With blue streaks in his hair, a cup of beer in his hand and a stash of party gear (including a green jelly LED ring he gifts to me), Vanderpump Rules star Tom Sandoval looks every bit the party dude at Coachella 2016. But unlike most of the scenesters on loan from Los Angeles at the desert fest, Sandoval is laser-focused on the task at hand, whatever that may be. If someone at Coachella recognizes him as the bartender-singer-model-actor from the hit Bravo series and drunkenly requests a photo, there’s no hesitation — he slips into iPhone photoshoot mode, poses for a few shots, and quickly, but politely, moves on.
Similarly, when I sit down on the desert ground (softened by hundreds of spilled beers and thousands of footsteps) with Sandoval and his crew — which includes girlfriend/fellow Vanderpump Rules star Ariana Madix, her younger brother Jeremy and Ali, Tom’s IRL friend since age 16 — at a Coachella beer tent, Sandoval is gregarious but businesslike about the interview. I’m just one question into it when he stops me, picks up my recorder and asks if I want to hold it closer, to ensure it’ll pick up his voice amid the Coachella cacophony of bass lines and shouted conversations. Not a crazy suggestion by any means, but a surprising move from someone best known for his role on a reality show about attractive Angelenos getting drunk, arguing, hooking up and breaking up while tending bar and waiting tables at Lisa Vanderpump’s SUR.
Sandoval might be a small celebrity in the vast Hollywood firmament, but for a set of late 20s, early 30s millennials, he’s a breakout star on a TV series that’s gathering Bravo valuable eyeballs (i.e., younger viewers than what the Housewives franchises typically draw). Vanderpump Rules has even been blessed with a patina of prestige thanks to a glowing, although not guileless, endorsement by The New York Times.
But Billboard isn’t speaking to Sandoval in his capacity as rep for Vanderpump Rules. Instead, we’re talking to the 32-year-old about his long-gestating musical ambitions (he was a backup dancer for Toya of “I Do!!” fame back in the day and recently starred in Kill the Noise’s “I Do Coke” video). His music career has been alluded to throughout the series’ run, but it became a plot point in season four with the release of the surprisingly likable “T.I.P.” from Charles McMansion (his duo with Isaac Kappy).
Arriving with a cheeky, ridiculous music video, the funk-pop offering is a shocker in the reality TV-related music realm: It doesn’t suck! While songs from countesses and anthems about being tardy for parties tend to elicit shudders from Bravo fans and the wider populace alike, “T.I.P.” (which stands for “touch in public,” btw) actually works in the Bruno Mars/Chromeo pop-funk vein. Additionally, the music video — which features a few Vanderpump castmates for good measure and a dildo-covered guitar nicknamed “Dildo Baggins” — is the kind of clip that dares you not to smile.
Mining the now-hot lite funk sound is a smart move, and a deliberate one. “It’s the bass and beat that moves you,” Sandoval opines at the beer tent, pointing out that we’re slowly nodding along to the bass line from a band whose Coachella set we can’t otherwise hear. “Before you know what’s happened, your subconscious takes over with the bass and beat.”
“It’s hard to be skeptical when you’re getting that itch to move shoulders,” Ariana chimes in. “You get a little head nod and you’re like… [this is] okay.”
When I press Tom if the music — which, among acting and modeling, is one of several side hustles he’s dipped in throughout his life — is something he’s truly serious about, he insists he’s “very passionate” about the Charles McMansion project. “Me and Isaac do everything together as far as the music and producing. He’s really good at coming up with hooks, because I suck at hooks, and then I can fill in the blanks, work on the lyrics. I wrote 70-80 percent of the ‘T.I.P.’ lyrics.”
Verbal assurance is one thing, but I get a more authentic affirmation of his music fandom later that night when he quite literally runs into me during Guns N’ Roses‘ set. Since it’s Coachella, half the crowd is buzzing on various substances, but Sandoval seems genuinely ecstatic about the musicians onstage as opposed to the party atmosphere, rhapsodizing about GnR’s performance and sharing music nerd facts about the guitar Slash is wielding.
Ariana, who’s a supportive girlfriend but hardly an enthusiastic cheerleader, is cautiously optimistic about Tom’s music career when I ask her about it. “I’ve known him a long time before we were dating and even before we were that close. I’ve watched him have ideas and then not have people around him to encourage him and say, ‘Just go for it,’ so it’s really cool to see him have an idea and take a risk. In any creative field if you put something out there it’s such a huge risk. Of course not everyone is going to be your number one fan, but it’s cool to see people vibe to [this song] and see it grow from there. And I think the stuff they’re working on is fun.”
In turn, the material he’s working on is partly inspired by her. “I remember the first time I hung out with Ariana, the anticipation of meeting up with her, the anticipation of knowing her and being close to her as a person or friend — like, is this going to the next level or is this going to be a quick thing? What is it? Those are the places I come from when writing music instead of trying to sound cool or be like ‘let’s do a sexy song,'” he says.
“That’s where ‘T.I.P.’ comes from,” he explains. “You’ve had the best day — you’ve closed an amazing deal or played slot machines and won the jackpot, and your food tastes better. Your drink tastes better. Music sounds better.”
Even if his reality TV gig gives his side hustle more exposure, it also makes life a lot more complicated. In the half hour I spent with the crew, Sandoval is approached by at least four fest-goers looking for selfies, including one girl who slurs that he’s the “hottest guy on the show” while Ariana is about two feet away. Longtime friend Ali shakes his head and laughs at each approaching rando, but Ariana looks entirely nonplussed — this is clearly not new territory for her.
That approachable level of fame naturally makes bartending at SUR — ostensibly Sandoval’s primary job on Vanderpump Rules — much harder. When the show started he was doing three to four nights a week at the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star’s Sexy Unique Restaurant, but now he’s down to “one to two nights” a week thanks to customers grilling him about the show during his shifts. “It’s seven hours of being around alcohol and people asking you a thousand questions about your personal life,” Sandoval says. “You get crabby.”
Regardless, he’s got enough to keep busy when he’s not SUR-ving. Aside from his own video, the sometimes-actor recently starred in the drug-fueled “I Do Coke” video from Kill the Noise and Feed Me, and he’s looking to get back into modeling. And, of course, there’s more music, including a song Charles McMansion is wrapping and another collaboration they’re eyeing. The new stuff will use “live horns [and] definitely keep that funk going,” he says, in addition to digging “a little deeper” lyrically. Although he shrugs off a question about making a full album in the near future, he does have one goal for 2017. “I hope to be playing here [at Coachella],” Sandoval says, with a smile that tips to how lofty that goal is. “I know that’s ambitious. Or even just play a [Coachella related] party.”
If that’s his best-case-scenario goal, here’s his more down-to-earth vision for the future of Charles McMansion: “I envision a modern day Blues Brothers kind of vibe. My goal is to walk incognito into one of our shows and overhear some girls arguing about who’s better, Tom or Isaac.”
Based on the attention his presence at a Coachella beer tent attracted, that might not be an entirely unreasonable goal.