Toy Story

Dangerous Toys' Jason McMaster

by Andy Langer

I just can't sing songs or write

lyrics about my dick anymore," says Jason McMaster of Dangerous Toys. Clearly, this Jason McMaster is a more mature model than the one who penned "Sport'n a Woody" back in 1989 and explained the song, with a straight face no less, to the national glossy RIP as "just a humorous way to deal with a hard-on." Although the "cock-rock" carnival ride of MTV exposure, major label backing, a gold record, big tour buses, and the arenas to drive them to are now just memories of seven years past, McMaster and the Toys have only recently seen the fruit of their gradual growth: a dark and challenging record, tellingly titled The R*tist 4*merly Known as Dangerous Toys. In its light, the "hair-band" connotations simply don't apply anymore. And yet, even as such, a record this gloomy and bottom-heavy may still not be an album to send home to mom -- though in terms of both lyrical embarrassment and sexual content, it wouldn't have to be sent in a plain brown wrapper, either.

"The Steven Tyler, shoobada-mamanna, penis reference shit is over," says McMaster. "It may have been `Teas'n, Pleas'n' and `Scared' that got us on MTV, but we can't rewrite those songs over and over. That was then and it certainly isn't where we are now. If I have to hear one more kid who listens to Eighties hair bands lump us in with them and come up to me and say, `I really can't wait 'til our music comes back'... I got news for em'. It ain't comin' back."

So, have the Toys taken to jumping to the alternative bandwagon? The way things have deteriorated for the band's colleagues like Warrant and Trixter, it might be tough to blame them if they have. Only there are two flaws to that theory: First, while it may be true that Guns N' Roses broke down the commercial barrier that made it possible for a Back Room act like the Toys to get a national push, the hard-rock ghetto the band was immediately placed in wasn't always necessarily fair -- in that the Toys were always more about ZZ Top boogie than Ratt sleaze, and more a playful KISS tribute than a rootsy Tesla. In fact, Ian Astbury of the Cult, who lent actual alternative credibility to the Toys back in 1990 by inviting them to open their Sonic Temple arena tour, may have nailed it best when he said repeatedly that he saw the Austin band as a late-Eighties Texas take on the New York Dolls.

But chiefly, it's the conviction in McMaster's voice and the number of times he explains that he "just wants people to hear this record with an open mind," that makes the Dangerous Toys evolution seem both believable and uncontrived. And although the sections of The R*tist... that bring to mind Ministry, Alice in Chains, or even Weezer might make it tempting for McMaster to wave the positive changes in people's faces like Warrant's recent "we're heavy now, you'll like us" campaign, McMaster's says he's content in the knowledge that he and his band have grown naturally.

"If tragedy makes a man, or a band, so be it," McMaster says of the recent series of personal problems he's endured, including the death of friend, roommate, and Pariah bassist Simms Ellison; a relationship gone sour; and a rotating Toys line-up that's left only McMaster, guitarist Scott Dalhover, and drummer Mark Geary as original members of the band. "I suppose you need sorrow in your life before the happiness so you can tell the difference," posits McMaster. "These personal tragedies started me writing songs I was finally feeling good about. I started writing songs in my room with the door closed, where nobody tells you how cool you are or how your hair looks. Perhaps it takes something horrible before you can look in the mirror without primping your hair and putting cover-up over your zits. There was a time I was threatened by change, but it took waiting for a catastrophe, the earthquake before the tidal wave."

If the new record is the tidal wave, it could be argued that everything since the Toy's Cult tour has been the earthquake. When Dangerous Toys were signed by Columbia in 1988, McMaster himself had only recently committed to becoming the Toy's full-time frontman -- creating local debate when he ended his seven-year stint with Watchtower, a groundbreaking metal-fusion act featuring Billy White and Doug Keyser and sold-out Ritz shows shows paralleled only by the Big Boys and Butthole Surfers. Less than a year after McMaster made the jump to the Toys, the band was unpacking their gear in arenas, fueled by MTV's heavy rotation of "Teas'n, Pleas'n" and "Scared," both from the band's debut, Dangerous Toys. With sales near the 400,000 mark (it would eventually go gold), Columbia began demanding a follow-up only six months after their debut release. Today, McMaster admits that the band wasn't ready to record Hellacious Acres, and can only wonder why he didn't have the insight to stand up and say so at the time

"We were led into the studio by the almighty dollar and the hand that feeds," says McMaster. "Here we were in arena soundchecks trying to write songs, taping jams on the house tape deck so we could write dummy lyrics on the bus. We were on the road and were like kids at the carnival that didn't want it to close. We thought we should have been milking the first record longer. I still believe MTV would have played a third video."

