A London-based band ("who looked like they had crawled out of a German squat in the mid-70s") with strong Brighton connections, the five-piece Toy have just released their third album, it’s another great slice of psychedelic rock, indie-pop infused with elements of the cinematic, krautrock and shoegaze. "We’re just shooting a video in our mate’s house for ‘Another Dimension’ which will be the next single off the record," says Tom Dougal, frontman and guitarist.
Toy were born out of the ashes of Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong, a band who were signed to a major label and were just about to release a much hyped debut album before it was pulled at the eleventh-hour. "It was on a big label, Vertigo, which is part of Universal," explains Tom. "I think it actually got reviewed. There was an all right one in the NME (indeed, it garnered 8/10). I guess they thought there was not enough of an audience. When you’ve got these big labels they put a huge amount of money into these projects. I guess they didn’t think they would get enough back. I don’t know."
Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong featured three future members of Toy: Tom and his school friends, Dominic O’Dair and Maxim ‘Panda’ Barron. They undertook huge support tours with Babyshambles, Dizzee Rascal and Kaiser Chiefs, were on the NME Awards Tour of 2008, placed seventh in the BBC Sound of 2008 poll, performed at both Glastonbury and SXSW, and conducted their own headline tour. But when the album was suddenly pulled from the release schedules, Tom left soon after. "We just stopped the whole thing very quickly. From starting the band to the time I left was about two years. It was a little bit tough to deal with for a while, but very quickly we pulled ourselves together. It was important that we (Toy) do exactly what we want to do. I think fairly quickly we realised it wasn’t the kind of music we wanted to be doing. We didn’t want to play second fiddle to someone else (Joe Lean aka Joe Van Moyland, who has subsequently become an actor). We wanted to be in the driving seat. We never looked back from then."
The band all met originally in Brighton. "All of us, except for Max, grew up as teenagers in Brighton. We were at Cardinal Newman school and then me and Dom went to BHASVIC (a sixth form college). As soon as we finished that we moved up to London. I’ve still got some friends there."
Formed in 2010, with Dougal, O’Dair and Barron, along with Charlie Salvage and Alejandra Diez, Toy signed a deal with Heavenly Records only six months after forming. Perhaps a little nervous after the demise of Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong, the band's debut single, ‘Left Myself Behind’, only had an initial pressing of 100, which unsurprisingly sold out in a day. The Horrors were instrumental in helping to get Toy noticed, describing them as "the most exciting band to come out last year" and "my favourite band for 2012". "It helped get our foot through the doors," says Tom. "Nowadays, with so many different things on, it's a really big deal if someone who's established and respected recommends someone. I think people take note… I think that meant that more people got to hear us at a really early stage of our career". That same year they released their self-titled debut album, quickly followed by Join The Dots in 2013. And although they have recently lost keyboardist Alejandra Diez, they’ve been joined by Max Oscarnold as they get ready to tour the new album, Clear Shot, their first since Join The Dots. "That came from something that Dom came up with," says Tom. "You get a clear shot through the miasmic clouds. It was an interesting phrase he wrote down. We just thought it was synonymous with things we were going through, personal problems we were having as everyone does. As a band we are trying to push through and take it as far as we can. It seemed like a call to arms and that ended up being the title for the album. It seemed apt."
In-between albums, Toy also got involved with Natasha Khan and her Sexwitch project, which she originated with Dan Carey, her producer as well as Toy’s. With Toy’s penchant for psychedelia, it only seemed natural to record a few songs that Carey and Khan had dug out. As far back as 2013 they laid down a track called ‘The Bride’, a pre-revolution Iranian song. Khan ended up taking the concept further with her own Bat For Lashes album released earlier this year. And both her band and her ended up producing a batch of Sexwitch songs, covers of obscure late 60s and early 70s psyche folk.
"Iranian and Moroccan stuff mainly," says Tom. "That was done so quickly. We did that in a couple of days, the whole thing. We did the songs in one take. We learnt the songs and parts and then just did it very, very quickly. We never thought of it much after that, and a while later we found that Natasha had done vocals on top of it, and that we were going to do a couple of gigs and release it. ‘OK, why not’! Just a one-off thing, a bit of fun really". Dominic O’Dair thinks the experience opened up future possibilities for Toy. "I’d certainly like to learn more about how to play that kind of music and take more influences from Eastern music. It was definitely a really interesting thing for each and every one of us to try and get our heads around it", he has said.
