Geffen Bio for The Toll

Spontaneity, physicality, intensity, and a powerful sense of dramatics honed on the college and club stages, are the hallmarks of The Toll, a young band based in Columbus, Ohio. Their ever-evolving music has been captured on The Price of Progression, the group’s debut album, produced by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero and released at the end of 1988 on Geffen Records.

For Brad Circone (vocalist), Rick Silk (guitarist), Greg Bartram (bassist), and Brett Mayo (drummer), each concert is a fingerprint unique unto itself. The improvised narratives imbedded in many of their songs are always a step into the abyss since no one, including the band, knows what Circone will say, what character he’ll become, to tell a song’s story. There are no limits. The Toll is a band infused with a rage for creative freedom …

	'Mr. and Mrs. River were more than narrow-minded; they
	were close minded ... they were worried about their son
	Jamison Rain. He didn't seem to follow the river's meander at
	all. For by the fourth grade, Jamison Rain was no longer
	drawing the turkey with his hand. The nuns found him in the
	clothes rack. Apparently he was drawing all kinds of animals,
	and he was using much more than his hand to draw such
	animals, and when they found him, they clutched his knuckles
	on the end of the desk. and they said: Hold on tight Jamison,
	you shall be punished for the freedom of creative thought.
	What are you trying to be, an artist?'  And then the ruler cut
	hard against his knuckles, and the blood was paid, by the
	penance of the boy, who sinned against his own creativity.' 

                     (excerpt from "Living In The Valley Of Pain')

Three of the nine songs on the album — Jonathan Toledo,’ ‘Anna-41-Box,’ ‘Living In The Valley Of Pain’ — are more than ten minutes long and feature emotional vocal narratives. How did such an unusual narrative concept come about?

RICK: “I remember when we were playing at a club in Columbus, Ohio one night, in our early days, and no one was listening. They all started to leave the room. Ironically, we were playing a song about the hopes of ‘making it’ … a song we don’t play anymore … and all of a sudden Brad waved us off. He went on a Iyrical rampage, exposing himself and the audience. So to keep things intact, we tried to move musically with his ebb and flow. Not like we do now, but we made a stab at it. Brad came off stage that night and said, ‘I don’t ever want to do this again.’ We told him we loved it, but it took a long time to actually get him to do it more and more.”

BRAD: “Fortunately, I don’t think I ever quite matched that performance again. Looking back, I can still feel the embarrassment. That wasn’t a narrative; it was a bitter failure in expressing how I felt. I guess it was pure hostility over not being accepted. I wanted someone, anyone, to 1 listen.”

BRETT: “But we knew something was there. It might not have been effective, but it was a start. ”

BRAD: “Since then the narratives have taken on a number of forms. They were topical speeches for awhile, but no one, including me, can listen to that night after night. That’s a politician’s job. I was trying anything to hone the narratives. One night, after fasting for a couple of days, and reading as much literature as I could absorb, I began narrating. I was pulling together loose phrases and images and flinging them at the audience. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it failed. But it was exciting. It made the songs new every night. Whatever words came to my head came out of my mouth, anywhere in the song. Eventually the narratives became more cohesive and picked up a theme, which was great, because I could spontaneously float along this stream of consciousness, becoming whatever characters I wished along the way, spewing out collected words and feelings that made up the collage for the narrative. So for me, it’s become the ultimate Iyrical freedom.”

Being so free form, were the narratives difficult to record?

BRAD: “In the studio none of the narratives were written down, I just walked in the booth and improvised from the visions in my head, and the band followed beautifully. Thompson and Barbiero realized immediately, after seeing us live, that the only way to capture our unstructured sty)e and improvisations was by having us play live, as a unit, in the studio. ”

BRETT: “His studio was set up so we could see each other and improvise just like we do live. ”

GREG: “We rehearsed ‘Anna…’ once, and in the studio took two takes at it. We kept the complete second take on the album, all 10 minutes and 32 seconds of it.”

RICK: “We had to get It in one or two takes, because a lengthy impromptu would have never been ‘captured’ if we had taken too many passes at it. Anyway, Brad began to narrate live and naturally in the studio. It was perfect for what the rest of the band wanted. We could free up the music. It didn’t dawn on us when we first started the band that this was to become our style and the natural way in which we write songs. We riff off of each other. It was all happening back then and we didn’t know it.”

BRAD: “Exactly! It was imperative that we didn’t know it because then we might have been tempted to plot it, or second guess ourselves by capturing the randomness and formatting it. The most essential element of the narratives is our constant improvisation and spontaneity. The minute the band can predict my moves, I change. The beauty lies in the freshness of not knowing, and never wanting to know.”

What’s the ‘meaning’ of the narratives?

BRAD: “I’m just playing characters that I identify strongly with, or that I’m concerned about, or that I’m feeling sorry for. And some pieces of myself. l’m an only child and these are my friends. Some are make believe and some I believe in. I mean, I used to play in the mirror. 1 had friends and I made them up. I think that kid speaking in ‘Pain’ is part a facet of me, and that woman shouting in ‘Anna’ is part of me too.”

How important has touring been to the development of The Toll?

