Thomas Bullock

"It’s a way of life, and we fuckin’ nailed it."
Interview by Nate Harrington  &  Asher Penn
Compiled and edited by Asher Penn

Thomas Bullock at Just Jam Studios in Dalston, London, 2012

Over the past 25 years musician, producer and DJ Thomas Bullock has been instrumental in music  projects that have been definitive of their moment: UK's Tonka Parties, San Fransisco's Wicked Crew, and NYC's A.R.E. Weapons & Rub N Tug amongst many other things. With his new record label Save The Day  (STD), and his Mezcal distribution company Spirit Bear Mezcals  Thomas Bullock's output continues to recognize music as just one element of a larger goal- human engagement and celebration.

What time is it there?
I have no idea.
What did you do tonight?
I spent this evening on a train between Sweden and Denmark. And I went to a number of restaurants that were potentially keen on stocking Mezcal.
How did it go?
It was good, man. They love it. I mean, who wouldn’t?
How did you first come into contact with Mezcal?
It was maybe six, seven years ago? Eric Duncan and I, we’ve played regularly at this nightclub called La Santanera in Playa del Carmen. The guys behind it, they were some of the first characters that picked up on this stuff that came out of the hills. Mezcal has been kept at bay by society in Mexico. This beautiful, perfect distillate has been produced in the hills of Mexico for hundreds of years but the upper class society of Mexico that aligns itself with Europe... it’s essentially a racist issue. Aristocrats and those with the money that would move one thing one way or another kept Mezcal in the hills. They kept everything in the hills, in fact, they would rather think there was no one in the hills let alone any Mezcal that they were drinking while they were there. So, Mezcal is something that’s only just been brought in by a new generation of more sort of open-minded Mexican people.  
What was it like when you first tried it?
We were like “Oh my God, this stuff’s great.” From that point on I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I feel quite connected to it.

From Spirit Bears #1, Spirit Bears Mezcals

What is Mezcal?
It’s a spirit. It’s a spirit made from a succulent plant that takes 10 to 15 years to grow in this massive radiant heat. You distill that heat, that energy into the highest expression that the agave plant can be. And you drink that. It makes you feel pretty jazzy. Probably more jazzy than you’ll feel from distilling a potato or some barley for that matter.
That makes pretty immediate sense to me.
Especially when you start really tuning into the fact that all Mezcal is made from is what’s gathered around the immediate vicinity of that particular tiny distillery. These distilleries are like dirt floor, open air, ambient yeast... it’s just, it’s basically the distillation of the very land in which these plants sit. Almost like sucking up the land and pipin’ it through the most simple and pure alchemy known to man.  It pops out as a drink, you drink that, and you’re just connected.
That’s awesome.
It’s a beautiful thing! The vibe of the agave plant is positive. A couple of years ago I connected with the understanding that in my life I was going to work with and drink and talk about Mezcal. As a result my music instantly became...I could hear it more clearly. All my decisions and my productions were more mercenary and cavalier and sharper and brighter and faster.
How did you first get into music?
The most powerful influence in my life as a kid was record covers.

"Turf", Wall of Special Edition Rub N Tug LP's made for Do Your Thing (Curated by Rub N Tug), White Columns, NY, 2012

What kind of music was it?
Punk “7’s. I didn’t really understand the music—it was too noisy and the melodies weren’t so clear but the covers...I was 6 or 7 years old and my mate's older brother would put his 7” covers all over his wall. It was more powerful than anything I’d ever seen—TV, books, anything. It just affected me massively.
That culture is different to anything you’d find on television. 
It plays in areas that are otherwise difficult to navigate in everyday life— a sphere of discussion and make believe. It's healthy that way,  to turn all these impulses into something that we can play out.
And this was punk music for you?
The music I'm thinking about right now is punk and dance. You move into some pretty interesting spaces.  
Were you playing in a punk bank before you started playing records?
No, I never played in a band. It's a funny thing, I just sort of became the person that would bring their records to someone's house party, you know, if someone's parents were away, I'd show up with a stack of records. We were teenagers, like 14, 15... I didn't even know what it was, you know what I mean?
You didn't know what a DJ was?
But I was basically already doing it... The first time I did a real paying gig I was 16. There was a guy in town who organized stuff who needed someone to play records. I agreed though I didn't have many dance records. I borrowed a bunch from Harvey's little brother.

