Driving East To The Hot List

For an artist releasing his debut album, just getting noticed is often the biggest challenge. In the case of Toothpick's first solo release, "Drive Easy," a musical rant against the evils of fast food could turn into a long and healthy career.

New York's Toothpick, born Doug Ray, recorded the theme song for "Super Size Me," the documentary film directed by Morgan Spurlock. Spurlock traveled around the U.S., visiting 20 cities to interview a wide range of health professionals, legislators and other authorities about fast food and its effect on the health of an increasingly obese American population. The twist that turned this film into a phenomenon was that Spurlock ate only McDonald's food during his journey, getting super-sized meals any time it was offered to him, and monitored the effects on his health and general well-being. The film has earned Spurlock a Best Director Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, as well as a number of other awards from MTV, SXSW, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival and other film festivals around the country.

The film also brought a spotlight on Toothpick's title track, which is available for download on the "Super Size Me" website ( Rolling Stone magazine included Toothpick in its "Hot List". Not a bad way to promote a debut album.

But "Drive Easy" isn't Pick's first exposure to the musical mainstream. As frontman of the group Bad Ronald, who were signed to Warner Brothers Records, one of his videos made MTV's "TRL" in 2001.

While a short song about "the urge to eat something" and "TRL" could make Toothpick seem like a lightweight or, even worse, a novelty act, his music gives the completely opposite impression. The eleven tracks on "Drive Easy" are strikingly imaginative and filled with vivid impressions and storytelling. Laying down tight, free-flowing raps over the rich tones of an acoustic guitar, his sound is as original and innovative as his lyrics. He touches on complex and sometimes dark themes, without ever allowing his music to wallow in pity or depression. And "High Life," which is about exactly what you think it is, has some of the most clever lines that'll get burned into plastic this year.

Chorus and Verse interviewed Toothpick about the attention surrounding "Super Size Me," as well as the new album and his relationship with Everfine Artist Management, the folks behind such acts as O.A.R. As he prepares for the Feeling Better Than Everfine Festival in Cleveland, and a string of performances to support "Drive Easy," his fans will be watching to see if he'll make his way from the last page of Rolling Stone to its front cover anytime soon.

You recorded the theme song for the documentary film "Super Size Me," which was an award winner at the Sundance Film Festival and many other film events. How did you get to be involved with the film, and was the song something you did off the cuff just for the soundtrack?

Morgan Spurlock, who wrote, directed and stared in the film, is a good friend and a fan of Toothpick, as I am of his work. We had discussed the possibility of me doing that song for a while and when the movie started getting rolling I thought it was a great idea. He came by the studio and requested the song and, along with Pop Rox, my good friends and production team, we laid it down.

It was very much off-the-cuff. We wanted to make it ridiculous and satirical so it would be fun, but also we wanted to get across that there is a real problem out there with overeating and obesity.

The track even got you mentioned on Rolling Stone magazine's "Hot List" a few weeks ago. Does it surprise you that [a short piece] of music would have gotten you so much attention, and what was your first reaction when you saw your photo in "Rolling Stone"?

I was soooo excited when we got in Rolling Stone. I say "we" because even though I am a solo act there is a great team behind me that plays an important role in this experience. While it's just another step in the right direction, there's a real integrity involved with appearing in Rolling Stone and, although I'm too shy to enjoy the photo and the article, I did get a real kick out of it.

In addition to "Super Size Me," your song "Hold On" is included in the movie "Decoys." Is it important for artists to use movies and other ways to get their music out there, and would you be open to even more commercial uses for your music, such as television advertising?

I welcome the opportunity to get the music out there in any way that I deem to be an accurate artistic representation of the meaning of a song. For me, it is an honor to have a song in a film or on TV because it means that the filmmaker feels the song helps enhance the sentiments of a particular scene or just digs the song and I can't hate on that.

When it comes to television ads, I would take it on a case-by-case basis. However, I'm not too picky right now 'cause I live on my dad's couch, and until MTV pimps my ride, the Pathfinder needs a lot of work.

Let's go back into your history a little bit. When did you first get into rap and freestyle, and how did your style evolve to include acoustic guitar and more traditional instruments, rather than the beats and heavy bass-lines heard in most rap music?

I think whether or not I realize it while I'm writing, my music is very often a product of the environment, both musically and socially, that I function in. The ability for a rap song to portray a message or a story without beating around the bush is very enticing to me. Also, there is a looseness that I can bring to a performance when I feel comfortable freestyling over the music.

Sometimes it's nice to abandon the lyrics to a song and just go off on something that I picked up from the crowd or just had inside me at the time. As for doing it in a calm and laid back fashion over a live band, [it] just fits my mood better right now. Since I am playing the guitar, I can control the intensity and the feel rather than being strapped to a track. Plus, a live band is always awesome and we rock out.

