Women in Music 2019

Wave Racer Blew Up, Then Disappeared. Now, He Breaks His Silence: 'It Came Down to Feelings of Intense Anxiety'

Jordan Drysdale
Wave Racer

The world's got one question for Wave Racer: Where the hell has he been?

"That's a great question," says Tom Purcell, the 27-year-old Australian behind the rainbow-hued future bass project. "It's a big question. There's a lot of ground to cover."

Purcell's Wave Racer project had emerged suddenly from the Sydney scene back in 2013, and was quickly heralded as a bright star of the influential Future Bass movement. From 2013 to 2017, he toured relentlessly in support of seven original tracks and a slew of high-profile remixes, before going mysteriously silent.

This summer, Purcell dropped two new Wave Racer tracks in two weeks. First, on June 28, came the sticky-candy synths and guitars of robotic sing-along “Auto.” Two weeks later, there was the effervescent hip-pop of “Summer Rain,” with playful verses from Sydney rapper Kwame, which Billboard Dance is premiering the video for below.

Despite it being 10:00 a.m. in Melbourne, and this phone call being his first official interview in about four years, Purcell is quite chipper. His voice bounces with the buzz of one recently unburdened. In mid 2017, he was caught in a storm of success, buckled under pressure and plunged into isolation. In 2019, he's excited to talk about it.

Purcell's first foray into music was guitar, which he learned to play when he was 12. Then, when he was 16, the punk, funk and disco-inspired sounds of French artists Daft Punk, Justice and Breakbot got his mind whirling in electronic directions. In the 2010s, he and a friend had a duo called Pablo J & The Lobsterettes making songs out of old disco samples, but as his production skills evolved, he experimented with infectious melodies of his own. In 2013, he uploaded a couple bubbly tunes to Soundcloud under the name Wave Racer, a moniker essentially chosen at random in reference to a 1996 Nintendo 64 game called Wave Race. 

Purcell was 21 in 2013, when “Rock U Tonite” and “Stoopid” became viral hits, with hundreds of thousands of plays. The hyper-saturated cuteness of the project's game-inspired sonics and vaporwave visuals was something akin to watching Windows 98 boot up while under the influence of hallucinogens. The style was both nostalgic and mind-alteringly new. Signed by taste-making Australian label Future Classic, Wave Racer joined the ranks of Flume, Ryan Hemsworth and Cashmere Cat as a harbinger of a new genre called Future Bass, which mixed wobbly modulated synths with twinkling textures and 808 trap rhythms. 

He had a moment, as his crystal clear productions, tension-building chords and instantly-recognizable vibrance brought him remix opportunities with Duke DumontFoster the PeopleFlight Facilities and more. In 2014, popular funk-electro duo Chromeo brought him on tour as its opening act, and for the next three years, he was almost constantly on the road.

“It was kind of a big whirlwind trip for a long time,” he says. “It was three years of intensity, and that was at a time where I was still discovering how to actually be a functioning adult… I lived in Sydney for the first 21 years of my life, and then all of a sudden, I was traveling the world for months at a time on my own. I had nothing but myself and a backpack, and I had to make sure that everything was going to plan.”

He 2015 debut EP Flash Drive peaked at No. 15 on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart. A tour in support of the EP followed, as well as more remixes, festival appearances and a run opening for Flume in 2016. In February of 2017, he posted a remix of Australian rapper Tkay Maidza to Instagram with a caption that promised “lots more music coming.”

Then, he disappeared.

“I decided I needed to take at least six months away from touring, just because I needed to focus on producing new songs,” he says. “I really had a small amount of material out. I'd take this time off [and] just sit in the studio to figure out what my music is going to sound like… The six months that I decided to take sort of turned into two and a half years by accident.”

At 24, Purcell had the means to buy his own home. He finally moved out of his parent's place and got a place in Melbourne with floor-to-ceiling windows that was a nine hour drive from everyone and everything he knew back in Sydney. He set himself up with a lovely studio, and when it hit him that he had room to breathe, all of a sudden, he couldn't.

