Big shoes to fill!-Toby interview

During a lull in the band’s summer gigging schedule, we took the opportunity to grab an interview with Toby to find out about his life, his music career, his work in Music Therapy, his love of The Stranglers and how he ended up getting the hardest gig in the keyboard world…

So how did you first start to play the keyboards and what sort of age were you?

I started as my dad was a pianist, he used to play boogie woogie and he was really good at it. That was my first introduction at about 10 or 11. I would join in and started learning the left hands and some little riffs and I found I was a bit of a natural. I was pretty rubbish at sport and I was average academically but I seemed to have a bit of a thing with music, that was my sole superpower! So I did the grades and I was taught by a piano teacher who was the organist at Farnborough Abbey. I don’t know why I kept it up because it was quite creepy in a way, because the piano lessons were in the crypt of the abbey. So that’s dedication for you for an 11 year old boy. Despite that, I did my grades up to grade six, I think, and then I got bit bored as I started finding I was playing by ear. I was never great at sight reading and I’d learn the pieces by ear rather than really read. I started playing in bands around the area and my first ever gig was with a band called the Gotham City Bluesbreakers at my school. I think we did No More Heroes because my mates got me into The Stranglers.

How did you then make the transition from doing your grades to actually appearing with bands?

Well, it was the boogie and blues that really gave me the tools again. It’d started from my dad and then I got really into it. I met an American blues guy called Big Joe Duskin and he was one of the last of the old school boogie guys. Without getting too much into boogie, the genre had three super guys, you had Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson & Albert Ammons. Big Joe Duskin had met them and he was doing a tour and came to our local art centre. I was about 14. He ended up staying in our house for the weekend and taught me Pinetop Boogie which was just so generous. He was so passionate with keeping boogie alive, he gave up his time and was a lovely man. So I was taught by a pukka American boogie guy. Boogie is a really good way to learn improvisation and blues as well. The 12 Bar format is a really good way of learning and a lot of songs are based on it. Even with The Stranglers, JJ wrote Go Buddy Go, which effectively is a bit of a 12 bar and Mean To Me was as well. So, it is kind of an intrinsic style that is very much embedded in modern popular music. So that kind of gave me the weaponry, the tools and then, around 15, I start playing in pubs.

Toby with Big Joe Duskin 1988

There was a really healthy pub music scene and a lot of pubs would have a jam session including my local, the Lion Brewery in Ash. It’s still there with the same landlord Mike Armitage who’s in his eighties, and he supports local bands. The local musos, the semi-pro guys, had had some success and many were able players who could improvise like me. So I got taken under the wing of all these guys, they were some bloody good musicians. I played in a few bands and the first was called The Hype. We were reviewed and called ‘a poor man’s Doors’, which perfectly summed us up. We were like The Stranglers, The Doors and David Bowie.

The Hype live in Ash Vale 1989

Obviously not long after that, you went on to Rialto. How did you get that break?

It was by chance. I went to sixth form college for about a month and then went off and joined a covers band, playing all the military bases in Europe. I knew that music was the thing for me and I started working in a music shop, ABC Music in Surbiton, with a drummer mate of mine. He saw an advert in the Melody Maker saying ‘signed band, looking for a drummer and keyboard player’. It was Rialto, although they weren’t called it at the time. They had a contract with East West records and it was Jonny Bull and Louis Eliott who had been in a band called Kinky Machine. This was early 1996. So we went up to the audition in Camden and I got called back and my mate didn’t, which was a shame for him. I kept getting called back but never officially got the job although it was obvious I had as they started paying me a retainer. It was an exciting time and it was one hell of an experience. I was the youngest, in my early twenties, and the rest of the guys were a bit older. We had three hits and one got to number 20 so we were on Top Of The Pops, which was always a life ambition (video here).

Chris Evans really liked us and we played his show TFI Friday three times I think. We were with East West, part of Warners and a lot of money was thrown at it, making videos. It was cool whilst it lasted but we got caught up in some record company politics and we were dropped without any genuine, really commercial reason for it. It was a bit of a vendetta between some higher guys. As part of our release, we had to sign a gagging order not to talk about it. They wrote off a lot of debts so it wasn’t really a wise commercial decision. The trouble is, although we had had some success, we weren’t big enough to weather that wound. We joined an indie label, I can’t remember the name, who had Morcheeba, but it was palpable that the whole thing was in its death throes.

Toby in Amsterdam in the Rialto days

So we drifted apart. Rialto had a very interesting sound, it’s very cinematic. Louis wrote the songs and Jonny produced it, they were Rialto. I was just along for the ride really. Jonny was really into Depeche Mode and they went into a very electronic vibe on the second album and they started using sequences.  I think I went up to the studio twice and I played like one song. We both kind of drifted apart and they went on as a four piece without keys for a little. It was a complete flop which is a shame because Louie is brilliant songwriter and he didn’t just he didn’t get the success he deserved. Unless you’re big enough to weather it and you’ve got a big fanbase who’ll stay with you, you’re vulnerable until you get to a certain level.

