Formed in the wake of extremely influential progressive metal act maudlin of the Well, Kayo Dot has been pushing the boundaries of underground music for over a decade now. Coffins in Io, the band’s latest release, sees the band tackling darkwave and other 80’s motifs and molding them into Kayo Dot’s own personal brand of genre experimentation. The result is arguably the band’s most accessible release to date, but don’t mistake catchiness for compromise, as Coffins in Io, with its unwieldy time signatures and fearlessness, is still very much Kayo Dot…just a little more romantic than what we’re used to. We caught up with main man Toby Driver to discuss the new album, fans, and the importance of staying on top of the mainstream, even when you may not necessarily interact with it.
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B.G.M. – Coffins On Io is your eighth album, coming more than ten years into Kayo Dot’s existence, and yet it feels like your highest profile release as a band, which is strange considering 2ish years ago, before the success of Hubardo, the existence of Kayo Dot was being very much called into question. Why do you think more ‘mainstream’ publications like Noisey are just now taking notice of Kayo Dot?
Toby Driver – I think the simplest and most realistic explanation is that we’ve had a publicist working on our behalf for Coffins on Io, whereas for the previous handful of albums, we did not, and I was trying to handle all of that stuff myself. As you mentioned, we’ve gone on tours in the past few years where we’ve heard people say “Kayo Dot? I thought they broke up in 2008,” which is a confusingly arbitrary marker – we released Blue Lambency Downward in 2008, on Hydra Head, which was probably higher profile than the Coffins release, and toured in support of that album for two years. That album didn’t do very well out in the world, so Hydra Head stopped putting money into publicity for us and the subsequent two albums (Coyote and Stained Glass– also Hydra Head releases) received almost zero press. So, because of that, I guess people thought we stopped existing? I can draw an analogy to Nine Inch Nails, who are one of the biggest bands in the world, and self-released at least one album between leaving a major label and then returning to a major label with their latest. Trent Reznor said they toured and played songs from the self-release, and the audiences didn’t know those songs– they (the audiences) only knew the ones from the major releases.
Hubardo and Coffins on Io are both very different sounding Kayo Dot releases, in terms of both each other and the entirety of your discography. After the aggression of Hubardo, did you feel a need to ‘swing the other way’ as much as possible for the new album or did it naturally grow as this quieter, more relaxed effort?
No, the two albums are totally separate instances of expression, and I preferred to not allow Hubardo to have any influence on Coffins on Io whatsoever. I don’t really try to manipulate my ouevre in terms of its lifelong arc, and would rather just let it coalesce naturally from these singular, metaphorical diary pages or offspring that are conceived in moments of passion. Coffins on Io wasn’t even necessarily going to be a Kayo Dot album, the songs were just a few victims of ars gratia artis that my band was conveniently and aptly able to bring to life. At the heart of your question: why no aggression? I just wasn’t feeling like it.
Flenser Records is a great label and feels very suited to Kayo Dot’s sound. What catalyzed your signing with them?
Yeah, I think they’re a good fit! Well, they’d recently released the vinyl of Vaura‘s The Missing, –that’s another band I play in– so that could have been one catalyst, and at least it’s how I knew they were a cool label (in addition to Kayo Dot’s having played with Wreck and Reference (another Flenser band) in 2011 and having become fans of them). I reached out to them specifically for Coffins on Io though; sent them demos of the new stuff and found out that they were already Kayo Dot fans. So it was obvious!
In your experience, what are the pros and cons of self-releasing music compared to releasing through a label?
I think I’ve found that the only pro of self-releasing is getting to keep 100% of digital sales (which seem to be the biggest market). Cons are that it’s too much work for just the band to handle, it’s too expensive, your apartment fills up with boxes of merch, you have no distribution at the bottom level, and all of what I mentioned in answer #1 in regards to publicists. What I’m saying is, with a self-release, you’re really reaching for all these things that real, full-time labels have. So, in order to really do a self-release right, you basically have to start a full-time, real record label. If you’re doing that, then that becomes your job instead of the music. But, on the other hand if you’re just releasing your music through another label, they handle all that stuff for you, and they’re good at it because that’s their main focus. Then, the band can focus on the music, and be even better at the music because of the full-time focus.
