We crashed J Dilla obsessive, multi-instrumentalist, beat maker, singer-songwriter, and producer Tom Misch’s house to check out his bedroom.
We're only a mile away from the hustle of Peckham, but Tom Misch's bedroom studio feels like an oasis of calm in the craziness of South-East London. The Misch family home is nestled off a quiet road; a cosy first-floor space overlooks the surrounding rooftops while—the only sounds wafting in are birdsong and various domestic preparations for papa Misch’s birthday bash.
Misch’s dusty loping beats are reminiscent of hip-hop legends such as J Dilla and Flying Lotus; whether guitar-dappled or string-drenched, there's an easy melodic sensibility at play to Misch’s textured, inventive, and unassuming sounds. Although he’s previously released material via much respected label Soulection, most of Misch’s work is put out through his own label Beyond The Groove. Having independently built up a dedicated online fan-base (fans include actress Chloe Grace Moretz and Jaden Smith), he’s not in a hurry to sign to a label or relinquish control of his work.
Despite his rapid success, selling out venues like London’s Village Underground and his latest EP, Reverie, clocking up over 750,000 Soundcloud plays to date, the bedroom is still exactly where you’ll find him.
You've been building up a fanbase on Soundcloud for three years now. How has your sound evolved during this time?
It started off quite basic. I was making '90s hip-hop, J Dilla-esque beats, and they would just be two-minute vibes with me singing. I built a following from uploading that kind of sound. When I got into jazz, everything changed. I discovered J Dilla through my sister's ex-boyfriend and remember wondering where certain chords and harmonies came from. They were jazz samples. I discovered gospel musicians, artists like Robert Glasper, Bill Evans, and Christian Scott, who grew up in church and drew from that, and I was so fascinated I went to study jazz guitar for about a year. Then I realized there’s a lot of jazz I don’t like—it's not all nice chords and soulfulness.
How did being formally trained influence the music you're making now?
I started playing the violin by taking Suzuki lessons, which is where you learn to play by listening; it's less about hearing the timbre of the sound and more about the melody.
I've never really used theory—at school I always struggled with that. I try to draw from everything I listen to, including classical music, jazz, and weird stuff. Obviously there’s lots of styles within classical music, but I guess the process of making a violin sing and feeling each note, is what influences my guitar playing and music making today.
Are you always searching for the perfect chord progression?
Creating the harmony and the chords is definitely something I always try to focus on. A lot of J Dilla’s work is just a four bar loop, but it’s so nice that you can play it over and over! I don’t think there is a perfect chord progression. Different chords evoke different emotions, but sometimes there’s a chord progression that makes me screw up my face!
You blend acoustic and electronic elements really intuitively, they sort of flow into each other organically.
I know how to record the guitar and the violin, so I like to merge it all. I've always been inspired by the sonics of electronic music and the idea of merging that with acoustic elements—the way a kick drum will bang through club speakers to get to you, for example, so you feel the bass. It's like a form of science.
You grew up in a pretty artistic household—your mum, Carol, is an artist and has designed some of your artwork; your sister Polly is an actor, and your other sister Laura is a musician as well, playing saxophone on your records. What kind of impact did that have on you?
It's quite bohemian, and I guess it has shaped who I am. Although I remember wanting to apply for a music scholarship in school, and them thinking I wouldn’t get it [laughs]! This said, they were always supportive. I don't think they saw the potential in doing music as a career, and yet having a career in the arts was never looked down upon.
Tom Misch perfroming Majestic Sessions
Directed by Tom Ewbank
Your music is so laid-back it's almost horizontal, do you need to be in that super chill frame of mind in order to create it?
I can't choose when to be in that frame of mind. Making music actually started off as a social media addiction. On Soundcloud, you can easily put a track out, get feedback and comments instantly, and that was very addictive for me. I was literally making a beat a day, putting it up and watching this thing grow from my bedroom.
It's definitely a learning curve, seeing what resonates with people. Sometimes I can tell, other times I'm not sure. As a producer I get really obsessed with small details. For example, I might love the way
I've programmed the hi-hats and sonically shaped the song, get so caught up in the idea that I've done a good job, and end up expecting the listener to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it. Of course that's not always the case. Sometimes it's the jams I'm not fussed about that blow up!
The growth of your fanbase must have been good for your confidence too!
Exactly, that was one of the main reasons it was addictive. That's why starting to play live, leaving the safety of Soundcloud, and actually playing in front of people was such a big step. I've done quite a few live shows by now. As a producer I’m always a little tempted to stay behind a wall and do my thing, but then I think it's healthy for me to actually be out there.
Having grown up near Peckham, it must have been strange to witness the area change so much, over the past few years.
Yeah, it has! It’s getting more expensive, more gentrified. There's a new M&S opening down the road, which is crazy. However, as much as I'm involved in the music scene, I don’t consider myself part of the Peckham scene. I spend most of my time in my bedroom. I'm not a mad party animal going to all the industry events. I just focus on my music.
You've been building a pretty strong community of collaborators, especially on Beat Tape 2, a roll call of South London talents, including the rapper Loyle Carner, singers like Carmody, Alexa Harley, and Jordan Rakei.
I read an interview with Questlove and he was saying how every artist is part of a movement of some sort. You're always going to be part of a movement if you want to do something profound. I wrote with various people on Beat Tape 2 because at that point I was primarily a producer, but I wanted to make something that was more than just a beat tape. It was a natural progression from Beat Tape 1, which was just loops. Building this little community wasn’t intentional, it just happened. Beat Tape 2 was a big connector within the movement that has been forming.
This movement you’re talking about, how would you define it?
King Krule has influenced a lot of people in South London, he's influenced my sound to an extent.
You must have loads of people knocking on your door wanting to work with you or sign you?
Not literally on my front door, but yes, I get messages, mostly from rappers or people who make videos on Youtube asking if they can use my songs for this and that, but I don’t really respond to them. I got a funny one from someone in America, who’s name is also Tom Misch. He’s my age and likes J Dilla, so that was a madness.
You're working on your debut album at the moment. What can we expect, and when?
This time next year, hopefully! I want it to be a progression. I've moved away from the old-school hip-hop vibe a bit. You want to find a balance between something that's going to connect to people, but also be inventive while making them dance, and cry, and whatever else people to do my music. Initially it was going to be all live but now I’ve realised it’s actually quite hard to do in my bedroom. I don’t have a drum kit, so it’s going to be a fusion of electronic and live. It’s also going to be a chance for me to sing, write lyrics, and tell a story—or my story type thing.
Follow Tom Misch:
Published Dezember 2016, Majestic Journal, Print Issue 1
Photographed by Will Robson-Scott
Interview by Alex Macpherson