UTG INTERVIEW: The Tontons @ Middle of the Map Fest


When you think of Houston, TX, what do you think of? ZZ Top? Destiny’s Child? Maybe…Blue October? Some southern gospel…maybe? But chilled-out indie isn’t necessarily the vibes I get when I think about one of the largest cities in the country. But The Tontons deliver just that. The band just released their latest album, Make Out King and Other Stories of Love, and have caught some glances, not only with the album itself, but with their relaxing, yet in-your-face live show that leaves nothing in its path.

As they made their way to Kansas City for Middle of the Map Festival, Under the Gun had a chance to sit down with them to talk about the record, their huge summer plans, and the future.

So I listened to the record, and it seemed like at the beginning I got a Strokes vibe in some of the musicianship, and then it slowed down towards the end of it, what kind of influences did you have with this record?

Tom Nguyen (bassist): That’s a tough one. This record was written over the past two years, and it reflects over our touring life. We didn’t have time to like stop and write, so the songs are reflections of us touring and the shit that’s going on, such as us kind of getting into fights. We recorded over a four month period, start to finish in Austin this past summer, 2013.

Justin Martinez (drums): We recorded at this place called Churchhouse Studios, with Dave Boyle, it was pretty cool. Took about four months, and at one point we lived there for a month straight. It was pretty crazy. Most of the songs we already had finished, because we had been playing them for like two years already. There’s a couple of them on there we worked out in the studio.

TN: As far as influences goes, I definitely wrote a couple songs. I had been watching The X-files and The Wonder Years. I binged on that.

Wow. The Wonder Years and The X-Files. There are no similarities there whatsoever.

TN: I know. And I think the record reflects that [laughs]. The last two songs just chilled out, like heavy. And I thought “this didn’t sound like the beginning of record at all.” Which was cool, it worked; from guitar all over the place and cool progressions, to almost straight acoustic singer-songwriter.

JM: Yeah it almost went straight acoustic. I don’t think we planned for it to go in that direction.

TN: We didn’t have any concept for the record. It was, “Here’s some songs we’ve written while touring, now we’re going to make a record because we haven’t made one for awhile.”

How does a setup for a record like that come about?

TN: There was a couple songs we had been playing and never got around to recording, It was all real organic. When we were working with this producer, he helped us just make everything really cohesive. We didn’t really plan it out. Every song took a life of its own.

Except for “Bones 1” and “Bones 2.” I enjoyed seeing how the first song started and how the last one ended.

TN: We have a 7” version, that we put out 8 or 9 months before, and they sounded cool, but we decided to re-record those, because they were more polished, with more keys and stuff like that. We decided to scrap that.

JM: Something more raw and live.

TN: Yeah we were going for a real live sound on the record. Those songs, despite the names really have nothing to do with each other.

JM: Different set of bones [laughs]. Those songs really have funny vibes; ones really fast paced or whatever.

TN: “Bones 1” is just about not wanting to settle down so early; live and be young. They kind of go together, “Bones 2” is just about regrets.

When I listen to a record, and I see a similarity, I really try to deduct the differences, see patterns, and stuff like that.

TN: There definitely is. I think most of it is unconscious though. After recording those two songs, and putting them on a 7”, we’re like, “actually they go together really well,” lyrically anyway. We’re just really bad at naming songs.

How did you guys get set up with Middle Of The Map?

TN: I actually talked to one of the guys that put it on, and he was telling me that he found out about us from us playing in Lawrence a few months ago, and that’s how he heard about us. He said he had been a big fan and just invited us to play.

You guys did SXSW? Do you see this like a smaller version of South By?

TN: Yeah, that’s the basic concept, but South By is a bit more intense. There are people everywhere.

It’s changed so much, with Lady Gaga puking on stage; it’s not quite the same as it used to be.

TN: If you’re there, you don’t know that’s going on though. I knew she was there, but I was just all over, and going to see shows, seeing all these random bands. Like, I knew that happened. There’s just so much going on. I heard Neil Young was doing a conference. Then I was just walking and there goes Neil Young. And then I walked by another venue and Fred Armisen and Carrie [Brownstein] were doing a book signing like 10 feet away. Oh, well that’s cool.

JM: It’s really cool to see the up-and-coming bands or something you had just heard about recently though.

You guys have a pretty quick set and have to bounce?

TN: I thought we didn’t have to be back until Sunday, I did want to check out some bands. I think we’ll catch one or two songs from Har Mar [Superstar] and bounce.

You guys have to come back.

Both: Oh for sure.

What’s going on after this?

TN: Paris.

JM: We’re playing a festival, I don’t even know what it’s called, it’s in French. It’s like 20 minutes outside of Paris. It should be really cool; we’ve never been overseas as a band. We’ve been to Quebec, got a little preparation for the French I guess [laughs].

You guys going to be back and tour here after this?

TN: Yeah. Our summer is going to be pretty packed. Full US Tour. We have a bunch of festivals and right now we’re connecting the dots.

What festivals?

TN: Hangout Fest in Alabama, Summerfest in Houston, Firefly in Delaware, Pemberton north of Vancouver, Afropunk in Brooklyn.

JM: It’s going to be a lot of fun.

TN: Yeah, I’ll get to see Outkast at least three times.

I’m reeking with jealousy. Just want you to know that. Small shows in between the festivals?

TN: Touring to each festival. It’s all tentative, I’ll get a full schedule in like 2 or 3 weeks and be like, “Oh, my summer’s planned out for me” [laughs]. We also want to go back to Europe and do a proper tour.

Instead of just the one festival?

TN: This was just like a last minute thing. Free trip to Paris. They’re covering all the expenses.

Can’t complain there.

TN: Might as well do it.

JM. Wish we could be there longer, but it is free.

You guys have got some fairly decent recognition, being from Houston, which is the like the third or fourth biggest city in the nation. If you’re getting some national recognition with these big festivals, you’re getting invited to other things like this. You’re playing a good gig here; Del [tha Funky Homosapien] will be on after you guys. What do you have to say to like the Kansas City (or smaller) bands that are only playing gigs around here?

TN: Persistence. And you’ll eventually know if this is going to happen or not. For us, we’ve been doing it for a couple yeaers now, and theres always a breaking point, like maybe we should stop doing this and get jobs or finish college. And then some random opportunity would show up, like “Ok we need to continue doing this.” Our first tour just fell into our laps, we had never toured before, then all of a sudden we were playing the Fillmore in San Francisco. A lot of luck and work. I don’t have any tips really though. Stick with it and know when to quit.

Anything else for the record guys?

JM: Got anything? Any Tom’s tips?

Tom’s tips? Is that a thing?

TN: I’ve been asked a lot questions, about general questions, such as things for up-and-coming bands, or touring tips. It’s all pretty awful.

JM: We’re going to make a book, Tom’s Tour Tips To Winning.


Be sure to check out the new record, Make Out King and Other Stories of Love, and see The Tontons if you get the chance when they come back through this summer. The album is out now.

Corey From

Corey From, from Kansas City, MO, when not thinking about or listening to music, obsessively thinks about Royals baseball, a platter of ribs (or BBQ in general) and cold beer. Nothing special really.
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