From the Vault: Toy Soldiers

Photographer: Press photo

Back in June, Philly/Lancaster raucous blues rockers Toy Soldiers announced a “deep, dark hibernation” as the band’s members take time to pursue different projects: lead vocalist and chief songwriter Ron Gallo released a solo album, while drummer/vocalist/songwriter Dominic Billett joined up with guitarist Matt Kelly to forge a garage rock duo COIN PURSE. The band’s end would officially come after a slew of commitments to summer festivals and a few club shows. This weekend’s Campfire Outdoor Adventure and Music Festival in Lakewood, PA, marks the band’s final hurrah…for now. This profile originally ran in our October 2013 issue following the release of Toy Soldiers album, The Maybe Boys.

 

Like so many musicians hoping to strike gold, Dom Billett spends part of his afternoons bringing coffee to strangers. Billett is the drummer, co-vocalist and co-songwriter for Lancaster/Philly-based rockers Toy Soldiers. His wavy brown locks escape from under a wool cap, and his barely-there facial hair seems like an illustrious beard repressed by the health code of his day job. It’s a visual sign of the ongoing line artists straddle between their craft and their checking account. Fortunately, Toy Soldiers have been filling up more and more time in Billett’s schedule of late.

His apartment is home to Boz Scaggs wall hangings, an old-school Super Nintendo and a largely underfoot kitten named Isis.

“Want anything?” Billett asks. What I want is to fire up that Super Nintendo and take F-Zero for a spin, but I’ve been warned about playing video games with interview subjects. Instead, we sit down, avoid Isis and get in touch with Billett’s friend, Ron Gallo – Toy Soldiers’ founder, sole mainstay and guitarist who is presently pulled over in a tunnel somewhere outside of Philly and speaking through a crackly cell phone connection.

You may have come upon the Toy Soldiers sound while meandering through the area music scene. The band is often spotted playing venues in the area. But with more than 120 shows in the last year alone, they’ve played tour stops well beyond the confines of Central Pennsylvania, including this year’s Rachael Ray showcase at Austin’s SXSW Festival and the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.

Toy Soldiers can be hard to recognize sometimes, as the band has, until recent years, been in a state of metamorphosis. Since forming the band in 2007, Gallo has watched a series of musicians come and go. The fluctuating collective – which Billett numbers in the realm of “16 million” – has also produced a series of recordings, starting with 2009’s self-released album, Whisper Down the Lane, which was eventually picked up and re-released through MAD Dragon Records. A handful of EPs followed, most notably 2011’s Get Through the Time and Midweek Mountain Getaway, the latter of which is a split EP with Nashville singer-songwriter Jordan Hull.

As bandmates came and went – some meeting for the first time just before hopping on stage – it became clear that a little solidification would go a long way.

“That giant coalition that was Toy Soldiers was nearing its end,” says Billett. “I met Ron by playing with him in a bunch of shows around Lancaster and Philly, and he would call me up to fill in on a few shows. Then I kind of started recruiting all of my friends, and we got this fun, energetic vibe.” Those friends include local music scene regulars Bill McCloskey (bass), Matt Kelly (guitar) and Luke Leidy (keyboards).

 

Since the beginning, Gallo forged the band’s garage-y blues-folk sound. As more Soldiers enlisted, the sound morphed with its members, becoming more of a soul and R&B experiment. The current five-piece has been together for four years, and the band released its latest album, The Maybe Boys, on September 10.

Billett explains that the music has evolved yet again, while still culling elements from the band’s past. Soul, blues, rock, folk and gospel all meld together into one unified sound.

“We all have tons of influences,” Billett says. “Every band says that, I know – but it really shows in the new record. There’s tons of eclectic-ness in a fun, out-of-nowhere kind of way.”

Through the crackled reception, Gallo notes that the band’s current sound has grown organically out of the players involved. “I feel like everything the past couple of years was a prologue,” he says. “I spent all those years trying to figure out what I wanted musically. And with these guys, I feel like this is the band and everything else was just a tryout; we’re a ‘thing’ now, and not just a bunch of people trying to figure it out.”

In a live setting, Toy Soldiers pride themselves on playing through the wall, right at their audience. This purist take on what often becomes a filtered process is motivated by a reverence for their primitive soul and blues ancestors.

“The pioneers of those types of music were on top of their game, and there’s just so much to draw from it,” Billett explains. “Not just the sounds, but the energy they invested to make that stuff happen. It’s interesting to think what it was like to be in a session back in the ’60s or ’70s. What was the drummer using to get those sounds and how was he making them with so little at his disposal? That’s what fuels our fire – taking that minimalistic approach.”

Gallo agrees. “They were all responses, people channeling their feelings and just trying to make it into something that is permanent,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a big political thing. It can just be taking something that you’ve really felt or experienced, then taking your stance and letting loose.”

That’s the angle Toy Soldiers took when recording The Maybe Boys with the help of Bill Moriarty, famed producer of acts like Dr. Dog and Hoots & Hellmouth.

The 12 tracks that make up The Maybe Boys are like taking a cross-country road trip in the Toy Soldiers’ touring van. It all starts off with the new Philly rock sound of “Tell the Teller,” moves on to New Orleans with horns and jazz in “This Old Town” and then moves west to the dusty backroads of Texas with songs like “Been Here All My Days” and “Red Dress” (which Esquire debuted the video for in September).

“We don’t sit down and think, ‘O.K., we have to write a Toy Soldiers song now,’” Gallo says. “Every song is taken from a different place and written about different things. There’s not a lot of continuity.

The next thing could just go in a completely different direction.” The Maybe Boys has already been garnering critical praise, including features on websites like the A.V. Club, Guitar World and the Huffington Post.

And in the future, some eclectic band of young musicians may be living in a world of auto-tuned robo-pop, wondering what happened to guitar strings and human feelings. And they’ll find dusty Toy Soldiers albums and spend an afternoon wondering how those guys made these sounds using only what they had.

And then, most likely, they’ll go serve strangers coffee.

 

The Campfire Outdoor Adventure & Music Festival takes place in Lakewood, PA, on August 29-31. Ticket prices vary. Click here for more info.


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