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Kayo Dot is a truly indefinable force in rock music. The group masters everything in its wake, from bleak, Lovecraftian metal to futuristic synth pop, bending and snapping on a whim and soaring to the heavens by way of chief composer Toby Driver’s vocals. Since its formation in 2003, the band has released seven genre-defying albums that are nightmarish, emotional roller coasters that tantalize and confuse. Their newest masterpiece, “Plastic House on Base of Sky,” is no exception.
“PHoBoS,” out June 24th on The Flenser, is an incredibly multi-dimensional experience, influenced as much by Japanese composer Susuma Hirawasa as by deep space and goth. The band, part of an avant-garde Brooklyn scene, features the arachnid talents of Keith Abrams on drums (also from the bands Psalm Zero and Stern, alongside Driver) and the ferocious Ron Varod on guitar (Psalm Zero, Sabbath Assembly, Zvi).
The rest of the space is filled in by Driver, and it is a lot of space. The album brings you a world, Phobos maybe, and its atmosphere as well. We are watching it from a “dead satellite,” as their press release says.
BTR speaks to main man and multi-instrumentalist, Toby Driver, about the strange orbit of Kayo Dot.
BTRtoday (BTR): You have an amazing command of so many styles, from dreary metal to triumphant pop to classical and everything in between. Do you feel that, as Kayo Dot evolves, all of this information also gets more and more cemented, unified even, or is there always a need for stark changes?
Toby Driver (TD): There’s at least a strong need to not retread old ground, to constantly push myself to learn something new about who I am and also about music in general. To be able to reflect on my life and feel good about the fact that I didn’t have a crystallized identity, that I was able to admit that my viewpoints weren’t omniscient, that life is uncertain and that humans are complex and dynamic.
It’s interesting to think of a later album as an “evolution” of a sound rather than as a separate facet of an identity, too. In my case, there’s both—an album is probably a separate facet of whomever I am, but the evolution is about me as a musician and person and not the sound itself. In other words, “Choirs of the Eye” [Kayo Dot’s explosive and much-adored debut on John Zorn’s Tzadik label] does what it does very well, I’m proud to let that be. “PHoBoS” isn’t sonically an evolution of that sound, but is an expression of how I personally have changed in the past 13 years. The unification across the whole oeuvre is hopefully that it all sounds idiosyncratically me—that my presence can be felt.
I see style and timbre as colors (figuratively), and I see composing music similar to cooking in this way; if I do in fact have a good command of all these colors, it’s mainly because I bother to use them at all, and have practiced working with them. Regular Joe Metal Cheeseburger could most likely do all this stuff just as well if he would bother to try.
BTR: What’s the difference between an album that constantly keeps you guessing, stylistically, and one that is a gelatinous slab of super odd sameness? How do you view Kayo Dot’s discography in relation to this? Are these albums saying something about their identities or are they only saying what they’re not?
TD: I think it depends on how you think of musical elements—hierarchically or not? I believe that most people in my “home scene”—musicians and listeners—tend to think hierarchically, that it’s the choice of notes that matters the most in expressing an idea; that the notes ARE the content and that everything else is just presentation of that content. (I don’t think so, by the way). In this regard, if you have an album of songs that are all similar except for the riffs, that’s fine, but you could listen to only part of the album and kind of extrapolate the rest because you’re clear about what world you’re existing in. And that’s what most people want!
With Kayo Dot though, it’s about opening a door to this space in which you’re not quite sure where you are, where things feel alien and the properties of physics might not apply. Dreamlike, I guess. Hopefully this helps people realize that the real world is kinda like that too.
BTR: Kayo Dot’s music is highly visual, evoking monsters and planets. What are some things you see, and do you see them before composing?
TD: I totally have visual stuff in mind, but it’s impossible to really describe! Although, I can say that there aren’t really material analogues. I see colorful, complex shapes when I close my eyes, sometimes quick scenes of weirdness such as a garden of snakes climbing out of the mouths of ducks (that was just yesterday’s example), but nothing I ever build a story off. That’s why I collaborate with [writer] Jason Byron—he’s able to help me relate my pseudo-synesthesia to material ideas that can be understood by other people.
