It’s fair to say that in the last few years, Tom Cardy has become something of a sensation in the world of music and comedy. Having played music from a young age and having started to dabble in improvisational comedy in high school, it wasn’t that long ago that he managed to take the Australian media landscape by storm.
A seasoned performer already, Cardy found his earliest fame via TikTok, after countless videos he uploaded found themselves viral. These videos almost always featured footage of him in his studio, writing and recording parodies or original songs that were designed to both entertain and solicit a chuckle.
As time went on, Cardy’s online profile began to rise, and in 2020, he teamed up with triple j to launch his ‘Song Sequels’ segment, which would see him effectively parodying well-known songs in an attempt to continue the narrative or theme of the original. The sequels were viral hits, and Cardy frequently found himself going viral thanks to their success.
But as he continued to compose and create while utilising his trademark sense of humour, the notion of releasing an album came his way, and in August of 2021, he released his debut record, Artificial Intelligence. A fast hit, the album charted at #40 on the Australian charts, and it spawned a number of viral tracks, including the likes of “Mixed Messages” and “H.Y.C.Y.B.H.”, which made it into triple j’s Hottest 100 at #17 and #11, respectively.
It’s fast and dizzying success for the Sydney creative, who is already working on his second album. In the wake of his massive rise to fame, Cardy spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about his journey to where he finds himself, including his love of Tenacious D, his fondness for pushing ideas to the limit, and his wish-list for his second album.
Let’s start with the standard question. How have you been dealing with things over these last two years? Have you been doing alright and staying safe?
Yeah, you know, I have. Mostly just doing stuff to sort of get away and take my time. A lot of music and stuff, and that’s going alright.
I’ve been talking to some of the artists who have been really, really struggling with the last couple of years. But having something to focus on, it’s very useful, isn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m not based so much in ‘live’, so it hasn’t taken as much of a toll. I can just sit in my little room and fiddle around with the stuff.
Before looking at current events, I’d love to sort of go back in time a little bit. When did you first sort of get into the world of music, whether it be listening or creating?
My parents made me learn the piano for at least a year, me and my sisters, which gave me my first taste against my wishes to learn music. But then I basically had a friendship with a mate and we just played Guitar Hero all the time. And we got into all that old rock and roll and like, Motley Crüe and Guns ‘N Roses and stuff, which is embarrassing to admit now that we loved that hair metal thing, I think. But just the virtuosity of those genres and just loving them, then learning to play them with my mate – me playing drums and him playing guitar – just gave me an appreciation for actually quite complicated stuff to play. Like, “Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen [laughs].
From there, it was around high school that you got into comedy and improvising, didn’t you?
Yeah, in high school I started doing a lot of improv at my school and then outside doing shows with that same mate. My friend, Angus Rees, we did a lot of improv and Theatresports at the school, and then we kept doing it outside, just doing sketches and loving comedy. And then after a while, when you can improvise in different areas, you usually combine them in some way. And musical improv is a big thing. So it’s like, “Okay, why don’t we do this, and then we can be doubly impressive if we want to do a show or something like that.”
That can be quite daunting though, can’t it? Improv can be difficult enough, but when you add in a musical instrument to the mix, it can almost become something else that can go wrong.
It can be really daunting. I actually teach musical improv like workshops at this improv school currently, which is cool because I’m teaching and I’m also reflecting on it in my own ways. Yeah, I think in a way it’s a lot harder because you got more to think about. But in a way, it’s a lot easier because you have the genres that you will conform to. There’s like these sorts of rules that are hidden throughout. So if you can do a love ballad, then there’s all these are all about how you sing and the sort of phrases that you say and the cheesy metaphors that you use. So it kind of leads the way for you. It’s not all made up in a way.
As a creative in those two fields, were there any particular influences that helped shape both your musical tastes and the humour that you have now?
Musically, I love bands like Vulfpeck and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. But in terms of the comedy and stuff, I think Tenacious D was one of the earliest things that really wowed me. Because it’s so funny, and the jokes are really strong. But also, the musicality of it is incredible. Jack Black’s voice is like the best voice I’ve ever heard, in just the emotion and his ability to sing and just what it sounds like. But then the music and the chords and the structure is also so incredible and entertaining, and sonically like, it rocks, and that’s so fucking cool.
From listening to that, I was like, “Oh my god, wait a second. Things can be funny. It can be comedy music, but it can also sound really good as well.” Just because you’re doing funny music or, you know, offbeat music, it doesn’t have to be like just one person with a keyboard standing on stage doing stand-up or a parody song. It can actually make you feel good. So I was like, “Oh, this is very interesting.”
