Under the fig tree shade of the PICA Bar courtyard, Pelican talks with alt-cabaret artist (“not what your mum thinks of cabaret”), single-slinger, long time Baron of Fringe, Adele-hater and hyped-up hooligan with panache, Tomás Ford. We also find him to be a very lovely gentleman, who began and ended all his email correspondences with: ‘Hola!’
Hi Tomás. First off, how are things?
Yeah good! Very tired and slightly delirious from the weekend shows, but otherwise really good. Fringe World is such a crazy time of year.
People either seem to not be able to get enough of Crap Music Rave Party, or they just don’t get it at all. What do you think makes it so subjective?
Well, it’s funny. If someone else did the show, it’s probably not something I would go to myself? Which is probably why it works – because I think if I was totally into it, the irony wouldn’t be as strong.
Is there any music that’s too crap for Crap Music Rave Party?
Music you can’t dance to. It gets hard with some of the fluffier 80s stuff, or Creed – you know Creed? It’s like you can’t even really sing along to them really. You need to be able to do something to them. Like dance or sing. Or just cry.
I read on your website bio that you’ve had several soul-crushing experiences in Adelaide. What’s up with Adelaide?
Well, Adelaide is the second biggest Fringe Festival in the world. When I graduated from uni, I had an amazing first Adelaide roll-up with Shane Adamczak (he has his own theatre company now called Weeping Spoon Productions, doing “The Ballad Of Frank Allen” this Fringe). Adamczak was the theatre guy, and we were doing amazing theatre shows – we were like the new Lano and Woodley or something, and people were coming to us! And then I did the full run of Adelaide with early version of my show called Tomás Ford’s Cabaret of Dance, which was really, really long, like four weeks and NOBODY CAME. That was horrible. But I kept going back because – it being the second biggest festival, and the next city over – I thought “lets crack this one” and then see about other Fringe festivals. The thing is I have managed to build a bit of a cult audience over there now – but it was my 6th or 7th Fringe in Adelaide last year to get to that point. I’ve just been rejected by that town so often it’s horrible! But you know, rejection and risk is all part of the festival. Still, having that mental barrier of “I have to make it work in Adelaide before taking it anywhere else” was the dumbest, dumbest thing.
It’s like wanting to be accepted by this awful person, but they just keep on stone-walling you.
And it’s complex because I was born in Adelaide, and all my family’s there. And it’s really nice for me to go there, so I’ve just always wanted it to work – “please accept me so I can just come and drink all your wine and hang out with my gran before she passes away!” [laughs tinged with pain].
2016 marks a decade since you began Fringe. Seeing that full evolution over ten years, how has the festival changed?
Well it’s interesting, because back in 2000s there was a WA Fringe Festival, and there were heaps and heaps of acts. Not as many as there are this year – but it was fucking big. But no-one was going to anything! There were loads of people putting on grassroots shows, and no-one was giving a shit. So when they started doing a Fringe Festival here I was like, “Nup. Not going to put a show on.” And then everything sold out and I was like “AAHHHH, fuck.” To go from a point where I was doing shows in pubs and not being on anybody’s radar, to having a festival here that people are saying is the third biggest Fringe in the world – it’s such a massive platform just to be able to have the Fringe arts industry come to Perth and see what I’ve built here. Ten years ago, getting anyone to Perth would’ve been impossible. Mind you it’s like that in the music industry.
What do you think changed that made people start coming?
I think the festival did a really good job of growing at a slow and reasonable pace as well as encouraging artists. Artists love coming to this festival – essentially because they sell tickets. It became pretty apparent to those that were coming here, then going to Adelaide and the Melbourne Comedy Festival, that you would make you money in Perth and then lose it as soon as you started moving east.
It is a lot more competitive this year – last year everything was selling out on Fridays and Saturdays, and this year they’re not. There are just so many shows. It’s still so much better – and the audiences here are really…nice? Like flyering in the city, for a city that is so adverse to street hawkers and stuff like that, flyering in the city is so easy during Fringe! People will take a flyer off hacks and just go straight to the box office to buy a ticket. No one gives you the time of day in any other city with flyers. It’s amazing. And that can’t last – everyone will get sick of it eventually, especially if it remains competitive – then everyone has to be out on the street flyering all the time.
There have been a few articles that have come out online recently being quite critical of this year’s Fringe. Mainly, they’ve taken issue with the doubling of the registration fees (from $150 to $300 in 2015), and that the event has expanded beyond what organizers can handle – such that some performers aren’t even breaking even.