You’ve stated numerous times that darkwave is a huge influence on Coffins on Io. Kayo Dot is no stranger to genre experimentation, yet the smooth, bass-heavy sound on the album could come as a surprise to even the most open-minded fans. Was there any specific influence that made you embrace darkwave for this record?
That music has been a big influence on me almost my whole life, but yes, I’ve only recently begun messing with its idiomatic devices in my own music. Back in my earlier days as a listener of dark music, I had an adolescent notion that certain kinds of beats and grooves expressed a wholly different kind of darkness than I was after– maybe those beats didn’t even express darkness at all, in fact, because they were related to dance and were in essence “body music,” whereas I thought the absolute darkest stuff had oblique rhythms, smears of dissonance, confusion, the general vibe of hell. I appreciated the beat-oriented music but I related it to goth clubs and therefore a club vibe, and I, as a misanthropic loner, didn’t want to allow something with that specific social element to become a part of my identity until I was in my twenties. Or that is, it was part of my identity, but I felt like I needed to keep “fun” music separate from the identity that I was expressing in my “serious” music. I was also pretty anti-urban at that time, and I felt that beat-oriented darkwave was specifically urban music, so I wanted to keep it separate from my “idealistic expressions” for that reason as well. Anyway, I’ve got different points of view about all that shit these days; having lived in NYC for a lot of years now, I actually am into cities and the exploitation of the overcrowding of energies. My time in Vaura and Secret Chiefs 3, and the accompanying experiences have also opened me up quite a bit more to rhythm and body culture.
I’ve read that Coffins on Io is a concept record. Could you explain this concept for us?
It’s not a concept record in that there’s some kind of story going on throughout the album or anything, but there’s just a certain atmosphere that I wanted to create here. In the press release for the album, I said that I wanted to make a record you could put on as you drive across the desert at nght under a post-apocalyptic toxic atmosphere… with an overarching theme of murder, shame, and death. That’s the best way I can put it, I guess. It’s supposed to evoke 1980’s retrofuture noir, along with the idea that the 80’s themselves were the future, and what we’re in now is the dead world.
You are the primary member of a revolving group of musicians that make up the Kayo Dot project, yet instead of the band name on the cover art, it features the last names of all musicians involved. Is this indicative of a more collaborative nature than what Kayo Dot is used to?
Not exactly; the names on the cover are simply because I wanted the cover to look like an old sci-fi book cover. The band members names would be analogous to an author’s name on said book cover. Regarding lineup though, we haven’t really revolved very much in the past 5 years or so. We’ve had the same core group and will occasionally add a couple people to a recording, but those people are always drawn from the same pool of my longtime collaborators. And I don’t think the music is more collaborative than it’s been in the past though; actually, Coffins might be one of the least collaborative that Kayo Dot has done (and I mean collaborative in terms of writing– I definitely don’t want to diminish the individuality and invaluable work that the band members put into the album). Just by virtue of the fact the music is so synth-driven, I could do all that stuff at home on my own, so the music really lent itself to the hermetic process.
Throughout all the various collaborations on Kayo Dot albums are there certain groups that have worked better than others? Is there any combination of musicians that you would like to get back together?
Well, of course I think the current configuration is the best one. 🙂 Especially for how my personal tastes and interests are evolving, as well. And, almost all of my older collaborators are still around and available and interested in doing stuff together – in fact, in August 2015 I have a week-long residency at The Stone in NYC, where I’ll be putting together some of my old configurations to perform some of the older music as a sort of retrospective. Most of those guys I’m still close friends with, and see regularly, so doing more music with them is not farfetched. It’d be more possible if I wasn’t the asshole who’s too busy, actually. There’s only one, very short-lived Kayo Dot lineup (the Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue one) that didn’t work well musically, I’m on bad terms with personally, and wouldn’t want to work with again even if you offered me a million bucks.
