The true story behind Toby Dammit leaves some dizzy-headed, but the fact is this mysterious percussionist from Tennessee has blazed a trail few could keep up with. Born in the east Tennessee mountains our little Toby somehow found himself atop Bluff Mountain up on Goose Creek Road. He found the trusting care of the most significant Tympani instructor in the American South, who taught him privately right where Robert Mitchum's Thunder Road story took place! Tutored on Thunder Road for ten years as a tympanist, he transformed into a symphonic terror in the Southeastern U.S.A. as a teenager. Mere sight of his arrival at regional percussion competitions left many an ambitious stick-whacker grinding their teeth on the trail back home.
However Toby’s duration in the grown-up symphonic world didn’t last. He canceled another year of stuffy attitudes and puffy conductors - dropping out of school and turning to teenage punk rock nightlife and local bands. While attending an Iggy Pop concert in Memphis in 1987, Toby had a vision; what seemed to him as an uninspired evening between Iggy and his new drummer, Toby had the audacious idea that he could fix the situation...and let Iggy know. As soon as he returned to Knoxville, the 18 year old Dammit packed his drumkit in his old station wagon and hit the road alone to Ohio where Iggy was touring with The Pretenders. Toby attended several concerts passing on handwritten letters and demo cassettes to Iggy's roadies, even offering to set up his drums in the parking lot! This seemed to go nowhere, but one night during a show Toby's jaw dropped as Iggy began quoting from exactly what he had been writing him about; the frustrations of growing up poor and talented in a small town, but being held back by it's limitations - leaving the only thing left to do to get in a car and drive after your dreams. Following the concert (and much to Toby's surprise!), Iggy's stage manager approached Dammit out in the the crowd. A brief professional warning quickly morphed into a serious threat to disappear. Toby drove back to Knoxville totally inspired from the experience and knew he’d have to leave Tennessee, perhaps not to return.
Realizing his pen might get him out of Tennessee faster than his drumsticks, he took to writing letters. He wrote directly to artists he thought could use his help; an odd trail that started with Adrian Belew (whom he also traveled to Ohio to meet) the band XTC in England and finally Greg GInn, founder of Black Flag and SST Records. Much to his surprise Ginn called him and demanded his relocation to California as soon as possible. So he waved goodbye to the hills of Tennessee and drove to California that same year to live and work with Greg Ginn. This trail led him into the notorious cow punk band Tex and The Horseheads for a year. He then met organist Luther Hawkins and together they performed with Paul Roessler of The Screamers. During this period he also made his first album with producer Lou Adler (producer of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, Mamas and Papas, and Cheech and Chong). One night on a L.A. bar t.v. he saw Iggy appear on The David Letterman Show. When Letterman asked Iggy how he found his musicians, an astonished Dammit listened carefully as Iggy jokingly told the story of the Tennessee kid following him around Ohio! A further series of odd events led Toby's life to change significantly at the age of 22 when he actually became Iggy Pop's drummer in 1990.
Iggy (and the same roadies he had passed on his hand written letters to 3 years before!) showed Mr. Dammit the real ups and downs of show business, as they toured incessantly and recorded several albums for Virgin Records from 1990 to 1999. Life on the road proved Toby a survivor. In 1995 Dammit joined the New York band SWANS, relocating from San Francisco to New York soon after. SWANS founder Michael Gira wanted Toby to bring them into a symphonic bombassite’ onstage. That year SWANS toured worldwide with Toby simultaneously pounding a giant bass drum with his right arm, while delicately playing a vibraphone with two mallets in his left hand, standing with a strapped-on marching snare drum and stomping a bass drum with his foot! Few were prepared for the cacophony capable from this one man! Toby worked with Gira on 7 albums. As Gira transformed the group into Angels Of Light, Toby pushed his dextrousity further, simultaneously playing an organ and drumset onstage! Gira taught Dammit 1st hand about working with an artist who owned their own record company. Though it took enormous effort to survive, self-financing projects year after year, it provided freedom to do what you want.
Gradually that buried symphonic percussionist raised a muffled head. As word got around of his symphonic instrument collection, he harnessed a mind-boggling schedule of productions as a sought-after percussionist. New York City offered a full spectrum of artists and projects for Dammit. In 1997 Johnny Depp invited Toby and Iggy to accompany him up the red carpet at the 50th Cannes Film Festival for the premier of his only written and directed film “The Brave,” which Toby had painstakingly worked on with both Depp and Iggy. He worked on productions that ranged from playing all the punk rock drums on the film score for “School Of Rock” to pounding on air vent sheet-metal tubing for Ryan Adams. Ely Guerra arrived from Mexico City ready to make her 2nd album for EMI. Ely's “Lotofire” was the first album where Toby could freely explore complex layering of exotic percussion and old school jazz drumming with oddly manipulated drum machines. “Lotofire” was unlike anything ever released in Mexico and years later would be released in the States as a modern piece of work ahead of it’s time.
