It would be interesting to know just how many truly full-time musicians there are in Maine, folks out there who pay the bills solely with their musicianship without waiting tables, painting houses, or working some other hustle.
“It’s a small club,” Toby McAllister said with a laugh, “but it’s a club.”
He’s a member.
After spending about eight years in a van touring and performing with pop-punkers Sparks The Rescue, he’s settled over the past few years into the job of a professional musician, doing solo gigs four or five nights a week in bars and restaurants to provide atmosphere, leading a wedding band in the Jameson 4 that makes sure everyone has a good time, and, as of this week, putting out a solo record you can spin on Spotify or buy from his merch kit at shows.
“If I have a decent amount of people hanging out at a gig,” McAllister said, “I’ll play one of my own songs to see if I get any response to them, see if they clap. When I’m playing these bar gigs, they just want to hear songs they can tap along to. Mostly, they want to hear their favorite ’90s songs.”
And that’s OK.
“I love my job,” McAllister said. “I like working for myself and making my own hours – and I can drink on the job. That’s always cool.”
It was tough sledding there for a while during the pandemic (see “The social-distancing blues,” April 2020). McAllister was left to live stream a couple of days a week and tighten his belt until this past summer when vaccines and outdoor gigs meant he was back on the job.
But it wasn’t all bad.
For one, part of the reason he was tightening his belt was that he decided to get healthy and lose 50 or so pounds. For another, he had time to write and demo songs. And, oh yeah, and he and his wife had a baby.
“She doesn’t nap too much anymore,” McAllister said of his 1-year-old daughter, “but she used to nap a lot. So during her nap times all winter I was just demoing and not thinking too much about it. I was just jamming ideas on my new computer with my new version of Garageband.”
This led to a collection of “pan-demos,” a recording session with old friend Jonathan Wyman (he did Sparks’ records, starting with the classic EP “Hey, Mr. Allure”) and a variety of musician friends, and now “Daydreamin’,” a five-song EP that drops Dec. 8 (the first single, “Face the Days,” which can sound a bit like the “Friends” theme song, is out now).
For Sparks fans, it may seem like a pretty radical departure, because it’s basically a country record.
“I don’t know what it is,” McAllister said. “Maybe it’s like pop-punk with fiddle and mandolin. I’m not sure what it is, but it was fun to do.”
From the opening fiddle licks by Andrew Martelle of the Mallett Brothers on “Coast to Coast” to the closing stomp-clap of “Long After I’m Gone,” these songs are full of twang, classic Nashvillian verse-chorus-bridge construction, and rhyming couplets based in home-life narrative and what-once-was nostalgia.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” McAllister said. “I’m a big country fan.”
When I told him he reminds me a lot of Rhett Miller in his songwriting and delivery, he let me know he loves the Old 97’s – and just happens to be on texting terms with Miller. Which gives you some idea of the perspective he has in putting out a little five-song solo record and also explains the lyric from “Coast to Coast”: “Got to play the Sunset Strip/ I hung out with my favorite bands/ Some of them are still my friends.”
“I have no expectations,” McAllister said of the EP release. “I’d like to play it out. That would be fun if an opportunity shows up. But it’s not like I’m going to do a CD release show. It’s only five fucking songs.”
He did just get done playing a pair of sold-out shows at Aura with Sparks, after all, as part of a reunion get-together that (might) lead to some new Sparks material, judging by how fun the rehearsals were for the band. But McAllister isn’t interested in touring the country again anytime soon.
“Dude, if you asked me to get in a van and go on tour right now, there’s no fucking way,” he said. “When I was writing (“Coast to Coast”) I didn’t really think about it too much, but it does feel like a cheers to my 20s. That being said, I think everyone in Sparks is on the same page – well maybe (singer) Alex (Roy) would go on tour. He probably would. We’d be down to write and record, maybe play some local shows, but being in a touring band? The very thought of it gives me anxiety.”
For now, staying close to home and drinking on the job will do just fine.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Hilyard, “Veils” — This new EP is three songs, plus two remixes by Warmth, that explore the boundaries of what “songs” are, just on the edge of white noise, rising and falling in volume, with a warm tone. Good for sleeping and tripping.
• Myles Bullen, “I’m No Meteorologist” — The first single from Bullen’s followup to “Healing Hurts,” to be titled “Mourning Travels” and dropping in February from Connecticut label Fake Four. This piece is quiet, reserved, and thoughtful, per usual: “But I’m afraid/ I’m not OK.”
• Synth Club of Southern Maine, “Lo-Fi” — The sixth compilation album from this literal club of people who make music with synthesizers, the instructions this time were to submit something using “lo-fi” recording techniques. There’s some tape hiss, sure, but also a lot of interesting uses of random sound generation and almost-melody. This is out there.
• Stadium, “Oceanside” — A cute little four-song love letter done in indie-pop, like some of the early Extendo-Ride All-Stars stuff, precious and well-executed, with lots of Casio beats and cycling guitar riffs.
• Jenny Owen Youngs, “Fireside” — With John Mark Nelson and Tancred, a new holiday song that’s paired with a new arrangement of “Silver Bells.” This is soft, elegant, and moody, not unlike the Christmas record Sufjan Stevens put out. Easy on the ears, for sure.
— Sam Pfeifle