I’ve been looking at pictures of the band throughout the years and you haven’t seemed to age a day. What’s the secret to your timeless beauty?
Hmmm…. I don’t really know what to say, but maybe it’s because I’ve spent almost all my time pursuing what makes me happy instead of pursuing some bullshit status quo notions of templative success. Yeah, almost all the people I went to high school with look at least ten years older than me, because they’ve had kids, and they deprive themselves of sleep so they can spend all day at office jobs they hate so they can buy houses and cars. While they were busy doing that, I was (and still am) wallowing in poverty just so I could live my dream. That kind of thing probably has a positive impact on the aging process. I don’t know though. Pseudoscience. In spite of all this, put me next to a real 25-year-old and you’ll see a difference, I’m sure.
I’ve thought about this kind of thing a lot. On the one hand, idealistically, I think it’s great to be there as an anchor or a beacon for your fans, and somehow obligate yourself to their well-being if they’ve invested themselves in you. It was easier to do that when Kayo Dot first started out and we didn’t have too many fans. I was able to know everyone by name and spend time with them after shows, let them ride in our van if they didn’t have a way to get home, talk to them online for a couple hours if they needed advice, etc. But unfortunately, it becomes impossible to do that at a certain point – either they get too needy and/or you get too busy. Or there are too many of them to devote any real attention to, individually. Something very sad happened recently, when Hubardo was released. A young lad wrote to me on Facebook asking for advice; I didn’t write him back and very shortly afterward, he ended up comitting suicide, one of his last posts being a quotation (about suicide) from one of our songs. I have great empathy for him, although I don’t really know what to take away from this other than that maybe it’s better to just make myself inaccessible altogether, and allow the music to fully be the communication.
Have you ever had anybody take it too far? Any stalkers?
I’ve had several people who weren’t stalkers, but they definitely didn’t respect my boundaries (and/or weren’t able to pick up on social cues telling them to back off). Mia (Matsumiya, our former violinist) on the other hand, had and still has quite a few asshole stalkers who have even put her in danger.
Kayo Dot is a band that has always seemed completely unphased by trends in music, existing on a whole other realm. Do you keep in touch at all with more ‘mainstream’ music, and if so, what are some of your recent favourite releases?
Yeah, I absolutely do. I think it’s important for any composer to be aware of what’s happening in music, and to be constantly listening to as much as possible. Also, in the event that a musician uses contemporary sounds and techniques, I don’t feel as though it should unequivocally be seen as trendhopping, simply because the opposite– conservativeness– is totally odious to musical progress. I don’t think composers should feel required to stick with an identity, especially one that they probably fashioned when they were just an adolescent, because one of the most exciting aspects of music is the exploratory one. All forms and aesthetics are out there for everyone to use, and culture moves forward by building off the past work of others. Anyway, with mainstream shit, I really like Lana Del Rey. Ha.
There’s an air of revitalization that runs through Hubardo and Coffins on Io, the sound of a band getting its second wind. Do you have any notion of what the future holds in store for you and Kayo Dot?
I’m not so sure I can agree with this statement. I stand behind each of our other records (yes, even the ones in between Choirs of the Eye and Hubardo) as singular, profound works that were exhilarating to produce and successfully expressed what I was feeling at the time. Maybe what you’re hearing is just the difference between a band making experimental records vs. a band making more inclusive music. In that regard, hopefully the future holds some quantitative success for Kayo Dot– it already looks promising with the announcement of our Roadburn Fest appearance– and that we’re able to tour more, play good venues, actually have people show up at the concerts, and ultimately, perhaps be able to support ourselves doing this. If people like this record, and it does well, I might be inclined to go further with this sound rather than change it up entirely the next time around, but I don’t really know yet. A lot of what I want to do musically is based on what I’m listening to in a particular year.