BRAD - JEREMY TOBACK
Another True Fiction
Interview by Pete Crigler
Brad was the first side project to come out of the success of Pearl Jam. Their debut album, 1993's Shame was one of the definitive albums of my high school years. Besides Stone Gossard and Satchel bandmembers Regan Hagar and the late, great Shawn Smith, the band also featured bassist Jeremy Toback. After some years with the band, he launched a modestly successful late '90's solo career. With some of the funkiest bass to ever come out of Seattle, Toback more or less retired from making music in the early 21st century. Still writing and coming back around the music scene, he was gracious enough to spend some time talking about Brad, his past and his future.
PSF: How did you get interested in playing music and particularly, bass?
JT: In the most un-rebel ways... My folks suggested I take up an instrument, when I was about 15. I was diving deep into rock and new wave and knew I wanted to play something I could use in a band. I picked bass essentially because it seemed like everyone else already played guitar... Which turned out to be a pretty good call years later, when Brad needed a four-string guy.
PSF: Tell me about some your early bands.
JT: I shedded pretty intensely and within a year or so I was good enough to start a band (Native Sun) with Anthony Wilson, who now plays guitar with Diana Krall. Anthony and our drummer, Ryeland Allison (son of Keith from Paul Revere & The Raiders), were already great players, so I was kind of lucky to be there. We were going for this jazz-funk fusion thing, which was completely out of step with the L.A. '80's indie scene and we basically couldn't book a gig outside of school. But I still loved the whole process of creating this thing: the writing, the recording (on a 4-track!), the naming, the super pretentious photos, the one show we played together.
Then at Princeton, I was in this band called Noise Petals, where our singer (James Trigg) and I wanted to do an R.E.M. college rock thing, while the guitarist (Hearn Cho) wanted to be in King Crimson and the drummer (Tom Stegeman) was on a Stewart Copeland trip. We somehow managed to do some pretty cool stuff with that collision and played a ton of college shows, as well as some nice opening slots for Throwing Muses and 10,000 Maniacs at Trenton's legendary City Gardens. Our EP is up on streaming services and I still dig the song, "Trespass."
PSF: How did you come into Stone Gossard's orbit?
JT: My childhood best friend, Alex Rosenast, moved to Seattle to go to UW, where he became friends with Stone... and even road managed Mother Love Bone on a tour. Stone and I heard about each other from Alex, though we didn't meet until I visited Seattle in summer of 1992, right in the midst of Pearl Jam becoming the biggest band in the world. We actually first ran into each other at this coffee shop called the Green Cat that Regan's family owned.
PSF: Tell me about the formation of Brad and how the band developed its sound.
JT: Stone, Shawn and Regan had already played together and written parts of "Buttercup" before they brought me in. I had returned from Seattle to LA and gone back to my day job teaching teens speed reading, when Stone called out of the blue and asked if I wanted to jam with them and maybe make a record that fall. It was one of those "this can't be happening" moments. But for some reason, I felt the need to be honest and told Stone I hadn't played bass in about a year, since I was focused on writing songs. He was unphased and said something both shaman wise and reckless, like "time off can make your playing better." Needless to say, I got the bass out, started practicing and showed up ready for it in October. But I still hadn't played a note with those guys before we started writing. That we all fell into such instant synch remains a bit of a gift from the gods.
PSF: What was your role in the band and how did your style help the music?
JT: Writing and recording Shame was a very loose, free process. Shawn and Stone brought some developed ideas in, but then songs like "20th Century" and "Raise Love" grew out of rhythm section jams or bass lines I snuck in. I think the fact that I was kind of this trained musician, who was into jazz and art rock, where the other guys were all great players but less traditionally schooled and more into '70's rock, with Shawn obviously a Prince head, created an unusual but very cool collision. As a songwriter, I could also really intuit the space that Shawn's singing deserved, as could Regan and Stone. If you look at the Shame era pictures/videos, Brad kind of looks like just another grunge band, but there was a lot going on beneath the surface that made us different.
PSF: What caused the band's name to change to Brad?
JT: That's a legendary but true story. The guys wanted to call the band Shame. I hated the name but was losing that fight, until we found out that this other guy already had a band called Shame. When he got wind that Stone from Pearl Jam was in our band, he wanted to charge us a ton of money for the rights. His name happened to be Brad, so we just took his name... for free.
PSF: How easy was it to get signed to Epic and how did you feel about it?
JT: All of that happened effortlessly, from my perspective at least. I don't know if Epic and Michael Goldstone would have been as interested if the tracks weren't happening. But even the rough mixes had something special to them. I was naturally pretty excited to suddenly find myself with this major label record deal.