I feel some people can have that preconceived notion that comedy music will just be parody songs or Casio keyboard songs with a punchline in the lyrics. But there’s so much more to it that they wouldn’t understand, isn’t there?
Yeah, I think so. It depends what kind of stuff you’re doing. I suppose for me, I know I’m a lot more comfortable behind a mixing desk and working things out slowly in the studio and doing a long slog. So even though a lot of the jokes can be a little bit silly, one of my favourite things to do is take something really basic and then just see how long you can develop it – complicate it, in a way – to bring it to its logical end point.
If you saw some sessions that I use – and I’m not Tenacious D – but if you saw the amount of the track listings and the harmonies that I put on the stupid words that I try and write, it’s like these ideas don’t deserve this much care and development, but then you do it and then it’s like, “Oh, that’s actually cool.”
It’s one of those things where you just have to sort of stick it out, because even the most ridiculous ideas can bear fruit somewhere down the line.
Oh, 100%. I think if you’re just doing straight music with no offbeat flavour or anything like that, even then, you can have the best melody in the world and the best chords, and you do it the first time and you’d be like, “It’s not going to sound great immediately”. You’ve got to sort of develop and you’ve got to stick in there for a little while until something sort of develops, or if you’re recording in a certain way or you add that certain thing [that works].
Having started comedy and improv in high school, did that happen to make you one of the popular kids? I know so many schools treat the funnier and more confident students differently [laughs].
No, I don’t think necessarily the improv aspect was enjoyed by everyone. It was interesting, actually. A few years above me, there were some like Theatresports jocks. I remember them, and it was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that sort of dichotomy could exist.” But no, I wasn’t necessarily super popular in high school.
But I think there’s a confidence in whatever you do, even if you’re madly in love with bugs and collecting dust specimens, if you’re confident in it in high school and you’re like, “This is what I like to do”, and you kind of stand up for it and people will give you a bit of respect. So like in comedy and music, and being a bit of a nerd about that sort of stuff, if you still kind of stand up for it then people are like, “Oh, okay, that person’s got something going on.”
From there, you started working on composing and everything at university, didn’t you?
Yeah, I worked for some revues. I did some comedy revues, and that’s where I kind of realised that there was actually a possibility of making these comedy songs. Before that, I thought, “I love funny music stuff. I listen to these bands,” and I didn’t think that was anything I could possibly do; I thought it was so far-fetched. I was certainly not confident often in doing it.
But then I had a very stupid sketch. It was a remix of this dubstep song, and I was on stage and I was pretending to be a DJ and I was remixing my mum calling me into the set, which is pre-recorded, of course. But I was acting as if it was there, and it was my mum calling me and telling me that I let the dog out. And then the dog had bit a child and the kid’s. And then the police come over and like, put the dog down.
Which seems super dark, but for me being on stage and me remixing that and reacting in real time. Musically it was pumping and energetic as well. And then I got a really good response that I was like, “Fuck, if I can do that – and it’s the dumbest idea in the entire world – and they love it, yeah, I can do this.”
You were also playing drums for The Lulu Raes around that time. Having the compositional side of things, studying music, and also performing in a band, that must have rounded you out nicely, giving you experience from all angles?
Absolutely. I feel like I’m someone who is a jack of all trades in a way. Not really a master of anything, but enough that I can sort of self-sustain, whether it’s the recording or the mixing. But no, it was great, and one of the guys in The Lulu Raes, I’m still very good friends with. His name’s Taras and he does writing for heaps of artists, and he taught me how to use my first music program, Logic, which I still use today. And I was like, “Oh wow, you gotta look out for those people who you can learn from and can really launch you like that.”
Speaking of launching things, if we fast-forward a bit, we find where you are now. So it was on TikTok where you first sort of blew up. I’m assuming that when you first signed up to the service, you weren’t really expecting your ‘stupid little songs’ to be so popular, did you?
I was just looking for videos of people embarrassing themselves, on TikTok. So that was what sustained me for a while, and then I made a stupid video. I kept calling them ‘stupid’, but I started to tell myself recently to stop calling all them ‘stupid’ and ‘silly little songs’ because they’re fun, and I enjoy them. But I just have a brain that is like [robotic voice], “Cannot treat yourself as a real musician. Must joke.”
What was the reaction like on TikTok initially? Was it slow-burning, or was it more immediate?
I always got a positive response from it, which kind of scared me because it also meant that after a while, when I had enough people following me and I was shared enough and I got some negative responses, I was like, “What is this? I only get positive. This is weird. I don’t like this.”
