The Listening Party #1: Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver

The Listening Party aims to connect songwriters to their influences and dig at the inspired fan in all of us. As curator, I choose music for artists to discuss based upon what I feel has either been an influence or will facilitate an interesting discussion. In turn, I also ask them to provide music that has recently inspired them. In a perfect world, this would occur with libations and prolonged discussion. Improvise at your own will.

For this inaugural interview, I talked with Toby Driver, leader of the forward-thinking and genre-bending Kayo Dot, who just released the fantastic Gamma Knife. He was kind enough to donate time while touring with the Secret Chiefs 3 and provide insight into both his songwriting process and musical inspirations.

— Aaron Maltz

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What are some of your earliest and/or biggest musical influences as a songwriter?

The earliest definitely are not the same as the biggest. Since I did start writing songs when I was pretty young, you can understand that those influences might be considered pretty unexciting now–Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, Jane’s Addiction, My Dying Bride. As for the biggest influences, it kind of changes year to year based on what I’ve been recently inspired by. I’m not sure I can say there’s any artist like whom I’ve always aspired to write. My biggest influences are transient.

How would you describe both your progression as a songwriter and your writing process?

I like your use of the term “songwriter” here–I think it’s really apt; what I’ve always tried to do is maintain a sort of songwriter’s sense of populism and trajectory, informed by the greats, in my compositions while still exploring my more abstract ideas. That’s one reason why almost everything I’ve done still has lyrics and vocals even though the music may have had the potential to go another way. I think perhaps the most important development in my writing during the past few years is that I have a very clear picture of what my own language is.

As for writing process, lately, you can imagine it like molding a horse out of clay. You have a block of clay, and you quickly mold a crude shape which you can tell is supposed to be a horse . . .so in one way, the sculpture is finished, or the most basic version of the idea has already been expressed. Then, over the course of time, you sculpt finer and finer details in. The crude idea was laid down long ago but the process of definition is gradual.

Do you find that, in general, you’re more influenced by music (what you’re currently listening to) or your environment (what’s happening in your life)? How do the two interplay?

I think an equal amount, which I’m really happy about and I think is the perfect balance. They interplay in a way that I wish were common to all musicians . . . take in a lot of information and use what inspires you in a way that expresses your own experience, in your own language.

What are some of your musical guilty pleasures?

Haha! Well, what qualifies as “guilty” just depends on who I’m around. Lots of the music from my teens and 20s whose aesthetic has not had any influence on my peers. For example, My Dying Bride, Tiamat, Anathema, In The Woods, stuff like that. It’s funny, there are bands that I would put in a very similar category of aesthetic, though, who I can play around my friends, and it does resonate with them. When you look at the objective quality or aesthetic, they line up, but guilty pleasures like these seem to often be about just what you happened to come across when you were growing up. It’s largely about nostalgia.

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Mare – “Anisette”

I love this song and am already really familiar with the whole amazing album. This record came out around the same time as Choirs of the Eye, so it was really curious to see another band doing something that I felt was really close in style (kind of through-composed, orchestrated post-hardcore, I guess) at the exact same time. I’ve always been impressed at how young the Mare guys were when they made that album, too.

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Ulver – “Dressed in Black”

Ulver was one of my favorite bands when I was in high school and college, and I kind of fell off following them closely after their William Blake album. I still like what they’re doing, though, even though I’m not listening obsessively. I just got Blood Inside, actually, so am looking forward to finding a good context for it in my life. Stuff from this era of Ulver is not really the type of music I want to listen to on my headphones . . . the production is too saturated. Rather, it’s something that I’d want to have on in the distance while doing things around my house. I hope that doesn’t sound like a dig or anything . . . that’s actually how I do most of my listening these days.

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Ennio Morricone – “Un Uomo da Rispettare”

This track is awesome . . . I already love Morricone but hadn’t heard this one before. Since it’s soundtrack music, I’d really want to see the film it comes from before making a conclusion about it, but I love it musically. One of my favorite things about Morricone is the way he uses rock instruments (such as drums and bass guitar), synths, and effects (delay, reverb) in a concert music/orchestra setting. He has such a unique and tasteful way of contemporizing the orchestra, and no one else has ever been able to do it quite like him. Additionally, the analog and live recording of this track is exactly what I want to be listening to closely these days, as opposed to heavily overdubbed studio music like the Ulver track you sent.

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Jeff Buckley – “So Real”

This is actually the first Jeff Buckley song I ever heard. I was packed in a small car with 6 other friends during university, and it was late summer and we were headed through the woods to a friend’s parents’ house for a weekend party. I was kind of zoning out of the conversation and was in my own world, when this song came on . . . My attention came back to reality pretty much during the vocal climax of the song. I was totally blown away by the singing and had to ask who the fuck is this??? For some reason, I never checked out Buckley again until maybe 6 years later when I finally picked up the album this track is from (Grace). Love the whole record and it’s interesting to think about how if I had not been in that car right at that time, I probably never would have become a Jeff Buckley fan and my musical path could have been really different, since practicing along to his vocals helped me become a better singer.

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Masada String Trio – “Rssasiel”

Zorn’s string writing is always amazing and an exhilarating listen. He’s definitely one of the world’s musical treasures, and I’m lucky to be a bit close to it. Some of the most curious things about the writing here are these moments in it that give you a little bit of a Bach vibe but simultaneously sound like they fit into the realm of Jewish music. Additionally, it’s great how this piece is just LOUD and intense . . . you could have the same parts played by entirely different people, and it wouldn’t work. So Zorn has always been great at picking the right performers and pushing his compositions to the next level in terms of how the musicians dynamically take the music off the page and into a higher sphere. Also, another fun thing about this track. Zorn’s basically a musical god on earth, but with that in mind, it’s fun to note the bad edit in this track right at 2:30 ;)

Something I’m into right now:

Mario Diaz de Leon “Oneirogen” / Video by Jay King from Shinkoyo on Vimeo.

I also hang out with Mario a lot and even play music with him sometimes, but I can’t say enough good things about his music. He’s one of my favorite contemporary composers, and my favorite composer who’s just about my age. All his music is just perfect. I want it to be my own music. I don’t actually write anything like he does, but his music fits perfectly with my internal world. This track is the first one from his new album, Hypnos. Never-ending-story-core.

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