Tom Tikka – Not His First Rodeo
Having previously been signed to Sony/BMG with Carmen Gray, one of Finland’s finest rock bands, Tom Tikka has formed The Impersonators, a two-man project born out their ashes and designed to cut out the politics and strife which come from the rock ‘n’ roll carnival of band life. Resolutely studio-based, The Impersonators channel the bejeweled power-pop of The Go-Betweens and the immediacy/worldliness of early R.E.M. to deliver timeless alt-pop melodies.
HELLO TOM TIKKA, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US! WHAT DREW YOU TO THE MUSIC INDUSTRY?
Elvis and Beatles movies, the prospect of success. I was eight or nine when I watched A Hard Day’s Night. There was a rerun of it on TV. I still remember the beginning. The Beatles were running away from a group of teen girls, trying to shake them off their trail, hiding in photo and phone booths. Lennon had a fake beard and moustache. It was very exciting to watch that and so I remember making a conscious attempt to learn how to write songs. I already knew the very basics of guitar by then, enough to start putting songs together in any case. I learned to adore music as time went by and I learned more and more about writing and recording but in the beginning, it was just about being idolized by pretty girls. That was the draw. Sounds silly, I know.
Of course, I was very fortunate to get to work with a large record company at an age when I could dedicate myself to music and work my buns off. They were the ones who put me in contact with record producers and professional songwriters. In the beginning, I didn’t really know the game at all. These were the people that ultimately taught me everything I know about music and more importantly, about the music industry. From them I also learned discipline. They sort of forced me into this habit of writing a song a day, the melody. And I still think it’s a great piece of advice. By doing that, you come up with a stellar tune once a month or something like that because most melodies you produce don’t really sound that special after a few weeks. That’s still my approach. I write something every day.
WHO ARE YOU INSPIRED BY?
Musically, my biggest influences are The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, REM and The Go-Betweens. Those are the bands that I emulate the most and also the bands that I try to compete with in terms of quality. They always win of course, but that’s beside the point. The point is that they set a great example to anyone writing pop tunes.
Lyrically, I’m inspired by life, whatever happens to me or around me. “Burning Blue” is a about a friend who had lost his wife to cancer and “Sad Café” was inspired by a fight I witnessed in a coffee shop in London, England. Then there are the personal ones like “You Are The One,” which is about my wife and then there is “Cloud Nine,” which I wrote after I had started therapy.
An interviewer once asked if I have an infatuation for negativity. However, I don’t think it’s that. I think my stuff is a bit dark simply because that’s what life is like once you hit your late thirties and have a thousand children. My father used to say that if you are thirty plus and married with children, feel great and have time for your career and hobbies, the other person in the relationship is the one carrying the darkness for you. I suppose this is one of the reasons why people end up having affairs and getting divorced. It’s so sad when you think about it, really.
PLEASE EXPLAIN YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS
I guess I already sort of did. I try to write a track a day and wait for the perfect one to arrive. This is the way I write for my solo venture, Tom Tikka & The Missing Hubcaps.
From the perspective of The Impersonators, the process is a bit different. The way it works is that Antti emails me a set of lyrics and I either write a melody to them or I edit them to fit an existing melody. This is how we work. That’s how a song is born. Then I record it, send it off to our producer Janne Saksa, who then works his magic on it. The Impersonators are officially a duo but in reality, we are a trio as Janne’s contribution to our tracks is priceless. I also bounce ideas around with my wife Elina. She’s very musical. In fact, the main guitar riff of “Circus” was written by her as is the middle eight of our latest single, “Rodeo.” In one way or another, she’s involved with all the songs. She’s very critical about the stuff I write, so if whatever I’m working on doesn’t cut the mustard, she will tell me flat out front. Although she pisses me off lots of times, it’s a great luxury to have somebody who has the guts to tell you if a track has any potential or not. It is not a given. I suppose I have the same role in Antti’s creative process. I either start working on the lyrics he sends me or I don’t.
WHAT’S AN AVERAGE DAY FOR YOU LIKE?
