Tom Eaton-From Windham Hill to Winds in Space
I’ve been seeing Tom Eaton’s name on albums for years. But it was usually as an engineer, sometimes a producer, and occasionally as a sideman, providing colors on synthesizes or bass, but mostly on acoustic records. So I was surprised in early 2016 when a solo album came in from him that was very electronic and ambient. And even more surprised when another one arrived just a few months later. Those albums were Abendromen and Indesterren and they introduced a different Tom Eaton. I went to New Orleans to meet him at the Zone Music Reporter Awards show.
Tom Eaton is known for being the engineer and producer behind relaxing, solo piano, solo guitar and neo-classical chamber works with Windham Hill records founder, Will Ackerman. But you can tell there is another side to his sensibility. For instance, he works at Ackerman’s poetically named Imaginary Road studios, but, his own studio is called. . .
“Universal Noise Storage,” he laughs. “It started out as a joke with my kids, you know, and kind of what do you do for a living? I store noise, you know? And then, well, how do you make that sound fancy? You put a ‘universal’ in front of it.”
From that name you might think that Eaton is creating industrial rock and noise music, on the side. He isn’t, but his recent solo albums, Abendromen and Indesterren, suggest a deeper, darker, more ambient side than his engineering work might suggest.
Tom Eaton is sitting on a low chair in my hotel room in New Orleans on the eve of winning as the best new artist at the Zone Music Reporter Awards. But Eaton is not quite a new artist. Now in his mid-forties, he’s trim and blonde with the close cut look of guys whose hairline is receding. Born in 1971, he grew up in a family that loved music.
“When I was growing up, my dad listened to a lot of 50s music –Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and then Beatles stuff,” Eaton recalls. “The first concert I ever went to was a George Thorogood concert. My dad convinced the bar owner that it was okay to let some eight or ten year old to come into the bar and watch George Thorogood duck walk across the stage. My dad used to come in to our school when I was in elementary school, 4th and 5th grade, with a turntable and a bunch of records…and present a little show on the history of rock and roll. My mom is a, has always been a singer. She sings in choirs and stuff like that. ”
Attending the elite Philips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, he discovered electronic music.
“They had an electronic music lab,” he says “which is unusual for a prep school in the ‘80s, but they had a nice little electronic music lab. And I spent a lot of time in the electronic music lab. Got very into it. My brother was a big, was a Tangerine Dream fan, my older brother. And he brought those records home, and I got hooked on that stuff.”
Now he considers himself to be a synthesizer junkie.
“Uh, I have a problem,” he confesses. “It’s mostly synthesizers, yeah, yeah. My kids call me a keyboard hoarder. You know we’ll be driving around and, you know, you see a keyboard sitting out in the trash — ‘oh, I wonder if it works!’ And I drive my kids crazy, but yeah, I love synthesizers, I love noisemakers of, of kind of any persuasion, really..”
As much passion as he had for synthesizers, keyboards, and electronic music, Eaton became a producer of acoustic sounds instead. After spending some time in the Boston area working with acoustic players and singer-songwriters, he got a call from Will Ackerman. That was in 2009 and the two have produced dozens of albums together.
“Tom Eaton has given me a complete new lease on life,” enthuses Ackerman. “Having this guy, who I now consider a partner, we’re co-producing everything. He knows more about the Windham Hill Catalog than I do. We’ve just worked out a working relationship that is insane, and it’s monosyllabic at this point.”
Eaton has provided engineering and production work for many musicians such as Fiona Joy, Todd Mosby, and Jeff Oster. His name was sprinkled across several nominees and three winners of the Zone Music Reporter Awards this year, not including his own album. But while he was sculpting the sound of award winning albums at Imaginary Road, the break-up of a five-year relationship found him bringing a different kind of music out on an album called Abendromen. It was something that he never intended on actually releasing.
“It’s purpose was me working through a problem and me working through kind of a breakup,” he reveals. “And that was my outlet. So really when the record was done, it was done. And so Jeff Pearce and a couple other people encouraged me to put it out and, and so I did.”
The name Abendromen is a German and Dutch portmanteau that means “night dreams” and it’s follow up, Indesterren, is Dutch for “into the stars”. The sound of Abendromen is darkly luminous, a piano set on an ambient night sky. One of Eaton’s biggest inspirations for it was the ambient chamber music of Tim Story.
“His music connects with me the deepest,” says Eaton, with reverence replacing his usual jocular manner. “There’s this mystery and this blurriness to what he does that I find intoxicating. There’s always this darkness, this swirl around the center. It’s melodic, but but there’s this huge textural world supporting the melodies. And that to me is is what I connect with the most.”
“The crickets and birds and those things are an attempt to put a time and a space inside the music that keeps it outside, I guess, on that record,” he explains. “It keeps it kind of in the wild a little bit. I also do a lot of little tiny hand bells and finger cymbals. I mean there’s a lot of littler subtle ear candy shimmery stuff that I just love hearing.”
Ironically, the central sound on most of Tom Eaton’s compositions is not an electronic instrument, but the piano.
“I don’t want to be a solo piano artist,” insists Eaton. That’s not my voice. My voice involves a bunch of sounds blended together to make something that has the kind of density and mystery that the great Tim [Story] records or the great Patrick O’Hearn records had, and the great Vangelis records, you know, like Soil Festivities. You know, stuff like that that just have this epic scope and I’m trying to do that in a more miniature sense.”
For a musician who wasn’t even going to release his music, Tom Eaton has found a willing audience for his work. At the 2017 Zone Music Reporter Awards, Abendromen was nominated as best ambient album and he won the award for best new artist. But Tom Eaton still thinks he’s not worthy.
“I’m still discovering,” he says. “The first time you asked me if I wanted to do an interview, I was like I don’t even know how to talk about the music. I’m so new to this that I still think nobody has any interest in hearing it.