Tomato Flower is the Baltimore-based experimental pop outfit composed of Austyn Wohlers, Jamison Murphy, Mike Alfieri, and Ruby Mars. Although they each share different musical interests, their collaboration prioritizes the sort of artistic synthesis that’s hard to resist, a blend of free-flowing experimentation and pop hookiness that often takes years to master. With just one EP under the belt, and a second one arriving tomorrow, Tomato Flower have managed to hit the sweet spot pretty early on: the songs on February’s Gold Arc and Construction came together between 2019 and 2021 and showcase a band that’s not just versatile and playful in their approach to sound, but also intensely rigorous and emotionally expressive when it comes to shaping it into something memorable. The group – which is about to go on tour with Animal Collective – is now focused on completing their first LP; these two collections, with their expansive, idiosyncratic soundscapes and joyously imaginative world-building, are proof they’re already dreaming big.
We caught up with Tomato Flower for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the origins of the project, the process behind their two EPs, and more.
Could you talk about how the four of you met and what your first impressions of each other were?
Austyn Wohlers: Jamison and Ruby and I all met at this summer camp in Georgia, an academic type of summer camp. We were all studying English, and we’re audio engineering minors. I think we were the only three people with that combination of studies. Jamison and Ruby can probably speak more to their friendship, because they actually hit it off at this camp where I was sort of in a different circle. But like I knew of them, and I thought they were very cool. I remember talking to Jamison about literature very early on. Ruby and Jamison would play music on the lawn, and I read this piece for this gonzo journalism class lightly poking fun at people who played music on the lawn.
Ruby Mars: It was a hit piece.
AW: Yeah, totally. And I remember we were in a critique for it, me and Jamison, and Jamison told me to get over myself. [Jamison laughs] So, honestly, we had a moment of friction early. And I didn’t realize actually that it had been him until later because it was his handwriting. Then I went to undergrad and Jamison was a year above me, and we played music together all through college. And my senior year, we started a band called Paradise Montage with me, Jamison, and Ruby, played in that for about a year until Jamison and I moved to Baltimore. And then Jamison and I moved to Baltimore with the partial intention of forming Tomato Flower. We were working on some of the first songs which are on both Construction and Gold Arc, and we played a couple of shows just the two of us.
I actually met Mike while volunteering at an experimental music festival called High Zero. And that was also a funny situation where we were just sitting next to each other, we were both ushering, I think. And Mike was like, “Do you play music,” blah, blah, blah. And I was like, “Yeah, I have an experimental band, we’re looking for a drummer.” And Mike was like, “I’m a drummer!” Mike saw one of Jamison and I’s shows, just with a little drum machine, and he was like, “I wanna play together.” So we played for a minute as a three-piece, recorded both of these EPs, and we kept playing without a bassist. And Jamison and I were both like, “We really want Ruby to be the bassist.” So we sort of gradually convinced Ruby to move up. We kind of yanked our bassist up from Atlanta, and then we got together.
Jamison and Ruby, how do you remember that time?
Jamison Murphy: Very fondly.
RM: It was a fast friendship.
Did joining the band feel very sudden to you, or did it feel natural from the moment you first played together?
RM: It did feel pretty natural because I’ve always felt so connected and tuned in to the music that Austyn and Jamison have been making for a long time. Hearing the songs that they had recorded with Mike and coming up to Baltimore to start to play bass with those songs, it did feel very natural. I remember hearing those songs, the ones that are in Gold Arc and Construction now, for the first time, walking around and being just so in love with them and excited about being part of that music.
Given that the songs were written around the same time, I was curious when the differences between them came to light, and how you went about separating them into two distinct collections.
JM: I would say around the time that we had concrete plans to release them, we figured that we’re doing them as two. There was not really a distinct principle of selection, I think it was more a question of gathering things that are somewhat closer in vibe and also preserving small-scale sequences between the two EPs that we knew worked. The real shape of them as EPs – just because we were so involved with each individual piece, crafting them before sequencing any of it – I only started hearing them that way later. I guess a general way to distinguish them, the songs in the second EP are generally a bit longer, it’s somewhat darker as a general vibe. But both EPs have their feet in both pop and experimental music, so it’s sort of just a question of where the vibes between the songs coalesce.
Did your collabroative process change at all depending on what vibe you leaned more towards for each song?
AW: I would say all the songs have some element of being collaborative, but some of them come out more fully formed as demos than others. A really fun working process that we have is we’ll start with a kind of straightforward pop song and then try to break its legs or something, just to be like, “We’re gonna chop this here” or “This part needs to get more angular.” I think we sometimes refer to it as “making the song see the alien” or something, just to try to take something that feels very perfect and straightforward and see where we can make it warp.
I feel like both EPs revolve around the idea of a utopian world, but Construction seems to have a more human, abstract, and almost emotional approach to it. Was that something you wanted to collectively explore?
JM: I would say the the utopian part of the first EP, for me that sort of suite of the first four songs that we gathered together I think got that theme very succinctly. And we knew in sequencing it, those first four songs were a unit and would work very well that way. But I would say in this batch of songs that we were writing, there always were some songs that came from a slightly less heady, slightly more human place. I think there’s less of that unified theme, and more emotional or personally expressive – there’s more of that on the second one.
My favorite track on the EP is probably ‘Fancy’; I love how it evokes a very specific feeling despite being quite economical in both its musical and lyrical approach. Even the way you sing the word ‘Fancy’ is so close to “fantasy,” which kind of sums up part of what the songs are about. How did that one come together?
