Rewind to 2007 and Brighton’s 12 Stone Toddler was about to have two acclaimed albums on what looked like the path to success, but they suddenly vanished a couple of years later. Now back from their decade-long hiatus, original members Chris Otero (vocals, bass) and Ben Jones (vocals, keyboards) have teamed up with Helen Durden (guitar and vocal) and Robin O’Keeffe (drums and vocal) to pick up where they left off with their latest album, Idiolalia. We spoke to Ben about the new-look 12 Stone Toddler.
We had to partially demolish what had become our style and then rebuild it in a less mature way, then try and make it sound like we’d been doing that for years.
First up, tell us bit about yourselves - what led you all to forming 12 Stone Toddler?
Chris, (our lead singer and my songwriting partner), saw me playing at the Sussex Arts Club in 1999 in my old band Rubber Zoo. We were performing a song (a true story about a kid who listened to mantra-like recordings of his own self-critical voice on a walkman) that made deliberately monotonous use of a particular expletive with hard consonants.
The gig was going well, but the promoter got scared and pulled the plug. Appalled by this act of censorship, Chris chased the promoter away down the street - we became friends.
In subsequent months we used to randomly bump into each other in pubs and talk enthusiastically about starting a musical project… the idea of paradox came up a lot, especially “sinister-friendly”, or “familiar-strange”. We wanted to develop a unique style and seemed to agree on what its essential vibe should be. Eventually we moved on from talking to doing.
Who did you take inspiration from?
Back then? Artists who defied critics and did exactly what they wanted, finding success through bloody mindedness. Frank Zappa, Mr Bungle, Tom Waits. Amazing song writers and pioneering producers, Prince, The Beatles, The Beach Boys. Purveyors of kitsch lounge deliciousness like Martin Denny, or sleazy swing soundtracks like Henry Mancini. Everyone seemed to be doing funk at the time so we introduced a funk ban. We’re only just talking about lifting it.
In the late 90s/ early noughties Chris used to work on the deckchairs near the carousel on Brighton seafront, while I busked at a bar near the West pier - those eerie mechanical organs and something of a haunted pier sound leaked into some of our music which made people call it “circus-ey” (which was accidental).
Why the name ‘12 Stone Toddler’?
The name came first - Chris always wanted to call it 12 Stone Toddler - which was a very accurate description of both of our personalities at the time. Unfiltered child mind housed precariously in adult body. These days we’re all mature and sophisticated and stuff. I once tucked in my shirt.
How would you describe your musical style?
We try to create an original sound. We shove anything we like the sound of in the pot, boil it alive then refine what emerges into a gourmet sonic dish. Then probably throw it away in disgust and try again. We’re quite choosy about what actually gets served up.
It’s colourful, bloody and eclectic, while simultaneously it’s back to basics rock and roll, with catchy choruses, foot-bothering grooves, passion and irreverence, including shamelessly plundering other genres. And big singing.
So you’ve been on hiatus for, what, 10 years? Why did you take a break?
Many reasons, some too personal to recount. Broadly speaking, since securing our first record and publishing deal, we had been living, thinking and planning in terms of 12 Stone Toddler being something that was viable as our career, something that would sustain us financially as well as spiritually, something that could enable us support ourselves and our loved ones. All eggs in one balloon basket.
We breathed the tiniest whiff of success and surrendered to its powerful current, allowed ourselves to be carried away to the Toddler-ey dream cloud that is our natural home. An intensely creative, productive and life-affirming time. Then, red bills, hungry mouths, shouting, hiding from the men at the door. The cloud evaporated and we crashed to the ground and nursed our sores for a while. Tried to scrape a few pennies together, initially from inside the sofa. Worldly concerns took over. Survival.
We shove anything we like the sound of in the pot, boil it alive then refine what emerges into a gourmet sonic dish.
What’s brought you back together?
Chris and I never stopped making music together during the “hiatus”, in fact we started a new project called MynieMoe with none of the baggage Toddler had acquired. Did a few gigs and festivals, released an EP independently, but didn’t touch the old Toddler material for years. We started working with Robin O’Keefe who after years of developing a musical rapport with us in MynieMoe is now the 12 Stone Toddler drummer, who introduced us to his friend and long time collaborator Helen Durden who is now our guitarist.
MynieMoe had quite a different presentation style as we had a sousaphone bass, supplied by the inimitable Bruce Stevens - a more organic, home-brewed kind of sound. You can still hear the remnants of MynieMoe in some of the softer moments on the Idiolalia album. We recorded enough material for an album, which found the interest of Nick at Freshly Squeezed records who offered to help us finish and release it. Nick is a long term Toddler fan and got us drunk and hypnotised us until we agreed to stop being MynieMoe and turn the album into the third 12 Stone Toddler album. This forced us to remember what it was that we actually did as 12 Stone Toddler, and pump the organically grown MynieMoe songs full of boisterous hormones and steroids, and add extra larger than life swagger and a hint of vintage cinema scape to the production. So kind of downgrade and upgrade at the same time. Toddler is all about paradox.
