FPSF 2014 Preview: The Tontons
In the six years or so I have been following The Tontons, I’ve seen them play at least two dozen times, but I’ve never actually sat down to interview any of their band members. I recently finally reached out to frontwoman Asli Omar to ask her some questions about The Tontons, touring, their new album, Make Out King and Other Stories of Love, and an even newer track called “Lush” that they’ve just released (and which you can click to listen to below). Usually I do these interviews by email, but this time I was fortunate enough to talk to Asli on the phone.
SCR: I remember that very first Free Press Summerfest, The Tontons were on that first one, right?
Asli Omar: We were, yes. We were right after Mechanical Boy on the first Summerfest, so we were the second band on the first day of the first Summerfest.
Whoa, I remember that band! Very cool, so you’ve played it again since then, right?
We played it again, I think, in 2011.
I think you had a better time slot but were off on a side stage, right?
Yeah, you’re right, but this time we’ve got a good time slot on the main stage, so it will be really good. People are always congregating near the main stage, so we’re excited.
What’s the best thing about playing Free Press?
Getting to go home right afterwards! We play a lot of festivals in other cities and other states, and you want to enjoy yourself but you don’t know anybody, but here we get to do what we love in front of people we love in our city. And it’s a historical thing for Houston. It’s great to be a part of that.
Are you loving every minute of what you guys are doing The Tontons?
Yeah, we get to travel. We get to meet awesome people. Last weekend we played Hangout Fest in Alabama, and it’s like, we get paid to do this and then we get to see Outkast on top of it!
I haven’t had the chance to interview you in all this time, so I’ve been wondering who your vocal inspirations are?
Obviously, I really love jazz a lot. Billie Holliday and Etta James are my idols, but on a more contemporary level, I love St. Vincent and Dirty Projectors. What they do with their vocals is amazing. If you’re a vocalist, you should give them a listen, because very few bands spend that much time and energy perfecting these wonderful harmonies like they do.
Is it difficult being a woman in the otherwise all-male band?
Not at all! I love my band so much — we’re like a family! The other night we went to a club, and about ten minutes in, we were dancing so hard we cleared the dance floor, and everyone gave us our space to dance. I can make a fool of myself around them.
So sometimes you’re like the sister and they protect you? Then sometimes you’re more like the mother protecting all the boys?
Yeah, exactly! It’s so great! We’re really lucky to have each other.
That reminds me; Justin [Tontons drummer] recently had his appendix taken out. He’s feeling better now?
Yeah, he’s 100% now. He was out there dancing circles around us the other night; he’s making up for those three weeks in the hospital, that’s for sure! Everybody loves him, and he’s a great drummer!
So let’s switch gears and talk about your album… What’s the story behind the name for the new album?
The name of the new album is Make Out King and Other Stories of Love. It started out as an inside joke among the band. They would make fun of me for a situation that happened with people who shall remain nameless, and then it kept going for years, so when it came time to name the album, someone said, “How about we name it after this incident?” A lot of the songs are about my relationships with different people, platonic and romantic.
Tell me about the song “Lonely” that’s on the album — I really love that song.
I wrote “Lonely” right when I first moved back from New York and I was in a three-year-long relationship, and it ended in New York. I got home and I had this weird overwhelming sense of change. I think anyone experiencing this complete shift in life — anyone would feel really lonely.
You were at a crossroads there, and then you came back to do The Tontons for good.
How about the brand-new song “Lush”? It’s not on the album, but it’s one of my favorite songs of yours now!
We got asked to do this project called Shaking Through. They do a documentary series with about 12 groups a year. They have you come in one day and write and record a song on day one, and then day two is mixing and tweaking. And it was such a cool experience with Weathervane Music.
It was really a dream come true. Everybody we worked with was wonderful. The whole experience was completely unique. Some of our favorite artists, like Celestial Shore, Ava Luna, and Twin Sister, have done it before, so when they offered it to us, we were stunned and shocked and really excited! Luckily, we were on tour and were able to get over to Philadelphia to do it.
[Click here to hear the new song, “Lush,” for yourself.]
Is this song brand-new, written after the album?
Yes, we wrote it after the album. We kind of had an idea going into the session, but it changed as we wrote it in Philadelphia.
Do you write the lyrics separately, or do you throw some of them out while the band is jamming?
It varies, based on the situation and the song. We don’t really have a formula; it all depends. One day I might come in with pre-written lyrics that work with a song. And the next day I might only have a vague idea of what I want to write about, and I’ll listen to the band playing and go from there.
Have you noticed your crowds getting bigger in other cities? Any favorite city where you seem to be really catching on?
Yeah, it’s been really good the last few tours we’ve been on; people are there to see us every night, and especially recently, the shows have been well-attended. We were lucky enough to get some shows supporting Bright Light Social Hour and Shakey Graves, so working with those Austin bands has helped get us exposure. Not long ago, we went to Cleveland for the first time, and there were people who knew us!
Are you getting college radio airplay or is it word of mouth?
Stations in Austin have been really generous — KUTX has been great to us and played us a bunch.
Well, thanks so much for talking to us, and we’ll make sure we tell everyone to get out to see you guys at FPSF this Saturday!
Thank you! See you out there! END
(All photos by Jason Smith.)