We were massive in South Korea! I don’t know how, I think an album promo got sent there by mistake or something. We did a tour and we went to Seoul where we were like superstars. We came off the plane and there was a national press & TV, we did a press conference at the hotel with our names and microphones. That’s the only time I’ve experienced what it must be like…

It was all a great experience and it taught me a lot about the industry. Creatively I wasn’t really able to do a lot as it was very much Louis and Jonny’s band, it was quite a dictatorial kind of arrangement in that sense. To be fair, they had a game plan, they knew what they wanted to do, they knew it was a project. We were a very styled band as well, we had had the same stylist as Pulp. I remember we had quite a gay following because we were quite stylish, that sort of Roxy Music thing. It was a fantastic experience and I was very lucky because I got to experience a lot of gigging and traveling.

How soon after that did Mungo Jerry come along?

It overlapped slightly. It’s a funny old business, the music business, because there is always an element of luck, no matter how good you are. You’ve got to be good enough to deliver the goods but there are plenty of guys who are great who never get to achieve anything. There was a band we had played with called Bennet and their drummer was involved with a project with Katrina, of Katrina And The Waves, and he got me on board to do the keys for her solo album. Through that we did a festival called Prehistoric or something in Rotterdam in one of these big stadiums. We were on the bill with Mungo Jerry and, after the show, at the hotel, I got drinking with the Mungo boys. We kept in contact and, a couple of months later, I got a call saying ‘Ray (Dorsett, Mungo main man) needs a keyboard player. Would you be interested?’ We just hit it off. This was about 2000 so I was actually still in Rialto when I first started gigging with Mungo. Rialto weren’t doing anything, we delivered the second album and there was nothing really in the diary. I played with them ever since, we don’t really do live so much  now but we recorded a couple of albums in Lockdown.

Toby onstage with Mungo Jerry (pic Philip Dorsett)

Ray’s brilliant and what it keeps coming back to for me are The Doors and The Stranglers. Ray loves The Stranglers but he’s massively into The Doors. My two biggest influences are Dave Greenfield and Ray Manzarek, and I’m very much more of a kind of Ray Manzarek vibe when I play with Ray and it’s brilliant. You’ve got the hits like In The Summertime, you’ve got to play those riffs, but he’s really a blueser at heart and it crosses with a bit of psychedelia and all sorts of things. He gives me so much free rein, it’s always a pleasure to gig with him. He had far more hits than people realise and he’s got a very big fan base, particularly in Germany and Switzerland, all around those areas. We’ve done loads of touring around Europe. He’s a force of nature, he’s absolutely brilliant. He is just on the go all the time and, live, he’s incredible (check out some live footage here). He’s like a one-man busking band, he’s got his guitar and the microphone on the stand with a harmonica and a kazoo!.

Obviously, people leave a band or the band split, and then that’s the end of it for them. But you’ve clearly picked up where you left off and carried on with Ray instead…

And that’s why I say there’s always an element of luck. I have had a bit of good fortune in that sense and I’m grateful to Patrick from Bennet, who got me on board with Katrina, that then got me sideways into Mungo.

That’s got us pretty much up to date so onto Stranglers’ type things… How did you first hear of The Stranglers?

I was doing a sponsored walk in school, I think I was 14, and my mate Anthony had two tracks on his Sony Walkman, I think it was Something Better Change and Nice n Sleazy. As soon as I heard them, something clicked. It just sounded so different, the bass, the keyboards, the sound, the energy. My older brother had No More Heroes on vinyl and I think he had a cassette with The Meninblack and The Raven on it. I always remember it took me quite a while to really process The Meninblack and The Raven. I’d never heard anything like it and I kept coming back to them and playing them. The more I played it, the more I assimilated it, I processed it and I ended up loving it. I’ve often found the best music isn’t always something that you connect with immediately, it takes a while…I loved Dave’s lines, I love the melodies of the songs, Hugh’s singing, JJ singing, the contrast with that, the energy, that aggression in those early albums. It just felt like the kind of music I wanted to listen to.

So I got into them at school, just after Aural Sculpture and the first album I remember going to the record shop and buying was Dreamtime on release. I mean I got everything that came out from that moment on. Off The Beaten Track, I remember getting that Rarities, they did a re-release of Grip, Grip 89. I had some that my dad had bought me like Just Like Nothing On Earth because he’d heard it on the radio and he thought it was so out there. I had some really rare ones obviously…

I had a band called The Men in Black, which were termed as a tribute, but we only did about four or five gigs. We were probably the first ever Stranglers’ tribute because our first gig was 1990 at the Officer’s Club in Aldershot and our drummer tipped off the Melody Maker that it was a secret Stranglers gig. We didn’t actually get to play because there were a lot of angry Stranglers’ fans turned up and security said we’d get beaten up if we played.

