Wave Racer: “I had to destroy that barrier I was used to hiding behind as an electronic musician”

Tom Purcell has stopped trying to please everyone. The producer tells NME how he started developing his own voice and lyricism on his debut album ‘To Stop From Falling Off The Earth’

In a more predictable timeline, NME would have been speaking to Wave Racer on the occasion of his debut album maybe in 2016: a year or two after the future bass and electro-pop artist had capitalised on the momentum of his 2014 single ‘Streamers’ and 2015 EP ‘Flash Drive’, both defined by a joyous, neon-tinged bounce amid glistening production and seemingly boundless drops.

But we’re talking to Tom Purcell about ‘To Stop From Falling Off The Earth’ in 2021, nearly a full decade into his career – including a few years when he wasn’t certain he would continue to make music as Wave Racer. “I was trying to live up to my own standards, plus everyone else’s,” the producer says of this period of stasis.

“By constantly trying to please everyone, it just became a bit of a mess for my mental health. I was pretty young when this project took off – I was still living at home with my parents, and still enrolled at uni. I wasn’t prepared. I had to step away, and there was definitely a time where I was questioning the future a lot.”

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After three years in limbo, Purcell ultimately bounced back in 2019 with the slow-mo hyperpop single ‘AUTO’ (which also appears on the new album). He still released it as Wave Racer, though he’d briefly considering changing his artist name to reflect a stylistic shift from his early work. “It took me a while to figure out what my path would be,” he explains. “Through that period, I landed on the sound that you’re hearing now on this album.

“I decided that it was time for me to start using my real instrumentation – using guitars, playing keyboards, and eventually incorporating my own voice into my work. I took a risk doing that, because I knew not everyone would stay on board with that big stylistic change. So far, though, a lot of people have been really supportive, which is a very pleasant surprise.”

“I don’t have to fill space with some glittery, sharp element anymore. Now I can just say whatever I want to say with my voice”

The warm reaction to his newer material also helped Purcell to come to a confidence-boosting realisation about his work to date: People loved the music he was making because he made it. “It wasn’t like I was creating music in a vacuum,” he said. “They liked the idiosyncratic elements of it, and the injection of my own personality. For me to discard that completely felt like it would’ve [been] detrimental.”

For Purcell, playing guitar as Wave Racer – as heard on the colourful, optimistic lead single ‘Look Up To Yourself’ – meant returning to his first instrument: now 29, he first picked up a six-string when he was 12, and set it aside after becoming interested in music production in high school. “It wasn’t so much that I left it behind – I’d just discovered so much more,” he explains. “Once I had Ableton, my producer brain switched on – I wanted to learn how drums worked, I wanted to learn keys, I wanted to make my own synth patches.

“Eventually, I wanted to see if the guitar still fit in with everything I’d learned – and once I incorporated it, I knew it did. It’s another way to make exciting sounds: it’s something I’m good at, and something I love doing.”

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Although Purcell had plenty of history with playing guitar, he’d had next to none with singing up to this point. ‘AUTO’ largely shrouded his voice in robotic effects and AutoTune, but the human behind Wave Racer began to emerge more and more as the songwriting progressed. When Purcell describes learning to add his voice to the Wave Racer toolkit as “a learning curve”, he means it.

“It took a lot of time,” he says. “Not only was I learning how to actually record vocals, perform them properly and engineer them, but I was learning how to write lyrics too. Making sure the voice I was singing them in and the tone and context was all appropriate… it’s the sort of details of vocal performance that you don’t really think about, but are actually really important.”

Developing the vocal side of Wave Racer was “probably the biggest hurdle in the album’s production”, Purcell says. But he’s become a better songwriter because of it. “It was a huge fundamental shift in the way that I approached songwriting. The entire way that you construct a song changes, because I don’t have to fill space with some glittery, sharp element anymore. Now I can just say whatever I want to say with my voice, and that’s a whole new level of songwriting.”

“Never really exposing who you are becomes a game of sorts, and I wasn’t interested in that at all”

What, then, did Purcell want to say? Lyrically, ‘To Stop From Falling Off The Earth’ details “the process of maturing through your 20s”, he thinks. It’s often introspective and honest, as Purcell sings about his mental health struggles and the end of his relationship. This open-book approach isn’t always common in electronic music, where some of its biggest figureheads quite literally make themselves faceless (Daft Punk, SBTRKT, Marshmello, Deadmau5), concealing humanity with artifice.

“There’s definitely a shield that comes up,” agrees Purcell. “It becomes a game of sorts – never really exposing who you are – and I wasn’t interested in that at all. I was like, ‘if I’m going to be putting lyrics on here, they have to be from my own life experiences, and lessons that I’ve learned over the last few years of my life.’ This album is about the important things that I’ve taken away from that, but also the struggles that have existed through that process.

“I had to destroy that barrier that I was used to hiding behind, being an electronic musician. It came down to being basically a destruction of the ego – the thing that protects my sense of wellbeing and my sense of self. I’m being brutally honest about things that I’ve experienced that I think are worth sharing.”

This is evident as early as opener ‘All That I Can Do’, where Purcell paints his generation as “revolutionary cannibals” who “take a picture with it/Then we let it burn down”. Elsewhere, on the lovelorn ‘Dreaming’, Purcell lingers in the wake of a failed relationship: “I’m drowning in dreams, if I’m honest”, he sings. “I’ve got some feelings that need some ignoring”.

Purcell was also inspired by The 1975, who are one of his biggest inspirations – to the point where he performed their song ‘It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)’ on triple j’s Like a Version earlier this year.

That track is on the 1975 album ‘A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships’, a record that Pucell singles out as “an extremely eye-opening piece of work”. “For me, I think their ability to weave honesty and irony together in a way that’s compelling is so hard to do. They do it artfully and so beautifully,” he says.

“Matty Healy has spoken about how he thrives [on using] simplicity of form. People aren’t challenged by what they’re hearing sonically, but the lyrics that he’s throwing at them are quite confronting: He’s singing about opiate addiction, world wars, identity crises, climate change, all that stuff. He’s inviting people in to consume his message, just not in a blindsiding way. I found that really inspirational – that particular album was a sort of pathway for me to model and learn from as I proceeded with my own self-discovery.”

It’s hard to dislike ‘To Stop From Falling Off The Earth’, with its sticky pop melodies, crystalline production and Purcell’s thoughtful lyrics. But any artist embarking on significant sonic changes is bound to face detractors. What does Purcell say to those simply after the drops, who might not want a side of self-reflection with their bangers? “Take it or leave it,” he replies.

“You can laugh at me, you can say that it’s stupid, or embarrassing, or sappy. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. I just had to stop worrying about that. When I started doing that, I realised that everything I’m saying on this album actually has meaning. I can articulate the things I’m trying to say, using the words that I would use to explain it to a friend in a private conversation. I’m not hiding behind anything anymore.”

Wave Racer’s ‘To Stop From Falling Off The Earth’ is out October 29 via Astral People Recordings/[PIAS]

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