By Cody Corrall
TOMBOi is unlike anything you’ve ever heard of. The queer electro-pop band from Jacksonville is made up of Alex E on vocals, Paige McMullen on guitar, and Summer Wood on drums. They merge bubblegum dance grooves with gut-hitting lyrics that tackle homophobia and sexual freedom. Their first full length album Spectrum embodies their experiences as a collective of queer women in the south, while putting a rhythmic beat at the center of it all. We got to chat with them at the tail end of their tour about activism, the DIY music scene, and all things Spectrum.
YOU’RE JUST COMING OFF YOUR SPECTRUM TOUR. HOW’S THAT BEEN?
PAIGE: This is the first time that we, as a band, have gone to the west coast. It’s been so cool to run into so many friends around the country; and people that you don’t know that you maybe just connect with online via social media. It’s amazing to see how far the music community and the queer community is everywhere and you can always find friends.
WHAT’S IT LIKE BEING SUCH A VISIBLY QUEER BAND IN THE SOUTH?
ALEX: Things have started to change for sure. There’s been a huge push to pass the Human Rights Ordinance in Jacksonville and that finally passed this January. I think through that push, the outreach in the community, conversation, and that dialogue has really evolved in Jacksonville. Not to say that it’s easy for the queer community as a whole in Jacksonville. Some people can’t even use the restroom without being given a hard time. That being said, traveling the United States, the South is pretty much everywhere.
PAIGE: We were driving up the coast of California and Alex pointed out a confederate flag and we were like ‘what is that doing here?’ That mentality exists everywhere.
ALEX: But we’ve also found that what counteracts the negative exists everywhere too.
But I am cautious when we’re in certain places just because I know that out of the three of us, if someone were to have an issue with queer people, I’m the one they would probably mess with the most.
DO YOU THINK YOUR MUSIC IS POLITICAL?
ALEX I think being queer, or being a marginalized individual, whether you like it or not, you are political. Your existence and wanting to be visible is kind of this political statement.
Writing for TOMBOi, I never intended for it to be a political thing, but as we were diving more into queer scenes and queer culture and really embracing what that means. You can’t help but be influenced by [it].
I just wanted it to be really pop-y, happy love songs that you can dance to and have a good time to the same way you can to a mainstream pop song. Most music still has this heterosexual undertone to it, so I just wanted to write the opposite of that.
But through that you meet people who tell you their stories, and you’re part of a community and we’re all involved politically on some level of just wanting where we’re from to be better for the next generation. I don’t know that we’re the best at it but we at least do what we can and we try. We’re not saviors by any means.
PAIGE: People have personally asked me about the fact that we label ourselves as a queer band. Because people think our music isn’t gay, but it is. And it’s also a way for queer youth and people who are looking for media that addresses them and their specific marginalized situation and something that speaks to them.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SPECTRUM. HOW DID THE NAME COME ABOUT AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU?
ALEX: [The name] Spectrum came about as we were touring and working on putting this album together and having conversations with various queer communities up and down the east coast. I think there’s a national dialogue going on about how mental health is on a spectrum, sexuality is on a spectrum, how identity is on a spectrum. There’s more than these very black and white terms that we’ve come to know.
We’ve really been fortunate to get to know these rad youths from a local high school called Douglas Anderson. We performed at an event that they held for their gender and sexuality alliance called Spectrum. It really signified that this idea of a spectrum is very relevant to a younger audience and maybe to an older audience that wishes this dialogue had been there. I can say that, I wish that the dialogue was a little more progressive when I was their age.
HOW WAS RECORDING THE ALBUM DIFFERENT THAN THE EP?
PAIGE: We did a lot of things differently this time around. For one, we fundraised through IndieGogo. It was a good way to get people hyped about it and to get people involved in the process.
These songs we’ve played for the past couple years to hone in on them and perfect them, so it was a more concentrated and conceptual album. The first one we were like let’s get some songs out there and this one we all worked independently and as a group on our various parts.
ALEX: I had my laptop stolen, Paige and friends and I were held up at gunpoint. They stole some stuff from the show, and it was terrifying. It made us realize that if they stole the more analog gear that I had that was the real basis of what TOMBOi was doing in the beginning, then it would be really hard for us to play the show the next night. The community fundraised and they got me a new laptop and I put some money in and got a controller and modded them together and bada bing bada boom the next generation of TOMBOi was born.
When making Spectrum I mixed and mixed and mixed and mixed for like six months and I still hate it.
PAIGE: There’s definitely a point where you have to say it’s finished. We’re not gonna keep working on this. But for musicians and creatives, nothing’s ever finished.
SUMMER: For the full length we used photography and wanted to show all the colors of the spectrum. I worked with Hayden Palmer to collaborate on the visuals for the packaging. I was thinking of some kind of visual collage that represented all of the songs and us and our background. I came up with a list of items that I felt were representative of those things, like a playing card of a king and a queen that would represent PGP and gender. There’s probably like 30 things in that collage and all of them connect with us somehow.”
YOU OPERATE IN THE DIY MUSIC SCENE. WHY IS INDEPENDENCE SO IMPORTANT TO YOU AS ARTISTS?
PAIGE: The minute you’re indebted to someone, whether it be a record label or anyone in general, you have their expectations, and it can alter what your original concept was. It’s definitely intentional, the fact that we do everything ourselves.
ALEX: We’re from Jacksonville which isn’t necessarily known for its record labels and outreach and support for musicians. So instead of waiting for people to come and offer us things we built the future that we wanted for ourselves. We talked as a band about how to be a sustainable entity and not just be three friends who are making music. We wanna do this and we wanna do it in a way that makes sense and is actually kind of practical which sounds so un-rock star.
You’re kind of conditioned to think you’re not supposed to think about business or the logistics, that it’s just getting on stage and partying. We decided to turn ourselves into a business. We have a band agreement that, say, if there was any money how that money breaks down.
PAIGE: It’s been a learning experience in terms of navigating the music industry as a DIY band, and we’ve done it largely out of necessity. It’s benefited us because we know our rights, and it allows us to help other people succeed within the DIY community and we’ve also received help in that way from other musicians. It’s a two way street.
HOW HAS THE QUEER SCENE IN JACKSONVILLE EVOLVED SINCE TOMBOi STARTED?
ALEX: We didn’t start this band to make a queer scene and I don’t even think that we’re responsible for it because it takes a group of people to do it. But I definitely think that when we were starting a dialogue in the community, it was at a relevant time for people and really encouraged other artists to come out and prove that you can do this.
PAIGE: As far as the Jacksonville scene, we’re largely indebted to Girls Rock who helped to filter an environment for queer artists and lift people of color up and queer artists up and give them safe spaces. Summer is involved in Girls Rock and has put on a lot of events that brought a younger generation out and inspired them that if you want to make music you got this safe place. The community and the support is what makes people feel safe to come out.
ALEX: It takes a community for sure to build a safe zone. Even though it is the south and there’s some things for sure that we’d love to change about our city, there are some things that are just changing about Jacksonville. The way people are starting to grasp more inclusive dialogue, you usually find yourself in a conversation in Jacksonville where people are trying to understand and they’re trying to be an ally in some way shape or form.
WHAT’S COMING UP?
PAIGE: Right now the big thing we’re pushing is our newest music video that just came out that was directed by Keagan Anfuso. It’s for the single Rainbow Warrior which is the first single from Spectrum. We wanted to incorporate all parts of the spectrum into that video.
Spectrum is available on iTunes, Spotify and SoundCloud, and be on the lookout for a vinyl record of Spectrum set to come out in the next couple months.
You can find TOMBOi everywhere at @tomboiband and tomboiband.com.