It's only fitting Tommy Alto has a fresh green "N" stuck to his vehicle, because he's one driven musician.
At age 17, the South Surreyite has rocked more stages and learned more about all facets of the music business than most people twice his age.
Tommy Alto is the stage name of Tom Vander Kam, who recently graduated from Earl Marriott Secondary and is now seriously focused on pursuing a dream of making music for a living.
He's off to a great start this summer, thanks to some killer pop-rock hooks on I'm Coming Home, a new LP of songs to be showcased on the Spirit of the Sea Festival main stage Sunday evening (Aug. 5) in White Rock.
"I am driven, yes - I have the energy," said Vander Kam, crediting his mom for his ambition. "I want to go out and conquer the music world, and that's my goal right now. I'm givin' 'er."
An only child not very gifted athletically (by his own admission), Vander Kam began playing guitar at age 10 and singing at 12. This led to band jams at Todd Brewer School of Music in White Rock and, two years ago, a solo turn on local stages as Tommy Alto. These days, the name also covers the Vander Kam-fronted band featuring guitarist Brett McCrady, bassist Paul Engels and drummer Greg Summers.
"I didn't want a dictatorship," Vander Kam explained. "It's my stage name as well as the band name, kind of like the Billy Idol thing."
Blessed with feel-good indie-pop goodness, the 10-song I'm Coming Home is less "psycho-poppin' (and) dirt-rockin'" than Alto's 2011 debut album, Scream My Name! Those earlier flirtations with more ragged sounds aren't as apparent on Vander Kam's newer material.
"I used have more of a country-rock sound, but I kind of got tired of that scene," the songwriter said. "It just wasn't doing it for me, so I got into going to see more hipster bands in Vancouver, more quirky indie-pop stuff, and that's where this all came from. I mean, playing pop music like this is so much fun to do live."
The new Alto album was recorded DIY style in Vander Kam's basement as a solo effort, save for the collaborative track "Baby I'm Gone," written by McCrady and recently performed by him during the 2012 finals of B.C. Junior Talent Search.
On the production end of things, Vander Kam taught himself the finer points of Pro Tools through internet tutorials and experimentation. "It's actually become pretty easy for me to get good-sounding recordings done in my basement," he boasted, "but I'm still learning hot keys and shortcuts. It's coming along."
On his musical path, Vander Kam has been given guidance by the likes of guitarist Jason Buie, of White Rock Blues Society, and sound man Phil Q. Davey.
More recently, Bryon Tosoff, via his White Rock-based Voodoohead Productions, has been pushing radio stations across the globe to play Alto's "Highschool Heartbreaker" and other songs, with encouraging results.
In conversation at Small Ritual coffee shop on Johnston Road, radio-format terms such as "hot AC" and "triple A" roll easily off Vander Kam's tongue. He's also adept at self-promotion, given the untold number of "Tommy Alto" stickers that grace everything from lockers at Earl Marriott and other local schools to rides at Playland.
Vander Kam is now hell-bent on playing his music for both existing fans and new listeners. Beyond this weekend's set on the beach in White Rock, he's booked to play Cates Park Concert Series in North Van on Aug. 18, and there's talk of a cross-Canada tour next spring.
An honour-roll student in high school, Vander Kam is registered to study physics at Kwantlen Polytechnic University this fall.
"It's hard to make a buck in the music industry these days," he lamented. "I know that, so you can't really quit your day job, and the physics thing is part of that. While learning about recording, I got into the physics of sound. I mean, one day I hope to have my own company that focuses on soundproofing of theatres and buildings, because as cities become more dense and populated, there's going to be a huge market for that. So yeah, that's my ultimate goal, assuming the music thing doesn't work out."
All things considered, I'm betting on Tom Vander Kam, musician.