May 7th, 2014
The Tontons - Lush
"What do I do with my hands?" It sounds like a simple enough question, one that we've all probably asked. But when you are someone as physically expressive and confident as the Tontons' lead singer Asli Omar, that question takes on deep and troubling importance.
It's often something small; a look, a hesitation, which reveals the truth behind a moment. We can paper over it, we can quickly regain composure, but in those moments our true selves are revealed. For most of us those are moments to hide, but for Asli Omar they are things to share, perhaps even celebrate. "I have to wake up every morning, I have to be this person, I have to live this life. I might as well write songs about it," she explained. "Even if they are awkward, or hurtful, or sad."
With a lead-in like this, you might expect sad, grueling dirges or quiet, acoustic folk. But Omar and the rest of the Tontons write tightly coiled, guitar driven pop songs that don't bely the lyrical content so much as serve it straight at you. The linchpin is Omar's physical, visceral performances, which seem to generate from her hips and pivot and flow out through her hands. It is a joy to watch someone so physically connected to music.
This is all to say that we were surprise and pelased to have their name passed our way by a Weathervane Member. After seeing their video for Golden, we felt it was worth trying to get them from their hometown of Houston to Philadelphia. So last fall they took a break from an east coast tour to stay at Miner Street and record "Lush," a song that is equal parts old-timey circus, crisply driven guitar pop and clever, revealing wordplay.
Tour had been kind to the band, and they showed up road tight and ready to play. We started by setting them up in the live room to rehearse the song and hash out a few production ideas all together. We decided that the circus-y hook in the verses should flip-flop between major and minor to keep things from becoming to saccharine, and that there should be an outro that takes the hook and twists and distorts it. With these ideas out of the way, we went right into tracking.
Drummer Justin Martinez brought his clear vistalite drum set, which we just couldn't resist using. As it came up the stairs, the film crew started oggling while the audio crew hoped would sound as good as it looked. We found it punchy but not too punchy, in fact it fit the crispness of the song quite nicely. For guitars we patched Adam's riff through our Leslie cabinet which took the circus vibe to a whole other level. There may not be too many things that we like more than sending things through that blessed rotary speaker.
After dark we set up our Neumann U67 mic in front of a black background and let Asli loose on the lead vocals. She bobbed and weaved, recounting the story of a stranger she met on tour that she experienced an other-worldly connection with. Tired from a long west coast tour, they arrive in Las Vegas and at the hotel she meets this man and share an instantaneous connection. "We just wanted to talk to each other, It was this instantaneous 'I want to know you' feeling." They spent the hours after the show walking around the strip and talking, a chaste and innocent moment that still left her reeling. "It was just this strange moment, and I had no idea what to do with my hands. Which never happens to me, I'm normally very confident."
For someone who seems to be so physically expressive, this was a shock to us, but revealed to us the true depth of the experience. "It was pretty darn revealling," she says. "Everyone should have experiences like this.
This all could have stayed inside the bounds of her head, and never touched the outside world. But she chose to reveal this experience to us as well. It may have been a simple moment, but it touches on the larger search for connection and belonging. Like some of our favorite artists, the Tontons flourish when they can relate something honestly and directly. Their music seems perfectly built for such a task.