Originally published on Swizzle-Stick.com (August 2, 1999)
Count Jeremy Toback among the breed of modern singer-songwriters who are trying to make a difference with their music. The other names roll off the tongue – Rufus Wainwright, Joe Henry, Beth Orton, Chris Whitley, Fiona Apple – while Toback remains somewhat of an undiscovered talent. It’s not through a lack of trying however. Toback has seen his share of large audiences, playing dates on the second stage of the 1997 Lollapalooza festival as well as opening a few weeks worth of dates for modern rock favorites Tonic. Additionally, Toback cut his recording teeth as a studio-only member of Brad, the all-star Seattle-based band featuring the incredible singer Shawn Smith and Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard.
The Princeton-educated artist released his own solo EP a few years back and followed it up with 1997’s Perfect Flux Thing – an amazing album full of lyrical mysteries and passionate music. It was at this time that I began e-mailing Toback, beginning by blindly sending an e-mail to the address listed on the inside of the Perfect Flux Thing cover. My initial e-mail was simply a word of thanks for the beautiful music that Toback shared with me. Within hours I received a very personal, poetic response. Thus began our wired relationship.
With Another True Fiction, Toback’s latest release, wrapped up and awaiting an official release, I sent a batch of questions to Jeremy. Because of my own laziness, I nearly missed him as he was days away from hitting the road to spread the word, starting with the first single “You Make Me Feel.” Fortunately, as always, Toback was kind enough to find a few extra minutes to answer the questions. The responses are as follows:
Perfect Flux Thing was very lyrically ambitious and poetic. Another True Fiction seems to be a little more straightforward. Did you approach writing lyrics differently this time?
I definitely made an attempt on this record to focus on communicating stories and ideas that themselves might hold mystery, but tried to write in such a way that the listener wouldn’t have to wade through poetic puzzles to find them. Perhaps I’m more interested in being understood this time out because I have a firmer grasp on what it is I want to say. Which isn’t to imply that there’s something wrong with being misunderstood…. Interestingly enough, both Another True Fiction and Perfect Flux Thing are the result of concentrated writing sprees. My writing style has changed so dramatically over the years that I never really built up a catalogue of old songs that made sense next to the new ones.
Were you more open to other’s suggestions this time around? Tell me a little bit about the people that you collaborated with. I’ve heard of Jules Shear. And, is Chad Fischer the same guy that was the drummer in School of Fish and the lead singer of Lazlo Bane? How did you manage to hook up with him?
People around me have wanted me to collaborate on writing for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve felt truly comfortable doing it, and even that took some adjusting to. Allowing Marvin Etzioni (the first Producer on Fiction and a founding member of Lone Justice) into the arranging of my own songs helped me to develop the trust necessary to write lyrics together. And once I heard the quality of the work we were doing, things became a lot easier. Yes, it is the same Chad Fischer, and we’ve been friends for years. He played drums on the EP version of “The Word Behind Words.” Jeff Trott is best known for his writing collaborations and guitar playing with Sheryl Crow. While John Shanks is known for his guitar work and Producing/Writing with Melissa Etheridge.
Do you ever foresee a permanent band or do you enjoy learning different things from different people?
Actually, Christopher Joyner, who played with me on the road last time and now has his own project going, played organ and piano on a few tracks on Another True Fiction. I look forward to working with people over long periods of time and collaborating with new folk as well. A permanent band is something that would have to evolve and probably will over time.
What are the guys that were in your touring band doing now? Have you established who will be in your band when you hit the road this year?
The new band looks to be
Jamie Kime – Guitar
Trevor Lawrence – Drums
Sheldon Gomberg – Bass
Jennifer Blakeman – Keys
As far as the last band goes:
Chris we know about.
Dave Wilder played bass on Macy Gray’s record and is touring with her.
Jinsoo Lim is playing guitar with various folk in Los Angles and is going to go to school to become a psychiatrist I believe.
Marlon Browden is drumming with some very serious jazz folk.
And Stewart Killen is doing his music thing here in LA as far as I know
What are your touring plans this time around? Radio seems to be embracing “You Make Me Feel.” Does that make it easier to roll into a town and play a show on your own?
Touring plans begin this fall with Sixpence None The Richer & Better Than
Ezra and will extend into the ridiculous future. Hopefully folks will at least know the single…. And yes, that will eventually make it easier to headline my own shows.
Is there a bigger push the second time around? Obviously more people have heard of you because of all the touring that you did to support Perfect Flux Thing. Do you think the Internet is a valuable tool when it comes to reaching new fans?
There’s a much bigger push from RCA this time because the reality of major labels circa 1999 is that if they have something they believe they can get on the radio than they have something they believe they can sell. And if a record company believes they can sell something, watch out. We’re rapidly approaching “watch out” status.
I think the Internet is a great grass roots tool and will eventually open the commercial doors to lots of amazing music that has a hard time getting onto radio and into big record stores. I already buy lots of music online.
You’ve had an e-mail address for quite some time. Do you get lots of e-mail from fans? Is it ever overwhelming? Besides e-mail, how much do you use the Internet? Do you want to plug a favorite site?
There’s a small core of fans that I communicate with from the last album via e-mail, but I’ve learned that that won’t be possible on this one. There’s just not enough time to give to everyone who wants to write, so those who have questions should go to JeremyToback.com and e-mail me from there. I will answer select questions and they will be posted dialogue style at the sight. I’ve also posted some cool links to a yoga web site and a vegetarian web site as well as some more directly music related sites.
