Every now and then, a producer carves out their own musical niche and raises the bar in terms of sound design and production quality. Tom Finster is one of these producers. Since the launch of this alias in 2018, the Leipzig-based artist has continued to stun listeners with his futuristic, melancholic, and mechanical productions which push the boundaries of drum & bass music.
His talents have granted him remix privileges for artists including Camo & Krooked, Mefjus, Apashe, and Rohaan, and have earnt him releases on numerous labels including DIVIDID, Nëu, and Various Artists Limited Expression. However, his crowning achievement so far has been the recent release of his debut album, Year Of I, on DIVIDID. The album features self-contributed vocals on all tracks and spans multiple genres including drum & bass, breaks, and hip hop whilst remaining sonically consistent throughout. It is, without a doubt, one of the most creative albums of the year.
We recently sat down with Tom Finster to discuss the album, musical innovation, and the importance of a strong artistic vision.
You’ve just dropped your debut album, Year Of I. That’s a big milestone! How has the journey been so far?
Tom Finster: I have known that I wanted to do an album for many years. Some of the ideas I had for this album had been laying in the drawer for quite a while, but I never knew how to fit them together and never had all the skills which were needed to do so. I had the groundwork, so it’s not a surprise for me, as an artist, that I jumped into making this album after the last EP on DIVIDID. When making that EP, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next; that’s why the EP is called From Here On Blind. After I finished the EP, I roughly knew where I wanted to go in drum and bass. I knew what sound I wanted to push, and I also knew what I didn’t want to do! I started to revisit ideas which I already had and tried to finish them in a way which makes them approachable for people who don’t normally listen to drum and bass. This was basically my artistic vision; I feel like in drum and bass, it’s all about who makes the hardest drop or the craziest new sound. I just wanted to make drum and bass more poppy!
According to your Spotify bio, this isn’t your first album per se; it mentions the ALL THINGS FALL APART LP and links to a playlist with the description ‘this is an album growing’…
Tom Finster: It’s crazy that the description is still like that! I made all of those songs on ALL THINGS FALL APART with the same theme because I was dealing with loss. After (and while) releasing those singles, I thought that I could package them together in a playlist on Spotify and Soundcloud to show people that they kind of belong together, even though they are all very different from one another! The kind of loss present in tracks like Phantom Power or Element 115 is very different from the loss portrayed in Hilly. It doesn’t feel like one LP anymore; it is more like a compilation. Also, at the time, I wasn’t at a point where I could release an album! I couldn’t approach a label and say I had an album, and have it signed if they didn’t know me.
It can definitely take a while for an artist to establish themselves enough for a label to trust them with a whole LP!
Tom Finster: For an artist, an album is the milestone. When I look up to artists who are my legends, it is their albums which stand out. I always ask myself how they make a body of work which works so well together and how they make their own sound! That’s what interests me the most. I am not as young as some of the fellows I am associated with; I am already at the point where I know enough about music and can hopefully make something great! I can’t just wait for a lightbulb moment and to magically be the artist I want to be, so just have to try to be that artist instead.
Returning to your recent LP… Why did you decide to do an LP in the first place?
Tom Finster: If I just made another EP, it would have felt like I was standing still. I wanted to move on; I wanted to grow. I wanted to make something bigger and better!
Every album has a focus; a specific topic or theme it deals with. What is the main underlying theme (or themes) from Year of I?
Tom Finster: Year of I is about self-reflection. It’s also about repeating patterns in ourselves, how we deal with them, and changing ourselves. Hopefully it will give some people the strength to see that everything is always changing!
The album doesn’t really ask if we are actually breaking these cycles but is instead asking if we are only ever slightly deviating from those patterns. If I look at people around me, I see some people who have now become big artists who I have known for a long time. I know the person they have been and see how this has fed back into their transformation into becoming a big artist. I also see people in my family of friendship cycle who have this character and that drives them in a particular direction; they are not really changing, but maybe for themselves in kind of waves they have a feeling of thinking they are changing. What we feel about ourselves is different from what it looks like from the outside.
From time to time, you have the feeling that you have changed and that you have finally broken a cycle of repetitive behaviour. This is what the beginning of the album is about. But that poses a question: did you really break the cycle, or are you just deceiving yourself?
Year Of I also has a deep melancholy tone throughout. Why do you feel like exploring emotions which are difficult to confront is so important?
Tom Finster: I just read something in a book which was a study on children, and how children are taught how to express their emotions by their parents. While scientists were doing this study, there was an earthquake. Of course, this was a traumatic experience for the children and the scientists didn’t want this to compromise their research. To deal with this, the scientists included the earthquake in their study; so, they let the children draw pictures of the earthquake. The children who drew pictures which expressed that they were all happy and that the earthquake wasn’t serious (or didn’t even happen) were the children who had the biggest issues with dealing with their emotions later in life. However, the children who drew explosions, fire, and death were emotionally well-adjusted! This shows, not just from my perspective but from a scientific perspective, that expressing bad feelings is very important in order to deal with them. If you feel like you can’t approach these emotions and have no boundary to it, that says something about yourself. If you just want to be entertained, then maybe you need to work on yourself!
When I make music, I am mostly inspired by my emotions. Sometimes I feel something and don’t know how to deal with it; so, I write something down or make a song.
This album sounds like it exists at an intersection between emo rap, Midwest emo, and drum and bass… Why did you think that fusion would work, because it definitely does!
