Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Kayo Dot
[This is the 14th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Kayo Dot
Label: Self Released
Favorite Song: “Passing the River”
The Bare Bones: Hubardo is the sixth studio album by New York prog/metal/avantgarde outfit Kayo Dot, the brainchild of former Maudlin of the Well leader and longtime Secret Chiefs 3 live member Toby Driver. Within the context of the band's ever-shifting discography it is mostly noted for its integration of black metal aesthetics into Kayo Dot's topsy-turvy, hall-of-mirrors universe, for its overarching concept of the voyage of the lone poet, and for being released independently via a crowd-funding campaign.
The Beating Heart: Kayo Dot has, since its inception, always been something of a mercurial presence in the alternative/metal/underground music world, bringing together the presence and ambition of the avant-garde, the allure of pop, and, sometimes, the menacing violence of metal. But it has always felt like Kayo Dot was never any of those things, at least not simply. When Toby Driver decided to use the color "metal," he did so on his own terms, and to satisfy his own artistic interests, not because he thought of himself as a "metal" musician, or any other kind of musicians other than artist. And while the band has flirted with heaviness sporadically, most notably in its debut album Choirs of the Eye and later in Coyote and Gamma Knife, it is in Hubardo that Kayo Dot's investigation of heavy, on its own terms and for its own goals, achieves its fullest realization. Not only because of the sheer size and ambition of the album – a double concept album running somewhere around the 100-minute mark – but for the mature integration of "heavy" into the wide, seemingly, inexhaustible, scope of Driver's artistic vision. Put otherwise, despite Kayo Dot not being a metal band, they put out one of the most ambitious, demented, erratic, and often dangerous metal albums of the decade.
But, as always, before the wonderful conversation with Toby I would like to encourage any who are interested to read the rest of this ongoing project, which will probably be running until the end of the year, with a lot more exciting conversations to be published. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, Spotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. My aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, focusing on the art and life of that art, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local metal. Thank you all for being here, and here's the talk with Toby Driver, which took place a few weeks before the release of their amazing new album, Blasphemy, now out via Prophecy Productions.
Do you remember a moment you had with a song or an album that changed what you thought of music?
From the time that I was a really, really little kid I was listening to records, a lot, and listening to them loud, and dancing, and memorizing them. So there was never a boundary between a time where that wasn’t happening and the time that was happening.
Whose records were they? Your parents’?
Yeah, my parents’. When I was a little kind they bought records for us to listen to, kids music like Disney stuff. But then they had their own records, and the ones of theirs I listened to the most were Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Billy Joel’s 52nd St. And also they had the soundtrack to the TV show Happy Days that had a lot of 1950s music on it. I think those were the ones I listened to the most out of theirs. I was a really really little kid, probably five or something. And just listening to them all the time.
Because they made you happy?
Oh, yeah. For sure. I just thought it was super fun to put the records on and memorize them.
So, when you say you were always around music, I can get that. But sometimes when you’re a kid and you listen to music that is, I guess, kid appropriate – even though you can say that Thriller is an all-ages album, but you could see why kids would be in tune with that, I can see my kids dancing to Thriller.
Sure, it’s universal.
Right, but sometimes there’s, I don’t know whether to call it “grown-up music,” that feels less childish or even wrong sometimes. So you would say that was a seamless transition for you? One minute it wasThriller and the next it’s, I don’t know…
I was talking about this with someone the other day, perhaps the music you’re talking about, darker, more serious music. When I was a really little kid also, there were certain songs on the radio that are considered really classic songs now. Like, for example, my favorite memories are of “Welcome to the Machine” by Pink Floyd that was on the radio when I was a little kid. That song is amazing and intense. And I think that when it was it would come on the radio all the time, and I just loved it. But I didn't really know what to make of it. Because it wasn't it wasn't fun, the way that Thriller is. I guess that's what you're saying.
And the other the other song that was on the radio that was that had that kind of impact was “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. So both of those songs were hits at the time, on the radio a lot. So I guess those are examples of something that made me more interested in darker sounds. I mean, I didn't know it at the time.
How old were you?
Well, “Welcome to the Machine” came out in ‘76, and I would say I was probably like, three or four years old, it was still on the radio. So, let's say 1981 and it was probably still on the radio at the time. And “In the Air Tonight,” I don't know what year that came out. But I'm going to guess it came out around that time.
