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Toy City’s transcontinental debut album is a pandemic baby

The songs on Toy City’s eponymous debut album began their life in Paul Burke’s San Francisco studio. Due to the pandemic, he was unable to continue his longtime regular work as a filmmaker, so he went back to his original inspiration as a musician.

“In early 2020 I was sitting at my editing desk in an office in the Mission District,” Burke said. “There wasn’t a lot of paid film production work, so I kept coming back to a couple of songs I’d recorded at a friend’s home studio with my songwriting partner, Steve [Shaheen]. On a whim, I reached out to a sound engineer in the East Bay, Matt Boudreaux. I asked him to help us mix a rough version of our song ‘Dinosaur.’ We didn’t end up mixing the record with Matt, but learned a lot in the process of working with him. We realized we could create a remote workflow to write and produce the songs that eventually became Toy City.”

He continued, “Steve and I were in a cover band at Holy Cross college in Worcester, Mass. After graduation, we moved to Boston and formed a band, Naked Through Utah. When the band broke up, Steve moved to Brooklyn to pursue his work as an artist and sculptor.”

Family obligations required Burke to seek work outside the music industry. “I came back home to San Francisco and became a filmmaker,” he said. “I had a wife and kids, so I had to get into a field where I could make a decent living. I got into film production, but music has always been my passion. I continued writing songs over the years, in my free time. The lockdown of the pandemic finally created the time and space for us to figure out how to make this record.”

Despite being a continent apart, the collaboration between Burke and Shaheen went smoothly. Burke laid down the basic tracks—two guitars, drums and vocals—and sent them to Shaheen, who added the bass lines and studio effects that give the songs on the album their wide-open sonic landscape.

The lyrics Burke wrote for Toy City address aging, mortality, climate change, immigration and other weighty subjects, but the music is uplifting and lively. “I think the up-tempo nature of the songs comes from the sense of urgency we shared when recording this new material,” he said. “While the pandemic lockdowns allowed us the time and space to focus on producing the record, it was also a moment in which we felt isolated and scared of what was happening in the world. We both have careers, families and responsibilities that shape how we understand ourselves and the world around us. My hope is that this gives the songs a gravity we wouldn’t have been able to create as younger people.”

The arrangements on Toy City exude a cinematic feel that suggests the soundtrack to a surreal film. “Dinosaur” opens with sustained notes from an electric guitar that brings to mind fog horns echoing over San Francisco Bay. The drum rhythm is based on Haitian “rara” music, an up-tempo style with a propulsive groove. In the chorus Burke draws out the word “dinosaur,” suggesting the long arc of history and the tiny, but important, contribution each day makes to the panorama.

The processed vocal on “Glue-All” is a recitation of the instructions on a bottle of Elmer’s Glue-All. The music is a funeral drone punctuated by guitar notes chiming like church bells as Burke moans “Put me back together” in a tone suggesting grief and disappointment. A slow, stomping drumbeat and guitars that echo the sounds of sirens and fire engine bells drive “The Figure 5.” The lyric is a poem by William Carlos Williams, describing the nighttime sounds of a big city.

Burke said the idea to call the band and the album Toy City came from a conversation he recalled. “Years ago, I lived in a Mission District flat with a guy named Isaac,” he said. “He told me about an exchange he had with a New York school buddy who asked him, ‘What the hell are you still doing in that toy city?’ As someone who grew up here, it bothered me that someone would dismiss San Francisco so easily.”

“When Steve and I were trading tracks between San Francisco and New York,” Burke continued, “that story came to mind. Toy City is a reference to San Francisco, but since most of this record was produced in New York, it seemed funny to name the New York-focused project Toy City.”

You can listen to the tracks on “Toy City,” and buy the album, on the band’s Bandcamp page: toycity.bandcamp.com/album/toy-city.

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