Heavenly Games: The Making Of Toy’s Debut LP

A year and a bit after they played our stage at Field Day, TOY guide us through what went into the making of their debut LP. Photo by Joseph Tovey Frost

They don’t really make bands like Toy any more – and we’re not talking about the perennial talking point of their hair, or run ins with custom officials who suspected them of possessing drugs (a conversation right out of the 70s, thus: "I asked, ‘Are you going to cavity search us?’ ‘Only up to the elbow’. They said to Tom, ‘the guy who is searching you is retiring in two weeks, and he likes the young boys’").

There’s something about the unforced enthusiasm of this five-piece, releasing their debut album today, that recall the interviews with bands of times past, all bright lens flare, wide-eyed self-belief, and slightly arcane and addled vernacular. With three of their number (singer and guitarist Tom Dougall, guitarist Dominic O’Dair and bassist Maxim ‘Panda’ Barron friends since they were children, including that spell in the maligned Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong) there’s a real closeness to the group that means one voice, at times, can hardly be distinguished from the other.

Their enthusiasm for what they do and their disparate musical loves is infectious and genuine. It was only ten months ago that this writer sat down with them at this same pub, Clapton’s Pembury Tavern, for an interview for The Stool Pigeon newspaper read it here). Then, a slightly nervous band spoke about how they had an album finished, and were hoping an independent label, a world away from the Jong days, might see fit to release it. Thankfully, Heavenly’s Jeff Barrett fell in love with the band, and after a string of excellent singles, their full-length (a heady mix of pastoral post-punk, gouging Korg and guitar pop sensibilities) is now with us. Dougall, Panda, O’Dair, Korg player Alejandra Diaz drummer Charlie Salvidge (surely nobody in a band has been called something like that since 1972) and producer Dan Carey took us through the raw materials of the Toy workshop.

Dan Carey: Producer

Tom Dougall: The first recording we ever did with the Jing Jang Jong was with Dan.

Panda: We did a track with him called ‘Tough Terrible’, which was a surf instrumental that Dom wrote, and that was the best thing that band ever did.

TD: Dan had a big impact on how that had sounded. We harked back to that and remember how fun it had been working and hanging out with him. So we did the b-side to ‘Motoring’ with him, and that went really well. We went for a drink afterwards and talked about the idea of doing the whole album. As soon as we listened to his idea of what to do it made complete sense.

Alejandra Diez: We had loads of parties with him. You realise after working with a few producers how important it is to work with someone that you’re comfortable with on every level, and not just musically.

Panda: There’s always a point where everyone goes down to the studio, picks up whatever instrument and we all all sit there going dananananann. It was me Dom, Dan and Charlie and Caroline from Chairlift playing organ. La Roux came in at one point and said, ‘Why are you playing such dirgy music?’ Go away La Roux!

In The Studio

Panda: Dan Carey made certain rules about how we had to nail it in certain number of takes.

Dan Carey: There were a very limited number of overdubs. We spend quite a long time setting up this big mound of amps and drums so when they were playing no-one could wear headphones. A lot of them we did in one take. The original rule that everyone was allowed to do one overdub each per track. We had two weeks and partied in the middle, it always seemed to be someone’s birthday on a Thursday. Jeff came down and there was no band there, just me and Olly.

TD: It was about capturing the essence of all six of us. The first day we walked in Dan and Olly the engineer had set up the drum kit and a war of amplifiers either side. The amp placements were quite unique.

P: Dan has a picture of King Tubby above the mixing desk. King Tubby is staring at you with a crown on his head…

Dominic O’Dair: Often producers make you put each amp in different rooms so there’s no bleed between mics, but that’s a shame because sometimes the way the different guitars interfere with the amps sounds really nice.

DC: It forces you to commit to every decision you make. There’s one mic in the middle of the room that picks up everything. You can then pick up different bits and reinforce it. They’re obviously a band who are capable of playing and you’re not going to need to go back and correct it afterwards. It sounds more exciting like that.

TD: We liked the pressure. If you cocked up you were letting everyone down.

P: We’re writing songs now for the next one and we want to use the same process again for a release next year. Some of the bands we really love have always done that, with the Velvet Underground you can always tell what goes on with the Live VU album, you can really tell it captures something. We never want to lose that energy.

A studio full of smoke & lasers

DC: That’s an extension of the idea of having everyone playing together and the sound in the room. If you’re at a gig and the lights are like this [in the Pembury], no-one would be enjoying it as much. If you’re playing and you feel like you’ve left the world and are in a nicer place, you don’t know what’s going on or where you are, you do play better. It started really gradually and it kind of escalated: we got two little lasers, then the next day Panda brought his laser, the next we got a strobe. It started getting really heavy the second week when we were doing ‘Dead & Gone’ we got a really powerful laser and no lights at all. Everything was set up so well you didn’t need lights.

P: I had the smoke machine straight in my face, and the laser, and I’ve never seen something quite like what I saw during that take of ‘Kopter’.

DC: I think if you fill the eyes with something intense and visual, it leaves you with the space to focus on the music. Your body reacts to the environment. Like those parties we’re talking about, you play differently when it’s fun. There’s a logic behind that. I hate studios where you feel like you should be acting professionally because they’re so clean and tidy and there’s glass windows. I like my studio to feel like a fun room, that’s why I don’t mind people coming there and spilling beer in the equipment, because it makes it feel like it’s not a professional thing.

