Max Bell ghost-wrote the bass parts on Turn on the Bright Lights.
Lately, when musicians and musicians-turned-friends ask how they might land write-ups at the few decent music blogs/publications left in this bankrupt, rapidly-collapsing industry, I am at a loss. There are trends and well-tested methods for increasing your reach (e.g., hiring a decent publicist or fellating your fans on Twitter) but no sure-fire formulas. For the sake of argument, personal narrative is the only constant when marketing music.
Triumph over tragedy, perseverance despite a trying childhood, overt engagement with politics, race, gender—the list is a little longer but not by much. So, what do you do if your biography isn’t made-for-TV-movie ready, you haven’t recently endured a breakup or overcome an addiction, and you don’t find music the best platform to air your discontent with the current “administration?” What if you just make excellent music? Enter Walker Ashby a.k.a. Toy Light.
Raised in the Bay Area, Ashby moved to L.A. to study art at UCLA. During his undergrad, he became enamored with beat scene bastion Low End Theory. When not focused on painting and photography, he devoted his time to wedding electric guitar with the electronic, hip-hop-inflected beats disintegrating the Airliner walls on Wednesday nights (see Low End Theory link). By the time he graduated, he had produced the title track for the best rap album of 2014 (Open Mike Eagle’s Dark Comedy), released a handful of auspicious EPs (see Sign of Life in particular), and dropped one of the best albums of 2015, Sightless, Unless.
Today, Sightless, Unless feels as fresh and forward-thinking it upon release. Synthesizing influences like Trent Reznor, Burial, and Flying Lotus, Ashby somehow found the riffs that complement breakneck time-signatures and chest-caving subharmonics. On tracks like “Birth Archive,” “Hiss of the Womb,” and “Deathless” (my favorites), he makes his Thom Yorke-like falsetto slice through his densely layered suites and your flesh. Even when his lyrics are unintelligible, he conveys the pervasive melancholy of our modern times better than most.
At the top of this month, Ashby released a new EP, Too Bright. There was no press release. He did not spam your timeline. As such, the EP has gone unnoticed by every blog/publication left in this corrupt, hellscape in which people who’ve never interviewed an independent, veritably unknown musician call themselves music journalists. (My 2015 interview with Toy Light is here). So it goes.
Too Bright is both a refinement of the singular aesthetic Ashby crafted on Sightless, Unless, and a departure from it. On the whole, the EP is far less aggressive, far more meditative. On many songs, Ashby pulls back on the percussion and distortion, allowing him to showcase his beautiful melodies, his expanding vocal chops, and his poignant songwriting. If Billy Corgan had heard Flying Lotus, he might’ve made songs like “Fix You” and “Don’t Look Back.” The center of the six-track EP, these tracks reveal an artist who continues to move closer to realizing a seemingly boundless potential.
A few weeks before he released the EP, Ashby sent it to me. In our conversation, I expressed my concern, without the proper narrative framing, people would ignore it. Ashby, perhaps predictably, was unconcerned. “I’ve always found marketing “yourself” to be kind of corny,” he said. “But I think there’s an artistic way of marketing the music that I’m after. Visuals and writing are some of my strong suits… My long term vision for Toy Light is to be an outlet for raw expression and performance.”
In writing this, I’ve realized that Ashby has had the right idea all along. If a friend asks for your advice about releasing his/her music, tell them that, if Sway doesn’t have the answers, no one does. Tell them to release the art they’ve poured their life into and never look back. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, many people will pay attention.