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Interview with Toby Driver

img  Tobias Fischer

In many respects, the outward confusion about Toby Driver's creative position speaks books about the divide between entertainment and 'true' art. As the driving force behind maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot, two of the most utterly unique and inventive formations of the past few years, Driver has managed to integrate complex textures and compositional structures into the format of a rock band, going from fearsome death metal growls to otherworldly dark ambient passages, jazzy metrics and clouds of black, syrupy noise – perhaps most impressively on the group's recent full-length Hubardo. Kayo Dot have re-invigorated and re-defined the 'progressive' in progressive rock, carving out a niche occupied by no more than a handful of similarly minded projects like Andrew McKenna Lee's The Knells. At the same time, these forays into popular culture have somewhat solidified his outsider position on the contemporary composition community - his academic credentials, studies with Yusef Lateef or impressive works like his recent dance soundtrack Ichneumonidae notwithstanding. It's the loss of anyone who won't listen, however. Driver has learnt to roll with the punches and discovered a third path, leading anyone daring enough to follow him into landscapes of inspiring unfamilairity. Forging superficial allegiances and conforming to conventional standards are simply not his thing - in the eclectic and constantly changing times we're living in, that may well be the smartest strategy anyway.

Yusef Lateef passed away at the end of last year. What do you still remember about studying with him?
I remember his classes vividly. He was extremely encouraging of creative ideas and beautifully non-judgmental about everyone’s approach. Everyone in his class had a different background, and he understood that, and he deeply understood that those individual experiences should be celebrated and used to shape your own voice. That kind of thing was what had the best influence on me, I think, especially because so many other music classes seemed to be concerned with setting every student on an identical path instead of letting them find their own. I’m sure almost every musician in undergraduate studies has had experience with feeling bullied by the status quo. Yusef saw maudlin of the Well once and told me that he loved my death metal vocals – I will remember that forever.

How do you look back on the first maudlin of the Well album today and the years spent with the band?
I think the maudlin of the Well material from that period (late 1990s-2001) still effectively represents who I was at the time, and as a result is uncomfortable for me to look back upon because I don’t have any desire to be that person anymore. In that music, you can hear a young Toby Driver trying to find himself, which is interesting in a way, I suppose, and that aspect of the maudlin of the Well years is what has the most value for me.

How do you see the potentials of rock as a vehicle for complexer ideas?
Obviously I think that rock music is an infinite space and you can go as deep into it with complexity as you can with classical music if you get the right musicians.

More concretely, what do the worlds of composition and rock have to give to each other in projects like Kayo Dot or The Knells?
Hmm, I’m not really sure. Classical music, to me, means something more akin to the uncompromising rendition of a composer’s vision. The classical method. As soon as the music isn’t doing that, then it probably isn’t really classical music, but so what? The Knells is probably more classical music than it is rock. I think trying to marry the two worlds effectively is really difficult because the ethic of what they’re expressing is totally opposite. Classical music represents the educated and erudite, and rock represents the plebeian, and those two universes hate each other. The most compelling intersection of the two worlds is one like we have in Kayo Dot, if I may be so frank,  whereas I as the composer have the education to know what I’m doing, but my personal background is a crustier one that prevents all the classical people from wanting to have anything to do with me, so the music is this constant, unresolving struggle between upper and lower. Something like the Knells, while excellent in so many regards, just isn’t rock in rock’s essence, which is abandon, hedonism, and transgression.

When you have all of these different influences to work with, how do you keep focused?
I think it’s absolutely crucial for all composers to listen to everything they can, to all sorts of music from all over the world, in order to relate to the world in any sort of relevant way. I keep focused by not focusing, by trying as many different approaches as I can. I don’t think of the world in terms of favorites and I think that my identity is one of extreme open-mindedness and flexibility rather than one of ideology. That’s what keeps me feeling interesting in music and feeling alive, and feeling like an integrated part of the world in general. For the record, I also love music that comes from a place of isolation, but that’s not what I want to personally create right now.

Would you say originality takes precedence over personal expression?
Absolutely not – I completely favor personal expression over originality.
However, in terms of the bigger picture, I think if a person’s truest, deepest personal expression is the voice of another, then they have a problem and they should try to fix it within themselves!

How many barriers are there still between the worlds of academia and the artists outside of it?
I just think the whole industry, regardless of genre, is about who you know. This is basic shit that I probably knew this whole time, but idealistically thought there were other options. Myopically, the gatekeepers fail to realize that some of the best and most relevant art is made by introverts and sociophobes who are just not able to do the networking thing, or to go to concerts and pretend to be interested in shallow conversations and all that crap. I’ve noticed there is some really fantastic, composition-based music coming out of the younger generation of New York musicians and a lot of it is in a grey area between classical and rock, but the people that are having the best successes with it are people who have these more traditional academic backgrounds. Schools hook their students and alumni up with connections through professors, arts organizations, and career centers and I believe that’s what the real value of those high tuition is. Back when I was in my studies, I didn’t really have that advantage based on the fact that I went to an experimental school that didn’t have those kinds of hookups, and also didn’t have professors who ever even let me know that it was possible to use academia in this way.

How does this translate into your personal goals as a composer?
I have a greater interest in resonating with the public than I do with academia – so I continue to try to develop my music into something that uses all the progressive ideas I have, but an in inviting instead of an alienating way. And then – like I said, it’s exhilarating in a very different way to be able to compose something in the classical method and have it come to life, so I would really like to do more music like that. Unfortunately for me, the best way to encourage the creation of new works like this is through arts funding and not through the marketplace.

Interview with Toby Driver by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Toby Driver
Homepage: Kayo Dot