Improvisation pays off

The Pittsburgh Press

January 26, 1989

Improvisation pays off for The Toll
By Peter B. King

Pittsburgh holds both good and bad memories for The Toll.  On the plus side, this Columbus, Ohio, band got an early break here, having been booked into the Decade more than 20 times.

But Pittsburgh’s also the town where lead singer Brad Circone fractured his heel in three places.  During a performance at Graffiti in October, he jumped 20 feet or so from the club’s balcony to the floor.

Why would anyone do that?

“Have you ever been into something so much that you forget that you’re existing?”  Circone asks “Well that’s what the music is for me.  It’s some kind of strange incantation.

Perhaps Circone will think twice about jumping when The Toll returns to Graffiti Saturday night.  But jumping is not the only thing the music makes Circone do.

“I do standing flips, but I don’t flip all the way over.  I land on my back.  I have a protrusion on my forehead from doing headbutts at the microphone.  If people don’t understand the pain that they read or that they hear in music, then maybe they’ll understand it physically.  I do anything it takes for the song.”

Circone, 25, is motivated by “moral politics,” he says.  His lyrics tell of mistreated American Indians, children whose individuality is strangled, fast-trackers who sublease their souls.

Improvised monologues are Circone’s specialty.  Night after night, he’ll come up with different stuff in the middle of songs such as “Jonathan Toledo,” “Anna-41-Box” and “Living in the Valley of Pain.”

The Toll began their evolution toward this improvisational style when they formed in 1984.  Circone, an English major who would later drop out of college, was getting guitar lessons from his cousin, Rick Silk.  He and Silk auditioned scads of players for a band, finally settling on Greg Bartram (who grew up in Mt. Lebanon) on bass, and Brett Mayo on drums.

The band began touring the Midwest and Pittsburgh, finally signing with Geffen Records and releasing their first album, “The Price of Progression.”

Many interviewers tell Circone he reminds them of Jim Morrison.  That bothered him for a while; Morrison wasn’t a big influence, he claims.

“My influences are words and men who have the audacity to challenge what society has accepted – Freud, Nietzche, Kierkegaard, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wordsworth.

“My poetry is very poor, and it’s very blatant at times.  But it moves quick and it hits hard.”

More like U2 or Tracy Chapman than Morrison, Circone says, he has a social conscience.

“’Cause existentially that is my whole premise for getting up in the morning and not combing my hair.  My whole premise for getting up in the morning and reminding me that underneath all this flesh and bones, we’re nothing but skeletons.  Socially conscious, yes, because I don’t even believe in the morality that’s been laid upon me.”

Meanwhile, to the list of Circone’s odd practices, add fasting before he performs.  “It’s something I believe in spiritually.  The American Indian – that was their religion in many ways, that and some strange wild herbs.  And I found I could make up the words faster and better if I was depleted physically.”

If all this begins to sound just a little pretentious, let’s turn for a moment to Bartram.

The 25-year-old bassist lived in Sunset Hills, a working-class section of Mt. Lebanon.  He moved to Columbus after high school when his parents divorced.

One down-to-earth fact he supplies is that the band practices in the pinball-machine warehouse owned by Circone’s father – “surrounded by Pinbot and the Black Knight.”

The Toll made certain it would retain its creative freedom before signing with Geffen, Bartram says.

“We always wanted to be sure that if we were offered a deal, it was gonna be more or less on our terms, that we weren’t gonna have somebody coming in and saying, ‘This “Anna” thing is OK but you gotta lose the last six minutes of it.’”

Circone voices much the same sentiment: “The only reason we made an album is that there are corporations that believe that the best way to get a band known is through a tangible object.  I think this band’s foundation is the live show.”