I can definitely see music visually, without fail, but not with my eyes. I’ll have moments where I see and completely understand the universe zoomed way out as just a glob of phlegm, that the sky is a visible fluid, that human energy and relationships are also these strands of spit that extend through time and they pull us along with their gloop; all of this makes perfect sense to me as with the clearest acid-eyesight. I then like to imagine the furthest type of musical concepts—like, a guy writing a riff and the thing that comes to his mind is a rock star with a guitar on a stage rocking people’s faces off. And then thinking about how a certain chorused distortion sound to me is a furry, blue lightning bolt burning in a humid summer night haze.
Album artwork for “PHOBOS.”
BTR: There’s a spatial thing with Kayo Dot, where it feels, like you said, very zoomed in on an enormous alien map or tapestry, like you can’t understand everything that’s happening at first. The scope is too big and the listener’s reference is too constricted, as if they’re trying to see the whole ocean out of a porthole. Is that deliberate? Do you get off on what the listener can’t see/hear?
TD: I don’t get off on what you can’t see…I’ve thought about this a bit as it relates to, let’s say, young singer-songwriters who perform solo but are imagining lush orchestrations of their music the whole time. Or the demos that a bandleader will send out to his band while working on an album. It puts the responsibility of imagination on the listener, which is a perfectly fine approach if you feel that as a composer you can trust your listeners’ imaginations.
I rather try to put everything deliberately in place, which then gives you your own porthole, as you say, into my imagination. And then it’ll take some time to figure out how all the elements make sense together and why they do what they do. Of course to me it’s super apparent because I know what I put down and why! So, this is how it is with a particular piece, sure…but I then like to zoom out a bit and apply this idea to albums, and then to my oeuvre…one song might be too engrossing, with too constricted a reference point, but it may make more sense when you hear my whole discography and understand the bigger picture of my identity.
Hopefully by the end of my life I’ll have one final thing, a big reveal, that ties it all together—the ending that solves the mystery.
BTR: Does it bother you to think that someone could simply imagine something great and be satisfied enough with that? How many worlds are not created because someone didn’t see them through?
TD: I know a few composers who are fully satisfied just imagining their pieces. You visit their homes, and they excitedly show you their new piece…on paper. I’m definitely not one of those. Anyway, I think that this joy is amplified when the music creation process IS the final process. Like either constructing the piece in a recording studio, or constructing it in a live rehearsal room (if the final intention of the music is to be presented live).
It’s gotten to be very frustrating to me to be writing music and imagining all its elements, then having to deal with a lengthy process of teaching people the music or a recording process that chases a demo, which was chasing your imagination in the first place. That’s why I envy painters—they see the results of their work the instant they’re put down. Instantaneous creation, how awesome. I’d say the same about improvised music if I liked the aesthetic more…I’m just too into sonic architecture.
BTR: One way to describe Kayo Dot’s music is overwhelming; “PHoBoS” might really be the most overwhelming statement yet. It’s completely overgrown, and yet so fun and danceable. Will there always be a war in you between grooving and falling apart? Do any sides ever win with Kayo Dot or is it all about making the most of the grey areas and relishing in the perpetually undefined?
TD: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m interested in right now—groove as it relates to complex rhythmic ideas and through-composition. I never used to be all that into rhythm actually, and was always mostly about harmony and being washed over with waves. Because I avoided them for so long, rhythm and groove became real frontiers for me. So, I like exploring the question of what is a type of rhythm or groove that would be expressive of a person like me? I think in almost all Western music, rhythm is the thing at which people have failed the most at individualizing. Everyone uses everyone else’s ideas as if there are only a handful to choose from. But I like what you said about making the most of the grey areas and relishing in the undefined. I agree with that. Grey goth.