‘Clear Shot’, the track, encapsulates what the band, in 2016, is about. A song essentially in two stages, the first half is a raw, and swaying psyche-rock slow tempo shoegaze piece that then morphs into a propulsive, outright rocker that hints at their krautrock tendencies, whilst retaining their penchant for psychedelic flourishes, synths and guitars commingling, and wrapped up in the mildly polished veneer of pop. It’s their subtly dreamy and spacey textures that have invited repeated comparisons to out and out psychedelic bands of yore, but also the the psyche-pop of The Electric Soft Parade, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Nico-era of The Velvet Underground, and even some American 80s Paisley Underground, Fairport Convention, Ride, Mercury Rev, Felt, Television and Big Star. Moreover, their sound is one that is embracing an ever widening palette of sonic possibilities. Each song feels like a mini epic, such as the dreamily rocking ‘Clouds That Cover The Sun’, a song that you could get lost to within the Radiohead-like chord progressions. While the pulsing semi-motorik rhythm of ‘Dream Orchestrator’ is pure psyche-pop.
What’s changed with Clear Shot? "We leave that up to other people," says Tom. "It’s always quite a natural evolution. We never sit down and go,’right we’re going to start making it more like this’. We stay away from trying to decide how we are going to make it different. As we move through time each member of the band goes through different experiences, and it affects your whole mindset, your whole view of everything. We let that dictate what happens to our music rather than trying to forcibly make it different. But there are things that I can identify; firstly, it’s more concise as an album. It’s about ten minutes shorter in length. The songs are shorter. And we’ve moved on a little bit from that motorik, krautrock sound, which we especially did on the first album.
"It was also a different set up this time. We used a different producer (David Wrench) this time and layered things up. We’d like to work again with Dan (Carey – producer of the previous two albums) in the future but we were keen to try someone else. It’s important to try and not repeat ourselves. If we have new situations, different places, different people, it helps to give the album a different feel. Create a different atmosphere with the album we make.
"Clear Shot was recorded in Stockport, at Eve Studios. We did it very quickly, we only had 12 days to do it. We got up, had breakfast, went into the studio. I think we responded well to the pressure. They had a lot of great synthesisers, string machines… lots of great equipment. We still have our Korg Deltas, the synth of choice. We’ve always had that as our main synthesiser. I always think about Brian Wilson, who wanted two instruments playing the same melodic line, because it would almost create a third instrument," Tom has previously said.
"The writing process has stayed pretty much the same since we started the band in 2010. It’s always very collaborative. One of us will come up with a chord progression or a vocal melody or a bass sound, and then we build and fit things together. Other times someone might have a clear idea of the song, but it always ends up with us getting together and working our way through it. It really is more of a group effort than most bands. It works well that way for some reason. We just have a similar idea of what we want to do. We’ve all got quite similar tastes and we also know how to talk to teach other. For sure, it’s inevitable that we will have disagreements, but the best idea is usually pretty obvious. We have similar ideas of what we like. We’re lucky," he laughs.
Can you tell me about the song ‘Fast Silver’? That one was about coming back on the train, from East London, where a lot of my friends are living, and I was going back to New Cross, where I live. It seemed like it was getting a little bit out of control. I started to feel a bit paranoid, looking around, and seeing things that weren’t there. I was on there for about 25 minutes but it felt like days." And the last song on the album, ‘Cinema’? "That was also one of Dom’s ideas. It’s got a flamenco feel at the beginning. He likes all that stuff. It also ties in with our love of film soundtracks we were listening to, which we fed into some of the music. Like those great Hitchcock films. Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann as well. Great film music. I’m a massive Hitchcock fan. Vertigo is probably my favourite. There’s a strangeness to it, paranoia and uneasiness. It’s full of suspense and has this motif in it that actually gives the feeling of vertigo. It also looks beautiful. There’s nothing like it. It was a good way to finish the album. It takes you into the cinema at that point. Some people say they can’t hear the influences as much as we do. But they are there. If you took the guitars out of the track and replaced it with a string section then you’re in filmic tendency. That’s something we find interesting, to use some of those musical ideas but using the standard band format."
There’s a streak of creativity and being in front of an audience that runs through the Dougall family. Sister, Rose Elinor-Dougal, who is three years older than Tom, was one of the original members of Brighton-based sixties girl group pastiche The Pipettes, before embarking on a solo career that she has continued to this day. "She’s coming out with her album out in January, and it sounds great," says the unsurprisingly supportive Tom. "We’ve both been musical since we were pretty young. Rose started playing the piano and writing songs when she was 15 or 16, and I was always playing guitar with Dom and Panda, upstairs in my room. There was a lot of music going on. My dad is a musician as well. He writes songs and plays guitar. There was always quite a lot of music being played to us from a young age. Both of us have never really thought about doing anything else."
And for those of a certain vintage, the name Robert Dougal might ring a bell. One of the original BBC TV newsreaders, he was literally a household presence until retiring in 1973. "He was one of the main guys for a long time," says Tom. "There weren’t that many. I only vaguely remember him."