As well as Nick/ Freshly Squeezed being a catalyst and sponsor, our new band mates Robin and Helen were utterly indispensable to this process, also long term fans who’d learned their skills jamming together to our first two albums. They helped remind us who we were, a service that could become even handier as time takes its toll on our fragile minds.
How have things changed in that time?
Less hair in some places, more in others. The Tories got in and somehow still haven’t been dislodged. The country is turning blue from choking. Heimlich manoeuvre urgently needed. My daughter used to be a toddler and is now twelve. Something about stones.
You played shows at Glastonbury, Boomtown and Bestival, as well as a not-so-secret sell out show in your hometown of Brighton, last year. How did they go down?
Every single second was utterly amazing and adored by all.
What have you been doing this year?
Trying to teach myself to unblock sinks without causing a flood. Also to mend a puncture in less than two hours. The practical world is challenging. As a band we’ve been jamming, writing, making merry, bitching about when the label would be ready to release the album we finished in a flu-induced delirious frenzy last winter. They just have.
We’re excited to hear you’ve got a new album - your third - called Idiolalia. What’s the name about and what are its themes?
Idiolalia is a slightly archaic word (idioglossia is the more modern term) meaning an invented private language, for instance such as shared between siblings, especially twins. Or it can be used to describe a language so personalised as to be rendered unintelligible to anyone but the speaker, psychobabble. But of course this makes us think about the formation of language itself, as all language is invented and constantly reinvented/ evolving. Groups of friends usually develop their own jargon and code words. Larger identity groups or cultures do the same on a wider scale. The Tower of Babble. And inside the mind, the pre-language, the revolving lexicon of symbols, meanings, feelings and forms that are digested, broken down into words and excreted through the mouth.
When did you write it and where did you record it?
Written: In the unkempt garden of my old flat. In a midnight frenzy in the studio. Up a hill. In isolation. In company. On a beach in the Isle of Wight. In Madrid. Underwater. Singing to my baby daughter. Crying in the ruins of my former life. Giggling insanely with the band. In 2007 while we were making the first one. In 2017 a few seconds before we finished it.
Recorded: at Ford Lane Studios near Arundel by Rob Quickenden, some guitars at Metway Studios Brighton by Jake Rousham, lots of bits and pieces on our laptops in miscellaneous locations.
How does Idiolalia build on your style?
Really we had to partially demolish what had become our style and then rebuild it in a less mature way, then try and make it sound like we’d been doing that for years.
We had to sound like 12 Stone Toddler, whilst introducing a few new elements so we don’t get straitjacketed into having to sound like 12 Stone Toddler.
As a band we’ve been jamming, writing, making merry, bitching about when the label would be ready to release the album we finished in a flu-induced delirious frenzy last winter. They just have.
Can you talk us through each song?
Every single one? Wow, OK…
‘My Machine’ - a song about a slightly bitter and misunderstood man fixing a broken robot/ his fractured ego. This is one of our “doom-pah” tunes. It’s got an almost idiotic swagger, a toy piano, some Radiophonic Workshop-seque “malfunctioning Moog, maybe a touch of Kachuturian in the chorus melody.
‘Give me the Creeps’ - one of our more successful attempts to write Candles on the Cake 2. Candles on the Cake is the nearest thing we have to a “hit”. Note I had to explain that. It used to be a MynieMoe tune, then we Toddlered it up a bit with some heavier guitars, and a middle 8 Ennio Morricone might have written. Anthem to not fitting in.
‘Piranha’ - written for and developed with the new line up. It’s got a cool jaggedness. Riffy, singalong chorus, you can dance to it without counting. And Chris plays fuzz bass. Fuzz bass is cool. There are chanting monks on the end chorus. Monks are also cool. Something gangster movie- ish about it to my mind. It’s sharp and fishy.
‘Mirrorball’ - one of those songs that takes over a decade to write, even though most of it splurged out in 2006. At the time I didn’t think it suitable for our 1st album. I came up with the intro bass line first and Chris added a cool counter melody I wouldn’t have thought of. Then we attached it to another idea that had been lying around on a dusty 4 track- (that’s how old the song is!). Almost like a 60s pop song in a way, but with an instrumental that comes from watching kid’s telly like Mr Ben and Chorlton and the Wheelies in the 70s, high on jam tarts. THAT kind of Moog. Then Robin and Helen infused it with a percussive coolness and slinkiness. There’s a bit of MynieMoe in there too, hints of that fest you band sound, clarinets and a bit of sousaphone. The original chorus was a rip off of Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ then I thought it too close and set about replacing it. That was the bit that took eleven years. It’s about a seedy night out in a tacky club. There is a line about shawarmas I think I got away with.
