TOM SCOTT, AVANTDALE BOWLING CLUB (PHOTO: JONNY STITT)

Tom Scott: ‘If you’re worried about pissing people off, your career’s done’

A lot has changed for Tom Scott in the past four years and, with his new project Avantdale Bowling Club, he’s ready to reveal all. He talks to Hussein Moses about fame, infamy and coming home to Avondale.

In a home studio, out the front of his house, is where you’ll find Tom Scott most days. He’s been working on new material in what sound more like therapy sessions than songwriting sessions. “I spend eight hours a day working on my problems and then I’m still anxious by Friday,” he tells me. Spanning topics as personal as they are political, from his history with substance abuse to his struggles with mental health, Scott’s entire life is in his songs. “If it’s something significant,” he says, “people will hold onto it.”

If you’ve followed Scott in the decade or so since he and two friends – Haz Beats and Lui Silk – started their now notorious hip-hop group Home Brew in 2007, you will be familiar with Scott’s particular brand of rhymes: frank, controversial and at times even shocking. In an increasingly bland, homogeneous local music scene, Scott’s legacy in 2018 is the stuff of legend: politically charged, utterly fearless and actually successful, no group or artist has come close to rivalling the genuinely confronting spirit that Scott and his collaborators brought to the mainstream of New Zealand music.

Along with a reputation for even wilder antics off stage than on, it made Home Brew an uneasy fit for the more sanctified institutions of the New Zealand music industry – particularly given that, in their prime, it didn’t even seem that the band needed their support. They swore on live TV; they widely and vehemently derided then-prime minister John Key; perhaps most impressively, in 2010 after being repeatedly rebuffed by NZ On Air for funding, they raised $15,000 from fans to make a music video with acclaimed local director Chris Graham.

In February this year, Home Brew were fundraising again – only this time it was a tour to raise the money needed to pay off about $40,000 in expenses that they incurred while signed to Frequency Media Group who distributed their debut album. Until the debt is paid, they won’t get the rights to the record back. How such a successful group found themselves in this situation is something they’re trying to figure out themselves. “I don’t know how we were number one, sold all those records, sold all those tickets and sold all that merch,” says Scott. “I don’t know how we’re $40,000 in debt now.”

Home Brew at The Shack (Photo: @timdfilm)

Home Brew didn’t end up raising the money they needed from the tour – most of it went into paying for their backing band. Scott’s now got a lawyer involved to help him determine his options but, after an exhausting few months trying to get it sorted, he’s not interested in dwelling on the situation any longer. “I got nothing to be bitter about,” he says. “I’m pretty happy where I am.”

Besides, his mind is on his new album – arguably the best of his career. Avantdale Bowling Club, the name of both the record and Scott’s new project, is a masterful account of the last four years of his life as he finds enlightenment in fatherhood and comes to grips with who he is in his early 30s. “I’ve made a rap album for people that hate rap,” he jokes, “and it’s wrapped in enough pretension to hopefully win a Silver Scroll.”

We’re in a cafe a short walk up the road from his house in Avondale discussing just how much work goes into an album like this. “If I had a million dollars…” He gathers his thoughts for a second. “I think Paul Henry could make a good album with a million dollars.”

It’s this dry, sometimes dark wit that Scott has built his name on. It’s also an essential part of his ability to cut to the core of topics that remain troubling, and even taboo, to many artists. Now 34, he talks candidly about what he’s been through in the past four years, the highs and the lows. It’s all there in his music anyway. The difference now is that he’s at the height of his musicianship, rather than his popularity. “I feel like technically I’m a better musician than I’ve ever been,” he says. “I think that we need to tell ourselves that as older people. We glamourise youth in this genre and in this fucking world. In pop culture, the most valuable commodity is youth. We’re so quick to tell ourselves we’re washed, we’re done, our best days are behind us.”

Tom Scott, Home Brew (Photo: @timdfilm)

Now that he’s older, he’s also been able to go back and explore some of the themes he tackled before, only this time with more dexterity. Avantdale Bowling Club is a grown up version of 2012’s Home Brew, according to Scott. That record was dubbed a “local hip-hop classic” and debuted at number one on the NZ top 40 – something which hadn’t been done by a local hip-hop act since Scribe in 2003 and still hasn’t been done since. Receiving a rare combination of critical and commercial success, it established him as New Zealand hip-hop’s finest storyteller, as well as the country’s most brazen agitator.

At the New Zealand Music Awards later that year, the trio showed up in costume and walked the red carpet with a goat on a leash for a mockumentary that never got released. They took out the award for Best Hip-Hop Album and during their acceptance speech, Scott thanked “God, for not existing” before taking aim at John Key. Most of it wound up being cut out of the TV broadcast.