PSF: What was the recording sessions for Shame like?
JT: Very fast. There was a real openness to any ideas any of us wanted to throw into the mix. I don't think anybody expected me to bring a song in, but the vibe was so free that I felt comfortable doing that. We wrote, recorded and rough-mixed the entire record in under three weeks. Some Shawn and percussion overdubs, as well as the Brendon O'Brien mixes happened later in NY, but that was really icing.
PSF: What was the inspiration for "Down"?
JT: I had been writing these kinds of note-cluster chordal progressions on piano back in Silverlake. I don't remember whether I came to Seattle with the "Down" seed in my back pocket or wrote it up there and brought it in. Lyrically, it has some deeply coded reflections about what I felt like as this outside L.A. guy entering this Seattle web of tightknit relationships in the midst of the goldrush.
PSF: Were there any shows played in support of the disc?
JT: No. Everything out of Seattle seemed to be blowing up and we knew we'd made something strong. KROQ in L.A. was already playing "Screen" before the record even dropped. We had an article in Rolling Stone and we'd done these videos but then some political things went down that put it all on deep freeze. We never played live for Shame.
PSF: How did you get your solo career started?
JT: Recording Shame coincided with me beginning to play solo shows at pre-Silverlake scene East Side spots like the Onyx on Vermont, with fellow art rock freaks like Stew of The Negro Problem (then the Crazy Sound All Stars). Eventually, an old friend from high school, Bradley Kaplan, offered to help manage and produce some recordings for me. We recorded a demo with some amazing players on it, including Nels Cline (now in Wilco) and Ge Stinson, and that became my first EP, which got me signed to RCA.
PSF: When did you sign with RCA and what was it like recording Perfect Flux?
JT: I played a long residency of Monday night solo bass shows at The Mint in L.A., which is how Bruce Flohr saw and eventually signed me to RCA in 1996. They put out my first EP through Cherry Disc as a fake "indie" release and had me go right to work recording a first full length record. I made an unforced error by firing Bradley during the initial phase of that record... And then went on to work with Craig Street and his crew on the East coast, with Dougie Bowne on drums, Melvin Gibbs on bass and Ivan Julien on guitar, all great guys and monsters of music. Flux does have some strong stuff on it. But there was something special and specific to my aesthetic about the EP and I regret missing out on the opportunity to continue evolving that sound with Bradley. Interestingly, that record has also just received a re-release and folk can check out more of my thoughts on it here on Instagram.
PSF: What were the sessions like for (Brad's 2nd album) Interiors; was it a different sort of vibe?
JT: Sadly, yes. We were all in the midst of our other projects and carrying around this sense that Shame hadn't received its due. The na´ve cocoon that allowed us to just fly magically through Shame was shattered. I was conscious about my solo career and probably put more pressure than healthy on having my songs included. It felt at times like Shawn and I were competing more than collaborating. Some great things still came out of those sessions, but the vibe wasn't one of them.
PSF: How were you able to balance Brad and your solo career at this point?
JT: I didn't manage it that well. I was set to play the second stage of Lollapalooza in summer '97, when Brad began planning to tour for Interiors. The guys were trying to work it out, so I could finish Lolla then hop out with them, but I had it in my head that I needed to keep my solo backing band together. The guys were cool with me opening for us with my own short solo set but thought it would be weird if I had a full band with me. I was more annoyed than I should have been and decided not to tour with Brad at all, which was both petty and bad business. Sometimes you have to do the stupid thing to know what stupidity actually is.
PSF: What was solo 'success' like and how did you react to it?
JT: I experienced a taste of success when KROQ started playing the EP version of "The Word Behind Words." But then RCA decided to hold off on promoting "Word" until we recorded the "real" version with big guitars... Another lame unforced error, only not mine this time. From that point on, it was much more about struggle than success. One now-humorous example was my daily dose of punishment on Lolla's second stage, where I'd play to a solid crowd for about two songs, only to hear the echoing "thunka thunk thunka thunk" of Korn kicking into their set, and immediately watch flocks of flannel fleeing away from me into the main amphitheater.
As fun as that story is now, and it does play well at parties, the frustration of it and many more like it at the time spun me into a complete nervous system breakdown. I've been a runner my entire life and suddenly I found myself unable to do much more than lie on the couch. Western medicine didn't offer any answers, so I ventured down a path into Kundalini yoga, meditation and alternative healing, all of which inspired a lot of the songs on Another True Fiction.
