Chicago five-piece The Tomblands are as approachable as they are versatile. The Tomblands are an existential rock ‘n’ roll group inspired by garage energy, psychedelic layering, and primal percussion. Bandmates Danny, Nick, and Liam came together in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. After relocating to Chicago, they were joined by Jimmy and Joey on dual-drums. Their latest project is the Fall In Love EP. We spoke about their origins, the best restaurants in Chicago, and what the future of live music might look like.
Hi guys! Thanks for chatting with me today. Can you tell our readers a little more about yourselves?
Nick: Danny and I started The Tomblands a long time ago, in 2014. It was mostly Danny’s project. We started playing together in house with Liam at University of Illinois (in Champaign-Urbana). We started playing as a garage band there. Then we moved up to Chicago and our friend Jimmy joined the band on drums, replacing a previous member who was kind of doing his own thing. Shortly thereafter, Joey also joined on drums. That was around 2018. That was when we started being the current band that we are. We never really play any of the old music or anything, but that’s kind of the whole phoenix genesis of The Tomblands.
It sounds like an interesting evolution. What were you guys playing before, and how has your sound evolved working together?
Danny: We started as the four piece in Urbana playing what most people would call surf punk. It was mostly faster, more upbeat stuff, a lot of minor key. It was supposed to be fun. We played a lot of house parties and college venues, which aren’t too big or crazy. We kind of petered out as some of us were graduating and moving on, and some of us live in different areas. Kind of a weird lull in it all. In that time, Nick and Liam started writing more.
I was the sole songwriter, but we all share songwriting duties now. I think we’re all pretty receptive to each other’s input. We also started switching instruments more. We got much more collaborative. The sound evolved as we developed more influence in the band—one person will present an idea and we’ll all build it up.
You just put out a new project. How did the COVID-19 pandemic change the process of recording and creating an EP?
Joey: I don’t remember what the timeline was before everything was shut down. A lot of the instruments were tracked before everything changed. It sucks that we had shows that were put on hold, either from this project or other projects. Our practice space was even shut down for a little bit, so there wasn’t even a place we could get together. As a band with two drummers, you can’t really [practice] in an apartment.
Unfortunately we did have to stop our normal routine. We would hang out and talk on Zoom. But it was less about the music and more about making sure everyone one was okay. Meanwhile, Nick was taking the tracks we had all recorded in February and mixing them. We did write one new song. Everyone came into Nick’s apartment where his gear was set up, and we tracked stuff one by one. Similar to [being in] the studio where we would record all our parts, but maybe with a couple weeks in between. We weren’t able to bounce ideas off each other in real time, but we were still able to take an idea and build on it. It just took a lot longer.
Tell me about the message of the Fall In Love EP. Do the songs all fit together, or are they all separate ideas? Walk me through it.
Nick: We had a bunch of songs that were very heavy, riff-y rock. Psychedelic rock shit. We had a couple songs that were more sentimental and evocative [as well]. We always had the intent to put them together. Like “Coupe” and “#1 Summer Jam” for sure. And then we couldn’t think of a better name, so we stayed with Fall in Love. “Strawberry Smasher” we wrote in the studio. “Cheeseburger in Paradise”—we just needed one more song to round it out. We just busted that out with a week or two to go, and threw it in at the end. It turned out really cool.
Liam: That was a fully quarantined creation, wasn’t it?
Nick: Yeah. All isolated overdubs in my apartment. Pretty much all of us except Jimmy—who’s not on it. But he’s there in spirit on that one.
That’s pretty impressive that you guys were able to figure that out. You should congratulate yourselves on it.
I want to talk about Gnaw, because I am obsessed with that EP. That was pretty heavy, or some of the songs were pretty heavy. Have you changed your style for the Fall in Love EP, or are you trying to channel different things in different projects that you do?
