Rock Bottom

The quick and the dead (and the, uh, very hungry): Toys That Kill
Courtesy of Recess Records

There are things about Toys That Kill that aren't very important anymore. Singer/guitar player Todd Congelliere used to be a pro skater; he and singer/guitar player Sean Cole used to form the core of iconoclastic punk mainstays F.Y.P; Congelliere's label, Recess Records, released albums by Blag Dahlia, Iggy Scam, and Aaron Cometbus--but most of this was before Toys That Kill became a band. And once that happened, there wasn't any reason for anyone to keep looking back. In less than 24 hours in the summer of 2000, Congelliere and Cole stepped from one band to another: F.Y.P went to bed after one last show at the cheese-rock SoCal mainstay the Showcase Theater, and Toys had their debutante ball the very next night at the PCH Club, a windowless, illegal hole-in-the-wall across the street from an oil refinery. From strip mall to firetrap, the Los Angeles punk-rock story arc, same as it ever was: "A funeral and a baby shower in one weekend!" says Congelliere.

But, two years ago, there really had been a funeral in F.Y.P--for bassist Joe Ciauri, with rusty beater cars stickered with "F.Y.P" and "Recess Records" askew in every parking space for blocks around the chapel, with red-eyed girls with blue hair and black dresses weeping beside their friends-turned-pallbearers. This was rock bottom, Congelliere told a local zine: After Ciauri's suicide, a tight-knit San Pedro (the California port town most famous as the home to the Minutemen) family where everyone played in everyone else's bands collapsed in on itself.

Except something else was happening underneath the grief: Maybe Congelliere and Cole played a lot of tipsy guitar together--Beatles songs acoustic on a Fourth Street porch, beer bottles and cats around the feet of the couch, LAPD choppers rattling overhead--and maybe they had a lot of long late-night talks. When the last F.Y.P album came out, it felt like an epilogue, like the Ballot Result album Mike Watt and George Hurley put out after D. Boon's death, and when Toys That Kill played their first song ever, it blew away a fog so settled everyone had forgotten it was there. L.A.'s best zine, Razorcake, told the band, "It's nice when resurrections work out and the phoenix rising from the ash isn't just dust settling from someone pissing out the fire."

Toys That Kill's first album The Citizen Abortion barely caught the edges of a band too big to put down on tape: The final F.Y.P records were a sloppy slide from raw punk trash to unsteady stabs at melody, but the later Toys songs were at once primally simple and adeptly calculated, delivered by a fierce new rhythm section (original drummer Denis Fleps, now ably followed by, er, "Jimmy," as well as unflappable bassist Chachi Ferrara) that put every chorus straight through the back wall. And when you took away the screaming, it was total pop sap--Congelliere has that rare deleted Ronettes LP racked alongside Dylan and the Germs' What We Do Is Secret. And though it only took one look at their backline to understand Toys' vocabulary--that fat Sex Pistols guitar snarl, the Clash's easy way with melody, the big-riff overdrive of Toys' stated-favorite Cheap Trick--it was the sad songs that sounded the happiest: "Toys just make me nervous," says Sondra Albert, who was there that very first night at the PCH Club. "Not nervous like I might lose a limb nervous. They make me that specific kind of nervous that you feel when someone is going to kiss you. They make me so happy I feel sick to my stomach."

If Congelliere wasn't so laid-back and scruffy--and, we hate to say it, if he didn't sometimes sing like a Muppet--he could've been a funnier Blake Schwarzenbach or a funner John Samson. (But would that make Cole the guy from Propaghandi who stuck a broom handle up his own ass?) He always seeded his lyrics with nerdy but sweet one-liners--they're still there on Toys That Kill's latest Recess release, Control the Sun (Recess)--and since Lance Hahn left for Texas, he's next to Hickey's Matty Luv (R.I.P.) as one of California's most quietly underrated songwriters. (Maybe it's just because of the typos: "She's got a taste like one hundred toungless thin groupies..." loses something in written translation.) Three furious months into Toys' career, kids knew all the breaks, all the endings, all the words. Mike Watt might have had "Pedro" spray-painted on his bass (on tour in the Midwest, people missed the San Pedro reference and thought that was his name) but Toys had their adopted hometown in every song: On amphetamine street (where the scream mutes the sound), the moon is a ghetto bird and bullets fall from the sky.

For months before their first tours, you could watch them play there on Fourth Street in their own living room--in the same house where F.Y.P practiced, where a baseball from Ciauri's school league days sat on a shelf in the backyard next door. They'd play clubs, too, but they were never better than when they were caught between a blown-out PA and a rusty screen door, and when they'd dip into a slow song like "Two Billion Bastards" ("...gimme one chance/It's my only dumb dream..."), someone would put an arm around you during the chorus, and that would be one of the best shows you'd ever seen.

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