Iron Fists In Velvet Gloves

American Garage

East Lansing, Michigan

March-April, 1987

The Toll: Iron Fists In Velvet Gloves

By Jamie DePolo

A mike stand dangling precariously from the fragile-looking grey pipe running the length of the bar.  A guitar player with a wide-open stance reminiscent of Mick Jones’ early Clash days, and an iron-fists-in-velvet-gloves style of playing to match.  A lead singer who writhes, leaps and screams at the audience.  The Toll, a Columbus-based band, were playing at Rick’s.

Watching the band perform is fascinating.  They manage to walk a tightrope line between entertainment and disaster.  Lead-singer Brad Circone is like a child playing the sidewalk crack game — as long as he manages to take giant steps and not step on any cracks, we’ll all make it to the end of the show.  Should he stumble and land on one of those deadly but enticing cracks…well, I’m not sure what would happen because I’ve never seen it, but I’m positive it would be dangerous, exciting and probably illegal.

“We’ve never really gone over the edge.  We’ve come close,” said drummer Brett Mayo.

“No matter how wild Brad gets, he’s tied to all of us,” added guitarist Rick Silk.  Sort of like an inner tube anchoring a rowboat in a hurricane.

“We’ve never been too intense,” Circone said flatly.  “It’s like a bullfight.  People come to see what’s going to happen.”

It’s easy to dismiss any flaws the band may possess (i.e. lack of humor) as minor because the band members so obviously care about their music.  Care about their lyrics.  Care about their audience.  Insincerity is a label that will never stick to the Toll.

This band is about emotion.  Emotion that rolls around in your stomach for a few days, making you feverish and distracted and finally drives you crazy with a compulsion to act.  The audience is given a private tour of Circone’s mind: the heaven and the hell of it with no explanations or judgments; just pure emotional intensity.

“We’re more serious than jovial; we’re pretty low-key.  We have the same intensity in our personal lives that we do on stage,” explained Circone.  “Our sense of humor?  We’re sarcastic as hell.”

Circone, Mayo, Silk, and bassist Greg Howard went on to explain how the Toll is the dictator that runs their lives.  “We each have an outline of things that we have to do for that week,” said Circone.  “We ask each other at practice if things got done.  If not, that job’s taken away from that person and given to somebody else.  And we all know that person fucked up.  The band itself is a dictator, but each member has a voice, so it’s a democracy.”

“We have big boards at home on the walls telling each of us what to do and when it’s got to be done,” said Mayo.  “Our housemates think we’re crazy.  They don’t know how we can live like that, but we have to, to get things done.”

“We don’t have any time for friends,” said Silk.

“Mediocrity and boredom are the band’s enemies,” said Circone.  “When you’re mediocre, you start to make excuses, like ‘I can’t sing this right because Rick’s not playing right.’  You start to blame each other and boredom sets in and you destruct.

“We’re all perfectionists in certain ways,” he continued.  “We never settle for anything less.”

Circone’s stage presence is that of a Jim Morrison disciple, and the black leather pants, tangled dark curls, and switchblade sideburns enhance the comparison.  He finds the Morrison analogies amusing and claims to have never heard the Doors’ music until six months ago.  To the rest of the band he’s just being Brad.

The music is dreamy and melodic with an inner core of steel and sweat.  The band never looks as though they’re having a rollicking, knee-slapping, good time on stage, but in some twisted sense they seem to derive pleasure from ripping out their souls and waving them round for all to see.

The words and music vary from night to night, but certain nuances form the framework for the construction of each song.  “When we started (the present line up has been together about two years) we didn’t want anyone to be able to cover a Toll song,” Circone said.  “It’s like a game that only we have the rules to.”

Captivating arena-sized crowds with the same intensity and drive the band creates in a 300-person club is something that even U2 and the Rolling Stones haven’t been able to accomplish.  Can the Toll move to bigger venues without compromising themselves?

“To keep this personalism is a great challenge for us,” said Silk.  “We feed off an audience, and the more people we have to feed from, the better it goes.”

“It is a challenge,” Howard added thoughtfully.  “But when we played The Ritz in New York (a 3,500-seat club) Brad was hanging upside down from the rafters…”  His voice trails off.  It was a good show.