and the after-parties at izakaya [laughs]. I guess they’re very Japanese ways, right?
My first gig in abroad was in South Korea. But Korea has quite a similar scene and culture to Japan, so I didn’t feel a big difference.
What was it like when you went to a western country?
I was shocked on our Canadian tour in 2012 and European tour this year. I got the impression that it’s a bit similar to Japanese club culture: the live show and after-party are not clearly separated. There was no fixed time for soundcheck, the gigs can start anywhere from 9 to 10pm, people drink a lot while watching and go home after 2 or 3am. It depends on the event, but it almost always starts later than expected.
Most venue have bars there, I guess people feel the same way as Japanese do about izakaya. You could even go so far as to say that people are there to enjoy the party as much as they are coming to see an appealing band. They occasionally find someone they love and purchase their merch there.
In Japan, audiences are different. It depends on genres, but if they find good musicians, they go back home and Google them and maybe purchase music on Amazon, right? Japanese are serious and shy, anyhow. It seems like they collect and organize information about a band first, and then find it easier to enjoy them live.
Which style do you prefer?
I’m kind of both ways. But like, abroad, it seems people are just trying to enjoy the atmosphere of the show. After a gig, a lot of guys come up and are so over the top, like, “Hey, gimme your new pair of sticks with your signature on them!” [Laughs]. They seem to react more directly. Maybe it depends on the people, I don’t know, it’s possible. It’s natural that people will differ in how they enjoy a live experience because there’s a lot of difference in culture, not just in the live music scene. But I’m not judging what way is better than another, it’s just different, and it’s also important to note that you shouldn’t judge any scene based on a short visit and by just experiencing a small slice of the culture there.
Every country has its own preference or trend for CDs, vinyl, cassette, or data. But nobody is to say what’s best. Music doesn’t have a concrete shape, so people living in individual cultures are judging what’s best; it comes down to convenience and quality for them, I think each style respectively is the best way for each of them.
Can’t stop the world changing, and the same could be said for music. I try to see the goodness aspects of every culture when I’m there, and respect it.
When you write a song, do you imagine how it might sound live? Or do you think writing and performing songs is totally different?
I absolutely don’t think about playing the music live when I’m writing songs. Recordings exist in their own world, and as I said, my performance is a representation of the recordings.
there are just two kinds of music: live and recorded
Once I’ve finished an album, I pass it to my supporting band, and then start to think about a live arrangement. So we rehearse in the studio, and sometimes we realize, “Shit, this is gonna be boring live.” It’s really frustrating to be unable to play something properly live, and so I put it in my “revenge box” temporarily. I’m hoping this will happen less in the future.
Some songs like Blood Price from my second album, or The Little Rain Seller from a compilation album, have turned out to be really good live, they’ve become like staples. It’s like those records are the original comic, and the performance is the live action film. But I don’t want to be the director that disappoints fans of the original comics.
Recently, I’ve been learning how to play [Chinese bowed instrument] erhu, which I’ve been interested in for a long time. I’d like to play it live when I’ve gotten enough skill. I’ve already been experimenting with it on a recording.
How would you like your music to be heard by listeners—CD, MP3, YouTube, Spotify, vinyl, cassette, Hi-Res Audio?
As I said before, I don’t think there’s a good or bad way. Essentially, there are just two kinds of music: live and recorded. So after creating something, it’s okay for each listener to choose. But, you know, some material can’t be digitalized, so I hope physical artwork is also seen as being valuable.
Do you think that format affects the music itself?
For sure there’s a difference in format. It comes down to the way you receive music. With little difficulty, you can skip songs on vinyl, CD, and cassette, but generally people listen to the songs one by one in order. I think with streaming services, listeners tend to skip after the first chorus or judge a song just from the most melodic part. That’s good and bad.
When I was in high school, I used to spend an hour choosing some CDs, and then open them up and read the booklets on the train while listening to them with a CD Walkman. Or even just read the booklets, looking forward to listening at home. There’s a story that happens even before you listen to a CD, you kind of get attached to it.
I used to waver between hope and despair with whatever CD I bought, and felt happy even if there was one good song on an album. You learn something from the songs that were lacking. I just think that these should be the most enjoyable days for music. Like with food, you feel differently about what you eat regularly or what you have after exercising. It’s exactly the same for music.
Music is not physically essential. Convenience is not automatically a good thing. When you talk about Spotify or portable audio, some people say, “Music is always with you,” and that seems great, but on the other hand, music is kind of like “eaten” by consumers. It’s often not easy getting to a music festival, and it can be expensive, but the people and energy make how you experience the music completely different. Even if music is difficult to access, people will enjoy it, I think.
What projects have you been working on recently?
I’ve been so busy collaborating with different artists that I haven’t released any of my own work since 2013, though I’ve kept making songs. Not album recordings, but songs that have been used as BGM or for commercials. So my music is still being released constantly. I’m happy.
As for other projects, I’m working on making an album with Mukai, vocalist of Kamomekamome who I featured on Automatism. And I’m also working with DJ DOLBEE, who recently collaborated with 志人 [Sibitt, ex-降神 Origami].
It depends on everybody’s working pace, so it’s hard to know when stuff will be released. I hope people are looking forward to it anyway [laughs].
At the same time I’m working on my own project that will come out next year, I promise! It’ll blow your mind!
So where can people purchase your music outside Japan? Do you have any plans to tour abroad?
I’m running my own label by myself, so I’m currently not able to send my CDs and vinyl by mail overseas because I don’t have any staff. So distribution is limited to Japan and a few Asian countries. However, most of my work is available digitally on bandcamp, iTunes, and recently on Apple Music. My second album has also been available on Apple Music since July, which a lot of people were asking for during my last European tour.
And I’ve recently confirmed a Czech tour! On the 23rd I’ll be headlining the Plzeňská Noc 2015 festival and on the 22nd I’ll play the Cross Club in Prague. I toured Czechoslovakia last February, I really love the country and it’s great to be going back again so soon. I got a really good reaction there when I toured Europe. I’ll be trying my best to represent Japan!