Tom Thum, beatboxer, QSOCurrent

Do things passionately rather than worrying about them being done professionally ...

As children, we all found great pleasure in making weird and wonderful noises with our mouths. Turning that fascination into a passion, beatboxer Tom Thum decided to practise and practise, honing in on those sounds to create something truly remarkable. Easily mistaken for a digital recording or live instrument, Tom has the incredible ability to produce an awe-inspiring range of sounds armed with nothing but his vocal chords, mouth and a microphone. The Brisbane local will be collaborating with renowned composer Gordon Hamilton and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) on May 16 at Brisbane Powerhouse as part of QSOCurrent, presenting audiences with a world-first symphony of sounds. The Weekend Edition caught up with Tom this week to talk instrumental imitation and train carriage concerts.

When did you discover you had this exceptional beatbox talent?
I didn’t really discover it, I just knew that I was really hyperactive and just gravitated towards it because it was something I could do anywhere. I didn’t need anything for it – I didn’t need money or microphones or amplification, and it just kind of appealed to my hyperactive nature. I practised and practised and practised until people stopped telling me to shut up and started paying me!

How does it feel to have more than 32 million people on YouTube who have watched you perform?
I don’t know! If I got one cent for every view I would feel 32 million times better about it! For me not a lot has changed to be honest. I am still driving a really terrible car and living with my parents. It has been great because I have got a lot of amazing job opportunities out of it, and especially with TEDxSydney – that was a different kind of platform than what I would usually perform on. Suddenly now all these people think I am a public speaker! But it is really good to have that confirmation that I am doing the right thing. Even if 1/32 of those people decided to check it out I would still be stoked.

You’ve played in some incredible places around the world – what has been your most memorable venue so far?
One of my favourite shows that I have done was probably one of the smallest shows. It was on a little steam train driving between Queenscliffe in Victoria to another little tiny stop. It was a blues train with a whole lot of acoustic musicians – there was myself and a friend of mine who plays guitar, and it was 9:00 am, completely not beatboxy time, but it was really great! Just low volume, people were sitting there, really receptive. It was so cool, because it was very different to anything I was used to. It was part of the Queenscliffe Music Festival, and that was one of the side things you could do there – take this train and in each carriage there would be a different set of musicians playing. And at each stop you would switch carriages, so people would get off one and move to the next carriage – it was a great idea.

No doubt it’s taken a lot of perseverance and patience to achieve all that you have. What’s your advice for dealing with challenges?
I am someone that does take a lot of criticism on board, so I think its good to have a strong support network of people that do believe in you. So when I am whinging about a really minor thing, they can just tell me to sharpen up. I think it is good to hang around with positive influences in your life – not necessarily musical influences – it’s a lot better to have tangible influences and idols rather than idolising these demigod rock stars. I have found personally I have grown a lot more by having people I can reach out to and get feedback from straight away.

Aside from those people, what influences and inspires your work?
I think it has a lot to do with having a brain that is hard to stop. About 2% of my ideas actually come to fruition – I am always thinking of things and get excited about them, but then I have to stop on an idea that is actually possible to achieve. But watching other people and meeting humble and successful people is great – you find out they are actually just normal. A perfect example is the Hilltop Hoods dudes. I met them when I was 15 at South Bank at a little breakdancing competition that had an audience of about 30 people, and then the next time I saw them they were huge! Now they’re mega famous but they’re still such humble guys, and they have always reached out to me for things – it’s nice that they are not only my idols, but really good friends.

What does your warm-up schedule look, or rather, sound like?
I never used to do vocal warm-ups but I do now. I rely a lot on my top-range stuff, so I just sit there and make weird noises. I think it would be horrifying for anyone who was in an adjacent hotel room!

You can produce an incredible array of sounds. How do you come up with them?
I have sounds that I already can do and then I think about what I want to replicate. I try to find elements of what I know and then attempt to figure out how I can change what I am already doing to make the new sound. I also listen to the instruments themselves. A lot of beatboxers will copy other beatboxers, but I just listen to the instruments. I spend a lot of time analysing what makes an instrument sound like it does. Its like instrumental impersonations, listening to little pitch bends when the player stops blowing so hard, just trying to find the little intricacies.

You’ll be performing in Brisbane with QSO on May 16 as part of QSOCurrent at Brisbane Powerhouse. Are there any sounds you’re working on that we haven’t heard yet?
Basically everything for this show! A lot of the stuff that I am doing with Gordon Hamilton at the moment is incredibly challenging but fulfilling because I didn’t learn any technical music – I am 100% self taught. So it’s very different coming from a world where it’s mostly improvised, to a world where it’s all on sheets and the players in the orchestra are consummate professionals, to the point where we only have three rehearsals with the entire orchestra. So working with Gordon has been really great for building and learning, and really challenging. It’s going to be a great project.

Is this your first time working with an orchestra?
I think this is the first time anything like this has happened. There have been some beatboxers who have worked with orchestras, but not anything specially composed like this. And it is really growing into this mother ship of sound. For me, it’s probably the biggest thing I have done. TEDx was great, but I was just doing what I normally do. It was mentally rewarding, but not mentally challenging. Whereas this is going to be a hard slog to get to a point, but it’s an absolutely incredible learning curve.

What should the audience expect from the QSOCurrent performance?
It’s super secret beatbox business! Seriously though, the good thing about working with Gordon is that he has a lot of avant-garde ideas that you wouldn’t really expect to see in an orchestral performance. We are on a similar level with our ideas. We are doing a lot of experimenting not only musically, but sonically, taking on things that I don’t really think have been done orchestrally before, even without a beatboxer. For example, we are doing this thing where I emulate turntables, but then have the orchestra almost doing exactly what I am doing. Or imagine when DJs manipulate the sound to drop all the bass out of a track – we’re doing that live with the orchestra but without special effects. So at the beginning I will start and the whole orchestra will be behind me, and then I will isolate my sound and the bottom end of the orchestra – the double bass, the cello, the kettledrums – will all disappear, and we will only have the high instruments and really breathy woodwind instruments. So it sounds like its being digitally done, but its 100% acoustic.

What do you believe is your greatest career achievement so far?
This performance with Gordon and QSO is pretty close to it! I definitely never thought I would be doing anything like this. When I was in Year 12 writing graffiti on trains and drinking goon in parks, I wasn’t imagining ten years later that I would be working with the QSO. So for me this is a really big deal.

How do you like to start your weekend?
On a Friday!

Any words of wisdom?
Do things passionately rather than worrying about them being done professionally. If you focus on the passion before the professional side of things, the rest will just come naturally.

Perk up …
 Cafe O-Mai.
Relax … swimming in the waterholes at Mount Glorious.
Dine … at home.
Be inspired … my weekly meetings with Gordon at the moment!


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