Yeah, it’s tricky for me. Because I do fundamentally agree with you – that we should all be making more money than we are. I mean I don’t make that much – even on the weekends after commissions and advertising. But Fringe festival is a platform for self-producing. It is possible to make money over a long period of time; but if you look at it on a show-by-show basis then until you’ve built up an audience you’re just going to lose masses and masses of money. But that’s true for self-producing in and out of festival time. For instance if I’m going to a new market – if you’re putting on a new show you’re essentially developing a new market – then those losses are just almost always going to happen. Like I went to Sydney two months ago with Crap Music Rave Party and lost a fuck-tonne of money, and it’s like well, of course I did.
So, realistically, a one-off Fringe run is never really going to fly financially for performers – artists need to be accepted and embedded in the Fringe environment before people are going to realize “hey, this is a thing”.
Again, tricky! I really do sympathise with some of the performers, because as artists, we don’t necessarily have an entrepreneurial skillset as well. I’m kind of lucky in that I find that side of the business really fun. I used to hate it but I’ve had to do it for long enough that I’m just like “urrk, I guess we’ll go do the lame hustle thing now.” There’s probably things the festival could do in terms of guiding people and budgeting shows, so performers aren’t spending more than they’re bringing in. But especially in terms of the Fringe model, the deal here is very good. If you went to the Liberal party and said “create a free market version of the arts industry where it’s just total free market economics” they would come up with Fringe festivals. Because it’s all money. There’s not really any support. You’ve really got to build your own platform using your own capital, and all the rest of it. So festivals are problematic – but in comparison to all the other opportunities that don’t exist in Perth, they’re pretty good.
Do you see yourself changing soon? What’s the next persona?
Well, the Spy cabaret – which was called The Final Chase, but now just called Chase! – with an exclamation mark. [Flings arms up] “CHASE!!!” I’ve been filming a web series of that. It’ll be 36 episodes about this James Bond character running about Australia and South East Asia on a massive coke bender, trying to find an Indonesian drug lord and his ex-girlfriend who’s gone missing. We were footing it all around Singapore with iPhones and iPads filming amateur parkour through China Town, it was crazy. Originally we had plans to make it this very high-production piece, and it will end up looking quite slick – or slick-ish – but people fell away from the project a bit. But we were both still keen. So we just said, “Let’s make a movie on our iPhones!” I was looking at the footage this morning, and it’s…great! I was really worried about it looking like shit. It’s such a big project because I’m going to be recording the album, along with a bunch of other content to go with it. I’ve cut back a bit on touring this year just so I can concentrate on it. And going back on the conversation earlier about Fringe being such a cash-flow pit – I just had to step back.
I’m not really in the music industry; I’m not really bound by the rules to be a linear artist. As a musician, I can kind of do whatever I want, as long as it makes sense in the show. I think the next few projects will be a bit different – also because I’m feeling a little bit played out by the electronic arrangement side of things. I feel like I’ve done all this stuff – let’s do something that’s a little bit more…weird. Different.
When you’re not hunting down the next best shit dance track, what kind of music is usually on yours speakers?
I listen to lots of different music. There was a lot of electropop going until recently – Hot Chip, that kind of stuff – but I try to keep it broad. I find as songwriter I’m quite inspired by folk stuff, but as an arranger, it’s more techie 80s Detroit Techno, Kraftwerk, where it’s very unprocessed drum sounds. That I can’t make because I can’t afford the equipment.
Spotify has completely smashed my taste in music though, because I just listen to everything that comes in now. Everything except Adele. Yeah. [With jaded anguish]. Yeah. Which brings me to the subject of the taxi driver in Bali. He had that in his car. It drove me up the wall. A forty-hour taxi drive and nothing but Adele’s 25.
Any last words?
Ultimately I’ve learnt not to rely on things working. I’ll probably stay in Perth, because I think it’s important for super-cool artists like me to hang out and actually be in the city. It’s never going to evolve if we all leave. I guess I’ll just continue building a body of work that I can be really happy with. As much as it would be nice to be David Bowie, the goal to remaining employed as an artist is probably first priority. That at least seems fairly achievable.
More insights about Tomás can be plumbed by visiting his website.
Interview by Kate Prendergast & Hayden Dalziel (with props to Web Editor Ruth Thomas for her help with transcribing).
Image by Hayden Dalziel
A different version of this interview will be published in Pelican’s first ‘Fresh’ issue for 2016, set to hit stands by the end of February.