Tom Skinner on Smile, Sons of Kemet and going solo: “It gives me a blank slate to explore”

IIt’s been an exciting year for drummer Tom Skinner. He has crisscrossed the globe touring new albums simultaneously with London jazz group Sons of Kemet and with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood as Smile. To add to the pressure, his partner is expecting their second child shortly. When we meet on a bright Monday morning near his north London home, he has his phone on the table, ready to rush.

Skinner is remarkably calm amidst the chaos, exuding the same down-to-earthness he brings to his collaborations. On stage with Sons of Kemet, Skinner is loose-limbed as he fights his way through punishing rhythmic dialogue with fellow drummer Eddie Hick. On tour with Kano, he anchors a large horn and string section; along with trombonist Peter Zummo, his syncopated funk strengthens wobbly melodies. “I have to have a level of trust in someone before we even start playing, then it’s about listening and giving everyone space to express themselves,” he says of these extensive gigs.

Tom Skinner performs with Sons of Kemet at the 2022 Newport Jazz Festival in July.
Tom Skinner performs with Sons of Kemet at the 2022 Newport Jazz Festival in July. Photo: Douglas Mason/Getty Images

Skinner is now releasing his debut solo album at the age of 42. “I came up with the idea that using my name could give me the freedom to own different sounds,” he says. “It gives me a blank slate to explore.” He recorded Voices of Bishara in just one day, accompanied by a quartet. Two of them are lifelong collaborators: he is renowned saxophonist and Sons of Kemet bandmate Shabaka Hutchings for 20 years and bassist Tom Herbert since they met at school 30 years ago. Complemented by saxophonist Nubya Garcia and cellist Kareem Dayes, the band created six songs that range from free-jazz fanfares of battle horns and textural percussion to menacing bass chants and trance-inducing, overlapping melodies.

Skinner had a “classic acoustic jazz sound in mind for the album, so I put us all in one room to record live,” he says. One pitfall was the instruments bleeding into each other—accidents that Skinner accentuated by using editing to accentuate his cuts and create loops from the best improvisational flourishes. The vibe falls somewhere between contemporary Chicago producer Makaya McCraven’s beat splicing and Don Cherry’s spiritual-influenced 70s melodies. “It was about seizing the moment,” says Skinner. “I don’t feel precious about the music as long as it’s immediate.”

Skinner’s largely self-taught musical background is one reason for this lack of value. Picking up the drums at the age of nine, he was enthralled by the early ’90s grunge scene and metal bands like Napalm Death before hooking up with jazz through experimental New York saxophonist John Zorn and free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman: he heard the same energy in death . metallic screeching in Coleman’s screeching sax lines. He and Herbert later played in the free London workshop Weekend Arts Club alongside multi-instrumentalist Dave Okumu of The Invisible. By the age of 18, Skinner was playing full-time, spending weekends jamming at the Jazz Cafe in north London.

Buzz around the capital’s jazz scene has grown louder in recent years, but Skinner rejects the idea that it’s in any way new. “We came up on the shoulders of so many greats like Loose Tubes and Jazz Warriors,” he says. “British jazz has always had its own identity and now it’s become very popular, which is wonderful. But this moment is just a branch of a much bigger tree.”

As part of the Sons of Kemet, which was formed in 2011, Skinner has played a significant role in defining the current branch. Selling out a blistering show at London’s Somerset House in 2019, they represented a new style of improvisation that had found a wider audience through its embrace of diaspora sounds. They recently announced that they will disband after their 2022 tour. But Skinner feels there is unfinished business. “We have never rehearsed as a group; we developed our dynamic by always playing in front of an audience, which meant that the music was constantly evolving, he says. “It was a very intense band to play in, but it’s not like the journey is over. I feel there is more to do.”

Tom Skinner performs with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood in Smile in Milan in July.
Tom Skinner performs with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood in Smile in Milan in July. Photo: Rodolfo Sassano/Alamy

Until then, he has an upcoming US tour with Smile to keep him busy. He first worked with Greenwood when he and Hutchings played on Greenwood’s soundtrack to the 2012 film The Master. Was it daunting to be asked to support one of the most high-profile partnerships in rock? “I was invited there for a reason and I feel confident enough to just let the music happen,” he says. “It’s like they’ve let me into their conversation and now it’s a three-way.”

Skinner pauses to explain that he has to keep quiet about the project because the band has collectively agreed not to give interviews. “Our conversation is ongoing,” he continues enigmatically. “There’s something very charitable about getting people together in a room to make music. We’re putting positive energy out into the world and ultimately that’s what we desperately need.”

With the rest of the year slated to juggle newborn duties and live dates — not to mention considering the next Voices of Bishara group album — Skinner isn’t slowing down. He’s not stressed about it either. “The music is already there, floating somewhere in the ether,” he says. “We just have to relax and let it come.”

Voices of Bishara is out now on Brownswood/International Anthem/Nonesuch.

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