All photos by Peter Don
Tropical house is to dance music what The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” is to rock music. Characterized by loping tempos, cheery sheen, and an infatuation with saxophone solos, the genre was only coined in 2014, but has since stacked up gargantuan numbers on streaming services, launched the careers of Kygo and Thomas Jack, and has even manifested a strong influence in pop music, as evidenced by the Caribbean pluckings and liberal use of pan flute on Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?”
With his sun-kissed shock of wavy blonde hair, unflappably approachable demeanor, and penchant for a loose night out, 23-year-old Australian DJ Thomas Jack has become an embodiment of the tropical house perspective. Jack has a knack for taking indie-acoustic songs and adding the beachside party touch with his remixes, but he’s most known for his DJ sets, which have found him ubiquitous on the festival circuit, curating a whole stage at TomorrowWorld, and racking up over 20 million listens with his Thomas Jack Presents… mix series.
Having partnered with major label Warner Records and relocating to the Hollywood Hills to work on his debut album, life should be one big piña colada for a kid who lived on a dairy farm in rural Australia only a couple years ago. There’s only one problem with this whole beachside paradise. Thomas Jack doesn’t even like tropical house anymore.
“Tropical house was two years ago, y’know?” says Jack, animated as always, in between tequila cocktails in downtown Los Angeles. “Then a lot people started copying off it and started changing the style of it. People would go grabbing, like, 90s pop songs and putting fuckin’ flutes over them,” he says, before dropping the definitive blow: “It became so annoying that I’m over it and I don’t even wanna do it anymore.”
These may seem markedly un-chill words from a guy so closely associated with chillness, but Jack is acutely aware of the now predictable boom-and-bust cycle of dance music sub-genres. The length of time between some plucky kids, in this case Kygo and Jack, putting up their tinkerings on SoundCloud and a full-blown corporate pop appropriation of that sound is now less than two years. And Jack knows what comes next: creative oblivion.
“This genre has impacted on commercial radio,” says Jack. “This time next year, tropical house will not be the same. I wanna still hold my name as an artist and not become way, way, way commercial. I don’t wanna be limited to the name of a genre.”
All this friction over creative identity comes at a pivotal time in Thomas Jack’s career. His debut album, impending but much unwritten, is expected to be a statement not only about himself, but about tropical house as a genre. Up until now, he’s released under the cozy wing of mentor and evergreen tastemaker DJ Pete Tong’s FFRR imprint, but the big dogs at parent label Warner Music have earmarked the release for crossover success, and there’s nothing like a bunch of stressed out suits crowding the studio to dilute the creative juices.
“I just wanna be Thomas Jack and do my thing,” he says. “I fear that, in a year, I’m gonna be jammed in this corner. And everyone’s gonna know me as just that.”
For Jack, music has always been about good times and partying. This is the first semblance of buzzkill to enter the frame, and it’s ruffled his feathers. “Everything that’s going on right now is mucking with me.” he says. “It’s hard when you have a record label pressuring you to do stuff. It’s like trying to figure out the balance between what I wanna do and the radio side.”
What Thomas Jack actually wants to do will surprise many. He cites underground champion German label Innervisions as a major influence. “I love how Âme and Dixon use acoustic songs, and the way they remix them,” Jack begins. “Three years ago, when I first saw Dixon, I remember at 7AM in the morning, this guy gave me an experience, it was incredible. I was so inspired. My whole drive for music came from that moment.”
More recently, Jack’s influences have been drawn from much dustier climes. “The new stuff I’m making now is very Burning Man orientated, but still has my happiness vibe,” he says. “I went this year. It was a transcendental experience. We were raging, dude. I played a fair few sets. When the sun was setting, everyone was up on these huge, industrial crates. I remember dropping Booka Shade. It was dope, man. That gave me a lot of new inspiration.”
Trying to wrangle Jack’s interest in the heady, evocative mood of Innervisions and the trippy atmospherics of Burning Man with his label’s expectations of crossover tropical house success is some fucked up riddle, the unlocking of which no producer should be tasked with, but is indicative of Jack’s ambition. “I want to challenge people’s expectations of me,” he says. “I’m more than capable of doing other stuff.”
If producing currently presents a conundrum for Thomas Jack, it’s in DJing that he thrives. His Tropical Express Tour, currently careening to both coasts of the United States, features Oliver $ and Bixel Boys alongside a whole gaggle of those who call Thomas an influence, like Felix Jaehn and SNBRN. A two-night, sell-out stint over Thanksgiving weekend at the notoriously roomy Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles is an indication of Jack’s still-rising star, and the fact that he’s liable to be found DJing a random house party after the gig goes to show how much the guy loves a set of decks.
Jack’s favorite performances, though, are of the longer-form, lower key variety. He cites a marathon set on the roof of New York underground clubbing institution Output as a standout. “I love doing long sets,” Jack explains. “Most I’ve done is nine hours, that’s when I get to play real, housey stuff. I can play all the shit that people wanna hear at the start, and then I can play what I want!”
Again, his perspective indicates an ambition above the expectations that Jack is often boxed into. “In long sets, I can go into my own thing and create a journey, just like Dixon does,” he says. “I have this obsession that I really wanna take people on a journey in music, but it really fucks me up when I have 45 minutes at a festival!”
If the jury’s still out on Thomas Jack, it might as well buy another round. The Aussie, pulled in so many directions at such a pivotal moment in his career, is willfully jostling room to define himself by his own imagination and not by the limitations of a genre or the expectations of a label. His most current experiments name check African artists Ali Farka Toure and Ayub Ogada as influences, so this time next year, when post-tropical is the highest charting genre on Spotify, just remember you heard it here first.
Jemayal Khawaja is Editor-at-Large for THUMP. Follow him on Twitter.