“People think I’m out doing forty-foot lines of cocaine, and participating in Roman orgies every weekend—I mean that’s not what it is! I know that’s what some people would like it to be…”
Is it any wonder that the reigning champion of DJs with rock-star aesthetic has to deal with misconceptions about his life outside the club? Inside the club, Tommie Sunshine’s image is unmistakable. Looking like Jesus Christ in a Cory Hart moment, Tommie literally rocks behind the decks, with his off-kilter shuffle and waving hair creating the world’s most twisted metronome. And it works. Shuffling up nasty pop remixes, German techno, squelching acid and rock from jock jams to the Shout Out Louds, Tommie somehow connects the auditory dots to draw his very own picture of a dance floor. Insulated from the public behind a booth, headphones, long hair, beard and ever-present shades, one can only wonder what’s going on inside Tommie’s head when all hell is breaking loose on the dance floor.
“I’m not there to teach a class, I’m there to entertain,” he explains. “I’ve never premeditated a set that I’ve ever played. That sort of spontaneity is what made me like electronic music when I’d go out at the end of the eighties and early nineties. I try to reproduce that same sort of environment when I play.”
Before Tommie Sunshine, there was just Naperville native Thomas Lorello, who crossed the divide from typical air-guitaring suburban teen to jet-set-ready DJ by way of immersion into early Midwest rave culture and the legendary Medusa’s all-ages club. Eventually making a name for himself in Atlanta for six years, Tommie returned to Chicago in 2000, and as luck would have it, his collaborations with Felix da Housecat would soon thrust him into the limelight. Yet Tommie’s own image, direction and taste-making reputation would germinate the popularity of current popular club nights like Dark Wave Disco, which has regularly featured DJs like Tommie Sunshine, Steve Aoki and Junior Sanchez.
“I think a lot of what I did in Chicago was really ahead of its time. When I lived [in Chicago] for those four years from 2000-2003, when Dust Traxx was doing a house night called Sweat up at Red Dog [Ohm Nightclub’s previous incarnation], I had the upstairs and was doing a night called Electro Sweat. In the midst of the electro-clash era, me and Jordan Zawideh were playing Italo disco, and early new wave, and a lot of Adult. and Miss Kittin and Felix da Housecat and all that music… and we were doing that at Red Dog! That was pretty ballsy and ahead of its time. And I did another night called Degeneration at Smart Bar and we brought in Greg from Kill Hannah and Princess Superstar and DJ Unknown from Fischerspooner, and we mixed it up. It was Dark Wave Disco before it was Dark Wave Disco…before it became more than trendy.”
Although Tommie speaks with satisfaction about his role in current Chicago club trends, no trendsetter ever sits still, and perhaps popularity is a difficult concept to grasp for a successful DJ who wears his D.I.Y. aesthetic on his sleeve.
“The most punk-rock thing you can do is…I’m pretty much back to playing house music, again, and I think that’s subversive at this state of the game because everyone is trying so hard to be eclectic.”
Still an avid fan of hearing DJs spin, Tommie briefly mentions other DJs and producers he sees playing a big future in electronic music. “Switch is the king of electronic music right now,” he enthuses after citing Diplo for his worldly scope, and MSTRKRFT for “doing it well.”
So what does the future hold for Tommie?
“My new fascination is with horns,” he declares quite matter-of-factly. “I’ve been talking [to production partner Mark Verbos] about hiring a horn section.” But before you worry about Tommie going funk, he throws out a disclaimer. “My music taste changes daily.” This becomes apparent as Tommie literally gushes about finding obscure Korean sixties prog-rock records while shopping with his girlfriend. But for the nearer future, Tommie’s geeked to return to playing a big room in Chicago.
“I am very excited to come back to play Chicago and that [Crobar] is giving me a platform to come back on a Saturday night and do it properly. This is the first real proper DJ gig that I’ve had in a major club in Chicago since I left. And Dark Wave is great, I’m not belittling Dark Wave, but Dark Wave is not Crobar. Dark Wave is a specific crowd. And I’m talking about getting to play for a Saturday night party crowd and crush the place!”
Flippin’ the Bird with Tommie Sunshine at Crobar,1543 North Kingsbury, (312)266-1900, on November 25 at 10pm.