Interview with Tom Thumb

RSL Interview Series
Q&A by Nick Parker

Photos by 5342 Studios
Tom Thumb at Toad
Cambridge, MA - 1/12/10

One of the Very Best in New England: Tom Thumb

Over the last few years, while many musicians and bands have come and gone in Boston, one very talented singer-songwriter has been quietly producing album after album of very beautiful folk music. Andy Arch, also known by his musical alter-ego Tom Thumb, was a best of the year pick here at RSL a couple of years ago. I say he’s been working “quietly” above because one thing that seems wrong about Arch’s musical career has been the comparatively small following he’s established given his remarkable talent as a singer, lyricist, guitarist, pianist, producer, etc. etc. Here at RSL we want to shout about this musician’s great songs until he gets the credit he deserves.

As you can see from the long list of roles he has adopted in Tom Thumb, it is VERY MUCH a solo project. His toil over the last year or so has now produced not one but two new EPs, which have just been released online here.

I spoke to Arch on the phone recently; we touched on his musical roots, on 'getting nerdy' with songs, and why one of these new EPs is close to a vintage 8-track recording.

RSL (Nick): Good to talk to you again. Let’s start by talking about your roots. Can you give some information about your musical background, for those that haven’t followed your work before? Where are you coming from musically?

Andy: Well, I used to play with a band in Boston that was a lot louder than the music I do now. That was probably 5 or 6 years ago. When I stopped playing with them, I starting playing on my own and playing around the country, and recording albums on my own, and that where I’m at now I guess.

RSL: I feel, from our conversations in the past, like you’ve taken being a solo artist quite far, in terms of doing most of the production yourself.

Andy: I do all of it, yeah.

RSL: That must be really intense. Why did you want to make that change of direction, from band to solo artist? And what’s the best and the worst things about that solo musical life?

Andy: The best thing is that you don’t have to worry about anybody but yourself! When you’re in a band there all kinds of issues, even if you’re friends. There’s a sort of juggling of different personalities, and expectation, and even just time commitments. So when it’s just you, you’re the only person you have to answer to. It also makes it a lot easier in terms of touring. When you’re in a band it’s hard to find that time to get away from work or school or whatever. Then there’s traveling around in a smelly van together, which is not easy!

RSL: So do you feel like you fell into working in this way, or was it a conscious choice?

Andy: It just kind of happened, but I’ve also always recorded on my own too. That’s how I learned to do production – kind of finding out how to do the different instruments alone in my bedroom. It wasn’t foreign to me, but I guess it was just circumstantial that I stopped playing with the band, and found that things were easier that way. Plus I moved out of the city, so I’m not as connected to the community, which is how you usually get involved with playing with other people. It’s easier, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, to work by yourself!

Tom Thumb's First New EP of 2011

RSL: Did you get any qualifications to do studio engineering work then, when you started this production?

Andy: No, I don’t have any kind of education on the engineering side, or on the musical side of things. I just came by it on my own.

RSL: It’s really remarkable that you’ve got to this point without that training. I want to talk about the new EP, “Creatures to Feed.” I understand there’s another one coming soon, and they are connected. Can you talk about the concept behind releasing two EPs in this way, and how they work together?

Andy: On the last two full albums I did I had this intention to do two halves – two separate things. When I’m working I usually come up with a handful of songs in a quieter vein, and then I get a little bit nerdy with other songs, and come up with this quite different thing, and then I work them out together, and they start to share elements with each other, so I manage to fit them into an album. This time around I actually followed through with this original idea - I stuck to my guns and kept them separate.

RSL: So this is the realization of a longer-standing idea, to do two things that are paired?