Liam: Gnaw is all the songs that I have the most fun playing live. The Fall In Love EP is like the songs that you would direct your relatives to when they ask about the band. It was really fun doing it. We did Gnaw before any of these songs [on the Fall In Love EP]. After we recorded and dropped Gnaw I was thinking there was a 30% chance we would become a doom metal band. Then we started racking up these songs. “Coupe,” on the EP, we had [that] for a while. That was one of the earlier songs we wrote. It always felt like a huge outlier in our set. People seemed to really like this song, it’s not that different a feel for us to play, and we expanded on that. This EP was us going more in that direction.
That’s cool. I can definitely sense that these songs are more mellow, but still high energy. How do you guys get inspired to write a song? Do you write them about your personal experiences? What’s your process like?
Joey: We have written songs based off of a skeleton, where we fill in our own sections. I like working within our parameters because it’s a very efficient way to write songs. Liam brought us a pretty finished “#1 Summer Jam,” but the end section of that song rose out of a jam. Maybe my memory is incorrect.
Liam: We were just playing it and it got faster.
Joey: We were like “yeah, it’s sick,” and people were just adding riffs on top of it. That’s all from sessions where all five of us are in a space and we’re all bouncing ideas off of one another. We’ve written stuff based off of cool drum beats that Jimmy has come up with. Jimmy gets more into the theory and chops stuff than I do. It’s really fun working with another drummer because we approach things very differently. I would have told you that it’s very hard or near impossible to give a drum beat to a band and say, “Do something cool with this.” But we were able to do that on “Loose in the Void,” which I don’t think is on either of the EPs. That’s been my experience. It can be a riff, a drum beat, or a full song skeleton—we just bring whatever we have to the table. Whatever materializes into a song is what we record. I’m sure there are hours and hours of recorded jams that we have where there’s a song nugget in there. We just haven’t found which section that is going to be the song. Nick has spent some time chopping up demo recordings and jams that we’ve done and trying to make a song out of them. I think that’s a cool way to approach it too. I’ve had a lot of fun finding out every way to write a song.
It sounds like you guys have really clever ways of staying creative. Personally, I’ve felt like living in a pandemic has made me less creative because of all the stress. Has it been harder to find those ideas this year?
NIck: We had recorded a lot of our EP before COVID happened. But personally speaking, I definitely feel that. I’ve written a lot of songs, but I feel no energy to actually flesh them out or make them full fledged recordings. I just have all these skeletons that I don’t have the energy to do anything with.
Danny: I agree with Nick. It’s mostly just doodling around, playing guitar here and there, but it’s pretty hard to focus when everything feels kind of hopeless. I know that sounds dark, but the future of music is pretty bleak, so we try to meet up when we can. We can meet up in small groups to work on stuff, but it is pretty hard to come up with a collective effort right now. You have to try to stay sane. And I think we all agree with that. Joey was at his parents’ place in Missouri for a good chunk of it, and we didn’t meet up all together for three months. When we all jammed again, it just felt so good. We have to do that when we can, when we’re in a good spot and it’s safe to do so. I hear Liam play guitar sometimes, so people are working on stuff, but not the same way we used to. Twice a week, meet up, practice play shows, tour. None of that’s happening for anybody.
I’m concerned about independent venues. That’s going to be tough for people to deal with. What are you guys feeling? What’s your assessment of the situation?
Joey: The smallest clubs are gonna have it the hardest. There are still ways to make music happen. We can do livestreams. There have been drive in shows in Chicago where you can drive your car in and tailgate it. I think that’s pretty cool, but a lot of those drive in shows I’ve seen have been very expensive. So while we’re talking about solutions, we have to figure out a way to take the DIY spirit and make it Covid-safe. Can we find parking lots? Do we know people with yards who can do a show? I did [an outdoor show] with another one of my bands. One of the parents of one of the members lived in the ‘burbs in a big backyard, so we brought a PA and made big tape marks in the lawn so that everyone had their own six feet square. It’s certainly not the same as the environments where The Tomblands have the most fun—which is packed bars. That’s not gonna happen for a long time.
Liam: That’s our bread and butter.
Joey: It was already unhygienic and hard to control before all of this. I don’t know if we evolve or if we find a way to get a huge sound system in a parking lot somewhere. With winter, the climate is another thing here that would make outdoor shows really hard. I don’t know. It’s been on my mind, but I don’t have a clear vision forward.
