In the seven years since its creation by founder and publisher Mindy Abovitz Monk, Greenpoint-based lady drummer publication Tom Tom magazine has gone from being a simple music blog to a media company consisting of a quarterly print issue, digital issue, website and creative collaborations and events with contributors from around the world. In their sun-drenched office in Greenpoint’s historic Pencil Factory, a metallic drum kit takes center stage, along with an oldschool ghetto blaster, brightly colored, hand-painted drumsticks (created by Mindy’s artist mother) and usually at least one office dog.
At a time when being a female drummer in some parts of the world can still lead to death threats or imprisonment, I sat down with Abovitz, her lead designer Marisa Kurk (featured on the cover of the magazine’s current Nepotism issue) and Pippa Kelmenson who runs the Tom Tom office to chat about music, their magazine serving as a metaphor for anyone wanting to do anything they’re told they can’t do and what being based in Greenpoint brings to their work.
Greenpointers: How did Tom Tom start?
Mindy Abovitz Monk: In 2009, I was working at East Village Radio in the city and I had already been a drummer in New York for about seven years. I had volunteered at Rock Camp for Girls and I also experienced Riot grrrl as it was happening as a teenager and that had brought me to music in the first place. Around 2009 Riot grrrl was seeing a resurgence. People my age and people younger than me were becoming inspired by a movement that had already inspired me. It gave me anxiety thinking that possibly nothing had changed since I was a teenager in the effort to encourage girls and women to be the rock stars that we are.
MAM: At the time, I was also coding, and Google was a big thing and everyone was on Facebook, so I google searched ‘girl drummer’, ‘female drummer’ and ‘woman drummer’, which was how I identified. All of the results were really poor which didn’t reflect the reality that I knew to be true based on all of my experiences in New York City and touring as a musician. I decided that from my job at East Village Radio at night I would start a website and start to code and tag the articles appropriately so that anyone anywhere in the world could type in the words ‘girl drummer’ and they could get an article back that was relevant to girls and drumming. That was the initial goal in 2009 and then there was a domino effect into what we are today which is a print magazine.
GP: It seems like you have contributors from all around the world contributing to Tom Tom now?
MAM: Marisa, Pippa and myself are staff and we have about four more staff members, but then we have hundreds of freelancers and contributors from all over the world who have put some kind of effort into organizing, spreading the word and growing our community.
GP: How do you go from a few people in a room in New York to having that kind of reach around the world?
MAM: Really organically. We’ve been in Greenpoint for a while now, but we started in a tent in Chelsea as part of an art project where we taught drums for half the day for free and then ran the magazine for people to watch publicly. Since then, we’ve been in offices that look like the one we’re in now. My favorite office was when we were at the top of Danbro Studios in Bushwick because at any given moment there were 500 musicians in the building and we’d be on the top floor doing our work, but there would be drums and saxophones coming through the pipes and a metal band that played at 7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays but it was so much what we do.
Marisa Kurk: I loved that office too, but I think this particular office in the Pencil Factory is really great, because it’s so bright in here and we have a drum set and a couch and I can bring my dog Harriet and we don’t have to carry magazines up eight flights of stairs, so that’s a bonus. And there’s a recording studio two walls over, so they play drums too.
GP: Is there anyone at Tom Tom who doesn’t play the drums?
MAM: Yes, but there are so few. They know who they are and they sheepishly run around saying ‘but I play saxophone or I play trombone!’. It’s weird how few there are here who don’t play drums. We’re also a majority of ladies in the company. I think everyone’s a musician though, maybe not Liz our Managing Editor who is amazing, but I don’t think she plays anything. We’re outing her.
GP: What was the main thing that you hoped Tom Tom would change in terms of the way female drummers are seen?
MAM: Well, number one, they just were not seen. People didn’t think female drummers even existed and honestly we’re still working at this because there are still people who don’t believe that we drum. So now there’s this dichotomy between 2009 where I just wanted to prove that we exist and now in 2017 we’re still proving we exist to some people, and then the rest of the work we’re doing is to get more girls, women, guys, gender non-binary folks to feel confident doing anything that they want to do.
The point of the magazine is to act as a metaphor for anything that someone is told that they can’t do based on what they look like or the body that they’re born into. We’re still fighting that and talking about that. Every time we’re talking about empowered females, which often times a drummer is, I think that helps push that agenda forward. Maybe you’re an astronomer, maybe you’re into physics, whatever it is, ideally you read our magazine and you think, these people broke through, these people didn’t care and they’re in a magazine. Look how cool they are! That’s our goal, to communicate that you can actually do anything that you want to do and someone’s going to put you in a magazine and celebrate you.
Pippa Kelmenson: I also think that in my experience, female drummers are often infantilized and sexualized to a ridiculous extent. It still happens to me that people will say, ‘Oh you’re a female drummer, that’s so cute’ or ‘Let me help you with your gear’ or ‘You’re really good for a girl’. It’s just crazy that women drummers don’t get the kind of recognition they deserve and we have to try harder than everyone else to get taken seriously.
