Tora Want You To Fight The Emptiness Of The Digital Age
With 'Can't Buy The Mood', Byron Bay's Tora have released one of the most beguiling albums of the year.
“You’re just releasing these thoughts from your unconscious mind,” Jo Loewenthal tells me over the phone from Byron Bay, describing his songwriting process for his band Tora’s latest album. “Later on you understand them and it feels like you’ve solved a puzzle, and you can move on from that internal issue.”
It could sound hifalutin if it didn’t perfectly make sense alongside the broader themes of Can’t Buy The Mood; alienation, disconnection, and humanity in the digital age are all considered across its 13 languid tracks. It’s not unfamiliar territory for the band –which is completed by drummer Thorne Davis, bassist Shaun Johnston, and guitarist/vocalist Jai Piccone — but it’s thrown into sharp relief on Can’t Buy The Mood.
The album — their second, following 2017’s Take A Rest — is their most polished to date, occupying a spot somewhere in the Venn diagram of dance pop, electronic, and early 2010’s West Coast chillwave. It’s a sound they’ve been steadily perfecting since their debut self-titled EP in 2013, when they were a five-piece kicking around Byron Bay — which is where I first met them, having grown up in similar friendship circles on the Northern Rivers.
Their connection to the area is still strong — when Loewenthal drops in words like ‘energies’ and ‘vibes’ into conversation, it’s done without affectation — but the last six years has seen the group stretch across the globe, spending long periods of time in cities like Berlin and Amsterdam, where Loewenthal will soon decamp permanently to be with his girlfriend. Perhaps as a result of the constant movement, their sound now feels less tethered to one specific place — it could soundtrack the late hours of a Paris club, or the early afternoons on a Byron beach; true globalisation in a record.
While the earliest track on the album dates back to 2014, the bulk of it was pieced together over the last 18 months. First, the band holed up in the misty hills behind Mullumbimby for a couple of months — although most of what they came up with they threw in the bin. “I think only like one or two of the ideas that we wrote then actually ended up on the record,” Loewenthal says. “But we learned what we needed to learn in order to make the record.”
“I don’t think that we’re able to just smash out a record in two months in one place – I think we need the time in between to realise what the tracks need.”
Writing stints in LA, London, Byron, and Amsterdam followed, before they bit the bullet and finished the bulk of the record in Davis’ garage back on the North Coast, which he had converted to a studio. It’s a long process – one that’s typical for the band — but they like it that way.
“I don’t think that we’re able to just smash out a record in two months in one place — I think we need the time in between to realise what the tracks need,” Loewenthal says. “And I think also because we make music not only as the songwriters and the band, but also the producers at the same time. You have to give yourself time to get the editor’s hat on, and come back with the producer’s perspective. So it’s a weird kind of three phase process.”
Loewenthal bristles a little when asked whether the band are perfectionists (“It’s more about finding something interesting to listen to”) but it’s hard to look at their process as anything else.
“In order to expand the sound you have to kind of find new tricks and new tools, and discover new instruments,” he reasons. “It just takes a lot of time to actually go through and figure out what you like about a certain plugin, or a certain instrument — to get one synth sounding the way that you want it can take you a week. Because really what you want is every sound to be enjoyable to listen to by itself. And so you’ll literally sit there with something on loop for a week, just crafting that one thirty seconds of a track, and then finally you get it right, and then you forget about it.”
Those unconscious thoughts that Loewenthal was removing from his mind were equally difficult to excise. After Take A Rest, the band spent quite a bit of time apart, and went “inwards”, says Jo. The lyrics and songs that emerged from that time are classic modern age fodder: the dislocating nature of technology and social media, the struggle to sincerely connect in a world of Instagram algorithms.
“It’s this syndrome that we have at this point in time, where you see your friends more but you connect with them less,” Jo explains. “So you end up living through a screen and keeping updated on what your friends or the people you care about doing, without actually getting the…What do you call it? I guess the biochemical reaction of having contact. Like giving someone a hug, or literally being in their presence and being able to feel each other’s energies.
“I think that that is something that’s causing a lot of deep trauma, especially for the younger generation. Statistically there’s a lot of alarming trends. When social scientists analyse the impact of social media on the younger generation, and just even suicide rates or self-harm rates, all of that stuff to me seems like really alarming problems for us to be thinking about.”
Opening track ‘Deviate’ is the most overt exploration of all this, containing phrases like “alleviate the prisons of mind” and “searching for connection” — which somehow don’t come off as cringey New Age mantras when couched in Loewenthal’s unfussy vocals. The title Can’t Buy The Mood, meanwhile, takes aim at excessive consumption; their album and single photo shoots had them dressed as Wolf of Wall Street characters, to further hammer home the point.
“It was kind of that realisation that it doesn’t actually matter what you have, what really matters is how you spend your time. And so instead of focusing on making money to buy happiness, why not just focus on happiness?”
With hundreds of millions of plays on streaming services, and sold out shows across Europe and North America, you might expect Tora to feature more heavily in the Australian space — but their presence here has been muted when compared to overseas markets. That’s not to say they don’t have a fanbase here — they do, a hardcore and dedicated one that will turn up in droves to their local shows. But they don’t consistently feature on festival line-ups in the same way that other homegrown acts do.
“I think Australia is maybe just not quite…well they’re definitely listening to our music, but maybe it’s just not the music that is on the pulse in Australia at the moment,” Jo says, after a long pause. “It’s easier to kind of fit into a niche in Europe because when you have so many different cities so close by, you can take a drive and there’ll be a different culture, a different bunch of people who might like a completely different song.
“They’re definitely listening to our music, but maybe it’s just not the music that is on the pulse in Australia at the moment.”
“So for us it’s proven to be quite a successful place to be. Because we have quite a diverse sound, it means that we’re able to use particular songs for particular places, and really to use that to our advantage.”
At this point in our call Jo’s voice is suddenly obscured by an enthusiastic flock of squawking birds, and it takes a few seconds until I hear him again. They might have left Australia behind for now, but it still finds a way in.
Can’t Buy The Mood is out now — stream or buy it here.
Jules LeFevre is editor of Music Junkee. At one point in this conversation she used the word ‘trippy’, because unfortunately you can’t scrub all of Byron off her. She is on Twitter.