Welcome To The World Of Toini & the Tomcats.
The clock hands of time are truly turned back when listening to Toini & the Tomcats as their largely rockabilly roots, sprinkled with a mixture of jazz, rhythm and blues and swing, among other things, provides an impression of a period in time that is long lost, but one that continues to resonate today with a number of people who pledged their allegiance to pretty much the memory of the second half of the fifties a long time ago.
While the retro outlook of Toini & the Tomcats may suit those who remain members of a particular subculture, it would be criminal to suggest that the music of this Norwegian five piece only appeals to a minority of the population. The truth of the matter is that a whole variety of music lovers have fallen for the predominantly rockabilly sound of the Tomcats, especially with their last two releases that were issued as a two-part set and both named ‘Welcome To The Rock Garden’.
It’s these more recent albums which alerted the attention of Famous Last Words (FLW) to the music of Toini & the Tomcats, despite being reminded of one or two previous endeavours from the memory bank once ‘Welcome To The Rock Garden’ was released. Upon closer inspection, the two volumes reveal a band with oodles of talent and the priceless acquisition of experience on their side, as the flexibility at the centre of this band is evident judging by the twists and turns of the various musical influences involved.
While Toini & the Tomcats is relatively new in our lives, these five cats have been together almost as long as time itself which, considering the aforementioned retro appeal of their music, there is definitely a freshness to their sound as indicated by such songs as the ska influence of ‘Like This’ and musically deceptive, due to its upbeat strum, ‘Love Never Dies’. Therefore, how does a band which has been together for such a lengthy period of time manage to retain such vigour and inventiveness in their music when many others would have called time on their creative pursuits a long time ago?
“I think what you need to be is really open when you’re a musician,” begins vocalist and magnetic personality that is Toini Knudtsen regarding the band’s longevity. “What I mean by that is that you have to keep all of your options open in order to make a song your own. In order to do this, we involve everybody in the band as it’s a very democratic unit. Therefore, everybody in the band needs to like what we are doing and be happy with the music, because we do it for the music and not for the money. I think that’s why we’ve stuck together for more than twenty years.”
With the band having formed in 1991 and remaining the same in personnel apart from adding one extra member to make it the five piece that it is today, also suggests another reason for the band’s continual success due to a relationship that has built over time, but one that is respected by the democratic process as identified by lead singer Toini. Intuition has also played its part when it comes to the Tomcats endurance as upright bass player and very affable Arne Ertnæs explains.
“We actually started the band without really knowing each other. I started out performing with Martin Caspersen (guitars), Ned Leukhardt (drums) as a sort of house band at one of the clubs down at Aker Brygge [Oslo] called Beach Club. We were going to end the season with one last gig and we wanted a guest artist or someone to sing with us. I suggested to the others that we should use Toini for the final gig before the summer season and they agreed to it. Toini showed up and we did some songs that we knew and that we knew that we could do well. The funny thing was that guestartists were not meant to receive any money, as they were seen as just filling a gap and then moving on again. But when Toini sang, the owners of the club let the hat go round and she ended up with twice as much money as we did [laughing]! So we figured that this is the real thing and that we should do this and include Toini in the official line up.”
Did you use a lot of cover songs during the early period of the Tomcats career when performing live?
“From the start of a career, you don’t really have a lot of your own material for starting a band,” Toini explains regarding the Tomcats early live sets. “So we started playing anything that we liked. It was interesting to see the old set list that we used at the first gig as it’s got a little bit of jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly, all the kind of things we’re about today. But now we have our own songs, so instead of Billie Holiday and Betty Everett we use our own songs. When we started recording our first record, it was just our own songs and not anything else, and that is something I’m really proud of because we have produced so many albums with our own original songs.”
Considering the democratic working relationship of the Tomcats, how does this actually work when it comes to writing the songs?
“Very often, when we try new stuff, Toini and I get together or with Martin as well,” begins Arne on the song writing process. “A song can totally change at any moment in the recording process, and that also means that we should change something further with the song to make it fit better with the rest of the guys playing.”
“Everyone contributes in a lot of different ways. When I bring my songs [to the band], I write the melody and the lyrics, but that’s not everything in a song as the arrangement is sometimes even more important,” Toini adds to the discussion on the band’s song writing. “So when I bring a song to the guys, then it might be Martin who has an idea for an intro or maybe he can help to make the song better by criticising it and offering suggestions. Therefore, I will take the song away and write it again and come back with it. One example of this was a song I wrote that was like a big, Roy Orbison ballad and it ended up with a ska beat [laughs] that was totally different, but I like it and I think it was a very good solution.”
