What do you do when a dream is denied? Sometimes, all you can do is pretend the dream is over. Such was the case with ’90s alterna-vet Jeremy Toback, who walked away from music nearly a decade ago after finding himself at loose ends following the end of his stint in Brad and the frustration of a solo career.
But the music found a way to persevere. Jeremy’s creative spark first resurfaced with Renee & Jeremy, the kindie duo that finds him harmonizing with Renee Stahl, and although the target audience was decidedly different, the music carried essentially the same message of hope and wonder that he’d always tried to impart. So it wasn’t all that surprising when he started branching back out into the ‘grown-up’ world again — first via the electronic-laced ONS project, and now with Chop Love Carry Fire.
The band grew out of the long friendship between Toback and drummer Butch Norton, who met while they were part of Lollapallooza’s 1997 lineup — Norton as a member of the Eels, and Toback near the end of his tenure with Brad. It was a reunion, in a way, but it was really something new, and that tension between the familiar and the unexplored, between chaos and grace, between the freedom of an embrace and the energy of a fist — well, it all came roiling out in their debut six-song EP.
You guys actually put out a CD. And a video! You’re crazy! You’re madmen!
Butch: That’s right, you’re not supposed to do that nowadays, are you? Well, we’re old school.
Jeremy: I think we’ll do more of both.
What led you to take the old school approach, as you say? Was it optimism, or stubbornness, or something else?
Jeremy: I think, quite frankly, that in terms of CDs, the irony is that…you know, Chop Love Carry Fire is still new, and we know that people get inundated with links to stream or download stuff, and we figure that if they’re confronted with a physical manifestation of the music, they’ll at least have to put it in the stack on their desk, as opposed to just a stack of emails. There are still ways in which CDs make more of an impact.
Butch: And it impresses my mother. [Laughter] I’m still in the basics of my childhood, even though I’m way past childhood.
The sound of the EP is also a throwback, to an era of rock records that weren’t compressed until they hurt your ears.
Butch: We come from a place of…you know, it’s interesting, the whole “record” concept you brought up. I grew up in that, Jeremy did, our manager did — everybody we’re associated with grew up in that world, including the person who mixed the recordings, Eric Liljestrand. That’s what has been produced from us — that sound, that feeling, that space. It evokes those times, and I don’t know if it was conscious, but obviously, it’s a part of our DNA. I feel like it seems to be reverberating with people.
Jeremy: When we made the EP, the band was, in terms of playing together, super young. The idea was “we’ve done some shows, we have some songs, let’s document this.” We wanted to capture the energy. It wasn’t about diving really deep into the sonics.
Jeremy, I asked you before if you were a Chris Whitley fan, because these songs remind me a lot of his Din of Ecstasy album.
Jeremy: Yes. Chris is one of those guys…he started making records before I started making music, but when I heard his songs, I felt like he was a guy who wrote songs the way I did. We ended up having collaborations with similar people, but I never met him. I just always really admired everything about him. He was a great lyricist, in particular. In terms of this record, it certainly wasn’t conscious, but that doesn’t surprise me.
There’s a definite sense of hope to these songs, which is one of your lyrical trademarks, but it’s buried in this absorbing squall.
Jeremy: In some ways, I think that hopefulness is more highlighted by what we’re doing live right now. The record is somewhat darker. That’s okay, though. [Laughs] To me, that’s the stuff that makes our unison uplifting or transformative, which is something I’m always interested in — the shadow, the darkness, the underbelly. It has to have its place. You can’t have a chorus lift without something low and gurgling there.
I want to talk a little about how, in your experience, an artist makes a living in this music industry. The rules have changed, to a certain extent, and I think this conversation is always educational for creative people.
Butch: Well, again, it comes back to my mom. [Laughter] I call her, and I say “Mom, I’m still playing drums,” and she says “What happened to you?” And I say “I can’t give this up.”
I love what I do. And in the loving what I do, I do a million things. Which I’ve always done — I started taking that approach in junior high school, playing in jazz band, concert band, playing in the garage. This is an extension of that — now I just have to tie in the monetary aspect. I went to art school, but things didn’t really start happening for me until the ’90s, when I was already married. You get sessions, and hopefully a great gig springboards from that, which is what happened to me when I started playing with the Eels.
Other sessions spring from that, and then you have touring, teaching…all those have to be part of it if you want to make a go of it, unless you’re part of the .0001 percent that makes millions of dollars. In reality, the rest of us — fortunately, I say — are working people, loving what we do.
Jeremy: Butch is fortunate to have a real marketable skill.
Butch: Unlike Jeremy.
Jeremy: Exactly. He’s a drummer, and he’s a great drummer, and you need those. You also need to pay for them. My journey’s slightly different — part of the reason I tried to quit music eight years ago was that the major label advance money was gone, and I didn’t really see my own skill set serving me that way. I was going to have to be on the road selling CDs out of a suitcase, which is fine, but I had a kid and I couldn’t put it together. I went and worked other jobs for awhile, until I realized how fun that was. [Laughter]
So I live this sort of hybrid existence now, doing lots of things too. Which includes a couple of music projects — this one is nearest and dearest to my heart, but as you know, I also have Renee & Jeremy, which is its own sort of boutique business, and I also do consulting, writing, and editing work outside of music. That’s how I do it. It isn’t like “Hey, let’s call Jeremy Toback to write some abstract lyrics for the new Katy Perry single.”
Jeremy, you and I started dealing with each other because of Renee & Jeremy, and I think those are two interesting worlds to occupy at the same time. Unlike a lot of artists who make family music and ‘grown-up’ music at the same time, your stuff is discrete — it isn’t like you’re, say, They Might Be Giants, where the two sides aren’t all that dissimilar. I wonder what sort of response you’ve seen from your fans on either side of that spectrum.
Jeremy: I don’t know that they know. [Laughs] This is very different from Renee & Jeremy. It isn’t like I’m hiding it, but this is very much a growing thing, and I really don’t know what people think. There’s been no attempt to build a bridge between them aesthetically. Both projects will pursue what’s right artistically, and I love them both. Part of the reason Chop Love Carry Fire even exists is that Butch came to see a Renee & Jeremy show, and the conversation we had afterwards made me think of him when Chop Love was sort of coalescing in my mind.
Butch: In other words, don’t tell this shit to anybody, because it’ll blow our whole image. [Laughter] We understand how this works. You can’t mention that last night I was playing with ten percussionists and a scarf on my head. People can’t comprehend that stuff. It doesn’t equate with rock ‘n’ roll, man.
Do you feel like this project reconnected you with something you’d been missing?
Butch: I say this to everybody: this hearkens back to my high school days. What Jeremy and [guitarist] Sean [Woolstenhulme, who recently joined] are doing as this trio, the energy, the spark — it feels the same. I’ve worked with some amazing artists, but this…there’s a fire, there’s a burn, that I haven’t felt since that time. I’m pretty sure that’s what this is supposed to be all about.
Jeremy: Yeah. Yeah!