A Master of Space and Time – An Interview with Toby Driver of Kayo Dot
Kayo Dot, who will be performing at Tel Aviv's Levontin 7 this week (this is the event, come unless you suffer from a physical or emotional handicap, which is, in that case, a shame), us a kind of unaccounted-for phenomenon. A band, that really isn't a band, making music, that isn't really music, with a ton of metal, that isn't really metal, and an ocean of "experimental" that really is kind of experimental, but then again not really. Like a fuzzy, beautiful thing, Kayo Dot won't bend to anyone's definitions, just flies too fast, too strangely, for anyone to get a glimpse.
One thing, however, is pretty clear, that this group, formed and lead by jack-of-all-trades-and-talents Toby Driver (also knows as a member of Secret Chiefs 3, the maker and destroyer of Maudlin of the Well, and a partaker in numerous other projects) manages to stay free in a world that neither allows or encourages such freedom. And it is to an extent true that Kayo Dot is in fact all those things I said it wasn't. It is a band, it does play metal, it is experimental, it sure as hell makes music, and fascinating music at that. Thing is, it manages to do or undo all those things despite the fact that, from song to song, album to album it reinvents itself, sometimes in radical fashion: from doom/black metal to prog, from creepy 80s-style electronica a-la Vangelis to formless, irregular compositions. I guess there's a hip hop record in the future. Just kidding, not really. But, who knows?
At which point it would be wise to return to Driver, who, as his name may hint, is the man who for over a decade has steered one of the interesting groups in the metal/experimental/god-knows scene, and certainly one its architects at beginning of the new millennium, alongside acts such as Isis, Cave In, Botch, and others. And a hit to Drivers almost bizarre versatility can be seen in the fact that Kayo Dot's debut album was released by Tzadik, the avant-garde label masterminded by the king of too-smart-for-me John Zorn, while some later albums came out through Hydra Head, the iconic, historic, legendary label of one Aaron Turner.
I try to interview only people who I consider to be true artists, people who inspire me, and who lead their career and perform their music in a way which seems to sometimes contradicts my brain's expectations. Driver is certainly one, and if there was any doubt as to the fact that this is a performance you have to see, I have this conversation – more email correspondence, but somehow still a conversation – beautiful, strange, and honest, like anything else the man does is, will put you inside that club for good. Enjoy. I did.
By way of introduction: Growing up, or just as a young person, did you have a specific artist or album you remember really made you look differently at music? that made you want to become a musician yourself? What was it about that artist that made you connect? just liking the music, a sense of authenticity or integrity?
I would say that almost every band that I became a fan of had some element to their music that made me think of music differently. That sense of excitement and discovery was (and probably still is) one of my favorite things about music, and that's the primary reason I love most of the artists I love. I specifically remember, at the very beginning of my life as a rock musician– that is, I started playing guitar and bass around age 12, although I had played clarinet for years before that– the biggest paradigm shifts came about probably through the band Tiamat, which made me realize that it was "okay" to mix keyboards and metal, and Nirvana, which made me realize that it was "okay" to express yourself through easy music…. that being a legitimate artist didn't necessarily have to do with technical ability and that i was more about expressing yourself. I was also really drawn to Kurt Cobain's anti-rock-star attitude, which as you alluded to, probably communicated a special sort of authenticity, to a 12-year old. This idea of other musicians setting precedents, showing listeners that there is no right and wrong in music, has always been very important to me.
To anyone who may not know the band, could you just say a few words on how Kayo Dot came together? Did it have anything to do with a sense of exhausting former projects or artistic attempts?
Kayo Dot was originally formed as a sort of "reset" of my previous band, maudlin of the Well, which was an atmospheric progressive metal band. I wanted to escape from the riff-oriented, fantasy music of that previous band and explore through-composition in metal and post-metal, with a more serious and fine-arts-minded aesthetic. I thought of my time in maudlin of the Well as being a learning and discovery period, and of Kayo Dot as being the beginning of my real artistic career. But now that Kayo Dot has been around a long time, and has tried many different approaches, I don't separate it from maudlin of the Well as much. I just think of every composition, no matter the moniker, as a stepping-stone along a lifelong path of discovery.
Kayo Dot seems to be drawing from a very wide breadth of influences, from black metal, to prog, to 80s-style electronica, and more. Does the unique manner in which those sources mix come as a result of a conscious attempt to experiment with various elements, or do they just reflect an expression of who you are at that moment, influences and emphases included?
I think it's both of the things you mentioned. I also feel as though every album is born of a slightly different purpose; for example, our album, Coyote, was a very conscious experiment mixing 80s post-punk bass guitar with through-composition and alto sax/trumpet unison. But our latest, Coffins on Io, was much more a simple reflection of what I was listening to during that period. In any case, each album does "reflect an expression of who [I am] at that moment," and as I mentioned above regarding "stepping-stones…of discovery," they make up an oeuvre, a bigger picture of myself, as a person whose identity can only be fully understood when all the puzzle pieces are laid out and fit together.
Your music, which even at its most complex and idiosyncratic, seems always to be charged with an almost narrative-like atmosphere, a kind of tension of plot, if that makes sense. Do you find yourself thinking about atmosphere in that way, as a way to advance a kind of “story”? Are there other forms of art – visual, film – that you find inspiration in trying to achieve a certain atmosphere?
