Q&A With Tom Boram
Lots of people play music, but few play as much while doing it as Tom Boram. When not toiling as a social worker, the 31-year-old Baltimore native serves as the crazy straw that stirs the drink where the outer edge of the local rock scene mixes with the more fun-loving end of the local experimental music scene, most notably as part of boinktastic electronic duo Leprechaun Catering. On March 24, Boram joins the distinguished and ever-growing ranks of local musicians who have done live soundtracks for classic silent films as part of the Creative Allianceís Silent Sounds series; he DJs to Yakov Protazanovís 1924 Aelita, Queen of Mars, a nutty sci-fi epic from the earliest years of the Soviet Union. He took a break from flipping through records to chat about Fela Kuti, experimental groupies, and finding out that Buster Keaton was already taken.
City Paper: How did you first get interested in music other than the usual pop music you hear on the radio?
Tom Boram: My father graduated from Peabody Conservatory, and I think I probably sat down and listened to every Beethoven symphony at least three or four times all the way through with my dadóin, like, an intense listening situation. Thatís the way I grew up. So it wasnít a big step into jazz and avant-garde music for me.
CP: Well, how did you come to that sort of stuff?
TB: My dad is more conservative, so his idea of jazz was the Dorsey Brothers or maybe a little bit of Miles Davis. He knew about John Cage, but he hated it. But he would do things like play me [Stravinskyís] Rite of Spring, and tell me how it was experimental and caused a riot. And since I was becoming more reactionary and rebellious, anything that he hinted at that caused a riot or turned against convention, that would make me want to go more deeply into it. So, he liked Cream and some psychedelic rock, but he thought that Black Sabbath was too much. So of course I went out and bought Black Sabbath.
I would say that my main interest in avant-garde music or free music or out jazz was just reactionaryójust to see what it was that upset people or overturned convention. And it turned out that I liked it.
CP: Were film scores a part of that? Thatís the only orchestrated music most people hear growing up.
TB: Thatís an interesting question. Iíve been thinking a lot about film scores. I was watching Star Trek IV the other night . . .
CP: Which one is that?
TB: Itís the one where they go back to 1985 or whatever and they get these whales . . . (laughs)
CP: Yeah, yeah, yeah . . .
TB: . . . and it had this kind of mediocreóitís such a film score. Itís just so ridiculous. When it gets really intense, it kind of moves into these slightly dissonant Leonard Bernstein-type arrangements, and itís just so predictable.
I guess I came to film scores kind of late, and I started getting into them because the music community was paying a lot of lip service to John Barry, or [Toru] Takemitsu, or [Ennio] Morricone, so it made me reconsider that film scores could actually be really creative and interesting rather than totally generic. I mean, I appreciate Elmer Bernstein as an arranger, but his scores just donít leap off the screen at you.
CP: Do you have particular favorite scores or soundtrack composers?
TB: The Wendy Carlos score for A Clockwork Orange is really amazing. Itís really unusual-sounding for a film score, and it also totally works with the film. It adds so much. Morriconeóthe spaghettis, those are really great. [Director Dario] Argento, the prog-rock scores, those are great. Forbidden Planet, of course.
CP: When you first came on the local music scene, you were playing in, for lack of a better term, rock bands like the Deviled Eggs. It doesnít seem like youíre interested in that at all anymore.
TB: Well, I have some bands now, but itís just me and one other person [Leprechaun Catering with Jason Willett and Snacks with Dan Breen]. And Iím in the Fela Kuti band [the Baltimore Afrobeat Society].
CP: That seems like a lot of fun. I mean, itís fun to listen to, but it must be fun to play, too.
TB: Itís great. We only get together a couple of times a year, which is good, because Iím not real interested in the cover-band process. Even if youíre covering, like, some of the best music ever. But itís great to get together and work on the arrangements and stuff. I do keyboards and vocals, which is pretty insane.
CP: So you get to approximate all those great canít-really-play Fela organ solos.
TB: Yeah, and I canít really play anyway, so it comes natural to me. Heís in the pocket, but heís kind of weird and off at the same time.
