When his band’s incessant touring schedule ended in 2014, Chris Tomson, the drummer for Vampire Weekend, faced something he hadn’t seen in almost 10 years: a glut of time and space.
“I was married, I had a mortgage, and I had a completely free calendar for the first time in my adult life,” he told The Star recently.
After a couple months staring at walls and overcoming tour and band withdrawal, he started writing songs about his station in life, songs that would become his first solo project and album.
“I turned intensely inward, and it got very weird,” he said, “and (the songs are) about, like, a lot of visions about self-worth and what I was doing and who I am outside the context of this really great band that I love and cherish but that also takes up a lot of oxygen in the room.”
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Those songs constitute the material on “Youngish American,” the album Tomson has released under the name Dams of the West, who will open for Black Joe Lewis at Knuckleheads on Wednesday.
For Tomson, the process of writing and recording was much more about expression and catharsis than just a means to cash in on some Vampire Weekend momentum.
“I didn’t necessarily sit down and go, ‘Man, I’m going to put out a solo joint,’” he said. “I also sort of knew that (music) was the only thing I’m really qualified to do. … I was processing a lot of information, both emotional and logistical.
“Eventually, I started writing songs that sounded interesting and sounded like me, like I was actually saying something. That’s when it really started to feel like maybe this could be a project.”
He didn’t expect to compile enough material for an entire album. But once he broke the seal, the songs started flowing.
“At some point I thought, ‘I think I do have an album here,’” he said, “and something I can put out into the world in a real way.’ ”
“Youngish American” was produced by Patrick Carney, drummer of the Black Keys. Tomson said he had to adjust to being the sole creator of the project and not a band member.
“Walking in on the first day, I was pretty nervous, not scared — scared is a little strong — but definitely pretty nervous,” he said. “I was like: ‘Am I going to be good at this? Is this going to take a lot of time? Am I going to be able to play all these things?’”
Tomson played all the instruments on the album, save for some orchestral strings. One of Carney’s more vital attributes was to save Tomson from moments of creative paralysis.
“I have a tendency to overthink. He had a way of getting me over my own bull----, which I found very helpful,” Tomson said. “I could use some of that and other parts of my life. It’s hard for me to imagine a better person to work with on my first project, where I felt very adrift at the start.”
The music on “American” is a generic, melodic and percussive mix of indie-rock and new wave/post-punk. Lyrically, it addresses the kinds of internal issues a 30-year-old might face when he is financially stable, in love and is doing what he loves most. Tomson aims high for images and couplets that resonate, if only for their outlandishness.
From “Death Wish”: “I’ve run all the numbers / Still don’t know just what my time is worth / Think I’m ready to be a father now / But I want to get some pizza first.”
And this memorable couplet from “The Inerrancy of You and Me”: “I’m glad we kept some space between us; it’s a healthy interstitial / I’ve never felt as loved as I did that time you sang Joni Mitchell.”
“The hardest part was figuring out the approach or the voice that I felt comfortable expressing thoughts,” Tomson said. “Once I found that voice, I could focus. Once I figured out that I could write songs in a, I don’t know, conversational way, because that’s the way I think anyway, it came not easily but easier. What sounds interesting to me is stuff I haven’t heard before.”
Tomson has formed a live band and taken his music out on the road, which also required some adjusting. Now he’s the front guy, not perched in back behind a drum kit. Ultimately, he said, he has figured it out and achieved his goal: Make music and have fun doing it.
“The band is a four-piece rock thing, me and three very overqualified musicians,” he said. “I’m used to sitting down, but now I’m standing up so I’m still trying to figure out what to do with my legs. But I’m really enjoying it.”
Dams of the West will perform Wednesday night at Knuckleheads Saloon, 2715 Rochester. Black Joe Lewis is the headliner. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.