“If you’re gonna ask what my central ethos for everything I do is, it’s that: build a community, build a scene, get people involved and break down that barrier. You “can” do it.”Tom Baker
Tom Baker is a London-based electronic musician, producer, bandleader, and curator, currently making music under the moniker Sylvia_Din. Tom describes his work as “distorted, claustrophobic electronic music for a generation that feels out of step”, combining dirty synthesizers and field recordings with a unique collaborative process; his second record Inertia, featuring collaborations with Broken Sleep Books and Human Head, releases later this year. Tom also curates art zine Our Restless Bones, featuring transdisciplinary works from artists, musicians, and writers. Tom spoke to PRXLUDES about the conception of the Sylvia_Din moniker, compositional stimuli, his DIY ethos and approach to music-making, and the cultural scene…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Tom! Hope you’ve been keeping well. Let’s talk about your moniker, Sylvia_Din. I understand you’ve come into music from a quite unconventional background; how did you build up this project?
Tom Baker: So me and my mate used to have a shitty copy of Ableton with some VSTs. -laughs- We got this when we were in secondary school. There were around three of us doing it at the same time; it was a really cool community, in the sense of every time we would learn something, we would [share it]. I remember at one point, I found out that you could download virtual instruments and plug them into your DAW, and I was like “guys, this is gonna blow your fucking mind…” -laughs-
Me and my friend used to write house and techno under the duo Blurry Words. We did that throughout college and secondary school, and that was just our “fun” bit of DJ’ing shitty college parties, playing some Skrillex… Big up to the main man Skrill. -laughs- When people look back on what electronic music they grew up in — you speak to people who grew up in Manchester, during the Madchester movement — I got to see Skrillex at Brixton Academy when I was seventeen, and that would be my contribution to the story. -laughs- Then [I] went to uni. [I was] still kind of writing music, but… You can have ideas, but unless you give them a space, a place, and an actual concept, they don’t really have any life to them; they’re just sounds that are grouped together.
I completely understand — I think everyone has to have that phase, though. And I guess you went through it pretty independently?
I basically spent my three years [of] uni trying to write music, and all of it sounded “good”, but I wasn’t proud of it. It just existed, and didn’t have a purpose. This sounds really dumb, but I always wanted to create music that people liked — I wanted people to like my music — so I was writing bouncy house numbers, and plucky guitar lines. I listened to so much Tycho. I discovered you could put a reverb on a guitar and it sounds beautiful. That was under a couple of aliases, but it really wasn’t landing for me.
So I moved to London from a small town up north — in Lancaster — and I got hella inspired. I was basically out every night, just enjoying London; doing whatever gigs I could find. I had a couple friends down here I could do stuff with. And over that time, I started writing far darker, more nocturnal stuff. I really got inspired by more subby UK bass genres, and what was emerging from that, as well as trip hop [and] techno. And I was like “oh shit, that’s way too much for my project” — so I created an entirely separate project that I [could] dump stuff in, and not touch anything else. And that was what became Sylvia_Din. I wanted it to not be attached to my name, not be attached to me at all, [but] I realised that this is the far better project, and I’m far more invested in it. And more importantly: fuck if people like it! I’ll write this for me, and if other people get enjoyment out of that, then good for them.
Do you feel like there was any particular moment with Sylvia_Din that catalysed the project as your “main” musical outlet?
Real talk — it was sad hours. My job, at the time, was not going well. I’d just moved to London, and I was super excited, and eight months into my job, my boss was actively nasty, but I didn’t wanna give it up. The relationship I was in at the time was falling apart… And I just poured it into the music. Going back to my original [projects], my music [for those] didn’t have a purpose — whereas at this point, I had something to drive it. And as soon as I saw that spark, I was like “this is it, this is the project”. I doubled down on that, and that was the spark that lit it. Ride or die, let’s go. -laughs-
And if I remember, you released an album around that time — A Vivid Study of Human Violence — was the process of that record’s composition also informed by your personal experience?
Yeah, yeah! It was so long ago I actually released that as an EP, in 2019… Realising that I needed to experiment, and just try things. It was a really good moment of “fuck it”, if that makes sense. I had synths, I had my in-board gear, and I was like: what happens if we do this? Lots of times, it sounded like dogshit, but sometimes it played out — and that’s the thing that what was keeping me going.