CP: Yeah, like heís more concerned with hitting the keys at the right time than what keys heís hitting.
TB: Yeah, and thatís me. Thatís my style also. So itís perfect.
CP: How many instruments do you playóor maybe not play?
TB: I canít really play wind instruments. I did play trombone as a kid, and, as my dad told meóand this is a direct quoteómy tone was ďdreadful.Ē Heís a music teacher, so Iím sure it must have made every hair on his body stand on end. And I was mostly interested in making fart sounds with it and didnít really practice.
Iíve been playing piano my whole life. Iíve been playing guitar since I was about 11 or 12, and thatís what I mostly do. But Iíve been getting into analog synthesizers and circuit building, and I have a lot of theremins, so thatís kind of what Iíve been into the last five or six years.
Anyway, to answer the question you asked about four or five minutes ago, I guess the duo bands I still consider rock musicóimprovised to a large extent. I guess that itís more sculptural because itís just two people bouncing ideasóitís not real composition-oriented. There are a lot of elements of performance art to them.
It seems natural to me, but if you were looking at it from the outside, it might seem like a weird transition. But Iíve always been interested in performance art and live outlandishness, and so itís kind of going in that direction, and the discordant and psychedelic elements of rock music that Iíve been interested in since I was a teenager are just pushed a lot farther.
CP: Speaking of performance, I still remember your appearances at High Zero in 2001, where you got up to all sorts of mischiefódragging a sitar across the floor and smashing it, etc. It seemed to freak out quite a few attendees and musicians alike, and I wonder if you see any kind of opposition to what you do versus the more ďseriousĒ elements of experimental music.
TB: I was really excited by the free improvisation scene when I first started, because it seemed like that if anybodyís actually doing this, then theyíve accepted that theyíre misfits. If you really sign on to be a free improviser, then you must be really into it ícause you must not be totally interested in getting laid. Youíre kind of hanging out on the fringe, youíre hanging out with mostly males . . .
CP: You mean there arenít free improv groupies?
TB: There are a few. Yeah, there are a few.
But the more I hung out, the more I realized that there was this reverence that I couldnít relate to. Itís almost like when you go to a dance performance. You like the idea of people doing things with their bodies that go way beyond everyday movement, but then when you see a dance performance and how people are taking it so seriously, you get really bored or turned off by it. This is too serious, this is reverent to the point of being painful. At least in the academic world, the avant-garde is like that through and through.
CP: How did Aelita, Queen of Mars come about?
TB: Kristen Anchor, whoís curating the series, stopped me on the street one day and said, ďIíve been thinking about having DJs play along with silent movies.Ē Immediately I asked her what kind of movies she was thinking, was she thinking Buster Keaton? I didnít see any of them, but apparently there are a lot of Buster Keaton movies that they already did there.
She was saying maybe you could try a Chaplin film since weíve already done the Buster Keaton. I watched some Chaplin movies, and I was like, This would be a bitch to DJ to. Youíd never be able to catch all the gags. And I was still kind of lukewarm about the ChaplinóI felt like I didnít like it as much as Buster Keaton. I kept thinking about it more, and it was going to be really difficult to DJ. Iíd have to go through every piece of music I own and try to find things that work, and then getting the transitions right is going to be extremely difficult.
I have all this vintage electronic music, and stuff thatís not academicóweird poppy stuff from the í60s. And I really wanted to use that, because you canít really DJ that to a room full of people, normally. So I tried to find something that would have a dark enough tone that if the music got dark, it wouldnít be unusual, but then if I made the music a lot lighter, that it might make it weird or take it out of context. So I decided that I wanted sci-fi, because it would go well with the electronic music, did a lot of searching online, and hit that one.
Iím kind of a RussophileóIím going to Russia this springóand the movie was shot in 1920, so thereís all this footage of Moscow right after the revolution with people out in the streets. Itís really interesting. The set design is really incredible, like early-20th-century modernist stuff. Itís kind of like Metropolis, but a few years before Metropolis.