Andy: Yes. Because my tastes are kind of wide with what I like to do, this time I let them be wide like that. This time I decided to work within certain constraints: On the first one, “Creatures to Feed,” I set up rules that I had to follow – I couldn’t just indulge myself in all the things I’m able to do on the computer, so it’s just single takes, and I did the guitar and the vocals together, and wouldn’t ‘comp’ tracks (where you take the best parts of lots of takes and mash them together). This EP is natural, kind of like what I did originally on an 8-track reel-to-reel, so I was going back to that. I just used guitar and piano - just instruments with strings I guess you could say. And just a bit of reverb – no crazy effects. So the songs will have the same sort of feeling about them. Thematically, they are not narratives, they are all about restraint and aestheticism and duty. There is a sort of buckling down with those songs.

RSL: And the second one?

The Second Tom Thumb EP of 2011

Andy: That one’s called “Faux Romantic,” which I’m just finishing up right now [since we talked, this EP has been released, and is available here]. It’s kind of the opposite of that: It’s about indulgence and hedonism and performance in a way. That one is more computer based, where I used keyboards and the little drum pads on an MPC2000 (like one that a hip-hop producer would use). I’d plug that into various samples, and a crazy polyphonic synthesizer and all these tempo-based delays. I’d work in that ‘inside the computer mode.’ There isn’t that much ‘real’ in the recordings. It’s a more fun record I guess.

RSL: So did the choices about what songs would go where, and how they fitted together, did they come about of their own accord, or was there a very conscious choice to look for contrasting pairs of tracks, for example?

Andy: It’s not matched up song for song really. It’s almost easier to have constraints when you’re working on a project, so I didn’t find it difficult to match things up.

RSL: As an example of one song in particular that I thought was very strong, could I ask about the track “Loose Things:” Could you explain where that song came from? How did you get things started?

Andy: I began with the initial verse melody. I tend to sing nonsense words to fill the melodic space at that point, and sometimes some of those words remain even as I’ve built lyrics around them. I think that’s where at least a portion of the first line came from, and then I just come up with a chorus after that.

RSL: I notice that the quality level is pretty consistent across your last few records. What do you think sets this project apart though, from the last few things you’ve done?

Andy: I guess this project might be more focused. When I was talking earlier about putting together groups of songs [in the past] that might not necessarily work together, because of the constraints, and because they were written in a shorter period of time I think it’s all more focused. It holds together as a whole a bit better. I also decided to put up the lyrics on this one, which I’ve never done before. That’s not necessarily because I think they are better, but because they are non-narrative, and fragmented and prismatic, so it’s hard to get a sense of what’s going on if you don’t see the lines in print.

I’ll split sentences across melodic lines at times, so when you see them in print it helps to clarify things. Usually I’ll try to do a few narrative songs on each EP, but I didn’t bother to do that this time around – it interest me less than the non-narrative ones. Overall, I don’t think it’s drastically different that what I’ve done before though.

Tom Thumb in Cambridge, MA - Jan 12, 2010

RSL: Do you feel like your own assessment of the work changes over time? Do you feel, as you look at it now, like this is the best thing you’ve done?

Andy: I think the most recent thing you’ve done is often the thing you’re most excited about. In this case it’s odd, because I’m already onto the second one, so I haven’t had as much time to let this one sink in. I hope it’s as good as what I’ve done before, but it’s hard to say when you’re inside it.

RSL: What is your plan to make this release your biggest so far?

Andy: First of all, I’d like to get back on the road. I’ve taken a break from touring in the last year. Before this year I had done a couple of trips around the country that were really long. There’s also a group a musicians out in Portland Oregon that have a label called Stuffed Thin records, and they are going to help out promoting this record. They are amazing musicians. Leonard Mynx is one of them.

RSL: Yeah, I’ve met him when he’s played here before. He’s great.

Andy: I’m working with him on sharing some promotional work to get things out there.

RSL: Could there be a vinyl release then, of this EP. Is that something you’re considering?

Andy: Absolutely. It’s a financial issue most of all, but I’ve seen a lot of people have success on kickstarter for producing records, so I might try something like that. I’ve always wanted to put out something on vinyl.

Andy Arch is Tom Thumb
the EP Albums / Web / Fb / My


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