Considering the variety of influences with, in our opinion, rockabilly being the most prominent when hearing the Tomcats sound, it remains to be seen how the two Tomcats seated in front of FLW regard their sound overall.
“It’s timeless, in a way, and it’s very inspired by the 50s, but it’s not pure 50s because we never experienced that decade. Basically, it’s rock ‘n’ roll,” sums up Toini on the band’s overall sound. “In addition, I would say that there’s a little ska in there as well as jazz, rockabilly, country and western, rhythm and blues and swing. You could go in a lot of different directions with the songs that we have, but what we really do best is the neo-rockabilly sound; the kind of modern rockabilly sound that is a little punkish and a little aggressive and maybe there is a little bit of soul in there. Rockabilly used to be the 1950s punk, so I like that Johnny Burnette wild vibe in the sense of giving it everything.”
“We sound like we do because we grew up in different places,” says Arne. “Ned [Leukhardt] grew up in the States and the rest of us in different parts of Norway and therefore we have different references. For example, Martin likes some punk, boogie-woogie and jazz. Ned’s father was a jazz musician, so he grew up hearing that genre, but he also used to play in a punk band. Our pedal steel player, Sveinung Lilleheier, is very into country, and Toini and I are into rockabilly, country and a little bit of jazz. There is also an age gap between us, which also provides us with a different perspective and helps to define our sound.”
Has there ever been any negativity from rockabilly audiences in Norway because you perform original material rather than a set of covers, as well as mixing a variety of influences in your overall sound?
“I think that when people come to our concerts, many people have heard us before because we have been doing this for twenty years,” says Toini. “I think such people know what to expect, and if they don’t know what to expect they will hopefully come back next time for more. So that’s my attitude towards that [the band performing predominantly original material] and, of course, we will play some classic rockabilly and rhythm and blues too.”
“To provide an example of an experience in front of a different audience, we were in Finland recently, as we haven’t been there for about ten years and people were eager to have us back. So there was a new generation of rockabillies there who had never seen us before and only heard us on the records. There were roughly a few hundred people in the audience and surprisingly they knew a lot of the lyrics to our own material. So they were singing along with us, and that was charming and very touching and a great experience.”
Who do you regard as influences?
“Personally, it started with Wanda Jackson, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, if I should say five influences. Also, I started listening to some 20s blues when I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, and I really love Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Etta James and I could go on!” Toini finishes laughing.
“I grew up in a home with my older brothers who liked, what I consider, s*** disco music, and it made me angry,” comments Arne laughing. “When I started to buy my own records, it was country music and the most known rockabilly like early Elvis and the swing influence with Bill Haley and that was what made me want to play the upright bass as well. For example, Bill Black, Elvis’ bass player, and Marshall Lytle who played with Bill Haley were big influences for me. The group of friends I had from the age of 14 years old, we used to swap records but it was difficult back then to get to hear about a lot of different artists. For example, I didn’t get to hear about Johnny Burnette until I was about fifteen or sixteen, but the well-known artists such as Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Fats Domino were available.”
“When I think about the records that I listened to when I was five or six was probably not much alike other kids or teenagers during that time,” considers Toini after some time. “My favourites in rockabilly were Johnny Burnette, Charlie Feathers, Mac Curtis, and Janis Martin – all the ones nobody else had really heard about [at the time]. I thought that this was just at our house and something that we did and nobody else knew what we were talking about. When I started thinking about going somewhere else other than my own little town, I was really happy to come to Oslo and meet other rockabillies and find a place where you could listen to music that you didn’t hear anywhere else on the radio.”
“During the 50s and 60s in Norway there was only one radio station and that was NRK and they didn’t play anything but the mainstream,” says Arne. “NRK expanded a bit in the 70s with a few more channels, but that was all the same as they didn’t play any alternative stuff. So we had to listen to Radio Luxemburg or something similar to hear other records.”
“In the 70s and 80s, when records started to get released that were recorded in the 50s, you could get your hands on a lot more stuff than you could in the 50s. So growing up, I heard a lot of records that a lot of people did not get to hear in Norway, at that time, because there were these small American labels putting out records that hadn’t really been on the market before, and that was really good for me. For example, I was in the possession of some very cool music that helped build my repertoire and made me the person that I am in terms of our music.”
What was it like during the 80s in Oslo, for example, as bands such as the Stray Cats with that neo-rockabilly sound were really taking off in the UK?
