It was August of 2013 and Thor Vanderkam and his band Tommy Alto were on the road and only a couple hours away from the comforts of home when fate decided to take them on a short ride from hell.
“We should have died,” Vanderkam, the band’s lead vocalist, told the News Bulletin.
Some 12 hours earlier, the South Surrey-based band had just wrapped up the final show of its first Western Canadian tour in Coleman, Alta.
“We were just excited to get home,” Vanderkam recalled. “We were just innocent skinny white kids hopping in a van.”
As the band approached Hope, B.C., fate took its course. The driver of the van fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the side of a mountain.
Vanderkam, along with his bandmates, Ben Klassen, Paul Engles, Chartwell Kerr, were injured in the crash.
“We are all incredibly lucky to be alive,” Vanderkam said. “It’s really, really crazy that we are all still here.”
The band members experienced a range of injuries from a few scrapes to broken bones. However, Engels sustained the most serious injuries.
“Paul wasn’t so lucky. He got a very serious brain injury and was in a coma for five weeks after the accident happened,” Vanderkam said. “He wasn’t able to continue with the band. He’s doing lots of rehab right now.”
After taking some time off to recover, Tommy Alto was able to add a new bass player, Chris Young, and has been touring together since May.
On Saturday (Oct. 18) Tommy Alto will be making its first-ever performance in Nanaimo when it takes the stage at the Cambie.
“We are super happy to come play in Nanaimo … because we do have a fair following there,” Vanderkam said. “So it will definitely be nice for everybody to see us in person.”
Tommy Alto was formed in 2010 and is a self-described “indie-rock/math-pop” band, with the math prefix referring to odd time signatures. The band, which has seen a number of lineup changes, has put out two records, Oceans \ Carolina and Atlas \ Patterson, with the latter being released in June.
“This record a hell of a lot more cathartic than anything we’ve done in the past,” Vanderkam said about Atlas \ Patterson.
The album includes Crowsnest, a song that Vanderkam wrote following the accident. The track’s title references the Crowsnest Highway, which is where the accident occurred.
“I wrote it immediately after I got home from the hospital,” Vanderkam said.
Tommy Alto’s current tour has taken the band to a number of cities throughout the continent such as Montreal, Toronto, Denver, Oakland, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The musicians also stopped in Los Angeles, where they played at the Hotel Café, a venue that has seen a number of high-profile acts including Katy Perry grace their stage.
“We had no idea about it when we were walking in,” Vanderkam said. “It’s a smaller 150-cap listening room. So a lot of bigger acts will do acoustic private shows and whatnot there. It was just a cool feeling to be on this stage where a lot of our musical heroes had been.”
While the accident hasn’t caused the group to stop touring, it has experienced a few moments of anxiety on the road.
“We did have a few moments where we did need to pull over and regroup emotionally because it did take quite a toll on us,” Vanderkam said. “But it sure has hell hasn’t stopped us.”
When Vanderkam looks back at the accident he is thankful to not just be alive, but to have gone through the experience with the people he did.
“It is nice to have gone through that with your best friends. As awful as it is, it does bring you together a lot. It did give us a lot of stuff to write about and a lot of perspectives on life and humanity,” Vanderkam said. “It’s a life experience. It’s definitely not something that we would have liked to have happen but we are just glad that we could take some positives out of it and keep moving.”
Following the Nanaimo performance, Tommy Alto will perform once more on the mainland before focusing on writing new material. For Vanderkam there is no doubt about what the accident has done for him and the band.
“After the accident, we value the music we create together a lot more than we ever did before,” he said. “We are super happy with the way the band is now. It’s an unfortunate way to get there, but it definitely brought the remaining members a hell of a lot closer going through a tragedy like that.”For more information please visit www.tommyalto.com.