Visual artist, creator and curator, Dan Tombs has a knack of being in the right place at the right time.
As well as creating single and album sleeve artwork for the likes of Gold Panda, XL Recordings, Border Community and NOTOWN, he’s spent the past decade working as a solo artist and also a key collaborator for the likes of The Charlatans, James Holden, Gold Panda, Blanck Mass (“the work we did is an absolute horror show!“) and arguably his most fruitful collaboration alongside Jon Hopkins, now one of the biggest artists in the contemporary electronic space.
“Jon, James and Gold Panda I’ve worked with the most,” smiles Dan, as he looks back on his career midway through November. “I didn’t officially collaborate with James until 2015 but I was doing visuals for Border Community nights at The End and at Corsica Studios ten years ago.”
“Nathan Fake introduced me to Jon at a Border Community party in 2010, and shortly after he invited me to collaborate on his live show. And I met Gold Panda replying to his jokes on Twitter!”.
Initially, Dan was known for his glitch and 8-bit inspired set pieces, having begun his path as a young Jedi who learned how to hack his way into a Sega Master System console, but his work has been adapting and morphing via musical synergy ever since.
And while he’s come a long way since his early forays with Luke Abbott from Border Community, he’s now a true master of his environment, although he admits that when you’re working with a musician as big as Jon Hopkins, it's hard not to feel the pressure.
“There’s a huge amount of expectation,” nods Dan. “Jon’s performance is tightly choreographed, once the show starts, there’s little room to recover from an error so everything has to be perfect every night. Whereas for a club night, you can experiment a bit and you can afford to take some risks.”
“The last couple of years I did visuals for a stage at The Liverpool Psych Fest, which meant 13-14 hour sets per night. That’s demanding in a different way, constantly innovating and giving the audience something new and evolving, whilst dealing with temperamental analogue gear, wonky projection mapping and sleep deprivation.”
Dan’s creative path started in a similar place to so many others in music: with a love of Lego and a supportive family. “My father is an architect and my mother always worked in children’s education,” says Dan. “And yes, I loved Lego as a child – who doesn’t? – but bringing that play into a professional zone lead to art classes at school and photography and whatever I could bully my parents into letting me do!”
Dan decided to go to Norwich and study for a Fine Art Degree (“technically a painting degree!”) and from there, learned about working with 8mm film. “I wanted to explore the creative limitations and to be decisive about the edits, make work without the safety net of an undo key.”
But the direct line into music came via his fellow co-creative Luke Abbott, a musician best known for his work on Border Community with Nathan Fake and of course James Holden.
“It’s all to do with my friend Luke really,” he explains.
“We met at art school, he grew up in Norfolk and had a bunch of mates playing in underground bars and saw me making Super 8 and said I should come down and make projections. I got restless watching the films play through, and started to manipulate the reels and physically used my hands to cover the lenses to do a box rave for 4 hours! In addition to my own short films, I would pick up Hollywood movies from boot fairs like Superman and The Sting on Super 8 and later started adding circuit-bent eighties games consoles.”
“There is a vibrant community of people who take low-grade electronic kit and make them do stuff that they wouldn’t normally do, most of these people (like Autechre) were hacking audio kit to make otherworldly noises, I loved the concept and wanted to see how I could apply the process to the visual realm, hence chancing upon obsolete games consoles to make erratic fields of vibrant colours.”
This, in essence, is what makes Dan tick. He’s not a musician but he thinks like one and so was in touch with experimental musicians who needed his visual eye: and this is where the magic started to happen.
When someone showed Dan an Apple Power Book with VIDVOX VJ software in 2004, he started combining computer technology with what he was doing, combining all of this with sound, he was up and running.
“Then Luke Abbott got signed to Trevor Jackson’s label Output and did the last vinyl release on Output and the video we made went onto MTV2 which was incredibly exciting! It felt like the last gasp of MTV playing Music Videos in 2006.”
And while Dan loves electronic music, he’s also spent a lot of time with The Charlatans, who still command an audience of up to 5,000 across the country today.
“I loved the work we did at Brixton: it was a total touring highlight, The LX operator and I learned the show so well that we were able to nail blackouts on individual drum hits, plunging the whole venue into total darkness, and then in a breath take the room back to maximum illumination. And what a rush it was to feel the excitement from so many people.”
Unlike many musicians, Dan’s buzz is from a safer off stage vantage point: and he’s more than happy to be operating from that space.
“You’re a bit hidden, you’re the magician behind the curtain. The more curious audience members will find me though, particularly touring with Hopkins as his audience will often make an effort to thank me. ‘It’s midweek, I haven’t taken a thing and yet you’ve given me the most intense trip of any my life.’ That’s a great reward for the hard work involved in bringing a long consistent run of shows to large audiences, from 8000 people in an old quarry at MELT festival to the Saturday night slot on the Park Stage at Glastonbury.”
The next steps for Dan are understandably to continue what he’s doing and explore the edges of his creativity not just on the road, but also on sleeve art: he cites legendary UK artist Peter Saville as a key inspiration (“I will gladly buy any of his sleeves”) as well as Trevor Jackson, Alexander Peverett and French experimentalist Sabrina Ratté.
He dreams of working with New Order as well as Gareth Edwards, who directed Monsters and of course Rogue One. But he also wants to do more physical work for single and album artwork.
“The satisfaction is undeniable,” he says of his design work, which will soon end up as limited edition screen prints. Live video work is temporary, ephemeral, “So it has been really rewarding making record sleeves and seeing my work in racks all around the world. I’ve done fine art and gallery projects that feel worthy and intellectual but record sleeves are an unlimited edition object that enters peoples lives, the ability to make images that people have a long-standing relationship with is an area that interests me greatly.”
Watch this (physical) space.