Making strange noises at inappropriate times is usually considered a medical condition, but for beat boxer Tom Thum it’s considered practice. The Brisbane musician recently put his art form under the microscope – well, nasoendoscopy – in front of thousands at a TEDx Talk in the name of… curiosity? Fun? Entertainment? Music Feeds’ Jade Kennedy spoke with Tom recently to figure out why, and discuss beats, birds, boats and more.
Music Feeds: Where are you at the moment?
Tom Thum: I am currently up in the Adelaide Hills, in Mt Barker, working on some recordings with an orchestra. We’re working on some shows for a stint we’ve got in Germany. So yeah, it’s very relaxing at the moment.
TT: Yeah. Well, I mean we’re doing 15-hour days, but in the most pleasant surroundings you can possibly imagine. So it’s very balancing. I don’t feel like all of my hairs fallen out yet [laughs] but there’s a good chunk of it going grey before it does, that’s for sure.
MF: [Laughs] How long have you been down there for?
TT: This is our 10th day. So yeah, I think I’ve collectively done more work in these 10 days than I have in the entire year leading up to it, but its been all very pleasurable and challenging stuff. It’s really good to see that I can actually function under extreme pressure. In fact I function much better under pressure [laughs] that’s for sure.
MF: Really? Most people hate it.
TT: Yeah. If I set my own deadlines I just usually spend it working in my veggie garden [laughs] SO not hip-hop [laughs] but that’s what it is.
MF: Procrastination is great – except when you’ve got deadlines [laughs]. So tell me a little bit about this TEDx Talk you did.
TT: Yeah… So basically a few years back I got a grant from the government to do a bit more of an analytical study of the physicality of beat boxing. As opposed to me just showing off some tricks it was really cool to actually see how my voice functions. So I went and got X-rays and CAT scans and, you know, like everything to actually see the internal mechanisms of my throat, and one of the studies that I did that really resonated was a laryngeal exam – so having cameras shoved in my face and actually watching what my vocal chords and the muscular structures inside my face actually do when I’m performing.
So that was really cool, and then I was like, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I could take this onto a live stage?’ [laughs] and just watch everybody vomit into their laps [laughs]. So yeah, I just had this idea and I’d already done a TEDx Talk, and that went really well for me, so I thought this might be the perfect audience to bring a new concept to.
It was a lot of planning, and a lot of failing, and a lot of gagging, and a lot of anaesthetic [laughs] but yeah, I just really wanted to do it and when I have an idea I just obsess over it, so I pushed and pushed and pushed and got there in the end. It was a 15-minute performance with anaesthetic in my face and a camera in my nose for a good chunk of it.
MF: … Wow.
TT: Yeah. Live on stage and on five huge screens in front of five thousand people. So yeah, it was certainly terrifying, and also, like, really hard to perform with a camera in your face but asides from that, I did it!
MF: How do you perform or even breathe with a camera down your nose?
TT: Well yeah, right? And because we didn’t get to do a full tech run – the only time we got to do it in it’s entirety on the stage during the performance – so there were so many things that I just didn’t factor in.
Like, I didn’t even get to experience the problem before we did the live show. So it was like, ‘Oh god! The anaesthetic’s worn off and now I’ve got to perform, and I can really feel that camera jabbing the back of my throat…’ [laughs]
We timed it so we thought 12 minutes before we go on is when we should use the anaesthetic, because that will give us enough anaesthetic that I can’t feel it too much, but not too much. We did it one time with the anaesthetic but it numbed my entire throat so I literally couldn’t perform. So we had to find this balance between not being able to feel a camera in there, and not being totally overcome by the effects of the anaesthetic.
But, I just like to talk shit, so I got on stage and was like, ‘Oh here we are – just relax, you’ve got to take it easy and don’t rush anything,’ so we were just having fun with it, then before I knew it the anaesthetic had totally worn off and then it came to the part where I actually had to perform a routine, and it was so painful [laughs]. Oh my god.
MF: Oh man, that’s crazy. What on earth made you think of doing THAT to learn about the physicality of it in the first place?