JM: That one started I think in 2016 when Austyn and I were in college. We were just playing that riff, we were listening to Duster and slowcore music and trying to play a riff like that. And we had that riff forever. I’ve tried to demo that riff at least 10 times. And winter 2020, we just had a day where we holed up and just tried to work on it. I started playing it in Drop D where I usually had played it in standard, so the fact that I had that open D sort of opened up this second chord voicing to it. Those lyrics of the verse were also there since 2016 and were for a long time contentless. But when we were trying to write the rest of it, it sort of took on this other meaning of – basically, we hadn’t released any music at that time, and I think we were in a state of frustration. It became about both desire for success and a certain kind of bitterness toward it, this balance between wanting to shove away things that you don’t have, but also desiring them.
AW: I remember the chorus to that one came so quickly, which was nice, because there’s some other songs that I felt we had to really hammer it out.
What do you each associate with the colour blue? What’s the first thing that comes to mind?
AW: Definitely the ocean, especially on that song.
Mike Alfieri: I think of it just in general as a mood, like the blues or A Kind of Blue, where it’s not particularly sadness but changes in emotions. That’s kind of where I’m coming from approaching a lot of this music, with the blues and the idea of the blues. That’s blue to me.
AW: I love how you’re such a jazz head that the phrase A Kind of Blue just slipped out of you.
RM: Well, I think of the song ‘Blue’ by Eiffel 65. [Jamison laughs] And I think of the music video where it’s like, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it must have cost like $10 million. It’s all these blue dudes in the crowd and they’re going like this [dances].
MA: Isn’t it like a CGI video?
RM: Yeah, it’s a CGI video. So I think of little blue aliens going like this.
I love that you went from Miles Davis to Eiffel 65.
RM: The whole gamut.
Around the time of your first EP, you said that you have this sound in your head that doesn’t exist yet. Do you feel like you’re getting closer to understanding what it is?
JM: I would say when we were forming this band and planning out how it would sound, a lot of that was realized in the two EPs. It’s shaping up differently now, just because there’s publicly accessible music that is some version of that. To a certain degree, in writing the new music, there’s like a template or at least a reference point that this sounds like Tomato Flower, and we’ll say that when we’re working on songs. We couldn’t say that before, it would be more abstract. But at the same time, I think the actual moment-to-moment experience of playing is, if anything, freer and more generative than in the past. Also simply because we’re more comfortable with each other. In the past couple of days, Ruby and I were playing and Mike and I were playing, and it feels, actually, kind of unstoppably generative right now. And that’s coming into it with really no preconceptions. Part of it’s planned, we’ll have ideas of what we want the next thing to sound like, but I would say the real work of it comes in just playing.
AW: But also, I do think that our vision for it changed as we continued making stuff. I remember when we started, we wanted it to be very clean, spare guitars and subtle drums, and there was a kind of minimalism, I think, that Jamison and I were interested in, especially writing the first five songs for the band that we wrote. But then we were mixing them and we were like, “Should we turn up the cello?” We couldn’t escape the parts of us that are interested in a kind of lushness. And I do think that’s for the better. There was a certain textural element that we thought we wanted to stick to at the beginning, but we just love strings too much.
JM: Yeah, I didn’t own a distortion pedal when we wrote the first song.
Mike and Ruby, has it felt similarly free to you in the past few days?
MA: I feel like even though there is now a template and a form for how we want to sound and our approach and our concepts, we’re really always excavating and figuring out new ideas. And then those new ideas spurring new ideas, and we’re sourcing from different places all the time. So in that sense, it’s always free. There really is no limit to what we could do. It’s just how we refine these ideas that we have and make them fit into our sound. Now especially, writing an album, I think we have a better focus. I feel like the first five songs were written already, and then then we got to write more and write more. We really didn’t have an end in mind. We’re writing for the sake of writing, because we really wanted to and were passionate about doing it. So now we have that passion and it’s amplified, but we have a cohesive end point in mind now, so I think that’s really helping the way we’re writing. I think we’re really coming up with some amazing stuff, if I can say that. All the factors in our process are really pushing us to write some really good music.
RM: Yeah, it’s just feeling good. It’s just joy.
Can you each share one thing about everyone else in the group that inspires you?
MA: These people are my great friends and amazing collaborators. I think every part of them is inspiring, what they’re doing musically and what they’re doing outside of music in their personal lives and other professional lives. It’s just an amazing group to be a part of. We’ve all played in different scenarios and played in different bands, and for me, I feel like I’m not freelancing anymore, being a drummer. I finally found a group that is expressive and honest and personal, and we’re all allowing that to happen for each other. And that feels wonderful. Everybody’s allowed to be themselves and bring their best to the music. That pushes me, I just want to go do better work all the time. And it’s fun. It’s all fun.
JM: Aww. That’s really sweet.
AW: I find everyone else in the band to be sort of voracious about making sure that art is prime in our lives. For example, Jamison and Ruby and I live together and we have a kind of unspoken “music always first” rule. We have a piano in the living room, we have our drum set in the basement. There’s constantly music playing at all hours of the day, even 15 minutes before you have to go to work or something like this. I just feel really lucky to be able to make music with people who are so uncompromising and voracious, in terms of influence, too; none of us are pigeonholed in style. Sometimes we’ll be talking about – this is the example I’m always using these days, but the Jesus Lizard and Aqua in the same breath. There’s sort of an infinite openness that I think all of us have to trying things and bringing things in.
JM: I’m inspired for each of the bandmates with – related to Austyn’s thing about voraciousness, but openness to learning. I find that specifically inspiring because, talking with any of the three bandmates, it always makes me want to go out and learn something, whatever they’re getting their hands into.
RM: Same with Austyn, I appreciate having a group of people where art is the number one priority. It feels like we’re all on the same spiritual train car, and we’re going really quickly.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.