The first video I did was just a remix of a Hall & Oates song, but I just said a naughty word at the right time, and it was shared by an Australian Instagram account. And very quickly my followers grew a few 10,000, and I was like, “Okay, quickly, must capitalise”, which really helped.
It’s strange, isn’t it? It’s a little weird to feel liked by so many strangers on the platform, but the second that you get any negativity it’s just so baffling, isn’t it?
Exactly right. After I got a few more followers and people don’t take note if I had some interviews with some record people from labels and some management, and there was one guy that was like, “Okay, you’re got an album, you got that planned, great we can try to get on to the commercial radio stations like Today FM.” I was like, “I don’t want to do all that stuff”, because I don’t want to push all this niche stuff on to people who aren’t interested. I just want to do it for the fans who are a little bit obsessed with the stuff that I’m doing for some reason. And I just want to reward them.
Because that’s what happened. I had all the songs, almost all of the album done, and people would say, “Put them out, put them out”, and I’m like, “Okay, I’ll wrap it up. I’ll put a few more songs in. I’ll spend a few more days mixing them and I’ll make some cool art and then make it a bit special” for what I thought was just like a few thousand people who were just keen.
Plus if you were to push it onto commercial radio, there’s the chance you’d not last as long because people would get sick of you quickly since it’s not tailored specifically to that audience.
That’s exactly right. Recently, I think they actually played a few of them on like, Jonesy & Amanda and another station they were talking about me. So it ultimately gets around, which is pretty cool. But I feel more confident now. If it was that sort of attention before I was more confident in the content, then I feel I’d be thinking too much about it now.
The fact that people did resonate with what you were making, that must have been so validating for you.
It’s so validating. I was doing what I found entertaining because one of the processes I had for myself was, you take an idea that’s a bit fun or fun to do or fun to make or fun to listen to, and then you just push the idea of the concept or the joke as far as it will go. Like logically, I just say ‘yes’ to ideas. And when you do that, I found that I could make three-minute songs about a cop pretending not to be a cop but pretending to be a businessman, and being grilled for three minutes. Like, keeping it still entertaining. And I was like, “This isn’t relatable, this is just what I find entertaining”. And then other people were like, “You know, no, this entertaining!”
I was actually wondering if that was how you made songs like “Business Man”, because it definitely feels like this idea that you had where you just sort of tried to milk it for all it’s worth.
I think, maybe – and I said it originally – ‘milking’ it is not the right idea. This is actually something that we do at improv, the first rule of improv is “yes, and”. Which is you say ‘yes’ to an idea when someone else comes out. So if someone else comes up and says, “Hello Jackson, it’s a nice day to be a pirate”, and you say, Yes, we are pirates and I’ve got a bird on my shoulder”.
So I’ve been sort of in musical writing sessions when you’re working with a musician and you feel like someone had an idea, the other one says, “Mm, don’t like that”, or like, “What about this?”, or they may try and change it immediately without giving you a chance. But when you’re just so much like, “OK, yes, let’s go with it”, the world opens up, and all these other opportunities open up to you. It’s kind of a bit hippy-dippy positivity, but it actually works.
So you started to rise to a bit more prominence over on triple j thanks to your ‘Song Sequels’ segment. How did that relationship start?
Well, I was friends with Michael Hing through the comedy scene. I played keyboard to his improvised Dungeons and Dragons podcast [The Dragon Friends]. So we knew each other through there, and he had the idea for doing this ‘Song Sequel’ sort of parody idea a while ago, but I think for a lot of musicians, it’s a little bit of work and not everyone has those skills.
But I was sitting at home in COVID being like, “I have a studio setup I’m not using as much as I was, I’m an improviser, and I come up with things quickly and I can make these things”. And so we just tried it out and it went really well. I put so much effort into all of them, but the first one, especially. I was like, “Must make a good first impression”.
Was there a bit of apprehension in doing that at all? Because, ultimately they fall into the category of parody, and some artists who mix music with comedy are sometimes adamant they want to just stick with originals and not go to the other side of things. Did you feel that way?
Before I did it, I was definitely like, “What am I doing? Am I doing parody songs now?” But then I thought, “Weird Al” Yankovic, he’s awesome and so loveable, and so great, and also so talented. So any thought that I had that parody music is ‘untalented’ work sort of ‘hack work’, it was like, “No, you can do whatever you want, do what makes you happy”. And trying to make it not hacky was actually a really good challenge.
