JEREMY TOY (PHOTO: JOEL THOMAS)

‘I thought that would be the end of my brain’: Jeremy Toy’s long road to recovery

After suffering two life-threatening injuries, local musician Jeremy Toy now faces another challenge: getting his career back on track. He talks with Hussein Moses about channelling his pain into his music. Plus, hear the premiere of She’s So Rad’s new single ‘You and I’.

In the moments after the crash that left him lying on the curb outside his home with two broken legs, Jeremy Toy had one thought: is my head okay?  The musician – whose relative anonymity belies a long-held ubiquity in the New Zealand music scene – had just returned to Auckland after playing with R&B singer Aaradhna at Whangarei’s alcohol-free Ngapuhi Festival. It was a Saturday night, about 11.30 pm in late January. He was unloading his guitar out of the back of the band’s rental ute on Mt Eden Road when he heard drummer Tom Broome shouting in his direction.

The next thing he knew, his legs were jammed under the ute after being hit by a driver on a motor scooter. It was the most painful thing he’d ever experienced. Yet, he recalls, there was something troubling him far more than his legs. Five years earlier, he’d suffered a severe brain injury when he was king hit in an unprovoked attack after performing at Auckland bar Ponsonby Social Club. “I flew across the room and the back of my head hit a brick wall, and then I fell to the ground on my side,” he remembers. “I was spitting out bits of teeth.”

Laying there on the pavement in the dark, the thought of another concussion was already worrying him. “I thought that would be the end of my brain. I’d be like one of those football players that slowly goes brain-dead,” he says. The police told him that if he had been standing behind the towbar, he would’ve been impaled. With the impact that he had sustained, the surgeons said he was lucky to be alive.

Toy spent the next four weeks in the hospital, where he would have to celebrate his son’s first birthday, and six weeks in a wheelchair. Once his left leg was strong enough, he switched to crutches. He’s hobbling on one crutch now, as he explains in detail how his life has changed over the past four months, yet he still can’t pick his son up because of the slipped disc in his back from the accident.

“Every now and then I get really angry about the person who did this to me and then I’ve got to remember ‘don’t think about that,’” says Toy. “It’s about getting better.” The driver was charged with excess alcohol causing injury. At the initial hearing, he pleaded not guilty. A second pre-trial hearing has been set for June.

“It’s hard not to dwell on the fact that this guy said he’s not guilty – and why he’s not said sorry.”

Toy’s impact on local music should not be understated. The breadth of the music he makes spans just about every genre you can think of, from punk to soul, hip-hop to jazz, and pop to funk. He was a founding member of Opensouls, the much-loved (although not always) soul band, and co-produced Hollie Smith’s multi-platinum debut album Long Player. He’s also worked with Anika Moa, Home Brew and Liam Finn, and recently soundtracked The Breaker Upperers, the new film from Jackie van Beek and Toy’s sister-in-law Madeleine Sami.

After grimacing through months of pain, his next challenge will be getting his music career back on track. A long list of projects fill the 38-year-old’s to-do list, including an album with chest-thumping Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson, another with some old school New Zealand kings of jazz, a 12” record that he co-wrote with legendary Black Ivory singer Leroy Burgess, a lo-fi boogie/funk project that’ll be released only on cassette and an EP he’s producing from post-punk act Cut Off Your Hands.

As if he wasn’t busy enough, a new EP from She’s So Rad, the shoegaze/dream-pop group he’s in with his wife Anji Toy, is also on the way. Their slow-burning new single ‘You and I’ was written last year, before the accident in January derailed their plans to release it. The idea at first had been to make a whole record of self-help material, a sentiment that ‘You and I’ draws on in a big way. The song, which soars to a climactic finish, is about “trying to search for that eternal thing that you’re missing,” according to Toy. “However, if you accept others for who they are, and open up your heart and let that expand your mind, maybe that is all you need.”