‘Just Enough Rope’ - Helen told us to write it. “Do you think there’s something missing from the album?” she hinted. I set about some riffs and demoed something up. Then Chris came up with an excellent vocal and lyric for the verse. We were still messing around with the chorus until the last week of album recording, madly throwing synonyms around over different melodies. Opted for a quite shouty one in the end. The guitars are deliberately “classic” Toddler tune “The Rabbit”- a bit rockabilly, a bit voodoo swampy. The hammond organs are more like 60s pseudo mystic Korla Pandit. On the whole it’s a dark boogie with gallows humour.
‘Carried Away’ - another slow burner to write, I was tinkering with the chorus lyrics for years. Came up with the original theme spontaneously, singing to my daughter when she was a baby, playing one of those toy pianos with giant rainbow keys. Touches of lounge and exotica. Carried on writing it through a relationship break-up and period of isolation so it got tinged with melancholy. Deals with themes of addiction and intoxication. Bit of a 70s gallop at the end with a magnificent trippy guitar sound that crashes in like a lysergic wave. Something distinct from what we’ve done before.
‘Heavy Sleeper’ - song about being a grumpy introvert and not wanting to answer the door. It’s a rocky hybrid of unfunk and unreggae. Killer harmony chorus. Nice edgy bounce.
‘Nice Surprise’ - Chris took this song on an interesting journey where he eventually replaced every part of the original. If you replace the brush, then the handle, is it still the same broom? It started out as a kind of blues ballad if I recall. Now it goes on a journey through wide dynamics towards a climax inspired by the Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy). More fuzz bass! Chris’s original idea was that the song would devour itself in howling white noise. Instead, after a bout of roaring chaos we put in an ending that sounds a bit like “mild green fairy liquid”.
‘Runaway Train’ - it’s an apocalyptic anthem, but so over the top it becomes cartoonish. It’s the Ghost Train at the end of this particular pier.
‘Ride a Donkey’ - as MynieMoe we were going to do a concept album about a seaside retirement village for psychopaths. This one is about a sort of cowboy who killed and ate his own donkey. There’s something Beefheart-ish about it in a indirect way, maybe also suggestive of a woozy David Lynch suburban dystopia, or even The Village in The Prisoner. This is a remnant of that unmade concept album. Wonkey.
‘Dig a Hole’ - uptempo, cartoon eyed and sprightly, but about debts spiralling out of control and subsequent anxiety and paranoia. I noticed we have a lot of dark lyrics, flecked with occasional beams of hope. Next album all the lyrics will be about sending waves of universal love throughout the cosmos, promise! The chanting monks are back on this one.
‘The Borrowing Song’ - written for our previous line-up, and also part of our MynieMoe set, this one’s been a long time coming. Another one about running up debts and has a sort of sleazy 60s casino atmosphere. A touch of Henry Mancini. Then the outdo was meant to be a bit John Barry/ Bond. Four very able guest musicians including myself tried to do a sleazy yet psychedelic solo at the end, but finally Helen outdid us all with her badass space blues.
‘Heaven Was Closed’ - pretty much how we felt about fame and fortune during the “hiatus”. Musically cut from the same cloth as Heavy Sleeper. Un-reggae, un-jazz, building to un-rock. It’s none of those things. The instrumental suggests what 70s kid’s TV might have been like had it been made in a Fungus the Bogeyman underworld of dank tunnels, half -lit by dangerous fizzing cables. The video was meant to be about a fallen angel, but kind-of ended up being about homelessness and alienation. The angel was brilliantly portrayed by Jamie Martin, an actor friend of Robin’s who’s been in Spooks, 24, the Bill and Luther. He has proper gravitas. The song is a slow build to a powerful ending. Close to heavenly. Only just made it to the album when we remembered it had a video. MynieMoe made the video, 12 Stone Toddler finished it.
What are your hopes for Idiolalia?
That it will bring about world peace and make everyone on the planet prosperous and in a permanent fit of giggles. That it will be used to form a bridge between all dimensions in the multiverse and cause a complete unity of consciousness and all matter, rendering time and space obsolete.
Where can we see you live in the remainder of 2018?
We’re doing a secret Halloween show in London. Get yourself invited! (We’ll say yes).
Any goals for 2019?
“More wagging, less barking”, as Professor Elemental might say.
Finally, if you could go back to any point in time and give yourselves some advice, when would you go back to and what would you say?
Say “yes” more. Say “no” more. Go away! Come back.
Watch the video for ‘Heaven Was Closed’ on YouTube below. Idiolalia is on sale now. For news and tour dates go to 12stonetoddler.com.