I’m seeing venues open up to let people play there and set up a livestream from there. I’m sure you know the Empty Bottle, I think they’re doing that.
Joey: They were having shows on their roof. I think I saw VV Lightbody, a very cool band and individual doing a show, and I know Lincoln Hall is doing streamed sets as well. Lincoln Hall I guess is doing OK. They’re attached to Audiotree, they can probably weather it. The Empty Bottle is probably one of those on the fence ones where it is an independent venue but they have all the Lolla aftershows, so they’re well connected and funded to stay. Which would be great, because the Empty Bottle is personally my favorite venue.
Joey: There are so many smaller venues that we’ve played at and had a great time at, and they don’t have the infrastructure to do a livestream. They’re so small that if you were doing it at 25% capacity it would be like 10 people. It’s gotta be patio shows, or more events like Music Frozen Dancing, another Empty Bottle staple. I don’t know if they’ll be doing that this year. I’ll be excited to see if there’s more [outdoor events] because people want to go to shows. People want to pay a ridiculous amount of money to drive their car to sit in a parking lot and watch a band. The way to make it cheap is to do a show in the middle of January in a frozen parking lot or something. I mean, I’d be down to do it. I’m desperate to see a live show again.
I think there are definitely ways to work through and around this. It’s obviously been pretty devastating in different ways, but it’s also forcing us to become more resourceful. Maybe this will create some change in the industry. Maybe it will make people more interested in going to different shows and opening their minds to different bands. With the amount of time and the amount of streaming services we have, it makes it easier to discover new music. I hope that we can get it figured out soon.
Joey: Yeah. There’s plenty of other stuff that needs to be figured out as well. I think maybe one of the reasons we’ve been less creative is that it feels like we’re hurtling towards some kind of big event. Whether it be the election or what happens during winter, with the flu and the pandemic. Are we about to hit a cataclysm? If so, maybe the world does not need my bedroom pop EP. But, if the world is imploding, then we have to put the bedroom pop EP out now. There’s no other time. So it’s interesting.
It’s tough to focus on anything. Personally, I kind of hover between despair and optimism. Some days it’s 51% despair and some days it’s 51% optimism. It’s just hovering. I don’t know.
Nick: I definitely feel that for sure.
It’s the only way to keep yourself sane. You have to believe it’s not all going to hell, even though it feels like it.
Liam [holds up a Chomsky Optimism Over Despair copy to the screen]: Nick, what would Chomsky think?
Nick: He would put all his faith in the children, for sure.
It sounds like you guys have found a way to stay connected and stay sane through all this. It seems like you guys have a good friendship together and make great music together. All of you are in Chicago currently, right?
[All say yes]
What restaurant do you take someone who is visiting Chicago for the first time to?
Danny: Liam, you go last because you’re the only one that actually grew up in Chicago. He’s got the strongest opinion.
Nick: He’s going to say Red Hot Ranch or something.
Liam: You’re only scratching the surface, my friend.
Danny: Give me a Chicago Handshake and a slice of pizza, and that’s all I need.
Joey: Like Danny mentioned, Liam is the Chicago boy. I, myself am from Champaign-Urbana. We were all in school at about the same time. But we were in circles that were orbiting. Then I moved up here, and Nick was the one who reached out to me and invited me to another jam. I didn’t realize there would be another drummer in there. I thought I was just going to jam on Nick’s stuff. So it was a very fun surprise. But coming up here, my first experiences in Chicago were in Wicker Park, and I was recording an album in the area, and we would go to Sultan’s Market every single day. It’s cheap, it’s good, it is nourishing and sustaining. It’s an institution that has been around as long as I’ve been alive. Mad respect for Sultan’s. And Handlebar is just down the street. That is also my shit.
That was my old neighborhood. Handlebar was like a five minute walk from my apartment. So far, so good.
Nick: Joey, I was also gonna say Handlebar.
