Going Places: An Interview with
“I was camped out in my tenement palace on Sunset Boulevard, writing ‘art’ songs with no choruses, when I took a little vacation to visit this good friend of mine in Seattle,” says singer/songwriter, Jeremy Toback, 33, recalling how he came to meet the guitarist for one of the 90’s most phenomenally popular and influential rock bands. Once in Seattle, he continues, “I met his friend Stone, who happened to be in this band [called] Pearl Jam.” Toback admits he had no idea Pearl Jam were in any way a big deal — that he’d been rather out of the pop music loop, having worked mostly as a jazz bassist and songwriter. Toback and Gossard “talked about drummers and seemed to share the same fixations,” he says, laughing at the memory. “A couple weeks later, Stone called and asked if I wanted to jam with Shawn (Smith) and Regan (Hagar) and maybe make a record. He didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t played bass in about nine months.”
Toback played bass on Interiors , the sophomore album by Gossard’s side project, Brad, and then returned to Los Angeles to work on his first solo album, Perfect Flux Thing (released in the summer of 1997). Perfect Flux Thing marked an impressive first effort of what one might call alterna-folk rock (think Dave Matthews, Toback’s label mate at RCA) that mined the same musical vein as Crosby Stills & Nash or even Buffalo Springfield (with Toback’s passionate, rough voice strongly recalling a young Stephen Stills). Lyrically, Toback showed himself to be quite the poet as well, putting words together more for the way their syllables bounced off each — creating both conflict and accordance — rather than for their actual linear meaning. Through songs like “Eden Trampoline” and “Unbecome,” Toback painted romantic, heady images that integrated perfectly with the somewhat sparse and highly understated musical arrangements. Another True Fiction , released this past July, is a different record. Toback has honed his ability to tell a story through songs that find him speaking directly from his heart. Musically, Fiction possesses a lush, intoxicating denseness that rocks a bit harder than the music he made two years ago. His voice bears a newfound confidence as well. Jeremy Toback has been through some changes, and the stories behind every walk through the fire, every triumph and every loss, are imprinted on compositions that are absolutely spellbinding in their beauty. Another True Fiction is one of the best records you didn’t hear this year.
I’ve been a fan of Jeremy Toback’s music since the release of Flux , and fell in love with Another True Fiction almost immediately. This turned out to be no accident at all. Upon checking the liner notes, I saw that Toback had given a nod of thanks to Yogi Bhajan, the Indian spiritualist who brought Kundalini Yoga (almost called the Yoga of Awareness) to the States. I’ve been practicing Kundalini Yoga since 1995, so I knew right away the reason Toback’s songs resonated so strongly with me. In this interview, Jeremy Toback spoke with me from his home in Los Angeles about the journey of self-discovery involved in the making of Another True Fiction , his spirituality, and his secret for unlocking the creative unconscious.
What have you been doing in the space between the release of Perfect Flux Thing in 1997 and the making of Another True Fiction ?
When I got off the road after Flux , I was pretty much a wreck physically and emotionally. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to continue playing music professionally. Loving music and loving this business are two different things (laughs). Through lots of Kundalini Yoga, meditation, and alternative healing, I began to find the strength and heart to make music [again]. It didn’t hurt that I had some great people around to urge me on. So, in many ways, Another True Fiction became, by default, the story of a guy putting his life back together.
How do you think your songwriting has evolved, and what’s changed for you that maybe comes out in the songs?
I used to write from a place of trying to get to pure expression, using a lot of word puzzles and poetic collages, as if direct expression wasn’t pure. And I [still] like poetry, but now I am trying to communicate more directly. I think I’ve become much more of a communicator and little bit less of a puzzle maker, [though] I’ll still put word flourishes in. A good friend of mine once urged me to show some compassion for the listener and maybe let them in on the secret (laughs). The same things are there in this new record that were in Perfect Flux Thing . Maybe I’ll hone it down, though. I’ll say what the song’s about in the chorus. It took me years to open myself up to the kind of direct and digestible honesty I now aspire to. [Becoming] more direct in my communication, that’s something I want to continue to work with.
