Rachel Maloney, AKA Tonikom is a New York City based solo musician specializing in very cool, very current, atmospheric electronic music. She borrows from many different electronic music palettes then reinvents it into her own unique sound, capturing the attention of many ears. Tonikom’s amazing talent can be heard in her discography of six albums. Her sixth and most recent release is Found and Lost from Hymen Records. Tonikom joined Auxiliary’s Hangedman via Skype to talk about her music, her new album, and everything Tonik!
interview by : Hangedman
photographer : Ron Douglas
fashion stylist : Gillian Leigh Bowling
Let’s talk about the new album; this album is appropriately named Found And Lost. This is an exciting album for everyone because it seems like a lifetime since the last, much acclaimed, 2009 The Sniper’s Veil. Can you tell us about the journey from Sniper to Found And Lost?
Tonikom : Sure, this album is very purposely titled, the reverse of what we’re normally used to hearing. I went from creating a lot of work, creating a lot of music, producing a tremendous amount, and then going to creating none at all. It was a really tough time for me. As much as I wanted to create music I just couldn’t. I came off of my 2009 tour; we did a little mini tour in Europe. We played all these shows, and it was a whirlwind tour and I got like three hours of sleep. It was really exciting and a lot of fun but I got home and I just kind of crashed.
Like creative block kind of thing?
T : Yeah! I just got into this kind of terrible gray nothingness that was in my brain whenever I tried to sit down and start to work in the studio or kind of play around on the laptop. It was just brutal. I just had the most difficult time with it and I started to realize that I really couldn’t force myself to do it. There was no real deadline I could enforce or try to sell myself, okay in three months I’m going to make one track, or I’m going to do a little bit of sound design and that’s it! None of that worked. I finally realized that I really just had to let go, and walk away and be okay with that, be okay with having total lack of control over whatever creative outlets I have in my life. I just had to be like, “okay, I can’t do anything right now, and I have to be okay with that, and if it comes back it comes back and whenever it does come back it’s just going to be due to circumstances beyond my control.”
And we’re all very happy it did come back!
T : As am I. I find music very cathartic and it’s a very therapeutic thing for me. It does not matter if I’m working on a really upbeat track or a really low-key track, sometimes it kind of lulls me into almost sleep, which is something I really don’t get a lot of. [laughs] So, anything that gets me into that really calm state is very satisfying.
You mention that creative block. A lot of artists get into that: writers get into that, musicians get into that, even visual artists get into that. Can you let us in on some of your creative process? When you start a piece of music, what drives it forward? And what tools do you use to keep that motivated and share it with the world?
T : I grew up with the piano, so melody is a very big inspiration. Hearing something as silly as a jingle on TV, or something that was popped into a commercial, that can be very inspiring. A sound I hear in the city can be very inspiring. The way that a truck brakes or the way a train exits a station, anything like that I’m really inspired by. More on the end of melodies, this is what really gets me excited and gets me started. I tend to half and half it, I begin with a melody or begin with drums. I say on a whole for me it’s about creating a melody, that’s where it all begins for me.
Let’s talk about toys! I’ve seen the pictures and the videos of the live act. Unfortunately I have not had the privilege to see the live act, yet. Maybe Quebec City at the Halloween Industrial Fest!
T : Hey and then you just don’t get stuck with me!
I get stuck with a whole bunch of awesome acts, a great line-up actually. What I love about it all is the one individual surrounded by technology. What are some of your favorite music making toys and techniques?
T : I try to experiment and I try to do new things. I’m definitely a creature of habit with the programs I use. I don’t tend to update a lot. I get really kind of stuck in things. It’s just like a piece of gear, you get to know it really well and you don’t want to keep changing all the time. I try to keep the programs as a control in some way. With gear, I love to try new stuff, but I frequently find myself getting into weird situations with new gear. Most of the new gear I adopt ends up being for shows.
There’s always a risk with new gear.