BRETT: “The reason we can improvise off of Brad’s narratives is because of the amount of live shows we’ve played together. We’ve learned his body language and voice fluctuations. We’ve played off of each other’s idiosyncrasies and inadequacies for years. The songs mutate until they become hybrids of themselves.”

GREG: “Touring has been our mainstay. Since we weren’t initially well received in our hometown, It forced us to look elsewhere for gigs. And since we wanted to play and had -nothing else to do, we did just that. In three years time we played 2 1 states, mostly throughout the Midwest, and booked all the shows ourselves. ”

RICK: “We didn’t want to fail and playing live kept us moving. The only way to not fail in my eyes is to beat your enemies, and our enemies at that time, besides ourselves, were our audiences. So, if we could become what they said we couldn’t, then we would be at least minimally successful. The only way to prove that was on the road. ”

BRAD: “We want to take risks with the audience; frolic in the abyss. In the abyss lies spontaneity, panic, passion, and fear. We want them to experience that along with us. ”

	CHICAGO. ILLINOIS (Wednesday, April 22, 1987) -- In the
	midst of a concert, Circone walks along a narrow balcony
	railing, imitating a high wire act. The club manager attempts
	to pull him safely onto the balcony. Circone smiles and says:
	"Come closer and 1'11 jump and all the guilt will be on your
 	head." He does jump the 12 ft. onto the stage and the
	manager stops the show. The band is fined $50 for "hurting"
	the manager's feelings. Their guarantee is only $75,

BRAD: “I was so enthralled at one gig when the crowd was chanting our song along with us that I wanted to break down the distance between artist and audience, where there were no limits. A celebration, for a moment, of musical anarchy. ”

	EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN (Friday, July 17, 1987)- It's
	2:00 a.m. and the band is doing it's last number, "Jonathan
 	Toledo." The bar seems a bit more unruly than usual. With
	the clubs' rickety lighting system, all that can be seen is the
	band, and the patrons who are close enough to catch the
	left-over light. In the dark hangs a body. upside down on a
	metal pole, above the crowds' reach. Then it flips over and
	appears to be holding onto the pole. while walking on people's
	shoulders ... a very Christ-like image. Its Circone. He's left
	the stage and now, along with the audience, is propelling beer
	bottles, pitchers. and ashtrays at the band. The bouncers
	come over to end the ruckus. The lights come on; the band is

BRAD: “I m must confess, we are addicts; addicts of playing live and working the road. ”

RICK: “It’s not the ultimate freedom but it’s damn close. ”

BRETT: “When you’re riding in the back of that truck, and it’s 1 0 below zero, and you’re. trying to sleep on the top of an amplifier, and maybe 20 people are coming to a show, you begin to redefine satisfaction. Satisfaction is playing through your heart, for the traveling, for the guys in the band, and for yourself. ”

RICK: “When Brad is doing a flip and smashing his head and bleeding, it hurts me. But if you’re there, and you’re in on it, it’s indescribable. It’s a pretty strange …”

BRAD: “… love affair ”

RICK: “Yea, and it’s competitive. The kind of competition where you want to see who will quit first, like between brothers. But you know that no one will quit when we play live, so you go past exhaustion:”

BRETT: “When we’re on stage it’s a challenge, a battle.”

BRAD: “Yes, like the ownership of the songs. We’re all the parents; the songs are our children. When we write new material it’s as if we’re having sex through our instruments. So you can imagine, when we play live this is our time to proclaim our love for our children. We don’t want to give our sands up for adoption.”

How important is the Midwest to what you’re doing?

GREG: “Crucial. It’s where we’ve grown up, including our road crew. It’s our history. It’s our background.”

BRETT: “I don’t know if the Coasts would have nurtured our songwriting style like the Midwest. Not that we have anything against the Coasts, but in the Midwest there is not any particular movement or trend, and so it gave us the freedom to experiment a little more. ”

BRAD: “The Midwest is our home, our hermetic refuge, a place to be creative. This is where we play, where we work, and where we rest. We are slow to take on trends, but seem equipped enough to keep the best part. We have a certain warmth and solitude in the Midwest, which gives us a relaxed sense of security. We take nothing for granted, and because we live in the middle, we compel ourselves to be over ambitious so that we can get the attention of the opinion-makers on the edges. We must try much harder to get half the attention.”

RICK: “Besides, Geffen found us in the Midwest, in East Lansing. When we were driving through Michigan our A&R guy [Michael Rosenblatt] asked me what kind of crop that was on the side of the road. I told him corn. He asked 20 miles later and I told him that was corn too. ‘Settle down,’ I told him, ‘this is the Midwest, things don’t change quickly.”‘

How did you all get together?

BRAD: “I was going to college in Springfield, Ohio and coming home on the weekends to teach Rick bar chords.”

