For Document's Fall/Winter 2018 issue, artist and activist Slava Mogutin and Tommy Cash bond over mafia-esque Russian security and explore their differences in political outlook.
Estonian rapper Tommy Cash spells his name with currency signs: TOMM¥ €A$H. He doesn’t want to talk about the past—not his own or the past in general. He says it’s all about the here and now. He doesn’t like to talk about politics or make lofty artistic statements, either. Sporting a mean Russian accent and signature skinny mustache—Salvador Dalí meets John Galliano—he’s a creative chameleon with impressive dance moves and foul lyrics:
Pussy, money, weed, pussy, money, weed
My reality is sweet, better than your dream
Look at all my shit, look at all my shit
I’m going for the win and the limousine
When I asked Tommy about his creative motto, he was silent. At length he said, “It’s about escapism.” Forget about morals, ideologies, identity politics, and political correctness. In his videos, he creates an elaborate post-ideological utopia where multiculturalism goes hand in hand with individualism, and self-awareness with self-determination. War turns into a cheerful dance routine, enemies become friends, brands blend with people, people become brands. Sexy amputees armed with blades, wheelchairs, and prosthetics are used as mere stage props. The ’80s and ’90s aesthetic is replicated and ridiculed. High fashion mixes with street culture and references to Soviet folklore:
I got huge ears, big eyes, call me Cheburashka
My flow is ice cold, so my swag is from Alaska
Cheburashka is a beloved Soviet cartoon character-turned-Olympic mascot. Its creators have described it as a defective toy, a clumsy, genderless, plush creature with a bizarre, nonsensical name. It was made at the toy factory “so badly that it was impossible to tell exactly what it was—a hare, dog, cat, or Australian kangaroo.” It’s quite a confusing description, but it does help explain Tommy’s creative method, his cultivated madness and eclectic style, from the post-Soviet perspective. As much as Tommy wants to avoid talking about the past, his art is a direct response to the world shaped by policies and ideologies that have proven to be completely and utterly bankrupt.
As escapist and fashion-conscious as it might seem, there’s plenty of angst, dark humor, and compelling self-irony in Tommy’s work, which is perhaps a healthy approach for a person with such a diverse background. (He is of Estonian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Kazakh descent. As he drily noted in our conversation, “I should be at war with myself, right?”) Whatever he might look and sound like ten years from now, Tommy Cash is a new force to be reckoned with today. After all, here and now is what really matters, living in the moment and letting it all go.
Slava Mogutin—Let’s talk about how you got involved in writing music and your background that led you to become a pop star.
Tommy Cash—[Laughs] Basically, I love art, and I needed to express that some way. It started with freestyle, but then I started to write a lot. Then I started writing music.
Slava—How long ago was it? A couple years ago?
Tommy—Four years ago, I think. Something like that.
Slava—What’s happening with you now? You’re in Tallinn, right? You’re recording, I hear.
Tommy—Yeah, in Tallinn.
Slava—I love Tallinn. I went a couple times as a teenager.
Slava—Yeah, when it was still a Soviet republic.
Slava—I even bought an Estonian school uniform.
Tommy—Crazy. Where are you from? Are you from Moscow?
Slava—No, I’m from Siberia, but I lived in Moscow before I moved to New York.
Tommy—Okay. I’ve been to Omsk.
Slava—Oh, cool. It’s close to Kemerovo, where I’m from.
Tommy—Oh, sick. It’s very Soviet Union still—like, nothing changed, you know? When I was in Omsk, I felt like they were waiting for the Soviet Union to come back.
Slava—Were you performing there?
Tommy—Yeah. I had a Russian tour, like, a year ago— my first one. I’ll do one more this year, too. It’s pretty fucked up. It takes so much energy, because Russian kids are so energetic, as you know. You’re also one of them. [Laughs]
Slava—Used to be a kid, not anymore. [Laughs] So, I’m really curious—considering your background is very much multicultural, and your work seems to be celebrating diversity and multiculturalism, I wonder how your work has been perceived in Russia now that there’s this whole reign of orthodoxy and xenophobia and homophobia and whatnot that is associated with the new Orthodox Christianity stronghold.
