JSTJR discusses originality through combination and the breakneck speed of online influences | Q&A

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by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

By his own admission, New England-based producer JSTJR will never know some of the people who inspire his shifts in taste and the permutations of rhythms and sounds that inspire him, month-to-month. But then, no one will.

The accelerated speeds and transactions of online producer communities, he says, can make weekend warriors as influential as the biggest names in dance music production. 

"And it’s actually unbelievable," JSTJR, aka Jim Tomaszewski says. "There will be people you’ll never hear of and will never make it, some who aren’t trying to, just hobbyists, who can completely influence a genre and no one will ever know. But they did one thing everyone tried to do. And then it’s considered a standard."

It's this online climate that allows JSTJR to release his notably African and and Latin-inspired bass music constantly, garner more than a hundred thousand plays on some songs, and to do it without a label or publicist. That same climate sees JSTJR being referred to as a noted "underground star" in 2014. In an online space something like a hyperactive meritocracy, JSTJR has earned mentions, support and compliments from artists as influential as Diplo, Mad Decent and Major Lazer. 

JSTJTR will headline the latest Lincoln installment of Booty Clap tonight at Vega. RSVP here

Read our full conversation with JSTJR below. 

Hear Nebraska: What’s going on today? What’s new in Boston?

Jim Tomaszewski: Not much, man. Got a lot of music to finish up this week actually. But kind of just grinding it out in the studio.

HN: Any of the stuff you're trying to finish up, you thinking of rolling any of it out at the LIncoln show?

JT: Yeah! I probably have 12 unreleased tracks that I’ll definitely be playing live. There will be lot of crazy music no one’s heard before.

HN: As I read interviews and writing about you, this idea of music where people are very concerned with what is truly unique and original, that strikes me as something that might be specific to producer-oriented music. Does it feel like because of the technology involved that you're on the frontier of what can be created, soundwise?

JT: The difference between rock and producer-based music is definitely that fact that you can pick up a guitar and strum on it but it’s not going to sound like music. But you have 12-year-olds who can download the same program that we all use, and download all the same sounds and download all the same synths. And then they just go to YouTube and type in “How to make a great song…” [laughs] and a day later than can have something that sounds just like a radio hit. So in that sense, if you're not doing something new, you probably sound like everyone else.

HN: Sure, and bouncing off that, I would think the potential for experimentation is exponential compared to having a guitar in your hands.

JT: You have such a blank slate for what you can use. You can use a guitar sample, and there’s so much you can pull from. And that’s where I’m at. Looking for sounds from other countries and putting them into pop music, dance music.

HN: Right and where did your interest in African rhythms and Latin rhythms originate, Jim? What was your first exposure?

JT: Well, I’ve always kind of had this interest in Latin music. Like you pass a reggaeton song on the radio and I always stopped on it, I was just struck by the groove. So as I started, producing I was always searching for a unique sound.

Specifically with the African stuff, I got into through Buraka Som Sistema, a Portuguese group of producers. I kind of just head first dove into it. So, so into it. Did my research, found some allies who have been exploring shit like that in the past. I took off for me keeping my ears open and my mouth shut for a little while.

HN: That’s interesting too, because ducking back to originality and unique sounds, it seems like that’s possible in producer-based music by way of combinations of things.

JT: Yeah, exactly!

HN: With African rhythms, we're talking about things as old as humanity, but when you pair them with things, that’s where the originality comes from.

JT: Right, and that’s what it’s all about right now. Food comes to mind for some reason, like you can’t really invent new food. But fusion is what everyone wants to try. Asian tacos or something. You’re putting things together. You gotta find the ones that really go together.

HN: I wanted to ask you, what made you when you were performing hip-hop as Symposium, when you were doing your own beats and rapping, what ushered you away from that? A desire to make the music more complicated? I’d imagine you need a certain space and simplicity for someone to rap over.

JT: Honestly, the transition came more as my interests changed. I was really into hip-hop toward the end of high school and the beginning of college. There was a point where I took a semester off from school and was working as a mover. I was thinking I wanted to make music my lifestyle and career. With the hip-hop stuff, I was more replicating my favorite rapper or beat producer. I was kind of at a point where I wanted to try out my own sound. I don’t think I was ever going to be able to find a really unique voice in that genre.

