Toy Light: The Beat Scene's Collegiate Recruit
[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
If you're anything like I am, your last year of college was an anxiety-riddled, hallucinogen-addled holding pattern. A bachelor's degree in the humanities usually leaves you qualified to immediately do little more than play-act as a barista at a post-grad internship. The best hope of avoiding indigence is accruing an impressive résumé prior to entering the "real world."
But some are more naturally inclined toward the life philosophy outlined by grizzly-voiced rap legend Xzibit: "Never see a 9-to-5, because it just ain't me." Judging from last month's self-released EP Afterlife, Walker Ashby tilts in that same direction.
While most seniors scramble, Ashby - now in his final year studying sound design and sculpture at UCLA - released one of the young year's best projects under his nom de luz, Toy Light. Ashby's productions are weightless and ethereal yet anchored by convulsive, low-end bass.
Wielding a guitar and a Thom Yorkian falsetto, the record sounds tailor-made for astronauts enduring an existential crisis, something not entirely unlike the free-float that endures in the months leading up to a commencement ceremony.
"I've always felt estranged from my surroundings, but I especially felt that way at UCLA," Ashby, 21, says at a coffee shop in Silver Lake, across town from his Brentwood apartment. "I can speak my mind and talk about art, aesthetics and music, but didn't feel like contributing to institutional critiques about art. I wanted to make it."
Wearing a black jacket and green tee, he looks fit for casting as Ryan Gosling if they made a biopic about the latter's band, Dead Man's Bones.
If you didn't know him, you might mistake him for a frat boy, but a roiling complexity is submerged in his music as Toy Light.
For someone barely able to legally buy booze, he has a salient maturity and speaks excitedly about everything from contemporary abstract sounds and mushrooms at the Getty Museum, to Mark Rothko canvases and ancient philosophers.
Raised in the Bay Area, Ashby spent his high school years as a lead singer and guitarist for a band that saw enough local acclaim to once play at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. Twice a year, he would moonlight as a photographer during New York Fashion Week.
Shortly after matriculating to UCLA, he discovered L.A. beat-scene basilica Low End Theory and switched his focus to fusing post-rock, dance music and hip-hop. Think an alchemy of late-period Radiohead, Autolux and Nosaj Thing.
Over the last year Ashby has played at Low End Theory twice, with another date slated for April. He also contributed beats to the coming album from indie-rap linchpin Open Mike Eagle. But it's the Toy Light project that drives his passions and allows him to convey his teeming emotions.
"There's a Japanese term, 'mono no aware,' that refers to a general sadness of time slipping away and that everything is past. It's not how I feel all the time, but after a mood swing where I feel ecstatic about opportunities in life, there's a deep emptiness that ends up going into the music," Ashby says. "It ends up mixing with other moods that are more aggressive and dissonant."
The overall effect is eerie and transfixing. If you listen closely, you can hear Ashby's fixation on using sound to build sculptures, ones that are icy but intricately carved. They're songs made by someone trying to escape melancholy by achieving harmony.
Toy Light is a tool to figure out the inscrutable and ward off the chaos ready to strike upon Ashby's graduation in June. So far it's working.
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