This interview is the companion to a review of Kayo Dot live in San Francisco that is coming soon.
Sputnikmusic: I couldn't find any interviews that addressed compositional process or music theory all that much. Your pieces are very much disassociated from traditional tonality, but they don't seem averse to exploring modality and a lot of your harmonies feel Bartokian in their richness. Does music theory inform your composition process at all, or are you just trying to do something new, which ultimately will bear resemblances to other musical styles by coincidence?
Toby Driver: Theory does inform the process, but it's not the reason *why* certain things happen in the music I write. For me, aspects of theory are a tool that I use to explain or express an idea that already is there, as opposed to playing around with theoretical ideas and submitting to the result. In most every case, I'm already hearing in my head what I want a certain thing to sound like, so the theory can come in as a shortcut if I apply it accurately to a thought.
SM: Following off of the last question, your work on "Kandu vs. Corky (Horrorca)" suggests familiarity with "alternative" systems of tonality such as microtonality. How does microtonality function in that piece and in others (I myself would point to the warbling pitches that open up "The Antique" and the vocals in the middle of "Gemini Becoming the Tripod")? Are there any particular well-known systems that you use when composing or are many of your own design?
TD: In ["Kandy vs. Corky (Horrorca),"] it just functions as a way to create motion without sounding scalar. But as far as that piece goes, and others that use obvious and deliberate microtonality, I think that as far as my purposes go, it's counterproductive to think of those instances in terms of "microtonality" or any theoretical concept; after all, I'm working with a background in metal, we're playing something that at least can be called some form of rock music, so it's important not to inject too much school or analysis into that sort of vibe, in order to maintain the spirit of rock. Don't think of the vocals in "Gemini..." as more microtonal than simply raw (or vice-versa - the process is important as well).
SM: How many of your compositional or performance techniques are purposefully different or innovative (e.g. "The Lugubrious Library Loft" being a "clustonic piece" with the two-person manipulation of each instrument, even the voice, which oddly reminds me of techniques used by Henry Cowell in "Aeolian Harp")? Do these figure into any of your work with Kayo Dot or are they reserved for solo works?
TD: Many of the Kayo Dot songs actually have some sort of thing like that in them although maybe not quite as intensely; for example, "Amaranth the Peddler" was written based on prepared guitar, and we've done other special things with vocals such as having lyrics be not necessarily expressed linearly; sometimes lines will occur simultaneously and words that are more important will line up in a specific way. Subtle stuff like that. I wouldn't say those are innovative techniques, but in the context maybe so. Really, most of the time Kayo Dot songs have started from some kind of weird idea like that, but then they change into something a little bit more songlike when I take into account things that are uncharted territory for me personally... things that aren't really "experimental" to a listener but are to me since I'm completely unfamiliar with them, such as trying to inject a little Nick Cave into a song, or something like that.
SM: Are there any other composers you consider kindred spirits, or at least are working with similar ideas and sounds as you? Furthermore, your music is undoubtedly original and difficult for listeners with no frame of reference. Is there any "essential" reading or listening that could help listeners access otherwise hidden nuances of Kayo Dot and other projects of yours?
TD: I'm not sure. There's a pretty strong, young contemporary New York City vanguard that all associated with one another and I think that all of us share something, while still thankfully maintaining individuality. I would specifically point to Tim Byrnes, Charlie Looker, Chuck Stern, Mick Barr, Kevin Hufnagel, Matthew Welch, and Jeremiah Cymerman, among many others. I don't think that I could recommend any requisite listening or reading to come to my music - it's my hope that it has the potential to be opened up to anyone; but I realized recently that what I'm doing is actually even more deeply personal that I ever thought, so realistically it will always just have to be interpreted per listener, and never really seen by others what the true references are.
SM: You've been moving away from metal or at least distorted guitar and screamed vocals ever since Choirs of the Eye. What factors, conscious or unconscious, have led to the gradual transition over time?
TD: Well, you know I've been writing music for almost twenty years, and pretty much started immediately into screaming, angry dark territory. As far as having that stuff in music, if it isn't there to express something real, then it sucks. And hopefully for myself I create music cathartically. So if I'm never able to escape a screamy, angry dark vibe, then I'm failing at creating a cathartic experience. I think that any musician who's brutalizing himself in his music, screaming their head off and going to the darkest internal places imaginable, and then coming out of it still being a miserable asshole in surface life is not creating something effective for themselves, unless the point of their music is to just channel their bad feelings and put even more bad energy into the world. That was never my intention anyway so that hand doesn't apply to my work.
SM: Blue Lambency Downward has been met with some defense and some derision by critics. Have you read any of these reviews from either side, and if so, what is your general response to both? Did the positive reviewers have keen insights into the inner workings of the album? Did the negative reviewers have valid, constructive criticisms? Was it all blathering? What has the fan response been?
TD: The most noteworthy part of the fan response has been that many people seem to "get" the music once they see it performed live. That's cool, and I understand why. Otherwise, it's all been widely varied. From the people who love the older stuff but are put off, confused, or just not as compelled by the new one to those who didn't like the older stuff but dig BLD. My favorite fans of course are the ones that recognize that the great thing about any record is that you can listen to it over and over again. Comparative reviewing is simply naïve. Everyone really knows that nobody wants a band to try to remake their great successes. So I feel this record, like Choirs of the Eye and Dowsing Anemone, was a perfect artistic success; I did exactly what I intended to do, so in response to the positive reviews I would say thank you for being open to it, and in response to the negative reviews I would say don't worry because I have no interest in reattempting a successful statement. I'm trying to create music that defines a personal time for myself but is out of time for others. Audiences, on the other hand, are listening to music to define moments in their life. Kayo Dot seems to work best for those listeners who tend to view the bigger picture, life as a river, exemplified in the fact that the music is about scale and how one measure may not compel until the conclusion of the work when the reason something happened becomes apparent. Who says that the end of this album should define that moment?
