Flying high: Catching up with Tommy of The High Pilots

The Santa Barbara quartet will stop by Mojo’s on Monday.

By Megan Suddarth

Published March 16, 2012

Open roads, microphones and loyal fans pretty much fill the life of Tom Cantillon, lead singer of Tommy and the High Pilots. For this California boy, life is crazy in so many ways. Touring the country all year, meeting new people, writing songs and, most importantly, bringing a certain charisma that would impress even Lennon to each and every stage he climbs, describes the life of this whole-hearted musician.

Relationships that last a lifetime

Hailing from Santa Barbara, Calif., Tom grew up with his four brothers, all of whom he’s close to. A tight group of boys from when they were little to even today, Tom and his brothers often found their own ways to have fun with what they had growing up. Referred to once as “a pack of hyenas,” the brothers were always trying to outdo each other for attention — understandable coming from such a large group of boys. From activities such as filming their own movies to skateboarding to basketball, their relationships have only grown stronger with the years.

Jimmy Cantillon, one of Tom’s brothers, refers to their relationships as best friends.

“Growing up together was really fun,” Jimmy says. “It has honestly become more fun since we’ve all been old enough to hang out as adults and go to bars together. Our age differences were obviously more noticeable when we were kids.”

Kevin Cantillon, another brother, is the closest to Tom in age.

“We have a lot of the same friends and like a lot of the same things,” Kevin says. “We talk almost daily on the phone, and he’ll run new songs by me to see what I think. He’s on the road a lot, so it’s nice when we get to hang out away from venues or shows.”

Memories underlie each and every relationship, and these brothers have some pretty spectacular ones — Jimmy and Tom once lied to get into a Jimmy Eat World concert in Texas while on tour.

“Word got back to the band somehow, and after the show they walked up to our school bus (tour bus) and asked if they could come in and check it out,” Jimmy says. “They all signed the inside of the bus for us and then talked to us about how lucky we were. After we argued about them being the lucky ones, they explained that they don’t get to see the country and meet people like we do. They are flown from show to show or in a tour bus where they don’t see out the windows. They told us to cherish every minute of it, and I think that ever since then we definitely have. It was pretty inspiring.”

Making another memory in the process, Kevin and Tom once snuck out of the house, escaping the clutches of a babysitter while their parents were out of town.

“Me and Tom took our bikes and rode down the street to the main road, where our parents would never let us go without them,” Kevin says. “We rode our bikes up and down the main street for about 20 minutes, feeling both scared and excited. It was our first experience of being out in the world on our own. When Tom’s out on the road, I often think of that day, and how he’s turned his bike in for a tour van, and the main street in for the open road.”

A lifetime of love

Tom found a passion for music at a young age. With parents who promoted concerts, he grew up in a home filled with musical inspirations like Bruce Springsteen, Kurt Cobain, Van Morrison, David Byrne and John Lennon, and his passion inevitably grew with time.

By fifth grade, Tom had formed his very first band — though it didn’t last long. By middle school, Tom was already writing songs and belting out that unforgettable voice.

“I didn’t play anything, but I sang and wrote the lyrics,” Tom says. “We disbanded due to freeing up recess time.”

Tom can play six different instruments, including the guitar and piano. He taught himself to play guitar as a teen, before his mother decided to put him into lessons.

“I decided to pick up guitar when I was 15,” Tom says. “Haven’t put it down since.”

During high school, Tom even convinced his parents to sign him up for independent studies, so he could get out of classes and do his work while on tour with his band.

Described by Jimmy as a “rare breed,” Tom’s passion and excitement for music shines through his entire life. It takes a lot to make it in the music industry, and it seems Tom has the talent, drive and zeal required.

“Anyone can join a band,” Jimmy says. “A smaller amount of those people can stick with it for a few years and actually take a chance with it. Then there is a very small number of people that you meet who you can tell are not going to accept anything less than a lifelong career in it. Tommy is that guy.”

Kevin shares the same opinion.

“Music is his life,” Kevin says. “It’s what he does all day, and it’s what drives him. Music is his connection with the rest of the world.”

Nowadays

Tommy and the High Pilots formed after Tom moved back to Santa Barbara after a year in New York.

“I had the itch to get a band back together,” Tom says. “Started as a cover band called Mr. Handsome. Moved forward from there.”

Their songs range from romantic lovey-doveys to fast-paced songs detailing subways and the Big Apple, and the inspirations come from all across the board.

“Some are autobiographical, some are just stories made up in my crazy head,” Tom says.

The High Pilots have been touring the country nonstop for the past two years and don’t plan to stop anytime soon. During the couple days they had off this year, they recorded some new demos and hope to release a new record by the end of this year.

“I’m really pumped about our new music,” Tom says. “I feel like all this new stuff is way better than the old stuff. You realize what works and what doesn’t work.”

In addition to hitting the studio and working on new music, The High Pilots also released their video for “Lonely Place” from their Sawhorse Sessions EP a few weeks ago.

Sometimes the trials and tribulations that accompany pursuing dreams can get a bit heavy, but The High Pilots try to keep their heads up. And with an ever-growing fan base, they count themselves happy.

“We measure our success by how many people are coming out to the shows, and that number keeps growing,” Tom says. “Little things, like MTV and song placements in TV shows are also little rays of light that keep us excited to move forward.”

As The High Pilots grow bigger and develop a larger following, those close to Tom can’t help but feel a sense of pride. All of his hard work is paying off, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by those in his life.

“We’re all very proud of him and know that the best is yet to come,” Jimmy says. “Everyone from our parents to all of us brothers, to our grandparents and his friends and girlfriend. We see the hunger in him to do this as a career. So it excites all of us to see how the High Pilots are growing.”

Kevin is also a part of Tom’s support system.

“Tom has always had people rooting for him to succeed,” Kevin says. “When he leaves for tour, they’re all rooting him on and awaiting his arrival home.”

Tommy and the High Pilots are opening for Langhorne Slim at Mojo’s on Monday. Tickets are $10.

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