A tribute to Tony Allen, by Emma-Jean Thackray
For most people alive right now – or trying to stay so – during this extraordinary juncture of history, this is the strangest phase of our lives to date. Tommy Cash is a man for whom a Google search of his name instantly brings up a picture of his face, graphically imposed in the region of a woman’s body where her vagina would be (a still from 2016’s now-censored-from-YouTube video ‘Winaloto’). Maybe Tommy is finding this time just a little less strange than the rest of us are.
Many of us are only now visiting the strange. Not Tommy. Rapper, visual artist, champion of the taboo and the troubling, he spends his life living in the World of the Weird. “Actually I’m back in Tallinn, Estonia right now,” he says. “I was supposed to be the States right now, on tour. Tonight would have been Chicago, yesterday Denver, tomorrow Detroit. But when Europe started going into lockdown, I was told I needed to stay home. The whole thing fell apart, like, five days before it was about to start…”
Wait, you were told to? You didn’t want to? “Not really,” he drawls. “I was so ready. Psychologically I was there. I would have gone and performed. I’m not the type of artist who cancels anything, ever. I’ve performed sick so many times. But when the shows are cancelled for you…”
In the few weeks Tommy’s been walled up at home, he’s tried to create, to “just do my job”. But nothing is coming. “I’m sure it’s giving me some kind of inspiration,” he says, “but maybe it’s the sort that will come out later on…” Tommy Cash, one of the most boundlessly creative people in music today, sounds genuinely lost. He sounds like a child.
What’s it like being back home, I ask? “It’s weird,” he says. “I get recognised here. Nobody says anything. They just stare. Scandinavian’s are pretty humble people, but they let you know… y’know… with their eyes. I don’t go out much anyway. That’s what I used to do.”
Being back – being isolated – has got him thinking. “I was remembering the other day about how I started out making music, thinking about my dad playing the guitar when I was a little kid. Estonia was old Soviet Union then and he told me everyone had a haircut like The Beatles. And my grandmother, she was from Kazakhstan. She was in a choir for, like, a million years and was touring until she was seventy or something…”
And was it that which led you into making your own music?
“For me music was just pure,” he says. “Total purity. It wasn’t about getting rich. It wasn’t about getting famous. I just loved it like I’d never loved anything in my life.”
But why are you thinking about that now?
“Just being here,” he says. “This place. These memories.”
It’s surprising to hear Tommy sound so plaintive; so human. This is a man who has long created art which is high on pageantry, light on introspection. Watch his fever dream video for ‘SDUBID’ (because if ever there was an artist for whom sound and image are entwined it’s Tommy) and you might laugh at the absurdity of him cutting the lawn with the teeth of an upright elderly woman. Skip to ‘Little Molly’ and you may well feel unnerved by the face-swap, trash aesthetic horror show unfolding before your eyes.
It’s rare you watch a Tommy Cash video and come away thinking you’ve seen the real Tommy. Is this wretched pandemic revealing where Tommy Cash ends and Tommy Tammemets begins? “You mean am I playing a character?” he asks, suspiciously. “Wasn’t Bowie playing a character? If he were alive, would you call him a character? I’m not sure you would…”
That’s a very good point… “Or Michael Jackson. Or KISS, the rock band. Or, I dunno, Billie Eilish. I don’t like the word ‘character’ because it implies I’m an actor and I’m not. I’m not pretending to be anyone. I’m not playing a role. I think humans have many different sides to them and you’re describing a side of me that comes out in my performance. I’m not like that with my parents. But I am on stage. Neither is me pretending, it’s all me.”
“I guess I’ve always wanted to be, like, Jim Morrison. Someone popular, but that exists on the outside and grinds against the faker elements of the industry.”
And yet, make no mistake; as familiar as Tommy is with the avant-garde, he wants to be popular. “I want to be as popular as is possible,” he says. “I always want to create a better idea tomorrow than the one I did today. I don’t really understand why anyone would make anything and not want people to cherish it, or appreciate it, or at least acknowledge the work you’ve put in. I guess I’ve always wanted to be, like, Jim Morrison. Someone popular, but that exists on the outside and grinds against the faker elements of the industry.”
Can you be a bit more explicit about what you mean by saying that? “Well, it’s like the situation right now. The pandemic. Every artist is, like, ‘we’ve got to be doing a show on the internet, right now! NOW!’ They’re all sheep. I get it! I’m bored too! But if one person is doing a live show on the internet – wouldn’t that make you think, ‘What can I do on the internet that is cool and different to the person on Instagram Live?’ And why do we need to be making stuff right now? The world is changing. Let’s take a step back and observe that’s happening. Work on your craft a bit. Let’s make the world just that bit slower…”
Some of this wisdom [and his omnipresent olde worlde pencil moustache] might suggest Tommy is older than his twenty-eight years. He celebrated his birthday last November. “I survived the year of rockstar death!” he says, excitedly, before continuing; “To be honest, I’m quite chill about age. I’m friends with Rick Owens [the 58-year-old American fashion designer] and Michèle Lamy [Owens’ creative accomplice – and wife, aged 75]. She’s got more energy than anyone I know. She smokes more weed than all of my friends put together. She’s fucking crazy!”
I actually think there’s something pretty cool about getting older, I opine. You get older and you know yourself better… “Completely! I’ve always thought that! I don’t know why people judge older people making art. Surely you’re just better by then. You know more! You’re like a piece of ripe fruit! I think that’s going to be a wave at some point, people recognising that the talents of older people are valid and exciting…”
You really think that might happen? “I hope so. It’s like that phrase, ‘Okay boomer’. I hate that about the modern culture. Respect the OGs. It was like that in all great cultures and for a reason. You should respect elders.”
What does Tommy Cash look like as an older man, I quip as the highway out of our conversation rears into view. He laughs. “Maybe I’d like to grow a beard. I’d really like one, but I’m worried that I’ve got too much of a baby face…”
He pauses. Then erupts in laugher.
“I think I’d look like a hairy baby…”
These are some weird ass times, for sure – and yet if anyone can make it through them, you’d put money on Tommy Cash.
Tommy Cash has new music coming in May 2020 – follow him here.