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An interview with Toby Driver

Though there are many differences in musical taste between the founders of this site, if a constant exists it is our mutual and limitless appreciation of the works of multi-instrumentalist and composer Toby Driver. His music as it appears in Maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot was something we all caught on to during our studies at university, and have been unable to let go of since. That said, it is a very special honour for LURKER to be able to present this interview to you, which we hope will serve as a fine introduction to Toby's work for newcomers as much as it will be of great interest for long-time followers.

Where did you want to take your music following the dissolution of maudlin of the Well? In other words, how did Kayo Dot’s aims differ?

There wasn't really an intended difference in terms of ethos.. just in process. I basically became hyper-aware of unnecessary or lazy repetition in rock/metal, and thought it'd be worthwhile to try to create something that was more like through-composed rock/metal. That was the basic difference at that turning point... a lack of riffs and a focus on gradually developing ideas. Starting from that very simple idea led to a great deal of inspiration.

Can you shed some light on your composing methods? I recall watching some Kayo Dot live performances where each member was reading notation. Are all Kayo Dot pieces notated before they take form?

Hasn't always been that way, but I notate stuff more frequently these days for efficiency and to minimize the need for rehearsal time. Since the music is pretty abstract, though, a lot of it isn't really communicable on paper, so I use the manuscript as a starting point and we work it out as a band off of that. Since the music is also generally non-repetitive and the songs are long, the musicians tend to need the sheet music for performances simply because there's just too much to remember. You may notice though, that I rarely use the sheet music onstage for myself... having written it, I pretty much already have it memorized before we even start rehearsing it. However, i would like to point out that that has nothing to do with composing in regards to this band. The sheet music is only used as a way of communicating parts that have already been composed (in my mind or what-have-you). For my compositional methods, it's basically a combination of trancing out with an instrument, obsessive memorization of these trance sessions, and painstaking editing of the ideas. I tend to work really visually as far as that goes, too...  I see musical ideas as forms and relationships as can be rendered by dimensional graphs or drawings, or lines of prose. I would suggest to you guys to also check out the chapter I wrote about this in the book, ARCANA IV: MUSICIANS ON MUSIC.

How does a Kayo Dot song come into being?

Let's say that I use a similar trancelike process for everything I write, however, a Kayo Dot  composition differs from my other band, Tartar Lamb, for example because the music of Tartar Lamb has been defined as a particular theoretical process... Kayo Dot has not, really. Usually when music starts out, I'm just writing out of inspiration, and am not thinking of it as a Kayo Dot piece; it's just that Kayo Dot is where my main energies go as far as production and logistics, so when a piece is taking shape and it looks like the production process is going to be really involved and decently large-scale, then it seems to me like it should be a Kayo Dot endeavor.

How will Stained Glass differ from previous Kayo Dot releases?

Stained Glass is another example of a piece I wrote that didn't have a home or identity (I mean, I didn't write it specifically as a Kayo Dot song). Much like "Coyote," initially, it was intended for a smaller ensemble, and as time passed and I had an opportunity to work on the piece on a grander scale, it was adapted for Kayo Dot. Already, then, it differs in terms of initial planning. The main instrumental trio of "Stained Glass" features vibraphone, an instrument that isn't even really available to Kayo Dot as a performing ensemble, so I already knew that if we were going to go ahead and have this be a Kayo Dot piece, it would only really be able to be performed live locally, where we had access to a vibraphonist and his instrument. Therefore, presuming that "Stained Glass" would exist primarily as a studio composition, we took unrealistic liberties in overdubbing, ha ha! Musically, it's really pretty and discomforting; some may call it ambient, although there is mostly a very apparent pulse... let's see.. we have a guest guitar solo on it from Trey Spruance, so that's new. And, we recorded some of "Stained Glass" at Zing, where we did the MOTW albums, L..L..Library Loft, Choirs of the Eye, and Dowsing Anemone, but I also recorded most of it myself at home, because there was virtually no budget from the label for this recording. In that sense, it may have a little bit of an intimate bedroom recording vibe, I don't know. In preparing for that, though, I was listening to some contemporary four-track geniuses - Burzum, Islaja, Metallic Falcons. Let me add that also, the drums on "Stained Glass" are barely there.. virtually no cymbals were used, the drums' job is not to keep the rhythm.. all of that is because we were restricted to home recording by the lack of funding.

From Blue Lambency Downward onward, Kayo Dot made a stylistic leap from the dense heaviness of Dowsing… and Choirs… Why did you choose this point to depart from your metal background?

I think it's not accurate to present that as a "choice;" I know that there must be some bands or musicians who think that metal is some kind of musical adolescence and they want to move away from it to prove their maturity... but that's not how it is with me, at all. Basically, I'm just interested in exploring different instrumentations. At the time of BLD, I was interested in using a lot of woodwinds, which i thought expressed the lonely emotions of those songs better than layers of guitars could. And, most of the time when saxes are mixed with metal, it sounds LAME! Anyhow, in subsequent compositions, you know, some of the things that interest me most about music are the adventure, exploration, and discovery. When I write new music, I'm wholeheartedly embracing those notions. I just don't see how pointlessly attaching oneself to an identity (you say metal, in this case) is a good thing at all. I'm just interested in music.

