The first time seeing Tommy Santee Klaws perform should be by the sea at night, or on a shipwreck, or in a cabin filled with taxidermy, rusty contraptions and old books. Luckily, L.A. art galleries afford these opportunities. Machine Project and Echo Country Outpost have hosted Tommy’s music lately because it’s simultaneously epic and playful, just like the surroundings they create. The band’s backyard gospel—accompanied by toys and kids’ party favors—recently got them a distribution deal with Imaginary Music, the label owned by Lol Tolhurst, a founding member of the Cure. Like the Cure, Tommy Santee Klaws finds the darkness inspiring in prophetic, romantic ways. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Why do you hate sand?
Tommy Santee Klaws (guitar/voice): It’s harder to walk through and it feels dirty. It’s gross—gets between the toes. I’m kinda anal about that stuff.
Why did you start writing songs?
TSK: I was 20 years old and feeling feelings so I wanted to put them down in music form. My mom passed in 2001. That was when I wrote my first album, and that was all for her. That was a big impetus to start doing my own stuff. I’ve made eight albums, a 7” and an EP. I’ve released them myself up until this new one.
Does your music come from a darker place?
TSK: Maybe not darker but I have always loved sad songs. It does come from ‘a place.’ I’m a jovial guy in general but I can get out that stuff through music. My mom’s death was hard for me and my brother and sister. Coping with it, a lot of it still comes up. That’s where the darkness maybe comes from.
Is it hard to perform some of your songs live?
TSK: It’s therapeutic and I enjoy playing them. There’s some I don’t.
What song is too rough to play?
TSK: It’s called ‘He Sharp.’ It’s on Healing Power Of Sunshine. My wife Donna thinks it’s the best song. That’s the roughest for me to play. I sing it really high and, lyrically, it’s a sad song.
Why do people like sad songs?
TSK: You don’t have to know what it’s about to relate. Even just playing a sad chord can send you to whatever place.
What’s the saddest chord?
TSK: A minor.
How much do you use it?
TSK: It’s in there a lot. We don’t think of ourselves as sad music. I think it’s hopeful and kind of like anthems of life. Having Donna doing bird sounds and things like that with toys takes it to another level so it’s not so serious. It’s a familial thing. It feels good and you can join in.
Sometimes you and Donna and her toys appear as Freaky Mountain. What’s that band?
TSK: Evan Roberts and I wrote some songs together. It’s a way to have a happier contrast. The brighter side of songs. The lyrics may not be but the music is.
Why do you dress in white?
TSK: I don’t know actually—because we get so dirty.
What’s with the animatronic cat?
TSK: That’s Snowball. Snowball is an official member of the band.
Why do you make music?
TSK: It’s my favorite thing to do. I have fun. It feels good. I love playing with my family and friends. Those are the most important things to me.
What were you listening to in high school?
TSK: Joy Division, Depeche Mode, lots of 1980s stuff—the Cure. I think those bands were influential in terms of what I liked listening to and song structure and things like that.
What is behind the song ‘Smoke Spells?’ The chorus is dark. ‘You look better when you’re dead…’
TSK: It’s an older one but it came up on Gloria. I wrote it during that time period after my mom had passed.
It’s cool how you say ‘fuck’ in it.
TSK: We’re really deep. We use words like ‘fuck’ and ‘shit.’
Have you had your heart broken much?
TSK: I don’t think if I’ve ever had my heart broken.
Where did you come from?
TSK: I’ve lived here a while. I was born in San Gabriel. My folks were missionaries in Thailand so I lived there when I was younger. Then they moved to Missouri where my dad did seminary. We traveled a lot and ended up in southern Orange County.
Are you religious?
TSK: It definitely shaped the person I am and how I think about things and do things. I grew up in it so it was a big part of my life.
What did your parents teach you?
TSK: Be nice to people. Some people have bad days. Just be nice.
How often do you have bad days?
TSK: I don’t think that often but Donna might disagree.
