i am the king of all.

Toast promo photo

Toast promo photo

By mid-April of 1994 I had met Mike Hart of Toast by telephone a number of times. He seemed like a nice guy, and was enthusiastic about the prospect of doing some work with us, although we weren’t sure if a CD was going to happen.

 

In addition to planning with Dromedary, they were also planning a 7″ with Mag Wheel Records, which was, at the time, a fantastic singles-only label based in New England.

Generally, I found that when I was talking to a band that was talking to another label, I tried my best to subtly let that band know that I was passionate about particular songs, and insisted that those songs come out on Dromedary. I didn’t mind sharing a band, but I had a problem sharing songs. After the debacle with “Allnighter,” I was going to insist even more that I not share a song with another label.

When Mike Hart sent me a demo of Toast music from late 1993, I latched onto a few songs that were “must have” songs for me. The first song on the tape – “Ray,” a song I hated – was on the Beatriz EP and was, in my opinion, the band’s worst song. It was boring and long and droning and monotonous.

The second song on the tape, however, blew me away. It started slowly, with just bass and guitar notes, slowly building to something. Then someone shouts “The band started playing – I’m scared!” and everything kicks in. The song is playing, I think, in two time signatures at once, with the bass and guitar following one pattern and the drums following two different ones.

I asked Mike what time signature the song was in, and he gave me a convoluted explanation that led me to believe he had no idea, either – but he was a hell of a drummer to pull it off, especially without making it sound like a noodly prog song – it was firmly rooted in indie rock.

Here it is – it’s called “Cherry.”

The song was one of those demos I received that I couldn’t stop playing. It was unfortunate that it was so low-fi; I mentioned before that I didn’t mind Toast’s low-fi stuff, but Guy’s guitar was really grating and piercing. He was a good player, but the sound of his guitar was really tough to take on the lower-fi stuff.

Anyway, I wanted to make sure that “Cherry” was on whatever Dromedary put out. And so I made that clear to Mike on the phone.

“Nobody likes that song,” he said. “We really don’t want to put that out.”

“Are you kidding?!,” I was astounded. That was the best Toast song I had heard at that stage.

“There are so many other songs on that tape that we like better,” he said. “The other song isn’t really who we are.”

That was the problem with Toast; it was really difficult to tell who they were. They were, like, three completely different guys, all rolled together in one band. From listening to the recordings, sometimes I got the impression that they weren’t even together when the songs were taped.

Guy’s songs were indie rock songs with a little rhythm to them – almost a slight tinge of funk. John’s songs were much more melodic and acoustic-oriented, with layers of vocals. Mike anchored them both down.

The previous song, “Cherry,” was one of John’s songs. At least that’s John singing it. Here’s another song from the tape, called “String.” This one is sung (and written) by Guy.

I know I’ve talked about this on previous blog entries, but it just continues to seem weird to me, even fifteen years later, how two songwriters in the same band can be so vastly different, and yet it can still work so well.

The more I listened to Toast, the more I liked them. They were just as confused and fucked up as I was.

At some point Mike told me that they had nailed down what they were going to do with Mag Wheel. “It’s going to be a 7″ EP,” he said, “We’re going to call it Georgia, Alaska, and it’s going to have the songs “Georgia” and “Alaska” on it.”

Sounded novel.

“It’s going to have a theme of borders and boundaries,” he continued. “We’ll probably put “Map” on it as well, and maybe one other song.”

I didn’t like “Alaska” particularly much. I found that I tended to drift towards Ekstrom’s songs, because they were more melodic and emotional, where Guy’s songs were tougher for me to understand.

John had this song called “Emperor of Everything,” that resonated with me. Although I never discussed the song with him – never had more than a two-second conversation with him, actually – I envisioned that the song was written from the perspective of a child, surveying all the things in his little world, and taking pride in the fact that he was the ruler of all his things. The naivete in the lyrics was fantastic – poor kid had no idea that while he considered himself to be the “king of all,” his every move was controlled by someone else.

That was one of those songs that were “must have” for me. And, thankfully, it wasn’t going to be on the Mag Wheel record.

The song was, of course, a great metaphor for where I was at this point. Dromedary had this tremendous assortment of musicians, all working on various projects that were going to come out on our label. I sat in the middle of it, directing traffic and making decisions, trying to push things forward, giving the bands latitude to do whatever they wanted but simultaneously injecting my opinions into each project.

At the same time, nobody else around me seemed to give a shit. The music business was firmly in control of itself, and I was just a dumb kid, sitting in his treehouse, holding court over a bunch of guys who ran circles around me.

Toast was sifting through cassette copies of their music, trying to find enough good stuff to fit on a CD.

cuppa joe were doing the same thing, while simultaneously planning a quick recording session to get down some new stuff for the first single-band CD we had planned to release.

Gapeseed were trying to figure out if there was a way they could get into the studio and record another CD.

The Mommyheads were planning their summer tour and working out some new songs in the studio.

Footstone were planning to get into the studio and record their debut CD.

That was a lot of stuff. And yet I still had so many other bands I wanted to work with.

One night I sat with Sandy in the living room, talking about all the projects we had lined up.

“You know, the Travel Guide is such a great idea, but it’s going to be a ton of work,” I said.

“I don’t think it’s the best idea,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Well, who really cares about where the best burritos are in Richmond?” she asked. “Is someone in Seattle going to pay us a hundred dollars, or whatever we charge, to learn where the cool club is in Portsmouth? I mean, what’s the chance they’re going to go to Portsmouth and hear a band?”

“Well, that’s kind of the idea,” I explained. “They probably never will. So we’re bringing the scene to them.”

“Why not just put out a CD, then?” she said. “Why do you need all that other shit? If there’s a good band from Richmond, put out their record.”

“But we’ve got so many bands to work with,” I said. “We’ll never get them all out. That’s what I liked about the travel guide. It was a way to do a compilation with a theme that tied them all together – it wasn’t just a mish-mash of songs, for no reason.”

While we had this discussion, we were listening to the Pravda Records compilation Star Power, which was the first of two compilation records (at the time; they have three now) that were tributes to the old, K-Tel records compilations of the 70s. It had indie bands like Shadowy Men and Vic Chestnutt doing covers of old, one-hit wonder songs like Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and Original Caste’s “One Tin Soldier.” It was a great concept.

“I want a concept like this,” I said. “This shit is brilliant.”

I just couldn’t think of anything. I thought the Travel Guide was the idea, but Sandy was right – it was a ton of work, and the payoff just wasn’t there.

I decided we needed to scrap the Travel Guide. I wanted to do a 7″ club, and I wanted to work with a bunch of different bands, but not at the risk of making a commitment to a long-term project that would be a money loser.

One last song from the Toast demo. This is “Fat Baby,” one of Guy the guitarist’s songs, and a great one.

~ by Al on April 19, 2009.

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