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Our Man In Paris: An Interview with Toby Cayouette, the Hybrid Band Member

Toby Cayouette
Photo: Amandine Lauriol

Toby Cayouette is a Paris-based musician, songwriter, and sometimes bandleader originally from Montréal, Quebec. His musical projects have successfully brought him all over North America, Europe and even on a national tour of China! His perspective on the music industry has been shaped by a pretty tumultuous career filled with manipulative label contracts, band-member mutiny, and lost ownership of master recordings. Now that he lives abroad, working remotely for two bands and reenvisioning a long abandoned solo project, things are starting to fall back into place. In light of #BetterBand Week, I decided it was time to get back in touch with our man in Paris.

Alright, so bring us up to speed on the bands you play in.

I currently play in two different bands, a relatively new instrumental rock ensemble, Thin Blue Line, marrying old school indie-rock guitar with even older school kraut rock vibes and squelchy 70s synth, and a rather successful francophone pop act called Peter Peter, which is also pretty synth-heavy. In Thin Blue Line I play guitar live, synths and noise on the recordings, and I edit the films that we use live. Peter Peter is pretty much a solo artist, so I play bass and synths in his touring band. I’m also starting a new solo electronic project once I’m done with this next Thin Blue Line album.

Previously, I’d spent 10 years of my life trying to get a band called Statue Park off the ground. Despite my best efforts, it never did more than hover briefly over the Trans-Canada highway and record 2 EPs and a full-length, the persistent obscurity of which is one of the chips that will likely remain solidly lodged into my shoulder for a good long while still. I was also one of the founding members of Chinatown, a 5-piece French indie pop band that put out 2 successful records, but was then murdered by a record label buy-out and tossed into a common grave, with no way out of the remaining 2 albums under contract and no ownership of the masters.

As a sort of bandleader of Thin Blue Line, what is your role in the group?

Well, even a well-oiled engine needs fuel to run. I’m that fuel. I make sure stuff gets done, I book everything, take care of everything other than strictly making music. I make sure we stay the course and are headed somewhere. The other guys are busy having children, running/owning restaurants and managing software development teams, so I’m the maverick wild card with the occasional time to take care of this stuff.

Live performance is an essential part of my life and a great source of happiness for me, so having the opportunity to get paid to play music I actually like is a chance not that many musicians have these days.

How has it been recording an album remotely?

Actually so far it hasn’t been that remote. We recorded the bed tracks of the last 2 songs the weekend before I left Montréal, live off the floor (which is how we’ve recorded all of our songs), and now I’m 6000 km away, compiling the takes and doing the extra production on the songs (synths, samples, noise), and assembling a reference mix for the mixing engineer. But quite honestly, the process was identical for the previous tracks, I was working alone then too, just not remotely.

Regarding your current state as a “hired gun” for Peter Peter, a band member in a band where someone else writes the songs, what have you learned in this situation that you feel you can take away?

I’ve learned that I absolutely don’t need to be running the show all the time. That I can be perfectly happy also tagging along for the ride, that live performance is an essential part of my life and a great source of happiness for me, so having the opportunity to get paid to play music I actually like is a chance not that many musicians have these days. It also turns out that some people consider me to be a perfectly competent musician, enough to hire me (and re-hire) me to play gigs. It’s strange to me since I never really considered myself to be a gigging musician, I was someone who wrote music first and foremost. But hey, give me the hat, I’ll wear it, I suppose.

Toby Cayouette

Do you find yourself hiding your own ideas more when it’s not your band?

Yes, obviously. With Peter, we’ll work on new arrangements and new bass/synth lines prior to touring, but that’s about it, and it suits me fine. For once, the onus isn’t on me, and the creative pressure either. Peter knows what I’m capable of, so I’m quite happy being a Swiss Army knife that’s around when needed.

Have you ever experienced band-mutiny?

Yes, I have. Those were some dark days… With Statue Park, which was active off and on for about a decade. We had spent months building a recording studio in a loft that I was renovating, and then writing and recording demos for what was to be our first full-length record, and the boys really wanted to go on tour. I wanted to record the album first, but they wanted to tour first. So I ended booking a 24-date Canada tour. I remember having an ominous feeling, and I told the band, I said that if we didn’t record this record before we left, it would never happen. They assured me we would, and to stop being so paranoid. So we toured. And it was one of those grueling, back-breaking, van-breakdown, seat-of-our-pants kind of tour. Lots of sleeping in vans and people’s floors, and sometimes opting for the van over the floors because they were that disgusting, and most of the time there was barely anyone at the shows… The first major fights started happening in Victoria two weeks in. And by the time we got back, we needed to take a break from each other. A few weeks after that, they all quit. And shortly after that, the hard drive containing all of the demos for our album got stolen. And what do you know, the album was never made…

This is not a job for me, it’s my life, it’s what I live to be able to do, so I’m not going to waste that on music I wouldn’t actually listen to.

What have you learned to do or NOT to do from experiencing other people’s band leadership?

Don’t force the issue. It’s fine to raise questions or concerns, and to suggest structural changes that are better adapted to live performance, but ultimately, it’s that guy’s show, his blood, sweat, and tears, and you need to respect that. The other bandleader may not always make the decisions that I would make, but they are his decisions to make, not mine. And besides, I know full well that I’m rather peculiar myself, and there’s no guarantee that my perspective is any better. And in the end it’s all just fine because I can make all the weird decisions I want in my own projects!

Has there been a time when you started to think it’s better to just work as a hired gun?

Actually, not too long ago, I was going to throw in the towel on professional music entirely. I knew I would never stop writing, which would likely be impossible for me, but after Statue Park finally recorded the full-length in 2012, and not being able to find anyone to release it, and more band members quitting, I decided I was done with putting in the kind of work and effort it takes to keep a band running. And then I got a call from Peter who offered me a paid apartment in Paris and paid tour of France and Belgium. It would have been monumentally idiotic of me to turn that down, so here I am. But otherwise, while I wouldn’t mind playing in other bands/projects, it really has to be something I like, something (or someone) I can stand behind when I’m on stage. This is not a job for me, it’s my life, it’s what I live to be able to do, so I’m not going to waste that on music I wouldn’t actually listen to.

Itching to lead a project you’re passionate about? Check out our guide to band leadership, Building a Better Band today!

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a music business guru and loves giving advice to young, emerging bands on how to make their tours more effective. He also plays guitar, publishes audiobooks, runs a record label, and is an artist working in sound media. He has performed and released material throughout Europe, Asia, the US, UK and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.