I realize that when you're a kid you find yourself drawn to certain things that aren't as giddy or as fun, I guess you could say. And you don't really know why that happens.
No, it's not like I knew those songs were sad, or dark or anything like that. It's just the sounds are cool. I was attracted to the minor quality of them, and the fact that they were kind of unpredictable. Both of those songs are kind of prog, and it's just something that was more naturally interesting to me.
And when you look back now, as an adult, on those moments, and you try to deconstruct whatever that thing that appealed to you, whatever receptor in your mind was like, “Okay, I like this!” then what would it be? You mentioned the minor aspect of it, and the unpredictability of it. And maybe even the darkness. Do you think those are like the main things or, or now thinking back at those songs as a musician or as an adult?
Another thing that you have to remember about music from that time is that people were being so creative with production. So “Welcome to the Machine” had all these synth sounds that you never really heard on anything else. And so just like anybody who didn't even really know anything about music, you just hear these cool, crazy laser-gun sounds and you're “Oh, that sounds cool.” And “In the Air Tonight” has these huge, big empty drums. And that's also really different from most of the stuff you hear on the radio. At the time, anyway.
So just production tricks like that I think were appealing. And so now, when I think about creating music that's going to appeal not to just connoisseurs of music, but also people who don't really know that much about music, I think about what are the things that are interesting to them. And it might not necessarily be a clever architecture, it might just be the choice to put the cool synth sound in. And then when you say to someone “What's your favorite song that I did?” They're like, “Oh, I like that one with the weird sound that goes “mee mee mee” [laughs]. Those are some of the things that non-musicians kind of gravitate to sometimes so it's worth thinking about, for sure.
May I ask whether that always was a consideration for you? Keeping in mind the people who weren't musicians who were going to listen to your music?
No, not at all. I didn't really start considering that until I was in my 30s [laughs]. I'm a big music nerd and I was just kind of making music for myself. And I was interested in the elitist aspect of that. Esoterism is cool, in a way. But eventually I just lost interest in that pursuit. And for a while now I've been interested in making music that can reach as many people as possible, but that is still interesting to me. I think a really reductive way to look at is to say “Oh, you can you can really dumb stuff down and make it have this mainstream appeal, reach more people.” But, I don't think that if I went that far that I would enjoy making music at all. So I still have to do things in my songs that are interesting to me. And then figure out a way to make them not very alienating to other people.
Yeah, I think I've discovered this myself only very recently. Not, obviously about writing more accessible music, because I don't write music. But what you might call the “allure of strangers.” And what I mean by that is that if you have a certain set of people that you know are going to like your music or are into your music. And they can be musicians, or I think in your case, a kind of very select group of people who are waiting for your albums.
In a way, but go on.
So there’s this idea that, and I'm speaking from my experience, that there is a very complicated relationship that develops over time with these people, that is built on expectations and who you are, and your name on the cover. And all these things. Even though I suspect fans of your music have gotten used to fluctuations and things like that, but still there's baggage there, I guess. And when you make music or any art that is accessible to people outside that circle then they are hit by something that is made by a stranger. And I think there may be some kind of magic in that.
Yeah, that’s an interesting kind of magic because I tend to…. If there’s a band that are close friends of mine, and I normally wouldn't have like their music, I tend to like the music a lot more just because I know them and I know what's behind it, and I feel close to them through listening to their music. So it's kind of like the opposite of what you said, but then the same thing happens with the magic of not knowing. They both exist at the same time. So when you're creating music, how do you have both of those things? Like you said, Yeah.
But I just wanted to go back to the one thing you said, about the type of person that I would expect to to like my stuff. I've realized that it's not really who you would expect. For example, I have a lot of a lot of transgender fans, I've noticed, which is, which is amazing. And I think that I, that makes me really happy, because I like making music for people who maybe are otherwise lost in society. And I feel that I relate to that personally, in many ways. But then the other the other side of that is that I have noticed I have a bunch of fans who are crazy Trump supporters.