A strong point of the work on Another True Fiction is the close attention you pay to details. Did you set out to create that kind of a record?
I set out to make an ambient dub record, so that says something about the worth of intention…(laughs). There is a certain density of stuff going on. I like that feeling in music. I will say that my favorite records, whether it’s an Eno/Lanois or Froom/Blake-produced thing, or Tom Waits, have great attention to texture/space/detail. It didn’t hurt that this record took so long [to complete] that I had a lot of time to fine tune stuff.
Tell me what the title of the record means to you.
To me, Another True Fiction is the idea that, in the song as well as in life, whenever we communicate with each other, we do so through stories we tell about our lives, little fictions that hopefully contain some truth. That’s how we make meaning out of things, by telling each other stories. Things are at once both true and untrue, depending on your perspective. To me, songs are just an extension of this attempt to make up stuff that says something true…thus “another true fiction.” It’s sort of my Zen Koan of a title.
I understand you did a good deal of collaborating with other songwriters for this CD. What was it like working with Jules Shear?
This record brought me to a bunch of people who I had a great time writing with. In general, the collaborations were a great learning experience and really helped to shake me out of my little lyrical world and open me up to a more universal way of writing. Working with Jules was really good, but it was really awkward at first. With Jules in particular, I remember bringing in this verse to “Revelation,” which was kind of self-serious, about “Driving across America” and seeing the “Spirit hiding” etc. And he immediately cooked up this sexy good/bad boy thing, [changing the lyrics to] “Driving across Miss America” …and seeing the “spirit hiding…under her dress” — stuff that brought a new, lighter dimension to the song. He totally spiced it up. As a matter of fact, that experience really opened me up to writing lyrics on my own, like those in “Green Light,” which have much more whimsy than your typical Toback tune.
I recently spoke with Ed Kowalcyzk of the band Live, and he’s very much a spiritualist whose personal beliefs filter themselves in to his work, but in a universal manner. Is that what you’re concerned with doing — to whatever degree — with your music as well?
I guess that’s both a yes and no answer. I have to be careful here, because I’m not really attached to the result. What I’m trying to share is my own journey, but not everything is autobiographical (laughs). My songs can’t help but be influenced or infused with what I’m going through, and of late, there’s been lots of what one might call spiritual work [going on] in my days. I’m not particularly interested in converting people to my way of being a “spiritual” guy, but I am fascinated by pop music’s potential ability to uplift through what’s being said in the lyric, and the more primal effect of a song’s sound and vibration. My yoga teacher said to me [about Another True Fiction ] “Its like a new age yoga record in wolf’s clothing!” (Laughs) I’m more interested in sharing my experience; I’m not interested in proselytizing. I’m more interested in communication. If you don’t get it, that’s cool too (laughs).
What’s up with the backward vocal masking at the front of “Universe Work”?
There was a little struggle between Marvin Etzioni (co-songwriter) and me, a creative struggle, over how to begin that song. Marvin and I couldn’t agree on how to start “Universe.” We had recorded the song with a chorus intro, and I wanted to cut it, Marvin wanted to keep it. And there was a bit of a struggle back and forth. So we compromised and flipped the tape over. The backward masking is “Let the Universe Work begin” backwards. That’s all it is. No great subversive intentions there. (Laughs)
“Perfect from the Start,” one of my favorite songs on this record, has a really strong cathartic feel to it. Is that song autobiographical, and if so to what degree?
It’s my favorite song on the record, too. I think it was the last song we recorded. As far as where the lyrics come from, there’s always an attempt to just fish out the words from the unconscious of the universe. Sometimes, with almost no effort, they just come out. That’s one of the songs that just went through me. So there’s that aspect of it. Though my own childhood issues are certainly in the first verse of the song, this is one of those lyrics where I tried to make the story general enough for people to find their own experiences in them. Looking around me, a lot of people around my age are trying to work through feelings that weight them down, from their childhood. I made an attempt to take on a woman’s voice in the second verse. People ask me “why do you say ‘Little girl trust’?” and it’s because isn’t necessarily me I’m singing about. And – – though my parents freak a little about it and wonder whether it’s about [them] — the whole point is that, no matter what situation we come out of, there’s something very valuable to be found in sifting through the ashes and finding that unaffected core that’s always been and always will be “perfect.”