What’s your opinion on the state of modern metal? 

I haven't been paying attention to it, for the most part, so I can't say I really have an opinion about it.

What are your favourite bands? Are their any musicians in particular that have shaped the way you compose?

This always changes! I'm not sure this question is really answerable. I don't think of things in terms of "favorites" any more. And everything I hear shapes the way I compose, even stuff I don't like.

How would you pinpoint the musical differences between your projects?

Maybe Maudlin of the Well was a specific group of people. Kayo Dot seems a little more open to going in any direction. Kayo Dot's writing is more advanced than MOTW's, but both share aesthetic points (and discrepancies, too!) Tartar Lamb's music is based on a specific theoretical concept.

Maudlin of the Well had an incredible roster of musicians on board. How did the band get together?

MOTW started just as a four-track recording project between Jason Byron and myself. Each of us had been making songs on our own, but we put this MOTW thing together because we really liked TIAMAT a lot, and wanted to create some music that was kind of like theirs. I remember discussing it with Byron... I said something along the lines of "why should we just sit around and wait for TIAMAT to put out another album? Let's just make one and listen to it!" heheheh.... and the rest is history, I guess. So, we created a couple tunes on the four-track, getting Greg Massi involved to do some solos, and then when I went away to college, I started using the college's studio to work on new songs. Since Byron and Greg were both out of state, I got my musician friends at school to play on the recordings and help me develop the songs. Eventually a performing band came out of it.

Was composing with Maudlin of the Well more a collaborative effort than it is with Kayo Dot now, or did you still have ultimate control over what went in?

Yeah, it was certainly more collaborative. We basically assumed that lyrics were Byron's job, leads were Greg's job, riffs, chord progressions, song skeletons and structure, etc etc were my job, and Terran wrote all his keyboard parts and a lot of the woodwind stuff... those delegations carried over into Kayo Dot as well, and we still kind of work that way (Terran still writes a lot of keyboard parts, and "Stained Glass" was even more collaborative in that Dan wrote his sax parts, Bodie wrote his drum parts - kind of a first for us), but I guess I would be considered the "producer" or the "artistic director" as well as the primary composer.

Maudlin of the Well’s Part The Second was entirely funded by fan donations. Since then you’ve also started a Kickstarter project for Tartar Lamb II. Where did the idea for this come from? Was it difficult to obtain label backing for your releases? 

We decided to do Tartar Lamb II this way because, yes, getting label funding is getting more and more difficult; in general, people aren't buying our CDs, so labels can't justify funding recordings (see above how I talked about how "Stained Glass" needed to be recorded mostly at home). Home recording is really fun and personal of course, but studio recording just sounds better, goddammit. Especially when you're working with acoustic instruments, such as horns (which are featured in TL2 entirely). And since I know how difficult it is to get funding for Kayo Dot, which is essentially a rock band of sorts, and is definitely more accessible than Tartar Lamb, we figured that approaching labels for Tartar Lamb funding would be a futile waste of time and energy.

Could fan donations be a glimpse into the future of the independent music industry? Bands like Extra Life have since done Kickstarter projects as well. 

Absolutely, I think it's fantastic. It'd be wonderful to remove any need whatsoever for middle men.

Part the Second has a very mellow sound compared with the earlier MOTW releases and from anything you've done with Kayo Dot. What brought about this change in direction?

It was not a change in direction. The songs on PTS are old songs, from the exact same era as all the other MOTW stuff that's out there. They were never recorded for the albums, however, because of the required instrumentation, or the very fact that the sound was more mellow. In making the original MOTW albums, we very much wanted to identify ourselves as some kind of a metal band, so we avoiding putting too much of the mellow stuff on those records at that time.

Why do you choose to make music? What makes it more involved than other forms of art? What do you see as the purpose of music? 

I would not say that it's more involved than other forms of art. I make music only because I'm somehow called to do it. I can't help doing it. I want to quit all the time and do other things like become a SCUBA diver and take photos of dolphins and giant grouper, but the only way to stop the "voices" in my head (they're not really voices, OK)... the melodies and the songs that are constantly playing on repeat in my head... the only way to stop them is to turn them into a material form (a recording). Every time I make a record, then, I think I'm free of that shit, but then new songs will start playing up there and the cycle begins again. Very very annoying.

Is there any possibility of another Toby Driver solo record? 

