Dance

After EDM Burnout & Psychedelic Transformation, Tommy Trash Is Back - But He's Not Quite Ready to Party

Tommy Trash
Ash Lim

Tommy Trash

It's 8:00 a.m. in Sydney, Australia, and Tommy Trash is expounding on the benefits of the Wim Hof Method.

"It's a f--kin' game changer," he says. "Have you done breath work before? The Wim Hof stuff, for me, is the most bang for your buck. Like, I just do three rounds of it in the morning, and it totally changes my energy."

It's perhaps because of all of this rapid breathing, but the producer, born Thomas Olsen, is fired up. He talks about the juice cleanse he did last week ("I'm just, like, happy I can eat again") and how he also launches each day with meditation and sun salutations. Over Zoom, he looks healthy and rested, like a man who's been ingesting a lot of beet juice and sleeping well. Four years after hitting a low point, health has become the focus for a man who used to live largely on Red Bull and power naps.

Certainly, this is a different Tommy Trash than the one the world met nearly 10 years ago, at the dawn of the EDM era. After rising out of his native Australia, Olsen became a staple of the scene, playing every major global music festival, locking in a lucrative residency at the Wynn Las Vegas (then the nexus of EDM's Vegas takeover), touring the world and scoring hits like "Reload," his 2013 collaboration with Sebastian Ingrosso and John Martin that became a quintessential mainstage anthem, spending 21 weeks on Hot Dance/Electronic Songs. Outlandish and seemingly perpetually energized, Olsen was an EDM star. It wasn't a terribly enjoyable experience.

"I mean, it was a f--king circus," he says of the era. "The whole thing, it was so ridiculously excessive."

It was definitely a grind, with Olsen ping-ponging between festivals and club shows, with little time to make music or to really even sleep. A 2015 Billboard story found him finishing a set at 2:00 a.m. then leaving for the airport for the next gig at 4:00. Many artists who came up during this era have lamented the demands of perpetual touring and a constant demand for new music. For Olsen, alcohol helped lubricate this deeply depleting and highly anxious existence.

"The shows gave me anxiety, but actually, I think it was more just the culture of drinking," he says. "I never really got into drugs -- but I was definitely, you know, smashing it with promoters and friends backstage after the show and at afterparties. It took me a long time to to make the link between the drinking and the anxiety, because it became this sort of weird cycle where if I drank, it would make me anxious, then I'd drink to stop the anxiety, but then the anxiety would come back with more force, so I'd drink more."

By 2017, after six years of almost nonstop touring, Olsen was indeed trashed, both physically, mentally, emotionally and creatively.

"I would call up my best friend crying," he recalls, "going like, 'What am I f--king doing? I can't f--king do this.'"

Then, destiny intervened. A yoga teacher friend had recommended a website to do online classes. Olsen went to the page and saw that it also featured a documentary called The Reality of Truth, which explores the connection between spirituality, religion and psychedelics. He watched it and, suddenly, knew what he needed to do.

"I needed an intervention," he says, "and I put the intervention on myself. That was what the ayahuasca was."

A few weeks later, Olsen was in the jungle near Tamarindo, Costa Rica, for an ayahuasca retreat. A heavily potent psychedelic brew derived from plants native to the jungles of Central and South America, ayahuasca is a ceremonial tradition that's been used by Indigenous cultures of these regions for thousands of years as a way to purge mental, emotional and physical sickness and to connect with the spiritual realm. It is an often difficult experience that can last for hours and often involves vomiting, crying and other forms of purging. But for Tommy Trash, the first few nights were pretty much just fun.

"I'm just like looking around, and the music's on, and I'm like, 'This is f--king sick.' People are f--king throwing up. People are s--tting their pants. I mean, it's a mental house in there. People are sitting on their on their bed, just f--king rocking back and forth, mumbling s--t. I'm just high. I'm not throwing up. I'm not getting cool visuals, but I'm just like, 'This is the best party ever.'"  

This was no small thing for a man who's played what are ostensibly some of the world's best parties -- but the fun didn't last. By the third night, Olsen was curled up in the fetal position, having a vision of being an egg in his mother's womb, then being born and seeing his entire life up until that point. By the next morning, he knew he needed to stay for another week, a decision that wasn't exactly conducive to the DJ lifestyle.

"My agent's fucking flipping out on me," Olsen says of conveying his decision. "My manager's just like, 'I don't know if this is good.' I'm like, 'Dude, this is a matter of life or death.' If I'm going to have any chance of continuing my music career, I'm staying. It's not up for discussion."