It’s not hard to hear the pain and frustration from these injuries being channelled into the group’s forthcoming new music. ‘This Ain’t Over Yet’, a hypnotic song buried in layers of synths, is about coping with the “brain meltdowns” he’s experienced since the king hit. “Every now and then in times of stress, the concussion symptoms come flooding back,” he explains. “Especially the feeling of white noise screaming in my head.”

JEREMY TOY IN HIS HOME STUDIO (PHOTO: JOEL THOMAS)

Toy speaks frankly about suffering through the two injuries that have threatened both his life and career. After the crash in January, he was forced to cancel shows with Aaradhna, and it’s likely that he won’t be able to tour again until the end of the year. The injury prevents him from playing the drums, or even doing simple tasks like moving an amp, which isn’t ideal for someone who makes their living as a musician.

He gets out every now and then, but he’s mostly faced with the reality of being stuck at home, surrounded by a mess of his son’s toys, a couple of old keyboards and what looks to be close to 1000 records in his living room. Anji, who is also a secondary school music teacher, helps to fill in the nightmarish details that have slipped his mind. “I would rather have a broken you than no you,” she tells him.

When they first met, the two were “a couple of overthinking, anxious weirdos”, recalls Anji. Both were on tour with Anika Moa at the time and suffering from stomach ulcers. They crossed paths again years later when Toy was recording some demos with Anji’s band The Sami Sisters. “We had both been dumped and were real fucking sad,” remembers Toy. “So we bonded,” says Anji.

The couple have both experienced losing their fathers. Toy was 23 when his dad passed away from heart failure, and he later wrote ‘Circles’ from She’s So Rad’s debut album about trying to deal with the grief. Even as a young boy, Toy had always worried about his own mortality. Now that he’s a father himself, he’s more aware than ever of how quickly life can change. “I’m like, it could’ve been me,” he says of his own brush with death. “It is a bit of a reminder to not dwell on the shitty things.”

Despite the optimism, a long road to recovery still lies ahead. He sees a physiotherapist twice a week, but with his right leg still badly damaged, more surgery will be needed in the coming months. The painkillers he’s on also screw with his brain, but if he doesn’t take them he can’t sleep. At night before bed, he swallows a cocktail of nortriptyline, tramadol, losec for his stomach and an anti-inflammatory. When he came out of surgery, he was prescribed fentanyl. “I read the report and I was like, that’s what Prince died of. Fuck that.”

While in hospital, Toy looked to Stevie Wonder’s music for inspiration to help get his strength up. “It’s really spiritual for me,” he admits, “and not in a Christian way.” His go-to feel-good record is Wonder’s other-worldly 1974 album Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which he remembers his mum playing when he was younger. “It’s that period of his life where he’s challenging the things he grew up with and asking questions. I really like that.”

JEREMY TOY AT HOME (PHOTO: JOEL THOMAS)

Growing up in Browns Bay and Torbay – “deep in the heart of the Shore,” he jokes – Toy got into music through his dad who played saxophone in a few local big bands. He picked up the instrument himself but quit after getting hassled for it at high school. His dad bought him a guitar instead and by his last year in school, he was already making money on the side from tutoring beginners. Early on in his playing days, he nervously stood in at a gig with Mickey Ututaonga, drummer for local jazz great Nathan Haines. “He’s got a lot of soul for a white kid,” Toy overheard him say.

Toy’s taste in music was already all over the place. After taking a year off after college, he went to jazz school, but in his spare time he was playing punk-rock shows with bands So To Speak and Sommerset. When Sommerset began to break ground, thanks in part to their single ‘Streets Don’t Close’, Toy quit university and joined the band on tour in Australia and New Zealand.

The stint with Sommerset only lasted six months, but Opensouls formed soon after. The group made a name for themselves in the Auckland scene with their packed-out shows at Khuja Lounge and released two albums, Kaleidoscope and Standing In The Rain, with the latter reaching the top 10 on the local albums chart.

JEREMY TOY’S GUITARS (PHOTO: JOEL THOMAS)

The night Toy was king hit in April 2013, the bar had no security guard working. The security camera was out of order too. But apart from the chipped teeth, a few bruises and a sore jaw, he actually felt alright. He travelled to Gisborne to work on a record and went on holiday around the East Coast. It wasn’t until two weeks later that the headaches began.

