Interviews : Kayo Dot
With Toby Driver
Eclectic, experimental and sometimes downright weird, Kayo Dot is not a band for an impatient listener. Yet those willing to give this Boston octet a chance will discover a musical vision unlike anything else out there. Building on the elements that made its predecessor band, Maudlin of the Well, so successful, singer, guitarist, visionary Toby Driver talks about a dynamic wall of sound and emotion known as Kayo Dot.
How did Maudlin of the Well [MotW] morph into Kayo Dot?
In late 2001, we started working on what was to be the fourth MotW studio album. The whole thing took two years, so in that time you can imagine how much was going on internally. Eventually by the time the album was finished, we had lost half the band and switched labels. Those things combined with the fact that the sort of philosophy behind that album was decidedly un-MotW, we felt a name change was appropriate.
Did you also feel like a new name was more appropriate since Kayo Dot sounds like a more experimental, obscure and a more intense band?
I did like the clean slate aspect to it, but unfortunately right from the beginning it was impossible to escape any mention of MotW any time anyone would talk about Kayo Dot.
So as Kayo Dot symbolized a new start and the "clean slate" so to speak, was it the main reason to leave Dark Symphonies and sign to Tzadik?
It's hard to say; I had been wanting to change the band name for a long time, since we came up with the name 'Maudlin of the Well' when we were 17. I was sick of it. If we had stayed on Dark Symphonies, the name would have most likely stayed the same. However, since we were presented with the opportunity to change labels, we thought we ought to seize the opportunity to do a name-change too.
Obviously, MotW fans, myself included, were excited when they found out you were in a new band. Yet, musically, Kayo Dot is very different. What was the initial reaction of the older fans to "Choirs of the Eye" ? Did you hear any complaints like "oh, you've abandoned My Dying Bride for Neurosis" sort of thing or did people understand that this is a new start and a new beginning for a different band?
I think it'd be safe to say that about half thought Kayo Dot was a step forward and half thought it was a step backwards. I think that many people still haven't understood that it's a new band... In fact the biggest sources of complaint are those people who think it's just motw but with a different name.
Really, only two of us in Kayo Dot now were in MotW. But people still come to the shows and ask us if we're going to play any MotW stuff!
That's funny, man. I bet your patience is running thin with this but MotW was one of a handful of American underground bands that threaded their own intricate path. Yet speaking of 'intricate', Kayo Dot is as interesting albeit difficult but in a long run very rewarding listen. How do you want listeners to perceive Kayo Dot?
I don't know, they should let it overwhelm them, I guess?
I think that's the initial reaction but also that's what draws the listener back to it for more repeated listens to uncover all the deep, enriching layers of your compositions...
Yeah, I have been noticing people talk about the layering a lot. I would like to be able to put something together sometime where the textures weren't the focal point. I mean the texturing in Kayo Dot is cool, but I think the x-axis is also worth paying attention to.
I think you accomplished a little bit of that on your solo project "In the Li Li Library Loft" [Toby's experimental classical solo album on Tzadik].
Thanks, although I still wasn't able to escape bigness the way I would like to.
When I listen to your new full-length, "Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue", the first album "Choirs of the Eye"(CotE) sounds more accessible so to speak. Those songs are more immediate and for lack of a better word, "catchy". What was your approach to the new songs? Did you plan to make new songs a bit less accessible?
Not at all. I've been reading that a bunch too and I just don't get it. I actually thought this new one was more down-to-earth than the last one. In any case, as far as the compositional approach, the biggest difference between the two albums was that CotE was a studio album done over the course of a couple years, and put together without any intention of ever playing it live. After the album was finsihed, we decided to put a band together to perform the songs, which we had to rearrange for the live situation. The new album, on the other hand, was put together in the rehearsal room - specifically constructed as a band's album. Hence the lack of string sections, horn sections, vocal sections, or any kind of section. I have been telling people that CotE was the internal, pensive album, and "Dowsing Anemone..." is the extroverted and grounded one. But I don't think the listeners see it my way, haha!
Well, as a listener, I find that the new songs are less immediate because the new material does not tend to "erupt" so to speak. There are occasional moments where I am waiting for shit to explode like it did during "Choirs of the Eye" but these songs are much more subtle in nature which makes the new material a more intricate listen and the one that cannot be immediately appreciated....