Yeah, and so it's weird to have both of those at the same time, because Trump supporters want to kill transgender people. So, it's kind of fucked up. I don't relate to Trump supporters at all, except I think maybe they also are lost in society. They feel that way, anyway. So that might be the thread that connects those two. And then I have other types of fans too, like there's musicians who aren't related to any of that, and artsy people, and whatever. And the fact that there can be so such disparate types of people that connect to this music, it just tells me that I don't think that I can really make music and expect to reach a certain type of person and actually have any control over that.
Yeah, I mean, when you said transgender people and Trump supporters, that made me think, maybe mistakenly, about desire. In hate even, even in the desire or wish to destroy someone, there’s a lot of emotional investment there. It's not apathy.
And I think that one of the reasons transgender people are sometimes lost in society is because of concepts of identity and desire, and sometimes they don’t fit categories that society usually has for those, the shape of person with the shape of that desire. So maybe that speaks to your music, eliciting desire, in a way, or being about desire.
I think I like everything that you said, except for that element of desire. I don't really see how that relates. But I definitely see how the kind of absence of form relates.
What I mean by “desire” here isn’t necessarily sexual desire, but… So I deal a lot with stories in my private life. And one of the things I've noticed about stories is that plot is good story, or song for that matter, that usually promises you something they never really deliver. And as long as you keep searching for it, and as long as you believe that thing will provide it for you, you keep going for the ride. And that basic structure is the structure of desire or of seduction. Someone is promising you something, but not giving it to you fully. And I think a lot of your music is about that, also. Because you want people to listen to your songs, and you want them to have that narrative-ness, even if it’s just a shade of it, so as to get people hooked to the song as a song. But a lot of your music, to me at least, sounds like it's trying to deconstruct that relationship. Sometimes intentionally not giving you anything, or sometimes giving you too much of something. And by doing so creates dialogue regarding that very structure. Am I making sense? I don't know.
I wouldn't really disagree with that. But, but I think I think you've ventured into territory where it ceases to be the artists role to analyze.
No, no, that's okay, you don't have to agree or disagree. I agree completely with that statement. But what I mean is that your music being about desire, is that there's something about your music consciously, unconsciously the process is, you know, separate to that, which creates dialogue regarding people's wants and how they want things. And maybe unconsciously, that triggers their desire for your music. Like, you know, there's a very common literary trope of the prophet or the homeless person who sees something that others can't, that is out of their reach. And because he is intelligent and unintelligible that it makes him or her more appealing to those people in a very specific way. Right? It feels as if he's holding a kind of truth. And sometimes it feels as if he's intentionally withholding it. And I think maybe the art that you create, whether intentionally or not, is almost like a trap and entices you in. But it doesn't give you what you want. And that. I don't know, I've gone off.
That’s great, I like that analysis. That’s really cool. Yeah, I don't disagree with that.
Okay, not disagreeing is the best I can hope for.
By the way, just as a side note, when did you notice that you had, say, a disproportionate amount of transgender fans? Did they reach out all online?
Yeah, it's just it's just the more time I spent online the more I noticed it. But did you say “when?” Well, the whole time.
I mean, like, I had a, I had a young transgender fan that used to write to me a lot back in 2001-2002, and he was kind of the only one at the time. And then more as society has become more open to transgender people. I think people are more comfortable kind of showing that side and discovering themselves and just kind of coming out.
But that's a very intimate relationship, for someone to have that hat conversation with you that, that requires a high level of intimacy, I would think.
I mean, people have written to me about all sorts of personal things, not just that. For a time, in fact, people were writing to me so much about their feelings that I thought it would be a good idea to start an advice column [laughs]. So I started a blog and I was having people write in and just kind of like an advice-column sort of vibe. But what ended up happening was that I started getting some messages that were way, way beyond what I could do, people that actually needed to talk to real therapists. And then I think I realized I was in over my head. So I put a stop to it. Because what can happen is that if you ignore somebody, then something bad can happen. And if you give them the wrong advice, and something bad can happen. I was in over my head, like I said.
So I wanted to take from that and take on my first question about “In the Air Tonight,” but actually one comment before that. To me, just as you said “Welcome to the Machine” and “In the Air Tonight”…. You said something about production trickery being in vogue at that time.
I think so, I think the production became more creative around that time because the technology was new. And so people were like “Oh what are all the cool things we can do with all this new technology?”