TT: Well just because it was the most literal way you could do it. Like, pointing a camera at something.
I mean there’s always analysis where you can go, ‘I think this is this,’ but if you can actually see it you can diagnose it straight away. It was really cool, like, you know there were certain sounds that I had assumed I knew how they were made, but when I actually saw the flappy bits and wobbly things [laughs] like, dancing around in my head, it totally changed my perception of how it was being done. And this is, like, from a literal introspective perspective, you know, because I could actually see inside myself. It was really really fascinating.
Also no-one had done it before. One of the reasons why I wanted to do it was because it didn’t exist, so I didn’t know what it was or how it worked, and I was like, ‘Oh man, I wish there was a thing where I figure out more about this… Oh fuck it, I’ll just do it myself!’ [laughs] I’ve got enough contacts.
MF: Wow… so what were you hoping to give to the audience?
TT: Ah… my stomach contents! [Laughs] I don’t know, just something different really. Like I mean, it was pretty weird. It was definitely graphic.
MF: Well yeah, I mean it wasn’t your first time on a TEDx stage…
TT: No, for sure no. And certainly not by any means my first time in front of an audience like that, but it was definitely my first time doing something like this – it was anyone’s first time doing something like this [laughs]. I just wanted to see everyone’s reactions, mainly. In a totally sadistic [laughs] kind of way, I just wanted to see everyone squirm.
MF: That is pretty sadistic [laughs].
TT: Yeah. It was mainly just so there was a deeper understanding of the physicality of the human voice.
You know, people are talking every single day, and just don’t realise how much of a finely-tuned set of muscles and nerves actually exist in the larynx. So yeah, it’s super fascinating.
I learned so much as well, especially working with the doctor. He’d just throw these mind-blowing facts in casual conversation and I was like, ‘Man, people should know about this stuff!’
Then a lot of that got edited out of the final presentation because, like I said, I just talk for way too long. But even just as an educational journey for me it was fantastic.
MF: So what did you learn from it?
TT: Well, I learnt that anaesthetic [laughs] is not that effective!
I just learnt how a bunch of different sounds I was curious about were made. And the actual medical terminology, which I would definitely need to refer to my speech notes to figure out [laughs].
I also learned that committing to a weird idea is just something you should do, or else you’ll always be wondering about it. So now that I’ve done it -and the performance side of it could have been better, because I just came up against obstacles – I’m glad I did it, because I’ve always wanted to do it. Now it’s there and now my stamp is kind of set into that frame, I guess.
MF: You’ve put your flag there, so to speak.
TT: Yeah, exactly [laughs] I’ve put the flag there, and people are welcome to put their flags next to it. I just wanted to put something out into the world that explained what I did in a realm of knowledge that was kind of lacking for it.
MF: Oh yeah, for sure. Well obviously you’ve been beat boxing for quite a while now – how much practice really goes into it?
TT: I get asked that question a lot, and it’s so hard to answer. You might have a gymnast, for example, that’s got a very regimented training routine, whereas I’m just obsessively compulsive, Tourette-ic kind of training routine, you know? I’m doing stuff at all hours of the day, and at all awkward times I’m making sounds.
I definitely think I would improve a lot quicker if I did have, you know, four hours a day where I’m just going to do drills on different tempos, but I just don’t. I can’t concentrate like that. I will work on 500 projects at the one time, and they’ll all come out in 20 years [laughs].
MF: So basically you’re practicing when you’re in your veggie garden.
TT: Yes! Yeah, so much so my neighbours must think there is the weirdest fucking hummingbird [laughs] living next door or like a lyrebird or something. So yeah, all the time; I’m always making noises.
And often in conversations with people I’ll just burst out in a sound. I know it is such a bad habit of mine, because it is not considered normal… unless you’re me. It’s just one weird thing that I know I do a lot and I know I should probably try and concentrate on not doing.
MF: Well you know, drummers are always tapping on things subconsciously, so it kind of makes sense. How do you learn new techniques or new sounds?
