Seeing into ‘The Future’ with Tom Flynn [Q+A]
House music caught Tom Flynn‘s ear at a young age. Internet radio brought the sounds into the Birmingham native’s bedroom, quickly catching his attention with its grooves and its inspiration from disco and funk with which he grew up. By 16 years of age, he found himself at his first-ever gig: a new year’s party in his home town. It felt like destiny to the young artist, who’d already been set on learning decks and turntabling from childhood. With his adoration of cutting edge dance music and hypnotizing crowds with expert mixing and selection sealed, his lifelong career in dance music had officially kicked off.
Years behind the decks eventually bred curiosity in Flynn to try record production himself. Taking his DJ instincts into the studio and studying hardware intently, he was soon outputting a steady stream of singles that caught the ears of Pete Tong, Steve Lawler, Roger Sanchez, and many others. A few accomplishments to the quiet juggernaut’s name are being named “Breakout Artist of the Year” in 2013 by Pete Tong and Radio 1, his own radio show, and releases on Innervisions, Mobilee, Hot Creations, and of course, DIRTYBIRD. Not to mention, he’s got a number of discreet aliases whose records are appreciated across the underground.
His relationship with the label and its owner Claude VonStroke began nearly a decade ago. The two bonded over their likeminded beliefs in life and music. Shortly after, Flynn signed his first record onto the label. Now, after quite some time apart, he’s made a triumphant return with “The Future.” The sultry deep house record tapped Amp Fiddler’s help on vocals, resulting in a standout piece that breathes diversity back into the DIRTYBIRD fold. VonStroke remixed “The Future” as well, taking inspiration from across the pond for an open-air tech house piece with a nuanced edge.
Curious to know more about Tom Flynn, we sat him down for a chat about his methodology in DJing and production. An outspoken mental health advocate, Flynn also provided a couple key things he’s learned on his journey that can also help others.
It’s been nearly a decade since your last DIRTYBIRD release; what brought you back to the label?
Wow really? Actually i had a release in that time but we had to pull it down due to a sample. What brings me back to this label is always the fun positive vibe the put out. The music is always on point, and as a label and crew, they are on it, professionally, they account properly, do press properly, the whole nine. That speaks volumes for me.
How have you evolved artistically since that last release 9 years ago?
I think I’ve just become more well rounded to be honest. I’m always writing different things and i think that helps you as a producer. I think its important to be able to write all sorts, you learn so much from different genres, from film scores to ambient to techno; you’d be amazed how much crosses over.
Expand a bit on your relationship with Amp Fiddler; how’d you meet and begin working together on “The Future?” Did you guys send each other stuff back-and-forth when making the song, hop in the studio together, etc?
For this one I actually sampled Joseph and chopped it up, sent it to him and he loved it, pretty simple really.
Can you pinpoint an exact song or record that got you into dance music, or was it exposure to the club/party scene at a young age? When you were DJing as a teenager, could you tell that early on that you were meant to do this for a living?
I knew from about 11 or 12 when I first heard turntablism that this was what I wanted to do. I remember listening to Tim Westwood’s Radio 1 rap show and I was just so into the whole scratching and turntablism stuff. I think I heard someone like Mix Master Mike, or someone on there. After that i found Pete Tong and then the dance wave had full engulfed me.
As a teenager yeah for sure, I was obsessed. I saved for decks, practiced religiously on vinyl, everything. I was mixing cassettes to cassettes or mini disc.
You’ve advised in the past that you like to listen for the key in a song rather than using software to ID it. This is quite hard for the average Joe; are you trained in music theory? Seems like you might know your way around the piano? Tell us about your musical upbringing.
Someone taught me when I first got into DJ’ing that you need to know your records properly, so the key and the BPM. So I would sit there and count the beats in 60 seconds then times it by some figure, I forget now, and that gives you your BPM. I cant remember what the calculation is now, ha! And for the key, you just play the record, then sit at a piano or keyboard and play the scale up and down until you hear the note that sits with the record, that gives you the key. Then i would write those on the vinyl sleeve in big letters so i could see in clubs. Now its a bit different. Everything is done for you: BPM, key software, etc. so it saves time.
But to be honest, I think you should know your records that well that you just know what’s going to work next. Mixing in key isn’t everything — selection is king. It’s no good playing the next record in key if its the wrong vibe for the party.
Is there a ‘method to your madness’ when it comes to producing? Do you like starting in a certain place while writing tracks, for example?
I have loads of methods, but I rarely do the same thing twice. I have 3 artist names, and they each have very different approaches.
Any new and exciting toys you’ve been playing with in the studio?
Cable guys have been doing some good stuff, but I’m not really one for buying loads of things, I believe the less you have the more creative you are. You don’t need 6 synths, you can make a damn good track with a drum machine and 1 synth.
One of your off-kilter, but successful tips is to take your gear out of your studio and play it in different rooms/locations around the house. Is there a particular room in your house where you feel the most material ends up spilling out? What about some other bizarre locations you might have traveled to for this reason?
I wrote a track on a balcony once in Ibiza before I played — stunning view, chilled vibe, everything was great, but the track sounded terrible. I’ve done great things on trains and planes, my couch is often great for sketching ideas out. I go to our sun lounge at the back of our house when I bring hardware home. My fiancee hates it as I end up with cables and stuff everywhere for ages, but you would be amazed how much you learn from this.
You’re pretty outspoken about mental health in the music industry; how do you find balance and sanity amid a busy tour schedule, and what’s the most vital thing you’ve learned in terms of dealing with fatigue/anxiety/depression?
Balance comes with age. I used to go hard, now not at all. I took a break from playing myself because of anxiety, so I’m actually looking for a new agent and manager right now. But, simply, its all just in the mind, its nonsense. I’m no expert but for me, gym, eating healthy. Its pretty simple really. The one thing I struggle with is rest. I don’t stop much at all, so I’m learning to try and have a day off here and there.
On that note, what are your tips for overcoming social media addiction?
Delete the apps. Seriously. Delete them and get into real life! I did this a while ago. I just deleted all social media apps and found my productivity went up so much. It’s so easy to look at people on Instagram and think, “oh wow look how amazing their life is” – its a fake world you’re looking at and comparing yourself too, which dents your confidence. Who cares how many likes you got? Look at Helena Hauff — no social media at all, yet one of the biggest artists in our scene, and rightly so. She’s awesome.
I also think that showing everyone every little detail of your life is bad for an artist. Think about it, if you know what your favorite artist had for breakfast, then saw where they go to the gym, then saw them in their studio, etc etc…eventually the magic is lost. You no longer look at them or listen to their music like “oh wow i wonder what they’re doing now, or I wonder how he wrote this track?” The magic is gone because you’ve seen everything they do in their private life and studio life. We are over sharing.
Any big plans for the upcoming year that you’re able to share?
New EP’s on HotTrax, Soul Clap records, Sci+Tec, Ovum, Culprit, Circus. I’ve just released the first Last Train To Brooklyn record on Kompakt and I have another psuedonem for more fast, raw electro techno that will see EPs on Maceo Plex’s label and R&S and a top secret, invite only label run by one of the worlds finest DJs.
Pick up a copy of ‘The Future’ here
Photo credit: Supplied by Tom Flynn