DJ Harvey playing Tonka Party at The Zap, 1990

How did you meet DJ Harvey?
I was 15, he was 21. I  was totally mystified to why on earth he'd want to hang out with me. But we were pretty great together. I think it was because I skated and not many other people did. All his other mates were gothic junkies. He was a B-Boy.
How did you guys end up playing the Tonka Parties?
In the story of Tonka,  I'm really  the baby of the bunch. I was there and I participated but I didn't have a hand in it or anything. There were guys at the head of it all, Rob and Phil, who were in their 40's. I was 16,  a super pup. Tonka began in the mid-80s as TDK, the Tone Def Crew, in Cambridge. It was psychedelic punk, where punk meets hip-hop. Something between Schooly D and On-U Sound.
You guys were listening to Hip Hop but that wasn’t your culture—you were approaching it in a way that made sense to you.
Yeah, turning it out the way that filters it back through our minds. 
Wasn’t performance a big part of the Tonka Parties?
Not so much for Tonka, but at the TDK parties it sure was. I would get up on stage with Harvey's little brother Guy, put on some makeup, women's clothing or whatever and would dance around with vacuum cleaners to hip-hop beats.
How did you move to the states?
When I was 21 I just came over to New York to check it out. I took a job washing dishes six days a week for six weeks and then I just left. I took a greyhound out west. I had five sandwiches and two joints and all the sandwiches were so disgusting by the third day. I was so perfectly happy on the trip I didn’t even smoke the second joint. It was beautiful to cross the country like that alone for days.
You ended up in San Francisco?
Yeah, that was super special. San Francisco was going off, it was great.
What year was this?
This was '91.

San Fransisco Rave footage, 1990's

This would have been the beginning of rave culture in the states.
Yeah. In England, as far as I was concerned it was all over, but in San Francisco it was just beginning. You know the Wicked Crew?
The Wicked Crew came out of Tonka Hi-Fi... Renegade Sound System style. They were throwing free parties every full moon. That was radical. There were no fliers, no advertising at all. On the night the address would be given on a phone number that you could call, and that was the only way to find out. The first one was in the middle of the city in Golden Gate Park. The Hell's Angels showed up and stood in front in formation on either side of the turntables while we played... It was pretty epic. The renegade sound aspect of it was rad. At the peak of it, you’d get 2,000 people showing up two hours south in Half Moon Bay, no advertising. Just a complete road block. I'd never seen anything like it.
When did you come back to New York?
What came first, Rub n Tug or A.R.E. Weapons?
A.R.E. Weapons.
How did that start?
My friend Mark Lester Ingram introduced me to this amazing gang of young upstarts who hangout downtown and played free jazz.  They called themselves different things, Army Of Ghosts, Aylers’ Angels, Fake Hand. We all got along, spent all our time together and I sat in on this and that. At one point I can't really quite remember, we began to call ourselves A.R.E. Weapons. We would play these little bars and art shows. We would pretty much make up most of the show that day, just having fun with it.

A.R.E. Weapons, 2001. Photo by Terry Richardson

But eventually it became a more serious project?
In the end it settled in and became me, Matt and Brain.  We started getting together more. I had a cool little studio with a greenhouse on top, and we made our a record there.
Is that the self-titled album with the picture of the ghoulish guy on the cover?
That's the one that was on rough trade. That one had some moments, but it's nothing on the first one. The first one is really beautiful.
I’ve never heard the first one.
Well, I’m happy to say I sat down with Brain last week for the first time in a long time.  I told him about my new label Save The Day, how it's a beautiful thing and I’ve got cart blanche to do what I want... I said let’s put the first album on wax. He said yes, so that's gonna happen in the spring. The “Golden Demo” as it’s commonly called.
A.R.E. weapons reads more like a macho street gang than free jazz.
That's what it became, that's what everybody knows it by. That's the reason I left—there was no room for me in that. I haven't got anything to say from that point of view. We were A.R.E. Weapons for a good few years and always had our roots in punk and free jazz. They've often, you know, worn similar shoes. Interestingly enough I think Suicide started as a jazz band. Do you know about Suicide?
Yeah, I love Suicide.
They were our holy saints. We loved everything about them. In a way we set out to make a Suicide record. I love making music in that way—you step up onto the same highway, look in the same direction and go as fast as you can. Whatever you do, as long as you go all out, you end up  sounding like yourselves and making your own record.  

A.R.E. Weapons, Street Gang, Unofficial Video, 1999

From Sex Magazine #2 Winter 2012
Labelled Music