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.”


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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A Downtown Lifestyle – Sparky’s Finest

A downtown tradition

Ice cream – a passion of many that provides not only a delightfully creamy treat but also an added unwanted couple of pounds. Though unhealthy, many can’t resist the deliciousness that ice cream provides.

The first ice cream parlor in America was established in 1776 and Columbia’s downtown ice cream shop, Sparky’s, has come a long way since then. Today, many more flavors and choices make for an even more exciting trip for ice cream lovers.

This local shop that is loved by many is only a small representation of what makes Columbia so comfortable. Inside, many workers spend their days making, selling, promoting and devouring the delicious homemade flavors of desire that so many people consider to be a trademark of this town.

Elizabeth Hughes, a Sparky’s employee, sits at the counter with her head in her hands, awaiting the next customer to come by and satisfy their cravings with a smooth fruity scoop or dark, rich cone.

Her stained apron, tattooed arms and wide smile welcome you into the store letting you know that when you leave, you’ll be happier than when you came in. Her kind nature and welcoming eyes are a direct indication that Sparky’s is as good as everyone makes it seem. Add her personality to a red bull shake, banana split or waffle cone full of sticky blueberry muffin ice cream, your day is complete.

An ice cream artist

Hughes has grown up in Columbia and is well aware of the extraordinary experience Sparky’s gives your taste buds. Most of her time is spent downtown at Sparky’s or her second job at Ingredient or just anywhere around Ninth Street hanging out with friends.

Elizabeth has worked at Sparky’s for roughly four months, enjoying just about every minute.

“It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had,” Hughes said. “I get to hang out and eat ice cream, it’s not that bad. And the people that work here are pretty awesome.”

There are many positive aspects to working at an ice cream shop, one of which being the obvious – ice cream galore – however, Hughes’ decision for Sparky’s is pretty present and clear.

“A lot of my friends work here,” Hughes said. “That’s pretty much the main reason. The environment is my favorite part. Being here is pretty relaxed and it’s just easy to be at work.”

The environment is pretty relaxed. Sitting in a corner observing a lazy fall afternoon, one can see that it’s going to be a slow day. Customers occasionally drop in for a bowl of raspberry sorbet or a waffle cone full of upside down peanut butter brownie.

A typical day in the life of an ice cream maker is pretty much the same as any other job, with the exception of being able to make delicious ice cream.

“I’m an ice cream maker,” Hughes said. “ I come in and open and get everything set up. I make ice cream and in between I help customers and keep the shop in tact and stocked.”

According to Hughes, making ice cream is actually a lot easier than it might sound. All it takes is to mix a couple of ingredients together and suddenly you have the delicious delicacy of chai-flavored ice cream ready to be served.

“The only secret really is that it’s a lot easier than it looks,” she said. “Ice cream is surprisingly simple and really fun but there are some complexities. There are just a couple little tricks to get everything right. We make it all here, so if you see a flavor and you wonder how it tastes, it probably tastes just like it sounds.”

There are some downsides to working in such a gooey environment.

“Ice cream is messy,” Hughes said. “We end up mopping a lot. As much that ends up on kid’s faces also ends up on the floor, but that’s just a part of the job.”

Though she only works two days a week at Sparky’s, she holds down another job just down the street.

“I also work at Ingredient,” Hughes said. “I live downtown and I have a permanent schedule here so I pretty much know when I’m going to work and it’s pretty flexible.”

Downtown seems to consume the life of Hughes’.

“I hang out downtown a lot,” Hughes said. “I usually either go to Ragtag or Shakespeare’s. Most of my friends work downtown as well.”

Admiration from peers

Hughes’ coworkers are pretty fond of her as well. Augustine Accurso and Ratko Radojcic have both only known Hughes for the short amount of time that she has worked at Sparky’s but they already have a pretty positive attitude toward her.

“She’s a very good worker,” Accurso said. “She listens to authority really well, which is really important. She does her job, knows what she needs to do, gets it done and does it well.”

When it comes to describing Hughes as a person and coworker, both feel the same.

“I would say she’s a really sweet girl,” Radojcic said. “She’s funny and generous.”

“She’s sweet and has an easygoing temperament,” Accurso said. “She’s enjoyable, pleasant and creative. I like that about her.”

It took a while for Radojcic to get to know Elizabeth well enough to feel that she’s such a good person. Not only attitudes dictate the way you feel about someone, but also so does the environment and the area in which you meet.

“Most of the shift it’s only like two people working,” Radojcic said. “So all the interactions is a lot more personal and easier to get to know people. You work with the same people week in and week out. I don’t think there are necessarily those types of traits that come out as a whole in the store. It kind of comes down more to the relationships that you have with who you work with.”

Crazy visitors

Occasionally, Sparky’s receives a couple of customers who are looking for more than ice cream.

“At night we get a lot of homeless that come in and try to talk to us,” Hughes said. “They tried to take out our trash once, in hopes of getting tips, but they usually leave us alone.”

Other late night customers sometimes can’t seem to leave on their own. When you stick around late enough to watch them close, you understand.

“We’re open pretty late so drunk people come in sometimes,” Hughes said. “We stopped letting them come in if we’re closed so that they don’t pass out in the bathroom – that’s happened before.”

Colorful tastes

Sparky’s is known for its multiple flavors that are out of the ordinary for the ice cream industry, such as carrot cake, lavender and honey, and jalapeno chocolate. Even with many to choose from, Hughes has her favorites.

“It changes because we don’t have the same stuff all the time,” she said. “My two favorites of the ones we usually have are chai or peppermint chip.”

There are always a select couple flavors that customers enjoy more than the rest.

“I’d say that the cookies ‘n cream or the cake batter are the most popular,” Hughes said.

Rain or shine

Sparky’s sees customers throughout the whole year.

“It obviously slows down in the winter but in the summer there isn’t a whole lot of downtime,” Hughes said.

No matter the weather, you can bet you’ll see Elizabeth with her short blonde hair and tattoos sitting at the counter awaiting a new customer to serve.