Yeah, I guess I see what you're talking about as far as that's concerned. In writing the new album, I was definitely being attentive to preserving the climactic mood of "Choirs of the Eye" but without a formulaic structure. It was necessary to find a new way of getting from one place to another within the idiom we were working in... without being redundant.
But on the other hand, with this new found difficulty the new songs are drifting away from categorizations. Kayo Dot is becoming a band that's difficult to categorize...
That's cool! Who wants to be put in a box?
Since the new album is difficult to categorize, what influenced your songwriting? I hear a Therion chorus during "On Limpid Form". Any bands, readings, etc...?
Nothing that I can put my finger on, sorry! That's always an impossible question for me. I'm sure everything I've heard is an influence in some way, but I don't think I've zeroed in on anything.
How much of the new material is improvised? And how much of it is written with a cohesive song structure in mind?
It's all pretty meticulously composed, from start to finish. The only things that are improvised are things like timing. How long to wait between hits, that kind of thing - it's just eye contact.
Did this present any difficulty recording the new material live?
No, actually live would have been the only way to do it. Had we been doing overdubs I have no idea how a guitarist would be able to predict when the cymbal was about to crash.
Speaking of live, this time playing live. You recently returned from a fall tour. How did that go?
It had its ups and downs. A bunch of our gear broke because we can't afford stuff like road cases, our sound guy quit halfway through the tour leaving us high and dry, we had no merch for several weeks and low turnouts which resulted in us having no money, a whole week of shows got cancelled right at the beginning, etc, etc. But on the other hand, as the tour went on, it got better and better. The people who did come to the shows were enthusiastic. We played with some awesome bands and met a lot of great people, saw a bunch of old friends and learned about new places, and all the fun stuff in between.
I read on Mia's page [Mia Matsumiya - violin, viola] that on some dates you played to 2-3 people. What are some thoughts that run through your head when you see an empty place? Does it ever run through your mind that this is all for nothing and "let's just be a studio band"?
Usually in a situation like that, I don't think it has anything to do with people not liking your music so much as it has to do with a lack of promotion or other circumstances, like playing in the same town on the same night as Opeth and Pelican together on one bill. And small turnouts are just a part of touring and playing shows that almost any band has to deal with - you just have to figure out why people aren't coming to the shows and do what you can to remedy that, in terms of scheduling and promotion. I think that a band's success has very little to do with their music.
But it does not discourage you at all, seeing how much work you put in with Kayo Dot and looking at seven other people in your band. You just say "oh, well, let's play"?
To me, it's depressing, but not discouraging. But yeah it may be discouraging to the other members of the band - actually, if we had tons of people at the shows I bet our sound guy wouldn't have quit halfway through tour!
Sure, a big part of it bad promotion [you played in Tampa and I had no clue] but do you also think people have shitty taste in music and prefer something safe to something challenging? I mean, I'd go see Kayo Dot over Opeth any day.
I think listeners are impatient, which directly affects their taste.
How difficult is it to tour as an eight piece? You're obviously not traveling in a nice tour bus and there is a strict budget...
We're all cramped in a smelly van, and yeah even if we make $300 bucks in a night, after gas, merch expenses, trailer rental money, etc, we're lucky if we each get 10 bucks. If we were a three piece, it'd be a breeze compared to this.
I just think it's unbelievably impressive how much you must love music to be doing this. It sounds like a physical and also a mental punishment.
Sure but it's also incredibly fun but I'm sure a lot of people can't handle that type of lifestyle. I definitely understand that. We have lost members over the years because of that simple fact.
Is it the music that makes it all worth it, does playing live works as somewhat of a cleansing experience?
Yeah, when there's a good show, it totally makes everything ok.
Toby, you seem to be the main composer behind Kayo Dot. How do you approach the band? Is it your project with guest musicians or a full time band for everyone?
The way I see it is that I have been working on this one project for 10 years, and the lineup has changed a bunch of times. You can think of it like Chuck Schuldiner's band, Death, if you want. I can't diminish what everyone else puts into it of course, and they are definitely in the band full time.
You're quite a busy man. You have Kayo Dot, your solo project "In the Li Li Library Loft" and also working on a 45-minute classical piece called "60 Metonymies". What are you trying to accomplish with all these things? Is stagnation the worst possible thing for a musician?
I think inactivity is probably the worst thing. The only way you get better is to refine yourself through experience. All the different things I'm working on are outlets for the different things I'm interested in saying. For example, all the stuff on my solo CD couldn't be performed by Kayo Dot due to instrumentation restrictions. Therefore, you find another outlet.