Right. But then but then but that has something to do with my comment, which is to me those songs share something in that they tread a fine line between the human and the non human in the context of very personal art.
Yeah, oh sure.
So the hollow drums, the gated reverb, and even Gilmour’s voice on “Welcome to the Machine,” actually, even that phrase “welcome to the machine,” there’s a blurring of the lines. Is that something that's interesting to you as an artist, blurring the line between the human and nonhuman?
Yeah, of course, I think Kayo Dot’s last album, Plastic House on Base of Sky was a lot about that kind of thing. So,yeah, of course it’s interesting. It's not something that I want to focus on all the time. But sometimes it's interesting.
So, one of my questions is, and I'm going to use an annoying word in intentionally I guess not to annoy you, but just because it's utilitarian for now. And that word is “scene.” And now I've been following what some have called the Brooklyn scene for a good amount of time, at least for a person coming from where I am. And I've been writing about it for quite some time. I think my entry point into the scene was Charlie Looker, and then I kind of started from there – I got into Krallice and Yellow Eyes and then I got to you guys and your music specifically, and then I kind of expanded out. And I loved it. It felt like if you're a person who loves heavy music, it was finding a gold vein of really deep-thinking, intellectual, cerebral people who are, to an extent, invested in heavy music.
And so I guess I wanted to ask, I mean obviously there is no scene because the scene is the scene of a lack of a scene, right? All the people who don't fit into scenes, make up the scene. But there is an extent to which you knew each other, you supported each other's music, you may like each other as people. So despite the fact that it was a sort of anti scene, it still felt like a musical community for a while?
Of course, for sure. But, like you said, the bands were so dissimilar to one another that that really was something different from a typical scene, where, you know, let's say in a punk scene all the bands sound exactly the same. All our bands sounded different, but there was a little bit of unhealthiness there for a few years where I felt like everybody started making music just for each other. And I don't really know whether people made it for each other just to enjoy it, or whether they made it to have pissing contests with one another. But that's really what it felt like, that nobody cared about any audience outside of our little community. And when I realized that was happening happening I thought it was really super lame, and I wanted to back off of that, a lot. And I would say that Coffins on Io was around that time, when I was like, “Oh, I'm just gonna do the opposite.”
So Coffins on Io was the backing off, is that what you mean?
Yeah, just having a weird awareness that everybody was trying to be like heavy and technical and, and all sorts of stuff like that. And I was like: “Okay, I'm just going to make a more poppy record.” And it was funny, because it seemed like a lot of people in the scene also had that same idea around the same time. So we were all like, kind of on the same path of consciousness. Everyone kind of went metal for a minute [laughs] even though like no one was really a metal band, so everyone just made a metal record or two, and then stopped doing that. And it was all this flow that was all going together, which is funny.
But, I was just talking to somebody about this yesterday, but it seems like that scene doesn’t really exist anymore. A lot of people moved away since New York just became completely unaffordable. So a lot of people moved. Charlie moved to California, I don’t live in New York anymore, Ron [Varod] from Kayo Dot moved to Portland, Oregon. Everybody's all over the place. Surely there’s a new, younger scene. But our little thing has kind of gone away right now. It's not there anymore.
It's interesting, because it seemed to me that, even before you said Coffins on Io was that moment of transition, that that album was so different than maybe the three that came before it. I mean, Coyote, Gamma Gun and Hubardo, for which we have, you know, convened today.
Well, Stained Glass was before Gamma Knife and that was more a composed, complex thing.
Sure, I’m not saying that Coffins wasn't a complex record, because it was, but it felt completely different. And I was wondering, with Hubardo and the way that album was started, the way it was funded, and the way you went about it, and its length and its heaviness. So there's a lot of things that have to do with that album that have to do with with what I would say is the concept of “a lot” – everything is “a lot.”
Yeah, more is more.
Exactly, maximalist. And, so you obviously said that there was a contemporary shift in the zeitgeist, but do you think your own personal shift may have had to do with the fact that you just wrote a huge, humongous, double album filled with semi-black-metal songs? Was there a sense that you reached a point of saturation, artistically?
