On a quiet side street off Ventura Boulevard, Thomas Jack, the Australian-bred inventor of tropical house, has made a new home.
He’s hovering over a desk in his tapestry strewn, shabby-chic studio, playing one of his new tracks and making small edits to numerous digital audio bites on the laptop’s screen while the vocals of a soulful singer move the track forward. The ends of his long, sun-kissed hair are dancing along to the deep bassline.
There is a large, pink Himalayan salt lamp standing guard next to a new Roland TR-8 drum machine. The lamp is one of many crystals around the studio. Jack recognizes their spiritual significance, but his collection is also representative of his affinity for giving and altruism.
“I’ll use it for a month,” he says of a typical crystal in his possession. “I’ll put all my goodness and energy into it, and then just give it to a friend. I remember one time a buddy gave me this necklace as a gift like four years ago, and it was the best feeling of getting a gift from someone.”
In his 23 years, Jack has needed a few gifts to survive his worldly travels, and his professional life as a DJ that gives music to the world is a response to the generosity he has received, often in times of desperation.
Thomas Jack Johnston was born and raised on a large dairy farm in Bemboka, Australia. It’s a rural “one pub and one grocery store” town that managed to accumulate a population of 578 by the 2011 census.
His youth was spent waking up at 3:30 a.m. every morning and getting dirty doing chores before making his way to school. Although his help was needed at home, his parents encouraged him to pursue a life off the pasture.
“I was [at university] for a year,” says Jack. “I wasn’t really listening [in class] but at the same time I was about everything with brands and how to work it. So it was helpful. I could just never do work. I always failed. I’d be partying all night and the next next day I’d be like, ‘Oh my God. I have an exam or an assignment due.'”
His affinity for turning leisure into work began in Thailand, during a nomadic trip around Southeast Asia after his first year of college.
“I got in trouble with one of the gangs because we were trying to get to the other side of this island, so we hired these dirt bikes,” he remembers. “And we went up through these mountains, and I fucked myself up. This was after New Year's and none of us had slept, and we had to get to the other side of the island to get to this bar called Eden.”
While Jack was attempting to traverse the island of Ko Pha Ngan’s damp, tropical terrain in sandals and shorts, he fell and injured himself and the motorcycle. The owners of the bike threatened to hurt Jack’s friend if he didn’t surrender $4,000 for the repairs, and he was forced to relinquish the $1,500 left in his bank account — an amount that was supposed to sustain him for another month. Stranded and broke, he refused to ask his parents for help, so he followed some recently acquired friends to Tonsai, where he was offered a free hammock and food. With no other options, Jack got a job while on vacation.
He persistently asked around and ended up landing a gig at Small World Bar, a fun party bungalow known for its psychedelic environment. “It’s a mushroom bar,” explains Jack. “So I sold these mushroom shakes to people. Like hallucinogenic mushroom shakes. In Thailand they sell them everywhere.”
Jack made it back home and knew he needed to give something back to the world. He started experimenting with a sound he calls “happy-sad” music. Its mellow sound is inspired by indie acoustic singer-songwriters such as Klak Tik, Benjamin Francis and Gabriel Ríos and supplemented with deep house bass lines. His tracks were popularized under the guise of “tropical house,” and the Thomas Jack brand was solidified — or so it seemed.
The meteoric rise of tropical house put pressure on Jack to push the radio-friendly sound onto mainstream airwaves, but palatability was never his goal. To avoid further exploitation of his creativity, Jack bailed on tropical house and decided to apply his happy-sad sensibility to a new direction.
Fans were dismayed when Vice published an interview with Jack in December of 2015 with the headline “Tropical House Hero Thomas Jack Doesn’t Even Like Tropical House Anymore,” but he looks back at the experience as one brick in the foundation of a greater edifice.
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“I have some songs finished. I know the direction, but I don’t know what it’s going to create,” says Jack. “It’s just like what happened with tropical house. I made some songs and they got really big on SoundCloud, but it’s not what I expected to happen, so I don’t know what’s going to happen with this. It might work or it might not, but I love [the tracks].”
He talks about his music as if he’s still paying back the favors he received in Southeast Asia. In the natural world he does this by gifting crystals and sharing music, but in a spiritual sense, he pays it forward with imparting cultural experiences through dance events.
“I used to go to all these crazy parties in Mexico and Guatemala,” he says. “Just these insane, jungly parties, and they were the best fucking thing I’ve ever been to. So how do I make parties like this? Bring that energy and vibe to America? I want to do that. These parties go for 24 hours. I want to have my own brand behind my own party because I reckon it will be a little bit different.”