John Thomas remembers standing stage-side at Red Rocks, staring at a sea of bodies gyrating to the music of Tycho as he warmed up the crowd for Sound Tribe Sector Nine and marveling at the surrealism of the whole experience. "I'm at Red Rocks talking to Gold Panda and Dave Murphy, drinking free booze backstage," he recalls. "What the fuck just happened?"
What the fuck just happened, indeed. Thomas, who performs under the name RUMTUM, is the newest addition to the roster of 1320 Records, STS9's highly regarded imprint. It had barely been a year since he'd moved from Seattle to Denver. And although he wasn't on the bill, that night at Red Rocks stands out as one of the best musical moments of the year for him. It was the culmination of several years of hard work making a name for himself in the increasingly crowded world of electronic beats.
And while it took years to reach that point, the album that gave him the biggest push of his career so far, Mystic Wonders, didn't take much time to cut. "I wrote Mystic in two weeks," notes Thomas. "I wrote a song a day for two weeks straight, and then at the end of it, I cut one song off and ended up with thirteen. The tracks are literally in the order [that] I made them." Within a few days of the album's completion, copies were circulating in the 1320 office, and the tunes quickly caught the attention of STS9's Murphy and others. Getting picked up by the label happened so quickly ("Three days later I got a call," he says), Thomas is still sort of in shock about the whole thing.
RUMTUM, with Signal Path and Mux Mool, 9 p.m. Saturday, October 5, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $15-$18, 888-929-7849.
The album, which received its official release in mid-September, is a mélange of funky, dusty-fingered grooves that nods to everything from mid-'70s fusion to traditional African music. The result is effortlessly tasteful, a blend of golden-era hip-hop, Blue Note jazz, indie rock and electronic influences. There are moments that sound like RZA and Ennio Morricone huffing nitrous oxide together, and others in which bluesy guitar solos and crisp, snapping drum breaks foster understated, classical elegance.
"Since I've experimented so much," he explains, "I realize all the things I can do now. The sound is new because of that, but it's also going back to my roots of really liking J Dilla, Teebs, Flying Lotus and Madlib, and liking funk and jazz."
Each of Mystic's tracks is infused with a warm, organic quality. It would be easy to assume that the heart and soul of each cut was composed of impeccably excavated samples that he looped and took credit for after adding a synth flourish or two, but that's not the case. "I pretty much played everything," says Thomas. "I'll EQ it in ways where it sounds like a shitty recording. I'll put fuzz and distortion into it so it almost sounds like it's off a record. I like the idea that maybe I'm using this sample over here that sounds like something I recorded, and what I actually recorded sounds like it's off a record. People can't tell what I'm doing."
After arriving in town, there was a stretch during which Thomas gave up sampling entirely and shifted toward a more experimental, psychedelic sound. Working in this style, he'd nearly completed a fourteen-track album that he then scrapped because he "ended up hating it." Starting from scratch, he went back to his earliest loves but incorporated more of what he had learned along the way. The result speaks for itself, according to Thomas. "I've never written a record that's been so cohesive," he notes. "All the songs are different, but it flows really nicely."
And while there are still a few cleverly disguised samples within the tunes, there are far fewer than figured in some of his previous material. "If I like an organ sound, I'll take a little stab," he reveals. "I'll rarely sample a whole phrase or something. Now that I'm getting a few more followers, I've got to start watching out for that. It's good, though. It challenges me to play more."
While getting signed to a label is admittedly a huge step forward for RUMTUM, it also isn't the sea-change moment it's sometimes built up to be. "It doesn't really change anything," he says, "but it changes a lot at the same time." While there are definite perks, such as the show at Red Rocks, things are markedly less glamorous on a day-to-day basis. Thomas is still working a day job at the same time that he's working on new music. He dreams of continuing to challenge his fans' expectations, hoping to hit the road with live jazz-funk one year and then a set of club beats the next. Right now, though, he's just hungry to pay his dues and live through music.
"Right now it's a struggle to keep working and putting out records and waiting for that to happen," he admits. "You just have to be patient. It's like waiting for your dreams to really come together. I have to work hard and will it to happen." It was this dream of seriously pursuing music — of turning it from a passion into a career — that led him from Ohio to Seattle, then on to Denver, where he feels like he's found a real home, both as an artist and a person. "As soon as I got here," he says, "I had a good family of friends and the support of musicians I respected."
Through Elliot Baker (of CC/NN and FLASH/LIGHTS), a friend of his since his Ohio days, Thomas was able to connect with a slew of local artists and boosters almost immediately. RUMTUM won the support of Holy Underground, and was even associated with HUG Records for a stint; in addition, he was often included in Babyshoe's Fresh Produce beat showcase, as well as Audiodrome's monthly residence at the now-defunct Unit E.
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Looking back on the past year, Thomas couldn't have imagined it working out any better. "It was friends and the atmosphere — the mountains and stuff — that really brought me out here," he points out. "Once I got out here, it was easy to stay, because everyone was just fucking awesome."
But for all the success he's had thus far, there are some lingering doubts. "I don't know if it's more luck or hard work," he says. "Honestly, I wake up some days and I'm like, "Damn, I feel real lucky, because I know friends who aren't in Colorado who are working just as hard as me that aren't getting anywhere.
"At the end of the day, I'm just a nerd behind a computer and samplers making beats," he concludes. "Hopefully, people know I'm just an honest dude who's trying to make good art."