GP: Quite a large number of your readers are men, what do you think is attracting them to the magazine?
MAM: I heard early on from a bunch of guys that what attracts them to the magazine is that for the most part we’re talking about average musicians. Often, regular drum magazines will show the same three dudes that have 45-piece kits and a drum tech everywhere they go and that’s not a reality for the majority of drummers and musicians. We have always been talking about the celebrated drummer, the brand new drummer, the basement drummer, the kid drummer. Women are taught to be humble for the most part, so we’re just talking about loading our gear into our vans ourselves and how we fix our heads. I think guys think that they’re getting real information about the music world that no one will talk about because they won’t feel like they’re famous or something. Also, guys are feminists. They’re also over seeing the same garbage. They’ve said to us that they love Tom Tom because it’s more a representation of reality and they don’t often see that.
GP: The magazine is now available all over the world—how important is it for you guys to have that global reach?
MAM: Issuu is where our print magazine is uploaded online and loads of people read the ‘print’ magazine that way and it’s free. I think the intention to be global and now the actual global aspects of our magazine couldn’t be more important. Initially, it was just to show our community, which was perceived to be so small, that on a global scale we’re really big. It ended up being the coolest part of what we do because we now have a family that spans everywhere. There are parts of the world where female drumming is still illegal and you could face death threats or rape threats or imprisonment or excommunication from your community if you play the drums. I love that we’re reporting on bands that break through or who are silenced and showing the rest of us who can do whatever we want all the time, that actually no, we’re all part of one group of people and there are many of us who can’t do what we want to do.
The other aspect of the magazine is that we’re trying to create good media, which means media that covers people of all ages, sexualities, gender representation, class, race and both English speakers and non-English speakers. I hope we’re making an example of media that could be replicated anywhere. The people who work on the magazine care a lot about what we’re doing and love what we’re getting at. They’re doing it because they want to be a part of this.
GP: How has the current political climate affected the way you think about the magazine?
MK: Immediately after the election, every single person at the magazine was like, holy shit, I’m happy that this exists, but now it needs to exist. This can never go away. We have to get stronger, which I think a lot of other publications feel that are doing the same thing as us.
MAM: Everything just feels more important. I’m noticing that the companies that work with us and the sponsors we work with are amping up their involvement with us. There seems to be a sense of urgency. We have always covered queer, gender non-binary folks in the magazine, but our current president consistently makes this environment unstable for everybody. We need everyone’s support to grow what we’re doing. The president is our biggest role model and our biggest role model would shut us down in a second. He would probably call us fake news. It’s one of those things where you’re not supported by the head of your country and it feels really weird, but that doesn’t stop us.
GP: What does basing the magazine in Greenpoint bring to the design and writing of the magazine?
MK: When I think of Greenpoint, I think minimalist, but at the same time, the photo shoot for our current issue was with Aelfie who are down the hall and they’re the opposite of that. They’re about crazy colors and patterns and they’re awesome.
MAM: When you walk outside our office in Greenpoint, it’s just relaxing and there’s great coffee and it feels like us. It’s like a mirror of what we’re doing. I particularly love the fact that Kickstarter is a block away because in my mind, we’re pushing some level of tech too and we’re innovating as well. We actually used Kickstarter when we first started. Greenpoint feels homey and unpretentious, while simultaneously feeling like a grown up version of Bushwick. At the local coffee shops you could bump into a tech developer or another magazine or another designer.
GP: How has the style of the magazine evolved over time?
MK: The last three or four issues we’ve really gone for it and changed it up a little, but hopefully it still feels like Tom Tom and it’s still recognizable to people. I feel like a lot of print magazines in the arts and niche market right now are beautiful and clean and minimalist, but drums aren’t very minimalist to me. Drumming is awesome and crazy and wild, so we’re kind of balancing the Greenpoint-design feel where everything is be clean and minimal, with punk rock. It should still be wild and fun. We have a lot of room and freedom to experiment.
MAM: I’m really grateful to be evolving alongside Marisa and working with her because I think she brings a very cool, young design-y plus punk vibe. I also think right now we have almost a skateboard vibe which is what I’ve always wanted. There’s a genderless energy that’s young and fun and really well-designed.
GP: What’s next for Tom Tom?
MAM: We have a big collaboration coming up with Moog synthesizers. I’m not sure how much I can say right now but it will be coinciding with Moogfest next year and we’ll be rolling out a beautiful collaboration in the next couple of months. We’ll be partnering with Pioneer Works [159 Pioneer St] next year if everything goes our way with a residency and we always do stuff with Ace Hotels and the museums like Brooklyn Museum and PS1. Also, Tommy at the Good Room [98 Meserole Ave] in Greenpoint is a friend of ours and we speak to him frequently about setting up events there. He just told us about a hotel and venue that they’ve opened upstate so we’ll probably collaborate with the Good Room guys to do some kind of festival up there.
Tom Tom are looking for street team members to help with distribution of the magazine, locally, nationally and globally. If you live in New York or you’re passing through and would like to get involved contact Pippa at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.