I was out and about [a lot]. When you’re out there, and you’re absorbing the world, you get lots of in, and then that allows you to put that into an out. When I was working in Aldgate East, and I was living in Mile End, I used to walk through the Bow/Whitechapel kind of area. It changes quite a lot; in like one road, there’s a lot of different scenes. I think walking that every day — especially in winter, when it’s quite dark — you get a lot of in, and sensory input, that when I got home I was like “okay, I know what scene I want to set with my music.”
One thing that stood out to me with this record was the use of found objects in industrial music — like, if you closed your eyes and put this record on, I could definitely imagine walking down that road in Whitechapel. What’s your approach to the manipulation of samples, vocals, and found objects in your work?
When it comes to found sound, using your phone and [recording] standing next to something, and being like “I’m gonna have that” — when you drop bottles in a bottle bin, all of that — I mean, my friends laugh at me because I overuse the word “texture”… -laughs- But when you do lots of things that are “in the box” — when you use synths that are built into Ableton, or even outboard synths — because they’re digital, not analogue, they’ve got a level of cleanliness to them. I like to counterbalance that with something that’s a little bit dirty, and raw. For me, that’s [going] out, recording things — or even if I don’t record them myself, I hear a sound and be like “right, that’s the kind of thing that I want.” Blessed be freesound.org… Fuck people going to Splice, go to Freesound! -laughs-
My favourite one was: my flat in Mile End was next to a main road, and down the road was a big hospital — I think it’s the Royal London — so I always get, like, sirens going past. When I was writing ‘Claustrophobia’, and I heard a car siren go past, I was like “that actually sounds kind of sick”. So I went on Freesound, got a siren, and then actually [added] it… -laughs- I find that also, my final [step] with the mix is, go and listen to the song when you’re walking around, and see if natural things from the world can fit into it. I like natural rhythms, and stuff; even now, there’s a guy hammering outside, which is cool.
I get that. If you’re in a city as dynamic as London, the sounds of the city are naturally going to feed into your compositional process.
Yeah. And I think that’s the thing that was hard about covid. I wanted it to be a super productive time in my life; I was like “I’ve got nothing else to do, I should be able to write music”, and I really wasn’t able to. I put it down to [that] there was nothing going in — I was in my flat, all the time — and there was nothing to inspire, or feed the content in.
You still released a few tracks over the course of covid — how did you approach writing without the stimulus that’s usually part of your compositional process?
I found for me, it was [like] challenges; seeing if I could write certain things with certain limitations, because then it gave the songs a point. ‘CRWLND’ was written with my housemates at the time, with loads of contact mics and stuff from around the flat. So I had a basic little synth riff that you would hear throughout, that slowly changes as the track goes on — but all the percussion you hear is stuff from our flat. I thought it would be a fun afternoon if we all got together, found stuff, and recorded it. That was my little challenge to the house and myself, [to] see if I could record a track where all the percussion is contact mics — or contact mic’ed up things.
You can create a stimulus out of the collaborative process, right?
Yeah. The stimulus is almost the lack of stimulus. You’ve gotta kind of trick your brain into that.
Coming out of lockdown, you released another single titled ‘No Saviours’; on the subject of stimulus, was that track indicative of your post-covid process and the external stimuli returning?
I had this track for a while. It was in a really loose form — I had this sample with loads of filters, and reverb, [which] ended up sounding like a choir; and I was like “[this] is cool, but I’m not sure what to do with it.” I had all the composite elements, but not the whole thing. And then me and my friend went for a weekend in Berlin… -laughs- It’s very generic, and I’m not gonna pretend that it’s not; but coming back from that, I was like “I know it! I understand where it exists in the world!” I need to think of [tracks] as having a place, and a scene, before I can really go into it, and that gave me the inspiration to finish it off, get it mixed, get it mastered, and get it released. I had a lot of fun in Berlin; there’s a lot of really good record stores, really good clubs… We went to a really cool record store — Staalplaat — and we walked in, and the guy’s playing one of the noisier clipping. tracks, and I loved that. Loads of hand-numbered cassettes, and books about places and space… This is as good as life is gonna get. -laughs-
Our pocket of the music world is both big and small at the same time, right?
Yeah. [Everywhere’s] got their own equivalent, their own mirror image of what you’ve got. It’s really interesting for me — from the point of records, and physical objects — how the experimental “canon” exists, and there’s lots of records in it; your local place will have an amount of them, and you go to a different [place], and they have a different part of the canon in physical form. That’s crazy.