Anji remembers one day walking into the kitchen of their flat and Toy was standing around looking like he had forgotten what he was doing. The doctor told him he had a delayed concussion. “It just got progressively worse from there,” he says matter-of-factly. The pain was one thing, but the memory loss was something else altogether. He had been teaching music at Auckland University and Green Bay High School but the effects of the injury forced him to stop. He tried DJing a friend’s birthday party but couldn’t even tell if he was playing the music in time. “He would just fully zone out,” remembers Anji. “Eventually,” says Toy, “it ended up that I couldn’t do anything all day long.”

Five years later, he’s still on edge talking about it. He suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, which can be brought on by any type of mild confrontation. One day he got so paranoid that he called the police worried that the guy that had assaulted him was outside his house. “It was making me really sick thinking about it,” he explains. It would take him two years from the time he was hit before he began to feel normal again.

It would actually prove to be a productive time, at least musically. In the hour a day he could handle working, he began to piece together a new EP called Abracelebrex that was released under his middle name Leonard Charles. Instead of going in with any predetermined ideas, the music he was making was spontaneous and improvised – part jazz, part electronica. The brain injury had caused him to prioritise the music he really wanted to make, as varied as it was, and the EP had helped to get him back into the right headspace.

Soon after, he produced She’s So Rad’s disco EP Last Dance and got to work on their second album, Tango, which was released in 2015. It took a while. Songs that Anji felt were finished were reworked completely by Toy until he landed on the sound that was in his head. With its Billy Corgan-inspired guitar solos, a rap cameo from David Dallas and a polished new sound, the record scored them a heap of praise, including a five-star review in the NZ Herald. Thanks to the injury, Toy barely even remembers making it.

JEREMY TOY’S RECORDS (PHOTO: JOEL THOMAS)

Tucked away in his studio, Toy then began work on a live reinterpretation of Donuts, the 31-track landmark release by renowned Detroit producer J Dilla, who died in 2006 at the age of 32. When he heard that Guilty Simpson, a longtime collaborator of Dilla’s, was going to be touring in New Zealand, Toy hit him up and asked him to drop by the studio. The Detroit native laid down a verse on a Leonard Charles song, ‘Breaking Over You’, and got a sneak preview of Basement Donuts. “He liked it because of the creative element to it,” says Toy. “I wasn’t biting Jay Dee’s style.”

That initial collaboration has led to the two working on a full-length album together under the name The L.S.D., with Toy’s laidback beats the backdrop for Simpson’s gruff vocals. “I love the way he’s able to capture music within the hip-hop sound,” Simpson says of Toy’s production work. “Sometimes hip-hop is drums-driven and might lack melody or instrumentation, and he’s able to capture both elements well.” Despite living on different sides of the world, they make it work. “The vibe has been great,” says Simpson.

Toy has seen a lot of his success happen overseas, including in Japan where he’s had a handful of releases through the label Wonderful Noise. “New Zealand’s a hard one. I can do a gig to 10 people and that gets really depressing. I have to remember that other people like it that aren’t in New Zealand.”

The injury this year also taught him a lesson in self-control. He’s never driven drunk, but he says attempting to roll the dice even on a couple of beers just isn’t worth the risk for him. During a tour with Aaradhna last year, he called out one of the crew for drink-driving. “It caused a bit of a shitstorm at the time, but it really validated me now saying ‘you’re not driving, I’m driving, and if you drink for the rest of this tour I’m driving this whole tour’. That made me feel really good about that incident.”

The injury has left him with a lot of time to think – and he intends to use that time wisely from here on out. “My dad always taught me and my sister that you never know when you’re going to peg out so you may as well enjoy what you’ve got in front of you.

“For me,” says Toy, “I just want to fill my life with music and make as much of it as I can.”


This piece (and She’s So Rad’s ‘You and I’) was made possible by NZ On Air and, like all of The Spinoff’s music content, by Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.

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