While working in France with Iggy, he befriended the French producer Bertrand Burgalat, who owned his own record company Tricatel. Burgalat produced Toby's 1st solo album at Tricatel studios in Paris and officially crowned him with the name Toby Dammit, both which Bertrand owned! Burgalat opened a gate for experimentation with few requests. He wanted no lyrics – only percussion and atmospheres. Toby balanced a random recording schedule with Michel Houellebecq! Working with engineer Peter von Poehl (freshly immigrated from Malmö, Sweden) the two built a wall of every amplifier they could find...some 15 stacked strong! They proceeded to run manipulated drum machines, tympani, marimba, vibraphone, drumsets, you name it, through the wall of amps simultaneously. It sounded like an unbridled electric rock band, but without the tonality of string or voice – bizarre, alien and funky. Burgalat wanted a psychedelic percussion-only album with heavy beats and he got it. New York record store Other Music released the “Top Dollar” sessions on their label Omplatten in 1999. “Top Dollar” also prompted Toby to consider this as an opportunity to start his own label.
For many years at this stage Toby had been rumored to be involved in some manner with the most legendary band of mystery The Residents. While their management Cryptic Corporation and their label Ralph Records both acknowledge his frequent appearance on their records and possibly even onstage, it remains foggy as to “what it is” he may or may not have done, much less how or where. Cryptic were quoted in the liner notes of “Top Dollar” as being highly fond of Monsignor Dammit’s work, as was Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, who coined the phrase “The asses are masses who need to wear Dammit glasses!” Nonetheless there is a genuine common thread; The Residents have always survived as an independent organization running their own record company since their beginnings some near 40 years ago.
In 2000 Toby launched the record label in Hamburg, Germany called Hit Thing (an English/German reversed translation game of a "caveman-esque drummer”) with Guido Randzio, (who partnered the EuroRalph label with The Residents). Call it a coincidence or what have you, but they did share the same office and staff in those days. It is possible that at a relatively young age Dammit realized from working with several artists running their own label and business that this was the only way to survive happily in the long run. Modus operandi for Hit Thing would be odd repertoire, combining renegade lost re-issues and new productions of Toby’s. Notably their first re-issue, Georges Montalba's “Hi-Fi Fantasy in Pipe Organ and Percussion”, exposed Anton LaVey’s (founder of the Church of Satan) claim to be Montalba as phony-baloney and revealed the true organist, Robert Hunter, solving a heated 45 year mystery with an extensively researched life story of Mr. Hunter, sadly confirmed and dictated to Toby from Robert's death bed. Inspired by Hunter's tremendous musical life and talent, Dammit reunited with lifelong organist friend Luther Hawkins in Los Angeles to record together in 2000. Working alone in Luther’s ranch with Grammy Award winning producer Mark Howard (Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris), they created a beautiful & strange instrumental album called “Karny Sutra”. Luther & Toby took Montalba's exotic atmospheres into a modern explorative realm with darker electronic textures, all the while respecting a stately tradition of mystery and romanticism using only organ, piano and percussion.
Luther introduced Toby to director Mark Whiting while performing at UCLA's Royce Hall in 2001. Neither realized this meeting was the beginning of a 4-year working relationship. Whiting invited Dammit to score his first film, entitled “The Legend of Apple Jack” with BIG expectations. He wanted a full 1940's Hollywood soundstage orchestral score combined with a bluegrass band, as well as hair raising science fiction electronic atmospheres. Toby signed on and spent the rest of his New York years perfecting the score with a 21-piece hand picked orchestra. The official release of “Apple Jack” would not occur until 2006, but the combined maniacal efforts of Whiting and Dammit continue to blow people's minds today.