TT: I just find one that I can already do, then just think of a different way to do it. Like, maybe I’ll breathe in while maintaining that mouth position, or maybe I’ll try that up an octave, or maybe I’ll try a lip vibration behind it. It’s always just finding one thing, then just building and building and building until it becomes a completely different beast.
MF: So [laughs] how do you remember how to do it?
TT: Oh man, I reckon over the last seven years or something I would’ve lost so many sounds. I mean, realistically I should be recording them, but I fail even backup hard drives, let alone record sounds [laughs]. So yeah, I don’t know… If one’s really good then I’ll remember it. But there’s probably a whole bunch of ones that were almost somewhere, that I could’ve developed further, but I’ve just forgotten or been distracted by a bird outside the window or something shiny [laughs].
MF: Well yeah, fair enough… that’s probably what you get for not sitting down and doing the four hours, but, you know.
TT: Yeah, I think so, right? I need like meditation – the loudest meditation I can possibly do.
MF: Yeah! So what made you get into beat boxing as a genre, as opposed to being a DJ or something?
TT: I didn’t really decide. I just started doing it and now I’m doing it. It was just a hobby thing – I was very into breakdancing and graffiti and MC-ing and all sorts of weird shit – and this is just one that people started paying me more for more frequently. So I went, ‘Oh, so I guess this is what I’m doing now,’ and now I’m playing with orchestras… it’s weird.
It’s great, but I certainly never went, ‘I’m going to become a professional beat boxer and these are the steps I’m going to achieve it with.’ It was just like, ‘I like sounds… Oh sweet – money! For doing this?! Losers!’ [laughs] So yeah, it just kind of worked.
MF: Well I mean if it falls into your lap…
TT: Oh yeah, well it definitely didn’t just fall into my lap, it was more not realising I was working so hard at it because I loved it. So in retrospect I’m like, ‘Oh, that was cool that that happened!’ but at the same time I did, like, tens of thousands of hours to get there. It was just something that I would be doing anyway, if people didn’t pay me, but now I’ve got an excuse to really dig in on it because it is my career, and I want to get more jobs [laughs].
MF: Well obviously you layer a lot in the song-making process. So how long would it take, on average, to create one track?
TT: That depends on the simplicity of it. Sometimes my things that I write – and once again I really obsess over stuff – I’ll focus on two different layers of hi-hat where the frequency difference is so small but to me I can hear it and I know it’s there, because I’ve worked on it.
But some tracks I’ve done have had, like, 120 different layers just of all voice stuff to achieve one texture. There might be four different layers in one sound just to create the kind of effect that I want.
It takes me so long… and the ironic thing is I’ll work on these things for ages and ages and then because I’ve burned myself out on the details of it I just don’t ever release it. But it’s good practice [laughs] even if it doesn’t see the light of day it’s really good to learn about engineering and the actual song making process.
MF: Mmm well I have seen a few songs come out this year…
TT: Yeah, a few little bits and pieces, for sure.
MF: So will we see those on an album?
TT: Yeah. I’ve got an EP that I finished in 2015… jayzus… that I’m re-finishing. I guess I’m remixing a thing that didn’t come out? So, I’m working on that, then working on an album of orchestral music as well, so like beatbox orchestra-style stuff – music that myself and a composer-conductor have written. That’s in a pretty good spot at the moment, we did a great recording with the QSO, which was fantastic. It was, like, mind-blowing to stand in front of the sonic weight of an orchestra. Also sick to hear things I’d created in my bedroom and just thrown out there as ideas to the world, become fully-fledged orchestral pieces. That shit is mind-blowing. Every time I hear it on stage I get goosebumps on my arms and stuff because it’s just fascinating.
MF: It sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff going on – how do you keep it all in check?
TT: [Laughs] Yeah, good question. Just with priorities and deadlines, I guess. The problem with a lot of my recorded stuff is nobody gives me deadlines, so I’m always recording and re-recording and re-stripping. I work much easier to a deadline that somebody else has given me where there’s some sort of penalty if I don’t meet that deadline – otherwise I’ll just work on something forever.
It’s like the guy that’s polishing his boat; you know what I mean? I’m that guy – I’ll never take that boat out for a ride, but fuck it’ll look good.