Wave Racer On Where He’s Been Hiding – And Where He’s Going

Wave Racer's got a whole album ready to go, and it's a little different from what you might expect.

Wave Racer

Two years ago, one of Australia’s most hyped electronic acts disappeared. Without an announcement, Wave Racer simply backed away from the world.

So when Tom Purcell geared up to return earlier this year, he knew he was going to have to explain his absence — that’s why ‘Auto’, his first original song since 2015, does the talking for him.

“It felt like the right song to put out as my first back, because it’s a hundred percent me,” Purcell tells me, sitting on a balcony in Sydney’s Inner West.  “I wrote and recorded every part of it, it’s my voice on the track, it’s me playing guitar.”

There’s a bit more to it that that, though. The day we meet, Purcell’s first press in years has just dropped. It’s an interview with Billboard where he details a period of intense anxiety beginning in 2017. Returning from non-stop touring since 2013, he had moved out of his parent’s place in Sydney into his own house in Melbourne, and set up a six-month block of no touring to work on an album. Writing quickly stalled, and he spent days and weeks without leaving his house, doing next-to-nothing.

‘Auto’, Purcell tells me, details the pressure he felt during that time, the need to perform and create a certain type of music or exist in a certain electronic world (‘Bass drum/This is fun…Now the show/Everyday/And you’ll be automatic‘). “It felt like a nice way to introduce myself back,” he says, “and sort of artistically tell people where I’ve been at, in a more abstract way.”

The song is the first time Purcell’s voice has been on a track, albeit through some pretty distorting affects. Talking to him, it’s clear he’s interested in making music he hears more of himself in. He’s not signalling a sonic shift — ‘Auto’ and ‘Summer Rain’, his follow-up release with Kwame, both feature many of the twinkling, sugary sounds we expect from Wave Racer. But the self-described ‘crisis of identity’ cleared up some things, and the real big question isn’t where Wave Racer has been, but what’s next.

Riding The Wave…

Purcell was 21 when Wave Racer took off — and he had no warning that the next few years of his life would be non-stop travelling and touring. Messing around with music while studying in 2013, Purcell uploaded two songs, ‘Rock U Tonight’ and ‘Stoopid’, onto SoundCloud under the moniker — a name chosen in the spur of the moment, as the Nintendo 64 jet surfing game existed in the same bright, high-octane pixelated world as the songs.

Almost immediately, the tracks received high-rotation on triple j. Soon, he was signed to tastemaker label Future Classic, standing alongside Flume and Flight Facilities. Then, he was everywhere. Not only was Purcell touring the world, but for the next few years you were hard-pressed to find a DJ set that didn’t include a Wave Racer track, even though, prior to 2019, he only released seven songs and a handful of remixes.

At the time, it was great. Purcell says the anxiety came to the forefront when he had a moment to stop, though looking back, it’d been there all along, underneath the surface. “I wasn’t aware of it,” he says. “I didn’t know what was happening until it was already happening, I wasn’t aware of how much it was affecting me until I actually had the breathing room to look back and be like, ‘okay, wow, I feel like I’m at a loose end’.”

“I didn’t know what was happening until it was already happening, I wasn’t aware of how much it was affecting me until I actually had the breathing room to look back and be like, ‘okay, wow, I feel like I’m at a loose end’.”

Purcell says he had been so busy that when he stopped, he suddenly found himself with no-one to lean on, living in a new city and having lost touch with a few too many people. “I wasn’t very good at maintaining friendships, I let them pass,” he says. “I was so caught up in the whole touring and releasing stuff and I hadn’t found my footing. I hadn’t found a way to balance my life properly.”

Seeking help and continuing to do the work with a psychologist was what got him out of a funk, and allowed him to actually realise what he wanted to do. Purcell tells me he realised he’d found himself in a life he didn’t necessarily want; that DJing constantly was undoubtably fun, but came with a lot of pressures, especially with someone struggling with anxiety.

“It can be stressful,” he said. “If you’re doing it every night and you have no sleep, and you need to keep doing it every night on tour, it can be a little bit overwhelming and exhausting. [And] not only in the physical sense, but it’s also just mentally exhausting, because you have to also always be seen as cool and on top of things and, we don’t always feel that way.”

We chat about the particular weirdness of performing the role of the DJ; of having fun for work, of being club-ready every night. Purcell says he wasn’t “naturally good” at playing the role, and begin to view Wave Racer in two different worlds.

“There’s the DJ world, where I can be the hottest cool club kid and try and pursue the coolest, most up-to-date club music at all times,” he says. “Or, I could dedicate my energy to crafting my songwriting skills, being a good producer, and actually establishing myself as someone who can write timeless songs. And I decided to do that, because that was more exciting to me. I grew tired of playing sort of one-dimensional DJ sets that didn’t really showcase my interests properly, into the songwriting elements. And so I really needed to take a break and really shift my focus to that.”

Which is the plan, and you can hear it on ‘Auto’ and ‘Summer Rain’ (with Kwame). Both still have those cotton candy sounds throughout, but are much more based on traditional pop elements — vocals, sure, but more hooks than drops.

“It’s a shift away from fully maximised electronic music and more into elegantly crafted pop music…”, he says. “It’s going to be less about the mystery and less about the obscurity and the craziness of the sound design — more about the story being told and emotions being conveyed. I have a lot of songs that I’ve written that have a lot of me in them. That’s what’s going to be coming out.”

Purcell says he has an album of Wave Racer material ready to go; rather than rush, he’s going to release music when it feels right.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee Media, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.