So, his agent (Olsen was then signed to Paradigm) cancelled his shows, and Olsen stayed. The ayahuasca visions that followed showed him what his life would be if he continued along the same anxious path, and what he needed to do to avoid it. When he left the jungle in late September of 2017, he played a few miserable shows, then sold all of his belongings -- including his house in Los Angeles. It was around this point that his management team realized he was serious about quitting.

"I was like, 'I'm not coming back, so you can keep finding gigs for me, but I'm not taking any of them.' My management were great about it. They were like, 'Go and take as much time as you need. The door's always open here.'"

"The passion was lost, the fun was taken away and I began to see a spiral quickly unfolding," says Olsen's then-manager Dave Frank, of management firm Milk & Honey. "At this point it was no longer about Tommy’s career for me; it was about his long term health and well-being. Through our conversations, we put a plan together for him to take as much time away as he needed without expectations or deadlines of when he needed to resume his career."

At the beginning of 2018, Olsen flew to Phuket, Thailand, rented " a really shitty little house" five minutes from the beach, then spent the next few months mostly floating on his back in the Andaman Sea. It was a long way from the nightclubs of Las Vegas.

Over time, Olsen achieved the clarity he was after, with the hard memories of the EDM grind taking on new meaning. "I really learned how to reframe my whole experience of my DJ career up until that point," he says. "Instead of it being all these f--king traumatic memories of years riddled with anxiety, it just became like, 'Wow, that was such a blessing, because now I have resources to do what I'm doing. I can focus on getting myself right. I wouldn't have had that luxury without the EDM phase."

Courtesy of Tommy Trash
Tommy Trash in Thailand in 2018.

Over time, Olsen made friends in Thailand -- "none of them were in music; none of them knew anything about EDM" -- and eventually bought himself a guitar and set up a makeshift studio in his "s--tty little house." For the first time in a long time, he was making music because he loved it, "not because I'm trying to get a hit. Not so I can make a banger so that I can go on tour for the next three months. For no reason other than the joy of creating."

He soon had a pile of new music spanning genres like hip-hop, techno and disco, well beyond the big room and progressive house Tommy Trash was known for. ("I was spewing out ideas," he says. "I couldn't operate the production program quick enough.") Feeling charged up on every level after spending most of 2018 in Thailand, Olsen trekked to Bali, then to the Colombian jungle for another round of ayahuasca. At this point he had no management, no agent and no plans of returning to his career. Then, he got his ass kicked by psychedelics.

"We're talking 16, 17 hours, man," he says of his final ayahuasca experience. "By this point, everyone's outside taking photos with each other, and I'm just like, in the bed drooling everywhere with spew on myself."It wasn't pretty, but it was powerful. A shaman assisted Olsen in getting to the other side of the psychedelic experience, and by the end, "it unblocked it -- whatever resistance I had to getting back into my career, it disappeared that night."

Shortly thereafter, Olsen signed to ICM, where he now works with agent Paul Gongaware and was back with his old management company, Milk & Honey. "Tommy is very different now than he was when we decided it’d be best if he took some time off," says Frank. "He’s worked through a lot of things, found peace and happiness, re-ignited his passion for music, got into great physical shape and is in the best mental space I’ve seen him in over the last 10 years."

Together, the team started sending out demos, and while Olsen describes the initial response as "lukewarm," eventually he signed a song to Deadmau5' Mau5trap label, with his March single "Hiiigh" serving as the launch of Mau5trap's house label, Hau5trap.

Today (October 14) also marks the launch of Tommy Trash's own label, Milky Wave, which he envisions as a home for the genre-crossing productions he made during his spiritual sojourn, and eventually for music by both emerging and established artists. Milky Wave's debut track, Trash's deliciously sauntering, kind of sassy house jam, "Satisfy," is out now.

"The theme for the label is how I'm trying to live now, too," he says, "just trying to be more curious and trying to have a bit more fun with life and and not be so serious and so dragged down by it all."

But while it's sustainable to drop new music from Sydney, where Olsen has been posted up during the country's ongoing lockdown, he's still not quite sure how he's going to handle touring -- the element of his job that caused so much distress the first time around. "I can't even remember the last time I've been awake at 1:00 a.m." he says.

While he used to drink at least a little before each show, he's now clear that alcohol isn't the answer and plans to avoid anxiety and burnout through breathwork, meditation, yoga and all the other healthy routines he's picked up since fleeing the scene. It will also probably help that when Olsen does return to touring, he'll be doing shows more aligned with where he's at artistically -- with the plan being to play smaller rooms, where he can as musically weird as he wants without having to cater to festival masses or the mega-club crowd. It's an exciting prospect -- especially for an artist who wasn't sure if he'd ever play again.

"I think," Olsen says, assessing this future, "it's a chance to actually be a real DJ."