Joey: Chicago Diner gets the job done and they’ve been around the longest. So props to them. I think it’s the ‘80s, right?
Danny: Since ‘83. Cafe Moustache has really good breakfast sandwiches. So I get their breakfast sandwiches a lot on weekends. When it was pre-Covid, I did a lot of Chicago Handshakes there for sure.
Liam: Well, now I’m indecisive. If I’m going just straight up trying to get a capital-M meal, then Top Notch Beefburgers on 95th are the best burgers in the city. There are pretenders to the throne in the Chicago Reader or whatever, but it is Top Notch Beefburgers. Always and forever. If I’m taking someone to a nice place, I gotta go with Topo Gigio in Old Town, which is an Italian restaurant that I’ve been going to since I was 5 years old with my family. It’s not gonna be the best food you’ve ever had, but there’s gonna be so much of it that it doesn’t matter. Those are my two entries into the Chicago restaurant canon.
Tell me about what you guys are working on now. You’ve got the Fall In Love EP out. Are you continuing to work on music? What’s the future look like, tentatively?
Nick: To be determined I guess. We have a bunch of bangers left over from the recording session. Probably a full LP’s worth. It’s gonna be some garage-psych shit. We have a lot to do to finish it. We don’t know when we’re gonna put it out. There’s no plans yet to do that. So hopefully soon, because I’m sure we’ll get bored.
Danny: I want to do an acoustic EP release. I just got my acoustic set-up. We could do that ourselves. Get Joey on the triangle and tambos and we’re good to go. Weird, Tallest Man on Earth, folky-rock thing for the winter.
Liam: We’ll get you a jawbone.
Joey: I’m sure there’s a washboard somewhere around. Some stuff in the alley I could bang on. That could be fun.
I need that winter vibe. Angry, folky—maybe not angry. Full of passion.
Danny: It could be angry.
Liam: Hibernation music.
Truly, truly. Since we now have a lot more free time, did any of you take up any non-music hobbies during this year?
Liam: I started making disco balls.
What? That’s awesome. How does one get into disco ball making?
Liam: It was a drunk Amazon purchase a while ago, but I was basically sitting on a pile of 4000 disco tiles that I bought. So I started doing stuff with that. I got two of them on our back porch. I have an abstract thing and then a disco airplane. Then, I’m making another one that says “Annihilation” around the middle of it.
That’s really cool. I feel like I would buy a Tomblands disco ball in the merch store.
Liam: Next project. The merch lord. I’ll do it. What about you guys? Did you cook?
Danny: I did not cook. I ordered out more food than I’ve ever ordered out in my entire life.
Joey: Now that I don’t have a job or anything, I’m not grabbing food on the go, so I am cooking more. I do feel like I’m eating out just as much though. I thought I was gonna be the bike guy during this. Once everything shut down, I was like, “Cool, I’m just going to take a weekend and ride 100 miles.” And then I did one 40 mile ride and my legs hurt, so, so bad. It’s not worth it. Your butt feels weird. You have to drink so much water and it’s still not enough. You see those dudes riding around with six water bottles strapped to their bike. It’s not enough.
There would be not enough water in the world for me to do a 40 mile bike ride.
Joey: It was too much. I haven’t started too much. I did the whole bread making thing before the pandemic. I can make a mean ciabatta, but I didn’t want to get in on sourdough with everybody else.
I think the ciabatta is a good choice. It’s still time consuming but it doesn’t seem as persnickety as the sourdough.
Joey: It is a modest, rustic loaf that is good for anything. It is peoples’ bread. I think everyone can make it, and everyone should eat it, unless you’re gluten intolerant. Then it will not work.
Now I really want some bread. You can send that in the merch store, too. Disco shapes. Homemade bread.
Joey: Could we do our own giardiniera, since we do have Chicago blood in the band?
Danny: Jimmy’s from Chicago too, so two Chicagoans.
Liam: Juice our percentages a little bit.
You got two, so it’s OK. I’m excited to try this giardiniera. I hope it comes to fruition.
Liam: We’ll send you a bottle.
I’m counting on it.