The Sound Of: Toy Tonics
Berlin house and disco label Toy Tonics is pushing a bumping, cosmic sound fuelled by collaboration and live instrumentation. Founder Mathias Modica, aka Kapote and Munk, records a mix from its catalogue, and speaks to Ben Hindle about how versatility and authenticity are more important than ever
Toy Tonics was formed in 2012 as a sub-label to German experimental powerhouse Gomma. The latter, inspired by James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax, had continuously tried to push the envelope artistically for over a decade. “It sounds super pretentious, but with every record we wanted to try to start a new style,” laughs label boss Mathias Modica (aka Munk and Kapote). Over that time, Gomma became a home for Danish no-wave band WhoMadeWho, Ramellzee’s “industrial hip-hop”, the “crazy freak folk” of Franz Ferdinand guitarist Nick McCarthy’s Box Codax project, and electro-punk superstar Peaches, among others.
Toy Tonics was launched almost in opposition to that: where Gomma was all over the place sonically, Toy Tonics would be focused strictly on the funky house music Mathias liked; where Gomma worked with wild visuals from artists and designers the world over, Toy Tonics would have a simple, memorable aesthetic.
Like all good children, Toy Tonics has since surpassed its parent. “Four years ago we started to be really serious about the label... on the one side, looking for very exceptional original artists that do dance music — but somehow different — and on the other side, bringing a lot more real instrumentation into the dance world,” explains Mathias.
The label’s primary sounds are house and disco, infused with the vitality of real piano, guitar and bass, with complex chords and rhythms played by traditional musicians. “Most people who aren’t musicians probably don’t see what this music is made from... they just feel it’s different,” he continues. “It’s different because: one, it’s a family, everybody knows each other, they DJ together; and two, they are musicians, and everybody brings electronic production and instrumentation.”
Key members of the Toy Tonics family now include Italian duo Black Loops, Munich’s COEO and Rhode + Brown, Frenchman Mangabey, and Berlin-based Brit Cody Currie. The likes of PBR Streetgang, Luke Solomon and Dimitri From Paris & DJ Rocca have also made stops on the label over the course of its 100-plus releases.
Taking the live instrumentation aspect to the next level are New York outfit The Phenomenal Handclap Band, an ensemble headed up by former keyboardist for Amy Winehouse, Daniel Collás, and featuring musicians who’ve been part of Mark Ronson’s band and other big projects. Last year, Toy Tonics released their album ‘PHB’ — 10 tracks of glittering, funky disco that draw on the standards set in the ’70s golden age, but feel sleek and modern.
“A lot of people call it organic now, but to me it’s just a musician thing,” says Mathias. “Organic, warm, lo-fi, whatever the words are — basically it’s because they are musicians playing and that’s an organic thing.” Mathias explains how the band fit into his vision for the label: “There’s the digital DJs working with musicians, and there’s the real band working with the digital label — it’s two angles coming together.”
One of Toy Tonics’ most recent releases is a compilation called ‘Mushroom House Vol. 2’ (‘Vol. 1’ dropped in November 2020). It collects music from the ‘Mushroom House’ EPs — much of which gets a 2021 re-rub— aseriesthat’srunsince2016andpresents tracks that “go even further out from the dance music formula”. From the blissed-out funky synths of Harry Wolfman’s opener ‘Upstream’, through the swirling guitar and polyrhythmic percussion of ‘Ngunga Yeti Fofa (Joaquin Joe Claussell’s Electric Afrika Version)’ to a tripped-out deep house remix from DJ Sprinkles, Red Axes’ wonky rework of Munk’s ‘The Bolero Bunuel’ and Art Alfie’s fuzzy, minimalist closing track, it’s a kaleidoscope of Afro house, cosmic disco and widescreen, psychedelic sounds.
“On Toy Tonics we are very open, but still it’s dance music that you can play in a more normal setting. The ‘Mushroom House’ should be the place where it’s even more far out,” says Mathias. “It’s about bringing in more shades from the world, so that you as a DJ can create a real journey — ‘cause that’s our idea of DJing; if you go to our big Toy Tonics Jams, which are our parties in Berlin, and you go at 11, you don’t have a clue what you’re gonna hear at 12, but definitely no clue what you’re gonna hear at 2,” he continues, citing the likes of DJ Harvey, Ashley Beedle and Idiot Boyz as role models for the Toy Tonics DJing style.