PSF: What was the impetus behind Another True Fiction and what was it like working with all those songwriters?
JT: At first, ATF was a gentle road back into the creative process. I tapped into this meditation-inspired sense of openness and agreed to cowrites with producer Marvin Etzioni and writers like Jules Shear and Jeff Trott. The process itself was friendly but a little too "crafty" for my artistic taste. I actually like some of the resulting tunes, even the really straight-ahead stuff like "Perfect from The Start," which I wrote with John Shanks. But none of them feel as true and original, particularly on the lyric tip, as the songs I wrote before that or the ones I'm working on now.
PSF: When did you finally leave Brad and was it a difficult decision?
JT: We came to a mutual split after the "Welcome to Discovery Park" tour. I just couldn't financially afford to keep doing music full time or even carve out weeks for the occasional tour. Brad needed someone who could, and I gave them my full blessing to find that guy.
PSF: When did you get dropped by RCA and how did you feel about that?
JT: RCA dropped me three days before the birth of our first son, Miles. I was completely lost creatively from months of co-writing and chasing after hits for a potential third record. I had spent a couple weeks in London working with Hugh Padgham on David Gilmour's houseboat studio on the Thames. That sounds like it should have been a dream, but in reality, we were recording on a damn houseboat with the river threatening to flood during the worst rains in London in decades... And I had completely lost my creative compass. I came back to L.A. with pretty much nothing.
I don't blame RCA for dropping me and they were fair to me money wise. But it was devastating emotionally, particularly as other members of my biz team started falling away.
PSF: What were you up to in the early 2000's?
JT: After the Brad tour, my wife and I founded a yoga music label called Ajna Music. We put out some really cool records for that market, including two I produced for Sada Sat Kaur (Angel's Waltz & Shashara) and then Donna De Lory's The Lover & The Beloved. But we were just a few crucial years ahead of the yoga music scene and, even more importantly, the advent of streaming. Still, it's gratifying to see those records growing a following over the years since.
PSF: At what point did you essentially move out of the music business?
JT: After Ajna, I managed to land a couple high level sales jobs at startups. I wasn't very good at sales and neither job lasted that long. In between those gigs, Renee Stahl and I started our lullaby duo, Renee & Jeremy. That project has continued to grow over time, even though we haven't made a new record in a while. Folk keep having babies, apparently, and they seem to love the R&J. It's been an unexpectedly gratifying thing to know that kids are actually growing up to our songs.
I gave music one last full-time shot in 2011 with Chop Love Carry Fire, a band with Butch Norton (Lucinda Williams, Eels) on drums and Joel Graves (Everest) on guitars. CLCF was great in terms of music and friendship, but it became clear pretty quickly that it wasn't going to pay bills and I needed to find something that would. Our eldest son was on the verge of becoming teenager and the family financial struggle had long lost its charm, all of which lead me to my current career as a ghostwriter.
PSF: Tell me a bit about your current writing career.
JT: A commercial director friend gave me a chance to write a treatment, which is a very slick doc of text and photos that directors and their production companies create to compete for jobs. My dad is a retired commercial director, so I took to the process pretty quickly and managed to build it into a healthy career. I support our family with it, and it gives me the time to pursue other creative projects, including some screenwriting AND, after a long hiatus, a new set of Jeremy Toback songs I'm finishing, slowly but surely. Twenty years should be enough time between records!
PSF: What are your best memories of Shawn Smith (who died in April 2019)?
JT: My best memories of Shawn will always be from that first Brad record... And there are a lot of them. In particular, I remember Regan and I finding this repetitive funk groove, Stone adding a hypnotic arpeggio, and then Shawn just settling into his weird, perfectly nasal "my freh-ends, 20th Centuree-eeh, my freh-ends... " I couldn't help myself, broke into a big grin and sang it back to him in his voice. We barely knew each other at that point and Shawn couldn't tell whether I was complimenting or mocking. I assured him that it was most definitely the former!
We had a complex relationship, but we loved and respected each other in the end. I wrote a little bit more about Shawn on Instagram, if folk want to check that out.
PSF: What do you hope people will remember about Brad?
JT: Shame's the one for me. I think we fell into a mysterious crack in the culture with that record. It still feels overcast and illusive, with a deep groove and this sense of heartbroken possibility that the Seattle scene had at that moment. As I think you know, we're re-releasing the entire Brad catalogue, along with Satchel and Shawn's solo stuff, so mostly I'm just happy that folk across the globe will now be able to discover and listen to Shawn's legacy in full.
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