Tommy—I mean, I don’t push…I push equality. I show equality and understanding between everyone and everything. It’s funny, because I am part-Ukrainian and part-Russia—
Slava—And part-Kazakh, I read.
Slava—That’s a very interesting background. Tommy—Yeah, it’s a very distinct mix. I should be at war with myself, right? [Laughs]
Slava—How much does your diverse background play into the kind of aesthetic that you create?
Tommy—A lot. I understood that I needed to be very true to my surroundings and where I’m from. And I understood that I shouldn’t try to look or sound like anyone else or what’s hot right now.
Slava—But that doesn’t involve any sort of political message or ideology whatsoever?
Tommy—Actually, I’m really anti-political. I don’t believe in politics. For me, it’s not important. I don’t take any stand.
Slava—Coming from someone who’s from an older generation—don’t you think that this is a general issue with the new generation of people, especially growing up in the East? They seem to have this fatigue with politics of any kind and to be disillusioned with ideology of any sort. Is it a sign of your generation?
Tommy—You mean, that we don’t care?
Slava—What you said just now, I hear from a lot of people your age. I come from a generation that has very strong political beliefs, and it’s an essential part of my identity and my work. So I’m not against you being apolitical—in these times, especially—but I’m puzzled how you manage to remain neutral at a time when everything is so polarized.
Tommy—I don’t know. People are so triggered by everything. As an artist, it’s dangerous to take any political side. I deal with escapism. My point is to take you away from normality and the nine-to-five job mentality. I strive to believe differently. I strive for a place where there’s no such thing as politics.
Slava—So in a sense, your work is a commentary, but it’s just basically rejecting the whole idea of ideology. It’s kind of a post-ideological discourse—a discourse that I think is very appealing to a lot of people of younger generations. Let’s talk about the process: How do you normally write [music]? How do you write lyrics? How do you record? Do you work with a certain team of people?
Tommy—I have producers who I make beats with, but I usually record downstairs in the closet.
Slava—In the closet? Okay—so it’s actually in the house that you have a recording studio. That’s very convenient. Maybe that’s why you’re so prolific—you don’t have to go far to record.
Tommy—I get the truest vibe when I’m at my home doing this. I usually record for hours. [One day recently] I slept only two hours and recorded for 18 hours. I go very ‘in.’
Tommy—I don’t even have a SIM card in my phone right now, so no one can call me. A couple of people can reach me on FaceTime, but [otherwise] no one can reach me. It’s so hard for me to concentrate right now. So many things take away your attention, so I feel very distracted, and then I’ll realize I need to go to the extreme level.
Slava—Cool. And your videos, I noticed you’ve co-directed them with someone—
Tommy—No, I direct all my videos. The last [‘Little Molly’], Anna [-Lisa Himma] co-directed with me, but everything else I directed. I’m very visual, and I know what I want to see and what I want to present. It’s easy to fight with directors.
Slava—How do you come up with the visual concept for every song or track? Is it something that comes spontaneously, or are you more of a rational person?
Tommy—You know, it’s different. With videos, it’s like building an onion. At first, you write all the ‘code words’— what you want to have [in the video]—and then you start building this world [and thinking about] what would make sense. The same with the songs. Sometimes it’s a very easy concept, and it comes very fast. But sometimes it takes time.
Slava—How did you come up with the ‘Little Molly’ character? I wonder if the mustache comes from Galliano? It looks like Galliano, a little. [Laughs]
Tommy—Galliano is my homie!
Slava—[Laughs] I guessed right!
Tommy—Yeah, Galliano is super nice. He invited us to the Margiela fashion show. He gave me the coolest Margiela sneakers and sent me the Tabi boots. After Dalí and Galliano, I want to be the guy with the next greatest mustache.
