I chatted with Toby Driver at the merch stand in Club DAOS, Timișoara, before and after the show that Kayo Dot did there on August 29 as a trio, complete with Ron Varod (guitars) and Keith Abrams (drums). The talk was frequently interrupted by fans buying merch and asking for autographs, and at some point there’s a fracture when we had to stop and continue after their show. We talked about Kayo Dot, about composing, music and life on tour, but also about his other projects such as Secret Chiefs 3.
fan: (After buying two CDs, Coffins on Io and Plastic House on Base of Sky) Are you gonna play anything off these two? Not that I insist or anything…
fan: Okay! They’re not my favorite, definitely not, but I was wondering. Cheers!
Toby: Hahah, okay! Cheers!
Do you get that a lot? Like “dude, I really like your music, I mean not what you’re doing now, but…”
Oh, yeah! All the time. I mean, my background is in metal, I’m very appreciative of the support we get from the metal community, and I think that there are a lot of scenes within metal that would consider us to be at home with them. We did Amplifest in Porto a few days ago and that was basically like a post-rock, post-hardcore sort of festival, there was Neurosis and Minsk and Swans and stuff like that. Our heavier stuff fits in, but at times our electronic stuff doesn’t really fit in. I’ve been working with those guys for a long time and I consider them to be “my people”, I’m really at home with them, so I definitely appreciate that connection. However, since we’re so involved with this universe we also do get this shit a lot, that you’ve been asking about. Because a lot of fans are like, “I like the heavy stuff better”. They’re open to all our experiments, which is awesome, but I guess they don’t really feel that it suits their identity as much as our heavier stuff does. I understand that. But I also want to be able to play in other scenes, ‘cause I feel that if this music was heard by people who didn’t come from this background it would be received in a pretty different way.
So it feels a bit limiting, at times? Is it difficult for you to penetrate other audiences?
It does sometimes, yeah. It’s not hard to penetrate other audiences if we’re marketed correctly to them, except that the PR agency and the label that we work with have their own people, their own audience; our PR is great, but her contacts are at Decibel Magazine and stuff like that, that’s who she markets us to. And they like the record, it’s cool, but she never markets us to electronic magazines or goth magazines or anything like that. We should be placed there, I think it would be good for us.
How about gigs, did you ever get to play at festivals that were more geared towards electronic music or anything?
We haven’t really done any electronicky stuff yet, but the festival at the end of this tour, which is Incubate in the Netherlands, has a wide range of music. They have some death metal, but they also have folk music, some electronic music, they have all of it. Which is cool, it’s an eclectic festival.
Coming back to audiences, your music output has a pretty high frequency; Coffins only came out two years ago, Hubardo one year before that, plus you have your solo stuff and all the other projects, do you ever feel like you’re overwhelming your audience? That they don’t have time to catch up?
Oh, yeah. That’s fine. I like the fact that there’s a lot out there that waits to be discovered, that my entire body of work is a big puzzle that you never really understand until you find all the pieces. It’s a little bit like a treasure hunt. It’s just how it happened, but I like it, I’m not gonna slow down just so that people can get some continuity. That wouldn’t work for me.
So what are you working on right now?
I started writing some new stuff for… it could be for this, but it could be for something else, I don’t really know yet. It’s just beginning to take shape.
Back in the day, with maudlin of the Well, I remember you talking a lot about creating music while lucid dreaming. I was wondering how much of that, from a composition technique point of view, if you will, seeps into what Kayo Dot does now?
I think it just sometimes happens. And there are a few Kayo Dot songs that are specifically from dreams; there’s one that we were doing on tour that got turned into one of my ballads, it’s called “Craven’s Dawn”, and then there’s “Symmetrical Arizona”, “Spirit Photography”… (pauses and thinks) Another one of my ballads called “Grey Dream”, that one’s also from a dream, “Lethe”… and I think that might be it, besides the motW ones. I don’t really deliberately try to do it, lucid dreaming is the type of thing that takes practice and intention and I don’t have time, just because of my schedule.
I couldn’t imagine doing that on tour.
Right, but even at home I stay up really late and, you know, I live with other people, there’s just no peace.
But sometimes it just happens.
Yeah, sometimes I would have a lucid dream and there’ll be music in it, and then I’d be like “oh, I’ve got to remember this and wake up and write it down”. I guess it happens about once a year or something.
So then most of the process behind Kayo Dot is deliberate.
Yeah. Usually Kayo Dot is me wanting to try out an approach. Kayo Dot is my way of not being bored with music. It’s a way for me to indulge my curiosity. It takes up all my time, and even when I’m doing one of my side things, like the Ballads tour that I did, we were working on the release of Plastic House on Base of Sky. The record was finished but I was doing credits and stuff like that, artwork… So yeah, it’s definitely my main pursuit. And a lot of it is also because of the time that’s been invested in it and the energy that’s been invested by all the other people that are involved, too.
It’s going on for 13 years, after all.
Yeah, and not only the band members have invested themselves in it, but the labels, all the people we work with, it’s kind of like I’m obligated to put all my energy into it.
Is the actual line-up a lot more extended than the trio that we saw today?