So what is your favourite album and single?

Before I answer that, there’s a bit of an aside, a thought just came into my head. There’s a bit of history with The Stranglers that I don’t think I’ve said in an interview before. My dad’s family home was behind Jet’s off licence in Guildford. There was an alleyway where you’d go down to a car park and there was a terrace of cottages on the River Wey. And they were number one Riverside Cottages. There’s a family story that my uncle went up there to bang on the door, tell them to shut up and turn it down because they were making a racket. They invited him in and he got drinking and they ended up having a great time listening to the music. It’s funny how The Stranglers are entwined in my life…

But, to answer your question, my favourite album, it does change but I do come back to The Raven. I know that is often a fan favourite, but there’s something about that album where it crossed over from the first three with that kind of hard edge to Dave’s more synthy sounds with the Oberheims and stuff. And in the songwriting and the production, it just that was a real moment where they kind of really grew and they also started that pattern that would be a feature where they don’t rest on their laurels musically. They just go with their artistic instincts and they’re not afraid to take risks. Commercially that can be risky and it’s easy to just milk the same formula. They could have done another couple of albums with that style. Duchess is one of my all-time favourites, I adore that song, the melody, Dave’s insanely fast keyboards.

I saw the last tour with Hugh, at Guildford Civic, and they had the brass section and it felt like it was waning and plodding. I thought Hugh didn’t look like he was really into it and you could see the writing on the wall. When Baz came in and it reverted back to a four piece, it had that edge, it had that energy. He’s a phenomenal player and he’s got a real presence, he’s a good songwriter, I’ve seen that first hand, the ideas he contributes.

Coincidentally, didn’t you meet them around then?

I met The Stranglers when they were recording at Jacob’s Studio near Farnham, I think it must have been ‘92. A mate of mine you knew someone at the studio and so I came down and met them and got my singles signed. I’ve got a photo of me as a spotty little oik with them, I was thin as a rake back then. And, yeah, I met the guys. I remember Jet, chatting with him about growing his tomatoes. That was the first time I met them, I then met JJ again when I was in Rialto. This is where the kind of connection between me & The Stranglers really happened. JJ had a friend, someone he knew, who worked at Rialto’s label and she was so lovely to me.

I remember when we did TFI, he came down and we went to have some drinks at a pub near Twickenham studios. We had some pints and it wasn’t just me as some Stranglers’ fan boy, it was me as the keyboard player of Rialto. JJ liked the band and he was just such a lovely bloke, she had obviously told him that I was a big fan. We kept in contact and he actually got me to do some demos in a studio in North London. This must have been the late nineties and I remember there were a couple of songs, there was one about Gershwin (Fred and George).

Toby in full flow…

I think he’d rented a cottage on the Norfolk coast, so it must have been around the genesis of Norfolk Coast, some of the material from that. I think he just wanted to try something a bit different, just a different player from Dave, just to see how it went but he found out I sounded a bit too much like Dave! He was so lovely. I remember if I played something that he liked, he did a karate move excitedly near my face. I thought I hope I don’t do something that he doesn’t like! He had a playful, boyish kind of side that was coming out there. That was the start of my connection with The Stranglers.

Around that time, JJ was doing some Songs And Stories solo acoustic gigs and he was playing things like Fred and George and a song about a Frog Crossing The Road, so whether he was planning to have another solo album or something like that…

We have spoken about it since then. I’m not entirely sure what was going through his mind then but it was fantastic to actually work with one of your heroes. Quite an experience.

So when you heard that Dave passed away, what was your initial reaction to it?

Shocked, really shocked. I’d grown up from my teens with Dave and Ray (Manzarek, Doors’ keyboardist) as my influences, I’d probably say more Dave, as my biggest influences. The whole Covid thing was just just a nightmare, it was an unprecedented period and there was a lot mixed up in it. It was really sad…

Clearly, it seemed that your immediate reaction, as anybody that was a fan and played the keyboards, was to actually record a tribute video to Dave…(watch the video here)

I felt that was important, actually, to do that because…I just wanted to…you know… It’s interesting that I’m struggling with my words here.

It’s an emotional topic because, as somebody that’s affected you through both your life and your playing style, you have a certain affinity to that person.

Having studied him and followed him for so long, I know how good a player he was. A lot of why I did that video was I actually wanted to show some of his techniques and really communicate what made him such a great player. He had a very distinctive style, those rapid arpeggios, he wasn’t the first to play them but just not in that way. The first time I ever had an arpeggio done in that kind of way was Ray Manzarek on Hyacinth House, one of my favourite Doors’ tracks.

I was quite humbled by the response to the video actually. A lot of people were really grateful to me just dissecting a little bit of Dave’s stuff because I’m not sure a lot’s been written about the mechanics of his style. I have asked JJ and Baz about this and I know Dave was more of a prog rocker. Apparently, he was more like listening to Rick Wakeman and he hadn’t heard The Doors, which is hard to imagine. Without meandering off topic too much, I felt that was an important personal little tribute I wanted to do and I’m really pleased that a lot of fans have enjoyed it and I’ve had some lovely comments.