“I have two sides in me: one that hates the fashion world and the other that’s very interested in it. It’s like the good side and the bad side are always fighting with each other.”
Slava—In general, your work seems to be very fashion-conscious. What are your inspirations? Every set seems to be a commentary on some trend or designer, or a certain style or aesthetic. Who are your heroes, and how do you come up with these kinds of ideas?
Tommy—My heroes are Rick Owens and Margiela— and, of course, Galliano. But at the same time, I have those two sides in me: one that hates the fashion world and the other that’s very interested in it. It’s like the good side and the bad side always fighting with each other.
Slava—But you don’t take sides?
Tommy—I do what I feel.
Slava—Because there are certain moments when it almost seems like parody—kind of a tacky ’90s aesthetic, or ’80s, with the big hair. It all seems to be very playful.
Tommy—Yeah, it’s very natural.
Slava—What was your worst and best experience in these four years of doing music and performing?
Tommy—Worst experience? I don’t know. I think I was in Kazan, and we went out of the club, and there was a lot of kids surrounding me. I had security around me, but as you know, in Russia, the security is usually like the Mafia, low-key. They’re very scary.
Slava—The security guards are the ones that can be arresting you seconds later. [Laughs]
Tommy—Yes. So basically, this one drunk guy tried to approach me, and a security guard took him away and kind of smashed his head in. My DJ took my hand and said, ‘Okay, it’s dangerous.’ We jumped in a cab straight away, and as I was driving off, I saw this guy between cars. Do you remember in American History X when that guy was stomping the other guy’s head? The security guard was stomping this guy’s head, and I saw this massive pool of blood between cars, flowing. That was one of the scariest things—I didn’t know if this guy was alive or not. That was so fucked up.
Slava—Wow—that’s tough. My mother’s from Kazan.
Slava—[Laughs] It’s all interconnected, I guess. And when you perform in the West and Europe, how are you being received?
Tommy—Oh, man—amazing. We sell out a lot of venues. Last tour, it was mostly clubs with 1,000 people or more. Everywhere we go, there’s massive love, and it’s only getting better.
Slava—That’s great. And any plans for North America or New York?
Tommy—Yeah. I’ve never been to America.
Slava—You should come. I’ll show you around New York, and you should film something. What else is on your agenda right now besides recording?
Tommy—We’re also preparing the launch of the next album and the rollout plan. It’s going to be amazing—something that no one has done yet. I really can’t wait.
Slava—I also read you’re doing your own fashion line.
Tommy—Yes, I’m also working on that. We just found a factory for the production of the Russian market bags…
Tommy—We’re going to do those. I’m going to have my first samples next week. I will also have some very cool crosses and some custom jewelry.
Slava—So this is basically all part of your brand— your music, your image, your visuals, your fashion line. Do you have any other ambitions that haven’t been realized yet? And what’s your idea of ultimate stardom?
Tommy—There’s some people I want to work with. I’m pretty famous in the East, pretty known around here. Europe is kind of hot, but I feel like the people from the West are just finding out about me. So I can’t wait until people wake up…
Slava—Wake up and hear your music on the radio?
Tommy—I don’t know [about] radio, but generally— they will know what’s up.
Slava—When is your new album coming out?
Tommy—I’m trying to get it out in one to two months. There’s a lot to do.
Slava—Do you have a title?
Slava—What is it?
Tommy—I can’t tell you.
Slava—Okay. Top secret.
Tommy—It will come out soon. I want to have some stuff out before so that it will make more sense. But I will tell you this much: It’s inside my name.
Slava—Inside your name…just like the single, no? Is it the same name [as the single]?
Tommy—[Laughs] I can’t tell you.
Slava—Well, we’ll soon find out. Okay, so one last thing I want to ask: What’s your creative motto?
Tommy—Don’t care…yeah. Don’t care. Don’t think. It’s hard, you know? Should it be short?
Slava—What’s the ideal behind what you do? What’s the vision?
Tommy—Don’t care. Stay original. Don’t repeat. Something like that.