TOYKULT is one of those randomly awesome things you find on the web in the weirdest moments. Actually…it found me. It’s the project of United Kingdom born, Montréal multimedia artist Tom Hamlyn, a.k.a, Henri Spartan. The band, comprised mainly of himself (as he said, not by choice) and some collaborators, plays a mix of electronica, 90’s alternative, Brit Pop, punk and everything in between, to create a unique concept that mixes music, art, video and performance. And those weird bunny like toys…
Their songs, with the intentionally quirky and often funny titles, help shape the whole concept behind TOYKULT: to create an intrinsically planned, socially conscious dance party minus the preaching. And if you happen to catch them live somewhere, be careful… they might be impostors.
As there were some pieces missing on the web (I know magicians and musicians never give their secrets away), I contacted Henri Spartan to shed some light on his own project, in his own words. TOYKULT’s second cd, Narcisstika (their first was SOW LOCO), is available for free under a Creative Commons license at their website www.toykult.com.
This is what he said…
Amaya: Google tells me you’re quite the multimedia artist…what did you do before TOYKULT?
Henri Spartan (aka. Tom Hamlyn): I trained as a painter and sculptor and specialized in creating collage artworks, then studied a masters degree in Computer Graphics so I could collage both image and sound. The TOYKULT sound shows elements of this experience.
Amaya: I see…so you told me you’ve been playing music long before this. How did Toykult start? Or, better yet…what inspired you?
Henri Spartan: I was jamming with two friends of mine Martin Bennett and Franck Chionna and decided it was time to concentrate on what I love most… music and art. I had been diddling around doing computer graphics and selling toys on EBay, but I was bored and unhappy with computer graphics as a conduit for my creativity. Essentially the only reason I was doing graphics was to make an income like we all have to, but I was selling enough toys and art invention on EBay that I could dedicate most of my time to making music, so that’s what I started in October 2006.
I was also fortunate to be surrounded by good musicians with experience in sound engineering, so I was able to learn how to build a studio at home on a budget which gave me great creative freedom. And because I had already written and produced an EP using the music of Booker T and the MG’s I was familiar with the process somewhat.
So I began work on my first album SOW LOCO, sow as in sowing seeds. Nine months later the album was finished and all the while I would post tracks to MySpace to see what feedback came back. It was very positive.
[The album] it was self released and promoted mainly thru the TOYKULT myspace profile. Got some excellent reviews and radio play in Canada, USA and UK and in March 2008 I was approached to sign a record deal with Some Bizzare in London UK. The label had its heyday in the 80’s with acts like Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, The The etc so it was very exciting. But I decided to quit the label about 7 months after signing because they kept delaying the official release of the 1st album and were not honest with me.
It was a great relief and spurred me on to write new material a lot of which is on the new album Narcisstika, which brings us up to date ; )
Amaya: Well that’s good, because in this album there’s quite a mix of electronica and alternative…there is even hints of Blur, which I found great.
Henri Spartan: Well spotted! That mix is even more pronounced in this new album I think.
Amaya: There is a little bit of everything. Lots of Britpop…so how did you manage to mix all your influences in? How was the process of recording Narcisstika?
Henri Spartan: I grew up in London and the north of England so Britpop, new wave and punk have had an enormous influence on me. What I’ve tried to do with the TOYKULT sound is add something to that mix, and there’s plenty of North American influences too, especially from the US. Beck for one, Captain Beefheart…something in the creative spirit of these artists; and I love rap to. Public Enemy were and are amazing and I love the first OUTKAST album and Afro Rock from the 70’s and German experimental progressive stuff like CAN.
The recording process is a fairly spontaneous one. I need to find the right energy before recording. It’s almost like you have to leave you normal self behind and go somewhere new or let the dog out…
Amaya: Hahaha…I hope you didn’t have to fight with it…
Henri Spartan: I don’t always write about specific things, often it is about the energy of the performance…
Sometimes I do have to fight with it, but most of the time it’s quite easy to let ideas, lyrics, melodies arrive spontaneously. Of course some of them I end up not liking and they get archived.
Amaya: They’ll make for some nice B-Sides someday…
Henri Spartan: Some of them I can’t stand ; ) But some are a lot of fun. The ones that take themselves too seriously don’t work with me. Songs like Narcisstika and Like a Dog could be too serious but I think we’ve managed to keep a sense of fun in them.
Amaya: I was wondering about the song called Eyes of Vin Diesel…
Henri Spartan: What were you wondering about?
Amaya: About this sense of not taking it too seriously…
Henri Spartan: That’s true. EOVD comes from a random thing a friend said to me: “you’ve got the eyes of Vin Diesel”. Not sure he was right about that but I liked the expression, so it became a line of the song. And my first try with the ubiquitous autotune…
I like the ‘Cor Blimey Mater’ line in the song too.
Because it can be heard as ‘Cor Blimey Mate’ but ‘Mater’ is Latin for Mother (I think). So it’s saying Eyes of Vin Diesel… cor blimey mother/mum…so it’s a dedication to my mum…that bit of the song that is…Mater sounds better than mother too and has the double meaning.
Amaya: See, I think that right now the musicians that are getting famous, I think they take their art way to seriously. You seem like you take it seriously but you can hear through the music and the lyrics that you’re having fun. Cheers to that!
Henri Spartan: Thats great to hear. I agree. I think for many musicians it becomes way too much about the business of music which really kills it; kills the fun, the creativity.
For us it’s not about money it’s about making great music and art having fun and an interesting life while remaining independent and connecting with the audience in a real and unpretentious way.
Our creative process is pretty informal and for the LIVE show I’d really like to bring the sense of fun, happy accident and spontaneity we have in the studio.