T : Yeah, I was thinking about it the other day and this is not disparaging towards techno or anything like that, but the way that I design my music is its very complicated. I very much choose a sample to happen at a certain point for a reason. It’s not necessarily a situation where I can use some of the matrix MIDI controllers organically on stage. And so it’s very precise for me. So if things go horribly wrong while I’m playing it’s terrifying. Adopting new gear in the live situation is a terrifying thing for me. In the studio it’s just lots of fun. You get to play around, it’s very creative. For toys that I like to play with, I’m a big Korg fan. I’ve had my Electribes for years and years.
Love those things, with the little vacuum tubes in them!
T : Yeah! It scares the crap out of the airport people. Of course, they’re bright red, they’re full of knobs and buttons, they have these scary glass tubes in a window. I frequently get asked to turn them on when I tell them it’s a musical thing, like it’s related to music. I can’t call it an instrument. I fell into that trap once because theTSAagent was once like, “turn it on and make music!” and I was like, “do you have a PA and a sound board?” I don’t know how we’re going to do this right here. I want to at least get something out on my webpage if I’m going to play JFK! Yeah so they look like bombs and it terrifies all of them. But I do like Korg. We have a mini Korg that I love. I tend to be more synth oriented despite the fact that the Electribes are more the sampler end of things. I don’t know, I just like to play around with everything. Sometimes we borrow from people and play around, or exchange things to kind of change things up. I don’t know, whatever I can get my hands on sort of thing. I adopted the AkaiAPC-40, that works really well at home. It gave me a heart attack at my Brooklyn show because it wasn’t syncing up all of a sudden and I’m a one hundred percent sure it was more to do with my computer than it was theAPC-40. That was a little terrifying because it was not picking up the levels, it was not picking up the effects and I was like going to lose my mind because I moved all this stuff off the Electribes on to this MIDI controller and I was having a panic attack, even more so than I normally do. I had this experience enough that I just have more faith in gear than I do in the MIDI controllers because I guess in some ways there’s less that can go wrong. I’m always game to try new stuff but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a real gearhead.
Don’t fix what’s not broken!
T : A little bit of that! I mean I don’t have the cash flow to constantly update my gear. Everything I tend to like ends up being ridiculously expensive. [laughs] Big fan of borrowing and hanging out in other people’s studios I guess.
Behind every great musician there’s always an individual or a rock that’s always there for you to critique and support and just keep you going. I know you come from a musical household, so I’m going to ask, who is that rock and how do they inspire you?
T : Well a hundred percent that would be my husband Ben [DeWalt AKA DJ Hellraver] of Terrorfakt. He’s got so much experience in the music industry having been somebody who worked professionally in a number of different areas from booking, DJing, and then as a musician later on in his career. Without a doubt I wouldn’t have ever been able to play my first show and I’d certainly have a heck of a time playing the rest of my shows without him there. He is instrumental. I get really bad anxiety, I have bad stage fright. He’s always there to calm me down and let me know, “It’s going to be a good show, you’ll be fine.” You know if you want we can smash the APC-40 after the show! [laughs] He’s there to kind of calm me down and let me know it’s going to be fine and that is such a great thing. I really think he’s an amazing person and he’s helped me out so much along the way. He would definitely be the rock behind Tonikom.
If you were to get a phone call from an artist or project you greatly admire and they were to say, “Rachel, we want collaborate with you!” Who would be this dream artist to get this call from?
T : This is always a really difficult thing. Like I said before I grew up with a piano in the house and it has made me as much of who I am as a musician as I think my mother’s big obsession for classical music. Those things combined, if Chopin if he was here, and I could work with him that would be a dream! The melodies he came up with, the structures in his pieces are just such a source of awe for me. His nocturnes, they’re so delicate. They are incredible pieces of work it would be a dream to work with someone so talented.
That would be fascinating actually, to see somebody from the 18th, 19th century, their reaction to modern music. I’ve always thought about that. What would Beethoven think of this?