Charlie Salvidge: It’s like the other side of the wardrobe in the words of CS Lewis.

AD: You don’t have to worry about your physical presence. You can forget everything…

The Omnichord

CS: It’s like an electronic version of an autoharp. Panda was on one leg, hopping around… twiddling his moustache.

P: I was running around the studio in my birthday suit… and Olly the engineer said ‘wicked, what else do you want to do?’. I was trying to explain the screech that Iggy Pop does on ‘Funhouse’, when he inwardly goes ‘wahhhhhhgrrrkk’ so he said ‘ok, let’s do a six minute track of that’. We stuck that piece on as a little instrumental.

Black Sabbath’s Mellotron

P: Dan has so many amazing things in the studio. He has the mellotron that was made for Black Sabbath to go on tour in the 70s, and Candida from Pulp used it as well.

DC: Jarvis cocker had it, then it was in a lock-up of a friend of mine. It was absolutely fucked, and he said if you get it refurbished and get old tapes you can use it.

CS: Alejandra uses a long of string sounds on her Korg Delta, so she doubled up the taped string sounds on the mellotron with the analogue synth. There’s a really nice slow attack to it.

TD: I wanted it to capture the sound on Her Satanic Majesties Request, the psychedelic Stones album, where you stick the mellotron through a pitch shifter and amplify it so it came out going ‘bip bip bwop bwop’

The Voice Of God

P: In ‘Kopter’ there’s this weird sound that’s goes wiwiwiwiwiwiwi, this weird, dance, analogue sound, and that was Dan in the corner fiddling. It was like Dan was playing a separate instrument.

TD: That’s how we’ll always do records, Dan in the room playing live with us.

CS: It was like he was the sixth member.

The Swarmatron

AD: We had a party at the end of the record, and Wille Mason’s band were there. We had this Swarmatron, and thought it was the most amazing thing.

DC: This thing took 15 weeks to build and cost £6,000.

P: It’s like a piece of nautical equipment. You turn oscillators, play along a ribbon, and it makes a certain pitch.

DC: They can make exactly the same note or they can diverge. Then at this party Charlie spilled beer in it…

CS: We went upstairs and said ‘we’ll give you all our tour support…’ I felt terrible, I had to go home.

DC: I had to call the guy who made it and said ‘I was using it last night in an extremely humid environment…’ He said ‘give it time to dry off’. I took it all apart, cleaned it. rebuilt it and now it’s fine.

AD: On the record, Dan Carey promised me that on our third album he will get me a Swarmatron.

‘Dead & Gone’

TD: There’s the drop in it, almost like a dance track. I remember had that idea that if the song just cuts down to my little guitar bit, then I think when you talked about ‘Left Myself Behind’ and that idea of gearshift in it, we talked about that together when we were writing ‘Dead & Gone’ and that’s something that happened in there. It’s my favourite, it’s the centrepiece of the album…

AD: especially when we play live. Out of all of them, it’s the one where we improvise more. What I recorded for the album is nothing like how I play it live, and we never know for how long we’re going to do it.

TD: It’s one of the songs where i feel most emotionally evolved. I think we’d all agree it has a really strong impact and means a lot to all of us.

DO’D: That and ‘Left Myself Behind’ and ‘Kopter’ are the ones with the formula that we hit on. Kind of like on the first Neu! album with ‘Hallogallo’, and on the second album they ha a few more like that, and then the third album is all like that.

C: I don’t think we’ll just stick with that…

The evil side of the Toy shop

TD: There’s nothing wrong with a well-structured pop song, and I think that’s something that some people have a problem with, especially real musos. But it’s really badly done, distasteful cheesy and flat, then I hate that more than anything. What we’re going to do is rather than have the aside with three other tracks, we’re going to do EPs with fairly experimental pieces. So the a-sides will be album tracks, the poppier tracks, and then there’ll be a remix and two tracks that allow us to experiment. None of us listen to the radio anyway. We want to tap into the more fucked up side of our band, which we’re really conscious of not losing that and there are a lot of different sides to what we do. I think there are some really horrible things that we can come up with.

AD: We do love our poppy songs, but we don’t want to give people the wrong idea.

CS: Everything we do, we want to counteract it

D’OD: We listen to the Beach Boys, and weep, and then we listen to Throbbing Gristle, and weep in the same way. Alejandra and I have been making our own electronic music compositions influenced by Raymond Scott and Pauline Oliveros and John Baker, that will feed into the EPs and the second album, and go insane.

Toy-tal Recall

TD: Certain bits of certain songs on the album really choke me up, they bring back certain memories. I feel sad and happy about that at the same time, it’s not like just listening to a record and going oh yeah, it’s really great or I don’t like it. It’s heavy emotionally.

CS: We were all involved in writing the lyrics, we all put ourselves into it.

P: The whole record is a document of us as people. We’ve been through a lot as friends.

CS: When we were really young, and discovering you were listening to Amon Duul.

AD: I was dancing to the Sonics, on my own in Brighton, and Tom came up to me and said ‘do you like the Sonics? Do you want to come to a party?’.

TD: It’s a culmination of everything we’ve gone through, our relationship and friendship with each other. There’s a lot of history, even though we haven’t been going that long as Toy… in a way, our band began when we were 12 and all first met each other, and it’s a culmination of all the conversations we had and times we spent together since. The lyrics are very personal too, and that makes it difficult, especially when they’re about the person you’re still going out with, or someone you’re friends with. There’s something very gruesome going on.

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