2002 was an important year for Toby in France. In spring he was invited to perform at the 36th Montreux Jazz Festival with the Swiss artist Stephan Eicher. They have continued this relationship touring and recording together for the past 6 years diligently with much success. In summer he was also invited to accompany American writer Bruce Benderson for a live performance in Paris. Benderson, regarded as one of the most controversial American writers today, "hit it off" with Toby and the pair took their show to La Cigale in Paris' Pigalle district. The Parisian audience didn't know Bruce was reading excerpts from the next book that would take France by storm, “The Romanian”. Through a wall of "heavy amplification" Toby performed his Romanian influenced electronic score live with a Buchla Marimba Lumina synthesizer and a "manipulated 808 drum machine". As Toby performed in colorful cowboy attire, Benderson read page upon page of the most detailed descriptions of fellatio possibly ever uttered from man. Benderson finished his story of obsession while slamming a circus bass drum through the final climax. “The Romanian” / “Autobiographie Erotique” won the Prix de Flore that year, a prize heretofore only given to French authors. Benderson was in fact the first American in history to take France's highest literary prize! In fall Bertrand Burgalat made a rare New York visit to perform with Toby. Toby surprised his French producer by performing an all-percussion tribute to Tricatel’s roster of singers with an all-girl percussion section! Burgalat reacted with an invitation to become musical director of his prized Tricatel chanteuse April March. Toby adapted Bertrand’s complex studio productions for stage and together they toured Canada, America, Switzerland and France. Bertrand took Toby to tour across Russia the following year preparing material for a new Burgalat album to be recorded in Berlin.
Hence Berlin became the new destination for Toby. In 2003 he came to Berlin to record the duet album “Morphosa Harmonia” with another lifelong friend; Bad Seeds drummer, Thomas Wydler. “Morphosa Harmonia” provided another artistic breakthrough for Toby. He layered abstract phonetic choral arrangements using his own voice, giving each piece a uniquely exotic pan-Pacific choir, seemingly either male or female, both young and old to Wydler's high tempered percussive grooves and atmospheric bebop influenced environments. The results are, well...not like anything anyone had imagined and absolutely beautiful. Toby's attraction to Berlin was blooming.
When Dammit was approached by the New York band Bee and Flower to produce their second album “Last Sight Of Land”, he proposed to take them to Berlin. In 2004 Dammit arrived with Dana Schechter and her pianist Rod Miller with a plan to make an orchestral album. Weeks of scoring on paper and shredding pencils like a beaver brought forth an album layered with choirs, string section, bass section, percussion section and electronics, all arranged by Dammit. The trans-Atlantic move resulted in another productive explosion for Dammit. Working in the former DDR radio and television broadcasting center in East Berlin, Toby found an extraordinary environment for any sort of production he could imagine. That's exactly where Burgalat joined Dammit in 2005 to record his album “Portrait-Robot”. Burgalat, seeking to work in privacy outside of the French industry, found the solitude he desired to create a personal psychological examination of himself through music. Later that year Toby met another French artist performing her 1st concert in Berlin; Keren Ann. Upon meeting her after her show, she proposed the idea of Toby going on the road with her IMMEDIATELY. So the story goes, Toby was "hog-tied" and "on-the-bus" within 30 minutes and trying to find a drumset in Bonn the next morning! They have performed many shows together since in Germany, U.S.A., Canada and France.
In 2006 Rufus Wainright landed in Berlin to record his album “Release The Stars”. He wanted Toby to bring “everything he had” into the same DDR studio. Much to Toby's surprise they actually did unpack nearly every instrument in his collection. “We even went outside in the forest looking for tree limbs to step on to simulate a person's back being broken!” Rufus was working with Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys) as producer and once again the East Berlin sessions were filled with inspiration and exploration. The two North American exiles found life in common being far from home and alienated by the war. Just listen to the song "Going To A Town".
Toby next met another American exile exploring Berlin's possibilities; Jessie Evans - a meeting that resulted in 251 concerts in 25 countries! They recorded Jessie Evans's 1st solo album in Mexico City in the summer of 2007, after recording basic tracks in Berlin with Thomas Stern (Crime & the City Solution). The project took them from Mexico City down to Acapulco and up to Tijuana - mixing with Pepe Mogt (Nortec Collective). VIVA MEXICOOOOO!. The duo released a 2nd album "Glittermine" in 2013, combining the sister ciities of Berlin and Los Angeles with Sao Paolo, Brasil!
In June 2011 Toby received a surpirse phone call from Iggy asking him to join The Stooges for the remainder of their 2011 tour. Original drummer (and longtime buddy of Toby's) Scott Ashton was temporarily hospitalized for an illness and would not be able to complete the tour. Toby was on a plane the next morning to London to begin rehearsals for a concert that weekend! The tour was an enormous positive event in Toby's life, reuniting with Iggy after so many years apart. Toby remains to this date the live Stooges drummer and anyone who has witnessed one of the 62 Stooges concerts Toby has performed can attest to the commitment shown onstage of Toby living up to the legacy his friend Scott Ashton deserves.
Working with artists that provoke him to explore his talents (and jetlag!) as never before seems to be the only pattern for this unpredictable Tennessean traveler.
One thing seems certain; the words of his hometown patron saint and inspiration Dolly Parton ring clear:
“Never underestimate the will of a bastard from Sevierville, Tennessee.”
Photo courtesy of the estate of Toby Dammit