Ⓒ Johnny Stitt
Tom Scott has written, performed and produced for a variety of groups, each moniker and collective allowing for a different mode of expression to the various sides of his voice. But few throughout his illustrious career have been as personal and vulnerable as ‘Avantdale Bowling Club’ and the self-titled album he released in 2018. The name derives from his hometown, Avondale, the place Scott grew up and learnt his craft amongst a highly diverse community, whose influence has always inspired his work. You get the sense that the name is a nod to the ‘The Dude’ from the Big Lebowski; a group of artists, older and more jaded, reminiscing and playing pick-up games at the local basketball court. On Avantdale Bowling Club, Tom builds his image of home, brick by brick, detailing a journey that took him outside of Aotearoa, outside of himself and back to his artistic and familial roots. With great precision, he applies his pen to the memory of belonging and out refracts a spectrum of social issues and personal strife, ending with the inspiring image of the birth of his first child.
On Writing home
I felt like I had done everything that I could in this country and I wanted to go see the world… So, I thought I’d pop over to Australia, they got heaps of money, I thought it’d be easy times. Turns out it wasn’t the one and turns out and that I really wasn’t supposed to be the poet for that village. I don’t think I’m made to be anything other than the poet for my village.
The emotional cost of writing the Avantdale Bowling Club album weighed heavy on Tom’s mind throughout the process, as he grappled with homesickness and feeling out of place in a city that was not his own. Tom's music is usually a reflection of place and part of the appeal of Avantdale Bowling Club is its focus on the locality. The album sits in that tender location between memory, nostalgia and description, evoking a vivid image of family and environment. There are definitely universalities in Tom’s music, something which he readily admits, but it is the specificity of Aotearoa, of Post-colonial New Zealand, of Avondale and its people that makes the album a unique ode to home. Struggling to make music in Melbourne that fell in line with Tom’s true emotional state he recalls feeling ‘useless’ in ‘a city full of hipsters.’ Remembering a particular day writing songs for the group Average Rap Band, Tom reveals the turning point in his time abroad,
I remember one day being at the desk with my bro Louis and we found a Leon Ware loop, ‘Why I came to California’, and I was writing my verse, crying like a baby while I was writing ‘Home’ and that was one of those moments where I noticed the hole in the wall and realised something is wrong here. I saw myself from outside myself for a minute there and thought, ‘Wow, this guy is really sad.’
And from that moment came one of the definitive tracks on the album, ‘Home’. The song itself is a three-act narrative, the first verse detailing Tom’s struggle with trying to carve out a new life in Melbourne and the romantic image of returning to his family and friends. In the second verse he returns home feeling completely disillusioned, his decision to leave changing fundamentally who he is as a person before ending with a devastating verse describing his hometown, a place with a ‘crabs in the barrel’ mentality, where globalisation has not touched, where the Maori people are historically and presently marginalised, where the rent is rising but standards of living aren’t and where Tom calls home. It’s a vulnerable decision to talk about home with unflinching honesty but that’s exactly what he does, never pausing before calling out the loud mouths with nothing to say, gentrification, economic depression and institutional racism. This is Avondale; the longing, the memory and the sober reality.
Ⓒ TOM SCOTT
Even in Melbourne, Tom attempted to find relics and symbols of home to nurture in his absence. Reflecting on the bars from ‘Home’- I'm standing in this empty room/ Dead fern on the window sill/ Dried out looking like a prune/ Old dream I forgot to water- he reveals that the metaphor came from a very literal place. Inspired by someone online from Harlem, Tom attempted to grow a small garden on the window sill in the flat he was living in above the shops.
I was trying to get back to the roots of Aotearoa because I had been growing this fern which is native to New Zealand and this fern was dying. No matter how much water I gave it, it just withered.
As a lyrical device, the fern says so much about Tom’s relationship to home but it also speaks to the very image of home, inspiring him to ‘tear apart the romanticism that I had given to my home.’ The album as a whole reflects this frank narrative. As a performer this is where he sits at his most comfortable, when he is telling the stories closest to his heart to his fans. But the Avantdale Bowling Club project expands beyond individual experience. After applying for a series of grants for music videos, Tom wanted the visual element of the album to elaborate further on the themes of the album. This was the inspiration behind the ‘Old Dogs’ and ‘Home’ music videos,
I got some money to make a visual piece and I didn’t think it was gonna add anything to have me in them. I thought I could attach the emotions of the chord to something that spoke to the same concept but something that isn’t about my story.
