Thom Sonny Green is best known as the drummer for alt-J, but as we found out, he has many more strings to his bow.
‘High Anxiety’ is his debut solo album, and for someone who only recently got a computer, let alone started using Ableton, it’s a pretty impressive effort.
We chatted to him about working from a mobile phone, producing soundtracks and MIDI wizardry...
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Is producing a solo record something you’ve always wanted to do?
I’ve only been producing for about four years, since I got a laptop! I had wanted to do it for quite a while but I only had a phone at the time. I downloaded a couple of drum machines and really enjoyed it but it was only when I got Ableton that I realised I really loved it. I like a lot of electronic music and I wanted to experiment with sounds - I wanted to see if I could do it. The idea of an album only came about earlier this year. I had a lot of stuff written, and the band was taking some time off so I knew I would be free to have a crack at it. It was never about trying to sell an album, it was more about trying to play music in another way.
So you’re into electronic music, are there any particular artists that influenced the making of this album?
During my last year at university I was listening to a lot of Clams Casino and that definitely influenced the way I write. But I don’t know how he manages to get his beats to sound so heavy, mine always sound a bit clean. As a drummer I’m used to being in front of a kit, so having to try and program beats electronically is a whole different experience. I’m also really into Aphex Twin; I try and emulate his approach, the way he works every single day.
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It was more about trying to play music in another way...
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It’s the same with Skrillex, I’ve met Sonny a few times as he’s a bit fan of alt-J and he’s a wizard on Ableton, it’s as though it’s second nature to him. Seeing that kind of work ethic is really influential for me, dedicating your whole life to one thing is really important. At the moment I’m mainly listening to Death Grips, which is exactly where I’m at right now. I think a lot of their drums are played acoustic and converted to MIDI and that fascinates me, probably because I don’t know how to do it!
Without wanting to make assumptions, the record sounds like a bit of an introspective?
Yeah it definitely is, I wrote a lot of it while on tour with Alt-J, and I can get quite anxious so producing new music is my way of distracting myself. When I’m at home it’s the same, I have to find something stimulating, like playing computer games and listening to a lot of music. Production allows me to really focus on something; it’s a source of satisfaction as well as just making me happy. A lot of the sounds you hear on the record reflect my feelings at the time. I never think about making music that is designed to sell or be played in a club or anything like that. At the end of the day it just makes you feel good.
I feel very in touch with sounds themselves, it’s one of the reasons I love the drums so much. They’re very physical instruments and I feel directly connected with them. However with some of the tracks, take Phoenix for example, there’s no beat – it’s quite an ambient piece. So, yeah, all in all it’s definitely quite an introspective work.
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Talking of ambience, people are comparing the record to the likes of Boards Of Canada, Moby and Arca, what do you think of that?
I’ve definitely heard people talking about Boards of Canada. I had always been aware of them but I only really started enjoying them recently, probably due to the amount of people comparing my work with theirs. When I started I didn’t think it ('High Anxiety') would be very accessible, and I left a lot of stuff off the record, but more and more people are starting to say the opposite.
As I was making it I went through periods of thinking it was mediocre and I thought about going in the opposite direction and making something as heavy as possible, just noise really. Anyway, it’s a huge compliment to be compared to anyone like Moby and I’m a huge fan of Arca’s production. Basically I’d like people not to think it’s shit.
21 tracks is unusually long, often the reserve of ‘Best Of’ compilations! Is there a particular reason for the length of 'High Anxiety'?
When it came to selecting tracks I found it really difficult to bring the number down without compromising my vision for the album. I could have got it down to 12 or 13 but I just didn’t want to. Initially the label said it’s a bit too long, but in the end we agreed to let it be. The thing is it’s quite an experimental record; it’s not designed for Radio 1 or anything like that. I want it to be open, for people to interpret it as they wish. I’d also love to make a metal album one day and don’t want to put myself in a position where I can’t do that, so I feel like I’m setting the bar now.
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Basically I’d like people not to think it’s shit...
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Now that the album is finished are you back with alt-J working on the third album?
We’re not in the studio yet, but I’ve got a little set up at home and we’ve met a couple of times but we’ve not properly started yet. We decided to take some time off at the start of this year and we’ve had that now so we should have something in the very near future, but I’m not going to make any more promises than that!
Fair enough! This album is still really fresh but do you think we’ll be hearing more solo stuff in the future?
I think I’ll always be working on production, and I’d like to do some more soundtrack stuff. Obviously I’ll do other things as well, but I’ve got enough tracks for another two albums if I wanted to so I’m definitely going to keep at it. I don’t like to do nothing and with the success of the band there’s a lot of really amazing opportunities out there that I’m very aware of and I don’t want them to go to waste so we’ll wait and see what happens. I’m going to play some live shows in September which will be interesting…
Talking of live shows, how was Latitude?
Yeah it was good, it’s a totally different experience being up there on your own but I was with my friend Nichola Farnan, who was up there manipulating video while I was going through the tracks. I was nervous because although people were aware that I had done something, no one had really heard it. But it definitely made me want to do it again, but I want to improvise more and make it more of a performance rather than me just playing the tracks.
Going forward it’s a bit weird as we don’t know what sort of venue would work best so it’s tricky knowing where to book. Unless there’s huge demand I’m not going to tour it. If I didn’t have the band then obviously I would have to promote this a lot more, so I’m very, very lucky to have this as a hobby.
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'High Anxiety' will be released on August 19th.
Words: Milo Wasserman