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Too sexy to stop: a Q&A with TommyD

From DJ to producer to whisky maker, meet the man who can’t help mixing it up

TommyD (for Danvers) has certainly tried his hand at most things. Travelling to New York as a teenage DJ, he was influenced by the house music of the Paradise Garage. On his return to London, he became an early resident at the nascent Ministry of Sound. His production break came through Right Said Fred’s irresistible I’m Too Sexy; he went on to produce two huge albums for Welsh pop act Catatonia, including the bestselling International Velvet and Equally Cursed and Blessed, and other indie acts. Since 2009 he’s been recording as Graffiti6 with Jamie Scott, and two years ago he launched his own drinks company.

Your Wikipedia description suggests you are quite the polymath…

It sounds like I’ve got ADHD, or I can’t make my mind up! But a), I can’t sit still, and b), I can’t stand following the crowd. Everything I’ve ever done musically has been a) challenging myself and b) chasing that magical thing as a kid when you hear music for the first time. And for me it was a weird combination of Ian Dury, Stevie Wonder, Genesis and [Holst’s] The Planets! And right in the middle of all that was the guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, all these amazing players. I come from an entertainment family, my parents were both actors (Ivor Danvers was in BBC drama Howard’s Way). My father taught me, you have to devote your life to your art.

How did you meet Right Said Fred?

Around 1989, I met Jeremy Healy who was recording with E-Zee Possee, they wrote banned single Everything Starts With An ‘E’. We worked on an album together, and that really refined my way of understanding about production. I was using an Atari, Cubase, an MPC, an Akai S900, a TR-808… That was my first taste of being signed to a record company. I was still DJing at the time, and I met these two guys at a club, Richard and Fred (Fairbrass) who were running a nearby gym. One day they gave me a demo cassette, and on it was I’m Too Sexy. I listened and thought it was quite funny but very Germanic. So I knocked up a version of it on an S1000 and Cubase, I gave them what I’d done, and they loved it. They booked a studio, we went in recorded and mixed it… then it all went quiet. Couple of months later, this plugger at Island Records picked it up and liked it; a month later they were playing it on Radio 1, then it just blew up. You know that old Lottery advert with the voice, “It could be you?” It was like that. I went from earning 100 quid a week as a jobbing DJ, to suddenly having people phone me up from America and big artists wanting to work with me. And I was thinking, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!

But off the back of that you became a producer…

I got asked to do a lot of remixing – back then you could make 25 grand a mix, so I coined it in. And then got disillusioned with it. But I learned my first lesson in music: you absolutely have to love your output and not do things for money. It’s hard now for kids coming through because the emphasis is on recreating something that’s already been successful. And that’s not me: I don’t want to make a death metal record; I don’t want to make a girl band record. I want to make… a death metal girl-band record! [Laughs]

You turned away from dance music though.

In the ’90s I went away and travelled and saw the world, then began working with Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. That opened my eyes to the indie world; through Geoff I got access to Catatonia. I was inspired by [lead singer and his partner for a while] Cerys [Matthews]. I’d been inspired by hi-hat parts and kick drums – then to go to that world of ‘D, G and A and here’s the lyric’… that was really exciting! Then I took two years off from production to learn about songwriting. I could see in the early Noughties, the way the world was going with the internet: that if you wanted to continue to make a living out of music, you had to write the music, that’s where the royalties are.

As a producer-songwriter, in 2009, I met Jamie scott, and we just clicked, and we became [pop-soul act] Graffiti6.

Is that about you maturing, do you think?

I think it’s more about the soulful side of the music I like coming through.

The important bit: your whisky.

It’s always been my drink of choice. And I saw that there was an angle, for a cool quality whisky, if we dressed it up in the way ‘beats’ have done with headphones, we could open it up to a new audience. Plus I saw the parallels between the science of making whisky and the science of making music. I created the 808 Drinks Company with a business partner, named after my first drum machine. The original (TR-)808 has this soulful arrogance about it, and the sounds are just as relevant now as they were: trap music is built of 808 sounds. The kick has got this ’sub-iness’ to it. I think my whisky is the sub-bass of drinks: when it’s in a mixer you’re not sure if it’s there. But if you take it away, you miss it.

Why do it, though?

Eventually, through 808, we’ll have a fund called Create. Musicians could apply to it: we say, here’s five grand to make a song, ten grand to make a video. That would be a fantastic place to be in. Yes, like the Prince’s Trust. We’re not anywhere near that, but that’s what we’re aiming towards, certainly in 2017. To do that we need scale, so we have the whisky made at the North British distillery.

Did you create the blend?

We met a whisky expert, Jonathan Driver, who ‘held our hands’ at a whisky house in Mayfair where we sampled the different tastes to come up with the right blend. Just like we were mixing a record!