Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver and “the technicality of grace”

Kayo Dot headlines a Tone Madison-presented show on March 5 at Communication with Psalm Zero and Telechrome.

Kayo Dot headlines a Tone Madison-presented show on March 5 at Communication with Psalm Zero and Telechrome.

Photo by Casey Mathewson.

For a band as chameleonic and exploratory as Kayo Dot, who have shifted their sound and instrumentation over the course of about 16 years, it’s tough to know the best place to start. Fortunately, the New York band’s March 5 show at Communication, presented by Tone Madison, comes on the heels of 2019’s Blasphemy, an album that provides a most inviting gateway into the mysteries and pleasures behind the band’s songwriting mastermind, Toby Driver.


Driver has been musically active since the mid-1990s, when he formed the “astral metal” group maudlin of the Well, and garnered a cult following after their final two 2001 companion albums, Bath and Leaving Your Body Map. In the process of pushing their unique dynamic blend of atmospheric death metal, avant-prog, new age, folk, and jazz even further into realms of gorgeously orchestral post-rock, the band evolved into Kayo Dot. Their first and still most widely known album under that name, Choirs Of The Eye, came out in late 2003 on virtuosic composer and multi-instrumentalist John Zorn’s Tzadik label. After a number of expanding/condensing lineups and label changes in the last decade and a half, Kayo Dot is now pared down to a quartet (with a couple guests) on arguably their most straightforward prog rock affair to-date. Blasphemy is a record that lyrically celebrates Kayo Dot’s fervently creative and tumultuous journey, and offers avenues towards a future as open to new possibilities as ever in their nods to gothic rock and progressive electronic music.

Ahead of Kayo Dot’s visit to Madison, Driver spoke with me about his identity as an artist, Kayo Dot’s musical progression, the band’s live performing setup (with two drummers), and his more recent synth-oriented endeavors with Piggy Black Cross and Oixisha.

Tone Madison: I’ve been listening to your music for over 13 years now, and one of the things that is so thrilling—that was initially sort of nerve-racking as someone who tends to be idealistic and obsessive—is never quite knowing what your next record is going to sound like. With so many artists, I feel like there are subtle shifts and inevitable trend-following over time. With your music, you never really seem bound by anything, and you’ve perhaps gained a reputation as a musical chameleon. Do you have an overarching artistic philosophy? What has changed and stayed the same in your approach to writing since your professional career began?

Toby Driver: It’s a search. A search for many things—my identity, a better timeline, the holy (or “miraculous” as Zorn has put it). I like the idea that through the creation of these obelisks, I’m able to construct my own story and a map of my own universe. It’s a way of seizing some control from overwhelming forces, forming a palpable atmosphere, an invitation-only shelter in which no one can tell me how to be. If my artwork ceases to be a search, or ceases to present a challenge, it strikes me as boring and valueless. And I hope that there’s some altruism there, and I’m not just searching for my own sake, but for the sake of culture, too.

I think one role of an artist is to express and make tangible things that others cannot, and that we should be vigilant not to forget our tasks here as frontiersmen. And the public will disagree most of the time, because they live nearer to the center. At this point, too, I have some wisdom about artistic longevity and the bigger picture of one’s body of work, and that I’d much rather align myself with someone like David Bowie, with a large discography, whose lesser-loved records are still valuable and unforgettable because of the stories and energy that go along with them.

If you mean what has technically changed in my approach to writing, it’s everything, deliberately so. I mentioned challenges and searches—well, every time I write a new set of pieces, I change my writing method as a way to keep myself interested, and to grow my own skill set and knowledge. Ideally I should never stop learning or becoming a better musician. But if we’re talking ethos, I have mostly abandoned the adolescent need to prove myself. These mating rituals that people in their 20s focus on—speed, complexity, volume—are becoming meaningless to me. I’m learning about the technicality of grace, which is so sublime.

Tone Madison: Along with the evolution of songwriting and instrumentation, I think anyone who listens to your earlier work in Kayo Dot, from 2003 to 2008, for instance, will notice a difference in your style of singing. Back then, you were a bit quieter and maybe more boyish-sounding in your falsetto. These days, your voice is deeper, and has a different timbre, even. It’s much more upfront as a traditional lead. What prompted that shift, independent from the music or not? Have you thought about experimenting again or returning to extreme dynamic instrumentation with more muted vocalizations?

Toby Driver: I think it’s just training, to be honest. My younger self had an untrained voice and by now, I’ve been singing for over 20 years. I’m actually a vocal instructor now, as one of my day jobs, too. My anatomy—my instrument—has physically changed and so of course that’s going to be reflected in the sound. But singing is also so much about confidence, and that’s a huge hurdle I’ve overcome since then, as well. So I think as with any instrument, the composer must compose for that voice and so my music tends more that way now, but I’ve done a bit of the fragile voice recently in the new ASVA material [Seattle-based drone band] that’ll be coming out next year [2021]. You’ll hear that the fragility is quite a bit more apparent than before, because it’s a different kind of weakness now.