HN: I wanted to ask you about the academic environment you studied in college. Where did you go to school?

JT: I started at Hofstra on Long Island, then a small school in New Hampshire and then a state school in New Hampshire. So at first I was a film major for a couple semesters, and then a business major and finally finished with a music major.

HN: With an emphasis in percussion and technology, is that right?

JT: Yep.

HN: And so the club environment and the classroom environment seem like these diametrically opposed things, but I’d imagine your academic study helps you as a producer in some way. Has it given you a leg up?

JT: Yeah, it has. If I want to make somthing, I don’t struggle from the idea to the producing. So if I sing something in my head, I know exactly what notes they are. Or I could paint a whole rhythm in the beat grid and press play and it would be what I want, without listening to it before.

HN: So it helps you work faster, then.

JT: It does. And to break it down better. But I guess sometimes that might be holding me back too. ‘Cause it’s a little more square that way. And sometimes I do the opposite where I’m just messing around.

HN: So I’m curious with classical training on percussion, are you sensitive then to when drums in dance music that don’t sound full enough? When I listen to your work, the drums and bass come off full and huge like something that would fly off a kick drum.

JT: Yeah, I’d say so. And that’s another reason, going back the hip-hop thing. Coming into bass music, before I was producing it, I didn't understand the concept of sub-bass, really deep bass. So like trap music you think of that 808 bass drum, but you don’t realize every dance music song has an 808 bass drum supporting the overall thing. So it opened my eyes to how producing stuff really relies on that.

HN: So let me put this one to you. So I talk to a lot of bands at a certain level, often really good bands who are struggling to get on small, respected labels. But people like yourself and I’ve talked to another DJ recently, Astronomar, who was here a few months ago …

JT: Yeah, I know him!

HN: Yeah! He’s a good guy. Both of you by way of this DIY online audience, you’ve both curated an audience for yourselves without involving labels and publicists. And I’m curious, are you able to do that because things move faster in the online climate for producers, or because of a preexisting subculture of people who come online to seek this music out? Or both?

JT: I think it’s gotta be both, but I’d say more the first one. So when I started with the African-inspired music, the audience was so hungry to hear what’s coming next … I was releasing over a track a week last summer and everyone was hungry to hear how this was going to keep shifting. And then I would take a genre and introduce it, or someone else would. And then you have a run of a month where people are all trying that.

HN: So things are happening incredibly fast.

JT: And it’s actually unbelievable. There will be people you’ll never hear of and will never make it, some who aren’t trying to, just hobbyists, who can completely influence a genre and no one will ever know. But they did one thing everyone tried to do. And then it’s considered a standard.

HN: Speaking of things that happen fast, it’s also been quite a year for you. There’s press releases calling you an “underground star” and an “it boy.” Do you think in terms of exposure, the speed at which things are happening in producer communities explodes out, then, into publicity communities?

JT: Yeah, you need to find the people and blogs who appreciate what you’re doing, and team up with them just like you’d team up with other producers. When I just started, this guy dj umb who curates on Generation Bass that features very underground, world-music-inspired dance music. I owe him a lot. His support of my early music helped put it into so many more people’s hands.

HN: Last one, Jim, ever been to Nebraska before?

JT: No, I haven’t.

HN: What have you heard?

JT: It’s funny, I have a friend who lives there now who is a weather, storm chaser kind of guy. He’s been posting all these pictures and statuses that are like, “Oh, there’s gonna be a crazy storm.” And I was like, “Yo, man, if you could do me a favor and not post any more of those until I get back from Nebraska, that’d be great. ‘Cause it’s freaking me out.”

So far my perception is that I’ll get there, I’ll get sucked up in a tornado and then pelted by hail.

HN: [Laughs]. Well, yeah, you’re gonna wanna cancel the standard JSTJR & Friends Sunday night gig.

JT: I’m so scared! Because that’s so important for me to be at.

HN: Well, listen, the people who don’t die in the storms are very friendly, and I hope you have a good time.

JT: [Laughs]. OK great, I’m excited.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s managing editor. Reach him at chancesp@hearnebraska.org.