The Protean ​Proficiencies of Tom Rowland

by | a Day in the Life

Film maker, composer, and photographer Tom Rowland allows GDC Interiors Journal a sneak peak into a typically unbounded day in his life. Tom may be a jack-of-all-trades with his flexible and multidisciplinary career and creative collaborations, but his many accolades – including the recent award for his film Primitive at the BAFTA accredited Aesthetica festival in York – proves that he is master of all of them.

Main Image: Tom Rowland at Metropolis Studios. Portrait by Andras Polonyi

Photo from Performance of 'The Moving Body' at the Dulwich Picture Galery by Tom Rowland

Performance of The Moving Body at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Photo by © Tom Rowland

So one thing you should know about me is that I was clinically diagnosed with boredom when I was eight years old. It can happen. This was largely thanks to the intervention of a somewhat enlightened general practitioner in 1980s suburban London. I couldn’t stand the routine of a school day, it was unstimulating and uncreative. When teachers were too busy, they would set us mundane exercises printed on laminated, felt-tip scrawled exercise cards so they could catch up on their marking. The biggest problem was that I had no idea why I had to be there when I could be out doing something real with my life.

Now I am older, and I realise that teachers are only human with all the usual relationship problems, money worries, existential crises. School is never going to be ideally suited to kids who just have to be bloody well different. Anyway, I had become so bored with a typical day I was starting to feel physical pain (this is true) which I began to think was normal. Fortunately, instead of pointing to the paracetamol, my family GP sent me off to an educational psychologist in Fitzrovia who ran some tests and concluded that I was medically bored. And that’s the worst kind.

Chronic boredom is hard to cure. Everyone has to concoct their own medicine.

Almost thirty years later, I find myself working as a film-maker, composer, and photographer. This autumn has seen me collaborating with professional dancers, computer programmers, projection artists, a soprano and a violinist, an electronic pop artist and producer, art gallery production teams, amongst others. I have launched a music video at the opulent Café Royal in Piccadilly, and have taken part in a production at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in which I was employed as composer and on-stage photographer (limited edition prints of the evening are now available online). I have also been working on the audio production for an ground-breaking music-based video game called Chime Sharp with some great artists, and am preparing for a major film festival. So – medicine.

The prospect of writing about a typical day in my life is going to be challenging, mainly because an important goal for me is to never have a typical day. Nevertheless, there are a few still points in the turning world for me which I can identify.

Primarily, that’s Coffee. I can’t imagine any one of these Day in the Life articles will not feature caffeine somewhere. It’s the nation’s favourite drug after alcohol. Well, I suppose at least it’s probably a better choice than LSD to set you up for the chaotic fire-drill of London’s daily commute, although I know some people who might disagree. Anyway, I drink a litre of coffee every morning, ideally ground from the beautiful mixed-roast Santos coffee beans sold by Nut Case on Uxbridge Road. Now this is unlike any of the other run-of-the-mill, drab coffee bean you get from other supermarkets and delicatessens. Each bean is a thing of beauty – jet black or cocoa brown (dark or light roast) and glistening with the natural oils. And you can smell the extra perfume as soon as the lid comes of the grinder. For me it’s these details which make all the difference.

Chronic boredom is hard to cure. Everyone has to concoct their own medicine.

Image: Screenshot from Making History music video by Tom Rowland

Even the most irreverent of creatives needs some kind of base of operations, and for me that is currently a desk in the basement of Metropolis Studios, one of London’s major recording and mastering facilities, where I am a ‘third-party resident’. There are quite a few others like me down there. I have a little corner to call my own, and I love it. When I said, basement, it literally is a factory basement, but there are light wells and everyone makes up for the lack of sunlight by trying to poison each other’s biscuits with furiously powerful chilli extract, so all in all it’s a great place to operate.

Metropolis is located in a converted power station which originally provided electricity for a Victorian tram line which ran through west London. After the private company which ran the tram folded in the early 20th century, the building became an exchange and then lay derelict for decades, until it was redeveloped into a recording studio in the late 80s. The conversion was beautifully completed, and the studio now rivals Abbey Road, having become the base for notable artists from Freddie Mercury to Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

Working at Metropolis suits me really well, mainly because there are always interesting people doing interesting things, twenty four hours a day, every day of the year (yes, I have worked here at Christmas). But great people is what it’s all about. I think one of the best things about a creative career is that it permits the opportunity to work expressively on your own as well as collaboratively with a group. |f either of those two things don’t appeal, then it can make things tricky. I’ve met some highly talented people here, and made some great friends. For example, at the desk opposite mine sits Adam Williams, the man who produced the Eurythmics, who is currently launching a potentially revolutionary new full-perspective camera. There are always agents and musicians, producers, editors and professionals.

