Tommy Tokyo: Keen observer, incongruous poet

-There is the odd song that might please I suppose, says Tommy Tokyo about the fact that his second album "Smear your smiles back on" has just been voted best Norwegian record of the year by a number of Norwegian papers. From out of no-where, and with a beard to prove it, Tommy Tokyo and his band Starving for my Gravy are the musical sensation of 2008.

Tommy Tokyo, 2006

-It is not a record for everyone, nor was meant to be. But I guess some people have found a song or two that have caught their ear, and that was really what I wanted. I wanted it to be a varied record; an amalgam more than a tightly fused thing.

Being Norwegian Warner's first 360-artist I guess the label must be happy that their gamble, if I may say so, is paying off so convincingly?

-Sure, they’re happy, but it was never a case of me putting myself in the hands of the label. I’ve been in complete control of the entire process, artistically but also practically. I had a pretty detailed notion of how I wanted things to work.

Tommy Tokyo is the father of four, and he is the one looking after them in the family’s country home during our conversation.

So, how do you combine the two roles of being both a family man and Norway’s most exiting new musical voice?

-My principle is to be 100 percent present when I am at home. But really, it is not like we’re gone for long periods. We’re a family-based band, with seven children between us. The longest I’ve been away from home were the two weeks we spent in England mixing the record. And I don’t think we will be away for that long again. More likely it will be a few days here and there. I hope our tours in 2009 will be short-legged affairs; that’s what we’re planning.

Reviews describe your music as a unique personal vision, and there is no denying that what you create stands out pretty clearly from the often streamlined and predictable nature of popular music. How much of a personal vision is it? Are you first and foremost a storyteller or an observer?

-I think of myself as an observer; someone picking up things and making observations in all kinds of places and contexts. I like to keep updated on many areas and I enjoy conveying and reissuing the things that I see (and hear and learn) in roundabout ways, so that the reference or content isn’t obvious you know. -And I like saying it in English, simply because you reach the whole world that way, potentially.

For an observer your lyrics are very poetic, you must see many strange and poignant things on your way?

-Well, I enjoy reading poetry and I try to keep that interest warm too, but I haven’t thought of my texts as poetic really. Not that I don’t appreciate that they are experienced as such of course. In trying to say things in roundabout ways -concealing references and keeping things a little ambiguous- you end up playing with the language, which is the root of poetry I guess.

In Norway appellations such as ‘Americana’, ‘country’, or ‘country-like’ appear very quickly, as if these were unavoidable references. Your music is no exception. I think that there is just as much British wit as American folk in your music, what is your opinion on this?

-To my knowledge I haven’t written a single country song in my life. I don’t know about the British connection really, it is certainly nothing conscious, but it is true that humour and wit, and a sense of presenting many layers, is important to me. In that respect I guess references to Britain and Europe are just as true as the old Americana reference.

Now that you’ve had you breakthrough aged 37, can you share some thoughts on the process of becoming an artist and the experience of success? Is music something that you feel is necessary for you to do, is it that important?

-I started playing and making songs relatively late, and at first it was not very serious. But eventually I developed my own sound and my own expression, and in that process it also grew into something serious and necessary in a way.
However, there have also been a lot of coincidences on the way, as is always the case. When we went up to by:Larm in Trondheim last year we thought of it as a one-time thing: we’d take a good shot at it, but didn’t expect much really.

But you became one of the hypes that year and things started happening?

-Yes, by the second night up there we knew that we were on to something. And since then a lot has happened.

The snowball started rolling. Inevitable, because your music is so special, or due to fortunate circumstances?

-Well, there are always coincidences and luck involved, but I believe that we present people with something different, something that catches their attention and perhaps imagination. This goes for the music, but also for the lyrics and our live performance.

The sound and arrangements developed by the notorious Yukon Sitmar St.Croix?

-St.Croix is a building in Fredrikstad where we used to rehearse. We produced ourselves. It was a nice way to give a quiet homage to that place, so we just came up with this name.

Tommy Tokyo and Yokon Sitmar St.Croix: Ordinary and down-to-earth as this man may appear, his is a musical and artistic imagination quite out of the ordinary. His universe is well worth checking out; it sounds like a carnival and reads like a puzzle.

PS: ‘Tokyo’ because is sounds funny and because it sort of gives credence to the whimsicality of my music, says Tommy.

Hear Tommy Tokyo here

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