Yeah, a hundred percent, but it wasn't even really artistic. It was just that the band worked so hard on that one. And we just wanted to do something that wasn't going to be so hard. So we were like: “Let's just let's just make a more fun.” I mean, Hubardo is really fun, but we were like: “Let's, let's have the process of the next one not not be so grueling, where we don't have to actually spend as much time shedding.” And of course Hubardo for the drummer, particularly, it's really athletic [laughs]. And so we said: “How about we done one where we don’t have to sweat so much.” Like you said, we wanted to make it easier on ourselves.
I remember you doing “Passing the River” when you were playing in Israel. And it looked like Keith [Abraham, former Kayo Dot drummer) was about to die.
[Laughs] For sure.
It didn't help that you were in a basement in the Middle East while doing it, and he handled it amazingly, it was an amazing performance, but I was sure he was about to, like, leave us for good.
So one of the things that I've noticed about you as a musician, which makes you quite different than many other musicians, at least the ones I've talked to, is that you are very upfront about how sometimes you stylistic shifts are the result of shifts in your listening habits. And I don't know if you've noticed that that is a is an aberration. Have you noticed that?
Okay, so a lot of people don't talk about the music they listen to as having anything to do with the music they write.
That’s so weird, I don't know why.
I don't know. I think there's an attempt, I guess, for a greater sense of agency, this sense that “I wrote the music, not the person I was listening to” and so on. All this doesn't mean you don't have agency when you write music, but it may mean that your definition of agency is different. That it allows other people in. So I assume this seems natural to you, and maybe a silly question as a result, but is it all a concern for you that one thing bleeds into another, that the influences may become indistinguishable from the music?
I think I have enough agency, as you say, to not make somebody else's music be the same as my music. But I'm perfectly happy to say I love what that composer did, or I love with that band did, and I want to see if I can take that idea and do something with it. It's basically like if a cook, for example, started using a new ingredient that you hadn't ever tasted before. Now, like let's say somebody just went to the jungle and came back with a new nut. It was like “I discovered this new nut!” and then it became like a trendy kind of New York food scene ingredient. I didn't discover that nut, but I want to see if I can make something out of it. Something like that.
Yeah, I envy that, deeply. As a person, I think I'm way too possessive. Not when it comes to my own influences and whether they seep into my writing, I'm okay with that. But if I had been the guy who found the nut, I'd be super pissed at anyone using that nut, and I’d be super pissed at anyone even for being more successful than me while using that nut. You know what I'm saying?
Well, I'm never successful, so that’s not something anyone has to worry about [laughs].
[Laughs] True, true. That’s a good point.
I think that one of one of the goals with at least my art and I would hope with almost all art, is that art should move society forward, in a way. And I guess a really easy way to understand this is…. Let's say really popular music, it definitely affects the way that people behave, it affects people's value systems. And when you notice that you see the arts are a powerful kind of societal role model that people follow. And I think that in a society in general, if we have this kind of societal collective idea, that's an exciting idea. Let's share the idea. I mean, technology works that way, too. If you come up with a new technology, society is better if technology is shared. Or medicine, which is a form of technology, society is better if medicine is shared. And artistic ideas I think are the same, too. We should all share the ideas that move the zeitgeist forward.
Have you ever encountered an idea that came up in your mind and made you want to write a certain kind of song, and you were like, “Ugh, that's poison?”
Umm [laughs]. You mean like if I had come up with nu metal?
[Laughs] I mean, not that specifically. But yeah, that, that you came up with something that felt regressive to you?
Well, no, not exactly. However, I have heard other bands that were influenced by my music, and they might do a thing that I can tell came from my band, but they do it in a way that that makes it seem like a bad idea. I have heard that before. And I've also had the experience when I was playing with Secret Chiefs 3 for a while, and Tre’s music definitely has so many things in it that could be interpreted in a really bad way. I just mean musical ideas, not ethical ideas. Korn, for example, used to call one of their chords the “Mr. Bungle Chord” [laughs]. And also a lot of those nu metal bands really loved Mr. Bungle. So, you can basically blame Tre for nu metal [laughs]. And on the Secret Chiefs tour they did one with with Les Claypool. And people are coming to the shows saying “Here's my CD of my band,” and then you'd listen to it and basically be like them trying to do what Les Claypool does. But since Les is so singular, and he makes his stuff sound like his own, and really, really cool, but anybody that tries to copy it, it just sounds terrible. Like, so, so, so bad. And there have been some bands that have ripped off Secret Chiefs 3 in that way too, where it's the exact same idea, but it sounds like such a bad idea.
