Firestarters

"I’ve always been a serious musician," says drummer and multi-instrumentalist M.E. Miller, "so I hate to be thought of as some fool who just created havoc."

Miller’s old band the Toy Killers created plenty of havoc with their music, as showcased on the recent CD retrospective The Unlistenable Years (ugEXPLODE), which draws on live and studio recordings from their early 1980s peak.

Co-founded by Miller and fellow percussionist Charles K. Noyes in 1979, the Toy Killers created a squirming, clattering din that encompassed no-wave noise, free improv, and even the mutant dance music of downtown New York City peers like Material and the Golden Palominos. Their shifting lineup included such future avant-garde all-stars as John Zorn, Bill Laswell, and Elliott Sharp, as well as a post-DNA Arto Lindsay on guitar and vocals. But fairly or not, the Toy Killers were as notorious for their confrontational live performances as they were for their music. Miller was responsible for many of their live antics, which included a penchant for setting things on fire and igniting M-80s, dynamite, and other explosives.

There’s a Zen-like calm to the way Miller describes people’s reactions to his group’s brand of "anti-performance art." Asked how the outfit’s (literally) fiery performances went over with their Lower East Side audiences, Miller, speaking over the phone from his home in Alameda, flatly responds, "Not well." He recounts one gig at Soundscape in which audience members set up a barricade of chairs to separate themselves from the band.

Then there was an incident that took place at the Kitchen during an Elliot Sharp concert. "He just said, ‘At one point, Miller, I’m gonna turn to you, and you just make somethin’ happen,’<0x2009>" the drummer recalls. "So I just made an incendiary go from the drums straight up about six to eight feet. It just went ‘fa-foom,’ and I got all burned." The house lights came on, and the show was over.

"I think I probably pissed a lot of people off, but it was … purely for amusement. It was funny," he summarizes. Miraculously, no one, apart from Miller, was ever injured at the Toy Killers’ shows, and they never burned any venues down — an achievement that prospective show bookers might keep in mind.

The Unlistenable Years won’t cause your CD player to burst into flames, and there’s undoubtedly a visual element that’s lacking on some of the live recordings. But for the most part, the music holds up on its own, conveying a sense of near chaos that’s in keeping with their reputation as a live entity. In fact, ugEXPLODE label head and Oakland resident Weasel Walter didn’t know a thing about the band when he first encountered them in the late ’80s via Speed Trials (Homestead), a 1983 compilation that highlighted the band alongside Sonic Youth, Swans, Lydia Lunch, and the early Beastie Boys, who once opened for the Toy Killers.

The Toy Killers’ contribution, "Victimless Crime," caught Walter’s attention due to Noyes’ peculiar style of drumming. "I was really into free jazz drums and stuff like that," Walter said by phone. "But he seemed to approach drumming from a point of total disruption…. It’s like the Shaggs or something." (On his bandmate’s unique drumming style, Miller marvels, "It sounds like there is a rationale, but I’ve never been able to figure it out…. You either have to be incredibly bright or severely retarded to play like that.")

Walter filed away the band name in the back of his mind for nearly two decades. Miller, meanwhile, had been off the radar for years: it turns out he’d been playing in a wedding band since moving back to the Bay Area in the early ’90s — he grew up in Sunnyvale and later attended UC Santa Cruz — before finally connecting with fellow Bay Area improvisers like Henry Kaiser and ROVA’s Larry Ochs a few years ago. When Walter found out, he sought out Miller and persuaded him to hand over all the old tapes he could get his hands on so he could put together their long-overdue "debut" — some three decades after their first live shows.

Not content to stop there, the group — or at least a new incarnation of it — is working on a new album that showcases founders Miller and Noyes along with newcomers Kaiser, Walter, and others. They plan on unveiling a new live Toy Killers later this year, although the elusive Noyes, who still lives on the East Coast, probably won’t be involved. Still, Walter is excited at the chance to work with these battle-scarred veterans. "I feel like part of my job is to encourage these older guys to not be in the middle and not hold back," he says. "People who have counted these guys out for one reason or another are not gonna be able to count them out at all."

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