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

Rub N Tug, DS Bar, 2009

So after A.R.E. Weapons you started Rub N Tug?
Rub N Tug had already been going. Eric and I met in LA and both arrived in New York at the same time. He came from hip hop, Latin jazz, Latin soul, but was getting more into house and disco, so we got together on that.
How did you guys start playing parties?
Downtown, there were so many people hanging out... It was such a terrific time and scene but no one really knew how to play records. All these great parties but no music to match, so we stepped in. Someone had to do it. It was the same thing when I was 14. Somebody's throwing a party, you show up with the records and take care of it, make sure the party's gonna be a good one. That's really why Rub N Tug was born, out of necessity—everyone wanted to go somewhere and do something. We played the sounds.
I love that you guys play disco.
Well the root of that music is totally punk. Disco comes from the edges of society. It's wild, outcast, dangerous... but it's also really beautiful. Banging out this disco, this nice thing that gets me up in the morning, is the contrast and the conflict, the push and the pull, the rub and the tug, I guess... Disco is typically understood one way but if you play it another way in another context—it's like “WHAM... that felt good.”
It’s playing disco where it shouldn’t be played.
Exactly. Playing music where it's meant to be played, by the people who are meant to play it to the people who are meant to hear it... that doesn’t make me feel anything but sad. I will really feel uncomfortable in that place. I'm so happy that people go and do that, dance and feel all great, meet someone and have a lovely night, but that's not why I go out and that's certainly not why I play records.
You’d rather play a show than create an “environment of sound.”
I don't even consider myself a DJ in that working jock type of role. When I play records it's more of  a freak out get together and party. I mean I don't have a record player, you know? I buy the records at the store, play them at the party and we all listen to them together. You see where it all goes. I have no idea where it's gonna go.

Sunday Tea Dance, NY, 2011

Could you explain the STD party that happened here in New York before you moved?
The STD party was a joy. It was probably the most stupid and enjoyable afternoon I’ve ever spent in my own house. I had a loft that had a wooden floor dying to be destroyed. I asked all the people that I knew to contribute to having just the most joyously stupid Sunday afternoon that we could create. We got a bunch of huge Klipschorns, five times more speakers than this place can handle. I invited all my friends to come and give their best, and true to form everybody just gave as much as they could. Things went extravagantly over the top. My dear friend Nick Relph made beautiful, beautiful hand indigo dyed tee-shirts. Dope Jams screened everything, we made a record, we had these Klipschorns... And there were only like, 20 people there.
How did the day start?
It started at teatime. Sunday tea, four in the afternoon. We had this industrial smoke machine. You couldn’t squeeze any more smoke into the room, but it was daylight. There was this weird twilight. Part of the thrill of nightclubbing is that you step outside of your habitual environment and everyone’s habitual environment for clubbing has become nighttime. I thought it’d be good to get shitfaced in the middle of the day. Our favorite Haitian devil showed up with this particularly challenging form of plant food that sent my friends into this questioning expression as if they’d been pounded in the face by a shovel. What a heavenly, beautiful thing to witness. It was so wonderful.
What time did it end?
The cops showed up at about 9:30. I opened the door, and I was like, “Thank God you’re here!” I walked back into the party... “It’s gonna be alright, the cops are here, it’s gonna be alright.” You know, “we’re gonna make it out of here...”

STD Records

And this lead to STD Records? How did that happen?
I use this little life rule,... if you just work out what is your nearest, best destination, just fucking go for that. From that, everything is gonna happen. It’s just common sense. I mean, Jesus, why do anything else? I’m in the middle of my life, knocking around, doing this and that, and in a position where I could really think about maybe what I would do next. I really thought about it, and I decided that a tea party in the middle of the afternoon was what I would like to do next. It was what was important to me. From that came a really beautiful record label, thanks mainly to Dope Jams, who just pushed me and pushed me. But as a result of this party... I mean, I must have created about 15 original pieces of music and 12 sides of really fucked up edits. Everything that was sittin’ inside of me just sort of came out, because I had found... I’d literally created the environment in which I wanted that music to get played. All of that music was sitting in there for years because I wasn’t playing in environments where I would have heard that music.
How did Dope Jams help?
Living next door to Dope Jams was the best thing that happened to my musical ear. Since I was a kid. Those guys just took me by fuckin’ one ear and lifted it up so I could hear through the other. They really are teachers and it’s a firm school. I think they recognized what I sort of knew all along was that the thing that made my contribution to Rub N-tug count, my contribution to Map of Africa, my contribution to everything I do, the best that I do was not getting any airplay at all and they recognized that. They were really impatient with the stuff that I had taken on board: shit and bullshit. They drove a lot of that off my back and helped me to clear the way. And I threw this fuckin’ party, and on  the other side of that, my mind was clear and I started making good music again. I realized that STD also stands for Save The Day. I thought that was really beautiful. That’s where this whole thing’s going. Save The Day as in Love Saves The Day.
Is STD Records stuff you’d already made?
The entire body was stuff that I had made to play myself. It was difficult for me to find the tunes I wanna play, so I made this stuff. I mean, I don’t look very hard...

