Any book about avant-garde metal from the turn of this century will have to have a chapter about Toby Driver and his bands Kayo Dot, Maudlin of the Well, and Tartar Lamb, as well as his solo work. The man has laughed in the face of all genre and subgenre definitions since the 90s, and has set the standard for all things great, evocative, and weird.
Only people attuned to aggressive music’s extremely bizarre fringes have heard of Toby Driver, which only deepens his mystique. I did not expect to be granted an interview with the man, and it felt as if I discovered cold fusion by accident when the date and time were confirmed. As it happens, I need not have worried. Cold fusion by definition would take place at or near room temperature, and I found Toby Driver to be friendly, talkative, frank, and completely without pretension.
The very notion of having a reputation of any kind surprised him. He laughed, then said “I don’t know what people think about me! I don’t really pay attention to what they say. You tell me! What do they say? What might people think? I don’t really know, man!”
He elaborated after a bit of prodding: “People might think that I am also a snob about music and in a way I am. But I am also really casual about it. I’m pretty judgmental about some music but I’m also really not judgmental about other music and I think it’s perfectly fine for there to be something dumb that you really love and you can just admit that you love it.”
On that note, Toby Driver dropped a major surprise on us. In other interviews, he intimated that he had lost interest in metal. Indeed, the latest Kayo Dot offerings, Plastic House on Base of Sky and Coffins on Io, lacked any vestige of heaviness.
“Mostly, metal is really old music. The sound of metal that we have now was created in the 80s.” Driver mused for a moment about death metal, acknowledging that clean singing has become increasingly rare in a climate plagued by the perpetual quest to increase heaviness. “Lots of metal now, even though it might not be called ‘death metal,’ most metal that’s happening today is in some way a hybrid of death metal and something else. So what was once this idea of extremity is now not extreme. Heavy bands are trying now to be more extreme. They’re doing it by being faster or being more dissonant or they’re producing the record in a way that just saturates the sonic spectrum more. In general the sound is just guitar, bass, drums, yelling. That’s an old sound! It’s decades old.”
This led him to a more electronic musical direction: “If you step outside the world of metal and see what’s happening in the music of the world, and I don’t mean traditional music but modern music that’s happening, especially in the Western world. it’s all electronic stuff. People who are making that kind of music aren’t necessarily educated about music at all. They’re just playing with these toys that they discovered.”
Driver says the key to it all is timbre, rather than things that might seem to be more obvious. “Metal I think is hierarchically about things like riffs and notes. Heaviness is not really about timber so much, not really about rhythm so much. But in the music that’s outside of metal, it’s all about cool ways to make a cool rhythm that still moves your body. It’s always in 4/4 usually but since they’re working with that, they have to come up with ways to make it sound exciting, make it move. And just the timbres they are using change the sound. You could have ten songs that all have the same chord progression, but what really makes them unique is the choice of sounds and timbres.”
He expands by saying, “Most of the coolest music now pays no attention to chord structure. It pays no attention to notes. Nobody really seems to care about that. They just care about cool sounds. It’s really timbre that’s exciting to young musicians and people who are just discovering themselves. It’s timbre that’s exciting. They don’t care about using different ideas of tonality and scales. They don’t care about that. Frankly, I don’t seem to care that much about that as much as I used to.”
However harsh that might be, Toby Driver has a point. General music fans tend to lose interest in metal after the latest subgenre craze dies out. Even die-hard metalheads tend to be fickle, flipping from subgenre to subgenre every decade or so. For musicians who need constant inspiration to stay enthusiastic about their creativity, the will to change is rare.
It is this very will that seems to have rewarded Toby Driver with a long career. He hesitated before elaborating upon this point. “I like to keep myself interested more than anything. So a lot of the reason why I do so many different things is just so that I don’t burn out, so that I continue to feel creative, and so that every time that I work on something it is a discovery process.”
Only the most general common concepts tie Toby Driver’s various projects together. “I always try to have a little bit of an element of sophistication because I have an education in this stuff.” Although Driver did not name-drop in this interview, it bears mentioning this education to which he referred included studying under jazz fusion legend Yusef Lateef. “Complexity and sophistication is one of the things that keeps me interested. And it also keeps me interested in performing the songs over and over again instead of just getting bored onstage. There’s this kind of like moodiness that’s also a common thread.”
On the whole, one gets a sense of Toby Driver’s commitment to only the barest of artistic visions, being someone who creates simply because he feels the constant need to create. The lack of anything but the thinnest of unifying threads over the course of his career is perhaps what makes lack the pretension so often associated with people of his stature.
In the end, it does not matter if Toby Driver will not make another statement of metallic brilliance like Maudlin of the Well’s Leaving Your Body Map or Kayo Dot’s Choirs of the Eye anytime soon, if ever again. As long as he feels inspired, there will be people who will be drawn to the work of this most curiously disarming musical polymath.
Further Info and Listening
- Kayo Dot: Bandcamp | Facebook | web site
- Toby Driver (solo): Bandcamp
- Maudlin of the Well: web site | Facebook
- Tartar Lamb: Bandcamp