I might do [this] with my next couple of releases — but I’d love to do variations that you can get in physical form [only]. There’s something exciting about that. I have this big thing about this: people don’t use the joy of the medium that they’re in enough, if that makes sense. I’ve seen people do [this] and I want to try it — like, getting a tape and burying it and distressing it. It’ll sound like shit, but it will be a unique kind of shit. That’s something you can only do with tape! If I buried a record, I wouldn’t get the same thing. I’ve got clipping.’s self-titled CLPPNG on vinyl, and the D-side [of the record] is just loads of locked grooves of vinyl — so depending on where you drop the needle, it will loop around a sound from the album indefinitely. And you can only do that on a record. It wouldn’t make sense anywhere else. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to experiment with — and will hopefully find the brain space to experiment with. There’s cool things in physicality.
Have you been able to experiment with physical media in your own work — for example, disintegrating tapes?
It’s something I want to do more. This has been the first point in my life where I’ve decided to put money into my [projects]. I’ve done everything very much on the cheap — in the box, freesound.org — [but] I’ve bought myself a nice cassette player, and I’ve bought myself a nice synth — and I want to start experimenting properly, using that, and not [be] afraid to invest in the stuff I like doing.
What projects do you have on the go at the moment, then?
I’m the king of not releasing anything. -laughs- But at the moment, I’ve got two that I’m currently working on. One is a collection of works with a bunch of spoken word artists. I like collaborating with people. I never wanted Sylvia_Din, as a project, to just be “me”; I want it to be almost like [a] jane doe — a name that doesn’t exist in the real world — anyone can be part of it, it’s always open doors, always open for collaboration.
I’ve got the second, “proper” Sylvia_Din EP. And I’m also working with some other people from across the world on [a] project which I’m not sure when will see the light of day. That’s the most vague one, because there’s a group of us who are writing stuff under the name Dusk Territory… But they’re situated everywhere, so getting everyone to [come together] and collaborate is difficult. And there’s one more with Tumours Grow Teeth…
Tell me a bit about your band, Tumours Grow Teeth — how did that project gestate?
When I was at uni… Lancaster Uni, as far as I’m aware, gutted most of its arts program. Or it felt like it did, anyway. There’s still a lot of visual stuff, but the music stuff is basically gone — not sure if it even existed. So I was in my third year of uni — and a guy came up to me who I’d met a couple of times at nights out in and around campus, and he was like “I’m gonna bring back the indie and alternative music scene, [and] I want you to be social sec.” When I joined Lancaster, I was fucking gutted that there wasn’t a good music scene, and there weren’t weirdo music geeks I could chat shit about — no one wants to hear that at a party… -laughs- So after a level of persuasion, I was like “actually, I want to do this for first year Tom.” I ended up making a couple friends out of that, [and] we started a noisy industrial band. We played one gig, and it was a noise set in a burrito shop. -laughs- That was under the name Tumours Grow Teeth, and I’m working on that at the moment. So hopefully I can get that out.
So there’s a good four EP’s in the works that I’m working on. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ve gotta get at least, two or three out this year. I’ve been sitting on them for too long — as I sit on everything.
I completely empathise. I keep sitting on pieces, and records, and so many of them just don’t see the life of day. -laughs- I don’t know if you’re like that — missing the mark on putting them out?
I’ve had this with multiple things. And I think that’s why with the ones I’m doing at the moment, it’s like: as soon as it’s done, it’s out. If I sit on it, I’ll learn to hate it. As your skills get better, you look at what you’ve just done as “worse”, and thus you don’t put it out. And you’re always getting better — you’re always learning and improving — so by virtue of that, if you keep following this mentality, you never put anything out. Through the writing process, you have improved. [That’s why] with these ones, as soon as they’re done, they’re out; because even if I don’t love it, someone else might.
There’s something nice about that mentality — but conversely, do you find there’s that toxic pressure once you do release something?
Oh, god. It’s really toxic; toxic is definitely the word. I absolutely love my partners patience with me, she’s amazing – there’ll be moments when the [streaming] numbers get to me — and suddenly I can’t sleep, because I’m not doing enough, because I’m not releasing enough, and then I panic spiral. And panic spirals aren’t good for anyone. But it’s a horrible thought: but equally, it’s a horrible thought that you would write something, and it not reach anyone. It doesn’t have to reach everyone, but I’d like it to reach the people that I think might enjoy it. As long as I’ve given it its fair shake, and it’s in the world, it’s in the realms of people that will perform it, and enjoy it… that’s enough for me.