HOME BREW at the 2012 New Zealand Music Awards (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The next time Scott was back at the Music Awards it was with @Peace, a group he started with rapper Lui Tuiasau. They had been nominated for Best Group off the back of their supremely underrated 2014 record @Peace and the Plutonian Noise Symphony, a psychedelic-rap album steeped in existentialism. When the list of nominees came up on-screen at the awards, the album name was spelt wrong and the song playing was from one of their old records, not the one nominated. It was, says Scott, “the ultimate kick in the balls”. The Naked and Famous ended up winning.

@Peace had recorded close to sixty songs for that album. One day, frustrated again with the National government, Scott released one of the leftovers called ‘Kill The PM’. Thanks to an admittedly distasteful line about having sex with John Key’s daughter, Scott found himself on the receiving end of death threats himself. The song was investigated by the police and Key told media that it wasn’t even worth dignifying with a response. After being challenged on air by RNZ’s Kim Hill, Scott walked out in the middle of the interview.

The song still plagues him now. “I was wrong,” he says. “I could’ve definitely done that better.” The idea behind the song was to try and get young people to enrol to vote. Instead, the backlash from it sent him into a deep depression. Now that it’s over, he still believes he has a responsibility as an artist to speak out about what he sees wrong with the country. “You can do it better than I did it, but if you’re worried about pissing people off, your career’s done. Go on a winery tour, motherfucker.”

The fallout from the controversy prompted him to move to Melbourne, where he and Tuiasu put @Peace to bed and began working on new music together as Average Rap Band. Scott craved anonymity after the backlash, something which the band name hinted at. “I didn’t want to make any noise,” he explains. “I just wanted to create shit.” El Sol, the group’s debut album released in 2016, saw Scott turn away from the darkness of his older records. The sound is vibrant and uplifting; heavier on synths than subject matter.

Tom Scott at the Red Bull Studio, Auckland 10 March 2017 (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

It was also in Melbourne, in a little woodshed at the bottom of his house, where Scott wrote Avantdale Bowling Club’s ‘Pocket Lint’. Musically, he wanted to pivot again – but this time deep into jazz. Horns sing out over blasts of lyrics, with Scott rapping about the struggle to stay afloat in New Zealand’s biggest city: It’s hard when you’re born in Auckland / Gotta pawn an organ to afford the fucking mortgage.

Part of him has always wanted to make music like this. His father Peter Scott is a jazz musician and Tom used to watch him rehearse in their living room when he was growing up. He finds it hard to listen to rap without imitating its sound, so instead he’d cruise record stores in Melbourne every weekend and get his fix from the music of jazz greats like Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. The results can be heard throughout Avantdale Bowling Club, although it’s not a departure from his earlier work so much as it is a graduation.

“Tom’s music has changed a lot over the years, but he’s always stayed true to who he was at that particular time,” says Ben Lawson, a producer for Red Bull Studios who worked on Avantdale Bowling Club. “He never wants to stay in one spot for too long or do the same thing twice, musically.” He’s also not afraid to scrap a song if he’s not feeling it anymore. Lawson estimates there’s another ten tracks, all about 90% complete, that didn’t make the cut. “And they’re all great songs.”

Tom Scott recording at the Red Bull Studio, Auckland 10 March 2017 (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Scott was living with his now-fiancée, Whitney Wainui, who he first met eight months prior up at K Road radio station Kfm. “We just get along really well,” he says. “Time could pass and you could put us in a million different situations and we’d still sort of experience life the same way.”

After a three-year stint in Melbourne, they found out they were having a baby and decided to move back to the same neighbourhood Scott grew up in. “I think it’s got worse,” he says of Avondale, “and gentrification is to blame for damn sure.” He could never have made this album if he had stayed in Australia. Part of the process, he says, was moving back home and watching what was going on around him.

He volunteers regularly down at Feed The Streets, a programme that puts on a free fortnightly meal for those in the local community. The common theme with most of the people that show up is that they’re not well-off financially: there’s rough sleepers, lodge residents, ex-cons, pensioners, beneficiaries, recovering addicts and families.

Scott washes dishes or breaks bread with the locals. There used to be a regular crew of young guys that would show up to eat and hang out. One had lost both of his parents and some of the boys were staying at his place. Some nights there would be up to 13 of them crammed into a three bedroom house, with drugs and alcohol all readily available.

