Tommy Blackburn aka DJ Tommyboy is almost self-deprecating about his abilities to unearth the lost art of yesteryear, sights and sounds that even the keenest eyes and ears before his missed.
“I’m a nostalgic at heart. I appreciate digging in the past for gems,” Blackburn said by phone from Austin yesterday. “We almost originally called this event ‘Through Being Cool.'” He laughs as he explains the concept behind his upcoming Dallas appearance. What the event ended up being christened is “Yesterday’s Gold,” which takes place at The Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff this weekend. This fourth installment of the irregularly held event will feature the soft and strange sounds of non-charting, spacey disco and painfully smooth jazz pop. It’s the sort of music you hear on Mesquite Schools Radio KEOM 88.5, but just a little “off.”
To reduce what Blackburn does to mere nostalgia is to miss the revelatory connections he has made between the past and today. His appropriation of the materials in his many mixes, videos, and the two combined, makes for a strikingly unique expression that seems to exist both in the time much of this material was originally composed, and yet is also unmistakably current. It’s in Blackburn’s almost hands-off approach that he stands out from other much more intrusive artists. He once (somewhat infamously) put on a mix and walked off to wander around the club while his selections played. Though it irked other DJs — probably since they are so used to defending their craft — it had those of us who had booked Tommyboy’s appearance cheering the unparalleled coolness of such a move. Blackburn’s attitude towards his art is akin to an archaeologist shakily handling a specimen, almost afraid to blow off the dust lest he accidentally changes the nature of his find.
“I would rather you play the original song in its entirety, so that I can appreciate it for what it is,” Blackburn says. “There are very few edits or remixes that maintain the integrity of the original quality of the song.” But the tracks in your average Tommyboy mix are often so unknown, especially to non-collectors and DJs, that they wouldn’t know if they were edited anyhow. Nobody throwing a party wants to be thought of as an educator, but chances are Tommyboy has taught his share of lessons.
Blackburn displays an understanding of how quickly new trends develop and dissipate, and therefore seems content in his constant search backwards. “I really appreciate people doing new things,” he says. “There is always something new, every day there is something new, but there is just as much old stuff that is worth exploring and I feel that’s often neglected.”
He mentions getting older and again, seems overly humble. Though it could be mistook for age-related complacency, Blackburn’s view is that he plans on staying just as busy as the years go by; he just maintains a tighter focus. “I don’t know if that comes with just getting older,” hes says. “But at some point you give up trying to be on top of whatever the next wave is and get comfortable where you are and you start settling into it and researching it and getting into it better.”
Tommy’s constant humility may stem from from an early bout of arrogance in his college years. Though he moved back to Austin in 2010, he is originally from the Dallas area, where he attended “every other high school possible; Arts Magnet, and graduated from Highland Park High School, and a bunch of other schools behind that too.” He ended up at The University of Texas in Austin as a Radio, Television, and Film major between 1999 and 2003. But he departed early, like so many undergraduates, because he actually found real work. “I had a big head and I felt like I was doing what I already wanted to do,” he says. “I used to do visuals for Explosions in the Sky before they were really big. I did shows for Mogwai and Bardo Pond and Godspeed You Black Emperor in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Then I moved to New York after that so I could do the video stuff, but I wasn’t really finding production work.” He eventually moved back to Dallas, but in between were those crucial years in Austin where he became acquainted with North Texas in a way that would have a lasting impact on both music scenes in North and Central parts of the state.
“I know all the Denton people because I used to have a new wave night,” he says. “I had a weekly at this place which is now called the Mohawk, but was then called Le Privilege.” But this wasn’t your average retro night. Tommy decided to combine the 1980s records with an unlikely stylistic bed-partner, especially for that particular period in time.
“Our whole premise was Miami Bass with new wave,” he says. “Our whole aesthetic was Soft Cell with 2 Live Crew, which is kind of funny.” But people weren’t laughing. These disparate sounds were like a sonic beacon to some artists in the state, especially north on 35.
“Prince Will was always in the scene and on the internet,” Tommyboy says. “He found out about me, and so he would drive down on Sunday nights, go to my weekly, and then drive back to go to class at UNT on Monday.” This connection proved fruitful in other ways, since Blackburn was also instrumental in getting one of the area’s most well-known DJs career off the ground. “And then [Prince Will] introduced me to Jonathan Graham (DJ G),” he says. “I think Jonathan has mentioned this recently, but I gave him his first DJ gig ever.”
The activity didn’t only involve Dallas and Denton locals, Blackburn was booking national acts that would also go on to become fairly big names, especially of late. “It was a really interesting time,” he remembers. “I booked Glass Candy before they were an electronic band. This was when they were called ‘Glass Candy and the Shattered Theatre.’ And A.R.E. Weapons and a bunch of other stuff.”
With all of the Austin/Dallas cross-pollination talk, I finally get to the most important question: How does record shopping differ in the two cities? “Dallas is fun because no one pick ups the treasures, except for the people I know in Dallas,” he says. “So I know if Jonathan (Graham) has been shopping ahead of me.” Blackburn laughs as he describes this always competitive past-time.
“I can pretty much find whatever I want in Dallas,” he says. “Here, everyone is into vintage shopping, whether they appreciate the music or not, so things are overpriced. You go to Half Price Books and you can find a beat-up, used, deteriorated copy of Kraftwerk for twenty-five bucks. That’s ridiculous.”
Blackburn continually professes his love for his current Austin home and its often innovative synthesizer-focused scene, which now has a physical headquarters in the form of Switched On, a shop specializing in the instruments that opened in 2010, and which he describes as “a figurehead and a mecca.” He speaks with fondness about the local acts he has past admired such as the now defunct and influential Oblong Boys, to future activity, such as the multimedia show in which he is involved at the ND venue next month, and will include synth-heavy acts such as Missions and Boan, who are based out of Houston.
“That is kind of a dream bill for me,” he says. “The ND, which is that big multimedia performance hall down East 5th. It’s got the big wall with HD screen. Having those kinds of luxuries is one of the reasons I love living here, because it happens more often that not.”
But it’s all tempered with a cautiously realistic outlook about the state of the two cities he has straddled for so long.
“This is an interesting time for me to move back to Austin,” he says. “Reminiscing about the past and coming back and realizing this has been on the “top ten places to move to” for the past ten years. I’m not trying to be too curt about this, but there is just ‘average stuff’ going on. It used to be that people who were extreme rose to the top and stuck out, but now there is more noise going on.”
What interests Blackburn more than the capital city are the odd places in Texas where interesting things happen.
“I love being here for the friends that I’ve known and everything that Austin has to offer,” he says. “But I still feel like in the state of Texas, it’s these pockets of people who are in weird places, like the outskirts of Houston, or in Denton, or in Arlington.”
At some point, Tommyboy gets excited enough about his show on Saturday that he reveals a little of his secret. For instance, what he looked for when compiling the visuals he’ll be employing this weekend.
“You know after a television channel goes off the air, and they show all that ‘patriotic nature footage?'” he asks. “I’ve taken all of that stuff. I got the best bits. To me, it’s the perfect sort of sepia-toned, glossy, solar flare-looking, seventies film footage montage that will be in the background, on the wall of the theatre. It’s going to be a sentimental night.”
That’s one way to put it, but Blackburn has done a service to the art he’s resurrected that is not always translated whenever someone unearths a work. In fact, one could argue that it’s the opposite of sentimentality and nostalgia both: He has made it timeless.
You can find Tommyboy’s current work at [Sqwelsch] , which is based out of Belgium.