The Complexity of Simplicity: Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver Goes Pop
After close to two decades of making the most complex music out there, Toby Driver's newest effort may be the most complicated. On Madonnawhore (the Flenser), Driver's focus was pursuing simplicity for the first time in his career. The result is his most melodic and straightforward release yet, a gothic pop record that aims for the indie set. It's a surprising move from a man devoid of genre and bursting with ideas, favoring intricacy over traditional song structures.
The latest video, for "Avignon," is culled from that release (order yours), and you can check that out for the first time below. The video is part of an installation by Peter Hopkins Miller at the Venice Biennale (Venice Film Festival), one of two films that feature Driver providing the musical score (the second being a film called Stained Glass, which utilizes an early version of the Kayo Dot song "Stained Glass").
Between Kayo Dot, his solo stuff, Vaura and his previous work with Maudlin of the Well, Driver has amassed quite an impressive catalog. We sat down to talk to him about keeping it simple, the making of his first solo LP, adapting to the future of music and finding collaborators that can keep up with him.
I feel like Kayo Dot has always had this changing lineup from album to album, as well as changing musical styles from record to record as well. Do you consider Kayo Dot a band?
I guess I’ve tried from the beginning to consider it a band, and I prefer to consider it a band, but what it comes down to is that I work really fast and I am pretty obsessive. I work on my shit all day, so even if you start off by working at a similar pace with band members that are invested, I am usually going to move ahead because of the sheer velocity of how I work. So, whenever I try to be in a band, it ends up lopsided. I find that every band does need a leader, no matter how equilateral all the parts are.
The reason why I ask is, if every record is different, why is this LP a solo album?
That’s an interesting question, because the last two Kayo Dot records, I was ready to call them something else. The label was basically like, “I don’t recommend that,” and I really didn’t care either, because Kayo Dot is this thing that is expected to change. But from the industry perspective, starting over, the perspective is that a new band has it harder than something that is more established.
I actually wanted to call this record something entirely different … not Toby Driver, not Kayo Dot. The idea was that I would try and get outside of my scene, because this is such a different release for me, and I sometimes feel pigeonholed as a metal band. I wanted to see if I can get noticed by fans of Nick Cave or Angel Olsen. We’ll see what happens, but I kind of know anyway.
Does metal even enter into your sphere of influence now?
Yeah, I would say so. Since I grew up as a metalhead, it’s always going to be a reference point. One thing that I am really interested in, with respect to metal, is how the new frontiers are timbre-oriented, and I want to apply that to the next Kayo Dot record. You see all the young kids are all becoming musicians and [they] call themselves producers and have an electronic project as an identity badge. Even the latest pop music is all about the most interesting production. So, I was thinking about how metal’s production aesthetic hasn’t really shifted in forever, and how we can take things into the new frontier of production.
While we’re talking about music versus production, do you feel like the instrument has taken a backseat? How does that make you feel as a musician?
It definitely has. I think as a bandleader and a composer where there has been a lot of lineup changes, it’s refreshing in a way that I can do more on my own without worrying about conforming to people's schedules. Which is cool. I think that if you were to ask people what Toby Driver’s main instrument was, you’d get an array of answers. I never had an identity as any one instrument, and use as many as I can on a functional level.
The new record is much much simpler than virtually anything I've heard from you.
It was deliberately simpler, and in a way, this was an exercise for me to rein myself in. I mostly did it at the encouragement of some of my peers. It took me many years to make this record. I started working on it four years ago. It was hard to rein it in and be more casual about the songwriting.
What's going on with Vaura?
We are currently working on our new record — expect it late this year or next. We have a lot of demos, but haven't done any studio time yet.
Now that you've done this exercise in simplicity, where is your head now, musically?
It's the opposite of restraint. I think I am going further. Going back to me doing stuff on my own, I feel like when you construct things that way, they naturally go as far as you want.
What do you think is the impetus behind doing something different on every record? Boredom? Challenging yourself?
Absolutely. I think that if I did the same style over and over again, I'd just want to do something else. So, style and complexity are two ways that I keep myself interested. I've thought about taking a break from music many many times, then what happens is I get an idea and I delay it; then, next thing you know, I'm back on the wheels of creativity.
Sophie's choice — writing or touring?
Split equally. I'd love to do six months a year of touring.