Interview: Tom Tikka

Tom Tikka is a musician from San Francisco who now lives in Finland. He was formerly in the band Carmen Gray before going solo. His latest project is The Impersonators, with lyricist Antti Autio. They describe their sound as classic rock influenced, particularly 60s pop like The Beatles, Byrds, and Beach Boys. On 26 March, they released the concept album, Life of Grant. We’re lucky to have Tom here with us on the blog to talk about his album and his life. If you want to learn more about him and his story, keep on reading!

Angie Moon: How would you describe your music to a new listener?

Tom Tikka: When FBP Music Group wanted to find a genre for The Impersonators a few years ago, I discovered that my music doesn’t really have a genre anymore. It’s not exactly pop. Pop is way too computerised and sleek these days. It isn’t really rock either, as that’s a considerably heavier genre than it was a few decades ago. Hence, I always say that The Impersonators play “retro-flavoured pop/rock”. That’s the best description I can think of. 

My solo venture has a little more blues-rock woven into it. However, aren’t genres a bit misleading anyway? It’s actually rather funny how differently people experience music. I was once told that “Broken Snow”, which is on the new Impersonators album, sounds exactly like Elton John. It cracked me up – in my mind I was doing Phil Spector. If you listen to the instrumentation and the instruments used, the production’s very similar to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. But then again, once I was made aware of the Elton influence, I started hearing him somewhere in there. But that’s the cool thing about music. In a way, the listener is every bit as important to the whole process as the musician or the songwriter! I’ve accepted the fact that while it is me who gives birth to these tracks so to speak, it’s actually the listener who endows them with meaning.

Angie: How did you get started as a musician?

Tom: Well, I remember watching reruns of Elvis and Beatles movies when I was a teenager. I was really impressed by all the female attention these guys were getting and obviously, I wanted that, too. I began playing and writing when I was six or seven – I knew I had a knack for all that but I didn’t really get into the whole band thing until I realised what I could achieve by becoming a brooding songwriter: Girls! Girls! Girls! I know it sounds silly but that’s teenage boys for you.

That was the start, the initial pull, if you will, to become a performing artist. Of course, somewhere down the road, I fell in love with writing songs and cutting records, and making music became a way of life. Nobody stays in this business or makes as many records as I have over the years just to impress girls. Having said that, I’m probably still trying to impress my wife with my songs to be honest with you. I’ll tell you something, my kids are the most demanding audience I’ve ever had. My five-year-old heard bits of the new album the other day. His comment was: “Can you put something cooler on, Dad?” He wanted to listen to “Ghostbusters”. And of course, we did…we danced to the tune, too. I have two left feet but he doesn’t care. 

Angie: How did you get into classic rock?

Tom: My parents were music fanatics. That’s how. They were listening to music nonstop, but especially on the weekends. Every Friday, my dad would come home from work, pour himself a stiff drink, and then the records would come out. He introduced me to all the great albums of his era and beyond: Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Pendulum by CCR, Revolver by The Beatles, Damn The Torpedoes by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Rocks by Aerosmith, Honky Chateau by Elton John, and so on. 

I loved those Friday nights. My dad was a merchant marine in his youth, so he had acquired quite a few international versions of these famous albums from foreign ports. We had a Brazilian version of The Kinks’ first album for instance. And the stories he told about his life at sea: how he had gotten arrested in Buenos Aires and missed the ship in Antwerp. I listened to these fantastic stories thinking, “Where do I sign up?” Maybe that’s why I’ve travelled the world extensively. My dad was a very charismatic man and a true raconteur. One of his stories that comes to mind right now was about a fellow sailor who had fallen in love with a prostitute in Hong Kong and then disappeared on one of their trips to the city. My dad was convinced he was murdered. Whatever became of him, they looked for him for years but to no avail. He was never to be heard of again.

Angie: You’ve worked as a solo artist and currently with the Impersonators you work with one other person, what do you like better about working with another person versus working solo?

Tom: Well, to be honest, my solo album, which comes out in the fall, is not really working solo. I admit I have a slightly bigger role in everything on it when compared to The Impersonators. However, Janne Saksa, who co-produced The Impersonators’ Life Of Grant will also work with me on my solo album. In addition, the upcoming album will feature three songs I’ve written with my wife, one song that I collaborated on with my son Anton, and also a song Lappe Holopainen, my brother and songwriting partner from Carmen Gray, helped me finish. The biggest difference to working alone is that I write all the lyrics, whereas in The Impersonators that’s Antti Autio’s department.

But to answer your question, I prefer collaborating with others. Two or more heads are always better than one, and to be honest, working alone is a pretty lonely affair. It’s more fun to cut records as a team.

Angie: What is the concept behind Life of Grant?

Tom: Well, the album is about the life of a fictional character called Grant. There are many reasons why Antti and I chose that particular name. It’s everyday enough and also, one of our songwriting heroes is Grant McLennan of The Go-Betweens. Anyway, Grant’s character is based on my dad’s and my godfather’s lives. A marine and a merchant marine, these two men were scarred by their experiences at war and at sea. I believe that there is such a thing as witnessing too much, if you know what I mean. Their pasts haunted them to a certain degree on a daily basis and affected everything they did, including their relationships.

