Over the past five years, Toner has gained a reputation as a versatile, fun-loving rock band, and the Black River Falls-based quartet’s recently released self-titled debut album reflects that.
As singer/guitarist Garrett Gilbertson sees it, there’s no rule that says all the songs on an album have to fall into the same genre or sonic range, pointing to The Beatles’ “White Album” as a good example.
The band plays an unusually wide range of tunes, from Johnny Cash to B-52s to Rage Against the Machine to Nine Inch Nails, and that has made the band sharper.
“We’re really up on our musicianship because we have to be out of our comfort zone, learning everything from Britney Spears to Chicago, anything that might get requested at a wedding,” said bassist William Roberts. “We have that variety, but we try to keep the soul of it so it’s not cheesy. You’re going to get a Toner version. I feel like that’s what makes us unique as a band.”
Gilbertson started writing songs at age 16, nearly 20 years ago, and has been wanting to record an album for at least 10 years. One night at a Toner bar gig, the band was talking about album aspirations with Tim Nelson, who offered to help them make an album at his home studio.
Over the past year, they’ve worked through recording the 11-song album with Nelson, and the band couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. “I don’t think we could’ve gotten any better going to a recording studio,” Gilbertson said.
In a way, the album was just a way of clearing the boards, taking the best of what band members have written so far and getting it down before moving ahead with a more defined sound for the band, something Gilbertson and Roberts describe as heavier and less “chill,” with more attitude. A couple of Gilbertson’s seven songs on the album date back to his beginnings as a songwriter, and Roberts and guitarist Travis Reininger each have two songs on the album as well.
The album kicks off with Gilbertson’s “All Half-Hearted (Comatose),” with the song preceded by Gilbertson’s studio chatter about how he wants to add harmonica and twangy B-bender guitar parts to the song, kind of an inside joke with the band because those the final recording didn’t include any of that.
“I was trying to do a Johnny Horton song,” Gilbertson said, referring to the country/rockabilly star best known for his historically based novelty songs like “The Battle of New Orleans.”
Gilbertson comes from a musical lineage that favored country music, but he didn’t get an appreciation for country until he got older. He had guitar lessons at 10 years old, but they were trying to teach him Merle Haggard songs, which he couldn’t identify with at the time.
The thing that got Gilbertson really interested in music, he said, was when his father brought home the family’s first CD: “Abbey Road” by The Beatles.
Gilbertson started playing in bar bands in the Black River Falls area at 18, and when Roberts moved to the area from Green Bay, he saw Gilbertson playing in a band called The Honor System. Roberts was so impressed with Gilbertson that he started “stalking him,” going to see the band play every chance he got.
“He was following me around to a bunch of shows,” Gilbertson recalled with a laugh. “The first time I met him, he said, ‘I’m going to be in your band.’”
Gilbertson didn’t really think that would happen at the time, but Roberts persisted, and the two formed Toner with the drummer from The Honor System, who goes by Shmike.
Shmike worked at Walmart with Reininger, who eased into the band after jamming with Gilbertson. “One day he said, ‘I’m ready to be in the band,’ so we let him in,” Gilbertson said. “We always knew we needed someone else.”
The band also is occasionally joined by Jen Zemke, who provided some background vocals on the album. “She just kills the Janis Joplin, the Grace Slick, those classic rock songs,” Roberts said. “She’s one of our secret weapons.”