Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver on “Jazz,” Mysticism and Lazy Listening

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver about the band’s new record, Gamma Knife, and some other subjects, including the nature of “jazz” and other genre conventions. The conversation was an interesting one and Driver’s opinions are compelling.

Kayo Dot has always been a band to defy easy categorization and it should be that way. There are various style elements to the music that are impossible to pin down. Whether they’re labelled an “avant-rock/experimental music group” or whether you, like me and many other critics, discover elements of free form “jazz” in the music, the richness of Kayo Dot’s musical experience is like few others. Like the damn near impossible task of “defining” jazz, the task of defining Kayo Dot can yield an infinite number of answers from an infinite number of people. Ask 100 people, get 100 different answers. There’s the trouble with music.

So here is my interview with the always sunny Toby Driver, unvarnished and blazing with all misunderstandings intact as they should be. A special thanks to Driver for his time and consideration is certainly in order.

Jordan Richardson: Genre conventions are generally aggravating, but its pretty difficult to ignore the presence of jazz in your work. How much of an influence would you say the world of jazz has had on the music of Kayo Dot and what artists in particular have caught your ear?

 Toby Driver: I’m glad you opened up with this question, because, while I appreciate the review you gave us on Blinded By Sound, I take issue with the fact that you said there was any sort of jazz anything in there (“metal-jazz fusion”, “John-Zorn-influenced” “free-jazz freakout”). In general, I think describing Kayo Dot that way shows shortsighted listening and evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of jazz. It’s like the type of thing rock fans say when they hear music with horns. So in regard to your question, it’s pretty darn easy for me to deny the presence of jazz in my work. I don’t have a jazz background, I don’t listen to jazz, and generally speaking, and I don’t like the jazz ethos. One important thing to remember is that jazz is largely based on improvisation, and there is none of that in Kayo Dot’s music, which is all composed. Jazz is about the musician, but my work is about the music.

Jordan Richardson: Well, I really feel I have to clarify those comments from the review. As I said, genre conventions are generally pretty aggravating and few artists really fit any genres all that completely. When I listen to Kayo Dot and really delve in, it’s compelling to engage not as a “rock fan” hearing horns but as a fan of Zorn’s avant-garde approach or to the free jazz-like interplay (call and response, and so forth) between musicians that emerges through your compositions. I hear a lot of free jazz elements in there, not in regards to improvisation versus composition but in terms of how the music sounds. So when I suggest there’s a “free jazz freakout,” it’s more what comes to my mind and the colours your music paints in my head. Certainly there will always be layers of intent that listeners will not grasp, but isn’t that part of the journey? Isn’t it the same as having two people look at one painting and coming away with differing experiences?

Toby Driver: I see what you’re saying. It’s cool when composed music can sound so organic as to seem improvised, or improvised music so keen that it appears composed. However, jazz isn’t a feeling. It’s an idiom, a style, and a culture. It’s just objectively wrong to say that the music has any jazz elements. It’s not the same as having two people look at one painting and coming away with different experiences. It’s more like if you said Bosch was a practitioner of Dadaism. To use another musical example, it’s just as wrong when people say that my compositions are minimalist. Anyone who suggests so much is guilty of lazy listening, inattentiveness, and a profound lack of knowledge of what minimalism is.

Jordan Richardson: What do you mean by “jazz ethos” and can you clarify what it is you dislike about it?

Toby Driver: I mean the fact that the music is about the musicians as opposed to being about the actual music. That it’s performance-oriented as opposed to ideas-oriented. That it breeds its own horrible species of artistic jock.
Jordan Richardson: Didn’t you study under Grammy Award-winning jazz composer and educator Yusef Lateef or is that just a nasty Internet rumour?
Toby Driver: Yes, I did study with Yusef Lateef, who is famously against casually calling things jazz. He’s the first one who taught me (and all his students) to be very careful about the use of this word, and to be acutely aware of the jazz’s intrinsic racial history, something which I cannot relate to. Furthermore, Yusef’s Grammy was in the category of “New Age” and not “Jazz”!!!

Jordan Richardson: At the same time, it doesnt seem like the music of Kayo Dot (and even the music of maudlin of the Well) is informed by anything other than the ghosts rattling around in your head. So what is the compositional process like? Where do the ideas really come from?

Toby Driver: On the contrary, I listen to a lot of different types of music and take inspiration from all of them. Most of the time, though, the seed of inspiration for a piece is a really basic conceptual idea that I expound via my own aesthetic. For example,Coyote was rooted in the interest to use vintage goth chorused-bass guitar in a through-composed context. Stained Glass was a pseudo-synaethetic exploration of the visual properties of stained glass windows in a cathedral.

Jordan Richardson: With regard to composition, method, technique, modality, whatever the hell, do you think theres a tendency for some to overthink your music?