Only if Tzadik is going to release something. In The L..L..Library Loft is only called a Toby Driver solo record because that's kind of the Tzadik Composer Series' policy (see how Mick Barr's Octis album on Tzadik is called a Mick Barr record and not an Octis record, etc etc.. there are many other examples like that on Tzadik). I think it was a fluke that the first Kayo Dot album was able to be released as Kayo Dot and not as Toby Driver. Anyway, In The L..L..Library Loft features all the members of Kayo Dot of that era... there's no reason why that *couldn't* be called a Kayo Dot album, other than the fact that the instrumentation precludes us from ever playing any of those songs live (and I suppose there was no collaborative element whatsoever). Stuff I've worked on since 2005, outside of typical Kayo Dot, has been called Tartar Lamb.. but TL is basically Toby Driver solo composition in the same regard as Library Loft.

We were fortunate enough to come across a youtube video of yourself performing 'The Second Sight' with lyrics by Jason Byron. If your ‘casual’ song writing is of this standard, does this mean there’s loads of unheard Toby Driver material?

Yeah, there's lots of stuff like that!

Maudlin of the Well flirted with astral projection and other new age concepts. It is also said that maudlin of the Well material was partially composed through lucid dreaming. Can you elaborate on this, and does it have any relevance to the music you are now creating? Jason Byron’s lyrics for Kayo Dot still seem to make reference to these concepts. 

Yes, again I would like to recommend to your readers to check out ARCANA IV;  I contributed a nine-page essay to it which thoroughly answers this question. I have to tell you that Byron's lyrics, since MOTW, have not made reference to this subject matter at all. The astral projection/lucid dreaming theme was very much part of the MOTW aesthetic, but I like to believe that Kayo Dot has gone beyond those things into subtler territory. However, dreaming is still a large part of my creative process... often, I hear musical ideas in dreams these days which I'm able to use in waking life. In fact, and this'll probably get published after the fact, but this Friday (October 29) I'll be performing a brand new tune whose music was initially dreamt (The song is called "Lethe," with lyrics by Tim Byrnes.)

Moments like on Dowsing’s opener, Gemini Becoming the Tripod, appear rather ritualistic.  At points your vocals appear to be deeper in the thrall of the music than a casual listen might suggest. Is there a spiritual dimension to Kayo Dot at all?

Not like how you seem to be suggesting... Spirituality is tough to define; As I mentioned above, I definitely feel "called" or otherwise compelled to make music, and songs often seem to write themselves. When I write, I often retreat into my subconscious. I get into a shallow trance. I feel physical ecstasy when writing or performing. Sometimes, I can't sing because I get so choked up by emotion. Are these aspects of spirituality? I have no idea. Maybe someone that is spiritual is reaching or searching for something specific, in which case I definitely am not, at this point in my life. Maybe that's one of the big differences between Kayo Dot and MOTW, too. MOTW had a specific spiritual sort of goal. Right now, though, I'm just along for the ride and am enjoying where it's taking me. I have to mention, though, that Byron, where his lyrics are involved, is a different story. He spends basically 100% of his time on this aspect of himself, and surely his lyrics reflect that, and affect the output of Kayo Dot. I may be a neutral bridge, in this case.

Former lyricist Jason Byron is making a return on Stained Glass. Why did he not contribute to Blue Lambency Downward and Coyote? We heard he's a 'hermit' now...? 

He didn't contribute to BLD because I didn't ask him; that was a record I was working on by myself and in an intensely personal way. Coyote's lyrics were written by Yuko Sueta because Coyote started off as a collab between her and myself, and not as a Kayo Dot project. Byron's not a hermit, he's just got his own personal life. He lives a few states away from me, so we rarely see each other.

Will Choirs of the Eye ever be released on vinyl? 

I don't think so. Tzadik doesn't do vinyl and they don't license. Well, they're just putting out their first vinyl release (Zorn's DREAMERS) right now... so hey, if that one sells, then maybe there's hope for a "Choirs..." phonograph record.

The meanings behind each Kayo Dot album title are fairly opaque. What do they represent for you?

Choirs of the Eye - the beginnings of tears. Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue - purely visual.. just try to visualize what that would look like, and there you have it. Blue Lambency Downward - again mostly visual, but I tried to elaborate with the comic-poster set I created and offered for sale via Hydra Head back in 2009 (and which no one bought or paid attention to, ha ha *cry*). Check it out on my website though, under "artwork". Coyote - god of Chaos and Change. "The warmth of doeskin, dry plains grasses, and soft, dusty woods warmed by amber and a downy, gentle coat of deep musk." Stained Glass - it's about stained glass, musically and lyrically.

How has the overall fan response towards your music changed over the years?

It seems like people catch up with the albums a few years after their release, in every case. Not too much attention at first, and lots of disdain. About 6 years afterwards, respect and a longing for the "old days". Actually this is frustrating for the fans as well, because they want to hear these old songs on tour, and they don't understand that we've already played all those songs on tour hundreds of times; these fans just didn't come to the shows! It's even logistically near-impossible to play some of the old stuff these days since our instrumentation changes so frequently. Fortunately, I've started to notice a faction of fans who are adventurous listeners and have grown to trust my instinct, for the most part, so they're able to approach my current ideas with open-mindedness. I very much appreciate that.

Well, you have a few fans for life here.