Toy Soldiers are the kind of band you think exists all over the United States. But upon closer inspection, they're not so much a throwback but a breath of fresh air for how it should be done. This Philadelphia five-piece fear no venue or crowd--large or small. They simply hit the stage and play. Toy Soldiers are a hard driving, hard playing band that from the first note to the last, will not let up until every soul in the room has been reached and saved by rock and roll. Their favorite guitar? An Epiphone, of course. Epiphone.com caught up with the band just as they wrapped up a three month tour in support of their latest release The Maybe Boys - which included a stop at the legendary Sun Studios to record a live session for PBS -- and as they prepare for upcoming dates including a Christmas Spectacular of sorts in their hometown of Philadelphia (Dec 14th at Ardmore Music Hall) and a New Years Eve date with Dr. John and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Wanda Jackson.
You describe yourselves as a live and hard working band. Give me a day in the life of Toy Soldiers. What's it like out there for a hard working band?
Ron Gallo: It's like Groundhog Day--all five of us wake up at 7:45am in the parking lot of an auto shop an hour and a half outside Chicago, get the van that exploded the night before diagnosed and repaired. Speed to Chicago in time to film a 10am session, then play a street festival at 1pm, then a night show at 9pm. Drink with the locals, find a horizontal surface to lay down on while you daydream of glamour and glory then wash, rinse, repeat.
The Maybe Boys has turned out as a break through record. How do your songs come together?
Most of the songs on the record were songs I had written myself and brought to the band to arrange. "Forget How it Used to Be" and "This Old Town" were co-written by Bill (bassist) and I and Dom (our drummer) has a song that he wrote and sings on the record called "Weeping Willow".
Does making a record--in terms of planning and conceptualizing--come easily to you?
Recording the music, yes. It's everything after, the dressing up of the record and preparing the delivery of it that holds a kind of pressure to it to make sure things are perfect to represent the music you worked so long and hard on. Especially a record cover, much like a name, they have to just come to you so it's often a game of patience in order to do it right.
How did you choose your producer Bill Moriarty?
We were big fans of Bill's work with Dr. Dog and Man Man, and it was always a goal to work with him at some point. So! one fateful night during new record planning we randomly met at a show in Philly for another band he produced. We got talking, a few days later we were checking out the studio, and then in a couple weeks we had our first session.
A lot of bands make a record and then two months later they wish they could do it again. Was it hard to capture your live sound? How did you achieve that?
Capturing the live sound was probably the easiest most natural way we could have done it. It was mostly live takes of the full band in the same room all-together and then adding a few overdubs here and there. We even found that mixing on some songs killed the song so some are completely raw.
Two of the Epiphones in your arsenal include a Sheraton II and Wildkat, both distinctive sounds. How do they play into your work?
The record was recorded mostly with the Sheraton II, and all live shows for the years leading up to it were also on that guitar. I bought the Wildkat recently for the Bigsby, which has added some nice weirdness to the songs in a live setting.
Matt Kelly (lead guitar): The Sheraton II plays remarkably easily (unlike some hollowbody types I've played), and the sound has a nice natural presence to it. It has that sexy semi-hollowbody resonance to it, but I've never seen Ron run into issues with feedback onstage or anything. It's truly a perfect guitar for any genre, and it makes sense that it appears on so many different types of songs on The Maybe Boys, and that it was Ron's go-to ax for the writing process too.
I loved the Sheraton II, but always considered myself a single-coil pickup kind of man (though the Sheraton humbuckers are quite clear and bitey). But Ron getting his Wildkat was a game changer for me, mostly because of the P-90 pickups. Them things is fire! Playing it through a clean amp gets me into Scotty Moore territory. Scotty is one of my guitar heroes, and his tone on early Elvis records is a testament to how P-90s can take you from sweet and clean, to hot and raunchy just with your playing dynamics, no pedals needed. I also started getting into Gary Clark Jr. and love his tone he gets with his Epiphone Casino with P-90s. I do believe a Casino with P 90s and a Bigsby will be the next addition to the Toy Soldiers arsenal.
What songs on the album were your Epiphones played on (and a little background on the songs and how they fit into the album).
Matt Kelly: The very first sound you hear on the album is a chiming/crashing/charmingly cacophonous A chord by Ron on the Sheraton II in "Tell the Teller". It really grabs your attention and tells you to buckle in because we're getting on the rock n roll roller coaster. You can hear the Sheraton II all over the album, especially Ron's Steve Cropper-esque rhythmic chops that really cut through the mix in songs like "Away We Go".
Ron Gallo: "Tell the Teller", "Forget How it Used to Be", "I'm Your Woman", and "Away We Go" were all recorded on my Sheraton II.
What was the band's sound like when you started compared to where you are now? I know that the band went through a massive transformation after the first long tour.
Ron Gallo: It went from a guitar/drum duo to a twelve piece carnival of players and the scaling down to a solid 5 piece band was the crucial point in the band where it actually became a band and the sound I think it always intended to have came about. Before there was a lot more folk and big band sounds and now we're just a straight up rock n' roll band.
What kind of music brought the band together originally?
We're all rooted in delta blues, early rock n' roll, soul, New Orleans music, etc. and that makes up most of our common ground then sprinkled with each members very different other influences from Bemebeya Jazz to punk to Dixieland to traditional country to garage rock and psychedelic.
I watched your taping at Adam Duritz's living room garden show. How did he hear about you?
In December we played our very first show in Boston. At that show was a guy named Ryan Spaulding who runs a blog up there called "Ryans Smashing Life". He is also one of two guys that curates The Outlaw Roadshow at SXSW and CMJ each year, the other being Adam Duritz. Ryan told Adam about us after seeing our Boston show and they booked us for CMJ this year, we played right before Counting Crows and then got invited to go to Adam's apartment and record a few songs the following day.
You're going at things the classic way, one bar at a time, one fan at a time. That can be a very special experience for the fans and the band. Do you find your audiences are hungry for that connection?
At this point, there's not really any other way to do it. However doing things this way builds a much stronger foundation and connection with an audience then if you are spoon fed to them by the internet. And yeah, I find that we do often have a strong connection with people that come see a show because often they are one of the few people there and we can hang out and talk with all of them after the show.