They were all into rhyming and Scott immediately hit it off with them. One night, they started a cypher, with another volunteer on the guitar backing them up. “When Tom finally decided to spit, the look on their faces was priceless,” remembers Dayne Smith, one of the Feed The Streets organisers. “They look up to and admire him a lot. I think he saw a past version of himself in them; just some young guys trying to navigate life, appreciating the genuine love and attention they were receiving.”

TOM SCOTT IN AVONDALE: “I think it’s got worse and gentrification is to blame for damn sure” (PHOTO: JONNY STITT)

Scott’s rapped about Avondale his whole career and now that he’s back here, he feels even more responsibility to be the voice of the disadvantaged and left behind. Every day he walks down the main strip past kids hooked on synthetic cannabis and people begging for change. All of it ends up in his songwriting. “You go back to the studio,” he says, “and it’s bleeding out of you.”

The suburb is at the heart of Avantdale Bowling Club. Over three mesmerising verses on ‘Home’, the slow-burning seven-and-a-half minute centrepiece of the album, Scott captures in chilling detail the dark reality of what he’s come back to. Sitting in a long white smoke cloud / Hometown or ghost town / Don’t know how to tell the difference anymore, he raps over a moody beat. Suicide rates higher than the rent.

The loss of one of his closest friends to suicide is behind the album’s most confronting song, ‘F(r)iends’, and something which still haunts him twelve years after it happened. He first met Adam Fletcher when they both used to break dance at Youthtown back in the day. “He was the coolest dude in our crew,” remembers Scott. “He just had that wild nature. He got wild into stealing cars, wild into all the drugs we weren’t doing and then into meth. Then he crashed his car one day and that was the straw that broke his back.”

Scott swore to do everything he could to prevent more deaths after it happened. “I don’t really think it’s that hard. Just tell people you’ll listen to them,” he says. “It’s actually quite liberating talking to people that have been to the bottom that you’ve been to.”

Addiction too, is all around Scott on this new album, from the grim portrayals of his own struggles with drug dependency right through to those of his mum and dad. I was conceived by two users / I was supposed to be a loser / I had to see my old man cooped up in an orange jumpsuit trying to shoot up, he rhymes on ‘F(r)iends’. Later, on ‘Quincy’s March’ – a song that sees him reckon with being a dad himself – he lays out his darkest fear: making the same mistakes that his parents did. “Some people rap about their greatest traits,” he says. “That’s cathartic for them in building their self-esteem. But it’s more cathartic for me to cleanse myself of insecurities or fears or anxieties.”

TOM SCOTT AND HIS SON QUINCY (PHOTOS: SUPPLIED)

It’s easy to get a sense from talking with Scott that if it wasn’t for his son Quincy – who he calls his “magnum opus” on the album – he could easily be in a darker place in his life. Children teach you how to be a better version of yourself, he explains. “It’s realigned my compass, to some degree.” He never used to understand people who didn’t want to have kids until recently. “I was like ‘ok, I can see why you wouldn’t do this because this is the hardest shit of all time.’” He laughs. “But it’s still the best thing I’ve ever done.”

In the video for ‘Years Gone By’, the first single from the album, Quincy is right there smiling on his dad’s shoulders. Tom’s own father is playing bass to their right. Three generations of Scott men, all there in front of the camera. The video for it was filmed in Auckland’s famed St James Theatre – or what’s left of it. Instead of a stage, there’s just rubble.

He pulled the video the day before it was supposed to be released. When it finally arrived a week later, it had a new ending. “I don’t need the movie to end just when everything’s perfect,” he wrote about the change. “I’m suspicious of silence. Peace makes me paranoid. I can smell smoke. Even in paradise. I know that there’s another moment coming to kick this one off it’s podium.” The news that the Home Brew album left him in debt is proof enough of that.

In the new ending for ‘Years Gone By’, the camera gradually zooms out to reveal the St James performance being played on an old TV that’s on fire outside Avondale Racecourse. In the background, Scott poses in front of the rundown building, mimicking the Avantdale Bowling Club album cover. The cameras keep rolling, but the shoot soon descends into chaos after everyone behind the scenes come to realise they can’t put the fire out. It’s the perfect ending for someone who doesn’t believe in perfect endings.

“I like the fires,” he wrote. “I like the break-ups. The fist fights. The car crashes. The screaming arguments. Dinner plates you bought on special at Farmers with baby shower money flying through mouldy gib board. That’s what it’s about. No moment is better than the other. No moment is static. It’s all just happening. Shit goes right. Shit goes wrong. Years go by.”


This piece (as well as Avantdale Bowling Club’s ‘Years Gone By’ video) were made possible by NZ On Air.

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