Touring had left him in a strange mental and emotional place. He'd spent the past four years fluctuating between the adrenaline rushes of the stage and the quiet loneliness of hotel rooms. He'd been so busy handling life on the road that he didn't take time to call old friends, who were all having very different life experiences from his. He'd tried to keep a relationship going, but that fell apart soon after his move to Melbourne. At his fancy new house he found himself alone, uninspired and somehow expected to turn out more hits when even the idea of cooking dinner or doing his own laundry seemed insurmountable.

“It just came down to the feeling of intense anxiety," he says. "You're trying to sit down and focus on something but it feels like there's a bomb next to you that you need to diffuse, otherwise everything's gonna be a huge disaster… it's completely irrational, but it's like 'OK, how do I diffuse this bomb so I can get on with living, so that I'm not in danger anymore?' And the bomb represents, like, making sure everything I do is perfect, making sure that everything I do is not embarrassing myself." 

His six month break came and went. Eventually his management, label and agents started asking questions.

“I wasn't telling people how I was feeling.” Purcell says. “I didn't know how to communicate what was going on, because I felt guilty for it. The label that I was working with, my manager and my agents were like, 'What's going on here? We need this material to happen.' People thought I'd given up on the project.”

He can laugh as he talks about it, because therapy helped him see he's not as alone as he thought. He now realizes feelings of isolation, performance anxiety and the chemical hangover that a hard dopamine pause created after a tornado of fast-paced travel and stimuli, is a rampant problem within the music and entertainment industries.

“It's not a normal life,” he says. “There are people who have way more hectic schedules than I did, and even then I was still struggling a lot… It took a long time, but I did eventually seek out treatment. I went to go see a mental health professional. I still see a therapist every month. That was extremely helpful in just grounding myself, being like, 'OK, this is something that I need to address. I'm not alone anymore.'”

Purcell was prescribed anti-depressants, which helped him get over the hump to start building a new life in Melbourne. He made new friends, and realized the person he was at 27 wasn't the person he was at 21 -- and that that was okay.

“I really had no interest in DJing or club music,” he says. “I've always had an affinity for things like melody and chordal harmony, but that shifted into becoming entirely focused on crafting songs with lyrics and traditional pop-structure vocals. Simple but powerful instrumentation with guitars and keyboards, rather than what I was used to doing, which was outright maximalism. I naturally leaned into incorporating those sparkly colorful elements that are my signature, but using them in such a way that I was able to craft elegant pop songs that actually could resonate and have longevity.”

As his head cleared of expectations, his spirit made room for fun. He had his parents bring his old guitar from Sydney, then he bought a bass. a bunch of effects pedals, keyboards and began recording his own instrumentation. He even started writing and singing his own lyrics. That's how “Auto” came about.

“The voice is me. The guitar is me. I produced everything,” he says. “It's a self-reflective song about my experiences ... the struggles of dealing with the expectations people have for you in the context of being a creative person, the impossibility of productivity and the absurdity of success in a world where that's very difficult to achieve. It's [about] ironically trying to automate those things so they can just happen, like a robot. In reality, we're all people that need to actually produce this stuff.”

“Summer Rain” came from a demo he started with Kwame in 2016. They were both in his publisher BMG's studio in Sydney, and Kwame accepted his invitation to work on a track. “He seemed like a legit amazing lyricist with really cool style and amazing confidence,” Purcell remembers. “His performances were incredible... I swear to God, he wrote the entire song in about four hours.” Once his creativity returned, Purcell built a new beat around Kwame's hype verses and whimsical chorus, building on his new skills to turn “Summer Rain” into the polished piece out now.

Purcell says he's written more music in the last six months than he has in his whole life. He has an album's worth of material finished and more singles planned for the coming months. His management team didn't abandon him during the “dark times,” and in fact started their own label, Astral People Recordings, to which Wave Racer is the first official signee. It's a combination of the familiar and the new, working comfortably with people who've grown alongside him. 

"I used to be quite private," he says. "I saw the internet and social media as a space for me to put forward my shiny self. Now, I'm actually going to be transparent and honest. I feel a much greater sense of pride and personal connection to the music I'm making. It has my own voice in it, and I feel like I'm saying something people could connect to. I'm always going to be learning, always changing. That's the takeaway.”

Watch the official music video for "Summer Rain" with Kwame below a day ahead of its wide release, exclusive to Billboard Dance. 

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