The Laughing Lights of Plenty, "The Rose", Thomas Bullock and Eddie Ruscha, Whatever We Want Records, 2010

I remember you had said you have to buy everything, and you have to buy it in person.
I don’t buy records online. I don’t shop online. It’s just not my jurisdiction. I just cannot make it connect. If somebody sends me something on the internet, it doesn’t matter how good it is, I can’t fully....
Absorb it?
Assimilate it? I’m sent 20 tunes a week, from various DJ pools. The modern DJ pool. I never listen to any of it, It’s not like a record pool where you go pick up your vinyl, which I used to do in Frisco in the early ‘90s.
You were part of a record pool?
Yeah, I managed to get that organized for a moment there.
What are you listening to these days?
I really don’t listen to music. I mean, this is literally all I did since I was a kid,...it’s all I’ve done. If I hear a piece of music, I feel like I can understand it almost instantly. Within seconds, it’s done, I get it. So I have classical music playin’, I run the radio 3, but it’s more of a neurotic kind of hum in the background. It’s soothing. I think the closest thing I’ve come to actually really listening to anything was staying at my friend Fergus’s. When I first came back to England, he let me stay at his house, and he has an amazing record collection. I just listened to Funkadelic records, all the ones I had never really listened to of a sudden, I connected with all the reasons why all my greatest heroes had made their worst records. It all made so much sense.

Thomas Bullock and Misha Hollenbach on Just Jam, 2012

What’s going on with the Rub N Tug record?
The making of the RNT LP was a particularly satisfying experience. It was massively satisfying...
That’s great.
… but we were then left with seven hour jams…
Oh, shit.
It was a long editing process. We’d created these kind of fucked up ZZ Top dance jams. What I was trying to do... I didn’t have the know-how to do. I wanted to hear something monstrously tech. Stuff that I’m sure most kids in their bedrooms in Belgium can do. But I can’t. I still think in tracks and tape—chop it up. It’s very primitive. There’s a thread through everything I’ve ever done, this vintage sound for this modern thing. Sometimes it comes across in a really amazing way, and sometimes it’s a bit flat. I think The Rose by The Laughing Light was a great example of it working.
Oh, yeah, one of my faves, for sure.
That was really together, and I think Dirty Love [Map of Africa] was really together. I moved up to the middle of nowhere in about 2001, and bought 10 acres of land with this old farmhouse and barn on it on the river. Me and DJ Harvey, who had always made music together with me, we got focused there. Harvey was really pissed off that I had worked on A.R.E. Weapons. We had a band before that, and he felt like I kind of blew him off. When A.R.E. Weapons was done for me, the only thing that Harvey said, was “Cool. Now we can have our band.” I said “Cool, let’s call ourselves Map of Africa.”

Bone: Map Of Africa artwork, 2010>

Did you plan to make it a rock record?
I was livin’ in the country in the middle of nowhere, so we made a rock record. If you live on 10 acres of land where the nearest piece of civilization is 10 miles away, to hunch over a laptop and niggle over a mouse is just not appropriate behavior. Map ended up being a rock record, but we really rocked a fuckin’ groove. I would edit up these grooves.
Do you always end up doing the editing?
All the work that I’ve ever made is just editing. That’s the thread that runs through everything, it runs through the Rub N Tug LP, Scanners, Map of Africa, Bobbie Marie, runs through everything ‘cause I edited it all. But there’s only so far you can go with that. What I wanted for the Rub N Tug LP was something more high-tech. I know there’s just like 50,000,000 fuckin’ kids that just could stick it through their mom’s fuckin’ app phone and make it sound more jazzy than what I could. That’s why it stopped where it stopped.
Wait, so you just pulled the plug? Were they pissed?
They were mad, but I was the only fucking guy who did any work on this thing. I put 50 thousand hours on my own on a laptop in a basement in the Navy Yard editing shit. I heard Matt Sweeney played it to Kid Rock, and Kid Rock said, “Dude, I don’t like dance music, but I like this music.” He liked what I’d done, I like what I’d done but not to the point where I’m gonna put it out. It needs to turn into some techno fantasy. Eric found this super dope white label, we traced it down, and we’ve heard it’s these two guys down in Kentucky. We’re chasing it up right now. It’s definitely a seriously killer recording. The thing with Rub N Tug which I really enjoy is that it’s a fuckin’ institution.
It can keep going.
It’s gonna tick on forever. It’s a way of life, and we fuckin’ nailed it. No one can nail it as hard as me and Eric. In a way, like, the recording doesn’t matter, what matters is what Rub N Tug means to someone in Sweden, or South Africa or New Zealand. What does that mean to them, how does that fit into their cultural and aesthetic psyche? It really does make up a part of that. It’s not something that was ever a goal or an intention, but it’s come to pass that it makes up a slice of the cultural aesthetic of the planet.

Rub N Tug Graphic, Steve Nishimoto, 2007

From Sex Magazine #2 Winter 2012
Labelled Music