It’s a great challenge, and I found that as a musician and a recording artist, it was incredible to remake these songs and use my critical like ear to try and figure out what was making these songs work. Because I was like, “Holy shit, these songs don’t have a lot of stuff in them. They’re just really well recorded and have really well-placed bass lines and stuff.” I was like, “This is an incredible learning experience. Everyone should take half a year off and remake really famous songs the best they can”.
So you mentioned before that people had requested for an album to come out, but when exactly did the notion of formally releasing an album actually come forth?
People were just asking for this stuff to be put on streaming platforms. And I was thinking, “Oh, really? I don’t know… Some of the songs are not really that long”. I thought, “This is what it is.” I didn’t really think of it as an album. Then it just kept going, and to be honest, I thought that after a month or two, my run would be over. I thought it was just going to be like a fun little thing and then I’d go get another job. But I kept doing the songs and people kept sharing them.
So after I almost had an entire album, I was like, “Yeah, I want to reward the people who have stuck with me”. And I just thought, in my own spot, when I love these bands… Like, they don’t even have to be the biggest band, I think they can just be a fun project or anything. When they put in a lot of effort and make something nice, whether it’s a video that they put a lot of effort into or some art, it feels like this nice connection. So originally I just wanted to put the extra work into showing these songs off and add parts and do this just to make a few people very excited.
Did you have any apprehension in putting an album out? Because while I love comedy albums, or musical comedy, it often can fail in having an everlasting appeal as people become desensitised to the punchline and they sort of know what’s coming.
Not really, actually. I kind of just thought it was going to be a side thing, really. I think that the album was going to be fun, but I didn’t realise it was going to get as many listeners as it would. It was actually really nice, because I spent so long on the music side and the recording and getting the right things in, like studying the mixing plug-ins and everything and just because it pleases me. So I think that was actually well-received, and it was appreciated for its musicality as well as the comedy side, which was really nice.
So I never really thought, “Oh no, this will get old fast”, because I guess when I listen to it, I like the emotional feeling or the sort of tingling thing when there’s a build up and then an energetic drop in the chorus or something. And I knew it had those parts that made you a bit excited, so I was like, “Well, that doesn’t really get old”.
I’ve always really appreciated the sort of people who don’t listen to lyrics, because they can always appreciate something like comedy music without it ever getting old. If they’re just listening to the music, that’s great, and it almost never loses its appeal.
One thing that this entire thing has taught me and just about music in general, is before when I was writing songs, I was really like, “You can write about whatever you have to make the words sound good together”. Like, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and sort of saying whatever comes to your mind. But after I did this, and I know it’s different, but I just thought, for what I’m doing now, if it’s telling a bit of a story, it has to make sense.
You can’t just have half a line of bullshit. If I include like half of a line of fluff in the verse to get me to the next part, that’s the point where people get bored and change it. And I thought, “Wow, even though this is this and I have to set up for a punchline or something, I think that’s actually the case in all music”. And that made me appreciate that before I should have been thinking more about how my lyrics were connecting.
Last month saw both “Mixed Messages” and “H.Y.C.Y.B.H.” make it into triple j’s Hottest 100 at #17 and #11, respectively. Did you have any idea that you’d place at all, let alone two songs that high?
Not really. I didn’t. When I was in my old band, we had a song that was played a lot on triple j; we had one song that did pretty well. And we were like, “Great, this might make the Hottest 100”. It didn’t make the 200. So I was like, “No, you got to really fucking get votes to be anywhere near there”. I made one video sort of being silly and asking people, just reminding people to vote. And I honestly didn’t think they were going to come anywhere near where it did.
There’s also talk you’re working on the next album. What’s the focus for it? Do you have any particular goals in mind, or are you just going to aim to follow what you’ve been doing so far?
I think there’s definitely going to be some higher production in the videos. I’ve got some grand schemes there and I’ve got some really incredible directors that I’m just friends with who have suggested working together, which I’m really keen to do. I thought about it, because I thought there was a little bit more pressure.
I was like, “Oh, okay, now songs are being played legitimately on the radio, so just don’t try and please everyone. Just to do the things that have been working, the thing that you enjoy, and the people enjoy”. Which is just what I’ve been saying; pushing an idea out, having fun, and finding the musical things that really get going. And also working with some cool artists, some nice features, which I can now do because I’ve got a lot of followers, which is very exciting.
Are there any names that you can mention or is that being kept under wraps for a while?
I think I’ll be working with Montaigne. I’d love to work with her. This is my wish list: Montaigne. There’s an artist called Shook who is just a synth lord, which I’m going to slide into his DMs soon. I want to work with Aunty Donna. It’s kind of cool to be able to work with musicians and comedians.
Tom Cardy’s Artificial Intelligence is out now.