By June of 1991, however, MTV wasn't interested in video from Hellacious Acres, marking the start of a waning commercial environment for the Toys' brand of hard rock -- thanks in part to Seattle's emergence as a scene. And despite the band getting a second credibility boost by sharing the stage with three of their biggest idols on a summer package with Judas Priest, Alice Cooper, and Motorhead, the tour folded after 10 weeks as the summer's biggest flop. A club tour then became necessary just to remind people a second Toys record existed. Columbia dropped its entire hard-rock roster soon after, leaving the band back in Austin without a deal for the first time since they began.

"The drop came unexpectedly, and we weren't overly cautious or smart enough to be overly concerned right away. After all, I'd quit Watchtower because the Toys was this anything-goes band," says McMaster, who admits he'd never written a song prior to joining the Toys, mostly because Watchtower's 13/8 time signatures made it tough to write vocal melodies in jazz time. "It was all so off-the-cuff the whole time the Toys were getting bigger and bigger. I was blind before all this. We didn't give a shit about making videos or how to handle a label that's putting hairdressers into your budget. I gave in because it was 1989 and I rolled with it, thinking this was some carefree thing where a basic rock & roll band was taking advantage of a window of opportunity."

After a year of writing at home while discovering the major-label window was for the most part completely closed, Dangerous Toys signed with Antone's new DMZ label, recording a new record in a month. Pissed, a transitional record that featured ex-Dirty Looks guitarist Paul Lidel as the band's new guitarist, traded anger for Eighties attitude and groove for boogie -- a nice starting point for a 200-date touring year, but not quite the full evolution The R*tist would become. "I knew that with "Promise the Moon," from Pissed, I'd begun finding myself as a songwriter," says McMaster. "And when the material the rest of the band was working on individually came in to me, I'd be writing lyrics five minutes after hearing the riff, knowing immediately that these were songs that were going to make the album." And as a musician, McMaster says the decision not to replace departed bassist Mike Watson and to simply handle the bass duties himself on the new album has led to something more than just a murkier, bass-heavy record. "I feel better about the material now that I have such a part in it," he says. "Until now I've been a bass player singing without a bass, so now it feels right."

The other noticeable difference on The R*tist... is the shifting focus of the band's trademark tongue-in-cheek elements from the lyrics over to the Prince's Lovesexy-inspired album cover and title. "The tongue's still in cheek, only it's just morbid now," explains McMaster. "There's dark humor on this record and things that flat out scare me. Lyrically, a song like "Transmission" is a cry for help. I'm saying take me from this earth because people are mean here, and since there's nothing I can do I'd like to get a ticket to one of those alien abductions. I can be an organ donor to alien science in the song and that's funny, sad, and serious together."

Although the recent shake-up at DMZ has made it even more difficult for this record to earn the widespread recognition it perhaps deserves, McMaster says experience itself has allowed him to come to terms with roadblocks like label problems and the haunting reality of being even more underground than Watchtower once was. McMaster says he's compensating for the promotion, publicity, and distribution problems by taking to the Internet with a Toys Web site and personally responding to inquiries in the form of fan mail and questions on the AOL Toys folder. "Getting straight to the fans has always been our style, but it's so important now because it's all we got," McMaster says. It's the road, however, that McMaster says he enjoys most, having spent the last two months touring, all the while planning another trek in January. "There's always going to be some people that think we're their Foghat and want to hear `Slow Ride,' but the nice part is that I get to walk up to the mike, say `Here's some old stuff' and then make the new stuff the focus because it means something."

And the response? So far, says McMaster, listeners who hadn't given the Toys a chance before admit to being pleasantly surprised, while old fans appear to be confused at first and later won over completely, either by their live shows or with repeated listening to the new album. "I have close friends [who say] they like this record," he says. "And I know they really do because these are friends of mine that made no secret they didn't like any of our old shit. As for the old fans, the most common e-mail response I get is that they're still letting [The R*tist...] grow on them. Maybe they're confused, but it's a confusion of growth I'm happy to fuel, pour the gasoline for, and strike the match. I just want to be back on our way to being reckless and off-the-cuff again." Which, in 1996, probably does mean leaving his dick in his pants. n

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