When it came to visualising the languid and mild tempered ‘Old Dogs’ Tom wanted to showcase the story of Langi Brown, a man who he describes as ‘a relic’ of his childhood and the basketball culture in his hometown,
I couldn’t think of anyone better to explain the feeling of being an old man having a good game of basketball than this character, Langi Brown, who we all grew up watching. He was this old dude at the youth centre who always wore Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s singlet, probably stunk inside I never wanted to smell it and he wore the goggles and he did this sky hook. He was a relic and I thought he perfectly told that story.
Langi Brown, image courtesy of YGB Records
‘Old Dogs’ really is just a song about basketball but one that makes a comment on nostalgia and relives the blur of muscles that is youth. The track is filled with references to nineties NBA players, interacting with the characters’ younger selves through the evocation of this older world. It’s a wholesome song filled with sardonic commentary, harmless bravado and great lines such as, 'we’re feeling like the poor man’s Cavaliers'. What Langi brings to the song is more than a literal embodiment of nostalgia. His testimony showcases the change that has happened in his neighbourhood over his lifetime with growing gentrification, the pressures of global capitalism and at the heart of the documentary is the fundamental question of whether Langi belongs in this new world.
The ‘Home’ music video takes these ideas further as the documentary follows the life of Gum Wethniak and his family who moved to the Collingwood housing projects from South Sudan. The video discusses how Gum feels he is perceived in Australia and what home means in his dislocation. Tom recalls the first time he met Gum, where he says the young MC and his brothers were making music with packs of noodles, a ‘computer from the 15th century and a Britney Spears mic.’ Tom and the director were so moved by Gum’s drive and story that they wanted to spotlight the experience of his family,
He is one of many that have that experience in that country and all around the world, there’s refugees everywhere- this was a much more important to talk about than a lonely old white man missing his city.
Gum Wethniak, image courtesy of YGB Records
A social and political commentary has always been an important part of Tom’s discography and artistic expression and the two music videos that accompanied the Avantdale Bowling Club album exemplified this commitment. Talking to him, it is clear that he will continue to make music that speaks to the urgency of current social affairs,
F: You talk about post-colonial New Zealand, what it means to live in Aotearoa and the experience of the Polynesian community so my follow up question is do you think Hip Hop can play a role in building awareness for what’s going on in New Zealand and what kind of work needs to be done to create change?
Tom: Fucking aye it can play a role, it’s my best weapon when educating my fan base and I’ve always felt responsible as a white man standing on stolen land to make that public… I have a mainly white audience and if I don’t present my ideas wrapped in wordplay then people don’t digest them. At my gigs there’s segments of the whole population there but there are kids that I know are from privilege and they’re saying these ideas that I’ve rapped out loud so now it’s in their heads… I’m going to keep making these ideas of colonialism and the ongoing effects of it an important part of my work. If my Maori friends say these things, no one listens to them because white people are so fucking sensitive and fragile…
F: As in, they’re so marginalised that when they speak about it no one pays attention…
Tom: Yeah and let’s be honest here, even when I say it no one pays attention… If you’re making art in the country that I’m from then this has to be a part of it, it’s one of the most important lingering issues. You can see it everywhere.
The craft of obsession
For those familiar with Tom Scott’s discography and the various groups he has worked in, including @Peace, Home Brew and Average Rap Band, you will know that there is a discernible difference between his previous work and Avantdale Bowling Club. There is probably more live, analogue instrumentation on Tom’s latest album but there’s a more noticeable change in the writing and process. According to him, the biggest change between his earlier work and the music he is currently making is ‘patience’. Many of his previous projects did not have such a lengthy writing or production phase. Whereas previously the beat would be made, sent to him to write for and rap over and completed, this time the songs were constructed ‘one instrument at a time.’ Tom felt a weight on this album that didn’t exist on other projects. This time, if Avantdale Bowling Club was going to be critiqued then it was going to be critiqued for what he was putting into it himself. With a deep personal stake in the album, the risk was much higher and Tom learnt a patience in the writing and production process,
I remember Alain de Botton saying something like, ‘forgive yourself the horror of the first draft’ and I was finally starting to do that. As a rapper there’s this cliché of having to go in do it in one take, like ‘yo I just wrote this in the studio’ but I learnt how to re-write things live with them a bit.