It can be really disheartening when you put your heart and soul into a project, and three people listen to it.
You got three people? What the fuck, bro? How’d you crack that? -laughs-
I’ve got a couple new projects that are like, fledgling music projects. I was listening to a bunch of the old Crydamoure stuff — which is the record label that Daft Punk [founded] — and Archigram’s ‘Doggystyle’ flips an Iggy Pop sample. I was reflecting on how: I love dance music, I love electronic music, and it’s built for a club atmosphere — so when you hear it in a club, you’re like “this makes sense” — and I like indie music, I like scrappy guitar riffs and jumping around. However, indie clubs are not a great experience, because all you can do is sing along or shuffle. It’s a bit weird -laughs- I was reflecting on listening to ‘Doggstyle’, and I was like… “just flip more indie records! There’s good basslines out there.” So on the [tracks] I’m doing at the moment… Hear a bassline? Flip it! Put a kick drum underneath it. Make a five-minute dance song. You know, if Daft Punk can master the art of ramming a two-and-a-half second disco sample through a Korg MS-20, then so can I. -laughs-
You’ve mentioned your collaborative spoken-word record that’s coming out soon — tell me a bit about how that record came to be?
I had this kind of sparse, bass-y, really glitched out beat — much like everyone in the production scene at the moment, I got really into granular synthesis, and I basically started running loads of individual drums through different branches of granual synth. It created this super hazy beat. And I was like, it’s super cool, but it needs… something. It needs a narrative. So I messaged Joshua Jones — he’s helped me out on [my] zines before — and I was like “hey! I’ve got this beat, are you interested?”, and he went “yeah!” So I started working with him. While I was working with [Josh], he messaged me saying a friend of [his] heard what we’re doing and wants to get involved — Aaron Kent, from Broken Sleep Books — and he got involved. So now I’m doing two tracks… That’s how it carried on, over time.
This is my second worst quality: increasing the scope of things to the point where they never get finished. -laughs- I’ve decided, four tracks [and I’m] done. If I keep adding more people, it’ll be good… but it’ll never get released.
I totally understand that. You’ll have too much of a good time making it…
In my personal experience — if you write the music you want to write, you end up pigeonholing yourself, because you’re not forced to be outside of your own comfort zone. Which is why I like to try and bring as many people in to work with me as I can on Sylvia_Din, because I get a bit of “them” and add them to the narrative. When I was working with Aaron, I was like: right, send me an [inspiration] playlist of five songs you want the beat to sound like… And he sent me some Silver Mt. Zion, Aphex Twin, so I was like “cool, we’re gonna go for IDM-post rock.” I’d never written IDM-post rock before. Stuff like that forces me out of my comfort zone. I think that’s the fun of having to write for someone; and naturally, you’re gonna put your own spin on it, because it’s being filtered through you.
I bought this nice cassette player as a treat from me to me. And I can record onto it — so for this spoken word project, I wanna do a small run of cassettes. I’ll DIY it. I’ll do it myself, and I’ll be able to experiment with maybe burying a couple so they sound all fucked up; which will build into this [sound world] I’m doing where all the instrumentals sound a little bit phasey and falling apart. That’s what I want to do more for this EP: be more ambitious. Don’t just put them on Spotify and not tell anyone.
God. I know too many composers and artists who do that exact thing…
“Build it and they will come” mentality is fucking dead. Don’t do that. No one gives a shit.
No one cares unless you shout at them, right?
Everything is, like, homebrewed as fuck [with me]. My mate is really good at this, which is: being confident in the stuff that he does. He’s like, cool, just talk about it. And I just don’t have that same level of confidence — and it’s something I’m trying really hard to [improve]. My friends meme on me, because you can see what people are listening to on Spotify — they can see me listening to my own music. -laughs- I like listening to my own music, because I wrote it for me! Whenever I listen to it, I go: “yeah… I did write this!” And I’ve got to bring that energy forward.
Let’s talk about your curatorial practice. You’ve been releasing a series of zines called ‘Our Restless Bones’ — how did you get involved with these artists?