Well, I’ve been blessed with six children, so needless to say my life revolves around them: hockey, football, floorball and every other hobby known to mankind. The youngest two I live with, the older ones stay with me every weekend. You could say I’m pretty involved with what happens in my kids’ lives. At least I try to be. I missed so much of my oldest kids’ toddler and preschool years because I was either working or making music. Now, I try to be with my three- and five-year-olds as much as humanly possible. This means getting up at six every morning, waking them up, feeding them, getting them dressed, brushing their teeth and then taking them to daycare. In the evenings, I reverse this. In fact, my favorite moment is reading bedtime stories to them or telling stories of their grandfather or great grandfather to them. Another favorite moment is after the kids have gone to bed and I get to hang out with my wife. We’ve been together for almost a decade but the magic’s still there.
IS THERE A HIDDEN MEANING IN ANY OF YOUR MUSIC?
As far as The Missing Hubcaps go, there is no hidden meaning in any of the music. With The Impersonators…not that I’m aware of. Maybe Janne’s hidden all kinds of shit in the mix that we are all completely and utterly unaware of, thinking that the poor sods have no idea what they are listening to!
To answer your question, no hidden meaning but there’s subtext all over the tunes of course, the purpose of which is to remind that life very rarely resembles fairytales. I suppose my tunes are sort of telling you to be wary of people and their motives. Not everything is what it seems. Life can be a pretty lonely and sad place every once in a while and it’s good to be prepared for the worst. If you think about it, isn’t life a bit like riding waves. Most of it is spent on trying to actually catch a wave! So once you do, enjoy it while the surf’s good. You could say life’s about hitting the crests of the waves you are riding. Yeah, I like that analogy.
DO YOU COLLABORATE WITH OTHERS? WHAT IS THE PROCESS?
In The Impersonators, I collaborate with Antti, Janne and my wife Elina.
I know it’s trendy to have three of four different artists doing a song together nowadays but to me that is and has always been an alien concept. I have done it in the past though but always just through songwriting. If I write with someone else for his or her project then I approach the whole thing differently. Then it’s their song and not mine and we are gearing it towards their style. They get to steer the ship, I’m just there to facilitate and to add my five cents, my little stamp they’re after, usually the melody of the chorus. Now, if I am intending to sing or perform the song myself, which would be the case with The Missing Hubcaps and The Impersonators, it’s a whole different ballgame. Then I usually know exactly what I want and I feel making too many compromises is a drag at that point.
I suppose this is why the roles are so clear-cut in The Impersonators. We each have our own little things we do in our little three-way partnership. Antti is the head of lyrics, I’m the head of melodies and Janne is the head of production. This doesn’t mean we don’t give input to one another but it means that each of us has the ultimate decision when it comes to their contribution.
PLEASE DISCUSS HOW YOU INTERACT WITH AND RESPOND TO FANS
Whenever somebody’s asked for an autograph or sent me an email, I’m humbled by it and obviously very grateful and pleased that something I’ve written has moved them in one way or another. It’s a great feeling.
I remember once running into this chap in a bar in Berlin who had tattooed a few key lines from a Carmen Gray song I wrote with my brother Lappe Holopainen called “Gates of Loneliness.” The song wasn’t a huge hit in Germany but somehow he had crossed paths with it and liked it enough to have it engraved on his arm. I didn’t quite know what to say, so I bought him and his friends a few drinks. I think of that afternoon from time to time, a great memory.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THIS LINE? YOUR LEAST FAVORITE? WHY?
The fact that I get to make music and people like it enough to write about it, buy it and play it on the radio. I feel very fortunate. The coolest feeling in the world is to hear your own song on the radio. It doesn’t matter how many times it’s happened, it’s always equally amazing. I never get tired of that moment.
