As a decade of amphibious adventures with Song, by Toad records draws to a close, Dylan Matthews reflects on ten years spent amongst the reeds and rushes of this particularly fertile and belligerently independent little musical lily-pond.
The Latin name for the smallest bone in the human body is the stapes, the commonly-used English translation for which is stirrup, due to its resemblance to the item of saddlery. This tiny bone lies in the middle ear, and acts to conduct sound waves captured by the ear canal toward the inner ear, where the incoming sound is eventually processed by the brain. Even though it’s the smallest of bones, its function is profound.
Earlier this month Matthew Young of Edinburgh’s Song, by Toad records made the surprise announcement that the label was to close with virtually immediate effect, and that the forthcoming tenth anniversary celebrations would also serve as its swansong.
Over the decade that Song, by Toad has been releasing records, the label has established a reputation for wild originality, dogged determination and a fierce loyalty to the acts on its roster; but despite 2018 marking the tenth anniversary of the label making its first full-length physical release, Meursault’s vital, ground-breaking Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues, and the excitement and acclaim that release attracted for both the band and the label; the origins of Song, By Toad can actually be traced back some years earlier to the beginning of the century, and two seismic shifts taking place in the world of music: the DIY ethos, and the internet.
Matthew’s brother, Ben, works as a sound engineer at concert halls in America, and Matthew found, while emailing MP3 files of his latest favourite songs across the Atlantic to Ben, he was particularly enjoying composing the accompanying introduction he’d write for each new track. Noting that increasingly detailed descriptions, analysis and opinions were emerging with each email exchange, he realised he was effectively becoming a music reviewer, but for an audience of just one.
Turning to a WordPress blog in an attempt to expand that audience beyond sibling relations, Matthew challenged himself to publish an article a day – either a review or an opinion piece – along with recording a weekly podcast. Looking for a distinctive and Google-able URL, Matthew recalled his mum’s childhood admonishment for the mischievous boys when they were in trouble; “You little toads!”, and borrowed a sample from Kenneth Williams’ classic reading of The Wind in the Willows – another meaningful childhood memory – to act as a title theme for the podcast. Thus the name Song, by Toad was established.
Matthew will admit to accidentally timing his entry into the music blogosphere with serendipitous perfection. His writing, seasoned heavily as it was with a richly-flavoured measure of shameless profanity, brought together a community of like-minded enthusiasts who, in those pre-Facebook days, would chat for often hundreds of ribald comments below-the-fold on each article. Even to this day, a mention of “Newton Faulkner and his ridiculous f**king haircut” will raise a fit of giggles amongst certain circles. While an unfortunate and anonymous interloper, stepping in to defend an act who had been on the receiving end of a less-than glowing review, found his opinions proudly and belligerently adapted and printed as a slogan on t-shirts: “Song, by Toad. Ill-informed and self-aggrandising. Since 2004.”
In addition, the quality of Matthew’s critique quickly drew the attention of fledgling labels and grassroots acts, both in Scotland and further afield, who were themselves riding the wave of the mid-noughties DIY-music boom, and Matthew soon found he was not short of material being sent directly to him for review.
Music scene contacts soon led to friendships, and before long guests were being invited to join Matthew in conversation on the weekly podcast. On occasion these guests, frequently being musicians, would suggest performing a song or two live, and with Matthew’s typical “why the f**k not?” sense of ambition, the Toad Sessions were born. The Toad Sessions, still available to view online, now serve as a fascinating and nostalgic document of a distinct period in Scottish alternative music history. For a while, it seemed like every act who could claim a link to the central belt were queuing to contribute a session; including famously Mumford & Sons, who, on the cusp of global dominance, remembered that Song, By Toad had provided the first published review of their music they’d ever seen, and made good on their debt of honour to troop into Matthew’s living room, banjos, accordions and jaunty waistcoats in tow, to belt out requests from their first EP.
I was frequently fortunate enough to find myself in the room as the Toad Sessions were being recorded, helping out with photography and filming, and many of these live performances remain amongst the most thrilling I’ve had the privilege to witness.
I recall a beautifully haunting rendition of a song called Uyeasound, by 30lbs of Bone, an act visiting from Cornwall but signed to Glasgow’s Armellodie records, Ziggy Campbell and Tommy Perman of FOUND delivering a definitive acoustic version of their early-period crowd-pleaser, Mullokian, and Jon Rooney of Virgin of the Birds, travelling light on a trip from his home in the States, borrowing my own Fender Stratocaster to play one of my personal favourites, Ilona, You Should Still Be My Vampire Attendant.
As the equipment used by bands for the Toad Sessions progressed from simple acoustic guitars with the odd rattle of a tambourine to fully-charged, plugged-in rock band set-ups, the inevitable house gigs began to occur as touring acts, both national and international, aware of Song, by Toad’s growing influence, swung through town looking for somewhere comfortable and inviting to play.
She won’t thank me for taking a moment to shine a spotlight her way, but it would be remiss of me not to mention at this point the huge influence Matthew’s wife Kate had on the success of the entire Song, by Toad enterprise. The generosity, hospitality and unflappable patience Kate showed as endless troops of bedraggled musicians, followed by their equally bedraggled fans – “hippies” being the nickname she affectionately coined for the whole scruffy bunch of them – traipsed through her home weekend after weekend for these sessions and gigs; along with the unforgettably lavish buffet spreads she laid on without fail for each event, are rightly regarded with vast admiration, gratitude and fondness by the community she found herself plunged into as her husband’s hobby became a full-time occupation.
In fact, it was with Kate’s gung-ho encouragement that Matthew steered Song, by Toad from the relative safety of blogs and gigs towards the far more risky arena of investing in the release of physical product. Many spouses would have been understood if their advice had been along the lines of “Now, dear, shall we release something nice and sensible that will shift plenty of units and finally get us that yacht in the Bahamas?” but Matthew found Kate steadfast at his shoulder as he wrangled an ever more experimental, untested and exotic stable of acts from the wilder corners of the alternative music ecosystem.
Key releases for the label during this period included seminal solo work from experimental powerhouse Adam Stafford, dark horror-pop from Edinburgh agitators, The Leg, an enchanting piano-led neo-classical (mostly) instrumental suite by Ian Turnbull from Broken Records recording solo as digitalanalogue, charm-laden wonk-tronica from musical mad-scientist, Jonnie Common and the seductive introduction of pastoral-pop supergroup Modern Studies.
Often it was only Matthew’s unbridled enthusiasm for these bands that could be drawn as a common thread between them. Perhaps it’s a fitting epitaph to the label and its influence that a Song, by Toad release; Siobhan Wilson’s majestic There Are No Saints was on the shortlist for this year’s SAY Award, just as the label itself exits the stage.
And if there is a common thread running at the very core of everything Song, by Toad has achieved, linking it all together, it is quite simply enthusiasm. I remember once telling Matthew that, years ago, while typing out a reply on a comment thread on the old Song, by Toad WordPress blog, I caught myself about to make a disparaging reference to model railway enthusiasts, comparing them unfavourably with our oh-so-cool local grassroots music community, before stopping myself and realising just how unfair I was being. I realised the only real difference between the two communities was that small-batch vinyl releases and prized tickets to gigs in living rooms were nothing more than our version of Hornby trains and plastic model railway stations. Matthew understood what I was saying and agreed with me, acknowledging my point with a hearty chuckle.
Song, by Toad never held any lofty ambition to be the biggest of record labels or musical enterprises; but, like the tiny stapes bone of the middle ear, thanks to its presence we’ve all enjoyed hearing a little more clearly.
Photographs from Toad Sessions by Dylan Matthews