Originality is such a rare thing, Dave had his sound and the instruments he used. I mean that use of the Hammond and the Cembalet, it took me ages to find out what the hell that keyboard was and it was my holy grail to get that sound, the No More Heroes electric piano sound. I later discovered it was the Cembalet and they’re rare because they were an early fifties, reed-based piano, similar to a Wurlitzer, only a cruder design and what a sound… Dave had that, he had the Hammond and the Minimoog for the first three albums and that was his set up. He had a really distinctive sound, with the fast arpeggios and his melodies, his solos. You listen to the solo on Dagenham Dave and the use of the Wah on the Hammond, I’ve never heard anyone else do that.

Did you for one minute think that you’d be offered the chance to step in his shoes?

Again, there is some overlap. I had recorded down at Louie’s studio for an album I did called Saturday Morning Pictures around 2004. We were mixing it and JJ and Baz were around and JJ remembered me from Rialto, They, jokingly, said, if Dave was ever injured, I’d be the guy, I’d be the stand in. Of course, he wasn’t injured, we lost him. There were lots of crossovers and links but, clearly, I would have thought there would be a lot of high profile guys would have gone for that gig. I am aware of a couple of key players that have been mentioned to me. Of course, it was a huge honour but also bloody scary. I can’t think of a harder pair of shoes to fill as a keyboard player actually. Even though I had a bit of a head start knowing some of the songs, there’s knowing them and then there’s knowing them.

I could play Golden Brown, Strange Little Girl, No More Heroes to a point, although I’d never really nailed the solo note perfect. Of course, because of Covid, we sat on this for over a year. It was only when I first got to play with Baz and Jim at Jim’s house that it started to feel real. JJ was stuck in France because of Covid. That was quite an emotional moment actually, particularly for Baz.  We did Hanging Around as the first tune and Baz had to stop as he was tearful because he felt Dave was in the room, his music. That was lovely for Baz and Jim to give up their time and we stayed the weekend too. We really just got to spend some time and it’s one thing being recommended, it’s another thing gelling. I was concerned that, until we’d all rehearsed, it could have gone tits up. Sil and particularly Louie were instrumental in recommending me, for which I’ll be eternally grateful to them. But it’s one thing to be recommended and another to deliver the goods and to gel. A lot of it’s chemistry but, if you don’t get on, if you’re a dick, if you know you rub someone up the wrong way, it’s an intense cauldron when you’re on tour.

Those early rehearsals must have been intimidating, especially when JJ was able to travel over from France

When we had our first rehearsals, before the European gigs, down at Sil’s studio and that’s when it was the full band with JJ. They were really lovely, they said ‘you just pick the songs you want to do’ to bed me in gently. So the first song we did was No More Heroes, and JJ… (mimmicks the intro), the hairs on the back of my neck stood up! Another thing I’ve discovered about The Stranglers is it’s no accident that they’ve been as good as they have historically and still are, they work and they rehearse more than any other band. They’re perfectionists. There’s a festival coming up and there’s a rule that if we haven’t played for a month, we rehearse. I mean, that’s why they’re so bloody good! That work ethic is drilled into the band and JJ doesn’t miss a thing. I remember early on, because trying to do Dave’s parts, you’re going to make mistakes, and JJ had this look that he’d give me, in a playful way, but kind of ‘I’ve clocked that’.

Baz is a phenomenal guitarist and a brilliant musician, as is Jim on the drums, and it’s hard to not get caught up in the energy of that band. That nucleus, the energy, the musicianship and the songs, I mean what’s not to love?! But, very quickly, the pro in you wants to knuckle down and get into the detail. I still get those moments when I look across the stage and I see JJ, Baz and Jim and I think ‘is this real? Pinch me, am I dreaming this?’ Most of the time I’m so engrossed in the work, the job of trying to fill Dave’s shoes… A Stranglers’ gig is a weird experience because 2 hours goes in a flash because I’m so invested and concentrating and there’s so much going on. Before you know it, you’re halfway through, you’re up to Golden Brown and then you’re on the homestretch and, before you know it, the show’s over. I’ve got the best seat in the house!

They are really lovely guys and they’ve been so generous and accommodating. With Baz, when we’re gigging, we’re kind of like the melodic section and he’ll often come over during a solo, like Walk On By. I think they appreciate that it’s a pretty tough gig and a hard pair of shoes to fill. I was actually genuinely concerned about how the fans would respond to anyone playing Dave’s parts and I did, jokingly, say in my contract that I wanted a bullet-proof Perspex screen for fear of being taken out by disgruntled fans! Nothing could be further from the truth. I think, because of the circumstances of losing Dave the way it happened, the fans just genuinely appreciated someone coming in and trying to emulate him. I think they also appreciate that I’m a fan as well and it’s important to me to get the parts as close as I can. It’s inevitable some bits are going to vary slightly because that’s just the person playing.