Yes, there are also parties. But I can’t say much about them.

I swear, they are very rarely hideously debauched.

But Metropolis makes up only one part of my working day. A lot of my work is of course admin – writing to clients and artists, progressing projects, processing photo shoots or audio files, updating websites etc. But when it comes to the real core creative work, I am usually not at a desk.

…and everyone makes up for the lack of sunlight by trying to poison each other’s biscuits with furiously powerful chilli extract, so all in all it’s a great place to operate…

Image: Metropolis Studios. Photo by © Tom Rowland

Where you are has a big effect on what you do, I have found.

Walt Disney had a great system for getting the best out of his creatives. He had them work in three rooms. The first room was for pure creative innovation. People were free to come up with as many ideas as they could, say whatever they like. And the golden rule was there was absolutely no criticism allowed – not even positive. He even had a swear box for anyone who broke this rule. The second room was for critique of the results of the first room. Finally, the third room was for synthesising the product of the first two, and coming up with new starting points. The great thing about this system is that creative thinking is very vulnerable to being overpowered by critical thinking (at least in most mortals). So separating them allows both modes of thought to operate more efficiently.

So, when I am coming up with new ideas, I like to physically go to a different place from my desk (which for me represents a space where I typically spend all day appraising things). If anyone reading this is suffering from some kind of creative block, I’d give it a try. I don’t mean to sound like one of those tedious Apple fanboys, but it makes all the difference having a powerful Macbook which you can rely on starting when you open it up, and which can handle music production, film and photo editing. It makes it possible for me to create whenever I can find a space to stop and put my headphones in. For example, when getting the key rhythm to a music video, I generally like to be in someone else’s lounge, for some reason. Also, I composed a good deal of the music for my soundtrack to the dance piece Finding Freedom sitting on tube carriages.

I find the London underground a very inspiring place. I used to be severely agoraphobic, and for many years in my twenties the prospect of getting on to a tube carriage as horrifying a prospect as entering into a serious car accident. It’s hard to imagine, but that’s what it actually feels like, the prospect of being trapped in a place with people staring at you, seeing you humiliatingly unmasked by a panic attack. But now I am no longer an agoraphobe, I actually love the proximity and variation of the tube. Yes it is miserable and cramped, stuffy and tiring, but it is also injects a beautiful element of randomness and human interaction into your life if you let it. In this respect, it is like London as a whole, I think. A deep-tunnel train is such a bizarre environment, but when you think about all the life, love and emotions going on behind every other travellers’ half-closed eyelids, it’s actually a very inspiring location. I set a scene in my recent film Primitive on the tube because for me, and maybe also for others, it is a paradoxical place of conflict and creativity.

As I mentioned before, collaborating with interesting people is one of the best things about my work. This year I have started directing music videos, which means I have been sharing the creative process from the start with an artist. Quite often someone will come to a director or producer with pretty rigid ideas about what they believe they want to be done. This is the most common and also the worst starting point. You have to go on a journey with any creative idea, and as soon as you start that movement you probably look back and see how stale and permeated with cliché that starting point was. It’s why they are called preconceptions, after all.

So, I often start by sitting in a room (ideally the beautiful PMC screening room at Metropolis) talking to the artist about their likes influences and seeing what surfaces. We also look at the influences of their influences (I learned this from Brian Eno), often checking out Youtube videos. Then we expand the range from things that come up in conversation, maybe looking photos, paintings, animations, architecture, Google street map – Hell, anything that takes our fancy or fantasy. Proper Disney Room One stuff. The next stage is working out what sort of visual ideas will represent what the artist wants and needs. Then we figure out if and how we can practically do any of these within the budget. But not until we have a hot, beating creative heart inside the machine first.

After hours? Well, I don’t have normal working hours, nor would I want them.

Image: Screenshot from Dreamers Official music video by Tom Rowland

Today, besides writing this article, I have been working on music production and preparing for the Aesthetica Film Festival in York, where Primitive is screening. I was in New York with it earlier this year, so I’m glad the film is going to proper, old York too. True to my word, I am writing this sitting on a train, having started it in Metropolis. I’m off to Sadler’s Wells for the opening night of the latest Rambert run. I have a few things I have to finish before tomorrow, so I’ll be working late tonight. On the other hand, there is a live music event tonight at Metropolis, so I’ll probably head over there. There’s never enough time for all the things I want to do. But at least I’ve got the train journey back.


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