“I would consider it as more of a rock ‘n’ roll scene in Oslo and not a rockabilly scene, as it was a blend of styles that came out of nowhere,” replies Arne. “You couldn’t recognise it as one particular thing because it was a mixture. I think it was built a lot around the car culture and it was a whole package like American Graffiti [film] with people enjoying hanging out and cruising round in big cars. There were also parties, occasionally, with either a band or a DJ, and we all used to go there. So it was a blend of all kinds of 50s and early 60s music really.”
Were there many rock ‘n’ roll bands during this period in Oslo as well?
“No, there were probably three or four who were into that genre, and the rest came along a bit afterwards,” answers Arne.
“When I moved to Oslo in the late-eighties, there wasn’t many things happening, but when they did happen, everybody was there. You didn’t have a lot of choices back then, in the sense that you could walk down one of the main streets and decide which café or bar you’d like to go to because we didn’t have those options. So, in terms of music now, it is more accessible and you can pick and choose. They [younger generations] don’t know how lucky they are!” finishes Toini comically and knowingly mocking herself in the process.
“I used to buy clothes and records by mail order from England because we didn’t have such retro items here,” recollects Arne.
“Those trips to England in the eighties were fantastic for vintage fashion and records because we didn’t have that here,” comments Toini. “During the first few years in the band’s career, we went to the States a few times and used to think that we were in heaven because there were more rockabillies and more bands.”
“Having said that, it was quite hard to find the rockabilly scene in the States though,” adds Arne to the ongoing discussion. “We went to California and played there, but there were not too many other bands performing as well.”
“That was before Viva Las Vegas [festival],” interjects Toini. “So we went there and played with some local bands and Ronny Weiser [Rollin’ Rock Records] used to have these parties a long time before other festivals. So it was a good place to be involved with. That’s why we went to England as well because of the festivals during the 70s and 80s where a lot of the American [rockabilly] stars performed. For example, artists such as Janis Martin you didn’t even know were alive because we never had the internet and therefore details about such artists were sketchy. Then, all of a sudden, they were on a poster for a festival in a country that was not very far from you, and of course we had to go.”
“Ronny Weiser didn’t start Rollin’ Rock for money because he’s into the music side of it,” says Arne returning to the founder of Rollin’ Rock Records. “Even though it [rockabilly] was not very popular during the late 60s and early 70s when he started it, he did it for the love of music as that’s who he is as a person.”
“Yeah, and he knew what he was doing because he recorded the last things that are worth mentioning in terms of Charlie Feathers and Gene Vincent as he really knows his stuff,” Toini adds in support regarding Arne’s observations of Ronny Weiser. “I love those records, those 70s records, because they sound so authentic; they sound so 50s. Even now, you can still hear that it’s Ronny’s because he’s got his mark on it.”
Any association with rockabilly royalty, including mention of Ronny Weiser and Toini & the Tomcats affection for this music obsessive and record label owner, actually extends to the biggest and definitely greatest of them all, Elvis Presley. While this association does not involve the King himself, two of Elvis’ band members – guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana – invited both Arne and Toini to recording sessions at a studio in Norway. Cue the excitement at this revelation in the Tomcats’ history as there was no way FLW was leaving its front row seat without gaining some inside information on this famous meet ‘n’ greet.
“It was an amazing experience because I hadn’t really met any of these great artists before, but to play with a couple of the people from the records that were the reason why I started playing was insane actually!” recollects Arne with much enthusiasm on meeting Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana. “Toini came along with me when I was asked to join the session just outside of Halden [Norway].”
“It was like being close to royalty seeing DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore” comments Toini with equal enthusiasm at the memory of this session. “They were so nice and such cool guys.”
“They were so clever when working in the recording studio,” continues Arne. “I remember when we parked the car just outside and then went inside the studio and there was a dark hallway and I heard this guitar tuning up and there was Scotty Moore sitting on his amp tuning his guitar, it was a very special moment.”
“Scotty Moore, in particular, was very good in terms of sound engineering, which he learnt from running his own studio after the whole Elvis experience and therefore he knows all sides of the music business very well,” adds Toini.
“We did that session and it was really great,” Arne says before adding, “but also for the reason that Scotty Moore hadn’t played for twenty or twenty-five years or something like that when we did that session, so he was picking up his guitar again. Both Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana played a bit differently from the original material as well.”
After further discussion regarding all things Elvis straight on the back of Arne and Toini’s involvement with two of the original musicians from that golden age in American music when rockabilly made its fleeting mark on an unsuspecting world, talk soon returns to the Tomcats and, in particular, the band’s decisions to release their last two albums in two separate volumes.