Obviously Dave used to stand pretty still while playing so everybody is wondering why you’re moving. Clearly, you’re a fan and you’re enjoying playing the songs! You’re actually getting into it and you can’t just stand still…

I do sometimes look at the forums as I like to get a temperature of what’s going on out there. It amused me that people were talking about my moves, the ‘Toby two step’ as someone called it, which, I admit, I’m not a natural mover, that’s just me! If you look back at the early Rialto stuff, I had a similar sort of that dad dancing thing… It’s infectious. There are some tunes where you physically have to be really planted but, when we’re doing the end, the rousing encores like No More Heroes or Tank or whatever, it’s just fucking amazing!! How can you stand still?

It’s actually the fact that you’ve come in, not only as a great keyboard player but also as a huge fan, I think people are seeing that and actually understanding that.

Something JJ said, which I thought was a really interesting observation, is that Dave’s parts, or the Stranglers’ songs, are almost like classical pieces. It would be insane to come in and think it’s time for a refresh, these keyboard parts we’ll do it this way, that would be completely insane and the wrong approach. Clearly, you wouldn’t be getting the band, the fans and what The Stranglers are about. I don’t know many bands have got as loyal a following as The Stranglers have. Looking at the success of the new album and the success of the tour, pretty much all the dates were sold out. The feedback from the vast majority of fans has been amazing. I would like to say this to the fans, I am genuinely appreciative of the support because it’s made my job a whole lot easier. You get lots of fans who wait, they queue up around soundcheck or they’ll come to see us afterwards and they’ve been really supportive. I really appreciate it. So thank you.

Were there any songs that you really struggled with when you were doing the initial rehearsals?

Plenty! Have you heard the keyboard parts?! There’s a couple of things. I never realised how much Dave did with his left hand because he comps, he fills out a lot rhythmically with his left hand on the Hammond normally, particularly on the earliest stuff. That was a bit tricky, just the muscle memory and the coordination of doing it, it’s hard enough just doing the bloody melody with the right without having to worry about what you’re doing with your left at the same time. That crept in on quite a few songs. Walk on by, I’m not going to lie, Walk On By was hard because that solo is incredible. The hardest one for the European dates was Midnight Summer Dream. It’s basically one long bloody keyboard solo and, apparently, it was Dave’s least favourite one to do live. That took me a while but I think I nailed it just about the end of the tour. There were a couple of gigs where I screwed up a little bit and I got a bit of a little glare from JJ, rightly so. High standards need to be maintained.

In his studio

How did you find the French tour last year? Obviously they were your first live appearances with the band.

It was amazing. I was quite nervous, particularly the first show, but nerves are good as long as they’re not debilitating and you’re not bent over vomiting, they keep you on your toes. I’ve got a few pre-gig rituals I do where I just try and harness those nerves a little bit in a positive way. But I was pretty terrified for the first gig!  Very quickly, it’s the musician in me takes over and, thinking of the situation, I’ve got a job to do and I’ve got a lot of passion to want to do it right. I’m quite occupied with a lot of stuff going on, not only the mechanics of playing the parts and physically there’s a lot of moving around with four keyboards. It’s quite a different vibe over there. The band are treated as more of an intellectual band and it’s more of an intellectual crowd as well, not that I’m not dissing the British fans for one second, but I think France got The Stranglers around Golden Brown onwards. There wasn’t quite that same connection with the more hard-edged early sound. It’s more of a kind of sit down and have a glass of wine kind of crowd and that’s why we do stuff like Midnight Summer Dream and Always The Sun, although that’s big in the UK. It was lovely and we were really well looked after. Clearly, we were still in the Covid thing, so there was quite a lot of masks and anxiety around making sure that we were in a bubble and we weren’t at risk of coming down with the dreaded Covid. But, that aside, it was great. I was on the bus with Jim and so I got to spend a lot of time with the crew and got to know the whole family. So it was a really cool experience.

Then, coming into the UK tour, you’d almost got the mechanics of playing the gigs out of the way and you could handle the apprehension of doing it in front of a UK and slightly more partisan home crowd…

That’s a great way of describing it, the partisan crowd. The way France happened was actually a blessing because it was almost like a soft landing, like a nice warm up, ease into it. The British tour was amazing, you’ve got that energy, the mosh pit, there’s an element of that, but there’s still people who will just sit back and watch, study and listen. It’s quite a broad church. If you want to join in that energetic kind side, you could do that but, if you want to just appreciate the music, you can do that as well. But what a tour!? It was an amazing experience. So that’s something I’ll always have with me, I don’t think we’re going to do any more big tours like that, it was like six weeks, wasn’t it? There might be some smaller ones. We’ve got some festivals over the summer and we’ve got some rescheduled European gigs that we weren’t able to do because of Covid and shut down. Then we’ll see what the future holds…

The fans were very welcoming and showed their appreciation like a huge cheer after the Walk On By solo. How did that feel?