SM: To me, Blue Lambency Downward feels more sequential than any of your previous albums. With Choirs of the Eye and Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue, I gathered that each track was its own compositional unit and that you arranged those to make an album, whereas with Blue Lambency Downward it feels like tracks bleed into one another and that it's meant to be listened to as a single unit and not as a collection of individual pieces. Is there validity to this observation or does the new album function similarly to the old ones?
TD: I like to put songs on an album in the order they were written; I definitely intend to write *albums* instead of just collecting songs together until there are ENOUGH of them to have an album. The previous two KD record were written this way, but I think, although all the songs were meant to go with one another, the order didn't necessarily matter. On those two albums, the order in which they appear is not the order in which they were written - suggestions by those labels, in fact, as ways to appeal to impatient listeners. BLD was written in and intended to be arranged in the order you hear it in, so yes you're right about that.
SM: When talking to people about Blue Lambency Downward, I've noticed that they tend to describe the sound as jazz-influenced. If there is some validity to these claims, is this more of an aesthetic or orchestration influence or do other elements of jazz find their way onto the album? In particular is there any improvisation on the album or in a live setting?
TD: That's definitely a misclassification, probably due to the horns instrumentation, brushed drumming, swung rhythms, things like that. I'm not a jazzer though. It's not my background and there is absolutely no improvisation (as always has been the case with Kayo Dot). What I've noticed is that the people who say there's a jazz thing going on are rock fans who don't listen to jazz and think they maybe might have an idea of what jazz is. A lot of people like to say they "listen" to something, but it's just as a stamp of identity. "Rock Fans' Guilt" is that they know their music is dumber than jazz or classical, so they have to say they listen to that stuff so other people will believe that they can speak intelligently about music!
SM: Characterize your live show. Would it be better received by metalheads or modern classical fans?
TD: Ahh...it depends. We can adjust the set to suit the crowd. I'm not sure either archetype would like it very much. It's too raw for classical, but generally way too patient for a headbanger.
SM: In an interview with the Ithaca Times' art blog you mentioned that Choirs of the Eye is a headphone album and had to be rearranged to be performed live, and that Dowsing was composed with the live show in mind. You then said, "We try to do a split between the two approaches [with Blue Lambency Downward], but I want to take it even further: make a record with a live show in mind, but also make it as elaborate as possible." Has Blue Lambency Downward fulfilled this intent? How have you taken each component, both the studio effort and live performance, "even further?"
TD: That writer paraphrased me - I don't necessarily try to make things as "elaborate" as possible, because I don't think that the magic of music lies in complexity. What I did want to do in terms of arrangement on BLD though, was to write music that relied on many different colors to express itself, but be able to manage that with a live lineup of multi-instrumentalists. So it was important, when writing, to not allow the music to carry itself into obvious bombast or other instantly gratifying devices that would not be able to be reproduced live. One thing that critics never understand is that it's so fucking easy for a composer to go that way and is not fulfilling after having done it well already. It makes you feel like a monkey. But people keep saying "Where are the climaxes??" Their youthful groping listening habits wanting us to speed up at the end and moan more. We are finding ways to create more meaningful climaxes that don't rely on 1) harmonic ascension 2) tempo increase 3) volume increase or 4) adding more layers.
SM: You and Mia are the common threads from album to album. How much do changing ensemble members define Kayo Dot's sound, both in the studio and live?
TD: I would say they completely define it, of course! Specific example: obviously I would not have written a woodwind/synth bass/single guitar album for the Dowsing Anemone lineup. I think one of the fundamentals of composition is that the best writing, and I think this holds for any composer, is the work that is written for a specific ensemble or performer. Except when the group is so enormous that identities get washed away.
SM: Is the new maudlin of the Well material going to pick up where Leaving Your Body Map left off or is your work on other projects going to fundamentally change motw's sound?
TD: Choirs of the Eye picks up where Bath and Leaving Your Body Map left off. The motW project is NOT new material, it's all older material that was never recorded. I'm mining demo tapes from 1997-2000 and fitting that stuff together into a legitimate album. But I have been thinking about how much is appropriate to bring fresh. Some spaces do need to be bridged, so those moments will have an element of the modern mind in them. But it's a lot of fun for me, in this process, to write with a question about what aspects of music evoke youth, I guess.
SM: Have you ever entertained the idea of scoring a film?
TD: Sure, I would love to do that. I did one in college, and have one project on the table if the funding is there. I've heard that you get bullied around a lot by directors and producers and all sorts of non-musicians who don't know how to explain what they're looking for, though. I've always wanted to make my own film and do the music to go along with it too - I think that's a common dream.
SM: What's next for Kayo Dot? Are you going to keep going down the rabbit hole of minimalism or is there going to be some other fascination or focus on future compositions?
TD: I don't think I ever did anything that could be considered "minimalist!" My aesthetic is constantly curious; if you ever notice me following a path down some kind of animal hole, then that probably would mean that I thought whatever came before did not quite take me where I wanted to go.
Photography courtesy of Baris Ungun.