What’s wonderful about being married?
TSK: Just sharing everything. I love her. She’s the most talented person I’ve ever met and one of the nicest and most considerate people. She’s my best friend.
Do you try to be the good guy?
TSK: I suppose so, yes. I think it’s important to be good and nice. I’m a pretty go with the flow type of guy.
TSK: It’s just having a positive outlook on things as opposed to being negative all the time—getting along with other people and doing things together.
What’s your favorite childhood story?
TSK: My sister, who is a couple years older, was jealous when I was born. She was always messing with me. My mom walked out once and she put a pillow over my head.
That’s your favorite childhood story?
TSK: It’s the first one that came to mind.
What was the outcome? Obviously, you’re alive.
TSK: Oh, we love each other very much. Donna wants to talk to you.
Donna Jo (toys/voice): It’s tough for Tommy to talk about what he does. That’s why his music is so awesome. He can’t articulate it but he puts together this thing that is moving and expressive in and of itself. That’s how he can speak. That’s why he has me.
Do you believe in opposites?
DJ: I think there’s something to it. It’s good to balance yourself out.
Must that be with another person?
DJ: No, it’s better if you sort everything in yourself. But it’s useful to have a mirror held up in front of you. When you look in yourself you’re not necessarily seeing all the flaws. Another person adds a dimension that lets you get there quicker.
Are mirrors just for seeing flaws?
DJ: Oh no—they’re good to underline the positive qualities as well.
DJ: I believe there is no objective truth. Everyone has white lies. It’s putting forth the most real picture of yourself. And that of reality.
Is reality real?
DJ: I sometimes think I know and believe it’s real. The more I know the less I know. There’s a lot of mysteries out there.
How do you approach a mystery?
DJ: It happens to me on a frequent basis. Even if it’s beyond my truth and reality, I try to be open to the possibility that there’s more than meets the eye.
Do you believe in ghosts?
DJ: I haven’t yet. So many people have told me their experience and they believe so deeply. I kinda wish I would see one already, so that it could become my truth. I would have fun with it. I want to yell at them and ask them questions and see their experiences and ask why they’re stuck. I don’t think ghosts would look like people. They would be an energy force. They would turn on classical music and turn the fan on and make things surface that we couldn’t understand. It would be a bump in the night, not an old decrepit lady in disintegrated clothes.
Why do you play with toys?
DJ: Tommy’s music seems so moody and broody and dark. There’s also something childlike about his music, even though it’s profound. The perky element of toys contrasts his dark yet childlike side. It’s fun too, figuring out something that fills the space like an accessory. For me it feels more natural to make sound effects.
Do you go to toy stores and look for noises?
DJ: Toy stores, garage sales, thrift stores. I want something that whirrs. And a billowing noise. I need to find these sounds. I might make my own toys because I haven’t found certain sounds. Can I say something about Tommy without a question? I was a fan before a wife. He’s tapped into something of the beyond. It’s good to lose yourself in the puzzle of what he’s trying to convey. We’ve both had major losses in our lives. When you experience that as a young person, you stop tolerating the baloney that’s around. You go to a deeper level. Your perspective changes. It goes from ‘everything’s fast and fleeting’ to ‘everything is meaningful so let’s sink into it on a deeper level.’
How do you maintain that everyday?
DJ: It’s not like we’re always trying to have deep meaningful days but we coexist in what we’ve been through so we are a united force against hardship. Helping other people gives meaning. The best thing you can do for yourself is help others. I try to figure out how to do it.
Can music give meaning?
DJ: People have to make their own meaning. We’re all meaning makers. If someone is on the same plane as you it can be transcendent. If you hear music that is soulful and hits that chord, you feel like you’re not alone.
TOMMY SANTEE KLAWS’ RAKES IS RELEASING IS OUT ON NOV. 16 ON IMAGINARY MUSIC. VISIT TOMMY SANTEE KLAWS AT MYSPACE.COM/TOMMYSANTEEKLAWS.