Album Of The Week: Tom Finster – Year Of I (DIVIDID)
An exploration of self improvement and artistic freedom
Don’t care if you read this, he’s already been there…
Tom Finster has been around for longer than you might think. In the electronic, bass and D&B realm he first emerged four or five years ago, gradually blossoming and developing a cult following on Soundcloud. In the German hip-hop and rap industry, however, he’s been around for many more years as a beatmaker, producer and songwriter behind the scenes… A successful producer adept at his craft, but not at all fulfilled by his art.
Everything we’ve heard since he released under the name Tom Finster is the sound of him finding a new way out of the traps and tropes he’d found himself in during his hip-hop days. His first explorations into an electronic sound that had been inspiring him since the late 2000s, Tom Finster productions map his evolution as he finds himself and begins to make a pointed effort to prize art, expression and individuality over any commercial, typical or industry-encouraged norms.
These traits have been key since the very beginning as he gently introduced himself over a series of singles and self-releases. Gradually they accumulated into an unofficial debut album All Things Fall Apart; a window into Tom’s unique universe.
And while that window provided a glance, Year Of I has created a wide open door with full AAA access to the universe beyond. What fell apart is being rebuilt with openness, vulnerability and a resolute refusal to sound like, or be like, anyone else within the widest parameters of the D&B stratosphere.
Emotional and dramatic. At points lo-fi, at others incredibly intense and hard-hitting. Written rather than produced, adorned with his own artwork, his own vocals and even his own book that tells the stories of each track, Year Of I is the most personal album Tom could possibly create as he forges, sings, raps, thinks and sometimes furiously tears his way through a multitude of existential minefields from personal validation to breaking away from self-imposed limitations, habits and cycles he’s recognised in his life.
The end result is a dynamic, delicate and sometimes volatile experience. A body of work that’s just as comparable to maverick electronic singer/producers like Tiga and Stuart Price as it is his peers in the D&B realm, there’s a dark soul and sense of theatre as he rolls out coded stories that are deeply personal and can be interpreted in numerous ways. Written and arranged to be experienced from start to finish, there’s a powerful sense of immersion that creates a curiosity as Tom reveals and explores himself with more honesty and emotion than one ever expects from a drum & bass album.
Uncompromised, unapologetically against the grain yet entirely accessible and welcoming, Tom comes across naturally and with heartfelt soul. Listen to the album while he explains a little more about where it came from…
This is an incredibly personal body of work isn’t it?
All of the songs are personal to me. I had a topic and I tried to find a form for it. Not all of the stories happened to me, but happened to close friends. I’m still singing and playing it from my perspective.
Mark Abis explained to me how you came to him with a concept and wanted to write a book to go with the album and everything…
Half of it was already there. I know what I wanted to do and what I needed to do. With the book I wanted something for people to collect. It’s very hard now with printing vinyl, plus the sustainable aspect of vinyl culture, so I wanted to create something else that was collectable. A book with the background stories and inspirations for the tracks was the idea. It’s being designed right now. All the rest of it is finished. We completed a video recently which was made by myself, Mark and his partner Joyce. I also did all the artwork, as I have done for previous projects. So it’s super DIY.
You’re stepping out of your comfort zone aren’t you? Have you ever sung or rapped before?
I’ve sung on previous tracks but not on this level. This is something that’s grown out of this; I could go to a singer and say, ‘Please sing this exact text in this exact way’ but it didn’t feel right with a project like this. So I did them myself. With the rapping, I actually started in rap when I was 14. I have rapped before but haven’t done it for a long time. I know it’s on the edge. There are rappers who are far far better than me but, to me, it meant so much to do something more personal. Usually the process is to sit down with a publisher and work with someone on a top-line or buy an acapella but doing it that way loses the magic.
It’s even harder with English not being first language too, I’d imagine?
The rap parts are harder because you need vocabulary to write full verses, so that was hard. In general finding melodies with English is easier. German is really nice for poetic stuff but it also has a very different grammar – it lends itself to different songs. I feel like I can’t compete with that.
What can you tell us about the concept of the album or the title?
I’m not sure how I came to the title. I have a list of title ideas. I might hear a lyric or a phrase or word that is interesting to me and I’ll write it down. But the concept of the album is that I was in a place where I wanted to change myself but even if you have a strong will to change yourself you inevitably end up in the same habits. We are the people we are and sometimes change isn’t easy or as drastic as you want it to be. I wanted to change myself and but noticed I was in my habits and getting frustrated so I was having to try even harder.
What changes were they?
Creative changes. Getting out of habits. I’m doing music for a long time now. Almost 20 years.
Woah. I thought you were in your early 20s!
No I’m 34. I started at 14 on FL Studio 3. Not drum & bass. I heard D&B back then but it was too far away from my own culture for me to understand. I was more on a hip-hop side of things. I started making more and more music, made beats for other rappers, got some success there…
In the German hip-hop world?
Yeah. And then at the time UKF dubstep and stuff like Justice came along. My mind was blown. It was so energetic. It had the same effect on me that hip-hop did. I was like, ‘Wow how do they do this with instrumental music?’ During this time, with the productions I was doing, I wasn’t happy with them or where I was artistically. I felt like I was going nowhere so I was like, ‘How can I do something that is true to me?’ I didn’t want, or need, to be big in the industry. But I also feel that it’s hard not to make music and become an industry product. So the message we’re given is like, ‘Either be a product or you don’t sell music.’ But I won’t stand for this. The people who do great art do get recognised and do survive because what they do is beautiful and people like beautiful stuff.