Yeah! I’m respectful of the idea that the “art” that I do is very much “for me”, and it’s not always “good”, because I’m not necessarily “trained”… However, I do have good taste, and the ability to go “fuck it, let’s just do it.” [‘Our Restless Bones’] started because of the pandemic. I needed to do something, my music wasn’t happening, and I had talented friends that were like “I’ve written five poems this month and I’m so bored”, or “I’ve been painting this, I’m so bored…” — and I’m like, this is really good stuff! That’s how it started — and it was fun for me, I got to learn how to use InDesign, I got to [use] a new set of skills that I never flexed before. I think there’s a joy in helping people get a platform, and have their voices heard.
Was there any particular reason for picking the groups of artists that you did?
Without sounding too Machiavellian, there was a point to it — and I think this is what’s most important [to] the central theme of the zine — everyone has their own friends. I knew that if I got [someone] involved, [their] social group would buy in — but by buying in, they would also see other peoples’ work. If we all shared our scene with each other, the community can grow. The main idea was to: give a voice to people who didn’t have a voice before; give people a purpose, people who [were] struggling, like myself, during lockdown; and give people the ability to share that scene and grow. It’s really nice to see whenever I now go on to peoples’ Instagram pages, I see they’ve all followed each other. It’s little dumb things like that.
If you’re gonna ask what my central ethos for everything I do is, it’s that: build a community, build a scene, get people involved and break down that barrier. You can do it. My friend was getting into music production, and was like “I’ve always been interested, but I’ve never known how to do it…” — and he’s coming over in two weeks and we’re gonna write a beat together. Break down these barriers, don’t gatekeep. Get involved — get people involved.
“If you’re gonna ask what my central ethos for everything I do is, it’s that: build a community, build a scene, get people involved and break down that barrier.” Tom Baker, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
It’s amazing to see these initiatives pop up with this mentality. It’s really great that people are understanding the importance of supporting each other.
To get people involved — at first, it was messaging my friends. And then again — people have friends with friends. Use the community you’ve got. After I did the first [volume], we did an issue of 50, and that went out to people; and through that, I had people message me being like “hey! I wanna get involved…”
Well, you’ve sold out of two of them!
What’s really important for me — [as] I’m not doing this for money, or the profits — is doing good by helping people, [and] giving a voice. I think you can make money off it, and I’m not saying if you do [that] you’re a bad person… But I’m not interested in [money]. That’s not the focus. The focus is doing it, and feeling good, and helping people. I don’t know how I’d feel if I was like “contribute to this zine, [and] I’m gonna take the profits” — that feels really not right — whereas “contribute to this zine, and if everything pans out we can raise £150 for Mind” is something I’d want to be part of.
I guess it’s a question of when and how to monetise your content, right?
The word “content” is the scariest word of the twenty-first century. Things being nuggets of content… As soon as money gets involved, it opens a box that I don’t know if you can always close. You’ve got to be very strict with yourself, and your values. Luckily, I do this whenever I’m getting restless, or I’ve got a cohort of people.
How do you find the time and space to organise all of these projects, both for yourself and for other people?
I always struggle with this. If I’m not doing something, I get very, very restless. My mental health takes a dive when I’m not active. The projects are the things that keep me happy, and motivated. I have a job — I like my job, I like what I do — but you’ve got to have a passion, something that you feel is benefitting the world. Not that I think what I do is “benefitting the world”, but I think it makes a small difference. Especially [if] the zine is my give-back to society… Which all I can give back is a good organisational mindset and some basic InDesign skills. If that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’ve got to give. -laughs-
That’s how the best things start! As small, little DIY efforts. From my experience, no one’s ever created a good, sustainable business model in a boardroom.
I could do you one better! -laughs- For me, what was the saddest thing was the absolute demise of NME — the most important thing I was reading when I was growing up. I’ve never seen a publication take a harder fucking hit; being monetised to the point of absurdity. The most flaccid-ass reviews I’ve ever seen… it feels, like, less objectivity. If we’re gonna be music fans, and music critics, we’ve got to at least be honest when something’s maybe a little bit shit.
Even if it’s your mates, you have to be objective…
Yeah. I find that part of the landscape a level of design. A loss of purpose… your values, I guess.
I can’t even begrudge someone. You’ve got to ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing; and if you’re doing it to make bank, then that’s fine, man. Some people start businesses with the intent of selling them. If that’s your MO from the get-go, then get that bag, [I] respect that. But if you’re not, then you should probably think a little bit about that.
Check out Tom’s respective projects at the links below:
Check out Our Restless Bones – and get one of the remaining copies of the zine’s Vol. 3 – at the link below: