INTERVIEW: Chris Tomson of Dams of the West


Photo by Caroline Barry

You may know him from such works as “A-Punk,” “Diane Young,” and “Oxford Comma,” but this time, he’s gone solo. Chris Tomson, drummer of internationally-famed band Vampire Weekend, took the group’s four-year hiatus as an opportunity to make his own way in the music industry under the name Dams of the West. The solo project’s debut album, Youngish American, is full of Tomson’s perspective on maturity, self-assessment, and retrospection—it’s definitely worth a listen through. Dams of the West opened for Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears at the Middle East Downstairs on February 24.

Despite Tomson’s opening disclaimer that his voice was unintentionally rough, he performed a great set. The show also served as a release party for the new album. After the show, WTBU DJ Caroline Barry talked to Tomson about influences, growing as a musician, and being on the road.

Caroline Barry: First of all, I’d like to acknowledge that your album is really, really good. 

Chris Tomson: Thank you!

CB: What genre would you put Dams of the West in?

CT: I don’t know. I guess there was no explicit goal to be in any one or another. So I think it’s generally rock. I would say a smattering of all of the stuff that that means. But it was important to me not to be any one thing or too much of one thing.

CB: Who are some musical influences that you drew from for the album?

CT: Again, and I assure you this is not a cop out answer, there was nothing too specific. I was purposely trying not to overthink it, because when I overthink things, they’re bad in most areas of my life, not just musically. But for sure, I can say all the touchtone stuff—which I’ve subsumed and digested and now is just sort of part of how I think about music—is definitely there, which is The Band which is my favorite band, The Beatles—it’s sort of a boring one, but sure—Elvis Costello, and Reel Big Fish—that’s not a joke. Everything that was important to me, everything—also Phish—and stuff from some of these things ,I actively went towards and some of these things I avoided. Similar to the genre question, when I think something is like, “Oh, that sounds exactly like Bowie in the mid-seventies,” that’s also sort of bad. And I think that would have been extra bad if it had been, “Oh that sounds like Vampire Weekend.” That would have been extra bad.

CB: How important has your wife Emily been in the promotion and creation of Dams of the West? Didn’t she direct some of the videos?

CT: She’s been part of the whole album, including some emotional maturity in a personal sense that fed into the music sense. We’ve been together for five plus years, but I think we have a deep understanding, which is not always on a creative tip. And we also vibe. But I think that we have both grown to trust ourselves through trusting each other. That’s very corny, but I think that’s her biggest influence more than the videos. I also think that with her video ideas, I think she’s very talented in general, and in all the ways she might approach things. Specifically, when she was thinking of positions to put me in, her understanding of me is far greater than almost anyone, including myself. So I think her ideas were incredibly well-informed.

CB: So I’ve seen you and [Chris] Baio live and I honestly didn’t know you both had vocal talent as well as musical talents. Do you think there’s a chance that, or do you already know if, you’ll be featured vocally on the next Vampire Weekend album?

CT: Unclear. And actually I think—that’s a good sneaky question, trying to get some info about LP4. I can’t speak for Baio, but for myself, I’m still figuring it out. I sort of said it on stage, but I think I’m doing well. I think I’m learning and getting better, but I think it’s still a process for me to figure this stuff out. I’m not saying all, but a lot of things I’ve learned working on the record and doing the shows and stuff, I didn’t know before when we were working on the last album. So when I contribute, I will have a greater context from which I am coming from, but in terms of LP4, that’s all I can say.

CB: I think it’s interesting that a lot of people would consider you a professional musician based on the success of Vampire Weekend, but you keep saying that you’re still learning.

CT: Well I think that’s a dangerous attitude to be like, “I’m there. I’m done.” But I think it would be kind of a bummer if you weren’t picking stuff up. I think that’s what makes it interesting. If you had one idea and did it that way tens of thousands of times, that would get boring probably around the 8,607 time.

CB: It seems that between the three Vampire Weekend albums and Youngish American, you tend to write music that’s about one stage of your life and maturing. So what do you see in the future? Albums? Kids? More pizza?

CT: You know what, I don’t know. I think that it was true of this record and it will be true of whenever another Dams one comes out. I don’t want to go into anything with a preconceived notion of like, “Oh, I’m gonna write a record about bananas. It’s gonna be great, man. We’re gonna talk about the peel, have one song about when they’re black inside and such a bummer.” You know what I mean? Actually, that’s not bad…I know I want it to be good and meaningful to me, which will then hopefully translate into it being meaningful for other people—not necessarily in the way it’s meaningful to me. That doesn’t always have to be the same exact meaning. But I couldn’t say, and I actually kind of don’t want to say.
CB: How has touring with Dams of the West been different from touring with Vampire Weekend?

CT: It’s more similar to touring with Vampire Weekend circa 2007 than circa 2014. There were busses involved, and we’re back in the mini van. I purposely chose to tour with women, because after a decade with dudes I thought that would be an interesting change for me and to learn more.

CB: Are you actually a lizard king as the “Tell The Truth” music video suggests?

CT: Much like LP4, I’m not at liberty to say.

CB: You’ve come a long way from Columbia [University], and you’ve learned a lot, college-wise and life-wise. So what advice would you give to college students who want to pursue music, academically or outside of class?

CT: Oh boy. I can say some stuff, but I should give a little preamble. And that would be, I have one very specific, very thin, and very weird set of experiences. I always feel weird doing the advice thing, because it’s like, “I don’t fucking know!” It’s just I joined a band with some buds, and it was good, and people like it. That’s the magic part of it. No, I think that one of the consistent and constant things in Vampire Weekend which, I tried my hardest to continue with Dams of the West, was to make sure everything you do, there’s some care put into it; there’s some thought put into it. And this is not the academic stuff; this is more of the personal stuff. When you go on stage, think about what you’re gonna wear because concerts are a visual medium too. You can make bad choices like wearing Nets jerseys, or you can look cool. But it’s not nothing. When you think about visuals, you think about the guitar part. Say, you really just want a strummer in the background; does that make sense? Or are you just doing that because you’re not thinking about it? I think that at every point and level of the thing you’re doing, just put some thought into it. Make sure that you’re saying what you want to say. If that’s strumming the guitar, strum the goddamn guitar. But I think just don’t leave things unexamined.

CB: For my last question, what is your favorite Vampire Weekend song?

CT: Woah. The next one.