Toby Driver: Not at all, in fact, the entire work is intensely thought-out and I would love if people thought about it more deeply than they already seem to. There are a lot of things going on with the music, lyrics, artwork, and mythos of Kayo Dot that no one ever asks about. or seems to explore. From my perspective, it looks as though there are a lot of undiscovered secrets in there (our entire discography), which aren’t even hidden but just require a bit of attention. Of course I understand though that a lot of the time music needs to function as a superficial listen, so I hope Kayo Dot can work in that way as well.

Jordan Richardson: What are people missing about Kayo Dot that you wish they weren’t?

Toby Driver: This doesn’t go for all listeners of Kayo Dot, of course, and I think that the introverted sort of people who can really truly relate to it aren’t the type of people to really talk about it, anyway. But as for the chatter that happens online, especially immediately after a release, you get the sense that those listeners are listening only superficially. A review goes up within a day of the record coming out, so it’s basically a review of a first impression. But the reviews never give full disclosure about that fact. I think people are having these “first impressions” and then basically edifying their entire experience around their first impression because there’s so much music out there to move onto next, but there is a lot of meaning in the lyrics, artwork that accompanies the records, and musical structure of the songs that require a bit of delving in order to get the full picture. To go back to your painting analogy, this is a bit like looking at a painting through the slats in a picket fence as you bicycle by.

Jordan Richardson: How much of Kayo Dot is about connecting with other members of the band? How does timing and simply knowing what the other band members are going to play factor in to where you take compositions?

Toby Driver: I would say it’s 99% about connecting with the other musicians. Every new thing I come up with takes fully into account who the other musicians are.

Jordan Richardson: Emotionally, how difficult was it to take the obvious sadness and heartache behind Coyote to its conclusion? It remains one of the most engrossing, meaningful records on grief and loss that I have ever heard.

 Toby Driver: It was not difficult; in fact it made everything a bit easier.

Jordan Richardson: Explain a little about the emotional transition from Coyoteto Gamma Knife.

 Toby Driver: Gamma Knife’s just got entirely different emotional content than Coyotehas. I don’t know if I can really say anything about a two-year transition from one emotion to another… that’s just life. In general, Gamma Knife is obviously angry, and there’s obviously some religious stuff going on.

Jordan Richardson: When I reviewed Coyote, I suggested that it reminded me of BergmanCries and Whispers and noted that your use of horns and violin reflected a sort of musical colour. What colour is Gamma Knife?

Toby Driver: I’m hesitant to say too much, as I think listeners should ultimately decide for themselves, but it’s definitely got a bright, multicolored sort of gloom! When I hear the music, I imagine complex explosions of many different colors over dark backgrounds. Except for the title track, which is grey, grey, grey. A sighing ghost gazing out a window on a rainy day.

Jordan Richardson: Theres a lot of talk about the demonic on Gamma Knife. What is your interest in that subject beyond scaring small children, old people and Mitt Romney?

 Toby Driver: Well, I think that the “spiritual” subject matter of Gamma Knife is quite a bit broader than that. “Lethe” showcases lyrics written by a regular collaborator of mine, Tim Byrnes, who is basically a modern Christian mystic. Jason Byron is also a mystic but coming from an entirely different angle. I generally prefer to think of myself as a non-participant and a humanist. So all three lyricists and their ideas are featured, but all serving (what I see as) the same message, which is kind of too difficult for me to put into words and that I hope the music does a good job of conveying.

Jordan Richardson: Was there a firm intent to bring the metal back to Gamma Knife?

Toby Driver: Yeah, I thought it was the best way to express what I had been feeling (this general anger and frustration towards certain things). Related to that, I’ve been noticing people fawning over a lot of modern bullshit lazy black metal, so I wanted to show some of the more exciting places that aesthetic is able to go.

Jordan Richardson: On that subject, I think almost all bands have their Master of Puppets fans, those who want the band to repeat their alleged best workover and over again; with Kayo Dot, it appears to be a throng of people waiting for the next Choirs of the Eye. How conscious are you of that sense of expectation when you go into the process on a new record? Does it matter?

Toby Driver: I think those sentiments will be there every time I release a record, even if it’s not under the name of Kayo Dot (you can also notice that even when I release things as Toby Driver, Kayo Dot, Tartar Lamb, or whatever, people still want it to sound like maudlin of the Well). I’m totally aware that those people are out there, but it has no effect on what I do (unless the intention is specifically to take on a pro-bono project such asPart The Second). It’s great that those people like those records so much, and one of the beautiful things about recorded music is that you can listen to it over and over and over again.

Jordan Richardson: Wildest/strangest collaboration you can imagine?

Toby Driver: I dunno if I can answer this one.

Jordan Richardson: Finally, what/who are you listening to that may surprise fans of Kayo Dot? Please say Justin Bieber.

 Toby Driver: Hmmm maybe this stuff will be surprising, I don’t know? Chelsea Wolfe,Bat For LashesPsychic IllsViva and the DivaSalem? Oh, I just heard a record the other day that maybe the Choirs of the Eye lunatics will appreciate as a decent substitute… this band called Teeth of the Sea?

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