You’ve known me awhile, and have seen different eras of my own personal style, so you can appreciate this anecdote: This one insufferable scenester in New York said right to my face about seven years ago when I first decided to grow a beard: “I never took your music seriously before, but now that you have a beard, I can appreciate it.” So this is a lifetime of this type of bullshit from idiots who have wrongheaded ideas about masculinity, how it relates to metal, how it relates to a person’s right to stand on a stage and send a message. I enjoy not fitting into that, and look up to singers who have been comfortable enough not to fit into that. So, muted vocalizations are the opposite of me claiming my time.

Tone Madison: Coffins On Io seems like a pivotal album for you as a songwriter in the past decade. I remember talking to you when it came out in 2014, and you seemed to suggest that it was a change of pace and may not be exactly in alignment with what listeners had come to expect of you as an avant-rock outfit. It’s not that dramatic of a turn away from the more intricate prog arrangements you’d been known for, but it also feels like the start of something new after the 10-year celebratory epic, Hubardo, that amalgamated elements of all your past releases. Is that sort of how you approached the material on Coffins—as phase two or decade two of Kayo Dot? Or is this distinction unnecessary? Maybe you don’t necessarily view progressions as linear at all.

Toby Driver: Well, you’re close, but it was a bit less deliberate than that. So, as you mentioned, there were so many things about Hubardo that made it a milestone record: it was our tenth-anniversary album, it was [longtime performer/woodwind player] Terran Olson’s last album, it was [violinist] Mia Matsumiya’s last album, it was our last Seattle album, it had some great guest appearances, and importantly, it was self-released and this had been two records for us without a label. It seemed like Kayo Dot was going to be a for-fun project only, and career aspirations had been pretty much abandoned. We were happy with the outcome, and immediately after it was finished I wrote a couple songs that I considered to be quite simple, easy, and fun. And Terran, wasn’t around; and he, a horn player, was majorly responsible for this super unconcerned-with-cool, music-school element that Kayo Dot had had for many years. 

I proposed to my band that we just record [the couple songs] casually and start a new band, since Kayo Dot had had this career-long curse of bad luck and name baggage, and horns for god’s sake (from my perspective). By the way, how many times have bands said, “Let’s just make a [post-rock/punk/some other easy musical style] album in a day as a joke, and watch: that’s what gets us big?” I’m not saying that’s what happened with Coffins On Io, but maybe very slightly. “Let’s make a sort of 80’s goth/pop/karaoke-inspired thing, it’ll be like taking a damn vacation after Hubardo.” We had the first three songs on the album finished as demos, and I shopped them to [San Francisco label] The Flenser because they had just put out the vinyl of Vaura’s The Missing [supergroup featuring Driver on bass], which has just enough of that ’80s post-punk element that they seemed like a suitable label. After The Flenser agreed to release it, we then were at a juncture where we had to decide what direction to go towards when finishing the album. We decided it could be Kayo Dot, since it was the same guys anyway, and I decided that I needed to flesh the album out with proggier, more complex songs so that it would align with the Kayo Dot identity a bit more, and that’s the second half of the album. Anyway, what I’m saying is that it was going to be this separate, just-for-fun thing, and we got lucky enough to be supported by The Flenser, so [we] elected not to squander that. The Flenser gave Kayo Dot a bit of a new life. So you’re correct that it’s a beginning of a phase two. Just wasn’t so deliberate.


Tone Madison: Some of your more post-metal compositions employ multitudes of instruments, like “The Manifold Curiosity,” which I think you said requires three guitars to faithfully capture in a live setting. I’m thinking of this in relation to the material on Blasphemy, because your touring group features two drummers, Phillip Price and Leonardo Didkovsky. Could you talk a bit about the logistics, and why there are two drummers in this configuration? How does the dynamic of the band change versus having one percussionist? And will you be performing any older songs in the KD catalog with this ensemble?

Toby Driver: It’s pretty much always been the case that I write for the instrumentation I have available. That’s why on the earlier records there’s all that stuff. A sad truth of organizing an ensemble of unprofitable music is that when you’re all young, people are eager to play, and scheduling rehearsals is much easier (Terran and I, friends and playing together since age 17, and he plays so many horns…). Then people grow up and develop professional concerns, and it becomes impossible to get a large number of people in a room at the same time or take a large group of people on the road for peanuts. I would absolutely love to have a large ensemble again, and have been wanting to add an extra member to Kayo Dot for a couple years now, but the fact is that we don’t make enough money for that. I mean, bringing a fifth person on the road and making sure everyone gets paid something livable.