RICK: “Brad and I are cousins. I was born in Columbus, but raised in Plano, Texas. I came back to Ohio in 1982 to go to school, and we started playing guitar in his garage. We had two guitars plugged into one 30 watt amp. Brad used to come home every weekend and teach me one new chord. I would practice that one chord for a week. I purchased a stolen guitar, not knowing what kind it was, showed it to Brad and he had to tell me it was a Les Paul. I was 21 when I learned guitar and my lateness coming to the instrument has been my biggest asset. I didn’t learn anyone else’s technique or other people’s songs. We never played covers. I developed my style from interacting with this band, which explains the quirkiness in my rhythm. l’m not caught up in what’s the right way to play, but just what feels good. ”

BRETT: “I was originally from Columbus, but went to school in Florida. I also returned home to finish school. These guys were looking for a drummer and I hadn’t played in a couple of years, so I was a bit rusty. The band had gone through 1 2 drummers and five bass players in less than nine months. So they weren’t too patient about my clumsy style, but I worked out the hitches and was hired.”

GREG: “I grew up in Pittsburgh, and moved to Columbus after high school. I got in a couple of bands but nobody seemed to be as serious as I wanted. A good friend of mine took me out to see these guys one night. I was just floored. I couldn’t believe the attitude they had. It was exactly what I had been trying to find. So I just started working for them, doing whatever was needed. I’d take pictures or tune Rick’s guitar because he couldn’t tune it. I even tried to play drums before Brett did. Whenever someone quit I tried to fill their position. Very early one morning, 3 a.m., the band gave me a call and asked me to come over to their rehearsal space and teach this new bass player the songs. I knew the bass patterns from seeing the band so often. I started showing the guy the parts, but it wasn’t going too well. Since the gig was that same night Brad called us outside around 6 a.m. and said: ‘Greg, if you know the parts, you should play the bass.’ So I tried without a pick, and failed. As a last resort I tried again with a guitar pick and it worked. I borrowed the other guy’s bass, and we made an amp and cabinet out of old jukebox parts, went to breakfast, drove to Kent State, and played our first Toll show on August 24, 1984.”

Since Brad, Rick and Brett dropped out of Ohio State University just short of graduation to concentrate on the music, did the college environment play any role in shaping The Toll?

BRAD: “Yes, very much so, but we were all pretty bored with school. Just before you become a doer, they want you to become a follower. That’s why they call it an institution. Well, we learned the rules of chess alright. We just don’t play on the board. ”

How did you arrive at The Toll as a name for the group?

BRAD: “lt’s a striking word. And, it seemed like every time we set off for a gig, we had to drive through a toll booth. We kept having to-stop and panhandle to collect enough quarters just to get where we could play. More importantly, it says something about having to pay to get what you want — the debts that society has forgotten.”

What particular events, or personal philosophies attributed to your getting signed?

BRAD: “It took an element of luck, but it also took positioning oneself to be at the right place, at the right time, to have a chance at reaping luck’s good fortune. We believed in ourselves, but we never believed in ourselves more than we needed to. We didn’t buy into all those unjustifiable illusions.”

RICK: “We never want to be comfortable; we never want to have a complete understanding of what it is we do. To put balance into our style would diminish our conflict, and there would be no catalyst from which to write. You must have friction to have movement. Maybe that’s The Price of Progression.”

GREG: “I think the tangible turning point, was when we went on our first extended road trip. ”

BRAD: “Yes, you’re right! By the third show I cried on stage more often than I sang. It was such an epiphany. That’s when we found our musical niche. We felt momentum for the first time.”

	- Pittsburgh. PENNSYLVANIA (May 7. 1988)-- Circone was
	feeling trapped by having to improvise. He wanted to redefine
	expectations. "You know how when you're leading a woman to
	the edge of an orgasm, she expects certain movements to
	happen next. It's much more exciting if she can't predict your
	actions and must anticipate and wait. That's satisfying. So I
	led the audience on a path through the orgasm ... and then I
	left. Right in the middle of the set. Maybe they thought we
	were going to come back, but we didn't. Nobody clapped.
	They thought they knew what was going to happen next, some
	wild ending. Instead of living up to those expectations, we
	just changed them."

It seems like one ingredient which infuses all of the songs, and The Toll itself, is a rage for creative freedom, and creative thought. What effect are you trying to evoke with your music?

BRAD: “Anything and everything. ”

BRETT: “More specifically, I think we’re trying to get people to think about things that they would rather not spend much time thinking about. ”

BRAD: “Yes, there is that element, but in my mind rock ‘n’ roll should be a kind of coming together, a bond of communication that is born from the music and the words, but – somehow supersedes both.”

BRETT: “Like when they’re singing the words to ‘… Toledo,’ and all of the sudden we are lifted up by them. And as they see us being lifted up, it lifts them up too. You break out in goose bumps and smile. All of a sudden they’ve got you.”

	NEW YORK. NEW YORK (May 15, 1986)- Circone drank
	a fifth of Jack Daniels the day before The Toll made their
	New York debut at CBGB and then fasted the next day. "It was
	really a stupid thing to do. During the show I was doing a lot
	of physical things on stage ... it was the first time I was
	abusive to myself."

RICK: “I also think that at some points it’s very challenging, Like a bullfight. Sometimes we’re waving our cape in seduction, an enticement, so that we may kill the bull. Even the matador gets gored as the hunt proceeds. After a show, looking at us, I don’t know if we were the matador or the bull, and I guess it doesn’t matter. “