Tom Finster: Actually, I was very unsure if it would work! I was particularly unsure about my own singing, but I realised that I couldn’t finish my songs any other way. With some of the themes I tackle, I couldn’t go to another artist and ask them to sing what I had but better because other artists always have their own vision and want to find their own words. I feel like it’s always different when someone does it themselves. I was unsure because, first and foremost, I wouldn’t call myself a singer! However, I am super happy because when I showed the album to other people in the drum and bass scene, they heard the first two tracks and weren’t so sure until they heard the whole album and they understood what my singing added!
Regarding the influences, when I was 14, I was heavily into rap music and listened to that for a long time only. I only discovered electronic music later on. Now I’m at the point where I don’t want to make the next big banger; I want to make something which no one else makes.
Going beyond the traditional confines of a particular genre is a great way to make a musical innovation! Is this something you consciously try to do?
Tom Finster: Not so much! I don’t think of things in terms of making a track in a specific genre and then changing something to make it not within that genre. Most of the time, the songs develop themselves. If I feel like a track isn’t growing into a drum and bass track and is instead becoming something else, I just let that happen! I try to not think too much about genres.
Allowing tracks to evolve organically is the best way to go, for sure…
Tom Finster: I really love playing drum and bass. The shows I played last year were so amazing and gave me so much energy. That’s also why I released Lights! It’s full of the energy I got from the live shows. I still feel like playing tracks like that in a room full of people isn’t like a stage performance; instead, it feels like everyone is doing it together. You only get that kind of energy if you play in a small, packed club and you’re only one metre away from the crowd. I wanted to make tracks which still work in that environment, and drum and bass is just nice! But if I work on a song, it has a life of its own and can grow somewhere else.
The best art pushes boundaries and brings something into existence which had never even been considered before… is that something you strive to do?
Tom Finster: Not so much from a meta point of view, but rather from a personal point of view. I ask myself what I have done before, what I want to do next, what fascinates me, and if I can do something better than what I have done before.
So, it’s very much a personal journey?
Tom Finster: Absolutely! I have a personality where I am always curious about new things. I always want to learn new things. That’s why I also did the artwork for the album and why I was involved with making the videos. I feel like this helps to do something which is different from other people. I have a hard time re-doing the same thing! I always have to do something new.
Going on a personal journey helps give direction and vision to art… It makes it a lot easier when you channel your own personal experience!
Tom Finster: Yes!
Did the artistic direction for Year Of I (or even the whole Tom Finster project) come about organically, was there a big epiphany, or was it a bit of a mix?
Tom Finster: I know very few people who have a grandiose vision where they know exactly what they want to do! Most of the time, my artistic vision comes down to taste. What kind of synths I like, what kind of pictures I like… there is no push from the outside to do something different. If you listen to your own taste, and what you find interesting, this will naturally show in your art. This is very important for the Tom Finster project; this is just me doing the stuff I like! From the beginning, I said to myself: ok, this is the project which is closest to me personally. There is not much of a difference between the Tom Finster persona and me personally. One of the rules for it is that I will strictly say no to things that I don’t feel like. Very often, especially in the music industry, you are ‘told’ do things just to maximise growth, for example. I don’t want to do that. I want to do the direct opposite of that! It works in many ways, but of course, it is hard. Sometimes I have to say no to people, even though I know they mean well. That’s why I think I can keep my artistic vision.
Other artistic media fit in to a shared aesthetic with the music, too. Artistic vision goes beyond music…
Tom Finster: Absolutely! But many times, you need to employ a number of people to get that done. Unfortunately, the money made with music is very little compared to other creative industries and it’s absolutely understandable that people don’t want to work for free. I couldn’t afford to pay everyone else and, in the end, get nothing out of this for myself – I need to eat as well. So, I did all the art myself, and the videos were done by DIVIDID and me – with mostly only three people working on it! We wanted to find a company for the limited boxset at least, but this wasn’t possible for a number of reasons, so we also did that ourselves. I had help with the design of the book, but other than that. I feel like it shows that everything comes from one hand with this project. I’m very proud of the limited edition – it’s what I would like to see from the artists I love.
The whole project definitely comes across as unified! How important is it that all artistic elements complement each other?
Tom Finster: It is the most important thing! If you write a book about water and it looks like a book about building a house… what are you doing? It’s kind of weird, right? This is what I wanted to avoid. I don’t want to work with people who don’t understand that the music needs a certain look to make the music understandable. You guide expectations with the look of it all. People see it, and they already have a certain feeling about what it’s going to be and then they can open their mind. If you give the wrong expectation from the start, then people might not think it’s for them.
An artistic vision also implies that you are imagining something; normally a goal which you have, or a future project… so, what’s next? What else do you have in your vision?
Tom Finster: This year, I have more commitments in my personal life! I want to take a step back having released the album. Next year, however, I want to go on a tour; at the moment, we are talking to parties all across Europe to put that together. So, if you put on drum and bass parties and liked the album, contact us! I would love to come to your town and play there. I also want to work with a couple colleagues; on this album, it is mostly just me, and there are so many people I look up to who I would love to make a track with.
However, the big thing, or what I would really like to do with Tom Finster, is do a cinema tour! I call it now; if anyone else does this, then I will regret having said it here! I would love to do a tour where you go to a cinema, you sit there in complete darkness and with the best sound system, and then there will be sick visuals for 45 minutes. That’s my life goal.