You’ve performed in front of some pretty diverse audiences—from the Korn kids on Lollapalooza to the alt.rock kids on the Tonic tour to the mature VH-1 Melissa Etheridge crowd. What are the good things about each audience and the bad things? Which audience do you feel most comfortable performing in front of? What were the backstage differences?
Well, Lolla was very difficult cause the kids just wanted to ROCK hard. The other tours had much more receptive audiences, but I think in general that the material from the last record was a little obscure for most of the folk who weren’t already familiar with it. My experience playing solo acoustic shows with the new songs has been overwhelmingly positive and the VH-1 thing went over amazingly well. I really look forward to playing this record live for a wide variety of people.
And by the by, backstage is usually quite dirty and depressing…. Lolla was nice cause it was outside and the people and food were excellent.
I read recently that you hooked up with Melissa Etheridge for some VH-1 special. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was all about? Did you know her prior to the performance? Will you be doing any touring with her in the near future?
It’s a simple case of nepotism. My manager manages Melissa and she dug the record and was cool enough to allow me to crash her party and play with her band !!!
The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you felt you shared a similar vibe/vision with an artist like Fiona Apple. One of the first things I noticed when I listened to Another True Fiction was that you included the Chamberlain on a few numbers. Would you say that you were influenced by the sounds you heard on Apple’s album?
It’s funny what we say and forget. I wasn’t consciously thinking of Fiona when we brought Patrick Warren (who has played with her) in to do his thing. But it’s become a fairly fashionable sound on a number of recent arty pop records that us arty pop types are into. (Crowded House, American Music Club, Los Lobos, etc.) Of course it was fashionable way back when as well (Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin).
What were your inspirations in writing Another True Fiction? Obviously you saw a lot of things in the past few years while touring as part of Lollapalooza, with Tonic, and on your own. How much of your “professional” life works it’s way into your songs? How much of your “personal” life do you incorporate?
The biggest inspiration for Another True Fiction is the fact that I came off the road after Perfect Flux Thing a beaten man, physically and spiritually. I had taken everything so personally that I fried my nervous system and didn’t even know if I wanted to keep making music professionally. That condition cornered me into a serious regime of yoga and alternative healing, which actually allowed me to make another record and couldn’t help but infiltrate the songs.
There are, of course, other stories beside my own which find there way into many of the tunes. But the theme of going inside to uncover, forgive and discover is certainly something I’ve been going through. Of course, I often shape the details to make a point or illuminate an idea, so stories don’t always end up historically accurate. But then again, what is? Thus…. True Fiction.
Would you consider “Green Light” to be an autobiographical song? Any reason why you say “rem” rather than “r.e.m.” in the first line? Is it supposed to be “R.E.M.”? And if so, did their first record really have a big impact on you? What do you think of their more recent material? What are you referring to when you say “the new world record”?
“rem” sounds cool and people call it “rem” sleep even though it is an acronym and should be “R.E.M sleep,” and I liked the idea that the line could refer to the band OR dreaming, which of course is probably why they call themselves REM in the first place.
REM is a primary reason I decided to pursue music professionally…I just thought they were the coolest…My college band wanted to be them…Thankfully, I am now content to be myself.
Automatic For The People could be my favorite record of theirs, though Murmur holds a special place.
“the new world record” to me is the increasing babble and chaos around us that will catalyze our transition from a world culture of competition to one of cooperation; either that or we will literally destroy ourselves…..I’m betting on the former.
Is it just me or does the guitar part in “Through to Me,” where you sing “Are you trying to get through?” sound similar to a Beatles song?
It’s not just you. After I wrote the guitar line I became convinced that it was too much like a Harrison tune on Revolver. Marvin Etzioni thhought otherwise (and he is a huge Beatles fan) and convinced me to write a song around it. I’m a great believer in the recontextualized theft which is essentially what art is anyway.
One of your songs appeared on a soundtrack a few years ago (I don’t remember what the movie was). How do you feel about that? Did you see the movie? Was it a special feeling to hear something you created in the background of something that someone else created? Would you be interested in writing a soundtrack or contributing a number of songs to a film (such as Elliot Smith did for Good Will Hunting)? Would you ever allow one of your songs to be played on any of the new twenty-something television shows like “Felicity,” “Party of Five,” “Dawson’s Creek,” etc.?
I’ve had songs in a bunch of small movies. I’m always flattered when someone wants to use one, particularly when it really works with the scene as I think
“The Word Behind Words” did in Dream With The Fishes (written and directed by my good friend Finn Taylor).
I’m kind of easy when it comes to film or TV requests. If someone wants to use my music, I have to find the material offensive in order to say no. I would say yes to any one of those shows even though I don’t really watch them…. My wife digs em.
And finally: What have you listened to in the last 2 or 3 years that has blown your mind? What do you get out of other people’s music that you enjoy? Who do you consider your peers?
I think Chris Whitley’s Dirt Floor album is an amazing document of American song poetry. Rufus Wainwright’s record is very interesting to me. I just heard four songs from Shawn Smith’s new record which I think are fantastic.
I’ve also been getting into ambient and ambient groove music (the Eno stuff especially “Apollo” and “The Pearl” with Lanois and Harold Budd, Bill Laswell’s remixes of Bob Marley and Miles Davis) as well as music made for meditation.
I look to be transformed by music and I try to make music that can do the same for others.
Anyone who’ll have me is my peer.