The least favorite part of the music business? The greedy industry itself, exploiting artists left and right and how shallow, synthesized and overproduced modern pop/rock has become. The latter’s my extremely biased and subjective opinion of course. I know about a hundred people who would disagree with me. They would argue that it’s great to listen to music that is smooth and easy on the ear. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
As a vocalist, the strangest thing to me is how people’s perception of what constitutes a great vocal has changed. It’s all so processed and laden with Auto-Tune, harmonizer, pitch shifter and compressors these days. That’s what people expect and if they don’t hear that, they start complaining about the singer not being able to sing. It always cracks me up. But don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy that sort of thing too. However, I connect that sound with pop aimed at a younger audience. When I listen to rock, I want to hear real vocals that have character and haven’t been smoothed out and processed to death.
HAVE YOU DEALT WITH PERFORMANCE ANXIETY?
I was sixteen when I played in front of a rather large crowd for the very first time. I was scared to death and as a result, really made a mess of it. I had a microphone that had an on-off switch. Nervous as I was, I accidentally turned the microphone off. Nobody heard me sing that day as my band was only doing one number. The singer of the group that came on after us made a joke about the incident by switching the microphone back on with grandiose gestures and by saying, “and now after that instrumental, let’s get back to some pop tunes.” I just wanted to be invisible at that point. But hey, who knows, perhaps that was for the better. I’m not sure how great my singing would have sounded anyway. It took a lot of courage to climb back on stage a few weeks after that. You can bet your ass I didn’t put my hands or fingers even near a microphone after that for a long time.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FAVORITE PERFORMANCE VENUES
I love playing in a small place in front of a small crowd (fifty to a hundred people). That’s when you really get to interact with the audience, ask them questions, tell them stories etc. It becomes very intimate and I love that feel. I don’t miss larger venues at all. In any case, I play everything myself on my solo releases and The Impersonators are a group of two songwriters rather than a real, breathing rock band, so going out on the road would be a tad difficult. I’d have to assemble a group, who’d copy the songs just as they were recorded. And that wouldn’t make any sense, really. I would still want to arrange and play the future records either alone or with Janne. It wouldn’t seem fair to use musicians only as hired hands like that.
I played at a gathering a friend had organized a little over a year ago and loved every moment of it. It was just me on an acoustic guitar. I had a great audience, so I came out of that thinking maybe I should perform by myself, just on an acoustic guitar at a pub somewhere but really, to what end? And don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike performing live; I’ve done it a fair amount. However, my heart is really in crafting songs in the studio. Mind you, this is not just about me being reluctant to play live, it goes a bit deeper than that. You see the funny thing here is I don’t own any live albums – none. And I have roughly two thousand CDs. That, I suppose, really says it all. Live music just isn’t that much to my liking.
Obviously now with the coronavirus situation, playing live isn’t really even possible in most countries. Hopefully, things will get back to normal one day.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE WANTING TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?
“It’s a very long road but good luck as you travel down it,” was basically the advice that was given to me by the legendary Andy McCoy of Hanoi Rocks when I was starting out. He gave it to me in writing when he signed his autobiography for me at a Helsinki book fair some twenty years ago. I’d give the same advice to anyone asking but would underline the word “luck.” You see I’ve gotten very lucky. I got a chance to work with the big labels and learn from the best. Most people will never get that chance regardless of how good they are and of course, being good is just a small part of making it in the music business. Success is dependent on so many things but most of all, at least in my experience, timing is everything. If your music fits in with the prevailing trends, then you actually have a chance with the tastemakers and influencers. If not, it’ll be an uphill battle while waiting for either the trends to change or, ultimately, changing yourself.
Obviously, you can always go independent but that’s no picnic either. Yes, you get to do exactly what you want but then you have no one to take care of the business end of things for you, and let me tell you, that’s a whole lot of work even when you have all the right connections. If you don’t, it means working 24/7 and is next to impossible. This is no doubt the reason why so many independent artists are never able to break through the glass ceiling that separates them from the truly successful acts. You just get tired of the disappointments, refusals, setbacks and same old venues. Everybody is looking for at least some form of gratification. Whoever tells you differently is lying.
This is why I always say to people that music is a great hobby. Unless you are ready to devote your entire life to it, keep it as a hobby. If you want to become successful, nothing can be more important than music. It’s a double-edged sword!