It depends on what you mean by actual line-up. For the past few years the really awesome core group has been the four of us, these three guys plus Dan Means. Dan lives on the West coast, he’s got a teaching job, so he can’t go on tour at times that he has school, which is almost all the time except for right in the middle of the summer. But he came to Japan with us a couple of months ago and he’s always open to being invited to do stuff if he’s available, he played on the record… But we needed to figure out a way to do stuff without him because three of us are basically pursuing music only. So yeah, what you saw here is a sizeable portion of the band’s core group, and we’re gonna be doing it like this for this entire album cycle, at least. And the next time we do a record I don’t really know what the music’s gonna be like, so we don’t know what instruments and how many people we’re gonna need.
When you look at the credits from any CD, you see there’s a lot of people involved. I was wondering how does a Kayo Dot show look like back in the States, since I can assume you got all the logistics in place and it’s easier to get all the people together.
We have a bunch of songs that we can’t do unless there’s more people, and we would save those for New York shows so that we could have extra people come and play those songs. And that was fine, but as people get more busy they get less available to practice and then what happens is that those songs are not as well-rehearsed as other ones. Kayo Dot as a band has gotten to a point where we need to make sure things are really tight and consistent as far as the presentation goes, and I didn’t really want it to be all over the place in terms of how it’s presented. When Hubardo came out we were doing it that way, actually we were doing it that way even when Coffins on Io came out. So I guess the last time we did that was just last year, but I don’t make an effort to do it that way anymore.
Speaking of, I remember you had all those residency shows last year at The Stone in New York, how was it?
Yeah, I did 12 shows in a week and there were a lot of people involved. People flew in from the West coast and everything, they came in from other states, it was a really big deal. I still haven’t fully recovered (laughs).
Did you have a large audience?
Well it’s an art space, so it can fit like 70 people. So the shows were mostly sold out, especially the maudlin ones, Choirs of the Eye, the Kayo Dot ones were sold out. We did one where we played a mixture of Hubardo and Coffins on Io stuff to fill up an hour. Others that I did, like the Ballads show, weren’t sold out. And some new projects, this new one called Clefter with Gyan Riley and Timba Harris, that wasn’t sold out either. Tartar Lamb was, ‘cause Mia played and people love her. And I have this new thing called The Tanks which isn’t really new, it’s existed for like three years, but we play about once a year. It’s me and Ches Smith and Brandon Seabrook. We’ll do a recording eventually.
Anyway, The Stone sounds shit for rock music, there’s no monitors, the drums overpower everything, it’s more about the energy that you get from there. The music that sounds really good there is acoustic music. And they do have a core audience of people that attend regularly, ‘cause you kinda know that anything that happens there is gonna be high level musicianship just because it’s curated. But all musicians who do a residency there will ultimately attract some of their own audience as well. Also, The Stone is an all-ages space so there were a lot of teenagers. I never really had the opportunity to do all-ages shows in NYC because there are no spaces to do it. Teenagers don’t really get to go to shows; that’s why they’re so bad, because they’re so bored, they’ve got nothing to do. And it’s pretty amazing, ‘cause then you see that you actually have a lot more fans than you know, since you only usually get to see the over 21 crowd.
How about you and Secret Chiefs 3?
We did a festival in September in France and we just came to do one show, just that fest. And SC3 had done a Stone residency in July, a couple months before mine, so that was pretty intense. And I think that what happened was Trey used that as an opportunity to kind of re-inspire himself for the following year, because he also included a bunch of more musicians than usual, he had all these extra people and tried out all these new ideas. We ended up playing a lot of music that we were unfamiliar with. And I think that this year he’s working based on that. He also did a Kronos Quartet thing, a new Masada record and I think he’s doing two Secret Chiefs records. He lives in California, on the other side of the country for me, I never see him, and he just has people out there do stuff for him. I find out about it usually after the public does; the first place where people find out about SC3 stuff is on their message board, they have like a cult on a message board. And the people that are playing, we don’t find out until it’s announced.
“Guys, we’re going to Europe again!”
(laughs) Yeah, it’s kinda like that!
So, what music do you listen to these days? Did anything new catch your interest? What’s on your iPod?
I don’t keep music on my iPod anymore. I subscribed to a streaming service and usually what I do is I pick an artist that I like and just put on the similar artists radio station, using their algorithm. I discover a lot of stuff that way. The thing that kind of excites me about music right now is hearing something that I haven’t heard before. My habits are hardly what they used to be; I used to listen to a record over and over again and become extremely familiar with it until I knew every note inside and out. But I don’t listen to things that way anymore. I just want to listen to something unfamiliar. And so a lot of the time I don’t even know the artist that’s playing. It works just fine for me.
And how about live shows?
I don’t really go to live shows anymore because I work at night, so I don’t really have time. But the thing is that I usually feel like they’re too long, there’s too many bands. And I never want to sit around through a million bands. If you’re waiting for the band you want to see it just makes you want to drink more, spend more money, and maybe not feel so good when the band finally comes up on stage. I hate this system. And I don’t really like being in a crowded space.
You said something about seeing you again around here next year?
With the Ballads show, yeah. Well, the record’s gonna come out in the winter, it’s done already but we follow the label’s release schedule. It’s coming out on Flenser as well. And I want to tour with that stuff, it’s easy to tour, it’s just myself and maybe another person, the drummer, so it’s easy. And if these guys are busy with their other stuff then I can do that myself. And I get a good response, Eastern Europe is one of the few regions where people actually ask us to come. So yeah, why not do it?