Most of the time I didn’t hear it because we have in-ear monitor but I became aware of it and I did ask the monitor engineer to give me a bit of a feed of the ambient mics so I could hear. The trouble with in-ear monitoring is, although they’re fantastic for getting more of a detailed monitor mix, you don’t get the ambience or vibe of what’s going on in the room. So until I had that done and I did hear it, fabulous, it’s amazing and it’s lovely to get that.

There are certain times when people are waiting for an acid test, like nailing the Walk On By keyboard solo. There are those moments where fans think ‘Yeah, he’s got it’.

I don’t play it exactly the way that Dave did. I’ve done a bit of a hybrid of taking bits of the record on some of the motifs but I’ve taken some that I heard how they did it on some of the (live) mixes I had and I blended that. It took the band a little while to jam as they’re very used to certain motifs and ways. There’s a bit of interplay at the end with Baz’s guitar playing where we overlap and do some joint melodies, and that took a lot of practice. So, that was a bloody tough one and it’s nice to get the recognition and the appreciation from the fans.

You mentioned in a recent interview that, alongside the gigging, you also work with kids with Asperger’s and Autism. Can you elaborate on that?

Around the mid noughties, about 2007, Mungo wasn’t busy and I wasn’t really getting regular work as a musician. I started to think, what the hell am I going to do? I need a backup plan. Most sensible people do that first and they do a degree and then go into it. I’ve often been quite spontaneous and Music Therapy was something I was interested in, the power of using music as a communication tool in a therapeutic way. I didn’t think for a second that they’d take me on as it’s normally people from a more classical background but they did and I did a two year vocational MA at Roehampton. In the UK, we’re quite stringently regulated so you’ve got to be HCPC registered, which you’ve got to have before you can call yourself a music therapist. I qualified about 10 or 11 years ago and I did some training with some children with Autism on a placement, which I found was a really interesting area. I’ve generally worked with either older adults with Dementia or children with learning disabilities and Autism.

I work at a specialist school locally to me but I’m only doing two days a week now because of other commitments with my music and The Stranglers. A lot of my clients, in my caseload, are either non-verbal or have limited verbal acuity so it’s more it’s helping people express themselves without being able to do it verbally. If you or I have some problems, we might go and see a therapist and sit on the couch and talk about things. Some of the training overlaps, there is that sort of psychodynamic approach and there’s elements of Freud and Klein so it is therapy, not just a music activity. It’s very much using particularly improvised music to respond to or to attune to how someone’s presenting in the room at that time. So I see my clients at the same time every week in a half hour session with a certain structure, I generally start with a particular hello song and maybe finish with a goodbye song. Within that framework it’s child-led and I respond to what is needed. Sometimes, obviously I can’t go into specifics, but it might be helping someone express how they’re feeling in a way rather than presenting the challenging behaviour, just helping make sense of those feelings through playing a drum together. For a lot of people, even just being in the room with another person for half an hour is constructive, to even to manage that could be a huge thing. I can’t magically make someone’s disability go away but I can help them express how they’re feeling or getting in contact with the anger of their disability. I’ve got some clients who use equipment called an eye gaze, so even though they’re nonverbal, they can find words using their eyes and often those words might be on a ‘feelings’ page where you can pick how you’re feeling. Sometimes it’s really powerful stuff, like feeling angry or depressed or embarrassed by their disability. Imagine how frustrating that is. But also just to be in the world with these challenges, just getting through the day could be really struggling and having physical limitations.

A lot of my work is expressed around helping people maybe process and manage their feelings but, with some of my autistic children, it will be just being with another person or having a sense of other. Autism is very much on a spectrum and there’s no two people who present the same way. It’s just trying to help normalise some things, communication or interpersonal connection or just being with someone else for half an hour. Challenging behaviour is not just there for the sake of it, it’s a communication of something underlying and it’s trying to unpick what’s going on there.

I’m very passionate and I find that it grounds me because sometimes we get caught up in the bullshit of the minutiae or the drudgery of our days. I go back to school and find it’s healthy and grounding. I love the school to bits, it’s got a fantastic culture, the staff and the children, it’s just a brilliant place. I’ve been working there on and off almost ten years so I’m kind of part of the furniture there now. People don’t get what music therapy is, they think it’s more of a music happy clappy activity, but at that school, it is reasonably well embedded. I’m very lucky and, literally the week after the UK tour, I was back at school.

I’m really lucky that I’ve got two things in my life that I’m passionate about and I love so, if anyone’s interested in training to be a music therapist, the organisation in the UK is the British Association of Music Therapy (more info here). It’s a very rewarding career, it can be hard.

Did you also work with older people in a care home?