Yeah, so sometimes that happens, but it's not really about the idea. It's just about that idea reflecting the original, your own voice, and being a very singular idea. And then when somebody else tries to use it, it's just not natural for them. And so you can tell that it's not natural.
So I have a question about a comment you made before about how popular culture helps shape the form of that culture, even to the point of influencing the ethics and so on. And, and so if you take that comment, and you kind of couple it with previous joke you made about never being successful. So what is your position vis-a-vis that society? Because you’ve said you’re trying to gain more of a general, you can say, listening audience. But if you're an artist that is creating in a kind of esoteric, closed circle, and there's a popular culture running rampant out there that is negative in some way, how is art a corrective to that? I know that’s a huge question, you don't have to answer that.
My simple answer could just be that I don't think that my audience is a closed circle, it's just the butterfly effect. In my case, I can affect, say, 10 people and however they choose to live their lives. It's not the same as me having 500 million listeners like Madonna or Billie Eilish [laughs], but I can make small influences that spread over time. I guess, I don't know.
So, to consolidate some of the last few questions – when you were writing Hubardo and considering that listening is a big deal for you, when writing, who were you listening to when you were writing that album?
I can't really remember, I might have not really been listening to too much, and just focusing on that one a lot. Sometimes when I'm writing something I only just focus on my own record. Because it just takes so much work, I don't really have time to check our stuff that no one might even want. Because I can't really I can't really specifically remember and usually I can remember very, very well. And in this case, I can't. But I think what I wanted to do was…. When we did Gamma Knife, I basically wanted to use the chorus bass sound that I used on Coyote and use it in a black metal context, and also find uses for some of the aesthetics of black metal that were more interesting than a lot of the black metal that was happening at the time. Because black metal at the time just seemed to be mostly just four chords. Almost like punk, how Darkthrone was way back. Black metal seemed to be kind of going there again. Whereas when Emperor was out it was really technical and the guitar work was really advanced. And around 2010 or so it became really boring and I just wanted to say: “Oh, you know, there's so much more that can be done with this aesthetic.” And really I just wanted to use my chorus-based thing [laughs], which I hadn't really heard that combination before. And they kind of kind of jumped off from there. And so that was Gamma Knife. and then with Hubardo…. Gamma Knife was just recorded DIY and it's basically just a live recording, sounds really raw. With Hubardo I was: “Well, let’s do this, but let's record it well and let's see what comes out of that. That just the jumping point.
It's interesting because I found that there was a very easy litmus test with which I can reverse engineer all the bands I like, and it boils down to a simple question: “Do you like Emperor or not?”
[Laughs] Of course. Yeah, I love that. I love that band.
But I think it's a very interesting band to love. And not only because they were technical, but I think there was something about Emperor that I can see in Kayo Dot’s music, even to this day. I was fortunate enough to hear Blasphemy ahead of its release, so I kind of I'm speaking about the present as well. And that thing has something to do with excess. There's something happening and there's too much of it, in a pleasing way. And Emperor is as you said, they could have written black metal, the template was there for them to use, other bands were there to look at and say, “Yeah, I want to do whatever that is” and it would have worked. They were amazing musicians, it would have worked. But it's as if Ihsahn in his mind said “Fuck this shit.” And one of the things I find interesting about that statement – that I just made up for the fictional Ihsahn – is that his way of saing “Fuck this shit” is something like saying: “I'm not going to write music that sounds like it wrote itself. I'm going to write music that sounds like it was composed, meticulously composed by an obsessive control freak.” Who, who way too precocious for like 17 or whatever the fuck they were when they wrote, you know, everything. And so one of the things I love about Emperor is that there was no “I'm too cool for school” in that. There's “I worked very hard to do this.” And that may be part of their attraction, that they exude so much, that you have to be a kind of nerd to love it. Because that's what nerds do. They kind of try too hard, and think too hard, and obsess over everything. And here comes this guy who's just has basically written that mindset into black metal form.
