Tender yet stimulating, Tomten weaves beautiful melodies and poetic lyrics into an experience well worth listening. With Brian Noyeswatkins as lead singer and multi-instrumentalist, Jake Brady on drums and guitar, Dillon Sturtevant on bass, and Matt Rafferty on guitar, their sound incorporates languid surf rock and the gentle baritone of Noyeswatkins with a litany of unique sounds. From incorporating the sounds of organs, mellotrons, a variety of strings, and the occasional woodwind or brass, Tomten draws upon a a musical vocabulary too often relegated by other artists to the drum-bass-guitar trifecta. Through this diversity the members of Tomten craft sensitive numbers capable of transporting the listener through the song’s story as well as satiating the ear with engaging tunes.
During their live performance, Tomten plays an emotional but solemn set. But where they lack in headbanging, sliding, kicking, and other unnecessary theatrics, they excel in focus. In essence Tomten performs not songs, but meditations on a theme. These themes are nothing too obscure, nor should they be. Noyeswatkins and company often sing of love and heartbreak. With Noyeswatkins’ casual crooning and the tightness of the band, Tomten achieves a mature ability: the ability to invite an audience into these moments of meditation. Once connected to the music, Tomten and the listener are able share a sense of honesty wherein one can silently reflect on the nature of our relationships in the company of likened strangers; wherein one can explore how those relationships hurt us, and how those relationships can quite literally make us sing.
I had the fortunate pleasure of speaking with Tomten before their performance at Seattle club Neumos on January 9th. Sharing with me some good stories and a few drinks, Tomten and I delved into what its like gigging as an independent band and how they make their music.
So Brian, I’m curious, what was the movement behind getting on stage? What’s the story of how Tomten came to be?
Brian: It basically started with all of us writing our own songs and then putting them together. And that was really cause we kind of found our sound that way. Then I got some more keyboards and went that direction I suppose.We’ve been playing for a while. We started the band with two other people, four, five years ago. We needed a new bass player, we met Dylan (bassist), and Matt (guitarist) was playing with this band Radiation City.
How have you seen yourself evolving as musicians over these years?
Brian: With this last album we got to use more instruments that hadn’t been so accessible before; I just like to have more at our disposal. Whatever we do in the future I want to take more time. Every time we’ve recorded an album we’ve been very rushed.
How do you develop your songs?
Brian: I’ll go on a long walk and come up with something, then go home, bang it out on the keyboard, then show it to Jake. He’ll add some stuff. They’re usually mostly finished by the time I take it to Jake…I just kind of like to play through something and add the lyrics.
Have you been developing new work recently?
Brian: Yeah, the three of us are going to start working on new stuff pretty soon. I’ve just been playing through more, instrumentally, ideas right now.
What influences do you draw upon when you’re developing new music?
Brian: Reading a book at the time, or if I’ve watched a lot Twilight Zone. I don’t want to write a song about that, but I get an idea or a mood from that. There’s a song on our new album that I named after an area where I grew up…Monterrey Bay.
You guys have been together for some time now, what have been some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Brian: One of the worst is when you try and tour you have to quit your job. It’s shitty to lose money. It really sucks. Or like, putting out an album and nothing happens. We spent a year and a lot of money. It’s kind of like dealing with enjoying doing it and then realizing “Oh maybe this doesn’t go anywhere…” But I honestly enjoy doing it enough to the point where I don’t really care.
Jake: Yeah, it’s not like in this day and age you have to be on a big label, and if you get dropped you’re fucked forever.
Well let’s take it off a negative note, what’s most rewarding about what you’re doing?
Jake: You get to record albums. It’s really exciting to get your album pressed for the first time. You’re really proud of it.
Brian: It’s especially fun when you’re on a bill with bands you like. Especially when they fit. I really like playing with this local band called Heat Warmer. We had them play with us at our early show. This band Thousands is really cool too.
So you guys have had a chance take your set on the road, can you tell me more what its like playing with different bands across the states?
Brian: On tour its more hit or miss. Sometimes you’re like, “Oh man, you’re playing with some ass-rock band.” There was this one band that labeled themselves as new-grunge and they played this cover of Seven Nation Army that sounded like electronic Ted Nugent. That was one of those nights where you’re like, “Why am I so far away from home in this town?”
Jake: That band we played with in San Francisco, The Farallone’s, they’re really good. The guy we recorded with, he’s in a band called Papercuts and we played with him once up here and he’s great, he’s one of my favorite musicians.
Brian: Sometimes we’ve played bills that are completely bizarre but somehow it works. One time after our set, this girl came on stage with a mandolin and started playing “Me and Julio Down by The Schoolyard.” That’s when we headed out.
You can catch Tomten on January 31st at Al’s Den in Portland, OR, or check out their music here.
Tavis Hamilton is an independent writer covering Northwest arts and culture. Enjoy his shameless self-promotion outlet by following him on Twitter @TavisHamilton where he will keep you updated on all things that will make you look cooler and more knowledgeable than your friends. If you don’t read his work you are passively resigning yourself to mediocrity and intellectual stagnation.