“We actually had too many songs for the studio session,” provides Toini as one of the reasons for ‘Welcome To The Rock Garden’ being released in two parts. “My experience is that nobody listens to song number 9, 10, 11 or 12 as you tend to listen to the songs before these and then it’s not that you get tired of it, but more that there is only so much that your attention span can take. When we realised that we weren’t going to get all of these songs on one record, we decided to discuss our options. It was our guitarist, Martin, who suggested volume one and volume two, which meant that we could then keep all of our songs that we wanted to include. Also, we got to do two release parties for the albums, and I think it was a good way to do it.”
“And, you know, you get to meet the press twice instead of just once!” quips Arne.
With it being a seemingly prolific period of song writing, how long did it actually take to record both albums?
“One of the reasons that we had that many songs was that we hadn’t released an album for several years,” replies Toini. “So that’s why the songs had accumulated and this was approximately over a ten-year period of songs that we had.”
“We started to work on them years back, but we never got to finish them,” explains Arne.
“Most of the recordings were finished in the first few weeks and then we came back to finish the last songs that were going to be on volume two,” says Toini.
“We prefer to do most of the songs live, if possible, because you get the connection between the instruments better that way; at least the bass and drums and maybe the rhythm guitar that way,” Arne explains.
“The way that we really love to record is having everything in place at once,” continues Toini on the recording sessions for the band’s last two albums. “However, that is kind of hard to do, as everyone f**** up sometimes! So if everybody is in the same room, the sound kind of leads over into different microphones. For example, I can’t stand in the middle of a room and sing a song with the drums and guitars present. The reason for this is because if I have to change the vocals, then I can’t do that because everything is bleeding in on the mic. So I have to stand in a different room and I can repair it afterwards. We prefer recording the old-fashioned way, but sometimes the product is better if you build on it with different breaks.”
“We recorded everything on tape, 24-track tapes on two different machines, and then digitalised it later during the mixing process, but everything that we did, we put on tape and that does something to the sound as well. Also, by mixing it down to 24 tracks was important because if you do everything digitally from the start you could have 300 tracks and everything is a mess! So if you only have 24 tracks, then you can narrow it down to that, especially seeing as how the drums take eight or nine tracks alone. So that’s a cool way to do it as well.”
Returning to the earlier discussion of Toini & the Tomcats first tentative steps writing and recording their own material during a period when the music industry was certainly a different beast to the one that it is today, it seems an appropriate juncture to ask the two Tomcats present whether they held ambitions of being signed by a major record label when they first started out?
“We did,” comments Arne before adding, “but we also had some of them being interested in us. Unfortunately, we never managed to get a deal together.”
“I think the reason for that was that we were not willing to do anything that somebody else wanted us to do,” explains Toini. “We had to do what we wanted, which meant that everyone in the band wanted the same thing. This comes back to my earlier comment about us being a democratic band where everybody’s got to do it for the music and everybody’s got to do it because they love doing it.”
Love, indeed, never dies as FLW couldn’t be more enamoured that Toini & the Tomcats has finally entered our lives with their brand of rockabilly intertwined with various elements of rhythm and blues, country and swing that will see us singing their praises right until the very end, such is the quality of their songs and enthusiasm for music. In fact, this is one journey that is only just beginning as far as these cats are concerned because there is a lot more mileage left in the tank that should see their career run for some considerable distance yet.
I heard this guitar tuning up and there was Scotty Moore sitting on his amp tuning his guitar, it was a very special moment."
Arne Ertnæs, Toini & the Tomcats
FLW - From the Tapes
What to do about a double bass when in New York. Toini from the Tomcats tells all…
“We have this one story from a tour that we did in New York (97-98). We’re always lugging around this big bass, and it’s not very practical, but it’s the only way to travel. When we were in New York, this guy came up to us in a rodeo bar and asked if we wanted to record one song for a compilation album. We agreed to it and asked which way to the recording studio. We had a car, but the parking spaces in New York are few and far between, so we decided to take the subway. The booths, however, at the subways in New York are rather narrow and you can’t jump over them and we had this big double bass with us. The big question, therefore, was whether we were going to make it through the subway with this double bass? We were thinking, at the time, that this was going only one way and that we have to turn around and can’t go to the studio. But after trying to push it through, we made it in the end but maybe with one centimetre of clearing and it took quite a bit of time. Also, at that point, there were some Japanese tourists standing around in a crowd and taking pictures [laughing]! When we finally made it through, they stood there and gave us an ovation.”