The development of this patient practice has endured in the work that he is undertaking now with his new project. Making Avantdale Bowling Club fundamentally changed his craft as he learnt to consistently re-evaluate where the bar should be for his artistry. When making songs now, Tom gives each track a life of their own, letting them breathe and sit before coming back to rewrite, re draft and re imagine to pair ideas down to their purest and most efficient form. You can see this on ‘Pocket Lint’, the second track on the album. Not a word is wasted in this free-flowing song that blends blues, jazz and a frenetic rapping style detailing the financial struggle of growing up in Auckland and growing social class divisions. In one song, Tom manages to capture a sense of disillusionment with an out of touch political class with frequent internal rhyme, DOOM-inspired couplets and a molecular lyrical focus,
Low down, broke, no cash,
no hope, skint, nomad,
no plan B, no stash,
only got crumbs sitting in my moustache
Tom’s delivery and cadence give the illusion of spontaneity but in fact each line, word and syllable have a specific function and place. Take these blistering and acrobatic lines,
The money she lent, the money you spent The money you're meant to pay rent, here's the repo men again Unread envelope on the bench One step from the edge, on the end Of a 3 day bend at the ATM On a Sunday 8 am, again The price of the life, the price of death The price of gas, the price of meth, the side effect of stress
Tryna stretch the cheque till next payday Pray Baycorp forget to get back Before the debt get up to the neck Back against the wall, bout to lose your head.
The growing list, the repeated rhymes and frequency of internal rhyme build an atmosphere of anxiety and suffocation, mirroring the increasing financial demands and pressures until Tom finally loses control of the delivery, screaming the final word. ‘Pocket Lint’ is a brilliant illustration of the patience in Tom’s craft and the level of detail paid to every creative decision.
Ⓒ Graeme Murray
F: When you were in the drafting process and you were going through the words and reviewing them how did you learn that patience? Was it simply because you learnt from experience, how were you looking at it?
Tom: I think you learn it by necessity because at some point you get pickier throughout your life, and as an adult you can be a cynical prick who just can’t enjoy anything anymore so you’ve just got this different standard but I think it’s helpful. As long as you don’t feed into it too much, as long as you aren’t a critic of your own creativity… there’s a point where you have to just forgive yourself and just get in the room and have fun like a child drawing with no rules but the day after you have to be an asshole.
The album as a whole went through a similar life span and editing process. Tom remembers that often there were times when he felt people should have stopped him from being overly critical. Although the obsession with craft was producing some of his best work, it was starting to expose the vulnerabilities of his mental health. When he is creating that is when he is at his most sensitive and there are times on stage when he can channel those emotions into performance and other times when it can turn into mental exhaustion,
Making money is so much easier than making music, bro, there’s no pressure, you make a t-shirt, it’s finished, you put it online, they buy it, no one leaves feedback on the quality of cotton. So, when making music you have to be aware that you can get mentally exhausted and you have to know when to get off and how many reps you can do before your muscles start to tear off. As long as you give yourself parameters to work within that won’t break you, then you’re good.
Ⓒ Scott Sinton
The pressures of this process became compounded when deciding what tracks would not make the album. Tom admits he can get very attached to songs that aren’t working out, convinced he can keep working on them to breathe new life into them. Sometimes this stems from beginning with a track list rather than letting the songs determine the direction of the album. As a result, he is sometimes left with holes to fill in the brickwork, trying to adapt songs to an absurdly specific function rather than the other way around. When it came to making Avantdale Bowling Club there was never going to be room for extraneous work,
F: How did you know what to leave on the cutting room floor for that album in particular?
Tom: Funny you ask, cause there’s one thing that comes to mind. I took the fucking album to the gym…
T: No, it’s not a joke. I think it’s a great exercise. At the gym what you think is a chill song becomes sleep music, it becomes a meditation tape. So, the song that I thought was slightly chill, at the gym it made me turn the treadmill off and so I took it out. I was very attached to that song but when I took it out it changed the whole flow of the album. It was a song with my bro, Hone be Good, it was called ‘Land’. That experiment really helped. To take the record and hear it in an environment where it is not intended to be played really helped me. I think I might do it for the next album. But it’s an interesting question because I get attached to my songs and even with ones that aren’t great I try to resuscitate them. I do it every album and I think I’m doing it again. For this album I tried really hard to never write a track list out. I told myself that I would just collect bricks and then I’d build my house. Whereas usually I would build it and there would be one brick missing and then I’d have to fit a very specific brick in there and I’ve given myself such a small window to aim for that I’m super limited creatively. So, I promised that I wouldn’t do that but hey look, what do I got? (gestures to the wall) There’s a track list already.
