Toys And Tiny Instruments is exactly what it sounds like: a seven-piece band with no shortage of ukuleles or child’s drums. I got to see them perform at the The Rock Shop in Brooklyn, a show that coincided with the midnight release of their new album, Thunder Clap Machine. During the soundcheck before their set, one of the members announced he would be playing a kazoo, and time was spent to adjust the levels accordingly. There were two percussionists: one on a couple of snares and cymbals, and the other on just a pile of toys. Alec Betterley on melodica rocks out more than anyone you’ve ever seen playing a tiny keyboard with a straw.
It might sound like a Portlandia sketch, but you just can’t hate on these guys. They sound like The Beatles with four Ringos plus ten times the energy. I got in touch with lead singer Colin Summers to discuss how they got their unique sound, the process of recording their new album, and busking in Harvard Square.
So how did all seven of you come together? How did you get started?
Basically it all started [with] me and Alec. He plays the melodica, and we played music for years together with a couple different bands. [After] living in Boston for school, I moved to New York, and we were doing stuff as a duo. But I really wanted to do stuff with a bigger kind of band, like a real sort of ensemble. Me and Alec used to do, sort of, busking, where I would play an acoustic guitar and he would play the melodica because it was portable.
You would play in the subway?
That was in Boston. We’ve never played on the New York City subway system, but we used to play in Harvard Square and stuff like that. Then I bought a toy piano because I thought toy pianos were really cool. And my brother got me this Peruvian instrument called a charango, which is a small ten-string instrument. I started playing that. I remember there was sort of a get together at my house where we started fooling around with all those together. I thought it was a really wild sound. We asked ourselves, how many people could we get to play tiny instruments with us?
We thought it would be a one show kind of thing, so we got together anyone who was interested or who was our friend. Our first show was at Freddy’s Bar, back where the Atlantic Center is now [in Brooklyn]. We got ten people to play that first song with us on tiny instruments. We lost a few members after the first gig, but the people who really stuck around were the people who really wanted to do it. They were the right people for the job. They’re the most wonderful, talented, crazy artistic people.
Do you have any crazy busking stories?
once in a while when we were performing we’d just run into people who
just kind of wanted to talk to you. One time this woman was there with
her son who looked like he was maybe five or six years old and she goes,
“He’s a drummer. You should make him your drummer.” And we were like,
“I don’t know about that.” She goes, “Yeah, well, he’s going through a
bit of a Motörhead phase right now anyway, so it might not actually be
the best fit.” We sat there for a really long time, and she was saying
all sorts of stuff that I wasn’t sure was true. She was saying her
sister was in the Magnetic Fields, which is a band that I love. She was
saying that she helped produce the first Elliott Smith record. I wasn’t
sure if I should believe her or not, but she was really interesting
What is your songwriting process like with so many people? How does it start?
The songwriting process is usually just me or Alec bringing a song to the group to practice, and then figuring out how it works with the group. In terms of orchestrating everything, everybody figures out their own part and we work with the song in terms of how it will turn out together.
There’s such joy in your songs. Do you ever just have a terrible day and want to write a really sad break-up song? Could you do that on a toy piano?
Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of existential crisis in the lyrics. I always want to make art that’s funny and sad at the same time -- and find the beauty in where it overlaps. A lot of the time you’ll find on our upbeat tracks some really dark and desperate lyrics accompanying them.
Tell me a little bit about your new album, Thunder Clap Machine. Is this your first full-length album?
Yeah. We made a self-titled EP, with five songs on it,when we started the band three years ago. The EP sound is kind of small to be honest. Over time we figured out how to get a much larger, fuller sort of rock sound out of our instruments. Essentially what we do is take a bunch of small instruments and turn up their gauges so they have a much bigger sound. We started putting instruments through a pedal that would double their octave range, or run them through this amp [that] makes it available in all frequencies.
My goal was to make an album that was a much bigger-sounding record than our EP. We put a guitar jack through a child’s instrument so that we could run it through a distorted amp and really get the most out of its sound. Then we just recorded it like that, track by track. We spent the better part of a full year doing it. It was a lot of work, and it was also entirely recorded and produced by me and the band. I’m pretty happy with it.
You’ve all played in a number of different bands and projects. What would you say is different about this band? Obviously you’re playing toys and tiny instruments, but is there any kind of philosophical difference to that or just a different experience?
I think that because of the restrictions that we put on ourselves from the beginning – like, okay, we’re going to make a rock band or psychedelic pop band with limitations for creative purposes-- it really does attract incredibly artistically-minded people. I think there’s a difference between the kind of person who plays guitar no matter what style because they’re great at it, and the kind of person who thinks critically about ways to make [a] unique sound. That’s the biggest difference for me.