So why two drummers? Well in 2017, I was trying to make some strategic moves with the band, and our booking agent at the time recommended that all our tours that year would just be support tours, to help us grow. So we supported Pallbearer on two tours, and Today Is The Day on one. Keith, our drummer, since 2011, had recently quit but I couldn’t pass up these tours, so had to get subs for all of them. David Bodie, our drummer from Coyote, subbed on one of them. Leo Didkovsky [current touring drummer] subbed on the second one and was unavailable for the third, so Phillip Price [second touring drummer] subbed for the third. That was me training three different drummers on Kayo Dot material within the span of six months. Exhausting.

Bodie has some rather restrictive unavailabilities, and I really enjoyed working with both Leo and Phillip and wanted to honor the time that they gave to Kayo Dot, so I asked them to both work on Blasphemy with me. And then back to what I said about writing for the instrumentation you have available—that really informed my writing process on the record. It is a really cool dynamic to have two of them because it feels much more ensemble-based and orchestral, a different type of attention is paid to arrangement and tightness, and the music is very body-oriented. It’s great to see them work out musical problems as a percussion section, too, collaboratively, instead of being solely directed by me.

We do a few old songs, but best to focus on the new stuff. I like to remind people, we’ve done the old songs on tour many times, and if the audience didn’t show up for those then they missed out (exempting Madison, because we haven’t gone up there much). Same goes for Blasphemy—it’s not like this is going to happen forever.

Tone Madison: I’ve always been curious to know how you coordinate your music with Jason Byron’s lyrics, who you’ve been working with since you were both teenagers. Are things planned in advance, or is Jason more like, “Here’s what I wrote,” and then you sort of match the tone and structure of the music to the fantastical narratives and universes he’s conjured?

One of your latest animated videos, “Turbine, Hook, And Haul,” seems to explore this to some degree, if you would be willing to talk about how your relationship with Jason spills over into the pixel art/video-gamey traversal in that video. You also made it, right? People should know you are a terrific visual artist if they don’t already.

Toby Driver: Same as what I said earlier about changing my process each time. We change our collaborative approach every time to see how it affects the results. In the case of Blasphemy, he told me his concept of the story and sent me the song lyrics one-by-one, and we were working side-by-side to shape the musical narrative into something that fit. It also resulted in a lot of editing on both our parts, which was unusual for us!

I did indeed make that video, thanks very much. As you mentioned, I’ve known him a long time and I have a pretty good picture of what we aesthetically share. Final Fantasy and Secret Of Mana, among other things, were big for the development of our imaginations, and allusions to them have come up in our music before, even back to maudlin of the Well. You’ll see some things in that video that aren’t necessarily explained by the lyrics, but I read his full Blasphemy novel manuscript before making the video, so I was familiar with the whole picture. (Byron’s still looking for a publisher for his book, but we printed the first two chapters of text inside the Blasphemy box set.)

Tone Madison: In the last year and a half, you’ve dropped a couple synth-heavy side projects—Piggy Black Cross and Oixisha—the former being a collaboration with your partner, Bridget Bellavia. Have you played live under either of those monikers? If you have, how do you think that’s informed the music you’ve recently written under Kayo Dot or your own name?

Do you see yourself continuing to move in this more synthwave/progressive electronic direction in the future? If not, where do you see Kayo Dot moving into the early-middle part of the 2020s?

Toby Driver: Yeah, Piggy Black Cross has played several shows, and we even did a West Coast US tour. In PBC live, I play a lot of guitar, much more than is on the album. With Oixisha, I still haven’t learned how to play compositionally-complex electronic music live. If I can figure out a way to do it—that serves the detail of the composition and isn’t just pushing play on iTunes—then I’d love to. Maybe that kind of music can’t be replicated live, and a live performance just has to be a type of improv. I don’t know; I’m too new at it.

These projects have informed my other music mostly in regard to identity—they serve to remind me that I can do anything I want with music, and that I have no obligation to be a rock musician, or traditional composer, or anything like that. I get a lot of fulfillment from electronic music because I can construct it on my own, without needing to organize anything with other people. You can probably tell from this answer and one of my previous ones that the thought of having to organize and schedule people for music makes me nauseous. I have some PTSD about it.

With the future of Kayo Dot music, I’ve started to be interested in making something a bit more abstract again. There’s a lot of potential there, with two percussionists. Also, you’ll notice on this tour that I’m playing much more guitar in Kayo Dot again. It’s been a long time. Since 2011, I’ve been primarily the bassist. So I’ve been enjoying playing guitar through loud amps quite a bit, and I feel this will hang around for a while.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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