So that’s where the changes I need to make come in… I wanted to do this and I had to change the way I work and change everything around me to make that happen. Another side to this was that I was also in a long relationship and she went to the other side of the earth. This was some time ago, it made me rethink a lot of things and in the end I felt like ‘fuck it, then I do D&B now…’
So that first track – Second Time Around – is like a rebirth. A new book rather than a new chapter?
Yeah. It also relates to the concept of you listening to the album for more than the first time.
Oh nice I like that. So your previous Tom Finster releases were you finding yourself and re-finding yourself. A constant change or evolution…
In the last 3 years I’ve tried to make something different to everything I hear. The new wave in D&B is exciting and fresh air for people, I’m super happy that anyone sees me in the same circle as Caracal Project and Buunshin. But now everyone is coming through and doing that new style after them. I want to do my style though. Use my own vocals for example. So that’s what happened.
What’s the most personal story on the album? Or hardest to articulate?
The most personal one wasn’t the hardest to articulate. Unbreakable is the most personal one as I talk about panic attacks. Last year I played Let It Roll, after the set everything was super great. I was very nervous before the show because I hadn’t played any shows for a long time before. Luckily at the time it all went well and I continued to hang out with my friends – Skylark and Caracal Project.
I was there for the next day to see their set but shortly before their set I suddenly felt dizzy. I was like, ‘What’s happening here?’ From that point on my body was like, ‘Okay that was enough stress for a while – lay down, lay low’. I had to go home and, for two weeks, I felt worse and worse. Two weeks later I had a panic attack, I passed out and woke up in a hospital. That’s when Unbreakable came about – I wrote it in hospital.
Woah – how long were you in hospital for?
Over a weekend. Four or five days. I had corona vac so they had to test about that too. At this point I was thinking, ‘Fuck! Am I even able to play shows?’ That was such a low point. I had the chance to play such a big show but the next day this happened.
Are you okay now?
I’ve played shows since and it’s okay. I’m not so nervous any more. So it’s okay.
Wow man. Got any more scary stories?
I don’t want to spoil too much – that’s the point of the book. But the hardest to make was probably Nothing. There’s a whole different version I did a couple of years ago. I felt like it wasn’t right for the album and I had to rethink the whole song. I’ve never done that before. Once I’ve made a song that’s it – that’s how I like the song and it won’t be done again. so that was the hardest to make.
You couldn’t just chop it? It had to be reinterpreted…
Yes. The vibe of the song and the message was important for that part of the album.
A key tune for me is Stuck On Repeat. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the cadence. It gives me goosebumps every time.
Thank you, that’s nice to hear. It’s one of the oldest tracks on the album. You can hear that a little – the style of it on the drop doesn’t sound very modern. But some of the song ideas I’ve had laying around for a while. I knew there was something special about them and I’d keep them aside for a project like this but they had to be used. Stuck On Repeat was one of the first things I made for this concept.
Are you referring to the changes we spoke of and finding ourselves in those traps?
Yes definitely. But also our daily routine. Getting up, doing the same things over and over. The small circles we live in and we get that feeling like, ‘Oh man, I need to have a party’ or ‘ I need a vacation, I need to get out of here’. But then there are also those bigger circles. It’s like, ‘Okay I’m going somewhere!’ But then five years on you get that feeling like, ‘Oh shit I’m back in the same place.’ Obviously things change but there’s that feeling in your soul, right?
Cycles. You move on but feelings of familiarity. I need to ask you about the track Cost Of Living. I heard a different version with a child’s voice but that’s not on the album.
There was a sample I couldn’t clear from a documentary. It’s about a city in the north of Russia, it’s a remote city that’s there for industry and people work in a mine. It’s super cold and shitty conditions. In the documentary they interview people about their lives and this child says how she likes plants because they create oxygen and how she wishes she had more. She says that trees used to be beautiful but they became old and there’s less oxygen. In the end she says ‘I cough and my head hurts – I wish I could live somewhere else’
Fuck that’s bleak
It’s very heavy. The Cost Of Living in the album is a step away from the vibe like, ‘I’m really hyped to change myself’ to a wider consideration of where we live, how we live and our environment. I wanted to convey that some of the problems we have are because of how we live and the democracies we live in.
Conveniences come at a cost!
Yeah. Like the US is evolving backwards and of course everything is terrible in Russia and Ukraine. But it’s very clear that capitalistic ways of life aren’t working for us as a species but where do we even start to unravel this?
Absolutely. You touch on this with From Here On Blind don’t you in your previous work don’t you?
That wasn’t connected to that. That was more of a personal one about my own direction – I wanted to explore new techniques and be more musical. So it wasn’t anywhere near as depressing!
Ahh… It came at a time when everything was fucked so I interpreted it as that
Oh it’s also true and I like that it resonated with you in that way. That’s a beautiful thing.
What’s the most important things you want people to take from Year Of I
I’m not sure. It’s personal therapy to myself but the main theme is don’t give up. Keep on trying. There are other people who feel just like you. I think that’s the most important part of what I’m trying to say.
I like that. Keep on trying and you’ll eventually find the right spirits to connect with, creatively…
Basically. I’m so lucky and thankful to have found the right people. The amount of energy Mark has put into this release, I couldn’t have done it without him. I feel like we have a similar approach to art in general. Of course we want to make money, we need it to live, but it’s not the most important thing or otherwise we wouldn’t make art, right?
With this album and the influence of your friends do you feel like you’ve successfully made those changes you wanted to make, then?
Who knows? I think this is a life-long challenge for all of us…