Hong Kong gigs

Hong Kong to get second taste of British garage rock band Toy, the London-based five-piece who love working with others

Bassist Maxim Barron says the band, whose growing list of collaborators include Bat for Lashes and Younghusband, is looking forward to catching up on local music trends ahead of September show at the Mom Livehouse

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 8:02am

Talking to anyone from London-based garage rock band Toy feels like you are tapping into the beating heart of the British capital’s indie rock zeitgeist. The five-piece band combine multiple strands of a 1960s-inspired psychedelic scene that has helped shape the UK’s indie movement over the past decade.

In one form or another, Toy have had an impact on an impressively disparate array of artists. From collaborating with chart-topping techno-punks The Horrors to forming the alternative supergroup Sexwitch with operatic goth performer Bat for Lashes, they have become the garage rock scene’s go-to guys.

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“When we get an opportunity to do something else, we take it,” explains bassist Maxim Barron, who goes by the nickname Panda. The collaborations, he says, are born “when we have a fun idea to record something that’s not [part of our usual thing]. The band members are always working on various things.”

Of course, none of this would have happened had Toy not been responsible for some of the most compelling indie music of the past decade. This is something Hong Kong fans will be reminded of when the band comes to the city for a second time to play at the Mom Livehouse in North Point on September 21.

From their formation in 2010, the band – led by doe-eyed indie pin-up Tom Dougall – introduced a pop sensibility to a psychedelic scene that had begun to collapse under the weight of its own synth-drenched indulgence. They came together in the southern seaside town of Brighton from the ashes of the much-hyped, but ultimately unsuccessful, indie band Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong. They quickly established a reputation for pop-informed garage rock, borrowing heavily from bands such as Kraftwerk, Berlin-era David Bowie and the Velvet Underground.

Despite accusations of gimmickry on account of their pretty-boy good looks, a series of well-received singles, including the infectious Motoring, and a slew of gigs in some of the UK’s less salubrious clubs won them early plaudits and attracted the attention of Rhys Webb from The Horrors. That led to a support slot on the Essex band’s UK tour.

Toy’s self-titled 2012 debut album was an assured offering of danceable motoric and catchy pop that won over tastemakers at BBC Music and online music sites. Two follow-up albums, Join the Dots and Clear Shot, have expanded the Toy sound to including cinematic sweeps and classical strings, burnishing their reputation as innovative sound experimenters.

The cross-pollination with fellow bands began almost as soon as Toy formed. Dougall played guitar on his older sister Rose Elinor’s debut solo album, which was released after the dissolution of her former band, the cult retro-kitsch all-girl trio The Pipettes. The collaborations continued with various Toy personnel lending their talents to other artists’ records, including electric folk troubadour Meilyr Jones and alternative rock band Younghusband, fronted by their flatmate Euan Hinshelwood.

We’re really interested to see just what the music culture is like over [in China]. It’s great that you’re getting an influx of bands from the West, but we don’t necessarily get a lot coming the other way
Maxim Barron

Of most significance was the pairing with Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes on the critically acclaimed Sexwitch project.

“We did that very off the cuff,” Barron says. “We recorded all the music in a day and Natasha came in and did her vocals in a couple of days and then we just cut it up and mixed it. It was a very quick, fun little experiment.”

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Toy’s progression has been aided by the growth of their international reputation, which has enabled them to absorb new cultural influences while on overseas tours. Barron says one of the band’s hopes during their Hong Kong visit is to catch up on current trends in Chinese rock.

“We’re really interested to see just what the music culture is like over there,” he says, professing a fondness for mainland punk band Hedgehog. “It’s great that you’re getting an influx of bands from the West, but we don’t necessarily get a lot coming the other way.”

With Japan, he says, it is easier. “There are quite a few well-known Japanese bands and labels, and there’s more of a history of Japanese music. But China’s music remains quite a mystery to the West. We’re intrigued to find out about it.”

Toy’s success is also partly due to the internet’s erosion of the power of record companies. With CD sales thrown into a death spiral by file sharing and streaming services, labels have been deprived of the iron rod they once wielded over their rosters.

While that has killed a lucrative income stream for all but the biggest and most established of acts, it has also given artists room to operate and innovate, and free rein over their creativity. Combined with the fact that all the technology a band needs can now fit into a single piece of laptop-based software, the new musical landscape has enabled bedroom artists to enter the A-list pop league, Ed Sheeran included.

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“The industry has made a lot of people just turn the other cheek and do what they want – it’s punk’s do-it-yourself ethos, and everyone does it now,” says Barron, adding that Toy records in Hinshelwood’s self-built Static TV studio in south London. “I think it’s quite anathema now to pay for a big-name producer. You use friends or people with like-minded ideas. Now we are just doing it ourselves. We’ve learnt enough along the way.”

Toy, Sep 21, 7.30pm, Mom Livehouse, B39 Seven Seas Shopping Centre, 117-121 Kings Rd, North Point, HK$320 (advance from Ticketflap), HK$380 (door)