There are albums for liminal spaces, and there are albums for trying to find a way out of them; Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson’s Youngish American is one of the latter. Under the name Dams of the West, Tomson released his debut solo album through Danger Mouse’s 30th Century Records this past February. Despite its winter release date, the album – a tight collection of ten rollicking tracks – begs to be played at summer barbecues and on cross-country road trips. It’s a coming-of-age tale from a man who is already of age; it’s a shimmering shout into the void from a white, male thirty-something seeking both absolution and release.
The character of “Dams” reflects warmly on the mundane aspects of maturation, from fighting over kitchen tiles at Home Depot to deciding to start flossing. This is all a part of the charm of the record – it’s reflective, honest, and oozing with Tomson’s signature brand of smart, self-aware humor. Fans of Vampire Weekend will appreciate the familiar rhythms employed by Tomson (“Tell The Truth” would feel right at home on a Vampire Weekend record), while also a garnering an appreciation for the edgier, more aggressive tracks (“Will I Be Known to Her”, “Pretty Good Wifi”) that stand out as testaments to Tomson’s knack for employing compelling beats. That said, you don’t have to be a fan of Vampire Weekend – the indie equivalent of One Direction – to enjoy Youngish American (oh, so you think you’re “too cool” to enjoy Vampire Weekend? I know you used to listen to “Cousins” on repeat). Tomson has delivered an album for any person trying to find purpose – and, oh man, it works. Welcome to DamNation.
Modern Girls had the chance to catch up with Chris Tomson to discuss his music, his New York faves, “Boss Baby”, and One Direction (spoiler alert: he’s a Niall Girl)… among other, more professional things. Read on for more CT, in his own words.
Favorite New York coffee shop? Hmm, I actually don’t drink coffee but I do enjoy spending some time at Stonefruit on Bedford.
Favorite New York pizza place? Koronet Pizza (as of 2008 anyway)
Favorite New York music venue? Bowery Ballroom
Last book you read? The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Last thing you googled? little america wy hotels
What bands have you been listening to lately? Weyes Blood
Favorite member of One Direction? Musically: Zayn / Personality: Niall
What have been the most difficult – and rewarding – parts of the transition from “drummer” to “frontman”?
Having now performed both roles with varying degrees of accuracy and efficiency, I can officially confirm that they are indeed quite different! The thing I found the most challenging to adapt to was going from being a part of a larger team to, simply, “the guy.” There are certainly shared aspects to both roles but being the person who is ultimately responsible for and reactive to the success or failure/criticism or praise of a project has a way higher variance in emotional and tweakiness terms. Hopefully, though, I will continue to gain confidence and grow into both roles as a “frontman who can drum” and a “drum-man who can front.”
Similarly, how has the transition been to playing with a new band?
Initially very strange but ultimately truly awesome! I didn’t realize how odd it was to have spent a decade playing almost exclusively with only 3 people until I set about trying to find musicians to perform with me in Dams. Despite my nominal status as a “professional” I actually felt quite underprepared. Luckily, through general life-metrics and a bit of trial and error, I was able to find some great people to play with. Much like meeting people socially/romantically, there is a certain gut reaction when you play with someone for the first time as to whether it will be a good fit or not. I think now is a good time to shout out Emily (Emily Danger), Karen (Bel Aviv) and Gabriela (Ela Minus) for lending me their talents for the touring that we’re doing and generally being v chill and sweet! (Also, shout out to our occasional substitute drummer Mickey Vershbow!)
How have the women in your life shaped this record?
I think of this album as an only slightly fictionalized snapshot of my life, so as such women have shaped it quite a bit. Growing up, I remember taking family trips to Susan B. Anthony’s grave and the site of the Seneca Falls Convention so feminism and female perspectives are fairly foundational parts of my worldview. In a more current sense, my wife and sometimes director Emily definitely has a large influence on the way I process life and, as such, how I approached making a record. Also, she gave me a few Walk Hard-style lyrical moments such as when she told me I whisked like my mother. Thanks Em.
“The Inerrancy of You and Me” was directed by Emily Tomson.
At Modern Girls, we came together because of a shared interest in similar music and bands (namely, The Strokes. Unfortunately, Dams of the West was not a public entity at the time of our formation). How did music shape your connections and friendships growing up, and how does it continue to do so today?
I think when you are young and forming an identity or when you are older and refining one, art of any kind can prove to be incredibly helpful in such pursuits. Some of my closest friendships were formed over debates on the relative merits of different eras of Phish or during an exhilarated ride home from a Tito Puente concert. Those relationships continue (and new ones continue to be formed) over remarkably similar circumstances to this day.
I remember tweeting you incessantly around the promotion of MVOTC, hoping for a reply from one of my own mythical music heroes. How did you deal with the social media frenzy back then, and how has Dams changed the way you look at and use social media platforms?
Social media has proven to be a weird animal for me. Ever since my original Facebook profile began to be overrun by fans of VW in 2007, I’ve been sort of unsure how to approach them. Personally, I find the line between who I feel like “I” really am and who social media people want “me” to be to is a hard one to walk. If anything, Dams has given me more freedom to alternately obscure or sharpen that boundary as I see fit. I can say, though, that I have tried to apply one irl principle to most of my online interactions: to respond in kind! If someone seems genuine, I like to respond genuinely and if someone seems like an asshole then ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
What will you take from your experience with Dams as you continue with Vampire Weekend?
I think that the last two years with (as?) Dams has greatly expanded my perspective as both a musician and a bandmate. I have always tried my best to be a supportive, positive and productive part of the VW team and I think that everything I’ve experienced with Dams can only help me to continue to do so!
Likewise, what do you want listeners to take away from Dams of the West?
Not sure, tbh! Obviously, I hope people enjoy it and don’t think it’s a huge piece of shit but past that I have tried not to place to many expectations on any potential listener. I do know that I’m proud of of the record as a whole and of the honesty and content of lyrics in particular but there is no particular reaction necessary.
A few days ago, you documented on Instagram your journey to see the hit film “Boss Baby” (which, upon the time of writing this interview, was ranked 49% on Rotten Tomatoes). Thoughts?
I was intrigued, as I think a lot of people were, by the utter weirdness of the premise of The Boss Baby. I legit laughed approximately 4 times and was engaged up until the fairly formulaic final third. The 8 year old birthday party in attendance seemed to be really digging it tho so I was happy to be part of its big #1 box office debut weekend. I should also say that, as a 30 Rock-head, I was hoping to get a little hit of Jack Donaghy even if it was in a surreally infantilized form.
Youngish American is available now for your streaming and purchasing pleasure. Check it out, if you haven’t already.
Interview, words, and illustration by Megan