Anatomy of a musician
Talking to Tom and listening to his music it is clear to see how much experience and family has influenced who he is as a musician. You need look no further than ‘Quincy’s March’ to hear what becoming a father meant to him and ‘Years Gone By’ to understand the influence of his parents. The album itself uses the idea of ‘fathers’ to mark beginnings and ends, it simultaneously looks back at a life lived and forward to the beginnings of Tom as a dad pushing Quincy down Avondale Road. Reflecting on becoming a father for the first and second time, he believes that settling down with his partner and children made him the musician he is today. They are all a direct influence, they appear in lyrics and skits and determine his working hours (before this interview Tom dropped off his son at nursery),
It’s the driving force in my life… I’m lucky to have enough money to make this record at the moment, lucky enough to have the time to make this record the way I want to make it but still the most important thing is feeding my kids…. I’m worried my second child will be like ‘How come you got Quincy’s March but not one for Miles?’ If I can find a way to write about Miles in this album I’ll try.
It seems that Tom’s work will continue to pay homage to his children but an equally profound influence on his musical identity is his role as a son. In his 2019 Taite Music Prize acceptance speech, Tom admitted that at times he would be embarrassed to call himself an artist. If a taxi driver ever asked him what he did for a living he would whisper in shame or lie altogether. Although Tom has never had a great relationship with his father, he maintains that he taught him how to be a musician. His father, in some way, gave Tom the permission to be an artist and the courage to be proud of it,
He bought me my first Soundcloud, I was going nowhere, I dropped out of school, I was lying to my mum I was telling her I was going to work every morning but then when she left I’d run back home and make beats… I love him to death and I try not to carry his problems but intergenerational trauma is a real thing. We’re all seeds in the same garden, his pain is my responsibility but I don’t want to let that affect me too heavily or my children too heavily.
Tom found out from an early age that there could be a correlated relationship between creativity, mental health and addiction,
I’m 36 bro, I’m old enough that I’ve had to go back and deal with my own shit and that’s kind of what ‘Years Gone By’ is. I reminisce on a whole life..
Ⓒ Cam Neate
Age and maturity have had a profound impact on Tom Scott’s art, in content and form. His patience and precision in craft have taken him to new heights as an artist, writing his most accomplished and celebrated work to date. For any young musician, Tom Scott is an example of what a dedication to practice can do for your artistic expression without compromising on your own well-being. It has taken him a long time to get to this point, a lifetime, but at this point in his career the possibilities of the YGB label and his own new projects are hugely exciting. At the time of this interview Tom is currently working on Mara TK’s album- which he says is amazing- and is enjoying his less ‘self-invested’ role on the YGB label whilst finishing up his own project.
Throughout this interview I have been struck time and time again by Tom’s generosity. In over ninety minutes of conversation we have spoken about the damaging effects of intergenerational trauma, the dangers of over-editing, the impact of artistry on mental health and the strange relationship between performance and capitalism (Tom: It’s a very new concept to be like ‘Perform please! For money!’). We spoke about institutional racism, political apathy, global capitalism, climate change and the ignorance of privilege, sadly most of which could not be included in this piece. But at the end of the conversation Tom eventually concluded, ‘Deep down, I don’t have much faith in humanity.’ Tom tends to describe himself as a cynic but when I hear ‘Years Gone By’, when I hear ‘Pocket Lint’, ‘Old Dogs’, ‘Quincy’s March’, ‘Water Medley’ I don’t hear a cynic. I hear the music of endurance, of hope. Avantdale Bowling Club is a celebration of life and the technologies of survival with a sobering honesty, sharp wit and compassion.
YGB Records- https://www.yearsgoneby.net
Avantdale Bowling Club LIVE-https://open.spotify.com/album/4tRXWOiEYbyxoD0WiJC17V?si=7_O1wF46Rsi77zkgGhroNA