A chat with Tom Liem
With a deep appreciation for hip hop, it’s no surprise that Tom Liem has developed a taste for funk and groove. These days, the up-and-coming Dutch artist has switched to electronic music, but his passion for hip hop has more than left its mark. Ahead of his appearance at Patterns of Perception on December 2, Tom takes us through his early influences and current inspirations, and explains why friendship is the key to collaboration of all kinds.
Tell us the Tom Liem story – how did you get here?
Good question! When I was younger I grew up listening to hip hop records that my cousin had. KRS-one, Das EFX, A Tribe Called Quest and of course my biggest influence, The Wu Tang Clan. I guess the journey began here and I got into DJing through hip hop actually. I began as a scratch DJ and then I found out that you could actually match the record with the pitch. After that it was like, yeah let’s mix it up. But once I became friends with the ESHU Records crew in Nijmegen, everything fell into place. It’s here that I’ve learned the art of the trade and where I sharpened my blades, ready for battle.
You’ve now released music on ESHU and also collaborated a lot with the other members. How did you all meet initially?
I was actually booked in a local club called Doornroosje – it’s one of the oldest clubs in Holland, or at least the longest running club night. That’s where I met these guys and they were all pretty much the same as me, and also listening a lot to hip hop. From the start, it was kind of like we’d always been friends. There was a connection right away.
Did your early love of hip hop influence your taste in electronic music? And how would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard of you before?
Yes, definitely. I tend to prefer more old school sounds where there’s a lot of jazz influences and there’s a lot of funk in the tracks. That comes definitely from hip hop music. In terms of my overall sound, I always try not to stick to one genre but rather give a blend of my own personal taste, whatever that may be. But if I have to describe it in words, I guess it could be deep, tribal, psychedelic or even spiritual comes to mind.
The sound of your tracks is a complex trip – each one seems to have a story to tell. Can you tell us a bit about your production process?
I’m not a person who sits in a studio a lot. I’ve found that the best way for me to produce music is to come up with an idea first of what type of sound I want to express. This can come from many things, like a certain production technique, an instrument or a simple melody I’ve heard. For me it’s best to work as fast as possible so I always try to set up my studio in a way that allows me to express myself really fast, or else I will lose the idea. This makes it more difficult, but to me it sounds more human in a way. I’m not a guy who spends hours and hours perfecting a track, I like to make it then and there in a brief moment. And I don’t really care if it’s perfect or not, as long as the vibe is good.
The way you build the sound during your sets is quite unique, incorporating experimental sounds without losing the dance floor atmosphere. What are the main elements of putting together a set in this style?
Mostly the groove is where I focus first. It has to be funky so I set some basic boundaries for myself in track selection, and within that frame I can experiment with more abstract sounds. But to be honest, for me no sound is experimental. I like it all as long as it’s something I can relate to. I try to keep an open mind to all sounds and not constrain myself to a certain type of sound or a certain trend. For my sets, I also usually add a third deck just to be more versatile.
You are also one half of J&L, your project with Jocelyn Abell, and have collaborated on other projects like the collectives ARC# and Dilated Pupils. What do you like about the collaboration process? All those projects were with the guys from ESHU Records. I won’t go into the studio with just anyone but if it’s a good friend and we’re on the same wavelength in terms of music, it’s so much more fun than sitting alone making tracks. You really feed off each other and give each other inspiration. It’s a little game of give and take, cause and effect. You hear something and you can react to it. For me, it’s much more fun than working alone.
You’ve recently relocated to Berlin but you’re still firmly rooted in the Dutch techno scene, having co-founded the Breakfast Club after-parties in Amsterdam. Tell us about Breakfast Club. Are you still involved with them remotely?
Yeah I’m still very much involved, just doing everything over email now. We started as an after party but because we serve breakfast, it became more of a daytime event. What we see is that 50 percent of the people continue dancing from the night before, and 50 percent just wake up to go. So you get this really interesting mix of people who have just woken up and people who are still partying. I think that’s a good energy to have, it really works. And we do a big buffet so people can eat bananas and brownies and fuel up.
For the recent ADE party, you played at Breakfast Club alongside artists like Mike Servito, Sebastian Mullaert and Dino Sabatini, to name a few. How was this experience? What do you look for when curating a Breakfast Club party? It was such a nice day! I think the Sunday is always particularly special during ADE. Last time we had Donato Dozzy playing a hybrid set and everyone was losing it. They were totally freaking out. This year it was not quite the same but it had its own vibe as well. A highlight for me was Dino Sabatini’s live set, as well as Sebastian and Ulf of course. Dino really had the people hypnotised. When we try to figure out these line ups, we are always looking for a nice balance in music style and energy. There has to be a continuous line in the whole day. That’s very important I think.
Tell us a bit about your mix for Patterns of Perception. How did you approach it? The idea behind the mix was very simple: I wanted to create something that wasn’t too distracting or too demanding to listen to. To me, it feels more like a floating mix. It’s easy to the ear and you can lose yourself quite easily in it. I also tried to hold on to the principal of a beginning, middle and end piece. I really enjoyed making this mix so I hope you can hear it and enjoy it.
Finally – what’s on the horizon for you? What’s next for Tom Liem? I’m working on a new EP and we also have a new EP coming out as J&L on Deep Sound Channel. That EP is three original tracks, two are more for the dance floor and a third one is basically just a kick with a melody through it. It’s not easy listening. Either you’ll really love it or you’ll hate it, it’s a very psychedelic track.
Tom Liem plays at Patterns of Perception at OHM Berlin on December 2.