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Thoom – Rebel in Exile

Rebellion seeps through the work of the Beirut-born artist Thoom. With her label ‘Career Whore’ and a musical shift away from the habitual harsh noise sounds, she invariably is challenging the music industry. On ‘Pork’ she distances herself from her aggressive electronic noise and makes her first steps as a singer-songwriter.

It could’ve been a reference to the Arabic word for ‘garlic’. It’s not. Thoom was a word that ‘I just kept hearing. Like a hallucination or something, while driving at night. ‘It’ felt spiritual’.’ ‘Pork’, the title of her debut album, was also chosen for how it sounds. But as a young rebel she did, however, completely against her Islamic education in, been wanting to eat pork. ‘I find it really disgusting now’.

Just as rebellious was the recording of the video ‘No Speech’. Joined by her sister, Thoom went to a variety of specific areas in Beirut, which are guarded by the military. Just to dance, in front of the soldiers, whom undoubtedly wondered what she was doing. ‘The music industry is a game. I want to poke fun at it. It doesn’t have to be all this professional.’ Which is also why she named her recordlabel Career Whore. As a sort of finger pointing to all the issues with doing PR and men always trying to bring her down. ‘It makes me feel like I am a career whore.’ Besides, this feeling of men bringing her down; it is a feeling she experiences a lot more in Europe than she does in Lebanon. ‘I don’t know what it is. I’m also never allowed into Berghain, unless I am playing.’ In the meantime she’s trying to get hold of a visa, in Germany. In Berlin. ‘My boyfriend already got his, I constantly need to proof I am an artist.’

Thoom is not just another artist trying to make a career out of playing industrial techno in a town that became synonymous with the genre. ‘I had to get out of the United States. I want to be closer to Beirut. I never wanted to move to the US.’ For now, she doesn’t really like Berlin yet. ‘I don’t find a place for myself here. I also don’t really like the music in Berlin.’ It seems almost ironic that a musician who admits being influenced by industrial, doesn’t connect to a city that breaths industrial techno. It soon becomes clear in the conversation she doesn’t want to be pinned down to a specific sound. As an artist, she wants to keep on searching and changing. Even it that results in, as she calls it, ‘an alienating from the experimental fanbase.’ ‘This is what had to happen. This is how I relate to music.’

‘The production process of ‘Pork’ felt very cult. Me, my boyfriend, his twin brother.’ For ‘Shaytan’ she got input from her mother. ‘I take her advice to heart. She never finished school, but I really wanted her perspective. I wanted to work with people that are close to me, and who’s closer to you than your own mum? I really appreciated her advice.’ 

This is the story of a person in exile. Someone who is looking for her place in the world to call home. It explains the loneliness you feel seeping into the conversation.

Her homecountry is Lebanon. Her town, Beirut. Her neighbourhood, Tarik el-Jdideh. An area not just known for being rather conservative and overcrowded, but one that also seems to be carrying the entire instability of the country. In Lebanon, you never know when something will happen. You only know something could happen, anytime. (This interview was conducted before the port-explosion that hit Beirut on august 4th, ks).

Thursday, October 17th, 2019. In response to the Lebanese government announcing they will also begin taxing WhatsApp-messages, the country turns into a massive protest. In every part of Lebanon, people take to the streets to protest the money-grabbing corrupt politicians. A thawra (Arabic for protest, ks) that only stopped early March, because the country had to go in confinement when hit by Covid-19. As soon as the restrictions were eased, people took back to the streets. In this short time, the Lebanese Lira devaluated massively, people had lost their jobs and all the money was gone.

That night, the first night of the revolution, Thoom set out to play the Ballroom Blitz, joined by Deena Abdelwahed. While she’s performing, protestors begin blocking the streets. Car tires being lit everywhere, smothering the city with a toxic black smoke. (the author of this article was also in Beirut that night. But not at the performance.) Cars are being stopped. The road to the airport is being blocked. The next day, Thoom is to play a show in Italy. She leaves right after her set, fearing she would otherwise not make it to the airport. ‘I’ve never seen the set of Deena,’ she adds regretfully. The next day, the country is nothing but chaos. A chaos that, now after the explosion in Beirut, seems desperate.

“That’s where the best music is. When music is in touch with your subconscious. When you do things instinctively, without self-judging or self-censoring.”

From Beirut to Iowa. A past she doesn’t really talk about. Except that Iowa was boring. Her move to Chicago did open possibilities. Even though she didn’t really experience the city as liberating. ‘This neighbourhood I lived in was a very hard place. It was an area where lots of shootings happened. It became the new norm.’ But here, in Chicago, she discovers music and began wandering around in, what she calls, the good underground-scene.

In contrast to other musicians, Thooms’ productions are not about ‘being beautiful’ but about ‘that what sounds good’. While living in Chicago, she created a far more industrial and rough sound than what you hear now on ‘Pork’. Drawn to industrial and noise, she created a musical record that gave her space to accommodate her anger, frustrations, confusion and sadness. Lately she prefers writing songs, like a singer-songwriter would do. ‘This album is meant to be listened all the way through. It goes through a lot of different emotions, from anger and sadness to dancy light feeling.’ At the moment she don’t just listen to Nirvana all day long, but also began listening to Arab and American folk music a lot more.

‘Your influences always seep through. Whichever they’ll be, they’ll show up at the most unexpected moments. Whether it is Genesis P.Orridge, Soapkills or Michael Jackson.’ 

As a musician, she now wants to make music in a more traditional sense, with her voice taking the leading role. ‘What can my voice do? What noises can I make? But I don’t hold back either. If I want to sing a certain sound, I will just do. Singing comes from your entire body. I don’t want the music that is coming out now. We need the music we used to listen to as a teenager. Songs that show us universal things. Like Oum Kaltoum,… In her singing there is so much emotion. It is more accessible. In a human voice you can hear honesty, feelings. Even very minimal songs can bring me to tears.’

So how did the confinement impact her and the sudden disappearance of a lively music scene? ‘I’ve never ever been so isolated and lonely as during the confinement. It made me realize how import being near to people is. But as a musician you also essentially want to seclude yourself. Right now, I have no one to judge what I do. It’s very in my own head. But that’s where the best music is. When music is in touch with your subconscious. When you do things instinctively, without self-judging or self-censoring.’