Where were some of your first gigs and what the reaction of the crowds who were hearing you for the first time? Do you think having a sound that's so hard to categorize makes it tougher to navigate the music business, or do people react better to something original?

Some of the first gigs that I played as Toothpick, besides for my friends and ladies after an evening of debauchery, were on tour with Ziggy Marley. He was quite welcoming and created a very relaxed environment where I felt comfortable and the crowd was great.

Being open-minded and willing to listen to new music is all I can hope for in a crowd. They seemed to love it and I really dug that. It made me want to play more shows and write more songs and make this my life, so I did. It's a new sound for people but it's what comes out of me naturally so I'm gonna stick with it.

I think there are both positives and negatives to doing something that is difficult to categorize. That's for the suits to worry about, I guess. Folks just like music. I play music.

You made it onto Mtv's TRL when you were fronting the band Bad Ronald in 2001. What did your major label experience with Warner Brothers Records teach you about the music industry, and do you look back on that time period as a positive one?

Being in BAD RONALD was amazing. The other guys and I talk all the time and we have all moved on to our own projects.

I learned how to be a working artist. And while I may have pissed off the other guys sometimes, I learned how to be a good leader and to believe in other people. About the business, I am not a business man. I sing rap and play guitar. What I did learn, though, is that my education did not end with college and the more knowledgeable I am about what's going on with my career the more I can help myself.

You're now being managed by Everfine Artist Management, definitely taking a grass roots approach to developing your solo career. How did you get introduced to Everfine, and what are your impressions working with them so far?

Working with Everfine is the best decision I've made so far. They get what I'm doing and they are always there for me. It's a great place to be and I know I'm lucky.

We had some mutual friends and developed a great relationship that will last a long time. The guys from O.A.R. really took me under their wings and gave me a great opportunity to play with them and the best thing about that was I made some real friends there, too. Rare to find a label like that. Others will learn from them.

Speaking of Everfine, you're taking part in the Feeling Better Than Everfine festival in Cleveland on July 31st. Does being on stage with so many other great bands make your own performance better and do you like being part of that sort of community of musicians?

Best time I can think of. I can't wait to play "and" hear the other bands. I think we all give each other a boost. If you're not planning to go, change your plans. And come say hi when your there. We'll all just be hanging out.

I noticed that you're a regular poster on your website's message board, answering questions from fans and even providing some guitar tabs. Do you feel it's important to keep in touch with your fans, and it is getting tougher for you to do so as you have more success and draws on your time?

I think it's cool that kids want to get involved. There are a lot of kids that I keep in touch with that send me their own music and I learn a lot from them, too. I try to get the tabs out there so that kids can play the stuff and share it with their friends. It's all about meeting people and for me I think it always will be.

When were most of the songs for your debut album, "Drive Easy" written? Are these songs that you've been performing for a while, or did you sit down and write the material just for the album?

The songs are from a lot of different places. Some are fairly new and some have evolved through time and have even evolved since being recorded.

The album has a few songs on it that were written by an ancient American settler before the Revolutionary War and were brought to me in a dream.

Just kidding.

Were the songs recorded with all of the musicians performing together, or were the tracks done separately and mixed later? Do you enjoy being in the studio and being involved with production, or do you prefer to leave the technical aspects of recording to others?

Some songs were laid down all at once and some piece by piece. I like to stay involved because I find it all very interesting. I bring some ideas to the table, but the best part is trusting the other people on the project and seeing how they interpret the material.

You've done a video for "Time Travelin' Couch" already. Do you think that'll get on Mtv, and are you planning to push any of the tracks as singles for radio airplay?

I hope so. There are also a lot of other video outlets nowadays and I think when we are ready we will approach them all. As for a single, there is so much bullshit associated with financing and pushing a song to radio that I'd rather not even think about it.

I wish DJs would just play songs they liked and not follow play lists and take cash to play shit. No surprise, that's not breaking news, but it sucks. If someone wants to play the stuff, go ahead, but I'm not gonna sell my soul, and my record, just to get a label to push for spins and haggle with asshole PDs seeking a favor for a favor. It all makes me sick.

What's your tour schedule looking like over the next few months? Do you expect your time on the road to increase and where should fans be on the look-out for upcoming shows?

I've got a few shows and festivals coming up this summer, but for the most part I will be gigging around the city and getting tight with my new drummer and good friend, crazy Chris Keagan. He's nasty. Come check us out.

Hey all you New York City kids, don't be afraid to MapQuest yourself to Cleveland and check out the Feeling Better Than Everfine Festival. I'll see y'all there.

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.