Amaya: I know you also have videos. Are they part of your live performances? What elements distinguish you guys form other artists?
Henri Spartan: I’m in the process of developing the VJ show to accompany the LIVE set which will include the visual DVD at the TOYKULT website but also a lot of new material.
I guess the thing that most distiguishes TOYKULT from most other artists is that it is primarily a solo project… in that up to now all the music and visuals are created by me. I collaborate on some songs with different friends and musicians, but I am the organizing factor, and also producer, engineer and promoter. So essentially the music you hear comes from the horse’s mouth… No producer, record company or studio engineer has come between the music and the audience…nor designer.
The guys I work with are friends who are all excellent musicians, some with their own projects. We work together on an informal basis and it’s really a privilege for me to work with them like this.
For the LIVE show there will probably be only two of us, me and Franck Chionna who is an amazing musician with a lot of LIVE experience already and his own project Madovsky.
I hope all that didn’t sound egotistical. It’s not that it was a choice.
I’ve been in a few bands and it was always very difficult to get the sound and energy of the project right so when I started TOYKULT the idea was to go for a sound that I loved that took the influences that have struck a chord with me and develop those ideas while also exploring how I could bring my experience in art to the project too.
Amaya: So that’s where the toys come in. I was going to ask you, because there is a theme in your record…toys, electronic mediums…are they characters on their own are they just part of the visual project?
Henri Spartan: Well the name TOYKULT came to me in a couple of ways…I was selling customized vinyl toys and accessories on EBay and had an interest in counter culture literature, art and film. There was also something messianic about the idea of a ‘Band’ that interested me so the toy and the kult was a play on words. A ‘toy’ as in not the real thing and ‘kult’ as in a bit serious, a bit scary, like an ideology. I think this perspective helps to distinguish us from other bands.
Amaya: It does actually. I’ve never heard anyone take that approach…
Henri Spartan: We can look at ourselves from outside the box, partly because we are not in it. We haven’t played many gigs and definitely want to play more, but I had an idea that TOYKULT would play with different musicians in each country we visit. It’s an arty approach because of my background I guess.
Even going so far as to invite another band somewhere to perform our show instead of us… fun fun fun.
Amaya: Playing tricks huh?
Henri Spartan: Exactly. For fun and I think it would be fun for the audience too…
Amaya: So it’s kind of like a Gorillaz thing…
Henri Spartan: Very much so. They were an inspiration to me. I love a lot of Damon’s [Albarn] work and ideas. And on the visual side I would love to invite artists, street artists to contribute or perform at the live show. It’s all about communication, invention, creativity… so it would become less about me and more about us, which is what music is all about I think.
Amaya: I completely agree.
Henri Spartan: What you make happen together when you are in tune with a vibe, a piece of music or collaborative art piece; or politically even: the people rule.
I’m still a bit of an idealist…
Amaya: Don’t lose that…
Henri Spartan: I won’t even when I become stardust again. And these things shape what I want to happen for TOYKULT.
Amaya: So, “I don’t need no electronic shit”. Is there something about our world specifically or about our politics that you wanted to say with Narcisstika?
Henri Spartan: Well I kind of need my electronic shit! (laugh).
Henri Spartan: I guess the intention is to explore how both old world skills and new can work together in a way that is more human, humane. Technology is amazing and could be incredibly helpful in the human enlightenment project, but there’s something dehumanizing in it too. Especially in the way it is used to propagandize, the way it’s used to manipulate, to exploit through fear the threat of force and war by governments and multi nationals.
Showing my anti capitalist colours here.
Amaya: (Laugh) Hey, so am I, that’s why I asked you. Basically that’s what I took from Narcisstika, especially in the name…
Henri Spartan: This is partly where the ‘kult’ comes from [...] festishisation of technology, which also reflects the Sci-Fi electronic elements of the TOYKULT sound.
I’m glad you got that from the title.
Amaya: It’s a great album…and it’s music with meaning that you can also dance to.
Henri Spartan: Yeyeyeyeeyeyeye…without being too preachy, I hope.
Amaya: Exactly…see, in Puerto Rico we call that “panfletero”
Henri Spartan: Mum and dad like it so it can’t be too bad. They don’t like it when I go on a rant.
Great word… perhaps I could use it a as song title…like pamphlet.
Amaya: That’s exactly what it means.
Henri Spartan: I love it. I’ll tell Franck tonight… it’ll become a song. I love beautiful words whatever language…
Amaya: I want to hear that song when it’s done…if it’s possible.
Henri Spartan: I’ll let you know. Perhaps it’ll go on the studio mastered version of Narcisstika. I’m not that happy with the Unky Little title: “Unky little sound of the future”. “Panfletero” might work well to define its irony a little better.
Amaya: Well I’m glad I could be of service…(Laugh).
Henri Spartan: This is what I love about the creative process… it’s not all about one person.
Amaya: So…I don’t want to take the rest of your day, as I have already. So for the last question: What are your future plans for TOYKULT?
Henri Spartan: We’re going to France in October to record and work on the LIVE show. Then on to Berlin to play some shows and then the UK. And meantime we’ll be releasing Narcisstika on CD and iTunes with slightly different versions of the songs.
Posted in Chronicles and Journalism, Music Reviews, Popular Culture
Tags: canada, electronica, England, henri spartan, indie rock, journalism, madovsky, mixing, montreal, music review, musica, pop culture, Popular Culture, rock and roll, toykult
1. eyes of vin diesel- 2. monkey mo - 3. narcisstika
4. evolve- 5. super cleaner - 6. panfletero
7. ángel exterminador - 8. automatic addict
9. toyfou - 10. like a dog - 11. curly wurly kit kat
12. soulless - 13. electronic shit