T : Yeah, just the capability. I used to sit at the piano and play and I would imagine the orchestra and all the pieces that would play with me and obviously I could never play all those instruments but with electronic music I’m allowed to, I have that capability and I can record all of that stuff and I can play all those parts. I can compose all these pieces to weave in and out of what track I want to create. I think it would be fascinating to see somebody that worked in such a way now having total access and control over everything. I think that would be amazing! As far as anyone recently, I don’t know. I think that there are so many people out there that are talented. I would love to at some point work seriously work on a project with a vocalist. I started at the beginning of my creative block and unfortunately I wasn’t able to continue because I just didn’t want to keep forcing the issue because it wasn’t going to produce anything of any quality. It’s something I’d really like to try in the future is hook-up with a vocalist, male female whoever, and try and work something out whether it’s a side project or an album or just a few tracks here and there. I think it would be interesting.
So you are going on a tour soon, or at least Quebec?
T : [laughs] Tour still means many locations, or many weeks, or many countries. I guess I’m playing a few shows close together; I’m comfortable with that.
So you can tell I’m interviewing from my home here in Toronto, Canada and one of the things we tend to do here is we get these homegrown musicians and they’re really good, but it’s almost like we take them for granted. Do you find there’s a different reception from abroad as opposed to home?
T : I guess yes, I mean certainly the whole like you live here so you’re not as exotic. This is something that applies to every musician in every city. I think you can’t take that personally; it’s just a reality. It’s something that’s always going to be there and it has no reflection on your efforts or you quality of music, or the crowd, the people that are not coming out, or coming out.
Ah, she’ll do another show kind of thing…
T : Yeah! I think that’s the thing. That’s a reality of every music genre. Man I’ve seen hardcore bands play small shows and they’re on home ground. That’s a real tight knit scene. I think it’s a reality and as a musician I think it’s something you got to deal with. Also hand in hand with that when you play in areas that are far far away from where you are based you definitely get more, even the curiosity factor, somebody who is just interested in seeing this new person, they may not even know the music. I have good reception in Europe and certainly in Europe the relationship with electronic music is a lot stronger.
It’s always kind of been that way hasn’t it.
T : Yeah, I have long winded thoughts on the whole thing but I won’t let that eat up our whole time.
I’m tempted to let you!
T : Well you know I think it has something more to do with what happened in the seventies and the United States’ burning of disco and the association of disco with the wealthy out of touch class that was just oblivious to what was going on economically with people. I just don’t think they had that kind of strong association in Europe and I don’t think they had that tangible point in time, that sort of fixed thing, that big bonfire of dance music that basically happened. Not having that they didn’t have that weird association with masculinity and with what is cool like the US does. I think the US are starting to understand that it’s not a big deal, if you like the music, go out and dance to it, buy it, go to the shows. It’s not a big deal, you should always listen to what you like and you should never listen to everybody else’s, you know trying to tell you what is cool and what is not. Music is a very personal relationship. In European countries they have a really strong electronic scene. They have charts for it, we really don’t have very big charts in the US for it.
You are starting to see that change a little bit now…
T : Yeah! I’m loving it! I’m loving that the US is waking up and starting to understand that music is music and if you like something listen to it! No biggie! I think there’s a lot to be said for accessibility nowadays. I think it has a lot to do with the larger companies and the people who are making the decisions on what is cool and what they should put on the radios. There’s a distance there between the listener and the person making those decisions. I don’t always think they are on the same page. And that’s about as much as I’ll go into that otherwise we’ll be here all night! Anyway, I love playing in Europe and I especially love playing in Germany. I always have a great time there. The people are always really nice, the food is fantastic! But I have a great time playing everywhere. I really have had a lot of fantastic experiences and I’m very thankful for that. I’m very thankful for all the places I’ve got to play and all the people who have come out to see me. It does not matter if it’s a small venue or a large one I’ve played both now and I have a great experience every time. I don’t have a place I would say I “hate” playing.
We’ll let’s hope it stays that way! Thanks for the chat and I hope all our readers, myself included, get a chance to see you play in their home cities!