Mathias sees this hybridity as a feature of the times. “2021 is not playing one style for four hours. You go at 12 to the club and you know what’s on at 4? It’s fucking boring, I’m sorry,” he laughs. “We are in Spotify times; everyone has a huge musical knowledge, it’s very different to 10 years ago. At home you’re listening to everybody and then at a club you listen to one thing? No, that’s old.”
He explains how Berlin is changing too, from “techno town” to “musicians town”. Mathias, now in his forties, recalls going to bunker parties as a teenager where “you don’t know if you’ll survive that shit”. He thinks techno has become too safe, too formulaic. “Innovation is difficult when you have to satisfy the customer,” he says. “It’s great when an underground thing a few years later becomes the most popular thing, because that’s human nature, but as a creative person it’s not my thing — I want something different.
“The whole techno, electronic and the laptop music world, it’s very lonely,” he continues. “It’s about a single person sitting at home on the laptop making beats, maybe they are two, but basically it’s the same. And then also at a rave you have the DJ alone, sometimes 20 metres over the people. It’s great, but in 2021 you talk about inclusion, we talk about these different shades of the world that should become one, and my label Toy Tonics is about that. Getting the jazz guy Joel Holmes, who was [nominated for multiple] Grammys for playing in jazz, together with Cody Currie, the young London house producer. It’s a band, they go in a room and the groove you dance to is made by five people, not by a laptop — which is good too, but I think in 2021: bring the world together.”
The strategy is working. Toy Tonics has become a buy-on-sight label: every release is pressed to vinyl, and Mathias says that sales are through the roof; some records have been repressed nearly 10 times, including some from the earliest days of the label, putting their numbers into the thousands. He talks about the resurgence of the format, but also that it’s only certain genres that sell well. He sees a desire for “authenticity” from young people who have grown up with digital formats.
For Mathias personally, “Two disco records that are not quantized, man there’s no more fun than trying to synchronise two records like that — that’s work, sweat, fucking hell I love it,” he laughs. “But the thing is, I’m not doing the vinyl because I love it, I’m doing it because people love it.”
There are more physical products too, which are beginning to bring the visual artistry of Gomma through to Toy Tonics. The label regularly drops limited-edition collaborative t-shirts, and has started a 60-page art zine that goes out three times a year, featuring work from Berlin artists and designers.
When events are allowed again, the label is set for a residency at a new 1500-2000-cap venue in Berlin, and already has events booked for Phonox and Jazz Cafe in London this summer, with invites to do more across the world once it’s safe to do so.
And of course there’s plenty of new music, like albums from Cody Currie and Kapote, and music from a Belarusian electro-funk live act. “We’ve been busy,” says Mathias of the past 12 months. “Of course it’s a sad situation for many, many people in the whole world, the music business, but we tried to turn that into something positive, build up the label, make more music and stuff... You’ve got to make lemonade out of the lemons.”
Listen to Toy Tonic's The Sound Of mix below.
Fényan x Kosmo Kint ‘Da Real’
Athlete Whippet ‘Vesta’ (Extended Version)
Italomania ‘Sesso Spaghetti’ (Unreleased Edit)
Kapote ‘Grandmaster Edit’
Daniel Haaksman ft. Spoek Mathambo, Los Bulldozer ‘Akabongi (Kapote Remix)’ (2020 Version)
Athlete Whippet ‘Yesterday (feat. Aphty Khéa)’ (Extended Version)
Cody Currie feat. Andy K, Ally McMahon ‘LS Anthem’
Joel Holmes ‘Pose’
Fényan x Kosmo Kint ‘Unreleased’
COEO ‘Flesh World (Kapote Rmx)’
Karl Hector & Nicolas Tounga ‘Ngunga Yeti Fofa (The Joaquin Joe Claussell's Electric Afrika Version)’ (2021 Version)
Check out The Sound Of features with Berlin's Planet Euphorique and BBE
Ben Hindle is DJ Mag's deputy editor. You can follow him on Twitter @the_z_word
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