There’s more musically to the human voice than just singing and screaming. And yet, the industry of non-traditional vocals has long been relegated to the term ‘beatboxing’, even when it comes to Australian musician Tom Thum, prolific in his career for doing so much more than that. With a TEDTalk that’s racked up over 75 million views, Tom has been working hard at bending people’s perceptions of what the human voice is capable of, lauded for having an entire orchestra in his mouth to work with. With the art of beatboxing continuing to expand in modern music (see: Rahzel jumping on the last Bring Me The Horizon album) and the instrument of the voice pushing boundaries like never before, we caught up with Tom to talk about the industry, his recent collaboration with Pepsi Max and explaining what he does to strangers.
In terms of beatboxing in general, what’s your position on how the industry is going right now?
I mean, incredible. Obviously, COVID put the brakes on a lot of the live events, but I mean, there’s been so much online…It’s very rapidly evolving and especially in this last year, it’s crazy. Like some of the sounds that people are coming up with, I’ve had to judge quite a few online competitions and it just blows my mind that people are still creating stuff that is totally next level. Like, you kind of think that you get to a point where there’s nothing left that’s possible. And then you just see some 16-year-old kid from Malaysia do something that just absolutely bends your perception of how the voice works. So, the industry is thriving at the moment.
For people who know you exclusively from your TEDTalk, what was your career like before that happened?
Up until that point, I’d been touring the world for like seven years as part of a collective, which was a contemporary circus sort of thing. You know, so going to Germany, Holland, Belgium, Singapore, basically everywhere. And I’d gotten to the point where after all that time, it was starting to feel pretty stagnant and routine. And I was getting to a point where I was starting to doubt the choices that I made a bit. Then after the TEDTalk, I was like, “Cool, the world appreciates what I’m doing.” It really stoked the fire of my creativity, and I was like, “Oh, I have made the right choice. Thank god.” So yeah, I mean, I was still doing a lot of shows, but after the TEDTalk, it allowed me to be a bit more selective with what I was doing and opened me up for a lot of online stuff as well, which is really killer.
How do you decide what you want to work on?
Basically, I’ll do anything that’s going to challenge me. Anything that will force me to learn a new skill or work with a new group of people or push forward an idea or let an idea that I’ve had flourish – that’s the main criteria. And then also how sustainable it is. Like, you know, “Do I see this project becoming something I’ll use those skills for in the future? Or can I see it becoming something where I’ll push the project even further than where it is?” I think mainly as long as it keeps my brain happy – I just get distracted so easily by shiny things – and if not, if I’m not fully focused on something, it’s not very fruitful for me.
That makes sense. You just worked on this partnership with Pepsi Max. When it’s a brand campaign, how do you approach that and still push the envelope like you want to?
The Pepsi thing was hard because it wasn’t just using my voice – it was trying to figure out how to make a tin musical. And I spent so many hours outside of filming cutting up Pepsi cans, trying to tune them, make them into the limbers, attaching fishing wire to them to let the sound of the wire resonate, a lot of it would be experimentation and trying new things. And for the actual video itself, I did all the editing and all the mixing and all the recording as well. I learned a lot in that process because I had to animate parts of it, too. So, I learned how to animate and how that was actually really done. I was super proud of what I ended up coming out with, but it was something that was quite an intensive two or three weeks of work, and I definitely gained a lot of skills from it.
Did that spark anything for you? Do you have other things that you want to pursue further outside beatboxing?
I do a lot of stuff outside of beatboxing as well, like outside of the traditional realms of beatboxing I guess. I just did a live score to Mad Max: Fury Road as a percussionist and a violinist/multi-instrumentalist. It was really challenging to come up with two and a half hours of music in four days and then deliver it. So, I mean, anything’s possible really. I gave up the realm of strictly traditional beatboxing a couple of years ago and now it’s just my instrument.
Do you get any sort of apprehension around what you do and how you do it?
To be honest, I go through waves of uncertainty. I guess many artists probably do the same thing, but because my career hasn’t been based on hit songs and things like that, everything is different. Last January I was just like, “Oh god, COVID what have you done to me?” But now there’s just been so many different projects in the past month and it’s really exciting and interesting. I mean, I definitely sometimes go into those dark places that a lot of artists probably do, but I do also have the feeling of how lucky I am to be able to do what I do for a career and still enjoy every single second of it.
How would you describe your profession? As you said, it’s not just beatboxing anymore.
Well, I just call myself a musician. I mean the beatboxing thing is just my instrument. Like the same as a guitar player would just say, “I’m a musician.” Or a contemporary vocalist. I don’t know, producer, editor… It’s a good question, because a lot of people on planes and places like that are like, “Oh, what are you doing?” And if you say, “I’m a musician,” then it’s, “What instrument do you play?” And I end up singing in weird places to get my point across.