I worked at a care home for a couple of years and I found that really challenging because there were people younger than my parents in there. I had one person who was late forties, from substance abuse or alcohol, who had a stroke and was quite low functioning in some ways. With Dementia, there was a book by David Aldridge (link) which I read in my training and he describes Dementia as ‘being stuck in the sea you just get islands of connection’.  That’s basically what I would strive to do is just try and find an island of connection in that moment so, if someone is quite disorientated, to maybe connect with them with the music or a familiar song or play a rhythm together, it’s just that moment of connection.

Do you have any hobbies outside of music?

Basically, I’m a simple man, music and I’m a petrol head. I’m quite passionate about Formula One but I do love motor sports in general. Not so much football but I like a bit of rugby, but motor sports and cars are my thing.  I’ve got a little sports car thing, it’s nothing too flashy but I enjoy that. I’ve also got a racing simulator, so the inner child in me is very much catered for that. I do a bit of online sim racing with a couple of mates, we race together online and taunt each other over the microphone which is quite juvenile.

And also musical gear, I have what’s known as G.A.S, gear acquisition syndrome! I can’t stop buying things. I literally just bought a Korg CX3 organ from the early eighties, I used to have that exact keyboard in Rialto, so I’m rather pleased to have that. I’ve got various organs, I like to collect unloved things. I don’t go for vintage analog stuff as it goes for silly money, like some of the Roland gear, so I go for things like vintage Casios. I’ve got a couple of beauties, they’re analog in the circuitry but there’s a warmth in the sounds. People probably deride them as cheese machines, with bossa nova beats, but they make great sounds. I’ve got numerous bloody keyboards and I will never stop because I just love gear.

Obviously, I love music, I love listening to music, I like composing music even if it’s just for me. I’m rubbish at marketing my music, I’ve got a few albums I’ve done which I’m quite pleased with but no one knows they exist. I like to create it and then I move on to another idea. Maybe I should get someone involved who can help push it because I just like to create it.

So, with the main interview completed, we also took the chance to ask Toby some technical questions about the gear he uses and lots of other nerdy things. Slightly less techy minded people may get a bit lost from this point on… (thanks to Damian Franklin for the questions)

You are using Dave’s rig currently. Can you explain what that current spec is and if there were any mods/upgrades before the French/UK tours?

I was given the option to come in and use my own keyboards, but talking particularly with Louie, he’s generally the technical lead, we felt that because the band were used to those sounds, having a different keyboard player and then having completely different rig might have just been a step too far. I thought it was quite a sensible idea to basically use Dave’s rig, but we did tweak it. There were a few sounds that I thought could be better. We did Strange Little Girl which didn’t have much decay on the sound of the electric piano, so it was kind of like a Wurlitzer type sound, but it didn’t feel right to me. Louie is very good at sound design and we sort of listened quite closely to the original record and I think we did improve that sound quite a lot. There were some others that I wasn’t so happy with that we spent time improving. But, to Louie’s credit, considering we’re using gear that’s about 20 years old, he’s done a bloody good job and he’s sampled a Cembalet so we’ve got a really nice emulation of that. The Hammond organ sounds are OK, some of the organ sounds could be improved. I’m quite a perfectionist so we are looking at ways of upgrading it but, at the end of the day, there is an argument that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There are certain elements like, if we do gigs abroad, the current rig goes into a small rack and it’s easy to transport and we can just hire the keyboards there. If we start getting new keyboards or going into other areas, the logistics can be quite complicated.

With The Stranglers, we generally have two of everything in case of redundancy, so, if one keyboard breaks, sometimes stuff does break, we’ve got a backup. It’s not just a case of having four Nord Electros, you’ve got to have eight so it’s a lot of gear. I can see the logic in continuing to use Dave’s rig, but there’s always work for improvement. So, even if we continue to use his rig, we can maybe add a couple of bits to it, maybe update a sound or a bit of the gear. What it actually contains are two Roland Phantom XRs which are rack mount Roland sample playback synthesizers. They’re what’s known as ROMplers, they’re bread and butter sounds, I’m not so keen on some of the sounds but we can improve them. The synth stuff is generally done on two Novation A Stations which are what’s known as physical modeled analog, it’s not real analog, it emulates analog using algorithms. It’s quite complicated but the long and short of it is that they sound great. That sound at the beginning of Grip, that’s a Moog, because Dave had a Minimoog, a free oscillator with a really fat sound, and that sounds really good. Louie’s done a brilliant job with that. We’re not in a desperate rush to change things, but we can always improve things. I’d like to improve the organ sounds a bit more but a lot of synth sounds are pretty good. I’ve seen some of the fans mentioning that there was a synth show in Germany recently and Oberheim are back in business and they rereleased the OB-X8 keyboard. Dave used Oberheims. The OBX8 about five grand though and I’d need two of them so, unless Oberheim want to kindly do something with us, then we’ll have the sample instead…

Oberheim OB-8

Eagle eyed fans have noticed that you are using in-ear monitoring. Is this new for you or have you used it before?