Does the performance of these songs allow you to really feel free or purged of negative energy or whatever?
I’m getting better in general at tuning myself to the joy of performance and these songs are great at reminding me to savor the moment as I sing them.
“Come Around” is probably my favorite song. While I was listening to it, I was thinking that there are two ways to look at the chorus, “I’ll come around.” One is as a physical motion of “coming around,” as in to someone’s house, and the other is “coming around” as in coming around to a way of thinking or to a state of enlightenment. What inspired you to write that song, and how do you interpret the lyrics for yourself?
This was also the first co-written song, which is something I was not accustomed to doing. Marvin had this chorus “I’ll come around,” which I really liked, and he had these verses. But, for whatever reason, his verses didn’t speak to me. I knew I needed to change the verses completely to feel more like something I’d sing. Maybe if he were to record the song with his verses on his own record, it would really work, but I needed to go in a different direction. So, now you have this phrase, “I’ll come around” — this chorus — and you have to decide, what’s it going to mean?
Each verse sets up a different subject, and way of “coming around.” The “I” in [the chorus] could be a friend or a lover or even the divine spirit, if you wanted to stretch it. In the first verse, it’s maybe a person who is troubled — who isn’t seeing the easy way out of something, as in where I sing “You say I’ve got my back to the simple cure/Are you trying to turn me?” And the “I’ll come around,” is them saying, “I’ll be OK” — assuring a concerned friend that he/she will, in fact, find the solution that’s right there to be found.
After the second verse, it’s the person on the outside of the problem, looking in, and offering solace or support [and] assuring a troubled friend that he/she will be there for them in their time of need…”Fire and Rain” stuff.
Towards the end, and in the last verse, it’s divinity/god/the universe coming around physically and metaphysically through [the lyric] “breathe deep baby, let love in.” I don’t know if that actually clarifies or confuses things, but there it is.
“Will I Find You” has a lot of early Neil Young vibe to it. Do you hear that from a lot of people?
Yes…We were kind of aiming for a Marvin Gaye groove, but Neil’s not a bad notion to land on. I’ll take the compliment.
I hear the Middle Eastern motif in “Through To Me” that sounds very George Harrison-esque. How did you write that song?
I had the main lick for “Through To Me” hanging around since the first tour for Flux , but thought that it might be too Beatles-esque. I played it for Marvin and I was a bit paranoid that it was too similar to, I don’t even know what Beatles song, but Marvin was like “no, it’s great!” and [he] persuaded me to write a song around it. So, we kind of jammed on it and [came up with] that Zeppelin funk-raga feel it has. We recorded the song in one take on the last eve of the first sessions for the record. It was one of those moments when we all looked at each other and knew something very cool had just gone down.
Also, I am thinking the chorus of that song is like a mantra. What do you think?
I do think of this song’s chorus as a kind of mantric plea for an open heart.
Talking about the Beatles, and thinking that if we’d done this interview 30 years ago, rather than discussing how spirituality figures into your music, I’d probably ask if you’d been inspired by taking lots of acid.
Right, right (laughs), and that’s an interesting point. As far as the drug thing goes…I think that back in the late sixties, many pop musicians were searching for a way to get to the divine spirit of music (not that hedonism didn’t play it’s role). For a lot of those people, there was a desire to channel, only they wanted to get there quickly, and some drugs are particularly good at breaking down the walls our brains put up to protect us from that intense divine power. I think that’s one reason why some of the music made back then, Hendrix, the Beatles, even Led Zeppelin, has such special creative energy. Of course, the down side to that method has been well documented. Hendrix took copious amounts of drugs — and he plugged in — but at great cost to his physical being. Maybe there’s a similar hunt going on here [in my music]. [But] I’m not ready to go there. I’m attempting to get at the same power through meditation and yoga which may take a little more time to master, but have the much more positive pay off of personal evolution.