The album starts with “Rodeo”, which is about Grant’s first heartbreak, a significant turning point in his life. Outraged, looking for a distraction from the pain that comes from being left for another guy, he forges his parents’ signature to join the Marines at seventeen and is shipped off to Vietnam. “When You Are Young” is about the foolish decisions we all make when we still think we are invincible. “Effigy” with its thunder and rain sound effects and “horror” feel is about fighting in the jungle, seeing corpses of soldiers hanging from trees, trying to make sense of it all. “You Are The One” is about falling in love upon arriving back from the craziness of war and from there on the story unfolds with the many and varied triumphs and shortcomings of Grant’s life.

Angie: What inspired the album?

Tom: My dad passed away almost two years ago. After his funeral I thought I should write an album about men like him and my godfather. They were old-school alphas who didn’t make a big deal about themselves but who lead incredibly interesting lives and gave so much without really asking for anything in return. My purpose was to celebrate them and the likes of them through music and lyrics. My dad’s favourite song would have been “Rodeo”. He loved stuff like that.

Angie: What are your favourite songs on the album?

Tom: They are all special to me. I worked on the album and the concept with Antti and our producer Janne Saksa for three years. My favourite tracks are “Broken Snow” and “Cloud Nine”, but they are all very special to me, each for a slightly different reason. I love Janne Saksa’s Pet Sounds-flavoured arrangement on “You Are The One” and the compositional complexity of “Circus”. “When You Are Young” has that very cool Byrds-like Rickenbacker riff that starts the song and that one also has my favourite Antti Autio lyric. I could go on.

The reason why “Broken Snow” is probably my very favourite Impersonators track is that it’s a very nostalgic track for me. I wrote the words of the chorus and the melody of the song when I was vacationing in Paris with my wife many moons ago. We were newly in love and it was all very romantic and wonderful. The song was inspired by this weird street vendor who more or less harassed people if they didn’t buy the necklaces he was selling. They were shaped like broken snowflakes, hence the name of the song. 

Angie: What are your favourite concept albums?

Tom: Well, Tommy by The Who, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars by David Bowie, Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd, and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks. There are others that I like a whole lot but those are my favorite ones. Oh yeah, and obviously Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

Angie: What do you like best about concept albums?

Tom: The fact that they have lyrical and mostly also musical cohesion. They are very connected usually. With them, you can embark on a journey, close your eyes and truly let go for an hour or so. However, the coolest thing about concept albums is that if they succeed in what they are trying to do, they offer you quite a bit more than just a great listening experience. I remember vividly how the aforementioned Kinks album opened my eyes to how generic the world is slowly but surely becoming. We have the same Starbucks coffee shops and McDonalds restaurants at every street corner these days…or Zara…or Massimo Dutti…we read the same newspapers, same magazines and watch the same movies. All these small specialty stores and restaurants are disappearing. Also, cities all over the world are starting to look the same. Instead of renovating old buildings that have local character, they just tear them down and build new high-rises and complexes that are designed with a cookie-cutter approach. Local customs and cultures are vanishing as well. That’s what The Village Green Preservation Society is all about, this need to preserve the local character and lifestyle all over the world before it’s too late and there is nothing left to preserve. Ray Davies is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He is one of my biggest influences and I just seem to love and appreciate his work more and more as time goes by.

Angie: Who are your favourite musicians from Finland?

Tom: If I were to name a favourite Finnish band, it would be Hanoi Rocks. Andy McCoy is a fabulous songwriter and that band was amazing by all possible standards. If you haven’t heard the Back To Mystery City album, check it out. Classic rock fans will have a field day with that one.

Angie: What is your proudest accomplishment as a musician?

Tom: The fact that I have finally found my own sound. I think The Impersonators’ Life Of Grant as well as my upcoming solo album both sound exactly the way I always wanted my music to sound. It’s taken a long time but I got there. This is a big thrill for me!

Of course, whenever my songs do well, I love it. I’m very proud of the Josie Award nomination we received last year on the strength of “Cloud Nine”. My solo singles have done quite nicely as well and Carmen Gray…well, that was huge.

Angie: What are your goals for this year?

Tom: I’ll do a lot of promo for Life Of Grant and then there’s still my solo album to finish and release. It’s recorded and mostly completed, but the mixes and the sounds need slight tweaking still. I’ll be very busy until October. I’ll probably take a few weeks off then. 

Other than that, my goal is to stay healthy in these crazy pandemic ridden times. I also hope more and more people will find The Impersonators and I truly wish that my five-year-old learns to appreciate his father’s songs a bit more! Only kidding, I love “Ghostbusters” probably more than he does.

You can follow The Impersonators on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and The Impersonators website. Tom Tikka’s website can be found here.

Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!

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