I do use in-ear monitoring, the whole band use it and they have done for a while. Dave apparently didn’t like it. He was more old school and just had a big monitor on stage. I think that there’s a general sense that in-ear monitoring allows you to get a more detailed mix without bleed from other sound sources. But the downside of that is, like we talked about earlier, it can be a bit sterile like you’re listening to music on headphones and you don’t get the ambiance of what’s going on in the room and the fan reaction. What we do to mitigate that is our monitor engineer gives us an ambient mix. We’ll have a couple of microphones positioned at the front of the stage so we can get a sense of what’s going on in the room and you can add that into the mix. There are several advantages of in-ear monitoring. One, it protects your hearing, as generally they’re moulded to your ear, so they act as a form of ear defender. Two, you get a much more isolated, detailed sound so that’s why most bands generally do. Some bands still use the old wedges. I have used them before and I’ve got some nice new moulded ones for the band, but I have used them for a while. I generally have used them just because they protect your hearing as I’m a bit paranoid about getting tinnitus. I have a little bit of it but, I’ve stuck to earplugs and in-ear monitoring for the last 10 or 15 years, so it hasn’t got any worse.

Were there any tech issues that you had on tour?

There was a bit of a glitch which we haven’t quite got to the bottom of but, occasionally, the MIDI would hang on one of the mother keyboards triggering a certain sound. I’d play a note and it would just stay ringing. We got to a point where Laurie would have a reset button and I’d give him a sign, normally like a panicked wave or something, that happened a few times. At the end of the day, because everything’s connected by MIDI, we’ve got a lot of MIDI merge boxes and leads, and it might have been a bad lead on bad merge box. Louie replaced that and improved it but it has occasionally cropped up since. If I replace the gear, it would be more for reliability reasons than anything else. It wasn’t a huge problem and the crew are fantastic so we were able to quite quickly resolve that.

You have 3 iPads at the sides of your rig. Do they replace the mixing console which is off stage now with the Rackmounts?

Well spotted! I’ve got an iPad either side. One is for changing the sounds so that’s got a program which basically sends MIDI messages to all the gear. So I’ll have the setlist, let’s say we start with Toiler, the next song’s Sometimes, I just press and it changes all the sounds. The one on the right hand side is my own and I’ve got some notes because sometimes, as a musician, you can get brain fade where you would just be in the moment, like I’d think ‘Fuck, what’s the next chord?’ I don’t really use the notes that often, it’s more of a security blanket, but occasionally it’s helpful. It might just say what the key is. Just for those moments of brain fade so I will have the setlist done and I’ll have my little cheat sheets. Early on I made a cock up where I didn’t follow JJ on Golden Brown where he walks back from the mike and that’s the cue that we resolve the passage for the ending. That one time I was just caught up in the music and I forgot that and I went by the record so I finished it before JJ walked back. It’s part of growing pains. So, basically, on my notes for Golden Brown, I’ve got a massive thing saying ‘watch JJ at the end’! The other one is like a little android tablet which, basically, controls a Behringer mixer because Dave used to have a big Yamaha mixer. We’ve now replaced that with a Behringer rackmount mixer which is much more portable so that is just the control for that.

You & Louie are looking at updating the ‘Moog’ sounds with a Behringer keyboard rack, which is a modern copy of the Mini Moog. Can you explain this and are there plans to update other sounds, for example using the new Oberheim OB-X8?

I’m looking at sampling a few sounds. I bought a Behringer recreation of the Minimoog called the Model D. I don’t know how they do this, but they’ve basically got a mega factory in China where they make all the analog components but they cloned the circuitry, they’ve effectively cloned the Minimoog and they sell it for 300 quid. It’s a little rackmount thing and I bought one and I have been programming a sound as close to that classic Dave Grip intro sound. I have sampled it and we made choose to integrate that but, like I said, that’s not the weakest part of the set. I think the A stations do a pretty decent job but that’s a good example of how we might finetune things. I would dearly love an OB-X8 but, because we have two of everything, you’re looking at ten grand! Behringer are actually doing their own Oberheim synth called a UBXA and that is ready to go but I think with the global chip shortage is holding it up. They are doing a rackmount version and I will definitely get that. That could find it’s way into the rig because two of those wouldn’t be the end of the world as Behringer is normally good value stuff.

Oberheims really were Dave’s sound. I have had the good fortune of playing an OB8 and an OBXA back in the day. What’s interesting is we look now at digital and analog as digital was cold and analog’s warm. Back in the day, it was very much thought that the American analog synths were much warmer than the Japanese ones. So, the Prophets, the Moogs, the Oberheims were very much the ones to have. That’s simplifying it because anyone who listened to a Jupiter 8 or a Yamaha CS80, they’re phenomenal synths and they have different merits.

Thanks very much to Toby for this interview which took most of his evening! Cheers to Damian for the techy questions too.

Check out some of Toby’s recordings:

Audio Bathers EP here

Boogie Woogie album here