[Laughs] Yeah, I agree, it is kind of nerdy. Ihsahn, I've heard he’s a music teacher now. So he's definitely a music nerd in some way. But, yeah, I've heard that about Kayo Dot too. Some writers have said that it's like there's too much. I often work with Randall Dunn, our producer, many times and he says that to me all the time, too. He's like: “There's too much going on.” And sometimes Randall and I will have a fight in the studio, about whether to leave everything in or whether to take stuff out. And actually Blue Lambency Downward, which was the first one I did with him – I had never worked with a producer before. So I went in there, and I didn't really have a band at the time too, it was in this time where I lost all my band members and it was just Mia and me in the band and we used a lot of session musicians. And I said to myself: “Okay, well, this is going to be a studio construction and it’s going to be a collaboration with Randall, and he basically took out a lot of the maximalist stuff that was in that writing. And then when that record came out I think Kayo Dot fans that were used to that aspect of my music were really surprised, and found that characteristic of Kyo Dot to be missing. And if you ever go on my Bandcamp and you check out the Lambency demos, you can you can hear the difference between the original idea and what Randall removed.
So, ever since then, I've been a little bit more strict about not letting things be removed and leaving everything in because even sometimes when, when Kayo Dot rehearses or even if we're playing live and the mix is wrong and you can't quite hear something I find that the music sometimes just ends up not making any sense. And then when you add that one thing back in, then it then it makes sense. And so each part contextualize each other part. I guess I do write that way deliberately. Except since it's intuitive for me to write that way I sometimes don't really realize that for a listener, that's not really an intuitive way to listen. Sometimes listeners like to just focus on a part or just like the sound as a whole. And they're not really focusing on the fact that part A is contextualizing part B, which is contextualizing part C.
So would you say that Randall’s role has shifted from the guy who edits out stuff to the guy who serves as the mock audience and says: “This is a moment where I would like you to focus on just one idea,” or something like that.
Yeah, I mean, maybe we still have friction in the studio, but it's good. And, like you said, him approaching something as a first-impression listener is definitely a good sounding board for us.
I have a friend who has a band, like everyone's friends and everyone's band, I guess, but. But his band is just the best band ever. And one of the features of his band is that they don't stop changing up the riff. Every two seconds there's a new riff. And they're all great, but you need to like that kind of frequency in order to get into it. And there was one time I was at their show. And I yelled at him. I said: “Stop being so afraid!” And he was like: “What? “He was like, looking at me, like I went crazy. And I said: “Why do you keep running and hiding behind your riffs? Let one riff stay!”
And he, and he busts out laughing and said something like “You know me too well, this is not healthy.”
Have you ever heard of this term, we call it “riff salad.” Have ever heard that before?
No! [Laughs] That’s a wonderful term. But I think I empathize. Because that's how I am as a person. I don't know if you've noticed, I'm a maximalist person in the way I speak, and the ideas I bring in and the way I write sometimes, and so it's very hard for me…. Sometimes people say to me even about my interviews: “You know, that interview with Toby, you talked way too much in that interview.” My first reaction is: “Fuck you, this is how I interview.” If Toby wants to get interviewed by a different style of person, we can go there, that's fine. I'm not, you know, obliged to your expectation of how I should interview. But I do feel guilty about it, often.
And, and try to think, you know, where would be more appropriate to go off the rails? Maybe sometimes I should shut up and so on. So I guess what, what I say is I empathize, but I envy a good editor. Like, it sounds like Randall is. And there's always friction with editors. But a good editor is a priceless commodity, I think.
So, by way of a kind of biographical question I had to ask is that I recently, as part of this project, interviewed Aaron Turner. And I’ve interviewed him before but never about ISIS or Hydra Head, but that was the interview where I said I wanted to talk about those issues. And most of the interview was about ISIS, but then I told him that it seemed that ISIS was going away at the same time that Hydra Head was. And he said that they weren't necessarily connected, but that there was a general sense in that time that he needed to maybe of unload a lot of what was going on in his life and get back to, you know, the basics. And this all happened at the time when Kayo Dot left Hydra head. So I guess my question would be: is that why you left? Because the label wasn’t into being a label anymore?
