In 2001, when Tom Gaynor was a 10-year-old growing up in Adelaide, he discovered hip-hop through underground skateboarding videos. As he started soaking up Dr. Dre, Talib Kweli and Eminem, hearing a new language of beats and bars, the excited boy was certain of one thing: “I can absolutely do this and do it better.”
There’s an irrationally high degree of self-belief required to believe you can match the modern greats while still in primary school. Gaynor absolutely knows this; in fact, he describes his youthful outlook as “delusional”. But it’s that very quality that carried him through the creation and rise of his musical persona, the rapper Allday. For Gaynor, it’s the emotional extremes that let him navigate the mundane grind.
“You do need that reckless self-belief, especially in the early days. The middle days can be difficult, too,” Gaynor tells NME. “If you live too relentlessly in the real world you will be bummed out some of the time. The delusional self-belief is what helps you keep going.”
That outlook, swinging between believing in triumph and preparing for tragedy, kept Gaynor resilient when others might have buckled. It resulted in a trio of top 10 Allday albums for the rapper in Australia – 2014’s ‘Startup Cult’, 2017’s ‘Speeding’, and 2019’s ‘Starry Night over the Phone’ – a relocation to Los Angeles, and an aesthetic that mixed heightened romantic fantasy and purloined pop-culture.
It also meant that even as he defined Allday and built an ever-growing audience, Gaynor was open to putting aside what he’d nurtured and torpedo the perceptions of his fanbase. Now that he’s back in Australia, having left Los Angeles early in 2020 before the borders shut, Gaynor has done that just. His new album, ‘Drinking With My Smoking Friends’, embraces indie rock sonics with a foundation of burgeoning guitars, plunging basslines, steady rhythms, and burnished singing. It’s as if in 2001 that 10-year-old had found The Stone Roses, You Am I, and Oasis instead.
“I feel very comfortable with guitar music and I grew up on rock ’n’ roll as well as hip-hop,” Gaynor says. “But when it came to making music, rapping was the first thing I was able to do because I wasn’t a polished singer when I was young. The world I was connected to was the rap world, but I was always interested in making other songs, so this felt very natural.”
“I left at the height of my friends’ twenties hedonism and I came back and everyone was in a different place”
Popular music may increasingly be free of genres and their boundaries, but pivoting from hip-hop to alternative guitar pop is still a remarkable move. Gaynor admits that he doubted the decision at times, but his confidence has grown in recent weeks as he’s prepared for the album’s launch (which he’s doing independently, so as to own his master recordings). Gaynor believes this is the best album he’s made yet, and he wants his fans to hear it.
“It’s actually not a huge leap, but I probably made too big a deal about it,” Gaynor says. “My friend Grace – Mallrat – said to me the other day that I should stop apologising for it and just be like, ‘I made a new album and it’s really good’.”
It’s good advice. Gaynor doesn’t just look like the frontman of a band – complete with his tangle of long locks and wiry frame – he sounds like one, too. ‘Drinking With My Smoking Friends’ has bittersweet guitar melodies (‘Cup Of Tea In The Bath’), electronics-flecked belters (‘After All This Time’), and swelling ballads (‘Bright’). But there’s also a clear through line back to Gaynor’s earlier Allday records – the polished pop groove of ‘Stolen Cars’, for example, is an obvious successor to his 2017 single with Japanese Wallpaper, ‘In Motion’.
“Genres schmenres” is how Gaynor sums up stylistic boundaries, but he still ran into practical difficulties while working with producer Scott Horscroft (Silverchair, DMA’S, The Presets). Having spent years crafting a beat on a laptop, Gaynor found himself in iffy conversations with drummers such as Delta Riggs’ Michael Tramonte and session great Terapai Richmond (Missy Higgins, Guy Sebastian). But every time Gaynor and Horscroft mixed a finished song, finding the balance between the guitars and the rhythm section, the process became easier.
Making ‘Drinking With My Smoking Friends’ in Australia – with a supporting cast that included Johnny Took and Matt Mason of DMA’S, former Gang Of Youths guitarist Joji Malani, singer-songwriter Hayley Mary, and songwriter and producer Gab Strum, aka Japanese Wallpaper – was a COVID necessity in 2020. But it was also liberating for Gaynor after three years of working in Los Angeles with the American label Ultra Music.
“They’d say, ‘Let’s have a session with you, a songwriter, and a producer,’ and because I was at the bottom rung for them, they weren’t putting me with Max Martin,” Gaynor says. “They were putting me with Rando McGee. And some of the music was negatively affected by that, so when I came home I said [to myself], ‘You have to trust yourself and work with the people you know and respect’.”
“I started looking at the Nick Caves and the Leonard Cohens. I wanted to reach for that kind of magic relationship they have with their muse”
Coming back to Melbourne was a bittersweet experience for Gaynor. He’d moved there the first time when he was still 19 and had nothing but ambition and manic drive. Gaynor would work at the call centre and flip burgers in consecutive shifts, use his pay to fund the next day’s studio session, then spend the weekend opening shows at venues that had barely opened their doors. It took Gaynor four years of “grinding” to get signed to his first label, One Two Records. 2020, by contrast, felt uncertain at first, as if he and the city were out of sync.
“I left at the height of my friends’ twenties hedonism and I came back and everyone was in a different place,” Gaynor says. “I’d had a shitty break-up and one of my best friends had passed away while I was away, so it was an adjustment to come back and figure out what it felt like and where was good to hang. That was probably my most difficult time.”
On ‘Void’, the new album’s opening track, Gaynor declares with conviction, “You will avoid the void”. It’s a mantra he’s singing from personal experience: He’s now settled in the inner-north suburb of Northcote with his girlfriend and seeing The Avalanches when he goes out for coffee. Other tracks such as ‘The Paris End Of Collins St’ – where Gaynor imagines being “high on MDMA in Bunnings” – have an absurdist but accurate understanding of Melbourne’s social dynamic.
“I realised I just had to keep [myself] in drive,” Gaynor says, and that attitude has propelled him forward, having turned 30 in February. As much as he’s focused on ‘Drinking With My Smoking Friends’, Gaynor is looking ahead. The hip-hop he makes next will “be unadulterated”, while he’s taken up meditation – because David Lynch recommended it – and has studied how music’s greats built a lasting body of work.
“I started looking at the Nick Caves and the Leonard Cohens. I wanted to reach for that kind of magic relationship they have with their muse. My long-term goal is to end up with a catalogue where in 30 years you can chuck on the greatest hits while you’re making dinner,” Gaynor says. “That’s what keeps me pushing forward and working my tits off. I wake up every day and hammer out songs. I’m not waiting for inspiration. I put a shift in.”
Allday’s ‘Drinking With My Smoking Friends’ is out now