Yes, for the most part. I definitely see roads for compositions to follow that are more logical than others, and that must reflect my subconscious sense of narrative. This is something I've been thinking a lot about recently, in fact, because I've been interested in trying to make some music that goes completely against my sense of linear logic. I dipped my toe into it once – there's a composition on the Kayo Dot bandcamp page called "The Pod," but I would like to play with this type of counter-intuition more in the future. I certainly get inspiration from films and other visual arts. With Coffins on Io, much of the atmosphere was inspired by movies such as Blade Runner and They Live.
You’ve released Coffins on Io quite recently, to a much larger-than-usual-media-fare. As a band that has operated much of it’s life under the radar, is that something of a distraction for you? Working and touring in the public eye?
That's interesting that it seems that way to you. From my perspective, there hasn't been any greater or lesser response from the media this time around. It's true that we have a publicist this time, thanks to the album being released on a label instead of self-released like the last few albums, but the major difference I've noticed is that the burden of the legwork has been taken off our shoulders. The response has been the same though, as far as I can see. We are as much in the public eye now as we have always been. And believe me, we don't want to be under the radar. I think that if we had the chance to be more in the public eye, we could do bigger things and work in better conditions.
Were there any artists you had in mind, or found yourself listening to more than usual during the writing and recording of the last album?
For the most part, the writing and recording was inspired by our trips to karaoke bars. The band members and I, and a few musician friends, started going to free karaoke nights at a local bar for fun, but we quickly realized that we were exapnding our musical minds through this medium. We were becoming better and more attentive musicians – so karaoke trips for us became a practice and an educational experience. Because of our age, the music that resonates the most with us in karaoke is stuff from the 70s and 80s (and the writing was better back then, anyway, heh!), so we were doing a lot of music by Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac – that kind of thing. Getting inside their melodies in a performance context really granted me a valuable perspective on musical intuition.
Kayo Dot albums are so different from each other than sometimes it seems that the main thing tying them together is that you get to do what you like, a sense of freedom. Do you feel that this type of freedom is a necessary prerequisite for you to create the kind of art you’re interested in?
Yes, of course. It's also the only thing that keeps me interested in music. If I had to do the same type of music over and over again, I'd probably just quickly want to do something else wth my life. In fact, I'm already getting bored with the system of "make a record–press cycle–tour," that kind of shit. I absolutely want to do more things with music, such as site-specific compositions, installations, classical concert music, video game music, film music, etc etc.
You’ve mentioned Tiamat as an a band that’s been influential to you, which I find quite interesting for several reasons. The first, I guess, would be that Tiamat is just not a band that gets mentioned, especially not by American artists. The second is more a local reason, with Tiamat being quite the fan favorite among Israeli metallers, not least because of their shows here and recording a live album here. Could you elaborate on why it was you found that band so inspiring? What you’ve tried to take from your experience with their albums?
Like I mentioned above, they just happened to be one of the first bands I ever heard that mixed a kind of new-age keyboard aesthetic with metal, and were one of the first bands I'd heard playing slower metal (their album, Clouds). I was already into new-age ideas such as astral projection at the time, and they just furthered this, and made me aware of psilocybin mushrooms and hallucinogens in general. They were hugely influential- it was just a "right place, right time" kind of thing. I don't even like anything they put out after 1997's A Deeper Kind of Slumber. I know that guy (Johan Edlund) has got some genius in him, though, so maybe at some point in the future he'll do something again that I think is cool.
Lastly, I know you’ve been to Israel with Secret Chiefs 3 before, but coming to Israel, given the ongoing political situation, isn’t something anyone can take for granted. Were you at all concerned with your fan’s reactions or public opinion in general?
I have a lot to say about this. Firstly, I know that almost everybody outside of the region has a poorly-informed, uneducated, armchair opinion about the situation, that only gets inflamed by social media. No one really knows the real deal. So, not only do I feel as though I can't form my own perfect opinion, I also feel like other people's opinions are pretty much invalid. From traveling to Israel with Secret Chiefs 3, it was easy for me to see the humanness of individuals, and how warped our foreign opinions are by the media. I also realize that my own country, the United States, is directly or indirectly responsible for some of the worst atrocities out there, yet no one expects artists to culturally boycott the U.S.
So, I'm not into these sorts of moral double-standards, especially when founded on incomplete or inaccurate information. And, no, I don't care how our fans judge us – on any issue. I only care how I judge myself, how I follow my own moral compass, how I do things that I won't regret and will be proud of as part of my identity. My music is my own sacred space, and I refuse to allow what anyone else thinks I should or should not do influence me in any way. Music is the one thing I have in my life that I am in complete control of. It's my universe that other people are LUCKY that I choose to share with them.
Furthermore, our guitarist, Ron, has relatives in Israel, and his parents are Israeli. Ron, one of my best friends, who has done so much to support me for years, for whom playing in Israel is a big milestone in his family life… no, I would much rather support one of my best friends than the needs of people in a conflict on the other side of the world who I've never met and who don't give a shit about me. And finally, we have our own message that I feel is valuable to spread and share with the world. And frankly, I care much more about our own message than a political message that already has worldwide support on both sides. The highly visible political message is a fucking tsunami. Kayo Dot is the grain of sand, the powerless one, the one who needs help. By the way, have you ever checked out our lyrics? Because we're not exactly a positive band.