Well, this is a tricky question because I never actually got a complete answer about what happened there. And maybe, like you said, maybe Aaron just kind of didn't want to talk about it at all. I don't know. But, like I said, I never really got the full picture. But from my end what I heard, and this could be totally just rumors or something like that, so I'll just I'll just say it in the most neutral way possible, that they had a business manager running Hydra Head, not Aaron, Aaron was just doing the A&R, and they had a guy that was basically the label manager. And that he, over the course of a few years, but also, particularly the years that we were on Hydra head, he was just mismanaging. And the label ended up losing a lot of money, and then the label wasn't really doing right by its bands. And I think that a lot of it had to do with some malfeasance by this label manager.
But what I heard was that Aaron had to step in and get rid of this guy, and then takeover and then just kind of restructure everything. And that was around the time that you're talking about, when Kayo Dot was putting out some stuff, but nothing was really happening, and there was no communication. Anyway, it was just kind of a mess, but I think everybody ended up blaming this one guy [laughs]. But those are just rumors that I heard, Aaron never actually told me. So, I don't know.
I think I actually misspoke. I think Hydra Head stopping had something to do with the fact that, parallel to the fact that everything came to a head with a band, I think he mentioned someone leaving, or that the partnership that represented Hydra Head had dissolved, I should say, and that he was left to fend for himself. And that compounded with that resulted in what I think he described as a lack of desire to deal with label stuff. Because everything was just falling apart. And it's interesting you didn't get a full answer. I'm pretty sure I'm the first person he told any of this to. So I'm not saying that to toot my own horn, I'm saying it, because it seems like because these interviews I'm doing right now are our deep retrospectives most of the time, like I'm talking with people about albums and periods that they haven't even thought of sometimes in a while it yields a different kind of conversation. And I think so maybe we'll put yours and his together and have the interviews talk to each other.
[Laughs] I don't know. I mean, like I said, I'm just telling you what I had heard. I never actually got a direct answer about it.
So, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, because then I end up hating myself.
So in the service of not hating myself: When you think back on Hubardo, even though a lot of water has gone through whatever, solo albums, Vaura, a lot of stuff. But when you look back at that album, and look back at that time, is there something specific you can remember about that album, or song, the process that you are especially proud of?
Well, I think it was the first time that that Jason Byron [from Driver’s former band Maudlin of the Well] and I did a concept album together. And so the writing process of that was that was collaborative a little bit. I mean, Byron doesn't write any music, but a lot of the way that he and I collaborate is that sometimes I’ll write all the music first and then he adds lyrics to it later, and then sometimes he writes lyrics first and I write the music music later. But this process [with Hubardo] was us doing both at the same time. And so we were able to structure the thing alongside one another and build it as a story. Because we both always loved King Diamond and we loved King Diamond’s concept albums, and let's just do a story like that. And I thought that was a really cool thing to do. And also I thought that the band was really killer and everybody brought their A game [laughs]. I actually didn’t play any guitar on, I just wanted Ron to do it, so that was also a first for me, where I just wrote all the guitar and I was like: “Okay, you're the guitarist. I'm not gonna play any of it” [laughs]. It’s funny because, years later, sometimes I have to play a Hubardo song on guitar, for one reason or another, and I don't know how to play it anymore even though I wrote it. So I have to ask Ron to show me [laughs].
Funny. But yeah, just everything about the process was cool. The fan support was really amazing, the way that they enabled us to do that. Just everything about it was cool. The only thing that was that was sad about it was just when you self release then you don't get any PR really [laughs], nobody really pays attention. So fortunately Kayo Dot has a strong fan base that will pay attention, but it just means that the record never gets outside of the fan base. And there's an analogy that Ron made with Nine Inch Nails. He read this interview with Trent Reznor, and Trent had released one or two Nine Inch Nails albums on his own, just self released them. And then he went back to releasing on a major label. And he said in an interview that when he went on tour, and would play songs from those two albums he had self released even though he's Trent Reznor even though he's world famous he would go on tour and just because those records weren't on a label, he said that the audience didn't know the songs. That people are just kind of forgot about those records because they didn't have the giant PR machine behind them. So, Kayo Dot is not quite like Trent Reznor [laughs] but Hubardo, which is a fan favorite and people really love that album, nobody outside the Kayo Dot circle ever paid attention to it.
Well, here's for this interview gaining you millions of new fans…
…and skyrocketing Hubardo sales overnight.
That would be cool.
Yeah, probably won’t, though.