"We have always been an original band. The idea to do [covers] came strictly as an afterthought, as a way to make money," says Toy Subs lead singer Jamie Jahan Daruwala. "And even when we did the covers, we have never tried to sound like a record, and we only did songs that we felt something about. I mean, we never learned 'Brown Eyed Girl,' even though there were a million requests for it."
If there's a hint of desperation in Daruwala's voice, it's justifiable. For almost a decade, casual music fans have flocked to see Toy Subs "the cover band" at clubs all over the city. It has made them some of the best-known local practitioners of the copycat genre, not to mention perennial winners in the Press Music Awards' Best Cover Band category. Now, they'd like to introduce you to Toy Subs "the original band." And though the lineups for both groups are one and the same, it's the latter that's desperate to find a serious audience for Vodka Sonic, a new full-length CD of original compositions.
Boding well for Toy Subs, Vodka Sonic is a solid debut of straight-ahead rockers and surprisingly punchy pop tracks. Listening to Daruwala discuss the inspiration for one of the album's more harrowing numbers, "Slipping Back," it's clear that he sees songwriting as a serious outlet -- not merely as a forum for aping others: "That one is about a relatively unhealthy relationship I was in and how sometimes it's easier to fall back on [familiar] ways than to deal with the problems they create. I get emotional just thinking about that song. It's a tough one for me to play live."
Toy Subs were first launched at Rice University back in 1987, when Daruwala, an engineering student, met guitarist Alex Littel on campus. "It was just the perfect match. He was everything I wanted to see in a guitarist," Daruwala recalls.
But as far as abandoning semiconductors for Marshall amplifiers on the spot, Daruwala wasn't so sure: "I was clueless. I didn't think I had the balls to get a degree and then go into music full time. It wasn't until the month I did graduate that I made that decision."
A two-year internship at Houston's Sugar Hill Records fortified his decision. "I decided that I couldn't have a nine-to-five job -- something that would require a commitment and take away from the music," he continues, shaking his head with a smirk. "Of course, I've had to learn to live extremely cheaply. In fact, for the past nine years, I've lived on about $10,000 a year."
Other players came and went around the nucleus of Daruwala and Littel until Greg Mayfield became Toy Subs' permanent bassist in 1994. And though the band currently needs a full-time drummer, producer/manager Brian Garcia continues to serve as its de facto fifth member. Over the course of playing what Daruwala estimates were about 1,000 cover-oriented gigs over the past five years, the band's playing began to jell as its members continued to work on their own material. Gradually, they began throwing in a few originals per set, assembling a demo EP, Vim Fuego, to use as a calling card of sorts (though it was recorded under alter ego Shed, an ill-advised effort to create two distinct identities). But last year, Toy Subs decided that making a "real" album under its popular moniker was the right step in a continuing evolution.
"It was about time, because we had been around for so long. And we couldn't keep waiting to get a record deal, although we're still [actively] pursuing that," Daruwala says.
Vodka Sonic was recorded in the band's own 24-track studio, and it sports a professional sheen and a radio-ready sound. "We're trying to get it on the air, and I think bands are more conscious of being proud of [a] product that [complements] the live shows," he says. "But let's face it. The music scene here is taking its sweet time in coming together, and there's an awful lot of negativity out there right now."
With Vodka Sonic, Daruwala wants to give old and new fans alike a full impression of the band's capabilities. There's a reason the release was named after a fictional alcoholic beverage: The band wants listeners to experience both the giddy high in their music as well as the morning-after hangover. But don't go digging too deep into the the album's often obtuse lyrics; Daruwala encourages individual interpretation.
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"We just wanted to put out good rock that gives you some kind of reaction, whether you love it or hate it," he says. "And it's really just music for people who enjoy listening. There's no heavy political [slant] here."
Toy Subs are energized by the completion and release of Vodka Sonic, but they're also aware that plenty of people will continue to view them as a cover band that dips into originals, instead of the other way around. And though Daruwala swears the six-nights-a-week cover grind is over for Toy Subs, he's shrewd enough not to completely disown his roots in print.
"We could not have become the band we are now had we not done all those cover shows," Daruwala reflects. "But the bottom line is that if the music and the [feeling] behind it is real, you can tell. You can smell out a fake, and there are a lot of them out there today."
Toy Subs perform Friday, October 2, at Instant Karma, 1617 Richmond. Showtime is 9 p.m. Cover is $5; $7, under 21. Sonnier Brothers Band opens. For info, call 528-3545.